In brief: A step in the right direction, although it still has some obvious flaws.
In what could end up being one of the most necessary and yet overlooked episodes of the season, "Home" takes a crack at supplying the coda for season three by showing us the Enterprise's homecoming after its grueling mission in the Delphic Expanse. In the parlance of our time: If "Zero Hour" was season three blowing its wad, then "Home" is the pillow talk that follows. (Don't ask me where that leaves "Storm Front" in terms of that metaphor. You probably don't want to know.)
The results of "Home" are good but not wonderful. I'm glad the writers did this episode rather than launching straight into a new plot line. But I also think they could've pulled this episode off better than they did. "Home" supplies some welcome things I was happy to see, but it doesn't go about it in the best ways. Some ideas are ham-handed in execution.
It starts with a heroes' welcome in San Francisco, where Archer acknowledges the dedication of his crew and especially the 27 crew members who did not return from the mission alive. It's good to see this moment on-screen rather than to hear about it in throwaway dialog. Similarly, it's also good to see the continuing construction of the Columbia, the Enterprise's new sister ship, which is nearly ready to launch. It even has a newly appointed captain, Erika Hernandez (Ada Maris), an old friend of Archer's.
In an episode that has a number of good ideas, the best is the introduction of Hernandez and the Columbia; I hope we see them again and that they become an actual part of this series' fabric. The notion that Starfleet is expanding its warp-5 fleet beyond the Enterprise is crucial to conveying the continuing growth and development of Starfleet.
Another idea I liked was Archer's mission debriefing. Honestly, the debriefing itself could've been an entire episode, possibly a fascinating one. We get a taste of the debriefing here: Soval, in his typically skeptical tone, begins asking Archer about the events of "Impulse," which ultimately ended in the destruction of the Vulcan ship Seleya and its crew. Archer tries to explain, but he doesn't like the implications of Soval's questions, and eventually Archer launches into a dramatically charged tirade against Soval that I must admit had me nodding in agreement: "I got more help from the Andorians than I ever got from the High Command! This planet would be a cloud of dust right now if we'd listened to you!"
What's interesting about Archer's admittedly unprofessional outburst is that we, as witnesses to Archer's ordeal over the past year, can understand the feelings and logic behind it. He's right that Soval has always been an obstinately uncooperative skeptic — and now Soval has the nerve to question Archer about the loss of the Seleya?
The debriefing is suspended and Admiral Forrest tells Archer he is out of line and orders him to take a few days to cool off. Archer decides to go mountain climbing in seclusion so he can clear his head. He unexpectedly runs into Captain Hernandez, who has followed him out here, no doubt sensing Archer could use an ear to rend. Is there some rule somewhere that says starship captains must inevitably turn out to be rock climbers?
Archer vents his doubts about space exploration in light of the vast amount of conflict and battle he's experienced. He suggests that Starfleet will now be more about defending Earth than exploring space. Hernandez thinks Archer is overreacting. "That's not the mission either one of us signed up for," she says. "Maybe you'll feel differently after you've delivered a few dozen eulogies," he responds.
Some of this works well, like when Archer talks about how his initial objections to weapons on the Enterprise were ultimately wrong, or when he confesses that during the mission in the expanse, "I lost something out there, and I don't know how to get it back."
Some of this is simply overstated, as when Archer says, "Maybe the Vulcans were right; maybe we weren't ready," and suggests that 7 million people might still be alive if the Enterprise hadn't been out "stirring up trouble." I simply don't buy that Archer honestly believes those words, even for a minute. He talks here almost like he's buying into the role of devil's advocate despite the actual truth. I can understand his doubts, particularly those about the ethical corners he cut (he specifically mentions the incident of torture as well as having marooned an innocent crew), but I think the writers, in putting forward the argument through Archer, vocalize more doubts than are actually believable given all the facts.
Still, it's good to see Archer questioning himself, and Hernandez turns out to be a loyal friend who offers her support in Archer's time of need. Indeed, it turns out that these two once had a relationship where they were more than just friends, and the episode indicates that they still have some more-than-friends feelings (although whether it will go anywhere is unlikely, since both are, as Hernandez puts it, "already married to Starfleet").
But it's not just Archer who has changed. Earth is also going through its own post-trauma, although this area of the story isn't as appealing. The whole situation with the barroom bigot and the ensuing brawl is handled with all the subtlety of a nine-iron to the temple. The setup comes when Reed warns Phlox to be careful while on Earth, because the Xindi attack has left people a bit jittery and xenophobic. Perhaps not an awful concept (I suppose it will do as an echo of some similar feelings in the U.S. following 9/11), but you'd think that 22nd-century sensibilities would draw the distinction between Xindi attackers and other aliens who are obviously non-hostile.
But, sure enough, while Reed, Mayweather, and Phlox are minding their own business in a bar, a patron (Joe Chrest) comes up and starts suggesting that Phlox should find somewhere else to drink. This is handled with such lazy, superficial contempt that it feels forced. Something more subtle would've been better. Reed and Mayweather end up in a bar brawl coming to their crewmate's defense. The scene ends with Phlox puffing up like a blowfish, which is so odd and unexpected that it's almost effective.
The idea that the Xindi attack has shaken Earth is fine, but I think there are better ways to demonstrate it than with witless bar fights.
That leaves the last strand of the story involving T'Pol and Trip, which is less interesting than what's happening on Earth but actually proves to be the most complicated from a character point of view. Of course, leave it to UPN to promote "Home" as if it was going to be a fun-n-festive Vulcan wedding show (which, thankfully, it isn't). The trailer couldn't be more misleading. The wedding itself doesn't happen until the very last minute of the show, and even then it's barely seen. And it's certainly more solemn than it is festive.
But this is not really about a wedding at all. It's about fulfilling family obligations and following old traditions — values that may seem as baffling to many Enterprise viewers as it does here to Trip. While modern American society tends to emphasize the individual over tradition, there are societies that still commonly practice arranged marriages (India in particular comes to mind), and what we have here is a human-Vulcan culture shock (right down to the fact that the guests are expected to make breakfast). What complicates things is that T'Pol finds that she has ventured recently toward human thinking and away from Vulcan traditions.
T'Pol returns to Vulcan to visit her mother (Joanna Cassidy). Trip, who has no hometown or family anymore (destroyed in the Xindi attack) tags along. We can see that T'Pol's relationship with her mother is somewhat strained, with T'Pol leaning toward individuality where her mother leans toward tradition. The tension between them is played fairly well, especially by Cassidy, who understands that Vulcans need not sound like robots to sound like Vulcans. When T'Pol starts to show cracks in her emotion-controlled facade, her mother asks, "What's happened to you?" in a tone that is just about perfect.
Things don't get any better when T'Pol's former fiance, Koss (Michael Reilly Burke), comes calling. He wants to resume the marriage plans. T'Pol doesn't. From here, the family negotiations begin, as it turns out that T'Pol's mother, who lost her teaching position because of the political fallout of T'Pol resigning from the High Command, can regain her job with the help of influence from Koss' family — if T'Pol agrees to marry him.
I'm not sure what to make of all this back-room maneuvering. Indeed, I can't claim to understand the terms of the marriage at all. What's the point of Koss marrying T'Pol if she's obviously just doing it out of obligation and to help her mother? I can wrap my brain around the concept of an arranged marriage, and even T'Pol's selflessness, but I don't understand where Koss sees himself in this. I guess he's willing to wait for T'Pol to maybe come around.
This, of course, leaves Trip sidelined. Trip realizes here that he's actually in love with her, although the sentiment doesn't really work, mainly because the way these two ostensibly got together was presented as so meaningless (see "Harbinger"). This is really the first real look we've had at the relationship. I would guess this represents a turning point in their relationship, which is kind of strange considering T'Pol marries someone else.
"Home" has its flawed rough edges. But what I appreciate about it, especially after the largely concocted and irrelevant "Storm Front," is that it puts us back in the legitimate Star Trek universe, where things are happening on Earth and the story services the characters. That's a step in the right direction for season four.
Next week: Brent Spiner, Klingons, Orion slave girls, eugenic soldiers. Does this signal the beginning of the Coto era?