In brief: An excellent lesson in how to spin your wheels.
"Canamar" is a handsomely produced, slickly directed, watchable example of what is wrong with Enterprise. For 60 minutes my attention is held enough such that I do not feel a need to walk away from my TV, but once it's over I realize that I've essentially wasted my time. It's formulaic action fluff and that's all. It doesn't even try to be anything more.
Look, I'm not asking that every hour I spend in front of a TV lend me some great insight to the human condition. I'm not asking Star Trek to reinvent the wheel every week (I concede that is impossible) or shock us with some sort of unanticipated notion or character revelation. What I am asking is that the creators make an effort — or at least pretend — that their stories say something, mean something, or get to the heart of something. Anything — whether it's our characters, the guest characters, a message, or any story point worth thinking about. ("Future Tense" was not particularly meaty or conclusive, either, but at least it was adequate Trek with some good dialog and an entertaining plot.)
"Canamar" is your garden-variety prison-break concept, a plot about stopping a criminal who has taken over a prisoner transport vessel. That's it. It is nothing more. It offers no compelling characters, no interesting insights, no messages worth considering, and no hint that it wants to be anything but a mechanical manipulation of action plot pieces. Its redeeming quality is that it competently assembles all its pieces into something that moves us from Point A to Point B and makes logical sense. Beyond that, our hands are clutching empty air.
Let's start with the premise: a tried-and-true and rehashed concept if there ever was one. It's about prisons and convicts (not to mention the Trek cliche of our characters being wrongfully railroaded by an unjust alien system), as Archer and Tucker find themselves presumed guilty and aboard an Enolian prisoner transport ship headed for a penal colony.
I can think of any number of storylines about prisons and/or convicts. Some of them are very good. One of my favorite movies of all time is The Shawshank Redemption, which uses the prison system as a patiently unfolding canvas to show us how spirits are crushed and how hope can be the path to redemption. Among the Trek prison-drama examples are shows like DS9's "Hard Time" and Voyager's "The Chute," both which were effective in depicting the horrific psychological effects of extended incarceration. Now we get Enterprise's "Canamar," which really has nothing to do with the penal colony of Canamar. We don't even get to the penal colony because the ship (and the story) are hijacked by a run-of-the-mill criminal who must then be stopped. That's what the show is about. It's about stopping the bad guy.
His name is Kuroda (Mark Rolston). Early in the episode, Kuroda and his Nausicaan partner in crime (Michael McGrady) break free of their restraints and take control of the prison ship. The guards are restrained, but the pilot is injured, leaving Kuroda with the problem of having no one to fly the ship. His solution: Jonathan Archer, who is quick to volunteer his help. This puts Archer in the pilot's seat, and also in the position where he may be able to influence the outcome of a situation likely headed for disaster.
On the other end of the plot is the Enterprise's search for Archer and Tucker after they discover their empty shuttlepod. (One thinks the Enolian authorities might've impounded a shuttlepod involved in alleged smuggling activity, but never mind, as that would prevent the Enterprise crew from finding it.) The crew contacts an Enolian authority (Holmes Osborne) about their missing captain and engineer, and in what is the show's biggest, most welcome and refreshing surprise, the Enolian authorities are actually cooperative (!) people who admit the error and promise the immediate release of Archer and Tucker. (Par for this course would've had the annoying bureaucrats inform T'Pol that Archer and Tucker were in fact guilty, period, followed by an order to leave their space, a terse threat, and switching off the viewscreen. Thank heavens we didn't have to sit through that sequence again.)
Back aboard the prison ship begins a series of trust games, as Archer tries to keep a lid on an escalating situation while Kuroda plots his escape, violently if necessary. Kuroda, a repeat offender, has already spent many years at Canamar and has no plans to go back. He intends to rendezvous with another ship of criminals in the orbit of a planet, get off the prison ship, and let the prison ship crash into the planet, killing all the other prisoners and guards. He sees this as a simple matter of pragmatism: The Enolian officials will assume all the prisoners died in the crash and will not have any witnesses to say otherwise. (I'm not so sure my investigation would end there if I were the Enolians, but I suppose Kuroda is free to make his own assumptions.) Obviously, Archer can't let this happen, so he plots a last-minute attempt to take control of the ship from Kuroda, and manages to convince Kuroda to release Tucker.
This leads to the extended action sequence of the last act, which is a compromise between the effective and the frustrating. There's a lot going on here, with the docking of the other ship and a series of changes in the upper hand. At a certain mechanical level, the action at the end of "Canamar" works. It is effectively staged and directed — better than some. The increasing noise and camera-shaking lends a certain amount of intensity as the prison ship enters the atmosphere, and it goes on for so long that we begin to sense the ship is seconds away from breaking apart. The action score, by (I think) new-to-Trek composer Brian Tyler, is effective.
At the same time, the inability to contain Kuroda borders on the frustratingly contrived. There's a point where he's shot and rendered unconscious, but then left to wake up and cause more trouble (and, hence, more action). Archer and Kuroda end up going mano a mano, which is well-choreographed in terms of technical action (and by now we're annoyed enough with Kuroda's lack of reason that we're hoping Archer will kick his ass and be done with it), but it had me questioning the logic of events: Surely the security team could've focused its efforts on restraining Kuroda rather than permitting him to get away again and again. Kuroda essentially writes his own death sentence by staying aboard the ship ("I won't go back!" he states adamantly) as it plunges into the atmosphere — a visual which we are spared, quite possibly to avoid unpleasant reminders of the Columbia tragedy.
In the end, the problem with "Canamar" is not in what is here but in what is missing. This story finds no point and relies on little in terms of ideas or attitudes. It is a prison-based setup that arrives only at the most simplistic of action payoffs. Kuroda and indeed none of the prisoners emerge to reveal personalities or perspectives or interesting dialog. The people are there to service the action and little else.
There's a last-minute bit where Archer, who is not very happy with the Enolians, bluntly confronts their official over the possibility of other innocents who have likely been condemned in their screwed-up justice system. Archer's aggressive tone is both warranted and believable (and well delivered by Scott Bakula) given the ordeal he's just been through, but it's all too brief and the message feels perfunctory. The episode is content only to make the briefest and most obvious point about an apparently deeply flawed justice system. It doesn't look the slightest bit deeper, because the show is not about any of that. It's about Archer stopping Kuroda from killing everyone.
And that's what's presently wrong with Enterprise. It is content to go the obvious plot-only route rather than asking provocative questions or digging any deeper into its characters' personalities or thoughts. It is dangerously close to turning into a mechanical process. And that's both a shame and a waste.
Next week: A month of reruns begins with "The Communicator."