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Essays

STAR TREK: PICARD: A 24th Century Worth Fighting For

This piece contains spoilers for Season 1 of Star Trek: Picard

How quickly we forget the past. A sentiment deep rooted in the conceptual framework of Star Trek: Picard and, more broadly, how Star Trek fans approach their own franchise.

Picard, the long-awaited sequel to the era of Star Trek: The Next Generation, last seen in the oft-maligned final Next Gen movie Nemesis (about which I’ve just finished a ten part examination), has divided people with the same level of brio that Star Trek: Discovery has since late 2017. For some, it has been an unmitigated delight seeing Sir Patrick Stewart back in the role of Trek’s most noble Captain, Jean-Luc Picard, as he battles a new threat in his emeritus years. For others, it has disappointed after the enormous hype ever since Stewart announced his return at Star Trek Las Vegas back in summer 2018. Nobody expected to see Picard again, given Stewart’s age and that Trek appeared to have moved solely to a point of retro-futuristic 1960’s nostalgia given the J.J. Abrams led reboot films and Original Series-era set Discovery. Picard, therefore, came loaded with huge expectation.

Whether it delivered will depend entirely on your tastes as a fan of Star Trek. Some might say it could depend on age but you will find people who watched The Original Series on first broadcast who love Picard, and new Trek viewers brought in from Discovery who dislike it, so that’s not a reliable aggregator. As with most art, Picard’s charms will lie in simply what kind of story engages you. Are you lapping up Stewart back in his most iconic role? Are you enjoying the serialisation, which is even stronger than in Discovery? Are you charmed by the cast of broken rogues, former Starfleet officers and assorted androids or Romulans that make up the crew of the La Sirena? Are you thrilled by the central story and how it is grounded in the long lamented character of Data, synthetic artificial intelligence, and secret ancient prophecies of machine apocalypse? You will have your reasons and they are all valid. Some, like me, are perched very precisely on the fence over these choices, arcs and storylines. I will delve more into them in my podcast, Make It So, in due course.

The question being asked by many is one that was levelled at Discovery, was levelled at movies such as Star Trek Into Darkness, and indeed as far back as Deep Space Nine: is Picard truly *Star Trek*? If history is cyclical, the fact this question comes up again and again is proof of that, and the answer again depends on what you want, or believe, Star Trek to be.

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DOCTOR WHO Season 12 is Regenerating… Back into Itself

Hands up if you were truly excited by Doctor Who Season 12? Nope, me neither.

I can remember the days I used to plan my entire Saturday night around this show, particularly in the era of Steven Moffat, who decrypted and deconstructed the very premise of the BBC’s strangest show, still on air after almost sixty years. Nights out with friends would be regularly predicated on whether new Who was watched or taped or somewhere in between. That started to change, in fairness, before Chris Chibnall’s era arrived. The final season or two of Moffat’s run, with Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, lacked the same kind of narrative or creative impetus than earlier years. The show began, to some degree, to eat its own tail.

Many fans, those who hadn’t been inexorably alienated by Moffat’s eternally divisive, glib and throwaway style of meta-fiction (or in this case meta-science-fiction), saw with Chibnall and the first ever female Doctor, as played by the already strong character actor Jodie Whittaker, a chance to clear the decks and provide something fresh and new. A move away from Moffat’s style of long-form narrative arcs, inverted stories that chewed away at traditional ideas, and the innate cynicism of Capaldi’s slightly curmudgeonly take on the character. Which is, by and large, exactly what we got with Season 11. It was lighter. It was self-contained. It had no real narrative through-line of note. And it was deliberately unburdened by eras past.

It was also, almost universally, rejected by critics and fans alike. Very few people enjoyed Chibnall and Whittaker’s first year. The knives were out. And as Season 12 premiere two-parter Spyfall proves, Chibnall has course-corrected in the most inevitable of ways. He’s turned back.

DRACULA: a sinewy, self-aware deconstruction of power, control and consent

The funny thing is that this all happened because of a joke. As Mark Gatiss recalls, at a Sherlock premiere, he commented to the commissioner of BBC drama that Benedict Cumberbatch’s attire made him look a little like Dracula and was asked if it was something he and writing partner Steven Moffat wanted to do. The answer, eventually, inevitably, was yes.

In a sense, Dracula feels like the project this duo have spent their entire partnership building towards. A partnership born during Moffat’s tenure running Doctor Who, in which, as he had done for previous showrunner Russell T. Davies, Gatiss would contribute scripts to each season; a partnership which then gained huge success adapting another iconic character in Victorian literature, Sherlock Holmes, for the BBC. Even before this, both were headed in the same direction. Moffat penned Jekyll back in 2007, updating the Robert Louis Stevenson 19th century classic for the modern day, while Gatiss developed The League of Gentlemen which drew on a significant knowledge of Hammer horror and occult, British portmanteau cinema.

As a result, this version of Dracula—based on the 1897 novel by Bram Stoker which has been adapted countless times in cinema and on TV over the last century—would not be a clear, simplistic adaptation. That’s just not how Moffat & Gatiss operate. They are both too cine-literature, too aware of narrative tropes, too ensconced in the lore of classic horror fiction. To take on Dracula, a text that almost everyone even with a passing knowledge of drama roughly knows the story of, would be to invert, subvert and reclassify. As they did with Holmes & Watson in Sherlock, so they would do with the Transylvanian Count played by Nordic actor Claes Bang here. That approach was inevitable, as anyone with a passing awareness of their work would be anticipating.

Their Dracula, as a result, is both exactly what you expect from them, and at times not at all what you expect from this story. It is a Dracula born of the 21st century. The take of an immortal symbol of toxic masculinity seeking to control and dominate not just female, but human sexuality, human life and human death.

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING REY: Star Wars’ Exceptionalism Problem

Caution: here be spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, so I suggest only reading once you have seen the film.

Upon leaving a screening of The Force Awakens in 2015, you would be forgiven for having one question on your mind: who exactly *is* Rey?

Our new heroine for the revived, sequel era of Star Wars launched by JJ Abrams through the Disney-purchased LucasFilm, Rey was deemed by that film to be ‘special’. Abandoned mysteriously on the desert planet Jakku by parents she always expected to return for her, Rey is then cosmically bound to the Skywalker saga she ends up stumbling, with escaped Imperial Stormtrooper Finn, into the middle of. She feels connected to the lightsaber of the missing Luke Skywalker, which even gives her a vision of all kinds of backstory arcanum. By the end, she is tentatively wielding the weapon of a Jedi, without truly understanding the context. The Force Awakens fully establishes Rey as *important* with a capital I.

Then comes along The Last Jedi, written and directed by Rian Johnson, who almost immediately rips all of that away. Luke doesn’t think all that much of the lightsaber Rey reverently holds out to him on Ahch-To island. Arch villain Kylo Ren, the only one of our main new characters to actually *be* a Skywalker by blood, tells her what he believes she already knows – her parents were nobody, that she is no one special. Ren uses that as his basis, in The Last Jedi, to encourage her to join the Dark Side as his queen. If she is nobody special, like all of the fascist goons who joylessly work for the First Order and the Empire before it, Rey will become compliant. Exceptionalism corrupts. Belief that you have cosmic significance can breed dangerous traits. Yet Johnson doesn’t truly believe that. He believes precisely the opposite. You don’t have to be exceptional, to be special, to be significant.

The Rise of Skywalker, the concluding part of the Star Wars sequel saga, challenges that. It definitely proves that Star Wars, and perhaps popular culture, has an exceptionalism problem as we enter a new decade.

ALIAS – ‘Salvation’ (2×06 – Review)

Over the course of last year, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. Over the next year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

If there is a disposable episode of Alias Season Two, it is probably Salvation. It struggles to follow in the dramatic wake of Dead Drop and the personal revelations of The Indicator as much more than an epilogue to episodes which cut to the very core of Sydney and Jack Bristow’s relationship, and the central themes of the show itself.

Salvation to an extent also misses a golden opportunity to fully tether the post-Cold War politics of Alias with the post-9/11 reality of America at the time. Irina Derevko, again unseen in this episode, is tried for treason by the US government and (off screen) pleads guilty, having been interrogated at the ominous Camp Harris—Alias’ version of Guantanamo Bay which we would eventually see in Season Three’s Breaking Point. Irina is sentenced to die by lethal injection in an extremely short time frame, which adds some level of ticking clock to the events of Salvation, as Syd’s moral conscience compels her to try and expose Jack’s crime in framing her to try and save a mother she, otherwise, distrusts and is telling herself she despises.

This has been the crux of this entire mini-arc that has dominated Season Two so far – Sydney being manipulated in different ways by both of her highly dysfunctional parents to choose which one she is loyal to. Jack still believes Irina is manipulating her in accepting her guilt. “She plead guilty to stop you witnessing her trial, Sydney” he assures her, reeling off a reminder of the lives she took as part of the eighty-six counts of espionage levelled at her. Jack considers Syd to be naive in not seeing her manipulation and whether right or wrong about that, Salvation *does* depict Syd’s naiveté in how she believes exposing the misdemeanours of one parent would save another. Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci’s script does her a disservice in how little she understands the actions and motives of a hawkish US government responding, in the wake of 9/11, to an unspoken societal trauma. Had the episode depicted Irina on trial, answering for her crimes, we might have felt the same core level of dramatic weight as we experienced in Dead Drop or Trust Me.

Salvation, sadly, wants to race through character arcs and plot beats of significance, while still servicing the natural structure of Alias as a show, rather than focusing more heavily on the meatier drama at the heart of Irina’s possible execution as a terrorist. It makes for a frustrating hour of television.

THE CROWN: The State of the Monarchy (Season 3 – Review)

Roughly halfway into Peter Morgan’s sprawling potted history of Queen Elizabeth II, you realise The Crown has reached a point of security. After two seasons which made a star out of Claire Foy and gave Netflix perhaps it’s most prestige original property, Season 3 has the self-assured confidence we see Elizabeth, now middle-aged, begin to imbue.

The unique central gimmick of Morgan’s drama was announced at the very beginning – that every two seasons of a projected six, the actors portraying Her Majesty and family would age-up alongside the characters themselves, and Season 3 marks the first instance of this change. Foy truly made Elizabeth her own, essaying with grace a young woman thrust into a role unlike any other on the planet while having to balance her own youth and sexuality with the rigours of her position. Olivia Colman, despite freshly minted with a Best Actress Oscar for portraying another British Queen in The Favourite, always had some big shoes to fill. As you might imagine with an actor of Colman’s character, she does just that. Nor does she attempt to simply replicate Foy’s performance.

To do so in the first place would have been a tactical error as Season 3, which takes place over a 13 year span from 1964 through to Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee celebrations in 1977, presents a different Queen. The season premiere is called Olding and that forms part of the central theme in Morgan’s show this year: change. The opening scenes of the season nicely mark the actor transition as Elizabeth sees proposals for a new set of stamps, with her face replacing Foy’s; indeed Morgan bookends this nicely in finale Cri de Coeur when she is presented with a photograph from the late 40’s showing Foy and Matt Smith as Prince Philip. “How young we were” Elizabeth wistfully remarks. How young too, in a sense, was her country.

Season 3 is driven by not just Elizabeth’s and her family’s transition into different ages, roles, responsibilities and desires, but that of her country; a United Kingdom weathering economic downturn, socialist revolution, and the ripples of class war which continues the break down of the colonial Establishment on which her family was built. The Crown, halfway in, questions the state of monarchy itself in the modern age.

ALIAS – ‘The Indicator’ (2×05 – Review)

Over the course of last year, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. Over the next year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

One of the key thematic ideas running through the genre output of Bad Robot as a company, and particularly JJ Abrams as a producer, is that of destiny. Alias, for the first time head on, truly confronts this concept in The Indicator.

This is an episode more important to the broader direction and thematic core of Alias than it may first been given credit for. It exposes a huge personal secret from Sydney Bristow’s past which casts her relationship with her father Jack—one I’ve argued since the very beginning is what Alias is really all about—in a striking and devastating new light. It ends up directly connecting to season finale The Telling, in how it reveals Project Christmas as a spy children training program, and consequently manages to establish the parameters for Syd’s amnesiac assassin arc across the first half of Season Three. It even connects to the series finale, All the Time in the World, which returns to the idea of an innate intelligence within the Bristow/Derevko line that is pre-disposed to espionage, but the message is that such conditioning can ultimately be broken. The Indicator re-frames Syd’s entire life as pre-disposed by some level of spy destiny, and questions whether or not this was inevitable, or she is entirely a product of what her parents made her.

A key skill of Alias, and why to my mind it is one of the great, underrated American television genre series, in how well it actualises parental ideas and tropes. The nature vs nurture debate continues to rage; are serial killers who came from loving family homes a product of their parents, or is there a genetic or psychological basis for their crimes? Alias literalises the idea of nurture by having Jack explicitly manipulate Syd as a young girl into exploiting what a CIA psychologist describes as “proficiency with numbers, three dimensional thinking, problem solving”, and coding into her subconscious the aptitude that allowed her, when SD-6 came calling, to sail through training with the highest scores and commendations. It is hard to say whether Abrams and his team of writers planned this revelation in advance, despite a mention of Project Christmas in Season One’s Masquerade, but it retroactively fits as a causal explanation for Syd’s super-spy abilities.

The Indicator does not necessarily linger in the memory as a classic or iconic individual episode of television, but without doubt it changes the entire context of Syd’s life as a spy, her childhood and her relationship with Jack. In that sense, it’s a game changer.

ALIAS – ‘Dead Drop’ (2×04 – Review)

Over the course of last year, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. Over the next year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

Dead Drop is far more of a confident, layered episode of Alias than it is perhaps given credit for. While Cipher worked too hard to balance the colour of Season One with the myriad narrative aspects of the second season, Dead Drop contains a similar strong dramatic through line as we saw in Trust Me, only flipped.

Trust Me explored Sydney’s relationship with her mother Irina in light of her surrender to the CIA and how this rippled out to affect the characters around her, bringing Syd from a position of weakened denial to empowered strength. Dead Drop does the inverse through her relationship with her father Jack, taking her from a position of personal security to utter, child-like weakness. Syd is manipulated by both of her parents across the course of Season Two, but while Irina passively infiltrates the heart and mind of her daughter, Jack’s tactics are overt levels of psychological and emotional control. Dead Drop in many respects is Jack at his absolute worst – bitter, angry, completely lacking objectivity, self-destructive and ultimately corrupt, giving into his darkest instincts to sabotage a mission—even technically risk Syd’s life—in order to establish control over his grown up daughter’s life.

This is what makes Dead Drop as an episode so compelling because Jack’s twisted psychology is front and centre. Cipher did much of the leg work on this, establishing Jack’s growing frustration at Syd’s professional relationship with Irina, and Dead Drop dials in particularly on those character points. Jesse Alexander’s first script for the season therefore has a strong spine on which the rest of the narrative hangs, a clear internal arc as Jack’s manipulation affects Syd and the CIA’s dealings with her mother. It continues the second season’s initial trend of the missions no longer being the most important framework on which Alias episodes hang. The show now has enough dramatic meat on the bone, enough going on in terms of character and theme as well as plot, to justify fewer moments of pure action stylistics.

Though not a showy or particularly individually memorable episode of the show, Dead Drop is surprisingly essential to the establishing phase of the season.

Scene By Scene: STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN – Pt VII – ‘The Word is Given’

As voted for on Twitter by followers, I will be analysing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan scene by scene in this multi-part exploration of Nicholas Meyer’s 1982 sequel…

In a very real sense, the space battle that cuts right into the end of Act One, and roughly the mid-section, of The Wrath of Khan is the first true example in Star Trek of the kind of space combat we would witness in subsequent TV series and movies even up to the present day, as of writing, with the huge space combat sequence in Star Trek: Discovery’s Season Two finale.

The Wrath of Khan, as we have discussed, defined itself visually and formally on the British nautical structure, given Nicholas Meyer’s love of the Horatio Hornblower series. Yet before this, Gene Roddenberry’s Original Series had framed the Enterprise’s encounters with dangerous alien life forms often more as a camera-shaking face off as opposed to a true battle of wits.

James T. Kirk most often fought the bad guy in close quarter combat, as indeed he did Khan Noonien Singh in Space Seed, and the Enterprise rarely felt the consequences of space combat. The Wrath of Khan changed that when Meyer pitched the central encounter between the Enterprise and the hijacked USS Reliant as a World War Two submarine battle in space, particularly come the battle later in the Mutara Nebula. Their first skirmish ends up as an ambush, the lawless pirates taking on the nation-sailing frigate, and it’s one the Enterprise barely manages to escape from.

Crucially, Meyer ensures Kirk’s first encounter with Khan is not an anaemic one. As befits the overarching themes of loss and discovery, death and rebirth, the Reliant’s ambush takes its personal as well as metaphorical toll. People die. And for once, defying the classic Star Trek trope of the ‘redshirt’, we *feel* it.

ALIAS – ‘Cipher’ (2×03 – Review)

Over the course of last year, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. Over the next year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

If Trust Me worked to establish Sydney Bristow’s psychology toward her mother, Cipher begins the same process with Jack Bristow as regards the woman who used to be his wife.

Understandably across the first two episodes of Season Two, Alias didn’t really devote a lot of time to Jack and where he stands with all of this. The Enemy Walks In saw him mainly putting Will Tippin back into the world, while in Trust Me he voices brief notes of caution about Irina Derevko which are entirely to be expected. Jack was the man she betrayed in the most personal and soul-destroying way, and Season One established very clearly just how much Irina’s ‘death’ and the betrayal about her origins he kept from Syd all her life had turned him into an emotional shell of a man, one unable to truly connect with the daughter he loved dearly from such a tragic relationship. Jack was always going to react badly to Irina’s reappearance on the scene but Cipher establishes the terror underneath the anger and caution: that Syd might be bewitched by her mother.

This fear forms the core basis of Cipher, an episode which otherwise is a fairly formulaic outing for Alias. It feels the most ‘Season One’ of the three Season Two episodes to date; that sounds like a rebuke, but please don’t read it as such. Season One, which I’ve talked about in depth, is an extremely confident and accomplished first year of television but many of the early initial episodes lack the same nuance and depth of the middle and later half of the season as they work to establish plot points and character arcs that will pay off down the road. Cipher suffers from the same problem, as writers Alex Kurtzman-Counter & Roberto Orci (in their first script this season) seed storylines that will bloom: Jack’s secret about Syd’s childhood, Will’s CIA interactions, Sloane being ‘haunted’ by Emily. Around this, they strive to stick to the spinal mission structure employed by the first season as Syd pursues a MacGuffin, but there is less weight and heft than the previous hour.

In truth, Cipher is probably the first of the five weakest episodes of Alias Season Two, running from here through to The Counteragent. Fine episodes on their own terms, and necessary ones, but hours which lack the dramatic payoff Season Two later provides in droves.