In brief: Quite engaging, with the coexisting payoff/cliffhanger structure that worked for "Azati Prime."
With the title of the episode being "The Council," it's a safe bet that in the course of the hour we'll finally get to see Archer make his case to the Xindi council. Considering there are two episodes in the season after this one, it's also a safe bet that those discussions with the council will fail. Both of these inevitable facts come true in an exciting episode that proves that pacing and suspense can be a better asset than surprise.
The opening scene shows several sphere builders debating the possible outcomes of various timelines from within in their eerie timeline-bending transdimensional realm, which is an all-white zone that reminded me of DS9's Prophets. It's not the only DS9-reminiscent moment: In the course of the episode we find out that the sphere builders are practically worshipped in Xindi society because they saved the Xindi from destruction when their original homeworld was destroyed. The Xindi now call them "the Guardians."
Given their penchant for manipulation and using their near-godlike status in Xindi society to their own self-serving ends, the Guardians come across in ideology like a take on DS9's Founders (albeit a shallower and recycled version). There's a good scene where the Female Guardian (coming across very much like the Female Founder) confronts Degra and plays to his guilt, telling him that in one timeline he would've been a hero who saved Xindi society, but by going down the road of his current course of action he is betraying his people and dooming them. Why the Guardian doesn't actually try to expose or stop Degra I leave for you to decide.
But I like it better this way, because it makes this scene about Degra's character and his inner turmoil. It offers definitive proof that Degra has gotten more substantive character development this season than perhaps anyone else on this series, including the regular cast members. Degra, who began the season as a nameless device for plot exposition, has evolved into a respectable thinking man who has risen above the assumptions of his people — and has placed himself in a great deal of personal danger because of it. I also liked the running subplot where Trip and Degra come to terms with each other — the sort of subplot about mutual understanding that reminds us that, yes, this is still a Star Trek series.
Degra is escorting the Enterprise to the planet where the Xindi council meets. (The show raises the scope and awe factor by making the descent to this world its own compelling sight to behold.) Degra explains to Archer the nature of the Guardians in Xindi society and exactly the kind of skepticism Archer is likely to face in the council. We also, finally, get some names put to faces, as well as some general fleshing out of the other Xindi council players.
In summation: Jannar, the arboreal, is likely to be swayed; Kiaphet Amman'sor, the aquatic, is one of a species that debates matters for what seems like eternity; the insectoids make snap judgments that are not likely to be in Archer's favor; and then there's reptilian Commander Dolum, a hateful villain if there ever were one. (Much to my chagrin, Degra's closest ally, the other Xindi humanoid played by Tucker Smallwood, is still not given a name.) Of the five species, Archer needs to get three votes to stop the launch of the Xindi Death Star.
The actual council scenes are sometimes a bit underwhelming. There's a lot of urgent shouting, threats, and snarling. This sort of thing works with Klingons, like in last season's courtroom episode, "Judgment," but here, when a season-long arc is coming together with a planet's fate hanging in the balance, it somehow comes across as overwrought and overacted. Then again, as I reread the absurdity of that last sentence, regarding a planet about to be blowed up, maybe not. Maybe Klingons are just better for grandstanding.
What we instead have here are the obstinate reptilians, the indecisive aquatics, and the paranoid insectoids. Archer needs just one of their votes; he already has the humanoids and arboreals. He could be waiting awhile — maybe forever — on the aquatics. The reptilians, meanwhile, are committed to the launch of the weapon for their own self-serving reasons, because the Guardians have told them to stay the course and have ultimately promised the reptilians more power over Xindi society if they do.
"The Council," it must be said, is in full command of its plot. It manages to even bring further usefulness to "Harbinger," an episode that I didn't like but which I must now admit has contributed its small share of little pieces to the big picture. Phlox's scans of the sphere builder become evidence in the council chamber that the Guardians are actually transdimensional invaders who are trying to colonize the expanse, and ultimately the entire galaxy. (You know this show is in control when a notion like that can be delivered not only with a straight face but with relative conviction.)
There's also a B-story, where T'Pol, Reed, Mayweather, and Cpl. Hawkins (gee, who's gonna die?) take a shuttlepod into a sphere to collect crucial data from its memory core, in hopes of finding a way to deactivate the sphere network. The inside of the sphere, like in "Anomaly," makes for some great sci-fi eye-candy. The details of this thread are crosscut in concert with the A-story; the results make for an entertaining hour that features both sci-fi action/adventure and melodramatic council chamber fireworks.
That Cpl. Hawkins is predictably killed in the course of this mission is nothing less than mandatory. That the episode brings a degree of reflectiveness to it is commendable. "Maybe we're getting a bit too comfortable with losing people," Reed angrily laments, pointing out that the casualty rate for this mission has exceeded the traditionally "acceptable" level of 20 percent. T'Pol responds with a well-placed invocation of the famous Vulcan axiom: "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few."
Similarly, it comes as little surprise that the reptilians, who eventually claim to be swayed by Archer's evidence about the Guardians, are actually planning something sinister. There's a scene where Dolum has a discussion in a secluded room with Degra — a room that is simply too secluded and too quiet and too dark and therefore raises our unease. We sense almost immediately that this will be Degra's final scene. We're correct. The scene is effective precisely because we can see it coming — and because Degra, who believes peace has finally prevailed, cannot. Dolum kills Degra in retaliation for having destroyed that ship full of reptilians in "The Forgotten." It's a scene of potent brutality. Dolum is not a nice guy; as Degra lies dying, Dolum gets right in Degra's face and promises to find and kill the rest of his family.
It's a shame to see the season's most pivotal and interesting character killed. But dramatically and structurally, this is on the right track. It sends the storyline back on its fateful collision course, and gives the Enterprise crew new hurdles and countdowns. The reptilians and insectoids ignore the council and launch the weapon on their own, which we see in a terrific and fearsome shot.
In desperate pursuit, the Enterprise and their new Xindi allies chase after Dolum's ships and the weapon. Dolum kidnaps Hoshi in a transporter beam before his ships and the sphere vanish into a vortex. About all that needs to be said: This is a chaotic and effective battle/chase/escape/cliffhanger sequence. Well done.
If you thought "The Council" would end with peace, understanding, and restraint, you were partly right ... but mostly wrong.
Next week: The Enterprise crew must stop the Xindi weapon from reaching Earth. (Isn't that the plot every week?)