Star Trek: Lower Decks, TV, Writing

TV Review: STAR TREK: LOWER DECKS (Season 2)

Out of every modern Star Trek series currently on air, Lower Decks bounced into its second season with the brightest springing step.

While not every Star Trek fan of old finds Lower Decks their cup of Earl Grey, amongst fans who do enjoy it, and indeed critics, Mike McMahan’s animated comedy clicked almost right away. Taking the precepts of Star Trek animation and vibrantly updating them with a beautifully drawn, Seth McFarlane-esque sheen, Lower Decks avoided the trap initial commentators feared: that it would be funny at the expense of Star Trek. This was not the case even from Second Contact, the opening episode, which established the core concept of a series revolving around the lowly crew members on the second rate Starfleet vessel, the U.S.S. Cerritos. Immediately, Lower Decks was an affectionate lampoon.

One of the key reasons Lower Decks worked, by and large, straight away, was the feeling that it was written and animated by people who truly loved and crucially understood Star Trek as an idea. McMahan, parlaying the TNG S8 comedy Twitter account stylistically into the series, saw an opening for spoof in the cheesy 1980s utopian formalism of The Next Generation and leaned into mockery that played, almost entirely, with the audience’s knowledge and awareness of the tropes it was spoofing, be it Captain’s Logs, holodecks programs or the crew dynamics on the ship. Lower Decks was never truly a series for franchise newcomers, it was always an affectionate love letter to Star Trek fans of the 1990s, and was unashamed of being so.

Season 2, therefore, works simply to build on what the first season established. It maintains the greatest level of consistency in a modern Star Trek series between seasons while managing to successfully take what worked in the first year and often amplify it. There is no doubt – Season 2 is, overall, a stronger year of Lower Decks than Season 1.

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Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 3×14: ‘Blowback’ (TV Review)

While it is tempting to consider the mid-stretch of Alias Season Three as a devolution of complexity and craft, in which the show spins its wheels, Blowback does at least attempt to adopt a tried and tested narrative trope in which to tell a fairly bland espionage story.

It splits the episode between two perspectives, that of Vaughn and Lauren, as writer Laurence Andries charts the continued, steady self-destruction of their marriage, even before the truth about Lauren’s duplicity emerges. We see the same mission, as the CIA unit attempt to stop the Covenant stealing a ‘plasma charge’ from an unseen Philippine terrorist outfit called Shining Sword, from each of their vantage points, with Vaughn blissfully unaware that his wife is one of the Covenant agents he and Syd are chasing down. In this, the audience are ahead of our heroes and complicit in Lauren’s continued duplicity, but Blowback looks to try and depict the cracks in their marriage, in true Alias fashion, through high-concept spy theatrics.

Andries chooses to borrow from Rashomon, the classic 1950 Japanese drama from auteur Akira Kurosawa, which is generally considered one of the first significant pieces of on-screen fiction to manipulate both time and perspective in the story of two men recounting the interlinked stories of a bandit, a wife, a samurai and a woodcutter, as their narratives re-tell the same events and overlap, each providing a unique and often self-serving perspective on what happened. Rashomon brilliantly plays with perceptions and highlights the nature of subjectivity, in how we are often the heroes of our own story, and it simply takes a tweak in how an event is observed to alter the context of the entire meaning of the moment. It is a compelling and philosophical piece of work.

Blowback is, to be charitable, neither, but it should be commended for experimentation and working to frame Vaughn and Lauren’s place in relation to their work and life through such a prism. It is a clever way to show just how intertwined their professional lives are at this stage.

Continue reading “ALIAS 3×14: ‘Blowback’ (TV Review)”
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)”

Star Trek: Lower Decks, TV, Writing

TV Review: STAR TREK: LOWER DECKS (Season 1)

Conventional wisdom, ever since the very first Star Trek series in the 1960s, suggests that new shows take three seasons to find themselves. Lower Decks is now the first new Star Trek show to bust that myth.
The Next Generation only stopped trying to be The Original Series, and levered itself into the 1990s under Michael Piller while balancing a measured tone with space bound escapism, after two profoundly awkward seasons that have dated far more readily than the 1960s show. Deep Space Nine emerged from a staid chrysalis two seasons in once Ira Steven Behr engaged serialised storytelling alongside pulp adventure. Voyager, by its third year, tried to combine ongoing story arcs with recurring villains and a more consistent balance of episodes. Enterprise galvanised itself under Manny Coto after two lacklustre seasons, even if it was too little too late despite widespread and exciting changes. We will soon know if Discovery, under Michelle Paradise, has pulled the same trick – but the omens look good.

What do all of these examples have in common? By and large, a strong creative force at the helm at the point these shows found their feet. Voyager’s best years were arguably when Brannon Braga was heavily trying to shape the series, even if it lacks the same powerful creative as DS9 or ENT. Mike McMahan is that force but, and here’s the difference, he’s been around since day one. Lower Decks is very much his baby, to a degree previously unheard of in Star Trek. We might need to track back to Lower Decks’ chief inspiration, The Next Generation, to find a show which was so deeply tethered from the beginning to series creator Gene Roddenberry, and even then its success is attributable to many different cooks stirring the broth. Lower Decks is McMahan’s vision and you feel that from the very beginning.
There is little doubt the resulting show is an acquired taste but this sojourn into sweet-natured comedy is hugely faithful to Star Trek lore, imbued with a love of the subject matter, and hits the ground running without the identity crisis every Star Trek series that has preceded it faced.
Continue reading “TV Review: STAR TREK: LOWER DECKS (Season 1)”

Film, Writing

What’s Your Pleasure? Experiencing the HELLRAISER franchise

You might be surprised at the amount of legendary horror franchises I have not yet seen. Hellraiser, until the past week, was one of them.
Halloween, for example, I have only watched digested in its entirety over the past year. Franchises such as Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm St still elude me. As much as I do enjoy horror, being married to someone who abjectly refuses to watch the majority of the genre means, frequently, I end up in another cinematic space. This isn’t to blame my wife entirely – horror has never been my number one genre. Yet, I remain committed to working my way through the entire canon of these long-running, fear-providing staples, as they are key texts in understanding horror as an overarching genre. Hellraiser, if not perhaps the most critically lauded of these examples, has been a pivotal part of the horror experience since the late 1980s.

Pinhead always scared me, even despite not watching the films. The looming visage of Doug Bradley’s sadomasochistic demon appears on the cover of every Hellraiser movie, bar the final two he didn’t take part in, and I remember as a teenager browsing in the ‘90s Blockbuster near home wondering what sights Pinhead might show me. The VHS cover was unsettling enough. As a child with an overactive imagination, I chose rarely to indulge in horror; besides I would no doubt have had to watch in secret from my parents. This was pre-internet and the days anything could be watched at a click of a button. Hellraiser, and Pinhead’s terrifying, come hither dark glare, has fascinated me since. Action movies were mainly my pleasure then but I always suspected Pinhead would catch up with me one day.
Last week, it happened. I opened the box (or in this case the PLEX server) and he came. And what I found was, I’ll admit, at times unexpected…
Continue reading “What’s Your Pleasure? Experiencing the HELLRAISER franchise”

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

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT: A military drama scared to face its demons (2000 in Film #14)

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 April 7th, William Friedkin’s Rules of Engagement

My question for William Friedkin in regard to this film is quite simple: did he steal the plot of Rules of Engagement from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine?

In that series, the character of the noble Klingon Commander, Worf, is tried by an extradition hearing after, during hostilities between the Federation and the Klingon Empire, he commands a vessel that fires on and destroys a civilian transport ship which he believes is a Klingon warship. That episode is called, yes… Rules of Engagement, and it aired just three short years before Friedkin’s film came to bear. Perhaps the original writer, James Webb, saw the episode, liked the title and premise, and ported them over. Stranger things have happened! Either way, Rules of Engagement probably shares this coincidence for the simple fact it treads a well-worn story in fiction, science-fiction, and any morality-based dramatic narrative.

Friedkin’s film, eventually written by studio-hired scribe Stephen Gaghan from Webb’s original screenplay—one of two films penned by Gaghan, the other being Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic at the end of the year, for which he would win an award—directly concerns the United States military and their own, titular, rules of engagement in a combat situation. Samuel L. Jackson’s Colonel Terry Childers, while leading a Marine squadron to evacuate an American diplomat and his family from an under-siege Yemeni embassy, orders his men to fire into a crowd of protestors, some of whom appear to have opened fire on his men. 98 men women and children end up slaughtered. Images make the front page of every global newspaper. And the US government want Childers’ head on a spike, forcing him to enlist his old friend—Tommy Lee Jones’ military attorney Hayes Hodges—to defend his honour.

What ends up happening is that the subject matter, and what it wants to say about modern American imperialism, is more interesting than Rules of Engagement turns out to be in execution as a film. Continue reading “RULES OF ENGAGEMENT: A military drama scared to face its demons (2000 in Film #14)”

Film, Scene by Scene, Star Trek: Nemesis

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

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…

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

Scene by Scene: STAR TREK: NEMESIS Part IX – ‘Goodbye…’

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…

The so-called Battle of the Bassen Rift is designed, pretty unashamedly, to recall the Battle of the Mutara Nebula in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, with Nemesis even determined to sacrifice a major character at the end of it in a shock way to save the ship and crew.

When you think about the climactic battle in The Wrath of Khan, do you remember it riven with tension? A pitched, submarine or maritime fleet tet-a-tet in space between the Enterprise and the Reliant which was more about the aspect of quiet suspense and tactical superiority between Admiral Kirk and Khan Noonien Singh? We don’t come anywhere close to that in Nemesis. The Bassen Rift is a fairly routine, thunderous ship to ship battle, with a few Romulan ships thrown in for good measure, with the only unique selling point being Jean-Luc Picard’s decision to crash the saucer section of the Enterprise-E into the Scimitar, having exhausted shields, weapons and the self-destruct system. Even this, however, felt better done in Star Trek: Generations, when the separated Enterprise-D saucer slams into Veridian III.

Nemesis almost feels designed to be the culmination of every space battle Star Trek has delivered thus far in the 90’s era of the show, given they steadily built from a few skirmishes in The Next Generation to an entire war in Deep Space Nine or a horde of Borg Cubes battling bio-synthetic, inter-dimensional beings in Voyager. Everything about that ugly sword in space, the Scimitar, is a representation of how Nemesis simply relies on the dark, explosive set-piece when this crew, and these actors, are capable of so much more. Just look at that hilariously embarrassing Will Riker/Viceroy action set-piece, seemingly designed to give Jonathan Frakes one last run at Action Riker (or even something to do in a film where he’s done naff all). Apparently Riker was supposed to quip: “Don’t worry, hell is dark” before kicking the Viceroy to his death, though it was vetoed because they felt Riker would be enjoying the murder a bit too much. It’s a shame he didn’t. Some unintentional levity at this point would have been welcome.

By now though, the stakes are supposedly high. Shinzon has a WMD. He’s headed for Earth. The fleet are nowhere. The Romulans aren’t enough help. How, in the end, do you solve a problem like Shinzon?

Continue reading “Scene by Scene: STAR TREK: NEMESIS Part IX – ‘Goodbye…’”

Film, Scene by Scene, Star Trek: Nemesis

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’”