Sunday, 4 June 2017

Lessons from the Past in "Divided We Stand"

Continues is back!!!

It doesn't seem that long since we were watching and reviewing The White Iris (it was only May!) but here we are with Divided We Stand. Be warned, I guarantee there will be spoilers.

Opening straight into the heart of peril, we find the USS Enterprise at the mercy of a strange life-form which has invaded the computer systems from the Friendship Three probe and is scanning through all the ships records. Just when it looks like the situation is about to be resolved, a freak explosion plunges Kirk and McCoy seemingly back in time to the American Civil War and the eve of the Battle of Antietam Creek (aka Sharpsburg) in 1862.

From the end of the titles we effectively have two stories in play. First there's the Kirk/McCoy story as they become involved in the events leading up to the battle. Kirk takes the role of a Union corporal while Bones is a Confederate sergeant. The latter is "captured" by the northern army but quickly becomes useful thanks to his medical skills in the field. Then there's Enterprise crew's efforts to save their colleagues lives - as it turns out the whole civil war experience is just in their heads caused by some nanite-like creatures who are gradually killing them.

Divided We Stand is satisfyingly different from previous episodes as we've dealt with gods, Orions, the Mirror Universe and mental illness before dropping on a time travel/history episode.  I'd only recently watched Starship Farragut's For Want of a Nail which takes place during the War of Independence so I was well geared up for another taste of US history and this was a level above that 2007 effort with a great deal of outdoor location work and some truly great performances all round. 

While there is clearly an exploration of war, cowardice and bravery, we do have the more booming theme of freedom bearing down from the very start of the episode. It's "hinted" at from the name of the troublesome Earth probe the Enterprise encounters and in dealing with the topic of the American Civil War in which slavery was a decisive matter, there's going to be no escaping the discussion. OK, so there's immediate concerns from Kirk and McCoy about becoming too embroiled in events that may or may not be real and thereby changing history but with a brief bit of narrative exposition we're up and running onto the more important themes of the story/

Of the two regulars, Vic Mignogna as Kirk is given a lot more time since he is out on the front lines and is placed into a terrifying situation that McCoy (Chuck Huber) must resolve. It's one of the great moments of the episode I'm surprised that Mignogna didn't play the trauma of it a little greater than he did but there's only 42 minutes of episode so we have to get a move on I suppose! Huber is excellent as always as McCoy, having to deal with basic medical practices and the nightmares of the battlefield as well as saving the life of his commanding officer. Chuck has the southern doc down-pat and for me he's one of the shining lights of Continues adding a little more compassion and a little less grump to McCoy.

What they do play on with this story is the matter of oppression and segregation that in some respects still rages across the world today. It is most evident because of the source material and the nature of the war but we still manage to divert into points regarding honour and the weight of history in how people are remembered and for what.

On the ship Spock (Todd Haberkorn) is once more in command as the medical staff struggle to battle the infection taking over Kirk and McCoy. Why they were exactly reacting the same to stimulus is a little confusing since they weren't at exactly the precise same place all the time but I guess we can let it slide since they are technically in the same place. Fairest of Them All was much more Haberkorn's episode to chew out as the Mirror Spock and here his role is pretty straight-forward. Not having McCoy to bounce off when we have the captain incapacitated does mean that the emotionless Vulcan doesn't get challenged to any degree and while it's great to have a Kirk/McCoy episode, I think Spock could have done with being at least a little more on edge given the state of his two closest friends.

Aiding him though is Chris Doohan as Scotty whose engineering skills are called into action but he sadly doesn't have a great deal to do other than that this time round. Getting a lot more exposure in his first Continues outing is Dr M'Benga played by Martin Bradford.

M'Benga is the latest canon character to board the ship and just manages to swerve to the side of hamming it up although his "serious eyebrow" and furrowed brow do come into play a lot. That said I really enjoyed his performance all the way through and maybe his straight, almost logical performance was a calming influence on Spock. As for the other recurring cast they really are, sadly, sidelined. Grant Imahara is there and gone in a few seconds; Chekov and Uhura barely get a couple of sentences each while Kipleigh Brown's Lieutenant Smith might be there at the navigation station but she's again only given a fleeting few lines of dialogue to handle. Chekov however does help make a dangerously big leap of plot in the aid of the story, suggesting that Kirk and McCoy are trapped in some form of illusionary recreation of the Civil War after he discovers what was being examined by the nano-machines at the time of the explosion on the bridge.

Even Michelle Specht's Doctor McKennah has a fleeting appearance (boo) that feels forced just to give her a few lines and remind viewers that she's a part of the crew and that Spock may be having some emotional issues with the situation regarding his friends. 

To be fair Marc Cushman and Susan Osborn's script (from a story by Vic Mignogna) doesn't present a great deal of action or suspense and instead once more delves into what Continues seems to do best and use only a select couple of characters to tell a character-driven story. The dialogue is fairly brisk too, moving us swiftly from one point to another and I do believe that Vic is sounding like William Shatner even more everyday. There's certainly points within this story where the lines could easily be directly from a classic episode and that certainly resonated with me in relation to the captain. I wouldn't class it as hammy either and given what other Star Trek fan episodes and films have been around, I think this is one of the best jobs so far. I'm not saying it's gold-plated but there weren't any moments I truly cringed at and I think the writers produced something here that was thoughtful and avoided all the subtlety of a sledgehammer given the subject matter.

Martin Bradford, as I noted is a great addition and I hope to see him back but there's also Scotty Whitehurst as the young Billy Palmerson is key to the civil war encounter and does a very good job at pulling off the inexperienced and scared young man pitched into a bloodbath. Of all the characters within the episode he is the one who perhaps takes the longest journey from a timid "boy" sickened at the sight of McCoy pulling a bullet from the chest of his sergeant to a soldier leading a deadly charge to turn the tide of the battle. Palmerson might well be influenced by Kirk in his change of heart but Scotty Whitehurst manages not to jump from one extreme to another and certainly grows his character as the story progresses. There's a nice little parallel on the Enterprise with a personal sacrifice as well but it's nothing in comparison to that which young Billy makes.

As for the settings, well we don't get that new Engineering set just yet (!) and all of the ship scenes are effectively confined to the bridge and sickbay so there's nothing new in that respect. When it comes to the outdoor scenes, Continues has performed a master-stroke. I suspect it's fairly easy(ish) to get a recreation organisation to get together as your background cast but filming outside can't have been the easiest thing and for that the production must be commended. 

Vic's direction is steady and does the job more than adequately, sticking to basics since this is a very "talky" episode which relies on us, the viewer, being up close with the characters a lot of the time. Fortunately we aren't treated to some sort of bloodbath episode which is all about the glory of war or how the US was formed and I think it's a good call to steer clear of such matters instead resting the narrative on the more human aspects that all those involved encountered. There is, of course, a bit of action but only using that tool for a matter of a minute or two is all that's needed to remind us of the setting for our story. 

Divided We Stand is another solid episode from the Continues stable and means we're taking note of everything that comes from this production team. Only thing that did annoy me here was that we've had to revert to using deadly infection/computer attack to work out a story and this concept does feel very tired by this point. It might have worked in the '60's in original Star Trek but now it's been overplayed so many times you would expect more. Perhaps what is also missing except for a few lines in the pre-titles sequence is that spark between Kirk/Spock/McCoy that Continues has worked so well to maintain. Separating the trio is always a good tool but as I've said already, it does seem to work against the story in some ways.

Coming off the back of Fairest of them All and The White Iris, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed, Divided We Stand is a bit of a let down. Why? Because of the calibre of episodes that Continues has been producing. Every one has been a magnificent effort, well acted, well thought out and crisply presented on schedule and well packaged for the Star Trek-hungry audience and maintaining that level has to be a near-impossible challenge. Here we do have something, again, different, a piece of history Star Trek has never visited and one I didn't expect to encounter. It's not the best one of the five but we can see how things are moving on, how stable the cast is and how much this series is a work by fans that means to deliver every time.

What did you think to Divided We Stand? A good episode? Or not?

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