Archive for August, 2023

Trekaday #103: Live Fast and Prosper, Muse, Fury, Life Line, The Haunting of Deck Twelve, Unimatrix Zero

Posted on August 26th, 2023 in Culture | No Comments »

VOY S06E21 Live Fast and Prosper (3.5 out of 5 stars). Not for the first time (Living Witness) we open with an ersatz version of Voyager and its crew. Delta Quadrant long con merchants passing themselves off as Starfleet’s finest is a delicious idea, and to add to the fun, the ship is falling apart (something I consistently wish there was more of). The bridge officers are more concerned with persecuting Tuvok, which is a curious response to the imminent failure of their irreplaceable life-pod. Alas Kaitlin Hopkins and Gregg Daniel, while passably amusing while impersonating Janeway and Tuvok, don’t have the kind of megawatt charisma that the parts really demand, and the shipwide failures are only a plot device to allow Voyager to track down the identity thieves, and the original scam is very thin which makes Paris and Neelix look even more useless than usual (as does their feeble attempt to scam the Doctor). The resolution, in which Voyager successfully turns the tables, is rather more enjoyable.

VOY S06E22 Muse (2 out of 5 stars). After attempts to sully Voyager’s reputation by con artists last week, in the very next episode we have the series turned into mythic theatre on an alien planet. I’ve said before that I’m impressed by Voyager’s commitment to crazy high concepts, but (rather like the message of The Incredibles) if every episode is out of the ordinary, then that becomes ordinary. The origins of this passion play turn out to be a crash-landed B’Elanna Torres who has better things to do than be muse to an itinerant playwright. Despite all the mordant misery onboard the ship, as they continue the search, there’s precious little tension since we know she’s alive and well. The script is more interested in the trivial details of the fictitious version of the story, but I couldn’t really see the point in any of this. Harry Kim is missing too, but screw that guy.

VOY S06E23 Fury (2.5 out of 5 stars). Tuvok is back to being Janeway’s bestie, and she can’t wait to play a birthday prank on him. I continue to appreciate Tim Russ’s performance and continue to despair that he’s never given anything interesting to do. But the big news is that Kes is back – emaciated and on a collision course with Voyager. The shot of her balefully stalking the corridors as the bulkheads rupture behind her is quite striking (if clearly pushing the limits of what’s possible with a TV budget in the year 2000). Having killed Torres, she (sigh) translates herself back in time to Season 1, before the Chief Engineer got her perm and while the Doctor was still trying to give himself a name – but why is Tuvok referring to the Delta Flyer? (Don’t worry, we never get a real answer to that question.)

Jennifer Lien has great fun playing vengeful monster Kes, and subtly differentiating Kes from the future and original Season 1 Kes. But running in to her again makes the Gamma Quadrant seem very small and requires us (not for the first time) to just ignore all those big jumps we took over the preceding episodes. The bigger problem is that the script never finds anything interesting to do with either evil Kes’s trip to the past or past Tuvok’s visions of the future.

VOY S06E24 Life Line (4.5 out of 5 stars). Another Barclay/Alpha Quadrant story, this time pairing him with the real-life fully human Dr Zimmerman, who is suffering from a terminal illness which even he can’t cure. Thanks to Barclay’s efforts, Voyager is now getting monthly messages from home – which don’t appear to include lists of all the people who died in the Dominion War. The Doctor’s plan is to have his program sent to the Alpha Quadrant in lieu of the replies Janeway is collecting from the crew. Once again, his code mysteriously can’t be backed up or copied (except his singing algorithms). Not for the first time then, we have a double dose of Picardo, with usually strong effects work (but in a couple of shots, the eye-lines seem off). We also get Deanna Troi back for a return visit (with a few of those Greek East End vowels creeping in due to lack of practice). A riff on ‘The Three Doctors’ or ‘Me2’ from Red Dwarf, this mirror version of opposites attract (identities repel?) is masses of fun, and even manages to find some depth of feeling in the character of Haley and Zimmerman’s assessment of the EMH’s personality flaws (and by proxy his own). Sure, this is a familiar theme – where do we find personhood? – but it’s freshened up enough to make a compelling hour of TV. Robert Picardo himself had a hand in the script.

VOY S06E25 The Haunting of Deck Twelve (3.5 out of 5 stars). The history of Star Trek is not exactly awash with strong examples of ghost stories. Catspaw, Sub Rosa and Darkling are not among my favourites, so when Paris and Kim start seeing gothic shapes in a nebula, my heart sinks a little. Powering down the ship is a stronger sequence, bringing back fonder memories of shows like One, but it’s not quite clear why they’re doing this (or why nobody thought to brief the Borgettes about it first). The rest of the episode is the explanation from Neelix to the kids, in the form of a long story about an earlier crisis – so this is essentially: what would Voyager be like if Neelix was writing it? But the framing sequence, while allowing the director to cut away from anything too expensive, lowers the stakes on the story without adding much – although it’s always a pleasure to see don’t-mess-with-me-Janeway in action. One of those screw-up ensigns from a few weeks ago is back, and it’s nice that the ship is starting to feel a little more like it has 120-odd people onboard and less like seven or eight who do all the work.

VOY S06E26 Unimatrix Zero, Part I (3.5 out of 5 stars). Borgarama! Susannah Thompson is back as the Borg Queen with another, even more elaborate, version of her iconic First Contact entrance. She is trying to eradicate a mutation within the Borg ranks and meanwhile, Seven has had her first dream while regenerating in her alcove – she didn’t like it. But her dream turns out to be somewhere called Unimatrix Zero, which unites all the mutants – and Seven is their means of connection to the real world, and the eradication of the Borg. The other inhabitants are a blandly agreeable male with a very generic bumpy forehead (who turns out to be Seven’s boyfriend), a belligerent but oddly risk-averse Klingon, and others that Seven used to know when she was a part of the Collective.

There’s a good scene here for Tuvok who’s responsible for setting up what the Doctor acidly calls a conference call, in other words a two-way mind-meld which will give Janeway access to the Unimatrix dreamscape which Seven – sorry Annika – visits when she regenerates. Cutting back to the Borg Queen helps to keep the stakes high, even more so when drones loyal to the Queen break into Borg paradise. But again Susannah Thompson doesn’t have the extra fizz and crackle which both her predecessor and successor brought to the role. Hilariously, when one of the drone invaders get the better of the hulking Klingon, Janeway herself seizes the bat’leth and sends him packing.

Janeway’s insistence on going alone to sabotage the Collective is the source of some friction, which is a welcome touch of character dynamics in a show that’s lately been doing its best episode despite those rather than because of them. Because this is late-period Voyager at its most pure – Janeway and Seven vs the Borg to the exclusion of almost all else. Ultimately, B’Elanna and Tuvok go with her, and with the Queen singling out Harry for special attention, everyone gets something, but it’s never in doubt where the spotlight is, something which is made even more clear by the final startling shot of a Borgified Janeway. This doesn’t have anything like the shock value of the end of The Best of Both Worlds, but it’s a very striking image, if undermined a little by the sense that this might have been all part of the plan, rather than a terrible failure.

Janeway’s signature move is being a complete dick to someone before giving them a gift. She did it to Tuvok in Fury, and now she’s got a surprise Lieutenant’s pip for Paris (not you, Harry Kim).

VOY S07E01 Unimatrix Zero, Part II (4 out of 5 stars).  Although it is not immediately explained how, Borg Torres and Borg Tuvok both seem to have retained their individuality and are continuing to execute the plan. Part of the problem with continuing to revisit the Borg and have characters take greater and greater risks is that the stakes inevitably collapse a little. What was once seen as irreversible life altering invasive surgery, is now shrugged off like a bad cold, and characters return from being Borgified without even needing an episode in rural France to get over it. Having Seven blunder into her bland friends’ trap weakens her character to no particular purpose, although Jeri Ryan plays the moment beautifully. The plan also requires the Borg Queen to really take her eye off the ball. Far from being present to gloat as the Voyager intruders are assimilated, she doesn’t even notice they are not in the collective until Tuvok is briefly heard and then vanishes.

Making Tuvok the weak link is unexpected but succeeds well to throwing a useful spanner in the works. A brief scene between acting Captain Chakotay and acting first office Tom Paris is nice but recalls a similar scene between Data and Worf in Gambit Part II, which hit so much harder because those characters were so much deeper. Here if you reverse their concerns, the scene works just as well which reveals how little we know about these two even after six years and nearly 150 episodes.

The big showdown between Captain and Queen is the heart of this episode and both actors are equal to the challenge. The same can’t be said for Seven’s love story. So often these plotlines are the weakest elements of Star Trek episodes and so it is here. Mark Deakins brings nothing as Axum and as good as she is, Jeri Ryan can’t create chemistry on her own.

Last week, a big deal was made of the fact that while visiting Una matrix seven never entered rem sleep. This time when she enters zero, we get a big close-up of her eye rapidly moving under her close eyelid.

Season 6 wrap-up

  • Season 6 sees the show settle into an easy groove. It knows what works – Seven, Janeway, the Doctor. It knows the kinds of stories it wants to tell – high concept cover-of-a-comic-book teasers which become procedural problem-solving adventures and end with everyone laughing and smiling. Listen, what’s wrong with that – it kind of defined The Original Series.
  • But we’re three spin-offs and thirty years out from Kirk and Spock, and that show was able to give us real pain as well as innovating fantastic concepts which would influence writers for years to come. What’s Voyager’s biggest conceptual legacy? Sexy Borg babes I suppose.
  • So it’s not that these episodes are dull, or incompetent or misconceived (I mean some are all of those things, but no more than in any other season of this franchise) it’s that the spirit of adventure has gone. There are no strange new worlds to explore.
  • Highlights include the amazing showcase for Roxann Dawson Barge of the Dead, the fun of The Voyager Conspiracy, and return visits for Zimmerman, Barclay and Troi. But we also had to suffer two separate visits to Fair Haven as well as tedious instalments like Alice, Dragon’s Teeth or Muse. Average score for Season 6 is 3.12, continuing the slow decline since the height of Season 4.

Trekaday #102: Memorial, Tsunkatse, Collective, Spirit Folk, Ashes to Ashes, Child’s Play, Good Shepherd

Posted on August 19th, 2023 in Culture | No Comments »

VOY S06E14 Memorial (4 out of 5 stars). Harry Kim is bitching about his shipmates’ domestic habits. Since he has no known personality traits, except “is young”, why not cast him as the parent to Paris, Chakotay and Neelix, the better to further muddle his characterisation? When arrive back on Voyager, Torres has created an antique television set as a gift for her boyfriend. She even does the hoary old “I’ll say something shocking to demonstrate you aren’t listening” but. The reassuring jollity of these early scenes makes a nonsense of the “trapped on the other side of the galaxy with no hope of rescue” premise, but I suppose I should be over that by now. It’s just so insistent here, that I find it more than usually maddening.

It’s the television set which initially seems to be the plot engine of the episode, since it appears to have the power to transport Paris into the old war movies it shows, and pretty soon other members of the crew are succumbing to dreams/memories/hallucinations of combat atrocities. So this is pretty familiar stuff – mainly “uh-oh something on the ship is sending everyone bonkers” mixed in with “I’ve always been fascinated by twentieth century Earth history”. But the suppressed memories of war crimes have a little more weight than usual, and if the insight that “war is hell” is scarcely new (not even to Star Trek) then at least it gives the cast a chance to flex their acting muscles a bit – Paris’s big breakdown is very impressive and Roxann Dawson wisely plays a calm compassionate contrast to his garment-rending hysteria.

Sadly, the solution is another riff on The Inner Light (evoked only a couple of episodes ago) and so the cast has just been experiencing second-hand memories which have nothing to do with who they are – even though several of them have lived through wars – making this a puzzle to be solved rather than a moral choice for the characters (at least not until the very end). But the journey is more worthwhile than usual, with Robert Duncan McNeill’s big scene and a less hysterical but even more effective Neelix/Seven scene notching this up to four.

VOY S06E15 Tsunkatse (1.5 out of 5 stars). In a gladiatorial arena, a lycra-clad Zagbar is athletically kicking hell out of a similarly-attired Zooble, with Chakotay and Torres merrily applauding the victor. Before the titles, this is played as “what the hell is going on here!?” But after the titles, it’s played as “of course enlightened Federation officers will enjoy recreational bare knuckle boxing if they have nothing else to do”. Discussion of this makes up much of rather a formless and dull first act which also has time for Neelix’s sunburn, Seven’s packing habits vs those of B’Elanna Torres and whether or not a given silence might be described as “awkward”.

This last exchange is between Seven and Tuvok, two characters whose lineage goes all the way back to Gene Roddenberry’s idea for Number One in the original pilot. Tuvok’s character development stalled somewhere in Season 2 and poor Tim Russ has been reduced almost entirely to trotting out his Leonard Nimoy impersonation at the rate of three lines of dialogue per episode. Seven, having assimilated fully into the Voyager crew has recently only been called upon to summon superior officers to the astrometrics lab without explanation. Putting these two in a shuttle together isn’t a bad idea, as they could each use the story space, and as they are so similar in many ways, this might force the writing staff to focus on their differences.

But despite the presence of JG Hertzler and Jeffrey Combs, this is not Deep Space Nine, and the purpose of the expedition is not to give two characters time to talk during a long journey, it’s to re-enact Spartacus/Ben-Hur/Gladiator (you know like Kirk and the Gorn) with friends forced to fight each other to the death (you know like Kirk and Spock). Tuvok is just along for the ride as it’s her Hirogen trainer that Seven is forced to face in the arena. The whole thing is all pretty by-the-numbers, and was apparently devised to cross-promote a UPN wrestling show.

VOY S06E16 Collective (3 out of 5 stars). How about this for a very TNG-flavoured teaser? A poker game interrupted by the arrival of a Borg cube. In minutes, the Delta Flyer is taken onboard the vessel and Paris, Kim, Chakotay and Neelix are in for a Very Bad Time. But when Voyager catches up, the Borg want to swap their prisoners for Voyager’s main deflector. I’m not one for poring over made-up schematics and I don’t care one jot which room is meant to be on which deck, but I do note that something called a “deflector”, which is presumably meant to deflect things, is going to be used by the Borg as a radio antenna, and its purpose on Voyager is to help get us to warp speed. Huh…?

Seven pays a visit to obtain proof of life and finds more messed up humanoids of various ages (including a rather upsetting Borg foetus). These are immature Borg drones who haven’t had long enough in their maturation chambers, and these five individuals, cut off from the collective, are all that are left on this cube. All of this talk of immature Borg I think is meant to be grisly David Cronenberg-esque body horror, but it comes off as a university drama group cos-playing rather than a new insight into what it’s like to be Borg. We end up with four Borg kids on Voyager which is an unexpected, if not exactly unprecedented, development. Surely they won’t vanish into the background the way that the Equinox lot did.

VOY S06E17 Spirit Folk (1 out of 5 stars). Among the things I don’t enjoy about Voyager, some include: the crew treating being stranded halfway across the galaxy as a pleasure cruise, shenanigans on the Holodeck in the place of an exciting plot, Tom Paris’s obsession with cars, stories involving fairies or magic, everything about the recent episode Fair Haven. So in this episode, Tom Paris goes for a relaxing drive in the Holodeck fantasy town of Fair Heaven and is mistaken for a fairy.

VOY S06E18 Ashes to Ashes (3.5 out of 5 stars). Action! Adventure! Alien chick spouting gibberish whose ship is under attack! For once, we get a tangible sense that the Gamma Quadrant is a dangerous and unpredictable place for our people to be, and not three weeks in the Azores with twice-nightly cabaret. Also – hey! Those Borg kids are still on board. I genuinely didn’t expect to ever see them again, and it’s incredibly encouraging to see them, especially as none of them strike me as overly moppetty.

The alien chick claims to be the late Ensign Lindsay Ballard, a member of Voyager’s crew who died during an earlier (off-screen) mission. With plenty of episodes having included the deaths of various crewmembers, it’s odd that none of them was chosen for a return visit – especially in the same instalment which remembers the Borg Brood from two weeks ago. On the other hand, I always like it when characters reel off a list of all the things which might solve the mystery, but don’t this time. Kim Rhodes is very appealing in the part, and there’s some welcome specificity in the script, but the it’s hard to believe that this will end with Ballard returning to her duties. If anything, I’m more interested in the other new arrivals, under the stern but benevolent gaze of Seven of Nine, who lets them know that playtime has begun by commanding “fun will now commence”.

Kim’s new personality trait of “is tidy” seems to be here to stay, regardless of how little sense it makes of what little else we know about him.

VOY S06E19 Child’s Play (4 out of 5 stars). The progression of Voyager away from barely-lashed together lifeboat to luxurious pleasure cruise is essentially complete now, with the Borg children participating in Voyager’s first annual science fair. However, while the writing staff has remembered that the Borg children exist, we last saw them as stubborn, wilful and refusing to submit to Seven’s authority. A week later, they are docile, obedient and studious – and in the case of the eldest about to be reunited with long-lost family, as improbable as that sounds. Rather sweetly, Seven can’t bring herself to bring up the subject with the spiky young man, and she goes full bear-mama when she doesn’t think his biological parents are good enough for him. This issue of biology vs upbringing has come up before, and it’s great to see it used as fodder for another of these Janeway/Seven slanging matches which are always such fun – and we really probe Seven’s make-up here in a very exciting way. That’s Mark Sheppard as Icheb’s dad – basically science fiction royalty as he’s had roles in The X Files, Sliders, Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, Supernatural and many others.

VOY S06E20 Good Shepherd (3.5 out of 5 stars). Seven of Nine has been doing a time-and-motion study onboard Voyager (which barely scrapes a passing grade). A feckless Ensign has to walk a PADD with some specifications or other to Torres (presumably the WiFi is playing up). Via the medium of this device passing from hand to hand we meet our guest crew members for tonight – Mortimer Harren, William Telfer and Tal Celes – who are all falling short and who are punished by having to endure a team building session with Janeway. Having to build the narrative around who these screwups are means that they have a little more dimension that almost anyone else onboard, which makes this a touch richer than usual, but massively shows up the regular cast, even given that none of these three is another Spock, Picard, Garak or for that matter Seven. This character development then comes to a sudden halt as the episode gets wrapped up in thirty seconds flat with no follow up for any of the three misfits. Bajorans put the family name first, but Tal Celes is mysteriously referred to as “Celes” throughout the episode.

Trekaday #101: One Small Step, The Voyager Conspiracy, Pathfinder, Fair Haven, Blink of an Eye, Virtuoso

Posted on August 12th, 2023 in Culture | No Comments »

VOY S06E08 One Small Step (4 out of 5 stars). Space travel is nothing if not complex, whether you’re a NASA Mars astronaut in 2032 or you’re just trying to answer the doorbell in the Delta Quadrant. In Chakotay’s case, this is due to an impulsive Seven rewiring the ship on a whim. In Lt John Kelly’s case, it’s due to a yellow swirly thing (not a solar flare) which dumps his craft in the Delta Quadrant, and much else besides. Voyager’s crew is eager to examine the contents of this intergalactic trawler net, and also eager to spend many excitement-free minutes discussing the virtues of exploration and sharing childhood ambitions – Jeri Ryan’s admission that pre-assimilation she wanted to be a ballerina might be the best single line-reading this season.

Chakotay, who this week is mad-keen on either palaeontology or archaeology, it scarcely matters, risks the Delta Flyer and the lives of Seven, Paris and himself in his lunatic zeal to obtain this ancient hunk of space junk. When they end up trapped, Seven understandably rips him a new one, which is almost enough to prevent me from noticing that this obsessive Indiana Jones figure is almost completely unlike the blandly easygoing peacemaker who usually wears that costume.

Their way out is to salvage parts from the command module, and Seven’s virtual trip into the past via Kelly’s log entries is oddly affecting, largely thanks to Jeri Ryan’s expert playing – but this is all too low-key and uneventful to be anything like a classic and we’ve arrived at the stage where regular characters suddenly sprout new traits at random to make the plots work, which isn’t good news. But it’s hard to ignore the depth of feeling for Kelly’s plight and for space pioneers in general, so this gets a grudging four stars from me, despite the issues with pacing and characterisation.

Yet again, Voyager’s straight line from an arbitrary point on the other side of the galaxy to home intersects with a trinket from Earth. And weirdly, it’s never even suggested that this thing which scooped up a NASA module and dumped it in the Delta Quadrant might be capable of whisking Voyager back to the Alpha Quadrant.

VOY S06E09 The Voyager Conspiracy (3 out of 5 stars). Chakotay, with or without extra bolt-on personality subroutine, seems to have been upgraded to Janeway’s Best Friend, supplanting poor old Tuvok, Janeway’s oldest friend among those on board. While they eat dinner, Seven is mainlining past episodes of Voyager straight into her brain, and has determined that the sensor grids caught “photonic fleas” at some point in the past. And at the same time, wouldn’t you know it, a fishfaced alien is developing a faster-than-warp catapult drive and needs a hand with it. But Seven’s new blipvert intelligence tells her that the catapult is Caretaker-style technology and she’s suspicious of his motives – and the Captain’s. The trouble is, I’m not and so the question is not “what was really going on in the pilot?” it’s “what’s up with Seven and when will it get fixed?” – which is less interesting, especially when Seven’s unlikely stories become flatly contradictory. Chakotay brings Torres in on his suspicions, but keeps Harry Kim in the dark. Poor Harry Kim.

VOY S06E10 Pathfinder. 3.5 out of 5 stars Given the set-up of a Federation ship lost on the other side of the galaxy and a writing staff that likes playing games with form and structure, I suppose it was inevitable that we’d eventually see Voyager’s dilemma from the point of view of the Alpha quadrant. That hindsight obviousness doesn’t make this any less welcome, however, and it’s delightful to open with Reg Barclay and Deanna Troi – in the new uniforms.

Hyper-focused Reg is spending every waking, and some sleeping, hours working out how to contact Voyager. Barclay being Barclay, he’s created a Holodeck version of the ship, with ex-Maquis officers out of uniform, Janeway with her bun, and where he’s the most popular member of the crew. So this is somewhat of a rerun of earlier TNG wish-fulfilment episodes (this-is-the-story-we-tell-with-this-character), but the mash-up of TNG guest star and the fun-house version of Voyager feels a little fresher.

But Barclay’s relapse into Holo-addiction and Starfleet command gumming up the works feels like fake jeopardy. The Federation of TNG was far more open and compassionate than this, and wouldn’t stand in a talented officer’s way because of an eccentric communications style. So the story only works if you’re willing to accept that the Federation are dummies, which I’m not. Nice to see Reg, though.

One of various episodes where we never (or hardly ever) see the actual regulars, only their Holodeck recreations (or Demon-planet goo versions, or historical simulations etc.).

Reg’s cat is called Neelix which seems like a missed opportunity. Mewlix. Voyage-paw. Kat-thryn Janeway. Seven of Nine Lives. Catchokay. Purr-Lanna Torres. C’mon, people.

VOY S06E11 Fair Haven (1.5 out of 5 stars). Yet more Holodeck hijinks bringing back unwelcome memories of both Sub Rosa and Up the Long Ladder as Tom Paris and friends swaps unconvincing Celtic clichés with the imaginary inhabitants of this St Patrick’s day hate crime. Robert Picardo elevates the thin material in his baffling but amusing guise as the local priest. Meanwhile, in space, the ship has to “weigh anchor” and ride out a technobabble. Suddenly, Paris’s parade of leprechauns and Guinness becomes everyone’s favourite off-duty destination. You know, because if your ship was being battered by an unpredictable wavefront, you’d obviously want as many key personnel as possible to be distracted by playing make-believe. To make matters worse, Janeway falls for one of these computer sprites, which turns our capable captain into a lovesick girl to no particular advantage, especially now they’re in contact with the Alpha Quadrant where her husband is waiting for her. Neelix appears not to know the difference between black pudding and haggis.

VOY S06E12 Blink of an Eye (4 out of 5 stars). Voyager encounters a nifty-looking space doughnut which nobbles all of their propulsion systems and pretty soon they light up the night sky which the doughnut dwellers take as the arrival of a new god. Adding to the fun, time is passing much faster on the planet below, which means Voyager’s presence may influence generations. This is another trademark Brannon Braga big swing (although he doesn’t get a writing credit) with echoes of TNG stories like Thine Own Self, Who Watches the Watchers or even The Inner Light (not to mention the nearly identically-named TOS episode Wink of an Eye). Initially, the premise promises more than it delivers as the details of the development of the beliefs of the doughnuteers is woolly and patronising, and the rapid turnover means it’s hard to get to know anyone. Things become more interesting when they send down the Doctor and can’t get him back, and far more interesting when first contact is made and we get to spend more than a single scene with any one guest star (the excellent Daniel Dae Kim) – although it’s at this point that the writers start getting confused about the rules they’ve made up. I continue to be impressed by this production team’s enthusiasm for finding yet more and more novel ways of telling stories, but the execution isn’t always up to the concepts, and this is a fascinating near miss not an unassailable slam-dunk.

VOY S06E13 Virtuoso (2 out of 5 stars). Voyager’s latest guests are sneering at the Federation tech in general and the Doctor in particular – until he starts singing to himself, whereupon they all lose their minds and their once closed system welcomes them in with open ears. Almost as silly as the TNG episode featuring people with no emotions, nothing about this makes sense, tests any of the regulars, or reveals any character flaws, and the parody of fan-culture feels mean-spirited coming from a still-struggling science fiction franchise show. What we’re left with is Robert Picardo Sings The Hits, which is moderately entertaining, but not what I’m looking for from my science fiction adventure show. Once again, the Doctor’s program can’t be duplicated for reasons which are not given. Whereas music is unknown to these people, it seems that every species across the entire universe goes through a stage of medicinal bloodletting. I wonder why?

Trekaday #100: Survival Instinct, Barge of the Dead, Tinker Tenor Doctor Spy, Alice, Riddles, Dragon’s Teeth

Posted on August 6th, 2023 in Culture | No Comments »

Post number 100. My undying thanks if you’ve been reading this regularly, or even occasionally.

VOY S06E02 Survival Instinct (4.5 out of 5 stars). Borg! The Marconian Outpost is a pretty nice CGI city-in-space, but the teaser has already promised us flashback adventures with Seven still in her drone form, so I don’t have an enormous amount of patience for the supposedly amusing hijinks of Janeway’s ready room awash with gifts. Re-establishing Seven as thoroughly house-trained, she is playing nurse maid to little Naomi, albeit in her own sometimes abrasive manner. One of the visitors bearing gifts hands Seven a bunch of synaptic relays, and it turns out that this creepy dude who’s rude to Naomi is up to no good.

All of this early shipbound stuff is pretty rote and predictable, but the flashback material which examines the state of mind of Borg cut off from the Collective is rather more interesting – Ron Moore, during his brief stay on Voyager, doing for the Borg what he’d previously done for the Klingons. The debates between the telepathic badguys mirrors the squabbling between the fraying drones in a neat move which foreshadows the eventual reveal without giving it away. Thus the routinely creepy badguys turn out to be a desperate trio who are suffering in unimaginable ways, and what looked like being a silly adventure turns into something much richer and deeper, with a little of the DS9 bleakness providing a refreshing squeeze of lime over the usual Voyager running and shooting.

VOY S06E03 Barge of the Dead (4 out of 5 stars]). Like something out of Star Tours, B’Elanna Torres comes crashing back into Voyager on a battered shuttle. While Voyager treats shuttles like they come free with packets of Weetabix, the ship only has one multi-spatial probe and that fact justifies Torres (or “Lana” as Janeway and her mother call her) risking her life to get it back. Maddeningly, we aren’t told whether she succeeded or not (or what a multi-spatial probe is or does).

Her shuttle is found to have a chunk of Klingon ship stuck in its side, and pretty soon it seems to Torres to be wailing and leaking blood. Kim puts it down to concussion. Tuvok to self-loathing. TNG had an extremely good track-record at avoiding the “are you sure you aren’t imaging it?” trope, which tends to do little except waste time while waiting for the plot to kick in. Suddenly Torres finds herself on a very pro-Klingon ship (Tuvok passionately talking up the bat’leth, Neelix serving “live” gagh, Seven and the Doctor letting rip with drinking songs) but she doesn’t appreciate the effort. Tim Russ, who has been good and quiet in the background for dozens of episodes, is particularly effective in his “counselling” scene.

For lo, this is not Voyager but the mythical Barge of the Dead, taking B’Elanna across the Klingon Styx – and no “computer, end program,” has no effect. Naturally, Ron Moore zeroes in on the show’s resident Klingon, the result is an atmospheric tale of life, loss and belief. Everything is undone by arbitrary technobabble fairly quickly of course, but until then we get the chance to see Roxann Dawson at the centre of a narrative with some kind of meaning to it, and I’m all for that. Bryan Fuller collaborated with Moore on the script, and also left the show very shortly after writing this episode, in part because he was disappointed by how it came out. Maybe I liked it better than they did – but it’s telling that they portrayed life onboard Voyager as literal hell for Torres. Or maybe I’m just seduced by the influences of Dennis Potter’s masterpiece The Singing Detective which similarly blended fiction, dream, memory and reality in order to examine its hero’s core beliefs. And Dawson is just fantastic.

VOY S06E04 Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy (4 out of 5 stars). The Doctor is inflicting his love of opera on the senior staff. This puts Neelix to sleep and triggers Tuvok’s pon-farr, which the EMH is able to resolve without missing a literal beat. The self-aggrandising fantasy is little more than a daydream, which is a pretty lowkey revelation to send us into the opening titles. This kind of delusion feels much more akin to Deep Space Nine’s Vic Fontaine or Our Man Bashir Holosuite escapades than Voyager’s own Bride of Chaotica, but the important thing is that the bundle of force fields and subroutines down in sickbay has needs and desires, and he wants to see Janeway’s manager (if he can stop thinking about his captain’s backside). He claims that his program can be expanded without limit and yet he seems saddled with a completely hetero libido, with none of the good-looking boys onboard able to get his algorithms twitching.

Meanwhile, some fussbudget Sontarans have determined that Voyager is an “unacceptable risk”, until their own chain of command issues cause that determination to be reversed. Their monitoring of the ship via the Doctor causes them to believe that his absurd daydreams are actual occurrences. Worse still, the Doctor starts to become unable to determine fantasy from reality. This is all pretty much nonsense, where things happen just because they need to in order for the plot to work, but Robert Picardo is just so winning, that it’s easy to stop nitpicking and enjoy the ride, especially when the Doc’s Amigos have to go along for the ride and make his fantasies convincing. What elevates this potentially thin material for me is the humiliation which the Doctor feels at his private Walter Mitty life being made public, and the compassion which Janeway shows, even when those same imaginings objectify her. That’s what makes this Star Trek.

VOY S06E05 Alice (1.5 out of 5 stars). Voyager encounters a “flotilla of hostile trash” also known as Abaddon’s Repository of Lost Treasures. The title promises Wonderland, but this falls more like Ali Baba to me (and turns out to be channelling Stephen King). In fact it turns out to be more hot-rodding as Paris falls in love with a clapped out old flyer and names it after a “lost cause” girlfriend from his Academy days. Unlike its namesake, the spacefaring Alice can literally read Paris’s mind and so his motor ends up falling in love with him too. He can resist everything but her endless stream of clichés it seems. Even by Voyager standards this is pretty silly stuff, but with no emotional centre to hold it together, the wheels come off pretty rapidly. Roxann Dawson does what she can but Torres is stuck in the role of irrationally jealous girlfriend.

VOY S06E06 Riddles (3.5 out of 5 stars). Neelix’s grade-school puzzle for Tuvok raises awkward questions about just how the universal translator works, but also feels like a stupid person’s idea of how a smart person would engage with a riddle. Making Tuvok blind to puns is a very limited rendering of Vulcans in general and him in particular, and this episode (eventually) does a little to open that window a little wider. That’s nice to see because although Tim Russ has been doing reliably good work, he’s been under-served for about two years’ worth of stories now.

This week’s Zagbars seem very generic, with arbitrary bumps and grooves from Michael Westmore and a studiedly bland performance from Mark Moses. He blames Tuvok’s condition on the mysterious Zoobles of whom legend speaks in hushed tones. While he and Janeway investigate, the Doctor suggests that Neelix try and irritate Tuvok out of his coma. It works, but this is not the same old Tuvok, and now it’s up to Neelix to try and rehabilitate him. Once again, it is necessary to pretend that Tuvix never happened, but provided you can do that, the slow rebuilding of the Vulcan’s logical edifice is quite worthwhile, and as noted this is a wonderful vehicle for Tim Russ. Torres doesn’t appear at all as Roxann Dawson was taking her first time behind the camera. It’s the start of a fairly storied career for her, and a good start, which isn’t at all typical for this franchise.

VOY S06E07 Dragon’s Teeth (2 out of 5 stars). Boom! Somebody somewhere is having a bad day, and we can only hope that the “bio-pods” whatever they may be survive the bombardment. I’ve noted before how tricky it can be in an ongoing series to suddenly ask the audience to get invested in a bunch of brand new characters we’ve never seen before, and I’m not convinced that – for all the CGI whizzbangery – this is the kind of teaser most likely to hook a channel-flipping audience. Voyager has its own problems. The ship has been pulled into a maze of subspace corridors full of debris. This looks like it could be a route home but the resident Zagbars are all – get stuffed, this is our maze. Popping down to a nearby planet to hide, Janeway and Tuvok find the aforementioned bio-pods which have sustained a couple of Zoobles for almost a millennium, following a planetary nuclear war. The deal to exchange information about the hyperspace bypass for help getting the Zoobles to safety seems fair enough, and much of the middle of the episode is little but admin related to this agreement, while it’s vaguely hinted that the Zoobles might be up to no good. None of this has anything to do with our people, it’s not terribly interesting on its own terms, and what little adventure befalls Voyager’s crew mainly looks like it was due to Janeway’s lack of foresight. But there is a lot of pretty CGI whizzbangery. Janeway doubts she’s seen the last of them, but I don’t believe they ever featured again, which further contributes to a story which feels undercooked at best.

My summer of blockbusters

Posted on August 4th, 2023 in At the cinema | No Comments »

I remember thinking “uh oh, this COVID thing is really serious” when they didn’t release the James Bond movie as scheduled. Since then, the world of cinema has been in turmoil, and now this feels like the first real summer of movies we’ve had, the first year that the top ten films at the global box office will all be ones I’ve actually heard of, the first time that the logjam was finally cleared, even though at least one of the films on this list was shooting during global lockdowns. I hadn’t necessarily planned to write a summer blockbusters movie round up blog post, but I’ve been going to the cinema a fair bit and I’ve been having a good time, so – for what it’s worth – here’s what I’ve seen and what I thought, and yes, we will be ending with Barbenheimer. These are presented roughly in release order. There may be spoilers, you have been warned.

John Wick Chapter 4 4 out of 5 stars

My introduction to the Wickiverse was watching all three movies back-to-back during a “snow day” and I had the best time. The series becomes more and more absurd as it goes on, and while by the end of the third instalment I found myself missing the lean, taut ferocity of the first film, the action sets pieces are still a thing to behold and the wider universe that the series creates is absolutely fascinating, as soon as one makes peace with the fact that while the world of these films bears a superficial resemblance to our own, it definitely has different rates of employment for professional assassins and different laws of physics (wait till we get to Fast X). What’s remarkable is how much variety they are able to conjure up without really changing the formula overmuch. The best set-pieces here (the early hotel fight, the long overhead shot, the Arc de Triomphe) are some of the most exciting I’ve ever seen (wait till we get to Mission Impossible) and if it isn’t really about anything… well, was that ever the point? MVP: Rina Sawayama who makes an astonishing debut in her first movie.

Guardians of the Galaxy 3 3 out of 5 stars

I don’t care about Marvel the way I care about some other properties, like Doctor Who or James Bond. A bad James Bond film is a particular tragedy as there tends to be only about one every three years. But if this Marvel movie / TV series / holiday special doesn’t work, well there’ll be another six later this year. Antman and the Wasp: Quantumania I thought had some bright spots and some fun cameos, but managed to squander the promise that Jonathan Majors showed in Loki (and how Kevin Feige must be ruing building all of Phase Five around that particular actor) and eventually collapsed under the weight of its own silliness. This tries to combine some of that same goofy good-time feel, with the same cartoony anything-is-possible vibe and still try and deliver a backstory with real weight and depth of character and theme. It’s an odd mix, and the elements fight with each other as often as they mesh, but it’s still a pleasure to see this team together again. MVP: Will Poulter, who clearly isn’t needed for the plot to work, but is determined to make his every second on screen count.

Shazam: Fury of the Gods 2.5 out of 5 stars

If Marvel is slipping into irrelevance generated at least in part by overabundance of content, DC is suffering from releasing movies which set up stuff we know is never going to be paid off because the James Gunn reset is bearing down on us. Like a lot of part twos, this benefits from not having to walk us through the standard beats of the superhero origin story, allowing us to get straight on with the adventure, but then is weakened because the whole point of this particular character is the gulf between the two personas, which are brought far too close together now that Billy Batson is used to being Shazam. Dijmon Honsou, Helen Mirren, Lucy Lui and Rachel Zegler are fine additions to the cast, but there are too many members of the super team for me to keep them all straight, especially when they’re all played by two actors, so it was hard for me to stay invested. An uncredited Gal Gadot shows up at the end as Wonder Woman. MVP: Skittles.

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse 4 out of 5 stars

The first Spider-Verse film was such an astonishing achievement that any attempted to create a follow up looked doomed to failure. And yet what’s fascinating about this film is that it takes the weakness which doomed Fury of the Gods and turns it into a strength. By emphasising the importance of the superhero origin story and making the repetition of that the whole point of the narrative, it manages to say something about mythic storytelling, while being visually eyepopping, terribly funny, tightly plotted and tugging the heartstrings. Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld, Brian Tyree Henry and Luna Lauren Vélez all return and do excellent work as everyone’s favourite local neighbourhood spider-family and new recruits Jason Schwartzman, Oscar Isaac and Issa Rae all find moments to shine. But nobody told me that this was designed as part two of what is now a trilogy so I found the unresolved ending bewildering. MVP: Daniel Kaluuya whose Spider-Punk should be in every movie from now on. Not every Spider-Man movie. Every movie.

Fast X 3.5 out of 5 stars

Listen, I’m a huge Fast fan and this was a big leap up from the doldrums of F9 and even if there’s a slight sense of fatigue setting in as far too many characters circle the plot hopefully looking for a role in it, and even as far too many of them started off as implacable villains needing only one encounter with the Fasticles to turn them into self-sacrificing goodguys, and even if there seems to be an awful lot of standing around and talking for the first hour – when the action does kick in, it’s pretty impressive, with Hulk director Louis Letterier never giving away that he was essentially brought in to steer the ship after it had set sail. Retrofitting a new villain into the plot of Fast Five (still the high watermark of the franchise, although Seven is pretty banging too) is exactly the kind of dementedly convoluted continuity I’ve come to expect from these films and – what a villain! Jason Momoa is funny, scary, hulking, camp, prissy, absurd and clearly having the absolute time of his life and he’s obviously the MVP. But nobody told me that this was designed as part one of what is now a two-part finale, so I found the unresolved ending bewildering. An uncredited Gal Gadot shows up at the end as Gisele.

The Flash 2 out of 5 stars

Tired? Try being the Flash. Seeing the shadow of the James Gunn reset looming over you? Try being the Flash. Even by the standards of modern superhero blockbusters this is a very busy, noisy film. Faced with a leading actor who is pretty annoying on-screen and pretty reprehensible off it, Warners has opted make a film with an even more annoying version of the character and I have to say, scenes of the older and younger Barry Allens interacting are pulled off with a degree of aplomb from both a performance and a technical standpoint. But the plot doesn’t make a lick of sense, generally relies upon everyone involved being as dumb as possible and the few good ideas that are present never cohere into anything meaningful or even all that interesting. Yes, sure, it’s fun to see Michael Keaton back and saying his famous catchphrase “Why don’t we be crazy?” but it all feels re-heated, pointless and dull. Possibly this would all have had more impact if we hadn’t already seen multiverse excursions in Everything Everywhere All At Once, recastings of iconic characters in Dr Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and return appearances by veteran actors in Spider-Man: The Third One with Home in the Title. An uncredited Gal Gadot shows up at the beginning as Wonder Woman. Guys. The trick is keeping her to the end. MVP: Sasha Calle as Kara Zor-El. I would have watched a whole movie about Superman’s cousin landing in the Soviet Union instead of America.

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny 2.5 out of 5 stars

Tired? Try being an action movie star in your ninth decade, as Harrison Ford is here. The most successful section of the film is the opening, when largely convincing computer graphics return the 80-year-old actor to something like his prime (and when Toby Jones makes a wonderful addition to the supporting cast). But there’s a depressing lack of either innovation or specificity here, and while James Mangold mounts some impressive sequences (one of the best being the very tense sub-aqua scenes, where the primitive 1960s technology really ramps up the anxiety levels) this fails to recapture any of the old magic, and very few of the rest of the supporting cast really register. Shaunette Renée Wilson is a luminous presence who looks as if she’s going to be a key player in the narrative, until she’s suddenly shot dead and never referred to again. Ethann Isidore as Teddy is more often annoying than adorable, and Mads Mikkelson looks like he’s going through the motions. Phoebe Waller-Bridge is given more to do than anyone else – she’s really the only one with anything like a satisfactory arc – and she gives the film everything she’s got, but even she can’t stop the final act from feeling anything other than completely absurd. MVP is Phoebe obviously, but I also want to mention Antonio Banderas who does much with very little screentime.

Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One 4.5 out of 5 stars

Having enjoyed past Missions Impossible, especially the third and fourth instalments, nothing could have prepared me for quite how good the sixth film was – it absolutely blew me away. It might be the perfect action film for the twenty-first century. Everything about it just works. So, the pressure was on for this one to succeed. And early on, it seems to have just a little trouble getting the sparks to ignite. A lot seems to be happening around the characters we care about, but not to them or by them. Luckily, this doesn’t last for very long and once the chessboard is set up, and the pieces start merrily colliding with each other, the fun really begins. The now familiar team of Ethan, Benjy and Luther is augmented by the winning unpredictability of the frankly incredible Hayley Atwell, who manages to simultaneously embody complete disbelief at the ridiculous things that the IMF is involving her in, with her own sense of self-possession, self-interest and mischief. It’s a star-making turn for a phenomenal performer and it’s a fantastic new ingredient which freshens up the formula without fighting with it. Like Indiana Jones, the McGuffin here is a little outré but Christopher McQuarrie treats it lightly, and keeps the emphasis on what matters most. This time, I did know that this was part one of two (it very helpfully says “part one” right up there on the screen) but by the time that extraordinary final stunt sequence had concluded I was wrung out, and not the least bit bothered by the presence of a few dangling plot threads. A far cry from the other movies which played the same trick which just stopped in the middle. My only other complaint is that the villain was a bit underpowered, but then this series has only ever had one really top-notch villain (Philip Seymour Hoffman). MVP: Hayley.

Barbie 4.5 out of 5 stars

This is a very silly film. It’s disorganised, unruly, and often makes very little sense. It sets up rules and then ignores them. It places great emphasis on where certain characters are and when, and then forgets they ever existed. It seeks to contrast the unreality of Barbieland with the grounded reality of the real world, and then makes some elements of the real world just as loopy as Barbieland. Very few characters have anything like an inner life, or an arc, and you don’t have to wonder what the point is, because it gets spelled out to you with relentless in-your-face clarity. I loved it, and it might be a work of genius.

It’s vital to understand that all the foregoing is perfectly deliberate, just as Gerwig’s decision to split Little Women into two timeframes was, and for all the apparent shenanigans going on here, I believe there’s just as much careful directorial rigour here as there was there. The casting is also perfect, with Margot Robbie sensational as Barbie, Ryan Gosling hilarious as Ken and able support from Helen Mirren, Kate McKinnon, Simu Liu, Will Ferrel, Rhea Pearlman and countless others. Only Kingsley Ben-Adir seemed to be struggling to find the tone – pulling faces when others were just being. I desperately wanted the final credits to include the joke of simply crediting all the Barbies as “Barbie” and all the Kens as “Ken” as was delighted when they did. The “anything goes” approach of this film means that it’s unlikely to resonate deeply inside my soul, but I was thoroughly entertained, I’m thrilled that it exists, and even more thrilled that it looks like it’s going to go on to make a billion dollars at the box office. MVP: a photo-finish between America Ferrera, who maybe has the hardest job of anyone and makes it look easy, and Michael Cera as Allan, whose complete irrelevance eventually comes quite close to being the entire point of the movie.

Oppenheimer 4.5 out of 5 stars

And this is the big one. Big as in 70mm IMAX, 11 miles of film big. Big as in atomic bomb big. Nolan’s films thus far have usually avoided confronting what goes on inside the heads of his central characters: Batman is the costume, Leonard Shelby is defined by his condition, The Prestige is about the tricks, Inception is about the dreamscapes, Dunkirk is about the acts of heroism, rather than who did them and why. The one which tries to deal with who a person is, is one of my least favourites. Who watches 2001: A Space Odyssey and says “You know what would make this better? A daddy-daughter love story.”? No. No, it would make it a hundred times worse. But this film doesn’t present the building of the first atomic bomb as a race against time, or a scientific or engineering problem to be solved, or a political conundrum, although all those things are aspects of the story. It wants to know: who would build such a thing? And what effect would that have on the rest of his life? In a way, it’s new ground for Nolan, who takes sole writing and directing credit for this one.

He couldn’t have asked for a better collaborator than Cillian Murphy, who manages to dig under the surface of the text and unearth a man who goes from nervy student to strident professor to guilt-wracked public figure to quietly malicious political operative. But the film has a lot of ground to cover and in the first third, this felt like the frantic bang-bang-bang pace, which killed Tenet for me, was back, as people marched in and out of rooms, announcing exposition at each other, to the relentless strains of Ludwig Göransson’s ever-present score. Thankfully, after a while, the editing slows down and the feeling of “Last time on Oppenheimer” recedes, and scenes are allowed to breath a little. And there are some remarkable performances here, including a very solid Matt Damon, Emily Blunt bringing much to an underwritten part, Gary Oldman doing his Gary Oldman thing as Harry Truman, and Tom Conti as a cuddly and thoughtful Albert Einstein.

But while the race to build the bomb, leading up to the first test, is absolutely incredible (and it’s great to see this presented as a true team effort, unlike say the absurd The Imitation Game which gave Alan Turing credit for everything that happened at Bletchley Park) and the cut-aways to the senate confirmation and security clearance hearings help fill in other aspects of his character, I do feel that it fundamentally did not work to escalate from the detonation of the world’s first nuclear device to a petty act of political revenge from one embittered man to another. That said, MVP here is clearly Robert Downey Jr whose performance as Lewis Strauss might be the best of his career. I also thought that having Oppenheimer recite his “I am become death” catchphrase during a tits-out sex scene was completely ridiculous, and the kind of thing I’d expect to see in a film like Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.

Right, now I think I need to watch a movie in black-and-white with subtitles about someone who goes for a quiet walk and sees a caterpillar or something.