In brief: A bomb-dissection episode featuring good characterization.
"Minefield" is highly reminiscent of last season's "Shuttlepod One." We have a life-threatening crisis, we have attempted solutions, and we have two guys trapped in a predicament that gives them time to talk to each other. One of them happens to be, again, Lt. Malcolm Reed, who has become a character of noteworthy development after starting the series as the resident mystery.
Yes, the premise is the sort that all but invites a David Spade-like quip of, "I liked this episode the first time I saw it — when it was called 'Shuttlepod One.'" But it's worth noting that "Minefield" works for many of the same reasons "Shuttlepod One" worked. It's mostly an exercise in simplicity — giving us a predicament and the attempted solutions — and that ends up putting the emphasis on personalities and acting. While this episode isn't as good at capturing sheer desperation the way the frigid, closed-in "Shuttlepod One" was, I did enjoy it for its ability to adequately showcase Reed and Archer.
The setup is another one of those situations that goes a long way to proving the adage, "curiosity killed the cat." The Enterprise encounters a planet, decides to take a look, and promptly runs into a cloaked mine that leaves a hole in the side of the ship's saucer section. Another mine, unexploded, is discovered to be attached to the hull of the ship. Reed may have the expertise to defuse it, so he goes out in an EV-suit and magnetic boots to make the effort.
It's about here where the Romulans show up.
I'm not sure we need to see the Romulans here (actually, we don't see them — just their ships). Their presence raises the question of how the Vulcans know so little about them considering the Romulans are their distant cousins. I'm sure an explanation could be easily concocted (whether or not it's believable is another matter), but it's a moment like this that makes one wonder why the writers feel a need to fall back on established lore when it's pretty apparent they have no clue what the lore means in the current time frame.
The Romulans basically tell the Enterprise to go away, right now, you are trespassers, you will be destroyed if you don't leave, yadda yadda yadda. I've often wondered why those who hate trespassers so much opt to make it impossible for innocent passersby to know that they're trespassing. If you want people to stay away from your planet, I'd recommend the solar-system equivalent of a big "KEEP OUT" sign and an electrified barbed-wire fence. The barbed-wire fence here is cloaked, which seems neither fair nor practical.
The Romulans, of course, aren't here to provide cultural insight; they're here to up the urgency quotient. Since the mine is not a time-bomb but rather a tamper-resistant device that must be slowly and carefully disarmed, the ticking clock is provided by the looming presence of Romulan ships, which cloak and decloak ominously. (Can a ship cloak and decloak ominously?) As if Reed didn't already have enough pressure on him, a metal spike comes out of the mine and impales him through the leg and pins him to the hull of the ship. I hate it when that happens.
This requires Archer to come out in an EV-suit and lend a helping hand. The ensuing scenes are a conventional mix of Bomb Defusing Procedures and personal dialog. Bomb Defusing Procedures on Star Trek must always be fun for the prop guys, because they get to design big metallic levers and switches and buttons that move around and must be activated in the right order, i.e., whatever order the writers have previously concocted. Remember the series of big round dials that activated the Genesis Device in The Wrath of Khan? Bingo.
The important thing is for the bomb-deactivation scenes to be believable. For the most part, they're about as believable as they need to be here, although we all know the Enterprise is not about to be blown to smithereens. The episode's cause is particularly helped by the fact the crew is shown thinking ahead to work the problem. Trip comes up with a backup plan for detaching the segment of the hull where the mine has locked on. This is very sanely written — showing that the crew is not helpless and in a way that is easy for the audience to grasp (and therefore something we can find plausible rather than feeling buried with tech).
The episode is the first to be written by new co-executive producer John Shiban, a former X-Files scribe. The script wisely puts its money on the character backstory. Yes, Archer and Reed are trying to dismantle a bomb, but the story is more interested in supplying these two guys with some humanity than in getting too carried away with the bomb or the Romulans. Reed once again comes across as the perpetually serious officer — a man who's all about the work and not all about personal relationships with his crewmates. The breakfast scene at the beginning sets the stage nicely; Reed is all business, awkward and uncomfortable in a situation where the captain has invited him simply to offer his friendship.
Here we get some Reed backstory that I think works pretty well. Reed is from a long line of British navy men, and to carry on the tradition, Malcolm was even in the British navy himself for as long as he could stand it. He had a fear of drowning that made his participation in the navy pretty impractical — a fear fueled even more by the fact that his great-uncle drowned in a submarine disaster, a story I need not retell since the episode does such a good job of doing so on its own.
What I liked best was the story's interest in comparing Malcolm's formal navy sensibilities with Archer's looser style of command on the Enterprise. Malcolm doesn't really agree with Archer's style of fraternizing with his subordinates and seeking out their opinions. Malcolm favors a rigid, conservative chain-of-command structure where a captain is your boss and not your friend. I liked Archer's response, too, which has its own merits: The Enterprise is out here on its own, and camaraderie is an especially important virtue to nurture.
But also intriguing is how Archer's command style makes it more difficult for him to think in the military terms of death. Indeed, it's shown here almost as one of Archer's bigger weaknesses, where he's prepared to take out even bigger risks on his ship for a gamble to keep every crewman safe. It's a weakness that does not go unchallenged, with Reed strongly objecting and finally disconnecting his own oxygen supply to try to force Archer into another course of action.
It's worth noting that after an entire year in space, up to and including the mine that rips a hole in the ship at the beginning of this episode, the Enterprise has not suffered a single fatality among its crew. Archer has not truly faced death under his command, and the evidence here is that he is not particularly well-prepared for that possibility. When someone finally does get killed on this mission, it ought to be interesting to see the impact.
The hardware aspects of "Minefield" are the type that prompt me to ask questions out of curiosity (which is not to be confused with questioning the show's science on the account that I don't buy it). For example, I wonder what it takes to damage an EV-suit beyond its ability to protect you from the vacuum of space. Would a hole poked by a metal spike cause decompression? Also, when the hull segment is detached and the bomb finally does blow up, Reed and Archer protect themselves by holding metal shields between them and the explosion. Is that possible? Would the shockwave injure or kill them or at least jar the shields from their grip? Just wondering.
Don't worry, because that's not really the point of "Minefield." Nor are the Romulans, who remain shadowy figures of a vaguely threatening nature. The point is watching Reed and Archer interact as they try to dismantle a MacGuffin. It's not complicated, but it is effective.
Next week: Phlox finally gets to say, "He's dead," when our first crew member dies (and also possibly un-dies).