Sunday, October 23, 2016

Episode Review – Fair Trade (Voyager, Season 3)

For those who are new to my episode reviews, you can find the post where I establish my point criteria here.

Episode Overview – The crew of the USS Voyager approach the Nekrit Expanse, an uncharted, vast and dangerous region of the delta Quadrant. This is also the end of the part of space that Neelix is familiar with. Fearing his usefulness to the crew is at an end, Neelix finds himself desperate to be able to be useful to the crew again, and he ends up embroiled in more trouble than he bargained for.

Episode Score – 8/10. This is a very good Neelix-centric episode. Ethan Phillips gives a great performance, and the storyline makes a lot of sense. We also get a great performance from James Nardini, who plays Wixiban, an old Talaxian friend and former partner of Neelix. The music is done well, and the sets for the space station are great.

Relevance – 2 points. The Nekrit expanse becomes the setting for the crew over the next while in the show. Also we see the station again in a later episode called “Distant Origin”. We also see the debut of Vulcan engineer, Enisgn Vorik, who goes on to appear in at least one episode for all of the seasons from here on in.

Continuity – 3 points. Character continuity get a point. I especially liked how Neelix approaches Tom Paris for advice on his situation, given the evolution of their friendship. I gave a point for universe continuity. The Nekrit expanse is perfect for the explanation as to why we don’t see many Vidians and Kazon in the later seasons of Voyager nor does the future encounters of powerful species (Borg and Hirogen) in the earlier seasons. As far as story continuity, everything fits with what has happened or will happen, so this gets a point as well.

Character Development – 2 points. This is Neelix’s show. We learn more about him in this single episode than we do in entire seasons of the series. We learn about his less than stellar past and gain a better appreciation of how far he has come since joining Voyager. As I said before, Ethan Phillips puts in a very strong performance. I know that Neelix has his fair shares of haters out there, but they would have to give the character props in this episode. He shows true depth as his loyalties are torn. Unfortunately, while it is nice to get such a great story for Neelix, it comes at the expense of the other characters. Kes and the Doctor only appear in one scene, and Ensign Kim is nowhere to be found. For the rest of the crew, they are just there to move the story along. There was a scene that was deleted that could have pushed this up an extra point as it provided some closure for the end of Kes and Neelix’s romantic relationship. From what has been said of it, it was cut simply for time reasons. Hopefully it will be restored in a future Blu-Ray collection.

Social Commentary – 3 points. Integrity and a desire to be useful are universal concepts that most if not all of us are familiar with. It is important to feel that we provide a meaningful contribution to whatever organization we are affiliated with. Sometimes that desire comes into conflict with doing the right thing. We also see in Neelix’s story the risk of good intentions leading us down the proverbial road to hell as he attempts to do something meaningful to his crewmates. The testing of loyalties is also a common experience. Janeway gives a speech reminiscent of Picard’s dressing down of Cadet Crusher when she tells Neelix that a Starfleet Officer’s first duty is to the truth, which I think should apply to everyone, Starfleet or not.

Cool Factor – 2 points. In this episode we see two veteran Trek guest stars in another of multiple characters. Carlos Carrasco makes his only Voyager appearance as Bahrat, the station manager. This is Carrasco’s third of four characters he has played in Trek (the other three were in DS9). James Horan, who has appeared in every trek spin-off, appears as Tosin, a violent Kolaati trader, making his third of five appearances. This scores one point for “Cool Factor”. A second point is scored with the Ensign Vorik, played by Alexander Enberg. Enberg first played a young Vulcan Starfleet officer in the TNG episode “Lower Decks”. Jeri Taylor, producer of the show (and mother of the actor in question), has said that the two characters could easily be twin brothers.

Rank – Captain (20 points). Between this and “Jetrel”, it is hard to say which is the best Neelix story. While I get that Neelix is great for comedy, it was always nice to see the writers add some depth to his character, and this episode does a fine job of it. It is also simply a well-crafted and acted episode.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Why I Love Enterprise

Celebrating the five full decades of Star Trek should be a yearlong event, so I thought I would spread the love of all things Trek. Previously in this series I touched on why I loved the Original Series, the Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and most recently Voyager. Next on our list is the show that ended Trek on television (at least until Discovery comes along) by taking us back to the beginning of the Federation, Star Trek Enterprise.

The year was 2001. Voyager had returned to the Alpha Quadrant earlier in the year, and a new Trek series was eagerly anticipated. Set in an era prior to the establishment of the Federation, the setting occurred in a universe where relationships between Earth and Vulcan were cool, many species had yet to be discovered, and the warp-speed travel was still new. The premise of the show has Captain Johnathon Archer taking command of Earth’s first Warp 5 ship. Joining him are some of Earth’s finest along with some alien allies. As the show progressed and the exploration began, we were able to see the seeds planted that ultimately led to the growth of the United Federation of Planets. There was no Prime Directive, no replicators, no holodeck, just the grit of the early explorers.

It has been said that no series of Trek has been so polarizing. There was a great deal of resistance, and many found ample material to complain about. Some hated the theme song (it had lyrics for Spock’s sake!), others disliked the apparent continuity errors, while some criticized what was described as decisions made to try to up ratings at the expense of good character development and story-telling. This was the first trek series since the Original that was cancelled due to low ratings, and some have argued that the franchise has never recovered from Enterprise. The show did not even contain the words “Star Trek” in its title until the third season. Producer Rick Berman had said that he felt the studio rushed the production of Enterprise, claiming that the television market had become saturated with Star Trek by having three series going seven seasons each over 14 years and felt the franchise needed to catch its breath before moving on. Some fans agreed.

Still, Enterprise had a loyal, though smaller, following. Many enjoyed seeing the early growth of humanity as it became an interstellar power. We were entreated to the first encounter with the Klingons in the pilot episode. Some appreciated the new characters, new races, and what life in the 22nd century was like. Some were fascinated by the depiction of humans that were not quite at the utopian level that Roddenberry had envisioned. I enjoyed the series myself, though I had a few more dislikes about it than any other series, but since we are keeping it positive here, I give you my top 5 reasons for why I love Enterprise.

1. Shran – Played by the amazing Jeffery Combs, Shran was the first major Andorian character. I loved how they developed this character. He started out as an adversary and quickly grew into one of the most trusted allies of the Enterprise crew. He was tough, quick-tempered, and fierce. His lines were brilliantly written, to the point where when I get tired of a particular human of Caucasian descent, I think about calling him “pink-skin”. I think the saddest part of the cancellation of Enterprise was the revelation that had it lasted a fifth season, Shran would have become part of the crew and a Jeffery Combs a main cast member.

2. Dr. Phlox – Our favourite (and first) Denobulan. He was a wonderfully refreshing character. Funny, different, and showed that the Denobulans were more than just another alien with a different forehead. His physiology was just different enough to add a “cool” factor. From his extremely long tongue to his literal ear-to-ear grin, Dr. Phlox provided us some comic relief. There was more to him than that, however. He became a moral compass to the crew who, unlike the Vulcan T’Pol, could share an outsider’s perspective and an excitement of exploration that gave a great deal of balance to the crew.

3. Explaining the Klingons – For many decades there was one important question that was not answered for the fans. In the Original Series the Klingons looked like deeply tanned humans with cool mustaches. When the films began, their foreheads became ridged and prominent. No explanation given. The closest we came was in the DS9 episode “Trials and Tribblations” when Worf tells his crew mates that the reason they looked different was because it was a ‘private matter”. Well, Enterprise came up with the best possible explanation. It bridged the story line with the Augments and DNA

4. Nods to the future and the past – Some classic aliens and characters were either updated or foreshadowed. On the list of upgrades, we have the Orions, Tellarites, Gorn, and Tholians. Foreshadowing of the future we have Arik Soong (ancestor of Data’s creator, Noonien Song, all played wonderfully by Brent Spiner), the Organians, and, naturally, the United Federation of Planets. We found out what the early days of the Terran Empire was like as well as the fate of the first USS Defiant from the classic episode “The Tholian Web” when we were taken to the mirror universe. I can overlook the early introduction to the Ferengi and the Borg knowing that this series showed respect to the series that came before.

5. Scott Bakula – I have been a fan of Bakula since “Quantum Leap”. I liked what he brought to the role of Captain Johnathan Archer. He was tough, had a chip on his shoulder, and was determined to push humanity into the galaxy. Yes, he was flawed. He made big mistakes. This is what helps me identify with him. He also admitted those mistakes. He owned them. He worked to improve himself. All of this was brought with great strength in Bakula’s performance. Add to that the fact that Mr. Bakula is one of the most well-liked and respected actors in Hollywood. At a convention with Connor Trineer, he mentioned that after every day of shooting, Bakula would personally thank every member of the crew and cast. He treated everyone on set as if they were equally important. For this reason, I am proud that he was a part of Enterprise.

It’s been a long road, getting from there to here (sorry, I couldn’t resist), but these are the top reasons why I love Enterprise. There are others, of course, and I may have overlooked some of yours, so feel free to add them to the comment section. In what will likely be a far more controversial topic, the next article in this series will be why I love the Kelvin Timeline film series.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Episode Review - The Thaw (Voyager Season 2)

For those who are new to my episode reviews, you can find the post where I establish my point criteria here.

Episode Overview – While exploring a deserted planet, the crew of Voyager are hailed by a recording from the remnants of a long-lost civilization. As Ensign Kim and Lieutenant Torres investigate, they find themselves trapped in a virtual reality, face-to-face with the embodiment of Fear.

Episode Score – 9/10. One of the most unique episodes in all of Trek, let alone Voyage, this second season episode is a wild ride through the fertile fields of imagination. With the main arc of the story being set in the alternate reality created by the Kohl survivors, the sky is the limit for creating this showdown against Fear. Michael McKean is brilliantly cast as the Clown, the embodiment of Fear itself. His over-the-top antics steal every scene he is in, and his chemistry with the main cast is perfect. Surrounding him is a surreal group of what can best be described as carnival performers from Bizzareland. These actors were actual Cirque du Soleil performers, and added a level of authenticity to the mood. The story is well told, the set has a tone to it that nostalgically reminds me of the Original series, and the acting is great. I only wish more of the crew had a bigger part. It would have been interesting to see Chakotay or Tuvok mix it up with the Clown.

Relevance – 0 points. As great as this episode is, it is a true stand-alone episode. If you have never seen it then it will have no bearing on anything else in the Trek universe. That is not a bad thing for an episode, but it will not score you points for this section.

Continuity – 2 points. Character continuity is a check. Harry, B’Elanna, the Doctor, and Janeway all act in a consistent manner. Universe continuity is respected, so a point is scored there. As for story continuity, this episode has no connection to Voyager’s overall story, so I can’t give it a point.

Character Development – 3 points. The Thaw provides a wonderful examination as to how different characters face fear. Harry Kim’s insecurities are definitely explored in this. The friendship between him and Torres is brought a little further along. The Doctor is used in one of the first instances that does not require a medical professional. Acting as a negotiator allows him to further evolve his character. Most of all, we see Kathryn Janeway at her best as she goes toe-to-toe with Fear. This is definitely a character driven story, and it is done extremely well.

Social Commentary – 3 points. Fear is a universal concept, and facing our fears is something we all must do. Sometimes we give into our fears and become its prisoner. Sometimes we fight against our fears and triumph. I think the most poignant moment is at the very end when, as the Clown faces his fate, expresses his own fear of the unknown. His last bit of dialogue with Janeway is excellent.

Cool Factor – 3 points. Michael McKean’s performance is so good in this episode. I love it. Cool point #1. Also, listen carefully to the giant Spectre that is in the Clown’s entourage. We hear him more than we see him, but he is played by Carel Struycken, better known as the often seen but rarely heard Mr. Homm. Another cool point scored. Third point goes to the Cirque to Soleil performers as the members of the Clown’s carnival. They really added a lot to the feel of the episode.

Rank Captain (20 points). An excellent Voyager episode. The fact that it is a stand-alone episode is good in that you can watch it and enjoy it, but you don’t have to watch it in any particular order with any other episode. The downside is that due to this fact it is easy to overlook it. Because of how well done the episode is, I recommend that you do not skip it, but watch and enjoy. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Why I Love Voyager

Celebrating the five full decades of Star Trek should be a yearlong event, so I thought I would spread the love of all things Trek. Previously in this series I wrote about why I love the Original Series, then why I loved the Next Generation, and most recently with why I loved Deep Space Nine. Next up, Captain Kathryn Janeway and the combined crew of Star Trek: Voyager.

The year was 1995. Picard and company were fresh off of their first major motion picture, Star Trek: Generations. Sisko and crew were well into their third season on Deep Space Nine. Paramount had started a new network, UPN, and wanted a new Star Trek show to be the flagship (not sure if the pun is intended). Along came Voyager. Created by Trek veterans Michael Piller, Rick Berman, and Jeri Taylor (finally, a woman at the helm!), Star Trek: Voyager was the story of a new class of Federation starship that is thrown halfway across the galaxy into the far reaches of the Delta Quadrant. To further complicate things, the crew is made up of a significant number of renegade Federation citizens, the Maquis (introduced in Deep Space Nine), as well as some more unconventional crew members who were there as much as necessity as anything else. Their story was to be more akin to “Lost in Space” as opposed to the usual comforts of previous Trek incarnations.

With a fresh crew, new surroundings, and endless possibilities, fans were excited about this new show. Most of the buzz was originally around the new female captain, especially after the original actress hired for the show, Genevieve Bujold, was released from her contract (on mutual terms, as the story goes), and the formidable Kate Mulgrew came in almost last minute. There were familiar trappings (Tim Russ in his fourth and most famous Trek role, Vulcan security officer Lt. Tuvok), some new aliens (Talaxians, Ocampans, Kazon, and Vidians), and some returning fan favorites (Q, the Borg, and Reginald Barclay). Voyager had a lot of promise at the beginning, and it was great to have a second Trek series on the air again.

I had mentioned previously that Deep Space Nine was the black sheep of the Trek family, but Voyager seems to be the series where a lot of fans started to openly criticize the show. Perhaps it was the movement of the internet into mainstream society, perhaps fans were suffering a bit of Trek fatigue, but there were a fair number of vocal critics, and Voyager’s ratings were getting lower. Still, it had enough to keep it going for the full seven seasons, and there were some wonderful episodes, stories, characters, and moments that helped Voyager earn its well-deserved place among Trek lore. Here are my Top Five Reasons for why I love Star Trek: Voyager.

1.     Captain Janeway – Yes, it was finally time to have a woman in the captain’s chair on a Trek show, but Janeway being a woman is not the reason why I love this captain so much. She had likely the biggest burden of all captains up to this point. Kirk, Picard, and Sisko all had the support of Starfleet. For most of the run of Voyager, she was on her own. As was mentioned in an early episode, there wasn’t a lot of Captains and Admirals around for her to associate with. Janeway had to make some tough decisions, and they were not always the right ones, but she was in a tough situation. She took a ragtag bunch of Starfleet officers, disgruntled Maquis, and the rejects of the Delta quadrant, and made them a family. She had an almost perfect balance of toughness and compassion. She valued the members of her crew because they were literally irreplaceable. Even though her first officer was Maquis, she welcomed and valued his insight. No matter how close they were, however, she often felt alone in command. That earned my respect.

2.     Back to the basics – Star Trek was often considered to be about exploring, but by the end of TNG there was little left to explore. While DS9 got around that with a wormhole to another part of the galaxy, they still had old familiar faces to fall back on. Not so with Voyager. Everything was new. New quadrant, new species, and new worlds to discover. Thanks to advances in technology, we were able to bring about species in new ways (looking at you, Species 8472). Not everything was a home run, but there were so many cool things that came about due to Voyager being stuck in the Delta Quadrant. It was a great to see so many new and different things, and we were allowed to have some great stories that came out of it.

3.     The Doctor – When the media releases for the new show started to emerge, there was one character that had me gravely concerned: the EMH. To hear that the new CMO was going to be a hologram made me nervous. How are they going to have a character in the sickbay all the time and be able to develop him adequately? I had seen a few hologram characters before, and I must say that they disappointed me greatly. Then I actually watched the show. It was wonderful to see this character grow from a simple program into a fully developed and realized member of the crew. His episodes are among my favorites, and Robert Picardo was able to bring such a light to his character’s eye in his brilliant performances. I loved the comedy and soul that the Doctor often brought to the show. I enjoyed how he developed a conscience and wrestled with many dilemmas that we find ourselves facing daily as human beings. Once he got his mobile emitter, the sky was the limit with him. I only wished that they had settled on a name with him sooner.

4.     The ultimate betrayer – In the first season there were a handful of Maquis crewmen who showed a lot of promise. The best, in my opinion, turned out to be a secret Cardassian agent who showed that she would stop at nothing to get home, even if it meant aligning with the Kazon. Seska was brilliantly played by Martha Hackett and stole every scene she was in. Her story seemed so well executed, an excellent example in how to develop a secondary character. I am not sure if the plan had always been to make her a spy, but it was set up brilliantly. Like all great villains, Seska eventually had her day of reckoning, but being killed off did not mean the end for her. She returned in some great ways, just to wreck a little more havoc on the crew.

5.     Building on a legacy – Voyager was able to do a lot with what had previously been established, given the setting of the show. While Q made an appearance on Deep Space Nine in the first season, he really didn’t click with the crew. On Voyager, he was able to bring things to a whole new level. Since Picard and his crew were off making movies, our omnipotent adversary turned to the Delta quadrant and traded barbs with Janeway. I actually thought that Q and Janeway had a wonderful adversarial relationship, due largely to the delightful chemistry between Kate Mulgrew and John de Lancie. Because of this, we received the wonderful episode “Death Wish”. Another favorite character of the past that was able to grow more fully was Reginald Barclay. Voyager gave our obsessive engineer a chance to shine in a new role in ways that he just couldn’t on the Next Generation. Finally, there was the Borg. While Picard and company were able to deal with the Borg on every encounter, Voyager was able to stick it to them on multiple occasions. The Borg as a collective grew more with Voyager, and we can thank Seven of Nine for that. Played the beautifully talented Jeri Ryan, we learned much more about the Borg, and it gave us a wonderful opportunity to study the life of one who was seeking to regain her lost humanity. Voyager had its flaws, but not building on the legacy of important characters, races, and aspects of the past was not one of them.

And there you go. The little show that could. I loved Star Trek Voyager for many more reasons, but these are the Top 5. Did I miss any? Please comment on what you loved about the show.