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Star Trek: Voyager – Dragon’s Teeth (Review)

In many ways Dragon’s Teeth demonstrates the chaos that marked the start of the sixth season.

On paper, Dragon’s Teeth looks to be a big blockbuster episode of Star Trek: Voyager. It has top-notch production, a large guest cast, an impressive special effects set-up, a new alien menace, and an emphasis on momentum ahead of character or theme. Just looking at Dragon’s Teeth, it has the look and feel of an “event” story. It seems like an episode with a bold statement of purpose, from the opening teaser that suggests an epic scope by unfolding in the distant past of an alien world through to the ominous closing line that promises that Dragon’s Teeth is just the beginning.

Let sleeping dragons lie…

It seems like the sixth season’s answer to earlier mid-season two-parters like Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II, Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II, or Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II. It even broadcasts in roughly the same stretch of the season as Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II, Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II or Timeless. It is an early November episode, intended to help boost ratings during Sweeps.

However, what is most striking about Dragon’s Teeth is how much it feels like a non-event. The episode has all the markers of a big event story, from the promise of a shortcut home to the sight of the ship landing on a planet surface, but the story is actually incredibly generic. Dragon’s Teeth is not necessarily bad, it is simply competent. There is a strange sense watching Dragon’s Teeth that a phenomenal amount of effort has gone into ensuring that the episode works, rather than trying to make it excel.

Sweet dreams.

Of course, this makes a certain amount of sense. Dragon’s Teeth aired almost a third of the way through the season, but it was produced earlier. In terms of broadcast, it fell between Riddles and One Small Step. In terms of production, it came between Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy and Alice. As such, it was produced in the midst of the chaos following the sudden departure of Ronald D. Moore and the reinstatement of Kenneth Biller. More than that, it was the first episode of the season to be written by Brannon Braga since that behind the scenes shake-up. As a result, it makes sense it should feel “off.”

Dragon’s Teeth is an episode that spends so much of its energy trying to remain upright that it never manages to take flight.

Oh, mummy.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy (Review)

With Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy, Star Trek: Voyager is back to business as usual.

The first episode produced after the departure of Ronald D. Moore, Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy is in many ways an archetypal Voyager story. Equinox, Part II was the second part of a season-bridging two-parter; Survival Instinct was a dark fable about consequences and trauma that was the last script credited to on the franchise’s most beloved writers; Barge of the Dead was a surreal and ambiguous adventure into the Klingon afterlife. As such, it is strange that an episode that opens with a playful operatic number about Tuvok’s pon farr should mark a return to normality.

“My Delta Quadrant TripAdvisor review is going to be scathing!”

Nevertheless, Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy is a very neat standalone episode with a clear beginning, middle and end. It is built around the character of the EMH, leaning into actor Robert Picardo’s comedic chops. It is very much in keeping with Voyager‘s recurring fascination with the notion of fractured reality as expressed in Projections or Deadlock or Retrospect, and also in using a technologically-derived character to literalise the process of a psychological breakdown as in Darkling, Infinite Regress or Latent Image.

Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy story has its own themes and ideas, and everything is neatly resolved by the closing credits. It is a reminder that the serialisation that defined Star Trek: Deep Space Nine would remain the exception, rather than the rule, that it would not be inherited by its surviving sibling. Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy could almost be watched at any point in the show’s run, although the involvement of Seven of Nine would suggest the final four seasons. Nevertheless, the episode never feels particularly tethered to this moment or this season.

Fantasy figure.

However, Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy is also an example of how this approach can work. Voyager received (and deserves) a lot of criticism for failing to evolve with the times, for allowing the Star Trek franchise to fall behind the curve of contemporary television science fiction. However, the series was occasionally capable of demonstrating the merits of standalone episodes, the appeal of being able to transition from one self-contained story to another twenty-six times in the course of a season.

Of course, the issue was that a lot of Voyager episodes were bland and forgettable. However, every once in a while the series would produce a self-contained episode that demonstrated the appeal of this narrative model; Remember, Distant Origin, Concerning Flight, Living WitnessSomeone to Watch Over Me. Appropriately enough, coming after another turbulent period in the history of the show, Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy is another fine example of this capacity to construct satisfying and engaging stand-alone narratives.

Painting a pretty picture.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Barge of the Dead (Review)

There is some small symmetry in Barge of the Dead.

When Bryan Fuller first pitched to Star Trek, he pitched to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The first idea that he sold was The Darkness and the Light, which felt like something approaching a gothic serial killer horror about a deformed killer stalking his victims using the franchise’s hyper-advanced technology. That original idea was heavily re-written by franchise veteran Ronald D. Moore, who also brought a more substantial thematic weight to the story by focusing on themes of violence and retribution.

Barging in.

In contrast, Barge of the Dead is the last television story that Ronald D. Moore would pitch for the franchise, coming at the very end of his time on Star Trek: Voyager. The episode has its roots in an earlier pitch by the writer, the original idea for Soldiers of the Empire. However, Moore would depart the franchise before he could finish work on Barge of the Dead, and so the writing of the script fell to Bryan Fuller. Much like Moore had subtly shifted the emphasis of The Darkness and the Light to his own thematic interests, Fuller embraces his own sensibilities in reworking Barge of the Dead.

Moore had re-written Fuller’s last story, and Fuller would re-write Moore’s last story. There is some sense of poetry in this.

Tom’s idea of a romantic evening certainly needed some work.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Survival Instinct (Review)

Survival Instinct marks the beginning and the end of Ronald D. Moore’s involvement with Star Trek: Voyager.

Moore had been one of the most influential writers on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Moore had famously been drafted into the Star Trek franchise with no outside experience; The Bonding was based upon a speculative script that he wrote, and he had been invited to join the staff when The Defector proved that he was not a one-script wonder. Moore had inspired producer Michael Piller to open the franchise to speculative scripts, a decision which led to the recruitment of writers like Bryan Fuller and Rene Echevarria.

Drone warfare.

Moore had consistently pushed the envelope in terms of what Star Trek could be. Several of Moore’s scripts feel like trailblazers, expanding the storytelling language of an established science-fiction franchise; the Klingon-centric script for Sins of the Father, the quieter character drama of Family, the epic scale of Redemption, Part I and Redemption, Part II. Paired with Ira Steven Behr on Deep Space Nine, Moore really pushed the boundaries of what Star Trek could be; Soldiers of the Empire looked at life on a Klingon ship, In the Pale Moonlight stretched (and maybe broke) Star Trek morality.

All of the other writers on Deep Space Nine chose to bow out gracefully with What You Leave Behind, to part ways with the franchise having provided their own unique take on the Star Trek mythos. However, Moore was convinced to migrate across from Deep Space Nine to Voyager. There are any number of reasons why Moore might have chosen to stay when writers like Behr and Echevarria chose to take their exit; Moore was the longest continuous-serving writer on the Star Trek franchise to that point. In terms of second-generation Star Trek, only Rick Berman could have claimed to have a deeper impression.

Armed and dangerous.

Moore arrived on the sixth season of Voyager and immediately looked to make his mark. Like Brannon Braga, Moore had always been an extremely productive Star Trek writer. He was typically credited on six or seven scripts in a season of The Next Generation and Voyager, while also scripting Star Trek: Generations and Star Trek: First Contact. Although not credited on the script, Moore was actively involved in the back-and-forth over the script to Equinox, Part II. He scripted the second episode, Survival Instinct. He was working on the story to third, Barge of the Dead.

And then the unthinkable happened. Like so much of Voyager, Moore’s arrival proved to be something of a false dawn. In early July 1999, Ronald D. Moore left Star Trek. This was within a month of the broadcast of What You Leave Behind, and nearly three months before the premier of the sixth season of Voyager. Even before Moore and Braga elaborated upon the particulars of what had happened, it was clear that something had gone disastrously wrong.

What We Left Behind.

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Black Mirror – USS Callister (Review)

What is Space Fleet? I’ll tell you what it is. It is a belief system founded on the very best of human nature. It is a goal for us to strive towards for the betterment of the universe, for the betterment of life itself.

And you assholes are f%$king it up!

Black Mirror originated in the United Kingdom, broadcast on Channel 4 and written by Brass Eye and The 11 O’Clock Show writer Charlie Brooker.

The first two seasons of Black Mirror tended to focus on British talent, drawing in a wealth of talent from the British Isles to tell a set of stories about technology run amok: Daniel Kaluuya, Rory Kinnear, Jodie Whittaker, Toby Kebbell, Domhnall Gleason, Lindsay Duncan, Jessica Brown Findlay, Rupert Everett, Hayley Atwell, Rafe Spall and Oona Chaplin. Jon Hamm appeared in White Christmas, but Hamm is arguably an honourary citizen of British television, having appeared in shows like Toast of London and A Young Doctor’s Notebook, and the film Absolutely Fabulous.

In contrast, the third and fourth seasons of Black Mirror moved over to America. This shift was most obvious in the change in locations and talent employed by the series: Bryce Dallas Howard, Jodie Foster, Wyatt Russell, Mackenzie Davis, Rashida Jones, Mike Schur and Cherry Jones. However, it is also quite clear from a shift in emphasis in the stories being told. In particular, the two stories being told that bookend the fourth season of Black Mirror feel uniquely American. Black Museum plays as an allegory for one of America’s foundational sins, its exploitation of its racial minorities.

The feature-length season premiere, USS Callister is transparently a riff on the larger Star Trek franchise and a broader cultural war raging over ownership of established franchises like Ghostbusters or Star Wars. There are undoubtedly ways in which this story could be told with an emphasis on British experience, but USS Callister is very firmly a story about the ownership of one of America’s most beloved and abiding pop cultural mythologies. It is at once a deconstruction of certain strains of fandom and a love letter to the idealism at the heart of such stories.

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Deep Space Nine at 25 – The Most Humanist of (Star) Treks

On Earth, there is no poverty, no crime, no war. You look out the window of Starfleet Headquarters and you see paradise. Well, it’s easy to be a saint in paradise. but the Maquis do not live in paradise. Out there in the Demilitarized Zone, all the problems haven’t been solved yet. Out there, there are no saints — just people.

– Benjamin Sisko, The Maquis, Part II

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is contentious.

Writer Ronald D. Moore has talked about the franchise as the bastard stepchild of the Star Trek franchise. Star Trek: The Next Generation actor Marina Sirtis has described it as little more than a hotel in space and not worthy of the franchise name. While the show was still on the air, Majel Barrett Roddenberry took the time to write a public letter denounced the show and its perceived connection to her husband’s legacy. This argument rages on-line even today, as fans argue about the series’ legacy and its place in the broader canon.

The charges against Deep Space Nine are clear. It is generally regarded as the most cynical of Star Trek spin-off shows, the series most likely to question and interrogate the underlying assumptions of the Star Trek universe. Deep Space Nine was the series that introduced and developed the Maquis, terrorists who splintered off from Starfleet. Deep Space Nine introduced the concept of Section 31, and the idea that Starfleet might be dangerous if left to its own devices. Deep Space Nine devoted its final two seasons to a war arc, a rejection of Roddenberry’s utopia.

However, these arguments are all based upon awkward presuppositions that reveal a lot about the assumptions of Star Trek fandom, and which tend to miss the forest for the trees. Deep Space Nine is a deeply humanist and optimistic piece of television, one has a great deal of faith in its cast and in people. As wary as Deep Space Nine might be about institutions and authority, Deep Space Nine fundamentally believes that people are good and that it is possible to peacefully coexist. The show simply acknowledges that this takes work, but believes it can happen.

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Deep Space Nine at 25 – The Most Multicultural of (Star) Treks

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is the first (and perhaps only) multicultural Star Trek.

Ironically, Deep Space Nine is often derided by traditionalist fans for eschewing core Star Trek principles. Deep Space Nine was the first (and only) Star Trek series to unfold on a space station rather than a space ship, boldly sitting rather than boldly going. More than that, Deep Space Nine was the first Star Trek series to embroil the Federation in an active war, notwithstanding the Klingon or Romulan Cold Wars nor the Cardassian Wars that retroactively took place during the early seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

However, in a very real and substantial way, Deep Space Nine was also the Star Trek series that hewed most closely to the humanist principles of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek. It could reasonably be argued that Deep Space Nine simply made an effort to interrogate and to explore premises that Roddenberry never properly considered. At its core, Star Trek had always been about embracing the unknown with open arms and about learning that what was different was not always scary or monstrous. Deep Space Nine embraced that.

Deep Space Nine was not a series about a bunch of explorers looking “to boldly go” in any literal sense, but about a bunch of characters struggling to fundamentally understand “new life forms and new civilisations.” More than the other Star Trek series, Deep Space Nine was about embracing other cultures and values, about recognising that differences could enrich as much as divide, and that there was no single “right” way build a better world. Deep Space Nine is an ode to humanism and compassion, embodying many of the virtues other Star Trek shows nod towards.

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