Since I managed to see four of the nominees in this category in my normal watching habits, fitting USS Callister and a short track didn’t seem like much of an ask. It’s also worth noting that I nominated three things in this category: Badwater from Alice Isn’t Dead, Michael’s Gambit and Dance Dance Resolution from The Good Place. Given one of these got nominated, it’s clearly going to be top of my list, right?
Again, all of these are a little bit spoilery.
USS Callister, Black Mirror (TV episode)
A man plays virtual star trek with simulacra of his colleagues.
What makes this episode so good, is that it starts with a bait and switch: we think we are getting the story of an awkward man who only really fits in the imaginary world that he literally built, but it’s really about the girl he virtually abducts. Even before the twist, we know things aren’t right: the captain destroys the enemy ship after it is crippled, and he receives adoring praise for completing his mission. USS Callister is almost prescient in identifying entitled men who venerate utopian science fiction without realising that the point of a utopia is that it extends to everyone. That it backs it up with a theological question, what should you aspire to if you are trapped in hell with a vengeful god, is icing on the cake.
The visual aesthetic is also perfect, nailing the retro-futurism of original star trek, from the sexist uniforms to the titular ship looking like a cross between a Romulan bird of prey and the original Enterprise. All this is in high definition, with the colours having a brightness that is evocative of the 60’s, but were never captured on trek.
Tonally, the show is not a dark comedy but instead whiplashes between dark drama and silly comedy, with one undercutting the other. Through this, Cristin Milloti’s dual performances anchor the show, and she manages to navigates the tonal shifts flawlessly. She presents an adoring fan girl and a determined, exceptional hacker as two sides of the same character, and when she takes the chair, there is no doubt that she deserves it.
A dark take on utopian science fiction.
The Deep by Clipping (Song/audio performance)
The aquatic descendants of slaves get their revenge.
I don’t know how to parse this, but it felt like a modern, more lyrical take on war of the worlds.
Weird, hypnotic, and at five minutes long, well worth your time.
Twice upon a Time, Dr Who (TV episode)
Two Doctors fighting regeneration run into a lost soldier and some time travelers who want him back.
David Bradley is magnificent as the first Doctor: prickly, stubborn, and smart as a whip. The show also gets excellent mileage out of poking fun at the mysogony of a character from the 1960’s.1 Unfortunately, this episode was a big let down in every other way – the return of Bill felt unnecessary2, the time travellers motives were not original or particularly well done, and the places visited silly. The worst sin however was the ending: I hope I misunderstood it, because if I didn’t it was the worst use of time travel in Doctor Who since Under the Lake/Before the Flood. I don’t understand how a comic about paper girls can have a firmer grasp on time travel then a show that has been writing about it for half a century.
Worth it only for the First Doctor, and the new one.
Michel’s Gambit and The Trolley Problem, The Good Place (TV show)
I’m going to treat these together. The Good Place was one of the best shows of last year, and these are two of the best episodes. As a show set in the afterlife, it offers a heady mix of moral philosophy, well-rounded characters, and great sight gags. I nominated Michel’s Gambit, because it represented the culmination and zenith of the first season, and has possibly the single greatest acting moment I have ever seen on television.3 I nominated Dance, Dance Resolution because I think it was the best episode the show has done so far, burning through what I thought would be almost a season of plot in 20 minutes, and keeping me in hysterics almost the entire time.
Unfortunately, The Trolley Problem was nominated, being probably the second best episode in season two. In the end I ranked it over Michel’s gambit, partially because it does something extremely difficult – turn a discussion of a moral gedankenexperiment into a riveting half hour of comedy, without shirking the moral philosophy, and partially because while I liked Michel’s Gambit more, it requires watching a whole season to appreciate, while I think the Trolley Problem is an episode a neophyte could watch and get what is great about the Good Place.
Please just watch the Good Place from the beginning.
Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad, Star Trek: Discovery (TV episode)
The crew let their hair down, again and again and again.
I get why this was nominated. It was an episode of Star Trek. I don’t mean in the literal sense, I mean that it felt like an episode of the Next Generation (Cause and Effect) or Deep Space Nine (Visionary), as opposed to whatever tone the rest of Discovery was going for. And it was a pretty good episode; of the episodes of discovery I watched,4 it was the best one (not counting the opening sequence of the first episode). Unfortunately, I felt it lacked the moral depth, novel sci-fi take, or cool character moment that sets the best Star Trek episodes apart. It’s extremely revealing of the problems of the season that the one episode of Star Trek that doesn’t grapple with moral problems is the one that people latched onto.
A good episode of Star Trek.
- The Trolley Problem
- Michel’s Gambit
- USS Callister
- The Deep
- Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad
- Twice Upon a Time
I’ve already discussed how I chose between my first two – if I had put Michel’s Gambit first I might have put USS Callister second, though that, and my placing of the actual Star Trek episode below The Deep, may have more to do with my residual ill will towards Discovery.5 Twice Upon a Time was the only real disappointment on the list, though it succeeded in making me look forward to the new season.
- While a big Dr Who fan, my first doctor was Tom Baker, and the only Hartnell I’ve seen was an episode of the Dalek Invasion of Earth I caught on TV years ago
- And this was after waving away her sacrifice at the end of last season.
- You’ll know it when you see it.
- I stopped at mid-season and haven’t come back yet.
- See also my appreciation of the Orville despite its gaping flaws.