In brief: The plot is slight at best, but there's value to be found in the characterization and human/Vulcan interaction.
I will say that without a doubt the plots so far for Enterprise have been uninspired. That's perhaps an understatement. After seeing "Breaking the Ice" I've developed a new theory that says any show where space explorers build a snowman on the surface of a comet is not exactly trying to make us feel awed about the wonders of space travel.
And yet the snowman idea fits the tone of this show perfectly, which is laid-back and irreverent, more about characters and relationships than about strange new worlds or seeking out new life and new civilizations.
The subject of exploration here: a comet. Correction: a comet containing a unique mineral. My brain unconsciously forwards the message to my typing hands: "Whoop-de-do." But I've long maintained that good things can be done with pedestrian premises, just as is the case the other way around.
"Breaking the Ice" is a character-driven story of trust and friction between ideals — and, for that matter, personality types. I frankly don't care about the comet. What I do care about is the way a Vulcan ship shows up just as Archer is about to get a survey mission of this comet under way. The Vulcan captain, Vanik (William Utay), expresses his desire to "observe" the proceedings. This is not the first time the Vulcans have wanted to observe. To the Enterprise crew, the Vulcans are increasingly bearing resemblance to babysitters, trying to hold their hands as they try to cross the street. "Stay as long as you want," Archer tells Vanik — a line perfectly delivered by Bakula as Archer tries to mask his annoyance behind neutrality.
Should the Vulcans be out here, watching over every little thing this experimental human crew does? It's a good question, still unanswered; Archer has neither been proven capable nor incapable of interacting with the interstellar social universe. The Vulcans, meanwhile, are stodgy to the point of being control freaks. Would they have preferred to wait forever until humanity was truly "ready" to venture out? And now that we're out here, are they going to look over our shoulders for petty things like studying comets?
The episode finds the right notes for events that aren't groundbreaking, but are telling nonetheless. Consider, for example, the whole issue of the encrypted message that the Vulcan ship sends to T'Pol's quarters. The transmission is detected and raises Archer's suspicions, who reacts with a sort of saddened disappointment. Is T'Pol secretly communicating with the Vulcans? Briefing them on how the Enterprise operates? I like the fact that Archer wants to trust T'Pol, but is still unable to.
Trip has the message decrypted. He reads it, only to find that it has nothing to do with the Vulcans talking behind Archer's back, but instead that it's simply a personal letter. Very personal. In this case, distrust only leads to embarrassment. Trip decides to come clean with T'Pol so he can clear his conscience. T'Pol is clearly unhappy about her personal situation being discovered by someone else, and I liked her Vulcan response — giving a cold shoulder but without being overly emotional or holding a grudge.
Jolene Blalock turns in her best performance to date in another role that demands her never to get excited or step outside the boundaries of complete control that have typified her thus far. I'd read reports that T'Pol would be envisioned as a more "sensual" Vulcan, but that certainly has not been the case so far. T'Pol is calm, composed, distant, and incredibly introverted. "Sensual" is about the last word I'd use to describe her.
Her personal situation here is tantamount to a fork in the road of her life. She has an arranged marriage awaiting her on Vulcan — and if she's going to go through with it, she must make the decision now. She has little emotional stake in her would-be spouse; she's only met him a handful of times since the arrangement was made when they were children. Should she adhere to Vulcan traditional values or continue her mission aboard the Enterprise? We of course know the answer, but the way the issue is filtered through dialog and characters is effective.
She confides in Trip on this matter because, naturally, he's the only one who knows about her situation and she'd rather not share it with any more people. Their discussion plays the obvious notes of human individuality versus Vulcan traditionalism, but it's nice to see these two characters have a genuine personal discussion. Based on this episode, it would seem the seeds are planted for T'Pol allowing herself to learn from and adjust to the human mindset around her. It's also likely that these are the seeds of a personal relationship between Trip and T'Pol — perhaps an actual friendship, if T'Pol allows herself to have friends. Like various characters in all Trek series before her, she has the outside perspective on human values, and she's peering in. Here's hoping that the learning process will be a two-way street.
There's also a scene of exposition that is brilliant in its way (and simultaneously silly), where the bridge crew records answers to questions sent from Earth. These particular questions are from fourth-graders. The idea allows the scene to explain a few unanswered technical questions to the audience while having a reason to do so. You know, the important stuff — questions involving the universal translator, dating on the ship, the food supply, and using the toilet. (Trip: "A poop question, sir?" Archer: "It's a perfectly valid question.") It's a bit obvious and overly cute, but I think the story manages to get away with it. It would makes sense that there's a lot of interest in Enterprise's mission back on the home front. I only hope we get to see more contact with Earth in better depth, used in a less condescending way.
Perhaps my favorite sequence is Archer's attempt to host dinner for Vanik. Sure, Vanik accepts Archer's invitation, but as a guest he's about as useless as he can be. All of Archer's attempts to start a conversation are utterly futile, because one can't have a conversation with someone who refuses to bring anything to the table. Vanik responds to each of Archer's comments with as few words as possible ("No," or "I only drink water"). This is a mildly funny sequence, played for some low-key laughs. It works because the humor is based on a truthful premise that most of the audience will be able to identify with. (William Utay nails down a performance that masks Vanik's superior indignation behind an artifice of laconic indifference.) When you have an uncomfortable social situation, the only thing you want is for it to end. Archer ends it by having an officer escort Vanik to the launch bay. The lesson to be learned here is that at some point being a gracious host simply outlives what you get out of it.
It might've been nice to tie the tensions with the Vulcans back into the issue from last week's "Andorian Incident"; given how cold Vanik is here, some sort of reference would've been a prudent way to hint at continuing problems of trust. Continuity between episodes is so far not of much importance on this series.
Reed and Mayweather become the lucky ones who get to go down to the comet surface and drill for the rare mineral. Mayweather has never seen snow firsthand, so this proves to be its own reward. There's something corny and yet completely in line with the tone of the episode when the two of them build that snowman. I should, however, point out that the lack of any sort of edge in Mayweather is really beginning to show — and rankle a bit. For someone who has spent his whole life in space, he strikes me more as the latest take on Mr. Green. He's the youthful, wide-eyed kid with the perpetual Pepsodent smile. I thought Enterprise was supposed to have "edge," but this guy is so far the hollowest shell of a character. Yes, these characters are going to take awhile to develop, but Mayweather so far is beyond bland, having nearly nothing in terms of opinions or personality. Here's hoping this changes soon.
The story's turning point comes when our away team falls into unexpected jeopardy. The comet rotates toward the sun, the ice melts and cracks, Mayweather is injured, and the shuttle falls into a chasm of ice. Suddenly the survey mission becomes a rescue operation where the Enterprise crew must retrieve the shuttle with grappling hooks. This turns out to be difficult, at which point the Vanik — still silently monitoring the situation — offers to help with his ship's tractor beam.
This is a moment where Archer must make a choice: Handle the crisis on his own, or swallow his pride and accept the Vulcans' offer of help. I was glad to see him swallow his pride. Ensuring your people's safety is far more important than preserving your dignity. And as T'Pol points out, Archer would be playing into Vanik's hands by ignoring the offer and proving right the stereotype of humans being arrogant and hard-headed. To the Vulcans, human independence is not a trait that impresses.
This storyline makes for a good microcosm of the tensions between humans and Vulcans. It's nice to see Archer's mindset being challenged. The Vulcans may be righteous and arrogant in their own ways, but they've also been out in space much longer than humans have, so they certainly have points worth learning from. All this, despite the fact one almost gets the feeling the Vulcans were hanging around for something to happen so that they could say, without saying, "I told you so."
Humans will have their own way of dealing with situations in space, but we don't know everything, and I'm glad to see this episode acknowledge that. And just as the Vulcans can help humanity, maybe our human characters can help our Vulcan character think outside her own box.
"Breaking the Ice" uses some routine story elements to bring these relevant issues to the surface where character development can begin to emerge.
Next week: Perhaps a lesson for why we need the Prime Directive?