In brief: Excels in delivering a single-mindedly sustained tone. Grim, gritty, and captivating.
The Enterprise, battered and crippled under an onslaught of Xindi weapons fire, is spared when the Xindi suddenly break off their attack and allow the Enterprise to limp away. Meanwhile, Archer is supplied transport aboard a Xindi aquatic vessel and released via escape pod into the Enterprise's custody. If things were looking pretty desperate at the end of "Azati Prime," "Damage" quickly turns things around (one might say too quickly) such that things can turn bad in completely other ways.
Call it the episode's Degra ex machina. Degra, who seemed so powerless in "Azati Prime" as to be under the thumb of the evil reptilian commander, stands up and asserts authority here — enough authority to assemble part of the Xindi council (less the reptilians), who authorize Archer's release and order off the Xindi attack ships, much to the dismay the of reptilians. It's quite a whiplash-like turn of events, and Degra, while still cautious, has clearly turned the corner and seen the duplicity that his own people (or, more specifically, the reptilians and insectoids) are capable of.
Could Degra really turn the council's tide and take so much control so quickly? Would he really order Archer's release and send him back to the Enterprise rather than hold him for more questions? I have my doubts, but no matter. These early events are just plausible enough to work, and they simply move the plot along to what the show is really about.
And that can be summed up very aptly by the title, "Damage." This is a show about not simply the severe physical damage inflicted on the Enterprise in the attack, but about the cumulative damage that has been inflicted on this crew by their grueling mission. There's damaged morale (casualties and other emotional traumas). Damaged mental states (T'Pol's drug addiction — yes, drug addiction). And damaged moral fiber (Archer crossing a crucial ethical line).
"Damage" is, in short, about how when things get ugly, and when time is most definitely not on your side, tough and distasteful decisions might have to be made. In some ways, "Damage" could be for Archer what "In the Pale Moonlight" was for Sisko — although perhaps the most demoralizing notion is that for Archer there's his realization that there may be more such choices in his future. This time "probably won't be the last," he notes ominously.
The episode includes some of the season's best dramatic scenes, as well as a captivating, unrelentingly dark tone. It's a grim, tense, and thoroughly watchable chapter about the crew's response to a devastating blow. The Enterprise is in shambles, the death toll is in the teens, the warp drive is wrecked almost beyond hope, and every deck of the ship lies in ruins. By far more than any episode yet this season, this episode fully and compellingly captures a tone of desperation. It's surprising how much mileage the producers get out of trashing all the sets and covering everyone with grime, cuts, and bruises. From a production standpoint, this is effective.
Equally important is the acting. This is a battered and tired crew, and that's apparent in nearly every scene and performance. Archer's steely resolve to get the job done still remains his primary disposition, but Scott Bakula depicts it with even more seriousness and urgency, if that were possible.
There's also a brief Travis/Hoshi scene that sells the tone in the periphery. Travis, ever the optimist, reassures Hoshi, "We're getting home." The look on Hoshi's face is not even close to being so hopeful. These are two characters who have been sidelined almost to the point of total irrelevance, but the story here remembers them long enough to put them to good, if brief, use in selling the tone.
Meanwhile, we've got T'Pol, who has reached the end of her rope, although for very different reasons. Emotionally unstable and descending into near-madness, we learn here that she's been experimenting with deliberate Trellium-D exposure for months now, injecting small amounts of it into her bloodstream to unleash her emotions, first turned loose by her accidental exposure to Trellium in "Impulse."
Basically, she has become a drug addict, and finds herself here suffering from severe withdrawal symptoms, which explains her odd behavior in "Azati Prime." I've gotta say, it's something we haven't seen happen with a regular character on Star Trek, and I think it's an interesting choice, particularly for a Vulcan. It's not used as a means for sending a "message" about drug use (like, say, TNG's "Symbiosis") but rather about the point of view of one individual's struggle as she becomes overwhelmed.
There's a sequence here that's kind of brilliantly executed, where T'Pol wakes up from a disturbing sex dream turned violent, and goes on a crazed mission to get her Trellium-D fix from the cargo bay. The bay has been decompressed as a result of the battle damage, so she puts on an EVA-suit and rummages through the debris. She's nearly killed when she falls and decompresses her suit. Then we follow her back to her quarters, where she liquefies the Trellium, puts it into a syringe, and pumps it into her body. Under James Conway's direction and Jolene Blalock's performance, this sequence takes on an engaging energy of single-mindedness. T'Pol's obvious disorientation is matched by an equally obvious practiced determination that reveals a calm beneath the mania; she has clearly done this many times before. As an exercise in pure technique, this is entertaining; as a document of a character in sudden free-fall, it's riveting.
Realizing she has a serious problem, she reports her condition to Phlox, and explains that she thought experimenting with Trellium would be safe at low levels, but then, "I wanted more," she says simply — which pretty much sums up drug addiction at its most basic level. Phlox helps her detox with a side-effect inhibitor that makes the detox process come across as perhaps too easy, although the show promises future consequences since T'Pol will not simply be able to bottle her emotions after all this synaptic damage.
On a plot level, the story keeps things moving along, and includes a scene where Degra and part of the Xindi council seek answers from a mysterious female sphere-builder (Josette DiCarlo) who communicates with them from her people's "transdimensional realm." I'd say it's pretty obvious she is not to be trusted. She's a manipulator playing the roles of both instigator and peacekeeper, while claiming to want to play neither part.
Degra perhaps senses this — and at the very least wants more information — so he sends the Enterprise a coded transmission with the coordinates and date for a rendezvous. The problem for Archer is the rendezvous is in three days, a timetable the Enterprise cannot possibly make without warp engines.
Enter a starship from an unfamiliar alien race of explorers, who have hit a spatial anomaly and need help. They're unfamiliar with the expanse and have not run into the Xindi. The Enterprise offers assistance, and then Archer asks the alien captain (Casey Biggs, last seen in Trek dying for Cardassia) for a warp coil so Trip can repair the Enterprise's warp drive. The aliens cannot spare this; they would themselves become stranded in the expanse without it.
So, then. The Enterprise needs a warp coil or the rendezvous will be missed and the entire mission will be lost. Archer comes to the unavoidable conclusion that an ethical line must be crossed for the sake of the mission. He plans to attack the alien ship, board it, and steal its warp coil by force. This concept goes further than the airlock scene in "Anomaly" because it's no longer just about Archer and another individual, but about Archer making his crew, and by extension all of humanity, complicit in an act of piracy perpetrated upon a ship full of innocents.
The decision and subsequent debate leads to two excellent scenes: There's a quiet one where Archer seeks Phlox's counsel about matters of ethics, solemnly ending the conversation with, "There could be more casualties." Then there's the fiery scene between Archer and a still-on-edge T'Pol, which makes for one of the most solid and memorable histrionic scenes on this series. I liked Archer's attempt to mitigate his decision: "We're not going to make a habit out of it." T'Pol counters: "Once you rationalize the first misstep it's easy to fall into a pattern of behavior." The argument builds to a potent moment where she shatters a data pad on Archer's desk.
These are two well-written and well-acted scenes. When "The Expanse" aired and made clear the new direction this series was headed in, these were the kind of scenes I had in mind. (It's kind of a shame it took the season until episode 19 to get here.)
Also novel: We have an action scene that grows genuinely and logically out of the story's needs instead of being a mindless detour. The raid on the alien ship involves all the usual action devices already seen this year, including the MACOs, explosions, and phaser shootouts, but — hey! — it actually really matters and we actually really care about what's happening on the screen. There's something at stake much larger than who wins the conflict. It's about more, even, than the fate of the larger Xindi mission; it's about the fact that for the Enterprise crew to be victorious over these innocent aliens is still to lose something, because principles have been willingly compromised. There's a moment where the alien captain demands, "Why are you doing this?!" Archer's response: "Because I have no choice!"
And that's what "Damage" boils down to. It's about making the hard choice in the interests of the immediate needs and — one hopes — owning up to the consequences later. Not since Sisko was sitting in the captain's chair has such a troubling action on Trek been so vividly depicted.
Next week: Archer attempts to solidify a crucial alliance.