In brief: Mediocrity at its finest.
"Shadows of P'Jem" uses reasonable continuity and serviceable performances to play as a sequel to "The Andorian Incident," features some scenes that feel suspiciously padded, arrives at an ending that has little in terms of suspense or surprise, and has political situations that are left too ambiguous. If there's something to be said for the episode, it's that it doesn't do anything that feels particularly wrong. The problem, I think, is that it doesn't do enough that feels right, either.
I sometimes dread reviews like this. Good episodes feel worthwhile to review. Bad episodes are fun to rip apart. But reviews of middle-of-the-road endeavors like "P'Jem" can play like exercises in plot regurgitation. What can I say that I feel would be interesting to read? I've seen the episode a few times since it originally aired nearly seven months ago. After watching it most recently last week, I'm no more inspired to write about it than I was before. Maybe I'll exercise one of my favorite mantras — less is more — and write a review that is less, and therefore perhaps more.
T'Pol is busted. We learn that the Andorians destroyed the sacred grounds of P'Jem on the account that it was doubling as a spy post — information Archer made public at the end of "The Andorian Incident." The Vulcans need a scapegoat for the incident and have chosen T'Pol since she was there, and because they apparently can't really take any direct action against Archer. So Archer is informed that the Vulcans are transferring T'Pol off the Enterprise to another post. Probably a less favorable post, we intuit. Archer is disappointed to be losing his first officer. T'Pol is frankly unmoved: "My assignment to the Enterprise was only supposed to last eight days. It was unrealistic to expect it to continue indefinitely."
Archer decides to take T'Pol on a landing mission to Coridan, to get a chance to talk with her and urge her to stand up for herself. En route to the surface where they are to meet government officials, the shuttle is shot down by Coridan insurgents, a plot-by-numbers development that employs the Shuttle Crash™ and Hostage Situation™ devices, both which have long been standbys on Trek, particularly Voyager.
Archer and T'Pol spend much of the rest of the episode tied up together on the floor in a low-tech holding cell. This gives them plenty of time to talk in scenes that feel suspiciously as if they were paced to play out slowly enough to fill an hour that had limited content. There's one lengthy scene where Archer and T'Pol attempt to escape from their ropes by pushing back-to-back against each other to stand up, and then wriggling into positions where they are free enough to untie themselves. Any scene that manipulates two bodies and physical space in the way this scene does has got to be imposing buried sexual undertones. The actors/characters and the director, however, keep the whole scene strictly professional, without a trace of anything else (I was reminded of the decontamination scene in "Broken Bow").
This scene exists, I surmise, to give the actors something to do rather than just sitting there and talking in a dark room. They instead talk while moving around and struggling. I suppose it makes sense, but the sequence is likely of only marginal interest to most viewers; the conversations about T'Pol's place in Archer's crew is more or less routine.
Meanwhile, the hostage plotting is strictly off the shelf. First we have more tensions between the Enterprise crew and the Vulcans, who arrive on the scene under the command of Captain Sopek (Gregory Itzin). Trip and Reed go on a shuttle mission to rescue Archer. This eventually leads to the usual shootouts, explosions, etc., but we first have another run-in with Andorian Shran (Jeffrey Combs), who informs Trip that the Coridan government officials are corrupt and maintain ties with the Vulcans, and that the insurgents are those who would overthrow this illegitimate government. Nevertheless, Shran is here to help rescue Archer, because he is vexed by the fact he feels indebted to Archer for his role in uncovering the evidence of the spy post at P'Jem.
I sort of liked the idea that Shran's debt eats away at him ("I haven't slept well") — he doesn't like to owe anybody anything — but Shran doesn't really engage us the way Combs' previous Trek roles have, in part because, like in "The Andorian Incident," Shran always seems so embittered and angry. The sly undercurrent of humor is something Combs has always been good at, and it's what seems to be missing in Shran.
The plot tidies itself by having T'Pol jump into the line of fire to save Sopek's life in the course of the action. This gives Archer just enough ammunition to convince Sopek to cut T'Pol a break, but Archer's speech at the end had me a little confused: He tells Sopek that, yes, T'Pol screwed up, but that she deserves a second chance. I'd simply like to know exactly how it is Archer is willing to grant that T'Pol "screwed up" in her involvement at P'Jem when it was Archer who gave the Andorians the evidence. Archer once again avoids true culpability and is let off the hook too easily for his actions.
I dunno. It's just the sort of episode that doesn't leave much of an impact either way. With all the would-be political intrigue, you'd think this might be interesting, but it proves mostly inconclusive: Shran's undetected presence on Coridan strikes me as awfully convenient, and the nature of the Vulcans' role in this world's affairs is left completely unresolved. Is Shran's interpretation of a corrupt government accurate, or merely spin control in favor of the insurgents because he hates the Vulcans? By the end, the story makes little effort to deal with the question at all.
That leaves us with Archer and T'Pol and the writers' desire to bring them a little closer together in their relationship as captain and first officer. It's not a bad sentiment, but nor is it a fresh one. It's of some consolation that this series at least tries to put its emphasis on the characters, but this is not what I would call deep character work. It's character work that is enough to qualify as present — which is better than absent but miles short of fascinating.
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