In brief: Reasonably diverting, but it seems more like an easily discarded prologue than necessary storytelling.
Sometimes I get painted into a corner with my star ratings, which seems to be the case with "Borderland," an episode I liked more than either of the "Storm Front" installments but which nevertheless feels sort of ... unnecessary. The episode is the first part of a three-episode storyline, and when it comes down to it, much of what happens here is incidental rather than crucial.
That's not really a huge problem so much as an observation. This is a safe, brisk-paced, not-bad hour of Star Trek that invokes some fun classic-Trek references. But your brain is not going to break a sweat. Given the ethical/controversial underpinnings of the story — centuries-later consequences from the Eugenics Wars — that's kind of too bad. (But, yes, I know: There are still two more episodes in this arc to sort that out.)
A small band of genetically enhanced humans takes over a Klingon ship. They have fight moves that might give Jackie Chan second thoughts, and they easily overpower the Klingon crew. As it happens, I watched TOS's "Space Seed" on DVD just last week, and these guys put Khan's fighting abilities to shame. (Stunt coordination and editing have come a long way. Then again, they'd better have, seeing as it's been nearly four decades.) The most puzzling aspect of this sequence is why J.G. Hertzler is cast as the commander of the Klingon ship in what is a complete throwaway role; he's killed before the opening titles.
This deadly hijacking is an outrage that makes the Klingons Real Mad, to the point that, apparently, This Means War between Starfleet and the Klingon Empire. Archer is ordered to take the Enterprise and find the genetically enhanced humans (called "Augments") and bring them back to Earth. Why such an isolated criminal incident is impetus for the Klingons threatening all-out war is not a plot point that I really understand ... nor is why Starfleet thinks they can avert such a war merely by recapturing the Augments.
Archer enlists the help of Dr. Arik Soong (Brent Spiner), a brilliant biologist who has been incarcerated for the past 10 years because he stole 19 Augment embryos from cold storage at a top-secret Starfleet research facility where he worked. The facility holds a stockpile of embryos left over from the Eugenics Wars.
Soong saw the 19 stolen embryos through to birth, and then raised the children as his own until about the age of 10, around when he was caught and sent to prison. The children escaped and have been in hiding, until now — grown up, hijacking ships, and turning pretty much into terrorists with delusions of grandeur.
Soong knows the territory of space where he believes his "children" might be roaming: a region where the Klingons regularly butt heads with the Orion Syndicate and their slave trade. The area is called the "Borderland," which sounds suspiciously like "Neutral Zone." The Enterprise has barely entered the Borderland when they are attacked by Orion slavers and nine members the Enterprise crew are kidnapped from the ship and promptly put up for slave auction on a nearby merchant world.
With Soong as his guide, Archer beams down to retrieve the missing crew members. This leads to one of the show's most intriguing scenes, where we see an Orion slave auction. Rather than going for the obviousness of barbaric shouts and grunts and noise, the creators depict the auction in an almost geeky, worker-bee sort of way: There's the sight of dozens of slave buyers punching buttons on their data pads, while an electronic screen runs up tallies. It's one of the quirkier things I've seen on this series in a while.
Indeed, I like the whole notion of the slave trade being played for its quirks and goofiness rather than more harrowing qualities. In a scene where T'Pol goes up for auction, a massive Orion played by WWE star Big Show lifts her up like a slab of beef for all the crowd to see. He then shakes her up a bit, satisfied with the price she has brought in. Later, all the doors on the prisoner cages become unlocked, resulting in a chaotic uprising. Soong attempts to escape in the confusion, which ends with a clever action gag involving his magnetic handcuffs and the on/off remote that Archer uses to control them.
Much of which, you see, is irrelevant to the big picture involving Soong and the Augments. Fans will like the Orion Syndicate references, but those looking for story might be ready to get on with more substantive fare.
The Augments themselves are something of a frustration, because the writers are mostly content to have them engage in the usual cliches of characters who are indignant because of their superiority. Here are people who are stronger, faster, smarter, and they know it. I'm not so sure about the smarter part — at least not when it comes to common sense and assessing human nature. I guess unlimited hubris is an inevitable byproduct of genetic superiority. It's hard to get a feel for what the Augments think about their situation, because the background of Soong's teachings and philosophy are not completely clear, and the story is content to let the pack follow one predator.
The predator, by the way, is Malik (Alec Newman), a Khan-like figure, power-drunk, but lacking the Khan-like charisma. There's a power struggle going on between Malik and Raakin (Joel West), who is the leader at the beginning of the episode but most definitely not by the end. In between them is Persis (Abby Brammell), who seems to support one, and then the other; she has a skill for manipulation and deception. Alas, these dynamics aren't interesting enough to transcend the overall shallowness of these characters.
Fortunately, we do have Soong, who ends up escaping with the Augments on the Klingon ship. Soong — well played by Spiner as a mix of canny instincts, human sympathy (he does, after all, have a sincere love for his children), and a mildly smug sense of humor — keeps this storyline alive.
Hopefully we'll get a better idea of what makes him and the Augments tick before this is all over.
Next week: Soong and his children attempt to release the rest of the Augments.