Star Trek: Enterprise
Air date: 1/16/2002
Written by Andre Bormanis
Directed by Winrich Kolbe
Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
"You looking forward to seeing Earth?"
"Sure. I just didn't think I'd be seeing it so soon."
"This time we won't be leaving before we're ready."
"Are your ears a little pointier than usual?"
— Archer and Tucker
In brief: Quite average. Moments of mild interest alternating with moments worth shrugging at.
"Silent Enemy" might as well be called "The MacGuffin Enemy," because that's what the enemy here is — a big MacGuffin. A MacGuffin is, of course, simply a device that could be anything or anyone, as long as it serves its purpose of propelling the characters into action through the story. The silent aliens here are an excellent example of a MacGuffin because they're, well, silent. By definition, there's no depth to them because they never say anything. Archer talks to them, but they're not listening.
Eventually, they attack with no reason or warning, and after firing a few shots and damaging the Enterprise, they scurry off. Later they come back and attack again. They strike without provocation or any known motivation. This very silent enemy serves as a device to make Captain Archer realize that the Enterprise simply cannot adequately defend itself, which is a prudent realization considering recent encounters with better-armed foes like those in "Civilization" or "Fortunate Son." I for one am glad to see the matter directly acknowledged with dialog.
One of the show's key moments is when Archer realizes that it's time for the Enterprise to turn around and head back to Jupiter Station, where the ship's weapons systems can be finished. Phase cannons were supposed to be installed before the Enterprise was launched, but apparently there was no time once the events of "Broken Bow" forced a quick departure of the ship.
But hold on a second. Wasn't the ship finished and ready to go — and in fact being held back by the Vulcans — for some time before the incident at Broken Bow, Oklahoma, even happened? It would seem the writers are revising originally implied intentions for the benefit of the story at hand · which, I concede, is a necessary thing in developing a television series. It just needs to be done carefully. I suppose this is just careful enough.
Trip tells Archer that his engineering crew has the skill and manpower to install the phase cannons themselves. Archer permits the attempted in-house upgrade but still plans on heading for home for fine-tuning. Archer's attitude is a sensible one — if we're going to be out here we should get it right — which seems like a bit of a different attitude compared to what he might've done a few months back. Perhaps he's been learning the value of caution. Which is good; I like that.
Of course, one logical question becomes just why Trip's engineering teams haven't been chipping away at the task of bringing the phase cannons online for weeks if not months already. They've been out here long enough to know what kinds of dangers they're up against. To suddenly realize here, "Uh-oh, we're really outgunned!" and finally starting to make upgrades only when seriously threatened seems awfully shortsighted, especially since the upgrades aren't presented as a jury-rigged solution but rather a plan all along.
The issue of whether turning around is necessary is made moot by the fact that the silent enemy has a faster ship and pursues the Enterprise regardless of its retreat, attacking it again. They damage one of the warp nacelles, making it impossible for the Enterprise to run, and they board the ship (the aliens are portrayed through an intriguing CG design) for reasons that seem to extend beyond simple curiosity and come across with more sinister overtones. Archer chases them off with a phase-pistol blast, but it seems more like they leave voluntarily than because they feel threatened.
I sort of liked the presentation of this mysterious, silent enemy — in technique anyway. They have a very "alien" sense to them in the way they pounce and then inexplicably retreat. On the other hand, it's impossible to make anything of them; they are, in the end, MacGuffins with no hint of insight or meaning provided by the writers. That may be the point, but the writers also make no sense of their bizarre hit-and-run tactics. Their attack methods seem to be providing a convenient way for the writers to artificially regulate the story's pace. Did this bother me a lot? Not really, but I also didn't find the whole series of exercises all that interesting.
The story's underlying message becomes one of old-fashioned persistence and hard work in the face of a challenging situation. Trip has his engineers working around the clock to get the phase-cannons working in preparation for the next assault. This leads to some scenes that I liked, such as the discussion between Archer and Trip about taking risks, which is then reflected in the interaction between Trip and Reed on how big a risk cutting technological corners can be.
And speaking of Malcolm Reed, "Silent Enemy" finally tries to look at this guy in terms of character development. He's so far been very limited in what we know about him, and, indeed, Archer says exactly that to Trip, after realizing that nobody really knows much about Malcolm. The line almost plays like a shrewd acknowledgement on the part of the writers, as if to say, "We don't know anything about this guy either and it's time to tackle him."
Alas, the writers think of nothing remotely approaching deep significance for him. Archer assigns Hoshi to find out what Reed's favorite food is so they can surprise him for his birthday — not exactly the most compelling or hard-hitting idea ever hatched. Hoshi finds this assignment more difficult than initially thought, because Reed is something of a keep-to-himself loner — pleasant but not at all outgoing, and a hard worker. Hoshi talks to Malcolm's parents on Earth, and to his old academy friends — and finds out little that's useful because he isn't the type to have strongly voiced preferences.
This is not unpleasant in any way, and I'm glad the writers tried to take a look at where this guy came from — but it's just too lightweight, essentially telling us there's nothing interesting to find in Reed's past. I suppose the intention here is to reveal Reed as an everyman, a worker. But we don't actually learn much about him, and when shoehorned between more pressing scenes involving the mysterious alien attacks and the weapon upgrades, Reed's story quickly loses urgency and relevance. I found myself asking why in the world Hoshi was assigned to such a trivial research project with everything else that was going on.
The "everything else" here is of more focus and ultimately hinges on a slightly botched weapons test that's akin to firing a gun and being shocked by the severity of the recoil. I liked Archer's steely resolve in not being intimidated by aliens who refuse to negotiate and insist on mind games. He tells them in no uncertain terms that the Enterprise will stand and fight if need be, and armed with the new cannons, the ship is more prepared to back up Archer's determination with action.
The ending finds itself in a bit of a tricky situation involving how powerful the writers can permit these cannons to be. During the initial test, the powerful discharge was a malfunction that resulted in damage to the ship. When working properly as designed, these cannons are still not powerful enough to penetrate the enemy's energy shields, so Trip and Reed must find a way to overload them without damaging ship systems. I like the idea of an improvised solution, but the solution here is one of those dreaded technobabble contrivances that is heavy on meaningless jargon and lacking in real drama. A better ending might've figured out a way for the crew to get their big bang, but at an actual cost rather than with free magic.
In the final analysis, I'm giving a thumbs-sideways to this episode, because there's nothing really about it that jumps out about it one way or the other. It held my attention and addressed the important issue of weapons upgrades. It took a character and dealt with him, even though there was little in terms of depth and the biggest question turned out to be, "What's his favorite food?" (The answer is pineapple for those keeping score.) I'm glad to see the supporting characters getting mixed into the Enterprise balance, but I think we need to ask much tougher questions than that.
Footnote: "Silent Enemy" was scored by Velton Ray Bunch, a new composer to the Trek franchise who previously did work for the Bakula-starring series Quantum Leap. I haven't formed an opinion of his style as of yet, but some new blood on the composing tier is probably a good thing. Enterprise also continues to employ long-standing TV Trek composers Dennis McCarthy, Jay Chattaway, David Bell, and Paul Baillargeon.
Next week: Phlox looks to be getting the spotlight with a pre-Prime Directive issue.