Star Trek: Enterprise
Air date: 1/14/2004
Written by Manny Coto
Directed by Roxann Dawson
Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
"These people you're fighting: What makes them heretics?"
"We believe the Makers created the Chosen Realm in nine days. They believe it took 10."
— Archer and Yarrick, reducing extremism (and, by extension, allegory) to blatant absurdity
In brief: Allegory that starts okay before turning silly.
The problem with "Chosen Realm" is that it's conceived as a show about ideas but executed like a show about cliches. It's really hard to get into things when the last half of the show feels like it was inevitable. The action climax, by this point in this action-upped season of Enterprise, has become such a predictable punctuation mark that my brain had no choice but to automatically tune out. I am officially beyond caring about any scene featuring the MACOs, because they obviously were conceived as interchangeable action pawns rather than actual soldiers. At this point, call them the Mundane Action Choreography Omens.
Granted, it makes logical sense to use them in a situation where the ship must be retaken, but therein lies the problem: Here's an episode that tries to tell a relevant and topical story, and then finds no avenue except a slew of Trek standbys. I feel like I've seen this story a dozen times. Maybe I'm old and jaded, or maybe Enterprise is tired and predictable. It's unfortunate, but "Chosen Realm" is lessened in part because it comes at a point in the season where the off-the-shelf pieces it's made of have long since lost their luster. Of course, it certainly doesn't help that the episode scuttles its own would-be allegory.
The day religious fanatics killed 3,000 people by hijacking airliners and crashing them into office buildings was predated by, oh I dunno, maybe a hundred episodes where bad guys hijacked starships on Star Trek to use for whatever reason. The only difference with "Chosen Realm" is that now hijackings and terrorism are more urgently topical. But topical isn't enough. Topical also needs to be thoughtful, interesting, or with some sort of character theme. "Chosen Realm" doesn't get to the crux of extremism, but simply uses extremism as an action-framing device.
Or perhaps that's my own cynical take on the matter. After all, one of the unavoidable truths of extremism is that, well, it's extreme, and not about mutual understanding but simply about blindly believing in something and being willing to forcefully impose it on others. Black and white. In this case, we have a group of aliens from a race called the Triannon, who believe the mysterious Delphic Expanse spheres are religious icons that were created by their gods, called the Makers. The Delphic Expanse they see as a holy ground known as the "Chosen Realm."
What makes them extremists, or zealots, or whatever you want to call them, is that they're willing to go to war with any "heretic" that doesn't believe what they believe. The leader is a man named D'Jamat (Conor O'Farrell), who is a zealot, yes, but a well-spoken one who is not insane and shows a façade of reasoned understanding. Of course, sanity isn't the issue here; like most zealots, the issue with D'Jamat is that he is absolutely, completely convinced he is right and is willing to destroy those who do not agree with him, because in his mind his cause is righteous.
The writers do their best to have the Enterprise hijacked without making the crew look like clueless dolts in the process. This is achieved by having D'Jamat's followers carry organic explosives in their bloodstreams, turning them into the ultimate suicide bombers, a tactic that goes undetected because Phlox does not scan them on the account that medical scans go against their religious beliefs. Leave it to terrorists to have arbitrary rules that work in whatever way suits them: Medical scans go against the Makers, but filling your blood with explosives is perfectly okay, since you're doing it in their name. To show that he's serious, D'Jamat has one of his followers blow himself up, taking an Enterprise crew member along with him.
What we have here is a relevant dilemma, although not groundbreaking. There's nothing really wrong with the first half of "Chosen Realm," aside from, I guess, that it just didn't really grab me. In and by itself, extremism isn't a particularly interesting issue. The problem is that it essentially boils down to: These guys think they're right, and they're going to kill everybody who disagrees. That doesn't leave much room for debate. (Sort of like watching a "debate" with Bill O'Reilly: He already "knows" he's right, the opposing viewpoint is already invalid, so what's the point of the conversation?)
No, what makes extremism worth studying is in the analysis of the issues and politics and history that surrounds such people and points to the root causes. Because the Triannon are unknowns who exist apart from any society or belief structure this series has looked at, we're unaware of their point of view, and "Chosen Realm" is loath to give us much, especially in the way of the opposing Triannon viewpoints with which this group is at war. We know nothing about the enemies D'Jamat's group intends to destroy, aside from what D'Jamat tells us. Not exactly someone you'd call a reliable source.
There are some dynamics that hint at potential conflict within D'Jamat's group. One of his followers, a man named Yarrick (Vince Grant) is conflicted over whether extending hostilities to a third party is right; D'Jamat responds with a speech that boils down to, "The Makers speak through me, so if you disagree, you are going against the Makers," which is about as self-righteous as you can get.
The interest in this situation would theoretically come in how Archer and our crew react to this ideology. But given the threat level and the fact that D'Jamat has made his intentions (using the Enterprise to destroy his enemies) very clear, what choice does Archer have? He can't exactly allow his ship to be turned into a rogue WMD. He could blow it up (and probably, ultimately, should), but I think we all know that isn't going to happen.
The episode doesn't take us far enough into the question of whether Triannon religion exists anywhere in a healthy form. Yarrick and his wife would seem to indicate that it does, or potentially does, but even with their doubts about killing they're still affiliated with a zealot like D'Jamat. What does that say? Perhaps that the desperate sometimes seek guidance through misguided leaders? Not in this story. It's little more than an avenue of plotting so Archer will have someone to turn against D'Jamat. (Though it might explain the last scene of vast destruction.)
All the parties involved ultimately service a stultifying battle-for-control-of-the-ship situation. Archer is able to free himself by tricking D'Jamat into believing Archer is killed by dematerializing in a transporter beam. (This seems a little too cat-and-mouse-y for an allegory show, and I was left wondering how D'Jamat didn't know about the transporter if he had earlier been scouring Archer's logs.)
Yarrick is obviously the guy who will be turned and will help Archer retake the ship. And, as I already mentioned, there's plenty of resulting boring corridor fighting/shooting involving Archer, Reed, and the MACOs. During these scenes, I could feel my eyes glazing over. My favorite part has to be when Archer and Reed have a terrorist in their crosshairs, tell him to stop, and then instead of shooting him they stand there and let him inject himself with the explosives igniter. Then they shoot him. Hello? (Yes, their plan had Phlox flood the air with a gas that disabled the explosives, but what if it had failed? The notion is so obviously staged for the audience's benefit that it comes off just looking stupid.)
There's a moment in the episode where all hope for real-world depth is lost and replaced with a laughable point that reduces the episode to an exercise in absurdity — nearly as absurd as TOS's lame "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield." Archer asks Yarrick, "These people you're fighting: What makes them heretics?" Yarrick responds, "We believe the Makers created the Chosen Realm in nine days. They believe it took 10." Um, yeah.
What kills me is that the delivery of this line is such that Yarrick seems to be scoffing at it, as if even he doesn't believe it. Why, then, is he a part of D'Jamat's cause? I only hope this is not intended as an allegory for something in the real world like, say, Israel and Palestine. These days the Israeli/Palestinian conflict seems utterly hopeless, but there are contexts there involving major disputes rooted in history, sacred ground, and ideology. The "Chosen Realm" war is essentially one of silly semantics, a dispute given no realistic weight or reason. Is that the point? If so, it's a cheap one.
A pity, because the first two acts aren't bad, and Conor O'Farrell brings a credibility to D'Jamat that makes him not simply a villain, but a dangerous ideologue.
But as Star Trek message shows go, "Chosen Realm" is ultimately a mediocre one.
Next week: Shran and the Andorians are back, claiming they want to help Archer in his mission.