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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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Star Trek: Voyager – Good Shepherd (Review)

Good Shepherd is a terrible execution of a potentially interesting premise.

There is something interesting in speculating what the Star Trek universe must look like for those characters who exist outside the senior staff of a given series. This premise has been explored and touched upon in a number of episodes; most notably in the basic premise of Star Trek: Discovery, the primary plots of Lower Decks and Learning Curve, even the sections of Strange New World focusing on Novakovich and Cutler. Still, these are only a handful of episodes in a franchise that spans half a century and over seven hundred installments.

Looking out for her crew…

As such, the basic plot of Good Shepherd is compelling. The teaser visuals the appeal of such a story in a playful and innovative way, with the camera following a command all the way from the top of the ship to the bottom; from Janeway’s ready room to Astrometrics to Engineering to the lowest viewing port on the ship. It is an interesting way of demonstrating how anonymous and disconnected individuals can feel, even on board a ship with a crew numbering around one hundred and fifty. What does it feel like to be anonymous, on a ship as isolated as Voyager?

Unfortunately, Good Shepherd awkwardly bungles the question. In doing so, it fails to provide any satisfying answers.

Running rings…

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Star Trek: Voyager – Ashes to Ashes (Review)

Death is inevitable and inescapable. It comes to all in time.

Death provides a sense of closure. It marks an end of a journey. It establishes a boundary that might serve as an outline of a life. Death is the high price of living, the unavoidable reckoning that waits beyond the mortal veil. Death is the final frontier, one which all cross in time. Death is the undiscovered country, from which none have returned and about which all must wonder. Sometimes death comes quickly, sometimes it lurks and stalks its prey, sometimes it is even embrace. Nevertheless, death always comes.

The sad ballad of Lyndsay Ballard.

By the sixth season of Star Trek: Voyager, the Star Trek franchise was acutely aware of its own mortality and the unavoidable nature of its own death. Ratings were in decline, and there was no reprieve in sight. The fans were growing increasingly angry with the franchise’s output, and the press was eager to turn on the grand old man of television science fiction. Ronald D. Moore had been forced to quit the franchise, and Brannon Braga would later confess that this was the point at which all of his creative energy had been exhausted.

This mortality hangs over the sixth season of Voyager. The fifth season had repeatedly fixated on the idea of Voyager as a series trapped in time, an inevitability: the thwarted suicide attempts of Janeway in Night and of Torres in Extreme Risk; the frozen ship and crew in Timeless; the multiple copies of Seven of Nine and Janeway in Relativity; the decaying and collapsing imitations in Course: Oblivion, barely registering as a blip on the “real” crew’s radar; the rejection of millennial anxiety in 11:59; even the crew’s broken counterparts in Equinox, Part I.

Mortal clay.

In contrast, the sixth season returns time and again to the idea of death and decay: the ruined empire in Dragon’s Teeth; the underworld in Barge of the Dead; the ghost story in The Haunting of Deck Twelve; the floating tomb in One Small Step; the memories of a massacre in Memorial; the dead Borg Cube in Collective; the vengeful death throes of the returning Kes in Fury; the EMH’s visit to an aging and frail relative in Life Line; the Borg heads on spikes in Unimatrix Zero, Part I. This is to say nothing of the funereal tone of Blink of an Eye.

Ashes to Ashes is perhaps the most literal articulation of this recurring theme and preoccupation, the episode that most strongly and overtly explores the sixth season’s fascination with death and decay. The episode centres on a one-time guest star, a deceased member of the crew who has been resurrected by an alien species and seeks to return to the land of the living. Inevitably, she discovers that this is not possible. Death cannot be outwitted or evaded. It always catches up.

Whose episode is it anyway?

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Star Trek: Voyager – Collective (Review)

Watching Collective, it’s strange to imagine a time when the Borg were considered a credible threat to the larger Star Trek universe.

Collective alludes to this palpable sense of menace in its opening scene. Several members of the crew are playing poker in the Delta Flyer. They are playing in the cockpit, for some reason, rather than in the aft section that would seem to lend itself to such recreational activities. The reason for this storytelling decision comes at the end of the teaser, when something catches Paris’ eye in the middle of one hand. The other members of the away mission follow his gaze, spotting a Borg Cube in the shuttle’s path. Panic ensues. The crew rush to their stations. This, Collective seems to scream, is a big deal.

Baby on Borg.

Of course, this is not actually a big deal. Collective focuses on a Borg Cube that has effectively run aground, a ship that has been disabled. The crew are dead, the result of “a space-borne virus that adapted to Borg physiology” that Child’s Play would reveal to be a form of biological warfare. It should be noted that “the crew discover a disabled Borg Cube” is something of a recurring trope on Star Trek: Voyager, with a similar plot beat employed in both Unity and Scorpion, Part I during the third season. When Kim talks about “bad memories” while skulking through the Cube, it initially seems like he might be referencing the latter.

(Ultimately, Kim is not referring to his traumatic experiences in Scorpion, Part I, which left the character on the verge of death after being attacked by a member of Species 8472. Although the Borg Cube in Collective evokes such memories for the audience, Kim is insulated by Voyager‘s stubborn refusal to acknowledge its own internal continuity. As a result, the memories stoked by the trip to the Borg Cube are generic in nature, of “a haunted house [his] parents took me to when [he] was six.” This is never referenced again. This reveals nothing of Harry Kim. It is just empty filler.)

Dead circuits.

There are plenty of reasons why Voyager keeps stumbling across damaged and derelict Borg Cubes. From a narrative perspective, it allows Voyager to tells stories featuring the Borg without have the crew overwhelmed. Voyager has allowed its characters major victories over the Borg in episodes like Drone or Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II, but understands that having a lone lost ship triumph repeatedly over the Borg Collective would strain credulity. So having the ship repeatedly encounter broken-down Borg Cubes allows the series to involve the Borg in these stories while nominally preserving their menace.

However, there is also a sense that there might just be something more at work here, that the sad and story state of the Borg Collective across the seven-season run of Voyager might reflect more than just the demands of the production team. It would seem to hint at a broader sense of social anxieties.

“For the promo!”

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Star Trek: Voyager – Tsunkatse (Review)

Tsunkatse is the crossover between Star Trek: Voyager and WWF that you didn’t know you needed. Mostly because you didn’t actually need it.

Tsunkatse is a delightfully bizarre piece of television, and perhaps the most cynical piece of Star Trek ever produced. That is saying something, considering that the franchise also includes Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, an episode that literalises William Shatner’s paranoid delusions about his fellow cast members. Separated from the episode by almost two decades, it is still hard to believe that Tsunkatse actually exists, even allowing for other “out there” premises for Voyager episodes like Threshold or Concerning Flight.

Somehow, the production team couldn’t secure Jean-Claude Van Damme as a guest star.

To be fair, Tsunkatse isn’t awful. It isn’t especially good either, but it never develops into the trainwreck suggested by the premise of making a Star Trek episode designed to cash-in on the popularity of wrestling. That might sound like damning with faint praise, but there is something to be said for the fact that Tsunkatse manages to be a truly memorable episode of Voyager based around a highly dubious premise, without ever collapsing into itself. Tsunkatse is better than it has any right to be, and that might just be enough.

Might.

Rock your world.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Virtuoso (Review)

Virtuoso is an interesting companion piece to Blink of an Eye.

Blink of an Eye was in many ways an exploration and reflection of Star Trek as a multimedia franchise, looking at the way in which the franchise has touched and shaped contemporary culture in the thirty-odd years since its inception. As part of this, the episode touched on fandom in a variety of ways, whether the abstract fandom of those individuals inspired by the series to accomplish great things or the more specific fandom including merchandise. Blink of an Eye was very much an episode about loving Star Trek.

Music to our ears.

As a result, Virtuoso feels like a very strange choice to directly follow Blink of an Eye. The two episodes are not connected by plot, outside of the basic idea that the EMH might spend an extended period of time on an alien planet without access to Voyager. After all, Star Trek: Voyager had committed itself to producing standalone episodic storytelling. However, Virtuoso is also something of a metaphor for Star Trek fandom, a look at what it is to love a piece of popular entertainment and to eagerly embrace it.

Unfortunately, the proximity to Blink of an Eye does no favours for Virtuoso, emphasising the script’s weaknesses and tone-deafness. Virtuoso is an episode that feels very pointed and cynical in its portrayal of fandom, very broad and very unpleasant. It is a clumsy and muddled piece of television, on that struggles to hit the right notes.

Small pleasures.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Blink of an Eye (Review)

Blink of an Eye is perhaps the last truly great episode of Star Trek: Voyager.

There are good episodes that follow Blink of an Eye. There are solid comedy episodes like Renaissance Man. There are effective homage episodes like Author, Author. There are even well-constructed archetypal narratives that fit within the thematic framework of both the series and the franchise like Memorial. However, there isn’t a single episode as elegant as Blink of an Eye, a story which demonstrates the raw potential of Voyager as a narrative engine for telling these big and broad science-fiction narratives.

From the mountains of faith…

Indeed, it might even be possible to argue that Blink of an Eye is the last truly great episode of Berman era Star Trek.

There is a tendency to overlook Star Trek: Enterprise in discussions of the franchise’s history and legacy, no matter how quietly influential the prequel series has become in terms of Star Trek Beyond or Star Trek: Discovery. This does a disservice to the last series of the Berman era, particularly the final two seasons that grappled with the question of what it means to be Star Trek in the aftermath of 9/11. Nevertheless, the trauma of 9/11 exerted such a gravity that even the best episodes of Enterprise seemed to exist in its shadow; Judgment, Cogenitor, The Forgotten, Babel One, United.

… through the valley of fear…

Even outside of hyperbole, Blink of an Eye is a beautifully constructed piece of television that speaks to the appeal and the potential of Star Trek. It is a lyrical allegory, a very simple and straightforward idea that is constructed in such a way as to invite the audience to ask profound and meaningful questions about the nature of human existence. What is it like to watch a civilisation rise up? What ideals drive it? Towards what values and ideals might it strive? More than that, what is it like to sit outside of time and watch those beholden to time? These are fascinating and enlightening ideas.

Blink of an Eye was developed from a story by Voyager writer Michael Taylor, one of the most ambitious writers to ever work on the series. Taylor had contributed the stories that would develop into The Visitor and In the Pale Moonlight, demonstrating a willingness to think outside the box. On Voyager, Taylor’s ambitions were frequently tempered and his scripts often compromised. Both Once Upon a Time and The Fight were much more generic and mediocre pieces of television than the original premise. Blink of an Eye is a rare Taylor concept that doesn’t feel watered down.

…. But the river is wide
And it’s too hard to cross…

It helps that the teleplay for Blink of an Eye was written by Star Trek veteran Joe Menosky. Menosky had a long association with the franchise and a deep understanding of how it worked, having cut his teeth on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. More than any other writer, Menosky understood the idea of Star Trek as a mythic framework, an avenue for exploring stories and what they mean. This theme plays through Menosky’s work on the franchise; Darmok, Masks, Dramatis Personae, Muse.

Blink of an Eye feels like an episode perfectly callibrated to the strengths of Taylor and Menosky, a high-concept episode that is fundamentally about the Star Trek mythos.

We all end in the ocean
We all start in the streams
We’re all carried along
By the river of dreams.

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