In brief: A few missteps, but good continuity and plentiful sci-fi weirdness that's for the most part intriguing.
There can be something inherently disconcerting about artificial intelligence, particularly unfamiliar AIs with crude communication interfaces. I think it has to do with an underlying wariness that an AI is based on complex but ultimately uncompromising directives rather than flexible reasoning; when you don't know those directives you quickly develop the understanding that they could cause you harm rather than good. This kind of AI has no conscience; it does what it wants. Your benefit or harm is incidental.
In "Dead Stop" we have an automated repair station with an elaborate computer system that's obviously complex enough to qualify as an artificial intelligence, albeit with a crude user interface. There's something about it all that's slightly ... unsettling. It offers hospitality and promises miracles in repairing the Enterprise's damage, but one almost senses an ulterior motive somewhere beneath the surface. The price quoted is awfully low considering the services it will be providing. Damage that would take months for the Enterprise crew to repair on their own will take this repair station only a day and a half. All it wants for compensation is 200 liters of warp plasma. "Those repairs are one hell of a bargain at 200 liters of warp plasma, don't you think?" Archer muses, mildly troubled and suspicious. I'm inclined to agree.
"Dead Stop" is a good episode that benefits from genuine sci-fi weirdness. While artificial intelligence and the concept of a machine with its own implacable agenda are familiar elements, this episode employs them well and surrounds them with atmosphere. The repair station becomes a character of its own, simultaneously inviting and ominous.
Its docking bay reconfigures itself specifically to fit the Enterprise, and the air inside is made human-ready. (Beforehand it was "270 degrees below zero." I'm assuming that's Celsius, which is 3 degrees above absolute zero; can any computer really function at that temperature?) Inside, the walls are all white; there's a long entrance corridor. There's an unmistakable sense that we should all be waiting for the other shoe to drop. Kudos to the production designers, and the special-effects wizards who designed the CG model of the station; they succeed in giving this place a sterile yet creepy personality.
Who built this place and why? Archer would like his questions answered, but the station's computer is not prepared to give him any. "Your inquiry was not recognized," it repeats uselessly. A computer this advanced and with such an ability to adapt should be able to recognize and answer Archer's questions with a more human touch; my only explanation is that perhaps it's being intentionally vague. (Although not credited, I'm 100 percent sure the station's computer voice is supplied by director Roxann Dawson — a nice touch.)
Still, Archer and the crew don't much feel like they can refuse this invitation. The Enterprise has fairly extensive damage — borderline crippled — and needs to be fixed. Let's talk for a moment about continuity. As I'm sure many could've predicted, I was practically ecstatic to see that the damage sustained in last week's "Minefield" was not miraculously gone by the time this week's show began. Far from it — the gash to the hull has dire side effects. (I also liked the continuity surrounding the injury to Reed's leg; he's undergoing physical therapy at the beginning of the episode.)
The next question is whether it's a cheat to have a "miracle repair station" that can fix all this damage (and Reed's leg) in a single episode. Well, yes and no. Yes, it's a somewhat-cheat in that the setup claims this damage is a Big Deal, and instead of having the crew struggle, the plot drops a miracle cure in their laps. No, it's not a cheat in that the miracle repair station is given the storytelling weight necessary to more than justify its presence.
In the new-technology arena, the crew sees firsthand what in future Trek incarnations will be called a "replicator," capable of conjuring matter from energy. It's handy for scraping up a meal, or spare parts. Trip is particularly intrigued, and in what is clearly the show's stupidest action on behalf of the characters (but necessary to set up the plot's solution, alas), Trip convinces Reed to go sneaking through the station's crawl spaces to try to find the station's main computer. Reed points out this might not be such a good idea; the computer might not take kindly to trespassers. Trip's response: "I didn't see any no-trespassing signs." How brilliant. When the plan fails and the computer beams them back to the Enterprise, I was frankly glad Archer yelled at them. (Another nice little follow-up from last week: Archer, on Reed's case: "You've made it clear to me that you think discipline on board Enterprise has gotten a little too lax. I'm beginning to agree with you.")
There's a plot "twist" that sets up the story's key revelation, and that's where I'm a little more skeptical about "Dead Stop." Mainly, my problem here is how the story decides to kill off a character in a way that, dramatically, doesn't work and smacks more of Trek cliche than anything. Ensign Mayweather is fooled by the station AI (using a faked simulation of Archer's voice) into going below decks into off-limits repair areas where he's zapped by an energy charge. This leads to Phlox finally getting to say, "He's dead, captain," followed by questions and frustration and autopsies and unexpected results and medical technobabble explanations and finally the conclusion that Mayweather is, in fact, not dead after all, but rather abducted after having been replaced with a dead clone. While there's some potential interest in seeing Archer's initial reaction to losing a crew member (after my discussion of said topic in last week's "Minefield"), this would-be death is probably more annoying than it's worth precisely because it's such a transparent plot twist.
Problem #1: Okay, so they introduce the woefully underutilized Travis Mayweather into a plot where up to this point in the episode he's been a non-factor. What do the writers do? Give him good dialog? Character development? An active role in the story? Nope — they "kill" him and have him lie on an autopsy table as a corpse. This indicates pure writer desperation in concern to this character. Have they no clue what to do with this guy?
Problem #2: Okay, so they're going to kill a character. How many people in the audience aren't going to expect a resurrection of the character when he's a member of the principal cast? If you want this twist to interest us, either (a) kill off a red-shirt (such that we're genuinely surprised by the eventual resurrection), or (b) kill off one of the main characters who is not so woefully underdeveloped (such that dying is not the most significant thing they've gotten to do in nearly a year).
I'm actually fine with where this setup eventually takes us — to the discovery (albeit a foreseeable one) that this station abducts living beings so it can tie their brains into its computer network and expand its processing power. It's an adequately bizarre sci-fi-ey idea, and I liked that the story did not dwell on the particulars or try to offer unnecessary explanations for how this station evolved into an AI beast that kidnaps people. It's simply a Halloween mystery and the episode wisely leaves it at that.
Under Dawson's direction, the show's pacing is dead-on. It begins slowly, quietly, mysteriously. As mysteries give way to revelation, however, the pace picks up and the camera moves with much more freedom. The Enterprise's escape from the station, accompanied by a crescendo of noise and explosions, is skillfully depicted, with good directing, editing, logical flow, and music.
By the end, it feels like we've been taken for a brief trip through the Twilight Zone. The last shot is of the ruins of the repair station beginning repair work on itself. Like all living things governed by instinct, its mission is to continue surviving according to the logic of its existence — an intriguing statement, conveyed with a compelling image.
"Dead Stop" is an episode I liked quite a bit. I might've liked it even better had its spell not been broken with Mayweather being cloned, kidnapped, and swapped with a corpse. Being manipulated as a plot device is about the last thing his character needs.
Next week: Judging by the trailer, Archer suffers from blue balls. Or something.