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Star Trek: Voyager – Repentance (Review)

Repentance marks another example of the seventh season of Star Trek: Voyager groping clumsily and awkwardly towards an archetypal Star Trek plot.

The Star Trek franchise has cultivated a reputation for being a vehicle for progressive social commentary, largely on the back of episodes like Let That Be Your Last Battlefield or Plato’s Stepchildren. Of course, those episodes were decidedly less progressive and more complicated than the popular memory would allow, but there is an argument to be made that the idea of Star Trek as a voice for social progress is worth something even if the franchise did not always live up to those ideals. After all, the franchise also gave audiences The Omega Glory and Turnabout Intruder.

In the neck of time.

The seventh season of Voyager seems to recognise this social commentary as something essential to Star Trek‘s cultural identity, something that essentially defines Star Trek as Star Trek and distinguishes it from other popular science-fiction. This explains why the seventh season of Voyager is so preoccupied with the Prime Directive, which even gets name-dropped within Repentance; it is a major element in stories like Flesh and Blood, Part I, Flesh and Blood, Part II, Natural Law and Friendship One. It is seen as something identifiably Star-Trek-ian in nature.

The seventh season of Voyager builds a number of episodes around big social issues of the late nineties and the new millennium; Critical Care grappled with the healthcare crisis, while Lineage wrestled with anxieties about designer babies. Repentance is very much of a piece with those episodes, although it turns its gaze towards the issue of capital punishment. On paper, this is archetypal Star Trek storytelling, an allegorical exploration of a hot button issue through the prism of science-fiction. However, as with so many of these episodes, the archetypal Star Trek trappings feel superficial.

Hologram for a king’s ransom.

Repentance has very little to actually say about the death penalty. More than that, what it does have to say is deeply confused and unfocused. Voyager is perhaps the most consistently conservative of Star Trek shows in terms of political philosophy, which has led to a number of spectacularly poor decisions like the characterisation of the Kazon from Caretaker onwards or the false rape accusation paranoia underpinning Retrospect. It seems entirely predictable, if no less disappointing, that Voyager stumbles clumsily into an ill-judged take on the application of capital punishment in Repentance.

As with Critical Care and Lineage before it, Repentance is an episode that understands the importance of using a platform to say something important about one of the most pressing issues of the era while also extending a great deal of effort trying to avoid saying anything at all.

“Cue the women in prison fan-fic.”

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New Podcast! The Pensky File – Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Season 5, Episode 9 (“The Ascent”)

I was thrilled to be asked back to join The Pensky Podcast to discuss Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, particularly as they hit the fifth season, which may well be the best season of Star Trek ever produced. So, no pressure talking about The Ascent, then.

Wes had a family emergency to take care of, so I joined Clay to discuss this mid-season double-buddy comedy episode in which Odo and Quark find themselves stranded on a hostile alien world while Nog and Jake discover that life as roommates is less than ideal. It’s a fun, broad discussion. We cover everything from the writers’ tendency to use subplots lifted directly from sitcoms to flesh out supporting characters through to debates about stakes in modern mass media, as well as the shift away from the twenty-odd episode season that has squeezed out episodes like The Ascent. It was great fun, and I hope you enjoy listening. I’ll let you decide which one of us is Quark and which one of us is Odo.

You can find more from The Pensky Podcast here, and listen to the podcast by clicking the link or just listening below.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Shattered (Review)

Shattered was the first episode of Star Trek to be broadcast in the new millennium, premiering in January 2001.

Of course, there is some debate about when the new millennium actually began, even as Star Trek: Voyager mailed its colours to the mast with 11:59. However one might feel on the issue, Shattered seems more deserving of the claim than Fair Haven. This is an episode that captures a real sense of the moment that which the nineties technically gave way to the twenty-first century, a transition defined in very literal terms. It was a moment that was simultaneously about great cultural, social and technological change while also reflecting on how little had actually changed.

Say it, don’t hypospray it.

The nineties were (and remain) a paradox. They are easily defined by any chronological measure, with a neatly delineated start and end date. However, like any other decade, they are fuzzier when defined in a cultural sense. In some ways, the nineties began with the fall of the Berlin Wall and ended with the attack on the World Trade Centre. In another way, the nineties are still happening in terms of culture and fashion. They are at once present in the way that we make and consume art, but also something so absent that we long for the comfort of their trappings.

Shattered captures that weird fractured sense of time, the uncanny feeling that time is out of joint, that the past and the future are all overlapping in the same physical space without any sensation of linear progression. Shattered suggests that Voyager‘s past, present and future can all share the same physical space and that they can be navigated with relative ease. Despite the fact that this ship has been on a seven-year journey home, its past and its future are never distant.

“I am Commander Chakotay, and I endorse this cider.”

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Star Trek: Voyager – Flesh and Blood, Part II (Review)

In its seventh season, Star Trek: Voyager gets nostalgic.

It happens naturally when long-running shows begin the process of wrapping up. It is inevitable that the production team will look back with affection and sincerity towards the early years of their shared adventures. The seventh season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine even made a number of strange callbacks to the first season. Chimera offered a very late-in-the-game return to “the hundred”, the Founders that were sent out into the void like Odo had been. What You Leave Behind featured Sisko fulfilling the task for which he has been chosen in Emissary.

“Star Trek was never about shooting stuff with big guns,” argue a certain strand of modern Star Trek fans.

That nostalgia simmers and bubbles through Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II. However, there’s a sense that Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II don’t quite understand what they are evoking. Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II hark back to the earliest seasons of Voyager in a number of surprising ways, providing a neat bookend to some of the core anxieties that have been bubbling through the series since Caretaker.

Unfortunately, Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II seem to be doing this almost unconsciously. This is not an exorcism or an exploration, but an unexpected repetition. Voyager is still haunted by memories of the show’s turbulent early years, and it is clear that Voyager has no better understanding of itself now than it did then. The result is deeply unsatisfying and frustrating.

East of Iden.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Nightingale (Review)

During the production of the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, producer Michael Piller laid down a template for Star Trek storytelling that became a large (and underrated) part of the series’ successful. Following on from the unfocused and clumsy first two seasons, Piller advocated from a strong character-driven storytelling sensibility, advocating for a narrative structure whereby each episode would reveal or inform something interesting about a given character, quite apart from any phenomenon of the week or interesting alien species.

It was a template that was so sturdy that Piller himself could open the season by applying it to Wesley Crusher in Evolution. Ronald D. Moore was perhaps the first writer to really understand the appeal of the structure, applying it to Worf in The Bonding and Sins of the Father. Even when episodes weren’t about the main characters, they still offered some insight. Tin Man, Déjà Q and The Defector were both episodes focused on a guest star, but that guest star was largely seen through Data’s eyes.

Captain Kim.

There were stories that didn’t adhere to this template. Often, like in Hollow Pursuits and Yesterday’s Enterprise, they focused on a guest star rather than the leads. However, these episodes were the exception that proved the rule. Even the less successful episodes of the season, like A Matter of Perspective or Ménage à Troi were still elevated above the troubled first and second seasons by this attention to character-driven storytelling. Piller set a template that lasted for the next four seasons, and beyond.

In the middle seasons of Star Trek: Voyager, there was a tension between this template and the demands of contemporary television. The writing staff on Voyager understood the basic rhythms and structure of the template that Piller established, and kept applying it after his departure following Basics, Part I and Basics, Part II. Stories like Nemesis and Timeless found a way to apply that template to even neglected characters like Chakotay and Kim. The only issue was that the template felt increasingly outdated.

He’s (Nee)lixed.

Modern television was moving on. The X-Files and Babylon 5 were embracing sprawling epic television storytelling. Television series like The Sopranos and Oz were adopting a more novelistic approach to the medium. Even Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was consciously moving away from self-contained episodes in favour of longer-form storytelling, most notably the six-parter that ran from A Time to Stand through to Sacrifice of Angels. There was a sense that, even applied skillfully and correctly, the Piller template reflected an older mode of television storytelling.

One of the big issues with the seventh season of Voyager is a palpable feeling that even this foundational block of Star Trek storytelling dating back to The Next Generation has begun to erode. The seventh season of Voyager is packed with stories that look and feel loosely that familiar Piller template, broad narratives focusing on individual characters and big ideas wherein the characters develop or discover something about themselves. However, these episodes also tend to look like they were constructed from a faded photocopy of that classic blueprint.

In-tractor-able.

This is reflected in the broad “Star-Trek-iness” of stories like Drive or Critical Care, episodes that gesture toward social commentary while working hard to avoid actually saying anything potentially engaging. It is also reflected in character-driven episodes like Imperfection or Body and Soul, which superficially resemble the template that Piller laid out for telling a good self-contained Star Trek story, but failing to connect all of the pieces in a way that makes any real sense.

Nightingale is perhaps the season’s best example of this, for so many reasons. It is the last Voyager episode to focus on the character of Harry Kim, but returns to what has been his standard character arc since Demon. It has a strong central throughline about the importance of taking command, and the responsibilities of being in authority, but it also never allows these elements to cohere into a strong central thesis. It contains stock Star Trek elements like an alien war and the challenge of non-interference, but doesn’t do anything with them. It is simply a mess.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Body and Soul (Review)

Body and Soul is the old science-fiction staple, the body swap episode.

There are any number of iconic examples of the genre, even within the larger Star Trek franchise. Although the original series was populated with duplicates and doppelgängers and surrogates and clones in episodes like The Enemy Within, Mirror, Mirror, Whom Gods Destroy and even What Are Little Girls Made Of?Turnabout Intruder might be the most straightforward example. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock featured sequences in which McCoy was channelling Spock. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had all the cast take on the personalities of Dax’s past hosts in Facets.

Insert your cheesecake jokes here.

Often, these sorts of stories exist to showcase the dramatic range of key performers and to offer a little variety to the weekly routine of playing the same character for years and years on end. On Star Trek: The Next Generation, Brent Spiner would occasionally find himself tasked with playing Data’s “brother” Lore or his “father” Noonien Soong in episodes like Datalore, Family, Descent, Part I, Descent, Part II and Inheritance. The cast on Deep Space Nine would play their mirror counterparts in stories like Crossover, Through the Looking Glass and Shattered Mirror.

Even Star Trek: Voyager has done its own body swap and possession narratives before, like with Tuvok in Cathexis or with Paris in Vis à Vis. However, the success of these sorts of episodes largely rests in the execution, in the question of whether it is worth watching a familiar actor playing an unfamiliar role for forty-five minutes. This is a tough challenge, and many episodes falter trying to hit that mark. Body and Soul has a lot of very fundamental issues with it, but it at least has the common sense to ask one of the cast’s best actors to impersonate another of the cast’s best actors.

“Next week is a Kim episode?”

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New Podcast! Standard Orbit #246 – “A Tale Of Three Producers “

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 last year to discuss the third season of the series, and so it makes sense that I should be back to discuss the second season.

Zach got in touch after reading some of my reviews for the second season from several years back. He was particularly fascinated with my breakdown of the season between three producers: Gene L. Coon, John Meredyth Lucas and Gene Roddenberry. Each of those three producers had their own unique style and each brought their distinct sensibility to the series. In fact, watching the season in production order, there a discernible shift between the three talents involved. Coon was much more interested in playing with the tropes and conventions of the young series, while Lucas was engaged with more traditional science-fiction storytelling and Roddenberry had his own strong idea of what the series could be.

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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