Star Trek: The Teetering Foundations

By the time Star Trek: Enterprise premiered in 2002 the Star Trek franchise was facing two serious obstacles that it has never really overcome. Both, ironically enough, relate to technology.

The first was the changing face of television. Cable television had rewritten the face of TV, making dozens and dozens of entertainment options available to most people at any given time. When broadcast TV was limited to a handful of channels TV shows didn’t have to instantly enrapture their audience in order to hold their interest, there just weren’t that many places they could go to find alternatives. Star Trek shows rarely hit on all cylinders in their first season but as one of the few TV scifi franchises available to viewers it got some leeway. Now there are dozens of options available to audiences and securing an audience is difficult if you don’t grab them immediately.

In truth, this has been an obstacle to all aspiring TV shows for the last twenty years or so, but the market for science fiction is smaller than most genres and the Star Trek franchise is not cheap to produce either. Overall, by the turn of the century there were just more scifi options demanding the attention of potential viewers and Enterprise would have to compete with them. Ultimately it had a hard time, due in part to the very sporadic quality of episodes in its first season and a half.

The second problem is more pressing. The fact is, the future is now. The look, feel and capabilities of 24th century technology was set in the late 80s by NextGen and hadn’t been significantly updated since. By 2002 many people had flip cellphones, undoubtedly inspired in part by the look and feel of Original Series era technology, and even more advanced technology was constantly on the way. By the end of the Enterprise run the iPod line of music players was in full swing with four options to choose from and the first iPad was only five years away. If the appeal of Star Trek was its vision of the future one of its biggest drawbacks from the beginning of the twenty first century would be how present day much of it looked. Sure, we don’t have replicators, warp drives or tachyon scanners, but we have smart phones that accomplish more than the average tricorder, tablet computers more powerful than Starfleet datapads and a whole host of software that Star Trek never even dreamed of.

When combined with the previously mentioned reality that our history and the history of Rodenberry’s future look nothing alike – we haven’t fought a third world war yet, for example – the factors that made Star Trek relevant for so long were starting to slip away. Timeliness was abandoned in Deep Space NineVoyager was the last hurrah of futuristic technology. Something had to be done.

The franchise had a couple of options. It could jump forward in time once again, moving the story forward and introducing a bunch of new technological concepts to keep the futuristic feel fresh. That was risky as there was a number of speculative elements in Star Trek already and each such element added moved the stories closer and closer to space fantasy rather than science fiction. The other alternative was to turn backwards and play with simpler concepts and add some commentary about why the Federation we knew and loved looked so different than what we would expect based on what we see today.

Star Trek: Enterprise opted to try both. In many ways, the show was a prequel to Kirk’s era, showing how humanity’s space exploration force became the lynchpin of an interstellar alliance that would shape the course of a quadrant for generations to come. At the same time it introduced a concept interesting in theory but failed in execution – the temporal cold war, where people from times after Picard, Sisko and Janeway tried to meddle in the past or prevent said meddling. (Voyager played in this space as well when 29th century timecops showed up every now and then, but the idea of organized malicious elements at work was entirely an Enterprise creation.)

This incarnation of Star Trek revolved around the Enterprise NX-01, humanity’s first Warp 5 starship, first deep space starship and first legendary starship. While the show would make several very questionable decisions in the first season, including devoting some ten minutes of screen time to the ship’s crew answering questions for an elementary school class on Earth as a way to impart totally unnecessary information about how the ship works, it still did an excellent job showing us a possible transition point between our present and Rodenberry’s future. Most of the past that hasn’t happened, like the Eugenics Wars, is glossed over and an emphasis is put on exploring the changes First Contact with the Vulcans had on Earth and how Vulcans have been changed by humanity in turn. It’s not the most timely cultural commentary but it is still cultural commentary and, especially after the more ham handed attempts late DS9 and Voyager indulged in it was nice to see a certain degree of subtlety restored to the franchise.

Enterprise would also experiment with longform storytelling by turning its entire third season into a single story arc, an experiment that had some good and some bad in it. The best came in the form of Degra, a very balanced and interesting antagonist turned ally, and the multi episode run where the Enterprise was pounded by enemies and left adrift, limping on barely functioning systems for five or six episodes. The worst came in the rather lackluster execution of the Sphere Builders, which were never explored to my satisfaction, and Commander Dolim, a lackluster, cookie cutter villain if ever there was one.

The fourth season kicked off by ending the frustrating and very unsatisfying temporal cold war story and then proceeded to go on one of the longest runs of high quality scifi story telling in the franchise. In truth, while Enterprise is pretty maligned in the fanbase, if the fourth season had been the first it might be remembered as the franchise’s perfect incarnation. Sadly, Enterprise was on the ropes by that point and even that excellent run couldn’t save it. Enterprise wasn’t renewed for a fifth season and turned in a very disappointing series finale, “These are the Voyages…” While the idea of framing the end of the Enterprise’s career through the eyes of Will Riker looking back via a historical holodeck program gave the episode a great feeling of continuity, the actual story Riker frames is pretty pedestrian. And the climax of the episode features the senseless death of one of the show’s best characters, so it all ends in a pretty sad way. Although hearing three different captains of three different Enterprises speak the classic Star Trek voice over is a moment that will give you chills…

Characterwise Enterprise is fairly typical. While Captain Archer, T’Pal and Tripp form a triad similar to the classic Kirk, Spock, McCoy group other members of the crew get substantial character development in the show, particularly Comm officer Hoshi Sato and Conn officer Travis Mayweather. And no starship is worth its salt without a good doctor, so we get Doctor Phlox. Protecting them all from the dangers of deep space is Armory officer Malcom Reed. After the many and shifting roles played by aliens, holograms and shapeshifters over the last two entries in the franchise the crew feels almost pedestrian.

In honesty, there’s nothing wrong with this. The unusual circumstances that led to Deep Space Nine and Voyager having unorthodox crew compliments are not present on Enterprise so it makes sense for the crew to be straightforward. And T’Pal and Phlox are aliens, in fact Phlox is Denoblian, making for an entirely new entry into the show’s cannon. Unfortunately, there are no truly outstanding characters among the core crew of this Star Trek run.

This isn’t the fault of the actors, who rival the NextGen and DS9 casts for personal charisma, but rather the character writing. The only really accessible characters on the show are Tripp and Mayweather, both of whom represent the kind of salt of the earth, workingman characters that we don’t really see in Star Trek often. They have optimism and skills but they also have some street smarts and they take the dangers of the galaxy seriously.

Captain Archer has some interesting quirks, and his slowly going from hating what he views as the Vulcans holding humanity back to standing in the same place for other, less advanced aliens they meet along the way is a good character arc. In fact, in the hands of better writers he could have been the best Starfleet captain in the franchise. He’s less high strung than Kirk or Janeway, not as likely to fly off the handle, less preachy than Picard, not given to speeches unless they’re part of his job, he is almost as good a mentor as Sisko, holding together a ship and crew that was not as prepared for deep space as you might hope. He even has a favorite sport (water polo) and a pet dog. Scott Bakula has that happy gift of exuding charm and goodwill even when he’s just sitting and listening and his acting makes Archer come alive even in the simple act of eating with his crew. Unfortunately, Enterprise developed into a show more about setting in motion things to come than exploring the characters on hand at the time, and little of the potential these characters had was mined.

However, there are two other characters, outside the crew, that bear mentioning. The first is Commander Shran. If it was just Jeffrey Combs back on Trek again it would have been nice but unremarkable – they could have just let him reprise his role as a Ferengi and had done with it if all they wanted was a throwback to previous series. But Shran presents us with a very deep, complex character who has to be both ally and enemy to Archer. Though Shran starts as an enemy Archer’s sense of fair play quickly wins Shran over to the position of wishing to be an ally – except their governments and alliances don’t always make that practical. It’s nice to see Shran and Archer struggle at trust, freindship and eventually even mutual aid as the story goes on.

The other character is Doctor Arik Soong. Again, this could have just been a chance to get Brent Spiner on the set again. But Arik is such a wonderful, complex character, struggling against his society for a dream of improving it, and instead driving it towards war and destruction. Soong is a driven man, blinded by his own hubris, but still driven by a deep and abiding love for people and a desire to improve their lives. Arik Soong could have been a boring caricature like Dolim if written badly, he could have been a flat and unconvincing sideshow if played by a less formidable actor than Spiner. But the pieces come together for the few episodes he’s around and make for one of the best character studies in any Star Trek series, ever. The franchise has no character quite as complex, outside of perhaps Dukat. If you can overlook that Pah Wraith nonsense in season seven. Sadly, that kind of deep character writing rarely surfaced among the main cast, which it really should have.

Enterprise has the feel of a smaller, intimate gathering after the main event has wound down. It has none of the grand scope of Voyager or Deep Space Nine. It wanted to go back to basics, it wanted to enrapture us in the concept once again, but this time in a deeper and more personal way. The captain’s table, where Archer would eat with his senior officers in an attempt to know them and the workings of his ship better, is very much the venue for the show. It defines not only the very personal way the characters interact with each other but the way the show tries to interact with us. That such personal contact might not be the best fit for a high concept scifi show is a drawback, and ultimately probably what brought the show to an end.

But before that Enterprise would air some really killer episodes. A handful of noteworthy episodes include “Broken Bow” Parts 1 and 2, “Shuttlepod One”, “Shadows of P’Jem”, “Dawn”, “Cease Fire”, “Regeneration”, “Proving Ground”, “E2”, “Home”,  “Observer Effect” and “United”.

“The Andorian Incident” marks the beginning of the strange friendship between Shran and Archer. It’s also a pretty intense hostage standoff with Archer’s crew struggling to formulate a rescue around an important cultural icon. It also marks a deeper understanding of the Vulcan culture at this time, how it annoyed Archer and what impacts Vulcans and Archer would have on each other. While any episode with Shran was pretty good, this is one of the best, and where everything starts.

Along the lines of first meetings, “Carbon Creek” tells the real story of Vulcan and Human first contact through the eyes of T’Pol’s grandmother, who she claims landed in a small Pennsylvania town in the 1950s after an accident caused their ship to crash. If true, it’s an interesting glance into the past and a great high concept scifi story. If it’s a tall tale it’s an equally interesting glance into the mind of Star Trek’s most complicated Vulcan character. Either way, the episode is well worth the watching.

“The Catwalk” pushes the idea of more intimate storytelling Enterprise espoused to the furthest degree when it packed the whole crew into cramped quarters to weather out a radiation storm. In addition to showing us how a crew might react to such confinement it adds the twist of an alien search party stumbling across the ship during the storm, forcing Archer and company to contend with opponents not only more advanced than them but better suited to the environment. It’s both funny and suspenseful.

While more than one or two episodes, “Borderland”, “Cold Station 12” and “Augments” do all make for something that feels like a single story. This is the arc that brings Arik Soong into the story, which would be enough to warrant a mention. But it also sets up a bunch of other Star Trek concepts that other series explored, like smooth forehead Klingons (expanded even further in other episodes), the Eugenics War and genetically enhanced humans and, of course, Data. These three episodes were probably the apex of storytelling in this incarnation. But there’s one other pair of episodes that bears mentioning.

I’ve said that I don’t really care for what’s been done with the mirror universe. But “A Mirror Darkly” Parts 1 and 2 may be the best take on the concept there’s been. Rather than emphasizing the way characters react when pulled into this mirror universe, the show throws the “standard” timeline out the window entirely, to the point where the show even has a new opening emphasizing the dark nature of this universe, and just shows us what Archer’s crew is doing in this timeline. While nothing you see dispels the notion that any society run by totalitarians of that caliber would implode in months, if not weeks, it did serve as an entertaining and very well produced look into a fan favorite world before the end of the franchise for the foreseeable future. It was a good pair of episodes and it sealed a couple of plot holes from The Original Series that people had always wondered about.

In the end, Enterprise gets a lot of flack. Honestly, it could have been just as good as Deep Space Nine or The Original Series if it had premiered a few years earlier. But the truth is that the changes in the surrounding culture were against it, and may be against any further continuation of the Star Trek IP. The underlying concepts are still strong but the well-trod lore and feel of the franchise may stand in the way of making something that resonates with our culture as futuristic and adventuresome. That doesn’t mean Enterprise was a bad show. Far from it. It was entertaining enough in the time it ran, and it left us with a promise, which I still hope to see fulfilled. As Archer turned his ship towards space dock, he speculated it wouldn’t be long before another ship took up the name Enterprise. We’ve waited thirteen years to see it happen. Hopefully we won’t wait many more.

But whether they carry the name or not, Gene Rodenberry’s legacy lives on, and, in fact, is spreading. Join me next week as we wrap up this crazy retrospective with a look at where the Spirit of Trek has gone in the last few years, and where it may go in the future.

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