TV, Writing

First Impressions – STAR TREK: PRODIGY – ‘Lost and Found’

If you had said to a Star Trek fan three years ago that the best show of the franchise’s new era would be animated, they would probably have laughed you straight out of the airlock.

Lower Decks completely upended that perception, banishing the ghost at the feast that long was The Animated Series from the early 1970s, a kitsch and dated reworking of The Original Series. Mike McMahan’s series combined occasionally raunchy, modern adult comedy with a loving and kind reverence for 1990s era Trek that has grown in confidence, humour and stature over two seasons. It has established animation as a key string to modern Trek’s bow in a way few expected.

Star Trek: Prodigy is expressly designed to carry the torch forward and, in many respects, the pressure and expectations are different. Many fans knew what to expect from McMahan, given his comic pedigree on the TNG S8 Twitter feed and later writing experience with Rick & Morty; he was a known entity who did largely what people expected of him with Lower Decks, but brother team of writer/showrunners Kevin & Dan Hagerman are, to an extent, an unknown quantity.

On the basis of the two-part pilot, Lost and Found, they have gone straight for the comic adventure jugular, crafting an effective and beautifully animated origin story for the nascent crew of the U.S.S. Protostar.

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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 3×12: ‘Crossings’ (TV Review)

How do you follow an episode like Full Disclosure? It is hard to envy Crossings, an hour of Alias that, to some degree, is a necessary change down in gear.

Being aware that Full Disclosure was, in part, meant to span the length of the third season, Crossings could in an alternative universe ended up an early outing in a fourth season exploring the consequences of the Julia Thorne arc, yet it is forced to find a space in the wake of some monumental revelations on a personal level for Sydney, seismic Rambaldi secrets laid bare, and a major twist for one of the series’ lead characters. Josh Applebaum & Andre Nemec’s second script as writers on the show chooses to focus on the easiest of the three, and indeed by and large Alias never really gets into the fallout of the bigger two aspects of the previous episodes. Crossings is a sign of the times to come for the show.

After the events of Full Disclosure, one might suggest that Crossings refers to Sydney’s emotional state as she moves from the missing two years, and the seismic personal changes that wrought, into a new space. “I’m moving on” she tries to reassure Vaughn as they grapple with the terms and conditions of their relationship, but it’s as convincing as the idea of Alias itself truly moving on into a new space. Crossings is no metaphysical piece, no sequel to Passage on a thematic level and any kind of rite for Sydney. Crossings is rather Alias moving into a safe space, a comfort zone, and almost immediately a far less intriguing, complicated and nebulous arena. It’s not even a step back, as such. It’s a step sideways.

Season Three will get back there in much less elegant fashion than in the first half of the year, but perhaps appropriately for an episode set primarily in North Korea, Crossings is Alias walking into a dramatic no man’s land.

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Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 3×08: ‘Breaking Point’ (TV Review)

Though moving away from anything that could be described as an Alias episodic ‘formula’, Breaking Point is not just one of the best episodes of Season Three but, perhaps, of the entire series.

A natural culmination of the third season’s story arcs to date, Breaking Point is where Alias has arguably been heading for almost two seasons. Breen Frazier’s script, as the arrested Sydney is carted away as a suspected terrorist to the menacing, isolated Camp Williams, renditioned and tortured by US military forces for intelligence, is the natural extension of the first season’s episode Q&A, in which Syd was detained by the FBI (supposedly) after she was directly linked to apocalyptic quatrains in the Rambaldi manuscript. Jack said at the time that they could “conceivably hold her without trial for the rest of her life” and the same applies here. Camp Williams is not presented as the kind of detention facility people leave, or certainly leave as who they were before.

There are plenty of connections back to The Prophecy arc in the first season over the conclusion to Syd’s missing two years storyline, but one of the most interesting is how Alias approaches terrorism in this context. After spending several years operating as a post-Cold War series as America’s unipolar might is challenged by domestic insurgents and glamorous external villains, Breaking Point finishes the work began in Q&A—and continued in episodes such as Fire Bomb in the second season—in transforming Alias, born in the shadow of the attack on the Twin Towers, into a post-9/11 series. Breaking Point could be an episode of 24 or Homeland. It debuted at the height of 24’s popularity, as The Sopranos was coming to terms with the New York tragedy, as Star Trek: Enterprise was exploring the reactionary cost of American imperialism in its fictional future. Though a series built on retro, cod-1960s escapism, Alias boldly crosses a threshold in Breaking Point as it explores the reality of American political extremism in reaction to the existential fear of terrorism.

It makes for one hell of a powerful, dark and disturbing hour of Alias. This might be as grim as the series gets.

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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.
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Film, Scene by Scene, Star Trek: Nemesis

Scene by Scene: STAR TREK: NEMESIS Pt III – ‘Unsafe Velocities’

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…

It almost seemed a direct, deliberate counterpoint to the stripped back, low-fi prequel aspect to Star Trek: Enterprise, the dune buggy in Star Trek: Nemesis. Captain Jonathan Archer barely had room for a dog, let alone an indulgent race car, not to mention a personal Captain’s yacht, which we saw in previous film Star Trek: Insurrection.

Enterprise was in its second season when Nemesis premiered in cinemas and was by then flying the flag for Star Trek on television, and was in a diametric position to the crew of the Enterprise-E. If Nemesis in 2379 represented, at that point, the top end of the timeline, Enterprise was positioned over 200 years earlier at the other – the beginning. Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s two Enterprise’s were galactic, diplomatic cruise ships. Archer’s was a submarine in space. In Enterprise, androids were centuries away and Romulans were enigmatic to the point no human had ever seen their face. In Nemesis, B-4 represents how central the idea of synthetic life has become to 24th century Star Trek, a factor which will heavily influence and continue in Star Trek: Picard beyond this. This is a film which opens Romulus and it’s people up, more directly, than any Star Trek story in history.

The existence of the Argo is the most potent example of how Nemesis strives to fuse together The Next Generation-era’s futurism with the near future modern aesthetic of EnterpriseStar Trek historically replaces the motorised vehicle with the shuttle or hover vehicle, a symbol of Trek’s utopian future, but Picard seems gleeful at the opportunity to test drive a ground based car with wheels and an engine – though no doubt one powered with some kind of fossil fuel free zero point energy or such. “I will always be puzzled by the human predilection for piloting vehicles at unsafe velocities” Data remarks, an acute observation for the fact Picard has never historically appeared to be a ‘petrol-head’ interested in vehicles like this. You believed it when child Kirk stole his stepdad’s Chevy at the beginning of Star Trek 2009 for the thrills. It’s less in character for a measured Captain such as Picard.

It perhaps further establishes how Nemesis, and particularly the two films before them, provide a clear delineation between ‘TV Picard’ and ‘Movie Picard’, while at the same time nudging Star Trek—at the end of the 90’s era of the franchise—toward the retro-futurism the franchise would employ once it reboots itself.

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Film, Scene by Scene, Star Trek: Nemesis

Scene by Scene: STAR TREK: NEMESIS Pt I – ‘A Generation’s Final Journey Begins’

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…

‘A Generation’s Final Journey Begins…’

That was the uniquely ominous strap line for Star Trek: Nemesis at the end of 2002. The promise of closure. 

After fifteen years, since The Next Generation launched on television in 1987 and triggered the second era of Star Trek, the voyages to go where no one has gone before for Captain Jean-Luc Picard and the crew of the Enterprise-E (formerly D) would be coming to an end in the fourth and final film for a dynamic new crew slipping gracefully into middle age. Voyager had just ended on television after seven years but Enterprise was in its second season, and there was every indication more spin-off shows would eventually line up alongside it. To Paramount, franchise producer Rick Berman, and the cast and crew, it felt like the right time to bring the curtain down on these characters.

Many remembered how just over a decade previously, The Undiscovered Country had quite naturally retired the crew of The Original Series. It felt apt, with a group of characters born in the heart of Cold War detente and futuristic optimism, to see Kirk, Spock et al warp off into the sunset as the Soviet Union fell and the geopolitical paradigm changed. Nemesis struggles to replicate that same feeling of finished business. The Next Generation crew never entirely gelled with the cinema in the way The Original Series crew had, and arguably only First Contact stands out with time and distance as a truly great Star Trek movie. Kirk & company found each other again in middle age and discovered a creative renaissance, triggered by the success of The Wrath of Khan. Picard and his crew went immediately from the end of their series into Generations and a movie saga, stuttering across a decade in which the world changed around them.

Nemesis, released in the long shadow cast on all American storytelling by the horrific events of September 11th, 2001 in New York, as a result feels like the reluctant last gasp of Star Trek’s second era, wedged amidst the embers of Reaganism and the post-Cold War ‘End of History’ that 9/11 blew out of the water.

It feels, oddly, like a crew who aren’t quite as ready for retirement as everyone thinks.

Continue reading “Scene by Scene: STAR TREK: NEMESIS Pt I – ‘A Generation’s Final Journey Begins’”
Essays, Star Trek: Voyager, TV

We need to talk about STAR TREK: VOYAGER

So I have a confession to make about Star Trek: Voyager. I have never sat down and watched, in its entirety, the last two seasons of the show. I didn’t watch them back when they aired around 20 years ago. I haven’t watched them since. I’ve watched some, here and there, but not all.

Technically, as a result, despite being a self-professed Trekkie and fan since I was a child, I’m not a Star Trek completist. This isn’t the case with any other show, either. I’ve seen all of Enterprise, for example. I’m up to date with Discovery. So why Voyager? Those episodes have been around for decades yet I have never felt the urge to revisit them. I think it goes back to my problematic relationship with the third spin-off series to Gene Roddenberry’s initial vision, one I’ve had ever since 1995.

I’m discussing this now as Voyager is, this week, a princely quarter of a century old which a) is fantastic and b) is terrifying for someone who grew up with it. Voyager first debuted when I was 12, almost 13 years old. I had discovered Star Trek on TV probably around a year earlier, having wore out VHS copies of The Search for Spock and The Wrath of Khan while in single digits. I liked The Next Generation. I already loved Deep Space NineVoyager, therefore, I greeted with enormous excitement. This was back in the days when in the UK they would release two episodes of a season in VHS tapes for DS9 & VOY every few weeks (these would cost more than a monthly Netflix subscription does now) and I bought them religiously up until, I would say, probably about the end of Season 4. Then something happened.

Well, two things happened. Firstly, this was around 1998 and as a sixteen year old leaving school, I was beginning to discover that being a Star Trek fan openly wasn’t doing me any good if I ever wanted to cop off with a girl. Secondly, I realised that I didn’t actually like Voyager all that much, and maybe I never had. Not in comparison to DS9, which aside from The X-Files and Babylon-5 around this point was the show I had lived and breathed during the 90’s. I started to realise that, a few episodes aside, I never found Voyager at all compelling.

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Film, Reviews, X-Men

Franchise Retrospective: X2: X-MEN UNITED (2003)

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 sequel, 2003’s X2…

Though far more of a muscular and accomplished film than its predecessor, X2: X-Men United would never have worked without it.

X2 is in danger of being overlooked in our era of dominant comic-book movie franchises and behemoth superhero pictures as one of the key, formative pieces of cinema in the genre, something we must work hard to avoid. Bryan Singer’s sequel is a skilled piece of work which does precisely what a follow up is designed to do – build on the foundations of the previous film, add complications and greater depth, and provide a heightened, meaningful experience. X2 does that very successfully. It is The Empire Strikes Back to X-Men’s A New Hope. It even has strong shades come the denouement of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in how it punches you with an earned sacrifice on one hand, while promising a rebirth on the other. X2 feels like a picture that everyone involved had been constructing in their minds long before it was ever committed to celluloid.

On that basis, X2 feels on some level like the first truly meaningful X-Men movie but one that needed the prologue of the original 2000 film in order to function in the manner it does. When Singer came back to helm the sequel, he combined screenplays by David Hayter—who penned the previous movie—and Zak Penn, brewed up with rewrites from Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, in order to fuse together a film which develops many of the established character arcs from X-Men, placed the film distinctly in a post-9/11 context, and digs deep into the ideological and existential conflict between Professor X and Magneto – namely whether mutants should believe in humanity or reject and destroy them. It does this while never forgetting the human cost of being different, exploring the difficulty of living with what genetics, evolution, gives you in a less than tolerant society.

X2 does this with a poise and panache that few comic-book movies have equalled since.

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