In brief: Last week's episode's spirit recycled with different facts. Appropriately dizzying.
The title pretty much says it all. "Countdown" is the ticking clock to the imminent colossal calamity that will either happen (yeah, right) or not happen in the season finale — although there will certainly be another countdown within the events of next week's "Zero Hour" itself. Place your bets on Earth's fate now — although if I were you I'd just go ahead and put $1 on Earth being destroyed, since the payoff on that bet would easily be about 10,000 to one. Hey, it's only a dollar.
"Countdown" is structured almost identically to last week's "Council": The Xindi Death Star is getting away, our heroes must make difficult negotiations with other Xindi to try to stop it, there's a big battle, and the Death Star slips away into a vortex — again.
As a purely structural form with ongoing plot advancement, sustained tension, terrific visual-effects sequences, and an exhausting last act that leaves us suspended with yet another cliffhanger — well, this works once again. Yes, we saw almost exactly the same thing last week, but for the second week in a row, the creators manage to generate a legitimate visceral impact.
The reptilians and insectoids have taken the weapon into a vortex, but they only have two of the five firing codes. They need at least three firing codes to arm the weapon. Since Hoshi is a linguistic prodigy, Dolum has kidnapped her in an effort to force her to decrypt the aquatics' firing sequence. Obviously, Hoshi is not amenable to this idea, so the reptilians torture her with mind-altering parasites that invade her brain.
Poor Hoshi. She's such a small young woman amid these big, burly reptilian bad guys. The physical intimidation factor is bad enough (and still she refuses to help, defiantly spitting in Dolum's face); but she's forced through brainwashing to submit to their will. I said it last week: These are not nice guys.
Meanwhile, Archer makes his second pass at the now-fractured Xindi council. The aquatics, with the only armaments that stand a chance against Dolum and his allies, may be humanity's last hope. Alas, they are still indecisive about a course of action, despite the reptilians and insectoids having made off with the Death Star. They tell Archer to wait — that they will inform him of their decision once they've made it. Archer's frustration is understandable, and he makes a good point: By the time the aquatics make up their mind, they may find that the actual decision has been made without them. You know, Ticking Clock and all.
So Archer makes a proposal: The Enterprise will disable the sphere network in exchange for the aquatics' help in launching a strike on Dolum's forces.
I'm forced to wonder why the Xindi, with decades or even centuries of studying the spheres, would not have found a way to disable them if they were so motivated. (The Enterprise, by contrast, needs only a few days to come up with a possible solution.) Perhaps it's worth noting that Trip doesn't actually have the solution in the can. Archer simply sells the aquatics on an idea they don't know is actually unproven (no pressure, Trip). The aquatics agree to Archer's terms and prepare to open a vortex to intercept the weapon and launch an attack. (It would seem this isn't a decision the aquatics need very long to deliberate.)
Truthfully, I'm not so sure you would call what happens in the course of this episode a "story." It's simply plot and action skillfully assembled — a series of events framed as goal-oriented nonstop momentum. That not such a bad thing, but I'll be damned if I want to describe it blow by blow. Suffice it to say that it comes down to the Enterprise and their new Xindi allies attacking Dolum's ships and the weapon in a big action climax, and retrieving Hoshi with a MACO boarding party.
- The interior of the weapon demonstrates excellent production design alongside so-so imagination. (The spinning central core seems to shout: "Blow me up in next week's finale!")
- The sphere builders use the spheres to create massive anomalies that thwart the Enterprise's attack and permit the weapon to escape again. This is conveyed with elaborate FX and mayhem, including imaginative shots of anomalies ripping through Xindi aquatic ships, which leak water rather than venting atmosphere.
- Major Hayes is wounded during the boarding assault and subsequently dies on the operating table, where his last words are, significantly, with Lt. Reed.
- Dolum, a tried-and-true villain to the core, kills his insectoid allies at the first possible hint of betrayal.
- After the successful retrieval of Hoshi, Archer must immediately make another questionable I-have-no-choice call (to Phlox's dismay) by immediately assigning Hoshi — who is barely healthy enough to be moved — to yet another boarding team, so she can decode blueprints for destroying the weapon.
- Archer's team secures passage on Degra's ship (by inheritance it actually now belongs to the Xindi played by Tucker Smallwood, but he still, regrettably, has no name) to chase down the weapon while T'Pol takes the Enterprise to Sphere 41, a key hub in the network (with the general idea being, bring it down and bring the network down).
That's the kinetic action/events portion. It is what it is, and on that level it ranks as fairly solid stuff. But what qualifies as actual storytelling (as opposed to "plotting") can probably be boiled down to two character scenes I appreciated.
One is near the beginning, when Reed and Hayes have a conversation about the death of Cpl. Hawkins. There's a slight tension between them, believable under the circumstances. After all, Hawkins was one of Hayes' men, placed under Reed's care, and simply put, Hawkins didn't return from the mission. Hayes doesn't blame Reed, but he feels a certain possessiveness over the MACOs that's hard to give up.
Really, this is the sort of thing we should've been seeing all season, instead of ham-fisted stupidity like Reed and Hayes beating on each other in "Harbinger." Finally, now, at the end of the season, the writers are dealing with the MACOs as a subset soldier unit finding its place aboard this Starfleet vessel, instead of treating them as vague action figures. Hayes has a nice little speech where he puts the Starfleet/MACO melding in the perspective of teamwork and professionalism. This should've happened long before Episode 23, but I'm definitely willing to say better late than never, particularly seeing as Hayes dies in the course of the hour.
The other character scene is like the writers' meditation on returning this series to an eventual state of normalcy. It's simply Archer, Trip, and T'Pol having dinner in the captain's quarters — a once-familiar sight that has been absent for months because of this grueling mission. There's a freshness to the optimism here, the notion that the mission will be over in a mere matter of days or even hours, and that we might as well discuss our plans for what we'll do after Earth is saved. (This is one of those times when you don't bother to think about the alternative scenario, which would be too depressing to contemplate.)
In a way, the dinner scene looks beyond the Xindi arc, and reminds us that this series can finally explore something else next season. (The sentiment fits well with word that Enterprise was renewed for another season, unofficially reported a day before "Countdown" aired.)
Of course, before that can happen, we have to deal with the season finale.
Next week: To be concluded...?