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Trump Trek: How Star Trek: Voyager is Perfectly Trumpian Star Trek…

Star Trek has built up a fascinating pop culture mythology around itself. There is an interesting dissonance between that memory and the reality.

The fond memory of a thing is not the thing itself. It is a cliché to observe that the line “beam me up, Scotty” was never actually said on the original show, but many casual fans associate the phrase with the franchise. Even hardcore Star Trek fans tend to gloss over the historical record in favour of affectionate memory. Many fans remember the pointed anti-Vietnam rhetoric of A Taste of Armageddon, Errand of Mercy or The Trouble with Tribbles. Few remember the pro-Vietnam tone of Friday’s Child, The Apple or The Omega Glory.

There is a tendency to believe that Star Trek has always been progressive, that the franchise has always embraced tolerance and actively pursued diversity. However, the reality is often more complicated than that. This why certain sections of the fanbase seem to react in abject terror to concepts like “Trek Against Trump”, a campaign organised by Armin Shimerman to protest the racism and xenophobia espoused by the (then-) candidate Donald Trump. One would imagine that rejecting sexism, racism, white nationalism would be a no-brainer for fandom, but it was not.

Indeed, this reactionary strain of fandom has come up time and again in the context of Star Trek: Discovery. Certain vocal sections of the fan base have objected to the diversity of the primary cast, despite the fact that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine arguably had a much more diverse ensemble. The backlash has reached the point that the cast have had to actually give interviews that racism is a very bad thing and that the franchise is very much about tolerance and understanding. Similarly, the news that the series would be overtly political has rattled some cages in fandom.

In theory, these reactions should be shocking. The Star Trek franchise has carefully cultivated a reputation for liberalism and idealism. Indeed, the Federation is quite explicitly socialist, something hinted at in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and explicitly confirmed in Star Trek: First Contact. On a more fundamental level, the franchise is about people from different cultures and with different values coming together to work in common purpose. It seems reasonably fair to argue the franchise would disagree with concepts like “the Muslim Ban” or “the Transgender Service Ban.”

However, the truth is that there has always been a reactionary streak lurking within the franchise. And nowhere has that reactionary streak been stronger than in Star Trek: Voyager, bleeding over into the creation and first two seasons of Star Trek: Enterprise.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Displaced (Review)

The Star Trek franchise has a reputation for being liberal and open-minded.

After all, the franchise is very much rooted in an extension of Kennedy-era liberalism, with the “final frontier” very much an extension of Kennedy’s “new frontier.” It is a franchise that is supposed to celebrate “new lifeforms and new civilisations” that it meets on “strange new worlds”, embracing the alien and celebrating diversity. The franchise is rooted in a utopian version of the future that has been portrayed as at least mostly socialist dating back to Star Trek: The Motion Picture at the latest.

The end is Nyrian.

The end is Nyrian.

However, there are also points at which Star Trek could be considered to be reactionary and conservative. The original Star Trek was nowhere near as progressive on matters of race and gender as many would claim. The first two seasons of Star Trek: Enterprise frequently played as endorsements of politics of the Bush era and the fear of the unknown. The third season of Star Trek: Voyager has been particularly conservative in its outlook; consider the treatment of sex in Blood Fever or Darkling, of the traditional family in Real Life, of globalisation in Unity.

Displaced is perhaps the most striking example, an episode that is essentially a forty-five minute treatise on the risk posed by immigration.

Damn space immigrants, clogging up our space hospitals.

Damn space immigrants, clogging up our space hospitals.

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The X-Files – Nothing Important Happened Today II (Review)

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

Of course, the ninth season was broadcast in a radically different world than the eighth season.

Nothing Important Happened Today I was broadcast early in November 2001, less than two months after hijackers commandeered control of several airline jets and sent them crashing into various American landmarks. The attacks upon the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon changed the world in a way that very few events can claim. History can be comfortably divided into “before 9/11” and “after 9/11”, a rare marker of cultural significance generally reserved for events like World Wars.

World on fire...

World on fire…

Tom Brokow has argued that 9/11 was “when the twenty-first century truly began.” Anne-Marie Slaughter argued that 9/11 was “the defining event of the new millennium.” Phillip E. Wegner suggested that 9/11 represented the end of “the long nineties” that had begun with the collapse of the Berlin Wall. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that 9/11 changed absolutely everything. It defined American foreign policy for over a decade after the fact, cemented a culture of anxiety and surveillance, cast an incredibly long shadow over world culture and politics.

Over two-and-a-half thousand people were killed on 9/11. Estimates suggest that up to twenty-one thousand civilians and more than two thousand American troops died during the War in Afghanistan. Studies suggest that up to half a million Iraqis have died of war-related causes and nearly four-and-a-half thousand American troops have died during the Iraq War. These are just the losses that can be tangibly measured; it is to say nothing of the lives caught in ripple effects and unforeseen (or foreseeable) consequences.

Shining a light on what happened...

Shining a light on what happened…

It is very cavalier and insensitive to suggest that The X-Files was a victim of 9/11 in any real sense. With everything else going on in the wake of 9/11, the cancellation of a television show means nothing. The cancellation of a show (even a popular show) is not even a footnote in any account of how the world changed. It is entirely reasonable to argue that The X-Files might have been cancelled even if 9/11 never happened. The show was nine years old, and had just lost one of its two leads. It was entirely possible that the show could never have recovered from that anyway.

Still, The X-Files was a show indelibly and undeniably anchored in the context of the nineties. It was a show that tapped into the zeitgeist in that historical lacuna following the end of the Cold War, when there were no more enemies to fight and where there was room for introspection and reflection about government authority. By the start of the ninth season, the show’s cultural moment had passed.

A Doggett lead...

A Doggett lead…

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The X-Files – Badlaa (Review)

This October/November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the eighth season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of The Lone Gunmen.

Badlaa is a disturbing and unsettling piece of television.

Perhaps the most unsettling thing about it might be the fact that this is the last truly memorable monster of the week.

"Well, this sure beats the way I got in."

“Well, this sure beats the way I got in.”

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The X-Files (Topps) #33 – Soma (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

Soma is a done-in-one story that fits quite comfortably with the rest of John Rozum’s work on The X-Files.

Indeed, like a lot of Rozum’s output, Soma feels like a story recovered from a fifties horror comic. It is a very traditional ghost story hinging on a number of absurd contrivances and building to a suitably impressive climax. This is not a low-key supernatural thriller – it features vengeful smoke demons who materialise in front of countless witness and almost murder Mulder and Scully at the climax. Despite the insistence on the final page that it was too smoky to see anything, Soma feels a little too loud and campy for the world of The X-Files.

Burnt out...

Burnt out…

The script is very familiar. In many ways, Soma plays like an update of the script to Donor. It is another supernatural “beyond the grave” revenge story, similar in tone to first season episodes like Young at Heart or Lazarus or Born Again. As with Donor, the malicious spirit is a husband who plots a horrific revenge on a wife who disregarded his dying wishes. However, while Donor had an enjoyable pulpy charm to sustain it as an unwilling organ donor attempted to reclaim his harvested organs, Soma feels just a little bit too mean-spirited and malicious in tone.

Soma is a functional and efficient X-Files comic, but one that feels just a little bit too rote and familiar for its own good.

Burning love...

Burning love…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – The Breach (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 April, we’re doing the second season. Check back daily for the latest review.

One of the more interesting aspects of a heightened franchise like Star Trek is the way that invites particular members of staff to define their own voices. On most of the Star Trek shows, it is easy to distinguish the work of particular writers from one another. Ronald D. Moore likes militarism and world-building; Brannon Braga likes time travel and classic science-fiction. There are clear voices that can be distinguished from the choir on each of the shows, for better or for worse.

Although it enjoyed a considerably shorter run than the other Star Trek spin-offs, Star Trek: Enterprise is no exception.  The Breach is a script credited to writers Chris Black and John Shiban. The two had collaborated unofficially on Canamar, a script credited to Shiban alone. The two would work together again on First Flight towards the end of the season. It is certainly a partnership that had considerable potential, if not for Shiban’s departure at the end of the season.

What's up, Doc?

What’s up, Doc?

In many respects, The Breach feels like the product of those two voices. Xenophobia is a major theme of The Breach – as it was in Shiban’s other scripts for the season like Minefield, Dawn or Canamar. Like their last collaboration on Canamar and their future collaboration on First Flight, it seems The Breach presents a more balanced version of Archer than episodes like The Crossing or Horizon. This is a version of Archer who feels compelled to do the right thing, but without the same oppressive self-righteousness that drives his more awkward moments.

However, it seems like Chris Black provides The Breach with its very traditional and old-fashioned Star Trek aesthetic. A veteran of genre television with an understanding of the narrative conventions associated with the franchise, Black understands how Star Trek storytelling is supposed to work. The Breach is perhaps a little too formulaic and traditional in its storytelling, but it does demonstrate that – despite its best efforts – The Crossing had not completely buried a certain optimistic strain of Star Trek ethics.

Into darkness...

Into darkness…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – The Crossing (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 April, we’re doing the second season. Check back daily for the latest review.

The Crossing represents a troubling return to form for the second season of Star Trek: Enterprise in a number of ways.

In terms of basic storytelling, the show is back at the point where it is simply throwing Star Trek plots into a blender and serving up a rather unappetising smoothy. The Crossing is packed with familiar Star Trek tropes – it is Return to Tomorrow by the way of Power Play through Cathexis. The idea of non-corporeal entities hijacking living bodies is not particularly novel, and The Crossing really has nothing new to offer in terms of that sort of story. There is no element of The Crossing as fun as Leonard Nimoy’s performance in Return to Tomorrow or the hostage crisis stakes of Power Play.

Here's Trip!

Here’s Trip!

However, even without the feeling of reheated leftovers, The Crossing is a very ugly little story. It reflects the reactionary post-9/11 politics of the show, the sense of isolationism and xenophobia that have become part of the fabric of Enterprise. The Crossing is essentially a fifties horror film repurposed as a post-9/11 cautionary tale about the dangers of trusting people who are not like you. It feels like a pretty solid indication of just how thoroughly Star Trek has lost its way. The decision to just externalise these anxieties in The Expanse is long overdue.

The fact that The Crossing is credited to the two showrunners driving Enterprise is quite worrying, particularly given that it serves to express an uncomfortable subtext running through the season.

Having a gas time...

Having a gas time…

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