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.

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Star Trek: Lower Decks, TV, Writing

First Impressions: STAR TREK: LOWER DECKS – ‘Second Contact’

As Star Trek: Lower Decks finally premieres in the UK on Amazon Prime Video, A. J. Black takes a look at the first animated Star Trek series in almost half a century…

Ever since the end of The Animated Series in 1974, Star Trek’s only previous foray into the sphere of animation, the franchise has toyed with another ‘cartoon’ version of the series, but has perhaps steered clear by dint of being defined as such. Star Trek: Lower Decks is not easily characterised, simply, as a cartoon.

Lower Decks, created by Mike McMahan, exists thanks to the proliferation over the last twenty-five years or more of adult-centred animated television series. McMahan himself wrote a chunk of Rick & Morty, the good natured, wacky Netflix animated series—Back to the Future on acid, basically—and that itself arrives in the slipstream of the even more renowned series—South Park, Family Guy etc—that took the nominal concept of animation as kids territory, cartoons established decades past with Tom & Jerry through to Wacky Races and The Flintstones, and deliberately tailored them for older audiences. Cinema has proven adults respond just as well, if not even better, to intelligent animation as children do, with the Pixar stable lighting up the box office while cementing themselves in the minds of ages the world over, as have to a lesser degree Japan’s Studio Ghibli.

McMahan’s series—certainly on the evidence of the pilot episode Second Contact—lacks the whimsy of Ghibli, and certainly the cosiness of Pixar, but rather contains the self-effacing, self-knowing confidence of a Bojack Horseman. Lower Decks seems to understand the position it holds in relation to the broader Star Trek universe and the world of animation itself and, consequently, does not try and reinvent the wheel. It is, in many ways, exactly the kind of show you probably thought it would be, based on McMahan’s previous work, based on the promotional material and trailers, and based on what those involved have been talking up for a solid year. The only surprise in Second Contact is how unsurprising it actually is.

This isn’t meant as a slight, either. Lower Decks is huge fun. It just isn’t, at least yet, anything more.
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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.
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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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