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Posts Tagged ‘SF’

If we are going to talk about Chris Boucher’s Star Cops (and, you guessed it, we are) then we may as well get something out of the way and discuss the theme music right at the start. Now, I am aware my taste in such matters is not entirely in tune with the popular consensus – I am one of the few people I know who finds ‘Faith of the Heart’, a.k.a. the theme tune from Enterprise, to be quite a pleasant listen – and that no less an authority than Kim Newman, someone whose judgement I usually find impeccable, has declared that the Star Cops theme is ‘the worst theme tune of any TV show ever’. What, worse than the theme to Captain Zep – Space Detective? Sample lyric, ‘Across the stars, he’s on his way, it’s Captain Zep to save the day!’ (I know you’re curious. Go and google, I’ll be here when you’ve had enough, which could well be very soon indeed.)

The theme from Star Cops, known either as ‘It won’t be easy’ or ‘Theme from Star Cops‘, depending on how imaginative you are, is a mid-tempo piece of blues-pop by Justin Hayward. It’s not really my usual cup of tea, but I must confess to finding it rather agreeable – it has a sort of lugubrious wistfulness to it which appeals to me. That said, it is an unusual choice of theme for a hard SF TV show – I believe the logic behind it was that people who wouldn’t necessarily choose to watch a hard SF TV show might stumble across the mid-tempo blues-pop, find themselves charmed by it, and stick around for the following fifty minutes or so of gritty police procedural and variably-realised zero-gravity effects.

The tune carries on playing into the opening sequence of An Instinct for Murder, written by series creator Chris Boucher himself and first broadcast in July 1987 (in the baffling slot of eight thirty in the evening on Mondays). This segment at least is strongly conceived and quite well realised: a man goes for a swim in a lake, only to be set upon and drowned by two scuba divers. This is intercut with an astronaut on a space-walk being attacked and his suit sabotaged by two other figures in space-suits. The stuff in the lake is passably done, the spacewalk sequence surprisingly good, considering this is a BBC series from the middle 1980s, and it does give the theme tune a chance to reach an epic guitar solo which doesn’t usually get heard over the credits (it’s just getting started when they finish).

Overseeing the investigation of the death in the lake is our hero, Nathan Spring (David Calder), whom we quickly learn has little time for computer analyses of incident reports or the arms-length approach to police work which has become standard at this time (it is a recognisably near future: publicity for the series indicated it was set in 2027, not that there’s a great deal of reference to this in the actual script). The computer suggests it was an accidental drowning, but Spring is not convinced, rather to the exasperation of both his underlings and his superiors.

Largely, it seems, to get rid of Nathan, his boss has forced him to apply for the post of commander of the International Space Police Force: currently a part-time force of twenty or so, which the major powers would like professionalised. Spring doesn’t want the job, and his girlfriend (a slightly shaky relationship is skilfully suggested) wants him to get it even less, but the script is very clear about the political aspects of all this, and Nathan soon find himself heading for the European space station Charles de Gaulle, in Earth orbit.

There he meets the local ISPF inspector, David Theroux (Erick Ray Evans), whose real job is as one of the station’s traffic controllers. Theroux is making his own investigation into a string of mysterious suit failures, which the computers again have decreed to be within the realms of statistical probability. However, the death of a visiting politician while on a space-walk gives the issue a sudden urgency, and Spring and Theroux find themselves working the case together.

The first job of An Instinct for Murder is to establish the world, characters and format of the show, so perhaps it’s not really surprising that the actual murder mystery here ends up feeling a little under-developed: it turns out the killings are an attempt to discredit the Russians, who currently have the contract to do space-suit maintenance, and perhaps stoke up the coals so the Cold War burns a little hotter (like virtually everyone else, even in 1987, Star Cops completely fails to anticipate the collapse of the Soviet Union). Then again, this is always a problem when doing a detective story in an SF setting: you need to establish what’s normal and routine and possible in this world before you can start showing the anomalies and oddities which make up the clues the detective needs in order to break the case.

In other respects, however, the episode does a very solid job: you can tell Boucher is working incredibly hard to keep Star Cops grounded in reality and entirely free of the fantasy elements which usually dominate television SF (Boucher had previously written twelve strong episodes of the BBC’s premier science-fantasy show as well as script-editing the whole of Blake’s 7). It’s very cynical and naturalistic – even the title is meant ironically, and there’s a running gag about people quoting lines from The Magnificent Seven at each other, something which is utterly believable but the kind of thing which never happens in most TV series nowadays.

In terms of the near-future setting – well, again like everyone else, Boucher didn’t anticipate smartphones – at one point Nathan wants to watch the news in a restaurant and the waitress wheels in a small black and white TV on a trolley – but teleconferencing seems to be routine, even if people seem to favour huge wall screens over laptops or tablets (this does work well visually, though). Nathan even has his own virtual assistant, a small portable AI called Box, although it’s made clear that this is not common technology. Box mainly functions as a plot device and is rather reminiscent of Orac from Blake’s 7, though less obnoxious.

The episode doesn’t get everything right – for some reason Boucher doesn’t name the two most important guest characters, who are billed simply as ‘Commander’ and ‘Controller’, which is an odd touch, and while the special effects (‘Weightlessness by Eugene’s Flying Ballet’ – though, to be fair, the same company had the same gig on 2001) are as good as the BBC could manage on this kind of budget at the time, that’s still not saying a great deal. But the setting is intriguing, Calder is an engaging lead, and you do want to see where they take the series next. For a series which was essentially strangled at birth by the BBC, and marked the end of serious science fiction on British TV (at least, for many years afterwards), this is much more promising than its reputation might suggest.

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The Island of Doctor Moreau tends to lag somewhat behind The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine and The Invisible Man when it comes to cultural profile, but if nothing else I suppose this puts it marginally less at risk of truly dreadful modern ‘re-interpretations’ (BBC non-adaptation of War of the Worlds, I’m looking at you). The disaster of the Marlon Brando-starring adaptation probably means we won’t see another big-screen version for a good long while, and while on one level this is a relief, it would be nice to at least consider the possibility of someone coming along and doing the story justice.

Taking a decent swing at the challenge is Don Taylor’s 1977 take on the novel (title marginally shortened to save on typesetting, I guess), which was probably the most distinguished entrant in a brief H.G. Wells cycle from American International (other movies in this ‘series’ were The Food of the Gods and Empire of the Ants). This is not an exceptional film in any respect, but its approach to the source material is interesting.

We open in the middle of the Pacific, where we find Michael York and his cheekbones in a lifeboat, along with two other men, one of whom has just carked it (thus we are signalled what dire straits they are in). York and his friend throw the corpse over the side, while the audience is inevitably distracted by the way that the lifeboat seems to be surging along at a fair old clip (mainly because it is being towed by the camera boat). Eventually they wash up on a rather substantial tropical island. York goes to explore, gets spooked by something in the undergrowth and ends up falling into a pit trap, while his companion is set upon by mysterious figures and killed (off camera). (There are, to be honest, various plot holes and unanswered questions here, based on what we later learn about how the island is set up, but these do not occur to us until much later, if at all.)

Well, York wakes up in the slightly dingy hacienda-style home of the owner of the island, Dr Paul Moreau (Burt Lancaster), which he shares with his dissolute factotum Montgomery (Nigel Davenport) and a beautiful young woman named Maria (Barbara Carrera) – not to mention some rather ugly servants. It seems York will be stuck there for a bit, but Moreau offers his hospitality, while warning him not to leave the compound after dark. York discovers that Moreau was briefly celebrated as a scientist of genius, but has since become a recluse here on the island. Taking York’s curiosity as a sign he is possibly a kindred spirit, Moreau reveals his collection of bottled embryos and informs York he is searching for the secret of what gives living creatures their form, and why this morphological destiny seems so inflexible. ‘Can we change that destiny?’ ponders Moreau. ‘Should we?’ responds York, quite properly for the hero of this sort of film.

It turns out, of course, that Moreau has been putting his ideas into practice by injecting different animals with human genetic material and creating a collection of hybrid creatures, most of which are roaming around on the island looking not unlike extras from Planet of the Apes (director Taylor helmed one of the best Apes movies, and John Chambers did both sets of make-up). York is appalled, especially when Moreau indicates to him that the position of the ‘true’ humans on the island is precarious – one sign of weakness and the beast-men may rise up and kill them all. In order for any of them to survive York will have to be as brutal and ruthless with Moreau’s creatures as his host is…

When I wrote about The Island of Doctor Moreau a few years ago, I admitted to being left a little troubled by the arguably racist dimension of the colonial interpretation the book lends itself to: Moreau’s genetic uplift of the animals into something approaching human form as a metaphor for the ‘civilising’ efforts undertaken by colonial powers during the century in which Wells was writing. It’s to the credit of the film that this kind of idea lingers on here, though by implication more than anything else – it also occurs to me that the film’s take on this is more explicitly critical of Imperial power structures, anyway, suggesting that the ‘masters’ are brutalised and diminished by their role as much as anyone. It’s a shame the film doesn’t explore these kinds of ideas further.

The other thing I noted about the book is the extent to which it falls down if assessed in terms of standard narrative dogma: the story takes a while to get going, the protagonist doesn’t actually have any influence on the story, events would have played out the same way if he’d never actually been there, and so on. As regular readers will know, I am quite wary of adaptations which only treat the original text as a set of general suggestions, but I can understand why people might think there was room for improvement here. The screenwriters certainly come up with a strong idea for the final act of the movie: annoyed by the persistent failure of his attempts to turn animals into men, Moreau decides to approach the problem from the other direction and turn York into an animal. It’s this which leads directly into the climax of the movie (providing a few quite effective scenes along the way). On the other hand, this does remove the creepier and more downbeat aspects of the book’s conclusion, but you can’t have everything.

On the whole, though, the movie is well-mounted, and most of the performances are very decent: Burt Lancaster certainly looks the part as Moreau, and York makes the most of what’s a fairly underwritten role. Even when it’s departed from the substance of Wells (which happens quite frequently) the film has the sense and atmosphere of what’s ultimately one of the great pieces of Gothic SF (though not often described in those terms, I note). The only bit of it which really falls down in the love-interest subplot featuring Carrera’s character, which is presumably there in deference to the diktat that All Films Must Have Romance In Them (Or At Least Some Soft-Focus Sex). Nearly all of these scenes feel like a graft taken from somewhere else, and the operation is not a complete success. You keep expecting a twist ending where Carreras starts turning into a mongoose, or something, but it never happens. (Apparently such a conclusion was scripted, but Michael York refused to film it on grounds of taste and decency.)

In the end this is a decent film rather than a great adaptation – it’s never quite as visceral or as disturbing (or, indeed, as Gothic) as you would really like it to be, but the basic shape and concerns of the book survive at least as well as in some other, rather more celebrated Wells movies. If the film really has a flaw, it’s that it seems a little too interested in playing it safe in the name of commercial viability, but you can’t blame the film-makers for the nature of their industry. Worth a look, anyway.

 

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Sometimes you come across or rediscover a film which time or a sense of familiarity have led you to forget the sheer weirdness of. I’m not necessarily talking about very obscure, fringe films dealing with odd subject matter, but those very occasional examples of someone high-up at a big Hollywood studio having a bit of a brainstorm and greenlighting a project that, by rights, had no business even going to script stage. When one of these films is a monumental success, the suit responsible is hailed as a visionary film-maker and usually goes on to a lucrative career making the same kind of movie over and over and over again. But it doesn’t change the fact that the initial film was still a bit weird at the time it was made. Most often, though, the film either flops or does okay, inspires no great raft of imitators, and we are just left with an eye-catching freak of a film.

So, then: Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!, released in the UK at least in 1997, which one reviewer even at the time instantly pegged as an extraordinary piece of folie de grandeur which could only have been made by mistake. It is a very odd film even in its conception: Hollywood is increasingly looking to peculiar places to avoid the strain of having to think up original ideas for films, but rather than a book, comic, theme-park ride or game, Mars Attacks! is based on a set of trading cards. Films based on knitting patterns or the assembly instructions for flat-pack furniture are only a matter of time, surely.

The tone is set by a garishly grotesque sequence depicting a stampeding herd of blazing cows (inspired by original card #22, Burning Cattle), which we are invited to assume is the work of a passing flying saucer before it zips off back to Mars. The credits roll as a veritable armada of Martian ships, lovingly styled in the retro 50s manner, launch and head for Earth, causing no small degree of alarm on our planet.

In charge of overseeing the response is US president James Dale (Jack Nicholson), who seems to have a sort of vague hope the arrival of the Martians will result in him looking good. Others are less optimistic. (To be honest, this film has about eighteen main characters, so attempting to describe and keep track of them all would be a bit futile; we’ll see how it goes.) Anyway, the Martian Ambassador ends up landing in the Nevada desert and the translation machine built by one scientist (Jerzy Skolimowski, whose career seems to get more bizarrely eclectic every time I come across him) assures everyone that they have indeed come in peace. Yeah, right. Then of course there is a mix-up with a dove, causing the Martians to furiously reach for their ray guns, and…

To be honest, the film kind of falls into a sort of cycle from this point on: the Martians gleefully inflict garish death and horror on the humans for a bit, shouting ‘Ack! Ack! Ack!’ to each other all the while, after which the humans desperately wonder what went wrong and make a plaintive attempt to contact the Martians and put things back on a friendly basis. The Martians clearly can’t believe how dumb the humans are, and propose another meeting, which will clearly just be another pretext for more neon-hued slaughter, at which point it all repeats. Along the way there are various charming tableaux clearly inspired by some of the original cards (e.g., #19, Burning Flesh, #24, The Shrinking Ray, and #36, Destroying a Dog), although – if you’re wondering – the plot of the movie only very loosely follows that of the original card series.

So you look at all this and think, well, it has a very distinctive visual sense – Tim Burton initially wanted the Martians created using stop-frame animation, but budgetary considerations meant CGI was used instead (some of it not fantastic to the modern eye) – and obviously the weird black comedy aspects of the story must have appealed to him, but still – how the hell did this thing get made? Quite apart from the grisly black comedy alien invasion storyline, the film is subversive and tongue in cheek and often just plain weird, never things the financiers of your typical Hollywood blockbuster will knowingly try to do. The closing moments of the film see the world recovering from the Martian onslaught, which has been repelled using one of the silliest plot devices imaginable – and the return to normalcy is symbolised by deer, birds, and other animals flocking around Tom Jones, who launches into a celebratory rendition of ‘It’s Not Unusual’. I have a lot of time for Sir Tom Jones, but on this occasion he is wrong: it’s not ‘not unusual’. Often it is simply peculiar.

At the time the film came out, it was less than a year after Independence Day, and the assumption was that this was intended as some kind of spoof or parody of it. My first thought would be that it’s extremely difficult to parody something not intended to be taken entirely seriously anyway, but there are a few shots which do seem to suggest this may have been the case. The two films likewise share a sprawling structure largely derived from disaster movies, with a commensurately large cast (apart from Nicholson, Mars Attacks features – deep breath – Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan (doing a very Hugh Grant-like turn – apparently Grant was first choice for the role), Danny DeVito, Sarah Jessica Parker, Natalie Portman, Jim Brown, Lukas Haas, Rod Steiger, Martin Short, Pam Grier and Jack Black.

However, it also seems to me that Burton is also doing a send-up of sci-fi movies from an earlier generation. This was only a year or two after Ed Wood, which recreated the ne plus ultra of bad fifties UFO films, so you can see why he might have this kind of idea. Certainly there are shots and sight-gags which are spot-on parodies or recreations of films like Earth vs the Flying Saucers and This Island Earth. But, once again, how many decent, ordinary film-goers are going to get a joke like that?

And there’s one more set of influences to be stirred into what’s already a very eggy pudding (not to mention an over-cooked metaphor): as well as playing the president, Nicholson also turns up in another role, as a Nevada property developer (who mainly seems to be in the movie to give Nicholson a chance to ham it up just the way he likes to). Coupled to some visual cues in the design of the president’s war room, and Rod Steiger’s performance as the rather hawkish general, it’s hard not to conclude that, on top of everything else, Burton was either attempting to replicate the tone of – or just homage – Dr Strangelove. This only succeeds as homage, if that: Burton has many fine qualities as a film-maker but the same kind of fierce, forensic intelligence Kubrick possessed is not amongst them and the film doesn’t have the edge or satirical power of Strangelove. (Though… I watch it now, seeing the ineffectual leader, insisting he will take control of the situation and demanding that schools and shops stay open… and I can’t help but be struck.)

Virtually no element of Mars Attacks! is consistently successful. Some parts of it just don’t work at all: there are a few dead wood characters and jokes that just fall flat, some of them a bit suspect. However, there are enough jokes that work, and the film has enough of a sense of mischief about it, for it to be quite watchable: there are some very game performances, obviously I like all the call-backs to B-movie sci-fi, and I think one of the film’s real flaws is that Tom Jones only turns up in the third act. Every time I return to it, I just find myself marvelling that someone read this script and said ‘Yes, this seems like a perfectly normal piece of commercial film-making: have $70 million!’ In a sane world it should not have been made. However, it is unusual to find evidence of an insane world which actually makes one feel slightly optimistic, for once, and I am quite glad it was.

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I know, I know: a lot of old movies and TV shows recently, but what are the options? Still, you have to try and find a way to stay hopeful about the future, even now, even ridiculous as the notion feels. So – a new movie, which basically means a streamer. Or perhaps not so much a stream as a Big River, if you know what I mean – this company’s production arm recently enjoyed the world’s global #1 movie, in the form of Woody Allen’s latest offering (and if you weren’t sure of just how much things were still in upheaval, this sentence should make it entirely clear to you), but let’s consider something with slightly better prospects of actually being any good.

Of course, the brand new movie I have chosen as a change from all the archive material opens as a finely-observed pastiche of TV show from sixty or so years ago: Andrew Patterson’s The Vast of Night opens with a set of credits and a terse voice-over which position it as an episode of a fictitious anthology SF series like The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits or Dusky Realm. This initially seems like a rather odd choice, as we proceed directly into a lengthy sequence entirely unlike anything Fifties TV would ever have produced: long, long takes and rattling dialogue, the viewer left to try and get some sense of what is going on.

We are in New Mexico, at some point at the back end of the Fifties, and it’s the night of the first basketball game of the season. Pretty much everyone in the small town of Cayuga is at the school to watch the match, and the sense of a community is well evoked: everyone seems to know everyone else, the same old tall tales passing from person to person almost as a ritual of belonging. Not planning on watching the game are local DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz) and young switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick), whose friendship has an easy closeness that suggests the possibility of something more, somewhere down the line. The opening has a gentle sense of nostalgia which makes it endearing, and there’s a nice moment where Fay discusses various predictions about the future that she’s heard – cars with electronic drivers and transport by vacuum-tube railway Everett can believe in, but the idea of a phone in your pocket you can use to take photos with? Come off it.

Before the movie gets too cute, the two part company and another bravura sequence ensues, with Fay manning the town switchboard and beginning to get odd calls from some of her fellow citizens: suddenly you can imagine perfectly how a scenario like this might have worked as a Twilight Zone episode, making a virtue of the restricted setting and cast. The camera stays fixed on Fay in a single, very long take as she hears about strange noises showing up on phone lines and panicked suggestions that not all is as it should be in Cayuga’s airspace. Everett agrees to broadcast the strange sounds and makes an appeal for help from anyone who can identify it – and someone duly calls in, claiming he was part of a top-secret US military project concerned with strange metal objects and the same peculiar transmissions. Gradually the situation becomes a little clearer, with the same message coming from everyone Fay and Everett talk to: there’s something in the sky…

So, yes, this is essentially a UFO movie, a subgenre which invariably gets lumped in with actual SF, simply because adherents of the extraterrestrial hypothesis will have you believe that UFOs are spacecraft. (Personally I think that if UFOs are indeed the stuff of science fiction, then the science in question has a good chance of turning out to be either anthropology or psychology.) But this kind of elision has been going on for decades and is largely immaterial to whether or not The Vast of Night is actually any good. Well, I think it is.

This is, fairly obviously, quite a low budget movie (though the film industry being as it is, the ‘low budget’ is a sum of money I could probably live on quite happily for the rest of my life), but this kind of film is where an up-and-coming writer-director gets to do his stuff. Patterson proceeds to demonstrate his ablity with great assurance. Possibly the film is a little mannered – there are a lot of long takes of different kinds, including one in which the camera zooms around town, into and around a building, up a flight of stairs and then out through a window, while the TV show gimmick is briefly alluded and he’s also fond of actors soliloquising over a black screen – but the overall effect is still more than enough to be impressive. As a calling card, this should do the trick; it may also help the careers of McCormick and Horowitz (who carry the movie quite adeptly), too.

Whether the film actually needed the Twilight Zone framing gimmick is another question; I can imagine it working just as well without it, and it’s not as if it actually resembles the show that closely. Some bits do; others clearly don’t. In the end I suppose it is justified, because The Vast of Night isn’t just an act of pastiche with some virtuoso direction incorporated into it. My integrity as a critic (shut up at the back) prevents me from going into too much detail as to how the story pans out, but it did seem to me there is a thought-through metaphor in this film. The protagonists may be WASP-y teenagers, but the characters who have encountered the aliens and the government before and share their stories are not: one is a black man, apparently chosen for dangerous duty because he was considered expendable; another is a woman who was a single mother at the time. The voices in the movie speaking of ominous, little-understood, largely invisible forces are those of the dispossessed and disregarded, the underclass of a supposedly classless nation.

Anyone watching The Vast of Night expecting the usual action-adventure sci-fi triviality is likely to be disappointed, but this is an impressive movie, thought-through, well-made, and likely to provoke conversations amongst those who have seen it. I can’t imagine Rod Serling ever writing anything quite like it, but I think he would have been proud to put it alongside the better episodes of his show. Well worth watching.

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So, after my less than entirely satisfying encounter with late-period Enterprise and the serialised storytelling which seemed to define the series at that point, it seemed sensible to check out a much earlier, non-serialised episode and see if this was any more to my taste. (I know I have looked at a couple of first-season episodes in recent weeks, but not with any particular intent beyond just watching the show with my critic’s socks on. Some people have a critic’s hat, I have critic’s socks.) I ended up watching the first ‘normal’ episode to follow the pilot: Fight or Flight, first shown in October 2001 and written by the show’s creators, Rick Berman and Brannon Braga.

The episode kicks off with another of those peculiar non-grabby cold opens which are practically part of Enterprise‘s format: Hoshi visits the sickbay to look in on one of the animals genial Dr Phlox is looking after. Then again, part of the premise of the story is that the Enterprise has been out in space for a couple of weeks and nothing worth mentioning has happened, beyond discovering a slightly poorly slug, so it’s a bit difficult to see how else they could have pepped things up a bit.

Various things are used to establish the fact that this is still a ship and crew that is coming together: Phlox still treats the humans as specimens to be observed, there’s an odd squeak under the floor of Archer’s room, the torpedoes won’t shoot straight and T’Pol is a mood hoover in whatever room she happens to enter. Everyone (apart from the Vulcan) is getting frustrated by the lack of activity and is keen to get on with some proper exploring.

They get their chance when they come across an alien cargo ship, apparently derelict in space (the Easter egg in the script is that the aliens eventually turn out to come from Axanar, which later – which is to say, back in the 1960s series – had a medal named after it, not to mention a fan-made Trek movie which ended up causing immense ructions between the Trek rights holders and creative fandom). Despite T’Pol’s declaration that the Vulcan thing to do would be to let well alone and carry on with their original course, Archer goes aboard and insists that Hoshi comes along to translate, despite the fact she gets claustrophobic in an environment suit. The ship seems abandoned, until the boarding party discovers some odd machinery hooked up to the corpses of fifteen or so of the original crew, who have been murdered and strung up from the ceiling…

Fight or Flight does do a good job of establishing that the Trek principles that were in effect throughout the series set in the 2360s and 2370s no longer apply here in the 2150s: Enterprise is one small ship slowly heading out into a largely unknown galaxy, without the immense power of Starfleet and the Federation to back it up. There is much more of a sense of peril, which is most effectively communicated by the fact that Archer’s initial response to finding the dead crew is to pull his people out of there and warp out of the area as fast as possible.

Needless to say, they go back, but run afoul of the aliens who murdered the other ship’s crew, and here the episode’s A-plot and B-plot rather-too-neatly intersect, as you might expect from a Berman and Braga script: Hoshi has been struggling all episode with the realities of exploring the unknown, and has been contemplating asking to be taken home so she can return to a purely academic environment where she is more comfortable. But, needless to say, when the climax arrives, she conquers her self-doubt, develops the ability to speak an alien language practically spontaneously, and saves everyone from the bad guys. I suppose it makes up for the fact that most of her earlier scenes made heavy use of an extended metaphor where she was compared to a sickly mollusc.

It’s not just the pacing which is sluggish. Ha! Ha!

It’s all very glib, pat, and predictable, and it feels like it’s taking up bandwidth that could have been more profitably used to develop more interesting elements of the story: the murderous alien villains seem quite promising, but turn up too late to do more than be generically threatening before they are disposed of, for example. However, for me the really interesting development of the episode is one which barely receives any emphasis at all.

To begin with, Archer and the other human characters are just keen to start exploring and meeting new alien species, which is fair enough: this is the sort of thing which a lot of Trek pays lip service to, although (if we’re going to put on our pedantic socks) only a comparatively tiny number of episodes, across all the series, revolve around genuine exploration. But exploring only goes so far in terms of creating conflict and drama, and so there has to be a little bit more to it than just being menaced by natural phenomena and hostile aliens – it can’t just be scientific observation, there has to be an element of virtuous self-expression to it as well. Starfleet ships don’t just zip around looking at stuff, where possible they get involved and try to do the right thing – you could argue that the whole notion of the Prime Directive is, in dramatic terms, just a device to increase the conflict involved in this kind of situation.

The shift in Archer’s attitude from ‘let’s explore!’ to ‘let’s explore virtuously!’ thus seems to me to be what this episode is really about, but – in what seems to be another key Enterprise trope – rather than handling it through a dramatic scene, with different characters arguing their points of view, and the actors getting a chance to shine, Archer just thinks about it at lot, mostly off-camera, and eventually announces his decision to everyone else. It is in the failure to provide these key moments of character, tension and drama that Enterprise seems to consistently fall down: it seems to treat the resolution of rather hackneyed character arcs, most of them limited to individual episodes, as being of higher importance. Having hit upon a successful formula during the making of TNG – most latter episodes are built around a single character tackling a particular issue in this way – they seem to have been reluctant to abandon it, and it’s this which keeps Fight or Flight from being a more satisfying episode or reaching its full potential as anything more than meat-and-potatoes Trek.

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Some friends and I were having a discussion just the other night about the virtues (or not) and place (if any) of serialised storytelling in Star Trek. I say friends, but most of these people I’ve only met (and by met I mean ‘have begun to talk to via internet audio messaging’, as we live in four different countries) recently and all we have in common, I suspect, is a shared interest in Star Trek and games related to it. Things therefore got a bit fraught when I suggested I’m not necessarily a fan of ongoing storylines; our DS9 fan strongly argued that this was the best of the Berman-era series, which inevitably rolled on into a somewhat heated debate about whether Voyager is, in fact, any good at all, and so on. I nearly had to step in and calm everyone down.

The odd thing is that while I’m not at all a fan of Discovery (or Picard, much), and these are shows which are largely defined by their serial nature, I do like Deep Space Nine a lot, mainly because it does have that big, overarching storyline running for most of its seven seasons. Am I just having another one of my little interludes of total inconsistency? I would like to think not. I think this is really a case of plot as opposed to meta-plot; in DS9, the meta-plot about the Dominion threat to the Alpha Quadrant powers is there from the middle of the second season, motoring along in the background, but most of the episodes are standalones without particular continuing threads. In the newer shows, pretty much everything runs from one episode to the next.

As it happens I was thinking about this just the other day, when I watched a couple more episodes of Enterprise. Why am I watching so much Enterprise late at night at the moment? Well, to be honest, under lockdown, I find myself watching reruns of the original series and TNG two or even three times a day on regular TV, while a run of Voyager recently concluded and my sense is that DS9 really demands a complete rewatch if you want to fully appreciate it it. Plus it seems that Enterprise still has a bit of a bad rep – our Voyager fan has never even watched it – and I can’t resist an underdog.

The episodes I watched were Affliction and Divergence, from quite near the end of the show’s run. The story starts with the Enterprise returning to Earth for the launch of her sister ship, the Columbia, to which chief engineer Trip will be transferring for personal reasons. However, trouble is afoot, taking the form of genial Dr Phlox being kidnapped by persons unknown.

Well, naturally, Captain Archer won’t take this sort of thing lying down, and sets off in pursuit of the abductors (that old reliable Trek plot device, the Vulcan mind meld, gives them a clue as to the species responsible), but things are complicated by the fact that tactical officer Reed seems to have an agenda of his own. His initial reports that the Orion Syndicate may have been responsible starts to look very suspect when the ship is attacked by a Klingon vessel – although the Klingon boarding party is a decidedly odd one, the warriors in question lacking their bumpy heads and looking like nothing so much as members of a post-grunge rock band under a lot of fake tan…

Phlox, meanwhile, has found himself in a Klingon medical research facility (Klingon ideas about medical ethics are quite as alarming as you might expect) and discovered the truth: a plague is sweeping the Klingon Empire and he has been ‘recruited’ to find a cure. What the Klingons don’t initially come clean about is that the virus is one derived from human attempts at genetic augmentation (the same ones that produced Khan, he of wrath fame, back in the 20th century) – but rather than genetically enhanced super-warriors, the result is a new breed of human-looking Klingons who quickly expire, although not before infecting those around them.

Naturally, the Klingons aren’t keen on telling anyone about their little mistake, hence the attack on Enterprise, which was mainly to sabotage the main reactor – it soon becomes apparent that unless the ship maintains a velocity of at least warp five, it’s going to explode, which is a bit of an issue given that’s barely below its emergency maximum speed…

I have to say that I find myself very ambivalent when it comes to this particular story, even at a conceptual level. The origins of the whole thing surely lie in the thirtieth anniversary episode of DS9, where there is a very droll gag about the difference between the original series Klingon make-up and the more elaborate prosthetics used ever since the movies got going (‘It is not something we talk about,’ declares Worf, deadpan). Prior to this, explanations for the difference had ranged from there being different subspecies of Klingons (bumpy-headed ‘pure’ Imperial Klingons and human-Klingon ‘fusions’) to there being no actual in-universe difference, just a presentational one. The motive behind Affliction and Divergence is basically to continuity-cop the difference in Klingon appearance away.

What it all really boils down to.

And part of me, the tiny hard-core Trekkie part, really likes and responds to this particular impulse. The fact that Discovery (and, to a lesser extent, Picard) break so profoundly with established continuity is not the main reason for my dislike of them, but it is certainly a factor. But on the other hand, there is also something slightly mad about devoting eighty or ninety minutes of your TV show to resolving continuity inconsistencies that have developed over the course of a nearly-forty-year franchise: this is not a question your average viewer would have been burning to discover the answer to. In the past I have been deeply critical of long-running series and franchises that became overly-obsessed with their own lore and continuity.

(Perhaps if Enterprise hadn’t been canned and the original series-style Klingons had made more appearances, and the ramifications of the ‘human’ virus had been explored further, the episode wouldn’t feel quite so niche. But this turned out to be the last major piece of Klingon-focused Trek of its era.)

Perhaps part of the problem is that the episodes just feel like a piece of continuity-copping: it doesn’t feel like there’s any other compelling reason for the decision to tell this story. The big high-concept set piece – Star Trek does Speed! – comes midway through the story; the conclusion is a very generic late Berman-era space battle (the kind where people stand around on the bridge shouting out percentages as CGI starships zap away at each other inconclusively) while Phlox tersely issues medical technobabble.

Most of the rest of it feels almost entirely procedural, and here we come to the issue of the serialised storytelling: this episode refers back to many previous ones, including such elements as Archer’s recent experiences carrying the soul of legendary Vulcan Surak, Trip and T’Pol’s personal relationship, Reed’s relationship with the enigmatic Section 31, xenophobia on Earth, and so on. All this is probably more acceptable if you’ve been following along with the series to this point, but it makes for a much less satisfying experience watching the episodes in isolation.

Perhaps I’m doing the final series of Enterprise a disservice, and the episodes aren’t intended to be watched this way – the fact the season is almost entirely composed of two- and three-part stories is probably a clue to this end – and I know that these particular episodes are well-liked, by the cast and crew at least. But I have to say that for all that I appreciate the impulse responsible for them, I enjoyed them rather less than the best episodes of the first couple of seasons. Perhaps in the end this, like DS9, is a show you really need to watch from start to finish to be able to properly appraise.

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I know I have complained about the slight level of confusion that seems to pertain when it comes to the running order of the second season epsiodes of The Avengers, but I suppose this is somewhat understandable given the episodes were transmittedly well out of their production sequence: Warlock was only the fifth episode to be produced, but ended up being held back until late into the season, next to The Golden Eggs, which was broadcast less than a week after it was completed. This wouldn’t ordinarily be noticeable but for a very peculiar quirk of casting: Peter Arne plays the villain in both episodes (they are different characters). Arne is issued with glasses and a false moustache for Golden Eggs, and gives a very different performance, but even so. This sort of thing wouldn’t happen nowadays.

Other parts of the episode remain dismayingly topical. The house of an eminent research biologist is burglarised, but he insists nothing was taken. Steed is not so sure and sends Mrs Gale in to investigate, undercover as a reporter. It soon becomes apparent the scientist is covering something up. Meanwhile, the thief who carried out the robbery, on the orders of ruthless dealer-in-secrets Julius Redfern (Arne), is really not feeling at all well…

It turns up the thief has whipped a couple of golden eggs which were being used to culture a deadly new virus, Verity Prime, which causes respiratory failure in its victims. Needless to say it is up to Steed and Cathy to recover the eggs before something catastrophic happens. (Well, maybe: no internet or DVDs in 1963, when this episode was transmitted, which would have made lockdown an absolute ordeal, but on the other hand Alexander Boris Johnson was still years away from being born, so the government response to a lethal virus outbreak would probably have been more capable and perhaps its members even inclined to respect their own rules.)

Quite heavy stuff in places, or so it seems at the moment. The episode nevertheless isn’t afraid to play certain scenes with a light touch: after the hook scene, it opens with the suggestive image of Steed and Mrs Gale having breakfast together – it turns out her flat is being refurbished (again?) and Steed has agreed to put her up in return for her cooking for him. Later on there’s a scene where she is trying to glue a vase back together while some exposition goes back and forth, and of course the inevitable happens. Arne’s performance is also remarkably arch given the seriousness of the plot.

In the end, this is another solid but slightly atypical episode, a bit more Cathy-centric than usual (Steed is almost completely absent during the climax, vaguely suggesting he was somewhere in the area when Mrs Gale brings this up with him), and with a hard edge to it in places (three characters are killed and their bodies destroyed with thermite to stop the virus spreading). Not bad at all.

Venus Smith comes back for School for Traitors, in which Steed once again displays prophetic powers by inserting her into the locale of his next mission before he’s actually been assigned it (on this occasion his handler is One-Seven – I can only assume Douglas Muir, who plays One-Ten, was busy that week). A student at one of the great old universities of England (Oxford, Cambridge, Hull) commits suicide under slightly suspicious circumstances, especially when there were previously reports that the young man was being blackmailed. Have agents of the Other Side managed to infiltrate the British higher education system?

Well, of course they have, although as this episode aired only a couple of weeks after Kim Philby, one of the notorious Cambridge spies, fled to the Soviet Union, it’s not the most far-fetched of premises. To be honest, the whole episode is rather down-to-earth, maybe even mundane: the various bright young chaps of the university are suborned not through anything especially scandalous but by being persuaded to forge a signature on a cheque. Chief honeytrap is Melissa Stribling, a few years on from Dracula; her partner in crime is Reginald Marsh, who will probably be best remembered as playing Sir Dennis in many episodes of Terry and June. Various people get bumped off but the only memorable bit comes when Venus is sent some caustic face-cream and Steed sticks her head down the sink before she can explain she hasn’t used the stuff. Decent performances, though, I suppose. Venus Smith is obviously no-one’s idea of a classic Avengers girl, but I must confess I find Julie Stevens’ portrayal of her to be rather endearing, even if the musical numbers still drag somewhat.

Malcolm Hulke returns for the next episode, writing alone, and the result is The White Dwarf, another early episode with distinct science fiction overtones – handled quite seriously, too. A distinguished astronomer is murdered while observing the movements of a star – this is the white dwarf of the title (the episode handles the astronomy quite decently). Steed fills Mrs Gale in on the background, which is more momentous than usual: the astronomer had predicted that the small, intensely heavy star would enter the solar system and collide with the sun, dragging the Earth with it. The question is when and if the news should be annnounced to the public and other governments (Britain is the only country aware of the possibility). It must be said that Cathy and Steed are both very matter-of-fact and unmoved by the possibility of impending armageddon, and seem quite happy to press on with investigating the scientist’s murder. (It’s tempting to draw parallels with the BBC’s enjoyably daft 2018 cop show Hard Sun, which had a vaguely similar premise.)

Mrs Gale is packed off to the observatory, where the death has been hushed up to avoid revealing the truth about the dwarf star, and finds the usual mixed bag of suspects, while Steed sticks around in London and works on figuring out who would stand to benefit from a delay in determining whether or not the world is doomed. (It turns out that Steed is so laid back because he’s quietly sure the world will not end, on the grounds that there is no precedent for this happening. Very uncharacteristic woolly thinking, I would say, and at least Mrs Gale does take him to task for his spurious logic.) His investigations eventually lead him to a bunch of tycoons aiming to take advantage of the disturbance in the global stock market that will ensue if the news of impending doom is announced and then rowed back upon…

Again, one is impressed by the composure involved in coming up with such a scheme when everyone (apart from Steed) seems to think there is at least an equal chance that the theory of the approaching death star is correct, but so it goes. You could argue that the episode is built on a slightly flawed premise – there is no tension involved in the question of whether or not the world is ending, because we the viewers know it won’t – but it’s still another episode with a unique flavour to it. Hulke’s left-wing politics are on display in the choice of villains, obviously, but he’s by no means the only writer to have bad guys solely motivated by greed. This one scores points for originality, for well-drawn characters, and for a climax which is – rather unusually – shot on film, on location (though, again, Steed seems a bit out of character as he turns up packing a handgun). Nevertheless, another step towards The-Avengers-as-we-know-and-love-it.

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(With due apologies to Tony Hawks.)

It is interesting, and not a little cheering, to see that most people are resisting the crack of the whip as wielded by the vested interests of the untrammelled capitalist system and not trudging back to the old status quo simply because those who would benefit most from this demand them to. For me and many others the pause in everyday life continues (not quite a complete pause, as the passage of time is reflected in the slow erosion of my savings, but that’s by-the-by) and we continue with whatever we’ve been doing for the last two months. In my case this has been online gaming of various kinds and watching films and TV shows online and on DVD.

One of the games I ended up trying was Modiphius’ Star Trek Adventures, the latest in a very long line of Trek-related role-playing games and wargames. I and the player group I rassled together have been having quite a good time with this – although it’s hard to tell whether the dud moments we occasionally have are down to problems with the way the system translates Trek into an RPG context or just us not getting the vibe right ourselves as players.

Anyway, we have been having a good enough time to want to continue for the foreseeable future – inasmuch as that expression has any meaning at present – and this has put my mind to the question of writing stories for the game (this would probably be a more appropriate topic for a more gaming-focussed blog, but hey, one thing at a time). Star Trek RPGs can be difficult to write for, as the characters are not acquisitive or inclined to violence as a first resort, standard jeopardy plots are often negated by the ship’s transporter beam, and many key conflicts are often internal or somewhat abstract (you want your players to respect the Prime Directive, but if they treat it as an unbreakable rule in the way that Picard and Kirk frequently don’t, it becomes an obstacle to stories rather than a facilitator of them).

Then there are the really odd episodes that a game like Prime Time Adventures would probably handle better than even a semi-traditional RPG like STA: the one where Picard goes home to his family, or the one where someone unknowingly gets stuck in a micro-universe and has to figure our why the galaxy is now only half a mile across, or… you get my point. Or, and we finally reach our topic, the one with the baseball game.

I speak of Take Me Out to the Holosuite, fourth episode of Deep Space Nine‘s final season. DS9 has a reputation as the grimmest and grittiest of the Trek series, which I suppose is not undeserved – although personally I think of it as a series which, once it found its stride, was essentially about what happens when a utopia faces an existential threat: can it hang onto the values and philosophies which are at its core? When does survival come at too high a price? Nevertheless, the show also occasionally throws out what I can only call a goofball episode, of which this is a good example.

The USS T’Kumbra, an all-Vulcan ship, is docked at the station for repairs and refits, and it turns out its captain, Solok (Gregory Wagrowski), is an old rival of Captain Sisko. That doesn’t sound very Vulcan, I hear you say, and I agree: but quite apart from holding a grudge, Solok is also arrogant about Vulcan superiority and dismissive of other less developed races (which is to say, all of them). Solok completes his bid for the title of least authentic Trek alien this side of Australian Romulan Legolas by also revealing he is a follower of baseball and has formed his senior officers into a team. (It is implied he has done this just to wind the baseball-loving Sisko up – I know, I know, it just keeps on like that.)

Needless to say Sisko accepts Solok’s challenge of a game between the Vulcans and his own staff, to be played on the holosuite in two weeks’ time. Cue various droll scenes of Klingons, Trill, and Bajorans sitting around trying to learn the arcane rules of baseball, try-outs amongst the regular characters, and so on: even sour-natured barkeeper Quark ends up on the team, even though he has virtually no reason to want to take part. Odo is recruited as umpire; O’Brien invents whiskey-flavoured chewing gum for his role as coach; and so on. (Meanwhile, the Dominion War, in which more than a billion sentient creatures die, continues to rage off-screen, although no-one really mentions this as it would break the whimsical tone of the story.)

Most of the latter part of the story is taken up with the game itself, between the Logicians (Solok’s team: in one of many nice touches, their team symbol is the Vulcan IDIC icon) and the Niners (their symbol merges DS9 itself with a baseball). But how can Sisko and his people hope to stand a chance against a team who are much stronger, tougher, and faster, and – perhaps more crucially – actually know how to play?

I suspect I’m coming across as a bit dismissive of this episode, which is not my intention – I do like it a lot, mainly because it is so atypical of DS9. The thing is that it is quite self-indulgent – or that you have to indulge it in its various conceits, I’m not sure which is more accurate. The characters forget about the war to play baseball for a while; there happens to be a Vulcan baseball team in Starfleet; Sisko believes for a moment that his guys have a chance against them (only Worf the Klingon and the genetically-augmented Bashir can realistically match the Vulcans). There is something deeply un-Roddenberry-esque about the decades-long, and seemingly quite bitter rivalry between Sisko and Solok, and Sisko’s characteristically ruthless determination to win (to begin with at least).

There I go again. It is still really very likeable, even if, like me, your grasp of the rules of baseball is negligible – this is apparently one of those stories which has proven a victim of history, as the rules of baseball have changed since it was made – it seems that while people are still playing the game in the 2370s, they’ve reverted to an archaic version of the rules. I would never have known this; I don’t really understand what is going-on game-wise at the end of the episode, although of course I can follow the emotional track of the story, which is about Sisko learning to loosen up and Rom getting his moment of glory (the famous behind-the-scenes anecdote from this story is that Max Grodenchik, who plays the Ferengi, was a semi-pro baseballer in civilian life and found it almost impossible to convincingly play badly).

In the end this is a cheery little story, two-parts character study to one-part love letter to baseball itself. The stakes are personal and the tone gently comic, for the most part. How you’d make people buy into it as a traditional RPG scenario I’ve no idea, but perhaps the lesson to be learned is that some things just don’t transfer from one form to the other that well. In any case, this is an entertaining example of what Deep Space Nine routinely absolutely isn’t.

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The cold open has become part of the standard structure of episodic TV drama: this is the name for the bit of the story that runs before the opening credits. The idea is to hit the viewer with a hook so arresting and engrossing they feel compelled to stick around regardless of the lack of stimulation provided by the title sequence. You do sometimes get the sense that some programme-makers have forgotten that this is its purpose. Dear Doctor, an episode of Enterprise from early 2002, has as its cold open Phlox, the ship’s doctor, pottering mildly around sickbay feeding his collection of pet animals. The effect is sort of gently agreeable rather than arresting or engrossing, which is a reasonable capsule description of the episode as a whole.

The writers responsible are Maria and Andre Jaquemetton. Phlox is our central character for this episode, played with customary warmth by John Billingsley, and the story is framed by his voice-over, which is a letter to a human doctor posted on Phlox’s home planet of Denobula. Phlox comments on his dealings with the rest of the crew, the possibility of a romantic liaison with one of the ship’s biologists (Kellie Waymire), his relationship with the captain, and so on.

It looks like the whole episode could turn out to be slice-of-life stuff until Enterprise comes across a spacecraft from a pre-warp civilisation, the Valakians. It turns out that the Valakian civilisation is in the grip of a terrible plague or similar disease (good job this is science fiction) and they are desperately looking for help from off-worlders (they have already been visited by other aliens, including the Ferengi). Big-hearted Archer decides to render whatever assistance they can to the Valakians; T’Pol looks disapproving as usual but agrees the risk of cultural contamination for the Valakians is small.

Medical investigations get underway and Phlox makes a number of curious discoveries: firstly, the Valakians share their planet with another humanoid species, the Menk, who are treated well but essentially subject to a sort of benign oppression by the more advanced race. However, the Menk are completely immune to the affliction threatening the Valakians’ future – and this is because it is not caused by a virus or bacteria, but flaws in the Valakian genome which are making the species non-viable.

Enterprise has a decent bash at the how-many-people-can-we-fit-into-one-frame challenge.

Meanwhile, the Valakians have asked Archer if he can give them the information they need to develop their own warp engines, as this will increase their chances of finding another race who can assist them. Suddenly Captain Keen-to-Help is having second thoughts, as the reality of long-term involvement in the Valakians’ affairs sinks in on him. T’Pol observes that Vulcan agreed to help Earth in roughly similar circumstances: nearly a century later, the Vulcans are still there. What are the limits of getting involved?

The question becomes a pressing one for Phlox and Archer both, as the doctor discovers the Menk have developmental potential currently being held in check by the fact they are dominated by the Valakians. Giving them the cure he has developed will mean consigning the Menk to their subordinate role in perpetuity – but he’s a doctor, tasked by his captain to give whatever medical aid he can. What should he do?

You can’t beat a moral dilemma as the driver for a great episode of Star Trek, and the premise here is a good one. However, despite the fact that this is very well-regarded as Enterprise episodes go, I think the realisation lets it down a bit in a couple of ways. This is still a strong and watchable episode, but it doesn’t quite sing as it might.

Much of it is shaped by the fact it’s framed by Phlox’s voiceover, as he writes about the reality of living as an alien amongst humans. You can see what they’re trying to do here, but the problem is that Phlox isn’t a terribly alien alien – there’s not a single strong characteristic you can grab onto to define the Denobulans, in the way you can with the most successful alien cultures in Trek. The Vulcans are brainy and logical. The Klingons are violent and honourable. The Denobulans, on the other hand, are polygamous and genial: I always find Phlox himself comes across as being rather like Frasier Crane under prosthetic make-up. As a result, you don’t really get that sense of seeing humans from a genuinely new and alien perspective, and the voice over just becomes a slightly unusual framing device.

The meat of the episode, however, concerns the moral dilemma of the situation involving the Valakians and the Menk. We shall, as usual, pass over the plausibility of the problem afflicting the Valakians (a species seemingly just spontaneously dying off due to something going wrong with their genome) as the plot is predicated on this, and just consider how the episode handles the dilemma faced by Phlox and Archer.

I say ‘Phlox and Archer’ because the episode was rewritten at the network’s request – in the original version, Phlox lies to Archer and says he hasn’t been able to develop a cure, effectively deciding the issue for himself. Billingsley apparently wasn’t a fan of the change, but I think it works well, giving both characters more depth (even if you can, if you really want to, construe the ending as Archer committing genocide). The episode is making good use of the Enterprise premise, anyway, as the absence of the Prime Directive forces the characters to think the problem through for themselves and genuinely make a decision about it.

The issue is that the problem and their cogitations are not well-presented, dramatically. There aren’t big scenes where dramatic revelations are made, nor do we get the kind of moment where Patrick Stewart used to shine so well, where the captain is forced to accept his humane instincts may not be entirely correct. Archer just leaves one scene thinking one thing, then comes back in in the next announcing he’s thought it over and changed his mind. The sweet spot of really effective drama and character development has been missed.

That’s basically the problem with this episode, the thing that keeps it from truly being a classic: all the elements and structure are here, but it doesn’t find ways to dramatise its ideas effectively. As a result it is intellectually involving, and the change of pace is agreeable, but it never quite grabs the emotions in the way it needs to.

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Unexpected, an episode of Enterprise first broadcast on October 17th 2001, opens with the ship (NX-01 incarnation, back in the 22nd century) experiencing various odd technical problems: vending machines producing the wrong items, gravity malfunctions, and so on. We get to see this when the gravity fails in Captain Archer’s bathroom (luckily he is only having a shower: things could have been a lot worse). This is quite a lavishly CGI-d scene for what is basically just a throwaway gag, but it is the cold open for the episode so it may have been intended to impress and lure in casual viewers (this may be overestimating the appeal of a damp Scott Bakula clinging to his shower head).

Well, naturally, the Enterprise crew are smart cookies and figure out the source of the problems: a cloaked ship is tailgating the Enterprise, causing problems with the warp exhaust, or something like that (it’s good old fashioned treknobabble). The aliens (who are called the Xyrillians) are very apologetic and explain they have been beset by engine problems, and are using the Enterprise‘s exhaust to recharge. Despite the fact that the episode strongly indicates that the Xyrillians are considerably more advanced than Earth, Archer decides to lend them chief engineer Trip (Connor Trinneer) for three days so he can fix their teraphasic warp coils.

Of course, this is Enterprise, so things aren’t as straightforward as they will be in centuries to come: Trip has to spend hours in an uncomfortable acclimatisation chamber in order to board the Xyrillian vessel, and when he gets there he finds it very disorienting and challenging (the direction and performances suggest the experience is a cross between severe jet lag and a bad trip). However, Trip’s trip improves when he discovers the human food the Xyrillians have laid on for him (they appear to have invented water-flavoured jelly), and the fact there is a distinct spark between him and Ah’Len (Julianne Christie), one of their engineers. Literally so: electricity crackles whenever they touch, which is not the most subtle metaphor ever, but what the hell. The two of them even take time out together to visit what is essentially a Xyrillian holodeck, where they stick their hands in some granules that create a temporary telepathic connection between them (easy, tiger).

Make sure she’ll still respect you in the morning, Trip.

All too soon it’s time for Trip to go home and the ships go their separate ways – but it seems he’s brought back more than happy memories and information on the Xyrillians. He starts growing extra nipples on the inside of his wrists, and the ensuing medical exam requires Dr Phlox to enquire if there was any romance during his time away. Yes, it turns out that Ah’Len has managed to knock Trip up, and he is now pregnant with an alien baby. Various surprisingly broad comedy scenes ensue, as the ship searches for the Xyrillians and Trip has odd cravings and frets about whether Enterprise is a child-friendly environment.

Unfortunately, Trip’s repairs have turned out to be no good, and when the ship catches up with the Xyrillians they are pulling their cloaked tailgating manoeuvre again, only this time with a Klingon battle cruiser. As these are especially brutal and shouty 22nd century Klingons, their first reaction on being informed of this is to declare that all the Xyrillians will be executed, but Archer talks the Klingon captain into letting them off in return for the Klingons getting some holodeck technology (we are pre-Prime Directive so they can get away with this), although not before Trip has to show his baby bump (actually, it looks more like a tumour) on the main viewscreen. Trip’s bundle of joy gets transplanted somewhere non-specific, the Klingon captain shouts ‘I can see my house from here!’ as he visits a holo-recreation of Qo’noS, and everyone heads off happily.

This is one of those episodes (written, by the way, by Brannon Braga and Rick Berman) with a toxic reputation and you can kind of understand why: while there are some good things in it (Trinneer’s performance is charming, and there’s a nice turn from Julianne Christie, who actually manages to make a bald scaly alien in a tinfoil jumpsuit rather alluring), in other places it is just inept or feels bizarrely misjudged.

The pacing is off, for one thing: you can tell that the character-based-emotional-core of the episode is Trip having to come to terms with the possibility of becoming a parent (the kind of theme other Trek episodes deal with reasonably successfully). But after spending a good chunk of the episode getting him over to the Xyrillian ship, and then establishing his relationship with Ah’Len (presumably so Trip doesn’t just come across as an easy lay), the episode only has about five minutes to contemplate this before they have to think about resolving the plot. The other issue is the tone, once the fact of the ‘pregnancy’ becomes apparent: it is much closer to goofy, gonzo comedy than you’d expect in Star Trek, with the other characters smirking and struggling to keep a straight face when talking to Trip.

I could probably also put my armchair xenobiologist’s hat on and comment on how very implausible the Xyrillian reproductive process seems – apparently the males of the species don’t contribute genetically to the embryo at all, they just host it, which begs all kinds of questions about how they maintain diversity in their genome and what the male gets out of the process at all. The fact they also apparently procreate by sticking their hands in holographic psychic gravel together also seems rather unlikely to me. But when the plot demands such things…

I suppose it is all part of an attempt to communicate just how weird and alien the Xyrillians are. This would work better if the show had not apparently been running out of money, for despite everything suggested by the script about the exotic environment of their ship – food growing out of the walls, grass growing on the floor – what we end up with are some of the most garish, ugly, cheap-ass looking sets ever seen in Berman-era Trek. (The technical incompetence of the episode extends into other areas: for instance, Christopher Darga, playing the Klingon captain, is very obviously looking at the wrong camera during most of his communicating-by-viewscreen scenes.)

And yet I find myself oddly reluctant to consign Unexpected to the same reliquary for horribly inept Trek where you will find episodes like Spock’s Brain, Angel One, Shades of Gray, and anything featuring mushroom-powered teleport drives. Quite what the point of it was supposed to be admittedly remains unclear, but there are certainly pleasures to be had along the way, from the performances to the fact that it is, in places, much more genuinely funny than most of the supposedly comedic episodes of Next Gen. It’s not great drama, or great SF, or even particularly great comedy. But it passes the test, some of the time at least, in that it engages, diverts and entertains.

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