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)”

Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 3×01: ‘The Two’ (TV Review)

In 2018, we began a deep-dive TV review series looking at J.J. Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. Over the next year, we’ll be looking at Season Three’s 22-episode run in detail…

You could make a strong argument that Alias peaked at the tail end of its second season, and from The Two onwards the journey of J. J. Abrams’ series is all downhill.

There is merit to that but it isn’t precisely fair. The Two is a solid reestablishment of Sydney Bristow as a character and the re-conceptualised series as a concept, triggering the first half of a third season which ultimately consumes itself but starts out heartily, with a fascinating new mystery surrounded by a revived and re-developed set of character dynamics. Penning this opening episode, if not directing as he did the Season Two barnstormer of a finale The Telling, Abrams sets the stall for Alias to come. This is a soft reset of the show, one designed to follow through on the structural changes established after Phase One. In previous reviews, we talked about how Alias spent the rest of the second season moulding itself around a mid-season explosion of the series’ initial idea. The Two is a response to that.

The Two could not have functioned in the manner it does if Phase One had taken place at the end of the second season, as was rumoured to initially be the plan. SD-6’s collapse would have triggered a third season which began with Arvin Sloane as the villain, and much of what happened at the end of Season Two likely would have taken place in the first half of Season Three, with one key difference: no Lena Olin, who had rejected the opportunity to reprise her role as Irina Derevko after her one season stint as a regular. Given how awkwardly Season Three has to write around Irina’s absence, try and imagine the cluster of post-Phase One, pre-The Telling episodes without Irina. They would never have worked as well as that last third of Season Two does, however fractured and galloping the storytelling might be.

Given Alias detonated Sydney’s role as a double agent halfway into the previous season in order to streamline the series, The Two has the space in many ways to do just that. It attempts to provide a rough template for the new season to follow.

Continue reading “ALIAS 3×01: ‘The Two’ (TV Review)”
Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 2×22: ‘The Telling’ (TV Review)

In 2018, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. This year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

The title of the Season Two finale of Alias is something of a coy misdirect. The Telling promises much in the way of answers to a series filled with questions and, ultimately, simply piles more questions on top of the pile.

This is, however, as it should be. Alias was built on mystery box storytelling. J.J. Abrams, who returns to write and direct this episode, the first time in that double role since the series pilot Truth Be Told (and his last as show runner of the series), constructed Alias atop a house of cards in terms of narrative enigma and steadily unfurling character dynamics which, particularly in the second half of this season, have begun to fall to pieces as the series contracted and morphed into something new. The Telling serves as the conclusion of that transitory process and the beginning of an entirely new one.

Abrams’ script and story are extremely confident in not just picking up from where Second Double left off, as all of the character and story threads across the season begin coming together, but delivering a series of conclusive beats which are incredibly rewarding as a viewer. The tantalising mystery of Sloane’s Rambaldi device and the arcane mythology behind Syd’s ultimate confrontation with Irina; the climactic revelation and supremely cathartic fight between Syd and Evil Francie as the most personal truth of the season is revealed, and finally what has to rank as one of the most stunning and brazen cliffhangers, and one of the best examples of mystery box storytelling, that genre television has ever delivered.

The Telling might not quite live up to the tease of its title. It might not lay bare all of the secrets Alias has to offer. But it does reward the audience as the capstone to a remarkably successful twenty two episodes of storytelling, given how different the show looks from where we began in The Enemy Walks In.

Continue reading “ALIAS 2×22: ‘The Telling’ (TV Review)”

Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 2×07: ‘The Counteragent’ (TV Review)

Over the course of last year, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. Over the next year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

The end of the first third of Alias’ second season roughly complements, with The Counteragent, the end of the initial establishment phase of the season. By the end of John Eisendrath’s episode, the show has fully set in place the character dynamics and narrative arcs that will carry Alias into its mid-season point of radical change.

Indeed to an extent you can view The Enemy Walks In through to The Counteragent as, largely, one continuous story. The arrival of Irina as a CIA asset leading to Jack’s illegal attempts to frame her, with Sydney caught in the middle of their parental battle to secure her affections, all flanked in the background by Sark’s ongoing villainy, doses of Rambaldi mythology, and the mystery of Sloane’s wife and the ructions that may cause in terms of SD-6 and the Alliance. All of these elements have been circling over the first seven episodes and just as Salvation begins to spin the show’s wheels, The Counteragent manages to start tying a number of these threads together and, by the end, spins them off into a fairly exciting direction.

Crucially, it brings together the two aspects which have been floating around the most aimlessly since the season premiere – Sark and Rambaldi. Sark has done little more than pop up when the show needs a bad guy, try and flirt with Sydney and… that’s about it, but here Alias finally figures out a way to tether him more concretely to the primary narrative and several other main cast members. At the same time, the episode manages to contextualise the hints of Rambaldi we have seen since The Enemy Walks In, by connecting the mysterious virus established in that episode to Vaughn, thereby giving the mythology more of a purpose than we have seen up to this point in Season Two. The Counteragent stops treating the arcane mystery like a necessary evil and reminds us how important it actually is to the broader series narrative.

The Counteragent isn’t among the best episodes of the show, and it is at times still too disparate, but it begins to provide a road map this season was starting to need.

Continue reading “ALIAS 2×07: ‘The Counteragent’ (TV Review)”
Essays, TV

WESTWORLD Season 2 does the unthinkable: evokes LOST

There is a bigger mystery out there than quite what has happened to Westworld by the end of Season 2’s powerfully complex finale The Passenger, and it’s been raging for a good ten years: why exactly is comparing a show to ABC’s legendary series Lost such a terrible thing?

At numerous points across Westworld’s second season–a season which has proved at times divisive amongst fans, audiences and critics–there are clear comparisons to Lost, even if they are–by the writers’ own admission–unconscious. One of the clearest was the opening sequence of episode four, The Riddle of the Sphinx, where we see the morning routine of the Host-loop version of James Delos, which practically screamed Desmond in the Hatch at the beginning of Lost’s Season 2 premiere Man of Science, Man of Faith.

Lisa Joy, Westworld’s co-showrunner and director of the episode, has denied the homage but it’s almost difficult to believe in how similarly structured the sequence is. The fact viewers and commentators have been calling out Lost in comparison to HBO’s hit series at various points this season surely cannot be an collective misreading of the text.

Joy and co-showrunner Jonathan Nolan have both praised Lost, most recently at a Westworld event, but described how they don’t intend their show to employ the same level of ‘mystery box’ storytelling that J.J. Abrams and his team brought to bear in that series:

Continue reading “WESTWORLD Season 2 does the unthinkable: evokes LOST”
Essays, TV

WESTWORLD: The Ongoing Struggle with Non-Linear Storytelling

People, it seems, are struggling with Westworld.

While there is some evidence to suggest a drop in viewership across Season 2 of HBO’s new televisual powerhouse, the conversation is less about the threat of Westworld coming to an end—particularly given Season 3 is already a certainty—but rather why certain people are considering checking out of Jonathan & Lisa-Joy Nolan’s magnum opus.

The main reason appears to be how Season 2 has structured its narrative, or more appropriately ‘narratives’. Season 1 of Westworld left ambiguity between time periods given the mystery of the Man in Black, allowing the audience to question at what point certain storylines involving characters in the park was taking place, but Season 2 has thrown the storytelling ball up in the air to continue the narrative in a fascinating, non-linear fashion. It’s hard to think of a TV show which has experimented so resolutely with time, where pieces fit together in a convoluted mosaic of a tale. Even Lost at its most twisty, deploying ‘snakes in the mailbox’, can’t reach Westworld Season 2 for such complicated plot entanglement.

For some, however, are the writers simply going too far?

Continue reading “WESTWORLD: The Ongoing Struggle with Non-Linear Storytelling”
Essays, TV

When did Humans become the Black Hats of Modern Fiction? WESTWORLD, THE WALKING DEAD & Encroaching Dystopia

When did we become the bad guys?

When I say we, I mean it in the Royal sense. A collective we referring to modern society. Humanity. For decades in cinema, television and half a dozen other entertainment mediums, we were the good guys. Human beings, men and women, we understood right from wrong and saved the world from monsters – demonic, alien and who knows what all. In the last few years, particularly, something has changed. Westworld is just the latest returning show in a line of hugely popular TV shows that make this very clear.
We have become the monsters we always imagined we were fighting against.

Westworld is all about the relationship between man and machine. In a near-futuristic theme park setting, where android ‘hosts’ play out narratives for human gamers (with money) so they can indulge their basest desires, the first season of Jonathan Nolan & Lisa Joy’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s original 1970’s movie was all about the confluence between machine and consciousness, tied up with the moral treatment of what are considered hardware, but steadily come to realise they are much much more.

Westworld plays out as a high-concept genre thriller in the making, with philosophical overtones, but the message within Nolan & Joy’s take on Crichton’s cautionary tale is clear: we are not the heroes of this story.

Continue reading “When did Humans become the Black Hats of Modern Fiction? WESTWORLD, THE WALKING DEAD & Encroaching Dystopia”
Essays, TV

JESSICA JONES, Marvel Malaise and the Pacing Problem

Let me tell you a story about Marvel, more specifically my relationship with the Netflix corner of the Marvel Cinematic/Television Universe. Having just digested all of the second season of Jessica Jones, the latest entry in the Marvel TV stable, it’s time we had an honest chat about these shows and how there’s a problem I just cannot get past.
Pacing.

Jessica Jones had a really impressive first season, and still could well stand as the strongest run in what, at the current count, stands as eight thirteen episode seasons that have encompassed the Netflix TV corner set in and around Hell’s Kitchen in New York City, with a ninth on its way in the next few months. Melissa Rosenberg’s adaptation of the comic Alias Jessica Jones (the Alias dropped in part to prevent confusion with ABC’s spy-fi drama of the same name) made a star of the biting and droll Krysten Ritter as Jessica, a super-powered private detective with a caustic attitude and few social skills, and told a quite violent, harrowing and dramatic story all about an abusive, controlling relationship & the psychological scars of rape. It was, on the whole, pretty superb television.

The second season was always going to have a difficult job living up to the story of Jessica’s mental and physical battle against the mind-controlling monster Kilgrave (played with sadistic relish by David Tennant), and never quite manages to match it for raw, heartbreaking power, but Rosenberg successfully does manage to craft a tale which naturally follows up on Jessica’s determined destruction of a man who corrupted, abused and violated her; a tale in which Jessica faces her own origin story, in a sense, and reunites with the mother she believed long dead, who turns out to be a darker and even more troubled reflection of herself.

Thematically, Jessica Jones remains about abuse, abusers and the search for ‘normal’ in a world filled with fractured families and controlling parents, siblings and lovers.

Continue reading “JESSICA JONES, Marvel Malaise and the Pacing Problem”
Essays, Film

Christopher Nolan, DUNKIRK and his Cinematic Ideology

Across the last week, since the release of his latest movie Dunkirk, much has been written about Christopher Nolan, as always happens whenever he puts a picture out. Nolan may be the most divisive mainstream, heavyweight filmmaker working in cinema today. Some believe he’s a genius. Some believe he’s Stanley Kubrick reborn. Some even believe he’s a rampant Conservative and his films are nothing more than ‘Tory Porn’.

You would do well, incidentally, to read the writing of my friend and super-talented pop culture writer Darren Mooney on Nolan recently, as its insightful, filled with wisdom and there’s every chance he’s not done on the subject yet, simply because the gaggle of voices weighing in on Nolan once again has reached fever pitch. Is Dunkirk a masterpiece? Or is it yet another piece of super-overrated cinema from a filmmaker who can’t see past his own delusions of grandeur? For me, it’s the former, but this is coming from someone who has always considered Nolan to be, if not the greatest living cinematic auteur, then at least among the top five.

Dark Knight Rises

What interests me is the accusation he is a Conservative filmmaker when a titanic weight of evidence suggests quite the opposite. Do read the above linked article with the accusation, much as partly I’m loathe to link to it – despite having been written by someone very pleased with their prose, someone with visible disdain for modern film criticism and a level of bitterness toward politics in general, it nonetheless outlines an argument with a level of brevity.

Frankly it’s not a piece worth dwelling on and picking apart because some of the arguments are lunacy, but what it does is raise an interesting question: just where does Nolan, and his films, stand on the political spectrum?

Continue reading “Christopher Nolan, DUNKIRK and his Cinematic Ideology”