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New Escapist Column! On How “Star Trek: Picard” Offers “The Next Generation” a Glimpse Through “A Mirror, Darkly”…

I published a new piece at The Escapist this evening. We’re doing a series of recaps and reviews of Star Trek: Picard, which is streaming weekly on Paramount+. The second episode of the second season released this week, and it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look at the series.

The second episode of the season is an interesting twist on a classic Star Trek trope. Star Trek: The Next Generation never really did a dark alternate universe story, comparable to something like Mirror, Mirror, Crossover, Living Witness or Twilight. It often seemed like The Next Generation was incapable of imagining the world any other way than the way that it was. As such, Penance offers something new for Jean-Luc Picard. Reflecting the gulf that exists in the more-than-a-quarter century between The Next Generation and Picard, the episode offers Picard a chance to look at a darker alternative future.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

 

New Escapist Column! On How “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” Challenged “The Next Generation”…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist on Friday. This week marked the 29th anniversary of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, so it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look back at the show. In particular, the show’s relationship to its elder sibling, Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Deep Space Nine had a surprisingly contentious relationship with The Next Generation, often positioning itself as directly adversarial to the more popular and more beloved Star Trek spin-off. There were points at which Deep Space Nine seemed positively iconoclastic, particularly in its establishing of a fraught relationship between Sisko and Picard. This approach would be controversial today, if it were even allowed within the framework of a modern franchise, but it allowed Deep Space Nine to boldly push itself in striking new directions.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

New Escapist Column! On “The Best of Both Worlds” as the Moment that “The Next Generation” Came of Age…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist yesterday evening. Because The Best of Both Worlds, Part II aired thirty years ago on Thursday, it seemed only right to take a look back at one of the most beloved stories in the Star Trek franchise.

The Best of Both Worlds, Part I is widely accepted as one of the best cliffhangers in television history. However, the episode is really the culmination of the growth and development of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The spin-off had a rocky first couple of seasons, but really came into its own during a much more ambitious and consistent third year. That third year built inexorably towards that cliffhanger, demonstrating the effectiveness of that approach to storytelling.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

New Escapist Column! On “The Good Place”, “Brooklyn 99” and “Parks and Rec” as the True Successors to “Star Trek: The Next Generation”…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine this evening. With self-isolation, I’ve been taking the opportunity to binge some light, feel-good television including Parks and Rec and Brooklyn 99, and I’ve come to the shocking realisation that these network sitcoms are probably the closest thing in the modern television landscape to Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Of course, there are a variety of reasons for this. Most obviously, it seems like the only viable space for that sort of utopian humanism in the modern world is within the narrative trappings of the familiar sitcom, a space where audiences are inherently more accepting of a fundamentally functional world. More than that, there’s a sense in which The Next Generation is perhaps closer to an idealised workplace show than its science-fiction trappings would attest; at its core, The Next Generation is about a band of hopeful and hyper-competent people working together for the common good. That’s admittedly a much harder sell these days than it was a quarter of a century ago, but shows like Parks and Rec and Brooklyn 99 offer a very similar vibe.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

 

Star Trek: Voyager – Unimatrix Zero, Part I (Review)

Once again, Star Trek: Voyager takes its cues from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The Next Generation bridged its sixth and seventh seasons with Descent, Part I and Descent, Part II. That season-bridging two-parter was focused on discord within the Borg Collective, with the crew coming into contact with a group of drones that had separated themselves from the hive mind. It was a somewhat underwhelming two-parter, and is unlikely to rank alongside anybody’s favourite episodes (or even favourite two-parter) from the run of The Next Generation.

Things come to a head.

Even then, Descent, Part I and Descent, Part II had a lot of weight behind them. Glossing over the quality of the episodes themselves, they marked the big reintroduction of the Borg into The Next Generation following their appearance in The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II. The only episode to feature the Borg in the three years between those two-parters was I, Borg, meaning that the return of the Borg at the end of the sixth season of The Next Generation was a big deal.

As such, this seems like a strange cue for Voyager to take from The Next Generation. After all, Voyager doesn’t have that same luxury of built-in anticipation. Voyager bridged its own third and fourth seasons with Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II, but the Borg have been a steady fixture of the series since then. Ignoring the addition of characters like Seven of Nine and Icheb to the core cast, the Borg have played important roles in episodes like Hope and Fear, Drone, Dark Frontier, Part I, Dark Frontier, Part II, Collective and Child’s Play.

Picking their brains.

That is a lot of focus, particularly in the context of a television series like Voyager, where there is less continuity from episode to episode. Including hallucinations, dead bodies, screen images and holograms, the Borg appear in twenty-three episodes of Voyager, as compared to six episodes of The Next Generation. By way of contrast, the Hirogen appear in between nine and ten episodes, depending on how one counts Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II. The Malon only appear in four episodes.

All of this is to say that Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II feel like a rather blatant rip-off of an already underwhelming two-parter, but without the core appeal. Voyager has reached the point where the appearance of the Borg is a source of dread, but not for the reasons that it should be.

She’s had some bodywork done.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Life Line (Review)

Life Line brings Star Trek: Voyager‘s daddy issues to the fore.

Voyager always existed in the shadow of Star Trek: The Next Generation, never quite breaking free in the way that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine managed to do. Voyager always felt shaped by and indebted to The Next Generation, always longing to affirm its heritage. Barclay appeared in Projections. Riker made a cameo in Death Wish. Geordi popped up in Timeless. Deanna Troi paid a visit in Pathfinder. The Ferengi from The Price popped up in False Profits. Q was a recurring character. The Borg were a recurring threat.

All my holo-children.

Voyager always saw itself as the spiritual successor to The Next Generation, the rightful heir to what was at the time the crown jewel in this iconic science-fiction franchise. However, this aspiration was not borne out in any quantifiable sense. The reviews for Voyager were decidedly more guarded than they had been for The Next Generation. The ratings were appreciably lower. The cultural impact was greatly diminished. If Voyager had positioned itself as the next in line to the throne, it was a disappointment by any measure.

The sixth season of Voyager is keenly focused on the idea of memory and legacy. It often feels like the series is reflecting on its legacy, cognisant of the fact that the end is rapidly approaching. Indeed, this preoccupation with mortality plays out even within Life Line, which is an episodes that finds the EMH journeying back to the Alpha Quadrant in order to save the life of his dying creator. Doctor Lewis Zimmerman was a pioneer when Voyager launched almost six years earlier; now, he is a bitter and disillusioned old man wasting away in seclusion.

Father yet to go.

There is something very pointed in this, in the idea of a son returning home to a dying father, to be met with disappointment and disdain. There is a funereal tone running through sixth season episodes like Barge of the Dead, Dragon’s Teeth, One Small Step, Blink of an Eye, Muse and Fury. It feels like Voyager is confronting the fact that it has declined over the slow withering death of the larger Star Trek franchise. The end is near, and Voyager has presided over it. Fury went so far as to request a do-over on the entire run of the series, resetting six years of continuity.

Life Line touches on these ideas, allowing one member of the regular cast to journey home and to try to make peace with a deeply disappointed father figure.

Creator hate.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Pathfinder (Review)

Star Trek: Voyager has always had an awkward relationship with Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was always the rebellious middle-child, prone to make bold and defiant gestures like blowing up a surrogate of the Enterprise in The Jem’Hadar, bringing Jonathan Frakes back to play Riker’s evil transporter duplicate in Defiant, and have former Enterprise crew member Chief Miles Edward O’Brien praise Sisko as the best captain in the fleet in The Adversary. It was a television series that was dedicated to defining its own unique identity, and at least some of that identity was defined in opposition to its direct predecessor.

Taking his Neelix.

In contrast, Voyager always felt a little more desperate, a little too eager to assert its connection to The Next Generation and to insist upon itself as a spiritual successor to that beloved (and incredibly successful) series. Despite the fact that Voyager was set primarily in the Delta Quadrant, the series never missed an opportunity to crossover with The Next Generation. Barclay appeared as a hologram in Projections, Riker was summoned across the universe in Death Wish, LaForge was rendered a captain in the future presented in Timeless.

This is to say nothing of the minor crossovers taken at every available opportunity; the use of Q and the Borg Queen among the relatively small number of recurring guest stars, the original plan to build 11:59 around Guinan, the decision to produce the dire False Profits as a sequel to the dire The Price. Repeatedly over the show’s run, Voyager feels very much like a young child digging through its elder sibling’s wardrobe for something that might possible be claimed as a hand-me-down. It is depressing, particularly considering the raw potential that was baked into the premise of Voyager.

Course correction.

Pathfinder is perhaps the apex of this approach. It is effectively a stealth episode of The Next Generation, packaged and released under the Voyager brand. The primary plot of Pathfinder focuses on two characters from The Next Generation sitting around and talking about how great Voyager is, with one of those characters even escaping into a holographic fantasy of life on board the ship to help him think. In many ways, Pathfinder could be seen to prefigure These Are the Voyages…, the catastrophic finale to Star Trek: Enterprise that borrowed the same template and somehow pushed it even further.

There is a smell of desperation about Pathfinder. Whatever the plot of the episode might suggest, Voyager feels more lost than ever.

The Last Generation.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Tacking Into the Wind (Review)

Tacking Into the Wind might just be the last truly great episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Of course, there are some very good episodes lying ahead. However, none of them hum as perfectly as Tacking Into the Wind does. The Dogs of War is fantastically constructed and does pretty much everything that a penultimate episode of a long running series needs to do, but it largely feels like a prelude episode to the grand finale. What You Leave Behind is a powerful and emotive piece of television, and an effective conclusion to seven years of storytelling, but it suffers from some pacing issues and some poor storytelling choices in its second half.

The end of an era.

However, Tacking Into the Wind is just brilliant. Deep Space Nine has produced more than its fair share of (relatively) standalone classic episodes: Duet, The WireThe Way of the Warrior, The Visitor, Trials and Tribble-ations, Far Beyond the Stars, In the Pale Moonlight. Even in the seventh season, there have been any number of episodes that work beautifully on their own terms: Treachery, Faith and the Great River, Once More Unto the Breach, The Siege of AR-558, Chimera. Even those tied into larger arcs like the Dominion War still worked as relatively standalone units of story.

However, Tacking Into the Wind is brilliant in a way that is very particular to this moment of Deep Space Nine. Perhaps the closest companion pieces are episodes like Call to Arms or Sacrifice of Angels, episodes that work well enough on their own terms, but become transcendental when approached as the culmination of long-running story threads that pay off months of storytelling decisions. Taking Into the Wind takes this approach and escalates it further. Taking Into the Wind is the culmination of a narrative that has been brewing for the better part of a decade.

Surviving by the skin of his teeth.

Tacking Into the Wind is an episode that could never have worked on Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Voyager. It is too dependent on lingering narrative threads, on long-running arcs, on a grand and sweeping (and ironic) view of history. Tacking Into the Wind ties up the fate of the Klingon Empire, an institution that has been in decline since Heart of Glory and rotting from the inside out since Sins of the Father. It parallels that with a fundamental underlying shift in the Cardassian society introduced in The Wounded.

Tacking Into the Wind is an episode that could only possibly work as the pay off to serialised storytelling, and which demonstrates the power of a good dramatic pay-off almost a decade in the making. In many ways, Tacking Into the Wind is the perfect episode for this so-called “Final Chapter”, the perfect distillation of everything that the creative team have been trying to do with this ten-part sprawling epic.

Cloak of office.

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Non-Review Review: Star Trek – Insurrection

“I think I’m having a mid-life crisis,” Riker tells Troi at one point in Star Trek: Insurrection, and it might be the most telling line in the film.

Insurrection is many things, perhaps too many things. However, it primarily feels like a meditation on what it means to grow old, focusing on the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation. That first live-action Star Trek spin-off had revived the franchise as an on-going cultural concern, even launching a feature film franchise including Star Trek: Generations and Star Trek: First Contact, and spawning its own spin-offs including Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

A fist full of Data.

However, by the time that Insurrection arrived, The Next Generation was looking quite old. The Next Generation had launched more than a decade earlier, and had been off the air for almost five years. Although it had been a pop cultural behemoth, even its children (or its younger siblings) were starting to look a little long in the tooth. Deep Space Nine was in its final season, and Voyager was closer to its end than to its beginning. There was a creeping sense of fatigue and exhaustion.

In theory, this positions Insurrection quite well. After all, the original feature film franchise really came into its own when the characters found themselves forced to confront their own mortality. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan breathed new life into the franchise as it forced Kirk to come to terms with his old age, while Star Trek III: The Search for Spock indulged the sense of grown-ups behaving badly in a story that forced Kirk to throw aside his ship and his career in service of an old friend.

Picard’s hairpiece was fooling nobody.

Stories about age and mortality resonate, and so Insurrection has a fairly solid foundation from which to build. There is just one sizable problem. The cast and crew of The Next Generation have no intention of growing old, of wrestling with mortality, of confronting their age. Insurrection is fundamentally a story about rejecting this maturity and this sense of age, of refusing to accept that time takes its toll and denying that old age is best faced with solemn dignity and reflection.

Insurrection is a story about mamboing against the dying of the light.

A familiar dance.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Season 3 (Review)

The third season of Star Trek: Voyager marks the point at which the show stops trying.

To be fair, it is not as though the opening two seasons of the show were marked by a surplus of ambition. Caretaker was a bold piece of science-fiction that promised a host of interesting ideas for the new Star Trek show, but all of those fascinating conflicts were quickly brushed aside by episodes like Parallax and Time and Again, which insisted on formulaic plotting and familiar storytelling. In many ways, the first season of the show felt like a cheaper eighth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

voy-fairtrade3

During the second season, the production team did attempt something a little bolder. Michael Piller returned from his work on Legend convinced that the franchise needed a dramatic shake-up and reinvention. So he attempted to introduce long-form storytelling on the series, with an arc building the Kazon as a credible threat to ship and crew. This arc failed spectacularly for a variety of reasons, with episodes like Alliances and Investigations ranking among the worst in the series’ run.

The Voyager writing staff were apparently traumatised by their experiences on that second season. Piller stepped aside at the end of the year, forced by the threat of mass resignations. Piller bid farewell to the show with Basics, Part I and Basics, Part II, effectively allowing the staff a clean slate coming into the third series of the show. Jeri Taylor stepped up into the role of showrunner, trying to steady a ship that was very clearly on troubled water. Three years into the run, how did Voyager define itself?

voy-futuresendparti13a

The third season has traditionally been a formative year for the Star Trek spin-offs. Michael Piller took charge of Star Trek: The Next Generation during its third season and established the template for the franchise heading into the nineties. Ira Steven Behr solidified the direction of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine during its third season, outlining many of the concepts and ideas that would play in the stronger fourth and fifth seasons. Even Star Trek: Enterprise came into its own in its third season, telling its own stories.

Voyager did not come into its own during this third season. Jeri Taylor’s direction for Voyager set the series on a course back to familiar territory. The third season of Voyager marks the point at which a troubled series adopts the path of least resistance, content to stop pushing itself in any direction and let itself be pulled by the gravity of the franchise around it. The third season of Voyager marks the point at which the series becomes content to be generic Star Trek.

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