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Maniac (Review)

Maniac is Inception meets Cloud Atlas, filtered through a prism of eighties retrofuturism.

That is to say that Maniac will not be for everybody. Indeed, there will be very many people for whom Maniac will simply not work, seeming too weird, too strange and too esoteric. Indeed, it often seems like Maniac is being weird for the sake of being weird, often populating even fairly standard character- or dialogue- driven scenes with small uncanny elements like a foul-mouthed purple robotic koala or a mostly-unseen alien ambassador with a “beautiful blue exoskeleton.” These elements often exist for their own sake. Even when they serve as symbolism, they are often deliberately obtuse.

No Stone unturned.

However, the surreal and contradictory imagery that populates Maniac is a large part of what makes the series so interesting. The bizarre dream-like imagery is very much at the core of Maniac, a bizarre fantasia where everything might possibly be a stand-in for something else or might simply have been plucked half-formed from the imagination with no deeper meaning. Maybe the beautiful alluring alien represents the hawk that a young boy took into his room; maybe the alien represents the predator brother that a young man wants to protect. Maybe sometimes a beautiful blue alien is just a beautiful blue alien.

Maniac is sure to be a polarising experience. Marmite for the television era. Indeed, based on early reviews, it already is. However, it is also a brilliant piece of work; inventive, demented, committed, affecting. This kooky cocktail won’t click with every viewer, but it’ll resonate deeply with those drawn in.

Taking the matter in hand.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Critical Care (Review)

Critical Care is the seventh season of Star Trek: Voyager attempting to be archetypal Star Trek.

To be fair, Voyager had done this before. When Jeri Taylor took over the show during its third season, she steered it away from the disaster of the Kazon arc and towards a more conventional style of Star Trek storytelling. Many of the episodes of the later seasons could easily have been repurposed for Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or Star Trek: Enterprise without changing much beyond the characters’ names; think of Warlord, Scientific Method, Random Thoughts, Waking Moments.

What’s up, Doc?

This isn’t inherently a bad thing. Indeed, many of the best episodes of Voyager had this broad and generic quality to them, offering something resembling an archetypal distillation of Star Trek for audiences. Remember and Memorial were both stunning explorations of cultural memory and Holocaust denial that could arguably have worked with any Star Trek cast. Blink of an Eye was a beautiful science-fiction parable that was more about Star Trek itself than Voyager. Even Nemesis could have easily worked with Riker or O’Brien or Tucker as easily as it did with Chakotay.

However, there are also points when these attempts to create “archetypal Star Trek” feels cynical and exploitative, the writing staff very cynically offering audiences something that is designed to meet as many of the vaguely defined aesthetic qualities of Star Trek, but without any substance underneath it. This happens repeatedly during the seventh season of Voyager, when it seems like the production team understand what Star Trek looks and feels like enough to offer a passable approximation, but don’t understand the underlying mechanics enough to replicate that ineffable feeling.

“Don’t worry, we’re almost home.”

Like a lot of seventh season episodes, Critical Care is couched in the trappings of Star Trek but without any substance to group it. On the surface, Critical Care is classic “social commentary” storytelling, the type of allegorical narrative exemplified by stories like Let That Be Your Last Battlefield or The High Ground. It is an episode about the horrors of contemporary healthcare, transposed to a distant alien world where Voyager can draw some very broad parallels for the audience watching at home. This is, on a very superficial level, what Star Trek is to a large number of fans.

Unfortunately, these touches do not add up to anything particularly insightful or compelling, Critical Care providing observations on contemporary American healthcare that amount to “this is pretty bad, isn’t it?” without anything resembling actual engagement. The result is a shell of an episode, a missed opportunity, and a pale imitation of the franchise’s best social commentary.

“What is up, Doc?”

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Luke Cage – The Creator (Review)

Luke Cage has always been engaged with The Godfather.

This was obvious even during the first season. Outside of dialogue accepting The Godfather, Part II as “the sequel better than the original” in Step in the Arena, the portrayal of the Stokes family in flashback owed a lot to Francis Ford Coppola’s generation crime saga. Indeed the sequences of the Stokes family gathered around the family table, unaware of the chaos that would rain down upon them, evokes the closing flashback of The Godfather, Part II. It is an image rich with irony, bringing the tragedy something of a full circle.

This point of comparison makes a great deal of sense. The Godfather is a story about a minority community in America, trying to exist both inside and outside the law. It is an archetypal American fairy tale, one of the great cynical meditations on the American Dream. (After all, the opening line of The Godfather is “I believe in America.”) This fits neatly with what Luke Cage is, an exploration of a particularly distinct subculture within contemporary America that explores the sometimes tumultuous relationship that this community has with the law and with political structures.

The second season of Luke Cage commits to this idea even further, its narrative borrowing liberally from The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II in crafting a generational superhero crime epic.

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Luke Cage – For Pete’s Sake (Review)

Maybe we don’t all become our parents, but we do live in their shadows.

The second season of Luke Cage engages with the idea of parents and children as a consistent thematic arc across the length and breadth of the season. In Soul Brother #1, Luke is thrown off his game by the arrival of his long-absent father in Harlem, seeking to reconnect. In Straighten It Out, Mariah is informed that one of better chances at going legitimate would be to cultivate a relationship with her own long-estranged daughter. From his introduction, even before his story is articulated in On and On, Jon McIver is clearly seeking justice for his parents.

This is not something that the second season conjures out of thin air. The first season had also hinted at generational tension. The battle between Luke Cage and Willis Stryker in the second half of the first season was largely fought in the shadow of the as-yet-unseen Reverend James Lucas, with Luke even taking Claire home to Georgia in Take It Personal to provide a sense of his history and back story. Similarly, both Cornell and Mariah wrestled with the obligations and the wounds that the Stokes family had inflicted upon them, seen in flashback in Manifest.

However, as all successful sequels and follow-ups tend to do, the second season of Luke Cage works from those small kernels and develops them into a strong central thematic arc for the various characters. Reverend James Lucas actually appears, force Luke to work through his anger and his rage towards his emotionally distant father. Similarly, Mariah is forced by political necessity to reach out to the daughter who has largely been absent from her life, which serves as a catalyst for confronting all of these deep-set issues.

This parental anxiety simmers through the season in interesting ways. The Jamaican restaurant that serves as Bushmaster’s base of operations is called “Gwen’s”, implicitly named for his long-deceased mother and a reminder of what motivates him. At the climax of On and On, the story of the loss of Bushmaster’s mother is cut against Luke remembering the last time that he saw his own mother. Similarly, Tilda’s store is named “Mother’s Touch.” In For Pete’s Sake, she assures Reverend Lucas that she meant “Mother Nature’s Touch”, but it seems a telling choice.

The second season of Luke Cage is all about family. Those that are there, and those that are not.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Spirit Folk (Review)

The holodeck is horrifying.

This is nothing new. It has been this way since Star Trek: The Next Generation. The holodeck has been an unsettling concept from almost the very beginning, not least because of the kinds of stories that the holodeck suggests. From the moment that the Enterprise updated the holodeck in The Big Goodbye, there has been a creeping sense that the holographic creations are capable of comprehending the nature of their existence; in fact, that episode ends with the horrifying notion of McNary wondering what would happen to him when Picard turned off the program.

It’s the poster for the least exciting action movie of the late nineties.

This anxiety simmered in the background of the next few holodeck-centric episode, albeit less directly. Both Minuet in 11001001 and the Comic in The Outrageous Okona seemed to grasp their nature as computer constructs designed to serve specific purposes. They lacked the existential angst that McNary expressed in his final moments, but there was still something lurking just beneath the surface. If these entities were self-aware, could their creation and destruction be ethical? In Elementary, Dear Data, Moriarty brought the question to the fore; a hologram who wished to escape his captivity.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine largely stayed away from the holodeck (or the holosuite) for most of its run, barring small recurring gags about the crew’s recreational use of the facilities. Our Man Bashir cleverly side-stepped the issue of holographic self-awareness by casting the lead actors in the role of holographic supporting players. Nevertheless, the introduction of Vic Fontaine in His Way introduced yet another self-aware holographic character, his self-awareness taken for granted and only really articulated in episodes like It’s Only a Paper Moon.

A public (house) meeting.

In contrast, Star Trek: Voyager has only doubled-down on this idea that holographic characters are self-aware. This is most obvious with the EMH, the holographic doctor who struggled for recognition as a person in early episodes like Eye of the Needle and who made a long and gradual journey towards self-actualisation in episodes like Lifesigns and Real Life. However the show engaged with the idea of holographic self-awareness even outside of the EMH, with characters like Dejaran in Revulsion, Leonardo DaVinci in Concerning Flight, the aliens in Bride of Chaotica! and the town in Fair Haven.

To be fair, some of the arguments made by Voyager have been treated with the weight which they deserve. The EMH consciously asserts his personhood in Author, Author, a clumsy but well-intentioned final-season homage to The Measure of a Man. There is a sense that Voyager is capable of treating holograms with the same dignity that The Next Generation afforded Data on his own journey towards self-actualisation. There is something genuinely moving, for example, in the way that the degradation of his program in The Swarm is treated with the same gravity as the neurological decline of a flesh-and-blood character.

Mass appeal.

However, this also creates a strange dissonance in the episodes that don’t use the holodeck for high drama, and instead treat it as the setting for a romp or an adventure. Voyager seems to argue that every hologram is capable of reaching self-awareness, which means that every use of the holodeck to create new characters should be a momentous occasion. In the world of Voyager, every holodeck program, with the right combination of time and experience, can become a sentient being. This means that use of the holodeck should be something treated with weight and respect.

Fair Haven and Spirit Folk are nowhere near as charming as the production team seem to think that they are, but in the broader context of how Voyager approaches holographic characters, they are downright horrifying.

High spirits.

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Non-Review Review: Damo & Ivor – The Movie

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

In the spirit of The Hardy Bucks Movie before it, Damo & Ivor: The Movie takes a popular Irish television series and weds it to the formula of the road movie to provide a theatrical adaptation.

This is not a bad approach in principle. The road movie is a versatile template, and one that provides a solid template for bringing television characters to the big screen; it provides a clear plot, an opportunity for new viewers to get to know the characters, and the chance to show off a greatly expanded budget. It is no coincidence that even larger American television-to-cinema adaptations have followed this approach, most notably The Muppet Movie.

Indeed, The Hardy Bucks Movie took advantage of the opportunities afforded by this template to take its characters beyond Ireland, allowing them to visit the continent. This was something that would have been impossible on the budget of an Irish television show, and demonstrated an ambition in taking a broad and popular television comedy to the multiplex. In contrast, Damo & Ivor is decidedly more tempered in its ambitions. It is a road movie, but one the confines itself to Ireland. There is little here that could not have been accomplished in a television special.

This much sets the tone for Damo & Ivor: The Movie, which very much aspires to a “good enough” aesthetic in its production. Damo & Ivor is not a film that is enticed to take chances on jumping to the multiplex, instead relaxing casually into formula. Damo & Ivor doesn’t exactly fail, but only because it never really tries.

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No, “Twin Peaks: The Return” is Not a Movie

It is December.

As tradition dictates, the major publications are rolling out their “best of” lists. One of the more interesting trends of the “best of” season in 2017 has been the repeated suggestion that David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return should be considered an eighteen-hour movie. It made the Sight & Sound and Cahiers du Cinema polls, and even got a write-in vote at the Los Angeles Film Critics Awards. This is interesting on a number of levels, because it suggests that labelling The Return as a feature film is not a lone act of contrarianism, but something of a minor trend.

Of course, there are grey areas between film and television. There always have been, given the similarities in the technology and mechanism. Film can be shown on television, and television can be shown in cinemas. There are television movies and film series, and it is often possible for stories that start in one form to transform into the other. The boundaries are not as absolute as they are with theatre or prose, where the technical form is so fundamentally different that any comparison is ridiculous. After all, consider the debate over movies released on Netflix, or films edited for television.

The Return is not an ambiguous area, though. It is a fairly simple case. It is a television series. And there is nothing wrong with that.

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