It’s a Classic: ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ – “The Best of Both Worlds”

Looking at some of the best pop culture offerings in film, TV and comics…

“Resistance is futile”

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Captain Picard’s (Patrick Stewart) capture and assimilation by the Borg leads to a chilling cliffhanger in “The Best of Both Worlds” (image credit: CBS).

Year:  1990

Starring:  Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, Brent Spiner, Wil Wheaton, Elizabeth Dennehy, Whoopi Goldberg

Director:  Cliff Bole / written by:  Michael Piller / series created by:  Gene Roddenberry

What’s it about?

Investigating the annihilation of a Federation colony, Captain Picard and the crew of the Enterprise are soon faced with the unstoppable threat of the cybernetic race known as the Borg…

In review:  why it’s a classic

Considered as not just one of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s finest stories but top-tier Trek in general, “The Best of Both Worlds” is a gripping, well-written and superbly executed event in the popular Star Trek television sequel.  TNG’s first two-part episode and its first season cliffhanger, “The Best of Both Worlds” closes out the show’s third season and opens its fourth and features the return of cybernetic nasties the Borg – introduced in season two’s “Q Who?”.

Written by Michael Piller – whose tenure as head writer helped to improve the creativity of The Next Generation – and directed by Cliff Bole, “The Best of Both Worlds” sees the Enterprise tasked with investigating the destruction of a Federation colony, all evidence pointing to the Borg as those responsible.  Soon confronted with a Borg ship, events take a turn for the worst when Captain Picard is captured by the Borg and transformed into one of them – leaving first officer Commander Riker in command.  The Enterprise’s engines damaged, preventing it from pursuing the Borg vessel as it heads for Earth, Riker and the rest of the crew must find a way to stop the Borg at all costs – even at the loss of their former captain.

At this point the Borg are a relentless and unstoppable force – a superior foe whose only desire is to consume the technology of other worlds and ‘assimilate’ (i.e. transform) their population into cybernetically enhanced drones who operate as a collective consciousness.  The very notion of one’s individuality being stripped away is what makes the Borg such a chilling enemy and Piller ensures that those elements are accentuated.  The decision to have Picard captured and assimilated by the Borg (the difference being that he is given the designation ‘Locutus’ and his own voice as a representative of the Borg, allowing Patrick Stewart to interact with his cast mates), thus deprived of his free will and responsibility for his own actions, is a genius stroke that establishes high stakes and at the time with no guarantee of his rescue (rumoured contract negotiations with Stewart placing his future in doubt) kept things surprising and unpredictable – not in the least since all of Picard’s knowledge and experience are used by the Borg to deadly advantage as they plough through and decimate Starfleet’s defences.

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Guest star Elizabeth Dennehy with Jonathan Frakes in “The Best of Both Worlds” (image credit: CBS).

The cast are all – unsurprisingly – brilliant with each of the principals having their place in the story as Piller continues his efforts to have a more character driven focus for the series.  Patrick Stewart is the obvious standout (his ‘Borgified’ persona affording him fresh acting challenges) and Whoopi Goldberg’s Guinan continues to be a soulful presence but this is also a great outing for Jonathan Frakes who rightly gets his time in the spotlight as Riker, grappling with uncertainty about the progression of his career, takes command of the Enterprise during the crew’s darkest hour.  Guest star Elizabeth Dennehy (daughter of Brian) adds a lot to the mix as Starfleet’s Borg expert, Lt. Commander Shelby – a young, resourceful and driven officer whose assignment to the Enterprise initially provides conflict as her over-eagerness and professional competitiveness causes headaches for Riker, but ultimately proves an important ally and gradually earns the respect of the Enterprise’s new captain.

Whilst not necessarily as energetic and flashy as a lot of modern television (which isn’t actually always a good thing), there is still a lot of action and excitement in “The Best of Both Worlds” – most significantly the Enterprise’s first confrontation with the Borg vessel in part one, the subsequent chase (the Starfleet ship seeking refuge inside a nebula building a sense of foreboding) and Picard’s abduction a highlight.  Part two also has its share with Riker’s plan to rescue Picard and Worf (Michael Dorn) and Data’s (Brent Spiner) infiltration of the Borg ship the highpoint.  The final resolution of the Borg crises is simple but effective and the tension remains tight as the story reaches its climax.

Mention should also be made of Ron Jones’ score for “The Best of Both Worlds”, atmospheric, thrilling and emotional it’s some of the composer’s best work on Star Trek: The Next Generation and an essential component in any classic piece of SF TV.  Ranked by TV Guide as one of its all-time top 100 television episodes and nominated for five Emmy Awards, “The Best of Both Worlds” is a high mark in the Star Trek franchise and ensured its continued popularity throughout the 1990s.

Standout moment

With Captain Picard captured and assimilated into the Borg Collective and the fate of all life in the Federation at stake, Commander Riker has no choice but to order firing the Enterprise’s modified deflector in the hope of destroying the Borg vessel…

Geek fact!

George Murdock, who plays Admiral Hanson also appeared in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier as the malevolent ‘God’ entity.

If you like this then check out…

Star Trek: Voyager – “Endgame” : the crew of the U.S.S. Voyager are faced with the Borg in the feature-length finale to the fourth live-action Star Trek television series (read the retrospective here).

Flashback: ‘The Twilight Zone’ – “The Night of the Meek”

Christmas of 1960 saw Rod Serling’s ‘The Twilight Zone’ enter festive territory…

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John Fiedler and Art Carney in ‘The Twilight Zone’ (image credit: CBS).

Year:  1960

Starring:  Art Carney, John Fiedler, Robert P. Lieb, Val Avery, Meg Wyllie (introduction/narration by Rod Serling)

Series created by:  Rod Serling

Written by:  Rod Serling / directed by:  Jack Smight

What’s it about?

On Christmas Eve a drunken and depressed store Santa Claus is fired only to discover a mysterious and magical sack full of presents…

Retrospective/review

Originally airing on 23rd December 1960 during The Twilight Zone’s second season, “The Night of the Meek” is a special seasonal tale written by series creator Rod Serling.  It features The Honeymooner’s Art Carney (who would go on to appear in the infamous 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special) as Henry Corwin, a drunken but kind spirited department store Santa Claus who after being fired on Christmas Eve discovers a magic bag that dispenses a wealth of gifts.

In true Serling (who was actually born on Christmas Day of 1924) fashion the set-up for “The Night of the Meek” is sombre and relatively bleak but through the course of 25 minutes takes the viewer on a mysterious and enlightening journey that with a lot of heart and a good dose of Christmas spirit delivers a positive and jovial outcome.  Art Carney is perfectly cast and Serling’s rich and wonderfully dialogued script provides a lot of introspection and commentary on the human condition.  Henry Corwin is at the bottom of a barrel, a derelict who for most of the year is unemployed but finds some sense of worth each Christmas as he takes on the job of Santa.  This time however he is in deep despair at the plight of those less fortunate as he preaches the true meaning of Christmas, something he feels has been neglected in favour of commercialism.  Carney’s performance is suitably humble and melancholic with an underlying touch of benevolence and together with Serling’s writing creates a layered and interesting character who we sympathise with and ultimately root for.  Corwin’s discovery of the mysterious present-giving bag gives him a renewed purpose and a sense of hope as he hands out gifts to children and the homeless.  His charitable nature is justly rewarded in Serling’s inspiring and aptly festive twist ending.

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Rod Serling introduces viewers to a seasonal offering of ‘The Twilight Zone’ (image credit: CBS).

Of the rest of the cast, John Fiedler (famous for his roles in films such as 12 Angry Men and The Odd Couple, but perhaps best known to genre fans for appearing in the classic 1967 Star Trek episode “Wolf in the Fold”) is a particular standout, making for an appropriately irascible store manager who also helps to provide a touch of comedy in the episode’s latter act as the story moves into merrier territory.  The episode was shot entirely on impressive interior sets (including the fake snow-littered street scenes) and it’s all neatly staged by Emmy Award Winning director Jack Smight (who previously directed The Twilight Zone episodes “The Lonely” and “The Lateness of the Hour”).  The accompanying music score (the composer is unfortunately uncredited) is beautifully fitting as it utilises the tune of favourite Yuletide carol The First Noel.

“The Night of the Meek” would eventually be remade for the 1980s revival of The Twilight Zone (the cast of which includes Die Hard’s William Atherton) but as ever, nothing compares to Rod Serling’s original fable which should be part of anyone’s festive viewing.

Geek fact!

“The Night of the Meek” was one of six episodes from the second season of The Twilight Zone to be shot on video tape instead of film as part of a cost saving exercise.

Flashback: ‘Star Trek: Voyager’ – “Endgame”

Looking back at the finale of the fourth live action ‘Star Trek’ series…

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The U.S.S. Voyager and her crew battle the Borg once more in the finale of ‘Star Trek: Voyager’ (credit: CBS).

Year:  2001

Starring:  Kate Mulgrew, Robert Beltran, Tim Russ, Robert Picardo, Robert Duncan McNeill, Roxann Dawson, Jeri Ryan, Alice Krige, Dwight Schultz, Richard Herd

Series created by:  Rick Berman, Michael Piller & Jeri Taylor (based upon Star Trek, created by Gene Roddenberry)

Written by:  Kenneth Biller & Robert Doherty (story by Rick Berman, Kenneth Biller & Brannon Braga) / directed by:  Allan Kroeker

What’s it about?

A decade after the starship Voyager’s return to Earth from the Delta Quadrant, an older and haunted Admiral Janeway discovers the means to travel into the past and bring her former ship and crew home before any losses are endured…

Retrospective/review

Launching in 1995, Star Trek: Voyager seemed to have hit its creative peak in its fourth and fifth seasons and although there are still some decent episodes in the show’s final two seasons they’re outnumbered by less memorable and more average stories in comparison to those earlier years.  “Endgame”, the feature length series finale, whilst not as impactful as the conclusion of Star Trek:  Deep Space Nine, is still an entertaining and fitting finish to the fourth live action Star Trek series.  It opens as Earth celebrates the tenth anniversary of the U.S.S. Voyager’s return after being stranded in the Milky Way’s distant ‘Delta Quadrant’ (the ship transported there by a powerful alien being in the series premiere, “Caretaker”) for 23 years and a sombre and reflective Admiral Kathryn Janeway, haunted by the loss of crewmembers during the journey home as well as the subsequent death of her trusted right hand, Chakotay, as well as Seven of Nine, together with the failing mental health of Tuvok – as a result of a Vulcan neurological disease – discovers the means to travel back in time and bring the starship safely home.

The first half of “Endgame” neatly jumps between the future and the present before Admiral Janeway arrives to aid her younger self – Captain Janeway – and the Voyager crew in battling Star Trek’s iconic cybernetic adversary, the Borg and utilising their wormhole network to travel back to Earth years earlier and without those losses the elder Janeway would later have to endure.  Once the groundwork is done, “Endgame” builds up the drama and action but not without losing focus on its characters.

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The superb Kate Mulgrew as both Admiral and Captain Janeway (credit: CBS).

The cast performances are solid and each of Voyager’s principal troupe are permitted to stretch themselves a little with most given the opportunity to play the older versions of their characters (minus Robert Beltran’s Chakotay and Jeri Ryan’s Seven of Nine whose romance, although set-up in previous episodes still feels like an odd match), the most notable being Tuvok whose degrading mental state allows the talented Tim Russ to expand his portrayal of his otherwise stoic (by the very nature of a Vulcan, a race committed to controlling and repressing their emotions) and disciplined character.  Kate Mulgrew is, as ever, a superb lead and excels with the rich material she is given, bringing a slightly tortured and embittered quality to her portrayal of Admiral Janeway.  Unfortunately, given his character’s exit two episodes earlier in “Homestead” Ethan Phillips is only able to feature in a brief cameo as Neelix, but at least he could be a part of Voyager’s send-off in some capacity.  Dwight Schultz makes a welcome return as Barclay, his previous appearances in the series (and the character’s role in Earth finally establishing communication with Voyager in season six) making him a part of the Voyager family and a pleasing addition to the finale.

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Alice Krige returns as the Borg Queen (credit: CBS).

The Borg where a chilling and formidable enemy in the days of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but the effect had become somewhat diminished with their more regular appearances on Voyager.  This feels rectified in “Endgame” thanks in no small part to the return of Alice Krige as the Borg Queen, a role the actress had originated in the feature film Star Trek: First Contact and was previously played by Susanna Thompson in previous Voyager episodes “Dark Frontier” and “Unimatrix Zero”.  Thompson was great in those stories but Krige brings a real sense of gravitas and a sultry menace to the character that elevates the threat of the Borg.  It also helps that Kate Mulgrew brings her talent fully to bear in her scenes with Krige when the more seasoned Admiral Janeway is confronted face-to-face with the Borg Queen.  Those tightly written and directed sequences contribute significantly to the climax of “Endgame”, the tension notching up as Janeway (both Admiral and Captain) and the crew of Voyager execute their plan to return to Earth and deal a crippling blow to the Borg Collective.

The closing scenes of “Endgame” are quite touching, the arrival of Tom Paris and B’Elanna Torres’ daughter just in time for Voyager’s return helping to provide a heartfelt farewell to Star Trek: Voyager, a series that perhaps ran too long but non-the-less yielded some good episodes and always made more enjoyable by its central cast.

Geek fact!

Veteran Star Trek guest star Vaughn Armstrong, who previously played a Romulan in the classic Voyager episode “Eye of the Needle” returns for “Endgame” as the Klingon, Korath.  Armstrong would go on to portray Admiral Forest, a recurring role on prequel series Star Trek: Enterprise.

Flashback: ‘The Twilight Zone’ – “Where is Everybody?”

It’s almost sixty years since the pilot for Rod Serling’s classic anthology series premiered…

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Earl Holliman searches for answers in ‘The Twilight Zone’ (image credit: CBS).

Year:  1959

Starring:  Earl Holliman (narration by Rod Serling)

Written by:  Rod Serling / directed by:  Robert Stevens / series created by:  Rod Serling

What’s it about?

A man wanders into a small town devoid of people, with no memory of who he is or how he got there he tries to unravel the enigma…

Retrospective

Celebrating it’s 60th anniversary this year, Rod Serling’s classic science fiction/fantasy anthology series The Twilight Zone began airing in October of 1959.  Frustrated by the rigid censorship of television, Serling (much like Gene Roddenberry would later do with Star Trek) used The Twilight Zone as a means of telling imaginative, thought-provoking stories exploring the human condition and often touching upon issues of the day that would otherwise be unlikely to escape the scrutiny of TV executives.  The series is also famous for its surprise twist endings providing a memorable outcome, several of which have become quite iconic.

Written by Serling (who would, impressively, go on to write or co-write 92 of the series’ 156 episodes) and directed by Robert Stevens, “Where is Everybody?” is the debut episode of The Twilight Zone.  It stars Forbidden Planet’s Earl Holliman as a lone amnesiac who wanders into a deserted town as he tries to figure out who he is and why the streets and buildings are empty.  Serling’s talent as a writer is evident from the outset and whilst “Where is Everybody?” may not deal with hard-hitting social issues it is an engrossingly mysterious tale about isolation and loneliness that keeps the viewer intrigued and engaged throughout the 25-minute running time.  Holliman is great in the central role and together with the monologues Serling (who draws the audience in with his opening narration) provides for the actor, we truly get a sense of the unease and exasperation his character endures – the only clue to his identity being the Air Force flight suit he is wearing.

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The incredible Rod Serling, creator of ‘The Twilight Zone’ (image credit: CBS).

Director Robert Stevens keeps things moving along steadily, never keeping the camera fixed in one place for too long and there’s some particularly effective use of lighting and off-angle shots in the climactic night-time scenes that increase the spookiness of the story as well as the feeling of increasing anxiety and desperation of Holliman’s character.  The sequence in which Holliman enters an empty movie theatre and the shock as the projector begins running is a quintessentially classic Twilight Zone moment of conception, acting and execution.  “Where is Everybody?” is also enhanced greatly by the atmospheric and eerie music score by Bernard Herrmann, perhaps best known at that time for The Day the Earth Stood Still before going on to frequently collaborate with legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock.

The final twist (to spoil it would be cruel) establishes The Twilight Zone’s most celebrated trope of pulling the rug from underneath the viewer and an example of Rod Serling’s gift for imagination and forward thinking.  Running for five seasons, The Twilight Zone was revived in the 1980s and a short-lived series was also produced in 2002.  A film adaptation with contributions from directors such as Steven Spielberg and John Landis was released in 1983 and the series has since been rebooted for the CBS All Access streaming platform, fronted by Get Out’s Jordan Peele.  Yet nothing compares to Rod Serling’s beloved black and white original series (with reruns continuing to this day) and “Where is Everybody?” serves as an enjoyable and fitting introduction to the wonders of The Twilight Zone.

Geek fact!

Superstar Tony Curtis was originally considered for the main role in “Where is Everybody?” but most likely deemed too expensive.

Images used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Flashback: ‘The Incredible Hulk’ TV Pilot

Marvel’s first mainstream success outside of the comic book pages landed in the late seventies with Universal’s hit television series, ‘The Incredible Hulk’…

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The late, great Bill Bixby as Dr. David Banner in ‘The Incredible Hulk’ (image credit: Universal).

Year:  1977

Starring:  Bill Bixby, Lou Ferrigno, Jack Colvin, Susan Sullivan

Directed and written by:  Kenneth Johnson (Hulk created by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby)

What’s it about?

After being subjected to an overdose of gamma radiation, Dr. David Banner finds that in moments of stress and anger he undergoes a startling transformation into a green-skinned, physically superior but uncontrollable and raging creature…

Retrospective/review

The first major live action success for a Marvel Comics property, Universal’s television series The Incredible Hulk, premiering in the U.S. in 1977 and rerun throughout the 1980s and 1990s (and now more accessible via home video releases and on demand platforms), though a more grounded take on the character continues to be beloved by fans across the globe.

Developed by The Six Million Dollar Man’s Kenneth Johnson and starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, The Incredible Hulk would launch with a feature length pilot, written and directed by Johnson, that first aired in November of 1977.  It introduces viewers to Dr. David Banner (the change from Bruce part of Johnson’s desire to deviate from traditional comic book tropes, such as alliterative character names) a physician and scientist who having lost his wife in a car accident has focused his attention on finding a way of unlocking the enhanced physical strength that humans can display in moments of great stress.  His experiments lead to an accidental overexposure of gamma radiation (in a research lab as opposed to the Cold War era desert bomb test in the original Marvel comic), although there appears to be no ill effects, a breakdown on his drive home causes Banner to become frustrated and angry, triggering his first transformation into the goliath green-skinned creature that will become known as ‘the Hulk’.  Enlisting the help of his colleague, Dr. Elaina Marks, Banner seeks to study his condition in the desperate hope of eradicating it – requiring the pair to force another change, which leads to dramatic consequences.

Bill Bixby is superb, bringing a believable essence of intellect to Banner neatly intertwined with the innate benevolence that makes his character and performance so likeable.  In the days before CGI, green body paint was required and the elaborately muscular Lou Ferrigno would prove perfect casting as the Hulk (the transformations achieved via those iconic sequences of Banner’s shirt tearing as bulging muscles push through, together with make-up and prosthetic effects) establishing a formidable physical presence befitting the part.  Yet, despite that Ferrigno was also adept at conveying the more innocent and childlike aspects of the character – his woodland encounter with a young girl in the pilot being a prime example of the creature’s capacity for tenderness in certain moments.

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Lou Ferrigno is suitably cast as Banner’s raging alter-ego (image credit: Universal).

Portraying Elaina Marks, guest star Susan Sullivan is a great addition to the episode sharing wonderful chemistry with Bixby which (spoilers…) makes her demise all-the-more heartfelt and Banner’s tragedy greater.  Also introduced is Jack Colvin’s newspaper reporter Jack McGee, a character who would recur throughout the series and who witnesses the devastating lab explosion, resulting from Banner and Marks’ experiment and the Hulk’s emergence from the wreckage – pinning the incident and the ‘murder’ of Banner and Marks on the creature.  Beyond establishing the regular cast of Bixby, Ferrigno and Colvin the pilot also features the famous, often quoted “don’t make me angry” line and Joseph Harnell’s sombre but poignant ‘The Lonely Man’ theme music, which would close out each episode.

Although it may diverge from the source material, motivated by Johnson’s concept for an adult drama series instead of a “comic book” show (in any case a more faithful adaptation would have been difficult to accomplish convincingly given technical and budgetary limitations), The Incredible Hulk still adheres to the basic approach of the comics in that Banner is driven to find a cure for his ‘affliction’ and that the Hulk itself, though dangerous and powerful has a desire to protect the innocent.

The series would subsequently see Banner, believed to be dead, drift from town to town across America, taking on odd jobs under false names as he would search for a cure whilst evading McGee, who would continue to pursue his investigations of the Hulk.  The format, often compared to that of The Fugitive, would see Banner cross paths with various people from all walks of life, facilitating stories of social concern (covering subjects such as drugs, crime and domestic abuse) and consequently troubles that Banner would find himself becoming involved in and consequentially, situations which would trigger his anger-fuelled metamorphosis and have the titular green goliath press into action.

The pilot was followed by another extended episode, “Death in the Family“, before the first full season commenced in March 1978.  The Incredible Hulk would run for five seasons before being revived for three TV movies (for which Johnson was not involved and included appearances from iconic Marvel characters Thor and Daredevil) and remains a cherished favourite amongst fans and rightfully has prominence in the history of comic book adaptations for the small screen.

Geek fact!

Richard Kiel – Jaws in the James Bond films The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker – was originally cast as the Hulk and although footage was shot for the pilot he was replaced by the more muscular Lou Ferrigno.

All images herein remain the property of the copyright owners and are used for illustrative purposes only.

TV Review: ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ – Season 2

The crew of the U.S.S. Discovery embark on a new mission with the help of one of Starfleet’s finest…

Warning! Contains SPOILERS

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Anson Mount joins Sonequa Martin-Green in season two of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’.

Starring:  Sonequa Martin-Green, Doug Jones, Anthony Rapp, Mary Wiseman, Anson Mount, Wilson Cruz, Shazad Latif, Michelle Yeoh, James Frain, Tig Notaro

Series created by:  Bryan Fuller & Alex Kurtzman (based upon Star Trek, created by Gene Roddenberry)

What’s it about?

Placing Enterprise captain Christopher Pike in command, Starfleet orders the U.S.S. Discovery to investigate a mysterious and dangerous cosmic phenomenon…

In review

Star Trek: Discovery’s now concluded fourteen-episode second season is proof that the series has a bright future.  Season one may have had its detractors and provoked controversy amongst sections of the Star Trek fan community but those who may have neglected continuing with the series are missing out.

Season two of Discovery took the series in a slightly more hopeful direction in comparison to its darker war-focused (and although the Klingon war is over, they still have a role to play) first season but not without sacrificing the more mature and morally complex approach to the characters and storytelling we saw in the previous season.  Once again presenting viewers with a serialised season-long story arc, season two of Discovery deals with the appearance of the mysterious ‘Red Angel’ – an apparent saviour trying to prevent the destruction of sentient life across the universe.  Accompanied by cosmic red bursts of devastating energy, the Red Angel enigma initiates an emergency mission by Starfleet, who place Enterprise captain Christopher Pike in temporary command of Discovery who together with Commander Michael Burnham, Saru, Tilly, Stamets and the rest of the crew face the challenge of unravelling the mystery and securing the survival of everything and everyone they hold dear.

The Red Angel narrative proved to be an intriguing one, precipitating a central debate of science vs faith and with numerous teases and twists keeping viewers on their toes – the final reveal of the Red Angel’s identity (more on that later) a surprising one and subverting expectations and speculation.  As with the first season there are a number of other subplots interwoven throughout, the result of which at times threatens to convolute the main storyline but manage to unravel by the end of the season.  The addition of Captain Pike is one of the season’s most successful components, played wonderfully by Anson Mount (the only positive element of Marvel’s dreadful Inhumans series) who brings an assuring quality of leadership and humanity to the role.  It also helps that the character is serviced well in the writing as Pike is given a satisfying arc, with a bittersweet touch of the sombre as it deals with the gallant Starfleet captain’s eventual fate in the original series of Star Trek (as seen in classic two-parter “The Menagerie”) courtesy of some ‘time crystals’ – a convenient albeit necessary plot device that plays it’s part in the overall seasonal arc.

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The Mysterious ‘Red Angel’.

Discovery season two also sees the inclusion of the fan-favourite shadow organisation known as Section 31, except unlike how they are depicted in Deep Space Nine (which takes place a century after Discovery) they are an acknowledged, functioning black-ops division of Starfleet.  A point of confusion for long term Trek fans, perhaps, but it seems likely that this will be explored further and reconciled next season and/or in the Section 31 spin-off series which is currently in development but as it stands, the organisation has a significant presence that facilitates conflict with the regular Discovery group without disrupting the camaraderie between them.

Dealing with the pointy-eared elephant in the room, Discovery introduced us to a younger version of Spock with Ethan Peck tackling the role originally played by Leonard Nimoy and portrayed by Zachary Quinto in the J.J. Abrams film series.  After several weeks of baiting the viewer, Peck made his debut in episode six, entitled “Light and Shadows“.  Peck’s introduction is unexpected, presenting a mumbling, near catatonic Spock whose contact with the Red Angel has left him mentally frazzled.  The situation results in the delightful surprise of a visit to Talos IV (the setting of original Star Trek pilot “The Cage” – read the retrospective here) where Burnham enlists the help of the telepathic Talosians in restoring Spock’s faculties in “If Memory Serves” – one of the season’s standout episodes.  It’s from hereon we get a sense of Peck’s performance and whilst no-one could ever truly compare to Leonard Nimoy, he does a solid job of encapsulating those intricate elements of the character we know and love.  The writers of Discovery also, maybe to the chagrin of some, add new layers to Spock as we get glimpses of a less than perfect childhood where we learn of his struggles with a form of dyslexia.  It’s actually a very interesting addition to the history of the character and expands the decades old mythology of Star Trek in a way that doesn’t trample on what has gone before but only deepens it.

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Ethan Peck as Lt. Spock.

The characters of Discovery continued to grow during the season as do the relationships between the various crewmembers.  The inclusion of Spock, of course, provides an exploration of the bond – and disconnect – between Burnham and her adoptive brother and both Sonequa Martin-Green and Ethan Peck share some great moments.  Martin-Green has certainly come into her own this season with consistently strong performances, bolstered by the efforts of the show’s writers.  Not only does Burnham have to grapple with her relationships with Spock, Tyler and the Mirror Universe Georgiou – both now Section 31 operatives (under the command of Alan Van Sprang‘s Captain Leland) – but also the revelations of her past, principally her parent’s involvement with the clandestine organisation.  This triggers season two’s biggest and cleverly executed narrative flip (those wishing to avoid major spoilers should skip to the next paragraph now) which occurs in the aptly titled “The Red Angel“.  It’s here that we learn of the identity of the Red Angel: Michael Burnham’s mother (played by The Wire’s Sonja Sohn), long thought dead but in fact jumping through time as she attempts to prevent the decimation of all life in the Federation by the acts of an evolved A.I. known as ‘Control’.  This sets-up the conflict of the latter end of the season as the crew of Discovery fight to stop Control from unleashing universal devastation.  Again, the plot does tend to become tangled at times with so much crammed into the narrative, particularly in the final stretch of episodes but it’s a small criticism and something that can be applied to a lot of other contemporary series (think Westworld).

Doug Jones and Mary Wiseman – Commander Saru and Ensign Tilly respectively – continue to be standouts and get their share of screen time, with Saru returning to his home (following up on the Short Trek instalment “The Brightest Star”) as he and his people find themselves facing up to the predatory race overruling their existence and being unshackled from their fears as a prey species and Tilly wrestling with her spore-induced connection to the mycelial network via visions of her old childhood friend, May.  The Tilly/May subplot does perhaps go on longer than necessary, but it does tie into the welcome, if not wholly unexpected, return of Wilson Cruz’s Hugh Culber, ‘reborn’ courtesy of the mycelial realm which leads to some interesting soul searching and identity crisis.  This also affords Anthony Rapp the opportunity to further flesh out his character as Stamets’ reunion with Culber isn’t what he expects and causes him to reassess his future aboard Discovery.  The only black sheep in the casting is Tig Notaro’s engineer, Jett Reno, whose inclusion felt out of place with sporadic appearances and no substantial development, although their may be future potential for the character.

What is great about season two of Discovery is alongside the growth of the principal players, the writers take effort to give small but key roles to the ancillary characters (some of whom you would’ve been previously hard pressed to recall by name) with the likes of con officer Detmer (Emily Coutts) and navigator Owosekun (Oyin Oladejo – who gets to join an away mission in the excellent “New Eden”, one of the season’s most ‘Trek-like’ episodes) feeling more integrated than they were during season one.  More pivotal though is Airiam (Hannah Cheesman) in the Jonathan Frakes directed “Project Daedulus“, written by Michelle Paradise (wisely appointed as co-showrunner with Alex Kurtzman for season three).  Discovery’s cyborg officer had felt like a missed opportunity, yet this is undone in a single episode that boasts solid scripting and powerful acting from not only Hannah Cheesman but the likes of Sonequa Martin-Green, Mary Wiseman and much of the rest of the cast.  It all adds to the increasing sense of family amongst the crew, something which has always been key to the success and appeal of any Star Trek series and will hopefully continue to be nurtured in subsequent seasons.

Disc S2 - Enterprise & Discovery

Starships Enterprise and Discovery unite to save the universe.

Discovery’s second season came to a dramatic and energetic conclusion with the gripping two-part finale “Such Sweet Sorrow” (fan-pleasing ties to the original Star Trek further enhanced by the sight of the beautifully realised Enterprise bridge, given a respectful 21st Century makeover to fit in with Discovery’s more modern design aesthetics) where there’s an additional twist to the identity of the Red Angel and the revelation of what exactly those cosmic red bursts are, culminating in a rousing and epic final battle with Control (now merged with the body of Leland in a manner that’s slyly reminiscent of Borg assimilation) and a game-changing set-up for season three that seeks to not only chart new territory for Discovery but also reconcile its place in canon, a task that’s somewhat messy and impossible to neatly sync-up given the five decades of continuity established beyond the original series.

In terms of the production, Star Trek: Discovery continues to present the viewer with feature film quality visuals and cinematic direction (especially when in the hands of either Jonathan Frakes or Olatunde Osunsanmi) that enhances the writing and together with the excellent cast performances results in a superb sophomore outing for the series.

The bottom line:  Star Trek: Discovery season two is an exciting, if occasionally jumbled, outing for the newest Star Trek crew that boasts decent writing, strong cast performances and quality production values.

All episodes of Star Trek: Discovery’s second season are now available to stream via CBS All Access in the U.S. and via Netflix internationally (Canadian viewers can watch it via the Crave TV service).

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Flashback: ‘Star Trek’ – “The Cage”

Where the voyages of ‘Star Trek’ truly began…

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Jeffrey Hunter leads the cast of “The Cage” as Captain Christopher Pike.

Year: 1964

Starring: Jeffrey Hunter, Leonard Nimoy, Majel Barrett, John Hoyt, Susan Oliver

Series created by: Gene Rodenberry

Written by: Gene Rodenberry / episode directed by: Robert Butler

What’s it about?

Searching for survivors of the S.S. Colombia on the unexplored planet Talos IV, the crew of the Earth space ship Enterprise are thrown into crisis when their captain, Christopher Pike, is captured and imprisoned by a race of powerful telepaths…

Retrospective/review

As any Star Trek fan more than likely knows, the voyages of the starship Enterprise didn’t actually begin with Captain Kirk. Whilst the series would launch with the airing of “The Man Trap” in September of 1966, viewers at the time were unaware that two years previously another version of Star Trek had been produced – and canned. Screened at conventions during the 1970s but unaired until the 1980s and now widely seen thanks to decades of home video releases (greatly enhanced by its beautiful 21st Century high definition remaster with new CGI effects), “The Cage” is a fascinating glimpse into the genesis of Star Trek.

Springing from his ‘Wagon Train to the stars’ concept, Star Trek married Gene Roddenberry’s love of science fiction and adventure with the frustrations of television censorship to create a vehicle for telling serious, adult (eschewing the campier comic book approach of Irwin Allen’s Lost in Space) stories about humanity, exploration, discovery and tackle social and political issues without the interference of network executives. Realising that science fiction fans would recognise the deeper themes offered by Star Trek and the television suits would in most instances not, it would be the perfect passion project for Roddenberry and a means to explore compelling and thought-provoking ideas.

In “The Cage” the U.S.S. Enterprise, under the command of Captain Christopher Pike, traces a distress signal to the unexplored Talos star system, a region where the S.S. Colombia reportedly disappeared eighteen years prior. Arriving at Talos IV, Pike and a landing party discover survivors of the Colombia expedition, including the beautiful Vina. Quickly learning that the survivor’s camp is a fake, it’s too late for the Enterprise party to prevent Pike’s capture by the Talosians. Forced underground when the surface was decimated by war and having developed powerful telepathic abilities in the succeeding centuries, the Talosians imprison Pike with Vina – the only true Colombia survivor – subjecting them to various illusionary scenarios, for their captors’ own satisfaction and in the hope that the pair will become close and produce offspring to add to the Talosian ‘zoo’.

A notable actor with roles in big screen features including the John Wayne-fronted Western The Searchers and as Jesus Christ in King of Kings, Jeffrey Hunter is an assuring lead and, as written by Roddenberry, brings a complex and layered performance to the role of Captain Pike – a resourceful and capable commander suffering a crisis of conscience and loss of direction and desire for responsibility following his most recent mission which saw members of his crew injured and even killed.

 

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The late, great Leonard Nimoy as a very different Mr. Spock.

 

Joining Hunter is Leonard Nimoy as a far more ebullient and emotive Mr. Spock, the only character who would make the transition to the series where the concept of the emotionally repressed and logic-driven Vulcan race would be defined, Majel Barrett as Pike’s unnamed first officer – referred to only as “Number One” (Barrett would later become Mrs. Roddenberry and join the Star Trek cast as Enterprise nurse, Christine Chapel), a skilled and intelligent women in a position of authority which was uncommon in television and film at the time, John Hoyt (previously seen in the George Pal science fiction cult classic When Worlds Collide) as Chief Medical Officer, Doctor Philip Boyce and Peter Duryea as ship’s helmsman Jose Tyler and Laurel Goodwin as Yeoman Colt – whose characters are both unnamed onscreen. Guest starring as Vina is the excellent Susan Oliver and Meg Wyllie as the Talosian ‘Keeper’ with dialogue redubbed by Malachi Thone, the vocal pitch adjusted to give the Talosian race a mysterious androgynous quality.

Gene Roddenberry’s narrative is exciting, dramatic and filled with intelligent SF ideas but it’s in character that he excels – he provides Pike with a richness of depth and humanity and his scenes with Oliver’s Vina provide pathos and emotional investment (and offering food for thought as the theme of slavery is examined), which complements the science fiction aspects of the story and the morality play elements. Roddenberry backs this up with some great dialogue that verges on the poetic, best exemplified by the ‘doctor, bartender’ exchange between Boyce and Pike (played superbly by Jeffrey Hunter and John Hoyt) in which the doctor shares a martini with his conflicted captain and reminds him that “a man either lives life as it happens to him, meets it head-on and licks it, or he turns his back on it and starts to wither away”.

The production values are impressive and hold up extremely well, whilst the Enterprise sets are drabber and more muted in terms of colour (likewise, the crew uniforms, which would be re-designed once the first season of Star Trek proceeded) they are largely the same, minus subtle changes, to how they would appear in the series. Props such as the communicator and laser pistol (the forbearer of the phaser) are highly detailed and believable, functional devices. The subterranean caverns of the Talosian community are sparse but effective, the make-up design of the Talosians themselves is exemplary, their large, bulbous craniums given life with throbbing veins indicating the use of their advanced mental abilities.

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One of CBS Digital’s new CGI effects sequences for the remastered edition of “The Cage”.

Although the Enterprise model effects work is somewhat primitive and experimental in comparison to the series proper, Matt Jeffries’ design remains iconic and the substituted CGI effects for the remastered edition of “The Cage” render this point moot and increase the enjoyment of the story greatly. Equally legendary is Alexander Courage’s theme music (so celebrated that Courage’s cues are incorporated into Jeff Russo’s theme for the latest Star Trek series, Discovery), identifiable to even those who may not be fans of Star Trek. Beyond the main theme, Courage’s score for “The Cage” is quite magnificent – conveying all the action, emotion and mystery of Gene Roddenberry’s script.

“The Cage” would run over schedule and over budget and ultimately be rejected by the NBC television network for being “too cerebral” but enough potential was seen in Gene Roddenberry’s creation to commission a second pilot leading to the more action-driven (but actually, still fairly intelligent) “Where No Man Has Gone Before” (read the retrospective here) with the incomparable William Shatner taking over the lead as Captain James T. Kirk. The rest is of course history but there should always be an appreciation for “The Cage” and its role in the birth of a cultural phenomenon.

Geek fact!

Footage from “The Cage” would later be incorporated into “The Menagerie”, the original Star Trek’s only two-part story which guest stars Malachi Throne as Commodore Mendez.

All images included herein remain the property of the respective copyright owners and are used for illustrative and commentative purposes only.