Essays, TV

Nostalgia & STAR TREK: PICARD, DISCOVERY and the Future

Nostalgia seems to be a double edged sword right now in Hollywood. What on the surface appears to be a comforting guaranteed winner in terms of audience satisfaction and cinematic box office is becoming something of a poisoned creative chalice.

The lacklustre critical (if not box-office) responses to pictures such as Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom or Ocean’s Eight, sequels to long-standing, well-regarded franchises; or Lucasfilm’s decision to put a hold on more A Star Wars Story anthology movies after the tepid box office (by Star Wars terms) of Solo, seemingly putting immediately paid to rumoured Boba Fett & Obi-Wan Kenobi-centric films. There is a nostalgia blowback in progress, the ripple effect of which we are only beginning to understand. Is this a ripple effect that, like the Nexus in Generations, threatens to engulf the future of the Star Trek franchise?

In a year soaked with controversy when it comes to working practices in American television, Star Trek has unfortunately not escaped the taint of disappointing choices. Star Trek: Discovery showrunners Gretchen Berg & Aaron Harberts were dismissed from the series due to reputed abusive behaviour toward their staff, a move which coincided with their temporary replacement Alex Kurtzman inking a massive deal with CBS Television Studios to produce movie and TV projects under his production banner, Secret Hideout, which includes taking over showrunning duties for the remainder of Discovery’s Season 2 (currently filming) and developing brand new Star Trek projects for CBS All Access’ pay-per-view service. Kurtzman has been involved with Discovery since the beginning, since Bryan Fuller’s brief establishment of Trek’s long-awaited return to TV, so his appointment as the new man in charge makes, on paper, a world of sense.

Interest has nonetheless turned towards what ‘new’ Star Trek projects Kurtzman might oversee, with fans enormously curious about reports that Kurtzman may be working with Sir Patrick Stewart on bringing back The Next Generation’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard to front one of these forthcoming series. This follows in the wake of Stewart, in recent months, making noises that he would be interested in reprising the role of Picard, which he last played in 2003’s underwhelming Next Generation cinematic send off Star Trek: Nemesis. While at this stage largely industry and tabloid rumour, one that almost seems too good to be true for many Trek fans, it nonetheless opens up a big topic for debate.

If Kurtzman really is thinking of reviving the character of Picard, and bringing Stewart back into the fold, is Trek looking back as a means of moving forward?

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Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 1×08: ‘Time Will Tell’ (TV Review)

Time Will Tell is another important episode of Alias when it comes to establishing and contextualising the mythology of the show and how it directly relates to, particularly, our protagonist Sydney Bristow. With a title both figurative and literal, this episode brings into focus Alias’ growing preoccupation with time, and just how directly the past influences the present.

Jeff Pinkner’s first script for the series, continuing the steady roll out of Bad Robot creatives who will all go onto major recognisable projects in the future, operates very much as a sequel to the third episode Parity, and the pre-credits sequence of A Broken Heart. Time Will Tell very much illuminates just how Alias, while a highly serialised show, remains indebted to its principal influence, The X-Files, in the structural manner it approaches the mythology at the show’s heart – the search for the work of 15th century ‘prophet’ Milo Rambaldi.

While the previous four episodes all continued the ongoing narrative sub-plots and storylines for the characters and the complicated double-agent situation Sydney finds herself in, only two of them concern Rambaldi, and in both cases he is very much background.

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Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 1×07: ‘Color Blind’ (TV Review)

The continuing evolution of Alias across its first season is increasingly paralleled, as it should be, by the evolution and development of protagonist Sydney Bristow, as Color-Blind again returns to the central theme of not understanding or knowing who you truly are, growing lost within yourself deep inside a world with no clear delineation of black and white, or right and wrong. What Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman’s second script for the series does, and Alias does for the first time, is frame Sydney’s character journey through that of a guest character.

One of the difficulties in serialised storytelling to the degree Alias has deployed thus far is that it does not particularly encourage the use of the main guest character. TV shows of old, traditional series which tell a contained episodic story and move on, often framed a one-off character as key to the story being told that week. Murder mystery series, such as Murder, She Wrote or Diagnosis Murder, cop shows such as Law & Order or CSI, even science-fiction series such as the Star Trek spin-offs of the 1990’s and shows such as The X-Files, all of them frequently utilised a major guest character to weave a narrative around. With a serialised show telling an ongoing tale, it becomes a lot harder to stop and anchor a story around someone the audience doesn’t care about, and who’ll be gone next week.

Martin Shepard, who we briefly saw played by John Hannah in Reckoning previously, does not entirely anchor everything in Color-Blind but this is unquestionably the first episode of Alias to give a character who is not one of the main cast ensemble an arc of some fashion; in this case, Shepard being reminded of his tragic past as a brainwashed assassin who ended up killing Syd’s fiancee on the programmed order of SD-6, and his journey toward finding some escape and peace from that. The reason it works, and Alias is able to do it, is precisely because it factors into Syd’s psychology along the way.

Shepard is a character in his own right but his existence is designed to sketch in more aspects of who Syd is, and her own journey in accepting Danny’s death.

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Essays, TV

WESTWORLD: The Ongoing Struggle with Non-Linear Storytelling

People, it seems, are struggling with Westworld.

While there is some evidence to suggest a drop in viewership across Season 2 of HBO’s new televisual powerhouse, the conversation is less about the threat of Westworld coming to an end—particularly given Season 3 is already a certainty—but rather why certain people are considering checking out of Jonathan & Lisa-Joy Nolan’s magnum opus.

The main reason appears to be how Season 2 has structured its narrative, or more appropriately ‘narratives’. Season 1 of Westworld left ambiguity between time periods given the mystery of the Man in Black, allowing the audience to question at what point certain storylines involving characters in the park was taking place, but Season 2 has thrown the storytelling ball up in the air to continue the narrative in a fascinating, non-linear fashion. It’s hard to think of a TV show which has experimented so resolutely with time, where pieces fit together in a convoluted mosaic of a tale. Even Lost at its most twisty, deploying ‘snakes in the mailbox’, can’t reach Westworld Season 2 for such complicated plot entanglement.

For some, however, are the writers simply going too far?

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Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 1×06: ‘Reckoning’ (TV Review)

Alias is steadily building toward a larger point of revelation across its first season, as the title of Reckoning alludes to. Thematically, the journey of super-spy double agent Sydney Bristow continues to be about her own understanding of the bigger picture, and her place within it.

The complexities of the narrative inside J.J. Abrams show even facilitate, starting with Reckoning, a change to the recap preamble of the series’ concept. I’ve talked about how Alias doesn’t just employ a ‘previously’ recap akin to many other TV shows, but starts with a bigger explanation and contextualisation of the broader story the serialised narrative is telling. Here, Alias expands that recap by weaving the scene-setting around the four key characters at the outset of the series – Syd, her handler Michael Vaughn, her boss Arvin Sloane and her father Jack Bristow, the recap showing their faces and names just in case the people at the back AREN’T QUITE GETTING IT. I can’t recall another show which ever quite felt the need to prime the audience week by week with so much detail before even the previously recap.

Perhaps the choice was made because even just six episodes in, Alias is already starting to grow quite knotty and dense, and the show hasn’t even scratched the surface yet in many ways. Reckoning has a multitude of narratives bubbling away – Syd’s suspicion that Jack may have been working for the KGB, Vaughn and the CIA’s slow-burning backdoor hack into SD-6 established in the previous episode Doppleganger, Francie’s uncertainty about her boyfriend Charlie, Will’s investigation into the Kate Jones mystery. That’s just for starters, before any of the main episodic missions for Sydney are even covered, though really so far they have largely just been window-dressing around which the series can delve into these deeper storylines and building character arcs.

Reckoning, if anything, feels like the first example of what would have been a traditional two-part episode of a more conventional network TV show version of Alias.

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Essays, TV

ROSEANNE: Social Responsibility on Television

If this feels like an addendum to my earlier piece about separating art from the artist, that’s because fate has taken a twist in that direction over the last couple of days. Roseanne, ABC’s successful re-launch of the hit 1980’s/1990’s sitcom starring Roseanne Barr as the matriarch of a middle-American family, has been cancelled after the star herself wrote a horrendously racist tweet about former Barack Obama aide Valerie Jarrett which rightly drew derision from all quarters. ABC’s entertainment president Channing Dungey swiftly responded with this brief statement:

Roseanne’s Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values.

While many have applauded Dungey and ABC for such a swift and decisive rejection of racist rhetoric by a star on their network, some such as Kathryn VanArendonk have made the point that the damage has already been done, that ABC don’t have a spotless record in terms of positive portrayals of race recently, and while Roseanne started as a huge hit upon its return, she subsequently had shed almost 10 million viewers by the season finale. Perhaps ABC found the excuse they’d been looking for to can the show.

Regardless of the reasons, Roseanne Barr’s banishment to the nether regions of disgraced celebrities is, without doubt, a long-time coming. While being a pro-Trump supporter for many would be condemnation enough, Barr has often gone one step further in promoting wild, divisive conspiracy theories which further suggest she has extremist views in line with many right-wing individuals who have taken Trump’s Presidency as a sign that their rhetoric has been validated. It should already have been clear that the gift of a revived TV sitcom career was misjudged and highly inappropriate.

This goes back to my previous piece, in which I used Roseanne as an example of being unable to separate art from the potentially unsavoury off-screen personalities of the people involved.

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Essays, TV

ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT: Can we separate Art from the Artist?

By now you no doubt have heard about how the Season 5 launch of Arrested Development has been a bit of a ‘fustercluck’ all-round.

The accusations of sexual harassment and abusive behaviour against star Jeffrey Tambor which led to his firing from Transparent, a questionable interview with the New York Times which landed Jason Bateman in particular in hot water, and now presumably trying to head off any more corrosive media troubles, Netflix have cancelled the U.K. press tour ahead of the Season 5 premiere on Tuesday.

It’s all just a bit of a mess all round, tinged with the whiff of scandal concerning the key issue rocking the entertainment industry this year – inappropriate behaviour of male actors against their female co-stars, in a variety of ways. It does, however, lead to an important question we haven’t yet achieved the distance to answer.

Does the personal fall of artists compromise the art they have worked on itself?

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Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 1×05: ‘Doppelgänger’ (TV Review)

Doppelgänger comes as something of a surprise when you look at it from the broader context of Alias’s first season.

The fifth episode of a twenty-two episode season, structurally, is never going to contain too many of the bigger mythological revelations, character turning points, and narrative surprises that you might expect from a mid-season two-parter or particularly a season finale, and while Doppleganger doesn’t buck that trend, it cuts surprisingly deep to the core conceptual idea crucial to the entire show, namely: do we really know the people closest to us?

Before we touch on that philosophical question, we must remember that we are still watching Alias. This is not The Wire, riven with harsh social commentary, or Hannibal layered with creeping metaphysical discourse. This is a show about a young spy “jumping off buildings in three-inch heels while napalm explodes all around me”, as Sydney Bristow deftly sums up her career at the end of the series finale way way into the future. That is not to cheapen the writing or character work, which has far more substance than on the surface you might expect, but we should always be aware that Alias first and foremost is a piece of escapism. Which explains the extended, ten-minute opening sequence which kicks Doppleganger off.

I’ve discussed before about how Alias structures both its cliffhanger endings and how it opens each story by continuing the previous episodes’ narrative, concluding that thread, and launching off into another. Doppleganger does the same but it arguably makes it work better than either Parity or A Broken Heart did in terms of operating like a James Bond pre-credits sequence. Those films are famous, historically, for telling a condensed, mini-plot in the first 10-15 minutes before the title song, and then kickstarting the main mission for Bond once the credits have rolled.

Doppleganger feels like the first episode which really manages to achieve this, as Syd & her partner Dixon stop Euro-goon Luc Jacqneau by blowing up UN peace delegate Dhiran Patel by removing the bomb from his chest while in the midst of a high-speed car chase through Sao Paolo.

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Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 1×04: ‘A Broken Heart’ (TV Review)

As we emerge from the initial phase of establishing the central concept of Alias, A Broken Heart continues developing the relationships between Sydney Bristow and our central collection of characters.

While the least important and arguably most throwaway episode of the first season so far, Vanessa Taylor’s script nonetheless has several key interactions and narrative points which give the episode a purpose, and further suggest that Alias’ approach to ongoing, serialised storytelling means this won’t be a traditional 22-episodes marked by too many points of ‘filler’.

Not every episode of Alias has too deep a clear emotional or thematic through line, but A Broken Heart quite clearly is all about broken relationships, or relationships which are in danger of shattering. The title itself is a rather pointed pun with a double-meaning; ostensibly it suggests the climactic beat of the episode, in which Syd witnesses a bunch of Euro-terrorists place a small but hugely powerful bomb in the pacemaker of a UN diplomat, but it also rather directly refers to Sydney’s emotional state, and to some degree that of her father Jack Bristow. Both of them have suffered the trauma of losing the people they loved to sudden and rather violent deaths, and both of them have had their hearts ‘broken’ in the process.

It becomes clearer that while Syd is trying to repair her damage, Jack’s may well be irreparable.

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Essays, TV

Goodbye DESIGNATED SURVIVOR: Your heart was in the right place

So imagine you’re in a pitch meeting with a major studio (in this case ABC). You have all your ideas stacked up ready to go and then one of the studio heads says “you know what we really want? A mash up of The West Wing and 24. Politics! Action! Conspiracy! Bills! Sounds cool, huh?”. Of course, because you’re a writer who wants to put food on the table, you say: “uh, sure…”.

And there you have it: Designated Survivor is born.

Now, let me be clear: that’s not how Designated Survivor, which has just been cancelled by ABC in what is fast becoming an infamous ‘Cancel Friday’ where several well-known, fairly long-running shows have been axed, came to be. I think. I’m pretty sure David Guggenheim, the creator, didn’t have to be talked into developing a hybrid of Aaron Sorkin’s erudite look at Democratic politics in the White House, and the pulse-pounding, 9/11-reactive action madness of 24 – especially not for an actor as engaging and charismatic as Kiefer Sutherland.

Nonetheless, of all the shows given the axe in this latest cull (including Lucifer and Brooklyn Nine-Nineuntil it was saved last minute by NBC), Designated Survivor is by far the weirdest and, honestly, probably the most deserving.

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