In brief: A good premise and decently executed action, but with misguided character decisions and an obvious lesson.
"The Communicator" is a straight-ahead serious take on The Original Series' "A Piece of the Action," which had a similar theme but a relentlessly non-serious comedic tone. The theme is one of not contaminating less-advanced alien cultures. It's treated as dead serious here, but one problem is that the characters have not thought out how they would face such a situation. The situation arises, and they're just barely on the other side of cluelessness.
This is a decent story, decently executed, with decent ideas and dialog. The big picture, unfortunately, is undermined by the way its protagonists blunder their way through their difficult situation. By the time the closing dialog rolls around, the lesson is so obvious we shouldn't have to hear it put into words. But hear it we must, because the dialog is necessary to keep our captain from looking downright oblivious (a label he does not entirely avoid).
The premise takes the final lines of "A Piece of the Action" and builds a storyline from there: The away team returns from an undercover study mission on a world that's on technological par with early to mid-20th century Earth, and Lt. Reed realizes he's missing his communicator. He apparently lost it on the planet surface; if found and examined, the technology could contaminate the planet's natural social evolution. Archer and Reed return to the planet to retrieve the missing communicator.
Cultural contamination is an interesting Star Trek topic, and the story, as I've said, deals with it seriously. The characters react with a genuine concern and urgency, which is exactly how they should react. (Reed berates himself for losing his communicator, a character touch that very much rings true given previous examination of Reed.) Archer and Reed retrace their steps to a restaurant where they are able to pick up the communicator's signal. But they act too suspiciously, are confronted by military officials in the restaurant who think they are spies for the enemy "Alliance" (with whom this society is on the brink of war), and are quickly taken into custody. (As Archer and Reed think they are about to be confronted, they attempt escape via a sudden bar fight, going two on five. This seems rather foolish, all but guaranteeing their capture.)
This presents a new problem. With Archer and Reed captured, not only does this alien military have possession of a Starfleet communicator, but now a second communicator, two scanners, a phase-pistol, and the two humans themselves. And what happens if they find the empty shuttlepod? The dilemma is an interesting one that has us wondering how our characters will get out of it. Too bad we're also wondering how they allowed themselves to get into it in the first place.
The residents of this planet are not idiots. What's more, by being on the verge of war they are suspicious of enemy infiltration. Given these facts and the underlying premise that we don't want to contaminate their culture, the whole notion of the first away mission in this volatile region seems like, well, not a very good idea at all. And if it's not bad enough that the communicator went missing, Archer and Reed end up putting themselves in a very vulnerable situation with no backup, getting easily captured. This is one mission that should've been better researched from the outset, and a response to a crisis (the lost communicator) that should've been better prepared.
"The Communicator" poses some intriguing questions about away missions. It isn't long before Archer and Reed are beaten for information about why they are spying. Reed starts bleeding, and one of the interrogators realizes in surprise, "His blood — it's red." A medical examination is immediately ordered, where it's discovered that these two have impossible anatomies to go along with their impossibly advanced technology. The implication here is interesting: The very presence of a human on an away mission can contaminate a culture should the human's anatomy be investigated.
But, again, I found myself wondering why preparations were not made to avoid exactly such discoveries at all costs. And also why more thought wasn't put into contingency plans for when such discoveries are made. Starfleet apparently had no rules for interacting with pre-warp alien cultures when the Enterprise set out on this mission, and Archer apparently set up no specific guidelines for these sort of foreseeable problems. Sure, getting captured is not exactly something you would hope would happen on an away mission, but you should be prepared for the possibility as best you can. You should have a cover story so you can explain yourself. Based on what happens here, that's not at all the case; Archer and Reed are improvising on cue ... and they're not improvising much that's in the best interests of themselves or in avoiding cultural contamination.
The most obvious example is when the interrogators begin demanding answers about Archer and Reed's technology and anatomy. Archer initially tries to tell them nothing, but he eventually decides to fabricate lies rather than revealing the truth that he and Reed are, in fact, aliens from outer space. Archer says their devices are Alliance prototypes. Following Archer's lead, Reed chimes in that they are genetically engineered prototypes developed by the Alliance. Archer says the shuttlepod is not a space module but rather an advanced experimental aircraft the Alliance has constructed.
Of all the lies to tell these people, why in the world would you tell them that? These are lies of absolutely the most inflammatory kind, which is a good way of not only contaminating this society but doing so in a potentially violent way; it's likely to incite a war. Why not tell them nothing, and let them draw their own conclusions with evidence that on its own can't prove anything conclusively?
Archer and Reed are ordered for prompt execution, a story development contrived mostly for an inflated dramatic countdown and which I don't totally buy. (I was reminded of a sarcastic line from the previous week's episode of South Park: "That's called a ticking clock. Works great in the movies.") Wouldn't Archer and Reed be more useful to the military officials alive — where they could potentially supply more information about the Alliance — than dead?
The crew aboard the Enterprise works the problem from the other end, trying to mount a rescue attempt. I again find myself wondering why the transporter is not so much as mentioned as a possibility. Given the gravity of the situation, it would be a logical choice, but there isn't even dialog here to rule it out. I'm thinking this series should simply have opted not to have a transporter at all, because the writers apparently would rather not depend on it — a good thing except for the fact that the ship is obviously equipped with one.
There's an unexpected plot development here when Trip decides a rescue attempt would be best served by employing the cloak-enabled Suliban pod captured in "Shockwave, Part II." I for one did not know that the crew had acquired this craft. The details at the end of "Shockwave II" implied that Silik was released while he was still unconscious. Unless I'm missing something, this new detail would imply that the crew left him floating in space. (*)
Nonetheless, I must admit that the Suliban pod is an effective and unexpected attention grabber, along with all the weirdness that comes along with it. There's a point where Trip get zapped while working to fix the cloaking device, and his entire forearm is rendered invisible. It's the sort of jarring detail that keeps the story from falling into routine patterns.
The action in the final act is actually quite good as these things go. There's a desperately improvised descent in the Suliban pod (see "ticking clock" above), with the cloak only half-working and alien aircraft in pursuit. And the rescue of the prisoners — about to be hanged — and retrieval of the technology involves a shootout that actually makes reasonable logical sense. For once the shooting and movement of the action matches up with what needs to be accomplished on a plot level, a far better approach to action than simply having people stand behind objects and indiscriminately firing to gratuitously fill screen time.
Indeed, what works best about "The Communicator" is its ability to confidently move the plot details forward and end with an effective action sequence. The story's progress and implementation is convincing even if its plot details raise questions.
The lesson at the end is one I found too obvious, showcasing Archer as too slow to catch on. He talks with T'Pol about how the important goal was achieved — that all the technology was recovered. Until T'Pol brings it up, Archer doesn't acknowledge how all this mayhem will likely impact the planet's sociopolitical scheme. Given everything else, I'm glad the issue was addressed in the episode's closing dialog. But I must also point out that the lesson had already occurred to me while Archer fabricating stories about the Alliance's would-be prototype technology.
This episode shows exactly what can go wrong when interacting with alien cultures. On that level it's fairly effective. But the way it goes about it has me thinking that some forethought should've gone into this mission, rather than improvising solutions to a crisis that should never have been allowed to get so far out of hand. Archer needs to set some serious protocols to avoid these sort of situations.
Better yet, let T'Pol set the protocols. She's less oblivious.
* Erratum: The Suliban pod was acquired from "Broken Bow" and apparently not "Shockwave, Part II," although I don't recall any mention of the pod after "Broken Bow" and before this episode.
Next week: The crew is disabled en masse with disease-like symptoms. Sounds like Star Trek 101.