Star Trek: Voyager – season six (1999/2000)

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Over the last few months I’ve rewatched all of the science-fiction series Star Trek: Voyager. So, as the show celebrates its 25th anniversary, here’s what I thought were the notable episodes of season six…

Best episode:
Blink of an Eye. Some of the dramatic detail is rushed, certainly, but this story is built on a bold and inventive science-fiction idea. Voyager gets trapped in the orbit of a planet where time is moving much more swiftly. So for every second aboard the ship (and elsewhere in the universe), a year passes on the planet’s surface. We cut between scenes of the Voyager crew attempting to free themselves before they do too much damage… and scenes down on the ground as *centuries* pass by. Various generations of the populous look up at this strange object circling above them. Some are scared, others enraptured; there are attempts to investigate, explain and mythologise it. We watch omnisciently as Voyager’s presence has a profound effect on the planet through prehistory, medieval culture, a renaissance, and eras equivalent to our Victorian and space-race periods. Then an astronaut (Daniel Dae Kim, later of Lost and Hawaii Five-O) makes contact with the Voyager crew… There are deeply woven themes of religious superstition, scientific endeavour, fear and ignorance, as well as the domino effect of consequences. A lovely subplot also sees the ship’s hologrammatic Doctor (Robert Picardo) spend three years living down on the surface. He’s only gone from the ship for a blip, but in that times he makes friends, falls in love and becomes a stepfather.

Honorable mentions:
Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy. A playful episode that sees the Doctor begin to believe that his vainglorious daydreams are true.
* Alice. In this pervy story, helmsman Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill) becomes obsessed – to the point of sexual fantasy! – with a shuttlecraft.
* Riddles. It’s a humdrum mystery plot but the character element, which sees security chief Tuvok (Tim Russ) lose his knowledge and memories, is surprisingly tender and effective. It plays like a great man afflicted by dementia, which opens his eyes to a different way of viewing the world.
* One Small Step. Sentimentality dominates as the crew find a 300-year-old command module from an early Mars mission in a space anomaly, which sparks off a discussion of discovery, exploration and wonder. Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) at first has no interest in something so antiquated, but learns the power of history and context.
* Voyager Conspiracy. A gimmicky episode but an enjoyable one. Seven develops paranoia and fears that Captain Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) and Commander Chakotay (Robert Beltran) are colluding in a secret mission.
* Pathfinder. An excellent sidestep, as we cut to recurring Starfleet character Lieutenant Reg Barclay back home in the Alpha Quadrant and his obsession with finding a way to contact Voyager. Reg has always been an interesting, well played character, and his no small success in this episode has emotional punch.
* Live Fast and Prosper. The crew become aware of a gang of aliens who are crudely impersonating them and ripping people off. There are some fun details, such as the con artists’ Starfleet uniforms being *just* off, as well as a few twists in the lighthearted plot.
* Muse. Chief engineer B’Elanna Torres (Roxann Dawson) is stranded on a pre-industrial planet, where she and her descriptions of Voyager become the inspiration for a local playwright. We get some neat discussion of how stories work, self-referential jokes, some good costumes (especially the masks used the performances of the poet’s plays) and even a hint of Shakespearean grandeur (the poet uses his scripts to influence the opinion of the local king, a la Hamlet).
* Fury. Kes (Jennifer Lien) returns after 73 episodes’ absence. It’s a time-travel special, with a convoluted structure, but it’s also a daring use of an old regular character. The years away have not been kind to her and she wants revenge on her former friends, so this is a rare Star Trek plot driven by the bitterness and regret of a ‘good’ character.
* Life Line. Since day one, the Emergency Medical Hologram character has been one of this show’s true successes – a really interesting character and a performance that marries sarcasm with sincerity. Here, the Doctor is beamed halfway across the galaxy, all the way back to the Alpha Quadrant, and actor Robert Picardo also plays the EMH’s human designer, who is suffering from an inexplicable ailment. It’s a rather sweet episode, with of course the prerequisite number of split-screen shots to show us both characters at the same time. (Just generally, this season’s slow-burn story arc about the Voyager crew finally having contact with colleagues back home has worked very well.)

Worst episode:
* Fair Haven. Nothing better illustrates the old-fashioned nature of Star Trek: Voyager than the fact that the game-changing episode Pathfinder is directly followed by a trivial, disposable story which makes no mention of the new status quo. In Fair Haven, various characters enjoy visiting a holodeck fantasy recreation of 19th-century Ireland. (Well, a 19th-century Ireland that looks like the standing set on an LA studio backlot, anyway.) But Janeway then takes an uncharacteristic interest in one of the avatars, even artificially tailoring him to her tastes. Any dramatic substance about the captain’s loneliness is swamped by a parade of awful Irish accents, stereotypes and tweeness. Later in the season, Fair Haven gets a sequel. It’s also terrible.

Next time: Season seven

Star Trek: Voyager – season five (1998/1999)

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Over the last few months I’ve rewatched all of the science-fiction series Star Trek: Voyager. So, as the show celebrates its 25th anniversary, here’s what I thought were the notable episodes of season five…

Best episode:
Latent Image. A really lovely piece of storytelling, this. It’s an existential meditation on the nature of individualism; an ethical debate about the power of guilt; and a compelling sci-fi plot all in one. The ship’s self-aware Emergency Medical Hologram (Robert Picardo) realises that some of his memories have been deleted and he pleads with his colleagues, all of whom know what he’s ‘forgotten’, to restore them. Picardo is terrific – as he has been throughout Star Trek: Voyager. So too is Kate Mulgrew as Captain Kathryn Janeway, who must wrestle with her own moral quandaries and her doubts over whether the Doctor counts as a life form.

Honorable mentions:
Night. A bizarre little season opener. With no cliffhanger to pick up from the previous run, we rejoin the crew two months later. They’re travelling through a huge void of empty space, which will take two years to cross, and it’s having a terrible affect on morale. Boredom sets in, tempers are frayed, some crew turn to frivolous distractions such as the Buck Rogers-style VR game favoured by Lieutenant Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill). Captain Janeway, meanwhile, is wracked with guilt over their plight and has become a snarky recluse. It’s decent drama – certainly more drama than many earlier episodes bothered with – even if ennui is a peculiar theme with which to launch a new season of an action-orientated show. The crew eventually come up against a plot-of-the-week that re-energises them, and along the way there’s also a fun maritime metaphor going on: it’s like Voyager is drifting in the doldrums.
* Extreme Risk. During a mission to build a new shuttle quickly enough to beat some aliens to a prize, chief engineer Lieutenant B’Elanna Torres (Roxann Dawson) is distant and sullen. She’s also secretly self-harming via dangerous holodeck games. A downbeat episode focused on character.
* Timeless. A razzle-dazzle time-travel special from new showrunner Brannon Braga, but with a twist: it’s only a message that travels through time, not characters. Fifteen years into a possible future, Commander Chakotay (Robert Berltran) and Ensign Harry Kim (Garrett Wang) are the only survivors of Voyager after an accident, so they attempt to change their history for the better…
* Counterpoint. A well-structured and paced episode that sees a character story for Janeway woven into a thriller plot. It’s another showcase for Kate Mulgrew, who’s been consistently watchable and impressive. (There’s a parallel universe out there somewhere in which the Canadian actress Geneviève Bujold played Janeway. In our reality, she was hired but then let go after two disastrous days’ filming. Mulgrew stepped in to replace her; we got the better end of that bargain.) Mark Harelik guest stars as an alien cop who repeatedly searches Voyager under the pretence that the ship is flying through his jurisdiction. He’s looking for refugees – who we know Janeway is hiding – and spars entertainingly with the captain. The two actors have chemistry, especially after a plot twist brings their characters closer. The episode also represents a welcome change of emphasis that’s been happening in Star Trek: Voyager since last season – events now take place is a murkier, harsher, more cynical and less delineated world. The cosiness levels have been reduced.
* Bride of Chaotica! A slice of throwaway nonsense as a blah-blah-blah plot device forces characters to play a holodeck programme based on a 1930s movie serial.
* Gravity. A not-bad one about Lieutenant Tuvok (Tim Russ) falling for an alien woman (played by Lori Petty) when he and Paris are stranded with her on a planet.
* Bliss. All the crew are brainwashed into thinking they’ve found a way home – all except the former Borg drone Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan).
* Dark Frontier. A feature-length epic: a balls-to-the-wall action movie with a huge-impact plot and plenty of drama. The Borg Queen, who had debuted in a recent Star Trek movie, shows up. The story also casts doubt on Seven of Nine’s loyalties and adds more texture to her mother/daughter-like relationship with Janeway. Great incidental music too.
* Juggernaut. A passable episode about a radiation-affected alien ship that may have a monster on board. The scenes on the alien craft are nicely shot and the aliens themselves are refreshingly normal.
* 11.58. You do have to make your peace with the groansome idea of a regular cast member playing their character’s ancestor – in this case, Kate Mulgrew stars as Janeway’s 15-times great-grandmother, a down-on-her-luck wannabe engineer who falls for a stubborn bookshop owner in the year 2000. But once you do, this flashback tale is a nice diversion from Voyager’s usual storylines. There’s also an extra layer. In the present-day scenes, Janeway learns about her forebear’s life but comes to realise that maybe the process of history cannot be relied on to be wholly accurate.
* Relativity. A head-scratchingly convoluted time-travel episode, which appears drunk on its own twists and turns but ends up being frothy fun.

Worst episode:
* Someone to Watch Over Me. An earlier episode is almost as bad – Nothing Human, in which various characters treat a computer-generated image of a war criminal as if it were the real person (kinda like shouting at a photo of Hitler). But at the risk of sounding like a Millennial who’s seen Friends on Netflix and thinks it’s racist, Someone to Watch Over Me feels so old-fashioned it actually hurts. The Doctor attempts to tutor Seven of Nine in the ways of dating (a human ritual that may, he explains, lead to marriage). Any Professor Higgins subtext is dwarfed by its antiquated and conservative social attitudes towards women, gender, sexuality and relationships. Eugh.

Next time: Season six

Red Dwarf VIII (1999)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Written by Doug Naylor (all) and Paul Alexander (episodes 5 & 7). Directed by Ed Bye. Broadcast on BBC2.

Regulars: Lister, the Cat, Kryten and Kochanski are carried over from the previous series – in fact, the story picks up immediately after that batch of episodes ended. Holly is back full-time (played by Norman Lovett). And more importantly, Rimmer’s returned! Chris Barrie enjoyed his contribution to series seven more than he’d predicted, so reversed his decision to quit Red Dwarf. (After all that fuss he missed a total of four episodes.) However, this isn’t the Rimmer from the first 38 episodes of the show. This character has been artificially resurrected by tiny robots, along with the ship and its entire crew. So not only does he lack the memories and experiences of old episodes but he behaves how Rimmer was in the early days. (Well, to a point. He now *gets on* with Lister. They buddy around like old friends! Oh, and this Arnold’s not a hologram, of course.) And finally, we have a new regular character: Mac McDonald had played Captain Hollister in three 1988 episodes, and is now in the show every week.

Episode 1: Back in the Red: Part One (18 February 1999): Red Dwarf has been rebuilt by tiny robots and its crew resurrected… Oh, this is tiresome. Admittedly there’s a lovely opening – a deliberately old-school scene between Lister and Rimmer – but we then cut to three days earlier and just get clunky plotting and crass jokes.
Observations: There’s a scene in the bunkroom from series one and two, the set having been specially recreated. Lister’s old pals Selby and Chen – last seen in series two – have inconsequential cameos. It’s not explained why the nanobots didn’t resurrect Kochanski, who originally died along with everyone else of course. Rimmer finds the ‘positive viruses’ from series five’s Quarantine, which then become overused storytelling shortcuts.
Best gag: The Cat’s heartbeat and pulse form an infectious Cuban-flavoured dance rhythm.

Episode 2: Back in the Red: Part Two (25 February 1999): Put on trial for crimes against the Space Corps, our heroes are surreptitiously given hallucinogenic drugs so the captain can see what they do when the think they’re escaping… It was a chore watching this one. And just when you think it can’t get worse, the climax is more thunderingly awful than Red Dwarf had ever been before. In need of a disguise, Lister, the Cat and Kochanski use mop heads and false teeth to dress up as ‘the Dibbley family’ – yet another reference, of course, to Duane Dibbley from series five. At least some people are enjoying the gag: the studio audience burst into joyous applause and yelps (earlier on, they’d also applauded a long, tedious scene between Hollister and Rimmer). But it then gets even more depressing. When we see the characters in disguise, they walk down a corridor in slow motion to the sound of the George Baker Selection’s Little Green Bag. It’s not even a topical gag: Reservoir Dogs was seven years old by this point. Horrendous.
Observations: Captain Hollister records a log entry, which acts as a recap of last week’s events. Geoffrey Beevers plays a doctor. Robert Llewellyn hams it up something rotten as an AI computer (around this era it often seems like Llewellyn thinks he’s in a show for five-year-olds).
Best gag: Affected by the sexual-magnetism virus Lister has taken, an aroused Kochanski starts snogging him. Then the virus wears off and she comes to her senses. “I don’t know what got into me,” she says. “Well, nothing, sadly,” laments Lister.

Episode 3: Back in the Red: Part Three (4 March 1999): Oh, Christ, it’s still going on. Continuing the hallucinogenic fantasy started last week, the characters think they’re escaping Red Dwarf – but their actions are being observed by the captain… Another terrible episode.
Observations: Two versions of a Red Dwarf flight controller are seen: the fantasy version is played by the gorgeous Yasmin Bannerman; the real version is played by the roly-poly, middle-aged Jeillo Edwards. The Cat does a dance routine for the former, which involves CGI space shuttles copying his moves (incidentally, this is our first sight of Blue Midget since series three). When they exit the drug-induced fantasy, Lister, the Cat, Kryten and Kochanski find themselves as stop-motion plasticine puppets on an icy landscape – I consider myself an averagely intelligent guy and I genuinely have no idea what’s happening in this scene. At the end of the episode, Graham McTavish – later one of the dwarves in the Hobbit movies – debuts as the prison warden Ackerman.
Best gag: The Cat claims to be so gorgeous that “there’s a six-month waiting list for birds to suddenly appear every time I am near.”

Episode 4: Cassandra (11 March 1999): Now serving a two-year stretch in the brig, Lister volunteers the gang for the Canaries, an advance team sent on dangerous salvage missions. On their first trip, they encounter a computer that can predict the future… This episode isn’t especially majestic or anything, but after the previous three-parter it feels like a genuine treat. The hit-rate of gags is much higher, while there’s a story worth following. It has the feel of an episode from, say, series three to five: a sci-fi spoof with lots of comedy. Enjoyable stuff.
Observations: Cassandra is played by Geraldine McEwan. Jake Wood debuts as semi-regular character Kill Crazy, who’s one of the other prisoners. Ackerman appears again.
Best gag: Rimmer’s been told by Cassandra that he’s going to die while having sex with Kochanski. “So let me just repeat what I think you’re saying,” he gleefully replies. “Arnold – that’s me – and Kochanski – that’s the woman, the really attractive one you saw me with earlier – me and her are in bed, giving it rizz…”

Episode 5: Krytie TV (18 March 1999): Kryten is being held in the women’s prison, so male inmates manipulate him into filming his colleagues in the showers… Another not-bad episode. It has a funny subplot about an appeal process that comes with a woofer of a punchline.
Observations: Kill Crazy and Ackerman appear again.
Best gag: Lister tells Kochanski about the live feed from the women’s shower. “I saw the whole thing,” he says. “All three terrible hours of it.”

Episode 6: Pete: Part One (25 March 1999): As punishment for pulling a prank on the warden, the gang have to play a basketball game, then Lister and Rimmer have to peel a lot of potatoes. Meanwhile, the Cat, Kryten and Kochanski find a device that can freeze or speed up time… This feels like a bubble-and-squeak episode, with disparate ideas and scenes mashed together in the hope they’ll make something worthwhile. They don’t. It’s always dangerous to assume motives, but were eyes taken off the ball behind the scenes? Director Ed Bye certainly lets through some pretty sloppily staged moments. It was depressing watching this mess.
Observations: Ackerman appears again. There’s a running joke about Lister and Rimmer being frog-marched into the captain’s office, with the same camera moves each time. Ricky Grover plays a prisoner. The episode ends on a cliffhanger: a dinosaur has been created and is loose on the ship.
Best gag: Lister taps out a long Morse-code message on his cell’s pipes, then gets a reply from a nearby robot; they exchange taps for ages, then Lister says, “Damn… Wrong number.”

Episode 7: Pete: Part Two (1 April 1999): A dinosaur is on the loose, but has swallowed the gizmo that would turn it back into a sparrow, so the gang feed it roughage… This episode is so dreadful it beggars belief. There’s a sketch-like scene with Kochanski and Kryten where his artificial penis has escaped and is running around like a mouse. When it later shows up under the Cat’s T-shirt there’s a half-arsed attempt at spoofing the John Hurt Alien scene. Give me strength.
Observations: There’s a quick recap of the last episode. The running (limping, more like) joke of Lister and Rimmer being taken to see the captain continues. Kill Crazy appears again.
Best gag: Rimmer slags off the captain while Lister drops heavy hints that Hollister is stood behind him. (Yes, the pickings are that slim.)

Episode 8: Only the Good… (5 April 1999): Characters pull pranks on each other, then for tedious and perfunctory sci-fi reasons Rimmer has to go into a ‘mirror universe’… *Ghastly*.
Observations: This was the last episode of Red Dwarf for 10 years, and the final one ever to be shown on BBC2. Tony Slattery voices a vending machine. Danny John-Jules and Chloë Annett play ‘mirror’ equivalents of their characters. The episode ends on a cliffhanger.
Best gag: Kryten has been tricked by Lister into giving Kochanski a tampon as a present. “I hope I chose the right size!”

Best episode: Cassandra. Worst episode: Only The Good….

Alternative versions: The multi-episode stories, Back in the Red and Pete, are available on the DVD as omnibus edits. The first one has a few deleted gags added back in.

Review: Change is good. This show has revelled in ditching formats, switching characters around, and having regular boosts of new energy. For 1999, we’re back to the episodes being recorded with a live audience and having a videotape look. Rimmer is back to how he used to be in the early days. In scenes set in Lister and Rimmer’s cell, we’re back to dialogue-based character comedy… Sadly, though, this is a pretty disastrous set of episodes. There are problems everywhere you look. The show’s defining element, that these characters are stranded in deep space, has been thrown away. The comedy has taken a turn for the childish – lots of slapstick, lots of toilet humour – while Kochanski, Kryten, the Cat and especially Holly all get squeezed out to varying degrees. There are some really dodgy actors in minor roles. The CGI special-effects shots are rubbish. And basing a two-part story on a dinosaur running rampant isn’t the greatest idea in the world when you have a sitcom budget. An even bigger issue is an ugly thread of sexism that weaves through the whole series. Kryten is classified as a woman because he doesn’t have a penis – that’s laughing at someone because they’re different from a perceived ‘norm’, that is. Even in 1999 it felt ancient. Kochanski, a successful space-ship officer, also asks if a time-manipulating device could give her a boob job. (Just generally, Kochanski is a non-entity in this series. Chloë Annett often has nothing to play.) The sexual-magnetism virus is just as bad. The potion is only used by men and it only attracts women… except in one scene set in the prison where the punchline is essentially ‘Bum rape is funny, isn’t it?’ This was the last series for a very long time. It needed a break. If early Red Dwarf episodes showed a youthful exuberance, and the time of, say, series three had the confidence of being in your prime, this is a midlife crisis. A couple of decent episodes aside, series eight is tiresome, boring-uncle-at-a-wedding stuff.

Four bottles of hooch out of 10

Blackadder: Back & Forth (1999, Paul Welland)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Cast: Rowan Atkinson plays a modern-day Lord Blackadder (later King Edmund III), while Tony Robinson plays his manservant, Baldrick. They also appear as Roman equivalents: Centurion Blaccadius and Legionary Baldricus. Blackadder’s dinner-party guests are played by former regulars Tim McInnerny (as Archdeacon Darling), Miranda Richardson (Lady Elizabeth), Stephen Fry (Archbishop Melchett) and Hugh Laurie (Major George). The four actors also appear as various historical ancestors – McInnerny is always said to be a member of the Darling dynasty rather than a relative of the Lord Percys from earlier episodes. Patsy Byrne is in the Elizabethan segment, reprising Nursie from series two. Colin Firth shows up playing William Shakespeare, Simon Russell Beale as Napoleon. Rik Mayall appears as a very Lord Flashheart-like Robin Hood, while Kate Moss pushes the definition of acting to cameo as both Maid Marian and the Queen in an alternative 1999. Jennie Bond, then the BBC’s royal correspondent, plays herself in voiceover.

Best gags:

On 31 December 1999, Lord Blackadder plans on conning his friends into thinking he can travel through time. However, manservant Baldrick has built the time-machine prop so convincingly, they actually get sent into the past…
* Blackadder meets Shakespeare, gets his autograph, and then punches him to the ground as revenge for 400 years’ worth of bored school kids.
* Robin Hood: “Well, well, what have we here, my tough band of freedom fighters who have good muscle tone and aren’t gay?”

Cunning: When all looks desperate and it seems he and Blackadder are fated to be lost in time, Baldrick declares he has a cunning plan: deliberately drown himself so his life will flash before his eyes and he can recall where the time machine’s setting need to be. Later, Blackadder says he has a very, very cunning plan: change history for his own selfish benefit.

History: The sketch-show format sees Blackadder and Baldrick briskly visit the time of the dinosaurs, the Elizabethan court (ie, the setting of Blackadder II), the far future, the Sherwood Forest of the 12th century, the Battle of Waterloo (1815) and Roman Britain (AD 43-410). The time machine is built to specifications written by Leonardo di Vinci (1452-1519). The Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) is in the Waterloo sequence – he’s played by Stephen Fry, who sadly goes for a blander characterisation than in series three. Napoléon Bonaparte (1769-1821) and Emperor Hadrian (AD 76-138) also crop up.

Review: Sigh. What a flat ending. This 45-minute special has a strange providence. It was commissioned to be shown in the then-new Millennium Dome from 6 December 1999 and throughout the year 2000, and only later shown on television (on Sky in 2001, on BBC1 on 21 April 2002). Perhaps this explains why it feels so designed-by-committee. Not so much a comedy, more an exercise in box-ticking. All the big regulars pop up, there’s puerile humour and fancy location filming. But being shot single-camera with no studio audience gives it a very strange tone. It’s superficially similar to a comedy, but gags about Baldrick’s smelly underpants are played to stony silence.

Five large orange hedges out of 10

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999, George Lucas)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

It’s around 30 years before the destruction of the Death Star… While rescuing a queen from a blockaded planet, two Jedi knights find a young, talented and possibly very important boy called Anakin Skywalker…

WHICH VERSION? I watched the 2001 DVD release of the movie, which added some extra footage to the 1999 theatrical version (in the pod-race sequence, chiefly).

GOOD GUYS:

* Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) is a Jedi knight who’s sent by his bosses to sort out a trade dispute centered on the planet Naboo. He’s confident, a bit cocky, can handle himself in a fight, and brings some much-needed swagger to the movie. When the nasty Trade Federation attack Naboo, Qui-Gon and apprentice Obi-Wan manage to rescue the planet’s queen. During a stop-off on Tatooine for supplies, Qui-Gon then finds a boy called Anakin who he thinks has great untapped Jedi potential. He presents the lad to the Jedi council – but when they refuse to train him, Qui-Gon says he’ll take Anakin on as his new apprentice (ta-ra, Obi-Wan!). He then returns to Naboo with the queen and, with the help of the locals, they defeat the Trade Federation. However, Qui-Gon is killed by an agent of the evil Sith. He uses his dying breath to beg Obi-Wan to look after Anakin… Jinn doesn’t fade away when he dies, like Ben does in Star Wars or Yoda in Return of the Jedi. Does he not have the right credentials?

* Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) is Qui-Gon’s ‘padawan’ (Jedi apprentice). He’s young, still in training, and has a silly haircut. McGregor is doing a distracting impression of Alec Guinness’s distinctive voice, and is sadly unsteady in the role. To be fair to him, the character is lightly written and doesn’t get much to do: he follows Qui-Gon around, meets Anakin, then is very upset when his master is killed. He becomes a Jedi Knight proper at the end, and takes Anakin on as his padawan.

* Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) is the elected leader of Naboo, despite being a teenager (she’s meant to be 14, according to internet sources). She dresses in elaborate Oriental-style outfits with some outrageous headwear. And for some reason, she speaks with a strange bass-deep voice. Once captured by the Trade Federation, she noticeably changes – especially her face. That’s because she’s actually swapped places with her handmaiden Sabé (Keira Knightly in an early film role), who then acts as a decoy. Amidala now uses the name Padmé and slots in place as one of the queen’s entourage. It does genuinely seem like this is meant to be a unspottable plot twist, despite Natalie Portman’s fame and recognisable face. All the characters seem duped – except maybe Qui-Gon, who drops hints that he’s seen through the ruse. As ‘Padmé’, the character pretends to be a lowly lackey, even cleaning R2-D2 when ordered to by the ‘queen’. She ends up on Tatooine and insists on going with Qui-Gon when he searches for supplies. She meets Anakin, a young boy, and they make a friendly connection. Once the gang get back to civilization (on the capital planet Coruscant), she and Sabé switch places again; Padmé is said to now be on errands. After a bit of politicking, she returns to Naboo to help with its liberation… and switches back to being ‘Padmé’ again. It seems she does this solely so there can be a ‘dramatic’ reveal, which surprises other characters but none of the audience members. Portman is absolutely rotten in this film. It’s a soulless, lethargic performance.

* Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) is a bumbling, clumsy, foolish, irritating, childlike Gungan. His people are an amphibious, humanoid race of beings who share Naboo with the human queen and her subjects. Soon after bumping into Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, Jar Jar takes them to the Gungans’ underwater city. After that, he kind of hangs around for the rest of the story – only in the final-act battle does he get stuff to do. Famously, justly, rightly, accurately, importantly, Jar Jar has been seen as one of this film’s mortal wounds: a moribund character who is as annoying as he is probably racist. The actor’s only doing what’s scripted, so we can’t blame him.

* Captain Panaka (Hugh Quarshie) is Amidala’s head of security. Quarshie, now of Holby City, uses an American accent.

* Sio Bibble (Oliver Ford Davies) is one of the politicians on Naboo. Davies doesn’t use an American accent.

* Boss Nass (Brian Blessed) is the leader of the Gungans. What accent Blessed is using is anyone’s guess. But he’s good fun.

* R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) is one of the service droids aboard Amidala’s ship. He excels during a crisis, so is promoted to the queen’s retinue. He later takes part in liberating Naboo.

* Ric Olié (Ralph Brown) is the pilot of Amidala’s ship. Brown also uses an American accent.

* Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) is the young boy who Qui-Gon finds on Tatooine. He’s about nine years old and is a slave who works for a trader. Despite his youth, he’s a very talented pilot – AS BEN TOLD US IN THE FIRST STAR WARS FILM! – and knows his technology. He offers to take part in a dangerous ‘pod race’ – Formula 1, Star Wars-style – in order to raise the cash Qui-Gon needs to fix Amidala’s ship. Even though a competitor sabotages Anakin’s pod, the lad still wins. As part of Qui-Gon’s bet with Anakin’s boss, Anakin is now freed from his slavery; having spotted his potential, Qui-Gon plans to train him as a Jedi. Anakin meets Obi-Wan, then helps to free Naboo – he ends up in a star fighter and actually destroys the Trade Federation mother ship. Sadly, Jake Lloyd is pretty terrible in the role. He was young, granted, but his acting is barely to a professional level. Why did they start with Anakin aged nine – couldn’t he have at least been a teenager?

* Shmi Skywalker (Pernilla August) is Anakin’s mum. She tells Qui-Gon that the boy was conceived immaculately. “I carried him, I gave birth, I raised him; I can’t explain…” she says sheepishly. Yeah, right. That, or a drunken night out in Mos Eisley – you decide. When Anakin is freed of his indentured service, Shmi isn’t. But rather than simply take her with them – why are Jedis caring about the rights of slave owners?! – Anakin has to leave her behind.

* C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) is a human-sized droid that Anakin has been building in his spare time. He’s not the finished article yet: he has no ‘skin’ and is shaky on his feet. As he’s the same type of droid as one we’ve seen earlier in the film, presumably Anakin is building the equivalent of a kit car. C-3PO meets his future partner-in-bickering, R2-D2, but gets left behind when Anakin leaves Tatooine.

* Wald (Warwick Davis) is a young friend of Anakin’s; he seems to be the same race as Greedo, the heavy from the first Star Wars movie. Davis also cameos as a pod-race spectator (without a mask this time).

* Supreme Chancellor Valorum (Terence Stamp) is the leader of the Galactic Republic’s senate. He seems to have executive political power *and* act as the legislature’s presiding officer. Why an actor with Stamp’s ability was needed for such a perfunctory role is hard to imagine.

* Master Yoda (Frank Oz) is the leader of the Jedi council. He’s slightly spryer than he was in the original trilogy, and we even see him walk in a CGI long shot. When Qui-Gon presents Anakin, Yoda is skeptical, saying the boy’s future is uncertain.

* Mace Windu (Samuel L Jackson) is Yoda’s right-hand man (well, he sits to Yoda’s left actually). He tells us that there’s a prophecy about a boy who will “bring balance to the Force,” but doubts that it’s Anakin. (Is the point here that the prophecy is actually about Luke?) I remember seeing Jackson on TFI Friday a couple of years before this film came out, saying he was desperate to be in the new Star Wars. “I’ll play Luke Skywalker’s slave!” he cried.

* Fighter Pilot Bravo 5 (Celia Imrie) is a pilot who takes part in the attack on the Trade Federation fleet. I’ll repeat that: Celia Imrie.

BAD GUYS:

* Nute Gunray (Silas Carson) is the leader of the nasty Trade Federation, who are blockading the planet of Naboo. (The Trade Federation’s representative in the senate, Lott Dod, is voiced by the great Toby Longworth.)

* Lord Sidious (Ian McDiarmid) is a shadowy figure pulling all the strings behind the Trade Federation scenes. He clearly has an agenda: he wants power and he wants rid of the Jedi. When Senator Palpatine – Naboo’s apparently benign politician – shows up, anyone who’s ever a) seen the original trilogy, b) paid attention to Sidious’s face and voice, or c) SEEN A FILM BEFORE, will realise that they’re the same person. Yet like with Amidala and Padmé, it’s played like a Usual Suspects-style plot twist. As Palpatine, the character skillfully engineers a coup in the galactic senate. The president is ousted and Palpatine, seemingly reluctantly, takes his place. As in Return of the Jedi, McDiarmid knows what he’s doing: he’s good fun.

* Darth Maul (voice: Peter Serafinowicz, body: Ray Park) is Sidious’s evil Sith apprentice. A man of few words – and when he has them, they’re voiced by Duane Benzie from Spaced – but much attitude. He’s sent by his boss to wipe out the Jedi; after tracking them, they finally come face-to-face-to-face on Naboo. Darth Maul is revealed in a deliberately arch ‘hero’ shot scored by macabre choral music. He then switches on his double-ended lightsaber. After an epic duel, he cuts Qui-Gon down, but then is killed himself by Obi-Wan.

* Watto (Andy Secombe) is a flying alien with a dodgy Italian-type accent who has Anakin and his mother as slaves. He runs a trading business on Tatooine. Qui-Gon’s Jedi mind tricks won’t work on him because he’s a Toydarian. However, Qui-Gon later manages to con him by blatantly fixing a dice roll…

* Sebulba (Lewis Macleod) is an alien thug on Tatooine who is Anakin’s main competitor in the pod race.

* Jabba the Hutt is spotted during the pod-race sequence. His hangers-on seem to include Bib Fortuna, who’ll still be with him come the time of Return of the Jedi.

BEST ACTION SEQUENCE: The pod race was thrilling in 1999 and holds up really well still. It’s dynamic, well edited and exciting. And it sounds great too: each pod makes its own distinctive noise. (Whether we need Greg Proops as a hammy American-TV-style sports commentator is a different matter.)

BEST COMEDY MOMENT: It’s not this film’s strength, humour. Liam Neeson’s generally louche demeanour is quite amusing.

MUSIC: Excellent, of course, especially when quoting themes from the original trilogy. John Williams has written some tremendous new stuff too – the Soviet-sounding Duel of the Fates cue, which scores the Jedis’ fight with Darth Maul, was everywhere for a while. Quite right too: it’s terrific.

PERSONAL CONNECTION: I first saw this film at a UCI cinema in Derby on Friday 16 July 1999. I went to a morning screening with my pal Will Haywood. Despite every negative point made in this review, I did really enjoy experiencing it for the first time. The build-up had been a long time coming. I remember Empire magazine printing the first publicity photos months before the release: they were images of the Naboo fighters in their hangers, and some of Anakin’s home on Tatooine, I think. Then the trailer was a revelation. I’d sat in my university computer room and waited for 23 minutes for it to download. When it played, it juddered and froze – but I was still agog.

REVIEW: Blimey, there’s CGI everywhere! Ships, planets, aliens, robots, even characters. It takes some getting used to after the physical ‘there’-ness of the original series. But on the whole, this both looks and sounds like Star Wars. The Art Deco-influenced stuff on Naboo is really smart, implying a grander, more artful age before the grimy, battered world we saw in the first movies, while Ben Burtt’s sound design is sensationally inventive. However, there are some serious issues with this film. A bland, muddled story that needs spelling out doesn’t help. Neither does the decision to turn the Force (described in such pleasingly vague terms in the original series) into a dull blood disease. But sadly the worst aspect is the cast. The dialogue is dreadful, even by George Lucas standards, but they just can’t find a way to power through it. There are a few actors who know what they’re doing – Liam Neeson, Ian McDiarmid, Samuel L Jackson – but too many flounder, presumably directionless. The whole thing is crying out for the energy, charm and wit of Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford.

Six midi-chlorians out of 10

Galaxy Quest (1999, Dean Parisot)

galaxy-quest

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The middle-aged stars of an old sci-fi TV show get mistaken for their heroic characters by a group of aliens who need help in an intergalactic war…

Regulars: Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen) is the cocky, overbearing, Shatner-like head of the cast, having played Galaxy Quest’s captain. When the Thermians first pick him up and take him to their space ship, he’s so hungover he doesn’t realise what’s going on. He assumes they’re fans who enjoy dressing up and building sets (he even flirts with Missi Pyle’s alien, Laliari). Gwen DeMarco (Sigourney Weaver) played the blonde eye candy on the show. Her character’s main traits were having cleavage and relaying the computer’s dialogue to the captain. She too is hit on by Jason (“It was cute when I didn’t know you,” she says, shrugging him off). Alexander Dane (Alan Rickman) is an English thespian – the surname is a Hamlet gag, I assume – who once did Richard III. As he likes reminding people, got five encores. He hates his alien character’s catchphrase with a passion – though by the film’s end he’d had a moment where it becomes touchingly appropriate. Fred Kwan (Tony Shalhoub) is dazed and confused most of the time and takes everything in his stride; he falls in love with Laliari. Guy Fleegman (Sam Rockwell) was in one episode of Galaxy Quest and has since become a super-fan who organises conventions. He gets dragged along on the mission, but worries that he’s the one who’ll end up being killed off. And Tommy Webber (Daryl Mitchell and Corbin Bleu) was a child actor in the TV show, so is played by a different actor in the clips we see of it.

Best bits:

* The spot-on incidental music (by David Newman).

* The clip from the TV show that opens the film – it’s in 4:3, there’s overacting galore, Jason has a mullet.

* The cast backstage at the convention – bitterness, resentment, Jason’s ego.

* During the signing session, Jason gets a big table all to himself, which is on a platform slightly higher than the rest of the cast.

* The Thermians turning up at Jason’s house. He’s in his pants, lying on the floor with a hangover.

* The limo levitating into the air.

* The other cast members getting involved so they don’t miss out on a gig.

* The actors seeing the space ship for the first time.

* The bumpy journey out of the space dock, the ship scraping along the dock’s edge.

* The actors get given food appropriate to their characters: so while Jason gets beef, Alexander is given a bowl full of live mini-octopuses.

* When the ship goes into emergency boost speed, Gwen repeats the computer’s dialogue then realises she’s behaving like her character.

* After the ship is damaged, Alexander wanders off. “Where are you going?” asks Gwen. “To see if there’s a pub!” he snaps.

* Fred’s group hug with his alien colleagues in the engineering department.

* The disastrous test ‘beaming’.

* Jason and Alexander staging a fight in order to escape their captors.

* “Maybe you’re the plucky comic relief…”

* Gwen and Jason turn a corner into a corridor full of dangerous pistons and fast-moving machinery, which they had to find a way through. “Well, screw that!” says Gwen. (Her voice says that, at any rate: her lips are clearly saying “Well, fuck that!”)

* The rock monster banging its way through the ship.

* Alexander’s droll grimace when all the Thermians *he’s* just saved praise Jason.

* The cutaways to a Galaxy Quest fan in his suburban home.

* Jason saving the day.

* The ship crash-landing into the convention hall.

* The credit sequence for Galaxy Quest: The Journey Continues.

TV tie-in: After watching a film spoof a TV show, I then watched a TV show spoofing a film. The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode Our Man Bashir is an entertaining James Bond pastiche, which sees the regular cast have great fun playing clichéd characters in a holodeck fantasy.

Review: Galaxy Quest is a charming and often very funny satire of Star Trek, its actors and its fans. Never cruel, even if near-the-knuckle at times, it actually gets more affectionate the longer it goes on, and by the end there’s real warmth and heart. The smart script is based on a cute gimmick, but then character choices constantly drive the plot, the comedy, everything. As many others have noted, as well as being a piss-take it also feels like a drama in its own right. That’s a fantastic achievement for a spoof. The cast is really good too, especially Weaver and Rickman. Made in an era when Star Trek movies were taking themselves very seriously and were a bit on the bland side, this is the best ‘Trek’ movie in a 15-year period.

Nine Omega 13s out of 10.

 

The World is Not Enough (Michael Apted, 1999)

The World is Not Enough

SPOILER WARNING: These reviews reveal plot twists.

The final James Bond film of the twentieth century. And it’s a good’un. There are blemishes, which I’ll discuss below, but overall this is stylish, engaging and very entertaining. The plot is well underway by the time the movie begins, and the story sees 007 as detective. He has to use his brain to crack the case, put the clues together and work things out himself. It’s a deliberately twisty-turny story with one of the series’s best ever shock reveals, and seeing it develop across two hours is a joy. It’s also great to see M emotionally involved in the proceedings, while the action is first class (especially the epic chase on the River Thames: a rare London-based Bond sequence). Nine Millennium Domes out of 10.

Bond: Brosnan appears to do a Sean Connery impression in the opening scene (“my hidden ashshets [sic]”). He also gets the archest “Bond, James Bond” yet, pausing mid-sentence as he and Dr Christmas Jones speed up a hydraulic lift.

Villains: The outstanding Patrick Malahide plays a smarmy Swiss banker in the first scene. In the series’s biggest plot twist yet, the main villain is Elektra King, who for the film’s first hour is presented as a victim. It’s a daring thing to do and, writing-wise, is a triumph. Sadly, French beauty Sophie Marceau isn’t good enough for such a complex part: there’s no X factor in what should be a *killer* role for an actress. Elektra’s in league with her former captor, ex-KGB agent Renard, played by Robert Carlyle. He gets a unique entrance into the story: Bond, M and others talk about him, explaining how he feels no pain, while we see a large 3D projection of his head. There are also a couple of non-descript henchmen.

Girls: Credited only as ‘Cigar Girl’, the first Bond girl in the film is a slit-skirted assassin played by Maria Grazia Cucinotta. (“Would you like to check my figure?” she says, handing him a bank statement.) Bond goes for a medical and has the doctor, Molly Warmflash (Serena Scott Thomas), stripping off in no time. Valentin Zukovsky has a couple of dialogue-less molls sitting on his desk. The main Bond girl is Denise Richards as hot-panted and tight-vest-wearing nuclear physicist Dr Christmas Jones. She’s hopelessly – *hopelessly* – miscast but isn’t actually as awful as reputation has it. It’s just that it’s a B-movie performance.

Regulars: Moneypenny is again never far from an innuendo – and has a catty comment for love rival Dr Warmflash. It’s like GoldenEye’s feminist reboot never happened. M gets a meaty role and is personally involved in the story: a chance for Judi Dench to shine. A portrait of previous M Bernard Lee is visible at MI6’s Highland retreat. This is Desmond Llewelyn’s final film playing Q – presumably this was known at the time, as not only does he get a beautifully poignant final moment (“Always have an escape plan…”) but he’s been given an assistant. That assistant, jokingly referred to by Bond as R, is played by John Cleese. He’s mostly a klutz, and the scene is played for laughs, but there’s also an entertainingly dismissive attitude towards 007. For some reason, he talks in American: ‘beverage-cup holders’ and ‘zippers’ get mentioned. Tanner and Robinson appear in the same film for the first time, sharing lines in a briefing scene. GoldenEye’s likeable gangster Zukovsky returns and this time he has a henchman: gold-teethed traitor Mr Bullion, played by gold-teethed musician Goldie.

Action: Bond leaps out of a high window, knowing his fall will be tempered by the fact he’s holding onto a cord tied round a comatose bad guy. There’s Bond’s mad dash through MI6 HQ before a massive explosion (part achieved by fantastic model work of the real SIS building), then the *sensational* speedboat chase down the Thames. In a tremendously exciting sequence, we get stunts and gags galore – a 360-degree spin, Bond’s boat going underwater to avoid a low bridge (Brosnan adjusts his tie while holding his breath), a cameo from some then-current docusoap stars (the traffic wardens who get drenched), the boat smashing through a fish market and a restaurant, and finally an arch shot of the boat flying through the air with the Millennium Dome in the background. (In a wide shot looking east, you can see my flat.) Only then do we cut to the title sequence – 13 minutes into the movie. Later on, there’s some skiing action, Bond and Elektra being attacked by para-gliders, the gunfight in the missile silo, Bond and Christmas’s daring slide down the pipeline, Zukovsky’s beluga factory being trashed by chainsaws dangling from helicopters, and the submarine climax (gunfights, flooded compartments, sets at strange angles).

Comedy: John Cleese’s scene has a fair amount of slapstick (and some dry wit too). Bond gets plenty of punning one-liners. Some of the Azerbaijani extras at the pipeline are hilariously awful, unenthusiastically waving their arms in the air and looking bored. Bond has a pair of X-ray specs (pictured) that allow him to see through people’s clothes (to check if their armed): Brosnan has some great reactions as hot women walk past him. At one point, Christmas says, “But the world’s greatest terrorist running around with six kilos of weapons-grade plutonium can’t be good. I have to get it back or somebody’s gonna have my ass.” After a beat, Bond says, “First things first.” 007’s super-gadget BWM gets sawn in half before he gets a chance to properly use it (a deliberate joke on the director’s part, seeing how much the car was shown off in Tomorrow Never Dies). The final line of the film is famously nauseating: “I thought Christmas only comes once a year,” purrs a post-coital Bond.

Music: David Arnold wrote the score again. It’s absolutely tremendous. Garbage’s title song is likewise excellent.

Personal connection: I first saw this at the UCI in Derby with Stuart Oultram. I still have the ticket stub, Pritt-sticked into my appointments diary. We saw the 17.45 showing on Thursday 23 December 1999. We sat in unassigned seats in screen five and paid £3.90 each (those were the days!).