TV Review: ‘The Falcon and The Winter Soldier’

Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan reprise their superhero roles for the latest Marvel/Disney+ series…

Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan return to the Marvel Cinematic Universe for Disney+ series ‘The Falcon and The Winter Soldier’ (image credit: Disney/Marvel Studios).

Warning! Contains SPOILERS

Starring:  Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Wyatt Russell, Daniel Bruhl, Emily VanCamp, Erin Kellyman, Adepero Oduye

Series created by:  Malcolm Spellman (based on the Marvel comics)

What’s it about?

As the U.S. government unveils a new Captain America, Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes unite to take on the threat of an emerging radical group…

In review

Following the conclusion of the first Marvel Cinematic Universe streaming series for the Disney+ platform – the excellent WandaVision – Marvel Studios’ six-episode superhero action drama The Falcon and The Winter Soldier has now also wrapped up and it’s another hit for entertainment goliaths Marvel and Disney.  The series sees lead stars Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan reprise their roles as Marvel heroes Sam Wilson/The Falcon and “Bucky” Barnes/The Winter Soldier, respectively (both last seen in 2019 blockbuster Avengers: Endgame), as they take on the threat of a revolutionary group calling themselves the ‘Flag Smashers’ whilst also facing their own personal post-Blip concerns and the rise of the U.S. government’s newly appointed Captain America, decorated Afghan War veteran John Walker (Wyatt Russell – son of Kurt Russell).

The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is an engrossing Tom Clancy-esque action-espionage thriller in the spirit of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War (the “flavour” further enriched by bringing back composer Henry Jackman to score the show).  Series creator Malcolm Spellman and his writing staff tap into present day concerns, commenting on themes such as racial prejudice and division, the political state and social unrest whilst mirroring the buddy-cop character dynamics of the Lethal Weapon films, making the pairing of Sam and Bucky even more enjoyable.  Blessed with a handsome budget, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier boasts top-notch action scenes – Sam’s aerial battle in episode one and a truck-top fight involving Sam, Bucky and Walker as they take on the Flag Smashers in episode two are early examples – but is not driven by them, taking the time to delve into its characters and plot more deeply than a two-hour film possibly can.  This obviously results in a slower and more measured pace than an MCU film which some viewers might struggle with, but a generally consistent rhythm is quickly established, injecting the action where it’s called for and not just for the gratuity of it.  The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is far more motivated by character drama and the rich, thought provoking thematic elements it presents and as a result, anyone expecting straightforward superhero entertainment may be disappointed.

The series’ premiere episode does a good job of reintroducing the lead characters and their status quo following their return from non-existence in the ‘Blip’ (as per the events of Endgame) as Sam and Bucky attempt to get a grip on their lives.  Doubtful about taking up the role bequeathed to him by Steve Rogers, Sam Wilson relinquishes Cap’s shield to the U.S. government, before finding out that his status as an Avenger won’t help him secure a bank loan to help his sister Sarah (played by Adepero Oduye) and save the Wilson family’s fishing business.  Things are no better for Bucky Barnes, now gifted a Presidential pardon for his previous actions as The Winter Soldier, he begrudgingly submits to therapy for post-traumatic stress and plagued by guilt befriends an elderly Japanese man (Ken Takemoto), whose son he had murdered during one of his past operations as a Hydra assassin.  It creates an interesting set-up for both characters giving both Mackie and Stan plenty of depth to explore and they have never been better in their roles as they are elevated above their place as supporting players in the MCU films.

With Sam and Bucky taking on government contracts to make ends meet and Bucky questioning Sam’s decision to give up Cap’s shield and all that comes with it, tensions rise as the two begin to clash with a headstrong and determined John Walker.  Discovering that the Flag Smashers have super soldier serum-induced abilities, matters are further complicated when Sam and Bucky decide to team up with Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), incarcerated at the end of Civil War.  Travelling to Madripoor (a location Wolverine fans will know, weaving an X-Men related element into the MCU) with Zemo, who we learn actually is a Baron, aligning the character more closely with his Marvel Comics counterpart (even donning the iconic purple mask at one point), allows the investigation of the Flag Smashers to progress as well as facilitating a reunion with exiled former S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp, also last seen in Civil War) who helps the mismatched trio search for the shadowy string-puller of events: the enigmatic Power Broker.  The dingy criminal underworld vibe and accompanying action is comfortable territory for John Wick screenwriter Derek Kolstad and he gleefully infuses those elements here into The Falcon and The Winter Soldier.

Daniel Bruhl is assuredly excellent, bringing a snarling arrogance and scheming duplicitousness to the wholly untrustworthy yet surprisingly helpful Zemo.  Releasing the Baron naturally has its consequences, drawing the attention of Wakanda (again, recalling the events of Civil War, where Zemo was responsible for the death of King T’Chaka) heating things up further as the eminent African nation dispatches it’s formidable royal guard, the Dora Milaje.  Lead by Ayo (Black Panther’s Florence Kasumba), there’s a gripping hotel room fight that’s a swift reminder of how down-right awesome and unstoppably efficient Wakanda’s warrior woman are.  Flashbacks to Bucky’s recovery in Wakanda burdens him with a sense of betrayal as the scenes demonstrate how Ayo helped to break his Hydra induced programming.  It’s another small but significant aspect that enriches Stan’s character whilst providing organic connectivity with the wider MCU.

Wyatt Russell as the new Captain America, John Walker in ‘The Falcon and The Winter Soldier’ (image credit: Disney/Marvel Studios),

As John Walker, Wyatt Russell is a great addition and enjoys a strong character arc, the new Captain America a harder-edged combatant who becomes more intense and increasingly frustrated at the perceived interference from Sam and Bucky, their methods seen as too tame in order to get results.  Walker is very much a man of action and prepared to do what is necessary so it’s fitting that angered by the slaying of his partner Lemur Hoskins – a.ka. Battlestar (Cle Bennett) -, the new-Cap gets himself serum-boosted.  Consequentially, no punches are pulled in the shocking scenes (in the closing moments of the aptly titled “The Whole World is Watching”) of an enraged John Walker, giving chase and bludgeoning a Flag Smasher with Captain America’s shield as crowds capture the brutal event on their smartphones.  It presents some unsettling and potent symbolism that once again presses upon the issues of today and makes the need for a more noble-spirited and just Captain America in the mould of Steve Rogers even more desperate.  Walker is not “bad” in simple black and white terms, but a product of a different time and forged by a different kind of conflict, this notwithstanding it remains a reminder of Captain America: The First Avenger in that it’s not just an enhancing super solider formula that makes a Captain America but that there also needs to be a good and balanced soul at the end of the needle.

What really works well with The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is that beyond its characters and action set pieces, it paints an interesting picture of the post-Blip world and how many who have returned after a five-year absence are displaced and that not everyone is fortunate to receive the help and understanding they need.  Whilst the Flag Smashers are labelled as terrorists and commit deplorable acts, the series provides its villains with believable motivation and even an angle of sympathy through the group’s leader, Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman) and the scripts bring some prescient arguments to the table.  This is exemplified in a philosophical exchange between Sam and Morgenthau as the heroic Flacon recognises her cause but questions the execution of her agenda.  It’s well-written and wonderfully performed by both Anthony Mackie and Erin Kellyman and makes for good drama.  There’s also an addition to Marvel mythology as Sam and Bucky’s initial investigations lead them to the doorstep of Isaiah Bradley (first introduced to the Marvel Comics universe in 2003’s Truth: Red, White and Black #1 and played here by the superb Carl Lumbly), an African America super soldier who fought in the Korean War and was subsequently imprisoned and experimented on.  This abuse makes a powerful and evocative statement that highlights important issues and does so in a thought-provoking manner.

Given John Walker’s turn, the penultimate episode opens with a necessary confrontation between the rogue Captain America and Sam and Bucky, before unexpectedly changing gear to a contemplative character-driven piece that’s actually a highlight of the series as Sam, through the counsel of Bucky, realises that he is the man for the job.  Whilst also introducing Veep’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Marvel Comics character Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, it lays the groundwork for a pacey and poignant finale (“One World, One People” – another appropriately titled episode) in which Sam finally takes up the role of the true Captain America.  It’s a triumphant moment and the battle to stop the Flag Smashers once and for all allows the former Falcon to display all the daring-do and heroics incumbent of any Captain America.  It culminates in a potent and evocative media-facing speech from Sam Wilson that, although could be seen as a little too ‘on the nose’ is, once again, an address of important issues of race and equality.

Of course, it was never in doubt that we would see Sam Wilson’s inevitable transition from Falcon to Captain America and a natural and fitting evolution for the character as has been seen in the comics.  It’s similarly unsurprising that Sharon Carter is revealed as the Power Broker (speculation is already rife that she is actually a Skrull agent, given that the Secret Invasion series is nearing production…but who knows?) and likewise that John Walker would be redeemed, in a manner, as he assumes his new identity:  U.S.Agent (again, mirroring the Marvel comic books), ready to take on the under-the-radar assignments Captain America morally cannot and under the orders of the Contessa.

As we’ve seen with WandaVision and now The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, there is a lot of creative potential for the various other upcoming Disney+ Marvel series (Loki being the next to arrive this June) and provide fans with some substantial long-form storytelling and entertainment between the popcorn blockbuster offerings of the MCU films.

The bottom line:  The Falcon and The Winter Soldier presents viewers with a superior form of dramatic superhero entertainment that’s laced with prescient and thought-provoking themes.

All six episodes of The Falcon and The Winter Solider are now available to stream via Disney+.

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

It’s a Classic: ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ – “Yesterday’s Enterprise”

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

“Let’s make sure that history never forgets the name…Enterprise”

Recurring guest star Whoopi Goldberg, a key component in the success of “Yesterday’s Enterprise” (image credit: ViacomCBS).

Year:  1990

Starring:  Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, Brent Spiner, Wil Wheaton, Denise Crosby, Christopher McDonald, Tricia O’Neil, Whoopi Goldberg

Director:  David Carson / written by:  Ira Steven Behr, Richard Manning, Hans Beimler, Ronald D. Moore (from a story by Trent Christopher Ganino & Eric A. Stillwell) / series created by:  Gene Roddenberry

What’s it about?

The forbearer to the current U.S.S. Enterprise is brought 22 years into the future via a temporal rift and changes the flow of history, creating an alternate timeline where the Federation is close to defeat in a war against the Klingon Empire…

In review:  why it’s a classic

Ask any Star Trek fan about their favourite episodes and it’s likely that many would include “Yesterday’s Enterprise” on their list – there’s no argument that it’s not just an outstanding instalment of Star Trek: The Next Generation but a gripping piece of science fiction drama in its own right.  From a story by Tent Christopher Ganino and Eric A. Stillwell, “Yesterday’s Enterprise” sees Captain Picard and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise ‘D’ confronted with the preceding Enterprise ‘C’ which appears in the present, causing devastating changes to the timeline with the United Federation of Planets on the losing side in a war with the Klingon Empire.  With history recording that the Enterprise C disappeared during a battle to save a Klingon outpost from destruction by Romulan warships and Guinan sensing that something is not right, Picard and his crew believe that their only hope is for the previous Enterprise to return to its own time where the selfless sacrifice of the ship and its crew, seen by the Klingons as an honourable act, could avert a terrible conflict.

A thrilling and engaging story, “Yesterday’s Enterprise” is also iconic for facilitating a guest return for Denise Crosby as Lt. Tasha Yar, who was killed back in “Skin of Evil” in the first season of The Next Generation.  The teleplay’s writers include Ira Steven Behr, future writer and showrunner of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Ronald D. Moore, who would go on to co-write feature films Star Trek: Generations and Star Trek: First Contact (and subsequently develop the reimagined Battlestar Galactica series) and their presence is heavily felt with a strong focus on characterisation and statements of morality, qualities that lift “Yesterday’s Enterprise” (and for that matter, any great Star Trek episode) above its core SF concept.  It’s through the darker and more hopeless scenario of a deadly and costly war that we appreciate the altruistic values of the Federation as we know it and that the brave acts of a few can benefit the many.

Denise Crosby returns as Tasha Yar in “Yesterday’s Enterprise”, also featuring Christopher McDonald as Lt. Castillo (image credit: ViacomCBS).

“Yesterday’s Enterprise” boasts a reliably strong performance from Patrick Stewart, at this point in the series he is fully invested and committed to the role of Captain Picard and gets to add a subtle shade of grit to his character who in the altered timeline is a military commander as opposed to an explorer and diplomat.  The regular supporting cast all play smaller but significant parts with Brent Spiner’s Data being a particular standout, but it’s arguably the guest stars who really enhance “Yesterday’s Enterprise”.  Denise Crosby’s return is a welcome one and she is provided with meaningful material, Christopher McDonald delivers a likeable performance as Enterprise C helmsman Lt. Castillo (and sharing great chemistry with Crosby, essential for the romantic bond that develops between their characters) and Tricia O’Neil brings authority to the role of the Enterprise C’s captain, Rachel Garrett.  Yet, it’s Whoopi Goldberg who shines the most – her appearances as the mysterious and noble Guinan always add significantly to any episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation but her portrayal in “Yesterday’s Enterprise” is particularly impressive with a passionate and layered performance.  Goldberg’s scene with Stewart’s Picard in which she pleads that the Enterprise is not supposed to be a ship of war, but a ship of peace is especially poignant and really captures the heart and soul of Star Trek.

David Carson’s direction is skilled and attentive, his staging of scenes and positioning of the actors together with the use of various angles and close-ups draw the viewer further into the drama.  Carson is also adept at cranking up the pace as he executes tense and energetic action scenes and it’s no surprise that Carson (whose first credit for Star Trek: The Next Generation was “The Enemy”, from earlier in the third season) would be called on again to helm further Star Trek episodes, including the premiere of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and also The Next Generation’s first big screen outing, 1994’s Star Trek: Generations.

As exciting as it is emotionally impactful, “Yesterday’s Enterprise” is yet another example of Star Trek at its best and an exemplary piece of storytelling that continues to resonate over thirty years later.

Standout moment

Learning from Guinan that she died a senseless death in the original timeline, Tasha Yar confronts a conflicted Captain Picard with a request to transfer to the Enterprise C and face a potentially more gallant fate…

Geek fact!

Tricia O’Neil would return to Star Trek again with guest roles as a Klingon scientist in sixth season TNG outing “Suspicions” and as a Cardassian military observer in the DS9 episode “Defiant”.

If you like this then check out…

Star Trek: Voyager – “Timeless” : fifteen years after the loss of the U.S.S. Voyager during a daring attempt to return home, former officer Harry Kim plans to alter history and prevent the disaster from ever occurring.

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

TV Review: ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Season 3

‘Star Trek: Discovery’ goes boldly into the future…

The cast of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ assemble as they raise the flag for season 3 (image credit: ViacomCBS).

Warning! Contains SPOILERS

Starring:  Sonequa Martin-Green, Doug Jones, Anthony Rapp, Mary Wiseman, Wilson Cruz, Michelle Yeoh, David Ajala, Blu del Barrio, Ian Alexander, Janet Kidder

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

What’s it about?

Michael Burnham and the crew of the U.S.S. Discovery find a new adventure awaits them as they arrive in the 32nd Century…

In review

For its third season, Star Trek: Discovery enters unknown territory as Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and the U.S.S. Discovery and its crew make their one-way trip 930 years into the far future of the 32nd Century – the farthest point in time in which a Star Trek series has taken place.  It’s another entertaining outing that allows Star Trek: Discovery to chart its own course whilst keeping an eye on the history of the franchise to deliver some surprising moments of fan service.  Things get off to a slightly uneven start as Discovery’s writers and lead producers Alex Kurtzman and Michelle Paradise contend with balancing standalone narratives with this season’s overarching story (more on that in a moment) but everything begins to ramp up and coalesce as the end line approaches, leading to an engaging tranche of final episodes.

Picking up right where season two left off, the third season’s opening episodes – “That Hope is You, Part 1” and “Far From Home“ deal with Burnham and the Discovery’s arrivals in the 32nd Century, which thanks to temporal mechanics comes one year apart.  Despite the defeat of the malevolent A.I. known as Control and sentient life being kept safe from annihilation, with the universe-spanning Sphere Data merged into Discovery’s systems, we find that the galaxy is in a troubled place following ‘The Burn’, a sudden catastrophic event occurring a century earlier.  In this incident, the majority sources of the warp drive enabling substance Dilithium simultaneously detonated along with any starship with an active warp core, claiming millions of lives and the decimation of both the Federation and Starfleet.

Given the scarcity of Dilithium, coupled with Starfleet’s diminished numbers and inability to operate properly it’s a job that only Discovery, with its unduplicated space-hopping spore drive, can achieve and on which the remnants of Starfleet must rely.  Hindering their mission is the threat of the Emerald Chain, a nefarious mercantile group that seeks to fill the galactic power void left by a contracted United Federation of Planets – of which its founding centre, Earth, is no longer a member.  It paints a grim picture that mirrors our currently fractured and disconnected world, but the hope that Discovery can uncover the origin of The Burn and find a way to rebuild Starfleet and the Federation is what forms the positive backbone of this season.

The backdrop to the seasonal arc is established in the early episodes of season three, which also facilitate the introduction of some new characters.  Upon her arrival in the future, Burnham meets Cleveland “Book” Booker (David Ajala, sharing some great chemistry with Sonequa Martin-Green) an initially roguish space courier from whom she learns of The Burn as well as the galaxy’s status quo and finds herself partnering with as she awaits the arrival of Discovery.  Book is an enjoyable addition to the series as he becomes a helpful ally to the Discovery crew and hopefully Burnham and Book’s exploits during the year-long wait for Discovery will be detailed in a future novel or comic book title as it’s something that’s sadly only touched upon on screen.

In keeping with the traditions of Star Trek, Discovery further expands the diversity of its cast and characters by adding non-binary actor Blu del Barrio and transgender actor Ian Alexander (who performed the role of Lev in video game sequel The Last of Us Part II) to the group.  Del Barrio plays Adira, a human joined with a Trill symbiont after its former host, Gray – Adira’s boyfriend – is tragically killed.  Del Barrio brings a wonderfully sensitive performance to the likeable Adira and given that their character is taken under the wing of Lt. Cmdr. Stamets and Dr. Culber, del Barrio gets to share some great scenes with series regulars Anthony Rapp and Wilson Cruz.  Ian Alexander, though given less to do, is equally effective as he features in flashback scenes as well as mysteriously appearing, sporadically, to Adira.

New crewmate Adira (Blu del Barrio) joins Cmdr. Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) onboard Discovery (image credit: ViacomCBS).

Rounding out the guest cast is Oded Fehr who is excellent as Starfleet’s noble, no-nonsense commander in chief, Admiral Vance and oddly, iconic film director David Cronenberg, who appears as the enigmatic ‘Kovich’.  Little is known about Kovich at this point but with Cronenberg confirmed to return in season 4, we’ll surely find out more.  Season three finds its big bad in the form of Osyraa, the Orion leader of the Emerald Chain – played by Janet Kidder (niece of Superman’s Margot Kidder).  Though more of a straightforward villain than a compelling antagonist, Osyraa proves a formidable enough foe as things ramp up towards the season finale.

Of the established Discovery cast, all have their moments this season.  Sonequa Martin-Green continues to be the centre of the series and is given a lot to tackle, given Burnham’s year working with Book and her doubts about her future once she reconnects with Discovery.  These feelings are eventually allayed but Burnham finds her time with Book has reawakened some old habits and despite good intentions, she rashly defies orders to rescue Book from the Emerald Chain in “Scavengers” resulting in her removal as first officer, much to Saru’s disappointment.  Speaking of whom, Doug Jones is once more a standout as Saru, who rightfully (and not unexpectedly) earns his promotion to captain of the U.S.S. Discovery.  Yet, the investigation of The Burn also leads to some personal stakes and a clouding of judgement when a Kelpien distress signal is discovered.  Burnham’s demotion leads Saru to entrusting Ensign Sylvia Tilly as acting first officer, a decision that on the face of it might seem ridiculous but is earned given Tilly’s growth as a character – her commitment to the command training programme and trustworthiness as well as her stint as ‘Captain Killy’ in the Mirror Universe, all make sense of the creative choice.  As Tilly, Mary Wiseman has always been the heart of Discovery and excels in demonstrating the young ensign’s abilities – and shortcomings – in a leadership role.

Wilson Cruz is also great as Dr. Hugh Culber, who after his post-rebirth soul searching and self-doubt finds he is now more at peace with himself and a point of moral counsel for his crewmates, evidenced in “People of Earth“ which deals with the crew’s trauma at what they’ve gone through and left behind.  A lot of this is focused through Discovery’s helm officer, Lt. Detmer, giving Emily Coutts a chance to step-up and enjoy some uncomfortably tense moments with Stamets as her mounting post-traumatic stress reaches a breaking point.  It may be a misconception that there shouldn’t be conflict between characters in Star Trek, it’s actually always been present since the original series, only side-stepped in the early years of The Next Generation at the behest of series creator Gene Rodenberry.  Trek has always utilised instances of conflict to facilitate drama but in the end, it always serves to create an understanding and strengthen the familial bond between the core characters – as it does so here.

As with previous seasons there are some standout episodes.  One highlight is “Unification III”, penned by series writer/producer and Trek novelist Kirsten Beyer.  It’s a revisitation of the Star Trek: The Next Generation two-parter “Unification”, where Ambassador Spock (the late, great Leonard Nimoy – who we get to see courtesy of footage from the TNG story) sought the reunification of the divergent Vulcan and Romulan races.  “Unification III” finds that this was finally achieved after the destruction of Romulus (see Star Trek 2009/Star Trek: Picard), with Romulan survivors living on the Vulcan homeworld, now known as Ni’Var – another world which has seceded from the Federation (at least it’s heartening to have learned that the Kelpien homeworld, Kanimar has since joined).  The episode helps to paint the wider cosmic picture in terms of post-Burn politics and relations and sees Burnham reunited with her time-travelling mother (the superb Sonja Sohn), who, in a neat tie-in to Star Trek: Picard, has been living in the future as a member of the noble Qowat Milat group.

The two-part “Terra Firma” is also rather good (following the disappointment of the Book-focused “The Sanctuary”), seeing the departure of Michelle Yeoh’s Philippa Georgiou as she prepares to head-up the gestating Section 31 series and a return (of sorts) to the Mirror Universe courtesy of the mysterious ‘Carl’ (CSI’s Paul Guilfoyle), guardian of an equally mysterious doorway.  Whilst it’s fair to say that the Mirror Universe may have been played out in Star Trek for now (perhaps more so since Discovery went there for half a season) it serves Georgiou well, providing reasons for the softening of her character since her arrival in the Prime Universe.  It also gives us a chance to see, in keeping with the spirit of Mirror U outings, the delightfully over-the-top dark and ruthless versions of familiar characters, this time including the Mirror Burnham (alas, mentions of Jason Isaac’s Gabriel Lorca don’t lead to a cameo), with Sonequa Martin-Green clearly relishing the role.  It also affords Michelle Yeoh an opportunity to grapple with a conflicted and surprisingly vulnerable Georgiou.  The biggest surprise of the season comes in “Terra Firma, Part 2”, learning that Georgiou’s trip to the Mirror Universe was simply a test of worthiness by Carl, who reveals himself as…the Guardian of Forever!  This tie-in to one of the all-time classic Star Trek episodes, “The City on the Edge of Forever” is a golden moment which expands the mythology of the Guardian (not seen since the also-classic animated Star Trek episode “Yesteryear”) by combining what was established in the televised version of “The City on the Edge of Forever” with Harlan Ellison’s original concept.  The two-parter concludes with Georgiou’s poignant farewell as she enters the Guardian’s portal to travel to an unknown time and place – leaving viewers awaiting the Section 31 series to see how Georgiou’s story continues.

The Guardian of Forever returns (image credit: ViacomCBS)!

It’s also worth mentioning that after its journey to Starfleet’s space-bound HQ (in “Die Trying“), Discovery receives a nifty futuristic refit (complete with bizarrely independent warp nacelles) and upgraded technology to bring her more in line with the standards of other 32nd Century Starfleet ships, including the U.S.S. Voyager-J and the Eisenberg-class U.S.S. Nog (a touching tribute to late Deep Space Nine actor Aron Eisenberg and his character in that series).  As for the Sphere Data, this begins to manifest itself via Discovery’s main computer (which plays into the events of the season finale), foretelling what was seen in the Short Treks instalment “Calypso”.

Season three is wrapped up in a trilogy of final episodes.  “Su’Kal” is a surreal outing in which the cause of The Burn is revealed – a Kelpien named Su’Kal (Bill Irwin), marooned at birth on a Dilithium rich planet and raised by various holograms in an elaborate holographic environment.  It’s a great episode for Doug Jones, not only because Saru gets to connect with another being of his race but also for the fact that the setting allows Jones to appear sans his Kelpien make-up.  The explanation for the Burn and Su’Kal’s link to it are a little vague although ultimately cleared up in the season finale, but in basic terms, it’s presented that when Su’Kal becomes emotionally unstable, so does the Dilithium around him.  Su’Kal’s trauma of his mother’s death caused such an event, creating a chain reaction on a galactic level, resulting in what becomes known as The Burn.  Whilst some might be disappointed by this reveal and its metaphysical nature, it’s actually an unexpected one and a welcome alternative to the predictability of The Burn simply being the responsibility of a villainous individual or group. Penultimate episode “There is a Tide…” is an exciting and unabashed homage to action classic Die Hard as Ossyra and the Emerald Chain seize Discovery (and thus its spore drive) placing Burnham in the main action role as the incarcerated acting captain Tilly and Discovery bridge crew plot to retake the ship, which provides an opportunity for stalwart ancillary characters Detmer, Owosekun (Oyin Oladejo), Rhys (Patrick Kwok-Choom) and Bryce (Ronnie Rowe Jr.) to play an active part here and in the finale.

The season finale, “That Hope is You, Part 2” brings everything to an action-packed and effects-laden close which, for better or worse, is generally par for the course with most long-form narrative streaming shows but although there is the tendency for Discovery’s producers to overindulge in the feature film visuals afforded the series (an example being the elaborate turbolift shaft sequence which becomes a little excessive) it does keeps the viewer hooked.  It gets all a bit frantic but the resolution sees the Emerald Chain defeated (albeit rather quickly and conveniently) and Su’Kal separated from the Dilithium rich environment, now providing Starfleet with a vital source to fuel the warp drive capabilities of its ships.  Surprisingly, Saru decides to depart Discovery and return to Kanimar with Su’Kal (at least temporarily we’re assured as Doug Jones is returning for the now in production fourth season).  That leaves the captain’s chair of the U.S.S. Discovery vacant, a position that Admiral Vance offers to Burnham – which after brief hesitation, she accepts.  It’s not a totally unexpected development as it was likely that the show’s main character would eventually end up in a command position and it puts things in an interesting position that will hopefully conclude Burnham’s arc of redemption.  The finale also sets the series on a positive and hopeful path as the work to reconnect Starfleet and rebuild the Federation truly begins and that promises a very Star Trek-like direction for the series going forward.

The bottom line:  Star Trek: Discovery transports viewers into the far off future of the 32nd Century for another entertaining chapter in the series with some standout episodes and fine cast performances.

All episodes of Star Trek: Discovery’s third 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).

It’s a Classic: ‘Star Trek’ – “The City on the Edge of Forever”

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

“A question.  Since before your sun burned hot in space and before your race was born, I have awaited a question”

Star Trek - City a

Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) encounter the mysterious ‘Guardian of Forever’ (image credit: ViacomCBS).

Year:  1967

Starring:  William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Joan Collins

Director:  Joseph Pevney / written by:  Harlan Ellison / series created by:  Gene Roddenberry

What’s it about?

Captain Kirk and Science Officer Spock travel back in time in pursuit of a delirious Doctor McCoy, crazed by an accidental overdose of a powerful drug, in order to prevent disastrous changes in the timeline…

In review:  why it’s a classic

Once aptly described by film critic Scott Mantz as the Citizen Kane of Star Trek”, “The City on the Edge of Forever” is a firm fan favourite and irrefutably one of the finest ever Star Trek episodes.  From a story written by the late science fiction author and television writer Harlan Ellison, “The City on the Edge of Forever” received significant, uncredited rewrites from Star Trek writer/producer Gene L. Coon, story editor D.C. Fontana and finally, series creator Gene Roddenberry in order to temper some of Ellison’s more radical ideas that didn’t align with the altruistic nature of the series and behaviour of its characters (drug-dealing Enterprise crewmembers would clearly be out of place) and other elements that the show’s budget simply couldn’t allow.  Thankfully, the result is nothing less than an unforgettable masterpiece of imaginative and dramatic SF-TV.  The episode rightfully earned the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Episodic Drama on Television as well as the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation.

“The City on the Edge of Forever” opens as the U.S.S. Enterprise arrives at an unexplored planet to investigate the source of mysterious ‘time ripples’.  The ship is rocked, causing helmsman Sulu (George Takei) to be injured and whilst being treated, Doctor McCoy (DeForest Kelley) accidentally injects himself with a dangerous overdose of a drug which renders him paranoid and maniacal.  Pursuing McCoy to the planet below, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and his landing party discover ancient ruins and a strange, sentient stone structure – a gateway through time that calls itself the ‘Guardian of Forever’.  As the Guardian demonstrates its ability, the deranged McCoy leaps through the gateway.  Following McCoy to a point before his arrival, Kirk and his loyal Vulcan first officer, Mr. Spock (the always superb Leonard Nimoy) find themselves in depression-era New York and eventually in the 21st Street Mission, run by the pacifist Sister Edith Keeler (Joan Collins).  Accessing historical records from his tricorder device, Spock soon discovers that McCoy has somehow caused an unfolding change in events – whereas Edith Keeler had originally died in an accident, she now survives and her campaign for peace would lead to a delay in the United States’ entry into the Second World War, allowing the victory of Nazi Germany – creating a ripple effect of unfathomable consequences.  As they await McCoy’s arrival through the time stream, Spock informs his captain that in order to save the future, Keeler must die…but Kirk finds he has fallen in love with her.

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Kirk faces a moral dilemma as he falls for Sister Edith Keeler (Joan Collins) in “The City on the Edge of Forever” (image credit: ViacomCBS).

It’s a great story and a standout episode for William Shatner, whose passionate performance is remarkably effective and bittersweet.  Despite the more dramatic aspects of the story, there are some terrific comic moments in the second act – Kirk and Spock being caught ‘acquiring’ 20th Century clothing by a patrolling police officer leads to a hilarious scene in which Kirk attempts to explain the alien Spock’s appearance, one of many moments in the episode that demonstrates the magnificent interplay and rapport between Shatner and Leonard Nimoy.  Shatner also shares wonderful chemistry with guest star Joan Collins, who is charming as Edith Keeler, a woman beyond her time who dreams of a hopeful future for all of humanity – a future that the gallant Captain Kirk knows to be true.  It gives “The City on the Edge of Forever” an evocative philosophical angle to accompany the story’s grand science fiction aspects and solid characterisation.  “The City on the Edge of Forever” is also, undoubtedly, a strong outing for co-stars Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley – who puts in a particularly memorable turn as the crazed drug-afflicted McCoy, whom Keeler nurses back to health – and a highlight of the friendship between Kirk, Spock and McCoy which is both embraced and put to the test as Kirk faces perhaps his greatest and most personal moral dilemma.

The climactic moments of “The City on the Edge of Forever” are agonising (all the more dramatic thanks to some tense direction by Joseph Pevney) given there is only one inevitable outcome and provides an unusually sombre, yet poignant, ending for an episode of Star Trek.  It all creates a must-see classic which represents the Star Trek franchise at its absolute best.

Standout moment (spoilers)

Discovering that McCoy has arrived and is healthy, Kirk rushes across the street to greet his friend – as Edith steps into the road, unaware that a fast-moving truck is approaching…

Geek fact!

Harlan Ellison’s original script for “The City on the Edge of Forever” would later be adapted into comic book form as a mini-series from IDW Publishing, released in 2014.

If you like this then check out…

Star Trek: The Next Generation – “Yesterday’s Enterprise” : Captain Jean-Luc Picard faces a difficult decision when the appearance of the Enterprise ‘C’ through a time vortex adversely alters history.

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

It’s a Classic: ‘The Twilight Zone’ – “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”

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

“There’s a man out there!”

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William Shatner provides a wonderfully anxious performance in the classic ‘Twilight Zone’ outing “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (image credit: CBS Viacom).

Year:  1963

Starring:  William Shatner, Christine White, Ed Kemmer, Asa Maynor, Nick Cravat (introduction/narration by Rod Serling)

Written by:  Richard Matheson / directed by:  Richard Donner / series created by:  Rod Serling

What’s it about?

A man, flying home having just recovered from a breakdown is convinced he can see someone or something on the wing of the aeroplane…

In review:  why it’s a classic

One of the greatest and most popular episodes of The Twilight Zone, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is amongst the best not to be written by series creator Rod Serling.  Penned by noted science fiction writer Richard Matheson (author of I Am Legend and a regular contributor to The Twilight Zone, having previously written memorable episodes such as “Third from the Sun”, “The Invaders” and “Steel”) – adapted from his 1961 story Alone by Night – and helmed by future Superman: The Movie director Richard Donner, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” features a pre-Star Trek William Shatner (who also starred in another Matheson scripted story for The Twilight Zone: the excellent 1960 episode “Nick of Time”) as Robert Wilson, a man flying back home on a stormy night with his wife (played by Christine White) after recovering from a nervous breakdown.  During the flight, as his wife sleeps, Wilson observes something outside the window – a strange figure on the wing of the plane that subsequently disappears.  As the figure – a gremlin-like creature – reappears, only to jump away before anyone else can see it, Wilson is convinced it is causing damage to the aircraft and desperately tries to convince his wife and the flight crew what he’s witnessed is real – but nobody believes him.

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The gremlin creature (Nick Cravat), given a suitably creepy facial make-up design by William Tuttle (image credit: CBS Viacom).

Richard Matheson provides a suitably mysterious and tense script that’s enhanced greatly by an increasingly anxious performance from William Shatner.  The tight close-ups and low angle shots employed by Richard Donner’s direction add to the sense of unease and help capture the exasperation and nervousness of Shatner’s reactions, you truly believe this is a man on edge, having already suffered through his own emotional issues and thrust unwittingly into a fantastic scenario that he faces alone – a common but always enjoyable theme in Matheson’s writing.  The general look of the ’gremlin’ may now appear a little dated with the plump and fluffy boiler suit costume, yet the monstrous make-up design by William Tuttle is still very effective and with the strange animal-like movements by actor Nick Cravat makes it appropriately creepy.

Whilst the fifth and final season of The Twilight Zone is generally considered as its weakest (and even then, it yielded some firm fan favourites), “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is rightly praised and beloved.  It’s the one that even the most casual of pop culture observers recognises, affectionately parodied on The Simpsons and remade twice (a third time if you count the 2002 radio drama adaptation with Smallville’s John Schneider) – firstly for a segment of 1983’s The Twilight Zone:  The Movie (starring John Lithgow and directed by Mad Max’s George Miller) and more recently as an episode of the Jordan Peele-fronted revival of the series, the retitled story “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet”.

Although “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” doesn’t feature a traditional rug-pulling twist that more often than not would conclude an edition of The Twilight Zone, it does leave the viewer with an unsettling final shot as the episode fades out with Rod Serling’s wonderfully lyrical closing narration to an all-time classic outing for the celebrated science fiction/fantasy anthology series.

Standout moment

As his flight home weathers a raging storm, Bob Wilson looks out of the window and between flashes of lightning is convinced he can see someone moving about on the wing…

Geek fact!

Richard Matheson would go on to write for the first season of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, scripting the iconic 1966 episode “The Enemy Within”.

If you like this then check out:

The Twilight Zone – “Nick of Time” : William Shatner makes his first TZ appearance in another classic instalment written by Richard Matheson in which a pair of newlyweds find their fates controlled by an ominous fortune telling machine.

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

TV Review: ‘Star Trek: Picard’ – Season 1

A science fiction legend returns in the newest ‘Star Trek’ spin-off…

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Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) embarks on a new mission in ‘Star Trek: Picard’ (image credit: CBS Viacom).

Warning! Contains some spoilers

Starring:  Patrick Stewart, Isa Briones, Alison Pill, Michelle Hurd, Santiago Cabrera, Harry Treadaway, Evan Evagora, Peyton List, Brent Spiner, Jeri Ryan

Series created by:  Akiva Goldsmen, Michael Chabon, Alex Kurtzman & Kirsten Beyer (Based upon Star Trek, created by Gene Roddenberry)

What’s it about?

As the end of the 24th Century approaches, on the anniversary of the devastating destruction of the planet Romulus, retired Starfleet Admiral Jean-Luc Picard is confronted by a mysterious young woman on the run, as a new adventure beckons…

In review

Recently completing its ten-episode run (via CBS All Access/Amazon Prime), the first season of Star Trek: Picard is an enjoyable beginning for the newest addition to the expanding Star Trek television universe.  From the creators of Star Trek: Discovery, Picard adds additional pedigree to its creative staff in the form of Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Klay), serving as co-creator/showrunner and who writes/co-writes a number of episodes throughout the season.  The series boasts the same impressive production values seen in Discovery, with near-feature film quality visuals and special effects complemented by some striking cinematography.  Headlined by lead star/executive producer Sir Patrick Stewart, Star Trek: Picard sees the celebrated actor return to the beloved role of Jean-Luc Picard after an eighteen-year absence (last appearing on the big screen in 2002’s Star Trek Nemesis), with a clear enthusiasm and investment in the material.  In the established traditions of Star Trek, Picard provides a mirror for current events weaving commentary on issues ranging from Brexit to global political turmoil and social segregation into its narrative, whilst also delving into the often mined but always intriguing concept of artificial intelligence.

Star Trek: Picard picks up two decades after the events of Star Trek Nemesis and the destruction of the Romulan homeworld in the wake of a catastrophic supernova.  Having resigned from Starfleet following their withdrawal from the Romulan relocation effort, implemented after a deadly revolt by the synthetic workforce brought online to increase the production of rescue ships, a dejected and morose Jean-Luc Picard has retreated to the family vineyard in France, embittered by the failure of the once cherished and noble values of Starfleet and the Federation which he long fought to protect.  Haunted by dreams of his late comrade and friend Lieutenant Commander Data (the ever-excellent Brent Spiner), the Enterprise’s former android crewman, Picard is lost and without purpose until one day, he encounters a young woman named Dahj (Isa Briones).  Hunted by Romulan assassins and drawn to Picard by hidden memories, we soon discover that Dahj is an advanced type of android created by Doctor Bruce Maddox (John Ales – portraying the character originally played by Brian Brophy in the classic Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Measure of a Man”) based on Data’s positronic neurons – essentially Data’s ‘daughter’.  Picard is unable to save Dahj but learning that she has a twin, Soji, unaware that she is in fact an android and working aboard a Romulan-captured Borg vessel known as ‘the Artifact’ to help rehabilitate the individuals assimilated by the Borg and now disconnected from the Collective.  Refused help by Starfleet, Picard gathers a crew of his own aboard a ship called La Sirena and sets out on a mission to reach Soji as a conspiracy by a secret Romulan order – the Zhat Vash – to eradicate all synthetic life before it threatens organics (prophesied by ‘the Admonition’), unfolds.

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The superb Jeri Ryan returns as Seven of Nine (image credit: CBS Viacom).

Assembled aboard the La Sirena (following a trilogy of opening chapters, all skilfully directed by executive producer Hanelle M. Culpepper), the main players are an eclectic – and flawed – bunch.  Joining Picard is the washed-out, hard-drinking Raffi Musiker (a conflicted yet maternal Michelle Hurd), his right-hand woman during the Romulan evacuation crisis who was subsequently forced out of Starfleet, robotics expert Dr. Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill) who joins the mission to search for Maddox – and whose troubled journey becomes a highlight, with a wonderfully quirky and nuanced performance by Alison Pill – and Elnor (Evan Evagora), a childlike but dutiful young Romulan warrior Picard once befriended and mentored as a boy.  Commanding La Sirena is the roguish cigar chomping Cristobal “Chris” Rios (Santiago Cabrera), who is a nifty blend of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine and Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, with his own reasons for abandoning Starfleet and aided by a number of Emergency Holographic programs, each with their own specific purpose (medical, helm, navigation, engineering…even psychiatric!) and personalities to suit.  The main threat is provided effectively by Gotham’s Peyton List who plays Narissa, a Zhat Vash operative who is devilish and formidable, but also given some credible motivations.  List’s character is supported by her brother, Narek (Harry Treadaway), assigned to become close to and manipulate Soji – who is believed to be ‘the Destroyer’ who will bring about the annihilation of organic life – and Commodore Oh (Tamlyn Tomita), the sinister Romulan/Vulcan spy at the head of Starfleet security.

Picard’s voyage also facilitates the return of some old faces.  Aside from Brent Spiner’s Data, there’s an emotional reunion with former Enterprise colleagues Will Riker and Deanna Troi (in the Chabon co-written episode “Nepenthe” which is a standout of the season, featuring wonderful performances by Jonathan Frakes – who also directs a number of episodes – and Marina Sirtis), appearances from Hugh, the former Borg introduced in TNG (a now de-Borgified and sorely underutilised Jonathan Del Arco) and popular Star Trek: Voyager character and other ex-Borg, Seven of Nine (the superb Jeri Ryan).  Seven (rejecting her real name of Annika Hansen) is in something of a dark place in Picard, the tragic loss of her young protégé Icheb (sadly, original Voyager actor Manu Intiraymi is recast for a startlingly brutal flashback sequence) leading her to join a group of galactic mercenaries.  Jeri Ryan is well-served by the writers and excels in a performance that evolves Seven and takes her in an unexpected direction, allowing for more depth and complexity and she is a significant asset to the series.  What works especially well about the inclusion of legacy Star Trek characters in Picard is that they each play a part in the story and are not simply incorporated to provide fan service, which could have all too easily been the case.

As the show’s lead actor and focal point, Patrick Stewart is given a lot to play with and delivers a generally robust, passionate – and at times touching – portrayal of the 94-year old Picard.  There’s a slight shaky quality to Stewart’s performance – understandable, given his age – but it goes without saying that the mere presence of Jean-Luc Picard, a character that fans have longed to see return to the screen, is reassuring.  The revelation that Picard is beginning to experience symptoms of a terminal neurological condition (undoubtedly the Alzheimers-esque ‘Irumodic Syndrome’ depicted in the alternate future of the TNG series finale, “All Good Things”) adds a bittersweet touch and there’s an element of PTSD as Picard has to once again deal with his traumatic history with the Borg – which naturally provides some neat moments between Patrick Stewart and Jeri Ryan as the series examines the plight of the innocent victims (referred to as ‘Ex-B’s’) who had their individuality stripped away by the Borg.  The relationship between Picard and Elnor is quite sweet and the interplay between Stewart and Isa Briones is also memorable and especially well-portrayed as Picard helps Soji come to terms with, and embrace, her true nature.

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Picard seeks the help of some old friends (image credit: CBS Viacom).

As the season unfolds, there are various twist and turns – often genuinely surprising and even shocking (none of which will be divulged here for the sake of those not yet caught up) and the story reaches a climax with a two-part finale (“Et in Arcadia Ego“) in which Picard and his cohorts find their journey reaches Coppelius, a planet Dr. Maddox withdrew to continue his work following the synth ban and now populated by androids.  Trying desperately to prevent the galactic cataclysm foretold by the Admonition and from Soji playing a role in the event, Picard soon finds himself piloting the La Sirena and heading off a fleet of Romulan warships.  It’s a suitably epic confrontation and leads to an emotional and poignant denouement which establishes a new status quo for Picard, some satisfying closure for the TNG era and the promise of exciting new adventures to come.

Picard isn’t perfect, despite some of the talent behind the scenes the plotting can be a little haphazard and the writing is sometimes a bit clunky and contrived.  Some of the narrative elements – such as the afore-mentioned synthetic revolt and subsequent ban on artificial life – are not afforded enough focus, likewise there are character backstories left underdeveloped, such as Raffi’s strained relationship with her son.  It makes IDW’s Star Trek: Picard – Countdown comic book mini-series and Una McCormack’s novel Star Trek: Picard – The Last Best Hope recommended reading as they flesh out much of what is missing on screen in that regard.  It’s also worth mentioning that unlike The Next Generation, Picard – like a lot of modern genre TV productions – carries a mature viewer rating and fulfils it with instances of bloody violence and a jarring overuse of profanity.  Whilst Picard was never intended (nor should it be) as merely a reprisal of TNG, perhaps it’s a missed opportunity to not have the series be accessible to a broader age range given its heritage.

Grumbles and nit-picks aside, Picard remains entertaining and each episode is at the very least (ahem) engaging with plenty of drama, action and numerous Easter eggs for fans to feast on.  The series may have benefited from tighter and more consistent pacing, especially in the earlier instalments and maybe even an increased episode count to better cater for the various sub-plots and character developments, but there are often glimmers of greatness that assures potential for the already confirmed second season.  It’s hard to recommend Picard to the uninitiated as it is steeped deeply in the lore and history of what has gone before, requiring a certain amount of affection for the viewer to become properly committed.  In the end, Star Trek: Picard isn’t bound to please everyone – much like we’ve seen with Star Trek: Discovery – but on the whole it’s a well-produced and worthy new entry in the Star Trek canon with an intriguing story that’s elevated by the return, and resurgence, of Jean-Luc Picard and whets the appetite for the further voyages of a science fiction legend.

The bottom line:  A solid if sometimes flawed first season, Star Trek: Picard is non-the-less enjoyable and enhanced by the triumphant return of Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard.

All episodes of Star Trek: Picard season one are available to stream via CBS All Access in the U.S. or internationally on Amazon Prime.

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

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

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

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The cast of ‘Star Trek: Voyager’ – lead by Kate Mulgrew as Captain Kathryn Janeway (image credit: Paramount/CBS Viacom).

Year:  1995

Starring:  Kate Mulgrew, Robert Beltran, Tim Russ, Robert Picardo, Robert Duncan McNeill, Roxann Biggs-Dawson, Ethan Phillips, Jennifer Lien, Basil Langton, Gavan O’Herlihy

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

Written by:  Michael Piller & Jeri Taylor (story by Rick Berman, Michael Piller & Jeri Taylor) / directed by:  Winrich Kolbe

What’s it about?

Transported across the galaxy whilst in search of a missing Maquis ship, Captain Kathryn Janeway and the crew of the U.S.S. Voyager encounter a powerful alien being known as the Caretaker…

Retrospective/review

With Star Trek: The Next Generation leaving the air in 1994 and the Paramount television studio wanting another Star Trek series to both accompany Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and launch the new United Paramount Television Network (UPN), January 1995 saw Star Trek: Voyager begin its seven year run with the double-length premiere titled “Caretaker”.  The series itself created by Rick Berman, Michael Piller (co-creators of Deep Space Nine) and Jeri Taylor (a writer and producer on The Next Generation), “Caretaker” is an enjoyable introduction to the third live action Star Trek spin-off.

In “Caretaker”, Starfleet dispatches the U.S.S. Voyager (docked at Deep Space 9, providing a neat crossover with the wider shared Star Trek universe and including a cameo for Armin Shimerman’s Ferengi barkeep, Quark), under the command of Captain Kathryn Janeway (the first female lead for a Star Trek series, played by Kate Mulgrew – rapidly cast to replace French actress Genevieve Bujold, who departed during the first days of filming), to search for a missing vessel belonging to the Maquis (a group of freedom fighters protesting an undesirable treaty with the militaristic Cardassians and considered as outlaws by the Federation – previously established in episodes of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine) which vanished without a trace in a volatile area of space known as the Badlands.  The mission is of importance as Janeway’s Vulcan security and tactical officer, Tuvok (Tim Russ – who had previously appeared in guest roles on TNG, DS9 and the film Star Trek Generations), was placed amongst the Maquis crew to gather intelligence.  To assist, Janeway enlists the help of an observer familiar with the Maquis – disgraced former Starfleet helmsman Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill – Cadet Nick Locarno in the TNG episode “The First Duty“), sentenced to a New Zealand penal colony after being caught during his first Maquis operation.  There’s some ill-feeling towards Paris by members of the Voyager’s crew but he soon finds a friend in the form of the newly assigned academy graduate, Ensign Harry Kim (Garrett Wang).

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The Intrepid-class U.S.S. Voyager (image credit: Paramount/CBS Viacom).

Entering the Badlands, Voyager encounters a strange phenomenon and finds itself engulfed in an energy wave.  The ship damaged and a number of its crew dead, Janeway soon discovers that the vessel has been transported 70,000 light years across the galaxy to a region known as the Delta Quadrant and in the vicinity of the missing Maquis ship and a massive space station belonging to a powerful life-form known as the ‘Caretaker’.  Appearing as an old man, the Caretaker (portrayed by guest star Basil Langton) is dying and has brought Voyager and the Maquis vessel to him in order to find compatible DNA to create a replacement to continue his work as guardian of a race known as the ‘Ocampa’.  As events unfold, the Starfleet and Maquis crews find they must work together in order to locate missing crewmembers (one of whom is Harry Kim) and face-off against the threat of the ‘Kazon’, barbaric factions of Klingon-esque aliens (and recurring baddies throughout the first two seasons of Voyager – lead here by Gavan O’Herlihy’s Maje Jaben) who will stop at nothing to seize technology that will allow them to assert dominance.  It leads to a difficult choice for Janeway, one that will protect the Ocampa but will leave Voyager stranded in the Delta Quadrant.

Through the course of the episode, “Caretaker” puts in place the rest of the varied main characters of Voyager:  Janeway appoints the leader of the Maquis, the tough but reasonable Chakotay (Robert Beltran) – of American Indian descent – as her first officer, Chakotay’s hot-headed half-Klingon/half-human engineer B’Elanna Torres (Roxann Biggs-Dawson) is subsequently assigned as Voyager’s chief engineer, the ship’s holographic Doctor (a wonderfully acerbic Robert Picardo) – the Emergency Medical Holographic programme (or EMH) – is the only choice to replace the deceased chief medical officer and joining the journey back to Federation space is alien guide and cook (later ‘morale officer’), the quirky and resourceful Neelix (Ethan Phillips) and his beloved, Kes (Jennifer Lien).  Tuvok of course returns to his post and Tom Paris is redeemed when Janeway entrusts him as the ship’s new helm officer.  As Janeway, Kate Mulgrew is magnificent – melding her own intellectual and maternal qualities with shades of the no-nonsense leadership of William Shatner’s Kirk and the curiosity and diplomacy of Patrick Stewart’s Picard.

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Gavan O’Herlihy as the Kazon leader, Maje Jaben (image credit: Paramount/CBS Viacom).

“Caretaker” also sets up the general concept for Voyager that’s a sort of inversion of Star Trek: The Next Generation ­ (and, with some inaccuracy, labelling the series as Star Trek’s version of Irwin Allen’s Lost in Space) with the U.S.S. Voyager – revolutionary for its ‘bio-neural’ circuitry and featuring those cool pivoting warp engines – exploring space inward from the outer reaches of the galaxy as it heads along a seventy-plus year course towards Earth.  The integration of Maquis into the Starfleet crew creates an element of tension that’s dealt with during the first season but is, for the most part, quickly abandoned.  On one hand it’s a missed opportunity, possibly a victim of the episodic story of the week style of television at the time which DS9 would increasingly eschew to great creative advantage.  On the flip side, it allows the writers to focus on having the crew establish a familial bond, setting aside their differences and working together as a team in the spirit of the more holistic outlook favoured by original Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.  It was also likely a response to the at-the-time divisive reception to the darker Deep Space Nine, which, ironically, is now one of the most popular iterations of Star Trek.

Star Trek: Voyager could be a little formulaic, especially in comparison to the more daring storytelling of Deep Space Nine and often seen as an inferior clone of The Next Generation, perhaps making it the weakest of the Rick Berman-produced Star Trek series (opinion amongst fandom of course varies).  Non-the-less there’s still plenty to appreciate with another solid central cast (and an undeniably strong lead in Kate Mulgrew) and numerous standout episodes.  It’s possible that if the series were made today it would have benefited from the more sophisticated and serialised nature of contemporary TV but as it stands, Voyager – boasting a memorable Emmy-award winning main theme from composer Jerry Goldmsith – is certainly an enjoyable if sometimes uninspired series and “Caretaker” is an engaging start to the adventures of the U.S.S. Voyager and her crew.

Geek fact!

Scenes shot for “Caretaker” featuring Genevieve Bujold as Captain Janeway were included amongst the extra features for the Star Trek: Voyager season one DVD set.

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

TV Review: ‘Star Trek: Picard’ – Series Premiere

A science fiction legend returns in the newest ‘Star Trek’ spin-off…

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A 24th Century hero returns: Sir Patrick Stewart stars in ‘Star Trek: Picard’ (image credit: CBS).

Starring:  Patrick Stewart, Isa Briones, Alison Pill, Harry Tredaway, Brent Spiner

Series created by:  Kirsten Beyer, Michael Chabon, Akiva Goldsmen & Alex Kurtzman (Based upon Star Trek, created by Gene Roddenberry)

Episode directed by:  Hanelle M. Culpepper / written by:  Akiva Goldsmen & James Duff (story by Akiva Goldsmen, Michael Chabon, Kirsten Beyer, Alex Kurtzman & James Duff)

What’s it about?

“Remembrance” : as the end of the 24th Century approaches, on the anniversary of the devastating destruction of the planet Romulus, retired Starfleet Admiral Jean-Luc Picard is confronted by a mysterious young woman on the run, as a new adventure beckons…

In review

The much-awaited return of a Star Trek legend is finally here with the launch of the new CBS series Star Trek: Picard – from the makers of Star Trek: Discovery (joined by novelist Michael Chabon as showrunner) – with a promising and tantalising first episode.  As it very well should be, Picard is quite a different animal from Star Trek: The Next Generation – that show is and ever will be a classic, landmark piece of television, but times have changed and so has the nature of small screen entertainment and as with Discovery, the Star Trek franchise evolves.  As expected, it’s a lavish and sophisticated production with feature film quality visuals and some beautiful photography (presenting various locales) and the longform storytelling style we’re now accustomed to.

For Picard, Sir Patrick Stewart reprises his most iconic and forever beloved role as Jean-Luc Picard – former captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise (both ‘D’ and ‘E’) and retired Starfleet Admiral, following the catastrophic Romulan supernova (deftly tying into the events of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek) which resulted in the destruction of the Romulan homeworld and the scattering of its people across space.  Embittered by the poor response to the crises by the Federation and Starfleet, organisations whose values he has fought to protect, Picard has withdrawn to a quiet and uneventful life at the family vineyard of Chateau Picard in France.  It’s been more than two decades since Picard’s last mission aboard the Enterprise and, now over 90 years old (accompanied by his dog – affectionately named Number One), he finds himself haunted by nightmares of his old friend, the late android Lieutenant Commander Data (Brent Spiner) and frustrated by the erosion of the ideals he cherished as a Starfleet captain.  However, the appearance of a young woman named Dahj (Isa Briones), on the run and desperate for help, thrusts the noble once Admiral Picard back into action.  Who is Dahj and why does she have hidden memories of Picard?  These questions and more are presented as a new adventure begins for Jean-Luc Picard in “Remembrance”.

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Picard (Patrick Stewart) is confronted by the mysterious Dahj (Isa Briones) in the premiere of ‘Star Trek: Picard’ (image credit: CBS).

At 79, Patrick Stewart has clearly aged – somewhat gracefully – and although he may at first appear a little shaky, it’s soon comforting to see Picard back onscreen.  Almost twenty years after he last played the role (on the big screen in 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis), Stewart – mindful of his standout performance alongside Hugh Jackman in Logan – brings his talent effortlessly to the fore.  There’s an element of melancholy to his portrayal in Picard which befits the story and the mature character-focused approach the series seems to be aiming for, yet as the plot of “Remembrance” unfolds, those familiar traits of conviction and altruism start coming passionately to life once more.

Aside from the obvious joy of Patrick Stewart’s return to Star Trek, it’s also a delight to see the excellent Brent Spiner guest star and equally pleasing that his role, which could have easily been incorporated simply as fan service, has great importance to the story and lovingly celebrates the character of Data and his benevolent nature.  Isa Briones delivers a likeable and believable portrayal as the scared and desperate Dahj, with the writers serving the part with a good deal of mystery.  A visit to the Daystrom Institute in Okinawa introduces us to Alison Pill’s Dr. Jurati, a cybernetics expert left with little do after a ban on synthetic lifeforms following an apparent android revolt, creating some interesting and fun scenes with Picard.  Apart from the closing reveal of Harry Treadaway’s Narek that’s most of the recurring cast, with regulars Michelle Hurd, Evan Evagora and Santiago Cabrera to follow.  Also, whilst absent from this episode, there are still guest appearance from Patrick Stewart’s fellow TNG co-stars Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis to look forward to in future instalments, as well as Jonathan Del Arco (the former Borg drone, Hugh) and Star Trek: Voyager’s Jeri Ryan.

Picard brings with it a whole sense of history and strokes of nostalgia, with plenty of Easter eggs for fans to enjoy.  It’s difficult to say at this point if casual viewers will be able to latch onto the series and become invested but there’s enough exposition in the premiere to help bring new fans into the fold.  It’s important to remember that this is merely the first chapter in a ten-episode saga and “Remembrance” serves as a reintroduction to the character of Picard, establishing the world and times in which he now lives and providing the initial set-up for the serialised season-long arc.  To this end, “Remembrance” does a good job of balancing the disparate elements and with a whole heap of intrigue and action, whets the appetite for more…make it so.

The bottom line:  Jean-Luc Picard is back and Sir Patrick Stewart is on top form as Star Trek: Picard gets off to a promising and enjoyable start.

New episodes of Star Trek: Picard are released Thursdays on CBS All Access in the U.S. and available to stream in the U.K. and internationally every Friday via Amazon Prime.

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

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.