In brief: More standout stuff. Has the season perhaps turned the corner?
"Azati Prime," "Damage," and now "The Forgotten" form a successful troika of episodes that represents some of Enterprise's most involving storytelling to date. Surely, in the past three shows we've seen more pure substance than in any three shows from the rest of the season. And when I say substance, I mean not just plot advancement (although there's plenty of it) but also a reasonable level of thematic relevance. I'm tempted to wonder why we had to sit through so many vapid episodes ("Extinction," "Harbinger," "Carpenter Street," "Hatchery," etc.) in order to reach this point. But I suppose when you have 24 episode slots you need to fill, there are going to be some casualties in the midst of all the setup.
On a thematic level, "The Forgotten" refers to the Enterprise's casualties (a better title might've been "The Remembered" given the point here). When the tally is finalized, the battle in "Azati Prime" has claimed 18 crew members. In a crew of less than 100, that's a significant blow.
"The Forgotten" is both commendable and necessary because it humanizes and faces up to the subject of death rather than ignoring it as a throwaway piece of action plotting. Earlier in the season I mentioned that the issue of fatalities had been rather superficially glossed over — especially considering that the first two seasons saw zero fatalities (at least as far as we were shown). You'd think the first deaths aboard Enterprise would've been something of a tragic milestone — but then maybe not considering there had already been 7 million killed in the Xindi Swath.
The episode begins with Archer giving a speech in the engine room, promising that the mission will go on in the name of those who died on Earth and also "for the 18." It's an effective way to start the show, on a solemn but determined note that follows up the past two episodes and makes this feel like a legitimate piece of an actual trilogy, with the ship going through an extended recovery.
The story's structure involves two basic threads — one regarding the nuts-and-bolts plot involving the Xindi negotiations, the other regarding a more intimate character theme. The two threads at times cross over relevantly into each other's territory. In Story A, we have Archer making the arranged rendezvous with Degra inside the cloaking field of one of the spheres. Archer's goal is to present evidence that convinces Degra that the sphere-builders are the real enemy manipulating everyone. In Story B, we have Trip coming to terms with personal loss. Archer has assigned him to write a letter to the family of Crewman Taylor, one of Trip's engineers. Trip cannot face this task, because Taylor's death reminds him of his sister Elizabeth, who died in the Xindi Swath.
Degra, along with the unnamed Xindi council member who is always flanking him (Rick Worthy), comes aboard the Enterprise, where Archer walks them both through the evidence. He shows them the Xindi reptilian corpses brought back (forward?) from Earth 2004 and put into frozen storage since then (I admit that I'd written them off as long forgotten). He shows them the bioweapon-development technology that they were using. He shows them the scans of the sphere-builder that perished aboard the Enterprise. (Degra: "Perhaps your atmosphere was toxic to him." Phlox: "I believe our universe was toxic to him.")
What I especially liked about these scenes was Archer's cold — and yet cool — response in the face of what could've been endlessly frustrating skepticism. Not convinced? Well, then, follow me into this room and take a look at this. Still skeptical? I have something else to show you over here. Scott Bakula has refined to a near-science Archer's utterly serious determination, and here plays him as a man who is going to show the Xindi what's what, is certainly not going to smile about it, but is also completely rational and calm in going about it. It's an interesting performance that keeps us right there with Archer in his attempt to let the facts speak for themselves.
Trip, however, makes things a little more personal. In a tense but respectably restrained scene, Trip confronts Degra over the mass-scale death Degra's weapon caused on Earth, including the death of his sister. It's a dramatically effective scene, not just because of what it contains but also because of what it does not contain. Trip is angry but does not lash out over the top. Archer and T'Pol both shut him down but not without a certain understanding. Degra takes his licks and then takes them to heart. There are uneasy emotions at work here, but there's also a certain amount of civil rationality that is maintained, and it makes the scene credible.
Later, there's a wonderful and subtle moment that I cherished. After Trip and Reed extinguish a fire on the hull of the ship, which leaves Reed injured, Trip finds another opportunity to lash out (again, understandably) at Degra. A disquieted Degra walks solemnly out of the room. Just before he walks through the door, he pauses for the briefest moment, as if he might say something. But he instead silently steps through the door without turning around. This is just about perfectly played. Degra, I have no doubt, wanted to express some sort of regret. But what could he possibly say that would be of any value to Trip? In this case, it's perhaps better to say nothing. (The writers have done an excellent job of humanizing Degra in the past half-dozen or so episodes, and it's no coincidence the series has been looking better during that same period.)
Trip's dilemma of writing the letter is played out explicitly in a dream sequence where he talks to the deceased Crewman Taylor (Kipleigh Brown) and explains how difficult it is for him to come up with the right words. She tells him: "Just remember me. Is that asking so much?" "Yes," he responds.
Of course, it's overly obvious that his inability to confront his sister's death is the psychological root of his inability to confront Taylor's death, but it still makes for a couple well-acted, well-directed, substantive scenes. It also supplies some welcome closure for an issue that was prevalent early in the season before being set aside.
T'Pol, meanwhile, helps console Trip, which is an appropriate choice; earlier in the episode we saw her telling Phlox that she can no longer suppress her emotions, even after her Trellium-D detox. Phlox likens her situation to that of a genie being released from its bottle. She may have to learn to live with her emotions.
I guess what I'm saying here is that "The Forgotten" tells its story with the sort of conviction that was not apparent earlier in the season. Now that we're facing crunch time, the pieces are much more easily and effectively falling into place. Degra reaches his personal turning point when the issue is forced: A reptilian ship appears and threatens to derail the Enterprise's alliance with him. Reluctantly, he agrees to team up with the Enterprise and attack the reptilians. He even destroys them to keep them from reporting the alliance and derailing the plan, which is to have Archer meet with the council and show them the evidence.
All of this is accomplished with solid and efficient storytelling, good performances, and a respectable balance of plot and character. Right now is about as optimistic as I've felt about Enterprise in as long as I can remember.
Next week: Tomorrow's Enterprise meets Today's Enterprise. (No mention of Yesterday's Enterprise.)