In brief: A typical pilot episode — does a decent job introducing the concept and characters and comes with assorted pluses and minuses. Enjoyable, though not groundbreaking in any way.
"The Star Trek saga has a new beginning," say the taglines for the fifth series in the franchise — three of which have existed within the confines of just over the past two years. "Broken Bow" supplies the kickoff story that launches Enterprise, the vessel and the series. It's hardly a great or groundbreaking start, but it's not bad and works as escapist entertainment. It is, in short, adequate. Not too shabby.
I might as well confess that reviewing a pilot episode can be sort of like shooting in the dark. It wasn't easy last year when I had Andromeda's "Under the Night" in front of me, nor is it here, where all of Star Trek is essentially starting over from ground zero — a "new" ground zero that has so far been left unexplored by the canon material. Also, analyzing the level of success of a pilot that aims for general entertainment has to be gauged on those more general terms. A certain amount of scrutiny for significance will have to come later.
Which is not to say "Broken Bow" is insignificant. I suppose it just wasn't as significant as I had hoped. It's sold more as an hour of conventional, mainstream, escapist TV for the middlebrow masses than as a show that takes new risks or fills in the questions many of us might be wondering about when it comes to the early days of Starfleet, living apart from a Federation that doesn't yet exist.
Does "Broken Bow" get the job done? On its bottom line, yes. Am I blown away? No. Do I like the Star Trek prequel concept? Yes, but as we've seen before, concept is only part of the equation; what's done with that concept it the rest.
The title refers to Broken Bow, Oklahoma, where a bizarre incident takes place in the show's opening minutes: A Klingon is running through a cornfield where he lures two mysterious aliens (who have a weird ability to stretch and compress their bodies) into a silo. He then blows up the silo, killing the two aliens, before being shot by the farm owner and turned over to the authorities in critical condition.
Most humans have never seen a Klingon before. "It's a Klingot" says a Starfleet official (perhaps too obviously ignorant), who is quickly corrected by his Vulcan counterpart. The wounded Klingon, named Klaang (Tommy "Tiny" Lister), becomes a crucial element the story hinges upon: Returning him to the Klingon homeworld, Kronos, would be a worthy mission that might coincide nicely with Starfleet's planned launch of its new warp five-capable starship, the Enterprise NX-01, which has the ability to timely reach other worlds where previous starships could not.
The ship's captain is Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula), son of Henry Archer (Mark Moses in flashback sequences), the man who designed the Enterprise's engines. For his entire life Archer has dreamed of realizing his father's vision and taking the ship on its maiden voyage, but standing in the way for decades have been the Vulcans, who believe humans aren't ready to face the delicate matters of interacting with others in the vast interstellar community.
One of these Vulcans is Sub-commander T'Pol (Jolene Blalock), who is quick to accuse Archer of human volatility, to which Archer responds, "You have no idea how much I'm restraining myself from knocking you on your ass." That's a glib cowboy line, which might be the point.
The events of "Broken Bow" take place in 2151, nearly 90 years after Zefram Cochrane's first successful warp flight as seen in Star Trek: First Contact (1996). One of the show's nicer moments is when it plays a historic speech by Cochrane that was recorded nearly a century earlier. James Cromwell has a cameo, reprising the role he played in the film five years ago. Trek fans live for these kinds of connections, and this is a nice one. Unfortunately, this may be the last real moment in "Broken Bow" where Trek die-harders who are interested in the history of Starfleet's foundation will likely find themselves awed by the mythos. We never get much information about how Starfleet itself came about. Much of the rest of the episode is the stuff of middlebrow action/adventure.
Except, I guess, for one element — namely, the Vulcans. I must say that I'm particularly leery about the way the show depicts the Vulcans. In short, they're not supplied the dignity the Trek universe has typically given them and are instead shown as stodgy bureaucratic obstacles without a well-reasoned point of view. This makes them almost look like quasi-villains, which is unnecessary and could've been avoided if there were better motives supplied for their constant skepticism. Conflict is nice, but conflict is better when it's well reasoned through more than one point of view (witness the Sisko/Kira tension of the early DS9 episodes) rather than forced by the mechanics of the plot. The way "Broken Bow's" early acts play out make the Vulcans look like they're being pains in the ass for pains in the ass' sake. Not enough is done to suggest that maybe the Vulcans are right — that humans aren't completely ready to contend with all the issues that face them out in deep space. But perhaps better understanding of such issues will grow from T'Pol becoming first officer on Archer's ship, where she serves as official liaison between Starfleet and the Vulcans.
Archer's crew is your typically diverse Trekkian bunch; in keeping with the Trekkian tone, the regular characters are represented by actors of assorted racial/national/regional background. That's great, but unfortunately for "Broken Bow," several of these characters fade into the background and come across as pretty bland.
As expected, we get a good dose of Archer and T'Pol and their head-butting. Character #3 in the pilot's importance hierarchy is Archer's friend and chief engineer Charles Tucker (Connor Trinneer), who comes equipped with a direct, "straight shooter" mentality and a mild Southern drawl. There's also linguist Hoshi Sato (Linda Park), a.k.a. the Asian Chick; helmsman Travis Mayweather (Anthony Montgomery), a.k.a. the Black Guy; armory officer Malcolm Reed (Dominic Keating), a.k.a. the Brit, and Outside Human Perspective Alien Dr. Phlox (John Billingsley), a.k.a. the outside-human-perspective alien.
I jest, but several of these characters are plot vessels and largely come across as boring. Sato is the story's frightened, green character (hopefully not Harry Kim Redux), jumping with every strange noise on the ship. Mayweather was raised on cargo vessels but that's about all we learn, unless we're particularly amused that he experienced firsthand that the women of one particular species "have three." Phlox is a somewhat-chatterbox who resembles a Garak/Neelix love-child and has an eccentricity that initially borders on annoying (thankfully Archer seems to notice this too). Reed is ... well, I have no idea, because the story doesn't spend more than a minute on him outside the action. Aside from Archer, T'Pol, and Tucker, none of these characters have any fresh edge. Time will tell if they'll get better development.
My first impression on the main actors here: I like Bakula, who exhibits conviction and comes across as a natural leader and anchor for the show. Trinneer works well with his contemporary take on Tucker. I'm less enthusiastic about Blalock (a.k.a. "Vulcan of Nine"), who seems here like a Seven clone but not nearly as effective an actor as Jeri Ryan, though it will be some time before any real verdict can be placed on her, or anyone else for that matter.
The Enterprise's mission takes the vessel on its course toward Kronos. Along the way they run into some strange new aliens called the Suliban, a race bent on extreme genetic alteration for their betterment. The Suliban invade the Enterprise and kidnap Klaang, who was apparently made aware of a plot the Suliban had to undermine the Klingon Empire. Subsequently, Archer follows the clues to a nearby world to investigate Klaang's kidnapping in hopes of retrieving him. Archer is met by a female Suliban operative named Sarin (Melinda Clarke), an ally of Klaang, who explains the Suliban Sinister Plot™ to Archer in one of those back-alley conversations that's destined to shortly become the landscape for a sudden outbreak of violence.
Apparently part of the Suliban, the Cabal, is willing to go very far in the interests of "self-improvement" via genetic engineering. Sarin is among the Suliban who oppose that group (i.e., one of the "good guys"). She is subsequently and quickly killed when Suliban Cabal operatives open fire in this alley. Lesson #1: As a guest character, once you've served your purpose in a plot like this, you'd better duck down quick, because you're expendable and especially vulnerable to gunfire.
With new information, Archer & Co. follow warp trails to a planet where they believe the Suliban have taken Klaang. This scene, alas, is heavy on the technobabble that Berman & Braga have been promising Series V would be devoid of. Funny how a Starfleet admiral calls it a "Klingot" and yet no one on this relatively young crew has trouble deciphering starship jargon.
One aspect that will certainly have to set this series apart from the other Trek shows will be its more limited technology. In "Broken Bow" the transporter exists and is supposedly safe, but it's still somewhat feared; no one wants to actually go through it themselves. Also nice is that the Universal Translator is not as magical a device as in the previous series, hence the need for a skilled human interpreter. And we have grappling hooks in place of tractor beams. But with the lesser technology comes an even more emphasized responsibility for the writers to steer clear of worthless technobabble.
Of course, any review of "Broken Bow" would be remiss if not to mention one of the most transparently gratuitous exploitations of shallow sexuality in the Star Trek canon — a moment that redefines the term gratuitous. I'm referring, of course, to the "decontamination scene" involving T'Pol and Tucker. The scene's motives are so obvious it will have many viewers rolling on the floor: T'Pol in a tank-top showing her midriff and with Visible Nipple Action. Jolene Blalock may be this series' Unabashed Hottie Presence, but this scene is beyond shameless.
It draws so much attention to itself that all dialog in the scene becomes irrelevant, because the dialog is no longer the point (and we can't hear it over our own groans and snickers anyway). My thoughts here apply logic, probably futilely: We as viewers know what the point of this scene is. The writers know what the point of this scene is. The actors and director know what the point of this scene is. And yet we have characters who seem completely oblivious to the sexual element, as if it's not part of the equation here at all. Come on, people! It's an insult to our intelligence, somewhat mitigated only by how funny and blatant it is. I guess anything goes in the name of demographics, but at least make your gimmicks halfway plausible. Jeri Ryan never endured a scene in this spirit that was quite so absurd.
It's worth noting, however, that Enterprise believes in Equal Opportunity Sexual Exploitation: Tucker appears shirtless with boxer shorts in the decontamination scene, and later we also get Archer in boxers (which makes more sense in context considering he's lounging privately in his quarters).
Overlong digression. Anyway: If sexuality is still handled as a relentlessly juvenile enterprise on Trek, then I should hasten to point out an obvious strength that Enterprise will certainly have going in its favor, and that's the visuals and production design. This is a visually striking show, with top-notch production values, sets, and special effects — a feature-film look that maybe surpasses even Voyager in its vision. I liked the Suliban space station, composed of hundreds of individual pods connected to a core. Even the worn-out phaser fight idea manages to work better because it takes place on a roof during a snowstorm, seemingly giving the scene more space to breathe.
Maybe somewhat less effective is when Archer ends up in an elevator filled with flashing strobe lights. I call this elevator the Rave Room. And once the elevator stops, Archer steps out into another room that exhibits some sort of temporal delay effect. He walks into this room and waves his hand around in the weird atmosphere; I'm thinking he's on ecstasy or some other mind-altering substance, like many others before him who have just stepped out of a rave.
The plot doesn't resolve with great insight its strangest element — that of a "temporal cold war." What the hell is that? Not sure, but the Suliban are involved; we learn that they use this weird room to talk with people (who is uncertain) from the future and alter events by changing the past. Does this portion of the plot make sense? Not so much, because it's been reserved — or at least I hope — for future storylines.
Also of scant development are issues involving Earth's current role and the Enterprise being granted its continuing mission after the successful mission to return Klaang to Kronos. What is this lone ship's role in the galaxy? If there are problems, who will help them? Is Starfleet building any other ships? What will be Starfleet's general campaign in space travel? What are the Vulcans' interstellar role at this point in time? Why in the world were two Suliban and a Klingon running around Earth? For that matter, how far have humans traveled prior to the Enterprise launch? Freight-ship workers like Mayweather have apparently gone farther than a lot of people who have been sitting around in Starfleet, but I'm not sure who has seen what, or how far out here humans have been.
For the sake of comparison, it's my opinion that "Broken Bow" is not as engrossing as the other recent Trek pilot stories. "Emissary" (DS9) and "Caretaker" (Voyager) both had superior pilots that did better jobs of establishing their entire casts. "Emissary" had emotional notes of internal struggle (Sisko's angst) and genuine exploration of new ideas (first contact with non-linear lifeforms), while "Caretaker" had an immediate goal (bringing together two crews in the wilderness to get home). "Broken Bow" is generic exploration and more simpleminded adventure. It's about those who Boldly Go, but without many underlying complexities.
Enterprise, by the definition of its concept, has promise. Humans have a new, less jaded, and more wondrous (we hope) perspective concerning space travel compared to all Treks since The Original Series. There's the possibility to see how the building blocks for the as-yet-nonexistent Federation will be laid, which could be fascinating for long-time fans and newbies alike. The pratfall in this concept, of course, comes not simply with the obvious potential of demolishing existing continuity in the Trek canon, but in the difficulty in keeping Trek itself fresh and exciting. Rearranging timelines and giving the saga a "new beginning" is not all it will take to create a series that seems fresh. The attitude, climate, and characters must be sustained through solid stories that feel new on their own merits, not simply because they're recycled stories filtered through a new perspective (though the new perspective will help).
"Broken Bow" is a fun start, featuring a sharp look, efficient and effective direction by James L. Conway, a workable (if uninspired) story for a general audience, and a promising concept. Now it's time to use it.
Note: The opening title sequence is appropriate given the premise, featuring clips of various ships (of all types) named Enterprise, as well as video clips of progressive stages of space travel. The theme, by Diane Warren and performed by Russell Watson, is a rock song that's acceptable but might tire more quickly than a traditional orchestral piece and is not as memorable as past Trek themes. The episode's music is a traditional score along the same lines of the last decade of television Trek, composed by long-time Trek composer Dennis McCarthy.
Next week: Our new crew finds its first ship full of alien corpses.
Next episode: Fight or Flight