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46. Ah-ga-ssi (The Handmaiden) – This Just In (#247)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guests Grace Duffy and Graham Day, This Just In is a subset of The 250 podcast, looking at notable new arrivals on the list of the 250 best movies of all-time, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Park Chan-Wook’s Ah-ga-ssi.

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Iron Fist – The Mistress of All Agonies (Review)

Inevitably, being a street-level superhero show that owes a huge stylistic debt to Daredevil, Iron Fist inevitably wades into the whole “thou shalt not kill” side of superheroics.

Matt Murdock has spent the better part of two seasons wrestling with that same question. In the first season, he agonised over the question of whether he should kill Wilson Fisk, a criminal who was otherwise above the law. This angst informed episodes like Nelson v. Murdock and The Path of the Righteous. It was a reasonably solid plot line that worked as well as could be expected because it was rooted as much in Charlie Cox’s performance and Matt Murdock’s Catholicism as in any large moral or legal framework.

Knife to see you…

However, Matt Murdock revisited the question with less success during the second season. Confronted with Frank Castle’s lethal methods of crime fighting and an undead ninja cult, Matt found everything was up for debate. The series did not handle the dilemma with any real sense of grace. Frank Castle constructed a ridiculously elaborate moral dilemma in New York’s Finest, while Matt Murdock seemed to confess that the Punisher’s methods worked in .380. One of the most tone deaf sequences in the series had Frank Castle kill a bad guy so Matt would be spared.

Iron Fist puts it own spin on the age-old debate of vigilante morality. In keeping with the general tone of the series, the debate is lazy and clumsy, ultimately resolved through the same sort of tidy deus ex machina that got Danny proof of identity in Rolling Cannon Thunder Punch and control of his company in Eight Diagram Dragon Palm. It is not satisfying storytelling.

Supervillains understandably have fewer moral qualms about killing.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Meld (Review)

This September and October, we’re taking a look at the 1995 to 1996 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

Meld is a masterpiece. It is the best episode of Star Trek: Voyager to date. There is perhaps a reasonable argument to be made that it is one of the best episodes that the series ever produced. It is, in many respects, one of the strongest and most compelling exploration of themes that have been bubbling around in the background since Caretaker, offering a more thoughtful and insightful exploration of the nineties culture of fear and anxiety than anything involving the Kazon. It is certainly the best use of Tuvok that the show managed in its seven year run.

Meld is an episode about violence, in its many forms. It is a story about the horrors and arbitrariness of unprovoked violence, but also about the cycles of violence that such actions can create. In many respects, Meld is a more scathing criticism of the death penalty than Repentance, the seventh season episode explicitly written as a death penalty allegory. Unlike many of the surrounding episodes, Meld actually manages to make good use of the show’s Delta Quadrant setting to heighten the dramatic stakes.

"Where's your head at?"

“Where’s your head at?”

In a way, Meld represents a collision of the franchise’s past and future. Meld may be the last truly great Star Trek script written by Michael Piller, the writer who helped to define the modern iteration of the franchise with his work on the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. At the same time, it is also Mike Sussman’s first story credit on the franchise; Sussman would go on to join the show’s writing staff in its final season and would be one of the few writers to serve a full four seasons on Star Trek: Enterprise.

While the script for Meld is exceptionally well-written, the episode is elevated by a combination of factors. Cliff Bole does great work in bringing a very unconventional Star Trek episode to life. Meld could be seen as a continuation of the second season’s b-movie charms. Following on from the robot wars of Prototype and the body horror of Threshold, Meld plays like a Star Trek serial killer thriller. Bole’s directorial choices are consciously stylised, with delightful little touches like the band of light across Tuvok’s eyes when the body is discovered.

"Funny. I though Braga murdered Darwin last week."

“Funny. I thought Braga murdered Darwin last week.”

The episode also benefits from two mesmerising central performances from guest star Brad Dourif and Tim Russ. Russ was always one of the more under-utilised members of the Voyager ensemble, particularly when his “obligatory emotionally detached character” role was usurped by Seven of Nine in the fourth season. It is a shame, as Russ has a great deal of fun channeling Nimoy in his portrayal of the franchise’s first full-blooded Vulcan regular. Tuvok (and Russ) deserved more attention than the show afforded him.

That said, it is Brad Dourif who steals the show here. Lon Suder is one of the most fascinating guest characters in the history of the Star Trek franchise, and perhaps the only recurring character member of the Voyager crew who made any impression. A lot of that is down to the novelty of a fundamentally violent character in a Starfleet uniform, but Dourif is absolutely brilliant in the part. Dourif might just be the best guest star ever to appear in Voyager, and one of the franchise’s all-time greats.

Beta(zoid) male.

Beta(zoid) male.

However, perhaps the most striking aspect of Meld is the way that it feels very much of its time; it is an episode that firmly engages with a cultural context around Voyager. So much of Voyager seems lost in some sort of weird science-fiction neverland where the fifties and sixties never ended that a well-produced episode that feels of its time is a rarity. Meld is an episode that would feel strange ten years earlier or ten years later, but one which aligns perfectly with the wider context of 1996.

It is a overdue triumph from the Voyager team.

Smile!

Smile!

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Night Stalker – The Five People You Meet in Hell (Review)

This January, to prepare for the release of the new six-part season of The X-Files, we’re wrapping up our coverage of the show, particularly handling the various odds and ends between the show’s last episode and the launch of the revival.

The Five People You Meet in Hell makes it quite clear that Night Stalker is not going to have an easy life. (As it turned out, the show was not to have a particularly long one, either.)

The Five People You Meet in Hell was not originally intended to be the second episode of the show. The original plan had been to broadcast Into Night as the second episode of the season. However, the network shifted the broadcast order, opting to air The Five People You Meet in Hell in second place and bury Into Night much later in the season. In fact, Into Night would not be among the six episodes of Night Stalker to air on ABC; the show would be cancelled before the production team would get a chance to broadcast the show.

Eye see...

Eye see…

The reason for the shift is quite obvious. Into Night is not a great episode of television, but it is one that aligns quite neatly with what Night Stalker is supposed to be; it opens the mummification of two office workers and goes from there. In contrast, The Five People You Meet in Hell is much more generic. Sure, it involves mind control and psychic projection, but it is a much blander piece of television. The Five People You Meet in Hell is very much Night Stalker as a forensic procedural with paranormal elements than an accurate representation of the show.

Shifting the broadcast order around in order to prioritise The Five People You Meet in Hell suggests that the network is not entirely comfortable with the show they have commissioned. Two episodes into the first season, that is not an ideal signal to be sending.

A stab in the dark...

A stab in the dark…

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The X-Files – Hellbound (Review)

This December, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the ninth season of The X-Files.

Your hand travelled
the Aztec trail
down my breast.
The sun popped out like the egg
of a platypus
and aspens pattered
their leafy Ur-language.
All this has happened before.

The jellied landscape
was furrowed with happiness.
You worshipped me
like the goddess of warm rain.

But in each corner of our eyes
stood one of Maxwell’s demons
loosening the molecules
of rise and fall
back and forth.

And in and out, round and about,
in and out,
through the cracked lens of the eye
unendingly,
surface behind glass
entropy mounted
in the random and senseless universe.

All this has happened before.
All this will happen again.

– Miroslav Holub, Lovers in August

Uncomfortable in his skin...

Uncomfortable in his skin…

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Harsh Realm – Inga Fossa (Review)

This November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the seventh season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Harsh Realm.

Inga Fossa is a noteworthy episode of Harsh Realm for a number of reasons.

In production terms, it closes out the loose three-episode introduction to the series. The Pilot, Leviathan and Inga Fossa were all written by Chris Carter and served as an introduction to the world and rules of Harsh Realm. Perhaps owing to the relative complexity of the show’s premise, Carter takes a bit of time to lay out and establish the core ideas of the show. It isn’t until the end of Inga Fossa that characters like Thomas Hobbes and Sophie have reached the status quo that will carry them through the rest of the first season.

Game on...

Game on…

However, all of this is ultimately irrelevant. Inga Fossa will always be notable for being the final episode of Harsh Realm to air on Fox. Chris Carter’s new show was infamously cancelled after only three episodes were broadcast. The six episodes that had been produced before cancellation were quietly shuffled off Fox’s 1999 schedule; they eventually aired on FX in mid-2000, to little fanfare. The cancellation was a shocking development. The ratings were spectacularly terrible, but Harsh Realm had been intended to establish Carter as the network’s idea-generating machine.

Something was very wrong.

"You can't $@!# in here, this is the war room!"

“You can’t $@!# in here, this is the war room!”

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Azati Prime (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This August, we’re doing the third season. Check back daily for the latest review.

If you can end on a high note, the audience will forgive a lot.

The third season of Star Trek: Enterprise is one of the boldest and most ambitious seasons of Star Trek ever produced; it is certainly the most adventurous season of the franchise to air outside of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. However, on an episode-to-episode basis, the quality is quite variable. There are great episodes (Impulse, Twilight), underrated episodes (North Star, Exile), fun episodes (Stratagem), and experimental episodes (Harbinger), but there are also a lot of episodes that are more interesting in theory than in practice.

Explosive finalé...

Explosive finalé…

It becomes increasingly obvious over the course of the season that the writing staff did not plan the year-long arc far enough in advance and that the show struggles to figure out where it wants to go after the initial burst of speed wears off. There are even a couple of outright stinkers that rank with the worst that the franchise ever produced. However, there is a lot to be said for an ending. The third season of Enterprise hits a few speed bumps along the way, but it manages to rally for an impressive and largely satisfying conclusion.

Azati Prime begins the march towards the end of the season. It was the first episode to be filmed after the Christmas break, suggesting that it was the work of a revitalised writing staff and an energised production team. More than that, it was broadcast as the last episode before a six-week break in the broadcast schedule, suggesting that everybody involved knew exactly the kind of hit that they had on their hands. It injects an incredible energy into a show that might be racing towards its own apocalypse.

Future's end...

Future’s end…

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