What I am Watching: Twin Peaks and Star Trek: Voyager (the back-end of season two)

Twin Peaks – Seasons One and Two: A classic series that still holds up.

I am a big David Lynch fan, but sadly I was a bit too young to catch his and Mark Frost’s much lauded television series Twin Peaks during its first run. It’s the story of the investigation of a murder of a young woman named Laura Palmer, in a the sleepy town of Twin Peaks, by F.B.I. agent Dale Cooper. While this seems like a straight-forward premise, the town, Laura Palmer, and Agent Cooper, have strange layers to them which lead to a mysterious underbelly filled with dark turns and supernatural undertones. With the advent of a third season, which will premiere on May 21, 2017 on Showtime, I decided there was no better time than now to catch up on the two seasons which aired from 1990-1991.

My first impression is that the show has stood up to the test of time. When I did a series rewatch of The X Files a few years back to prepare for Season 10, I was amazed at how aged the early seasons looked compared to later seasons. Twin Peaks manages to look fresh even with some of its 90s wardrobe and hair choices. It helps that the show is mostly set around nature, so the 1990s could very well be 2017 in a sleepy town that doesn’t feel it has to be caught up with the times.

Although the long pilot episode is very cinematic and intriguing, it also felt clunky in spots – there was way too much stuffed into it, making it difficult to follow every character thread and sub plot. Perhaps a certain level of uncertainty as to whether or not the show would be picked up for a whole season forced Lynch and Frost to lay as much out on the table as possible in the time allotted. For this very reason there is a closed ended version of the pilot where Laura Palmer’s killer is revealed, which can create even more confusion if you are a first time viewer – I know because I started with it by mistake.

Once the first episode begins it’s clear that Twin Peaks received a better production budget and zeal. The look of the show is sleeker and there are more visual details added to each scene. The characters also feel more rounded and nuanced. Gone is the barrage of information fed to us at once in the pilot, and we are left with a series that takes its time to unravel.

There is very little to fault in Season One of the Twin Peaks. My only big criticism is of David Lynch’s heavy use of the same stylistic themes of his earlier film Blue Velvet, where he explores suburban American melodrama with sarcastic winks and nods scattered throughout. It’s a persistent joke that sometimes doesn’t find the right balance with the earnestly comedic aspects of the series and the darker themes which are present – more specifically the murder of Laura Palmer and the dreams, evil undercurrents, and visions which accompany the tragedy. I also wasn’t so interested in the romances that were blooming; they felt forced and “too dreamy,” but again, that is Lynch playing with his satire of American soap operas – and going a bit overboard.

Season Two is where things get controversial. Even before watching the show, I knew that it was a general consensus that the second half of Season Two was horrible. The story goes that ABC famously pressured Lynch and Frost to reveal Laura Palmer’s murderer, when they in fact wanted to keep this a mystery for a very long time to come. Although the episodes that lead up to the revelation are just as satisfying and creepy as the bulk of season one, what comes after is a show that changed tone completely.

This doesn’t mean that the show became “horrible,” though. Twin Peaks simply became a different show with a lot of the same mystery themes. The difference is that there wasn’t a foreboding shadow hanging over the town anymore, so these mysteries that were unraveled felt much more tangible – in essence it became a bizarre sort of soap opera instead of lampooning one. The meat of the show were now the back-stabbings, and double crossings, and FBI raids, while still retaining a good dose of humour (both David Lynch and David Duchovny in their respective guest spots are responsible for the latter). Again, the weakest link of the series was its attempts at romance – the love stories felt flat and inconsequential to the main story line. There is a great article from Slate that makes a good case for season two being a mini-treasure. You should check it out by clicking here.

I am fairly certain that for someone back in 1991, who had to wait a week for the plot to move ahead at slug’s pace, the apparent lack of focus of the show after mid-season became frustrating and resulted in the ratings drop which killed the series. With the benefit of the internet and binge watching, the back end of Twin Peaks doesn’t feel as ploddingly slow. A new villain, who had been foreshadowed before, adds a thread of suspense – although, he is much less threatening when he finally shows up than the allusion to him. And the original antagonist of the show does play a heavy role in the last few episodes.

In short, season two of Twin Peaks didn’t rub me the wrong way. Despite a handful of inconsequential sub-plots, it felt like it knew where it wanted to go with the main story, and it got there resolutely. David Lynch came back at the end of the series to wrap it up in his iconic surrealist fashion, and we were left with on of television’s biggest and longest cliffhangers.

The series as a whole is a real pleasure to watch. Twin Peaks is a true master class in how television could be way before it became what it currently is. It’s nearly impossible to find a show today that somehow hasn’t been influenced by Lynch and Frost’s mini-masterpiece. The effects of the show are felt in the wave of serialized storytelling, quirky characters, spooky backdrop, conspiracy theory story threads, supernatural mythology, and of course, cinematic scope brought to the small screen. Twin Peaks is truly the grand daddy of modern television. I recommend the series to anyone on a retro trip or who loves television, it will probably make you appreciate the shows you watch today even more and make you catch the various nods they give to the series – the final scene of Stranger Things being one of the most recent.

 

Star Trek: Voyager (second half of season two) – better than the first half.

 

Star Trek shows usually take up to three seasons to get rolling on all cylinders and Voyager is no different. I was getting frustrated by the first half of season two, because with a premise as great as the show has (two very different crews stuck on the same starship on the other side of the galaxy) it very rarely plays on it. The Voyager crew and adventures should have the friction and other-world fascination of DS9, but they trade it off for the chumminess and familiarity of TNG and TOS.

But just as I accepted that Voyager isn’t trying to work a long story arch angle, like the fabulous DS9, or stretch itself beyond it’s cruise control limits, it seemed the show responded with better offerings. The episodes are story-of-the-week type material and the reset button is firmly pressed at the end of each adventure, but at least there was some good adventure and some gripping drama. There was also an episode where we discover that humans will eventually evolve into slugs and Captain Janeway mates with one of her officers while in slug form – not a highlight.

Speaking of Captain Janeway, though, she finally made me have a few excited geek moments this season as she showed her might and fearlessness in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Her meeting with herself and dealings with a hostile alien race in the episode “Deadlock” solidified her in my mind as a worthy Trek captain – although some of the stupid decisions that she makes to put Voyager and its crew right on death’s door loses her some points too.

Sometimes Janeway is too trusting of the alien world around her, and mixes her Starfleet love for exploration (and discovering new life and new civilizations) for the urgent need to get her ship home as quickly and safely as possible. I am curious to see how she is portrayed as the series goes on, and if any of the crew question her decisions to make pit stops.

The back end of season 2 of Star Trek: Voyager also produced one of the best episodes in Trek history, “Death Wish.”

The story is about a Q (later named Quinn) who wants to leave the Q Continuum so he can  commit suicide and thus seeks asylum on Voyager. Captain Janeway must preside over his fate while the Q that we already know from earlier Star Trek, played fabulously by John de Lancie, pleads against the asylum, as killing oneself is against the Q order.

Lt. Commander Tuvok acts as a defense attorney for Q/Quinn in a court room drama unlike many seen before. Not only does the episode tackle the serious real world issues of suicide, capital punishment, the relative meaning of suffering, it also gives us more insight into the Q Continuum. Above all, it exemplifies how much the Star Trek philosophy values freedom of choice and independent thought above collectivism.

The speech that Q/Quinn gives to explain how his suffering is warranting of suicide stands as one of the most powerful things ever filmed for a Star Trek series. Here are bits of his dialogue from that powerful scene extracted from The Voyager Transcripts web page. :

QUINN: When I was a respected philosopher, I celebrated the continuity, the undeviation of Q life. I argued that our civilisation had achieved a purity that no other culture had ever approached. And it was wonderful, for a while. At the beginning of the New Era, life as a Q was a continuous dialogue of discovery and issues and humour from all over the universe. But look at them now. Listen to their dialogue now … it has all been said. Everyone has heard everything, seen everything. They haven’t had to speak to each other in ten millennia. There’s nothing left to say.

Q: Well, I don’t know about you, but I appreciate a little peace and quiet now and again.

QUINN: It’s ironic, isn’t it, Q. … That you of all people should be arguing their case. You, who were banned from the Continuum and made mortal to pay for your crimes? … in many ways, that life inspired me. You see, Captain, Q rebelled against this existence by refusing to behave himself. He was out of control. He used his powers irresponsibly and all for his own amusement. And he desperately needed amusement, because he could find none here at home.
But for a moment there, you really had our attention. My attention. You gave us something to talk about. But then you surrendered to the will of the Continuum like a good little Q, and may I say that you’ve become a fine, upstanding member of the Continuum. But I miss the irrepressible Q, the one who forced me to think. … I continued to speak out in favour of self-termination. … I was the greatest threat the Continuum had ever known. They feared me so much they had to lock me away for eternity. And when they did that, they were saying that the individual’s rights will be protected only so long as they don’t conflict with the state. Nothing is so dangerous to a society. My life’s work is complete, but they force immortality on me, and when they do that they cheapen and denigrate my life and all life in the Continuum. All life. Captain, you’re an explorer. What if you had nothing left to explore? Would you want to live forever under those circumstances? You want me to prove to you that I suffer in terms that you can equate with pain or disease. Look at us. When life has become futile, meaningless, unendurable, it must be allowed to end. Can’t you see, Captain? For us, the disease is immortality.

I am on to season three of Star Trek: Voyager. I surely do hope the series gets a bit stronger. I know that there is one busty new cast member awaiting me in the near future.

Read my thoughts on Oscar nominated Moonlight and the Doctor Who 2016 Christmas Special by clicking here.

Read what I thought of The OA and the first half of Voyager Season Two by clicking here.

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P. Ray

 

 

 

 

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