Note: This episode was rerated from 3 to 3.5 stars when the season recap was written.
In brief: A basic storyline made quite entertaining by good characterization and strong performances.
The storyline is fairly thin, the formula is by far not a new one, and there are a couple detours that don't work, but "Shuttlepod One" is an episode I liked a great deal. It's a triumph of acting over plot, and of characterization over foregone conclusions.
I find that Enterprise, surprisingly, often ends up being more character-oriented than I'd have expected before the series started. That's the case with "Shuttlepod One," whose approach is tried and true: Take a couple of actors and lock them in a room for the duration. If they're performed by good actors and they get some good things to say, then you have something worth watching.
The premise is an exercise in simplicity: Tucker and Reed are on a shuttlepod away mission, and they reach the location where they're supposed to rendezvous with the Enterprise and instead find debris strewn across the surface of an asteroid. From the evidence in front of them, they conclude that the Enterprise has been destroyed and they are now the ship's only survivors. Sound unlikely? Convenient how so many subtle details just happen to be the way they are to prompt this conclusion? Perhaps, but that's beside the point.
This isn't a great episode, but it's definitely a good one, elevated by performances that hit their marks. The premise is a contrivance based on a number of plot conveniences, but so what? This story has that secret ingredient — conviction — necessary to make the drama work and transcend the details of the plot. It's called suspension of disbelief, and the story sold it to me just fine.
The Enterprise, of course, hasn't really been destroyed, and the episode makes the right decision by showing us right up front that it hasn't — that this is indeed a convoluted misunderstanding. It also makes the right decision by spending little time on the Enterprise and instead keeping a vast majority of the episode inside the shuttlepod with Trip and Reed. This is their story and theirs alone.
To me, there's something innately appealing about this sort of basic nuts-and-bolts character story, which has roots in the subject of male bonding. It also has roots in the subject of real character development, where personalities start clashing, emotions threaten to boil over, and eventually guarded private selves give way to confessions and honesty.
The main problem here is that a shuttlepod is not a self-sustainable ship. With the Enterprise presumably destroyed, Trip and Reed have nowhere to go. They don't have warp engines, and I liked the sobering observations made through the hour about how slowly the shuttle moves compared to the Enterprise. The mission becomes reaching within range of a transponder so they can send a message that will eventually reach Starfleet and explain the Enterprise's tragic fate. The air supply is limited, and without warp speed there's really nowhere they can go. The only slim hope — if they're exceptionally lucky — is if a passing starship notices them and picks them up in the next few days.
The story comes up with a good way to add some atmosphere to the proceedings: It's determined that turning off the heat will allow better efficiency of the air system and buy Trip and Reed several more hours. So off the heat goes, turning the shuttle cabin into a veritable ice chest.
There's little else to do but talk. In Reed's case, he'd like to spend much of his remaining time talking to a recorder, tying up loose ends in his life with messages aimed at providing closure for whomever eventually hears them. Trip becomes annoyed. One argument I found interesting was the whole issue surrounding Reed's role as a pessimist/realist versus Trip's insistence in holding out hope for rescue. Both sides have a point. Reed looks at the numbers and does the math — the chances of being rescued are so slim that it would seem to be some sort of an act of negligence not to leave a record and tie up loose ends as a matter of personal emotional need. Trip is not ready to write his own obituary — not while there's even the slimmest margin of hope. If there's a way to prolong his existence in a doomed shuttlepod, he's going to do it.
There's a lot of dialog in this episode, most of which I don't feel the need to repeat in a review — not because it's bad dialog (a lot of it, in fact, is quite good), but because it's the dialog of real people in a specific situation, an observation on how two people talk to each another. Discussions about old girlfriends. Jibing over European versus North American attitudes ("If only Dr. Cochrane had been a European. The Vulcan's would've been far less reticent to help us. But, no ... he had to be from Montana," Reed laments.) Heated arguments over the subject of hope versus despair. Drunken confessions and camaraderie.
There are a couple moments that didn't work for me. Reed's dream about T'Pol reveals a latent attraction he has for her, which is fine — but the dream scene itself edges too close to the realm of "dumb," especially the whole thing about the nickname "Stinky," which really started trying my patience.
Back on the Enterprise there are a couple scenes that seemed superfluous, in particular the whole subject of the "micro-singularities" that T'Pol says may be responsible for the accident that is now endangering the shuttlepod. The story makes a point of the fact that micro-singularities are myths the Vulcans haven't been able to prove scientifically, and Archer doubts her explanation. The issue of how this could be an incredible scientific discovery is sort of introduced and then dropped. I'd have recommended throwing the whole thing out completely.
There's also a drunk scene here, where Trip and Reed drown themselves in bourbon as a way of passing the hours and as a way of not feeling like they're freezing to death in this frigid cabin. Drunk scenes are often a matter of taste, but I thought this one worked pretty well, if for no other reason than for Trip's wonderfully delivered line, "It can giggle all it wants, but the galaxy's not getting any of our bourbon." I also liked the follow-up to the T'Pol dream sequence, where Reed admits to Trip his attraction to T'Pol while drunk — an admission he almost certainly would not make if he were (a) sober and (b) convinced he would still be alive in two days.
Important to the episode's effect is that we truly believe the shuttle cabin is freezing. To that end, the production delivers here by putting a layer of frost throughout the interior of the shuttlepod set and dropping the temperature down to where we can see the actors' breath in every scene. (This must be what they call "method acting.") It's simple but very effective; as the actors sit there shivering, we completely believe it.
What "Shuttlepod One" ultimately comes down to is acting — whether or not we feel for these two guys and their desperate situation. Connor Trinneer and Dominic Keating deliver the goods, and it's enjoyable to watch them spar and see the moments where the camaraderie emerges from disagreements and fraying nerves. Trinneer I've come to like a great deal — he virtually saved the otherwise pedestrian "Strange New World" early this season — and he once again shows his ability to command a scene that needs him to get his message across with shouting. Keating is also very good, particularly in a scene where Reed acknowledges the distance he puts between himself and other people, even his own family. This is a nice character touch that builds on the examination of him in "Silent Enemy"; I'm mildly impressed.
Ultimately, this is story of survival, and when the two officers realize the Enterprise is in fact not destroyed, they have to work the problem from a whole new angle, realizing they still don't have enough air to wait for the rendezvous. Of course, the rescue itself is a foregone conclusion, but along the way are a number of choices where Trip and Reed must think on their feet — blowing up their only engine, leaving them adrift, as a signal to get the Enterprise's attention, and then a choice made by Trip to sacrifice himself to save Reed, and Reed's refusal to let him go through with it. By the end of it all, they've been through so much that they'll have become friends, something that indicates true character building. I'm reminded of O'Brien and Bashir in "Armageddon Game."
"Shuttlepod One" is a pleasant surprise. The plot is minimalist, but that's the way a story like this should be. The contrived nature of the premise can easily be overlooked. Enterprise may not yet be on the cutting edge of plotting given its promising backdrop, but I certainly don't have a problem with that if the characters can be drawn this sharply and acted so convincingly.
Next week: An inexplicable rerun during February sweeps. Go figure.