Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Review: Voyager 4.1: Scorpion, Part II

Jeri Ryan finally appears as Seven of Nine
Star Trek Voyager - Season Four, Episode One - Scorpion, Part II
Written between 26/1/16.

The first half of Scorpion was designed as an apology to the fans, giving them a proper Borg episode after the incredible misfire that was Unity. Like Scorpion's spiritual predecessor The Best of Both Worlds over on TNG, the two halves of this story were written months apart, with the second half being adjusted to meet with fan reactions to the first. The main changes became very obvious - the arrival of Seven of Nine as a way to bring in a horny-teenage-boy demographic and shake up the cast, and the decision that instead of finally killing off Garratt Wang's Harry Kim for good, they would ask Kes actress Jennifer Lien to leave the series. Scorpion, Part II ended up being the episode which saved Voyager from complete and total ratings mediocrity, and ensured that it would reach seven seasons.
       The truce continues and Janeway and Tuvok begin working on the weapon with the Borg which will help them to destroy Species 8472. The Borg want to partially assimilate them to enhance communication, but Janeway makes a different bargain - choose one Borg to represent them, or the deal if off. Said Borg chosen is the intimidating Seven of Nine, a human girl assimilated by the collective when she was a small child and has spent the past 18 years as a drone. Eventually the Borg Cube that they are all stationed on is forced to destroy itself to stop a Bioship from attacking Voyager, and so Janeway, Tuvok and the Borg take a ride on Voyager, with the Borg assimilating one of the Cargo bays as part of their "truce". Seven of Nine eventually hijacks the ship and takes it into Species 8472's home dimension, Fluidic Space, revealing that the entire war was due to a Borg invasion of their space in an attempt to assimilate Species 8472 for their genetic diversity. The weapon is deployed and upon the Borg's betrayal most of them are blown out of an airlock - except Seven, who they manage to separate from the Collective by force.
       This episode didn't carry as much of the tension of its first half, although it did rather admirably carry on the themes between Janeway and Chakotay, this time focussing a lot more on Chakotay as he is forced to take command in Janeway's incapacity and the rift it creates between them. I loved the animosity that very quickly developed between Chakotay and Seven, with Seven standing in for what Chakotay considers to be Janeway's worst decision, and the bitterness he has over the fact that he feels obligated to continue following her (slightly crackers) plan until the last possible moment. The scene near the end where Janeway recovers and confronts him over his disloyalty was an incredibly strong moment for Voyager the show in general, finally managing to portray with high drama the conflict between Federation and Maquis philosophy, the problems this causes between two people clearly with love and affection for each other, and the way that each must compromise their values in order to keep things running. It's a dynamic that would make Deep Space Nine proud.
Harry Kim... lives? What the hell?
     Elsewhere, a lot of the character work was also shifted over to Kes and Seven of Nine, with the latter sitting as a big obvious neon sign saying "LOOK THIS CHARACTER IS IMPORTANT." (Well, that and the fact that Jeri Ryan's name had replaced Kes' in the opening sequence.) Seven immediately gives a good impression, with Jeri Ryan managing to admirably catch the spirit of the Borg with a commanding screen presence which makes you want to learn about her story and her character. It was this presence which would make Season Four (and arguably the rest of the show) work so well. I've not done gushing about Seven of Nine, not by a long shot. On the other hand there was Kes, with her magical abilities both serving as some slight character development for her an as the episode's main form of exposition about Species 8472 and their impending threat.
     Part of me knows that this episode isn't as classically "good" as it's first half - there's a lot more focus on action rather than the well-developed character drama, the plot sort of just floats around, and Harry Kim lives. But the arrival of Seven of Nine and the immediate shake-up it has on the cast of characters is incredibly interesting to me, and it puts this episode onto the map of the series as a whole.

Thanks

NEXT WEEK: We carry on the story of Seven of Nine and say a sad farewell to Kes in The Gift.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Review: Voyager 3.26: Scorpion

Star Trek Voyager - Season Three, Episode Twenty-Six - Scorpion
Written 23rd January 2016.

The idea of reviewing Star Trek was always a very daunting one to me when I started here on Nostalgia Filter, mainly because a lot of the context which I had for these shows was from having watched them back when I was a kid. Star Trek was a relatively new addition to the pantheon, and as well as being a more long-winded US show it also had seven seasons. I told myself that I might review it, but that if I did, it might make sense to stop at the end of the third season. That's not going to happen,  but I thought it was important to mention anyway.  Scorpion, like many end-of-third-season episodes for these shows, is something of a game changer, opening up many new avenues for the show and, for a time, taking us out of the doldrums.
Species 8472 are the show's most alien species yet.
     Voyager is about to enter Borg Space - the massive home territories of the Borg, a race of cyborgs who seek only to assimilate and destroy. (We met them back in Unity.) The crew are very tense, planning to continue their journey home via "The Northwest Passage", a thin corridor of space unvisited by Borg Ships due to Technobabble. Being passed and ignored by an armada of Borg Ships, they're later confused to find that all of them have been destroyed by a bizarre species of non-humanoid creatures who use biological ships and who telepathically tell Kes that, "The weak will perish." While exploring an abandoned bio-ship, Harry Kim is attacked by one of the species, and his body starts to be enveloped by toxic vines. The alien race, known only by their Borg designation of Species 8472, turns out to be basing itself in the Northwest Passage, emerging through a wormhole from a place known as Fluidic Space. Debating how to proceed, Janeway consults a Hologram of her idol Leonardo Da Vinci, and decides to make an important decision - to make an alliance with the Borg.
     This episode is often called the Best of Voyager, and it's easy to see why. Voyager often lost a lot of points on the consistency of its characterisation, to the point where even Kate Mulgrew was on board with the fan theory that Janeway had some form of bipolar disorder. This episode sets up a character play between Janeway and Chakotay, in three scenes which explore all aspects of their relationship - the first showing their almost romantic admiration and devotion to one another, the next showing Chakotay's role as an advisor and advocate, and the last showing the ideological divides between them that separate Federation and Maquis. The issues of the episode are discussed thoroughly, and we aren't driven by the narrative to necessarily agree with either of the two on their stances on the Borg Alliance. It's not in-depth characterisation as Voyager often does; instead, it's utilising those characters for the good of the plot, and it works marvellously.
     One of the episode's hallmarks that set it apart from the season it's about to finish is the sense of tension woven through the script. This is before the days when Voyager would go around blowing up Borg cubes willy nilly, and there's a feeling that everyone involved is terrified, either at the possibility of inevitable assimilation, the new possibility of destruction by Species 8472, or the prospect that their 67 year journey will have to be postponed even further to find some way around Borg Space. This comes across in everyone's tone - there is still some mild humour, but everyone feels more alert and the idea that the Borg does this to Voyager lends them an amazing sense of gravitas.
Janeway negotiates with the Borg. I'm actually impressed at
that badassitude.
       This balances out the other side of the episode, the introduction of Species 8472. Their introduction here presents them almost as the "new" Borg, a new villain for the series to hook itself on. Unfortunately they wouldn't get to use them this way (having only two appearances after this two-parter, the latter of which saw them going to great lengths to make peace), but right here it works immensely well - the sheer alienness of the 8472 and their (as yet) unexplained hostility towards our Galaxy, their living ships and their immune system, which is so powerful it can destroy Borg nanoprobes. It was a really interesting concept which was, at least initially, fairly well executed, and the added threat they present manages to make the Borg that more interesting an enemy.
     Scorpion isn't my favourite episode of Voyager - they tend to be the more stand-alone character pieces or great, well-executed concepts. As a piece of serialised television, though, taking Voyager into the next stage of its evolution, Voyager's attempt to reach the heights of TNG's Best of Both Worlds manages not just to reach its target, but excel it and take the show into a brand new direction. Scorpion marks the beginning of a string of amazing Voyager episodes, and I look forward to taking on Season Four with fresh eyes and fresh enthusiasm. And to see Seven of Nine, of course.

Thanks.

NEXT TIME: We rejoin the conflict and meet Jeri Ryan's Seven of Nine in Scorpion, Part II.

News: Steven Moffat to regenerate into Chris Chibnall

Chris Chibnall will be showrunner by 2018.
Image from hypable
Yesterday was the home of a slew of news about the future of Doctor Who, with the main wonderful fact being that Steven Moffat, after producing his seventh season as showrunner in 2017, will be standing down from the position. His replacement will be Chris Chibnall, a man who on this blog has always had very mixed press - sometimes a powerful dramatic writer, but when writing for Doctor Who his scripts tend to be disappointments. The same news article in Radio Times later specified that there won't be any new Doctor Who on our screens until Christmas this year, which is disappointing even if it makes some sense.

Chris Chibnall is the writer of amazing ITV Drama Broadchurch and its short-lived American remake Gracepoint, the UK version of Law and Order, as well as some good episodes of Life On Mars, and a crappy Starz version of Merlin called Camelot retold for an adult audience. In terms of Doctor Who, Chibnall was the showrunner for the first two seasons of Torchwood, which are in my opinion the best of that show's run, producing great episodes like Countrycide, End of Days, and the heart-wrenching Adrift. On the parent program, however, he wrote less inspiring stuff - 42, The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood, Dinosaurs On A Spaceship and The Power of Three.

Chibnall's first three stories fell into the trap of trying to mass-produce an ensemble cast that we cared about, with his ability to do so decreasing with every attempt, from the genuinely likable crew of the space station in 42 to the caricature-laden pastiches that filled the screen in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship. He also got a lot of focus in the "September Season", essentially writing Amy and Rory's arc over that period and writing prequel and sequel shorts which attempted to show them living a life of domesticity. He had some very strong concepts and usually managed to execute them well, but overall his ability with characters was sub-par. His work also, like Moffat's, occasionally contains a few sexist undertones, although thankfully with far more fewer frequency and less sheer revelry.

I'm not entirely sure where the show is going to go, so I'm not being optimistic or pessimistic either way. Chibnall would not have been my first choice; if you remember, the first thing I wrote about Doctor Who on this website was "Chris Chibnall is a bastard." (Something I later redacted, as it's fairly libelous.) I can go on all day about how a female showrunner would have been progressive and great, or we could have Toby Whithouse, whose episodes I love, but I think that's a bit pointless right now. All I can say is that I'm glad Moffat is finally leaving the reigns, and allowing NuWho to extremely belatedly leave its second era.

Thanks.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Always and Forever: A Tribute to Bowie and Rickman

On the 21st February 1946, a boy was born in the London town of Acton, and was later named Alan Rickman. Almost a year later, just a few miles away in Brixton, another boy was born called David Jones. He would later change his last name to David Bowie. Both of these names are obvious and, of course, you may already know by now that they passed away from cancer on the 14th and 10th of January this year, respectively.

Usually I wouldn't comment on celebrity deaths. Lots have come and gone as this blog has existed - a whole host of Doctor Who stars, Christopher Lee, Robin Williams - I can't name them all, because I don't remember everyone who dies. You can't remember that. What you do remember is the good times. And boy, did we have some.

David Bowie was a musical godsend, a fashion icon and one of the most innovative, continually reinventing artists in British popular culture. His bizarre fashions have gone on to uniquely shape not only our culture, but Global culture, and his songs have entered the public record as classics that rival the Beatles in popularity. Even till his last days, Bowie was releasing regular albums and dealing in the avant-garde. Years after the heydey of his biggest 70s and 80s hits, they formed an integral part of my childhood and my teenage years, and I and many others would not be the same without him.

Alan Rickman originally decided to pursue acting once he left University. However, at almost 40 years old he decided to join RADA and train professionally - and almost overnight, with the role of villain Hans Gruber in Die Hard, he became a Hollywood sensation. His unique voice, hair and incredible poetic wit carried his career and work from strength to strength, leading to role in both Hollywood films and an impressive array of work back in the UK, including cult classic Love, Actually and, of course, the career-defining role of Professor Severus Snape in the Harry Potter franchise which, for many including myself, was his first appearance on television. Rickman was a cultural treasure, and someone who you kind of just assumed would be here forever.

The past few days have been a bit of a gut-punch, not just here but around the world. I don't particularly pretend to have any kind of significance in these matters, but I needed to make tribute to two men who helped to define who I am and did the same for multiple generations of people.

Thanks.

Friday, 8 January 2016

Review: Voyager 3.25: Worst Case Scenario

Thank you, Tuvok. At least someone understands. *cough*
Star Trek Voyager - Season Three, Episode Twenty-Five - Worst Case Scenario
Written between 7th and 8th January 2016

Back when this show started, the main conflict set down by the writers was the struggle between Voyager's remaining crew and the Maquis rebels that they had been forced to work with. The Maquis were created and placed into Next Generation and Deep Space Nine just to set the show up, but the conflict between the crews was more or less dropped by the end of the first season. From then on, it would only be discussed in episodes that flashbacked to the first season, and this is the first time that happened. I don't know whether it's too early in the show's life for it to become self-aware, but the tone of the episode does feel slightly like it's closing the door on those old tensions, and throwing one last bone to the storylines that ran through the show's first two seasons.
     We open on what looks like Chakotay planning a mutiny, with B'Elanna playing the part of a Starfleet ensign going along with the rebellion. Janeway and Paris leave the ship in a shuttle, and Chakotay rounds up the remaining Starfleet crew and offers them an ultimatum. The real Paris then walks in and it turns out that this whole thing is a Holodeck program created by an unknown author. We see a couple of scenarios where Tom and B'Elanna try different things in the program, until eventually Tom reaches the end of the story. Tuvok reveals that the program was originally created by him as a security measure in the case of mutiny back in the early days of the show. With Tuvok's help, Tom is given permission to finish the program's story, but it turns out that the program had been booby-trapped by Voyager villain Seska before she died, and Tuvok and Tom are forced to explore the holographic Voyager and avoid being killed while Janeway works on getting them out.
     This is the first outing for two recurring types of Voyager episodes - "romp about in Voyager's past" episodes, and "Alternate Character Fun" episodes. Both of them happen about once a season, and allow the writers and cast to spend some time working with very different characters than they usually would. For what it's worth, I really enjoyed the segments set in Voyager's potential past, especially because for me it fit a lot more with the characters outlines in the pilot. We're given some hints in Resolutions as to why Chakotay basically just capitulated to Janeway straight away, but it never really made sense to me, and seeing him take the first opportunity to take control (and trying to do so without killing anyone) felt really satisfying. Also, despite how slightly one-note she can sometimes be, it was great to see Seska again, in her penultimate appearance on the show.
Oh, Seska. Don't remind me of the Kazon arc, please.
     Therein lies the episode's main appeal, then. What else is here though? There's a strange segment in the episode between the fun hypothetical scenarios and the finale with Seska's revenge in which Tuvok and Paris debate narrative method, and the difference between writing for the art and writing for an audience. It came out of nowhere but I actually found it really interesting, and I would have liked it if the episode had ran this theme throughout the episode. Usually episodes of TV Shows which are about writing are called cliché because it's writers who are writing them, but there's only one other story with that theme in all of Voyager so it wouldn't have gone amiss here. It might have been difficult to work it in with the episode's concept, but that's their job, not mine.
     Part of me doesn't want to find fault with Worst Case Scenario, because it's such a fun poke back at those early days of the show that it builds a lot of good will with me very quickly. At the same time though, the climax with the Seska hologram feels a little forced, and you end up taking a fairly interesting story about narrative structure and the rights of the author and turning it into a silly run-around. Despite this though, it just feels like an important event, and one episode before the arrival of the Borg as the show's main villains, it perhaps feels appropriate that the show finally leaves its old self behind in an entertaining and tongue-in-cheek way.

Thanks.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Review: Voyager 3.24: Displaced

Herp-a-derp, coming ta steal yo spaceship.
Star Trek Voyager - Season Three, Episode Twenty-Four - Displaced
Written 7/11/16

Back at the end of Season Two, Voyager was overwhelmed by their main enemies, the Kazon. This was used as a way of escalating the tension of the situation, as that trope often is, as it showed Voyager being brought to a point of desperation. As ridiculous as the Kazon were, they had the help of traitor Seska to work their way onto the ship, and you believed that they were capable of this one final triumph. In this week's episode, a random, badly-dressed race of aliens manages to overwhelm Voyager in the space of less than 20 minutes. Talk about lowering the stakes as you go along. The feeling you get after finishing Displaced is a feeling that none of this should have happened, and you're not quite sure how it did.
     Tom and B'Elanna are arguing (with much sexual tension) when a silly-hatted alien suddenly appears before them, claiming to not know where he is. The crew discover that Kes disappeared at the same time, and from then on there appears to be a teleport swap of Human and Nyrian every nine minutes. Although Janeway has a gut feeling about there being "something wrong here", everyone is taken aghast when, of course, the Nyrians take over Voyager. As B'Elanna is beamed over, we find that the crew of Voyager have been placed inside an artificial environment suited to their needs. Slowly, the crew begins to build weapons and find gaps between the environments that the Nyrians have created, and with The Doctor's help they take over the Nyrian's spacecraft, teleporting all of them into a cold environment and threatening them with hypothermia unless they send everyone home.
     One of my problems with this episode is that I don't believe the Nyrians as a species. This faction of Nyrians employs the swapping-out method because it's easier to deceive people than to outright attack them. In order to carry out this "humane" method, they built a giant space station capable of holding thousands of prisoners indefinitely, using tons of power to maintain different environments and atmospheres. We never meet the Nyrians again so I can't imagine that they're a huge empire with limitless power - so it seems so strange that they would burn up so many of their resources when they could just use their magical somehow-gets-past-Voyager's-shields transporters to beam people into space. Voyager starts its rebellion and overruns their space station in the course of an hour or two in-show, and the idea that our heroes managed what dozens of other species couldn't also rubs me the wrong way. It's not very believable, is my point. And it's also difficult to be caught up in the tension of an episode where Voyager is overrun when you don't find the villains intimidating, and it's inevitable that they'll lose at the end of the episode.
Technically speaking, this is a B'Elanna episode. Technically.
     The only really important character notes in this episode were between Tom and B'Elanna. It felt a little bit like a retread of the events of Blood Fever in that respect, as they didn't really go over anything more interesting than the fact that B'Elanna gets angry and Tom uses humour as a defence mechanism, both of which we already knew and didn't really need spelling out to us. It was nice to see them continuing to build up the relationship between those two, which would later go on to become "official" in Season Four, but it felt so irrelevant to the rest of the episode's plot that it might as well have been a bit of an afterthought. Elsewhere, we had a nice out-of-the-blue scene between Chakotay and Tuvok where they reminisced about their time at the academy.
      Promising so much in premise and delivering so little, Displaced is one of a long list of classic Voyager filler episodes; you could reasonably drop this episode from your marathon and not lose much beyond one slight gradiation towards the Tom and B'Elanna subplot for next season. Compared to the rest of the season it isn't a particularly bad show, and the action is well-executed, but compared to the last two episodes of this season, it really isn't anything special.

Thanks.

NEXT WEEK: Mutiny on Voyager? We revisit Season One plotlines for one last time in Worst Case Scenario.