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Star Trek: Voyager – Hope and Fear (Review)

Hope and Fear is a reasonably solid conclusion to the fourth season of Star Trek: Voyager.

To be fair, the episode has a number of very clever ideas. There are a number of creative choices in Hope and Fear that feel entirely appropriate for the final episode of what has been a relatively strong season. Various concepts and ideas are brought back into play, from Janeway’s alliance with the Borg in Scorpion, Part II through to her conversion of Seven of Nine in The Gift and up to the secret coded message from Starfleet suggested in Hunters. It makes sense to bring all of these ideas back into play for the grand finale.

The fourth season comes to a head.

More than that, it makes sense to build the episode around the dynamic between Janeway and Seven. One of the recurring tensions in the fourth season, both behind the scenes and in front of the camera, has been the debate about the prominence of Seven of Nine. In the year since she was introduced, Seven has effectively become one of the three most important members of the cast. There is a credible argument to be made that she is the most important member of the cast, an anxiety played out in One. As such, it is logical to build Hope and Fear around Janeway and Seven.

At the same time, there is a certain clumsiness to the plotting of the episode. There is a very rushed quality to the story, which never really takes the time to develop or explore these big revelations and twists. Hope and Fear races towards its conclusion as if it has been sucked into quantum slipstream, a very disorienting and disjointed effect. Certain character arcs feel under-explored, and certain gaps in the plot logic are brushed aside. Hope and Fear feels like a story that deserved a bigger canvas.

The hard cell.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Profit and Lace (Review)

Profit and Lace is a disastrous misfire, a late-season catastrophe that many would consider to be the absolute nadir of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. At best, it is an episode that belongs in conversation with Meridian, Prophet Motive, Let He Who Is Without Sin… and The Emperor’s New Cloak. It is a very bad piece of television. It could reasonably be argued that the toxicity of Profit and Lace is not even quarantined. The episode is so bad that it becomes a retroactive taint upon Deep Space Nine‘s attempts to develop and flesh out the Ferengi.

Some of the show’s best episodes focus on the Ferengi characters, like House of Quark or Family Business or Little Green Men or The Magnificent Ferengi, not to mention all manner of very solid stories like The Nagus or Bar Association or Body Parts. The writers on Deep Space Nine did a tremendous job developing and humanising the Ferengi, but the late one-two punch of Profit and Lace and The Emperor’s New Cloak erases all of that good will. Suddenly, the Ferengi are appearing in episodes as tone-deaf and ill-advised as The Last Outpost.

How Ishka got her groove back.

There are any number of reasons why Profit and Lace is so horrible. On a very basic level, it is a comedy episode that is simply not funny. The script is built around jokes that were already tired by the standards of fifties Hollywood, but refuses to do anything interesting or compelling with them. It is uncomfortably backwards-looking and regressive, its sexual politics feeling horribly outdated. The direction veers wildly between something approaching earnest world-building and broad slapstick, resulting a tonal mismatch that is toxic to the touch.

Profit and Lace is a stinker, by just about any measure.

A Quarky installment.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Living Witness (Review)

Living Witness is a fantastic piece of television, and a great example of what Star Trek: Voyager does best.

Living Witness is in many ways archetypal Star Trek, a story that uses the franchise framework to construct a powerful allegorical story that comments upon contemporary anxiety. It is a story that could easily have been told on any of the other franchise series, especially Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Enterprise, but it is a story told well. Living Witness is one of the highlights of the fourth season, and one of the strongest episodes from the seven-season run.

Command and conquer.

In many ways, Living Witness is the culmination of themes and ideas that have been bubbling through Voyager from the outset. Some of these elements are less than flattering, with the episode’s racial politics evoking the clumsiness with which the Kazon were handled. However, there is also a fascination with idea of history and how history functions in a world rooted in postmodernism and recnstruction. At the end of history, is the past up for grabs? Are facts anything more than pieces to be manoeuvred on a political chessboard?

Given this archetypal quality of Living Witness, how it reflects the themes and pet interests of Voyager, there is some irony in the fact that the episode does not actually feature a single regular character from Voyager. The regular cast appear as holographic representations of themselves, exaggerations and distortions. When the EMH appears almost half-way through the episode, he is explicitly identified as “a back-up programme”, and thus distinct from the version of the EMH who will appear in Demon or One.

Core principles.

In some ways, Living Witness confirms one of the more interesting aspects of Voyager, the fact that the characters are themselves largely irrelevant to the show and that the series is much more compelling as a framework to explore archetypal ideas. Living Witness is just one of several episodes that treat the regular characters as a secondary aspect of the show, almost as guest stars who have crossed over into a completely different series. Living Witness is very much of a piece with stories like Distant Origin or Course: Oblivion, or even Muse or Live Fast and Prosper.

Living Witness is a story about the thin line between history and mythology. In doing so, it consciously reframes Voyager as a story within a story, as concept more powerful as an archetype than as a material object. Living Witness images the ship and its crew as history elevated to mythology.

Any which Janeway but loose.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – The Reckoning (Review)

The end is nigh.

As the sixth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine draws to a close, the production team are increasingly aware that things will be wrapping up shortly. Star Trek: The Next Generation ran for seven seasons, setting a nice target for the spin-offs. Indeed, most of the sixth season had been spent discussing contract extensions with the cast for a final season. The writers (and the cast) knew that the seventh season would be the last. As the sixth season wound down, that massive deadline loomed large.

That’s gonna leave a stain.

The long-term storytelling on Deep Space Nine was largely improvised on the fly, with the writers adding new and interesting twists to the mythology as they went; this led to strange-in-hindsight tangents like Dukat’s time as a space pirate between Return to Grace and By Inferno’s Light. There had never really been a long-term plan, explaining why seemingly important plot points like Bajor’s admittance to the Federation seemed to just drop off the table after Rapture.

At best, the writers on Deep Space Nine knew the direction in which they were moving, but had not charted the course that they would follow. Still, a looming deadline tends to focus the mind. In the final third of the sixth season, the production team begin aligning plot points and character arcs towards the end of the story. Ira Steven Behr wrote His Way in large part because he wanted to introduce Vic Fontaine and pair off Kira and Odo, realising that time was working against him.

Who Prophets?

The Reckoning is a story about the end of days, in more ways than one. Broadcast in April 1998, it perfectly taps into the millennial eschatology that had taken root in the popular consciousness in the lead up to the twenty-first century. The Reckoning posits an epic battle between good and evil that will mark the end of an epoch, tapping into an anxiety simmering through popular culture in television shows like Millennium and films like End of Days. As the nineties came to a close, there was a clear anxiety about what the future might hold, if it existed at all.

However, The Reckoning also feels like a conscious effort to align various characters and plot beats in service of the final season ahead. The Reckoning properly seeds an entire subplot that will play through the remainder for the show, from Tears of the Prophets through to What You Leave Behind. Character motivations are made clear, stakes are heightened, mythology is explained. All of this is very much in service of where the writers plan for Deep Space Nine to go.

The wormhole in things…

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – His Way (Review)

His Way doesn’t so much straddle the line between sweet and creepy as play hopscotch across it.

There is a lot to like about His Way. There is a palpable enthusiasm to the episode, a charm and energy that excuses the indulgence. After all, His Way uses the holosuite to create facsimile of sixties Las Vegas populated by a self-aware crooner who spends a solid chunk of the episode hitting swing band classics. It is a ridiculous set-up, yet one entirely in keeping with the interests of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Suited to the task…

Deep Space Nine never felt like it belonged in the nineties. It felt a much stronger connection to Star Trek than to Star Trek: The Next Generation, as evidenced by episodes like Crossover and Blood Oath. It built entire episodes around a classic Hollywood aesthetic, from the broad noir pastiche of Necessary Evil to the more specific plot references of Profit and Loss or Meridian. This is a television show that made repeated and extended references to Julian Bashir’s affection for James Bond in episodes like Our Man Bashir or A Simple Investigation.

There is a genuine warmth and affection that shines through His Way, something at radiates through the episode from Jay Chattaway’s lounge-tinged ambient soundtrack through to James Darren’s giddy performance. There is a sense that everybody involved in the episode is having such a good time that it would be churlish to begrudge them this small diversion. After all, Deep Space Nine is much closer to the end than to the beginning, and the production team have accomplished so much that they deserve an indulgence.

The hands-on approach.

At the same time, His Way has not aged particularly well. It is the episode that eventually gets Odo and Kira together, but it suffers from the problem affecting many of the episodes leading into the relationship. His Way is told almost exclusively from Odo’s perspective, reducing Kira to an object of fascination or desire. His Way invests a lot of energy in the idea that Odo can “win” Kira, but it never affords Kira any agency. This was okay in Crossfire, an episode explicitly about how unhealthy Odo’s unrequited and unexpressed obsession was. It works less well in His Way.

His Way plays almost like an episode about a pick-up artist, about that creepy subculture in which insecure and nerdy men effectively try to trick women into sleeping with them through a complicated series of performance pieces and psychological warfare. Rene Auberjonois and James Darren make a charming enough duo that the episode doesn’t tank outright, but His Way still feels decidedly creepy in its approach to the question of courtship.

Vic’s story is life.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – In the Pale Moonlight (Review)

I can live with it.

I can live with it.

– Captain Benjamin Lafayette Sisko, Stardate 51721.3

In the Pale Moonlight is a masterpiece.

There is simple no way around it. It works beautifully as a morality play, as a thriller, as a character study. It has a powerful script, a set of brilliant performances, a memorable set-up and pay-off. In the Pale Moonlight is a fantastic piece of television production, something that immediately distinguishes itself from the episodes around it. Like The City on the Edge of Forever or The Inner Light, there is just something fundamentally different about In the Pale Moonlight from the establishing shots.

In many ways, In the Pale Moonlight is the flip side of the coin to Far Beyond the Stars. Both are spectacular episodes of television, and stand as some of the best entries in the franchise canon. However, there are clear differences. While Far Beyond the Stars would not work with any other lead character or actor, it is an episode that is arguably quintessentially Star Trek; it is a powerful allegory about racism and the power of an optimistic future. In contrast, In the Pale Moonlight is specifically Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

In the Pale Moonlight is an episode of Deep Space Nine that simply could not exist in any other Star Trek show. This could never have been an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Voyager. The episodes that edge closest to this – like The Pegasus or The Omega Directive – lack the same commitment to the premise. Star Trek: Enterprise arguably came closest with the script for Damage, but even that lacked the powerhouse focus of In the Pale Moonlight.

As the title implies, In the Pale Moonlight is a story about what it takes to dance with devil. It is told against the epic backdrop of the Dominion War, against the scale and spectacle of the sixth season of Deep Space Nine, but the real drama of In the Pale Moonlight unfolds in one man’s confession. This is the story in which the Romulans join the war effort, but it is not a story about the Romulans joining the war effort. It is a story about how Captain Benjamin Sisko sets a price for his own self-respect and his own self-regard.

In the Pale Moonlight is that most personal of dramas, the story of a man who bargains away his soul for a far cheaper price than he expects.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Inquisition (Review)

Inquisition is a superb piece of television, and a highlight of the sixth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

It is a very clever extrapolation of various themes and ideas that have been bubbling across the length and breadth of the series, particularly concerns about what happens when incredible power is concentrated in institutions that find themselves under threat. One of the underlying assumptions of the Star Trek universe is that mankind is somehow different than any other sentient life form, somehow more enlightened and more idealistic than the other major powers that make up the broader shared universe.

Luthless.

Deep Space Nine has always been wary of this assumption, in part because it is frequently made with no real exploration of what specifically makes mankind more evolved and more compassionate than the Romulans or the Klingons. More than that, Deep Space Nine has been openly suspicious of that idea because of the moral complacency involved. If Star Trek assumes that mankind is so special and so unique that it has evolved past all of its darker impulses, the franchise has a massive blindspot that could be readily exploited.

This is nothing new. Although the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation leaned heavily into the idea of mankind as a hyper-evolved species with much to teach the wider cosmos, that series really came of age when it followed this train of thought to its logical conclusion in The Measure of a Man. A society that deems itself beyond moral reproach is capable of anything, because it lacks the introspection to really consider the moral weight of its actions. Even in peacetime, the Federation was only a single court case away from re-instituting slavery.

Imperialist leather.

Inquisition is very much a logical extension of this idea. Beyond the sprawling epic six-episode opening arc, the sixth season of Deep Space Nine arguably works best when it sits outside the Dominion War and explores the impact that the conflict has beyond the space battles. Statistical Probabilities ponders the war in numerical terms. Honour Among Thieves inquires about life in the underground and at the margins. In the Pale Moonlight touches on the backroom politics and the moral compromises. Inquisition looks at how the Federation itself has been changed by the war.

Like Homefront and Paradise Lost, Inquisition has aged well. Less than half a decade after the episode originally aired, the United States would be trying “enemy combatants” in secretive military tribunals, detaining suspected terrorists without trial in secretive holding facilities, and engaging in “enhanced interrogation” including sleep deprivation to make subjects more pliable. Although the production team could have no idea at the time, the image of a dark-skinned man being paraded in irons is a lot more evocative two decades after the fact.

“Not quite the parade that I had in mind.”

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