New Star Trek is becoming more like old Star Trek, but that’s not necessarily a good thing

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Star Trek: Discovery’s first season was often uneven, not infrequently messy, and rarely introduced one new idea when three would do instead. It’s not that it wasn’t good – sometimes it was great, and there’s a not unreasonable argument to be made that Discovery had the best debut season of any of the Star Trek shows – but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who wouldn’t concede that there was room for improvement.

The second season has seen something of a course correction, though watching it each week it’s difficult not to feel as though perhaps the wrong lessons were learned from Discovery’s early growing pains. Picking up from last year’s cliffhanger ending that saw the sudden appearance of the USS Enterprise, Discovery has been consciously positioning itself as much more in line with the rest of the Star Trek franchise – from classic style uniforms to throwback storytelling, but most obviously with the introduction of Anson Mount as Captain Christopher Pike.

Pike, actually, is particularly interesting in this regard. He’s a character taken from the original Star Trek series, but not in the same sense as, say, Harry Mudd, who appeared in Discovery’s first season played by Rainn Wilson. Rather, Pike – then played by Jeffrey Hunter – was Captain of the Enterprise and lead character in the original Star Trek pilot rejected by NBC; the show was heavily retooled ahead of its second pilot, by which point Hunter had been replaced by William Shatner, playing the younger, more dynamic Captain Kirk. Footage from the original pilot was eventually used in Star Trek as a cost-saving measure, establishing Pike as Kirk’s predecessor within the fiction of the show too; Pike is referenced from time to time in other Star Trek spinoffs, and appeared in the JJ Abrams movies played by Bruce Greenwood.

In that sense, Pike is something of an ur-Captain – there’s a certain mythic weight to him as a character, a foundational ‘first Captain’ figure within the context of Star Trek. He’s all iconography, with relatively little in the way of actual characterisation to maintain fidelity to. Invoking Pike offers Discovery the chance to recontextualise the entirety of the franchise in a way unlike any other character would; Kirk has too much baggage, Archer doesn’t have the same connection to the show’s beginning, and Robert April is really just a fun trivia answer. With Pike, Discovery has a chance to scribble in the margins of the franchise and declare some broad, sweeping truths about what Star Trek is, and what it should be – exactly the sort of thing Discovery should be doing to make Star Trek vital and fresh in 2019.

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Rather than treat Pike as an opportunity to recontextualise the wider world of Star Trek, though, he’s instead positioned as the spectre of the 1960s, come to set things right – come to bring Discovery back in line with more traditional Trek. Continuity here is nostalgic and backwards looking; it’s not the basis for something new and more compelling.

It’s not, notably, that Pike doesn’t work as a character – for the most part, he does. Anson Mount is a genuinely charming screen presence as Pike, and it’s difficult not to enjoy the sheer charisma of his performance (a far cry from his role as Black Bolt in Marvel’s Inhumans, but the less said about that the better). Sometimes, in all fairness, that’s all a side character like Pike needs to be – fun and engaging and entertaining to watch. Equally, it’s also perhaps a little early to comment on Discovery’s use of Pike – one recent episode implied Pike was a religious man, and that’s exactly the sort of writing that would prove an effective use of the character, complicating Star Trek’s ongoing relationship with matters of faith and rationality.

Nonetheless, though, it’s telling how much screen time is being devoted to bringing Discovery in line with more acceptable, known elements of Star Trek. Scenes grind to a halt to explain why the Klingons have started to grow their hair again to look more like their Original Series and Next Generation counterparts (including one Fu Manchu style moustache – some things should be consigned to history, irrespective of ‘canon’); the same exposition is repeated and emphasised over multiple episodes to explain why the Enteprise doesn’t use the same holographic communicators seen in Discovery’s first season. The most recent episode opens by panning up reverentially to Number One, another character from the unused Star Trek pilot alongside Pike – though this was surely lost on anyone not only already familiar with said unused pilot, but also the news that the character had been recast for Discovery as well.

Which, ultimately, is the problem – a problem that goes beyond Pike, even if he is a neat representation of the opportunities open to but not taken by Discovery. Season 2 is catering primarily to a narrow segment of traditional Trek fandom; it’s looking backwards, not just obsessing unnecessarily over minute continuity details, but retreading old Trek norms. It’s a fannish instinct that could only ever limit the show – more concerned with being Star Trek, than redefining what Star Trek can be. Indeed, it’s the sort of limitation that would’ve curtailed some of the best of the Star Trek that already exists – Deep Space Nine wouldn’t exist at all – and it’s difficult not to wonder what Discovery might look like if unburdened from those restraints.

Star Trek: Discovery’s first season wasn’t perfect, no – but it was, in many ways, a more compelling programme than Discovery’s sophomore effort. It was a more confident programme, a more challenging one, and clearly much more willing to boldly go somewhere new.

Related:

Star Trek isn’t Game of Thrones, and it shouldn’t try to be

Why Star Trek: Discovery must deal with the legacy of Janice Rand

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How Elementary managed to avoid the Moriarty problem with its latest villain

elementary season 6 michael desmond harrington sherlock holmes jonny lee miller moriarty natalie dormer andrew scott robert doherty addiction cbs

Introduced in the season 6 premier, Michael (Desmond Harrington) is a recovering addict much like Holmes. Michael credits Holmes with the success of his recovery, telling him “you said [at a meeting] you were made for one thing, and being away from it made staying sober almost impossible, but when […] you went back to it, that made all the difference. So, I actually decided to do the same thing, you know, focus on my work, use it to get better […] I worked hard, but, uh it started with you.”

In marked contrast to Holmes, though, the work that helps keep Michael sober is murder; where Holmes uses his detective work as a coping mechanism, Michael is a serial killer with similar struggles and compulsions. It’s a clever conceit, drawing obvious parallels between the two, positioning Michael as a mirror of Holmes in broadly the same way Moriarty has been in the past; indeed, it wouldn’t actually be that surprising to learn that this character is drawn from ideas at one stage considered for Elementary’s version of Moriarty. Notably, though, where the parallels between Holmes and Moriarty are typically drawn from their occupations – the consulting detective and the consulting criminal – the ones between Holmes and Michael are much more personal in nature. It’s an approach that offers potential for some compelling character drama, again an opportunity for Elementary to further explore Holmes’ sobriety.

So! Moriarty. This article kinda relies a lot on a thing I basically just sorta made up while I was trying to work out how to talk about the thing I wanted to talk about (Desmond Harrington‘s Michael, a new character introduced in Elementary season 6), so I should probably unpack that a little bit.

Basically, the “Moriarty Problem”, such that I’ve defined it, talks about the struggle that adaptations of Sherlock Holmes stories face when, after having offered their take on Moriarty (arguably the most famous literary villain ever), they have to move on to a new villain – the problem being the struggle to put forward a character that’s equally as impactful or memorable as their take on Moriarty.

Certainly, if we limit our pool to Elementary and Sherlock, both shows struggled; I liked Magnussen, though admittedly was less sure about Eurus, though I don’t think it’s difficult to argue that Andrew Scott‘s Moriarty overshadowed them both. The same is true with Elementary, where none of the subsequent villains have had the same impact as Natalie Dormer‘s Moriarty (though you can make the reasonable argument that they didn’t try to have villains in the same way, I suppose).

So, what this article talks about is the way in which Elementary found a way to avoid that problem with its latest villain character, Michael. Admittedly you could probably argue that what they do, and the point I talk around making, is essentially just to do an alternate take on the basic idea of Moriarty within the confines of their show.

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How The Good Fight found clarity in chaos, and answers in absurdity

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The Good Fight’s title sequence is instructive. Set to a frantic score by David Buckley, it marries ordered elegance with violent disruption; a vase of flowers, phones, a gavel and so on all explode, their pieces scattered. A vibrant red claret from a shattering wine glass fills the screen, and dust and ash float across a dark background.

What it is, in effect, is a means to set the stage. It establishes chaos as the status quo. And then it begs the question: what next?

Where last year The Good Fight heralded a need to fight, it now turns to a different question: how can you fight? Again, the title sequence is instructive, having been fine tuned since last year; the television screens, added to the explosive line-up this season, juxtapose the absurdity of Putin’s overly macho image with the chilling horror of Charlottesville marchers. It’s a world where the awful and the absurd are so often the same; it’s a world ripped from the headlines, after all. As Diane Lockhart (The Good Fight’s inimitable lead, Christine Baranski) notes, “I used to laugh at the absurdity of the news. Now I’m all laughed out”.

I love love love The Good FightIt’s one of my favourite shows of the past two years; ahead of writing this article I spent a whole day rewatching episodes of season 2 and, while I normally hate binge-watching television, it was genuinely the most fun I’d had in ages.

The ending of this piece is perhaps a little weak; I think there’s a thread of connective tissue that I didn’t quite get right, which hampers that conclusion a little. A few days later I worked out how to fix it, though… and then promptly forget it, which is irritating.

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5 years on, can we settle the question – is Elementary better than Sherlock?

elementary sherlock jonny lee miller lucy liu benedict cumberbatch martin freeman steven moffat which is better elementary vs sherlock

Today marks five years since the first episode of Elementary – the American retelling of Sherlock Holmes, set in the modern day and starring Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu. 

Since that first episode, it’s been repeatedly compared to Sherlock – the British retelling of Sherlock Holmes, set in the modern day, and starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. It also first aired a few years before Elementary, leading to more than one accusation of copying. 

So, with Elementary about to enter its sixth season, and Sherlock seemingly finished for the time being, can we finally settle the question – which is better?

Something of a repeat from me today, actually; the first ‘proper’ blog post I wrote on tumblr was on a similar topic, and it was also the first to pick up much traction. I don’t think, back then, I ever dreamed I’d be in the position I’m in now – so it’s nice to return to this!

To hedge against the obvious: I don’t actually think Elementary is better than Sherlock. I also, however, don’t think Sherlock is better than Elementary. They’re both such different beasts, with different strengths and more importantly different aims, it’s difficult to compare the two – to attempt to seriously is a folly, really. Essentially, then, I like them both a lot, albeit for different reasons, and in different ways.

And, in response to the other obvious question: No, I didn’t make this image, no, I don’t know who did, no, I don’t know what they were thinking.

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All the Easter eggs and references you missed in Star Trek: Discovery’s first episode

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Star Trek is back after more than 12 years off our screens and it’s like it was never gone.

As we all look towards the future and the continuing adventures of Michael Burnham, there’s still time to take a look towards the past, because the premiere of Star Trek: Discovery is steeped in references to the franchise’s 50-year history.

Here are all the Easter eggs we could find from Star Trek: Discovery’s first episode. How many of these did you spot?

My Metro article on Star Trek!

I really liked this one. There was something really, really neat about knowing that I was being paid actual money to natter on about Kahless and the significance of the number 57 and redshirts and all that cool stuff for a big website as part of my actual literal job. Clearly, I’m doing something right.

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Despite a troubled production, Star Trek: Discovery lives up to the promise of the original series and then some

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If the original series can be said to have any resounding legacy, it’s in its vision of a utopian future. If you scratch the surface of the original series, though, it’s easy to see the limitations of that vision: from the episodes steeped in misogyny to the fact that the groundbreaking woman of colour character still only answered the phones, much of the purported Star Trek utopia is an invention of its fans.

Here, though, Discovery takes that vision and realises it properly for the first time; the two most senior officers on the ship are women and women of colour at that, and soon, the show will introduce the aforementioned same-sex couple, finally representing what has long been a blind spot for the sci-fi franchise. 

This is Star Trek as it was always meant to be.

One of my Star Trek articles for Metro. I was really pleased with Discovery; I think it’s absolutely great.

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Why The Big Bang Theory is still the worst show on TV

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Today marks 10 years since the first episode of The Big Bang Theory aired.

In the past decade, this science-y sitcom has taken over the small screen – there have been 231 episodes, and it’s syndicated internationally in 77 different countries. The series has been hailed as the new Friends, and it’s even set to spawn its first spinoff programme this year: Young Sheldon. Currently, there’s no similar programme that’s quite so ubiquitous.

And there’s no similar programme that’s quite so awful.

Every so often, when I write about The Big Bang Theory, I get quite a lot of hate mail – this one garnered around 600 comments, and it’s only been up for a day! (The only other show that’s garnered so much vitriol was when I wrote about Bake Off, interestingly.)

In the end, this one got somewhere in excess of 215 000 views – while I don’t have data for all my articles, I’d guess that that’s the most read piece I’ve ever done. Which is kinda staggering. Certainly, if I were going to choose one article to be my most read, it wouldn’t have been this one – not just because it is, admittedly, a little weak, but also because I think I’ve written other things on more interesting, and more worthwhile, topics, that are more deserving of a bigger audience. But hey, you can’t control these things really.

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4 of the most important things we want to see from Star Trek: Discovery

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After over 10 years off our screens, the new Star Trek series is going to have a lot to live up to, as fans and casual viewers alike will judge this latest effort on its success. With that in mind, then, here are the most important things we want to see from Star Trek: Discovery.

Here’s my most recent article on Star Trek: Discovery, attempting to articulate some of the things that are important, to me at least, for a Star Trek series to offer.

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The Good Fight deserved an Emmy nomination – it’s the definitive piece of post-Trump television

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Indeed, The Good Fight is shaped as an explicitly, brazenly post-Trump drama, intimately in tune with the concerns of the day. The series tackled police brutality, fake news, and the alt-right; it’s a bold, intelligent drama, one that fiercely and unrelentingly persists in its depiction of a post-Trump world. 

An article on The Good Fight, which was amongst my favourite new dramas of 2017. I genuinely, properly love this show – I’ve been massively enjoying the second season, too, which I’m planning on writing about in a few weeks. It’s genuinely just perfect.

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Star Trek 2004: The Reboot We Almost Saw

star trek 2009 2004 J Michael Straczynski bryce zabal paramount reboot young kirk spock mccoy bablyon 5 new series cancelled jj abrams

A fourteen-page document, which Straczynski and co-writer Bryce Zabal used to pitch their ideas to Paramount, outlines the idea for this new Star Trek. Opening by suggesting that the franchise had stagnated (perhaps a fair position to take), Straczynski and Zabal made the case that they needed to be daring with the Star Trek universe once more, and the best way to do that was to start all over again – thus setting their series up to cure all the perceived ills of Enterprise.

Particular focus is given to Kirk, Spock and McCoy – or as Straczynski and Zabal put it, “the warrior, the priest, and the doctor” – who were intended to be the grounding presence and heart of the new show, much as they had been in the original. The pitch likens these characters to icons such as Superman and Batman, or Bond and Sherlock Holmes – the point is clear, then, that Straczynski and Zabal believe wholeheartedly that new actors could take on the iconic roles and redefine them. Indeed, it’s even suggested that a public “Search for Spock” approach to casting could form part of the promotional campaign for the new series; this was intended to be a cultural event, in a manner not wholly dissimilar to how Doctor Who launched on the BBC just a year later.

Straczynski and Zabal put forth their plans for the pilot episode: a two-hour movie event which would tell the story of how Kirk and McCoy first met Spock, discovering along the way “a lost city on an uncharted world, nearly a million years old”. They would also encounter an ancient and mysterious race, who would form an important part of the series’ mythology – the reason for Kirk’s appointment to the Enterprise, and the iconic five-year mission, would be to seek out this strange new life, to learn more of their ancient civilisation, and discover the secret hidden in the stars.

A recent article about Star Trek! In 2004, there were plans for a reboot of The Original Series; in this post for Yahoo TV, I take a look at the pitch made by Babylon 5 writer J Michael Straczynski, and evaluate just whether or not it actually would have been a good idea.

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