Monday, 25 May 2020

VOY – 11:59

Plot – I’ve heard a lot of people ask the question ‘why does this episode exist?’ when it isn’t about exploring space and trekking the stars? Well so are countless other Star Trek episodes and they seem to get away with it. This exists because it is a sweet little character study, a piece of Janeway’s history that she has been mistaken about all these years and an atmospheric bit of Christmassy sentiment. It exists because this is a story that the production team chose to tell and when that story is enjoyable you will get no argument from me.

The production crew’s reaction to 11:59 is fascinating. Joe Menosky (who wrote the episode) berated its lack of science fiction elements (he always was Voyager’s weird science writer), Rick Berman loved it (which suggests he has more of a love of daytime soap than he does of Voyager) and Kate Mulgrew adored the chance to play a completely new character and contrast her to Janeway (her love of the material is visible in every frame). Who is right or wrong I will let you decide.

Character – Henry Janeway can be seen in one of two ways; an old curmudgeon who cannot let go of the past and refuses to embrace the future or a man who refuses to throw away his heritage to allow the corporations in to steamroll and commercialise the area. Both are true and that makes him a complex character because the episode never quite decides whether he is right or wrong, just that he is a slave to his emotions as everybody else.

Performance – Mulgrew as Shannon O’Donnell is far less prickly and more disarming. You can see why Henry Janeway falls for her immediately. She’s bumming about from state to state in a battered old car and living off cookies and a lot of goodwill from the people she meets. As Janeway, Mulgrew plays the part with a sense of entitled arrogance but as Shannon that is all stripped away and she is far humbler whilst retaining all the winning layers of Janeway. When she has to beg for a job because she doesn’t even have enough to fix her car how can your heart not go out to this woman?

Production – I love the gorgeous snowy atmosphere of the location work. Because it is contemporary it looks quite different from the usual Voyager aesthetic and is very pleasing on the eye. The bookstore is a terrific piece of design; it feels like the TARDIS in that it looks vast on the inside compared to the tiny door on the outside and within lies centuries of gathered knowledge and a sense of age and clutter. It’s my kind of place. The scene where Janeway takes Janeway to Paris by cooking her a candlelit dinner with wine and a huge book of the city has a wonderful sense of romanticism.

Best moment – There’s a very sweet scene where the crew of Voyager sit around enjoying each other’s company and talking about their family history. It feels very natural and warm spirited in a way that so many of these scenes on Voyager bomb. Ejecting the plot in the shipboard scenes and focussing on characters means that these people feel more real than usual. The ending captures that feeling of family that Voyager is so desperately looking for in so many episodes effortlessly.

You might say the episode is boring because of it but there are no real villains in this piece and I find that kind of refreshing. It’s the past versus the future rather than good versus evil and even the corporate drone is fairly likable in his own way (and admits Janeway is too). That might gut the show of some dramatic possibilities but I think it adds an extra layer of realism. Life isn’t about realism. It is about egos and opinions.

Worst moment – I seem to say this an awful lot. Neelix means well. That’s a nice way of saying he is the Counsellor Troi of this show. The person who sticks their nose in everybody’s business when it was never asked for in the first place. He latches on to peoples cultural and historic backgrounds and chooses to force them to celebrate. It would be nice if one week that instead of encouraging him, the crew chose to tell him to butt out and mind his own business. Here he disabuses Janeway of the notion that her predecessor was a rule breaker and a rebel. Thanks to him she learns that she was a sell out and a woman who lived a normal life, rather than that of a hero.

A reason to watch this episode again – The most gentlest version of history is written by the victors that you will ever see, 11:59 shows that you can remember the past as rosily as you like but sometimes the truth is a lot simpler and less romantic. It also showcases Kate Mulgrew as a much more sophisticated actress than Voyager sometimes suggests and gives her something fresh and different to get her teeth into. All character and no technobabble? You’ll get zero complaints from me, people. I think it’s rather lovely.

**** out of *****

Clue for the next episode: 

Sunday, 24 May 2020

ENT – Precious Cargo

Plot – ‘It’s been a long time, getting from there to here…’ seems very apt when you go from an episode like The Changing Face of Evil to Precious Cargo.

Character – Archer showing the Retellians on board is probably the most naturally charming I have ever seen him be. He’s always biting down repressed rage or bawling somebody out but here he offers an open hand, a hot bath and a good meal to people in trouble.

Performance – What I find interesting about this episode (and it is hard to find many things so I’ll take what I will) is that Tucker is often considered one of the more approachable characters on this show and Connor Trineer’s performance a sweet and memorable one and even he cannot save this from oblivion. Think of some of the other episodes where he has really gotten under your skin; Coginitor, Similitude, and ask yourself what is different here? Can a script (written by a newcomer and given a Braga ‘polish’) sabotage the efforts of an actor that badly?

So many people put the fault of this episode at Padma Lakshmi’s doorstep and it is true that she delivers one of the least convincing performances in Star Trek’s entire run but to blame her for Precious Cargo’s manifest of fault is blaming Hitler for the entirety of the Second World War. Yes she cannot hold your attention in a scene and yes she has zero chemistry with Trineer and yes it does appear that she was hired for her celebrity status rather than her ability to act…but Star Trek is packed to the gills with these loathsome one-off performances that threaten to sink episodes. I think she is an easy target for a series that was in dire need of a rethink. Kaitaama reminds me of my sister in so many ways; attention seeking, talentless and full of her own self-importance. Her make-up is the ultimate in ‘the guest actor didn’t want too much on their face’ with her lazy Trill spots that are barely visible.

Production – There’s an ‘action’ sequence where Archer pursues the Retellians and the camera swings around the Bridge disorienting whilst music plays that sounds like the episode is set in the most luxurious spa imaginable. It’s sedate and calming. Quite the opposite of what is supposedly going on. That discord between writing, direction and music sabotages the entire episode.

Worst moment – 
There’s an interrogation scene that I think is supposed to be blisteringly funny but missing the mark by several miles. Archer tries to convince one of the Retellians that T’Pol is a savage protector of justice and has wiped out almost one tenth of the crew in the name of equity. It’s written and played with absolute seriousness. The Original Series would have done all of this with a twinkle in the eye. DS9 would have killed the Retellian for kicks (remember Keevan?).

Unbelievable is the only way I can describe the scene where Trip and his new girlfriend squabble on an alien world, end up in the river together and then snogging. I would spend more time exploring just how many clichés pile on top of each other but I have already lost too many braincells writing about this episode. One of the worst scenes in Trek, for sure.

I wish they hadn’t done that – What do we learn about the Retellians worth knowing that sets them apart from the myriad of other species that we have met in Star Trek? Is this the most indistinctive of species we have ever met? I have just finished watching the episode and I can barely remember a single thing about them.

How could the aliens not tell that it was a decoy of Commander Tucker that was sitting around the camp fire? It’s his uniform with a melon stuck on top. No seriously.

A reason to watch this episode again – The episode that was considered so bad that Brannon Braga asked about the possibility of it being pulled rather than facing the ignominy of it being aired. The question is how can an episode of Enterprise, coming after the heights of TNG, DS9 and VOY really be all that bad? The answer is that it isn’t. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of things wrong with Precious Cargo and it is one of the weakest Enterprise episodes overall but does it deserve a place alongside Code of Honor, Let He Who Is Without Sin and Spirit Folk? I would say not. Its biggest problem is that it is so pedestrian; there is no consideration ever given for this to enter orbit and teach your anything worthwhile, entertain you or even to surprise you. It ambles from plot point to plot point, featuring leaden direction (astonishing coming from David Livingston who was once the life blood of the franchise) and static performances. It feels like nobody really cares and that ‘meh’ is the standard everyone is aiming for. Precious Cargo wants to be a hilarious screwball romantic comedy but the writing simply isn’t there, the direction follows suit and the lousy acting is a result of that. The ‘banter’ between Trip and Kaitaama is supposed to be sexy and witty but it reminds me of a brother and sister that simply cannot find a way of getting along.

* out of *****

Clue for the next episode: 

Saturday, 23 May 2020

DS9 – The Changing Face of Evil

Plot – So the Breen have attacked Earth and it happens entirely off-screen. Take that in for a second. All we see of this potentially devastating drama is the wreckage of Starfleet Headquarters on a screen as Sisko and Martok discuss the attack. Some might consider that a wasted opportunity (although if anybody says that this episode ducks dramatic opportunities is getting a slap around the face) but I think it is the perfect response to the Breen joining the war. We needed to see, swiftly and terribly, what the Breen are capable of. But this show isn’t called Star Trek: Earth, it’s called Star Trek: Deep Space Nine which means the budget and the set pieces need to be saved for the plots and characters that we care about. They save the money for the devastating attack on the Defiant at the climax and that was a smart move. After showing the effect the Breen can have on the Quadrant, then the writers show the effect they can have on our heroes.

Prophecies of death and destruction on Bajor. An attack on Earth. Space battles. Revolution on Cardassia. The scope here is huge, unheard of anywhere else in Trek.

Character – In amongst all the huge plot developments that are taking place in this episode are a wealth of character nuggets that make all the plot turns count. I love Bashir’s insistence of how glad he is that Ezri is safe reminds us (at least once an episode in this final arc) that he is completely in love with her (and how awkward is it when he has to look Worf in the eye and embarrassingly admit he’s glad he is safe too). Martok admires the Breen for having the nuts to take on Earth’s defences. Weyoun is practically foaming at the mouth at the thought that the Federation has been made to feel weak and vulnerable. We learn one vital thing about Sisko here: nobody touches his peppers. After all the sitcom madness of the last three episodes, Ezri and Worf have emerged as great friends and have a gorgeous, relaxed chemistry. Worf insults Bashir knowing it will piss off Ezri and she defiantly defends him – they both banter with a twinkle in their eye. Solbor constantly looks at Dukat as though he has just bitten down on a cyanide pill. You know he is marked for death the second he disapproved of him. Listen to the witty banter between this crew on the Defiant as they take the ship through its pre-launch checks; it is a well-oiled crew acting as professionals but also behaving like people. ‘That’s what happens when you share your toys’ is one of the best ever Kira lines. Weyoun’s reaction to the Defiant being destroyed is priceless.

Sisko and Kassidy face the first kink in their marriage here where (in the wake of the devastating attack on Earth and uncertainty for the future) Sisko attempts to interfere with her career in order to keep her safe. I love Kassidy’s gumption and how she never takes any shit from the man she loves. It’s her way or no way when it comes to her career. He’s man enough to admit when he is wrong. The look they share when he realises he is heading into battle that might potentially separate them forever (and nearly does) is a great character beat.

Damar is one of the characters that the writers consider to be one of their greatest success stories and I can understand why. From Dukat’s lackey with a few lines to the man who determines the entire future shape of the Quadrant, he goes on an incredible and surprising journey. At the beginning of season six where he fights with Kira and kills Ziyal you would have thought he was irredeemable…well this is DS9 and the writers simply take that as a challenge to somehow make him a vital player in the Dominion War. They have to knock him down (he sinks into alcoholism) in order to build him up again. The fact that he does so knowing that he will probably die and he will sacrifice many of his own people by taking on the Dominion makes his stance all the braver. Casey Biggs plays the character perfectly, Damar is a man with fake confidence behind he is hiding in the shadow of greater men and when the spotlight is on him he crumbles…and he has to take him to a very dark place in order for him to really look at himself and start fighting back. When he makes his speech at the end of this episode it is played with the uncertainty of a man who has always been a number two and is now thrust into the limelight as a hero (or a terrorist, depending on your point of view). His last scene with Weyoun is especially wonderful because he exudes a quiet confidence knowing that that tables are going to turn soon but Weyoun misreads the situation completely thinking that he has a newfound self-assurance in the Dominion. After months of insulting Damar, Weyoun is about to get a sharp shock. How satisfying.

How glorious to be able to spend so much time in the company of Marc Alaimo and Louise Fletcher and the relationship between Dukat and Winn is the most seductively loathsome thing in this entire 10 episode arc. Dukat is really starting to show his true colours; doing everything but licking Winn’s face with pleasure as he manipulates her and beating up her aide when he gets in his way and Winn is so drunk on the possibilities of power that the Pah Wraiths will offer her that she can’t see straight anymore. Together their scenes are a real highlight, two marvellous villains chewing up the scenery and making every other performance seem less colourful as a result. You can’t top two monsters like this who are snogging one minute and murdering the next.

Performance – I’d say Casey Biggs tops this one, who has to given an impassioned but uncertain speech to the Cardassian people at the end of the episodes and makes it one of the most impressive moments in DS9’s entire run. Marc Alaimo is just behind, oily as he has ever been but seductively charming too.

Production – It’s quite an impressive rendering of Starfleet Headquarters in ruins with people milling about in desperation. I’ve seen CGI landscapes from Enterprise five years later that looked far less convincing.

At this point DS9 is juggling three Empires (the Federation, Bajor and Cardassia) and has plot threads taking place in three separate locations. It feels epic even though those plots are confined mostly to rooms (the matte paintings of Cardassia Prime at dusk and Bajor in brilliant sunshine help an awful lot). The art designer makes sure that each of these locations is distinctive visually and Mike Vejar keeps his camera moving and finding the most stimulating of shots. It’s one of the most ambitious and best-looking episodes of DS9. I especially like the lighting in the Bajor scenes, the passing of the day is judged by the sun streaming in through the windows at different intensities.

Best moment – The Breen attacking the Defiant at Chin’Toka is one of the show’s most impressive action set pieces because it manages to be both exciting, dynamic and personal. This is a ship we have seen through countless battles and it is taken out of action swiftly as though the Breen are swatting a fly. Vejar ensures there are enough fireworks taking place for the viewer to realise that this isn’t going to end well and as each system breaks down (the crew again are impressively in sync shouting out overlapping reports informing the Captain of how the ship is dying) and the CGI effects budget seems to have been saved for the heart-breaking final shot where the Defiant swings into view in the battle and is torn apart in what feels like slow motion. I’m not one of those people that comes to Trek for the hardware but this hurts, mostly because of the crews reaction (the look on Sisko’s face speaks volumes).

Damar’s speech and the crews reaction to it might just be the highlight of the entire run of DS9. It’s a powerful moment of transition, a pay off of great serialisation and all channelled through the characters. All the things that DS9 does so well. Weyoun’s reaction is the best.

A reason to watch this episode again – When I watch episodes like The Changing Face of Evil, I wonder how Voyager seasons six and seven and Enterprise seasons one and two turned out as they did because this is terrific example of a show that was taking risks in every direction, paying off long character and plot arcs and providing unexpected twists and turns. It’s fantastic television, not just fantastic Trek. The Changing Face of Evil takes three plots that have been bubbling away for three episodes already (Damar’s realisation that he has to fight the Dominion, Dukat seducing Kai Winn and the Dominion War itself and the introduction of the Breen to the conflict) and pays them off handsomely with a triple whammy of twists that play out one scene after another at the climax (the Defiant is destroyed, Winn discovers who Dukat is and Damar finally plays his hand). It’s breath-taking. Excellent writing. Excellent performances. Excellent direction. Excellent music. The franchise at its height.

***** out of *****

Clue for the next episode: 

Thursday, 21 May 2020

TNG – Family

Plot – The trilogy of The Best of Both Worlds and Family are what I consider to be the pinnacle of what TNG achieved and it is about halfway through its run. Whilst it does baffle me that a show that has conquered the schedules and realised how to make this reboot of the Original Series work in ways that it’s progenitor never could, it would never hit those heights again. DS9 did the opposite; literally getting better and better with each season. Voyager was intermittently brilliant but often hit new heights at random points in its latter half. Enterprise scored its best season at the end of its run. Only TNG started off terribly, figured out precisely what it should be doing and then completely forgot how to do that.

Saying that this is one of the best ever Ron Moore scripts is a huge statement given the wealth of exceptional material he wrote for Trek. Besides all the terrific character development and the fact the show dared to flirt with serialisation for a moment, what I love about this episode is its structure. The first half is all (wonderful) set up for a climax that delivers a triple (Worf, Picard, Wesley) blow of extreme sentiment, extremely well judged by the director and one of the few episodes of Trek that can successfully bring me to tears.

Character – Worf is still dealing with his dishonour of being rejected by his own people and so this seems the perfect time for his mother and father to beam on board and see if he is alright. He greets his parents warmly and even when they are telling his friends embarrassing stories about his childhood Worf has a gleam in his eye. Even when they are burden it is clear that he has the utmost respect and love for them. When he finally chides them for their overbearing excitement, he is still smiling.

On the back of being violated by the Borg, Captain Picard chooses to go home and visit his family. Of course, he gets a visit from Troi before he goes asking him to psychoanalyse why he is choosing this time to go and see them. Crikey, she’s annoying. It’s the most casual you will ever see Jean-Luc Picard, strolling into town in his civvies. He’s used to everyone respecting him but his brother just thinks he is an arrogant son of a bitch. Deeming to come home and visit his family is just about the most insulting thing he could to his brother. These dynamics all feel so real. Picard looks haunted by the fact that his family home hasn’t changed at all when his life has been one of constant development. He considers a role on Earth that would certainly be a step down from his current role…is that because he wants a change of scene or because he is running away from having to face the horrors of the Borg again?

His brother is such a hideous old curmudgeon that I couldn’t help but fall in love with him. He has a constant look on his face as though he has stepped in dog shit when around his brother…but I fear that is the look that is permanently slapped on his face. He feels in constant rivalry with Jean-Luc, who is Captain of the flagship of the Federation whilst he is a humble wine maker.

Watch the scene where Beverley opens the box of items from storage on Earth that recalls her dead husband. You can see the conflict and the pain and the happy memories all rolled into one on her face. This is vitally important characterisation because for a few scant moments Dr Bev feels like a real person and not a cog in the narrative and Gates McFadden sells it. I’m often critical of both Beverley Crusher’s characterisation and McFadden’s performance so these moments are even more special for me.

Production – Mid TNG is the shaggy dog Worf look, where he sported a huge bouffant haircut and rocked a werewolf look (Mark Twain exclaims as much when he sees him). Michael Dorn is so much more visibly comfortable in the role in season four than he was in the early seasons but I wouldn’t truly like the style of Worf until he transferred onto DS9. They were obsessed with making him look more streamlined and rocking.

The pullback from the vineyard to show the matte painting of the farmhouse and the surrounding countryside is quite beautiful. It’s the kind of visual that we are unused to in TNG – which often pushes technology over nature – which makes it all the more startling.

The farmhouse aesthetic is something I am quite unused to on TNG; all rustic and charming. So much of TNG is cold metal, bland lightning and leather chairs that this is a hugely pleasurable shift on the eye.

The chair in Worf’s quarters has to be seen to be believed.

Best moment – I love the idea of O’Brien’s dad chasing a nurse around sickbay when he visited the Enterprise. What a shame that we never got to meet this roguish fella.

The emotions that bubble over between Jean Luc and Robert Picard in the vineyard are raw and violent and their confrontation is long overdue. Picard is frightened after his experiences with the Borg and it takes a brave man to admit that. His brother is jealous of his career and has wanted to spit that in his face for a long time. Watching this get down and dirty in the mud is a glorious spat, one of the best ever TNG scenes, because it handles some extreme emotions with skill. I was wreck after watching Picard breakdown. It was the way he went from laughing at the absurdity of his situation to falling to pieces as he remembers what the Borg forced him to do. Patrick Stewart breaks my heart. I personally don’t think he is ever finer. The best bit: ‘I still don’t like you, Jean Luc’ at the end.

Wesley’s silent reaction to his father’s speech remains Wil Wheaton’s finest achievement on this show. Sometimes you can project an awful lot of emotion without saying a word.

I wish they hadn’t done that – It is astonishing that Michael Piller had twist the arms of Gene Roddenberry and Rick Berman to convince them that this coda to The Best of Both Worlds was vital, given that they both wanted to get back to good old-fashioned storytelling afterwards. Picard has essentially been raped by the Borg, Piller argued, and needed time to heal. It is to their credit that Roddenberry and Berman both agreed that it was the right thing to do afterwards.

A reason to watch this episode again – TNG could have been called Star Trek: Family for all the times it spotlighted the relatives of the crew. Certainly, season seven could be. What you have is a two-part blockbuster that takes more risks than the rest of the series put together followed by a gorgeous, intimate character piece that highlights so many of the regulars at their best and accentuates that TNG family feel like no other. These three episodes are also the strongest the series ever was visually. Family is a delightful, revealing, beautifully scripted piece that sees this cast at their all time best. It feels like the series has stepped out of a shadow and truly earned its stripes in its third season and this is where they can take a breath and acknowledge that what has emerged is something quite special. For an episode that lacks any plot and pushes vivid character first and foremost, it is one of the best.

***** out of *****

Clue for the next episode:

Sunday, 17 May 2020

VOY – Lineage

Plot – I love the gag that Icheb thinks the lifeform inside Voyager is a parasite rather than a baby because he is part of a show that tosses out bizarre ideas on a weekly basis but never takes genuine character risks. It makes the revelation stick out even more by taking the piss out of the norm like this. This is the kind of thing I wish they had done with Torres and Tom a few seasons earlier rather than their prolonged, sitcom, flirtations because the idea of bringing up a baby on Voyager together is one that has huge dramatic and comic potential. Frustratingly the baby isn’t born until the series finale and so (I know I keep saying it but I wouldn’t have to if it wasn’t true) they fail to exploit the potential of this idea and duck all the possibilities for the exploration of motherhood.

Character – How the Captain’s respond to pregnancy is very telling. When Archer found out Trip was pregnant he couldn’t help but take the piss but then he’s a bit of twat like that. When Sisko discovered Vilix Pran was budding he couldn’t stop smiling because he is every inch the family man. And when Janeway realises Torres is having a baby she hugs her warmly because she is basically the mother of this entire crew.

I really like Tuvok talking about his family because they are mentioned so infrequently that you might forget that he had any. He’s been separated from them for some time now…I wish we had gotten the chance to explore that some more.

Torres and Paris have never felt more like a believable couple than they do here grappling with something enormous that is about to shake up their life for good. Just a simple scene like the two of them I bed together discussing their day feels so much more natural than usual (have we ever seen them in a normal domestic situation like this before?). Paris is being written as a person and not a function in a plot. I think that happened for about 20 episodes of this show but this is the best example. Look at how Robert Duncan McNeill responds to the material; it’s a performance that is raw and honest. Oh, the possibilities.

I heard a lot of criticism about how Dawson plays Torres and her hatred of her Klingon side but it is actually one of the better dealt with character threads that runs through Voyager. From Faces to Extreme Risk to Barge of the Dead to Lineage, you have a case of self-hatred that is borne out of experience and a troubled childhood amongst kids that are different from you. Trust me that stuff stays with you. Add to that the bombshell that is dropped here about her dad leaving because he couldn’t handle her Klingon mother and it makes perfect sense that she would reject the side of her that drove him away. It would be just Torres’ luck that she should fall in love with a human and that she would begin a cycle of fear that things would go the same way that they did for her mother and father. This is extremely vivid characterisation and beautifully played by Dawson. You would think a mother wanting to violate her child and remove her ancestry would be an appalling act but as written it is just Torres attempting to spare her from the pain that she went through. She’s not thinking about the consequences for anyone else – she has such vivid memories of racism and loss – that she wants nothing more than to prevent her daughter going through the same thing.

Performance – The climax features a brilliantly written and acted sequence between Robert Duncan McNeill and Roxan Dawson that solely justifies the creators continuing this relationship. Paris’ anger at his wife is refreshing and Torres spilling her guts feels cathartic. Who knew these characters could yield this kind of drama?

Best moment – Simply letting this continue beyond this episode. I know that seems like a crazy thing to admit but there have been so many potentially juicy ideas flaunted in this series before (Kes having a child, Janeway and Chakotay having a relationship, a species that threatens the Borg, a serial killer as part of the crew) that were dumped as soon as they got interesting that I have to applaud the series for holding onto this one and playing it out to its natural conclusion. Season two Voyager would have made this a phantom pregnancy or find some technobabble reason for Torres to lose the baby. All the way through the episode is helping us to fall in love with the idea of them having a baby that I was determined, on first viewing, that it was going to be snatched away in some cruel twist of fate.

‘Why does everyone feel entitled to give us advice…’ Oh Torres, you’ve unveiled the irritating truth about so many conversations.

Torres manages to shut Janeway and her objections up when she tells her that altering her child is exactly what she did when she made the choice to change Seven of Nine in her best interests. Ouch. That really made me sit up and pay attention.

Worst moment – Making Neelix the Godfather. He had sex with a two-year-old, you know.

I wish they hadn’t done that – The irony of hiding Roxan Dawson behind consoles for an entire season whilst she was really pregnant and then once she has given birth waiting a few years and making her character pregnant.

A reason to watch this episode again – What’s this? An episode in Voyager’s final season that devotes itself entirely to character, develops a relationship that this series has been building for seven years and layers on fascinating growth to one of its core cast at the eleventh hour? Wonders will never cease! Hang on…is that a brand-new writer and director on the call sheet? Proof, if it was needed, that fresh blood can yield some stunning results. I want to celebrate Lineage because this is Voyager bringing it’s A game when it comes to complex characterisation and that is what I usually head to DS9 for but this proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Voyager could have matched my favourite Trek show in that department if it had dared to examine its characters this sensitively more often. Voyager has a superb cast and some memorable characters; they are ripe for creating dramatic situations. Instead of searching for anomalies and heading back in time or the latest craze on the holosuite, it should have spent its time truly going where no man has gone before. Lineage shows that that show would have been quite awesome and Voyager has the tools to do it. This is honestly written, makes sense of so many issues that Torres has been carrying around with her and features Roxan Dawson’s best performance. Torres is one of my favourite characters on this show and in the final two years she was handed three of the best episodes (Barge, Muse and Lineage). Powerful stuff, this is vintage Voyager. The final scene snuck up on me in a way I wasn’t expecting and reduced me to tears.

****1/2 out of *****

Clue for the next episode:

Saturday, 16 May 2020

TNG – Journey’s End

Plot – When the teaser entirely consists of Wesley Crusher returning to the Ship in a sullen mood, you know the episode in question is in trouble.

This is where the whole Maquis storyline came to be born and in a brilliantly written scene between Picard and Nacheyev we learn that within the negotiations between the Cardassians and the Federation that neither side got everything they wanted but both sides got something, and even that was an uneasy compromise. If we go down the ‘needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one’ route then this is the best hope for peace between the two (and trust me when they go to war in the latter DS9 years it is a bloody conflict that should be avoided at all costs) and the unfortunate side effect of that alliance is that several Federation colonies need to leave their homes and be relocated. It is politics having a detrimental effect on innocent people (isn’t that always the way) and it is how those people react to that where the drama lies.

Character – I love love love the fact that there is a small female Admiral out there that can bring Picard to his knees with a line and make him wither with a stare. She’s a micro-managing robot with no time for pleasantries and she demands perfection and total obedience. Picard just can’t seem to establish a decent relationship with her, no matter how hard he tried and given he is a diplomat that is a bitter pill to swallow. This is probably the gentlest example or their relationship and it is still prickly.

Performance – Wil Wheaton is much more suited to playing the idealistic Starfleet cadet than this hormonal, bastard of an adult who has seen everything that the Federation has to offer and thinks it is a bit of a joke. Before it was like a child pretending to be an adult and now it is more like an adult pretending to be a child. It was Ronald D. Moore that pushed for Wesley to head off with the Traveller rather than end up at the helm of the Enterprise. It’s a good point to make because ever since the first season of this show they have been suggesting that this boy wonder is so much more than he seems and for him to end up as no much more than a sub-par Chekov. There’s nothing wrong with being at the helm of the Enterprise, but with Wesley comes the promise of more (apparently). In order to get there, we have to watch him behaving like a stroppy teen with no investment in his future.

I can’t quite believe the last scene between Wesley and Dr Bev, which is trying its damndest to pull on the heartstrings but to me seems like two actors struggling to bring weight to a relationship that this show has long moved on from. Gates McFadden (to give her her due) is doing some of her best work here and it still isn’t quite enough to convince.

Best moment – The Traveller turning up and telling Wesley ‘let’s chip, they can sort out these difficulties on their own.’ Man, why does he never turn up and tell me the same thing when the chips are down. I guess I’m just not exceptional like Wesley.

Worst moment – There’s a suggestion here that he has been following in his father’s footsteps this whole time but that has certainly never been brought up before, and Wesley appeared in over half of the TNG episodes. It’s been Captain Picard’s footsteps that he has been tracing and that has been explicitly explored several times during the shows seven years.

It’s a get out clause without guts, much like the rest of the episode. The Indians decide to revoke Federation status and the Cardassians promise to leave them alone. The drama would lie in Picard being forced to take them against their will and his core beliefs. Or if this conclusion was drawn and they were wiped out by the Cardassians soon after. To simply end the episode with everybody shaking hands and agreeing to leave each other alone seems so spineless.

I wish they hadn’t done that – Trust TNG to take the blunt pipe approach and have the colony that needs to be moved Native Americans, making the allegory less subtle and more in your face. This is the first real flirtation with this kind of Native American mythology that would plague Voyager. DS9 and Voyager made the Maquis regular people trying to cling on for their lives. That’s powerful. The idea of the flagship of the Federation having to sweep in and displace a bunch of Indians lacks any complexity because it so obviously trying to appeal to the audience for sympathy. Even worse they directly refer to events in history to give this more weight but only serve to remind us that this entire storyline has been stolen wholesale from the past. They may as well have made this a time travel episode and actually shown the Native Americans being forced away from their land for all the differences that they stamp on this future colony.

A reason to watch this episode again – This is an unusually reticent episode of TNG for Ronald. D Moore and a lacklustre final effort for Wesley Crusher. A direct allegory to Native Americans being dislocated (direct as in Moore is there swinging a pipe to your head) is gutted of worth by being entirely bloodless and political. An attempt is made to make it personal but throwing in Picard’s ancestor feels a bit cheap, trying to give him an emotional involvement into a story where he is the facilitator of a monstrous act. Usually he just sweeps in, does what he is supposed to do and warps out quoting the Prime Directive with a smile on his mouth. At this late stage I don’t see why this should be any different? The direction is decidedly lacklustre but with a script that affords so few opportunities I’m not surprised…and besides static seems to be the TNG approach in the final season. Wesley gets to pop off with The Traveller after playing protestor; it’s a reasonable end to the character (we never see him again after this) but it’s hardly something that anybody would talk about for longer than a minute. ‘Oh yeah…Wesley left.’

** out of *****

Clue to the next episode:

Thursday, 14 May 2020

Scorched Earth written by Chris Chapman and directed by John Ainsworth

What’s it about: July 1944. The TARDIS materialises in a small village near Rouen, where celebrations are in full swing. A joyful France is in the midst of liberation as the local population welcome a battalion of Allied soldiers – along with a colourfully dressed Doctor and his two rather excited friends. But there are screams amidst the celebrations as an angry crowd dish out their brand of justice to one of their own that they have branded a traitor. While Constance and Flip find themselves on opposite sides of a war beyond a war, the Doctor has other concerns. The local community is used to the fires of battle, but a new type of blaze is burning – leaping from aircraft to aircraft, man to man – and this fire seems to be just as eager for revenge as the village mob.

Softer Six: When the jubilant sixth Doctor has a sudden desire to high tail it back to the TARDIS you know that something must be very wrong indeed. He needs to get Constance away from here as soon as possible because she will be armed with knowledge of the future when she finally returns to her own time. That’s a really interesting approach to a story that Doctor Who in its long history has never taken before – what if they materialise in that companions near future…and does that mean they can never go home because of the knowledge they gain? Suddenly the cuddly Uncle sixth Doctor has been stripped away and in his place is a man who needs to try and keep history on track and his companion in the dark. He wishes that human beings were as industrious during peace time. He does have experience in running. Murderous creatures like to introduce themselves in his experience. Watch as the Doctor tries to understand the fire creature, rather than simply trying to extinguish it. That’s the actions of a real hero. Someone who tries to communicate, rather than destroy. If the Doctor hasn’t heard of you, it makes you rather special. The Doctor is extremely charming with the Furio when tempting the fire creature with a much bigger feast of hate and anger. He’s dancing with an inferno. His means of transport is a little unpredictable. You don’t have to know the Doctor for very long but when the shit hits the fan, it is easy to trust him. He suggests that he can multi-task, and Constance knows that is rubbish.

Flippin’ Heck: She’s never one to say no to a party and a wartime bash seems to excite her. It’s so nice to have a pair of companions who are so different from each other but get on so well and can have prolonged scenes together that feel real. I don’t think we’ve properly had this since the days of Ace and Hex and Peri and Erimem. Flip and Constance are from different times and have very different ways of approaching these adventures, but they very keen on each other and enjoy each other’s company. Flip admits that Connie has more self-control than she has. She would have been straight on Wikipedia. Flip has always been impulsive but for once her stepping into action should be congratulated. She stands before a seven-foot bully and removes his instrument of torture. Flip versus the mob? I’d root for Flip every time. She questions why it always has to be about robots and aliens and why it can’t just be about the little people. In a moment of contemplation Flip questions whether she really knows Connie at all after how she has reacted. It feels perfectly natural and I think we all go through moments like this with our friends. It gets to a point where Constance is calling Flip naïve and Flip is calling Constance a fool and you have to start to wonder if they will be able to come back from this. Why does she always end up doing crazy things with the Doctor? The last scene between Flip and Connie is very powerful, truly earned.

Constant Companion: As resourceful as ever, Constance doesn’t batter an eyelid that the TARDIS has been dumped down on a massive fresh cowpat. For Constance, this is a fantastic portent of the future. The war won and the Allied Forces the victors. She genuinely believes that everybody was a part of the war effort, whether they were on the front line or not. To feel the relief of these people at the end of the war is such a joy for Constance. The second the Doctor asks Constance if the French girl being punished had a chance to defend herself and she replies that things were messy during the war and not as neat and tidy as they might be. It’s an ugly point of view, and I like that because it makes her feel more real. Constance says ‘you can’t live with monsters like that’, proving that she would always have fought if England had been under occupation. She has always believed in fairness and ‘do as you mean to be done by.’ I can understand why Constance would be reluctant to walk into a burning building – that is how she died after all. The moment Constance punches Lucien in the face I cheered out loud. Constance realises that you have to let go of all of your hate and prejudice otherwise ultimately it will consume you. You will be lost. She’s flawed, she has moments of hate, she can acknowledge it, but she can learn from it too. That’s some wonderful development for a companion. And Miranda Raison delivers this moment beautifully. For Constance to say ‘I am at peace’ is a watershed moment for her character.

Standout Performance: Towards the end of episode one you have a scene where the Doctor, Flip and Constance are all coming at the public humiliation scene from very different places. One from a historians point of view, one from an emotional point of view and one from the point of view of somebody who fought in this conflict and understands the need to punish those who betray their cause. Baker, Greenwood and Raison are all excellent. It’s the zenith of what this trio has achieved to date and I love the fact that it is a conflict scene that feels rooted in character, personal and real. That’s why the moment hurts because there is no way to reconcile all of their beliefs neatly.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Knowing that the Allies won the war, visiting post-war Europe that’s all well and good but actually setting foot in your immediate future and having a good nose around the most important historical event of your lifetime, that’s potentially far more dangerous!’
‘No idea but they’re screaming…so that’s our cue!’
‘At some point we all need to be able to forgive and move on.’

Great Ideas: There’s a fascinating scene where one of the French characters admits that when the Germans came to this town that they did so with chocolate and smiles and it felt as though they might be able to ride out the rest of the war in comfort and never have to fight again. It is a challenging viewpoint because when you have the choice between fighting clandestinely for your cause and attempting to remove the Germans from power of living the rest of the war in relative peace but under occupation…well I don’t think the former would always be the go-to option for a lot of people. I enjoy thought-provoking dialogue like that, that makes you consider your action in the same dilemma. The story of Clementine falling in love with a Nazi ought to be painfully clichéd, but it is very sensitively written and played and adds further depth to the Flip/Constance argument because Flip gets much closer to the reason why Clementine was being abused. Furio is a fire creature that could smell the war on Earth on the solar winds and attracted her, like a moth to a flame. She has a taste for hatred, and as she consumes it she removes it and cleanses it. In Lucien she found a somebody who was boiling with hate, towards the Germans and now towards those who collaborated with them.

Audio Landscape: Big Finish stories have had a bit of a mixed success in creating convincing crowd scenes. Often it sounds like a few people in a studio shouting their heads off and sound designer trying to replicate them in various ways. Kudos to Lee Adams here then, who manages to pull off an evocative and celebratory post-war party that really sells the jubilance of a town that has finally found peace after years of occupation. It’s very apparent when the cheers suddenly becoming boos and jeers. The ambience of a French town is authentically conjured up. Having spent a fair amount of time in France myself, I could shut my eyes and go on a little trip in my imagination. Right now, this is as close to travelling as we are going to get and it is much appreciated. And all those crackling flames are genuinely nerve-wracking.

Musical Cues: A terrific score; suspenseful, dark and thrilling.

Standout Scene: In a brilliant scene that perfectly underscores the tension that can arise between the morality of a woman from the 1940s and a woman from the 2000s, Constance understands the brutality of cutting the hair off a traitor in wartime whilst Flip refuses to stand by and let it happen. Both characters are completely relatable and yet violently disagree. It’s fantastic drama.

I hate moments of false of jeopardy in Big Finish and I’ve given my reasons a thousand times (especially when it comes to characters where we KNOW their fate on TV) but the second cliff-hanger is a humdinger because it puts Flip (a character whose fate is not determined) in terrible danger and once again adds weight to central dilemma of this story. We’ve heard why Clementine is considered a traitor (she fell in love with a Nazi) and that throws doubt on Flip’s side of the argument but now we see a extreme act of violence being committed on her, which leaves Constance with no way of justifying this approach of dealing with traitors. Plus, Flip is trapped in a burning building. It’s very suspenseful.

The Doctor, Flip and Clementine recalling their happiest moments. That’s a climax worth waiting for.

Result: ‘Now that Constance has punched him on the nose, perhaps he will be more inclined to comply…’ Chris Chapman really is quite a find. This is a terrific script, bursting with drama and conflict and taking the sixth Doctor, Flip and Constance trio to a whole new level. At this point their run has been so consistently excellent that the impossible has been achieved…Big Finish has replicated the success of the sixth Doctor/Evelyn run. Much like those early classics, this takes the regulars and puts them at opposing points of view in a meaty story and their battle of ideologies creates some riveting drama. It’s a story that could only take place with these characters – a Time Lord, a woman from the war and a woman from the 2000s – which means despite the familiar post-war setting, it feels unique in tone and content. I like the simplicity of the moral argument; Scorched Earth makes a case for (almost) pure historical in years to come because it dispenses with all the plot complexities that plague these main range stories and gives focus to the characters. And Chapman never loses that. Even when science fiction elements break in, this is always rooted in people. It’s an unusual creature that they face, which is anomalous in Doctor Who because you would think that everything has been seen and done but Chapman finds a way to tie this into the chosen time period perfectly. It's a time when emotions are running hot, and the Furio finds a natural home in post-war violence and eventually finds an even more suitable home. Emotion is being poured back into the main range and it is very welcome. The fresh writers, script editors and directors are giving the range a pulse again. You’ll come out of this story knowing the Doctor, Flip and Constance and what they stand for and what they mean to each other far more than you did going in. It’s quite a journey. This is the best main range adventure in at least a year: 9/10