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Timothy W. Lynch

2/15/02

WARNING:  "Shuttlepod One," spoilers many.�

In brief:  Very strong -- a testament to the strength of the characters.�

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"Shuttlepod One" Enterprise Season 1, Episode 15 Written by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga Directed by David Livingston Brief summary:  Stranded in a shuttlepod and believing Enterprise to be destroyed, Trip and Reed face dwindling oxygen supplies and their own fears.

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At times I've been convinced that there are actually two different Brannon Bragas.  The one we first encountered, back in TNG's middle years, had one of the best ears for incidental dialogue of any of the writers on staff at the time, and came up with plots that, while twisted enough to make your head hurt, were also coherent enough to be interesting.  That Brannon wrote or co-wrote stories like "Cause and Effect," "Frame of Mind," "All Good Things," and the "First Contact" film, many of which lead happy and fruitful lives on my list of greatly entertaining Trek stories.  The other Brannon Braga wrote as though a single high-concept Goofy Idea [TM] was enough to justify any story, no matter how ill-thought-out or poorly characterized it was.  That Brannon wrote TNG's "Sub Rosa" and "Genesis," along with Voyager's "Threshold," all residing entirely too comfortably on my personal list of worst Trek material ever.

For a number of years, the second Brannon seemed to dominate quite a bit, and my occasional attempts to watch Voyager after quitting two seasons in did nothing to convince me otherwise.  Thus, I've spent some of this season nervously waiting for the other shoe to drop and for me to see Braga-penned episodes that really jumped on all my personal dislikes.  ("Unexpected" may have been poor, but it's certainly not on the level of the episodes listed above.)

"Shuttlepod One," however, leads me to suspect that Good Brannon has now regained the upper hand.  A few months ago, "Cold Front" was a solidly entertaining piece of work that played to the more bizarre parts of the series' premise, but "Shuttlepod One" took the other extreme:  by essentially setting most of the episode in a small box, the episode was going to stand or fall almost completely on the core strength of its characters, their reality in the viewers' mind, and their reactions.

It succeeded marvelously.

Someone said to me recently that this series has done a terrific job humanizing its characters with just a few scenes here and there (referring specifically to the Archer/Trip breakfast scene in last week's "Shadows of P'Jem."  With only the occasional exception, I couldn't agree more, and the opening scene of "Shuttlepod One" is a good example of such.  They're waiting for the Enterprise to rendezvous with them at an asteroid field, but waiting very differently.  Trip's always walking, always fidgeting, always tinkering, while Reed's content to while away the wait with a good book (or a book, anyway -- depends on your opinion of James Joyce, I suspect).  The banter about how "sometimes I think you North Americans read nothing but comic books and those ridiculous science-fiction novels" worked beautifully (I particularly liked Trip's "I'll have you know that Superman was *laced* with subtext."), and contrasted nicely with their horrified discovery of what appeared to be the wreckage of the Enterprise on an asteroid.

It's at this point that the episode dodges a substantial bullet.  We could have gone half an episode without knowing whether Trip and Malcolm were right, thus making the episode a mystery with an obvious answer (also known as "sure, the ship's destroyed -- right").  We also could have discovered that the crash was real, but caused by Random Temporal Anomaly #274C, which as everyone knows can be reversed by cooling a nearby asteroid down to one degree below absolute zero. Any number of truly dreadful episodes could have followed on that teaser.

Instead, the premise was kept simple and revealed openly:  Trip and Reed simply leapt to a conclusion that was wrong, and without sensors or communications working had no way of knowing they were wrong. (The debris is that of another ship whose passengers Enterprise rescued, taking some damage in the process.)  That's reasonable, it's realistic, and it gives us all a story without an obvious (and obnoxious) resolution.

(What few scenes we do get on board Enterprise are enough to let us in on the nature of the problem and, later on, on what Archer and company were doing to help the shuttle, all without making the problem itself the central issue.  No complaints here.)

From there, most of the episode revolves around Trip and Malcolm, and specifically how they cope in the face of almost certain death. From Trip's initial order to head to Echo Three (with distress beacon, so that Starfleet can at least find the shuttle someday), both have reactions that are true to their characters as revealed to date.  Reed, for example, faces death with a certain serenity:  he decides that he needs to tie up loose ends and send letters home (via log entry) so that his loved ones know how he feels about them.  Most of what he says is somewhat superficial, but that's also true to Reed -- as we've already seen in past episodes, he tends not to let others in very much.

Trip, on the other hand, chafes like mad every time Reed bows to or even suggests the inevitability of their fate.  He insists, even in the face of long odds, that anything could happen -- they could be rescued, no matter how big space is.   (He rattles off a list of possible races who could be "lurking behind the next planet we run into," and when Reed notes that "at impulse, we're not likely to run into *any* planets -- not for at least six or seven years, anyway," Trip simply assumes that someone could find them instead.)  He intends to fight the odds until his last breath, and accuses Malcolm of taking pessimism to a new extreme.

Along the way, Reed tries to get some sleep and we get a look into his dreams.  His dream's probably not that different from a lot of the lower-ranking crew's dreams:  rescued, he's told that his bravery has saved Trip's life, and T'Pol says that his selflessness will never let her ignore him again.  As the two draw close, Reed's awakened by Trip. The dream is slightly cheesy, but that's pretty much true to the nature of a lot of dreams:  people are acting according to the dreamer's self- image of them, not according to who they really are.  The scene lasted just long enough to be effective without belaboring the point, although they hung on the "Stinky" name-dropping just a little long for my taste.

We also get a crisis, but one that makes sense.  Something (which we can infer from later dialogue is a "micro-singularity," or microscopic black hole) punches through the shuttle's hull, causing a minor hull breach and a dangerous air leak.  The premise is reasonable, and both characters are professional enough and intelligent enough that even under great stress they come up with a perfectly decent solution:  bleed some supercooled nitrogen into the shuttle enough to make the leak visible, then plug it temporarily with Trip's leftover mashed potatoes while getting the more permanent valve sealant.  It reminded me a bit of "Apollo 13" (both the film and the actual events), but in a good way. (As an aside, I also seem to recall having a few servings of mashed potatoes over the years that would probably have made a *better* sealant than the official valve sealant, not just a good stop-gap!)

The problem's solved, but that leaves them with only a day and a half or so of air left:  they decide to turn down the thermostat in order to let the air recycle more efficiently, but before long the two find themselves at odds again.  Malcolm goes back to his letters, this time to various girls he's been involved with, and Trip's continued optimism eventually gets Malcolm frustrated.  When Malcolm notes that a candle Trip's lit for a toast (to their fallen comrades) will use up oxygen, Trip says that Malcolm shouldn't worry -- he seems to be eager for death anyway. The barb wounds Malcolm deeply, and we finally see Malcolm's facade crack into an emotion other than sardonic frustration.

The Enterprise crew is the only group of people he's really felt close to, we learn -- he was finally starting to relax a bit and to be himself.  Now they're all gone but one, he mourns, "and now the only one that's left thinks I'm the bloody Angel of Death."  Dominic Keating hasn't had to play the role of Malcolm this emotionally until now, but he pretty much nails it from start to finish:  Malcolm's anguish is palpable and effective.  All Trip can do is blow out the candle, noting that the extra few minutes of life "sound pretty good right now."

As the Enterprise figures out that the micro-singularities in the asteroid field could put the pod in danger and send a message ordering them to a different rendezvous site, Malcolm and Trip decide to get very, very drunk on the bourbon.  Malcolm eventually turns the conversation to T'Pol (specifically her looks:  Malcolm thinks she's pretty, and asks Trip if he's "ever noticed her bum?"), at which point both Trip and the viewers know Malcolm's had waaaaaaaaay too much.  I've griped in the past that there's far too much effort going into creating a Resident Babe character, but I thought all of this played well -- for one thing, given the form-fitting catsuit and the decontamination scenes ("with assorted perkiness," as "Angel's" Cordelia Chase might say but hasn't), it would be absurd *not* to have one character or another take an ... aesthetic interest in our resident Vulcan.

This scene is one of the very few that I think misfires slightly, though - - while Connor Trinneer seems to portray a drunk Trip pretty well, I actually thought Keating played things just a little too broadly.  The scene was fun, no doubt about it, but something just rang ever so slightly false.  (It's also a little contrived that Archer just happened to store a bottle of hooch on a shuttle -- what, he's worried that Porthos is going to raid the liquor cabinet again?)

It's at the end of this scene, however, that the pair finally get a message from Enterprise and can rejoice that their shipmates are still alive -- until the sobering realization kicks in that Enterprise is still two days' journey away, and that there's not enough air to keep them alive that long.

The situation changes a bit, but as before there are no distractions from those two characters -- and now that the goal becomes staying alive long enough to be rescued rather than staying alive with a vain one-in- a-million hope of rescue, both become problem-solvers figuring out how to get Enterprise's attention.  Reed, ever the armory officer, considers firing weapons, only to reject it as too small a blip.  Then he gets to suggest another one of his favorite activities:  blowing something up!  Specifically, he suggests jettisoning the impulse engine and rigging it to self-destruct, hoping that the explosion will be noticed and will convince Enterprise to pick up the pace a bit.  Trip, as a dedicated engineer, really dislikes blowing up an engine, but Reed's simple and desperate question ("ever hold your breath for 11 hours?") is enough to convince him.

Lastly, even though it smacks of cliche, it would be difficult to do a story of "2 crewmembers stranded with X hours of air left" without someone eventually bringing up a "cold equations" scenario.  With 10 hours of air to go, Trip realizes that if there's only one man rather than 2, that makes for 20 hours, which vastly increases the chances of someone being rescued alive.  Trip voices this, and when Reed jokingly suggests that Trip seal himself in the airlock, Trip starts heading for it.  While this could be seen as marginally artificial tension, it doesn't come off that way -- Trip's intentions seem utterly true, and Reed's threat to stun him to stop him equally so.  (I also liked that Reed's intention wasn't to sacrifice himself instead, but merely to make sure they have an equal chance:  "I've invested far too much time trying to figure you out, Mr. Tucker -- I'm not about to accept that it was all for nothing."  Hardly the man meeting death calmly half a day earlier -- but that's pretty much the point.

In the end, of course, they are in fact rescued with an hour or two to spare, though both have a nasty case of hypothermia.  Reed certainly feels he's found a new friend, and even though he slips a bit when talking to T'Pol (wondering if she should say something to him about "heroics,") it's all very human and very true to the semi-delirious state he must be in.

There's not really a moment of false jeopardy in this episode, nor any real technobabble (certainly none used to duck out of a problem).  As I said at the outset, "Shuttlepod One" was going to succeed or fail based on how much it made us care about these two men -- and anyone who wasn't drawn in by this probably won't be drawn in by these characters at all.  The characters were true, the drama real, the dialogue marvelous.

Welcome back, Mr. Braga -- good to have you on the side of the angels again.

Some other thoughts:

-- Okay, two science nitpicks.  One, Trip's not remembering his biology classes correctly:  it's not that hair and nails grow after you're dead so much as it's the skin pulling back and making everything appear a bit longer.  (Having Trip believe this is not a problem at all -- he is, after all, an engineer and not a doctor.)  Two, one of Trip's concerns about destroying the pod's engine is that they'll stop dead in space.  Mr. Tucker, there's a fellow named Newton who'd like to speak with you about this First Law of Motion he's worked out...

[Neither problem interfered with the drama of the story, however -- this is just the science teacher in me taking an opportunity to comment.]

-- Is there a supply of spare shuttle engines, or is Pod 1 going to be out of commission until they stop in at Earth?

-- I loved Reed's wish that Zefram Cochrane had been European.  "The Vulcans would've been far less reluctant to help us.  But no -- he had to be from *Montana*."

-- Similarly, after Trip angrily orders Reed to use his generations of navigational skills, Reed was entirely justified in snapping back, "I don't suppose you have a *sextant* handy?"  (Reed's "left it with the slide rule" rang true as well.)

That'll do, I think.  "Shuttlepod One" is a show that could have easily turned out miserable rather than marvelous -- but this all just clicked and came together nicely.  Between this, "Cold Front," and "Dear Doctor," I'm feeling more optimistic about Trek than I have in quite some time.  Let's hope we get more like these and fewer like "Shadows of P'Jem" as the season continues.

So, to sum up:

Writing:  No punches were thrown -- but neither were any pulled, and         the wringer the characters went through was very real. Directing:  It's not easy to make an entire episode set in a box visually         interesting, but David Livingston managed well.  Kudos. Acting:  This is probably the first time I've *really* liked Connor         Trinneer's work, and Keating rose to virtually every challenge.

OVERALL:  9.5.  Marvelous.

NEXT WEEK:  A pair of reruns.  See you in two weeks. Tim Lynch (Castilleja School, Science Department)
tly...@alumni.caltech.edu        <*>
"I don't want to die -- what makes you think I want to die?"
"Because every since we saw Enterprise spread across that asteroid,
you've done nothing but write your own obituary."
                        -- Reed and Trip
--
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.

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