In brief: Hardly perfect, but a solid, reassuring turnaround from season two, making for Enterprise's best season so far.
Yes, it's that time of year again, where I use capsule retrospectives to rehash points I already made in my full-length reviews, and then discuss the whole season in a longer piece that I call Jammer's Final Judgment (actually not). Agree, disagree, keep wearing those blinders of yours, put your fist through your flat-screen monitor while cursing my name. Whatever. I'm not the boss of you — although maybe I should be.
Part 1: Capsule ReviewsThe Xindi — Air date: 9/10/2003. Written by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga. Directed by Allan Kroeker.
The season doesn't exactly start out with a bang, and begins with a mediocre outing that manages to erode some of the interest and goodwill that had been prompted by the series-shattering episode that ended season two, "The Expanse." What we have here is the typically good production values of a modern Trek television outing that from a story standpoint employs far too many cliches to come across as the fresh new direction the creators seem to have intended. Most specifically, I could really have done without a season premiere where Archer is thrown in jail and must escape through sewers, and I could've done without the all-too-Enterprise-like use of pseudo-sexuality with the "Vulcan neuro-pressure." On the positive end, we did have excellent production design and gritty atmosphere, we did learn that the Xindi came in five different types, and we were introduced to the new, more serious Archer that would define the character for the entire season. Call it "redeemable mediocrity."
Anomaly — Air date: 9/17/2003. Written by Mike Sussman. Directed by David Straiton.
In what would've made a far better season premiere than "The Xindi," here was a hint of what the season could and should be, in which Archer's borderline-obsessive search for answers takes an interestingly ugly turn, culminating in the "airlock scene," which brings up a number of troubling questions that the story doesn't really answer — which might be the right idea, really, since there may be no good answers. It makes for one of the best outings of the season, and announces that the Enterprise, in entering the Delphic Expanse, will face challenging internal and external forces. In addition to setting the season's stage for moral quagmires and increasing danger, the show also introduces the mysterious spheres and the anomalies they create. As setup material, this might be the most influential episode of the season, and it's also proof that action-oriented episodes can work on Enterprise when assigned a meaning and focus. If my confidence had been eroded by "The Xindi," then "Anomaly" definitely helped quickly restore it.
Extinction — Air date: 9/24/2003. Written by Andre Bormanis. Directed by LeVar Burton.
But then "Extinction" was a step back in the wrong direction, with a boring, rehashed Voyager plot involving unconvincing Fun With DNA [TM]. Archer, Reed, and Sato get their DNA rewritten by way of a magical bio-engineered virus designed by a now-dead society to transform other species into theirs. This results in clunky, tedious scenes where T'Pol has to try to communicate with a bunch of savages. Of course this transformation is easily reversed by the show's end, but until then we have to deal with the typically frustrating encounters with the aliens who have authority in this region — and we must ask why this planet hasn't been incinerated to neutralize the virus, which is apparently dangerous enough to destroy entire civilizations. Archer's decision to preserve a sample of the virus as a way of preserving the dead culture is stupid beyond all reason. The season's worst episode.
Rajiin — Air date: 10/1/2003. Teleplay by Paul Brown and Brent V. Freidman. Story by Brent V. Freidman and Chris Black. Directed by Mike Vejar.
"Rajiin" was neither good nor bad but simply extremely average adventure fare. There are reasonable nods to the overall storyline continuity, like the crew's attempts to get a hold of some Trellium-D in order to protect the ship from anomalies. But the episode's title character is of only moderate interest, mainly because her role is so obviously that of a spy meant to gather intelligence on the Enterprise — specifically bio-readings so the Xindi can develop a bio-weapon. There's an action scene where much is made of the Xindi's Kewl New Weapons and defenses, most of which is abandoned later on in the season. As for the bio-weapon plot, I guess it was okay to try to add another layer to the season, but considering the payoff was "Carpenter Street," that idea seems awfully misguided in retrospect.
Impulse — Air date: 10/8/2003. Teleplay by Jonathan Fernandez. Story by Jonathan Fernandez & Terry Matalas. Directed by David Livingston.
This is all style, and very little substance, and ranks as this season's most blatant guilty pleasure. This is a show about lighting, production design, and strange Vulcan behavior, in which a missing Vulcan ship becomes a darkened house of horrors for our stranded away team. The Vulcans, because of their exposure to the toxic-to-Vulcans Trellium-D, have all gone terminally insane, and have turned into violent zombies. Why they haven't killed each other and decide instead to gang up on the away team is beyond me, but like I said — style, not content. Aside from assaults from Vulcan monsters, the key plot point here is that T'Pol is slowly but surely going insane and quickly goes from a teammate to a liability. After it's over we get one last little psychological shock, which hints at T'Pol's Trellium troubles yet to come.
Exile — Air date: 10/15/2003. Written by Phyllis Strong. Directed by Roxann Dawson.
One of the few quieter, character-oriented shows this season, in which Ensign Sato is revealed as something of a loner, who doesn't outwardly express that loneliness but feels it's a part of who she has always been. We learn this because a telepathic alien named Tarquin tells her (and us) in his attempts to bond with her; he is lonelier than she. The concept employs good use of Linda Park's likability. Reasonable use of continuity includes the detection of another sphere, the outfitting of a shuttlepod with Trellium insulation, and Tarquin's proposal to help the Enterprise crew. Solid performances mark the Sato/Tarquin scenes, which are civil even when they turn awkward and uncomfortable as Sato learns she is being lied to and her memories are being probed. The show doesn't go as far as it could've into character development, but it takes a stab, which is more than a lot of shows did in this plot-driven season.
The Shipment — Air date: 10/29/2003. Written by Chris Black & Brent V. Freidman. Directed by David Straiton.
The name of the game in this episode is "restraint," and that's both necessary and welcome here, after a few early episodes this season left us unsure whether we would be moving in the direction of ugliness (Trip cursing the Xindi at every opportunity) and recklessness (Archer's airlock interrogation). This time, Archer points out that destroying the kemocite factory (the substance being used to fuel the Xindi weapon) might start a war rather than prevent one, so he instead ops for information-gathering. What we get here are two important things: (1) some backstory and depth to the Xindi, who up until now had neither, and (2) the notion, by way of the character here named Gralik, that not all Xindi are the enemy. Gralik and Archer share some dialog that proves that this season will not just be comic-book action (though there would certainly be plenty of that) but also an arc with Star Trek themes still in mind.
Twilight — Air date: 11/5/2003. Written by Mike Sussman. Directed by Robert Duncan McNeill.
An effective take on the reliable "what if" scenario, in this case the "what if" being: What if the Xindi were successful in destroying Earth and most of humanity? The answer is shown by way of giving Archer a Memento-like brain condition where he can't form new memories and must start every day in a future he does not recognize. The story takes place 12 years after the last thing he remembers, where he resides with T'Pol in the last existing human colony. My thinking is that every day in this reality would probably be like an unreal, nonlinear nightmare, in which terrible events have happened and you must now learn about them after the fact. The episode is a superb mix of a little bit of everything, most notably an intimate character show (the unspecified caretaker-and-perhaps-more relationship of T'Pol to Archer) alongside an escalating disaster scenario (the Xindi have found this last colony and are about to destroy it). Bakula and Blalock find the right quiet notes for their relationship; this must be one of the quietest and most subtle episodes in which timelines are skewed and the Enterprise gets blown up.
North Star — Air date: 11/12/2003. Written by David A. Goodman. Directed by David Straiton.
This episode is a Western, but it's neither an entertaining send-up nor a useful invocation of a setting to ask interesting questions. It's a shallow and by-the-numbers "analysis" of prejudice ported into a Western. We therefore get all the Western cliches (sheriffs, deputies, schoolteachers, saloons, shootouts, etc.) but very little else. The story is about humans that were kidnapped 300 years ago from the Old West and brought to a planet where they have not evolved even a decade through the generations. The episode puts forth no useful ideas about why this is the case. Instead, we build up to a final act of inane action that uses the Western setting for would-be "fun" but is mostly just boring and tired. The first clue that we're in trouble comes early on when Archer spends the night in jail.
Similitude — Air date: 11/19/2003. Written by Manny Coto. Directed by LeVar Burton.
"Similitude" is the toughest episode of the season to come to terms with — which is to its credit — but I just can't go along with it. The underlying way the plot clones Trip is purely and unfairly magical, and the mounting conditions it puts into play for this clone's survival are endlessly manipulative. I found I couldn't care about Sim's emotional plight because I resisted the very notion that he could be standing there in the first place. I think this is one of those episodes where if you don't buy into the foundation, the rest of the episode becomes untenable. That Phlox just happens to have this perfect cloning organism — that goes from birth to death in 15 days — sitting on his shelf is outrageous. That it gets used in the way it gets used is questionable on its own. The ethical implications are staggering, but ultimately pointless to ponder. Here's an episode that thinks outside the box, and allows the can of worms to crawl away.
Carpenter Street — Air date: 11/26/2003. Written by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga. Directed by Mike Vejar.
On the other hand, I'd rather the writers think outside the box rather than deliver a timid, tepid, boring, and painfully mediocre episode like "Carpenter Street." Daniels, the guy with all the answers or none of them, depending on whether or not he ate his 29th-century Wheaties that morning, sends Archer and T'Pol back in time to "the year 2004" (yippee — more time travel) where they must stop a Xindi research team from releasing a bio-weapon and killing Earth's population (or maybe just Detroit's). Why did the Xindi choose 2004? Probably for the same reason Daniels sends Archer and T'Pol back to the day before the Xindi release the toxins instead of six months before: Because it ostensibly makes for a better action premise. Unfortunately, in reality it doesn't. The results are tired fish-out-of-water gags and even more tired B-movie run-and-jump scenes. Here lies the blandest of bland mediocrity.
Chosen Realm — Air date: 1/14/2004. Written by Manny Coto. Directed by Roxann Dawson.
Enterprise does a rare allegory focusing on religious/political extremism, but ends up with a rather uninspired story that looks far too familiar, since it has in its employ all the usual Trekkian devices where the ship is seized by bad guys before our crew must make plans to seize it back. Religious extremism is a topical subject these days, but the episode takes a topical subject and does nothing particularly interesting with it. D'Jamat, the leader of the pack here, is solidly performed as one of these zealot types; he's not crazy but simply self-righteous and able to justify his actions (to a point) with cogent arguments. Unfortunately, the show ultimately sabotages its allegorical points by reducing the situation to blatant silliness that makes the extremists come across more as unintentionally pathetic than as true followers in a cause.
Proving Ground — Air date: 1/21/2004. Written by Chris Black. Directed by David Livingston.
At a point where the Delphic Expanse mission was flagging a bit, due in large part because we still didn't know what motivated the Xindi, this episode turned out to be a lot of fun because it brought in a familiar and reliable character — Shran, played by the always-entertaining Jeffrey Combs. The result is one of the season's more purely fun outings, as the story sets the engaging interaction between Shran and Archer within the confines of a worthwhile Xindi story segment in its own right. The two become reluctant partners in an important mission (which seems to be the definition of their relationship) — in this case spying on the Xindi as they perform field tests with an intermediate version of their weapon. What I like best about this episode is the code of integrity that Shran plays by: He's actually lying to Archer and has plans that are in the interests of the Andorian Imperial Guard, but within the parameters of his orders he does his best to do right by Archer. It's an interesting — if slightly dysfunctional — dynamic.
Stratagem — Air date: 2/4/2004. Teleplay by Mike Sussman. Story by Terry Matalas. Directed by Mike Vejar.
I think for me, "Stratagem" might very well be the turning point in the season (even though I still had "Harbinger" and "Hatchery" to suffer through), for one overwhelming reason: Degra. In the course of an hour, Degra went from a vague, half-sketched presence to a full-fledged character — a man with a family and a conscience. Randy Oglesby delivers a performance with a full range of thoughts and feelings, after Archer puts him into a simulator room as part of an elaborate sting. The episode is a workable and entertaining Mission: Impossible-style premise that reveals Degra as a person in addition to a source of information. I don't know if Degra would really have been taken in by the second con after the first one failed, but I believed just about everything else about Degra. His presence would be crucial to much of the rest of the season.
Harbinger — Air date: 2/11/2004. Teleplay by Manny Coto. Story by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga. Directed by David Livingston.
I will grant that some of the individual pieces in "Harbinger" would surface again later and play out reasonably, but that doesn't really change the problem with the episode itself — a shallow and stupid display of passive-aggressive behavior between characters who should stop acting like adolescents and start acting like professionals (or at least half-witted adults). The showdown between Reed and Hayes is glib and pointless but perhaps not nearly so glib and pointless as the Trip/T'Pol subplot, which makes no sense in the episode and even less sense in the context of the season as a whole. (At least Reed/Hayes ends with a well-choreographed fight scene. Trip/T'Pol ends with inexplicable off-screen sex.) We are introduced to a sphere builder, who walks around the ship and messes up systems and portends ominous doom — which as setup material for later, turns out to be somewhat necessary. It's not as bad as I felt in my initial reaction, but it's certainly not good, either.
Doctor's Orders — Air date: 2/18/2004. Written by Chris Black. Directed by Roxann Dawson.
The idea here, perhaps, is to show the cumulative effects of isolation on a person who is not designed to be isolated (Phlox) and as a result slowly goes mad. The story twist is that we are made to believe he is not really alone, because T'Pol is also walking around the ship (the crew has been put into an unconscious state for several days because of a toxic anomaly). T'Pol is actually a hallucination, which is telegraphed early on and is unlikely to fool many viewers who have seen similar twists in just about every other mystery movie that comes out these days. The episode doesn't put all its emphasis on the twist, fortunately; it's also interested in the atmosphere of a silent ship and the psychological terrors of being alone and losing one's mind. John Billingsley, in his only headliner of the season, turns in a good performance of a man steadily becoming unhinged, in a story carried almost exclusively by that performance.
Hatchery — Air date: 2/25/2004. Teleplay by Andre Bormanis. Story by Andre Bormanis & Mike Sussman. Directed by Michael Grossman.
It's a cheat plot, in which a contrived, external force (in this case being sprayed by a Xindi insectoid toxin) causes Archer to begin exhibiting strange behavior inconsistent with his mission and counter to his attitude from every other episode this season. When his most trusted officers question his judgment, he promptly confines them to quarters, while putting Hayes (and thus the MACOs) in charge of the bridge. This is the catalyst for a mutiny that T'Pol and Trip must engineer against Archer and the MACOs. The one saving grace here is the analysis of the Starfleet officers vis-à-vis Hayes and the MACOs, who have a more stringent concept of chain of command. Other than that, we've already seen unworkable examples of the false, manufactured mutiny plot on Voyager, so I don't see the point of sitting through it again on Enterprise.
Azati Prime — Air date: 3/3/2004. Teleplay by Manny Coto. Story by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga and Manny Coto. Directed by Allan Kroeker.
If "Stratagem" was the character-based turning point of the season, then "Azati Prime" is clearly the action-based turning point. Finally, our patience with the Xindi arc — at times strained, no doubt — pays off here in a highly entertaining way. The key to why this show works is that the events here seem to actually be happening instead of existing in a vague, half-developed plot. Sure, there are still plenty of questions even at this point, but at least now the objectives and the consequences and the plan of the mission is clear. The Enterprise crew finds the weapon, has a deadline, and must figure out how to stop it. The underwater construction site is an impressive sight. Naturally, everything starts to go to hell, with Archer being captured (resulting in the most amusing interrogation scene all year) and the Enterprise getting pummeled in a Xindi attack. Here's an episode that works as both payoff and cliffhanger.
Damage — Air date: 4/21/2004. Written by Phyllis Strong. Directed by James L. Conway.
"Damage" temporarily but almost immediately solves all the cliffhanger elements from the preceding episode ... only to supply us all sorts of new problems. For me, this season's story arc never felt more real than it did here, where the ship lies in ruins, and all the characters are bruised, battered, and beaten down — physically and emotionally. If that sounds bleak and demoralizing — well, it is. When your ship has been through a major battle, it shouldn't look shiny and new; it should look like it's been to hell and back. Kudos to the production designers. Kudos also to the actors, who look like they mean business. No episode of this series has been so single-minded in its tone and so credible in its depiction of characters under stress, even in a minor Sato/Mayweather scene that could've been a throwaway, and especially a heated Archer/T'Pol exchange. T'Pol's Trellium-D addiction is revealed in a riveting scene of practiced desperation. The plot is Archer's version of "In the Pale Moonlight," in which he must resort to piracy upon innocents because his ship is crippled and "I have no choice." For once the use of the MACOs and all the shooting is justified and part of an actual storytelling effort, rather than tacked-on noise. The episode is not just about completing the mission, but about what ethical compromises have to be made in order to complete the mission. Enterprise's best episode to date.
The Forgotten — Air date: 4/28/2004. Written by Chris Black & David A. Goodman. Directed by LeVar Burton.
The third in a series of commendably focused and substantive episodes proves that the Enterprise creators can tell solid storytelling for a sustained stretch. The show advances along the lines of the season's arc, but its more important theme involves the ship's casualties; it begins with a direct acknowledgement of the 18 who were killed in the attack of "Azati Prime," in a scene that correctly balances the need to remember the fallen alongside the need to move on and get the job done. The theme is shown via microcosm through Trip, who finally faces up to his sister's death, which he has avoided dealing with all season. The way he seeks solace from T'Pol is appropriate (and plays like an indictment of the stupidity of their interaction in "Harbinger"). Archer makes his case to Degra, showing Degra the evidence with a calm but intense determination that's fascinating to watch. The story reaches another noteworthy turning point when Degra destroys a Xindi reptilian ship in order to ensure Archer will be heard by the Xindi council.
E2 — Air date: 5/5/2004. Written by Mike Sussman. Directed by Roxann Dawson.
A television reality check, so to speak, in which we're snapped out of the spell of the fantasy and reminded that what's happening on the screen isn't actually happening but is instead a process subject to the weekly ups and downs of a writing and production schedule. "E2" is a reasonable but all-too-familiar take on the time paradox, in which the Enterprise crew meets their own descendents. It's a story with themes that loyal Trek fans have seen many, many times over the years, most notably DS9's "Children of Time" or TNG's "Yesterday's Enterprise" (done much better in the previous examples than here). The one noteworthy point here is that the time-travel story is woven into the overall Xindi story arc — admirable given the focus of this season, but something of a mixed blessing in practice. And like I said before, I'm time-traveled out. Enterprise needs to find an alternative crutch to time travel. (Note: The answer is not Archer being thrown in jail.)
The Council — Air date: 5/12/2004. Written by Manny Coto. Directed by David Livingston.
Archer finally gets to make his case to the Xindi council, in an episode that allows this season to have one ending as a true-to-Trek search for a peaceful resolution ... before the council is fractured and we get a second, more explosive climax in the following two shows. This is an exciting installment, properly paced, and benefits from Degra's economical exposition that we've been long waiting for, including the fact that the Enterprise will essentially have to turn the Xindi against their own gods. Nice touches include Reed's nod to casualties (the Enterprise has surpassed a painful 20 percent), and Trip finally accepting Degra on the basis of his individual actions rather than what his people did to Earth. Degra's death at the hands of Dolum is played just about perfectly, in a scene of ominous stage-setting that ends with a brutal act of violence — effective because we can see it coming and Degra cannot. The show ends with another cliffhanger as Sato is kidnapped and the reptilians vanish with the weapon.
Countdown — Air date: 5/19/2004. Written by Andre Bormanis & Chris Black. Directed by Robert Duncan McNeill.
It's at this point that it becomes hard to talk about these shows as episodes since they are more like chapters. That's probably to the season's (and the writers') credit. "Countdown" is a lot like "The Council," with a format where the plot sets up pieces leading to a last-act action climax. In this case it's the mission to rescue Sato, who has been kidnapped by the reptilians to decrypt the remaining launch codes. The MACOs finally are seen as soldiers rather than action figures: Reed and Hayes have relevant dialog that the writers should've given us months earlier. Perhaps that explains why Hayes dies in the course of the rescue — loose ends have now finally been tied up. Pace, action, and structure are the name of the game here, and once again the show delivers on those terms. There's not too much in terms of storytelling or character, but that's okay.
Zero Hour — Air date: 5/26/2004. Written by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga. Directed by Allan Kroeker.
The season ends just in the nick of time, revealing the craziness of the end of the season as having gone on just long enough to start losing its luster but without completely wearing out its welcome. About here, the repeating format of ramping up to action and then blowing things up in a big finale begins to feel a bit familiar. All the plot pieces are assembled into an exhausting crosscutting between two plot lines, where technobabble nonsense is used to bring down the sphere network while the catch-all "overloading the reactor" device (by, amusingly, rearranging neon light tubes) is used to destroy the Xindi weapon in a big-ass 'splosion. Fun but thin. It employs lots of sci-fi/action cliches in a less-than-stellar script that at times is silly, but the technical credits all rank from impressive to amazing. The final minute of the show is a Twilight Zone-like teaser for season four, but comes off more goofy than shocking.
Part 2: Season Analysis
At the end of the second season, about the only good thing to feel about Enterprise was the fact that the writers had all but acknowledged the series was drowning in its own unending mediocrity and decided it was time to shake things up with the direction-changing finale, "The Expanse." The show's ratings were no longer at a point where UPN was going to sit by and give the show a pass simply because it was Star Trek (which at one time, as Voyager, was the network's flagship series). And, creatively, the show was already on the precipice of the abyss of blandness.
Season three, it seemed, would be do or die.
Well, good news: Season three slowly but ultimately turned the corner and made this series worth watching again. The question at the end of the third season was whether the changes came too late and if the show would be renewed. It was, just barely, at the eleventh hour. There will be a fourth season, and it should be interesting to see how the producers build on the successes they had this past season.
Essentially, the series this year was driven by a basic change in its structure, from episodic to serialized. Faithful readers will know that I am in favor of serialization and continuity in television (it's a medium that is especially suited for that), and that I particularly liked those elements in the later seasons of Deep Space Nine. Long-term story continuity is something that can make a show more focused and interesting over the course of a season, so long as the individual chapters still work and the larger storyline holds together. Serialization is by no means necessary to have good television, but in the case of Enterprise, which was definitely not good television in its second season, a new kick-start was obviously needed. When you don't have to start every week from zero, you can build on ideas and concepts, and set things up that can pay off down the road.
Season three of Enterprise was a definite success in terms of pure structure. The writers contrived an idea — that of the Xindi attacking Earth and the Enterprise now going out to prevent a second, more devastating attack — and then started sowing seeds for use later in the season.
It was slow going early on, and there were plenty of times when this season proved frustrating, but if you look at how the flow of the season was designed, it more or less works. We were given clues here and there, and then, in the final third of the season, we began a mad dash for two finish lines. The first was "The Council," where Archer finally gets to negotiate a (sort of) peace with the Xindi. The second was "Zero Hour," in which the doomsday weapon was destroyed in a big, pyrotechnic display after ratcheting up the suspense and action.
Both finish lines, and the pieces designed in getting there, follow from an overarching plot outline involving setup, progress, setbacks, crises, and revelations that make more sense at the end than at the beginning. At the beginning the season seemed lost in a void (which may be appropriate considering the Enterprise was itself lost in a void). By the end, it made a lot more sense. The spheres, for example, were introduced way back in episode No. 2 and played a key role in episode No. 24. That's thinking ahead, and it worked. The season is essentially a big story with a recognizable beginning, middle, and end — a sum at least equal to its parts if not greater — and that structure proved to be much more entertaining than season two, which was a series of fragments that added up to much less than their total sum.
Beyond the structure: Plot and execution
But structure, of course, is only part of the story. All the structure in the world is not going to make for compelling stories if the individual installments don't work and plot pieces don't hold water from week to week. As you can imagine (or gather from the capsule reviews above), I had my share of objections, both big and small, to various aspects of season three's stories.
For starters, and this goes back to "The Expanse" (which is technically season two but still within the scope of this review), there's the whole notion of the Xindi's initial attack on Earth, which killed 7 million people and was the impetus for the Enterprise's mission. One year later, we still have no satisfactory answer for why this attack happened. The explanation we were given was that it was a weapons "test," but that's colossally absurd. In "Proving Ground," the Xindi test the weapon on uninhabited moons, so why would they test an earlier version of the weapon on the actual target months earlier? The weapons test is ultimately the very reason the Xindi plot to destroy Earth was foiled, because if there hadn't been an initial attack on Earth, there would've been no mission sent to stop the Xindi from their real attack. I'm sure a better reason could've been designed to explain this. (For example, wouldn't it have been ironic if the first attack had actually been carried out by a faction that wanted the Enterprise's mission launched to stop the second attack?)
But I've already talked enough about that. The second thing I didn't quite buy was the notion of the Xindi being manipulated into attacking Earth. It was initially an annoyance because I didn't know the answer and found it contrived. When I finally did get the answer late in the season, I still found it somewhat contrived. The real villains turn out to be these beings named the Guardians (or sphere builders), who are "revered" in Xindi culture. That at least lends some reason for why the Xindi might be willing to commit genocide for them, but I dunno; the relationship was more a plot layer that existed because the writers said so, and not because we really believed in the relationship. With DS9, we had the Founders, and we believed they were in charge of their subordinates because a lot of time was spent developing those relationships and giving them depth. With the Guardians, there wasn't time to do that, because they were kept off-screen as mysteries until the end of the season. The Xindi still came across somewhat as chumps being manipulated by writers than people in control of their fate. I'd have probably liked it more if the Xindi were divided on their own instead of having the sphere builders twisting the plot behind the scenes for them.
Then there's the question of the Temporal Cold War, which is still an undecipherable, arbitrary mess. Are the Guardians even a front in this war? And is Daniels anything more than a convenient plot device? I sure don't think so. Really, the whole TCW is nothing more than a random concoction, and there's little reason to believe it will ever be more than that.
Those are the big objections I have with the storyline. But the writers, I must say, were often clever in putting all the pieces together, even if some of the pieces were contrived mandates. The notion of the spheres creating the Delphic Expanse was a neat idea, and even the notion that it was intended to be a way for the sphere builders to colonize space is kind of neat, albeit technobabblish. And the hints were there from the very beginning, in "Anomaly," where the writers tipped their hand without giving away the game. I like the idea of this strange expanse of space we've never heard about in the other series, simply because it disappears at the end of the story.
The season was initially slow going, mostly because the Xindi spent the first half of the season as blank ciphers. I complained early and often about the false urgency of the lame roundtable scenes depicting the Xindi council, which were entirely too repetitive and devoid of useful content. Those complaints stand. The season might've been better off giving the Xindi an identity earlier, and supplying them with more substantive things to say. When you consider the Xindi as villains, they pale in comparison to DS9's efforts. In this season's early episodes, we had arguments between Degra and Dolum, but these arguments were generic and didn't amount to much of anything — and at the time, neither Degra nor Dolum even had names. They were just two faceless Xindi arguing over an arbitrary deadline. When you compare this to the dynamics and dialog between Dukat and Weyoun in "Sacrifice of Angels," where they wax poetic on philosophies of war ... well, there is no comparison.
Fortunately, later down the line, in the last third of the season, this more or less all came together. It's as if the writers suddenly realized what this season could and should be. Yes, there's still entirely too much time travel on this series, and the whole issue of the Xindi bio-weapon was a pointless plot layer, and we had more than our fair share of mediocrity with shows like "Extinction," "Carpenter Street," "Hatchery," "Harbinger," "North Star," "Chosen Realm," "Rajiin," and "E2" (although, thankfully, there was nothing so wretched as "Precious Cargo" or "A Night in Sickbay"). But when it came down to paying off the end of the season, the creators delivered. I point to the back-to-back-to-back airings of "Azati Prime," "Damage," and "The Forgotten" as the best examples of this series using action within context and having substance. Finally, we had a battle where the consequences were as vivid as the battle itself. And it was absolutely crucial to see in "Damage" how the mission had forced Archer into a corner where he had to compromise humanity's ethics. You can't have a season like this without getting dirty, and the writers didn't shy away from that.
As pure technique, the countdown to the end of the season was excitingly depicted via "The Council," "Countdown," and "Zero Hour." It may have ended with a healthy dose of action cliches, but those cliches were well executed. As usual, the production values of this series are second to none. Production values, while easy to overlook or write off as an automatic product of a big budget, are still something I think are important, and there's a lot of talent and skill that goes into the production of these shows, from directing to editing to makeup to visual effects.
Also, music. In the last couple years, and particularly this season, music on TV Trek is something that has taken a dramatic turn for the better. The composers — long reportedly held in rein by Rick Berman, who never wanted a score that could potentially overpower the images — have finally been turned loose to deliver the most energetic TV Trek scores in years. There was a time when I could listen to the music on DS9 or Voyager for 10 seconds and tell you who scored it. Those days seem to be over. Jay Chattaway now turns out pounding action scores, and newer hires like Velton Ray Bunch and Brian Tyler have brought in new variation.
Characters amid a massive plot
The characters, for the most part, were functions in a story much larger than themselves, and they were defined more by their jobs than their personalities. This was a season that by definition was more about the plot than the people, but there are some things here worth looking at.
Most obviously, we have Captain Archer, who was depicted as a no-nonsense man of focus and determination. Above all else, he had to complete this mission, and this was well sold by Scott Bakula's performances from the very first episode. Bakula's easygoing persona has always been his strong point, but he stepped up the intensity for this season and made Archer's steely resolve believable (though Archer's line, "This isn't up for debate," was used too many times). What might be more interesting, however, is to get an idea of what Archer feels about all that has happened. It's been a grueling year, and next season it might be good if we got inside the captain's head a little more.
Easily the best character arc was Degra's. He started out as this nobody, but the writers found him a voice and did a great job of developing it. He's a man who signed up to defend his people and ultimately found himself doubting the veracity of the cause. What I especially liked was that he thought for himself and questioned established beliefs, such as the credibility of the Guardians. It's unfortunate that he had to die, because he was a compelling character, but his death did serve a worthwhile dramatic purpose. The writers would be well advised to develop the regular characters as effectively as they did this guest.
Trip's character arc was dealing with the death of his sister in the Xindi attack on Earth. This played itself out unevenly, with the silliness of the "Vulcan neuro-pressure" which ultimately led to the Trip/T'Pol hook-up. But it paid off well in "The Forgotten" when Trip finally faced up to his loss.
As for the aforementioned Trip/T'Pol sexual incident: It just seems so pointless to me. Yes, sex can be pointless, but pointlessness was not the point being made here. There was no point being made. It was a silly incident where the writers apparently had no clue why they were even doing it, aside to play out the sitcom dialog in "Harbinger." The fact that T'Pol consoles Trip in "The Forgotten" is good, but that has nothing to do with sex. Any hints that these two may have a relationship in their future are played strictly as a will-they-or-won't-they game for the audience. There's no evidence that either of them wants a relationship, so what's going on here? It's a muddle.
T'Pol's motivation apparently stems from her lack of impulse control because of her Trellium addiction, and that's its own problem. T'Pol was a muddle for a stretch of the season, apparently because of the drug use, but we didn't know about the drugs until "Damage," so we had all this weird behavior that until then had no context. I can't say the context makes any of her aberrant behavior more interesting in retrospect. T'Pol was all over the map and that doesn't service the character. Do we want the Vulcan of the ship being assimilated by humanity and having emotions like everyone else? I'm not sure. We'll have to see where this goes.
We had Reed and Hayes and their friction that eventually escalated into in the "Harbinger" fight, but that's not saying a whole lot. They did have some otherwise decent moments and ended up with a mutual professional understanding ... at which point Hayes was promptly killed. (Now that's clockwork-like structure: Complete your character arc and then get written out.)
Phlox and Sato each had a headliner but were mostly relegated to the sidelines. As functional supporting characters, they worked. Mayweather, on the other hand, is a cog in a wheel (the "pilot guy") who deserves the Cipher of the Year Award.
Bottom line: Aside from Degra, this was not a season where the characters were the strong point. The characters were okay, but the plot was the priority.
Overall, the third season of Enterprise gets from me a guarded recommendation. While it doesn't have the breadth, depth, characters, or consistency of a really good season like DS9's fifth or sixth, the single-minded focus on the Delphic Expanse story was an effective step the right direction, often depicted with energy and interest. I don't think it legitimately ties into Star Trek as a whole, but that's ultimately not a huge problem.
Like I said in my review of "Zero Hour," I will be ready for something new in season four. The Xindi will apparently not be much of a factor, and that's fine with me. Rick Berman and Brannon Braga have turned the reins over to new show-runner Manny Coto, and from what I've been reading, I think this will be a good thing. Unlike Berman and Braga, who are known for having only a limited interest in The Original Series, Coto is a self-described Trek fan who wants to play with the elements and tie into the established history of the series and do fun things.
There's much talk of using mini-arcs for a much greater focus on tying in with classic Trek stories, dealing with the Vulcans in a more direct way, wrapping up the Temporal Cold War once and for all, and paving the way for the eventual founding of the Federation. In short, the goal of season four sounds like it will be to get Enterprise back on track to being the prequel Trek series it was designed to be. This is good, reassuring news. Hopefully under Coto we'll get some interesting stories that fulfill this series' original promise.
That would essentially mean Enterprise's third season was a massive detour. That's fine. It was an entertaining detour, and maybe now we can get back on the main road.