WARNING: Don't leave yourself alone and vulnerable to "Vox Sola" spoilers.�
In brief: The final act and a half is pretty good, but you've got to wade through a lot first.�
"Vox Sola" Enterprise Season 1, Episode 21 Teleplay by Fred Dekker Story by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga & Fred Dekker Directed by Roxann Dawson Brief summary: An exceptionally alien life-form appears on board Enterprise and seizes several members of the crew, forcing Hoshi to push her communication skills to their limit.
The day after "Vox Sola" aired, one of my students (who watches Enterprise occasionally, but not religiously) asked me before class, "So, is Enterprise trying to be the X-Files now, or what?" I doubt I'm the only one who thinks she has a point. While the ending of "Vox Sola" got away from this tendency a bit, Enterprise has had more than its share lately of dark places lit only by flashlights, creepy things that go bump, and other "monster at the end of this episode" moments, and much of "Vox Sola" merely reinforced that feeling. (Keep in mind, though, that I'm writing this as someone who never got into "The X-Files" all that much, especially in the last few years.)
The story begins with the end of a fairly disastrous first contact: the Kreetassans are mortally offended by something (though it's not clear what) and leave in a huff. As they leave, however, something else sneaks onto the Enterprise -- what it is isn't clear, but it seems somewhat gelatinous and quite living. (It also smacks of CGI for CGI's sake, but I'll leave that be for now.) The life-form, growing as it moves through the ship, wends its way through conduits and between decks until it reaches Cargo Bay 2, where it sets up housekeeping. Engineering crewman Toasty ... er ... Rostov goes to investigate a power loss and is seized by the creature, and his colleague Expendable ("Kelly" for short) is then seized in turn when she goes to investigate why Rostov hasn't come back. Before she vanishes, though, she manages to signal Archer, who now knows something's awry.
Now, there's nothing wrong with a good monster-of-the-week story: early seasons of both X-Files and Buffy, for instance, had lots of them, many of which worked quite well. X-Files, however, pulled that off by focusing on atmosphere and mood (usually fairly well), and Buffy either used the monster as a metaphor, played the threat tongue-in-cheek, or both. Enterprise is trying to play it pretty straight, which is fine -- but it's just so determinedly in earnest that the effect tends to backfire. Did anyone find all the "creep around in the dark" scenes in "Rogue Planet" atmospheric, for example? I certainly didn't -- and neither did I find this monster especially monstrous. As I said earlier, I was always entirely too aware that I was watching an effect (whether it be CGI or Silly String), and I got no sense of menace at all. In fact, I at least thought the "Archer, Trip, and Expendable Security Guy get grabbed" was more humorous than anything else -- the creature's taking of the security officer on the stairs was just exceptionally goofy.
"Okay," you might say, "but a lot of times you'll have character moments that can make up for a lot of that." True -- a lot of times you do. Here ... we did to a fault, but not quite to the level they'd have to be. Trip decides to cheer up Archer by surprising him with a video of the Stanford/Texas water polo finals ("fresh out of the subspace mailbag"), and Hoshi generally broods about her failure to interpret the Kreetassans well enough to save everyone from committing ... whatever their offense was. (At this point, they're not even sure what they did.) The Hoshi stuff felt a bit flat to me, as it felt like it was present only to telegraph something later, but the Archer/Trip interplay felt more natural. (As someone who's taught at two different schools with solid and popular water polo programs, I was also pleased to see water polo get a little good press. :-) ) What really saved the first half of the episode, inasmuch as anything did, was the direction, or perhaps more specifically the editing choices. Roxann Dawson kept the scenes very short, for the most part, and gave some interesting enough cuts and transitions that the viewer was at least kept moving rather than sitting in one scene.
For a while, then, things go more or less by the book. Phlox's examinations turn up two quick points. One, the creature has a highly developed nervous system and may be an intelligent being; and two, its autonomic functions are gradually merging with those of the people it's taken, so that eventually the crew will be nothing more than extensions of the life-form. Thus, time is of the essence -- and when it becomes clear that attempts to kill the creature would probably kill the hostages as well, the only choice is for Hoshi to try to figure out how to communicate with the creature while Reed tries to perfect the force-field he's been working on in order to stop it from spreading any further.
Midway through the third act, however, the show suddenly produced a couple of beautiful character moments that surprised me to no end. While working on his force field, Reed needs to find out how much feedback the creature can take, and intends to experiment on the sample in sickbay -- but Phlox stands up to him, saying that he wants to help, but not by torturing an intelligent being. "Correct me if I'm wrong," he notes, "but isn't our mission to better understand unique forms of life?" Reed will have none of it, but Phlox has jurisdiction in his own sickbay and his rules win out. The main reason I liked that moment (other than the fact that I think it's letting two of the better actors in the cast face off) is that both characters are in large part correct: my own sympathies are with Phlox (as I think they're meant to be), but Reed's motives are good and his logic sound: the two are just starting from somewhat different premises. That sort of situation provokes more thought after the fact, and as a result makes for better drama.
Then, in the very next scene, T'Pol ruffles Hoshi's feathers one time too many, and Hoshi finally snaps back, suggesting that T'Pol has been checking up on her from day 1, presumably with the assumption that she's not fit to be on board. T'Pol, however, says that it's just the opposite: that she would consider the loss of Hoshi a great loss to the crew, and that she holds Hoshi to a high standard "because I know you are capable of achieving it." Now, television's riddled with stories of teachers and mentors who do just that and are initially misunderstood, but this scene clicked surprisingly well. In part, that could be because I'm a teacher myself, but I think it's more because T'Pol has rarely been put in the role of mentor or guide, and this scene has made me start to rethink how she fits into the command structure. I like the idea of having T'Pol shepherd Hoshi along a bit - - it strikes me as something that can strengthen both characters. Kudos.
The combination of those two scenes seemed to take the episode around a corner, because the remainder was far more palatable than the early scenes. Yes, there were still too many scenes of the "hostages" just hanging around, and yes, the plot itself held few surprises -- but the "conversation" between Hoshi and the lifeform evoked much more of a sense of wonder in me than many scenes of its type. (Considering that the sounds weren't that different from whalesong, I'm not entirely sure why I felt that way, but I did nonetheless.) Hoshi's "hold on!" is finally one of interest rather than of desperation, Reed's sidelong glance at Hoshi during the conversation said "I can't believe I'm hearing this" far better than dialogue actually would, and the final trip to drop the alien off on its home planet had a definite sense of "we're in a neat place and are trying to take it all in without disturbing it."
That sense of wonder may be due in part to the music: Paul Baillargeon did a great job scoring the final act here. Even the "hanging hostages" scene was a bit better than the early ones, because of that one lone violin standing out against the background music, sounding somewhat mournful. Very evocative.
So "Vox Sola" doesn't fall into the all-too-frequent pothole of a great setup marred by a disappointing ending, but rather the reverse: it's got a great ending, but took so long and meandering a path to get there that it may well lose people along the way. A pity.
Some other musings:
-- While it made sense for Hoshi to ask for help, I wish we hadn't had the line about "this is more like a calculus equation than a language." For one thing, many linguists I'm acquainted with have pretty good mathematical intuitions as well -- and for another, it makes Hoshi sound math-phobic. She may well be, but I'd rather not have the only "normal" woman on the show embody that particular stereotype: the Barbie quote of "math class is hard" still rankles too much. (If you teach math or science to adolescents, you tend to notice these things -- particularly if you're at an all-girls school, as I am now.)
-- Oh, yeah ... I've pretty much skipped over the entire bit with the Kreetassans and Travis having to apologize for eating in public. Okay, sure, everyone's customs are different, etc. etc. ... but the scene was a bit forgettable (even if it did give Vaughn Armstrong yet another Trek role).
-- In some ways, I shouldn't have been surprised to see the "T'Pol is mentoring Hoshi" bit here. The only other show that hinted at it was "Sleeping Dogs," which was written by Fred Dekker, co-writer of this episode.
-- Early on, Hoshi notes that context is very important to the Kreetassan tongue, that the same word pronounced differently can mean different things. I'm a bit surprised that she found that so frustrating -- am I remembering right that, for example, Mandarin Chinese operates in very similar fashion? (Perhaps Kreetassan just does it to a greater degree than any Terran language.)
-- It looks like the crew go check out a movie every week. Fine with me, so long as we don't see them watching trailers for "Nemesis" as product placement next fall. :-)
That seems to do it. If you turned "Vox Sola" off halfway through, I'm not sure I'd blame you -- but I'd also advise you to go back and check the latter half out, as it's far superior. We've still had a substantial drought of really strong episodes of late (nothing since "Shuttlepod One," really), but this had some saving graces when push came to shove.
So, summing up:
Writing: The plot held few surprises, but some of the later character moments were golden. Directing: I'd have trimmed the "Archer hangs around" scenes even further, personally, but again the last act was a big help. Acting: Not a lot of standout work, but no complaints either.
Overall: A 6 or so; had the second half resembled the first, it'd have been far lower.
Two episodes, and two reviews.
Tim Lynch (Castilleja School, Science Department)
"I'm willing to help you, Mr. Reed, but not if it means torturing this
organism. Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't our mission to try to
better understand unique forms of life?"
Copyright 2002, Timothy W. Lynch. All rights reserved, but feel free to ask...
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