In brief: A solid show balancing action and characters, which comes together in one particularly good scene.
There's a scene in "Cold Station 12" that had full command of my attention in a way that only great scenes do. It involves an unthinkable situation where one man is forced to either watch another man die, or divulge dangerous information that his duty demands he not allow fall into the wrong hands.
Dr. Soong has arrived at Cold Station 12 with his Augment "children," including the rather ruthless loose cannon, Malik. Cold Station 12 stores more than 1,800 embryos left over from the Eugenics Wars, and Soong, in his misguided quest to give these enhanced human embryos a chance to be born, intends to steal them. All he needs is the code to gain access to the vault. Only Dr. Jeremy Lucas (Richard Riehle) knows the code, and Lucas is refusing to give it up, even after taking a beating from Malik.
Malik comes up with the idea of putting one of Lucas' colleagues in a sealed chamber and exposing him to a horrible, deadly virus while Lucas is forced to watch. Soong expects Lucas will cave, but when it becomes clear he will not, the scene becomes one of panicked urgency. Soong suddenly realizes that a man is about to die, and that's not something he ever wanted. Suddenly, because of his obsession, Soong finds he has backed himself into a very dark corner. "How can you let this happen?!" he demands of Lucas. "How can you?!" Lucas demands back. Both are demands of complete desperation. Finally, Soong tells Malik to release the anti-pathogen. "No," says Malik, defiantly yet somehow still matter-of-factly. Soong is too late anyway; the man is dead.
I really admire this scene, because there's a lot going on in it. The levels it works on are impressive, because we don't just have one man being forced to watch as another man is tortured (which is acted and directed with great tension and urgency), but we also get into the feelings, motives, and conflicts of the people doing the torturing. It's one of those rare scenes where we are suddenly identifying with everybody at once, on all sides of a mess careening out of control.
The rest of the episode is pretty good, but as far as I'm concerned, this scene is the episode. It sums up everything about the characters and their actions in one dramatic stroke. They say actions speak louder than words, and this scene works as proof of that adage. The surprise on Soong's face when Malik disobediently tells him "no" says as much about Soong as any amount of dialog could. Later, Archer pointedly asks Soong, "Why are you so surprised?" Everybody can see the writing on the wall but Soong.
Soong is essentially a misguided idealist who turns a blind eye to history and breaks the law, certain that this time, under his tutelage, things will be different. In the episode's opening teaser, set 11 years earlier, we see Soong teaching his young Augment pupils that they're special but unjustly feared because they're different. "You are the future," he assures them.
What we don't find out is where things started to go wrong. Obviously Soong was captured and imprisoned, and the children, still young and impressionable, had to go on alone. Was the fact Soong was absent the reason they eventually went astray? Or was Soong himself responsible, for having hinted that they were meant to replace humanity's current developmental status quo? Regardless of when things went wrong, an argument could be made that disaster was unavoidable (which, indeed, is why Earth is said to have banned genetic engineering). If part three of this story follows from this one, Soong inevitably and solemnly will be pondering the error of his ways.
The episode's plot is a straightforward implementation of The Chase. Soong and the Augments got away, and now Archer must find them. Searching for clues, the Enterprise first arrives at Soong's old hideout where the Augments were raised. There the crew find clues that suggest Soong plans to go to Cold Station 12 to steal the rest of its 1,800 embryos. (These embryos, by the way, weren't destroyed following the Eugenics Wars because of the controversies of the times. One would think that a century or more to think it over might've yielded an acceptable answer, but I guess not.)
They also find Udar (Kaj-Erik Eriksen), left behind by his brethren when the Augments abandoned the colony. Udar's nickname is Smike, a literary reference to his handicaps; he does not have the advanced biological abilities of the other Augments. The fact that they chose for this reason to leave him behind is revealing. Archer attempts to connect with Smike, and reaches out to him with history lessons about Earth that don't have the same spin of alienation and doom that Soong had put forth.
While "Cold Station 12" is, yes, a plot-oriented action-adventure show — complete with hostage crises, space battles, auto-destruct countdowns, a cliffhanger ending, and a fight scene where Persis the Ass-Kicking Chick punches a guy with an uppercut that makes him do a laughably stylized back-flip — its strength is that it doesn't lose sight of its characters and dialog.
Archer and Phlox have a nice scene where they discuss the pros and cons of genetic engineering. The Denobulans had managed to integrate genetic engineering into their lives without destroying themselves in the process, perhaps because their goal was to benefit medicine rather than making supermen that would shatter society with their ruthless ambitions. Archer's own personal conflict is that his father died of Clarke's Syndrome, a clearly Alzheimer's-like disease that Soong claims to have a cure for — if only the procedures for developing the cure were legal. This is obviously meant to prompt us to draw ethical parallels between genetic engineering in the 22nd century and our current controversies regarding the future of stem-cell research and similar research.
Then there's the countdown to inevitable disaster between Soong and the highly rebellious Malik, who begins to see Soong not as his father but simply another weak human unworthy of respect. Malik is a ruthless megalomaniac, through and through, who respects only strength. Watch the way he winces at the sight of Smike hugging Soong, as if Smike doesn't deserve being loved simply because he's weak. It cannot be said that Malik is a deep or multifaceted character, but he makes for an effective and despicable villain who is good at manipulating Soong's weakness of compassion for his children. He's the proof waiting to be exposed to show Soong how things went wrong and will go wrong again.
And, as I said, it all culminates with the extended sequence on the research facility, with that well-realized torture scenario. Dr. Lucas is the same Dr. Lucas who is the good friend and pen-pal of Phlox ("Dear Doctor," "Doctor's Orders"), and who is played by Richard Riehle, a recognizable character actor who brings integrity to the character and does not easily back down (this certainly is not the guy who concocted "Jump to Conclusions" in Office Space).
Because of this compelling scene, a good episode that deftly balances characters with a middlebrow sci-fi action storyline is elevated into something more dramatic and memorable, and emerges as the best installment so far this season.
Next week: Will the Augments spark long-standing tensions between Earth and the Klingons?