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: Picard, Writing

Book Review: STAR TREK: PICARD – ‘The Dark Veil’ (James Swallow)

All things being equal, the second season of Star Trek: Picard would likely have been airing at the start of 2021, allowing the second tie-in novel The Dark Veil to align with its parent show.

Luckily, James Swallow’s tale does not rely too heavily on the established canon and continuity of Picard’s current events and has the providence to prop itself up as what is fast becoming a ‘classic’ Star Trek story. Classic, in terms of this franchise, used to refer to the colourful kitsch of the 1960s Original Series but it now encompasses an era Swallow has straddled, both as a tie-in novelist and story contributor to Star Trek: Voyager – the 1990s. Perhaps the ‘Golden Age’ of Star Trek, this era did not just birth Picard’s originator, The Next Generation, but a style of storytelling the modern age of Star Trek has increasingly moved away from. 

The Dark Veil, in that context, is comforting and reassuring. It feels a reminder of what Star Trek is capable of and, honestly, what the modern example of it on television is steering away from.
Continue reading “Book Review: STAR TREK: PICARD – ‘The Dark Veil’ (James Swallow)”

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, 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?”

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 Part IX – ‘Goodbye…’

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 Pt VIII – ‘Waiting for the Dawn’

It is at this point in Star Trek: Nemesis, as the final act and the final intended showdown with Shinzon begins, that any logical sense of narrative structure begins to collapse in on itself at a thalaron radiation level rate. We learn what has been hinted earlier in the film: Shinzon is dying.

Though John Logan’s script works hard to try and compare him to Khan Noonien Singh, as we’ve previously discussed, he owes perhaps more of a debt to Renard, the James Bond villain from The World is Not Enough played by Robert Carlyle. Struggling to remember him? That’s unsurprising. Ultimately, the bullet in his head that was slowly killing him is probably the most memorable aspect of the character, even with an actor as strong as Carlyle in the role. His entire rationale is fuelled by the reality he won’t be around to see the fruits of his terrorist actions. Shinzon is the same. Yet the difference is that Shinzon has the cure directly within his grasp.

When Jean-Luc Picard asks if his warped clone can be saved, Enterprise doctor Beverly Crusher informs him: “Nothing except a complete transfusion from the only donor with compatible DNA… you”. Picard then asserts that Shinzon will come for him, except… didn’t he just escape from Shinzon’s custody, having been very easily beamed off his own ship? Shinzon has always known he was dying, this isn’t news. Beverly concludes, after all: “Shinzon was created with temporal RNA sequencing. He was designed so that at a certain point, his aging process could be accelerated to reach your age more quickly. He was going to need to skip thirty years of his life, but when the temporal sequencing wasn’t activated his cellular structure started breaking down”. This is a neat science-fiction concept—a cloned spy who will rapidly age when triggered—which is utterly wasted as the explanation for Shinzon’s slow death. But if he knew, why not just drain Picard of his entire blood the moment he beamed him onto the Scimitar?

It makes little sense, purely designed to establish the conditions for what will make up the final act. Nemesis might have done well to not have Shinzon be dying at all because all it does is show up how cripplingly incompetent he is. Continue reading “Scene by Scene: STAR TREK: NEMESIS Pt VIII – ‘Waiting for the Dawn’”

Film, Writing

Scene by Scene: STAR TREK: NEMESIS Pt VII – ‘The Echo Over the Voice’

The final few scenes of, roughly, the second and middle act of Star Trek: Nemesis underpin many of the issues about Stuart Baird’s film that we have already discussed, chiefly the tortured parallel between hero and villain.

Jean-Luc Picard, abducted by Shinzon and thrown in the brig of his gigantic warship the Scimitar, has the truthful showdown they danced around while speaking in the Romulan Senate. If that was Shinzon play-acting the diplomatic new leader, this is the outcast, spiteful clone child who never grew up in the bowels of his oversized toy, spitting venom at the man who encapsulates everything Shinzon is aggrieved by. And this conversation really does spell out that psychology: Shinzon hates what he is, and hates that he didn’t have the easier, more prosperous and respected life Picard had. All of Picard’s innate ego as a leader morphed and twisted into a nightmarish visage. “My life is meaningless as long as you’re still alive. What am I while you exist? A shadow? An echo?”. Nemesis is all about the darker id of our hero trying to assert itself.

Were we dealing with more of a skilled script that truly understood the film being made, we could suggest this is why Picard reacts so poorly to the violation of Deanna Troi, as discussed previously – a violation, indeed, that serves little purpose as B-4 contains the transponder needed to execute Shinzon’s plan, so mind-raping the Counselor just appears to be ‘sport’ for the villain, if it wasn’t distasteful a narrative choice enough. One could argue that Nemesis is attempting to literalise Picard’s internal darkness through Shinzon, a darkness we glimpsed in First Contact during his obsessive pursuit of the Borg (which Shinzon even alludes to here), but this would be giving the film too much psychological credit. John Logan is certainly shooting for those Jungian comparisons but you never truly feel, in any way, that Shinzon is some kind of Picard offshoot, except for the fact both men are folically challenged.

The fact is, Nemesis has already spent over half of the running time playing with a relationship that was clearly antagonistic from the very beginning, and now as those dominoes begin to fall, the emptiness of the film begins to show itself.

Continue reading “Scene by Scene: STAR TREK: NEMESIS Pt VII – ‘The Echo Over the Voice’”

Film

Scene by Scene: STAR TREK: NEMESIS Pt VI – ‘A Violation’

One of the criticisms of the recent revival series, Star Trek: Picard, is that Jean-Luc is not acting at points in the manner one would expect from Starfleet’s most reasoned, compassionate Captain. While there may be some truth to this in places, the new series contains nothing as egregiously out of character as we see in Star Trek: Nemesis.

I’m referring, of course, to Picard’s insistence that his trusted Counselor, Deanna Troi, in the wake of a particularly traumatic sexual assault committed on her by villain Shinzon—via the mind powers of his Viceroy—through powerful telepathy, allow herself to go through the ordeal again as part of the bigger picture. The ship’s doctor, Beverly Crusher, is strangely dismissive for starters. “Aside from slightly elevated levels of adrenalin and serotonin, you’re completely normal”. When Deanna, understandably shaken and rocked by what she’s experienced, requests to be relieved of duty, Picard does not just deny it but doubles down. “If you can endure more of these assaults, I need you at my side now, more than ever”.

Yes, you read that right. The hero of Star Trek: The Next Generation actually asks Deanna Troi to let herself be raped, again, in order to try and deal with Shinzon, his only reasoning seemingly being that they are “far from Federation space”.

This goes beyond a mere mishandling of character. Troi describes her assault as “a violation” but Picard’s response is without doubt a violation of everything we know about this man. Granted, he always traditionally struggled with inter-personal relationships across the run of TNG, but Movie Picard—a distinction we have discussed—is markedly more open and relaxed around his crew. Nemesis presents him as anxious about their departure, about the immediacy of changes to the “family” he discussed in the wedding speech at the beginning of the film. So would he really, at this point in his life and career, ask a dear friend—someone who counselled him through his own violating trauma after assimilation by the Borg, and someone he has just helped marry—to open herself up to a deep psychological and sexual assault after having just experienced one?

The answer is, of course, no. It is without doubt the most unpalatable and insensitive aspect of Nemesis as a film, which here uses serious sexual assault as a stepping stone of narrative in a troubling and even flippant way. Continue reading “Scene by Scene: STAR TREK: NEMESIS Pt VI – ‘A Violation’”

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’”