Note: This episode was rerated from 2 to 1.5 stars when the season recap was written.
In brief: An acting-dependent outing that simply doesn't have the acting it needs.
"Carbon Creek" is one of the quietest episodes in a very long time, which makes for a good change of pace after the action-laden "Shockwave, Part II." It's unfortunate, then, that the episode is such a quietly unfolding road to nowhere. Here's an episode so muted it seems dead.
Episodes like this should be affecting. This one feels more like a meditation upon episodes that are affecting. It's a pretender, an imitation — good intentions not supported by adequate content or performances. The problem is not that it's bad. The problem is that it doesn't have enough in it that's actually good.
The episode is perhaps the series' biggest test yet for Jolene Blalock, and I'm sorry to say that it fully reveals her limitations. She is simply not engaging here — as either of the two characters she plays — and the episode suffers as a result. My most fundamental reaction to "Carbon Creek" is to wonder why Blalock constantly comes across as a bland vessel of robotic Vulcan dialog. There's something wrong when you want to reach into the TV, shake the actress, and shout, "Just speak UP, for crying out loud!" If Blalock spoke any softer, and with any less variation in expression, her dialog would be completely inaudible.
The writers on Voyager would avoid putting Tuvok and Seven of Nine in dialog scenes together because, the writers said, their similar dispassionate style of speech made scenes stall dramatically. There were so few Tuvok/Seven scenes that I would say this was a theory (albeit a rational one) more than an actual fact supported by evidence. Imagine that theory as a truth here, with many scenes comprised solely of two, and sometimes three, Vulcan characters locked in dialog scenes, betraying as close to no emotion as possible. Just cool detachment and prefab opinions. My own theory is that you can watch only so much cool detachment before you start squirming with impatience — and beating yourself over the skull with frying pans to be sure you are still alive — but that's just me.
Blalock plays her part so relentlessly one-note that I longed for anything that would break through the cool detachment. I don't have a problem with Vulcan dispassion per se (though I still maintain that complete dispassion in performance is an unnecessary approach to Vulcans); what I have a problem with is dispassion portrayed in a way that allows for no audience reaction.
Underneath the performances is a story whose main goal is to be a lightweight, pleasant diversion about events long since passed into the realm of legend. The story concept reminded me a lot of Voyager's "11:59," in which Janeway told her crew a story about the turning point for one of her ancestors in the final days of the year 2000. In the case of "Carbon Creek," T'Pol tells Archer and Trip a story about the "real" unintended first contact between the Vulcans and humanity, in 1957 in the Podunk mining town of Carbon Creek, Pennsylvania.
T'Pol's great-grandmother T'Mir (Blalock) was part of a crew of four on a small ship observing the launch of Soviet satellite Sputnik. There was an accident, and the ship crashed in the woods a few kilometers from Carbon Creek. The captain was killed, leaving T'Mir in command of crewmates Mestral (J. Paul Boehmer, who was very good as the title character in Voyager's "Drone") and Stron (Michael Krawic). The story says these characters are forced to go to Carbon Creek so they don't starve to death, but the actors don't play it as if they're the least bit affected by having gone days without food. There's also not an iota of concern that some human out hiking or hunting might happen to come across, say, a crashed alien spaceship in the woods. (Was the ship salvaged at the end of the episode? Destroyed? The story is unconcerned.)
T'Mir is a T'Pol clone that for all purposes might as well be T'Pol, which perhaps hints at Blalock's limits; in Voyager's "Life Line" Robert Picardo played two distinct roles that were believable as two different characters, despite their similarities.
The show is slow to move ahead and instead opts for the slice-of-life approach, including a scene where the script apparently said, "Vulcan plays a game of pool," and was intent on actually seeing this scene drawn out into a highlight montage, as if we cared who won the game. If I wanted to see billiards, I'd watch Jeanette Lee compete on ESPN2. Jeanette Lee is a billiards player of extreme, impressive skill. Plus, she's freaking hot.
Anyway. The problem here is that the episode does nothing at all new or fascinating and is content to fall back on cliché, most especially with the whole "Vulcans are fish out of water trying to blend in" (a scene where T'Mir puts a dress on backwards is just plain dumb) and the "Vulcans among humans begin to learn what humans are about." The latter theme — admittedly palatable despite the lack of depth — is largely filtered through Mestral, who finds he really wants to learn about human society, although I might point out that Podunk Creek, Pennsylvania, is probably not representative of the world.
There's a subplot involving a single mom (Ann Cusack) and her son (Hank Harris), who is smart but might not have enough money to go to college. There are even hints of romance between Mom and Mestral. But this subplot is half-baked at best and we really don't get a feel for these characters as individuals. They're more like obvious local flavor based on archetypes.
There's a big decision the Vulcans must make when there's a cave-in down at the mine. Several local miners will perish if a way can't be found to move tons of rock. Mestral wants to use a phaser to vaporize the rock, but T'Pol — I'm sorry — T'Mir recognizes that as blatantly interfering in human society. And what happens if the humans see the technology and the Vulcans are discovered? It's a legitimate dilemma but, let's face it, hardly given any weight. The story's point is ultimately about Mestral and his obsession to study humanity to the point of wanting to live among us. He even stays behind when the Vulcan rescue ship arrives, leaving his fate up to us to ponder. Vulcans Among Us is, no doubt, how special TV programs like Alien Autopsy became possible in the mid-1990s on the Fox network.
The episode contains a line of dialog that made me laugh out loud ("It might be tolerable if her son didn't insist on calling me 'Moe.'"). It also contains an awful line that made me cringe ("I need to go now; I Love Lucy is on tonight."). The story's big quirky comic notion is that the Vulcans helped us invent ... Velcro. How cute. (Note: "How cute" should be read with the inflection of mildly snide venom along with the image of rolling eyes, and concurrent commentary consisting of "Oh, geez.") The Velcro thing comes across exactly as one of those Bright Ideas that the writers were certainly convinced would be Fun. It seems just a little too calculated to me.
I also wonder — just a little bit — if this all tracks with what we know of T'Pol. One would think that if T'Pol had this great-grandmother who passed down this tale of contact with humans, T'Pol might've been more interested in human culture from the outset. Come to think of it, maybe this does track with T'Pol's recent support for Archer and the Enterprise's mission, but it's an odd detail that seems like it would be more defining for the character than it actually is.
But I'm rambling. "Carbon Creek" is the sort of lightweight story that wouldn't be "riveting" even in the best-case scenario. It could've come across as quietly engaging, however, had it contained engaging performances. Unfortunately, it does not, so it's a bit of a bore and I find myself reduced to taking potshots at it for entertainment value. I didn't find this episode the least bit offensive, but when I spend an hour watching Trek and the only emotion I feel is indifference (is indifference an emotion, and perhaps the only emotion Vulcans express?), that's not what I call an episode getting the job done.
Next week: The Enterprise gets blowed up real good!