Star Trek: Discovery – ‘Context is for Kings’

Spending the first two episodes on a prologue was a bold move by Star Trek: Discovery, committing itself to establishing the foundations of the larger story to come rather than filling it in with exposition and flashbacks. We met Michael Burnham as a capable and respected officer, so her fall from grace in this episode makes an impact.

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Star Trek: Discovery

SPOILERS for the first two episodes of Discovery.

Star Trek is back on television where it belongs, and it’s brought the movies with it.

Star Trek: Discovery is a different beast from its predecessors, with the production values of today’s most extravagant prestige TV and the grammar and aesthetic of cinema, all in service of a serialised story. After the relentlessly stand-alone Voyager and the sputtering Enterprise, Star Trek was crying out for a TV upgrade to take advantage of the innovations it failed to heed in the waning years of its last TV era. It now has, producing perhaps Trek’s most broadly appealing series to date, but this particular storyline still has to prove itself.

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Twin Peaks season 3 parts 17-18: a stunning, frustrating ending

The finale of Twin Peaks is so audaciously impenetrable that forming conclusions at this early stage feels foolish. In the final 80 minutes of the series, David Lynch presents a sequence of events that not only defies comprehension, it is so untethered from our understanding of the series to date that he forces us to rely only on feelings and intuition. The more we try to solve the puzzle rationally, the less relevant it seems. We are asked to make peace with that, although the merits of that approach on a TV series bearing the name Twin Peaks are debatable.

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Twin Peaks season 3, part 8: something has emerged

What did we witness on Twin Peaks this week?

Part 8 is unlike anything that has ever aired on television. Even calling it an installment of a TV show feels reductive: this hour will cast such a long shadow on the surrounding ones that it qualifies as a distinct work. Fortunately, it was also a stunning, satisfying, and – for a surreal Lynchian fantasia – surprisingly cogent experience. Unpacking and comprehending what we just saw will take time, but we certainly experienced something significant.

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Twin Peaks season 3, parts 1-7: fresh, surprising, and sprawling

When you anticipate the return of a TV show as intensely as I did that of Twin Peaks, the experience of finally watching it is dizzying. Trying to assess it on its own merits while preconceptions dominate your thoughts is bewildering. The more the final product diverges from those expectations, the less trustworthy any reservations seem. And David Lynch and Mark Frost’s choices are certainly surprising.

Here at the end of part seven, Twin Peaks is manifesting momentum and purpose. But for the previous few hours, the show threatened to be a meandering mood piece, toggling between absurd comedy, glacial character drama, and sudden violence. Lynch’s execution of the script he co-wrote with Frost is rife with jarring ideas that seem debatable at this point in the journey. Some sequences and moments are unambiguously successful: off-beat but thrillingly so. Others are so self-consciously atonal or naff that their appeal will be much narrower.

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Twin Peaks: a TV revival like no other

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Twin Peaks returns to television today.

For fans left hanging for decades by the cliffhanger ending of the original series, this is still hard to process. The immense secrecy around the project makes it even harder to imagine what’s coming. The elusive Twin Peaks narrative has spread into the real world surrounding it.

Long-time fans are naturally eager, but media coverage reveals pronounced interest where you might expect to find cynicism. Franchise resurrection – and criticism of it – is now de rigueur and has spread from film to TV, including The X-Files, Gilmore Girls, Prison Break, and many more. Twin Peaks might understandably be treated as yet another dubious instance.

But quite the contrary: has any TV revival after a long absence felt like such a worthy creative venture and been treated as such? Or at least a risk worth taking? Healthy skepticism is out there, but the prevailing mood is acceptance and curiosity rather than dismay at the reanimation of a long-dead property. Top publications are venerating the show with few caveats. Even Sight and Sound put the show on its cover. Why?

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Legion

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Legion is the evolution of the superhero screen adaptation. It’s hard to overstate how intrinsically it differs from nearly every prior film or TV show about a Marvel or DC character. Confidently blazing a new trail with little need for the genre’s well-worn touchstones, the series is riveting. It’s as if a gonzo director bought the rights for peanuts when the genre was down on its luck, ignored most of the property, and used it as a playground for their crazy vision.

But this is no Jodorowsky Dune adaptation conjured up on the fringes of the mainstream. This is a co-production between erstwhile rivals Fox (owner of screen rights to the lucrative X-Men franchise) and Marvel TV (responsible for the Netflix Marvel shows set in the company’s cinematic universe, which notoriously does not include the X-Men). For both, this is a rare venture into avant-garde weirdness. Intertextually ambitious as the Marvel Studios films may be, Doctor Strange’s visual flourishes are the extent of their experimental storytelling. Legion, on the other hand, is experimental to its core, with an unreliable narrator for a protagonist who forces us to question the validity of everything we see.

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Episodes

Episode 303

Episodes is mainly known as that show in which Matt LeBlanc plays himself. Beyond that it hasn’t received much attention, quietly chugging along for the last few years for a loyal audience. I expected that if I ever got around to watching it, I’d find something adequate but superfluous.

To my surprise, it’s a vigorous, acid-tongued delight and worth catching up with before the fifth and final season arrives later this year. The experience is a reminder that in the saturated age of Peak TV, minimal buzz isn’t the reliable filter that it used to be.

The premise, at least, always sounded irresistible. British comedy writers Sean and Beverly Lincoln (Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig) have an acclaimed TV show about the trials of an overweight British private school headmaster (Richard Griffiths). After they accept an offer to remake it for American television, their vision is torn apart by oblivious network executives who warp it into a show about a high school hockey coach played by Matt LeBlanc. Worse, LeBlanc turns out to be callous, amoral, and dysfunctional. Trapped in a creative nightmare, Sean and Beverly have to somehow churn out a show they now despise.

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11.22.63

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SPOILERS below the cut

The catalyst for everything that happens in 11.22.63 should have tipped me off that this mini-series would have fundamental flaws. The main character travels back to 1960 to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. How? Through a time portal in the back room of a diner.

As a means of time travel it’s more suited to a fairy tale or a sketch comedy than a serious drama. The script doesn’t even bother to distract us from how arbitrary a plot device it is. But for the first few episodes, the contrivance is forgivable because it efficiently ushers us into the unabashed fun that the premise creates. In one of his periodic shifts sideways into unexpected jobs for a movie star, James Franco plays Jake Epping, a Maine schoolteacher recruited by his old friend Al (Chris Cooper), owner of the diner, to save JFK. He moves to Texas and spends three years preparing, including by spying on Lee Harvey Oswald. If he determines that Oswald acted alone, Jake will kill him to change the future.

The opening episodes have a Back to the Future appeal as we watch Franco adjust to life in the early 1960s, often failing to hide his 21st century perspectives and speech pattern. Watching him track down alleged key players in the assassination conspiracy has a meta thrill. This period of American political history has become so culturally iconic that it feels mythical and almost fictional in what a strange loose end it remains. 11.22.63 understands how exciting it would be to follow a contemporary of ours crossing that divide and watching it unfold around him.

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Riverdale: Pilot

riverdaleIs Riverdale an admirably bizarre experiment? Or a desperate reconfiguration of recognisable intellectual property that darkens a cheerful vintage text as a shortcut to sexy?

A live-action TV adaptation of the Archie comics that morphs a classically wholesome piece of Americana into a teen soap murder mystery in which Archie sleeps with his teacher is certainly one of the more provocative overhauls of recent years. But if you’re a network looking for yet another comic book property to adapt and Archie is one of the few icons left, how else do you make it viable?

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Sense8 to date: Season One and the Christmas Special

sense8-3Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon are spending enormous amounts on original shows. In the frantic race to stay ahead, some of that money will inevitably be thrown at underdeveloped projects. Netflix’s Sense8 is Exhibit A. An enormous budget and vast resources have been lavished on a script with a fatal lack of believability and momentum.

If only these problems had been overcome, because Sense8’s philosophy is admirable and valuable in our divisive political climate. Creators the Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski have built a show around the importance of empathy and love. Eight strangers from around the world become telepathically connected, able to share thoughts, skills, and experiences that give them new insights into humanity and themselves as they navigate their day-to-day lives.

To reinforce the scope of their connection, the series doesn’t simulate their home countries from a single production base as most shows are forced to. Sense8 actually filmed in the US, the UK, Mexico, Iceland, Kenya, Germany, South Korea, India, and more. Even the whole cast made the trip, flying around the world despite appearing only as visions in each other’s minds. The effort made behind the scenes intensifies their bond on a meta level.

Considered as a lushly filmed travelogue, Sense8 is a treat; rarely does scripted TV show us so much of the world. And Netflix, eager to make a mark, was willing to pay for it based on the first three scripts. But if they assumed the story would gather steam, they must be disappointed. The show’s lack of buzz – compare Sense8’s cultural footprint with that of SF stablemate Stranger Things – is likely a direct result. A show this expensive can’t afford such narrative inertia unless the character work is supremely confident and effective. Sadly, it’s not.

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