Thursday, December 7, 2017

Discovery 1x9 "Into the Forest I Go"

rating: ****

the story: The crew takes the fight to the Klingons.

what it's all about: The wonderful thing that didn't exist in previous incarnations of the television franchise that's now ubiquitous is the concept of the midseason finale.  Season finales themselves are something Star Trek helped revolutionize, with "The Best of Both Worlds" at the end of Next Generation's third season, where something truly important and potentially game-changing happen.  Most of the ones that followed, across the franchise, were two-part episodes.  Voyager gave new emphasis to two-part episodes within seasons, but no story ever had to wait until the next set of new episodes to be completed.  Now, in the binge era, there are whole seasons released in an instant, but the more traditional platforms have been featuring the midseason finale, which is exactly like what season finales have become, but, well, in the middle of the season. 

Long story short, that's "Into the Forest I Go" in a nutshell.  It's a midseason finale, where big things happen.  Nine episodes in, with a lot of big things happening at the start of the series, covering a third of the show's existence, that may not sound like much, but it really is.  Given that it seemed to be heavily serialized at the start, only to give way to more episodic storytelling in the back stretch, that puts the season back on track, in some ways, or merely back in familiar, identifiably Discovery territory.

Obviously the Klingon conflict has been at the heart of this story from the start, so the episode is climactic in that regard.  We discover, or are given a considerable clue, a hidden truth about Tyler, all but confirming a favorite fan theory about him, that he was really the Torchbearer of the Klingons from the early episodes all along.  Only he may not even know it.  I've had a conflicted take on the character (Tyler) since he first appeared, but he's emerged as worthy of the weight placed upon him, as a kind of answer to Burnham.  Burnham is the character who has earned considerable distrust, and yet Tyler is the one who seems to truly earn it.  And no one has a clue.  You've got Lorca, who's the shadiest Starfleet captain to ever be featured as a main character, and Stamets, who has also been compromised (a defining attribute of this cast) and trying to get out from under it.  Lorca manipulates Stamets, it seems, as he's manipulated others, for his own ends.  Burnham goes on a suicide mission looking for redemption, to earn the trust Lorca had previously given her freely...And in the end, it's all about Tyler.  His PTSD is as notable in the episode as anything else we see about him, and it's harrowing and feels like the most real thing we've seen from the character...But then, what is real about him?

So the Klingons are handed a big defeat, and yet, they come out better positioned, seemingly, than before, by the end of the episode.  Big things happen, and big things promised for next time...That's exactly how to do a midseason finale.  There's been a lot of criticism about the release model, the streaming service and yet the adherence to traditional standards.  This kind of storytelling affirms that they got it right.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Anytime a big Klingon moment happens, it's historic.
  • series - A moment the season has definitely been building toward.
  • character - Tyler emerges as Burnham's chief rival for most important character in this series.
  • essential - As good a selling point for the emerging legacy of Discovery as you could ask for.

Discovery 1x8 "Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum"

rating: **

the story: Saru is compromised by aliens.

what it's all about: This is the first episode to really disappoint me from the series.  It's as flat a story as could be expected, with Saru being featured at face value, which for me is the most disappointing thing about it, as Saru has consistently been a highlight of Discovery, who along with Burnham has been the uniting element from the early twists of the journey.

Then this happens.  "If you want peace, prepare for war," as the title translates.  The title has far more to do with Lorca than Saru, which is about as telling as the undercooked nature of the episode can be expected to deliver.  It's clearly an homage to classic Star Trek storytelling, with too many examples to bother referencing here (yeah, I've indulged that instinct plenty of times in other reviews across the franchise, but I don't really think it's relevant for an iteration of the franchise that has until this point gleefully broken new ground).  That's a problem especially if the subject is Saru and we're supposed to just accept that it's a logical conclusion to tell it this way because of the nature of the character, and feel warm and fuzzy because he feels a sense of peace he's never known and...This was the chance to expand the character, not limit him, and yet that's exactly what happens.

Logistically, the episode also comes up with a convoluted turning point for the Klingon conflict, a Star Trek scenario where the good guys have to be the good guys for traditional reasons...Again, this is below the series.  Deep Space Nine, which broke this ground, never stooped to something like this.  It just reeks of that last itch of the growing pains following the loss of showrunner Bryan Fuller, like someone was desperately trying to figure out where everything was supposed to go without really thinking about it, so they fudged it.  And that fudging is a whole episode.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Casual fans will probably see how this connects to Star Trek tradition.
  • series - But Discovery fans ought to feel something like a slap in the face.
  • character - In any other context, this Saru spotlight would be much more acceptable, but instead it's disappointing, even if it's nice that it finally happened.
  • essential - No, not really.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Discovery 1x7 “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad”

rating: ***

the story: Mudd attempts to use a time loop against the crew.

what it’s all about: This is hardly the first time Star Trek has featured time travel, much less a time loop. The most famous example is Next Generation’s “Cause and Effect,” where the ship is destroyed repeatedly and Kesley Grammer cameos at the end. The most recent is “Future Tense,” an Enterprise episode that plays with the concept as part of the plot rather than its focus. “Magic” is much like that. Although the time loop is a defining element of the episode, it should best be understood as a follow-up to the show’s earlier Harry Mudd appearance (“Choose Your Pain,” two episodes ago).

The episode helps provide further context for this show’s storytelling framework. Like the previous episode featuring an in-depth look at Sarek, “Magic” takes advantage of being a prequel story in much the same way as the last season of Enterprise, which was happy to explain in a fairly forthright manner how things came to be. If other elements of the season have also done their own thing, that again finds Discovery following in the footsteps of its immediate TV predecessor.

Mudd is a fine way to explore the episode, but so is the increasingly eccentric Stamets, the continuing hints that this series is addressing the concept of whales aboard Starfleet ships as previously only existed in noncanonical technical manuals, and yeah, the budding relationship between Burnham and Tyler. There’s also some great Lorca material, but mostly in how Mudd kills him repeatedly, which is darkly hilarious in its way.

But yeah, Mudd. In his original incarnation, Mudd was a conman gifted with an inexplicable expertise in creating lifelike androids, who existed only to further his schemes. It was easy to underestimate him because there was little effort to legitimize him. But this Mudd has a lot more going for him, including a wide range of technological know-how. In his previous series appearances, Mudd distinguished himself by rejecting Starfleet as the only way a human could get by in the future. If he was far from a moral equal to your typical Starfleet officer ( comments about Lorca, or Butnham), “Magic” makes it clear that he doesn’t need Starfleet to have educated himself on the possibilities the future offers. In fact, like...Burnham and Lorca, he hardly seems worried about the implications of his actions, just so long as he benefits. But what separates Mudd from a Burnham or a Lorca is that he only has selfish goals in mind.

By the end, we learn the truth about his relationship with Stella, seen in the flesh for the first time, as she really is, not as Mudd describes or fears her to be, but as the logical conclusion to the way he approaches life. She’s the bride who accepts him at face value, but at the same time calls his bluff. How much more of a nightmare can a guy like Mudd expect?

criteria analysis:
  • franchise -A time loop episode.
  • series -  Doesn’t advance the plot.
  • character - But it does work well further exploring these characters.
  • essential -  A must-watch for Mudd fans old and new.

notable guest-stars:
Rainn Wilson (Mudd)

Monday, October 23, 2017

Discovery 1x6 "Lethe"

rating: ****

the story: Burnham comes to the rescue of her father, Sarek.

what it's all about: The main takeaway from that brief summary of "Lethe" is that this is a Sarek episode, as much as it is a Burnham episode.  It details their history together, how they became family.  And it gives as complete portrait of Sarek as has ever been attempted in the franchise.  Not bad for a character who has appeared in three series already (original series, Animated Series, and Next Generation) as well as five movies (The Search for Spock, The Voyage Home, The Final Frontier, The Undiscovered Country, and Star Trek).  Actually, I think as of Discovery he's the most represented character, easily, in all the whole franchise, a record that would be about impossible to beat.

 (Riker, who has appeared whether as himself or transporter duplicate Thomas in Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise, plus four movies, probably comes next closest, and then Worf, who was not only the only series regular of two series, Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, but appeared in five movies, including his ancestor in The Undiscovered Country, also played by Michael Dorn.  Of course, the original series main characters appeared in two series, the first six movies, some of them the first seven movies, and then the last three, plus other appearances in Next Generation and Voyager, but mostly as a unit and in association with each other.  Anyway...)

What "Lethe" does is finally explain why Sarek had a half-human son, a human wife, and as Discovery has revealed, an adopted human daughter (aside from the Vulcan son some fans want to pretend never existed), and what it meant for him in Vulcan society.  Clearly the episode draws on the nationalist trend from present times (although Enterprise was also doing that a dozen years ago, but it was called xenophobia then), and that explains some of what happens to Sarek during it.  But it's also about that fundamental aspect of his character that previously was only explored in his son Spock's turmoil.  Star Trek first explained his marriage to Amanda Grayson because he "loved her."  Which is heartwarming but doesn't really explain anything. 

The word Lethe comes from a river in Greek mythology that existed in the Underworld (sometimes called Hades, because that's where Hades himself lived; it's equivalent to Christian Hell, where you go if you haven't attained Elysium, the realm of the heroic, chosen dead).  This river has a remarkable property, though: it erases your memory.  Far from a mercy, it's considered a torment, as souls become untethered and miserable, more so than they would have been remembering their lives, in the afterlife. 

Burnham struggles in the episode to understand why Sarek's mind keeps bringing her back to a specific memory, of the day her fate was decided, whether she was going to join the Vulcan service, or Starfleet.  She had always been led to believe it was the Vulcans who rejected her because of racism, but she learns that it was actually Sarek who decided, having had his hand forced.  His fellow Vulcans (and yeah, it basically still is racism) say that his two exceptional children would both taint the perfect the perfect Vulcan record of never having anyone but a Vulcan in its service.  Spock is half-Vulcan, and so he's half-human in their eyes.  And of course, Burnham is human.  Sarek chooses his son, which would certainly surprise Spock (and was perhaps information Picard was able to give him, much later), although of course we know Spock joins Starfleet, too.

Anyway, Sarek's decision, and all his life choices, and even his brilliance as a diplomat and negotiator, are explained by his ability to accept other races as his kinsmen.  Other Vulcans aren't as capable.  In Enterprise, the thought of xenophobic Vulcans seemed contradictory to the way they'd been presented before.  And yet, was Spock really ever presented as warmly accepted by his people?  Not that I recall, except maybe in Search for Spock, when he was reunited with his katra.

Ah.  Speaking of katra.  The Vulcan soul is the reason Burnham and Sarek have a unique link, and a unique way to mind-meld.  That's also explained in "Lethe." 

In fact, it's difficult to explain "Lethe" as anything but essential.  It's the first one since the first three to really feel as if it's continuing the outlining of the premise, a truly necessary episode in a series that initially seemed perfectly serialized, like all favored TV shows in this era.  And yet, in recent episodes, Discovery has become more episodic.  "Lethe" itself is episodic.  Other than being a deep character study, it's fairly standalone, except for the fact that we're clearly still following characters with a continuing story.

Speaking of which, Tilly gets some advancement.  Lorca certainly receives some advancement.  (Actually, he begins to look almost like a Starfleet version of Deep Space Nine's Kai Winn...)  And Tyler receives some advancement.  I actually like him a lot more, all the way around, in "Lethe" than his debut in "Choose Your Pain."  He feels more natural.  I can begin to understand, better, all those fans who never quite saw how Voyager's Starfleet misfits were misfits, since they never felt like Starfleet misfits (except B'Elanna, of course). 

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Gets to the heart of a character, Sarek, who has appeared extensively in Star Trek.
  • series - And imbeds his deeply into the heart of Discovery.
  • character - Not just Sarek, but Burnham, Lorca, Tyler, and even Tilly.
  • essential - It's the first great episodic entry of the series.
notable guest-stars:
James Frain (Sarek)
Mia Kirshner (Amanda)

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Discovery 1x5 "Choose Your Pain"

rating: ***

the story: Lorca is kidnapped by the Klingons.

what it's all about: This one will probably end up being known for two things: the return of Harry Mudd, and the first explicit same-sex relationship in franchise history.  Okay, three!  The swearing.  Wow, right?

Let's tackle each one, shall we?  Harry Mudd appeared three times over the course of the original and Animated series.  Had the movies (and thus, the return of Khan) never happened, he would continue to have a dominant place in Star Trek lore.  As it is, he was reduced to a brief nod in the Abrams timeline (Star Trek Into Darkness), which might have been the sum total of his further significance, until it was announced he'd appear in Discovery, depicted by The Office's Rainn Wilson, no less.  So what was that going to look like?  Turns out, both the character and actor justified the gambit.  Mudd even gets something of an origin story from the appearance, and arguably becomes a far more significant, and poignant, character, despite being at the same time as arrogant and opportunistic as ever. 

The first explicit same-sex relationship in franchise history, meanwhile, is a follow-up to the brief glimpse of Sulu's love life in Star Trek Beyond, and I do mean glimpse.  But the scene at the end of "Choose Your Pain" between Stamets and Culber leaves no doubt of what we're seeing.  This is akin to the kiss, at least in the franchise, between Kirk and Uhura in "Plato's Stepchildren."  Where that kiss broke broadcast history by featuring a white man and a black woman kiss, the LBGTQ community has for years enjoyed mainstream representation, but its inclusion in Star Trek, long delayed, is a breakthrough of another variety.

And the cursing...!  The decision to air Discovery on CBS All-Access has been met with considerable controversy, but one benefit is a loosening of network (and syndicated) guidelines.  This is the first instance of those loosened restrictions, in a scene where the ice is broken with a knowing wink to the audience, as if the characters are giddy to be so liberated but also shocked that they're getting away with it.  One can easily imagine the salty McCoy joining in...

The episode itself relies less on Burnham than the first four of the series gently pushing her aside to share the focus with Saru (always worth spending time with) and Lorca (whom we learn more about).  We also meet the last series regular, Ash Tyler,  but actor Shazad Latif proves himself, alas, to be by far the weakest member of the cast.  It's not surprising, in some ways.  Latif was originally cast as a Klingon, but allergies to the prosthetics forced the producers to redirect his participation.  In some ways this is the first visible proof of the complicated production history of the series. 

Thematically it's the first episode of the series to step away from strict serialization, although one lingering plot thread is resolved, the life-form that had been utilized by the ship for its alternative propulsion system being released back into the wild, so to speak, a resolution for events depicted in the previous episode ("The Butcher's Knife Cares Not for the Lamb's Cry").  "Pain" also has Klingons in it, with some interesting new things to say, especially where Lorca, Mudd, and Tyler's imprisonment aboard one of their ships is concerned.  It's where the name of the episode comes from...

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Mudd's back!  And also, the same-sex relationship.  And swearing!
  • series - The soft break of serialization is evident.
  • character - Lorca, Stamets, Saru, and even Mudd all have strong showings.
  • essential - This is all strong Star Trek material.
notable guest-stars:
Rainn Wilson (Mudd)

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Orville 1x6 "Krill"

the story: Mercer and Malloy infiltrate a Krill vessel.

what it's all about: This is the first episode of The Orville I've managed to catch.  Like Galaxy Quest before it, Orville is both an homage to and parody of Star Trek.  It seems to have been created in response to Discovery, which from the beginning was announced to be a dramatic departure from the Star Trek franchise.  Whereas Babylon 5 ushered a floodgate of challengers in a previous generation of new Star Trek programming, Orville is the exact opposite.  Actually, along with Discovery it signals an improbable resurgence of sorts of the kind of programming the Babylon 5 surge eventually ended, somewhat symbolically with the abbreviated run of Firefly some fifteen years ago (Firefly itself could be considered a literal interpretation of Gene Roddenberry's famous "Wagon Train to the stars!" pitch for the original Star Trek).

This particular episode even features the recurring Krill threat, another Orville parallel relevant to Discovery.  The Krill, who sort of look like a cross between Deep Space Nine's Jem'Hadar and Nemesis's Remans, might otherwise be considered Klingon analogs, and of course the Klingons are at the heart of Discovery.

Obviously Orville has deep affection for Star Trek.  It virtually is Star Trek.  It's Star Trek with nitpicking commentary built into it, which is about as meta as you can get with Star Trek fifty years in.  The nitpicking is the only real parody involved; otherwise it's just as if Seth MacFarlane gave himself permission to continue the Star Trek franchise as it has been traditionally known.  The storytelling is more or less exactly the same.  Mercer and Malloy find themselves in a moral dilemma where the Krill have developed a superweapon, and in order to prevent it from being used, they must decide whether to take out the Krill, or let them use it on an unsuspecting colony, basically in order to guarantee their own safety during the risky mission aboard the Krill ship.  They end up killing most of the Krill, saving the children they find aboard, and a Krill woman Mercer has developed a relationship with.  But the woman chillingly tells him that he hasn't saved innocent lives but rather created new enemies. 

This is a twist that probably is only possible in the age of terrorism, in which the laws of cause and effect have been observed more keenly than perhaps ever before, how they take their time to play out, not merely action and reaction, but what happens with the next generation that has witnessed the sins of the past.  Mercer makes the call that has always previously been considered the right one, but he's forced to accept that it maybe isn't as right as it used to be, so to speak.

It's fascinating.  MacFarlane previously did this sort of thing with A Million Ways to Die in the West, which I think also worked extremely well on its several levels, but his fans, and audiences in general, will mostly think of him in terms of Family Guy and Ted.  Which is a shame.  I knew he was capable of something like this from his Family Guy Star Wars specials alone. 

No matter how long Orville lasts (history doesn't favor Fox's patience), it'll be a worthy testament to Star Trek's legacy, and in some ways an expansion of it.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Discovery 1x4 "The Butcher's Knife Cares Not for the Lamb's Cry"

rating: ***

the story: Burnham solves Lorca's biggest immediate problem in true Star Trek fashion.

what it's all about: I've mentioned before that it's still too early to know just how serialized Discovery is.  It's possible that the whole season will feature one continuing story, so that every episode is linked.  This has become increasingly standard since Star Trek last had a TV series (Enterprise).  For now, I'll continue to treat episodes in their immediate context, and consider "The Butcher's Knife" as a kind of second half of the "second pilot" that was "Context Is for Kings," much as "Battle at the Binary Stars" was a continuation of the first episode, "The Vulcan Hello."

In that sense, we get some clear resolution in this episode, seeing where Burnham settles in among Lorca's crew, and even see her at her unabashed best, which was probably kind of necessary after seeing her Starfleet career literally self-destruct previously.  We see her perform a classic compassionate solution to a vexing problem, another alien life-form needing to be understood (see: "The Devil in the Dark").  If you don't want to see this as merely a continuation of previous episodes, that act itself is as close as Discovery has gotten to Star Trek's episodic roots.

In the process, we get the show's second shocking death of a character who seemed like they would otherwise have been in it for the long haul.  Previously it was Captain Georgiou (a lot of fans are saying it was obvious she was going to die, when they saw Michelle Yeoh listed as a guest-star; it could just as easily have meant Burnham merely being transferred to another ship, which is to say, Burnham's fate at the end of "Binary Stars" itself couldn't have been predicted, either, except in hindsight).  This time it's Landry.  Matter-of-fact Landry in a lot of ways represented the darkest fears of Lorca himself, his apparent rogue captain status.  And yet, once Burnham figures out the truth behind the alien life-form, Lorca isn't there demanding everyone ignore it.  One has the sense that Landry wouldn't have been so malleable.  And yet, she's a compelling element of the episode all the same, and it's a shame to see her go.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - A classic Star Trek narrative.
  • series - Burnham finds her place in the new crew.
  • character - Finding redemption in the process.
  • essential - It's a little disappointing that she is so straightforwardly heroic this time.\
notable guest-stars:
Rekha Sharma (Landry)
Michelle Yeoh (Georgiou)

Discovery 1x3 "Context Is for Kings"

rating: ****

the story: Burnham is conscripted by Captain Lorca following her discharge from Starfleet.

what it's all about: For all intents and purposes, "Context is for Kings" is what the pilot of Discovery would be if it were like every other Star Trek series to date.  It sets up the ongoing continuity of the series, whereas the first two episodes explained the backstory.  And it's another winner.

Burnham is now a convict, being transported with other convicts, until fate intercepts her with Lorca and the Discovery.  Lorca seems to be akin to the kind of rogue captain Kirk kept running into in the original series.  Since he isn't the lead character (and unlike every other series in franchise history there is a clear lead character, and it isn't by default), there's no automatic assumption that he's the good guy or right in his decisions, and there's no reboot at the end of the episode where everyone learns from their mistakes, that sort of thing, regardless of whether or not he's another rogue. Our allegiance necessarily falls to Burnham, who tries to understand what a science vessel being run by a war-hungry commanding officer can possibly have for someone like her.  Like Picard thought of Riker in Next Generation, perhaps it's merely her willingness to defy expectations.

At any rate, it's the introductions that carry the episode.  Where Saru made a strong impression in previous episodes, it was really Burnham carrying the bulk of the material.  That changes in "Context."  Lorca certainly makes a huge impact.  So too does science officer Stamets, whose differences in philosophy with Lorca recall Wrath of Khan, where Carol Marcus and her son David were equally aghast of domineering Starfleet methods.  Also noteworthy is Tilly, Burnham's bunkmate who's struggling with anxieties of one kind or another, not the least of which is realizing that Burnham is one and the same mutineer she'd just been babbling about to Burnham herself...!  Plus, there's the awkward reunion between Burnham and Saru.  These are all strong, and strongly-defined, characters, right from the (re)start.  There's also Landry...but more on her next episode.

There's been a number of complaints among fans that Burnham can't really be classified as a mutineer based on how circumstances played out in the first two episodes.  "Mutineer" is the word on everyone's lips around her in "Context."  And it is appropriate.  Her confrontation with Georgiou is off the bridge in "Battle at the Binary Stars," and yet she's the only one, initially, of the two on the bridge when she changes the ship's orders.  The crew complies with her orders with little protest despite the radical departure she's introduced.  In effect, she fakes a mutiny; the crew remains blameless but was also complicit.  Had Georgiou not turned up so quickly, no one would've known differently, but she did, and so the situation devolved into chaos.  Chaos is the result of conflicted motivations, which is to say, there had been a de facto mutiny under Burnham's brief leadership.  The crew believed Burnham's lie, and that's really just about enough.  If this had been a pirate ship, these "conspirators" would be dead. 

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Meeting the main characters of any series is always pretty important.
  • series - Effectively a pilot episode.
  • character - Aside from the new faces we meet, we also follow Burnham as she finds herself in unexpected new context.
  • essential - This continues to be bold new Star Trek storytelling.
notable guest-stars:
Rekha Sharma (Landry)

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Voyager 7x12 "Lineage"

rating: ****

the story: When B'Elanna learns she's pregnant, it causes her to once again anguish over her mixed heritage.

what it's all about: "Lineage" is among the most harrowing character studies in franchise history.  Of course it's a classic.  It's the culmination of B'Elanna Torres's whole arc in the series, beginning with "Faces" in the first season, in which we literally see her Klingon and human sides struggle with each other.  Here, she replays the struggle on behalf of her unborn daughter. 

Star Trek has often tackled big moral problems, and slightly less often put a main character in the position of being wrong.  Clearly B'Elanna is wrong in her desperate attempts to modify her child's DNA, to wipe out the Klingon side entirely.  And she goes to extraordinary measures to try and achieve it, even messing with the Doctor's programming...

We also get rare flashback material in a Star Trek episode, in which the young B'Elanna goes on a camping trip with her human father, and we see firsthand her early struggles.  We'd seen Chakotay's flashback childhood troubles in "Tattoo," so it's a nice callback, too, and even Tuvok's ("Gravity").  Seems if you're Maquis (Tuvok pretended to be, anyway), that's what you get. 

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - A gripping example of Star Trek's moral compass.
  • series - Concludes a main character's arc.
  • character - B'Elanna's.
  • essential - Said character is arguably the true MVP of the series.  So, pretty important.
notable guest-stars:
Manu Intiraymi (Icheb)

Voyager 7x11 "Shattered"

rating: ****

the story: Chakotay finds the ship shattered into different time periods.

what it's all about: Sure, "Shattered" is a bit like Next Generation's final episode, "All Good Things...," where Q has Picard hopping between the past, present and future, but it stands uniquely on its own as a clever and fun episode, revisiting various signposts from throughout Voyager's seven seasons.  We do see a future, where Icheb and Naomi have grown up and have become the second generation to run the ship, and we see Seven when she was still a Borg drone, and we see Janeway from just before "Caretaker" (first episode, dude). 

But my favorite part?  One last reprise of Seska.  Seska was the signature arc of the first two seasons, the Cardassian who posed as a Bajoran in order to infiltrate the Maquis, and thus betraying in her defection to the Kazon not only the crew as a whole, but Chakotay, with whom she'd been close.  She technically met her end in the third season premiere, "Basics, Part 2," but returned via a holodeck program she'd booby-trapped in "Worst Case Scenario" at the end that season.

For a second time, she gets another chance to finish the job, and really, it's just confirmation that Seska remains a signature villain of the series, in case anyone had forgotten or simply roped her in with her Kazon allies, whom many fans didn't really care for.

That it's a Chakotay episode is awesome, since he had nothing much to do with "Worst Case," nor "Basics, Part 2," despite being so important to the arc and character previously.  This was a point when he'd receded far into the background, and hadn't been particularly relevant except in his spotlight episodes since...basically the second season.  But Chakotay was king of spotlight episodes.  He could sell any concept, and seemed to get a good share of the truly interesting ones, like this one.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Shades of a classic final episode here.
  • series - Reflects back on the journey without being a clip show, which is itself clever.
  • character - Chakotay, and Seska, are well-served.
  • essential - Seeing Seska again is a great reminder of how important she was to the show.
notable guest-stars:
Martha Hackett (Seska)
Manu Intiraymi (Icheb)
Scarlett Pomers (Naomi)
Martin Rayner (Chaotica)

Monday, September 25, 2017

Voyager 7x10 "Flesh and Blood, Part 2"

rating: ****

the story: Holograms fight for the right to exist on their own terms.

what it's all about: In the highly charged atmosphere of 2017, it's difficult to find anything that attempts to unite disparate perspectives, and yet that's Star Trek at its most ideal.  In the original series, Kirk routinely broke the rules to give alien societies a fighting chance against oppression.  Somewhere along the way, that instinct was muted, but Next Generation's "The Measure of a Man" introduced an intriguing new way to express it: via the individual, the android Data.  Voyager's holographic Doctor was a chance to broaden that expression, and "Flesh and Blood" is one of its finest attempts to explore it.

The short-hand of using holograms who look like familiar aliens, notably Bajorans and Cardassians, prominent in Deep Space Nine, calls to mind how in that series the Founders, a race of changelings, eventually created the Dominion as a means of protecting itself from a galaxy that didn't seem to understand them.  The holograms in "Flesh and Blood" are well on their way to such a destiny, but fate intervenes.  The crew of Voyager was inadvertently responsible for this situation when it gave the Hirogen these holograms to hunt.  The Hirogen greatly enhanced these holograms, to the point where things got out of hand, and suddenly these holograms were considering themselves individuals.

With a lot of additional dilemmas on their hands.  Next Generation had, in some ways, used the Borg to further explore its concept of artificial life ("Descent" helped make that clear), which Voyager itself certainly continued.  The idea of individuality proved to be a concept far more difficult to comprehend for the likes of Seven and the Doctor than anyone could have anticipated.  Seven's journey is clear enough, but the Doctor's is complicated by the fact that it was always too easy to remember that in some respects he was made up of subroutines and programming, and that if he had become something other than all that, it was something he'd earned rather than been given.  Or so it was sometimes concluded.  But what if it's a right of all life, biological or artificial?  Other holograms find it very much worth fighting for.

In the end, it's not really about who's right or who's wrong, which is a sign of the maturity of the franchise at this point, and that's as much as any other reason why "Flesh and Blood" is a pivotal moment in Voyager and Star Trek as a whole.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Grapples some big ideas, in fine tradition.
  • series - The final stop before the Doctor reaches his final catharsis in "Author, Author."
  • character - Well, so it's significant for the Doctor.
  • essential - Seems like it's not that important.  But it kind of is.
notable guest-stars:
Vaughn Armstrong

Voyager 7x9 "Flesh and Blood, Part 1"

rating: ****

the story: The crew discover that the Hirogens have underestimated the holographic prey they have them in "The Killing Game."

what it's all about: An unlikely sequel leads to the epic hologram war the series finally gets around to after spending so much of its run exploring the varying ways holograms can exist and whether or not it affects the Doctor's status.

"The Killing Game" was a two-part episode in the fourth season where the Hirogen were ultimately pacified by being given seemingly the perfect solution to a species just looking for a good hunt.  "Flesh and Blood" exposes that to have been wishful thinking at best.  It's like "Space Seed" succeeded by Wrath of Khan, where Kirk learns disposing of the genetic superman on his own planet didn't somehow solve everything.  The next time the franchise attempted such a solution, Next Generation's "Ship in a Bottle," in which the brilliant Moriarty (who is a hologram, by the way) is pacified by a false solution to his yearning for freedom.  Ironically, "Ship" itself was a continuation of a similar conclusion to his first appearance, "Elementary, Dear Data."  So clearly some problems will always have complicated results.

The Doctor is once again confronted by a dilemma that forces him to argue for the rights of his people, regardless of whether or not they're behaving themselves (which itself is a freedom of speech analogy relevant to 2017) as he finds himself caught in the middle of the crew trying to help the Hirogen and the holograms striving for their own freedom.

Since this is a two-part episode, I'll refrain from drawing conclusions as to who's right in all this.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Shares in the tradition of surprising follow-ups to previous solutions.
  • series - A sequel to "The Killing Game."
  • character - The Doctor reaches an epic turning point in the fight for the rights of holograms.
  • essential - If Data and Lore had "Descent," then it's fair to say this is the Doctor's version, and it's got more on its mind.
notable guest-stars:
Vaughn Armstrong

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Discovery 1x2 "Battle at the Binary Stars"

rating: ****

the story: Burnham's actions lead to an all-out fight between Starfleet and the Klingons.

what it's all about: Essentially the second half of "The Vulcan Hello," until further episodes define just how serialized this series really is, but certainly concluding an opening story for Burnham and Discovery around her, "Battle at the Binary Stars" is perhaps most notable by how it ends, in a manner most shocking indeed...

I mentioned in my thoughts about "Vulcan Hello" how Burnham's arc in these first two episodes is like seeing things the franchise usually only talks about, except in the one other instance in which a series has begun showing exactly where a character's mindset came from (Sisko's experiences during the Battle of Wolf 359 in Deep Space Nine's pilot, "Emissary").  Next Generation's Picard had commanded a ship prior to the Enterprise (we later get a version of how his tenure aboard the Stargazer ended in "The Battle"), while his first officer Riker had distinguished himself by questioning a previous commanding officer; Voyager's Tom Paris, meanwhile, is the only other disgraced Starfleet officer to be featured as a series regular, but it's only with a different character actor Robert Duncan McNeill had played (in Next Generation's "The First Duty") where we actually saw a version of the circumstances behind what he'd done. 

There's no such ambiguity in Discovery.  This is a series that shows everything.  Not only do we see exactly what apparently happens to Burnham's career, but there are also flashbacks (Burnham as a young girl as she struggles to cope with what happened to her parents, and by whom, which is similar to Next Generation's Worf, too, who happens to be Klingon) and even a unique bond with Sarek.  Speaking of Spock's dad (it'll be interesting to see just how that's acknowledged in the series), he's another layer of how Discovery is seizing its opportunity to look at the franchise from a fresh set of eyes.  We see a unique version of the Vulcan mind-meld, complete with an explanation for it, in this episode, for instance, and even Sarek's thoughts on where he believes his strengths lie, and how he relates to those closest to him. 

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Rich in its examination of both Starfleet and Klingon culture.
  • series - Concludes the origin story...
  • character - Of lead character Michael Burnham.
  • essential - This is something we've often been told about before in Star Trek, but never quite gotten to actually see.
notable guest-stars:
Michelle Yeoh (Georgiou)
James Frain (Sarek)

Discovery 1x1 "The Vulcan Hello"

rating: ****

the story: Klingon radicals provoke Starfleet into a war.

what it's all about: The first new Star Trek TV show in more than a decade may seem to have reinvented the wheel, but its first episode immediately grounds the action in very familiar territory, the stuff we normally don't get to see, and that is as refreshing as new material can get.

Michael Burnham as a lead character is like the young William Riker (Next Generation) receiving his own series (or as the second episode, "Battle at the Binary Stars," will help make clear, perhaps Voyager's Tom Paris), an officer who jeopardizes their career believing they're doing the right thing.  When Riker did it, it sent a signal to his future commanding officer, Jean-Luc Picard, that he was a valuable asset as first officer.  Ironically, Burnham has that rank already when she does it.

The circumstances are actually, in this first episode, perhaps more fascinating, a return to the Klingons as the defining alien menace of the franchise.  The original series introduced them as a Cold War analogy; in Next Generation they took on new vitality as a rich and vibrant culture all their own, capable of considerable nuance and even greater fan appeal than they'd enjoyed previously.  Their appearances in the original six Kirk movies culminated in The Undiscovered Country, which built on the Next Generation appearances to not only conclude the Cold War analogy but settle once and for all whether or not they were mere enemies, or something greater.  But it was the culture more than anything that grew in that time.  In Discovery, it seems, this legacy continues to blossom.

The idea of Klingon houses is not a new one, but never before has it been featured so prominently and in such detail.  The use of the Klingon language itself, and how it sounds when employed at length, joins with the houses to create a new kind of analogy, one I would argue is more intriguing than the Cold War: these Klingons are Native Americans.  The name of the series itself calls to mind the Lewis & Clark Corps of Discovery Expedition, which was one of the earliest sustained contacts between the emerging American nation and the tribes on whose land it was built upon.  While the story begun in "Vulcan Hello" is not about exploration, the spirit of contention that still exists today between Americans and Native American tribes, who like the Klingons here once sought to unite under common leaders, is indeed relevant.

Burnham herself is at odds with competing natures.  She is a Starfleet officer, and yet her loyalties lie with the Vulcans who adopted her, embodied by Sarek, one of the two most famous, and original, Vulcans in Star Trek lore.  It's familiar franchise territory for Vulcan logic to be at odds with Starfleet directives, surely, but this will also be one of the most direct representations of that trend outside of T'Pol joining Archer's formative crew in Enterprise

The feel of Discovery, at least in "Vulcan Hello," seems to call on The Animated Series, the last time the franchise was truly uninhibited in its visual vision.  Great strides in that regard can be found in the last two live action series, Voyager and Enterprise, and yet nothing in them can match the mere glimpse of a truly alien, and convincingly so, being we see early in the episode.  There also seems to be something of "Beyond the Farthest Star," the first episode of The Animated Series, to how the Klingon encounter begins, and perhaps more ironically still, a callback to The Motion Picture in how Burnham finds out what her crew has really come across.  The first Star Trek movie has been accused of a lot of sins, but it's also one of the most visually imaginative adventures in the whole franchise.

This is a bold beginning.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Callbacks to Star Trek lore can be found throughout.
  • series - It's the all-important first episode.
  • series - Establishes the lead character, Michael Burnham, quite well.
  • essential - Has the feel of showing something we've never quite gotten to see before.
notable guest-stars:
Michelle Yeoh (Georgiou)
James Frain (Sarek)

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Voyager 7x8 "Nightingale"

rating: **

the story: Harry is given command of an alien ship.

what it's all about: This is the definitive character study of Harry Kim.  Of all the characters in the series,  he was difficult to comprehend by incredulous fans who never understood why a perfectly dependable officer never got promoted during the course of seven seasons.  Here's why.

Simply put, it's because he never understood the human element, and had never been in a position where this was exposed.  Janeway's crew functioned perfectly for having been cobbled together, but there was a reason why personnel settled where they did, and worked together as they did.  Just as Chakotay's role as first officer became redundant in a crew accustomed to sharing the burden of command under a visionary captain, everyone tended to slide into the roles that were needed.  If someone like Neelix proved ambitious, they were granted additional responsibilities.  You'll see that Harry never left his post as operations officer.  Tom Paris and Tuvok, meanwhile, did handle multiple responsibilities, and were promoted accordingly.

But more than that, it's really about Harry's self-confidence, which is exposed as being disproportionate in some areas, so that it becomes overconfidence.  That's why he's an ensign, because he's still got a lot to learn.  In a way, he really was the crew member who lost the most being lost in space.  He gained plenty of experience, but never realized what he lost in the bargain.

So that's what "Nightingale" is about, helping him realize that.  Interestingly, there's a subplot about Icheb naively believing B'Elanna has a crush on him.  Again, it's innocent inexperience that's the problem, and a rare instance in which the main and subplots of a Voyager episode reflect each other.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Won't particularly appeal to casual fans.
  • series - Apparently there was a plan to keep Harry on that alien ship, much as Neelix later split off from the crew before the end.  But obviously that didn't happen.
  • character - Harry explained.
  • essential - A darn clever way to do it, too.
notable guest-stars:
Ron Glass
Manu Intiraymi (Icheb)

Voyager 7x7 "Body and Soul"

rating: **

the story: The Doctor seeks temporary refuge within Seven's circuits, taking over in the process.

what it's all about: "Body and Soul" is the kind of episode that can easily be dismissed as gimmicky, where Jeri Ryan (Seven) is basically being asked to impersonate Robert Picardo (the Doctor), and that's really the whole point.  There's of course a reason why it's happening, and it's relevant to the recurring subplot in the series about how holograms are interpreted by various cultures, but the way it's used this time is hugely reminiscent of the far superior "Counterpoint," and so I wouldn't go out of my way to sell in on those merits.

Instead, what's most noteworthy about the episode is how Tuvok's pon farr is the subplot.  Obviously it would've been difficult to make the main story center around it ("Amok Time" is difficult to contend with, and Voyager already had a Vulcan have a crisis over it in "Blood Fever"), but the fact that the series deals with it at all is a nice touch.  Like Kes's short lifespan stood over the early seasons as a ticking time bomb, seemingly designed to become relevant at some point (eventually in "Before and After"), Tuvok being stranded so far from home, and his wife, meant it was bound to happen eventually.  I'm glad it did.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - The classic pon farr matter is once again addressed.
  • series - Seems like an episode that was done on a lark.
  • character - The Doctor and Seven are always fun to watch together.
  • essential - Not especially.
notable guest-stars:
Megan Gallagher

Voyager 7x6 "Inside Man"

rating: ****

the story: Ferengi intercept a holographic Barclay.

what it's all about: Reg Barclay in Voyager is one of the most remarkable developments of the whole franchise.  In Next Generation, Barclay was the poster boy of neurotic behavior, whose skills as an engineer always took a backseat to his latest psychological problem.  Then he starts making appearances in Voyager, and then in "Pathfinder" becomes an official member of the family as he spearheads regular communication between Voyager and Starfleet, itself a milestone development in the series. 

Ironically, as a counterpoint to his first appearance ("Hollow Pursuits"), Barclay here gains a holographic version of himself! 

"Inside Man" continues that arc while also bringing back the idea of the Ferengi as antagonists.  The Ferengi were Next Generation's first attempt at new villainous aliens.  They were quickly exposed as difficult to take seriously, and so they became progressively comedic, until in Deep Space Nine virtually every spotlight episode for Quark was played for laughs, regardless of how nuanced Ferengi society was depicted in that series. 

They'd appeared in Voyager previously ("False Profits"), but "Inside" makes a more concerted effort to return the Ferengi to their roots, when DaiMon Bok was envisioned as Picard's mortal enemy.  Here they're refashioned as essentially faceless, which is perhaps key to making the idea work.  Devious but incapable of following up on their schemes, the Ferengi in the episode are exactly what they always were, but in a situation that at last sells the concept on every level it always needed to work.  They're revealed as cowards, which is why their best bet is gambling against each other, where the façade can truly function.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - An honest-to-god attempt to redeem the original vision of the Ferengi.
  • series - Progress in communications with Starfleet!
  • character - Barclay once again proves he belongs in this family.
  • essential - For those who claim the episodic format can't handle serialized material, this is yet another example to the contrary.
notable guest-stars:
Dwight Schultz (Barclay)
Marina Sirtis (Troi)
Richard Herd (Admiral Paris)

Voyager 7x5 "Critical Care"

rating: ***

the story: The Doctor is kidnapped and forced to work in a hospital that has seriously messed up its priorities.

what it's all about: This is the Star Trek episode about healthcare, applying it so that it covers everyone equally.  Clearly it's still an issue today, and so here we have a Voyager story that is clearly evergreen and part of the franchise social message tradition.

In some ways, it's the Doctor's version of "The Most Toys," the Next Generation episode where Data is "collected" and makes an extraordinary decision to use lethal force (though he's thwarted by a timely beam-out) against his kidnapper, who has demonstrated monstrous inhumanity.  The Doctor makes a similar decision, although "Critical Care" doesn't pull its punches in the consequences, even if the results are an unambiguous happy ending, except for the Doctor, who wonders how he's reached the point where he can do something like that.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - It's exactly what Star Trek is all about.
  • series - It didn't need to be a Voyager episode.
  • character - Although of course it works well as a Doctor spotlight.
  • essential - It's the one episode where the quagmire of healthcare is addressed in the franchise.
notable guest-stars:
Gregory Itzen
William Daniels

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Voyager 7x4 "Repression"

rating: ****

the story: Tuvok is used to reignite the Maquis.

what it's all about: The constant criticism that Voyager blew its premise by making peace between the Starfleet and Maquis personnel aboard ship was so often refuted in the series itself it's almost not even worth addressing, but luckily the series also liked to revisit the concept, so I get to talk about it whenever it comes up.  "Repression" is the final time this occurs, and it's perhaps the rival of the already hugely-clever "Worst Case Scenario" from the third season in how it addresses matters. 

Bajorans were a signature element of Deep Space Nine, and their struggles against Cardassians were a well-established fact, one they eventually shared with Federation rogues who called themselves the Maquis, some of whom ended up being featured in Voyager.  But "Caretaker" (the pilot) introduced a fascinating wrinkle: one of them was a counteragent.  His name was Tuvok (it's therefore appropriate to see him among a different group of revolutionaries in Deep Space Nine's Mirror Universe arc entry "Through the Looking Glass").  "Repression" is the episode that finally capitalizes on that fact.  Even this late in the series, it's still a welcome moment. 

It's not even the fact that his counteragent status is featured, but how it's featured, with a rogue Bajoran having tricked Tuvok, via conditioning, to become a counter-counteragent thanks to his Vulcan-specific mental powers.  That's exactly how thoroughly "Repression" considered the possibilities. 

Thanks to the messages the crew is able to get from home at this point in the series, the Bajoran is able to trigger Tuvok and effect one last "this is how it should have been" scenario.  It also gives Tuvok a chance to spotlight his loyalty to Janeway.  In some alternate version of the series, this would've been featured more often, but then, it would've risked fans claiming Voyager ripping off Kirk and Spock.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Deep Space Nine will appreciate the Bajoran element.
  • series - The last Maquis story.
  • character - One of Tuvok's best spotlights.
  • essential - "Last Maquis story" actually means franchise-wide, and it's an appropriate nod to everything that came before it.
notable guest-stars:
Derek McGrath (Chell)

Voyager 7x3 "Drive"

rating: ***

the story: Tom & B'Elanna join forces for a race.

what it's all about: "Drive" kind of makes clear that it isn't random when Voyager skips a major development; it seems to be by design.  The first time it happened was when Neelix and Kes split up in the third season.   Then it happens again later when Chakotay and Seven are suddenly in a relationship in the final episode ("Endgame").  So to see Tom Paris and B'Elanna Torres really should be no surprise.

It makes sense, since Voyager committed itself to the traditional episodic format of the franchise, meaning that its episodes were meant to be generally standalone, understandable by themselves, even if there were continuing plotlines, and there were continuing plotlines in this series, several hugely significant ones.  The relationship between Tom and B'Elanna was one of the few to lead to a Star Trek marriage.  The only other time it happened between series regulars was Worf and Jadzia Dax in Deep Space Nine

The episode spends its time in a fairly innovative story, a celebratory race between former rival civilizations (which of course ends with an episodic-style crisis), which allows Tom and B'Elanna to wear fancy custom uniforms, which also helps "Drive" stand out.  The couple spends most of it hashing out their relationship, as it's one of the many things B'Elanna holds grave doubts about, but happily one where she finds resolution.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Casual fans will not appreciate how this episode ends.
  • series - And yet, it explains why Voyager used this technique repeatedly.
  • character - Tom and B'Elanna marry!
  • essential - We spend seven seasons as these characters' lives evolve, but their most personal moments remain their own, something to be imagined, perhaps.
notable guest-stars:
Brian George

Monday, September 18, 2017

Voyager 7x2 "Imperfection"

rating: ***

the story: A crucial Borg implant malfunctions for Seven.

what it's all about: Icheb had already won a unique place in the annals of youth characters in Star Trek thanks to "Child's Play," his second major appearance where we learn once and for all that he's not just another teenager in the franchise, but one with a burden meant for someone far older.  As one of the "Borg children," he'd already provided Seven's arc an added dimension, additional ex-drones struggling to reclaim their lives post-Collective aboard Voyager.  Here he pushes her even further, accepting vulnerability in a way she'd never quite managed previously.

From the moment she appeared in the series, Seven was a hard case, who wore her damage more proudly than anyone in a crew full of damaged souls (that's what makes Voyager so fascinating for me; Deep Space Nine was always known as the "dark Trek," and yet it was Voyager that set out to find the Roddenberry ideal in the midst of personal tragedy).  Her story was obvious to anyone who saw her, and more obvious still to anyone who heard her.  Even worse than B'Elanna Torres, Seven just couldn't let go of what had hurt her; in fact, she seemed reluctant to let go, even as she professed an interest in making peace with her transformed world.  It took a lot of work to rediscover her humanity.  Arguably, it happens in "Imperfection."

The Borg children never quite became official drones, so that always gave Icheb a leg up in that department.  He may have retained the distinctive Borg vocal passivity (between Vulcans, Bajorans, and the Borg, Star Trek really seems to like that stuff!), but he struggled far less with integrating. 

The biggest problem Seven faces in the episode is acknowledging that.  It's how she discovers her vulnerability.  Like the Doctor before her ("Someone to Watch Over Me") Seven attempts a dubious mentorship.  Unlike her own behavior in this situation, much less the Doctor's, Seven accepts the fact that she is proven wrong, at the end of the episode.  To my mind, that makes "Imperfection" at least a rival to an episode that usually gets more fan love.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Though all about Borg mechanics, this stuff probably won't appeal to the casual fan; its points are too subtle.
  • series - They make more sense resonating with prior Voyager material.
  • character - It's a giant leap for Seven, and Icheb.
  • essential - Icheb once again proves how quickly he became indispensable to the later seasons of the series.
notable guest-stars:
Manu Intiraymi (Icheb)

Voyager 7x1 "Unimatrix Zero, Part 2"

rating: ***

the story: Janeway's gambit to strike at the Borg from within proves challenging.

what it's all about: For a while, I didn't really appreciate what exactly "Unimatrix Zero" accomplishes.  I used to consider it as more or less Voyager's "Descent," the Next Generation two-part episode that posited the end of the Borg via accidental individuality.  I thought "Descent" thought too small.  And so did "Unimatrix Zero."

Essentially, "Zero" is about a hidden sub-Collective of drones who worked to subvert the Borg from within.  It felt like retconning Seven into being a good character all along.  Whether or not that's true, it's still fascinating, and arguably Voyager's boldest use of the Borg ever.  The Borg had become almost too powerful, maybe survivable if the conditions are right, but inherently relentless, adaptable to any challenge.  The end result of that is that the Borg will win, eventually.  It's basically the opposite of the Star Trek message. 

So "Zero" is the solution.  The problem is, it's a solution without an actual conclusion, and the next time the Borg show up, in their final chronological appearance to date, there's no indication that "Zero" had any actual effect; "Endgame," the series finale, seems to come to an entirely different conclusion as to how to deal with the Borg threat once and for all.

"Zero" posits a civil war, the ability of a drone to decide for themselves to leave the Collective.  It's the Matrix Revolutions solution, three years before that movie is even released. 

The notion of a civil war solving something in the franchise, in this series, isn't new ("The Q and the Grey"), but it's an appropriate one, in hindsight.  This is necessarily a bigger story than the crew of one ship can possibly address.  The notion of finally connecting disparate drones serving in ships across all of Borg territory is about as expansive as you can get, no matter how the story gets there.  It's the logical conclusion to the Borg narrative, certainly Voyager's singular vision of it, dating all the way back to "Unity" in the third season and including Seven's arc.  So in that sense, Seven's expanded biography becomes almost irony, but also entirely appropriate.  It's good that she reaches this point.  In a lot of ways, even if it's not the end of the Borg story, it's the culmination of Seven's.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Fans who grumble at Voyager's use of the Borg are not likely to like this.
  • series - But it makes perfect Voyager sense.
  • character - Seven's whole arc is revealed, and comes full circle.
  • essential - Regardless of what follows, this is the perfect conclusion to the Voyager Borg experience.
notable guest-stars:
Susanna Thompson (Borg Queen)

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Voyager 5x26 "Equinox, Part 1"

rating: ****

the story: The crew come across another displaced Starfleet ship, which has made far different ethical decisions along the way...

what it's all about: "Equinox" is basically Voyager's last word on its critics who argue that the series was too soft in its premise.  Far more than "Year of Hell," which predicted the look of the BattleStar Galactica reboot, "Equinox" predicted its spirit.  Moral compromise is no stranger to this franchise (watch Deep Space Nine's "In the Pale Moonlight"), but it's the idealism Gene Roddenberry first envisioned that should always be at its heart. That's what Voyager was about from the very beginning, a series about a crew that might've compromised its idealism but chose at every opportunity not to.  Well, there apparently was another ship that went the other way.

The true impact of "Equinox" became crystalized in the second part, the sixth season premiere that launched a whole new volley of criticism against the series that endured the whole season, once Janeway chose a response to her counterpart, Captain Ransom.  That's another episode, though. 

This one is merely the setup, in which the crew once again makes an unlikely season-ending discovery (in the spirit of "Hope and Fear" a season earlier, with that fake Starfleet supership that was going to get them home near-instantly), not just awareness of another crew but the crew itself.  That crew has a lot of famous faces in it (yet another cause for complaints, because we never do see any of them again past the second part), as you'll see in the guest-star listing.  Titus Welliver, in particular, would go on to greater exposure after appearing here, including Lost, a series that endlessly reinvented itself with basically the same premise as Voyager: being stranded in the middle of nowhere.  Just imagine if Star Trek had totally broken its model to follow a formula like that!  And ironically, Lost co-creator JJ Abrams would later initiate the big screen revamp...

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Challenges fans to consider what Star Trek is really all about.
  • series - Gives the crew a stark look in the mirror.
  • character - Janeway's biggest challenge, and most personal.
  • essential - Simply put, required viewing.
notable guest-stars:
John Savage (Ransom)
Titus Welliver
Rick Worthy
Scarlett Pomers (Naomi)

Voyager 5x25 "Warhead"

rating: **

the story: The Doctor inadvertently becomes tied into a weapon's AI.

what it's all about: If you really must retread familiar territory (and this is as familiar territory as can be found in the franchise, stop me if you've heard this one: the remnant of a long-ago war doesn't want to acknowledge the war is over), this is probably the way to do it.

"Warhead" is one of the many, many episodes in the series to handle artificial intelligence.  Normally, it was with other forms of holograms, but like Next Generation and Data, the allure of the concept remained potent regardless, thanks to the Doctor.  And the Doctor has one of his most unique experiences because of it: becoming the enemy!

Thankfully it's not like "Warlord," the Kes spotlight where that was quite literal, for one episode, but rather because (and not in the curious "Darkling" experience) his programming is overrun. 

The ending becomes poignant, once the eponymous warhead has detached itself from the Doctor, when it chooses to sacrifice itself rather than further endanger Voyager.  Actually, putting it like that makes the episode sound a lot like "Drone" at the start of the season.  Second episode of the season and second-to-last episode...I don't think that was particularly coincidental.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - A familiar plot revisited.
  • series - Becomes somewhat more relevant to casual fans because of it.
  • character - Although the Doctor's involvement is creative.
  • essential - Even if the ending doesn't need it to work at all.

Voyager 5x24 "Relativity"

rating: ****

the story: Seven is recruited by a 29th century Starfleet officer to thwart the destruction of the ship.

what it's all about: "Relativity" is what happens when a franchise has been going a long time, and one of its signature elements, in this case time travel, becomes something that needs to be addressed in a practical manner.  And actually, you can extrapolate the entire concept of Enterprise's Temporal Cold War from this episode.  (Also worth noting: the Department of Temporal Investigations, from Deep Space Nine's "Trials and Tribble-ations.")

It's also a sequel to the third season event two-parter, "Future's End," in which the character of 29th century Starfleet officer Captain Braxton is first seen.  Thanks to these appearances, Braxton is kind of the Mudd (original series), Moriarty (Next Generation), Eddington (Deep Space Nine), or even Duras (the Enterprise one) of Voyager, someone true fans of the series will certainly appreciate but casual ones probably won't really know about.

But yeah, it's an episode with time travel, that like the later "Shattered" revisits various points in the series (an idea first featured in Next Generation's "All Good Things..."), which itself is fun to watch, but merely watching it all play out (although the basic idea is very similar to Deep Space Nine's "Visionary") is its own reward, the concept of Starfleet in the future having taken to patrolling time travel as part of its duties.  It just seems natural, once you think about it.  Two centuries after Braxton, Daniels (Enterprise) is learning time travel basics in grade school, and his involvement in the concept is even more complicated...

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - A statement on where all that time travel logically leads to.
  • series - Braxton returns to avenge his experience in "Future's End."
  • character - Janeway and Seven become embroiled in his plot.
  • essential - An excellent reward for franchise and series fans.
notable guest-stars:
Bruce McGill (Braxton)
Josh Clark (Carey)

Voyager 5x23 "11:59"

rating: ****

the story: Janeway remembers an ancestor's crucial involvement in a turn of the millennium project.

what it's all about: "11:59" was patently an attempt at a prestige story, and I always thought it succeeded.  Enterprise later echoed this kind of storytelling ("Carbon Creek," "First Flight"), in which a main character reflects on the past, but what makes "11:59" special is that it challenges not only Janeway's assumptions about her ancestor, but the viewer's belief that Star Trek automatically celebrates progress for the sake of progress, that it's a franchise about the cool gadgets of the future.  When it in fact has always been about people.  I admit, it's easy to mistake the core message.  When people talked about Star Trek's legacy during the 50th anniversary, all over again it was rehashed how communicators helped drive the development of today's cellphones, and how the iconic technology featured in the original series is still the stuff engineers chase today.  Fans still argue that the next movie or the next TV show ought to "go further into the future," so we can see more of that.  But that's really the dog chasing its tail.  Star Trek has become inescapable.  Of course it will have an impact like that in the real world.  It's just, that's never been the point. 

That's why a story like "11:59" is so important.  Janeway's ancestor in the story is actual two people, the woman who's played by Kate Mulgrew (of course, just like Janeway), and the man played by Kevin Tighe (surely fans of Lost will be surprised to watch this one...!).  The woman, whom Janeway thought was heavily involved in construction of a millennial tower project and went to Mars, didn't do any of that.  The man stuck his boots in the mud and wouldn't budge, the last holdout, to make way for the tower.  Together, they move aside for the project, having connected on a profound level, and...that's really the point.  It's not the fancy tower, or the fact that this was an episode kind of trading on millennial fever (it originally aired in May 1999), but the two people, who aren't involved in anything more complicated than human interaction, finding that despite their differences they have more reasons to connect than reject each other.

It's ultimately a quiet, piercing story, and quite a profound one.  It accomplishes exactly what it set out to.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Reflects the sometimes neglected heart of Star Trek.
  • series - A successful bid to present a prestige episode.
  • character - A fascinating study of Janeway.
  • essential - A deceptively simple tale.
notable guest-stars:
Kevin Tighe

Voyager 5x22 "Someone to Watch Over Me"

rating: ***

the story: The Doctor develops feelings for Seven while teaching her about relationships.

what it's all about: At least it's better than "In Theory."  That's the Next Generation episode Data finds himself in a relationship, but bungles it when his response is to build a subroutine to fake his way through it.

Some fans swear by "Someone to Watch Over Me."  It's the Pygmalion episode, one of those classic stories that seem endlessly adaptable, and the whole unrequited love ending that's so heartbreaking for the Doctor (he ain't seen nothing yet; even by the final episode of the series, "Endgame," he's had to settle for a stand-in years later, in the aborted future, while in the present it's Chakotay who finally convinces Seven to give love a chance).

The subplot about ambassadors behaving badly has been done before in the franchise, so that's there.  Take it for what it is, that kind of material.

Softening Seven was a running element of the series since she made her debut the previous season, but certainly this is one of the more concerted efforts, one where she's actually allowed to interact with others on a level that has nothing to do with having once been a Borg, but the mere fact of her inexperience, which explores an entirely different aspect of the character. 

And yes, the Doctor is the one, ironically, giving her advice.  That's actually the best part of the episode, seeing how far he's come in a half dozen years or so, how eager he's been to expand his horizons.  I think that, more than anything, is what fascinates him about Seven, what attracts him to her.  She reminds him of his own journey.  The fact that she doesn't, or can't, reciprocate is a painful reminder of that lonely journey he's really on.  And that may actually be the meaning behind the title.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Casual fans will marvel over the character dynamics in this one.
  • series - If I dock the episode anywhere, it's here.  It's painful for both the Doctor and the audience that he's being rejected in such an offhand manner, since we know better than Seven does just how much that means. 
  • character - Wonderful as a spotlight for both the Doctor and Seven.
  • essential - It's that heartbreak that makes the episode so fascinating, I think.  Sometimes it needs reminding that not every story has a happy ending.
notable guest-stars:
Ian Abercrombie

Voyager 5x21 "Juggernaut"

rating: **

the story: B'Elanna tries to control her anger while dealing with repair work on a Malon ship.

what it's all about: The Malon, in the fifth season, became the second-most unlikely recurring aliens of the series (the sixth season had the "Potato Heads").  Debuting in "Night," the season premiere, they were basically galactic polluters.  Yet in "Juggernaut," it's not really polluting that defines them so much as their generally disagreeable nature.  Enter: B'Elanna.

And duck for cover!  The episode is basically an excuse to illustrate her poor temper, and how she tries to get it under control.  There are plenty of episodes that explain why she has a poor temper, but this isn't one of them; instead, we just get to see her angry for the sake of being angry, and it's actually a refreshing change of pace.  Maybe those who can't fathom having such a bad attitude won't get it, but seeing someone grapple with this as the whole point of an's cathartic. 

And, as you'll see under the guest-stars listing, there are plenty of otherwise familiar faces hiding beneath the lumpy Malon makeup, so that's certainly one of the episode's pleasures, too.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Casual fans might be baffled by the Malon phenomenon.
  • series - But it's nice continuity all the same.
  • character - B'Elanna Torres is one of the most fascinating characters in the whole franchise.  Here's an episode that doesn't even try to prove why, and she's still fascinating.
  • essential - Sure it doesn't try to resolve anything, but that doesn't mean it's not worth watching.
notable guest-stars:
Ron Canada
Lee Arenberg
Alexander Enberg

Voyager 5x20 "Think Tank"

rating: ***

the story: Smart guys try to add Seven to their brain trust.

what it's all about: "Spock's Brain" is an episode that instantly tells most fans that the topic is "worst episodes ever," and yet, I don't really subscribe to that line of reasoning.  I think it's an episode that acknowledges one of the most obvious things about the original series, which is that Spock is a valuable asset.  Like Data in Next Generation's "The Most Toys," Spock is, after a fashion, collected in the episode.  That's what happens in "Think Tank," too.  This is the episode where Seven is collected, essentially.

It's also the episode that features one of the most famous guest-stars in franchise history, a fact that somehow has gotten lost over the years.  Seinfeld was so astronomically successful that it ended up killing the idea of the sitcom, and it also killed the further careers of two of its main cast members, Michael Richards (Kramer) and Jason Alexander (George Costanza).  Now, as interesting as it would be to see Michael Richards in Star Trek (Voyager had Andy Dick, after all!), "Think Tank" doesn't feature him, but rather Jason Alexander.

Now, he was extremely successful, in a whole cast who nailed their parts, in embodying the perennially psychotically desperate George Costanza.  Even though he had roles before George, Jason became as typecast as anyone ever has (hello, George Reeves!) and failed in a string of new sitcom roles.  People just couldn't see him as anything but George Costanza.

He doesn't play George in "Think Tank," neither literally or in any way personality.  That's what makes the appearance continually fascinating, because Star Trek fans can kind of boast that they got Jason in one of his attempts to redefine his career.  I mean, they don't, but that's beside the point.  They can.  They shouldThat's the point. 

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - There's a whole tradition behind the idea.
  • series - The bounty hunters the smart guys use to corner the ship is one of those ideas that could only happen in Voyager (and also, later, Enterprise).
  • character - It's always nice to have someone from the cast (Seven) pointed to in a story as worthy of this sort of thing. 
  • essential - It doesn't particularly say something new about the basic idea.
notable guest-stars:
Jason Alexander
Christopher Shea

Voyager 5x19 "The Fight"

rating: **

the story: Chakotay makes unusual first contact with an alien species with hallucinations of a boxing match.

what it's all about: This is one of those purely interesting episodic adventures (it actually feels a little like Voyager attempting to explain how the Prophets in Deep Space Nine might have first encountered a corporeal being, an alternate to how Sisko does it in "Emissary") that if you didn't thinking of it as merely "the boxing episode," you could enjoy on that level alone.

Of course, it's also "the boxing episode."  It's the title and everything!  So that's probably going to be the primary way to identify it one way or another.  And fine, since the franchise has a long history of aliens confronting Starfleet officers in some manner of combat, whether Kirk and the Gorn in "Arena" or Picard and "Darmok." 

The dude doing the boxing is Chakotay, who for the first time since I think the second season is engaged in a vision quest, which in the early seasons was a defining trait of the character as well as series as a whole.  This may not be one of his most sophisticated spotlight episodes, but it's clearly a memorable one all the same.  There's also another subplot about his complicated lineage, this time a grandfather who had a cognitive disorder. 

Also highly notable is the presence of Starfleet Academy groundskeeper Boothby in his final appearance, like his previous Voyager, fifth season appearance, it's not really Boothby, but it's still a nice reminder that the character had a ton of potential for what had for years been his one and only appearance (Next Generation's "The First Duty").  Like Barclay later, he was a character Voyager saw untapped potential in, and both the series and the character were the richer for it.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Casual fans will probably take notice on a number of levels.
  • series - Nothing here screams that it was absolutely necessary to be told with these particular characters.
  • character - Although of course Chakotay has a nice turn that hearkens back to his early days.
  • essential - Let's not make too big a deal about it.
notable guest-stars:
Ray Walston (Boothby)

Monday, September 11, 2017

Voyager 5x18 "Course: Oblivion"

rating: ***

the story: In this sequel to "Demon," we learn what happened to the crew's biomimetic duplicates.

what it's all about: It's incredibly rare for Star Trek to follow up on its stories.  That's just a fact.  Above and beyond serialization, to find out what happened after a given episodic adventure is just something that's never a priority, so when it does (say, Wrath of Khan), it's kind of always notable.  "Course: Oblivion" is one of those times.

"Demon" was a pretty self-contained story up until the crew allowed itself to be duplicated; originally it was just Tom and Harry, but then, once everyone figured out what was going on, the whole crew followed suit, and even the ship.  So there ended up being two Voyagers and two Voyager crews out there.  You know, realistically, there's no reason to assume every episode between "Demon" and "Course: Oblivion" actually featured the "real" crew.  That's an interesting little riddle for you.

But it gets more interesting.  Whatever original sentience might originally have existed in them, the duplicates ended up believing they were the originals, and adopted the maniacal goal of getting back "home" to Earth, too.  That makes "Course: Oblivion" a commentary on that goal just like the season premiere, "Night," and whether or not it still makes sense.  By the time this crew realizes what's going on (it's a total inverse of its predecessor, "Demon"), the debate begins whether or not they should go back to their planet of origin, press on with the journey to Earth, or...find the real Voyager.

Visually the episode kind of becomes unappealing after a while, as the crew starts to lose shape and it looks like everyone's taking a very sloppy mud bath.  All the time.  So that doesn't really work.  If you didn't know or care that there's greater resonance to all this, you could dismiss it as episodic and not particularly fun watching.  That would be a mistake.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Probably incomprehensible to casual fans.
  • series - But as a sequel to "Demon," it has a lot to offer.
  • character - Including a reflection of the mania about returning home.
  • essential - It's secretly about the premise of the series, and so it's pretty genius.

Voyager 5x17 "The Disease"

rating: **

the story: Harry is influenced by love to help out aliens trying to break away from a generational ship.

what it's all about: That whole "generational ship" thing is hugely relevant to Voyager but surprisingly not something the episode really seem to realize ("Prophecy" in the seventh season doesn't entirely miss the point, thankfully), but it's certainly worth noting as relevant to the series, and so it's entirely possible someone came up with the idea because of its implications for a Starfleet ship possibly headed to a similar future on its long way home.

Anyway, the real thrust of "The Disease" is an allegory for how love tends to screw around with your priorities, so that you don't necessarily think straight and start making questionable decisions.  Tom Paris already had an experience earlier in the season ("Thirty Days") where he made a similar questionable decision, for different reasons, so there's a certain amount of resonance in that, too.  Harry is the natural to star in this kind of episode, which again emphasizes the basic naiveté that's at the heart of the character, too young however experienced to understand that even something that seems right (again, in contrast to his pal Tom's adventures earlier) is probably still wrong (in Enterprise's "Cogenitor," Tucker does something similar for much the same reasons, but like "Thirty Days" it's an episode with more weight to it). 

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Pretty standard episodic material that will sway interest not at all.
  • series - A possible glimpse at the ship's future, in some respects.
  • character - Another chance to see Harry in context.
  • essential - Misses an opportunity to drive the generational concept home.

notable guest-stars:
Charles Rocket

Voyager 5x16 "Dark Frontier, Part 2"

rating: ****

the story: Seven struggles to free herself from the Borg Queen's clutches.

what it's all about: The conclusion to the audacious story that seeks to expand the significance of Voyager's Borg stories, this half is all about the Borg Queen having Seven question why she gained back her individuality, and whether or not she can become the new human collaborator the Collective needs to contend with pesky humanity.

Having Seven and the Borg Queen interact so closely is a little like what First Contact teased about what we didn't see in Next Generation's "Best of Both Worlds," Picard's original experiences with the Borg Queen.  What sets "Dark Frontier" apart is, of course, that Seven spent years assimilated as an ordinary drone rather than how Picard spent a limited time as a special kind of Borg mouthpiece.  The whole thing is almost Voyager's second attempt at a major continuing arc, transforming "Scorpion" into an opening act that eventually ends with the last episode of the series, "Endgame," in which there's a final reckoning between the ship and the Borg Queen, who seems as much interested in assimilation as she is playing chess.  Like the Kazon arc of the first two seasons, it's all about mental maneuvering.  The Borg arc will continue at the end of the next season and beginning of the seventh, "Unimatrix Zero," which borrows the idea of Seven secretly working against the Borg from within, as she does here.

"Dark Frontier" is the only "event" midseason two-parter of the fifth season, but it certainly makes the most of it by tackling arguably the most ambitious story Voyager attempted with the concept.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - A big Borg story.
  • series - Redefines the Borg in Voyager as a major new arc, plus gives the crew another boost homeward.
  • character - Seven steps into Picard's role and offers new insights into his experiences.
  • essential - One of the most ambitious stories of the series and, arguably, franchise.
notable guest-stars:
Susanna Thompson (Borg Queen)
Scarlett Pomers (Naomi)

Voyager 5x15 "Dark Frontier, Part 1"

rating: ****

the story: The Borg Queen comes calling for Seven.

what it's all about: "Dark Frontier" is likely responsible for much of fan angst over Voyager's use of the Borg. It not only brings back First Contact's Borg Queen (portrayed by a different actress), but it seems to retcon early human contact with the Collective.

Let's get the second point out of the way first.  Next Generation clearly featured a couple of traumatic early encounters with the Borg.  It's worth remembering, however, that as early as the first season, the presence of the Borg was being teased well before they made their actual first appearance.  The backstory of Seven's parents investigating the Borg, then, doesn't seem so outlandish.  Clearly their efforts ended in disaster, assimilation, and so their activities have no tangible effect on Picard's experiences with the Borg. 

The appearance of the Borg Queen seems to be more problematic, but in First Contact she makes numerous vague comments about her existence that she claims simply isn't as easy to comprehend as might be assumed.  While seeing her again might seem to cheapen Picard's victory over her (and a rather grisly death scene), it's not necessary to view it that way.  Like most fan opinions about the greater franchise, you're absolutely free to think what you like.  It's just as likely that there's a kind of DNA template the Borg Queen uses to modify new hosts; being the central figure in the Collective she's certainly entitled to such perks.  It's no stretch to assume her memory can be easily downloaded from body to body.

Anyway, "Dark Frontier" also has Janeway plan another audacious plan against the Borg, and that in itself would be problematic for some fans, even though Next Generation did that, too, which is how Picard stopped being Locutus, after all.

I choose to interpret all this, as I do all of Voyager's Borg episodes, as a wonderful continuation of a rich ongoing story about one of the franchise's most distinct elements. 

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - The Borg are back!
  • series - Back in the franchise, back in this show!
  • character - Seven explores her backstory as she actively dreads returning to the Collective.
  • essential - Viewed by its own merits, this is rich material.
notable guest-stars:
Susanna Thompson (Borg Queen)
Scarlett Pomers (Naomi)

Voyager 5x14 "Bliss"

rating: **

the story: The ship falls victim to an anomaly that feeds on the crew's fondest desires.

what it's all about: Fun fact!  This episode was written by Bill Prady, who later co-created The Big Bang Theory, a sitcom filled with characters who love stuff like Star Trek (including one episode where a classic Spock action figure allows Leonard Nimoy to make one of the most unique guest appearances ever).

Beyond that, "Bliss" is a lot like the earlier "Persistence of Vision," but even more than that, it almost seems like an ode to the classic original series episodes "The Cage" and "The Doomsday Machine," with perennial guest star W. Morgan Sheppard putting one of his best appearances as the alien who helps the crew understand what's going on as he continues battling the phenomenon himself...and deciding he'd rather continue with the experience than break free like he helps the crew.  More than the main characters, including Seven and Naomi Wildman, who technically are the featured stars of the episode, "Bliss" is in fact best viewed as a Sheppard spotlight.  The man always had one of the most unique voices ever heard in the franchise, but here he seems to have finally found the role that does it justice.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - "Bliss" is like an ode to "The Doomsday Machine" mixed with "The Cage."
  • series - It also duplicates the earlier "Persistence of Vision."
  • character - You don't really need to care that it stars Seven.
  • essential - Because it's the best franchise appearance of W. Morgan Sheppard.
notable guest-stars:
W. Morgan Sheppard
Scarlett Pomers (Naomi)

Voyager 5x13 "Gravity"

rating: **

the story: Stranded on an alien world, Tuvok faces a complicated relationship with a women he meets.

what it's all about: "Gravity" is an episode that feels different, possibly because it caters to an actor (Lori Petty) more familiar with working in movies (she was the star of Tank Girl) than TV (though she's done plenty of that, too).  Some of its impact is dulled by next season's "Blink of an Eye," which also uses a planet that experiences time at an increased rate but to a more pronounced and deliberate effect.

So it really becomes a Tuvok episode.  With all due respect to everyone who argues Chakotay barely has much a role in the series, at least he got far more spotlight episodes.  Being a Vulcan in a franchise known for a particular Vulcan (Spock) and not being that Vulcan, Tuvok was always facing an uphill battle.  "Gravity" is kind of a Spock episode, but it spends its time explaining why Tuvok can't have a romance, and not so much because he's Vulcan or has a wife back home, but because of the particular circumstances in which he first embraced suppressing his emotions.  It ends with him sharing via mind meld his thought process with the would-be lover.  It's very much an episode that happens the way it does because there was a famous Vulcan before Tuvok, and so there were things that could be explored differently, and that's exactly what happens.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - You may watch this and wonder if it breaks any new ground...
  • series - Or wonder if it becomes negated by the later and more fanciful "Blink of an Eye"...
  • character - But in fact, it's a lovely Tuvok spotlight...
  • essential - That in its way helps further distinguish him from his more famous Vulcan forebear.
notable guest-stars:
Lori Petty
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