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Broken Bow

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WARNING:   "Broken Bow" is the Enterprise premiere; broken hearts are what people who want to avoid spoilers for it will feel if they don't move on now.

In brief --  A decidedly mixed bag:  A couple of major misfires that don't bode well, but on the whole there's potential here.

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"Broken Bow" Enterprise Season 1, Episode 1 Written by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga Directed by James L. Conway

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Hi, folks.  I'm back.  I've been debating for a few months now whether to jump back into the online reviewing world with the new series, and decided just a few days ago that, at least for the moment, I'll give it a whirl.  Given the fact that I've recently moved (from the Los Angeles area up north to the Bay Area), changed teaching positions, and that I'm now sole teacher of two different classes with all the prep that entails, I make no promises of being able to keep things up in a timely manner.  I'll try, of course -- mostly because I'm so type-A that I'll drive myself mad if I get too behind -- but it remains to be seen how efficient I'll be or how long I'll be sticking around.

Regardless, there's been so much hype and speculation (both online and off) about "Enterprise" that I was certainly going to give the show a look.  I had it on good authority from people I trusted (and who know my tastes) that the series would be worth my time, and most aspects of the premise sounded like an interesting departure from Trek-as-usual.

So how'd it do?

Any premiere episode has to do several things:  establish a setting, define its characters (hopefully making them interesting enough that you'll want to come back and see them again), and tell an interesting story in its own right.  Given that "Enterprise" is primarily a prequel, the topic of "retconning" or otherwise revising history also rears its head.  I'm not sure that "Broken Bow" was an unqualified success in any of those categories, but neither did it fail in any.

Part of the appeal of the show, at least to me, is the fact that we're going back and looking at a point in "future history" that we really don't know that much about.  While it appears that most of Earth's individual problems -- war, disease, etc. -- have been solved by 2151 (at least, that's what Trip is saying), Earth's standing in the galactic community is almost one of "delinquent child" rather than "honored newcomer."  We may think we've come a long way, but the Vulcans sure haven't -- and what they say appears to carry a lot of weight in the mid-22nd century.

The Earth-Vulcan friction is something I find pretty plausible so far: even at their best, Vulcans can be so unflappable as to tick off some of the more impulsive members of the human race (think Spock/Bones, obviously, though there are other examples as well), and Vulcans are so sure that their way is correct that their confidence can easily become arrogance.  If humans are feeling a little small compared to the new vistas opened up before them *anyway*, that calm sense of "you haven't a clue what's best for you, but we do" is understandably infuriating.

The main difficulty here is that it's actually very tough, I think, to find actors who can successfully walk that razor's edge between confident arrogance and simply being snide.  As much as I've liked Gary Graham's and Thomas Kopache's work in the past, I'm not sure either of them really hit their mark here.  It's possible to argue, of course, that 22nd-century Vulcans are going to be a bit less diplomatic in their arrogance than the ones we're used to seeing, and if so I'll have to learn to live with that ... but so far we're not getting a lot of reason to see the Vulcans as anything *but* a pain in the ass.

[And yes, I know I haven't mentioned Jolene Blalock's T'Pol yet; more on her later.]

Beyond the galactic politics, though, a lot of the show seems to be about capturing that sense of exploration that in many ways has been lost by the late 24th century.  Space, at least most of it, is going to feel extremely big and extremely foreign to the Enterprise crew, and everything should feel like an incredible adventure to them -- both the excitement and the frustration.  We got a sense of that here and there in "Broken Bow," most particularly in the "let's officially begin our mission" scene towards the end of the episode and in Archer's appeal to Sato about being "the first humans to talk to [the Klingons]."  I like that, and I'm hoping to see more of it -- the cast will have to find ways to make sure everything seems fresh and new to them, which after lots of episodes may be a challenge, but here's hoping they can pull it off.

That brings me to the characters, who surprised me.  By the end of any other Trek premiere, a lot of aspects to the characters were already so well established that fans tended to have strong feelings. For example, we knew an awful lot already about how Kirk ticked; lots of TNG fans were already feeling happy about Data and feeling serious misgivings about both Wesley and Troi; Kira was an extremely polarizing character from the very beginning in DS9; and Voyager fans seemed readily amused by the Doctor and very wary about Neelix.  I'm not saying those feelings were unanimous, or that jumping to such quick conclusions is even an entirely good idea -- but I think most of us would agree that past premieres gave us, if not a complete picture, at least enough strong brushstrokes to give us an idea.

These characters, by contrast, feel a bit amorphous to me, almost ... well, almost *bland*.  It's not as though it's impossible to tell the characters apart, but at this point it does seem a little difficult to figure out why we need to care about most of them.  There were a few little moments here and there which made me say "okay, this I definitely like," but a lot of it felt very unformed.  Unfinished as they are, though, here are some of the impressions I do have:

Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula):  I think he'll work out just fine.  The flashbacks to his boyhood and his connections to the beginnings of human warp drive seemed to work very nicely, in that I think I have a good sense of what Archer's about.  I never really got into "Quantum Leap," so Bakula's work isn't all that familiar to me, but most of his performance clicked.  (One of the exceptions would probably be where Archer makes his first log entry and keeps interrupting it; the idea was fine, but the execution somehow felt jumbled.)

Sub-Commander T'Pol (Jolene Blalock):  Very mixed so far.  There are times where Blalock seems to have "the Vulcan thing" down just fine, as when she chides Trip about humans being too quick to jump to conclusions -- but almost everything about the way the character's being presented so far suggests that she's there as The Hot Babe rather than as an interesting example of another culture.  For example, on more than one occasion T'Pol is holding to a plan of action which, while logical, is a bit on the cold-blooded side ... but then, somehow, someone like Trip manages to talk her out of it.  If she's that willing to change her mind on a moment's notice, I question the character's resolve; I got the impression that Rick Berman and Brannon Braga decided "well, we can't make her too unlikable; she'll be a series regular, after all."  T'Pol could well wind up being this series' answer to Spock; on the other hand, she could also be a pale clone of Seven of Nine, and I'm deeply worried that the latter is where we're headed.

"Trip" Tucker (Connor Trinneer):  The only real facet of the character that's coming through so far is his unswerving loyalty to and friendship with Archer, and I think that facet's going to work out just fine.  The "country boy" accent (beautifully ridiculed by Lt. Reed, by the way) will certainly invite comparisons to McCoy, but so little else about the character is similar that I'm not particularly worried yet.

Malcolm Reed (Dominic Keating):  So far, the man is Q -- and I don't mean John de Lancie, but rather Desmond Llewellyn.  If he starts chastising Archer for never bringing back any of his field equipment intact, the comparison will be complete.  :-)  Seriously, I'm willing to give the character some room to maneuver, based primarily on the fact that I like the way Keating's playing him so far - - but I'm not getting much of a sense of who this is.

Hoshi Sato (Linda Park):  The only real danger I'm seeing so far is that based on Sato's nervousness here and the preview for next episode, Sato's primary role could be that of Designated Screamer.  I think the character has the ability to be much, much more than that -- I liked Archer's method of enticing her on board, and also liked her attempts to translate Klaang's language.  (Compare her behavior under pressure to the horrible, milk-it-for-laughs scene in "Star Trek VI" where Uhura and company have to fake it.)

Travis Mayweather (Anthony Montgomery):  Another advantage of setting this series so early in the history of space travel is that you can have an ensign who's seen a lot more of space travel than the captain. So far, what little experience we've had with Mayweather suggests that he *could* combine a wide-eyed sense of wonder with occasional doses of surprise experience.  There's potential here.

Dr. Phlox (John Billingsley):  Physically, this guy suggests Neelix, which at least for me personally took some getting used to -- but so far, he seems to have an interest in exploration without taking it into relentless chirpiness.  He may be the first ship's doctor we've had who's both happy to be in space (unlike McCoy or the Doctor) and in it enthusiastically for the knowledge rather than for personal glory (unlike Bashir, at least initially).  I'm curious, at least.  (The interest in alternative forms of treatment also has a lot of potential; there shouldn't be a lot of medicinal technobabble here.)

One "let's explore the characters" scene that most assuredly did *not* work for me was the "Trip and T'Pol in decontamination" scene held up by some as an example that this is "not your father's Star Trek." Perhaps not, but it's not in the least enticing either.  I've no objection to sensuality in my television (take, for instance, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," which I'm a great fan of), but when something is so obviously over-the-top seductive it ceases to be arousing and becomes more calculating.  Berman and Braga did everything but light up neon signs saying "Look!  These are the two hot characters! Pay attention!" -- and that trick basically never works.  (Remember that Paris was supposed to be the big heartthrob on Voyager, for instance; and how many fans actually wound up feeling that way?) Instead, I was busy amusing myself with how many tortuous rationalizations we needed for the scene.  (For instance, decontaminating people apparently requires two people, so that they can rub each other's backs; it makes much more sense to stay partially clothed and lift when necessary rather than being completely naked; obviously, there's no danger of contamination in your HAIR, so there's no need to muss up the hairstyling; the gel can't be goopy and messy, but instead has to look like you're oiling up for a swimsuit modeling session, and so forth.)  If there's someone on the show I'm going to wind up finding attractive, gentlemen, *I'll* make that choice, not you.

The one other point I should make about the characters is a positive one:  I noticed and was impressed by how well the character exposition was actually integrated into the storyline.  We certainly got our share of background (Mayweather's childhood, recent Earth history, etc.), but very little of it was just dumped out there for us; rather, there was a strong reason for the character to be saying this, or at least there was something visually interesting going on.  Given how much trouble both TNG and DS9 had with exposition in their pilots, I was pleased to see that avoided here.

Moving on to plot, the short-term story (getting the Klingon home and establishing the first full-fledged Earth starship) was basically fine.  To some extent, I think there was so much time setting up the long-term plot (the Suliban and the "temporal cold war") that the short-term one felt a bit thin, but it mostly hung together.  If I've any objection, it's that we spent a bit more time than we needed to on "nonessential" scenes like "Reed and Mayweather go see exotic dancers and get no actual information," with the effect that the show tended to drag a bit in spots.  Usually, the problem is that premieres feel too cluttered; this one, if anything, felt a little underplayed.

The action sequences punctuating the story were a somewhat mixed bag.  The attack in sickbay was suitably creepy, and definitely played up Brannon Braga's abiding interest in writing things with a horrific bent.  The rooftop battle on Rigel, however, felt really badly edited; was I the only one who had a lot of trouble figuring out *why* T'Pol fell out/off of the shuttle?  The battle within the gas giant was pretty neat from a visual standpoint; the only part that felt weird was all the hand-wringing about "if we move the ship, the captain won't know where to come back to."  Guys, that's why you work out a plan *in advance* about such things...

The battle within the Helix was okay, if an excuse for a little bit of gratuitous perception weirdness inside the Suliban's communication room.  I did like the first use of the transporter, though, particularly the fact that it was only intended as a last-ditch "plan B."

Long-term, the two big plots appear to be the Suliban and the temporal cold war, and both are also a little mixed.  The Suliban seem interesting visually, but I've two misgivings.  The first is that there's been so much effort put into their visual appeal (both in makeup and in effects) that there's not much sense yet of whether the actual characters will be of interest, but I'm hopeful that will change. The second is more philosophical:  by making the "bad" Suliban ones who've embarked on a massive campaign of genetic engineering, the show is both buying into and feeding the current popular frenzy of "genetic engineering is automatically bad," which if left unchecked can certainly spill over into other areas of scientific endeavor.  There are enough examples of the Frankenstein complex out there; I'm not sure I want Trek to be at the heart of one of them.

Of all the aspects of this series that were leaked well in advance, the "temporal cold war" was probably the most controversial, inviting as it did in fandom charges of "retcon!" and of not caring about established Trek history.  So, some thoughts on retcons.

When you're dealing with something like Trek, which has fandom going back three and a half decades and continuity (more or less) spanning four centuries, you risk opening yourself up to a lot of criticism if you start mucking around with what people "know really happened."  The same argument could certainly apply to comics fandom, where the term "retcon" originated, and I suspect it could apply to a large part of soap-opera fandom as well.

Personally, I'm not particularly opposed to retconning if, and this is crucial, it's done very well.  The best "retcon" stories are those which essentially say "here's what you thought was happening; here's what was actually happening over, around, and underneath it."  It's tough to come up with examples in film, since films are usually stand-alone offerings; I'd argue, though, that both "The Sixth Sense" and "The Usual Suspects" have endings which create those same kinds of responses.  In comics, Alan Moore's "The Anatomy Lesson" (an early-1980s issue of Swamp Thing, for those not in the know) is a picture-perfect example of how to do retcons right.  If "Enterprise" adopts this particular approach, showing us events that we only thought we knew forwards and backwards, I think there's a lot of potential in that.  If there's a feeling of "we don't need to care about past history; what we say goes," then I'll be giving the show a much smaller benefit of the doubt.

Which way is the show likely to go?  I honestly don't know.  On the one hand, much of "Voyager" made anything resembling a coherent Borg chronology fly completely out the window.  On the other, there's "First Contact," which in my opinion did a pretty standout job of telling an entertaining story while illuminating some of the past. Can "Enterprise" manage to pull off the balancing act that "First Contact" did?  Time will tell.

Various miscellaneous points:

-- While it was nice to see James Cromwell reprise his Zefram Cochrane role, the only way I knew for sure it was him is that I knew in advance it was going to be.  It was such a long shot and for such a brief period that I'm left to wonder why Paramount even bothered to chase him down to take the role again.  (I did, however, like his speech -- now we know where the whole introductory monologue came from.)

-- On the theme:  it's definitely a break with tradition to have an actual theme *song* rather than theme music, but I think I like it ... and I most definitely like the visuals for the opening credits.

-- A few odd bits of phrasing:  the "Vulcan High Command" sounds awfully military for a pacifistic race such as the Vulcans, and having the Vulcans refer to the Klingons sending "a fleet of Warbirds" felt off, given that the Romulans are the ones with the Warbirds.

-- The series starts in the year 2151.  The Federation, we already know, was founded in 2161, and I think we can be pretty sure that the first Earth-Romulan wars took place sometime before the Fed came into being.  I sincerely hope that means we get a serious examination of the Romulans somewhere over the course of this series.

-- Back on DS9 when Bashir went all googly at the thought of zero- G, I thought it was silly, and I think it's a little silly here as well when Trip doesn't seem to have much experience with low-gravity environments (the "sweet spot" scene).  Much as I liked the scene otherwise, that part felt off.  (One can argue that he's just a little rusty or that the abrupt shift took him by surprise, but it'd definitely be a rationalization.)

-- There were four words of Klaang's that Sato couldn't translate. Two of them were directly related to this episode, but one of the others was "Tholia."  Hmm...

-- T'Pol's advice to Trip about knowing when to interfere sounded suspiciously like something that could one day become the Prime Directive.  It's interesting to realize that we're now in a time when the PD doesn't *exist* yet; it opens up some interesting avenues.

-- Congratulations to Vaughn Armstrong (Admiral Forrest) for finally playing a human -- after a Klingon (one of the first on TNG), a Romulan, a Cardassian, and others I'm doubtless forgetting, it must've been nice to be out of makeup for a change.

-- "What's that?"  "Travis said not to worry about that panel." "That's reassuring."  Definitely one of the humorous moments in the show that worked.

I think that's about it.  (Two years off apparently haven't made me any less wordy.)  "Enterprise" could do what I hoped both DS9 and Voyager would do, mainly show us the building of a Utopia rather than one that's already fully formed.  Done right, this show really could take fans a lot of places they've never been; I hope that the creators can come up with the right mix of Trek history, creative reinterpretation, and just plain good storytelling.  "Broken Bow" was a mixed beginning, but I'll stick around for now.

So, to wrap up:

Writing:  Nothing gut-wrenchingly horrible here (other than the         decontamination scene), but only a handful of truly bright         spots.  Certainly workable. Directing:  Some of the action sequences felt off, and things seemed         to drag on occasion, but lots of nice location shooting and a         distinctly different feel than we've had before. Acting:  I'm not sure about the Vulcans (Blalock included), but I         think the others will work out.  Dominic Keating's fun, and         it's *always* nice seeing John Fleck.

OVERALL:  Let's call it a 7 out of a sense of optimism.  Enough to keep me around for a little while, at least.

And one final thought unrelated to "Enterprise":  like many people, I have friends and family who live in the New York or Washington, D.C. areas.  Unlike many people, I was lucky enough that no one in my immediate circle of family or friends was hurt or killed in the attacks of September 11th.  My best wishes go out to any readers who were less fortunate, and I urge anyone who thinks that Trip's statement about Earth eliminating war in two generations is worth striving for to do two things.  First, make a difference:  whether it's donating blood, donating money to a cause you find worthy, or spending time helping out those in need, get out and do something. Second, given how much Trek talks about strength through diversity, I urge everyone not to stereotype in the aftermath of all this.  "Jumping to conclusions" and blaming many for the actions of a few is part of what got us as a species into this; it certainly won't help us get out.

Many thanks -- and preaching aside, let's hope "Enterprise" is worth keeping us around for quite some time.

NEXT WEEK:

A derelict ship invites a less-than-successful first contact...

Tim Lynch (Castilleja School, Science Department) tly...@alumni.caltech.edu        <*> "They're taking orders from the distant future."          -- Sarin, laying out the plot "What?"         -- Archer, voicing thoughts of fans new to Trek

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