The A.V. Club

Here are samples of my pop culture writing for The A.V. Club. A complete archive of my work for the site is available here.

Enterprise was forever torn between our future and Star Trek’s past

TV Club 10. August 6, 2014.

Star Trek’s fundamental promise has always been to boldly go where no one has gone before, but, by 2001, there really wasn’t anywhere left to go. The overlapping runs of The Next GenerationDeep Space Nine, and Voyager meant that the franchise had crammed 21 seasons into just 14 years, leaving precious little of the 24th century unexplored. Deep Space Nine’s Dominion War had brought the complex political and interpersonal dynamics betweenStar Trek’s various alien cultures to a rousing crescendo, whileVoyager’s particular fondness for dizzyingly high-concept plots had blurred the line between 24th century technology and outright magic. In retrospect, given the creative exhaustion of its production team and the increasingly toxic nature of its fandom, the smart decision probably would have been to just let Star Trek rest for a few years, to give everyone involved a chance to miss it and to remember why they loved it in the first place.

But since the realities of television production don’t really allow for such self-imposed hiatuses, longtime producers Rick Berman and Brannon Braga attempted to take Star Trek back to basics by returning to the tried-and-true format of an intrepid starship captain leading his crew into deep space on a multi-year mission of exploration. More than that, Enterprise would feature the first Starfleet vessel to bear that legendary name. Over a century before Captain Kirk and his crew journeyed through the galaxy in their Enterprise, the Constitution-class NCC-1701, this new show would chart the exploits of Captain Jonathan Archer and the EnterpriseNX-01, the first human vessel capable of warp five travel—far slower than any of the later Star Trek ships, but fast enough for these early days of exploration. The show would be set in 2151, placing it in Star Trek’s distant past… but also the audience’s far future.

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The Flash is cluttered but promising superhero fun

Pre-air TV Review. October 6, 2014.

As the starting point for the televised adventures of DC Comics’ scarlet speedster, the pilot for The Flash sits somewhere between workmanlike and overstuffed. Part of the reason is that this series premiere isn’t really the beginning for Grant Gustin’s Barry Allen. That came last year, in a pair of Arrow episodes that introduced the character as a wunderkind police scientist, a ridiculously boyish—this is a CW show, after all—sleuth with a tragic past and a love of all things superhero. This spin-off, then, has to expand upon and recontextualize Barry’s Arrow appearance, which ended with him being struck by a fateful bolt of lightning, into something that is solely his story, while also introducing the rest of the regular cast, setting up the requisite soap opera elements, telling a condensed version of a Flash superhero story, and hinting at more serialized narrative threads. All that, plus Barry’s best friend Oliver Queen might just stop by to wish him luck.

With so much to accomplish and so little time in which to do it, the premiere never stands much chance of telling a unified, coherent story. Instead, the Flash pilot works as a Whitman’s sampler of plot points that can develop into story arcs over the course of the season. There’s Barry’s journey toward becoming this universe’s first true superhero, one that he embarks upon with his tech support allies at S.T.A.R. Labs. There is his nascent to nonexistent romance with Candice Patton’s Iris West, Barry’s comics-approved love interest. There is the unsolved mystery of the murder of Barry’s mother, a crime for which his wrongly accused father (John Wesley Shipp, who played the Flash in the 1990 TV version) remains in prison. There is the looming threat of those who gained powers from the same particle accelerator explosion that gave Barry his super-speed. There are hints of outlandish science-fiction elements that go far beyond anything yet seen on Arrow. There’s even a smattering of police procedural in here, because apparently every show needs at least a smattering of police procedural these days.

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Doctor Who: “Mummy On The Orient Express”

Weekly TV Review. October 11, 2014.

When the time comes to write the final accounting of the 12th Doctor—and hopefully we won’t need to do that for a little while yet—“Mummy On The Orient Express” will loom large. This episode is a triumph for Peter Capaldi, allowing him to turn in his most Doctor-ish performance while continuing to explore and deconstruct just what that nebulous term even means. The Doctor takes casual command of investigating a mystery he knew, or at least really hoped, he was walking into. He knows immediately how he can use the train’s various crewmembers and passengers against the mummy and against the unseen Gus, sizing up Perkins the engineer as a worthwhile ally, Captain Quell as someone he must prod and cajole toward doing anything useful, and Professor Morehouse as little more than a source of information, even in his dying moments. He accepts his role as a researcher in Gus’ grossly immoral experiment, only stepping out of his role as curious scientist and into his more familiar role as crusading hero when he feels he has a decent shot of defeating his adversaries. But even then, as he admits to Clara later in a moment of rare, unvarnished honesty, that sacrifice on Maisie’s behalf was just as cold and calculated as his clinical observation of Quell and Morehouse’s deaths.

In discussing the casting process for the 12th Doctor, showrunner Steven Moffat has said that the screen test for Peter Capaldi involved giving the actor the most impossible monologues, full of ludicrous exposition and constant hairpin emotional turns, because that’s what being the Doctor entails. And that describes the vast majority of the Doctor’s lines in “Mummy On The Orient Express,” with no finer example than the climactic sequence in which the Doctor works out the Foretold’s true nature while also processing Maisie’s emotional damage. That monologue, like so much of the rest of the Doctor’s material in this episode, underlines how words are his greatest advantage. With the Doctor, words are a weapon more deadly than any gun, and they are a tool more powerful than even the sonic screwdriver. In recent years, the Doctor has admitted on more than one occasion that he doesn’t actually know what his plan is until he finishes talking, and Capaldi nails that sense of total unpredictability, of the surprise that comes with every new discovery about the mummy’s identity and about the mistreatment Maisie suffered at her grandmother’s hands. Indeed, he only gets involved because he lays awake in his bed debating the precise percentage of his confidence that everything is fine; it’s just one of a few moments in the episode where the Doctor’s penchant for talking to himself effectively makes him his own companion.

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