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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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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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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Star Trek: Discovery – ‘An Obol for Charon’ (2×04)

The second season of Star Trek: Discovery proves, with ‘An Obol for Charon’, that it is morphing into a show determined to serve two masters.

On the one hand, there is the kind of consistent, serialised storytelling which caused such division with the show’s first season, thanks to the ongoing search for Spock (pun very much intended) and the mystery of the ‘Red Angel’. Yet on the other, show runner Alex Kurtzman seems desperately trying to heave Discovery more in line with the 1990’s peak of the franchise on TV while continuing to imbue the series with an updated, retro-1960’s aesthetic. 

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Star Trek: Discovery – ‘Brother’ (2×01)

If not a second pilot episode, Star Trek: Discovery certainly delivers a brand new mission statement with Season 2 premiere, ‘Brother’.

Looking back on the first season of Discovery, it was not only the strongest first season of a Star Trek show since 1966, it was also the most radical. Trek’s return to television under the original auspices of Bryan Fuller, later with significant support from Alex Kurtzman after a difficult road has now emerged as show runner and steward of Trek’s modern TV revolution on CBS All Access, was designed as a refreshed update from the era that spanned the late 1980’s through to the mid-2000’s. Gone were the stand-alone episodes, the 24/25 episode seasons, even the traditional structure of network television with one eye on syndication. Discovery was living in the now.

Season 1 threw a great deal at the wall. A ship and Captain we didn’t even see or meet until the third episode, allowing the first two episodes to serve as more of a prequel epilogue than a traditional Star Trek two-part pilot of old; pure, serialised storytelling which contained character development and story tropes such as the time loop episode within a broader season-long arc; and in particular, the Captain of the ship—the inviolate hero of all Trek series of old—turned out to be the villain of the piece, not to mention the fact our main character turned out not only to be of lower rank, but a mutineer to boot! Not all of it stuck, but Discovery from day one broke the Star Trek rules with a casual, F-bomb dropping swagger of its own.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of ‘Brother’, therefore, is just how hard it works to feel like the Star Trek that long came before Discovery.

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Nostalgia & Star Trek: Picard, Discovery and the Future

Nostalgia seems to be a double edged sword right now in Hollywood. What on the surface appears to be a comforting guaranteed winner in terms of audience satisfaction and cinematic box office is becoming something of a poisoned creative chalice. The lacklustre critical (if not box-office) responses to pictures such as Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom or Ocean’s Eight, sequels to long-standing, well-regarded franchises; or Lucasfilm’s decision to put a hold on more A Star Wars Story anthology movies after the tepid box office (by Star Wars terms) of Solo, seemingly putting immediately paid to rumoured Boba Fett & Obi-Wan Kenobi-centric films. There is a nostalgia blowback in progress, the ripple effect of which we are only beginning to understand.

Is this a ripple effect that, like the Nexus in Generations, threatens to engulf the future of the Star Trek franchise?

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When did Humans become the Black Hats of Modern Fiction? Westworld, The Walking Dead & Encroaching Dystopia

When did we become the bad guys?

When I say we, I mean it in the Royal sense. A collective *we* referring to modern society. Humanity. For decades in cinema, television and half a dozen other entertainment mediums, we were the good guys. Human beings, men and women, we understood right from wrong and saved the world from monsters – demonic, alien and who knows what all. In the last few years, particularly, something has changed. Westworld is just the latest returning show in a line of hugely popular TV shows that make this very clear.

We have become the monsters we always imagined we were fighting against.

Westworld is all about the relationship between man and machine. In a near-futuristic theme park setting, where android ‘hosts’ play out narratives for human gamers (with money) so they can indulge their basest desires, the first season of Jonathan Nolan & Lisa Joy’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s original 1970’s movie was all about the confluence between machine and consciousness, tied up with the moral treatment of what are considered hardware, but steadily come to realise they are much much more. Westworld plays out as a high-concept genre thriller in the making, with philosophical overtones, but the message within Nolan & Joy’s take on Crichton’s cautionary tale is clear: we are *not* the heroes of this story.

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