WARNING: This article has spoilers for the first season of "Enterprise." Advance at your own risk.�
[continued from part 2]
II. ENT Season 1 -- General Commentary | -----------------------------------------*
This makes the third time I've found myself evaluating a Trek series based on its first season -- or the third time I've done so in print, anyway. (I got into the reviewing biz just a little too late to look at TNG's first season.) I was generally optimistic after DS9's first season (saying that, while a bit sedate at times, it was "off on the right foot"), and thought that Voyager was okay, but treading water.
So what about "Enterprise"?
"Enterprise" has certainly managed to get away without some of the truly major clunkers that many shows have in their first seasons. TNG was riddled with them during season 1, DS9 had an episode or two that landed with ratings in the 2's, and VOY was in much the same situation as DS9. With "Unexpected" and "Rogue Planet," Enterprise has had a couple of shows in the 3 range, but nothing lower -- they were in no way episodes I'm ever in a hurry to watch again, but they don't have that "how'd this make it to screen" odor that the really horrible shows take on. I think I can find a moment or two in every episode that I've liked.
But at the same time, there's not a lot about this season that's sticking with me, either. Individual moments or episodes, sure -- the Temporal Cold War arc has been fairly entertaining so far, and "Dear Doctor" and "Shuttlepod One" were both great hours of television. But the season as a whole seems a bit hollow to me somehow.
The main reason for that, I think, is that once again, what we're told will be new and different is turning into "same old, same old." I don't remember if either Rick Berman or Brannon Braga actually used the phrase "not your father's Star Trek" when talking up the series last year, but both of them went out of their way to say that this series would be more human, more down-to-Earth, and more accessible (for want of a better word) than its 23rd and 24th century counterparts.
What's more, the premise invites exactly that sort of treatment. The Federation doesn't exist. The Prime Directive doesn't exist, at least for humans. Earth is an unknown planet in the galactic community. The Vulcans know us, but aren't too sure about us. From a technology perspective, phasers and transporters are new and relatively untried, and things like photon torpedoes and shields are things we can only look at with envy. We are a little player just trying to make our way in the world, and while we as viewers know that big things are in store for the next few decades, Archer and company certainly don't. Almost everything should be new to them, and almost everything should feel new to them.
At times, we've had that -- the end of "Vox Sola," for instance, conveyed the wonder that we'd expect to see in their position. Hoshi's delight in new languages has shone through on several occasions, particularly in "Broken Bow," "Dear Doctor," and "Two Days and Two Nights." We've made mistakes because we don't know the galactic situation -- "The Andorian Incident," for instance, though Archer managed to turn that blunder into an advantage of sorts.
Most of the time, though, very little about the events in the series seem all that new -- to them, and most especially to *us*. Despite the fact that we're so new to the galaxy, we've already had The Klingon Episode, The Hologram Episode, even The Ferengi Episode, for pity's sake. Enterprise doesn't have shields, but "polarize the hull plating" seems to serve *exactly* the same function -- sure, the dialogue and visuals are slightly different, but in terms of the ship's ability to resist damage I sure don't see any changes. We don't have holodecks, but that hasn't stopped holodecks and holograms from showing up. There is, in short, far too much reliance on a lot of standard Trek tropes, even if they're hiding under assumed names. (And frankly, if I hear "polarize the hull plating" one more time I'm going to start threatening various forms of local wildlife -- it's close to a meaningless term, and definitely starting to grate...)
If these protestations about "same old, same old" ring a bell, they should: I said much the same thing in my first-season review of "Voyager." I quote:
That makes for a very, very strong sense of "same old, same old" when it's used, and that quite frankly makes it easy for the show to feel stale, despite the fact that it's only 16 hours old in terms of material. There have certainly been some entertaining hours here and there in "Voyager" so far, with a few being quite good indeed -- but when the majority of stories feel warmed-over, there's not a lot of impetus to look for the next one. (There's also not a great deal of impetus to watch a show again in reruns, which may account for the rather startling drop I've seen the show have in reruns' ratings so far.)
Apart from the note about ratings, which I haven't paid any attention to this time, you could replace "Voyager" with "Enterprise" and come out with a paragraph I agree with almost to the syllable. That's not really a great sign.
On the other hand, that sense of sameness may help explain why the Andorians are working out as well as they are. Despite the fact that they've been a part of Trek tradition for over three decades, we really don't know much of anything about them -- not much about their culture, virtually nothing about their relationship with other Federation members such as humans or Vulcans. As a result, seeing them feels fairly new, and our mild familiarity with them winds up letting the charges against the Vulcans stick a little more soundly.
As for the Vulcans, my impression now is much the same as it was after "Broken Bow": the idea is fine, but the execution's been spotty. I like the idea that the Vulcans don't really approve of humanity -- even given Sarek's high position a century later while married to a human, there are lots of things about human behavior and human history which any Vulcan could rightfully point to with eyebrow cocked in disapproval. V'Lar, by far the most interesting Vulcan I've seen this year, embodied and voiced that disapproval beautifully well - - and with that opinion as an underpinning, Vulcan *policies* towards humans make perfect sense by their logic.
Where I fundamentally disagree with the series' tone is in how Vulcan behavior itself is presented. I've no argument with the Vulcan opinions on humans, as I said -- but when we're told, *repeatedly*, that Vulcans aren't curious, that Vulcans don't explore, that Vulcans appear to have absolutely zero redeeming qualities whatsoever, it feels like serious revisionist history just to give Archer something to rail at. No particularly significant Vulcan we've seen prior to this series has held that kind of attitude. Even leaving out Spock (since he's half- human and something of a rebel), Sarek is clearly interested in other cultures and other worlds, Saavik was quite curious about other non- Vulcans, Tuvok always seemed to have a healthy exploring streak (if tempered by practicality) ... hell, even T'Pring had motivations viewers could buy into, however faux-dispassionately she described them.
Does it make sense that Vulcans are more cautious explorers than humans? Yes, of course -- and given the Vulcans' frequent sense of superiority, it also makes sense that they'd be damned patronizing about it when trying to persuade the humans that their way is right. I'm also perfectly willing to believe the Vulcans' conduct as regards the Andorians -- we don't know enough about the situation to judge. But the way I read it, there's a concerted effort being made here to make the Vulcans hissable simply by virtue of their personalities, and in so doing those personalities are being fundamentally altered. I don't buy it.
Now it's very possible, of course, that this will all change over the course of the series -- but to me, that's akin to how a great many DS9 Ferengi shows started with Quark acting far more extreme than usual so that he could "learn the error of his ways" and revert back to the status quo. It's moving the goalposts and hoping the audience doesn't notice, which I think is sloppy workmanship.
[And don't get me started on how many times Vulcan marriage and mating practices have already come up in a single season.]
It doesn't help that T'Pol has simply not connected with me as a character, and I think that's more due to the acting than the writing. When Seven of Nine popped up on Voyager, an awful lot of people predicted that she wouldn't be any more than the sum of her various prominent body parts. From what little I saw of post-Seven Voyager, I think Jeri Ryan convinced most of those people otherwise. (Certainly the reviews I read suggested that Seven was potentially the most interesting character of the lot.) Jolene Blalock faced the same problem going in, given T'Pol's outfit and the way she was presented - - and unfortunately, I really don't think lightning has struck twice.
She certainly isn't horrible in the role, but I think she's deeply inconsistent. There are times when T'Pol comes off as actively sneering rather than being impassively snide ("Unexpected" comes to mind, as does "Rogue Planet"), and other times when she's simply speaking in a monotone when there should be some sort of undercurrent (the "unless the captain would like to pose for more pictures" line in "Strange New World" coming most immediately to mind here). Sometimes Blalock has truly impressed me and convinced me that T'Pol is "real" -- the closing scene of "Fusion," her conversation with Archer in "Dear Doctor," most of "Fallen Hero," and the wordless look of shock at the end of "The Andorian Incident" all come to mind as examples -- but there seems almost no way to predict when she will or won't pull it off. When she's getting this much screen time, that inconsistency is a problem.
Archer is one of the other two characters getting the most screen time -- not surprisingly, as he's the captain and all -- and I don't entirely buy him either. This time, I think the fault lies mostly in the writing.
Should Archer be inexperienced? Sure. Should he be rash at times, especially when trying to prove that Vulcans don't need to tug on the apron strings? Absolutely. Should he make mistakes? Without any doubt.
What concerns me is that nine times out of ten, Archer blunders his way into something, has enough good luck to come out smelling like a rose, and never seems to learn a thing from his experience. In "Strange New World," for instance, T'Pol's advice was dead-on. Was Archer within his rights to ignore it? Sure. Should he have potentially acknowledged afterwards that he was wrong? Yep -- and even if he didn't, T'Pol for damn sure should have made the point.
There's "The Andorian Incident." There's "Terra Nova," where his insistence on exploring personally gets Malcolm captured. There's "Fortunate Son," where he insists on staying to help the boomers without any reason other than wanting to butt in. There's "Fusion," where he all but orders T'Pol to spend time with the Vulcans. There's "Rogue Planet," where he not only deliberately puts himself out in front of the party over Reed's express wishes, but decides "hey, let's set down right next to the only other inhabited part of the planet -- of course they'll be happy to see us." (I'll ignore the wandering off into the jungle alone, since he at least acknowledges that's foolish.) There's "Oasis," where he brings aboard a life-pod without any apparent precautions.
In almost all of those cases, he lucked out, at least in that no one was seriously hurt. But he's reckless -- the only time he appears to think an action was in error was in "Shockwave," when it wasn't even his actions but those of his crew that were apparently at fault. I guess what I'm saying here is that Archer doesn't appear to be growing much as a character, and as a result he hasn't yet managed to grow on me. Mistakes I can handle -- a reluctance to learn from or even acknowledge them is a different story.
"Desert Crossing," dull as most of it was, started to correct this: Archer's actions in "Detained" gave him a reputation in that part of space, and he had to address that reputation when Zobral made use of it. I like that part of the show a great deal. "Two Days and Two Nights" suggests that there may be more such repercussions to come, and I'm interested in them. Those make up a good start in terms of how he's perceived off the ship -- now we just need some sense that anyone *on* the ship, ideally Archer, is paying attention.
In fact, since the Prime Directive still needs to come into being at some point (almost certainly with significant Vulcan kibitzing), you could easily tie that into some rash action of Archer's boomeranging in some disastrous way. (You could also have someone worshiped as a god, but that may have been done to death.) "Dear Doctor" had Archer deciding, in effect, that a sin of omission is a lesser evil than a sin of commission, and that's sort of the philosophy behind the PD -- but I think talking it through is a lot less convincing than showing some contact or other which leads almost directly to the Prime Directive. It'd get some history on track, and maybe even let Archer learn from a mistake or two.
As long as I'm on the subject of Archer, about halfway through the season I started having some minor problems buying into Scott Bakula's performance. When he's talking to any alien race, Archer seems to get louder and slower-paced than he usually does. It's not blatant, but it's noticeable -- and frankly, it smacks of the stereotypical "Ugly American" more than anything else. He wasn't like that in the first half of the season, or at least if he did do that it did it much more rarely, so I can only assume that it's a delivery he's deliberately adopted, either on his own or on the suggestion of various directors and producers over the course of the season. Either way, can I make a humble suggestion that Archer's mannerisms change just a little bit?
The third member of this new triumvirate would be Trip, and I'm basically fine with him. I don't agree with those occasional claims I've seen that Connor Trinneer's giving Emmy-quality performances (maintaining one's dignity through most of "Unexpected" is laudable, but not *that* laudable), but he's doing a perfectly decent job -- and I've no problem with Trip as brash engineer or as loyal Archer-buddy. I'm not seeing all that much depth to the character yet, but he's always been watchable. (Well, okay ... apart from the clubbing with Malcolm.)
More than most Trek series to date, "Enterprise" has a serious case of its second-tier characters outshining its alleged stars. I'm much more interested in Hoshi, Reed, and Phlox than I am in any of the big three: all three characters seem to be, not just sensibly dealt with, but possessed of a lot more depth than their higher-ranking counterparts. (That may not be a coincidence: if they're not having to take the starring role most of the time, the actors may instead devote some time to justifying their own character's actions to themselves, thus grounding the role a bit. On the other hand, I could be talking complete nonsense. It's happened before. :-)
In fact, I think the conscious effort to build up the big three at the expense of the others can sometimes exact a price in terms of viewer fatigue. A long-time friend of mine who's an even longer-time Trek fan suggested to me back in the spring that "Acquisition" could have been used as a way for us to see some of the minor characters rather than as yet another big adventure with Trip and his underwear. (If I remember what he suggested correctly, it would involve Hoshi being in decon rather than Trip, waking up Phlox in the hopes that he'd be able to wake the others, and the Ferengi intentionally waking up Travis rather than Archer, since he's at the helm and therefore "must be in charge." I've certainly heard worse ideas.) When someone who's been a fan as long as he has is starting to chafe at some characters' overexposure, maybe there's something to it.
I'm particularly intrigued by the relationship that seems to be developing between Hoshi and T'Pol. T'Pol is holding Hoshi to a high standard because "I know you are capable of achieving it," and seems to be teaching her the occasional meditation technique as well. I like that quite a bit -- any communications officer as interested in language and culture as she is can find a lot to explore in Vulcan ways, and I'd love to see a human crewmember who doesn't think Vulcans are all that bad. (She'd serve as a counterweight to Trip and Archer, at the very least.) Mark me down as in favor of letting those characters interact a bit more.
There have been a few other relationships that have shown some evolution. Archer/T'Pol have certainly started to trust one another a bit more, even if V'Lar's "and I sense friendship" is telegraphing what we're supposed to believe much more than I'd like. Trip and Malcolm seem to have become reasonably good friends -- nothing I'd buy on the level of, say, Bashir/O'Brien quite yet, but I'm willing to give it time.
The serious odd man out so far appears to be Travis Mayweather -- I've got the definite sense that no one knows what to do with the character, and that's a shame. Even leaving aside the whole "boomer" culture clash we saw in "Fortunate Son," Travis probably has more space experience than anyone else on the ship, with the possible exception of T'Pol. He may know races others don't, and maybe could be a little jaded when others are excited. (And, of course, I'm perfectly happy to see more of the boomer/Starfleet culture clash.) It's a little hard to tell from what little we've gotten to see, but I think Anthony Montgomery's up to a job like that -- just decide what the character's going to do and do it already.
The other big plot point we've seen this year has been the Temporal Cold War, as shown in "Cold Front" and "Shockwave." So far, both of those shows have been exciting, to be sure -- but I'm still reserving judgment until I see what's going to spin out of it. Done wrong, it could trail on endlessly like the mythology arc on "The X-Files" or be used to justify any number of changes to "established" Trek history. It hasn't yet, to be sure -- but so far all we've gotten is one mystery after another. Resolving those mysteries and taking the plot forward is going to be the hard part. "Shockwave, Part II" should start shedding a lot of light in that regard, and I for one am going in cautious, but optimistic. (And hey, John Fleck's certainly worth watching as Silik.)
Given my concerns about Archer, T'Pol, the Vulcans and the "sameness" of the adventures, though, it'd be easy to think that I'm deeply disappointed by "Enterprise" ... but that's not really true. As I said earlier, most of the episodes were perfectly fine as ways to spend an hour. I'd like to think, though, that "Enterprise" can be more than a way to keep people in front of television advertising for one hour a week -- some of its predecessors certainly were at times, and I think the premise supports a less "generic Trek adventure" show than we've gotten so far.
In short, "I hold you to a high standard, Enterprise, because I know you are capable of achieving it." Here's hoping future seasons rise to meet that standard; I know I'll be around, at least for a while.
See you next season!
Tim Lynch (Castilleja School, Science Department) tly...@alumni.caltech.edu <*> "Have you ever seen anything like that?" "Actually, I have." -- Copyright 2002, Timothy W. Lynch. All rights reserved, but feel free to ask... This article is explicitly prohibited from being used in any off-net compilation without due attribution and *express written consent of the author*. Walnut Creek and other CD-ROM distributors, take note.