Posts Tagged ‘Star Trek’

Oh, God, it’s another attempt at a whimsical comedy episode (with a hefty side order of mawkishness) with everyone assuming that hamming it up is the key to comic acting. HARD PASS.

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Oh, where to start? I just want to reiterate that I really liked the last episode of Strange New Worlds that we discussed, despite the downer ending. What can I say, I’m just inherently glum, I suppose. However, perhaps that gloomy denouement does have a bearing on the subsequent instalment, The Serene Squall (possibly The Congruent Oxymoron was considered as a title but ditched), because this certainly follows the grim/serious-episode-then-high-spirited-romp-episode pattern which is starting to develop.

Things get underway, somewhat weirdly, with Spock’s fiancee T’Pring making an entry in her personal log. (She’s some sort of prison psychiatrist, so why does she even have a personal log? Does everyone in this timeline have a log? Does Uhura have a log? Does M’Benga’s kid who lives in the transporter buffer have a log? Does Pike’s horse have a log? I guess the writers were just so habituated to the use of the log as a storytelling device that they didn’t actually stop to think about it. Hmmm.) Anyway, T’Pring is looking to help their relationship by ‘spicing things up’, which involves reading some naughty books from Earth history and then attempting to discuss them with Spock. I quite empathised with Spock’s discomfort as this scene was quite like what I imagine listening to my parents talk about their own amatory shenanigans would be like.

The A-plot thankfully kicks in with the ship going out to assist some colonists stranded on the edge of Federation space; this is at the request of visiting character Dr Aspen (Jesse James Keitel – the famous Keitel’s cousin, apparently). However, when they arrive, all the signs are that the colonists have been captured by space pirates (oh, don’t worry, we will come back to this; you’d better believe we’ll come back to this) and are in danger of being sold into slavery. So Pike sends the Enterprise in pursuit of the pirate ship, which involves flying through a very dense asteroid field for a long time (The Empire Strikes Back has a lot to answer for). After avoiding a few cunning traps, the ship catches up with them and Pike decides to join the tactical squad being sent over to try and rescue them; his combat suit is, of course, thoughtfully equipped with a gold-plated chestplate, just so anyone fighting them will know who the high-value target is. Actually, this is the first time that Number One mentions that Pike is breaking protocol by leading the landing party himself – which, for all that it makes sense, doesn’t really chime with Kirk leading virtually every landing party himself just a few years later. Unless, of course, we’re in a parallel timeline.

But while the security team are beaming over to the pirates, some pirates are beaming over to the Enterprise, and succeed in capturing the whole ship pretty damn quick. How many pirates are there? Let us not forget there are over four hundred people on the Enterprise, most of whom are members of a paramilitary organisation and likely able to handle themselves quite well even in an emergency. But the plot demands that the Enterprise be captured and so it is. There is a plot twist here too, which I will not reveal because I am basically an honourable person even though I think this episode stinks.

The pirate captain is planning to sell the Enterprise and its crew, but not before swapping Spock for one of the prisoners whom T’Pring is involved in trying to rehabilitate. So that’s something Spock and Chapel (whom he has teamed up with this week) have to resolve. Meanwhile Pike and the others, who don’t seem particularly bothered about being captured by pirates and thrown into a cage, put the standard escape-from-pirates protocol into operation.

Gene Roddenberry, as is well known, had many strict rules about the scripting of Star Trek, especially in the TNG era: no acquisitiveness, no conflict between crew members, no prejudice, all skirts to be no longer than mid-thigh. One of the more obscure of these was ‘no space pirates’ although nearly everyone seems quite vague about his reasoning on this point. ‘They’re just corny’ seems to be the consensus, but I’m sure I remember something along the lines of ‘the crew are explorers, not policemen’. I think it may also have something to do with the fact that Roddenberry was quite high-minded in his intentions for Star Trek, and the only way you can successfully do a story about space pirates is as relatively low comedy, leaning into all the cliches about eyepatches and walking the plank and so on; exceptions to this rule are vanishingly rare (I suppose the raiders in Babylon 5 are technically space pirates, but they all get killed off pretty early on). But here comes Strange New Worlds, taking a running jump at a space pirate story nevertheless.

A space pirate, yesterday.

Although, to their credit (not much credit, this episode is deeper into the red than Black Widow’s ledger – oh, yes, friends, I can do topical pop culture references), the makers of the episode seem to have figured out the low comedy thing and so much of this episode is another (I’m tempted to say yet another) light-hearted romp with Pike mounting an escape through cooking and Spock and Chapel attempting to dissemble a relationship. And there is what I think is supposed to be a comedy villain in the form of pirate Captain Angel. ‘We wanted a character you would love to hate’ according to the production team. They are partway there, because I certainly – well, hate is a strong word for an emotion I do my best only to indulge in under very strict conditions (when confronted with the grossest moral failings of humanity – prejudice, exploitation, Boris Johnson, that sort of thing), but I would certainly be very happy never to see this character again.

And once it all resolves comes a twist ending, sort of – or a revelation, anyway. This one I am going to spoil… SPOILERS INCOMING… you see, one of the Vulcan criminals that T’Pring is trying to rehabilitate turns out to be (and let’s forget about all notions of conflicts of interest and personal involvement, because they’re Vulcans after all) Spock’s half-brother Sybok from Star Trek V! Yes, whenever two or more Trekkies are gathered together the conversation invariably turns to William Shatner’s magnum opus and how much everyone loves it and wants to see more of the characters and concepts it introduced. (Captain, sensors are detecting extremely high levels of irony.)

All right, I know I am often a miserable and reactionary old sod about the SF and fantasy franchises I loved in my distant and fading youth, but that’s not the only reason I think this episode is terrible, is it? I don’t know. I don’t think so. Anyway, I think this is a terrible episode, and the indications we’ll be seeing Sybok and Captain Angel again at some point drag my spirits down like a neutronium manacle about my soul. But apart from that, mustn’t grumble.

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I know it may be hard to believe, but I really do try hard to be a positive person; endless griping and dwelling on disappointment does nobody any good, after all. I was genuinely hoping to be able to find lots of positive things to say about Strange New Worlds, and yet time and again I have found myself stumbling into grumbling, often about the fact this modern TV series so closely resembles a modern TV series, which is probably not really grounds for complaint. (Getting the continuity so wilfully wrong week after week I will stick by as a casus belli, mainly bcause this is a choice they are making for themselves.)

The next episode, Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach, finds the show back in its default tone – not too grimdark and not trying to be too light-hearted either. The Enterprise is back in territory Pike visited back when he was a young officer when it comes across a ship under attack; being good Starfleet types the crew intervene and shoot down the marauder (somewhat by accident, but it still counts). On the ship turns out to be a woman who Pike got to know on his previous visit, a grumpy former physician, and the physician’s son (‘only biologically,’ he is at pains to point out, rather cryptically). The lad, who is naturally a rather winsome moppet, turns out to be a spiritual figure for his home civilisation, being taken from a preparatory retreat to his homeworld of Majalis where a major dedication ceremony awaits him.

According to Alora, Pike’s old friend, this is because the lad – ‘the First Servant’, apparently – is of incalculable value to the Majalan civilisation and thus a prime target for mercenary-minded aliens keen to try their hands at an abduction. As the Enterprise is already mixed up in all this, Pike volunteers to keep the boy safe until it’s time for the ceremony, even though Alora seems a bit conflicted about that.

Pike considers joining the SCA.

As you may not be entirely surprised to hear, a mystery begins to develop – just who were the attackers? Alora has said they were from an alien colony, but evidence suggests a much closer connection to Majalis itself, and a conspiracy at all levels of Majalan society to sabotage the dedication ceremony. While all this is going on, the crew is learning of the wonders of Majalan technology and culture – not only do they potentially hold the key to saving M’Benga’s own child from having to grow up in the transporter buffer, they may even be able to undo the effects of the horrific injuries Pike is due to suffer in a few years time. The snag – and of course there’s a snag – is that the Majalans don’t share their technology with aliens (that Prime Directive cuts both ways, I guess), but if Pike were to settle down there…? Certainly Alora seems very keen to get to know him a lot better…

I ended up having to watch this episode twice before writing about it, which is somewhat unusual – not because it is excessively complicated or difficult to follow, it’s just not as simplistic as some of the others have been recently. Rather than a collection of repurposed old plot points from previous iterations of Trek, it’s probably the first episode to genuinely have the sense of being an actual pastiche of the original series. The obvious reference point is The Cloud Minders, a third-season episode which, like most third-season episodes, is not exactly drowning in affection from the fanbase: both deal with apparently cultured-civilisations that have a dark secret, and – on a more superficial level – both feature flying anti-gravity cities.

Personally, I quite like The Cloud Minders – it’s not the most distinguished piece of original Trek, but there are much worse; the costume designs are fun and it has a sort of thematic-metaphorical purity to it. And I rather like Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach, too, not really for the same reasons but because it has an undeniably retro quality to it (Pike gets a bit of kissy time and a couple of fist fights) and a strange note of sweetness, in the early stages at least. What’s particularly impressive is that this isn’t overdone to the point where you go ‘Uh oh, this is all setting something really horrible up.’

I mean, I’ve written about my fondness for table-top RPGs before and the players in my games of Cthulhu in particular have learned the hard way that if they stumble across a cache of high-powered weapons and explosives with which to equip themselves, it means they are in for a brutally horrific time involving something completely immune to conventional weapons. In the same way, the clumsy way to do this episode would have been to overload the tweeness and cuteness until it was obvious there was going to be shocking reversal. They still manage the shocking reversal, and manage one which – while foreshadowed – still comes as a surprise.

If you’re on the ball – and here we enter the realm of SPOILERS INCOMING – the suspicious similarity between the treatment of the First Servant, and that of the Perfect Victim in the civilisation of the Aztecs, is probably fairly obvious. For, yes, the Majalans practice a technological form of human sacrifice, all in the name of preserving their civilisation in its current very agreeable form. Now, it’s interesting to consider what sort of allegorical point the episode is gunning for at this point: I just thought it was something quite general about the child labour involved in the production of a lot of luxury goods we value in 21st century western civilisation. However, I have seen it suggested that this episode is actually a very oblique statement on the whole issue of the Second Amendment and gun control in contemporary America: the founders of the Majalan civilisation organised things so their descendents have to plug a child into a machine every few years just to keep things going. Nobody knows why. I’m not sure this entirely hangs together – the writers of the Second Amendment wrote it for fairly intelligible reasons, just reasons which are now arcane and anachronistic – but it adds a degree of heft and moral content to an episode which deserves it. It does feel genuinely tragic when the Majalans turn out to be complicit in monstrosity, as the hope they offer both Pike and M’Benga has been subtly set up throughout the episode. Star Trek isn’t usually very good at downer endings, but this one works.

To be fair, most of the episode’s subtlety dissipates like mist at dawn as the climax arrives, and I thought the subtext was very on-the-nose (this was before I realised I wasn’t sure what it was supposed to be). But, once again, the sense of being bopped on the snoot by the writers with respect to whatever issue they wish to explore or point they wish to make is a familiar one to those of us who have spent a lot of time with this franchise, so this is once again a rather agreeable and nostalgic sensation.  Star Trek is often at its best when it’s up on a soapbox of some sort, and the sincerity of the script is as obvious as its quality. This is the best episode yet of Strange New Worlds. 

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Even before I started in on watching the actual episode, I was a bit dubious about Spock Amok, just from the title. If you’re going to do an episode focussing on the most beloved character in Star Trek history, and include a reference to one of the most famous and – yes, for once it is justified – iconic instalments in the entire franchise, you’d better be damn sure you’ve got something special lined up to justify it.

And, while it may perhaps be fairly said that I am a reactionary old pedant with a shrivelled husk where my heart and soul should reside and no appreciation of the nature of the modern world and its culture, I must confess that the actual homage to Amok Time at the start of Spock Amok disarmed me almost completely in its charm and attention to detail. Then again, it is, as noted, iconic and already much-parodied, so there’s really no excuse for not getting it right.

The rest of the episode? Well… not so much, you probably won’t be terribly surprised to discover. This is not based on any deep ideological disagreement with the writers of the episode, or due to an egregious decision to rewrite yet more of the original series’ continuity, but something rather more basic. This is that I generally don’t like funny Star Trek.

(That said, egregious continuity rewrite of the week is that Starfleet are apparently aware that the R’Ongovians are about to go into negotiations with the Romulans. Presumably not those same Romulans that Starfleet had received no information about for nearly a century in the episode Balance of Terror, set only a few years  later… oh, hang on, it is those Romulans. Hmm. That’s a bit awkward, isn’t it? Or it would be if you cared about this stuff.)

Yes, funny Star Trek. I imagine I’m going to be writing the words funny Star Trek a lot in the course of the few paragraphs, potentially to the point where we all get a bit sick of them. So it may well be that I decide to start switching in some other, similar words just to avoid monotony for us all.

Anyway, what’s Spock Amok actually about? Well, it’s a change-of-pace episode where after various death-defiances the various members of the crew get a chance to relax. For SNW-Spock it’s a chance to hang out with his fiancee SNW-T’Pring, while some of the others go off fishing (there is the obligatory silly hat) or catching up with old friends or whatever. Meanwhile, someone in the writer’s room has noticed that SNW-Number One and Lt Khan Jr are not that far away from basically being exactly the same person – fierce, no-nonsense humourless professional – and so naturally they pair them up together for what I suppose we are obliged to call high-jinks. SNW-Pike gets stuck with the job of leading some complex negotiations with the R’Ongovians, a tricky bunch of aliens.

(It seems to be a trope, not just of Trek but other space opera TV series, that the tricky alien diplomatic contact is frequently  used as a plot challenge in one of the more bloody-mindedly light-hearted episodes. Picard got stuck in the middle of wacky holodeck shenanigans while preparing for sensitive negotiations on at least one occasion, while I can even recall a couple of Babylon 5 episodes revolving around aliens with peculiar idiosyncrasies, some of which are probably a bit cringeworthy by modern standards.)

The problem is that none of these subplots is exactly screaming with comic potential – with the possible exception of the main one, I suppose, which concerns Spock and T’Pring having an involuntary body swap as a result of an accident in the ancient Vulcan k’ate-b’ush-run-nin-up-dat-hyl ritual – it’s sort of Freaky Friday on Mount Seleya. It feels like they’re having a go at doing tummy far fleck because tummy far fleck is one of the things that is an integral part of the far fleck – sorry, Star Trek – palette. And I’m not sure that it is.

I’m not going to say ‘it’s all David Gerrold’s fault’ because David Gerrold’s dunny mar shreck script was genuinely amusing and he shouldn’t be held responsible, any more than The Beatles should be held responsible for late Oasis albums. Gerrold wrote The Trouble With Tribbles, which was the first full-blooded attempt at doing Star Trek as a comedy. It’s one of the immortal episodes of the series, but the problem – as recurred, twenty years later, when Star Trek IV was a great success as a comedy-drama and the studio decreed that all subsequent films should be funnied up a bit – was less capable attempts to repeat its success.

It’s a weird thing, but a lot of Star Trek does comic by-play between the various characters extremely well – all the main characters of the original series are well-served with funny lines that they know exactly what to do with, and the same is true for several members of the TNG ensemble. The occasional snappy line in a generally-serious episode or movie is one of the hallmarks of Trek at its best; it’s when the order is given to actually make being funny the raison d’etre of something that it can get a bit punishing for the viewer. Supposedly-amusing musical cues start to insert themselves into the soundtrack, to tell the audience that This Is Funny; characterisation tends to take second place to the rather laborious pursuit of laughs.

This is not a plea for wall to wall grim and serious Star Trek, of course: it’s an essentially optimistic franchise, after all, and it should have a sense of hopefulness and (occasionally) fun about it. If Star Trek seemed capable of consistently doing genuinely funny episodes then perhaps I would feel better disposed towards the idea. But the problem is that most comedy Star Trek is just not very funny. It’s not in the genome of the series, really: it wasn’t intended to be funny.

(Perhaps this is why parody Star Trek is such a consistent source of genuine hilarity in a way that comedy Star Trek itself seldom is. All right, I’m mainly thinking of Galaxy Quest, which probably qualifies as the funniest bit of Star Trek ever made even though it’s not technically Star Trek itself.)

There’s nothing much enormously wrong with any of the plot threads in Spock Amok, even if some of them stretch credulity a bit. It’s just that none of them are actually particularly funny. As usual, wit and subtlety depart the scene at warp speed and the episode seems suddenly to become rather pleased with itself: look at me! I’m trying to be funny! I have genuine range and depth! Trying and succeeding are not, of course, the same thing. Even if Star Trek were a one trick pony (and it isn’t), there’s something to be said for knowing the thing you’re best at and being content to excel at that one thing.

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This week’s episode of Strange New Worlds is Memento Mori. (By ‘this week’ I mean ‘the episode that I watched this week’ not ‘the episode that was first broadcast this week’, obviously.) Last time I wrote about Ghosts of Illyria and was generally quite positive, in an only moderately sarcastic way, about the manner in which it happily recycled one of the old standard Star Trek plots.

Memento Mori is a bit like that but also something quite different. It starts off with the ship on the way to the colony Finibus III to deliver some important supplies; on the way the crew attend to the important job of establishing the thematic and character-based elements of the plot. This episode is clearly going to be about loss and the grieving process, and also SNW-Uhura impressing the grumpy blind chief engineer.

In retrospect what follows is actually a relatively close homage to / rip off of a classic, dare I say it iconic, episode of the original show – for a while, anyway. Finibar III is silent when the Enterprise arrives, and a landing party discovers the settlement in ruins with signs of a slaughter having occurred. A freighter arrives carrying a load of survivors, obliging the ship to dock with them (the freighter has a plot-enabling transporter-resistant hull); this proves to be a very bad idea as this whole situation is apparently a trap (a very complicated and rather improbably devious trap, if you ask me) to enable a bunch of hostile aliens to attack the Enterprise while its shields are down. And, even worse, the aliens are revealed to be…

Oh, dear. I know I’ve already made it quite clear that, as far as my own headcanon goes, Fandango, SNW, the new cartoon shows, and probably even Picard are all alt-universe versions of Star Trek – some further adrift from the original timeline than others, but none of them quite there. The discontinuities just pile up too quickly and glaringly for anything else to be the case. I’m genuinely baffled by the fact that nearly everyone who takes more than a casual interest in Trek seems to be buying into the official line that they’re all in the same continuity, even with established historical events jumping casually between centuries and regular characters mysteriously changing their personalities and ethnicities. Probably annoyed as well as baffled, but that’s by-the-by. Memento Mori has at least one minor continuity rewrite of its own: Spock performs a mind meld with Lt. Khan Jr, despite the fact that in an episode theoretically set rather later (Dagger of the Mind) he states he’s never mind-melded with a human before. Look out for some wriggling which I expect will take the form of them declaring that Khan Jr isn’t technically human, or something like that.

Every other photo from this episode I could find was rather generic.

Anyway, the major continuity rewrite this week is that the malevolent aliens sadistically lying in wait for the Enterprise are the Gorn, who we see in the episode Arena (which Memento Mori sort-of homages, briefly) but who then really drop out of sight barring a few tiny references and a cameo in one of the final episodes of Enterprise. (My suspicion has always been that this was because the rubber suit used to create the Gorn was too expensive for them to be viable as a recurring species.)

We don’t actually get a look at a Gorn in this episode, but Khan Jr seems absolutely convinced it’s them, which is weird as they don’t seem to have a very great deal in common with the Gorn from Arena. The Arena Gorn were ruthless and devious too, but they didn’t seem to go around eating people and – perhaps most crucially – they attack and destroy a Federation colony because it accidentally impinges on their territory, not because they’re homicidal maniacs. There’s a whole plot beat in Arena where the characters realise the Gorn may have a justifiable grievance with the Federation. It’s also fairly clear that, as far as Kirk’s Enterprise is concerned, the Gorn are an almost wholly unknown quantity, which would be very strange if Pike’s Enterprise has supposedly fought a major battle against them.

We’ve seen aliens – monsters – like Memento Mori‘s Gorn before, anyway, they just weren’t called Gorn. The aliens-obsessed-with-hunting-humans gag obviously brings to mind the Hirogen from Voyager; Enterprise had an episode about an evil ship that went around terrorising less advanced civilisations, too. The specific references to Treks-gone-by in this episode are fairly dismal, but when it comes to a sort of generic evocation of the history of the series it’s… well, really relentless, to be honest.

This isn’t really doing one of the classic Trek story structures, nor a very obvious homage to a specific other film or TV show, but at the same time it still feels incredibly derivative. The opening is a loose rewrite of Arena‘s first act or so. Then, the ship has to hide inside a big cloud of gas to evade its enemies? That’s a staple Trek bit, and I’m certain there’s a whole episode of DS9 based on that exact premise, I just can’t be bothered to look it up. I could go on, but I can’t believe anyone still reading this would want that. Even the bit with SNW-Uhura and Hemmer trapped in the cargo bay is surely the bit with Crusher and Geordi trapped in the cargo bay from that TNG episode where Worf delivers a baby and Data’s head falls off.

I know the point of SNW is to be the version of new-Trek that’s supposed to be comfort viewing for your more seasoned Trek watcher (which must be why I have accepted it so wholly and unreservedly, har har), but is it going to be like this regularly going forward? Claiming to be a prequel show then not really paying attention to the nuts and bolts of canon and continuity, but managing to feel – on some level – authentic, primarily through sourcing virtually every plot element and beat from a previous episode in the franchise.

I mean, on one level the episode certainly hangs together as a sort of exercise in plot-carpentry. If you’d never seen Trek before you might very well be faintly impressed by Memento Mori; it’s technically very competent and rather atmospheric. And if you have seen Trek before, well, there’s an awful lot there which seems designed to get the fans onside, one way or another. But to me it felt rather like an episode where the first draft was written by an AI that had been fed Star Trek – The Complete Collected Scripts and the second draft and polish was done by somebody who knew a lot about the series but didn’t care at all about the consistency and coherence of the fictional universe. This to me was not a good combination. I wish I had liked it more, but it mostly just wound me up, I’m afraid.

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Back in the good old days I would often make sport of the fact that the Big Book of Star Trek Plots only seemed to have a handful of pages to it: there was the plot about Time Travel, the one about a Transporter Malfunction, and so on to include Stranded On An Alien Planet, Visit To An Alien Planet That Looks Like The Paramount Back Lot, Ambassadors Cause Trouble, etc. One of these was Strange Disease Causes Regular Cast To Act Strangely/Worse Than Usual, which is such a classic piece of Trek that it’s first instance in the original series got remade in TNG.

So you can imagine my delight when it turned out that the third episode of Strange New Worlds, Ghosts of Illyria, proved to be this old favourite rising from the grave. I wouldn’t say it was a prime example of this kind of story, but hey, early days.

The story gets underway with a landing party exploring an apparently-abandoned colony belonging to the Illyrians, an alien civilisation who seem quite advanced and not actually malevolent, but who have a vexed relationship with the Federation due to their fondness for tinkering about with their own genome. They shine a light on this very firmly so you just know that it’s going to be important to the plot. All seems very routine until a violent ion storm sweeps in and everyone has to beam back up to the Enterprise – but, of course, the damn thing blows a fuse and Pike and Spock find themselves stranded on the planet and in need of shelter.

Now, at this point you’re wondering – is this going to be an A-story about Pike and Spock bonding in extremis as they struggle survive? Or is this just the B-story to keep them out of the way so that the main plot can focus on someone else back on the ship. It proves to be the latter, and this week’s winner of the spotlight award is Rebecca Romjin as Number One (I’m aware she has another name now but I can never remember what it is).

Yes, this is a virus-runs-amok episode, although of course it is a virus that doesn’t show up on the scanners, has no obvious vector of communication, and causes the infected crew to behave very strangely indeed – obsessed with exposing themselves to light, even when this involves doing really stupid things like smashing their heads through panels and setting the warp reactor on overload. The only person who seems to be immune is Number One, whose body quickly eliminates the virus by glowing.

Well, it turns out that she is Illyrian herself and has an enhanced response to viral infections. It’s hard to see something like this really being problematic, but everyone in Starfleet just can’t get over all the trouble caused by the augments back in the 1990s, or possibly the 2030s in this timeline, and for her to reveal all of this would probably end her career. What’s a first officer to do? Meanwhile Pike and Spock are engaged in some slightly perfunctory goings-on with some energy creatures down on the surface.

To be honest, I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as Children of the Comet, for all that has such a comfortingly familiar shape to it. I mean, it’s not awful, of course, but come the end of it I couldn’t help feeling that the story hadn’t quite landed properly somehow. It felt like one of those stories where the protagonist is laboriously manoeuvred into a rather contrived and problematic situation simply so they can work through their personal issues and do something clever and equally contrived to save the day.

On further reflection I think the problem really boils down to the focus on Number One and the Illyrians. Now, I am aware that there has been a lot of apocryphal material about this character and her background over the years, establishing her racial background and her name (whatever it is), and that this episode is just canonising information that a lot of Trekkies would already know (canonising in an alternate timeline, anyway).

‘You know, it’s nice, but I think the decor is just a bit too garish for me.’

The whole crux of the episode, in terms of giving Number One a big dilemma to deal with, is about whether or not she reveals her heritage and special abilities to the rest of the crew. As the alternative is to let them all die of the virus, it seems a bit of a no-brainer to me anyway, but the thing keeping her from doing this is something we’ve never seen before on this show, which could just as well have been written specifically for this episode (not unlike Captain Kirk’s involvement in crimes against humanity as a young man, which only gets mentioned in a single show).

And it’s not even introduced that well – it seems like no-one else on the ship is aware she’s even an Illyrian, which really begs a number of very big questions about Starfleet’s recruitment policy and process. Did she never get a blood test or a DNA scan? What about her home address or next of kin? As I say, it all seems just a little bit contrived for the benefit of this particular story, and you just know anyway that Pike is going to use his personal authority to keep her in post come the end of the episode anyway.

The B-character moment this week comes when it is revealed that all of this happened because Dr M’Benga is secretly keeping his terminally ill daughter in stasis in the transporter buffer (making good and seemingly routine use of a discovery made by Scotty, thirty-odd years later, mutter grumble). occasionally materialising her so he can read her a story. Once again I’m afraid there was a bit of eye-rolling on my part when this particular nugget of character-building came into view. Is the Federation so absolutely inflexible when it comes to terminal illness as well as genetic engineering? Apparently this version of it is, yes.

I should say that the bulk of this story wasn’t actually that objectionable, just that the initial conditions required for it to happen seemed very contrived. But then again it wasn’t close to being as uproariously bad as The Naked Now or probably a few other episodes from the same lineage, so I should just shut me big fat mouth and stop pretending that my opinion on hip young modern TV means anything to anyone. I say ‘should’, but if I did that I’d have to stop the blog and I’d have nothing to do during quiet moments at work. So I guess we’ll just all just carry on as we are.

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So, another episode of Strange New Worlds – not that it actually features a strange new world much this week (Captain, my phaser is jammed on ‘pedantic’, I’m afraid). This one is called Children of the Comet and is, as I had hoped, significantly more fun than the series opener.

It takes a little while to get going, with a lengthy sequence depicting Captain Pike cooking all the other characters dinner (something I can’t quite imagine the more tightly-wound Jeffrey Hunter version of Pike doing). This is because we still have characters to introduce and establish, particular the chief engineer, who is a blind Andorian, and this show’s version of Uhura, who is the central character of this episode (it is somewhat gratifying to see them go back to the old Michael Piller schema where nearly every episode focuses on a particular individual and their issue-of-the-week – I assume that’s what they’re going to be doing, anyway). It is pretty much an iron rule that whatever attitude a character displays at the start of this sort of episode, they will have executed a smart 180-degree-turn by its end, and so it is not very surprising to learn that Uhura is not sure she wants to be in Starfleet long-term.

(I’m just going to express my disappointmnt at the belief, which appears to have become entrenched at Paramount/CBS in the last 15 years, that people are only going to be interested in Star Trek if it features or somehow connects to characters from one of the earlier iterations of the franchise. Hence Disco is a prequel about Spock’s miraculous adopted sister, Strange New Worlds features various original series characters, Picard is about, well, Picard, and one of the cartoons has a holographic Janeway in it (I believe) – it looks like the funny cartoon is exempt from this, though.

My point is that I would have found Disco a lot more tolerable if it had been set twenty or thirty years after Star Trek: Nemesis and had completely new characters, and a lot of the stuff that niggles me about Strange New Worlds is connected to the fact it’s a prequel (or technically interquel) series, supposedly featuring the same characters as previous ones. This show’s version of Uhura is an engaging character, well-written and well-played. But she’s nothing like the Nichelle Nichols version and it chafes my brain. The same for their versions of Chapel, and Kyle, and so on. Even their version of Pike, although Anson Mount’s take on the character is a lot more appealing than Hunter’s rather dour interpretation – quite what Mount has got going on with his hair, however, is a different question.)

Anyway, the situation which obligingly comes along to help Uhura work through her personal issues concerns a comet which is on course to mash into an inhabited planet, and so naturally the Enterprise crew decide to intervene. But! There is some form of intelligence on the comet, which prevents their initial plan from working, and so they send down an away team (if memory serves, they do use the TNG-era formulation away team, rather than landing party as was usually the case in the original series). And inevitably there is trouble which it falls to Uhura to resolve, primarily by communicating with the comet by singing to it (‘Bam bam bam bam bam’). Spock helps her out with this, and I must be honest and confess that I was shouting ‘Do The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins!’ at the screen at this point.

The necessary complication which turns up midway through is the arrival of a group of advanced aliens calling themselves Shepherds, who see themselves as spiritually connected to the comet, and will not countenance any interference with it from uppity Federation types. It’s a very classic Trek set up, which I expect was the whole idea, and – brace yourselves – as it went on I found myself rather caught up in it and genuinely enjoying myself. Well, up to a point, obviously.

The structure of the plot is essentially very sound, although the method by which they eventually manage to redirect the comet onto a new course seemed to me to come out of nowhere – I mean, it’s scientifically sound, I just expected them all to sing it a song so it would move itself somehow. I didn’t really buy into the whole subtext about predetermination and destiny which the episode was clearly pitching hard – the conflict between the Shepherds’ view that everything is happening for a reason and one should just have faith in providence, and the Federation’s more we-make-our-own-fate attitude. It felt a bit corny, for one thing, and for another, a belief in people’s own agency to shape the world for the better is surely part of Trek‘s essential DNA. Everyone’s entitled to their beliefs, obviously, but that doesn’t mean that all beliefs are equally correct, and this felt a bit like the show trying too hard to be pluralistic.

On the other hand, the question of predetermination does obviously tie in to the ongoing plot thread about Pike struggling to come to terms with his own not entirely enviable future – this one, as they say, is clearly going to run and run. There’s a curious conflict here – Star Trek is about personal agency, as we just discussed, but on the other hand it’s also been a tenet of the Federation that history is fragile and can’t be changed (how this squares with the existence of multiple timelines – the ‘main’ universe, the one where Kirk looks like Chris Pine, the mirror universe, the Disco/Strange New Worlds one, the Disco version of the mirror universe, and so on – is a bit unclear, but never mind). Nevertheless there is no obvious reason why Pike can’t avoid his accident now he knows about it – changing the future isn’t the same as undoing the past. The issue is one of the lives his sacrifice saved – but, again, there’s nothing to stop him changing their futures either.

The obstreperous side of me says to go ahead and do this! Tear up the timeline, save Pike! In a way it would be a very Star Trek thing to do, and a genuinely bold choice. (I am sticking with my assertion that we’re already in an alternate universe and no-one will be able to persuade me otherwise, I’m afraid.) On the other hand, it seems fairly unlikely that this will be resolved within the timeframe of the series (unless it runs for a decade). Are they going to keep dwelling on this idea? It’s going to get a bit samey if so. Nevertheless, it works quite well in this context. A solid episode with no major flaws, anyway.

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From all angles I am virtually besieged by reports that the third series of Star Trek: Picard rivals I, Claudius or Breaking Bad or The Adventures of Twizzle (delete according to taste) as one of the greatest ever expressions of the televisual art. Well, maybe: I watched the first year and had severe issues with the Irish Romulans (though the one in the leather trousers I was very happy to watch), while I couldn’t quite get my head around the fact they had somehow gone from ‘building androids is virtually impossible’ to ‘reckless building of androids is such a problem they have had to ban it’. Though, if any flavour of Trek is likely to radically improve over a couple of years, history tells us it is one led by Patrick Stewart. What else is there for an open-minded enjoyer of some bits of Star Trek to do but take a deep breath and… start watching a different version of Star Trek.

To be fair, Former Next Desk Colleague Now Manager has been singing the praises of Strange New Worlds for a while now, but I’ve been put off by the relative inaccessibility of the thing (I’m not paying for Paramount Plus) and the fact it’s effectively a spin-off from Discovery, which I have long since lost all patience with. But a box set of the first year turned up in HMV at a reasonable price, and I was just coming off the back of Blake’s 7 and casting about for something new to watch, so…

Rules of engagement time: this is all clearly happening off in some parallel timeline, not the ‘main’ Trek universe (i.e. the one where everything from the original show to Enterprise happened). Even if it wasn’t closely connected to Discovery, with its peculiar Klingons and anachronistic technology and mushroom-powered super space drives, in the first episode alone we have two established characters mysteriously changing their ethnicity (or not so mysteriously, given the way modern culture operates), and yet more anachronistic technology (the transporter now seems to function rather like Batman’s pole, given you go in one end wearing one set of clothes and come out the other dressed completely differently). I could go on to mention that at least one character seems to have an utterly different personality, and the Eugenics Wars seem to have inexplicably shifted forward fifty or sixty years in history, but, you know, I’m hoping this isn’t all just going to be me muttering and grumbling that it’s not still 1996.

Anyway – on to the first episode of Strange New Worlds, which is entitled (potentially confusingly) Strange New Worlds. As this is the first part of a series centring on Christopher Pike, about whom we really only know three things, the episode revolves around two of them: he was the captain of the USS Enterprise before Jim Kirk, and he ends up paralysed and horribly disfigured as the result of an accident prior to his present-day appearance in the episodes comprising The Menagerie. (The third thing is about his visit to the planet Talos IV, which happens in the original Star Trek pilot.)  The story opens with Pike feeling a bit depressed by his precognizance of his eventual fate (this happened in Disco) and questioning his future in Starfleet, and the job of the plot is to perk him up a bit for the rest of the season. In this respect it sort of shares a structure with the first episode of Deep Space Nine, which has a similar premise.

The perking up happens on an assignment to rescue some colleagues who have disappeared on a possible First Contact mission, one of them being Pike’s first officer Number One (a character formerly played by Majel Barrett Roddenberry, #1). Along for the ride are all the new and semi-new characters who get some sort of moment of charm: the security chief, who is a no-nonsense young woman; the helmsman, who is a no-nonsense young woman; the nurse (a character formerly played by Majel Barrett Roddenberry, #2), who is a no-nonsense young woman… sorry, it’s 2023 now, isn’t it? I keep forgetting.

The actual plot, which concerns troubles on a planet which are basically the result of offworld tech falling into their hands, is sort of functional, more than anything else, and it does the things it needs to do – establish tone and characters – reasonably well. To be honest the thing it reminded me most was some things I wrote myself (‘That’s not a good sign,’ I hear you cry) – over the last few years I’ve played (or tried to play, don’t get me started, mutter grumble) a lot of the current Star Trek RPG, and one of the things I’ve tried doing is stories particularly about them exploring new planets. The problem with this is the Prime Directive (referred to as General Order One in this episode), which stops visitors from getting involved with alien cultures, especially those unaware of higher technologies. It’s a real pain in the neck, dramatically speaking: you do tend to end up with stories like this one, where some outside agency is responsible and the protagonists are basically trying to rectify the situation.

An unusual new malfunction as the transporter turns Captain Pike into Mark Kermode.

If the parallels between the alien planet in this episode (which is, it must be said, actually a rather familiar new world) and 21st century Earth are supposed to be a nod to the sort of social commentary that the original show has latterly become famous for, I’m not sure it quite works – both planets are deeply divided, naturally, but we don’t learn anything about the issues involved. I have a suspicion that the series is likely to play it safe and avoid taking sides on any of the issues afflicting the contemporary USA anyway – because it’s all very well being liberal and progressive, but you need the audience to stick around and watch, and there’s a good chance a large chunk of them incline towards the camp of the small-handed orange-faced vanity-monster arraignee, God help us all. An episode about gun control, even assuming it could be written so it wasn’t horribly hectoring and obvious, would almost inevitably end up alienating a large section of viewers.

The bar for the first episodes of new series of Star Trek is, of course, not a particularly high one, and this feels less corny and instantly-dated than Encounter at Farpoint, for example. But I didn’t come away from it thinking, ‘Wow, this is a set-up oozing with potential for future story-telling’ – it’s competent enough, but it feels earnest and middle-of-the-road, playing things safe. It isn’t as imaginative or as much fun as the original series when it was anywhere near its peak – and it seems to me that this is an attempt at a kind of tribute-band version of the original show, albeit with the sensibility and priorities of the 2020s firmly in the mix. If it follows the historic pattern, it will improve, and possibly quite soon. I hope so, if only because it would be nice to be able to say something wholly positive about new Star Trek; it has been long enough since I managed it, after all.

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‘I know it’s awful that the cinemas are still all closed, but there’s lots of interesting, high quality things on Netflix you can watch,’ someone said to me, just the other day. Quite how I got from there to watching a couple of episodes of Star Trek: Voyager I’m not entirely sure: my memory is slightly cloudy. But one could have worse problems at the moment.

The two-part story in question was Equinox, originally broadcast in 1999 (it bridged the show’s fifth and sixth seasons), directed by David Livingston, and written by Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky (all three stalwarts of the Berman-era Trek production line). Almost immediately one gets the sense that this production is slick, polished, professional, and yet somehow getting things slightly wrong.

It opens with the USS Equinox hurtling across space, under attack from a hostile alien force. (We have never seen this ship before and have no idea where it is or what its story might be.) The captain of the vessel, Ransom (John Savage, who sort of resembles the result of an accidental transporter fusion of Charlton Heston and Niles from Frasier), shouts various orders and his crew fire their phasers at not-too-awful CGI fish-aliens who start materialising on the bridge. (Again, we have no idea who these people are.) As teasers go, it’s not especially thrilling, and while it’s somewhat intriguing it arguably blows the gaff on the episode’s big idea too soon.

With the credits out of the way, we are back in the familiar environs of the starship Voyager, which has just picked up a distress signal from the Equinox. Given that they are still supposedly decades away from their home turf, they receive this news of the sudden appearance of another ship from home with remarkable composure. As you can probably tell, I think they missed a trick here: opening with Voyager receiving a mysterious signal, with the revelation it comes from a second stranded Federation ship forming the hook of the teaser, seems to me to be a much more rational way of structuring the episode. But I suppose it’s easy to be wise about script decisions two decades later.

No-one on either ship seems particularly surprised by this apparently random meeting, especially considering the vast distances and spans of time involved (both ships have been lost in space for five years, and have travelled forty thousand lightyears since then). The closest thing to a personal reaction comes as a result of the fact that the Equinox’s exec is an ex-boyfriend of Voyager‘s chief engineer B’Elanna, but even this feels like it’s there just to fill a box marked ‘Character-based C-plot’.

Naturally, Captain Janeway lends all due assistance to the embattled Equinox (which is a much smaller and less well-equipped ship). However, it soon becomes apparent that their ordeal in the Delta Quadrant has taken its toll on the crew of the other ship: Janeway has staunchly stuck to the Prime Directive and the rest of the Starfleet rulebook throughout their journey, but Ransom and his people, it is suggested, have not displayed the same degree of moral fortitude.

Janeway and the others eventually figure it out: the CGI fish-aliens are well within their rights to be cross, as Ransom has discovered that capturing them, killing them, processing the corpses and sticking them into the warp engine boosts the Equinox‘s speed to the point where they could potentially get home in a few weeks. Accepting that any Starfleet crew would do anything quite so ghastly is a fairly big ask, but to be fair to the guest cast, they do a pretty good job of suggesting just how traumatised the personnel of Equinox have become.

Nevertheless, Captain Janeway sticks them all in the brig – but has reckoned without the Equinox’s EMH, who is naturally a dead ringer for Voyager‘s own doctor. Evil-twin subroutines in full effect, the other EMH springs Ransom and the others, and they make a run for it, stealing one of Voyager‘s shield generators and accidentally taking Seven of Nine with them. Janeway and everyone else is left at the mercy of the CGI fish-aliens. Cue inter-season hiatus!

Well, as cliffhangers go, The Best of Both Worlds it ain’t. I know that, in the years following the end of Berman’s curatorship of the franchise, the regular writers trained up on the series became widely respected for their ability to break down the structure of a story and turn it into a viable script in a very short period of time, and there’s nothing that’s flat-out mishandled here, but even so… there’s something slightly glib and facile about the first half of the story in particular. Everyone involved knows that, as a piece of episodic TV, there aren’t going to be any significant changes by the end of the story.

I find myself in an awkward spot here, as one of the things I don’t like about what I’ve seen of the new wave of Star Trek shows is their reliance on serialised storytelling. This kind of precludes me from suggesting that some of the problems with mid-to-late-period Berman-Trek are due to the fact they’re so episodic. That can’t really be the case, anyway – most of the TV shows I’m fondest of are episodic to their cores. I think it may simply be just that there’s no real sense of passion or drama about this show a lot of the time – all the attention seems to have been on sorting out the story beats and other narrative connective tissue, none on creating really memorable moments or scenes.

That awkward moment at a party where you realise someone else is wearing the same outfit as you.

Things improve a little bit in the second half, though. There are a couple of battles between the Equinox and the Voyager, though these largely boil down to shaky scenery and people shouting percentages and there’s no sense of the cognitive shock felt by the participants in this Starfleet-on-Starfleet conflict, the sort of thing Babylon 5 did so well. More interestingly is an unexpectedly subtle plot thread about the effect that Janeway and Ransom seem to have had on each other. Janeway seems to take Ransom’s transgressions almost as a personal affront, and becomes nearly as ruthless as he is in her attempts to hunt him down: torturing prisoners, terrorising innocent aliens, and so on. (There is the obligatory scene where Chakotay complains about this and gets relieved of duty as a result.) Ransom, on the other hand, almost seems to get back in touch with his Starfleet soul, experiencing remorse and showing signs of a desire for redemption. (This allows a much more two-dimensional character to step in and be the villain for the climax of the story.) It’s an interesting bit of parallelling, but the fact one knows that both the Equinox and Ransom are going to be toast by the end sort of undercuts the drama a bit.

I know that Equinox has a pretty good reputation as Voyager episodes go, and I’ve certainly seen worse. You can see where the genesis of this story might lie: on one level it’s a road-not-taken story, with the Equinox crew dark reflections of the regular characters, what they might have become without Janeway’s moral compass. But it never really digs into their moral corruption, not in a way that hits home: you’re never actually shocked, and the redemption of Ransom at the end doesn’t carry much impact as a result. It’s slickly put together and technically very competent, and the bones of the story are sound – but, like a lot of Voyager, it feels rather inert dramatically.

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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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