In brief: Fairly standard material elevated by lots of good acting and directing, and an ending with a nod to the original series.
Here's proof that old Trek standbys can be put to good use, in a story that feels surprisingly unpredictable — even though the end result, in retrospect, was more or less inevitable, I guess. "Observer Effect" has in its employ Powerful Non-Corporeal Aliens, a Deadly Virus, a Ticking Clock, and a Human Message Denouement delivered Big Speech Style by the captain. All are familiar elements, but the way they are assembled and performed here ends up being more engaging than you might guess from a plot outline.
There's also a tie-in to the original series that is both subtle and sublime. Subtle enough that many knowledgeable fans might not even catch it; sublime in its prequel-that-sets-up-the-sequel kind of way.
As television, "Observer Effect" is the very definition of "bottle show." Here's an episode that features no new sets, zero guest stars, minimal visual effects. The end result: a pretty good hour of nuts-and-bolts Star Trek, where the interest of the plot is in watching the crew trying to straightforwardly work a difficult — maybe unsolvable — problem. No slam-bang excitement; just a commitment to observation and plausible procedure.
Trip and Hoshi return from a planetary away mission in a shuttlepod and realize during the return trip that they have become ill. They are quarantined in the decontamination chamber while Phlox runs tests. It turns out they are suffering from a silicon-based virus — incurable, but Phlox is certainly not prepared to give up. The race for the cure is on; Trip and Hoshi only have five hours to live. (Archer: "If you mean how much time you have, it's too early for that kind of talk." Excuse me? It's five hours. I'm not sure what to make of Archer's statement. Either he's a delusional optimist or he's trying to shield his officers from the cold, hard, very imminent truth. Either way, I tend to think a Starfleet captain would owe it to his officers to be a little more direct, bad news or not.)
Earlier in the episode the harbingers were already setting the story in motion. The whole scenario is being observed by two non-corporeal aliens who have taken the bodies of Reed and Mayweather as hosts. In the opening scene, they're playing chess at high speeds, while discussing the events they know are forthcoming. "Somebody always dies?" asks one alien. "Always," says the other.
What makes this episode more interesting than a straight-on crew-perspective tackle of similar material is the fact that as audience members we're put in the aliens' shoes. Since they already know what's going to happen, and because we are privy to their conversations, we don't merely have to watch an obvious plot unfold. Instead, it's also about the process of how these aliens watch it happen. In addition, it's about the ominous foreboding by those who have more knowledge than us: "This will likely be one of the times where everyone dies," notes one of the aliens at one point.
The aliens are on an observational mission, the results of which will determine whether they make first contact with their newest subjects. Their mission is simply to watch how their human subjects react to the crisis of a hopeless illness brought back from a survey mission. They are not permitted to interfere. I was a little confused as to what kind of response to the given crisis would warrant making first contact. Obviously not just survival, which the Klingons managed by destroying the shuttle before its infected crew members could return to the ship and infect anyone else.
These aliens must not initiate contact with very many species. Perhaps only those who can spontaneously adapt to the virus and become non-corporeal super-beings. You'd think that would leave them as a pretty lonely species. (Maybe not on TOS, where there were all too many all-powerful non-corporeal lifeforms.)
The two aliens are supplied two distinct voices. The one inhabiting Reed has a drier persona, more rigid about protocols and the status quo. The one inhabiting Mayweather is more inquisitive and empathetic; he's not looking forward to passively sitting by and watching his subjects die when he could, if it were permitted, step in and prevent it.
So Phlox searches for a treatment while Trip and Hoshi sit in quarantine and deteriorate. There are some nice (and rare, these days) character scenes where Hoshi talks about how she got kicked out of Starfleet Training Center. The series usually doesn't have time for supporting characters to have this kind of dialog; I suppose it's saved up for situations just like these, where characters have nothing else to do but sit and wait and talk.
At one point, Trip and Hoshi are suddenly paid a visit by Archer and T'Pol ... except that it's not really Archer and T'Pol, but the aliens. There's a creepy reveal shot that is musically cued just right, and for a moment the decontamination chamber feels like a zoo.
Later, I liked Hoshi Goes Haywire. When she becomes delusional and claustrophobic, she starts raving in whatever language comes to mind: Spanish, Russian, Klingon. Although, I'm not so sure her code-breaking methodology is possible. "Math is just another language," she says, before overriding the computer codes and breaking the quarantine seal. The notion of one person breaking crucial security with such ease defies common sense.
Because of this incident, Trip and Hoshi are subsequently sedated. This sets up a scene where Phlox becomes aware of the alien presence and ends up in a bizarre — but informative — conversation with them. What I like best about it is the balance of perspectives. Phlox's response in this situation ("Your behavior is appalling" — great line delivery) fits into the story just as well as the aliens' matter-of-fact explanations for their willful inaction. It's all about point of view, not necessarily right and wrong. The scene also clears up all the questions we have about what happens to the people who are inhabited by these aliens and why they don't remember anything.
I mentioned that the episode doesn't feel as predictable as its synopsis sounds. This is mostly because of the way Hoshi and Trip are allowed to die at the end of the episode. You'd think the way the episode ends up reviving them would be beyond obvious — and, really, it is — but I found myself caught up in the moment, wondering how the crew was going to solve the problem. The bottom line is that they can't, and they don't, because the aliens solve it for them.
The more empathetic of the two makes contact with Archer through Trip's corpse (and I think I'd be far more freaked out than Archer is, but then I don't work in outer space), and then the other one takes control of Hoshi's corpse and starts an ideological debate. The empathetic alien argues for reviving Archer's dead crew members. The other one staunchly argues the protocol of non-interference. I liked the quiet irony that this alien is essentially arguing for his species' version of the Prime Directive. (And I still wonder if that question will be definitively tackled in the course of the season.)
Archer makes an impassioned speech about compassion, empathy, and the things about human beings that should trump logic and protocol. Will he convince the alien skeptic to take a risk and try something different? (The answer is the same as the answer to the question: Will Trip and Hoshi stay dead?) It's old-hat Star Trek, but that's what this episode sets out to be, and it mostly succeeds. Along the way it remains watchable as something that believes in Trek as humanist science fiction rather than just an adventure show.
Of course, the underlying ironic joke here is that, at the end, we learn the aliens are the Organians. Some (although probably not all) fans of TOS will remember the Organians as the race of super-beings who prevented — with their limitless powers — the Klingons and the Federation from going to war in "Errand of Mercy." The clear implication is that the events of "Observer Effect" represented the change in the Organians' policies from non-interference to blatant interference in the interests of preserving life.
And what I like best about that irony is how at the end of "Errand of Mercy," Kirk and Kor complain to the Organians that they have no right to interfere and stop their war. I guess they should take it up with Archer.
Next week: Andorians, Tellarites, weird "interplanetary relations," and an alien puppet master on a throne using two Nintendo Power Gloves.