In brief: A rather extreme, out-of-left-field shake-up of the series, but effective nonetheless.
"Enterprise has potential," I said to TV Guide magazine a few months ago, "but it doesn't take risks." I said a lot more, but that's what got printed — which is fine, because it got to the crux of the matter. Enterprise was in the middle of a second season that was bland, boring, and safe.
Well, with "The Expanse," Enterprise has taken a risk. Whether it's the right risk remains to be seen, but at least the series is committing itself to something resembling a direction (and if the press quotes are true indicators, this will become an ongoing storyline rather than something that will be instantly resolved at the beginning of next season — which is good news).
The optimist in me sees this as an opportunity for the writers to do some unpredictable things and give this series a much-needed purpose and story arc. The pessimist sees this as a writer's sudden act of desperation to move a frequently anemic series in a hopefully exciting direction. (Reportedly, the studio regards Enterprise with much skepticism, so one wonders if they demanded changes.) The pessimist also wonders if the show isn't veering off in the direction of a war series with overlarge stakes — which seems to be an unlikely digression for what is allegedly the prequel to Star Trek. Enterprise doesn't seem like a series where such material would naturally fit, but maybe I should wait and see rather than speculate.
The stakes here are nothing short of apocalyptic, beginning with a weapons test of unknown alien origin that slices a 4,000-kilometer-long swath from central Florida down through to Venezuela, killing 7 million people in the process.
And this is a weapons test.
So, yes, you could say they have my attention.
Enterprise is immediately recalled to Earth. Before reaching Earth, however, the Enterprise is intercepted by the Suliban, who bring Archer aboard their ship to talk to the Shadow Man From The Future, who explains that the attack on Earth was carried out by a race called the Xindi — and, furthermore, that the Xindi intend to destroy Earth with a doomsday weapon in a subsequent attack. Allegedly, the Xindi motivation is that humanity will be responsible for their own destruction in 400 years; such information about the future was never supposed to fall into their hands, but was apparently conveyed to them by an unauthorized source.
The Shadow Man is giving Archer this information because the destruction of Earth would contaminate the timeline. Common sense suggests that 7 million deaths would also severely contaminate the timeline, but I guess the point here is that the temporal cold war doesn't make sense and never will. Common sense also suggests that the Xindi, if they intend to destroy Earth, could've waited until they were actually ready rather than tipping their hand with a surprise "test" attack that slaughters millions and demands reprisal. Couldn't they have tested their weapons anywhere?
The actual attack presents a chilling image, with a beam slicing right through Florida and Cuba, leaving a canyon of decimated earth in ashes, perhaps a mile or more wide. The spherical design of the Xindi spacecraft seems curiously clunky, like something out of a 1950s sci-fi pulp magazine, but infinitely more crucial to the impact of this is the shock and dismay we see in our characters. The scene where Archer informs the crew of the attack reveals confusion and disbelief, and the shot of the crew on the bridge when they see Earth's damage from orbit for the first time is a potent scene; they stand in silence, and no words are necessary.
For such reasons, "The Expanse" works as drama, and contains a lot of feelings and responses that are recognizable given the current national stage. The episode is obviously a futuristic metaphor for 9/11 and its aftermath: The way Earth is blindsided by this attack is not at all unlike the way most Americans felt blindsided on 9/11, and there are apt details that lend an air of realism, like the constant revision of the casualty figure. In a way, the sudden, forced change in direction of this series reflects the sudden change in the direction of American foreign policy after 9/11. The idea that these Xindi would want to destroy us may be conjured from thin air (and the contrived way it ties into the temporal cold war brings up more questions than answers), but what happens from there is not, because an attack like this demands action.
But what kind of action?
Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of "The Expanse" is that there is no clear idea of what Starfleet or the people of Earth expect will happen from here. There's no concrete conclusion of whether or not This Means War. (And really, we can't even be positive that the Xindi are responsible.) With 7 million dead and another attack allegedly on the way, presumably this does mean war or something close, and the Enterprise receives an immediate retrofit with upgraded weapons and defenses. The Xindi, Archer was told, reside somewhere within a strange area of space called the Delphic Expanse, and Starfleet gives the Enterprise a new mission — after some convincing and consideration — to venture into the expanse and investigate the Xindi threat.
There's of course some frustration along the way to this decision. First of all, the Vulcans are constant skeptics of information that supposedly comes from the future, since they do not believe in time travel. (With time travel being so obviously prevalent in this century, you'd think the Vulcan Science Directorate would wise up.) This leads to a scene where Archer "proves" something in the wreckage from the alien vessel is from the future by scanning it with a "quantum-dating" device that reads "minus 420." Uh-huh. (I guess this means that it's not 420 years old but rather 420 years young.) Why would a piece of metal traveling through time have any impact on the measurable age of the metal? To me, this is like saying that if I traveled back in time 10 years, I would no longer look 27 years old, but instead 17. (Or at least I'd be quantum dated as 17.) Not that time travel is plausible in the first place, but you see how this seems contrary to accepted sci-fi conventions. Maybe I need to go to quantum-dating school.
Then there's the concern over the mysterious and ominous Delphic Expanse. The Vulcans once explored it but no longer do, because of its strange and unexplainable properties and even its sometime non-adherence to the laws of physics. Ambassador Soval tells ghost stories of ships that entered and never emerged. In one case, he says, a Klingon ship emerged with its crew's bodies all turned inside out — and yet STILL ALIVE. (Cue ominous music of doom.) I find myself wondering why Soval believes these stories when he's not willing to believe in time travel. As a final warning, he even shows Archer the last video footage of the last Vulcan crew to go into the expanse: They are all going insane and violently whaling on one other — the last thing recorded before the ship was destroyed, apparently by the crew's own hands. This creepy B-movie idea reminded me of a similar scene in the movie Event Horizon, where people who ventured into black holes went crazy and massacred themselves in bizarre and bloody video footage.
Once Starfleet decides to investigate the Delphic Expanse, the Vulcan High Command recalls T'Pol to Vulcan, since standing policy forbids Vulcans from entering the expanse. Among the show's better character scenes is the one where she expresses to Archer her desire to stay aboard the Enterprise and resign her High Command commission. "You need me," she tells the captain straightforwardly. The scene represents a breakthrough of sorts, where T'Pol has become one of Us. Whether that's desirable is a matter of perspective: One hopes she will still remain an alternative voice, but it's nice to see that T'Pol has become more comfortable with her role among humans.
The episode also gives the carnage on Earth a direct character connection by placing Trip's younger sister among the missing and presumed dead. There's a potent image of the destruction in Florida seen close up by Trip and Malcolm. We're naturally reminded of images of ground zero following the destruction of the World Trade Center. Some may wonder whether this is appropriate as entertainment, but I believe it works because the story takes its fictional concept seriously. The fact that something awful has happened is not simply a backdrop for an adventure (though it is that as well), but also given its due weight. The characters react believably, and handheld camera work in the early scenes sets the mood of emotional disarray. I could sense in these scenes the feeling of something genuinely wrong.
Archer, particularly early in the episode, is understandably emotional and aggressive. And there's obviously a character arc in the making for Trip that could change him dramatically. He's bitter and wants to "blow the hell out of these bastards when we find them." In a scene where Archer and Trip pour themselves glasses of hard liquor, Trip says: "Tell me we won't be tiptoeing around — none of that non-interference crap T'Pol's always shoving down our throats." There are some serious moral questions worth considering here (possibly including the non-interference issue, which made waves in "Cogenitor"), just as the Dominion War on DS9 brought new issues to the table. The question is whether they will be adequately addressed and whether they fit in the context of this series.
Shoehorned in here is a weirdly structured subplot involving the Klingons, who dispatch the dishonored Duras (Daniel Riordan) on a mission of potential redemption: to track down Archer, who by now is an infamous enemy who has twice escaped the Klingon Empire's clutches ("Judgment," "Bounty"). This subplot has little to do with anything else, except peripherally. The Klingons show up at the beginning and the end, and serve as stand-ins for the sake of demonstration. At the beginning they invade Earth's solar system to try to capture Archer, only to be chased off by Starfleet defense vessels (this raises the question of what kind of defenses were in place prior to the Xindi attack, and if security has been beefed up since then). The Klingons appear again at the end, to chase the Enterprise as it enters the expanse and provide the crew a chance to test the new torpedoes.
During the climactic battle with the Klingons, the bridge scenes are shot with the camera's shutter speed increased, resulting in a strobe effect — a method made fashionable by Saving Private Ryan's war footage, and imitated ad nauseam since. I don't know about its use here; watching sparks explode on the bridge is not exactly war footage.
The nature of the plot forces the episode to span months of time, with all the unimportant travel scenes left out. This allows the story to cover a lot of ground in one hour, perhaps too much. It doesn't feel like months of time are passing, and the Klingons apparently are staying with the Enterprise through this entire time, showing up on cue when it's time for action.
One touch I appreciated, which exists basically apart from the plot, is a scene where we see the construction on the next warp-5 starship, the NX-02, which Admiral Forrest says will be ready for launch in 14 months. It's nice to see this seed finally planted.
Still, I'm beginning to wonder now if Enterprise can ultimately emerge as a legitimate prequel series. Unlike season one, season two has granted itself fairly liberal latitude in playing fast-and-loose with the franchise history, and "The Expanse" is perhaps the most extreme example to date. The notion that 7 million people could be killed here and yet this attack, the Xindi, and the Delphic Expanse can all be unheard-of elements in the Trek canon is nothing short of ludicrous. (Of course, since there's a temporal cold war connection, timeline games can presumably write it off.) This is a strong season-ender with some promising elements and a notable dose of true feelings, but it also represents an extreme shift in the Trek universe that the writers will likely have to approach with a certain restraint and caution.
Irony of ironies — here I am recommending restraint and caution for Enterprise. That's a good thing, I suppose.
End-of-season article: Second Season Recap