In brief: Creepy and psychologically compelling, with enough carefully navigated plot manipulations to keep you guessing.
No way you'd get me to go through one of those things and have my molecules scrambled. Not a chance.
"Vanishing Point" is the sort of episode that taps right into the dormant fears that lie deep in the recesses of my mind — the fear that I'm a potential hostage of my own physical body, with a mind that insists on believing its function transcends my physical existence even though it knows otherwise. Given how "Vanishing Point" eventually plays out, there's a sort of brilliance here; this is an episode about the ways our fears can take us hostage.
Transporter terror is certainly not an unheard-of concept in Star Trek (some may, or may not, remember TNG's "Realm of Fear," about Barclay's transporter phobia, and of course Bones was never a huge fan of the transporter, never mind that he used it every week), but here we get transporter phobia in a way that is perfectly appropriate and even necessary. Given that at this point in time the transporter is a fairly new technology that even many in Starfleet have not experienced — coupled with the fact that the crew of the Enterprise has avoided using it except in emergencies (and even then still has avoided it, e.g. "Minefield" or "The Communicator") — it stands to reason that some will not be so quick to embrace it, despite all of Starfleet's assurances that it's safe.
Enter into this premise our young Hoshi Sato — the perfect candidate for this story, with her understandably human, previously established deep-space phobias and reluctance — and you've got a pretty good starting point for a story. Trip and Hoshi are beamed up from the planet surface during a survey mission, in order to avoid a deadly, fast-approaching storm headed straight at them. The transport seems successful, but Hoshi soon finds herself unsettled. Things are not quite right. She doesn't feel as if her molecules have been reassembled correctly. A birthmark on her face has moved by a centimeter. Phlox assures her she is fine. She's not so sure. "I just don't feel like myself," she notes.
Then strange things start happening. People don't seem to hear her the first time. Later they don't hear her the second time, either. The turbolift doors don't open for her. She oversleeps. Her performance suffers inexplicably when she can't handle a basic translation using the universal translator. What's going on here?
What I found particularly clever about "Vanishing Point" was its careful, if calculated, manipulation of reality. On several occasions, it seems pretty obvious that the world is askew and the events of the story do not represent reality so much as some kind of fragmented nightmare. Indeed, almost from the beginning we're wondering how much of the episode is some sort of paranoid delusion; when will the other shoe drop? Where "Vanishing Point" is ingenious is in its narrative sleight of hand. The story is adept at not revealing all its cards. Just when we think everything is a nightmare, the episode backs off its surreal overtones and moves forward, accepting weird events at face value. It hopes we won't balk. And it gets away with it.
In particular, there's a point where Hoshi goes to bed, oversleeps, and misses at least three hours of her shift. She arrives on the bridge to find herself basically useless. A bizarre hostage crisis has materialized out of nowhere, and she absolutely cannot translate the alien's angry snarls. The way this scene is played is so odd that I instantly pegged it a dream or some other weird mental state. But the story ventures forward, goes to commercial break, and settles down until we accept this reality on its terms.
Psychologically, this is maybe Enterprise's best outing to date. It contains just enough details and ominous signs to be terrifying in an understated way. Hoshi's experience — ever since going through the transporter — might best be described as a quiet, paranoid nightmare. She joins the guys for a meal in the mess hall, and the conversation ends with them casually blowing her off. In a weird way, the scene plays almost like a bunch of guys too self-absorbed to notice the woman colleague in their midst. They get up and seem just slightly too busy to say goodbye; accidental and incidental, not their intent. The tone is one of subtle psychological menace. (I was reminded of The Sixth Sense.)
Adding to the show's sometime ghost-story sensibility is a conversation here about the famous Cyrus Ramsey, purportedly the first human test subject for a long-distance transport (100 meters). Something went wrong during this test, the tale goes, and poor Cyrus never materialized. In a fate maybe worse than death, he simply vanished, molecules scattered into oblivion — transporter limbo, perhaps. This of course begs the question at the center of the transporter fantasy, which is how one can survive the very process of having their molecules taken apart and put back together in the first place.
The general idea is that Hoshi's molecules were not put back together quite right and are therefore losing their cohesion until she literally begins fading away. But the terror here isn't only physical but also psychological. The "vanishing point" in the story is both literal and emotional. As people seem more and more unable to see and hear Hoshi, the story makes a subtle, if certain, link between her literal fading (she looks in a mirror and sees her reflection going transparent), and other forms of invisibility, including: (1) Obsolescence: She cannot translate during the hostage crisis and is relieved of duty, at which point some no-name crewman comes in and easily does her job and saves the day. (2) Casual dismissal: In addition to the aforementioned example of being abandoned in the mess hall, Phlox sighs and tells her she is worrying needlessly over nothing. It's the ultimate frustration — being utterly convinced there is something wrong with you but without having the evidence to convince someone else.
At a certain point, Hoshi goes completely invisible to everyone else, and finally the molecular and technological answers are discovered. Problem is, it's too late, and Hoshi is presumed dead. Like in a ghost story, Hoshi watches over scenes of people discussing what has apparently happened to her. I liked one shot in sickbay where Phlox explains to Archer and T'Pol how Hoshi's molecular structure has broken down, and the camera tracks slowly to reveal Hoshi behind Phlox, invisibly eavesdropping on the whole conversation — a creepy gesture.
The show seemingly takes a left turn into the dramatically unworkable when Hoshi goes below decks and sees aliens rigging charges to blow up the ship. Suddenly the episode looks to be turning into a silly story about how the Incredible Invisible Hoshi must thwart the evil plans of the alien bad guys. She tries to warn Archer by sending an SOS with Morse code by reaching into a ceiling panel and shorting out an LED. This happens, by the way, as Archer is contacting Hoshi's father on Earth and ever-so-gradually explaining that Hoshi has been ... "lost." The way the dialog between Archer and the elder Sato builds is so oddly written and unlikely that the whole sentiment rings positively false. It's utterly bizarre.
And yet ... this all manages to work, because it fits into a reality that's spinning out of control and that we finally see is indeed not real except in Hoshi's mind. The aliens below decks are her mind's own devices that allow her to confront her own fears of the transporter: As she tries to thwart them, they set up a portable transporter pad and escape, and she tries to follow, willingly stepping on their transporter pad. She beams away and suddenly materializes on the Enterprise, revealing the entire episode to have been an imagined experience that took place in eight seconds while she was being assembled on the transporter pad.
And, wow — it actually works.
"It was all a dream" stories can be infuriating and cause for resentment. Not here. While not a completely unexpected destination (indeed, I sort of hoped this would be the destination), the whole episode is like Hoshi's self-contained meditation on her fear. (I liked that even Cyrus Ramsey was an invention of her mind.) It's something that I find very believable on the story's terms as a paranoid psychological thriller. It reveals some character depth and I found the whole charade quite absorbing — and on some levels, chilling. Linda Park carries the show well as a character who is frightened and vulnerable concerning a truly disturbing condition but who manages to hold things together and be heroic nonetheless. And as I said before, this is the sort of sci-fi concept that has you stopping to consider questions about how your brain and intellect interact with an unforgiving physical world that doesn't much care that you have a brain or intellect.
Forget about being assembled incorrectly. Eight seconds of that sort of extended mental torment is reason enough not to step onto a transporter pad.
Next week: A rerun of "Carbon Creek." See you the week after.