In brief: A routine plot elevated by good characterization and sustained tension.
There's nothing strange, new, or otherwise interesting about the world in "Strange New World." Like last week's "Fight or Flight," this is not an episode sold on an ingenious plot but instead on solid characterization.
The oddity is that for a series that's ostensibly about capturing the essence of space exploration, Enterprise has thus far been pretty tepid. There is virtually no element of wonder in terms of what could be called "exploration" in the general Trek or sci-fi sense.
At least, not from our perspective. Through the other series, we've been to many, many places these characters have not. So there's a certain charm, I guess, in watching Archer and his crew reveling in the exploration of their first uninhabited Earth-like alien planet. (Have I mentioned that I like the NX-01 landing party baseball hats?) Archer seems content to simply be stopping the starship in orbit in order to set a shuttle down on the surface and smell a few roses. Archer asks "Trip" Tucker to take a picture of him with T'Pol. "Smile!" Archer says. T'Pol does not.
After employing some general "exploration," i.e., walking around some fields with scanners, five members of the crew set up camp while Archer heads back to the Enterprise. Soon a windstorm approaches and the landing party is forced to retreat into the caves, where dissension and paranoia begin to set in.
That, my friends, is the plot — very lean, I suppose one could say. There's absolutely nothing inspired or even particularly good about this plot, but the episode is a worthwhile exercise in characterization, where we can watch how the characters respond as they engage in some fairly routine actions, followed by some not-so-routine ones.
For example, we have our crewmembers sitting around a campfire as Mayweather tells a ghost story. (The episode was co-written by Mike Sussman, who wrote Voyager's "The Haunting of Deck Twelve," where characters also sat around a campfire to hear a scary story.) In addition to Mayweather, on hand are Tucker, T'Pol, and two non-regulars, Elizabeth Cutler (Kellie Waymire) and Ethan Novakovich (Henri Lubatti). Here's hoping that on this series, unlike Voyager, we might actually get recurring characters as crewmen instead of an implausibly endless supply of unfamiliar nobodies.
Odd Vulcan out is, of course, T'Pol, who is constantly told that the emotions she as a Vulcan lacks are exactly why we pesky humans find this adventure so much fun. She evidently would not be nearly as amused as I was with the incident involving the "scorpion thing" that ends up in Tucker's sleeping bag. In a funny exchange, Tucker announces his intentions to shoot it with a phase pistol.
The story's actual crisis comes once the storm forces the landing party into the claustrophobic confines of the caves. To make a long story short, the crew members begin hallucinating because of their exposure to a toxic pollen that blows down from the mountains during the storm; the hallucinations lead to paranoia.
Mayweather thinks he sees people outside the cave. Tucker goes along to check and concurs. Apparent LSD-like effects cause our characters to see shapes and movement in the rocks. Elizabeth hallucinates T'Pol talking to someone else in the caves, prompting Tucker to accuse T'Pol of conspiring with these "rock people." It must be the Vulcans hiding something from the humans again, he concludes.
The core of the story exists in Tucker's distrust of Vulcans, pumped up here into a raving insanity that begins to snowball with each scene. Tucker is delusional, but there's a deep-rooted prejudice in his distrust, and we begin to see just how fragile the human/Vulcan relationship can be. There's a lot of resentment here — long-standing resentment for having been bottled up by the Vulcans who were bent on keeping humans out of the interstellar community. While I'm still a little leery about the writers' hazy depiction of the Vulcans' motives, I do appreciate that we have some conflict built into this series.
Tension like the kind found in this episode depends almost entirely on acting. Connor Trinner carries the last two acts with a strong performance that mounts in intensity, bringing urgency and conviction to scenes that very easily could've fallen flat in the hands of a lesser actor.
I'm a little less enthused about Jolene Blalock. Don't get me wrong — Blalock isn't bad at all, but performing a Vulcan character is very difficult to pull off effectively. My main problem is that T'Pol is just too soft-spoken a lot of the time. Being calm is one thing, but T'Pol is quiet and unanimated almost to the point of creating audience boredom. It's almost a relief here when she's finally pushed to her limits, briefly loses control, and raises her voice.
The story's crises are simple instead of elaborate, and I like that. The shuttle rescue attempt in the storm makes sense. It fails because of wind and not because of technobabble. Similarly, the threat to the crew is because of toxic exposure to a hallucinogenic pollen. Simple, effective, and to the point. Not incredibly exciting or interesting, but it serves the purpose of bringing out the characterization. And the emergency rescue of Ethan reveals a transporter failure that is enough to create doubt in transporters but without resorting to tragic extremes.
I'm a little skeptical about the way Archer talks Tucker into lowering his weapon, concocting an elaborate story to convince him that some of his paranoia is warranted. Is all this necessary? Couldn't T'Pol have simply pulled the trigger and stunned Tucker with her phase pistol? I understand she had a deadly weapon pointed at her, but Archer's long-winded solution to this crisis seems impractical and a bit unbelievable.
"Strange New World" is almost surprisingly tame and restrained. In a way, that's part of why it works. There is no real enemy, no unrealistic influences, no elaborate twists of the plot. The enemy comes from within Tucker's own prejudices, amplified by the symptoms of the hallucinogen. Is this character conflict of the truest kind? Perhaps not, since it requires drugs to bring it to the surface. But that itself is perhaps part of the issue. Tucker says things here that he normally wouldn't, but clearly he has a certain buried ill-will when it comes to Vulcans. And the interaction between the humans and Vulcans is an element on this series that seems to be somewhat important at this stage.
Look, I'm not saying this is a thrilling, original, or deep episode. But it's an effective one thanks to the performances. It gets the job done and sustains the tension. I liked its understated nature, punctuated by moments of fiery acting.
Next week: Trip gets knocked up. Huh?