Jammer's Review

Star Trek: Enterprise

"North Star"

**

Air date: 11/12/2003
Written by David A. Goodman
Directed by David Straiton

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

"All the things humanity has accomplished — building ships like this, traveling to other worlds — and we're still down there shooting each other." — Bethany

In brief: A shallow Trek adventure by the numbers.

"North Star" takes a high-concept situation and filters it through the most obvious and worn of Star Trek formulas. The result is an episode that's all about setting and rarely about substance. What little substance we have here is awfully tired, and reveals a dearth when it comes to depth.

The trailers make this look like a fun send-up of the Western genre. It's not. I'd have gladly taken the send-up over what we get here, which is an all-too-simplistic alien abduction premise that becomes an earnest but barely-scratching-the-surface meditation on prejudice. It then limps to its insipid action climax involving the cliched shootout on Main Street and obligatory fistfight in the horse's stall. If you want a sci-fi Western that's actually fun, then go watch Back to the Future Part III, because "North Star" is a bore.

The episode's assumption is that we'll go along with the story merely because it's Trek ported into a Western. That's Level One thinking. Level Two thinking would've come up with a story to make the Western setting necessary or interesting. At the very least, the writers could've exploited the setting for some good gags. (There is a gag involving an anachronistic shootout between gunslingers and phaser, um, slingers, but it's not a very funny gag.) There is one scene-changing wipe in the episode, which I found amusing in an in-joke kind of way. But it's not representative of the episode's tone, which for the most part is painfully straight. This is not a satiric homage in the vein of, say, Voyager's "Bride of Chaotica!" but merely a mediocre outing in Western clothing.

The idea is that some aliens called the Skagarans kidnapped a bunch of humans from America's Old West some 300 years ago and brought them to this planet in the Delphic Expanse to use as a colony of slave labor. Would space travelers with advanced technology really need to resort to bringing primitive slave labor all the way here from Earth? I tend to doubt it, but we must press on.

Since that time 300 years ago, the humans have overcome the Skagarans. The onetime oppressors are now the oppressed — second-class citizens that the humans subjugate in order to keep them in check (they are commonly referred to pejoratively as "Skags," and the opening scene shows a Skag lynching). The Message is that these humans are in arrested development in their prejudices as well as their clothing. But I wonder if a human colony that has learned of space travel and come to accept Earth as a long-ago myth would still look like they just stepped off the set of a Western. Maybe, maybe not; the episode doesn't much care.

The story takes its time getting off the ground. The first act establishes the villain with the standard cliche (I hesitate to say "homage") of a run-in between him and Archer at the town saloon. Meanwhile, T'Pol and Trip strike a deal to borrow a horse and ride out to the town's outskirts to investigate. The scene where T'Pol reluctantly rides with Trip on the horse is an example of an idea that wants to be funny but simply has no inherent humor; the fact alone does not equate a funny situation, and the writers don't build it into anything.

The episode essentially has three guest characters, all Western cliches. There's the sheriff (Glenn Morshower), who lays down the law, but not harshly; the crooked, wrong-headed deputy (James Parks), who's the villain of the piece; and schoolteacher Bethany (Emily Bergl), the noble sympathizer who ventures into the woods late at night to teach the Skagaran children how to read and write and 'rithmetic. Schooling the Skagarans, by the way, is against the law.

Archer joins Bethany for the night's lesson, which is interrupted by the deputy, who gets to invoke Enterprise's #1 cliche by ensuring that Archer Goes to Jail [TM]. The next day the sheriff releases him with a warning, but the message is clear: Archer cannot allow these humans to continue oppressing the Skagarans.

One thing I liked about the episode was Archer's swift decisiveness. Because these people are human and have an awareness of their history, he sees no problem in intervening. He lands a shuttlepod right in the middle of Main Street, which is an amusingly anachronistic image. He strikes a reasonable dialog with the sheriff and explains how humanity has evolved and left old prejudices behind. He convinces the sheriff to put aside the past and ill-will toward the Skagarans so this colony might eventually rejoin the human race.

Also anachronistic (but less amusing) is when the Evil Deputy and his underlings force a shootout, resulting in bullets being answered with phaser-fire from the Enterprise's faceless MACOs. This action climax is obvious, tired, and blatantly obligatory, and involves the expected Western standbys, including a guy being shot and rolling off a sloped roof in slow motion and other guys ducking behind troughs of water. In the tradition of modern action heroes, Captain Archer can be shot through the shoulder and naturally still go mano a mano with the villain and win. T'Pol is taken hostage with a gun to her temple; I liked Reed's solution — he takes a tip from Jeff Daniels and shoots the hostage.

The problem here is that the Evil Deputy is not a character representing the troubling or subtle nuances of prejudice, but simply a cardboard source of conflict to initiate the fighting at the end. This guts any possibility of drama, because we are not watching a fight for ideas, but simply a fight for the sake of staged television action. It's so obviously going through the motions that we abandon any hope the deputy will stand for any ideas, even bad ones.

The one thing Enterprise needs to be wary of this season is its cookie-cutter use of gratuitous fourth-act action. They say television writing is all about structure, and the structure that this season has settled into is one that mandates a predictable shootout in the final act. Sometimes it works when the story supports it, as in "Twilight," but this mechanical pattern has also played into "The Xindi," "Rajiin," "Impulse," and now here. It's going to play itself out if the writers aren't careful. (Let's not devolve this show into a slicker version of Andromeda.)

And enough with the gratuitous staccato film exposure. Just because it's an action sequence doesn't mean it justifies staccato effect. In Saving Private Ryan, yes. In the Old West, no. Visually speaking, I have no objection to staccato effect, but it shouldn't be used constantly and for no reason.

The closing passage makes an attempt to put this all in perspective. Bethany and Archer have a pithy discussion about how far humanity has evolved in 300 years while this lost colony hasn't evolved a day. Why are these colonists still stuck in the Old West, anyway? It's an interesting question, but that's all it is — a question dropped in our laps. The episode brings no insights, answers, or reasoned thoughts to the whys and workings of this colony. The writers' interest strikes me as perfunctory, as if they were simply more interested in showing the Old West than in figuring out why it might still exist.

Who knows: Sealed off from the rest of humanity, an isolated culture with so few people might not have the capacity for much growth. Unfortunately, this is a point the episode doesn't bring up, because it doesn't bring up any points. We can see here that prejudice and stagnation are bad things, but we don't see how or why they came to be or what anybody in this colony really thinks about them.

Next week: One of the regular characters dies ... and it's not Mayweather!

Previous episode: Twilight
Next episode: Similitude

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19 comments on this review

urfriend - Fri, Sep 21, 2007 - 9:12pm (USA Central)
this episode isn't half bad. Not great, but it's definitely one of the better Enterprise episodes. Then again, that's not saying much.

The this episode dealt with real issues, and real morality, which is a nice change of pace. And the ending is kinda uplifting.
Tuomo - Fri, Mar 20, 2009 - 6:19pm (USA Central)
I, too, enjoyed this episode a bit more than 2 stars worth. It was well acted throughout and provided some distance from the somewhat self-repeating Xindi storyline.

I agree, the suspension of disbelief factor was extremely high, but in Star Trek, it always is.
limey - Sun, Apr 26, 2009 - 5:43am (USA Central)
So the fate of the entire planet (earth that is) rides on Archer's shoulders, and yet he's on some random planet risking getting his head blown off sticking up for some random kid in a saloon, by getting in the middle of some dispute he doesn't even necessarily understand. This is too far a stretch for Archer's character at this point in the Xindi story.

PM - Wed, Jul 22, 2009 - 3:25pm (USA Central)
It's a stretch for Archer to be a hotheaded idiot? News to me.
David - Wed, Oct 28, 2009 - 11:04pm (USA Central)
Excellent episode. Why does a western story have to be a send-up? They played it straight, with the sci-fi overtones, and did an excellent job. It was a very welcome break from the ongoing Xindi arc, and I'll bet Bakula had a ball donning the cowboy garb. I guess I'm just a dumb ol' level one thinker, though.
really? - Fri, Dec 4, 2009 - 10:52pm (USA Central)
I agree with David. Not every episode needs to be an enlightening development of characters or climatic messages. I thoroughly enjoyed this departure from regular Enterprise (plot holes aside) I'm sure this episode would have gotten a much fairer rating had all the other actually bad episodes not biased the reviewers analysis.
Ferdinand Cesarano - Mon, Jan 25, 2010 - 1:54pm (USA Central)
So many missed angles in this episode.

For one, the Enterprise crew should have mentioned how this mass abduction of humans by Skagarans was recorded by comtemporary Earth historians. A reference to some Earth event (perhaps called something like "The Great Disappearance of 1863") would have been nice.

But the episode's oddest quirk was its total ignoring of the race question within human society. We got to hear the descendents of the white American abductess wax emotional about their ancestors' abduction and enslavement. Because of this, the show would have benefitted from a scene showing some discussion amongst the humans about the existence of black slavery in their anscestors' homeland -- and possibly even about their anscestors' own slave-owning practices. (We don't know what state the abductees were from, whether it was a slave state or a free state.)

How would these humans, who have a deep hatred for human slavery as practiced by Skagarans, have regarded human slavery as practiced by humans? Unfortunately, the episode never explored this.

The exact year that the abduction occurred is never stated. If it was after 1859, then the human abductees and their descendants would presumably know about John Brown's raid. I would really have loved to hear some mention of this somewhere within the dialogue about the humans' liberator Cooper Smith.

Finally, it is really too bad that Mayweather, the only regular character who is black, was totally absent from this episode. But, in light of the episode's avoidance of the issues pertaining to race within human culture, I suppose that it isn't too surprising that he was left out -- it was just easier that way.

While this episode looked great, its conceptual holes ultimately became distracting, and overwhelmed the initially-promising story that this episode presented.
Carbetarian - Sun, Dec 26, 2010 - 7:35pm (USA Central)
@Limey I agree, it was too much of a stretch to think that Archer was still doing his "hidey ho neighborino!" routine while he was supposed to be saving humanity from the Xindi. Why was he on this planet to begin with?

@LM lmao, I agree with you too. Archer has always been a hotheaded idiot.

Does anyone else still have a hard time buying the guy from Quantum Leap as a serious character? Is that just me? This new story arc had me for going for a little while, and for a brief moment I didn't think of Archer as a big joke. Then they do another episode like this... And all I can think is "Please, let Scott Bakula leap back onto a more appropriate show!".

Archer is way too goofy and awkward for me to take seriously. I feel like the writers desperately want Archer to be Kirk, and that is never going to happen. For example, that scene in the stable where Archer is chasing after the bad guy after being shot in the arm. Kirk could have pulled that off; Archer cannot. Scott Bakula just doesn't have the face, the voice or the demeanor of someone who wins fist fights. I could have bought Archer as a diplomat if the writers hadn't killed that idea (see 'a night in sick bay' for an example of character assassination). I can buy Archer as someone who is driven to lead others to victory by his strong emotions. But, I can't buy him as some kind of super hero who will save humanity on his own, which seems to be a huge part of what the writer's have been selling with this temporal cold war jazz. I'm not even sure I could buy Kirk in that role, come to it.
Marco P. - Tue, Apr 19, 2011 - 1:37pm (USA Central)
Surprising as it may be, I actually enjoyed this episode. *shudders*

Uhm... let me rephrase that: I did not *detest* it like I usually do things Enterprise lately.

I will agree with Jammer in that there's little substance here, the prejudice issue obviously being the episode's focal point but not receiving enough in-depth exploration to provide us viewers with anything substantial. Then there's the usual Enteprise clichés already mentioned by Jammer, as well as some strange plot points that are either merely brushed aside (the arrested development of this society for 300 years, the exploration of only *one* settlement by the Enterprise crew, etc. etc.) or not mentioned at all (see Mayweather and black slavery issue).

But despite all that, I actually welcomed the chance for the show's characters to don cowboy boots and parade around a Far West town for a little while. It sets this episode apart from the mountain of mediocrity we're accustomed to. Archer is no John Wayne, but he gets a few Western mannerisms right. Even the "evil" deputy sheriff isn't the total cliché one would think.

So despite not achieving the same pinnacles as its predecessors (Jammer mentioned VOY's "The Bride of Chaotica", but I also recall TNG's "A Fistful of Datas" which granted, takes place inside the Holodeck) this episode was a somewhat enjoyable 40 minutes for me.
Steve - Mon, Mar 5, 2012 - 12:18am (USA Central)
Oddly enjoyed this episode. Not sure why...the premise is ridiculous. However it has good acting and great guest actors. 3 stars for me.
duhknees - Sat, Aug 25, 2012 - 8:28pm (USA Central)
While some might question the lack of advancement for this group, you have to wonder how far our own west would have advanced with no influence from the east, who brought in the European ideas along with a constant influx of new people. No universities, no education beyond eighth grade. And, may I say, there weren't nearly enough women. It was women who were the civilizing influence on those wild western towns!
Elphaba - Wed, Sep 19, 2012 - 6:50pm (USA Central)
Call me shallow, but I enjoyed this episode for much the same reason I enjoyed the recent zombie episode: Impulse. If you think about it to much, it all falls apart. But it's very effective as an atmosphere. It's fun and enjoyable, both to watch the zombie Vulcans and to take part in the standard western cliches. Neither are particularly good by Star Trek standards, but they're well done and entertaining for what they are.
Cloudane - Sun, Nov 25, 2012 - 11:26am (USA Central)
Agreed, what has happened with this review is overanalysis, IMO. There comes a time, now and again, when one must stop being Deadly Serious and let your hair down much like the writers and actors obviously got to do and just have *fun*.

This was one of those times, and because I wasn't expecting extreme in-depth storytelling (like one wouldn't when watching, say, The Expendables) I really enjoyed it. YMMV, it would seem.
CeeBee - Tue, Jan 1, 2013 - 7:54pm (USA Central)
Did you notice how Archer said "keep a low profile" to Trip and T'pol, then goes around the corner and starts a bar brawl? That was funny.

And of course it's non-interference time for Archer because the natural development let the humans overtake the aliens here, like the Menk were going to do with the Valakians in Dear Doctor. Oh, no, it isn't. Sorry.
John the younger - Sun, Jan 6, 2013 - 10:09pm (USA Central)
FIREFLY* RIP-OFF!

That's all I could think of for most of this episode.

Though given that it's written by David Goodman I guess he'd claim it's an Original Series homage. And I suppose the production does count for something here. The Sheriff and Bennings were also pretty decent.

But ultimately I agree with Jammer; A high-concept show that doesn't realise it should be a comedy. Just what you'd expect from the guy that brought us Precious Cargo.

*I've only seen the first 5 episodes before getting bored.
Charles Gervasi - Thu, Jan 10, 2013 - 11:27pm (USA Central)
I agree with Jammer's comments, but I thought the episode was fun to watch.

It makes no sense how they could have changed so little. They should have adopted elements of Skagaran culture and language. Some elements of Western culture would have been dropped b/c the natural resources, climate, and absence of a world economy made were different. Some new elements would have cropped up for the same reason. The show takes itself that seriously, not just a Western in space, so they should have brought some of that out.

Like most Star Trek episodes, this one treats a planet as a place the size of Delaware. There were only a few thousand individuals there. Couldn't they share a whole planet?
Lt. Yarko - Tue, May 21, 2013 - 1:35am (USA Central)
This was old-school Trek, and I loved it!
Captain Jim - Sun, Feb 2, 2014 - 9:41pm (USA Central)
I wasn't expecting much going into this episode, so it was a pleasant surprise that I found it quite entertaining. Certainly not one of the season's best, but it was an enjoyable change of pace from the ongoing Xindi arc. I certainly didn't find it at all boring, as Jammer did. (The only episode I've found boring this season, to date, is Extinction.) I'd give it at least 2 1/2 stars.

Cloudane said, "what has happened with this review is over-analysis."

I agree.

Moonie - Tue, Mar 25, 2014 - 2:44pm (USA Central)
Strangely I liked this episode much better than TOS' Spectre of the gun or TNG's Fistful of Datas (really disliked both of those).

I think ENT season 3 is pretty good so far.

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