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Star Trek: Voyager – Revulsion (Review)

Revulsion is a solid episode elevated by a superb guest performance.

The most notable aspect of Revulsion is the guest appearance of veteran character actor Leland Orser. Orser’s screen presence is striking, making an impression with supporting role in high-profile films from The Bone Collector to se7en to Alien Resurrection to Daredevil. He has also worked reliably in television, holding down regular roles in shows like E.R. and Berlin Station, while recurring in series like 24 and Ray Donovan. To modern audiences, he is likely recognisable got his work as a fixture of the Taken franchise.

Not just holo praise.

Not just holo praise.

Even within the Star Trek franchise, Orser is very much a recurring fixture. While never a steady player like J.G. Hertzler or Jeffrey Combs, Orser made quite an impression. He played the changeling posing as Tal Shiar operative Colonel Lovok in The Die is Cast on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, making the most of a rather minor role in one of the series’ most memorable two-part episodes. He would also do good work as the venal Loomis in the otherwise disappointing Carpenter Street during the third season of Star Trek: Enterprise.

However, his guest appearance in Revulsion on Star Trek: Voyager remains his most distinctive turn in the franchise. Playing Dejaren, a psychotic and fragmented hologram who murdered his crew, Orser singlehandedly elevates would could easily be a tired genre exercise. Revulsion is a solid episode, but one that sticks in the memory almost entirely due to the casting.

Kali Ma!

Kali Ma!

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Star Trek: Voyager – Nemesis (Review)

Nemesis is a great example of Star Trek: Voyager pitching itself as generic Star Trek.

This is a story that is not unique or particular to this crew. In fact, the story could easily be adapted to service characters from Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or even Star Trek: Enterprise. In some respects, Nemesis might even work better if Robert Beltran were swapped out for Jonathan Frakes or Colm Meaney or Connor Trinneer. There is very little in the script that relies on the particularities of this show or the nuances of its characters.

The Rifleman...

The Rifleman…

While this lack of a distinct identity is a problem for Voyager as a television series, it does lead to some great episodes. Many of the best episodes of Voyager could easily be ported to or from any of the other shows. It was an approach that really came to the fore during the third season, when Jeri Taylor and Brannon Braga made a conscious choice to steer the show away from its focus on a crew stranded far from home and towards a more generic Star Trek sensibility.

At its best, this leads to very strong allegorical storytelling. Episodes like Remember and Distant Origin are very much archetypal Star Trek episodes, extended science-fiction metaphors with a strong moral core that evoke the Star Trek beloved by so many of its fans. Nemesis is very much an episode constructed in that tradition, a metaphorical exploration of the dehumanisation of soldiers through combat training and conditioning. It is a powerful and thought-provoking piece of social commentary and a superb piece of Star Trek.

A hard shoot.

A hard shoot.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Scorpion, Part II (Review)

Scorpion, Part II demonstrates the real strength of the blockbuster two-part episodes scattered across the run of Star Trek: Voyager.

Generally speaking, the two-part episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation suffered from a sense of disharmony. The two parts seldom felt integrated, often feeling quite disconnected from one another. This was most obvious in the cliffhangers bridging the seasons, when the writing staff would take time away from the office before returning to write the second part. Michael Piller famously had no idea what he was going to do with The Best of Both Worlds, Part II when he wrote The Best of Both Worlds, Part I.

Droning on.

Droning on.

Even for the two-part episodes within a given season, there tended to be a disjointedness. Chain of Command, Part I is very much set-up for Chain of Command, Part II, with the second part feeling much stronger (and more substantial) than the first. Birthright, Part I leads into Birthright, Part II, but also features an entirely unrelated subplot that is dropped completely in the second half. Arguably, The Next Generation only really figured out how to properly balance two-parters in its final season, with Gambit, Part I, Gambit, Part II and All Good Things…

In contrast, Voyager does a much better job of balancing its two-parters so that they feel like two halves of a movie rather than an extended first act followed by a compressed second and third act. Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II established that template, but Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II demonstrates that it can applied as readily to season-bridging two-parters as to mid-season sweeps episodes. Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II integrate beautifully to form an impressive Voyager television movie.

Venting frustration.

Venting frustration.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Season 5 (Review)

The fifth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is one of the best twenty-odd-episode seasons of television in the history of the medium.

Naturally, some episodes are stronger than others. There are a couple of duds to be found in the twenty-six episodes that make up the broadcast season. This is true of any season that runs for over twenty episodes; the reality of television production means that not every episode can be perfect and that some will inevitably be terrible. This is one of the nicer things about shifts to shorter television seasons; while it means fewer episodes in a given year, it also allows the production team more consistency.

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So the fifth season has episodes that do not work, to nobody’s surprise. The fourth season had Shattered Mirror and The Muse. The third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation had The Price and Ménage à Troi. The third season of The X-Files had The Blessing Way and Teso Dos Bichos. The second season of Millennium had Sense and Antisense and Siren. These are all great seasons of television, diminished in no way by their failures. The fifth season gets its failures out of the way early, with The Assignment and Let He Who Is Without Sin…

However, the fifth season of Deep Space Nine works so well because it has a very strong sense of internal consistency. As with the fourth season before it, there is a clear sense of where this production team wants to take the series. More than that, there is a very strong sense of harmony to the season. While each of the individual members of the writing staff have their own strengths and interests, they are all working together in pursuit of a common goal. Everybody writing for Deep Space Nine is on the same page as to what the show is about.

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The result is a season that marches very effectively and very coherently towards a logical and organic end point. A Call to Arms is perhaps the most radical cliffhanger in the history of the Star Trek franchise, sending Gene Roddenberry’s utopia into a two-season-long war while evicting the primary cast from the title location for more than just a single episode. It is to the credit of everybody working on the season that this finale is at once a gripping and subversive addition to the franchise mythology and a perfectly reasonable conclusion to the season.

The fifth season of Deep Space Nine ranks as a spectacular accomplishment.

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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.

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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?

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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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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Call to Arms (Review)

The release of atomic energy has not created a new problem. It has merely made more urgent the necessity of solving an existing one. One could say that it has affected us quantitatively, not qualitatively. As long as there are sovereign nations possessing great power, war is inevitable. This does not mean that one can know when war will come but only that one is sure that it will come. This was true even before the atomic bomb was made. What has changed is the destructiveness of war.

– Albert Einstein, “Einstein on the Atomic Bomb”, The Atlantic, November 1945

Feels like coming home...

Feels like coming home…

Can war ever be justified? Can war ever be inevitable? Can war ever be necessary?

These are very tough ethical questions, particularly when posed in the abstract. In fact, the vast majority of policy decisions about warfare are rooted in living memory rather than philosophical certainty. It has been repeatedly suggested that Bill Clinton’s reluctance to intervene in Rwanda was a consequence of the spectacular failure in Somalia, and that his eventual intervention in Kosovo was an act of atonement for the moral lapse in Rwanda. This is to say nothing of how Obama’s policy on Syria is shaped by Bush’s actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Station keeping.

Station keeping.

The Star Trek universe is a utopia. It is a world where technology has eliminated poverty and hunger. The replicator, the holodeck, the transporter and warp drive are the building blocks of an idealistic future in which mankind seems to have found peace with itself. Dating back to Star Trek: The Motion Picture at the latest, Gene Roddenberry proposed that the franchise represented an idealised future for mankind. It was a world in which nobody ever wanted for anything, in which mankind were free to explore the universe.

This idealism is a cornerstone of the franchise. It is one of the most recognisable and universal aspects of Star Trek. This is a franchise that genuinely believes that mankind can be better than we are today. That is a large part of what makes the show so powerful, particularly in its original context. As the Doomsday Clock ticks closer and closer to midnight, Star Trek is a franchise that seems to argue that mankind has a future worth aspiring toward; a future beyond the end of the world or some corporate dystopia.

A farewell at arms.

A farewell at arms.

The franchise was never particularly interested in exploring how mankind reached that level of enlightenment. Star Trek: Enterprise was nominally a prequel series for the franchise, picking up in the wake of Star Trek: First Contact, but it opened after mankind had eliminated warfare and famine and nationalism. In some ways, the franchise could seem like a rather surreal experiment. If you imagined a world without warfare or without greed or without hunger, maybe people would get along? There is undoubtedly value on this, but it feels simplistic.

In contrast, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine dared to ask tough and uncomfortable question by challenging these assumptions. If these characters did not live in a perfect world, would they still aspire to betterment? If hunger and greed were still a part of everyday life, could mankind still work to improve themselves? If warfare is the inevitable outcome of statesmanship, then how do these twenty-fourth century people retain their values and ideals? These are legitimately tough questions for the franchise to ponder, but Deep Space Nine embraces them.

Terror on Terok Nor.

Terror on Terok Nor.

It is hard to overstate just how shocking Call to Arms was on broadcast. The actual plot mechanics are fairly standard Star Trek season finale stuff. The ominous and mounting sense of dread coursing through the episode evokes The Best of Both Worlds, Part I, the first season-ending cliffhanger from Star Trek: The Next Generation. The decision to have the recurring antagonists hijack the eponymous space station recalls Basics, Part I, the cliffhanger that Star Trek: Voyager broadcast at the end of the previous television season.

However, Call to Arms is more shocking for the one element of the episode that has been building since the first encounter with the Dominion in The Jem’Hadar. It is the beginning of the franchise’s first extended war story. This is bold new territory for the franchise, something that remains controversial to this day.

"The ball is in your court."

“The ball is in your court.”

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

In the Cards is the perfect penultimate episode to a sensational season of television.

One of the more common observations about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is that it is the most dour and serious of the Star Trek series. It is the grim and cynical series of the bunch, with many commentators insisting that the series rejects the franchise’s humanist utopia in favour of brutality and nihilism. This criticism is entirely understandable. The series is literally and thematically darker than Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Voyager. Even at this point, it is about to embark upon a two-year-long war arc, the longest in the franchise.

Jake and the Ferengi Man.

Jake and the Ferengi Man.

However, this is also a very reductive reading of Deep Space Nine. The series is more willing to criticise and interrogate the foundations of the Star Trek universe than any of its siblings, but it remains generally positive about the human condition. Governments and power structures should be treated with suspicion, but individuals are generally decent. Positioned right before the beginning of an epic franchise-shattering war, In the Cards is the perfect example of this philosophy. In the Cards elegantly captures the warmth and optimism of Deep Space Nine.

Deep Space Nine is fundamentally the story of a diverse and multicultural community formed of countless disparate people drawn together by fate or chance. In the Cards is a story about how happiness functions in that community, how the bonds between people can make all the difference even as the universe falls into chaos around them. It is also very funny.

Pod person.

Pod person.

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