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Star Trek pilot rejected by NBC; the show was heavily retooled ahead of its second pilot, by which point Hunter had been replaced by William Shatner, playing the younger, more dynamic Captain Kirk.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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Westworld, and the possibility of change

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Revolution has been a key theme of the second season, of course, following as it does the path of Dolores’ nascent rebellion. A particular throughline has been an interrogation of the morality of revolution, and of oppressed people using violence against their oppressors; it’s telling, for example, when Dolores notes that she’d rather “live with your judgement than die with your sympathy”, rejecting the idea the hosts’ uprising should be bound by the ethics of the humans. At the same time, though, there’s an emphasis on how the revolution needs to create something new, rather than simply invert the old paradigm; Dolores’ rewriting of Teddy, another host, clearly parallels the way Ford would deny Bernard autonomy. No doubt Teddy’s final indictment of Dolores will haunt Westworld moving forward: “What’s the use of surviving if we become just as bad as them?

Certainly, it’s one of the more compelling ideas that Westworld puts forward, and you can see allusions to it throughout; indeed, it’s inherent to the very setting, with the old West having been built on violently displacing Native Americans. (Note also the significance of some of the other ‘worlds’, like the Raj, evocative of ideas of colonialism and imperialism in similar ways.) Granted, it’s not perfect – Westworld still has a predominantly white cast, making its attempts to tell a story about oppression a little dishonest, if nothing else – but the show does put forward some genuinely engaging ideas, independently of its structural games and narrative tricks.

An article on Westworld! I’ve got to say, I’ve actually been really enjoying the show – I only caught up on the first series this year, a month or two before the second series began, and found it really compelling.

Unlike a lot of people, though, I quite enjoyed this year’s series as well – particularly for the ideas of change, and of revolution, that it tried to engage with. Hence writing this piece – it took me a little while to work out the right angle for it, and while I was pleased with how it turned out in the end, it is probably split a little too much between two ideas (change in general and revolution in particular) without enough effort to draw the link between them.

In any case, though, I think the article turned out quite well, and I am very much looking forward to Westworld series 3. Roll on… 2020, I suppose.

With Solo struggling and a Boba Fett movie on the horizon, what does Jon Favreau’s Star Wars TV show need to be to survive?

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One possibility why it wasn’t so successful, though, is that Solo simply didn’t quite push the envelope enough to capture audience attention. Up to a point, that seems like the intention; in comparing the main saga to the anthology movies, it seems that they’re deliberately intended to counterbalance one another – that Solo is, in effect, the more traditional movie designed for people who didn’t like the more experimental The Last Jedi. A Boba Fett movie, and indeed the planned Obi-Wan Kenobi movie, seem to follow broadly the same thinking. However, if audiences have rejected Solo for being too traditional, and not offering enough new ideas, it’s possible this approach isn’t quite going to work.

If we’re assuming that the reason, or part of the reason, Solo has struggled (and it is, in fairness, an assumption) is because of a relative lack of new ideas, then this is one of the first important steps for Jon Favreau’s Star Wars TV shows to make to succeed.

I wrote this a day or two after watching Solo, a film which I enjoyed rather more than I expected to. (Mainly on the strength of Alden Ehrenreich’s performance, actually; I thought the story was often less than inspired, and the direction occasionally dire, but Ehrenreich was just so charming a lead he rescued the entire film. I wish he’d been Han Solo in a much better film, really.)

Anyway, following Solo and the Boba Fett announcement (which is now a little more in limbo, I guess), I started thinking about Jon Favreau’s Star Wars TV show, which I am desperately hoping will be something entirely new. Not even necessarily new in general, just new in terms of Star Wars at least.

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How The City and the City renders the noir genre within liminal spaces

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The central conceit of the series, in a way, is about unfamiliarity. The City and the City presents us with two overlapping city-states, Besźel and Ul Qoma; they inhabit the same physical space, but are perceived as two distinct places, separated by a skin stretched across the world. There’s something impressive about how effortlessly The City and the City presents this mythology, a mythology with its own idiosyncratic language and vocabulary – immediately, and without reservation, giving the sense of a world that’s lived in and already intuitively understood by the characters we see.

Similarly impressive, then, is the way the series realises this concept. Crossing over the border is an act that renders the familiar unfamiliar, and it’s an effect achieved through no small part because of Tom Shankland’s evocative direction. Where Besźel is rendered in soft beige tones and yellow light, Ul Qoma is cast in vivid scarlet and cyan; even as the two cities share their geography, they each feel distinct, with their own sharply defined identities. Peering across the breach, a transgressive act, is to confront the unfamiliar – something you know rendered differently, just out of reach.

I’ve not read the book, which I suspect puts me at a little bit of a disadvantage with this piece; certainly, while I was writing it, I began to get the sense that there was a certain degree more depth to the story that I wasn’t quite touching on, and that the article probably would’ve benefitted a little from, at the very least, having been informed by a slightly deeper knowledge of the source material.

Still! That said, I really enjoyed this show, and it very much made me want to read the book – I’ve been meaning to get into China Miéville books for a while, largely at Robbie’s recommendation, so the show was an extra little bit of impetus. Or it will be anyway, I’m still yet to make a start with it.

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Why wasn’t Electric Dreams as popular as Black Mirror?

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In almost every respect, Electric Dreams seems poised as a response to Black Mirror. There are surface similarities, obviously – both are high concept science fiction anthology programmes, after all – but it’s more illustrative to look at who was behind Electric Dreams; when you consider that it was co-produced by Amazon and Channel 4, the intent becomes obvious. Both had reason to want a drama similar to Black Mirror – Amazon to compete with Netflix, and Channel 4, as the latter programme’s original home before it was moved to Netflix, as a replacement.

In the lead up to Electric Dreams’ release, it seemed more than likely that the series would see equivalent success to Black Mirror. And yet, ultimately, Electric Dreams failed to replicate the success of Black Mirror. Which begs the question: why?

I was generally pretty fond of Electric Dreams, if admittedly frustrated by a lot of it. Across the ten episodes of its first season, there were some genuinely quite impressive hours of television; I think if I were inclined to isolate one particular flaw above all others, though, it’d be that sometimes Electric Dreams felt a little scared of subtlety and ambiguity. There were a couple of different episodes where the conclusion of the episode went to great lengths to explain things as much as possible, often unnecessarily, and sometimes to the detriment of the piece as a whole.

Still, though, there was a lot to like from Electric Dreams – it assembled some really quite impressive creative talents, arguably functioning better as an anthology series in that regard than Black Mirror. And yet Black Mirror still remained the more popular series, with Electric Dreams seemingly struggling to make much of an impact. This article, then, was an attempt to get to grips with that.

As an article, it’s probably not as analytical as it should be, nor evidence-based enough – really, what I needed was a lot of statistics and viewer data, and probably quotes from lots of different reviewers, AI numbers, that sort of thing. I did not have that. What it ended up as, then, was some speculation as to why Electric Dreams didn’t quite work in the UK. Even then, mind you, I might not have been correct in that speculation – just typing this up now it occurred to me that Electric Dreams might have been “too sci-fi” in a way that Black Mirror isn’t, for lack of a better way of putting it. So who knows really.

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The problem with poor pacing, and increasingly overlong television

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Having a more flexible runtime makes sense – generally speaking, the traditional forty-five-ish minute slot for a drama or the twenty-five-ish minute slot for comedy are fairly arbitrary ideas imposed by the demands of advertisers rather than anything else. There’s nothing inherent to the stories that dictate they hold this structure, so the opportunity to be a little bit more malleable and adaptable can be worth pursuing.

Yet it’s debatable whether this approach is really effective, and whether the freedom that’s been allowed has ultimately been a good thing. There’s an argument to be made that, over the past few years, it’s led to a slew of poorly paced television series; slow and plodding, not using their runtime effectively. It’s not so much that a serial has to be filled with incident, but that there’s a sense that not every minute has to be earned in the way that perhaps it used to be – in turn leading to more meandering, more superfluous storytelling.

This article brought to you by the hour I spent watching the first episode of Seven Seconds, though could just have easily been brought to you by the interminable thirteen hours spent on Jessica Jones series 2.

A while ago, I changed up my approach with how I write about television; I decided, basically, that I was only going to write about a show when I’d seen the entire thing. Just a different way of looking at it, taking the series more holistically basically, and a way to stop myself getting too complacent – after a while, I figure I’ll probably switch it up again.

But anyway, this led to a lot of Netflix binge-watching, which was always frustrating – with the above Seven Seconds, ten episodes totalled around eleven hours entirely (there was one episode which was seventy-five minutes long, which is pretty much never necessary) and it worked out that if I watched all ten episodes, then spent another three hours or so writing an article on the show, my final pay would work out as less than minimum wage. Which I was not wholly impressed by. So I wrote this article about why TV episodes are too long instead. Though admittedly I’d probably mind less if I was paid more. So, you know.

(Some months later, a more well established TV critic, the name of whom escapes me, wrote something similar titled something to the effect of “overly long episodes are the TV equivalent of manspreading”, which is a much better title than mine. Made me laugh, anyway.)

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Hard Sun never quite moved beyond a police procedural, and suffered as a result

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It’s not difficult to argue that, in any drama about the apocalypse, the reaction to this knowledge and its effect on society is one of the most interesting things that could be explored. However, Hard Sun largely opts not to explore this part of its premise. Indeed, for the most part, the apocalypse is something of an afterthought as the drama instead retreats to the well-worn hallmarks of a police procedural. With episodes focused on serial killers and kidnappings, the end of the world isn’t so much a focal point but a background detail to add texture; it’s a concept that’s broadly gestured at, rather than a theme that’s interrogated particularly.

For the most part, Hard Sun was frustrating, and ultimately quite dull. It’s a shame, really, because I was really rooting for this show; the concept seemed fascinating, and Aisling Bea was in it, and I think she’s great. Unfortunately, though, Hard Sun wasn’t much of anything in the end. The above review is, to be honest, only really one line of criticism that could be applied to the show – it’s a very particular sort of grim detective show, with all the tropes and pitfalls that tends to entail.

I think it’s going to be on Hulu soon – US viewers, I say don’t bother. UK viewers who haven’t seen it yet, also don’t bother.

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The Orville is just Star Trek fan-fiction, but that’s not such a bad thing

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Yes, for any given episode of The Orville, you can quite easily point to which episodes of The Next Generation it’s riffing on and remixing. No, it’s never quite as clever or novel as the source material that inspires it – if nothing else, they got there first. What it does offer is the feeling of watching Star Trek, in largely the same way fanfiction does. And that makes sense, because that’s pretty much exactly what this show is. Not fanfiction at its most subversive or compelling, no, but at its most basic level – a fun little thing on the side that lovingly recreates the sense of the show you love.

So, an article about The Orville. It took me a while to warm to this show, which at first wasn’t great – especially with the, for lack of a better term, “gender-themed” episode, which remains the nadir of the series – but I did eventually reach a point where I had mixed-to-positive opinions on it. Mostly, I found it quite entertaining by virtue of how shamelessly Star Trek inspired it is. It’s quite literally Seth MacFarlane’s self-insert fanfic, and I found that rather endearing.

While I was writing this article, though, I did start to wonder if there’s actually a more compelling piece to consider – comparing The Orville and it’s relatively simple recreation of Star Trek to the more subversive, often female-driven, fan fiction that exists. Especially, actually, considering the legacy of Star Trek fanfiction as a whole – arguably some of the first fanfiction in the sense we understand it now was Star Trek inspired, and it wasn’t just remixing the episodes, it invented slash fiction. I hope someone who knows enough about this stuff has written a piece on it. Equally, though, I might go and research it and write about it myself.

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Why Hell Bent is Steven Moffat’s best episode of Doctor Who

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It’s an emphatic statement about the chief thematic concern of Capaldi’s era – what does it mean to be the Doctor? Leaving Clara as a Doctor analogue in her own right was, of course, the only way it could end. In the wake of Peter Capaldi’s regeneration, this story takes on a further significance; with the Twelfth Doctor’s final words, advice to his future self, mirroring the advice he gave to Clara, it’s another clear affirmation of Clara’s status as a Doctor herself.

700ish words, and really I only barely scratched of why this episode is just so darn good. I really love this one – I always find it difficult to answer questions of favourites when it comes to Doctor Who, but honestly, this one is up there.

I’d like to write more about it really. I suspect I probably will, actually. We’ll see.

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

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What’s also particularly troubling is the – hopefully unintentional – trend that’s emerged as each major character is killed. The first was Captain Michelle Georgiou, a female character of colour. The second was Head of Security Commander Landry, a female character of colour (who was killed off fairly unceremoniously, and really only for shock value). In the most recent episode, it was Doctor Culber – another person of colour, and one half of Star Trek: Discovery’s gay couple.

It’s a series of deaths that’d be a problem for any show, but there’s something about it that feels worse with Star Trek: Discovery. A big part of the marketing for Star Trek: Discovery drew focus to its diversity – the fact that it saw the first black female lead, the first Asian female captain, and the first openly gay characters in Star Trek history. In a real and meaningful way, Star Trek: Discovery was going to realise the promise of the original series at last – finally, a vision of the future that genuinely was as utopian as it was meant to be. If the series gained any credit for that, it’s surely squandered a lot of it now.

Yet it does suggest that, at one point, there was an understanding of just what Star Trek is meant to be. While it hasn’t always lived up to its reputation, Star Trek is a fundamentally hopeful, optimistic series – an idealistic one that looks towards a better future. The deaths we’ve seen so far haven’t been in keeping with that – they were nothing short of cynical. You can see how they’ve been influenced by Game of Thrones; they’d fit right in there. Thrones, after all, is a much more pessimistic series – that’s not a slight against it, not at all, but it is one of the things that set it apart from Star Trek.

This is a very spoiler-y piece on Star Trek: Discovery – it contains discussion of various deaths that happened in the series.

This was an article that had been on my mind since, I think, the third episode of the series. In the run-up to Discoverys premier, showrunners Aaron Harberts and Gretchen J. Berg spoke about being influenced by Game of Thrones, and wanted to have deaths you wouldn’t expect throughout the show. It struck me as cynical at the time, even more so when watching the show itself.

The excerpt above admittedly doesn’t have a lot to do with that – it’s part of a digression about an aggravating trend that developed across Discovery – but the article as a whole tackles the idea that Star Trek should have lots of deaths in it, because… well, I’m not convinced. It’s kinda also part of the ongoing development of a theory about death in fiction and storytelling, because I’m becoming increasingly convinced that death is typically the least interesting storytelling choice available.

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