Books, Comics, Movies, Star Trek: Discovery, Television, The X-Files

Plugging Gaps: How backstory is *becoming* story

Remember the time that backstory was just that? Backstory.

Many of the most successful TV shows and movies are specifically built on a sense of their own mythology and world building. Game of Thrones has a series of vast novels to draw on which detail an incredibly complicated social and political eco-system, for example. Backstory, the details of the universes of these tales and the histories of many characters within the stories, provide the unseen depth and ballast to the tale we are being told, the tale we are invested in.

In recent years, however, the trend of this has begun to shift. Our biggest stories within popular culture are now becoming obsessed with backstory not just being developed to enable the narrative, they are instead *becoming* the narrative. Storytellers are actively attempting to try and ‘plug gaps’, for want of a better term, in continuity and canon, believing it seems that audiences are as obsessed with these minor details as the writers of these properties appear to be. We are losing the element of ambiguity, surprise and mystery.

We are losing backstory by exploring too much of it.

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Alias, Television

Alias – ‘Rendezvous’ (1×21)

Given Rendezvous has to work as the middle piece in a three-part climactic best for Alias’ first season, and tie together threads which have been building across the entire year, it’s surprising how well it works as an episode on its own terms.

The main reason for this is that Rendezvous finds a way to maintain three distinct but increasingly interlinked, building narratives in a coherent and dynamic way: Will’s investigation intersecting directly with Syd’s search for Khasinau, Dixon’s growing suspicions about Syd’s loyalty, and Sloane’s wrangling with the Alliance over the Khasinau problem and how it could be affected by his wife Emily. Writers Erica Messer and Debra J. Fisher (who last wrote Mea Culpa, but did uncredited re-writes on some of Season 1’s strongest episodes such as The Box two-parter and The Prophecy) manage to satisfactorily interlink most of these threads to the point you can feel the overarching plot stitching together in preparation for the finale.

Rendezvous, of course, is most remembered for finally pulling the trigger on a plot development that was inevitable eventually: Will discovering the truth about Syd’s secret life as an international super-spy, and thankfully they manage to pull this off in the most entertaining and enjoyably histrionic way. Captured by Khasinau’s forces, Will watches the red-headed Syd leap into fray, in slow motion, kicking the arse of the Euro-goons watching over him before realising who it is and delivering a scream of disbelief that is just *perfectly* executed. You feel the payoff of this moment, and Syd’s complete disbelief that Will has shown up on her mission, because the season has really put the leg work in to get Will into her orbit. 

It’s a moment that in its own way changes Alias forever. Rendezvous ends up delivering the first of several leading into Almost Thirty Years that allows the show’s first season to stick the landing.

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Alias, Television

Alias – ‘The Solution’ (1×20)

The season finale of Alias’ premiere year may technically be Almost Thirty Years but in real terms, The Solution marks the beginning of the end.

Specifically, a three-part end to the season, building off everything we have seen so far and drawing many of the lingering narrative threads together in an attempt to provide some level off satisfying payoff while simultaneously delivering a springboard into the coming second season. The Solution is a good example of how Alias both holds to and breaks from the traditional stand-alone/ongoing serialisation structure of shows past. It both could not exist without many of the preceding nineteen episodes before it and equally it feels contained within the confines of its three-part climactic storyline. 

Alias by this point understands it has a great deal of balls in the air and story threads it needs to either start taking to the next level or justifiably paying off. This was a major problem with Snowman, the previous episode; it spun the show’s wheels, focusing on an extraneous central romantic entanglement which means little beyond serving as a thematic parallel, at the expense of getting on with most of the story in play. The Solution begins to correct that immediately. It ramps up the search for Khasinau. It reintroduces the Rambaldi mythology. It spirals back around to Sloane’s relationship with his wife Emily and his dealings with the Alliance and it kicks back into gear the simmering Will investigating SD-6 plot line, which ends up being a major factor in how Season 1 comes to an end. 

In short, while not necessarily much more than a protracted Act One, The Solution corrects most of the problems from the previous episode or two.

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Game of Thrones, Television

Game of Thrones – ‘A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms’ (8×02)

It would be remiss of me, as an enormous Game of Thrones fan, to let the final season go by without sharing some thoughts week on week.

I’m conscious, however, that full and in-depth critical analysis won’t truly be possible until the finale has aired, at which point I’ll be going back and starting to tackle Season 2 and working back toward the end. I have already deep dived Season 1, as you may remember, and they will probably get a polish once the entire show is completed.

My plan then, in the spirit of George R. R. Martin’s books, is to write up thoughts on each character journey and use them as a prism to explore each episode. With a show like this, built heavily on theory, escalation and payoff, this feels like one of the best ‘in the moment’ methods of reviewing the show – indeed I did just that for Season 6 in my days writing for Flickering Myth.

Right then! Pour yourself (half) a cup of wine and let’s do this…

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Star Trek: Discovery, Television

Fandom, Star Trek: Discovery and its Dark Reflection

Talking about the second season of Star Trek: Discovery this year has been a difficult experience in places.

Not just because the recently concluded fourteen-episode run wasn’t a particularly good season of television—more on that here—but also thanks to the way some of the online Star Trek fandom have responded to criticism. It hasn’t been pretty for those who have suggested Season 2 might not be, at the very least, enjoyable. This I can say from experience. Before my wrap up piece, which itself has been greeted with some vitriol in certain Facebook quarters where it has been shared, I wrote the occasional episode review of Season 2 for my former website Set The Tape – specifically for the episodes Brother, An Obol for Charon and Project: Daedalus. All of these episodes I found problematic.

In sharing that opinion, I felt the full force of how troubling fandom can be.

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Star Trek: Discovery, Television

Oh, Brother! Star Trek: Discovery (Season 2)

If there is one criticism many fans would struggle to level at Season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery, it would be the classic “this is not Star Trek”.

You can understand, to a point, why some fans shouted that from the rooftops about Season 1. Bryan Fuller’s initial vision for Star Trek’s long awaited return to television alongside Alex Kurtzman resolutely set out to buck the storytelling trend you had come to expect from a franchise last on television at the tail end of a very different age. Season 1 was heavily serialised, darker, had a protagonist who had mutinied by the end of the second episode, didn’t even introduce the main ship until episode three, and had the ships Captain end up being the villain.

With hindsight, however, we never knew we had it so good with Season 1. Yes, it was a season compromised by behind the scenes complications, which may have resulted in the fractured balance of the Federation-Klingon War and Mirror Universe stories, but Season 1 pushed the boundaries of what we expected Star Trek to be. As the 90’s era wasn’t your Dad’s Star Trek, then Discovery was proving the 90’s *was* now your Dad’s Star Trek. It dropped the F-bomb. It went hard to starboard on serialisation. And it wasn’t afraid to craft protagonists like Michael Burnham or Saru (or naturally Gabriel Lorca) who were hard to like and who had to grow on us.

Season 2 in the wake of this spends fourteen episodes systematically undoing everything that made, or could have made, Discovery something special and unique. If Season 1 wasn’t Star Trek enough, then by Kahless, Season 2 absolutely was much “too Star Trek” from start to finish.

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Alias, Television

Alias – ‘Snowman’ (1×19)

If Masquerade was a busy episode of Alias that needed to function as both ostensibly the beginning of a two-part episode, and deal with the reverberations from the mid-section of the run, then Snowman ranks as one of the most disposable outings in Alias’ debut season.

Snowman in any other series would have been a two-part episode expressly designed for our protagonist Sydney Bristow to enjoy a brief romantic attachment that would in no way impinge on the formula of the show. As discussed in Masquerade, this kind of plot device would often be deployed in TV shows across the 1990’s which balanced stand-alone storytelling with a level of narrative serialisation; any number of Star Trek characters across The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager or Enterprise for example as one of the worst offenders for this trope. The problem with the character who serves this function in Alias, Noah Hicks, and the problem with Snowman in general, is that it has to function within a broader ongoing serialised narrative that is ramping up for the climactic beats of the season.

By this point in the twenty-two episode season, Sydney is simultaneously balancing her role as a double agent for the CIA inside the sinister SD-6, reeling from the revelations that her mother was secretly a KGB agent but is also in fact still alive, now aware she is central to an arcane, esoteric prophecy by a 15th century genius who predicted she could be some kind of human weapon of mass destruction *and* she is having to keep all of this secret from her two best friends, plus has steadily been developing an attachment to her CIA handler which goes beyond professional concern. Where exactly *could* any kind of meaningful love story fit amidst such a dense stack of open and ongoing plot lines? Especially when each episode has to service the majority of them at once.

Snowman ends up being an episode which focuses on the one story element that, in the long run, is never going to matter.

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