Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Star Trek: Enterprise Is A Deeply Flawed Series But Worth Giving A Try

**I apologize for not having part II of my in-depth look at Battlestar Galactica posted yet, it should be up in the next few days (finals week and everything). I've had this article sitting finished on my computer for a while now, and it is the tenth anniversary of Enterprises' last episode (and the last of episode of any Star Trek), so I figured I'd post this in the mean time. 

Long reviled by many as the series that essentially killed Star Trek as we had known it; Enterprise has been slowly undergoing a kind of semi-rehabilitation in the fan community lately. Within Star Trek fandom there are often cycles in which something is almost universally hated for so long, that eventually a wave of contrarian backlash forms, and people will jump to its defense. The Final Frontier (Shatner's infamous vanity project) has followed this pattern at times. There is also a tendency right now for fans to “circle the wagons” in response to both JJ Trek and the current drought of Star Trek or any space based sci-fi on the small screen. The show has always had a small but devoted subset of Star Trek fans on its side, but online streaming and the general explosion of interest in nerdy cultural artifacts, has exposed ENT to a wider audience. But the series’ fans, both old and new, tend to overlook the serious flaws that kept the show teetering on the brink of cancellation.

Personally, I do find Enterprise to be refreshing stylistically, it has a "you are there" sort of feel to it, and the ship seems more like a real space filled with real people facing a journey into the unknown than any other Trek series. There are also nice little bits of continuity sprinkled in that tie even the more self-contained stories together. While there are problems with characterization (I'll get back to that point later) the crew is much less bland and 2-dimensional than Voyager. It also has the best production values of any Trek series and almost always looks a cut above the rest of the Berman era. However, ENT labored under the weight of its own poor construction, and developed problems early on that it would never completely shake.

First, no one could decide what the show was actually about, as far as any sort of overarching narrative. It was originally conceived of course as a prequel and a Federation origin story, but then became a kind of back door reboot for the franchise. It rarely directly contradicted canon, but it went off and made entirely new story elements instead of expanding upon the Trek universe as it already existed. In seasons 1 and 2 we wound up mostly with a myriad of entirely new alien/planet/anomaly of the week plots (which were stale and perfunctory imitations of TNG) and the poorly planned and thought out Temporal Cold War arc. There were a few weak callbacks to the prequel notion, but they were disjointed and poorly handled, like the Vulcans showing up just to be insufferable jerks once in a while.

The third season just dropped the pretense of being a prequel all together with the Xindi arc. While the story was interesting and mostly well handled, it amounted to "24 in Space"(several of ENT’s writers worked on 24) and it was an ill-fit for the structure of the series and the characters. The Xindi were never very threatening or convincing as enemies and the dark turn in the series was too sudden and ham-handed to be taken seriously. Though the season was entertaining simply for the way it ran the ship and crew through the wringer. Testing them on a long and dangerous mission in hostile space and bringing a sense of realism and continuity to the show; at times it felt like watching Voyager if it had stuck to its premise.

Season 4 is where the show starts to get its act together....well...after the space Nazi episode at least. But it still had its low points. One problem was that the new show runner, Manny Coto, brought in writers who were long time fans, and sometimes it felt like the inmates were running the asylum. They spent 5 episodes on a convoluted fan-fictiony explanation for the Klingon makeup change, and "oh look there are scenery chewing augments and Dr. Noonien Soong's look alike ancestor!”. They also spent 2 episodes in the Mirror Universe, which was simplistic fun but also slightly derivative and oriented towards fan service. The real standout is the Vulcan arc, which I have to say stands among the best stories Star Trek has ever produced. Season four however was not a complete redemption of the series and I don’t buy into the common refrain that a fifth season would have been some sort of unparalleled Trek masterpiece. Aside from the fact that TV shows are reasonably expected to sort out their growing pains in one season not three, and that ENT would have been cancelled long before if the Star Trek name wasn’t behind it; season 4 showed only a few glimpses of the series’ full potential.

The second major problem lies with the characters. The writers wanted to make the point that Humanity was taking its first steps into deep space and still had much to learn. This was a good idea in principle, since it would help to set the series apart from its predecessors and open up the potential for better drama. However they used ham-fisted methods to accomplish this; making the humans petty and stupid. In the first two seasons, Archer and Tucker often revel in their own sort of childish ignorance and masculine impulsiveness, while gleefully rubbing T’Pol’s face in it, who is often the sole voice of reason.

Instead of the interplay between logic, intuition and morality with Spock, Kirk and McCoy in TOS, we get T’Pol as an overbearing mother figure dealing with her rebellious sons. Archer’s character is especially dragged through the mud in awful episodes like “A Night in Sickbay”, and it seems like he’d be pretty much ok with his entire crew dying horribly as long as his dog was safe and he didn’t have to ask any Vulcans for help. Tucker mostly just comes off as a bumbling redneck caricature; of course according to “These are the Voyages” he never went to college and somehow taught himself warp theory by working on boat engines in his native Florida…Yes, you heard that right. I guess folksy wisdom triumphs even over the intricacies of manipulating spacetime.

This dynamic begins to change in season three, and while Archer and Tucker both gain competence, they take a sudden and unconvincing turn towards becoming revenge obsessed “space Jack Bauers”. It’s only in season four that they finally become people you could reasonably imagine leading an interstellar mission and not blowing up the ship in the first week, because they tried to use warp coolant discharge to heat a moonshine still. But Scott Bakula never seemed comfortable in the role, and Archer still remained the weakest and least interesting out of all the Trek captains.

The other characters are all pretty much one note. Reed likes weapons, Hoshi is afraid of everything and Mayweather (when he manages to get a line) likes to remind everyone that he was raised on a cargo ship. They are mostly forgettable. Phlox though is fairly interesting at times and John Billingsley usually manages to walk the line between annoying and endearingly eccentric, while usually avoiding the “bleeding heart doctor” clich├ęs.

Finally, there is a sort of childish male-centric sexuality that runs through much of the series. The very first episode gives us a gratuitous decontamination scene where Trip and T’Pol rub oil all over each other; while Reed and Mayweather giggle like 12 year old boys about three breasted women. T’Pol of course is given a catsuit uniform that is insulting to the actress, the character and fans of all genders and sexualities; then in a particularly awful episode she contracts an illness that makes her prowl the ship like a dog in heat. Star Trek never handled sex very well (go watch TNG’s “Sub Rosa”), but Enterprise took this to new heights of puerile stupidity.

So we’re left with a deeply flawed series, that couldn’t decide on a larger story direction nor completely break away from tired tropes of the franchise. But it is a series that I found to be ineffably watchable and at times very entertaining. It never reached anywhere near the heights of TNG or DS9, but it always managed to keep up a feeling of boldly going, even when it was to places we had obviously been before. Often the competence of its production overcame its questionable writing. For that reason I would rate it higher than Voyager, which always felt like it was retreading the same stale formula.  While I would never recommend Enterprise to someone unfamiliar with Star Trek, I think the series is worth a watch for any serious fan of the franchise. The current drought of Star Trek on the small screen is now entering it's tenth year, sometimes beggars can't be choosers, and you will find more than enough entertainment to keep you going through the ups and downs of its four seasons.

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I am a 20-something sci-fi fan and aspiring writer working towards a graduate degree in political science. Feel free to contact me via email.