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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 The only issue was that the template felt increasingly outdated.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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Non-Review Review: Spider-Man – Into the Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is an amazing Spider-man movie.

There is no other way to describe it. Into the Spider-Verse is a clean lock for the best superhero film of the year, neatly leapfrogging the superlative Black Panther. Into the Spider-Verse is also the best animated film of the year, placing comfortably ahead of The Breadwinner or Incredibles 2. In fact, it seems fairly safe to describe Into the Spider-Verse as the best feature film starring Spider-Man since Spider-Man II. Even that feels like hedging, and would be a very closely run race.

Just dive on in.

Into the Spider-Verse is a creative triumph. It is a fantastically constructed movie, in virtually every way. The film’s unique approach to animation will inevitably dominate discussions, and understandably so. Into the Spider-Verse is a visually sumptuous piece of cinema that looks unlike anything ever committed to film. However, the film’s storytelling is just as impressive if decidedly (and consciously) less showy in its construction. Adding a phenomenal cast, Into the Spider-Verse is just a film that works in an incredibly infectious and engaging way.

Into the Spider-Verse does whatever a Spider-Man movie can. And then some.

Suits him.

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Star Trek: Voyager – The Haunting of Deck Twelve (Review)

It seems strange that Neelix was not a larger part of Star Trek: Voyager.

To be fair, Neelix never disappeared into the ensemble to the same degree as characters like Chakotay, Kim and Tuvok. However, the series often struggled with how best to approach the character and how to make him work. It is notable that the production team went to the effort of writing Neelix off the show shortly before the seventh season finale, sending him to live with a colony of (very far from home) Talaxians in Homestead and consigning him to a cameo in Endgame. The character was often just there, his role hazy and undefined.

A Briefing With Death!
Errr, I mean, Neelix.

Of course, there were reasons for this. Neelix had been drafted on to the crew as an expert on the Delta Quadrant in Caretaker, and it made sense that this role would become increasingly redundant as time went on. By Fair Trade, Neelix was largely redundant, his knowledge exhausted. More than that, the early seasons of Voyager anchored Neelix’s character development to an abusive relationship with two-year-old. The toxicity of Neelix’s relationship with Kes in episodes like PhageTwisted and Parturition made it hard to invest in Neelix as a character worthy of attention or effort.

However, across the seven seasons of Voyager, there is a strange sense that Neelix is perhaps the single character most perfectly adapted to Voyager. He is the character who has developed in the direction that is perhaps most compatible with what Voyager has become, both in how it tells its stories and what it uses those stories to talk about. More than any other character on Voyager, Neelix is the character with the deepest roots in Delta Quadrant history and the character who is most firmly committed to oral traditions of storytelling, both recurring motifs within Voyager.

Smoke and mirrors.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Muse (Review)

In its own way, Muse marks the end of an era for Star Trek: Voyager, as Joe Menosky’s last solo script for the series.

To be fair, this is not Menosky’s last script credit on the series. Menosky would collaborate with Brannon Braga on the season-bridging two-parter Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II. In fact, those episodes have themes that play directly into Menosky’s interests; the two-parter is a story about dreams and narratives, about worlds that exist beyond the literal and the concrete. More than that, Menosky would work on the writing staff of Star Trek: Discovery, contributing the script to Lethe, one of the season’s stand-out episodes that was also about narratives – albeit internalised ones.

Dropping the mask.

However, Muse still feels like it marks the end of an era. Menosky had been a fixture of the Berman era of Star Trek dating back to the fourth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, making his debut with Legacy and arguably making his biggest impression with Darmok early the following season. Menosky’s involvement with the franchise ebbed and flowed in the intervening years, but his influence was often felt. Indeed, Menosky even contributed a handful of scripts and stories to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, including the teleplay for the underrated Dramatis Personae.

With Menosky’s departure from Voyager at the end of the sixth season, Brannon Braga would become the longest-serving writer working on the Star Trek franchise. His tenure on the television franchise would surpass that of Ronald D. Moore, and of any writer who hadn’t spanned the gap from the end of the original Star Trek to the early seasons of The Next Generation, with the arguable exception of producer Rick Berman. As such, Muse feels very much like the end of an era. It marks the departure of one of the guiding light of the Star Trek franchise, albeit one often overlooked or ignored.

Storyteller.

Muse is an episode that speaks to Menosky’s key interests within the Star Trek franchise, the idea of Star Trek as something akin to a modern mythology. More than any other writer on Star Trek, Menosky is invested in stories that are fundamentally about stories. His influence on Voyager is more subtle than that of Michael Piller, Jeri Taylor or Brannon Braga, but can felt in the recurring idea that Voyager itself is a Delta Quadrant myth. More than any of the other Star Trek series, Voyager feels like it is a story about a collection of archetypes rather than characters.

Menosky first articulated this idea in the closing scene of his otherwise forgettable script for False Profits, but reinforced it in episodes like Distant Origin, Living Witness and Blink of an Eye. It could reasonably be argued that this idea became part of the show’s identity, to the point that it can even be traced through episodes not explicitly credited to Menosky, like Live Fast and Prosper. It seems appropriate that this idea should serve as the central theme of Muse, an episode that might be read as a thesis statement on Menosky’s approach to the franchise.

Acting out.

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Non-Review Review: The Breadwinner

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2018.

Stories enrich us, stories empower us, stories sustain us.

The Breadwinner is many things. It is a beautifully animated film from Irish studio Cartoon Saloon, a worthy successor to The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, and also the first time that the company have looked beyond Irish shores for one of their feature-length releases. It is a stunning adaptation of Deborah Ellis’ novel, offering a compelling glimpse into Afghanistan as controlled by the Taliban at the turn of the millennium. It is a genuinely affecting tale of a young girl surviving in a climate that seems actively hostile to her very existence.

However, The Breadwinner is also a meditation upon the power of stories. This is not a surprise, it is very much in keeping with the aesthetics and interests of Cartoon Saloon. It is a recurring theme in their work. (As a point of comparison, Pixar Studios are invested in parental anxieties, down to the inclusion of the “Pixar Babies” in the credits of every major release.) Indeed, The Breadwinner might be seen as a spiritual successor to (or the third part of a thematic trilogy with) The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, stories about children reconnecting with the mythic history of their countries.

Indeed, this is one of the most striking and appealing aspects of The Breadwinner is the way in which it finds something universal in its very specific setting. The Breadwinner is a story very firmly anchored in one time and place, but one that should resonate with everyone.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang (Review)

Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang is nonsense, but it is fun nonsense.

It goes without saying that the plotting of Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang is ridiculous, even by the standards of the obligatory “holodeck goes crazy” episodes like The Big Goodbye or Our Man Bashir or Bride of Chaotica! The episode’s internal logic is strikingly weak, to the point that even the most sympathetic and understanding audience member has to acknowledge the sizable plot holes in the narrative. It is not that the plotting of Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang is lazy or clumsy, it is that the plotting is almost non-existent.

Sisko’s seven.

More than that, the seventh season has already had a much stronger “the crew hang out together and have fun in the holosuite” episode in Take Me Out to the Holosuite. More than that, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is within a dozen episodes of the end of its seven-season run. There is a very valid argument to be made that Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang is a completely unnecessary indulgence at this late stage of the game and that the time invested in this episode could be more wisely invested in some other story thread or dangling plot.

But, yet. There is an incredible charm to Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang that comes from seeing this cast together and having fun for the last time.

“Well, I think we have a promo shot.”

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The Sound of Not-Quite Silence: The Era of Dialogue-Lite Blockbusters

There are several remarkable things about the blockbuster slate for 2017. The most obvious is that the blockbuster slate for 2017 is remarkably strong.

It is definitely the strongest slate of summer releases since at least 2012, if not 2008. Sure, there have been misfires like CHiPs or Baywatch or Transformers: The Last Knight, but there has also been a lot of great stuff. Wonder Woman, Baby Driver, War for the Planet of the Apes, Dunkirk, The Big Sick. Going back to earlier in the year, there is a fine selection of genre material. Get Out, Logan, John Wick: Chapter II. Even the second-tier blockbusters like Kong: Skull Island, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 are relatively solid.

However, there is also an interesting trend in how these stories are being told. In particular, the summer blockbusters of 2017 are quite interesting on a formal level. In particular, these blockbusters are very invested in non-verbal storytelling. While the superhero movies of the summer – Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming – still conform to a familiar structure of dialogue-driven exposition, a lot of the other films tend to be quite light on conventional dialogue, relying on other ways of communicating character, story and theme.

This is most obvious with War for the Planet of the Apes and Dunkirk, impressive blockbusters that feature a number of extended dialogue-light scenes. When the characters do communicate, it is often in unconventional ways; the technical dialogue plays beneath the soundtrack in Dunkirk, while the apes communicate through sign language in War for the Planet of the Apes. In some ways, Baby Driver is also part of this trend. It is a movie that features dialogue, but is largely driven by its soundtrack. It characters often seem to speak in pulp clichés, with movie’s individuality shining on Baby’s iPod.

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