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Star Trek: Voyager: Flashback (1996)
A wasted opportunity
While DS9 was spending its 30th Anniversary money "Forrest Gumping" its cast into a meticulous and affectionate tribute to The Original Series, "Voyager" went the Special Guest Star route and recruited George Takei, Grace Lee Whitney, Michael Ansara and as much of the supporting cast of "The Undiscovered Country" as we would remember. In theory, it was a fun idea (certainly TNG had luck with the TOS casting stunt a few times), but the execution was sloppy, dramatically inert and certainly underwhelming even as an average "Voyager" episode, to say nothing for an anniversary celebration.
The basic plot is uninteresting - Tuvok (already a raised flag, his was not one of the strongest characters) has memories of bad green screen effects of a girl falling off a cliff that are driving him nuts. Rooting out the memory in his mind, he and Janeway re-remember his first mission aboard the Excelsior during the events of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country." Thus, the events between scenes when we saw the Excelsior in the film are brought to light. Sulu and Rand have a couple character moments but there's nothing compelling about the mission Sulu goes on - to say it is unimaginative and full of recent modern Trek clichés like incremental percentage-weakened shields, combustible gas, anomalies, defying logic and regulations is putting it aptly. Hardly befits the clever and rather fresh take on Trek of Nicholas Meyer's film when put to comparison. Tuvok's affliction is given copious amounts of technobabble worrying by the Doctor which raises the dramatic stakes by less than zero, and everything is resolved in a way that (typically, for the talented but not detail oriented Brannon Braga) actually totally contradicts the very movie it is meant to attentively flesh out.
The main problem just comes down to the fact that George Takei was brought back to Star Trek merely to spend half of his time reenacting scenes from "Star Trek VI" or playing the same dry scenes over and over again while Tim Russ and Kate Mulgrew whisper about the day's boring events in the foreground or background. What I would have given to see an original adventure for Captain Sulu that made better use of these actors (even the wooden Grace Lee Whitney deserved a little better than she got, but she at least she was allowed to be on more than one set). Sulu and Janeway don't even have a satisfying meeting - Janeway goes out of her way to ignore him when the opportunity arises. The "emotional" climax of the film is full of bad FX and bad drama.
Season 3 of "Voyager" is actually rather fun, but to this day I still consider "Flashback" one of "Voyager's" most damning missteps. For all the fun it was to bring back those characters, it was squandered with a lazy script that did little to advance any of the characters, laughably undermined continuity it had to pay attention to and celebrated the 30th Anniversary in a way that didn't inspire much confidence in where the franchise was going.
Changing Rooms (1997)
Far superior original
For all the craze the American remake of this series, 'Trading Spaces,' has started for DIY/makeover shows, it's not hard to see the original series is still the best. 'Changing Rooms' is as much about entertaining audiences as it is educating them on how to improve the style of their homes. All the devices for building suspense and encouraging disagreements and tensions amongst the DIY teams may make this show the bane of professional interior decorators, but... well, who cares? As an entertainment show, 'Changing Rooms' is surprisingly competent. While TLC's Paige Davis is annoyingly perky and largely hands-off when it comes to actually helping with any work, Carole Smilie is a playful, charming workaholic who, refreshingly, doesn't love everything the designers come up with. As for the designers themselves, Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen stands out as a sort of larger than life, flamboyant-Hugh Grant character whose British eccentricity and humor is infectious. Like 'Trading Spaces,' this show has its reliably conservative, outrageous and annoying designers, but the program is far less reticent about editing out conflicts and (call it sensationalism, but it's still fun) between the team members and the designers. The British carpenter, Andy Kane is also far more entertaining than any of the Americans: he's funny, critical and brazen. Some will complain how 'Changing Rooms' is shorter and less detailed than its American counterpart. These people do not realize that in the UK, this show is not interrupted by BBC America's long commercial breaks, and thus the imported version has been heavily edited for time. I find the pacing and running time for the BBC America version to be an actual bonus - at an hour, 'Trading Spaces' can sometimes overstay its welcome. The American show plays around with more money and is more slickly produced, but has less charm and less (IMO) entertainment value than the British original. Give it a try.
Sports Night (1998)
Quirky, intelligent and ultimately satisfying television
'Sports Night' is a show which will always polarize the viewers who watch it. It is a dramedy not unlike 'Ally McBeal' with clever and witty yet oftentimes precious dialogue and a very distinctive style which refuses to compromise itself. Its characters are complicated and realistically frustrating in their hectic and wishy-washy personal lives. It may have been pushed as a comedy from the start, but (as the rather awkward and hesitant laugh track for the majority of the first season highlights) 'Sports Night' makes it very clear each episode that the main objective of every script is not to be laugh out loud funny, but to develop characters and relationships in a unique setting and with a unique perspective. This isn't to say the show is not funny, with its often endearingly quirky characters and situations and rapid-fire Aaron Sorkin brand(TM) of dialogue which may occasionally be too circular (and thus trying), but more often than not produces some wonderful punch lines and triumphant speeches whose poetic energy most viewers cannot help but be swept up in. Knowledge of sports is not a prerequisite, as the symbolism of sport related stories the show mentions but does not dwell on and the passion these people have for both athletics and their work reporting the news offers character development and surprising poignancy.
This show's casting was sublime, headed by Josh Charles and Peter Krause portraying two highly likeable, complicated and passionate sports anchors. The rest of the main cast, rounded out by the excellent Felicity Huffman and Robert Guillaume as well as Sabrina Lloyd and Joshua Malina inhabit characters who are unique and watchable, even as they struggle to conquer their own faults and everything from poor ratings to network pressure, personal tragedy and women named Sally. Effortless performances and unique, intelligent writing powered this series, and elevate it above mere cult status or a footnote in the careers of people who have and will go on to bigger things. The show thankfully has an agreeable finale, though it did deserve a better sampling and thus further seasons. The critical praise was there and always will be however, for rarely is television so focused and so smartly realized, so different. It is out now on DVD, and deserves to be sought out and enjoyed by the curious and those weary of conventional and generic television.