In brief: The most satisfying payoff yet this season.
"Azati Prime" is setup, payoff, cliffhanger, timeline silliness, humor, suspense, and special effects rolled into a single episode with some characters whose behavior I didn't always quite believe. While I have some problems with this episode, I will say this: There is no denying that it's loads of fun, and involving in an immediate way. It's an episode where I honestly did not know how it was going to end (it doesn't end, actually, because it's a cliffhanger), and given recent anemic installments like "Hatchery" and "Harbinger," that's saying something.
I also must give credit to this episode's use of continuity and elements from past episodes. While it's safe to say that I have not been sold on this season of Enterprise because of its uneven storytelling, there are some strands that come together in "Azati Prime" and work. The episode uses little pieces from other episodes — even failed ones — that further a larger cause here.
Yes, the Temporal Cold War is still an unlikely, contrived mess. Yes, the Xindi still seem like witless pawns in an implausible timeline chess game. But at least we're given a few reasons for why they are witless pawns, and at least the temporal silliness is written with enough self-awareness to include a starship named the "Enterprise-J."
The crew finally reaches the colony at Azati Prime, where The Weapon is being built. The mission: Go in and investigate. To get inside the defense perimeter undetected, Trip and Mayweather use the Xindi insectoid shuttle obtained in "Hatchery" — which at least gives some small justification for the existence of that mediocre hour.
Important to the effect of "Azati Prime" is that it carries some conviction. The urgency for stopping this over-the-top uber-weapon is made reasonably convincing in the context of the story at hand. In one scene, Archer gives a grim order to destroy a Xindi listening post that has detected the Enterprise, lest they transmit that finding back to the colony. This is a potent moment, because it grows out of logical necessity but also represents a point of no return and an inherently tough call. It's good to see Archer still shows pause in killing three Xindi who are just doing their jobs, even if his order is legitimate for the purpose of defending billions back on Earth.
In another scene, we see Degra talking with a colleague, expressing his reservations about destroying an entire planet. I'm glad this Degra is the same as the one in the Archer-manufactured scenario of "Stratagem." Reassured by his colleague that the attack on Earth is to protect the Xindi from their own destruction, Degra muses: "That's what I keep telling myself. But the reality is, a good number of the dead will be innocents — and children." Scenes like this are welcome and necessary to keep the situation grounded in some form of human feeling instead of simply turning it into a big comic book.
That's not to say "Azati Prime" doesn't have its share of comic-book elements. Particularly, we have the main antagonist in this episode (and all Xindi episodes), the nameless Xindi reptilian commander (Scott MacDonald, a Trek alum whose guest roles date all the way back to Tosk in DS9's "Captive Pursuit"). This ham-handed villain, who has always been impatient to the point of absurdity, has a line here that's appropriate, stupid, or maybe both: "Patience is for the dead." Here's a guy who flat-out wants to blow up Earth — ASAFP — and will have none of Degra's time-wasting Voice of Reason. But couldn't they at least give this guy a name?
Trip and Mayweather's reconnaissance mission eventually supplies us with a terrific visual: We see the weapon being built at a vast, underwater construction site. It's one of those expansive, detailed, sci-fi opticals that stands alone as simply an awesome sight to behold, like the Borg transwarp hub in "Endgame" or the Suliban space-pod array in "Broken Bow." It's a shot made chilling by our knowledge that this sphere is being built to destroy our world.
When Trip and Mayweather return with the reconnaissance data, the crew comes up with a plan to use the insectoid shuttle to get torpedoes inside the weapon and set off a chain reaction to destroy it. This would be a suicide mission. Archer says he will helm it, because "I won't order anyone else to die." (Although, isn't that part of the captain's job, however distasteful?)
About this time, Archer is pulled 400 years into the future, where Daniels explains that Archer cannot sacrifice himself because he must negotiate a future peace with the Xindi. But I find myself agreeing with Archer: Daniels and his future "knowledge" is probably not worth the paper it hasn't been printed on yet. (Given the events of "Carpenter Street," I'd be tempted to tell Daniels to take his temporal nonsense and shove it.)
But Daniels confirms suspicions we've had since "Harbinger," by explaining that the sphere-builders, for their own self-serving reasons, have manipulated the Xindi into their current mission to destroy Earth. Apparently, in Daniels' future, the Xindi are part of the Federation, all of which is at war with the sphere-builders. How does this fit with the established Trekkian timeline? Better question: Who cares?
Really, the whole timeline is presented as a sort of believe-it-or-not (mostly not) exercise in surrealism. I will be impressed and probably amazed if it can ultimately make any sort of sense that jibes with Trek reality as we know it apart from this series — or, for that matter, within this series. Like I've said before, it's basically an X-Files pseudo-plot. But the X-Files could sometimes be entertaining even when I didn't buy what was actually happening, and that's the effect with the timeline elements in "Azati Prime."
As for the rest of the plot, it works, it moves forward with a thoroughly compelling urgency, and it pulls together some pieces we've seen scattered throughout the season. I will reserve my judgment of the timeline games for another day.
T'Pol tries using logical arguments to dissuade Archer from his decision to pilot the suicide mission. Then she blurts out, almost uncontrollably, "I don't want you to die!" — which, I must say, snapped me right out of the show with its overstated goofiness. Even though I've become aware that T'Pol's emotionalism will eventually be explained in upcoming shows, I still found it to be an unwanted distraction here. There's simply enough going on without having T'Pol making spontaneous and vaguely out-of-character confessions and (later) locking herself away in the captain's ready room in a terribly unprofessional manner at an inappropriate time.
Obviously, Archer doesn't die in the suicide mission. Instead, he's captured en route by a Xindi patrol, which prompts the show's most humorous scene, where Archer gets interrogated and beat up by the reptilians. It's fun because Archer is characterized exactly like he was in "The Andorian Incident"; he answers questions with rambling, smart-assed digressions aimed to provoke. This provides a good counter to the reptilian commander's inherent impatience: Archer simply pisses him off more, meaning more fun for us. Archer takes his licking and keeps on ticking.
But the most critical scenes are the ones between Archer and Degra. They carry the episode's real weight and suspense, because they pose the question: Can the tide be turned and a mutual understanding reached, despite the mistrust and carnage that has preceded this? It also works because the actors are convincing. We learned in "Stratagem" that Randy Oglesby was a solid performer who just needed something to do. Here he gets more to do and takes Degra to a place where he's not sure if he can trust anybody anymore.
The reptilians have apparently been hiding information and conspiring with "her" — a female sphere-builder, I presume — which at least supplies an explanation for why people like Degra have been misled. I guess that makes the reptilians either Pure Evil or obsessed with their own woefully misguided beliefs of the human threat. Or total dupes of the sphere-builders.
Meanwhile, the Enterprise is attacked and takes a pounding that's as vicious as any attack seen on Trek since the Defiant was destroyed in "The Changing Face of Evil." Cliched as it might be, the zoom-in on T'Pol's eyes is the perfect touch, and without words says what needs to be said, namely: "This is it. We're in deep trouble."
Bottom line: This is possibly the most entertaining episode of Enterprise yet this season. It's not what I would call deep, and I'm still severely doubting any possible veracity in Daniels' timeline, but "Azati Prime" has enough of the right pieces. It has the performances, uses solid storytelling and well-placed 'splosions, has a terrific score by Jay Chattaway and efficient direction by Allan Kroeker. It took awhile to get here, but this season has finally provided at least one exciting payoff.