Season Reviews, Star Trek: Picard, TV

STAR TREK: PICARD (Season 2) is a frustrating, contrived wallow in nostalgia

If ever proof were needed that the writers and producers of modern Star Trek study what audiences think and feel about their shows, then Star Trek: Picard’s second season is most assuredly it.

The first season was a defiant aberration even in the context of Star Trek’s modernisation. Ostensibly a character study, the first Star Trek series directly focused on a popular icon from the broader franchise, Picard was deliberate in just how determinedly it refused to play to the gallery of Star Trek expectations. We only saw Starfleet and the Federation in passing and they were reconceptualised, in the wake of the Trump Administration, as at best an insular, ignorant organisation driven by paranoia, at worst an openly corrupt government. There was no glistening starship our characters travelled on. No exploring new worlds.

This made sense, in broad strokes, given what Picard was designed to explore. Sir Patrick Stewart agreed only to return for a deconstruction of his legendary Enterprise Captain; aged, lost at the end of a century he no longer recognises, haunted by his inability to save a population formerly made up of ideological enemies from a natural catastrophe. Surrounding him with newly invented characters, placing him far from the world of Starfleet he was so closely associated with, the first season of Picard worked to take Jean-Luc on a journey to rediscover the spirit he had lost. A dark series, it dared to suggest the 24th century future fans had imagined after Star Trek: Nemesis was quite different from what would have been expected.

Which, in part, is why Season 2 immediately reverses track. Star Trek: Picard gives in to audience expectation, maybe even pressure, to try and tap not just a 1990s but also 1980s nostalgia for the franchise. It largely fails at both.

Continue reading “STAR TREK: PICARD (Season 2) is a frustrating, contrived wallow in nostalgia”
Star Trek: Discovery, TV, Writing

TV Review: STAR TREK: DISCOVERY (Season 3)

Star Trek: Discovery’s third season is both a step forward and, in many ways, a step back for the new era of the Star Trek franchise.

Buoyed by the ending of a second season that sent the crew of the Discovery far past the point of any canonical Star Trek story to date, the possibilities were endless. It could throw off the shackles of nostalgia, of existing trapped within the fan fiction canon of the 1960s, and truly emerge into something new. Incoming showrunner Michelle Paradise, under the stewardship of our modern day Rick Berman, Alex Kurtzman, chooses to throw the U.S.S. Discovery into a world of uncertainty: a post-cataclysmic, disordered galaxy with the reduced United Federation of Planets, an imperious crime syndicate in heavy control, and a central mystery for the crew to solve. Discovery builds on Star Trek: Picard’s notion of a shattered world order, a universe of futuristic certainties rent asunder by cosmic events, poor governance, and the rise of conspiratorial and sinister entities. Like much Star Trek before it, the seeming fall of the Federation as we knew it tracks with the steady collapse of the United States as the bedrock of post-war geopolitical order in the 21st century.

This allows Paradise and her team of writers to present Discovery as the kind of anachronism Star Trek itself, to some degree, now is. Michael Burnham leads her crew into this unknown future where she is greeted in almost hallowed terms by the first Starfleet officer she meets, who suggests the “hope” of a unified Federation, separated through travel and communications by the mysterious ‘Burn’ event a century ago, is her (and her crew, but more specifically her). It is as close to prophecy without venturing down the awkward road Picard trod on those lines, but Discovery the ship ends up serving as an avatar of righteousness and goodness from the distant past, from the “golden age of science” as a future character at one point puts it. In a world filled with Federation officers used to reactive, insular actions, Burnham and the Discovery arrive with a hopeful joie de vivre about the universe which, surprise surprise, challenges the status quo in a way no other crew had done in a hundred years. Discovery serves as Star Trek’s own attempt to provide light amidst ominous darkness.

The problem ends up lying with a mixture of repetitive elements, unoriginal storylines, at points poor writing and a chronic over-reliance on a main character who is lionised, even almost canonised, to the point of a climactic moment that is not just unearned, but also truly, when you think about it, absurd. Continue reading “TV Review: STAR TREK: DISCOVERY (Season 3)”

Film, Star Wars, TV, Writing

Milking the Franchise: STAR WARS, MARVEL & beyond

As Star Wars and Marvel announce their future plans, A. J. Black discusses the phenomenon of milking the biggest franchises in the world for all they’re worth…

Franchise cinema, let’s be honest, can be thrilling. It can transform movie experiences from solitary pursuits to collective endeavours.

In an age of deeply fractured politics and cultural conflicts happening across nation states, there is comfort in how Captain America taking on Thanos only for the entire MCU to ride in and support him galvanised everyone operating in that shared cinematic space to cheer in collective joy, no matter what your political or cultural persuasion. Many felt the same when Rey and Kylo Ren turned the Emperor’s fire back on him (though I’d argue this was a far diminished return than the Marvel example…). Denigrators of franchise filmmaking, of fandoms indulging in shared universes, miss this aspect – the collectivisation of a text which binds fans together.

It is often toxic, but it is equally as often magnetic and joyful.

There is, however, a limit to the reach and scope of such franchise endeavours for those, like me, who skirt the edges of fandom.

Marvel and Star Warsboth of whom Disney just announced a huge slate of projects for over the next few years—are not the worlds I personally am most invested in. My fandom interests lie elsewhere but even then, I am not a consumer who digests only Star Trek or only James Bond. Fandoms are frequently incredible communities filled with people who live and breathe the properties they love, and this is to be—sans the aforementioned toxicity—encouraged. Friendships are born. Partnerships are made. Respect can be mutual. I have seen these things happen. I have, in my own way, experienced them myself.

Yet it feels like we are sailing close to a perihelion of franchise dilution. A point where financial concern and milking a product for all its worth become not just the primary driver, but the only driving principle.
Continue reading “Milking the Franchise: STAR WARS, MARVEL & beyond”

Film, TV, Writing

STAR TREK is at a cinematic crossroads – which path should it take?

Though we may have entered a second possible ‘golden age’ for Star Trek on television, the same cannot be said for the iconic franchise at the movies.
Forbes writer and movie critic Scott Mendelson, in a recent article, decried that Paramount’s experiment to transform Star Trek into a franchise worth of rivalling Star Wars, the MCU, even Pirates of the Caribbean or Transformers, is dead in the water after the box office failure in 2016 of Star Trek Beyond. He points out that while Star Trek 2009 and Star Trek Into Darkness both made a profit and are in the higher percentile of Star Trek films in financial terms, neither of them came anywhere close to making the profits witnessed in franchise films such as The Dark Knight or Skyfall over the last fifteen years. In all of these summations, he is arguably quite correct.

This topic has reared its head once again following two recent news stories. First, that the reputed movie script being worked on by Fargo and Legion scribe Noah Hawley has for now been shelved, on account of the story revolving around a topical killer virus. Secondly, that Quentin Tarantino’s much speculated film idea would be set heavily in the 1920’s gangster era. Paramount are reputed to be weighing a decision on which path to take for Star Trek at the movies – either of these options, or the fourth intended ‘Kelvinverse’ film for the reboot crew. If not three scripts ready to film, then three very different ideas. All of which place Star Trek at a fascinating crossroads.
The question is simple… which road should the franchise take?
Continue reading “STAR TREK is at a cinematic crossroads – which path should it take?”

2000 in Film

X-MEN: a pioneering example for modern superhero cinema (2000 in Film #27)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of July 14th, Bryan Singer’s X-Men

NOTE: this piece is a re-post from a previous film by film breakdown of the X-Men series.

Though not always discussed in the annals of great comic-book cinema, or even considered the height of its own franchise, Bryan Singer’s original adaptation of X-Men is a seminal moment in superhero cinema.

Before Singer brought Stan Lee & Jack Kirby’s formative 1960’s Marvel Comics property to the screen, after over a decade of attempts by a range of filmmakers (most notably James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow), comic-book cinema was principally dominated across the 1980’s and 1990’s by two heavyweights: Superman and Batman. The former ruled the late 1970’s into the 80’s before falling from grace with a succession of sequels whereby the budget went down as the schlock went up, while the latter moved away in the 90’s from Tim Burton’s initial Neo-Gothic vision into a high camp, overblown blockbuster confection. Beyond these behemoths, comic-book films were curiosities – The Rocketeer, The Shadow, The Phantom, The Crow, Darkman, Spawn – films which either garnered a cult audience or disappeared from the radar entirely.

X-Men changed all that. While not the first Marvel property brought to bear on the big-screen, Singer’s film was without doubt the first adaptation of their source material to go mainstream as a major box-office success – two years earlier, the Wesley Snipes-fronted Blade arguably also did well but was too violent and pulpy to reach a wide audience, and many to this day are unaware it even *is* a Marvel adaptation. X-Men changed the game. X-Men showed that comic-book movies could be more than kitsch spectacle or showy theatrics. Superheroes could be *real* people with heart and soul, their villainous antagonists complicated foes, both morally and psychologically; plus, these films could, much like the related genre of science-fiction, work as powerful allegory and social commentary. In other words, comic-book cinema could do what actual comic-books had been doing, without much in the way of critical respect, for decades.

While X-Men absolutely gives in to some of the silliness that weakened comic-book movies of decades past, it also shows what is possible in this sub-genre, and unknowingly lays down a template for the eventual rise and domination of superhero cinema.

Continue reading “X-MEN: a pioneering example for modern superhero cinema (2000 in Film #27)”

Star Trek: Picard, TV, Writing

STAR TREK: PICARD: A 24th Century Worth Fighting For

This piece contains spoilers for Season 1 of Star Trek: Picard
How quickly we forget the past. A sentiment deep rooted in the conceptual framework of Star Trek: Picard and, more broadly, how Star Trek fans approach their own franchise.
Picard, the long-awaited sequel to the era of Star Trek: The Next Generation, last seen in the oft-maligned final Next Gen movie Nemesis (about which I’ve just finished a ten part examination), has divided people with the same level of brio that Star Trek: Discovery has since late 2017. For some, it has been an unmitigated delight seeing Sir Patrick Stewart back in the role of Trek’s most noble Captain, Jean-Luc Picard, as he battles a new threat in his emeritus years. For others, it has disappointed after the enormous hype ever since Stewart announced his return at Star Trek Las Vegas back in summer 2018. Nobody expected to see Picard again, given Stewart’s age and that Trek appeared to have moved solely to a point of retro-futuristic 1960’s nostalgia given the J.J. Abrams led reboot films and Original Series-era set Discovery. Picard, therefore, came loaded with huge expectation.

Whether it delivered will depend entirely on your tastes as a fan of Star Trek. Some might say it could depend on age but you will find people who watched The Original Series on first broadcast who love Picard, and new Trek viewers brought in from Discovery who dislike it, so that’s not a reliable aggregator. As with most art, Picard’s charms will lie in simply what kind of story engages you. Are you lapping up Stewart back in his most iconic role? Are you enjoying the serialisation, which is even stronger than in Discovery? Are you charmed by the cast of broken rogues, former Starfleet officers and assorted androids or Romulans that make up the crew of the La Sirena? Are you thrilled by the central story and how it is grounded in the long lamented character of Data, synthetic artificial intelligence, and secret ancient prophecies of machine apocalypse? You will have your reasons and they are all valid. Some, like me, are perched very precisely on the fence over these choices, arcs and storylines. I will delve more into them in my podcast, Make It So, in due course.
The question being asked by many is one that was levelled at Discovery, was levelled at movies such as Star Trek Into Darkness, and indeed as far back as Deep Space Nine: is Picard truly *Star Trek*? If history is cyclical, the fact this question comes up again and again is proof of that, and the answer again depends on what you want, or believe, Star Trek to be.
Continue reading “STAR TREK: PICARD: A 24th Century Worth Fighting For”

Film

Scene by Scene: STAR TREK: NEMESIS Part X – ‘Blue Skies’

For such a relentlessly dark film, Star Trek: Nemesis ends on a bittersweet note of hope, but one that feels false. It serves as a good allegory for the film in general: a point of departure that never feels right.

Cast your mind back to 1991. The Undiscovered Country brought the curtain down after 25 years on the adventure of The Original Series crew with a stylised flourish. The so-called ‘end of history’ predicted by political scientist Francis Fukuyama allowed Nicholas Meyer’s film to frame the first Star Trek generation’s final adventure around the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and use it as a neat parallel for the embrace of a new world: peace between the Federation and their most intractable enemies, the Klingons, one we would see reflected in Worf being part of the Enterprise crew in the middle of the 24th century. It felt symbolic. It felt earned. It felt worthy of such iconic characters.

When you consider Nemesis, do you feel the same way for the crew of The Next Generation? Is this either a fitting end to a 15 year run which took in seven seasons of a hugely popular TV series (far more popular in its time than The Original Series was while broadcast) and multiple movies? What really does Nemesis say about this crew or who they are at this point? I’m not convinced it says much of anything or leaves any of them, even Jean-Luc Picard, at a reasonable point of closure. It just feels like a film made to satisfy the box office needs of a franchise that, by this point, was running out of steam. Hence: darker, bigger, more explosive, higher stakes, a megalomaniacal villain and a story that taps into the most celebrated Star Trek movie of all.

Nemesis ends with shellshock for the characters which mirrors the unfinished trauma of a film which serves as no real ending at all. We would have to wait almost two decades before we saw the seeds of a true conclusion to the Next Generation era.

Continue reading “Scene by Scene: STAR TREK: NEMESIS Part X – ‘Blue Skies’”

Film

Scene by Scene: STAR TREK: NEMESIS Pt V – ‘A Better Way’

While Star Trek as a franchise, across all of its television series, has been defined by the philosophical and scientific approach its storytelling has taken to humanity’s future, Star Trek in cinematic terms often feels defined by the antagonist of each film.

When people think of The Wrath of Khan, do they immediately imagine Kirk’s grapple with middle age or his emotional and physical rebirth? Maybe, but they’re probably more likely to conjure up Ricardo Montalban with his buffed tanned chest and wild hair spitting Shakespearean poison. Who can think of The Undiscovered Country, equally, without imagining Christopher Plummer’s General Chang twirling happily in his chair barking lines from Hamlet? Alice Krige’s sultry, mechanical and haunting turn as the Borg Queen is just as synonymous with First Contact, to the point she holds a pride of place position on the film’s poster. In so many Star Trek films, the villain is crucial.

The last three pictures have all boasted star name bad guys perhaps even more famous than the main cast – Bana, Cumberbatch, Elba, all A-list Hollywood surnames who people instantly recognise. Think about some of the names who’ve inhabited these roles previously – Christopher Lloyd, Malcolm McDowell, F. Murray Abraham. Legendary character actors to a man. There is almost as much cache in playing a Star Trek villain as there is a James Bond antagonist.

Retrospectively, Tom Hardy sits on that tier of household name bad guy, even if when Nemesis came out he was a youthful, unknown quantity no doubt cast because of a passing visual similarity to Patrick Stewart, but in hindsight Hardy ended up being a ‘get’, even if Shinzon never sits in the tier of the greatest Star Trek cinematic bad guys, some of which have been mentioned above.

The truth is, while Star Trek has always engaged with excellent, well-known actors to play these parts, the villains themselves often end up overshadowed by the Starfleet crew themselves. Sybok, Tolian Soran, R’uafu – does anyone really know who these characters are outside of Star Trek fandom? Arguably the only villain to truly break out into mainstream popular culture is Khan Noonien Singh, especially given his lease of life recast in Star Trek Into Darkness more recently. Khan set the bar as a character (and in The Wrath of Khan) that the franchise has been striving to equal ever since. Shinzon, however, is the most unashamed attempt to cash in on Khan’s charismatic mania.

As we start to peel back the layers of Shinzon, learning his backstory and of his bizarre connection to Jean-Luc Picard, Nemesis’ blatant mission statement to replicate what made Khan work becomes ever clearer. Continue reading “Scene by Scene: STAR TREK: NEMESIS Pt V – ‘A Better Way’”

Film

Scene by Scene: STAR TREK: NEMESIS Pt IV – ‘Sailing Into the Unknown’

As Star Trek: Picard begins, with the return of The Next Generation era, I’m going to take a scene by scene look back in the next couple of months about the tenth Star Trek film, Stuart Baird’s Nemesis, from 2002…

When the Star Trek universe was created in the mid-1960’s by Gene Roddenberry, the Romulans very quickly, following The Original Series Season 1 episode Balance of Terror, established themselves as an iconic race within the science-fiction tapestry of the series.

There was long some debate about who exactly created the Romulan species but it has over time roughly been attributed to staff writer Paul Schneider, who based the Romulan people on the Roman Empire, naming their twin planets Romulus and Remus after the creation myth of Rome itself; the twin children abandoned on the River Tiber and found by a wolf who raised them to go on and found Rome. While many of the races in Star Trek are based on human cultures, be it the Bajorans on the Jews or Klingons on the Russians, never in Trek was a species so literally devised to connect directly to an ancient human myth as the Romulans. Had they not been as deftly characterised, they could well have been consigned to the litany of strange races in TOS who are now considered kitsch – the Zeons in Patterns of Force, for instance. Thankfully, the Romulans were carried through into The Next Generation and developed into an allegorical Chinese or even North Korean state; a shadowy, secretive species who sit behind their ‘Neutral Zone’ between Federation space and occasionally incur on missions of espionage and devious plots to interfere in other species politics – particularly the neighbouring Klingon Empire, as seen in TNG’s Redemption.

Yet throughout TNG, and even Deep Space Nine where they were eventually embroiled in the galaxy spanning Dominion War and the machinations of Starfleet’s sinister spy organisation Section-31, we never truly came to know who the Romulans were, seldom visited their home world—we only see it in TNG’s Unification and DS9’s Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges—and Remus, beyond the initial mention in the 1960’s, was never explored. Nemesis, therefore, in re-contextualising Remus, and the Reman people, as a monstrous, toiling slave race for the Romulan Star Empire, adds a level of mythology previously unexplored in Romulan culture. While they are, to an extent, a narrative means to an end in Nemesis, the inclusion of the Remans as a key factor in Shinzon’s backstory gives Nemesis that added Star Trek factor – a new world and species to discover and explore. The only downside is that, ultimately, the promise Nemesis might have in truly revealing Romulan culture after all of these years is smoke and mirrors. 

It is never really a story about the Romulans at all.

Continue reading “Scene by Scene: STAR TREK: NEMESIS Pt IV – ‘Sailing Into the Unknown’”

Comics, Film, Writing, X-Men

The Trask at Hand – X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014)

With X-Men: Dark Phoenix on the horizon, a film predicted to signal the end of the original iteration of the X-Men franchise, I’ve decided to go back and revisit this highly influential collection of comic-book movies.

We continue with Bryan Singer’s 2014 epic, X-Men: Days of Future Past

Though ostensibly designed as a new beginning for the X-Men franchise, Days of Future Past oddly works better as an ending.

Bryan Singer’s return as director of the franchise, after abandoning the third intended X-Men film in 2006 for Superman Returns, gives the film an unexpected level of continuity back to his original first two pictures and allows it to work as a capstone for the original X-Men cast, the majority of whom return for this adaptation of Chris Claremont & John Byrne’s legendary 1981 Uncanny X-Men saga set in a dark, post-apocalyptic future where both humans *and* mutants have been subjugated by the Sentinels, a force of man-made, mutant-killing robots. Days of Future Past ends up allowing Singer to both tie-off many of the loose ends left remaining after X-Men: The Last Stand, and continue the rebirth of the saga after Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class. As the film brings together two different generations of X-Men and these characters, so Days of Future Past unites Singer and Vaughn, who co-developed the story with First Class writer Jane Goldman, in developing a unique fusion of continuation and conclusion.

Days of Future Past is the most tangibly connected X-Men film to X1 and X2, even beyond Singer back in the director’s chair. It tackles the core ideological difference between Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) that formed the backbone of those first films, as it does in the original Stan Lee/Jack Kirby comics, and naturally evolves that conflict from its foundation in First Class. Though the plot is driven by Wolverine in his role working to change the past, and it hinges on the historical actions of Mystique, Days of Future Past is as much an origin story for Professor X and his school as First Class was for Magneto. The script is cleaner, the dramatic through-line more directly apparent (at least in the first half), and it manages to both give the original X-Men trilogy a sense of closure while spiralling the franchise off into a new direction. This does for the X-Men franchise what JJ Abrams’ 2009 reboot movie did for Star Trek – new life born of old characters.

X2 may be the stronger movie by a yard or two, but Days of Future Past could well be my personal favourite for how it satisfies the viewer on multiple levels.

Continue reading “The Trask at Hand – X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014)”