Red Dwarf: The Promised Land (2020)

RDTPL

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Written and directed by Doug Naylor. Broadcast on Dave.

The Promised Land (9 April 2020): Having abandoned Red Dwarf due to a reinstalled Holly deciding to decommission the ship, the crew encounter a trio of refugees from the same species as the Cat… 

Regulars: Lister (Craig Charles), Rimmer (Chris Barrie), the Cat (Danny John-Jules) and Kryten (Robert Llewellyn) are still in place (it’s been 23 years now since any of them missed an episode), while Holly (Norman Lovett) makes another cameo appearance. The latter is rebooted as Red Dwarf’s main computer for the first time since series eight. The gang upload him from a giant five-foot-square floppy disc (good sight gag, this), but at first he’s at his factory settings so has no idea who they are.

Observations:
* The fact the main characters are no spring chickens is acknowledged, which is a rarity in Red Dwarf. Kryten looks battered and rusty, for example, while Rimmer would rather kick back and enjoy his middle age than respond to an SOS.
* The Cat’s fellow evolved felines were established in the very first episode of Red Dwarf – 12 series, 73 episodes and 32 years ago! We learnt back then that they considered Lister to be their god because he had saved their forebear, a moggy called Frankenstein, from death and that he was fated to return so he could lead them to ‘the promised land’.
* Rimmer gets a temporary upgrade to a hyper-hologram akin to a Marvel superhero. Before settling on his new look (pictured above), the process clicks through several of his previous costumes (the bland shirt from series one, the Captain Scarlet tunic from series three, the blue bomber jacket from series six, etc).
* Ray Fearon guest stars as Rodon, the brutal, arrogant leader of the Cat’s race, while the rebel cat clerics who venerate Lister as their god are played by Mandeep Dhillon, Tom Bennett and Lucy Pearman.
* Starbug is featured (and for the first time since the 1999 series we see more than just its cockpit).
* The Cat makes a joke about the third series episode Backwards.

Best gag: There are big laughs from the Cat race’s similarities to domestic pets, such as a door on their spaceship being a gigantic cat-flap and various cat characters getting distracted by laser pointers. (The worst gag, incidentally, must be Kryten’s speech about sex-change operations, which starts to date badly while he’s still talking.)

Review: Red Dwarf has been reliably enjoyable since its return after a long break in 2009, even if the episodes have rarely done much more than retell the same kind of spoof sci-fi stories. Now, given the canvas of a feature-length special, the show opens up the format. This one-off contains lots of good laughs but also sees moments of pathos for all four regulars and has something to say. In fact, it’s not just the running time that makes it feel like a movie. There’s a cinema-like scope and ambition too. The plot is structured across 100 minutes; there’s CGI that wouldn’t embarrass a mid-range film; Paul Farrer’s score is huge and orchestral; and many scenes are shot in a filmic style. The episode even begins with backstory-explaining on-screen captions that are suspiciously similar to those used in 1979’s Alien. (Having said all that, an actual movie would have ADR’d the guest cast’s dialogue to remove the awkward sound of actors not used to wearing fake teeth.)

Writer/director/co-creator Doug Naylor had wanted to make a Red Dwarf movie since at least the mid 1990s. Adding a female regular to the show in 1997 was an early step. It was intended to prepare the ground for a more cinema-friendly line-up. Over the next few years, various draft scripts were written and some were actually rehearsed by the cast in the hope of going into production. Investors and production deals were courted, including with Miramax in Hollywood and a shadowy figure who claimed to be the Duke of Manchester. For a while, it looked like Peter Jackson’s special-effects company, WETA, was going to work on the project. But, for whatever reason, a cinematic version of Red Dwarf was not to be. 

We’re probably better off with The Promised Land. Red Dwarf is at its best when poking fun at big-budget concepts rather than competing with them and, even while the production values have demonstrably risen over the run of the show, it’s always had an underdog quality. This is a show about losers, not heroes, and it’s debatable how well a £50million movie made for a mass audience would have worked. However, that’s not to say Red Dwarf can’t have more substance than usual. Because this is Doug Naylor returning to the throwaway jokes in series one about Lister being a god to a race of cat people descended from his pet moggy, the script of The Promised Land soon features plenty of religious satire. There are subtexts (and actual spelling-things-out dialogue) about how myths can build up from mundane events; and about how acolytes can misunderstand, misinterpret, and see flukes as fate. The Promised Land is no fluke, though. Neither was its scheduling: it was originally broadcast the day before Easter. The resurrection continues.

Eight holy papadums out of 10

Star Trek: Voyager – season seven (2000/2001)

Workforce

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 the final season…

Best episode:
Workforce I & II. Sadly, Star Trek: Voyager concludes with a fairly uninspiring season. The pick of the stories, perhaps, is this well-paced two-parter. It begins in the thick of the action with Captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew), security chief Tuvok (Tim Russ), crewmember Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan), helmsman Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill) and chief engineer B’Elanna Torres (Roxann Dawson) all working on an industrial planet – and none of them can remember their true identity. Being a double-length story allows Workforce the chance to breath a little and for the character stories to bed in (Janeway, for example, has a romance). It also helps that the planet’s aliens are essentially human: the society and class interactions are more plausible than many of Star Trek’s invented cultures.

Honorable mentions:
Repression. It gets muddy towards the end, but this is a mostly watchable episode  about paranoia. Tuvok must investigate after several of the crew – all former members of the Maquis resistance movement – are attacked.
* Inside Man. The latest episode in the long-running ‘Pathfinder’ story arc sees a hologram of recurring character Reg Barclay (Dwight Schultz) beamed across space and onto Voyager. However, as is the way in such stories, not all is as it seems….
* Body and Soul. Buried inside a humdrum plot about aliens who don’t like hologrammatic life forms is a run of reasonably funny scenes that feature the ship’s Emergency Medical Hologram (Robert Picardo) inhabiting the body of his colleague Seven of Nine, giving actress Jeri Ryan a chance to have some fun.
* Nightingale. Passable fluff about Ensign Harry Kim (Garrett Wang) taking command of an alien ship. (Told you season seven was slim pickings.)
* Shattered. Another time-anomaly story sees first officer Commander Chakotay (Robert Beltran) discover he has the ability to move between different time periods – and therefore different iterations of Star Trek: Voyager’s backstory. It’s silly but at least it’s not dull.
* Lineage. A sweet one, this, with no external sci-fi plotline getting in the way. Torres discovers she’s pregnant – she and Tom Paris had married a few episodes earlier – but what should be great news causes her distress. She soon considers a prenatal procedure to reduce her baby’s Klingon-ness, leaving Tom concerned. It’s a good character story with flashbacks to Torres’s childhood that lead to a cathartic explanation of her motives.
* The Void. An interesting premise motors this episode. Voyager is trapped in an endlessly featureless region of space and the crew are forced to form shaky alliances with similarly trapped vessels.
* Human Error. Seven of Nine begins to yearn for a more normal life, so plays out fantasies on the holodeck, including a relationship with an ersatz Chakotay. It’s mawkish but at least it’s about something.
* Homestead. Neelix (Ethan Phillips), the upbeat alien from the Delta Quadrant who joined the crew in the first episode, stumbles across some members of his own race living inside an asteroid. (The fact that Voyager has been speeding away from Neelix’s home world for *seven years* – and has also had several artificial jumps further home in that time – seems to be ignored. Seriously, the ship is now an unfathomably far distance away from where Neelix grew up.) It’s a fairly drab and earnest plot, designed to write Neelix out of the show before the finale. But the last few scenes, as he chooses to stay behind on the asteroid as Starfleet’s ‘ambassador’ to the region and then says goodbye to his friends, are nicely moving.
* Renaissance Man. The plot is drivel, but it’s worth mentioning here because the final few minutes are fun. The Doctor thinks he’s about to be deactivated permanently, so admits a few secrets, betrays a few friends’ confidences and confesses that he’s in love with Seven of Nine. We then learn he’s going to survive, of course.
* Endgame. The last ever episode of Star Trek: Voyager is an oddly flat way to round off a seven-year saga. We begin with what is essentially a flash-forward: it’s 20 years later, and Janeway managed to eventually get her crew home… but it took several more years with there were some fatalities along the way. So the older Kathryn resolves to travel back in time and alter history, allowing her past self and her colleagues to get back to Earth much sooner. The sequence where the ‘present’ crew do indeed make it home lacks any emotional punch and as the end credits roll you’re left with a sense of the underwhelming rather than the joyful triumph it should have been.

Worst episode:
* Prophecy. Voyager bumps into some Klingons (again, the writers seem to have put aside just how *enormous* space is) who claim that Torres’s unborn child is the second coming or something. Then, with tedious predictability, they bang on about honour, ritual and sacred texts. Ghastly.

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

Blinkofaneye

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)

LatentImage

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

Star Trek: Voyager – season three (1996/97)

StarTrekVoyagerSeason3

Over the last few months I’ve rewatched all of Star Trek: Voyager. Here’s what I thought were the notable episodes of season three…

Best episode:
* Before and After. In the midst of a fairly pedestrian season comes this really wonderful episode, which has one of those timey-wimey plots Star Trek can do so well. As the story starts, we’re several years into the future and Voyager nurse Kes (Jennifer Lien) is now an elderly woman. We then follow her as her consciousness jumps back in time every so often, so we see her at earlier and earlier ages but she only retains memories of her future experiences. But this is not just a sci-fi gimmick. Along the way, as Kes grows younger, she develops as a character and there are effective themes concerning memory, grief, senility, trust and loss. Superb stuff. (Aptly and bizarrely, the episode itself also seems to have knowledge of what’s to come: the structure is not a million light years away from the 2000 film Memento, while there are foreshadows of events we’ll see in Voyager’s next season.)

Honorable mentions:
* Flashback. Produced to honour Star Trek’s 30th anniversary, and featuring classic-series character Sulu (George Takei), this is muddled, dull and has a plot constructed from various bits of nonsense. It even has a ‘Who knows?’ final scene because the script can’t begin to justify what’s happened. It’s mentioned here solely so we confirm that the equivalent episode made at the same time by sister show Deep Space Nine – a playful and postmodern time-travelling romp called Trials and Tribble-ations – is *far* superior.
* Chute. A not-bad one that sees Ensign Harry Kim (Garrett Wang) and helmsman Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill) trapped in an alien prison. It benefits from starting with them locked up, so we jump straight into the story, but it’s a shame the show’s episodic format means they can’t be locked up for that long. Where’s the bravery to say, ‘Six months later…’?
* False Profits. As the punning title suggests, this episode sees a pair of Ferengi, money-obsessed aliens often seen in other Trek shows, crop up. They’re posing as gods on one of those Star Trek planets populated by naïve locals. It’s not the best episode but it does point the way forward: familiar Star Trek continuity from the Alpha Quadrant is starting to encroach on Voyager’s isolationism now.
* Future’s End Part I & Part II. Essentially Voyager’s take on the 1986 Star Trek film The Voyage Home, this sees our characters flung back into Earth’s past – ie, what was the present day to contemporary viewers (1996). There’s a convoluted setup, but no matter: this two-parter is not asking to be taken too seriously. The script has a sense of humour, the cast are enjoying playing their characters as fish out of water, and guest stars Ed Begley Jnr (the villain) and Sarah Silverman (a 1990s woman who helps the crew) are good value. Enjoyably daft.
* Warlord. A member of the Voyager family is possessed by a despotic leader who promptly uses their body to escape the ship. The fact the character used for this plot is the sweet and hippie-ish Kes gives this hokey episode a fun incongruous feel.
* Fair Trade. An effective one about Voyager’s alien chef, Neelix (Ethan Phillips), whose loyalties tested by an old friend involved in some dodgy business deals.
* Blood Fever. A tedious and very possibly sexist episode about chief engineer Lieutentant B’Elanna Torres (Roxann Dawson) being affected by a chemical imbalance and becoming sex-mad. But it’s worth flagging up here because of its brief, rushed ending: Captain Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) and Commander Chakotay (Robert Beltran) find the body of a Borg in some undergrowth. It was inevitable this would happen at some point in the series, given that the characters are stranded in the Borg’s area of space (and that the Borg – totalitarian, cyber-enhanced drones – had recently been given a boost of publicity thanks to being the bad guys in Star Trek movie First Contact).
* Unity. The Borg enter the story in an odd communism metaphor that sees a group of survivors unwilling to give up the order and security being part of a monolithic society had provided them. Chakotay has sympathy, largely because the group’s leader is blonde and pretty.
* Rise. A schlocky but enjoyable episode with one of those sci-fi gimmicks (an enormous elevator, basically) that works as both a setting for an action plot and as a metaphor for our characters’ predicament. Neelix and Lieutenant Commander Tuvok (Tim Russ) get lots of attention, the story feels like a disaster movie at times, and the guest alien race are refreshingly free of pomposity.
* Distant Origin. It gets lumpy in its second half, when the drama becomes very obvious, but this an entertaining one overall. For the opening few scenes, it breaks Star Trek’s usual rule by presenting the story from the point of view of guest characters: reptilian aliens who evolved on Earth in the distant past before heading out into space. (Doctor Who fans will clock this notion’s similarity to one of that show’s recurring races, the Silurians.) The story is a pastiche of the resistance faced by men like Galileo when attempting to advance our knowledge of the universe, and the script has plenty to say on the topic of science versus dogma.
* Worst Case Scenario. Torres stumbles across a virtual-reality game that’s essentially an episode of Star Trek: Voyager, and various characters take turns to play its lead character. So we see lots of version of the same narrative. As it goes, a humdrum idea. But because the roleplaying game is set during a theoretical mutiny aboard the ship, the show is able to rekindle the long-forgotten tension that existed for about 30 seconds in the pilot episode. (Half the crew are resistance fighters who were sworn enemies of the Federation! Remember?!) There are also some smart comments made about storytelling devices and even inside jokes about Star Trek: Voyager clichés.

Worst episode:
Sacred Ground. Kes in injured on an alien planet, so Janeway has to spend an entire episode humouring some smug religious types who refuse to help an innocent woman. Woeful.

Next time: Season four

Star Trek: Voyager – season one (1995)

star-trek-voyager-1

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 one…

Best episode:
Eye of the Needle. When this series was being developed in 1994, some big decisions were made by the production team in order to differentiate it from its Star Trek stablemates The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. A big choice was to catapult the regular characters across the galaxy, sending them 70,000 light years and 75 years of travel away from home. This cut them off from established Star Trek continuity, which was a terrific idea given how loaded down with recurring characters and races the other shows had become. Nevertheless, this early episode dips back into the familiar well by having the crew make contact with a Romulan via a wormhole. It seems to offer a quick way home or at least a way of sending messages to loved ones. But then comes a sucker-punch ending… The episode also has a charming B-plot about the ship’s Doctor – an artificial-intelligence hologram played by Robert Picardo – and his concerns over his role in the crew.

Honorable mentions:
Caretaker. A decent feature-length pilot episode. The regular characters get good introductions and all make an impression (except maybe Jennifer Lien’s Kes, an alien who the crew encounter and adopt). It also sets up many of the fascinating ideas that Star Trek: Voyager had inherent in its make-up. After being flung halfway across the galaxy, Captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) and her crew must form an uneasy alliance with a group of resistance fighters who are similarly lost. There’s also the general jolt of being removed to another part of the galaxy and knowing it’ll take 75 years to get home. Then there’s the character of Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill), a convict with a shady background who is brought along on the mission and has to step up the plate… This is *a lot* of potential drama and story. It’s such a shame that it was so quickly squandered. The conflict between the Starfleet crew and the Maquis rebels, for example, is resolved in this episode with risible speed (and mostly off-screen!). The episode’s ‘A plot’ (godlike entity draws people across the universe because it wants a mate) is also wishy-washy.
* Parallax. The plot is technobabblistic nonsense – something about the ship being trapped in a singularity. But by focussing on chief engineer B’Elanna Torres (Roxann Biggs-Dawson), a half-Klingon who’s one of the former rebels subsumed into the crew, we get a bit of drama as the Maquis characters struggle to adapt to Starfleet life.
* Time and Again. Anther script powered by an awful lot of gobbledegook dialogue, but the time-travel element of the story works well: Janeway and Paris are trapped on a planet in its recent past, just hours before a catastrophe is due to strike.
* Ex Post Facto. Paris is convicted of a murder on an alien planet in a fun, film-noir-ish mystery story.
* State of Flux. A paranoia plot, which sees Commander Chakotay (Robert Beltran) under pressure as fingers are pointed at one of his former Maquis colleagues. As a character, he’s been the blandest so far and oddly stuck in the background of many episodes. So this one gives us a bit of focus on Voyager’s new first officer. (The fact that he wears a Starfleet uniform, however, continues to be maddeningly frustrating. A show with a better sense of drama would have had him accept the post of second-in-command for pragmatic reasons, but *never* lose sight of his rebellious nature.)
* Heroes and Demons. Holodeck-goes-wrong stories were already old hat in Star Trek by this point, thanks to The Next Generation’s over-reliance on the cliché, but this episode gets away with it because the Doctor finally has a chance to get out of the sickbay and engage with some guest characters. He has to go into a Beowulf RPG to search for missing crew members and the actor has a ball with the idea.
* Faces. Thanks to the meddling of some organ-harvesting aliens, B’Elanna Torres is – rather implausibly, but let’s go with it – split into two separate people: a human and a Klingon. As a metaphor for her troubled personality it’s obvious but works rather well, and the actress does a good job with the two roles.
* Jetrel. A rare bit of depth for Neelix (Ethan Phillips), an eccentric and optimistic alien who hooked up with the crew in episode one and now acts as their tour guide to the Delta Quadrant. After encountering a doctor from a race who murdered Neelix’s community, he experiences anger, doubt and maybe even forgiveness.
* Learning Curve. Perhaps Star Trek’s most low-key ‘season finale’ (because it wasn’t intended to be one when made), this story reheats the frozen Federation/Maquis conflict. Vulcan security chief Tuvok (Tim Russ) is charged with teaching some new and sarcastic crew members about Starfleet protocol. It’s cheesy but effective.

Worst episode:
* The Cloud. A boring, character-less sci-fi plot, a pointless holodeck diversion and a scene where Chakotay teaches Janeway how to talk to her imaginary friend. Eugh.

Next time: Season two

Dark Prince: The True Story of Dracula (2000, Joe Chappelle)

DarkPrince

An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: The ‘present’ scenes are set in 1476 in Turk-occupied Romania. (The name Romania is used on screen but is an anachronism.) We then see lengthy flashbacks, beginning with Vlad Tepes’s birth in 1431. The story also drifts across the border into Hungary.

Faithful to the novel? This made-for-television movie was first broadcast in America on Halloween night 2000. It’s yet another Drac-drama that posits that Stoker’s fictional Count is really the historical dictator Vlad Tepes (1431-1477), aka Vlad Dracula, aka Vlad the Impaler. The fact that this connection was never Bram Stoker’s intention – the author simply borrowed the real-life figure’s name and it’s doubtful he knew much more about him – has not stopped dozens of films and TV shows running with the idea. As the story begins, the powerful 15th-century warlord Vlad Tepes has been combating Ottoman Turks who have invaded his country. But after he allies himself with a Catholic king of Hungary (played, rather oddly, by Roger Daltrey of The Who), he’s questioned by a panel of Orthodox churchmen. The bulk of the film is then told in flashback as Vlad explains his actions over the years.

Best performance: Vlad is played by German actor Rudolph Martin, who coincidentally played a fully formed Dracula in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer shown just a month before The Dark Prince. When the character is born, a nearby religious statue begins to cry blood – so rumours spread that he’s the antichrist. The adult Vlad denies this, but in flashback he suffers hardships as he grows older: his father is killed by his enemies; his brother is kidnapped and brainwashed. As he leads a fightback against the invading Turks, Vlad uses all this angst to justify turning into a barbaric ruler. As Prince of Romania, he kills his own countrymen, drinks their blood and impales them on spikes. Charming. Some fear him (including his wife, who goes insane when she realises what he’s capable of); some rally behind him. He’s eventually murdered by his brother, but – perhaps because he’s been excommunicated by the church – he then rises from the grave as a godless soul, condemned to walk the earth forever… (The unsaid implication: he’s now Dracula the vampire.)

Best bit: Attempts are made here and there to imbue this film with some new ideas. For example, it uses its framing-device-and-flashback structure to suggest that some of the ideas surrounding Vlad are simply myths. He’s badly hurt in battle and seems to die, so his aide begins to construct a coffin; but then Vlad recovers, leading some watching soldiers to assume he’s been resurrected.

Review: Despite some decent production values, this is humourless drivel played out by a cast stuck in second gear. The lack of a central sympathetic character means it drifts along and fails to grab your attention.

Four loafs of bread out of 10

Star Trek: The Original Series – season three (1968-69)

SpectreoftheGun

Over the last few months I’ve rewatched all of Star Trek: The Original Series. Here’s what I thought were the notable episodes of season three…

Best episode:
* Spectre of the Gun. With viewing figures unimpressive, NBC actually axed Star Trek after its second season. Then, at least in part due to an organised letter-writing campaign by fans, it was given another year – but on a smaller budget and in a less favourable time slot. Creator Gene Roddenberry also stepped away from the production. So season three has long had a crummy reputation, not least because of its lack of ambition. (In 24 episodes, they filmed on location just once.) The lack of money is evident in several episodes, but the one that sidesteps the problem the best is Spectre of the Gun, a brilliant take on the classic Hollywood Western. Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Mr Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Dr McCoy (DeForest Kelley) and Chekov (Walter Koenig) find themselves in an alien reconstruction of the Arizona town of Tombstone in October 1881. The Enterprise crew realise they’re the Clantons. The Earps are nearby and the scene is set for the Gunfight at the OK Corral… As they had to shoot this episode on a soundstage, and save cash, the production team decided to go surreal. The sets contain deliberately missing walls; the barriers between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ are blurred; the sky is a vivid, bold red. It’s a brilliant effect, both heightening and supporting the script.

Honourable mentions:
* The Enterprise Incident. A tremendous espionage plot as Kirk and Spock are captured by a female Romulan officer (a watchable turn from guest star Joanna Linville), who then starts to fall for Mr Spock. There are plenty of twists and a spy-story structure.
* The Paradise Syndrome. An intensely odd episode, this. Kirk suffers from amnesia as he’s left behind on a planet populated by Native American types. He falls in love, marries, and grows sideburns in the months it takes for his colleagues to return and pick him up. (Downside: the near-constant incidental music gets irritating, and you also need to excuse a fair amount of naive 1960s racism.)
* Is There in Truth No Beauty? Ultimately a rather silly episode with some naff attitudes, but it contains a good guest appearance from Diane Muldaur (later a regular in Star Trek: The Next Generation) and a nicely disguised plot twist.
* Day of the Dove. A claustrophobic episode that sees the crew trapped on the Enterprise with a group of Klingons and an alien force that exaggerates negative and aggressive tendencies. The end is rather risible, though, as humans and Klingons alike down weapons, call a truce and burst into fake hearty laughter to outfox the alien entity.
* For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky. Merits a place on this list just for its amazing, poetic title! It’s an engaging enough story about Dr McCoy falling terminally ill (spoiler: he gets better) and having a romance.
* Wink of an Eye. It’s an intriguing concept for a sci-fi episode (aliens move at a vastly higher speed, so are imperceptible to humans), but the season’s budget restrictions mean it’s another episode that’s dragged out by scenes on familiar sets.
* Whom Gods Destroy. By this point, we’re past the point of boredom with the powerful-yet-loopy-villain cliché, but this episode at least has a fun guest star (Batgirl Yvonne Craig), lots of doppelganger scenes (cue William Shatner acting opposite his body double) and a general air of oddness.
* Let That Be Your Last Battlefield. Some rather hamfisted satire of race relations is made enjoyable by interesting guest characters (including one played by Frank Gorshin) and a tense sequence as Kirk threatens to destroy the Enterprise unless its control is returned to him.
* The Mark of Gideon. The meat of the story is a bit rancid – something about an arrogant race on an overpopulated planet – but Kirk being conned into thinking he’s on an abandoned Enterprise works well. (Spoiler: it’s actually a Truman Show-style recreation.) There are some surreal images and a strong subplot for Spock, who gets to act as both diplomat and detective.
* The Savage Curtain. A fun one, as Kirk meets his hero Abraham Lincoln (sort of). It gets a big eggy as the show a) rolls out another ‘war is bad’ metaphor, and b) yet again refuses to leave the soundstage for exterior scenes. But it’s enjoyable tosh.
* All Our Yesterdays. An enjoyable, if convoluted, concept episode. Visiting a strange library on an empty planet, Kirk is accidentally sent back in history – to a time similar to the earth’s 17th century. Spock and McCoy, meanwhile, are sent back even further and end up trapped in a harsh Ice Age wilderness. Being 5,000 years in the past begins to affect Spock’s psychology (somehow) and he becomes emotional…
* Turnabout Intruder. Star Trek’s final episode is one of its more ludicrous. A woman swaps bodies with Kirk, Freaky Friday-style. While playing the nefarious Dr Janice Lester masquerading as Kirk, Shatner overeggs it something rotten, but the gimmick plot works and it keeps the interest (which is more than can be said for many season-three episodes!).

Worst episode:
* The Way to Eden. Hippies. Hippies singing songs. Eugh.

Star Trek: The Original Series – season two (1967-68)

the-trouble-with-tribbles

Over the last few months I’ve rewatched all of Star Trek: The Original Series. Here’s what I thought were the notable episodes of season two…

Best episode:
The Trouble with Tribbles. A terrific comedy episode, full of wit and class. Behind the scenes, there were worries the show was going too far into self-parody with this story, but there was no need for concern. The big hitters among Star Trek’s cast – William Shatner (Captain Kirk), Leonard Nimoy (Mr Spock) and DeForest Kelley (Dr McCoy) – were all capable comic actors, able to play funny scenes without undercutting the premise. (Thirty years later, spin-off show Deep Space Nine produced a tribute episode in which that show’s characters travel back in time and interact with the events of The Trouble with Tribbles. It’s an absolute marvel.)

Honorable mentions:
* The Changeling. It seems old-fashioned now, as many Stark Trek ideas do (because they’ve been copied so often), but this is a generally engaging episode about a computer that’s out to destroy all non-perfect life. Our heroes must, essentially, out-logic it to death. The less said the better, however, about the subplot where Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) has her memory wiped so must learn to read again!
* Mirror, Mirror. A fantastic, foot-to-the-throat thriller based on an imaginative idea: the Enterprises crosses into a parallel dimension where they meet their fascistic, sadistic and cynical counterparts (which obviously gives the regular cast a chance to have some fun). The concept has since been rehashed several times in other Star Trek series, but here it still feels fresh and very dangerous.
* The Doomsday Machine. A passable episode with a Moby Dick metaphor. (Rather than a whale, it’s a giant planet-killing entity from another dimension.)
* Catspaw. Another story about an all-powerful figure toying with lesser beings, which Star Trek was very keen on, but this episode has gothic trappings and fun guest characters. It perhaps loses its impact as it becomes more campy and hokey, especially when Kirk and Spock are menaced by a giant cat (ie, a normal cat filmed in such a way that we only see its enormous shadow).
* I, Mudd. Roger C Carmel returns as guest character Harry, who is now king of his own planet populated by androids, and is again an enjoyable presence. The episode contains the now-hoary idea that robots can be turned loopy if you confuse them.
Journey to Babel. There’s some good, meaty drama for Spock as we encounter his parents for the first time. His Vulcan father, Sarek (Mark Lenard), needs a blood transfusion but, with Kirk incapacitated, Spock feels his duty is to command the Enterprise rather than give blood. He should logically stay at his post.
The Deadly Years. A decent one. The key members of the crew are affected by a virus and begin to age artificially, which leads to Kirk having to be relieved of command when his memory starts to fail him. (This is one of several episodes that highlight the stupidity of sending a starship’s captain, first officer and chief medical officer on missions together!)
* Obsession. A simplistic plot, on which an engaging character drama about Kirk’s guilt for a long-ago catastrophe is hung.
* Wolf in the Fold. The famed Scotty-as-Jack-the-Ripper episode. It’s perhaps not as good as its reputation suggests (there are too many scenes of computers explaining the plot) but it whips up to a maniacal climax.
* A Piece of the Action. Near enough a comedy, but played and directed with a light touch. Not for the first time in Star Trek’s run, it’s a let’s-use-the-backlot episode: standing sets are used for an alien planet that has modelled its whole society on Al Capone-era gangsters. William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy revel in the gangster idiom and are great at playing their respective characters’ differing reactions to the situation.
* Patterns of Force. Another episode where the Enterprise stumbles across an alien world that’s oddly similar to an era of Earth history (which allows the production to save some money by shooting of pre-existing sets). This time, Kirk and co go looking for a long-missing Starfleet officer and find him as the leader of an ersatz Nazi Party. It’s a gripping episode with something to say and some surprise turns.
* The Ultimate Computer. Kirk feels threatened when an ‘AI captain’ is roadtested on the Enterprise. Not the best, but it contains a wistful scene where Kirk romantically ponders the golden era of sail (quoting John Masefield’s poem Sea-Fever: ‘And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by’). Co-stars Blacula himself, William Marshall.
* Bread and Circuses. *Yet again*, the Enterprise discovers an alien culture modelled on a period of Earth history. This time: Ancient Rome, though an Ancient Rome where people have technology and guns. It’s clunky at times but generally enjoyable and contains – gleefully – a satire of the television industry when we see behind the scenes at the gladiator contests. Also, Spock and McCoy share a lovely heart-to-heart scene.
* Assignment: Earth. Not the most nuanced or fluid piece of television you’ll ever see, but interesting for its minor place in Star Trek history. A back-door pilot for a spin-off show that never happened, this episode spends a lot of time seeding the potential new characters, such as the enigmatic Gary Seven, his secretary, his intelligent cat and his idiosyncratic computer.

Worst episode:
The Apple. A boring, naff episode about the crew wandering around a soundstage jungle set and encountering hippies who don’t know what love or sex are.

Star Trek: The Original Series – season one (1966-67)

james_kirk_embraces_janice_rand

Over the last few months I’ve rewatched all of the original Star Trek TV series. Here’s what I thought were the notable episodes of season one…

Best episode:
Balance of Terror. The debut of the militaristic Romulans in Star Trek is a terrific episode that plays like a submarine movie. The Starship Enterprise stalks a Romulan ship in the Neutral Zone between the two empires’ territories and the story is tense and exciting. There are also subplots and an interesting villain and telling character moments. Superb.

Honorable mentions:
The Naked Time. A fun, early episode that sees the regular crew go a bit loopy after being affected by a virus. It’s well paced and has good stuff for both Sulu (George Takei), who gets some gleeful scenes where he fences topless, and Spock (Leonard Nimoy), who struggles with his human/Vulcanian psychology.
* The Enemy Within. The central concept has become a sci-fi cliché – due to a transporter accident, an evil doppelgänger of Captain Kirk is let loose on the Enterprise – but it’s very well done here. William Shatner hams it up as the evil Kirk and there’s a ticking-clock element to the plot thanks to some crewmen stranded on a desolate planet below.
* Mudd’s Women. It’s not exactly ‘woke’, being a story about a charlatan selling women to miners, but Roger C Carmel is very entertaining as the lead guest character: the flamboyant and verbose Harcourt Fenton Mudd.
* Miri. The first really great episode. (Balance of Terror wasn’t broadcast until after this one.) A set of enigmas is set up – a planet that looks identical to Earth, a society that seems to be stuck in the 1930s, no adults anywhere to be seen – then a plot with a countdown is kicked into gear. There’s good drama along the way and it’s well directed too. The subtext of the story is that, after puberty, people do ‘bad things’.
* The Menagerie (Parts I & II). An ingenious way to save some production budget by reusing footage from Star Trek’s then-unbroadcast pilot episode, The Cage, as a flashback story. The wraparound scenes have mystery and intrigue because Spock is acting so out of character.
* The Conscience of the King. An effective – if thoroughly prediactable – drama about an actor who may be a mass murderer in hiding. There are plenty of Shakespearean parallels and quotations, such as the title.
* Shore Leave. The regular characters spend some time on a planet but start to hallucinate and undergo personality changes. Fun and surreal, if lightweight.
* The Galileo Seven. A superb showcase for both Mr Spock – the show’s most fascinating character – and the actor who played him. The story sees Spock, Dr McCoy (DeForest Kelly), Scotty (James Doohan) and others stranded on a planet with no way of contacting the Enterprise. There’s a monster nearby, deaths within the group, and dissention in the ranks…
* Tomorrow is Yesterday. A fun time-travel story (Star Trek’s first ever) sees the Enterprise end up above 1960s America and encountering an Air Force test pilot. The script has a good sense of humour.
* Space Seed. An entertaining episode about a megomaniac from the 1990s coming out of suspended animation. (The second Star Trek movie, The Wrath of Khan, is a direct sequel.)
* A Taste of Armageddon. A society is killing its own people as part of a deal with its enemy, rather than the two states launching actual attacks. A decent story about the futility of war.
* This Side of Paradise. A good episode for Spock, who’s pacified by a weird spore and then has a romance. (It’s kind of a druggie/hippie metaphor, I guess.) The only way Kirk can shake him out of his ennui is by provoking an emotional response.
* Errand of Mercy. Kirk and Spock are stranded on a planet under Klingon occupation. Engaging stuff. (This is the Klingons’ first appearance in Star Trek.)
* The City on the Edge of Forever. It’s contrived, and needs a lot of sci-fi set-up, but this is a brilliant time-travel tragedy with a good guest performance from Joan Collins. When a disturbed Dr McCoy is flung back into 20th-century America, Kirk and Spock must give chase. There’s lots of future-men-out-of-water stuff as the two men adapt to a more basic lifestyle, then the tragic ending really packs a punch.

Worst episode:
The Squire of Gothos. It’s become such a cliché in science fiction: a capricious, arrogant, sociopathic god-like figure toys with people because he’s bored. And as well as being boring and irritating, this example gets its history wrong and has a dreadful deus ex machina ending.