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New Podcast! Standard Orbit #297 – “Inverted Commas”

I was thrilled to be invited to join the great Zach Moore on Standard Orbit, a Star Trek: The Original Series podcast hosted over at Trek FM. I appeared on the show the year before last to discuss the third season of the series, and returned last year to delve into the second season, and so it makes sense that I should be back to discuss the first season.

This is an interesting one, in large part because I don’t necessarily have a strong take or controversial opinion on the first season of the original Star Trek. I think it’s a remarkable season of television, one of the best in the franchise and that it’s an embarrassment of riches in places. So we talk about the order in which we watch the series, the way in which it builds, the sense in which the show was constantly revising and reinventing itself between episodes before emerging towards the end of the year as the Star Trek that most fans know and love. There’s nothing too controversial here, aside from two people sharing their love for a great piece of television. Which is perfect Christmas fodder.

Zach was, as ever, a very gracious host. I had great fun discussing it. You can hear the full discussion below or visit the episode page here.

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Star Trek – The Cloud Minders (Review)

This July and August, we’re celebrating the release of Star Trek Beyond by taking a look back at the third season of the original Star Trek. Check back every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the latest update.

The Cloud Minders is another reminder of the third season’s unique ability to produce memorable Star Trek.

There is something about the third season of Star Trek that draws fandom’s imagination to it. The general consensus is that the season is a disappointment filled with lacklustre episodes, questionable characterisation and crippling cutbacks. Nevertheless, the third season is also the source of a lot of the franchise’s core iconography like the Klingon D7 cruiser introduced in Elaan of Troyius or the IDIC in Is There in Truth No Beauty? That is to say nothing of the little curiosities sprinkled across the season.

Above all else.

Above all else.

Garth of Izar and Axanar are one such example, tied to the clumsy and awkward Whom Gods Destroy. Nevertheless, the concept of the “Battle of Axanar” was enough to launch a high-profile fan film that would become a flashpoint for twenty-first century fan productions. Indeed, there has even been speculation that Garth of Izar might be the commanding officer (although not the protagonist) in Bryan Fuller’s Star Trek: Discovery. This is not bad for concepts tied to an episode of which nobody seems particularly fond.

The same is arguably true of The Cloud Minders. It is a very clumsy and flawed piece of television, with a number of sizable script-related issues. However, it also has a number of very memorable visuals and ideas that have allowed it to take on an oversized place in the cultural memory of Star Trek.

Clouded judgement...

Clouded judgement…

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Star Trek – The Mark of Gideon (Review)

This July and August, we’re celebrating the release of Star Trek Beyond by taking a look back at the third season of the original Star Trek. Check back every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the latest update.

The Mark of Gideon is in many ways a direct counterpoint to Whom Gods Destroy.

Both The Mark of Gideon and Whom Gods Destroy have what might charitably be described as “major logic problems.” Both episodes were produced on a tiny budget, with those constraints bleeding through into almost every frame of the finished production. Both stories engage with the idea of utopianism as an essential ingredient in Star Trek storytelling. Both episodes are very much third season episodes, in terms of production and construction and storytelling.

Viewing screen on.

Viewing screen on.

However, Whom Gods Destroy manages to turn all of these elements into an ambitious mess. Although far from the strongest episode of the season, or even a half-decent episode of television, there is an endearing charm to Whom Gods Destroy that carries the episode far further than it should. In contrast, The Mark of Gideon is dead at arrival. It is an episode with a striking premise and set-up that has no idea where to go from that starting point and so meanders limply and lifelessly through forty-five minutes of television.

It also offers a pretty reprehensible vision of the franchise’s utopia.

This is an accurate representation of the third season's viewing figures.

This is an accurate representation of the third season’s viewing figures.

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Star Trek – Let That Be Your Last Battlefield (Review)

This July and August, we’re celebrating the release of Star Trek Beyond by taking a look back at the third season of the original Star Trek. Check back every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the latest update.

Let That Be Your Last Battlefield is iconic Star Trek.

Let That Be Your Last Battlefield is a reminder that the iconic Star Trek is not necessarily good Star Trek.

Half and half.

Half and half.

Let That Be Your Last Battlefield has become a cultural shorthand for the show.

Let That Be Your Last Battlefield is a testament to the weird influence that the dysfunctional third season has on the cultural memory of Star Trek.

Two sides of the same coin.

Two sides of the same coin.

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Star Trek: Enterprise – These Are The Voyages… (Review)

This May, we’re taking a look at the fourth (and final) season of Star Trek: Enterprise. Check back daily for the latest review.

1994 was peak Star Trek.

Of course, the particulars are open to debate. There are credible arguments that could be made for the following year, when Paramount considered broadcasting Caretaker to be just about the only statement that UPN needed to make on it opening night. There are even plausible arguments that could be made about the year after that, when the franchise officially celebrated its thirtieth anniversary with a beloved movie, two anniversary episodes and a whole host of affection press coverage.

"So, I've been Netflixing Enterprise, and the final two seasons are REALLY good."

“So, I’ve been Netflixing Enterprise, and the final two seasons are REALLY good.”

Nevertheless, it all seems to come down to 1994. That was the year that Star Trek: The Next Generation came to an end. It was the only season of Star Trek overseen by Rick Berman to by nominated for Outstanding Drama Series at the Prime-Time Emmy Awards. It was the point at which the original Star Trek cast were retired, with William Shatner officially passing the torch to Patrick Stewart before a bridge fell on him in Star Trek: Generations. At the same time, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was in its second season. Star Trek: Voyager was ready to launch.

More importantly, that season of television represented the turning point for the franchise’s ratings. While The Next Generation actually experienced its highest viewing figures during its fourth and fifth seasons, the end of The Next Generation with its seventh season signaled a gradual erosion of the franchise’s viewing base. There are lots of reasons for this that have nothing to do with quality and more to do with the realities of network television, but this simple fact helps to solidify the feeling that the final season of The Next Generation was something of a golden age.

An Enterprising couple.

An Enterprising couple.

It could legitimately be argued that the Berman era was haunted by the spectre of 1994 for the longest of times. Ironically enough for a show set on a space station, Deep Space Nine managed to chart its own course only to end up isolated from the franchise around it. While Deep Space Nine would end up an evolutionary dead-end for the franchise, the seven seasons of Voyager and the first two seasons of Star Trek: Enterprise would find the franchise trapped within a phantom version of 1994 that seemed to last forever.

Enterprise finally escaped the long cold shadow of The Next Generation with the broadcast of The Expanse at the end of its second season. The final two seasons of Enterprise would find the show experimenting and innovating with new narrative forms and new approaches to the franchise. The third season of Enterprise finally allowed Brannon Braga to follow through on his original pitch for Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II. The fourth season largely eschewed episodic plotting for multi-episode arcs excavating the canon.

"C'mon, you didn't think they'd let Enterprise finish without a holodeck episode, did you?"

“C’mon, you didn’t think they’d let Enterprise finish without a holodeck episode, did you?”

Perhaps that is why These Are the Voyages… is so shocking, beyond the myriad of minor complaints. These Are the Voyages… takes the franchise right back to 1994 as if the evolutionary leaps of the prior two seasons never took place. The episode invites the audience to wonder whether it might all be a dream, a fantasy playing out on the holodeck to help Riker pass the time. After all, the episode does not close in the twenty-second century with the decommissioning of Enterprise; the episode closes with Riker and Troi right back in 1994.

That is the true heartbreaking tragedy of These Are the Voyages… No matter how far the Berman era might come, it can never escape 1994.

Warp speed ahead...

Warp speed ahead…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Divergence (Review)

This May, we’re taking a look at the fourth (and final) season of Star Trek: Enterprise. Check back daily for the latest review.

Given the general directions and interests of the fourth season, an episode like Divergence was inevitable.

Before Affliction and Divergence aired, the subject of “Klingon foreheads” was of great interest to a fandom that had noted the change in Klingon make-up between the broadcast of The Time Trap in November 1973 and the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in December 1979. In the years following the debut of the “forehead ridges” during the introductory sequence of The Motion Picture, the ridges became a source of curiousity and fascination for the fandom.

Things come to a forehead...

Things come to a forehead…

This curiousity was stoked by the franchise itself, most notably Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Perhaps owing to the show’s engagement with its franchise roots, the production team teased out the dilemma on a number of occasions. Three classic Klingons – Kor, Koloth and Kang – actually gained ridges between their appearances on the original Star Trek and their reappearance in Blood Oath. Encountering flat-headed Klingons during Trials and Tribble-ations, the crew pushed Worf for an explanation. “We do not discuss it with outsiders,” he responded.

Given that the fourth season of Star Trek: Enterprise has been so fixated upon issues of continuity and history, it seems like it was only a matter of time before one of the season’s multi-episode arcs would be devoted to explaining what had originally been a quirk of make-up design and had evolved into one of the franchise’s most fun (and admittedly trivial) riddles.

Food for thought...

Food for thought…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Affliction (Review)

This May, we’re taking a look at the fourth (and final) season of Star Trek: Enterprise. Check back daily for the latest review.

The shift from episodic storytelling to a more serialised format poses all manner of challenges for the Star Trek production team.

By the time that Star Trek: Enterprise embraced long-form storytelling with The Expanse at the end of its second season, the franchise was dangerous behind the curve. During the nineties, genre shows like The X-Files, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Babylon 5 had demonstrated the potential of serialisation as a narrative tool. Even within this particular franchise, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had managed to strike a reasonable balance between standalone stories and the larger narrative framework.

Nothin' but Trip...

Nothin’ but Trip…

This is say nothing of the revolution taking place on a wider scale. HBO had allowed its production team to embrace the potential of long-form storytelling on late nineties shows like Oz or The Sopranos. Within a few years, the cable broadcaster had attracted considerable mainstream attention by embracing serialisation on shows like The Wire, Deadwood and Rome. In the meantime, Star Trek: Voyager had steadfastly refused to move beyond the episodic model. When Ronald D. Moore left the franchise, any experience with serialisation left with him.

As such, it is no surprise that the franchise struggled with some of the challenges posed by a serialised storytelling model. In particular, Enterprise struggled a little bit with integrating its entire ensemble into its new serialised storytelling model. Affliction and Divergence feel like an attempt to rectify this issue, with mixed results.

It's all coming together...

It’s all coming together…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Kir’Shara (Review)

This May, we’re taking a look at the fourth (and final) season of Star Trek: Enterprise. Check back daily for the latest review.

The fourth season of Star Trek: Enterprise is renowned for its focus upon continuity.

That is as true of the Kir’Shara trilogy as of any other episode. The script is saturated with references and nods to the rest of the franchise, tying together thirty-eight years of Vulcan continuity into a cohesive narrative structure. The Kir’Shara trilogy ties together everything from the Romulan schism in Balance of Terror to the symbolic importance of Mount Seleya in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock to the story behind the IDIC symbol that had first appeared in Is There in Truth No Beauty?

A short and not-so-prosperous future.

A short and not-so-prosperous future.

However, what is most striking the Kir’Shara trilogy is that the episode’s continuity really doesn’t fit in a very rigid way. Although the Kir’Shara trilogy is nominally about explaining how the secretive and distrustful Vulcans of Enterprise became the iconic and well-loved aliens associated with the rest of the franchise, offering an epic three-part story about Archer and T’Pol singlehandedly saving Vulcan society by putting them back in touch with the values espoused by the legendary Vulcan philosopher Surak. (Surak had appeared in The Savage Curtain.)

This makes for a very satisfying story within the larger narrative arc of Enterprise, demonstrating that Earth and Vulcan might be more compatable than Ambassador Soval would ever admit. It paves the way for stories like Babel One, United, Demons and Terra Prime. However, it also stands quite at odds with the larger continuity of the franchise, where the Vulcans have consistently been portrayed as secretive and superior. There is nothing wrong with that continuity contradiction, but it is interesting in the larger context of the fourth season.

Homecoming.

Homecoming.

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Star Trek – Season 2 (Review)

The first Star Trek pilot, The Cage, was produced in 1964. To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, this December we are reviewing the second season of the original Star Trek show. You can check out our first season reviews here. Check back daily for the latest review.

The first season of Star Trek was quite remarkable. The cult television show opened with a reasonably solid run of episodes that gradually built momentum over the course of the season. The first season seemed to build towards a crescendo, climaxing with a run of episodes including all-time classics like A Taste of Armageddon, Space Seed, The Devil in the Dark, Errand of Mercy and The City on the Edge of Forever. Sure, Operation — Annihilate! ended the first season on a whimper rather than a bang, but the quality of the show only seemed to improve as the season went along.

In contrast, the second season was a bit more uneven. It probably contains as many truly classic hours of television, but the quality is a lot more variable on an episode-to-episode basis. The Apple leads in to Mirror, Mirror, which leads into The Deadly Years. Metamorphosis leads into Friday’s Child. The Immunity Syndrome and A Piece of the Action follow The Gamesters of Triskelion and Obsession. Watching the season blind is a roller-coaster, with episodes varying radically in quality from one week to the next. Some of the franchise’s best and worst episodes sit back-to-back here.

tos-returntotomorrow25

The second season of Star Trek can be incredibly hard to get a handle on. It is, in many respects, the season that defined a lot of what the franchise could and would become. Episodes like Amok Time and Journey to Babel really built up a universe around the Enterprise and her crew, expanding on late first season episodes like Arena or Errand of Mercy. The show also demonstrated incredible range, with the occult sensibilities of Catspaw and Wolf in the Fold existing alongside the broad comedy of I, Mudd and The Trouble With Tribbles.

However, the season also demonstrated some of the worst tendencies of sixties Star Trek. Episodes like Friday’s Child, A Private Little War and The Omega Glory engaged in precisely the sort of sabre-rattling jingoism against which Balance of Terror and Errand of Mercy had cautioned. The Changeling, By Any Other Name and Return to Tomorrow felt like generic science-fiction retreads. The show brutally (and casually) massacred red shirts in episodes like The Changeling, The Apple and Obsession.

tos-theapple

This variable quality is a feature of episodic television. After all, different writers working on different stories featuring the same characters will inevitably produce a wide variety of results. Some writers “get” the show more than others, and some scripts are subject to more work and attention than others. Such is the nature of the industry, particularly when the production team is cranking out more two dozen hours of television in a year – under intense pressure, both in terms of time and money.

Nevertheless, it is quite difficult to distill the second season of Star Trek into a cohesive or singular whole. It is diverse and multifaceted, capable of being almost anything from one episode (or, perhaps, one moment) to the next. Perhaps that is the greatest legacy of this second season; demonstrating that there is very little Star Trek cannot be.

tos-thetroublewithtribbles2

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Star Trek – Assignment: Eternity by Greg Cox (Review)

The first Star Trek pilot, The Cage, was produced in 1964. To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, this December we are reviewing the second season of the original Star Trek show. You can check out our first season reviews here. Check back daily for the latest review.

Assignment: Eternity is pretty much exactly what you might expect from a sequel to Assignment: Earth written by Greg Cox. It is a functional story a number of nice clever continuity touches, but no real interest in playing with the big ideas suggested by the source material. Instead, it feels like an act of connecting various dots, stopping occasionally to wink at the audience, but never having anything particularly clever or insightful to say about its inspirations.

Like The Eugenics Wars or To Reign in Hell, the result is a competent piece of Star Trek continuity, albeit one that feels more than a little lifeless.

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