In brief: Pervasive mediocrity somewhat redeemed by some solid shows near season's end. Not what I would call an impressive year.
So, summer is winding down, the days are getting shorter, and the fall television season is upon us. It's time, I suppose, for a recap of Enterprise's second season. You know the drill. Part one: capsule reviews. Part two: season commentary. Part three: excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages (optional; please observe local laws). Here you can revisit all of last season in a single stop. Agree, disagree, punch your computer screen, throw your computer out the window, bark like a dog, smash a beer bottle over your head — the works. Hey, it's your life.
Part 1: Capsule ReviewsShockwave, Part II — Air date: 9/18/2002. Written by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga. Directed by Allan Kroeker.
It was probably foolish for me to believe "Shockwave, Part II" could possibly live up to "Shockwave, Part I," but there you have it. The basic problem here is that the writers painted themselves into an impossible corner (which is why I found part one so interesting), and had no really inventive way to get themselves out. The solution is all too obviously contrived (particularly hard to swallow is the notion of sending a signal back through time 1,000 years into T'Pol's quarters using some copper wire and a transmitter), and the episode ends with the usual cartoon action sequences that Voyager long since rendered routine. The plot is on such obvious autopilot that it permits Silik to go free on his merry way even after a Suliban plot that resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocents. Not a total waste (some fun moments, and the speech arguing in favor of Enterprise's continued mission has its heart in the right place), but certainly a major disappointment given the setup.
Carbon Creek — Air date: 9/25/2002. Teleplay by Chris Black. Story by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga & Dan O'Shannon. Directed by James Contner.
If there's a lesson to be learned here, it's that too many Vulcans in the same room can be deadly dull. There are stretches of dialog here that are impossible to care about because the performances are so muted that it feels like we're watching the halftime entertainment show at a narcolepsy convention. Jolene Blalock turns in a particularly bland performance in an episode already filled with bland Vulcan monotone-laden performances. The plot is of little help, rehashing Trekkian humanity themes we've seen many times before and bringing no spark of originality or creativity to them. It's not wrong-headed or offensive in its message, but it's certainly not an hour of television that deserves your time or patience.
Minefield — Air date: 10/2/2002. Written by John Shiban. Directed by James Contner.
A well-executed exercise in showing characters dismantling a bomb, with capable performances and production design that sells the simple premise on its terms. The core of the episode, some well-written dialog between Archer and Reed, keeps us interested in the characters in the midst of a situation whose resolution is admittedly a foregone conclusion, but which throws enough course changes at us to make the process of finding the solution reasonably entertaining. Notable is the level of competence revealed in the course of finding that solution; the crew studies multiple approaches to the problem and considers them as backup plans. Sensible. The show finds a nice contrast between Archer's style of commanding via a getting-to-know-you approach and Reed's more official, and less buddy-buddy, naval background.
Dead Stop — Air date: 10/9/2002. Written by Mike Sussman & Phyllis Strong. Directed by Roxann Dawson.
Probably the season's most effective episode of pure science fiction, "Dead Stop" is an inspired little engine of subtly unsettling weirdness. A fully automated repair station comes across as vaguely disturbing precisely because it's just too automated and too good to be true. You get the feeling that it operates on a logic of its own that cannot be overruled — a suspicion confirmed by the plot advances. Tucker and Reed stay true to character by acting like heedless fools who apparently never heard the expression "curiosity killed the cat." Mayweather stays true to character by being a plot pawn whose character arc in the episode goes something like this: cloned, swapped, killed, used as human battery, rescued. But for the most part this material is successful and entertaining, and I also liked the Twilight Zone-like ending where the obliterated station starts repairing itself.
A Night in Sickbay — Air date: 10/16/2002. Written by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga. Directed by David Straiton.
Here we get a complete mangling of Archer's character, a moronic plot involving his poor sick dog, and a completely concocted and frankly unwelcome sexual-tension concept between Archer and T'Pol. It makes for an absurd episode best forgotten. Low points include a fantasy sequence involving Archer, T'Pol, and Porthos; Archer ranting and raving about aliens when the whole situation is his own fault; Phlox trying to catch a Tiberian bat; and an alien ritual sequence of alarming corniness. Mostly just unwatchable. Next, please.
Marauders — Air date: 10/30/2002. Teleplay by David Wilcox. Story by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga. Directed by Mike Vejar.
The season's most toothless action episode, in which the Enterprise crew honorably teaches a man how to fish, so that he might eat for a lifetime (or so goes the obvious metaphor). Here we're teaching a settlement how to fight, so that they can defend themselves from bad Klingons who rob them. Features nice location shooting and respectably optimistic Trekkian Themes, but the execution of all of this is almost laughably lightweight. No Klingons are harmed in the making of this picture — or anyone else, for that matter. This is just too much bland safeness for my tastes. The scene where the Klingons are lured into a ring of fire plays like a Three Stooges routine. The plot also doesn't account for the Klingons' obvious ability to attack this settlement from orbit. But judging by the fire-ring episode, I wouldn't be surprised if they were too stupid to think of something like that.
The Seventh — Air date: 11/6/2002. Written by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga. Directed by David Livingston.
"The Seventh" works because it takes a Vulcan cloak-and-dagger plot and plays it not for action, but for a character's psychological torment. This is always the safer bet, because once you abandon character for simply action, your plot is hollow and meaningless (hence, many installments in the middle part of this season). Better to do it like this, where the point is that T'Pol must face old demons while trying to determine if the source of those demons — a Vulcan outcast from her past named Menos — is lying or telling her the truth. Jolene Blalock turns in one of her best performances as T'Pol struggles to contain the emotions buried within her, brought back to the surface by a repressed memory. Bruce Davison is perfectly cast as Menos, believable as a man who could be lying or telling the truth. The plot is not airtight, but for the most part it works on the basis of its own merits as well as a catalyst for some T'Pol character insights.
The Communicator — Air date: 11/13/2002. Teleplay by Andre Bormanis. Story by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga. Directed by James Contner.
Here's a perfectly good story idea that ends with a perfectly good action sequence and for the most part moves along just fine. Unfortunately, when you stop to think about key details of the story — mainly Archer's apparent cluelessness given his desperate situation — the shine begins to tarnish. The whole story is based on the premise that there are no Starfleet protocols on the books regarding cultural contamination, so Archer and Reed, once captured, must improvise lies on cue so they are not discovered to be aliens. What's worse, the lies they concoct are even more potentially dangerous to this society than the truth itself: They claim to be genetically engineered enemy soldiers, which seems to me could end up starting a full-scale war (which, methinks, would certainly qualify as "cultural contamination"). I also found the hoary "execute the prisoners immediately" idea to be pretty unrealistic for the sake of a Ticking Clock; a real government would certainly exhaust all avenues of interrogation before hanging two of the most valuable prisoners ever caught.
Singularity — Air date: 11/20/2002. Written by Chris Black. Directed by Patrick Norris.
Lots of weird behavior, not lots of story significance or believability. As these things go, however, it's fairly entertaining because the show at least knows better than to take things too seriously. The episode is basically an excuse for the entire crew to go insane, with predictably goofy results. Trip becomes obsessed with a chair, Reed becomes obsessed with an alarm system, Archer becomes obsessed with writing a biography introduction, etc. Eventually everyone is crashing into each other because of their incompatible priorities. Meanwhile, there's a Ticking Clock and everyone's gonna die from radiation exposure, so T'Pol has to drag Archer out of a coma and steer the ship out of danger. The show benefits from amusing performances and some sharply written one-liners, but otherwise there's not a whole lot of substance here to recommend.
Vanishing Point — Air date: 11/27/2002. Written by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga. Directed by David Straiton.
From what I can tell, few but me liked this episode. I stand firm, however, in defending this as one of the season's unsung highlights. It's an absorbing, psychologically disturbing tale, and Hoshi is an excellent protagonist as played by Linda Park. Essentially, the story uses the transporter as a metaphor for the separation of our physical selves from our mental conviction that we exist as something more significant than our physical selves. In other words, this is a show actually about confronting death and pondering the possibilities of the soul, where being lost in a transporter beam is perhaps one of the most disturbing mysteries because it blurs that line. After all, if you can be scattered into molecules and reassembled again without dying, exactly where is your conscious mind in the interim? Yes, the notion of the transporter in Star Trek is utter nonsense when you get right down to it, but that doesn't stop this episode from prompting interesting thoughts within a context where the transporter is still a mystery to many of the characters. The ending reveals it all to be a paranoid nightmare, which is somehow appropriate given the material and Hoshi's character. Even with the twist, the ideas under the surface remain interesting.
Precious Cargo — Air date: 12/11/2002. Teleplay by David A. Goodman. Story by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga. Directed by David Livingston.
Simply one of the worst, most boring, most pointless, and most unwatchable episodes in the history of the franchise. Self-parody has never been so tedious or excruciatingly protracted.
Rating: zero stars
The Catwalk — Air date: 12/18/2002. Written by Mike Sussman & Phyllis Strong. Directed by Mike Vejar.
Middling survival premise turns into middling action outing in which the crew hides out in the catwalk to avoid radiation exposure and then must stop alien invaders from stealing the ship. A competent outing on its simple plot terms, but move along, nothing to see here. The three aliens who take refuge on the Enterprise are so obviously hiding something that I found myself wondering why Archer wasn't expecting the other shoe to drop.
Dawn — Air date: 1/8/2003. Written by John Shiban. Directed by Roxann Dawson.
An episode about communicating with your would-be enemy, "Dawn" is about gaining understanding when there's a language barrier. (This, of course, doesn't stop Trip and the alien from beating each other's asses first.) How far we've fallen since TNG's poetic "Darmok," and yet how nice it is to see that Star Trek hasn't turned cynical and still believes in solving problems and overcoming differences. From there, the show is your standard survival premise (except you'd think these guys would know that you seek shade when trying to survive in the hot sun). Move along, nothing to see here.
Stigma — Air date: 2/5/2003. Written by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga. Directed by David Livingston.
Trek makes a return to social commentary, in which a Vulcan mental disease is compared to AIDS and mind-melding is compared to (I guess) gay sex. Not bad, but not exactly good, either; this is a message show that feels at least half a decade behind the times, and as a commentary where the strategy is one of drawing parallels, the show is simultaneously too much and not enough. The anti-prejudice message is too obvious while the suggested allegorical parallels don't always seem to fit. The show's storyline continuity doesn't exactly track with its predecessor, "Fusion"; some facts have been somewhat misrepresented. I admire the good intentions, but given the current landscape of television today when it comes to exploring issues, "Stigma" is a relative lightweight.
Cease Fire — Air date: 2/12/2003. Written by Chris Black. Directed by David Straiton.
Attempting to tackle one of the few things on this series that (at the time) resembled an ongoing storyline, "Cease Fire" delved back into the conflict between the Vulcans and the Andorians, once again putting Archer in the middle as mediator, one who is acceptably fair to Shran. A little too mechanical and routine, this show failed to engage me. The story moves from beat to beat, but can never transcend its overall sense of clockwork routine. Worth mention here is how the Enterprise's role seems to be making humanity relevant as a member of the interstellar community, and how T'Pol expresses to Soval her loyalty to Archer. Other than that, there's just not much of interest here to make it worth an hour spent.
Future Tense — Air date: 2/19/2003. Written by Mike Sussman & Phyllis Strong. Directed by James Whitmore Jr.
Turning back to weird sci-fi, this is an episode with a plot that scarcely matters or makes sense (the temporal cold war is obviously an arbitrary concoction), but offers up enough in strange and interesting concepts to make us want to jump aboard for the ride. Readers have informed me that the ship which is larger on the inside than the outside is an idea that was already done on Doctor Who. Well, I've never seen an episode of Doctor Who, so it seemed fresh to me here. Besides, an idea need not be fresh if it at least seems fresh, and that's accomplished here with some dialog that I liked, most notably the scene between Trip and Malcolm where they wax philosophical on the possibilities of knowing the future, on simple human terms that I could appreciate. The Tholians show up here as players in the temporal war madness, though whether they will become important remains to be seen in light of the series' new direction for season three.
Canamar — Air date: 2/26/2003. Written by John Shiban. Directed by Allan Kroeker.
Nicely directed, with nice production design and serviceable performances, but the story is one that prompts nothing but disinterest. This is a Star Trek prison show that is ultimately not about anything, and that's a real frustration. A prisoner decides to take over a prison transport ship, so Archer must try to stop him. That's basically it, and that's nowhere near enough for me. The feeling I got after watching "Canamar" was that I'd basically just wasted my time on a garden-variety B-movie prison-break plot, offering absolutely nothing in terms of drama or insight or character motivation. It's a mechanical exercise, and not a particularly entertaining one.
The Crossing — Air date: 4/2/2003. Teleplay by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga. Story by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga & Andre Bormanis. Directed by David Livingston.
Fifteen minutes of strong, solid sci-fi collapses in favor of 45 minutes of inanity. (Will wonders never cease? Well, yes, in fact, they will, and quite soon.) What begins as a potentially interesting exploration of non-corporeal life forms proceeds with alarming haste to sell itself out to Alien Takeover Attempt No. 522. From there we have to suffer through such masterpieces as an alien taking over Reed's body on a mission to discover what's inside T'Pol's pants, a redundant visit to the catwalk, plenty of generally derivative and corny body-possession material, and an inexplicably drawn-out scene where Phlox configures valves and levers to flood the ship with gas. The ending, despite being sensible from Archer's tactical standpoint, is a downright cold and cynical move on the part of the writers. The script in a nutshell: We create some wonderfully different forms of life, we make them Evil Body Snatchers, we expel them and blow them up. How inspired.
Judgment — Air date: 4/9/2003. Teleplay by David A. Goodman. Story by Taylor Elmore & David A. Goodman. Directed by James L. Conway.
One of the season's better offerings, in which Archer is once again jailed but the results turn out to be charged with drama and tension. This is an episode that relies heavily on our love of the Klingons and all their bombastic grandstanding. The always reliable J.G. Hertzler makes his first Enterprise guest appearance as Advocate Kolos, Archer's lawyer in a Klingon system of "justice" that seems designed to crush them both. Crucial to the success of the story is how the court system seems designed not only to crush Archer, an outsider, but simply anyone who stands accused. Kolos is first seen here as a tired and cynical man who has given up after having watched his culture gradually turn corrupt, and his commentary throughout the episode reveals a three-dimensional character that I would love to see again. His eventual change of attitude and willingness to fight for justice is kind of inspiring, and leads to a scene of wonderful grandstanding that only Klingons could get away with. Of course, the look, feel, and attitude of the episode is borrowed from the courtroom scene in Star Trek VI — and borrowed skillfully.
Horizon — Air date: 4/16/2003. Written by Andre Bormanis. Directed by James A. Contner.
Ensign Mayweather, the most obviously neglected regular character on this series (often relegated to status of plot pawn), finally gets his showcase vehicle of the season, in which he returns home for the first time in years, in the wake of the recent death of his father. The results are mixed, ultimately a little disappointing. The general idea is reasonable, the focus on the un-Starfleet-like "Boomer" culture is interesting, and the show's heart is in the right place. But it never comes alive. The plot makes obvious turns and seems willing to go from A to B without a single challenge to Plot Structuring 101. Meanwhile, a disposable B-story involving the Enterprise on a separate exploration mission is utterly superfluous. The show might've been saved had Anthony Montgomery been able to rise to the occasion with a solid performance, but his take on Mayweather is too wooden to really get us involved.
The Breach — Air date: 4/23/2003. Teleplay by Chris Black & John Shiban. Story by Daniel McCarthy. Directed by Robert Duncan McNeill.
Like "Dawn," "The Breach" proves that even after five series have been called Star Trek, there's still room for the Trekkian tenacity of optimism, even in the face of what seems like an impossible situation of unmovable attitudes. In this case, we see a bitter divide between Phlox's people, the Denobulans, and an alien race called the Antarans. The message and the method here are those of classic Star Trek themes and approaches — left undisturbed in terms of presentation — and there's something comforting in knowing that these sort of stories are still valid and make for good television, even if there's not anything particularly groundbreaking about it. John Billingsley once again shows that his presence on this series as a supporting player is a quiet but valuable asset. The B-story involving the rescue mission is fairly standard, but made believable by way of skillful technique.
Cogenitor — Air date: 4/30/2003. Written by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga. Directed by LeVar Burton.
This is the best episode of the season because: (1) It chooses to be about a topic that could only be tackled in this series' current time frame and stage of Starfleet development with regard to the still-nonexistent Prime Directive; (2) it features an alien society that actually provides interaction and an avenue for learning rather than hollow conflict; (3) it shows exactly how good intentions can go wrong and have tragic results, which the story potently depicts; (4) it is clever in the way it makes it initially appear the story sides with Trip when in fact it does not; (5) it shows that the people on the Enterprise are not perfect and can makes mistakes; (6) it shows that those mistakes may, in fact, be a result of Archer's inconsistent leadership style; and (7) it lets no one off the hook. Given all that, I'm not going to hold the "Malcolm hooks up" subplot, pointless as it is, against this episode. This is the sort of story that this series should be telling.
Regeneration — Air date: 5/7/2003. Written by Mike Sussman & Phyllis Strong. Directed by David Livingston.
At last, here's an action show that I can enjoy purely on the basis of action. I also enjoyed the cleverness of the general idea, which is simultaneously ludicrous — rife with time paradoxes, plot conveniences, logic stretched to within a millimeter of breaking, and overly powerful Borg — and yet somehow still convincing as a concept that grows logically from the events of First Contact. The Borg here take on the characteristics of a plague: Thanks to their nanoprobes, basically all they have to do is touch you and you are doomed to become one of them. Nevertheless, the forward momentum of the action in "Regeneration" is hard to resist, and I found myself caught up in the story. Only after the fact did I feel a need to apply scrutiny. The pacing is dead-on, and Brian Tyler's score is particularly rousing for a TV Trek score. As sci-fi action, this works wonderfully; as a piece of the Trek canon it works just this side of well enough. More fun than most Enterprise outings.
First Flight — Air date: 5/14/2003. Written by Chris Black & John Shiban. Directed by LeVar Burton.
Something tells me that one of the problems with Enterprise is that its status as the official prequel to Star Trek has prompted the expectation that certain areas of Starfleet's history would be revealed — and so far that hasn't happened because Starfleet was founded long before the events of "Broken Bow." Thus, shows like "First Flight" can be valuable, giving us some of the backstory within the backstory. In this case, we get to see how Archer competed with another would-be captain of the Enterprise, and how some of the warp barriers were broken prior to the construction of the first warp-5 vessel. As interesting as this material might've been, it's only adequate as presented in "First Flight," which has one too many obvious moments of testosterone cliche (wounded pride, bar fights, etc.) and doesn't quite hold the level of fascination we might hope, perhaps because it doesn't deal with questions we might've had in mind (Starfleet, the years after First Contact, etc.). But it does place an emphasis on exploration and taking risks, which is an important statement worth making.
Bounty — Air date: 5/14/2003. Teleplay by Hans Tobeason and Mike Sussman & Phyllis Strong. Story by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga. Directed by Roxann Dawson.
Archer is captured and held in a cell for what seems like the billionth time while T'Pol undergoes a shameless, writer-induced pon farr cycle that vaguely resembles rejected audition fodder for Spike TV. Much panting and sweating and slithering ensues courtesy of our favorite partially undressed Female Vulcan Hottie™, much to the ostensible delight of horny teenage boys, but probably, in fact, not, because they likely have better objects for their sexual fantasies that also do not brand them with the dubious stigma of being one of those damn Trekkie nerds — or, even worse, one of those damn Trekkie nerds that would consider jerking off to a Star Trek character. In any case, as an hour of Trek, this is pretty lame and pathetic, if harmless, garbage.
The Expanse — Air date: 5/21/2003. Written by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga. Directed by Allan Kroeker.
Looking suspiciously like a second pilot to relaunch a series in mid-run, "The Expanse" brings in unknown alien attackers from left field and has them kill 7 million people on Earth, thus giving the Enterprise a new mission to investigate this new threat. Putting aside for the moment the fact that "The Expanse" is clearly a catalyst for a complete series shake-up to send it in a new direction in the third season, this episode works on its own for the simple fact that it takes its fictional threat — obviously inspired by real-life events — seriously as drama. That's an important quality not to be overlooked, and the results here are effective. The characters are shocked, saddened, angered, and appropriately thrown off balance. There's also a massive underlying feeling of uncertainty — of the future, of what lies in the Delphic Expanse, and who the Xindi, the alien attackers, really might be. What doesn't work is a plot involving the Klingons that doesn't at all fit in, and the uneasy sense that the series is veering away from any possibility that it can ever be a legitimate prequel to Star Trek given the latest apocalyptic turn of events.
Part 2: Season AnalysisRegarding a lot of this season, I have little to say that I didn't already say a year ago in my First Season Recap. The reason for that isn't hard to pinpoint: There's nothing cohesive to say about this season of Enterprise for the simple fact that there's been very little cohesive about Enterprise as a series. If there's a single word to sum up this past year, it's "aimless."
Enterprise season two is an overall aimless string of episodic adventures — no more, no less. Of course, there's an obvious exception — the season finale, and I'll get to that in due time — but otherwise we've had in this season a notable lack of direction and purpose, and a lot of rampant mediocrity instead. That's not to say this season was completely without merit. Certainly it wasn't, and there were some worthy episodes that worked as good television and as good Star Trek. But in taking a step back and looking at this as a whole season of Trek, I'm not impressed. Too many episodes just sit there, and I thus find myself too often indifferent. As I've said before, indifference can be even more potentially devastating than disapproval.
As I think back to my experience in watching "Precious Cargo," one of the worst episodes in the history of the franchise, I realize that the episode was so bad precisely because it was so deadly, deadly, deadly dull and coma-inducing. Some bad episodes — like Voyager's ever-controversial "Course: Oblivion," for example, which to this day I still get dissenting e-mail about — are subject to debate and strike different people in different ways; even when there's a negative reaction, it's one of disapproval for what was attempted. That's not the case with an episode like "Precious Cargo," where nothing remotely thoughtful was attempted, and whose defenders would be hard-pressed to make a reasoned argument in its favor, aside from your usual "just don't think about it and have fun" defense. (The episode, by the way, was not fun; it was nothing short of agonizing.)
I think that's a microcosm for Enterprise's general situation of being flat for so much of the season. In most cases, it wasn't that I disapproved of or hated the episodes; it was more that I didn't care. In addition to the aforementioned "Precious Cargo" (by far the worst of the offenders), we had shows like "Carbon Creek" (narcolepsy-inducing), "Marauders" (toothless), "Singularity" (plotless), "The Catwalk" (average), "Canamar" (pointless), "The Crossing" (a sell-out), and "Bounty" (Spike TV), whose sins were all similar — they tried and accomplished so very little. Even episodes that made a stab at a storytelling theme, like "The Communicator," "Dawn," "Cease Fire," or "Horizon," were lacking that spark of interest and conviction that they really needed. Of course, there's always "A Night in Sickbay," which by contrast was a resounding success ... in broad character assassination, absurdly inappropriate sexual themes, and general idiocy — although to be honest I don't think that's what they were going for. (Perhaps someone could explain to me how not one, but both "Carbon Creek" and "A Night in Sickbay," two of the season's worst, could be nominated for a Hugo award rather than a far more worthy example of sci-fi like "Dead Stop." Please, stop the insanity.)
There has been far too much wandering, pandering to supposed demographics, and bland storytelling. We have our starship and its gallant crew, but scarcely a sense that they have a mission out here. Their mission appears to be to randomly (and often cluelessly) stumble over problems each week. Fine and good if your stories are interesting. Not so fine and good when they're safe and ordinary. Also not so fine and good when the characters are primarily functional pieces within those stories and are allowed so little development, which was the case this season, particularly with the supporting roles.
The bigger picture revisited
So, what exactly do I think Enterprise as a series should be doing? Well, I had some ideas a year ago, and my opinions have not changed, so out of pure laziness I'll simply quote my thoughts from last year:
"Questions ... need to emerge, such as: What happens when Starfleet starts building and deploying more warp-5 ships that are as fast or faster than the Enterprise? How will the interstellar community interact or be developed as more and more humans venture into space? How will the Vulcans grow to accept humans in this community, and how will humans come to better coexist with the Vulcans? Lastly, and doubtlessly most significantly (and way down the road): How will all of this lead to the founding of the Federation, where Earth will be a key member? The Enterprise, right now, is out here alone taking baby steps, but I'll find their mission much more interesting when the show hopefully starts developing threads like these, using continuity to show progress. Yes, there's still time to bide, but many of these issues should unfold over time, hopefully spanning seasons, and the seeds should be planted early and with subtlety."
As I had said, I didn't really expect to see those things in season one, but now, after 52 episodes of this series, I begin to wonder if such issues will ever be made a priority. The answer for season two was "no," so I guess we'll be content to re-examine some of the issues remaining from season one, which had their share of extended coverage in season two. We had, for example, the Vulcans hanging around as a source of conflict who still, to a certain degree, hold the reins on human exploration, as seen in the season premiere, "Shockwave, Part II," or via the flashbacks in "First Flight." By extension, their conflict with the Andorians in "Cease Fire" suggests how humanity's role in the interstellar community may become key in terms of diplomacy (only too bad this idea was somewhat buried in lackluster action and a pedestrian plot).
We had the issue of non-interference (pre-Prime Directive) raised again this season, as in "The Communicator" (only too bad "The Communicator" shot itself in the foot with its clueless characterization of Archer in his predicament). Cultural interference was also the subject of the season's best episode, "Cogenitor," which was truest in the spirit of Trek while also uniquely in the spirit of Enterprise. "Cogenitor" is an hour that embodies what I feel should be the true core of this series, showing early missteps, difficult questions, and lessons learned the hard way by imperfect characters.
As far as ongoing story arcs go, we had the Klingons chasing down Archer after his escape from Rura Penthe in "Judgment." I didn't think this plot line was particularly necessary, and in some ways it takes away from "Judgment" by providing a lame follow-up in "Bounty" and an extraneous distraction in "The Expanse." The brilliance of "Judgment" was that it was an internal indictment on Klingon society as seen from the viewpoint of a Klingon character. By following it up with the typical Klingon silliness, it's as if the whole point of "Judgment" was reduced to a cartoon punch line.
There was also the temporal cold war material, although calling it a storyline may be a bit of a stretch. I didn't much care for the oft-contrived "Shockwave, Part II." And while I sort of liked "Future Tense," it added little if anything useful to the canvas of the temporal cold war. (Of course, the general problem with the temporal cold war canvas is that it's arbitrarily conceived, and painted upon with disappearing ink.) The temporal cold war also played significantly into "The Expanse," which I'll deal with in a moment.
Actually, where the season worked best was in the same place it worked worst — within its isolated moments. I particularly enjoyed "Regeneration," "Vanishing Point," "Judgment," and "Dead Stop," among others. Many of these episodes are self-contained while simply relying on the general Star Trek lore that we all know so well. It is perhaps worth noting that Enterprise, for all its flaws, is still recognizable as Star Trek in terms of attitude and approach. The characters generally want to ask questions first and open fire later. As seen in episodes like "Cogenitor," "First Flight," "Dawn," and "The Breach," the writers still believe in the Trek ethos, embracing understanding and mostly spurning cynicism. Enterprise may not often enough be great or even good Star Trek, but I do think that it is still Star Trek at heart, and for that I'm glad.
Of course, it's hard to tell these days whether the general public cares about the Trek ethos, with the declining Enterprise ratings and the box-office disaster that was Star Trek: Nemesis. Maybe the recent efforts are simply too stale, mediocre, watered down. Or maybe the Trek ethos is seen by many as obsolete. I really can't say. But it seems the direction of Enterprise must go somewhere else, because the current direction is not getting the job done.
Expansive story possibilities
Which brings us to "The Expanse."
With "The Expanse," it's pretty clear the intended message for what lies ahead is "All Bets Are Off." We get a deadly attack on Earth, a new mission for our crew, a strange and unexplored region of space, and a military presence aboard the Enterprise. The upcoming season of Enterprise, from all reports, is going to be different.
At the moment, it sounds promising. I'm actually quite optimistic for the most part.
Consider: What we got in "The Expanse" is contrary to the storytelling technique of season two and thus goes against the entire theme of aimless mediocrity as argued in this article. Where season two was aimless, season three will have little choice but to be goal-oriented. Where season two was episodic, season three will have little choice but to feature ongoing story material and more lengthily developed plot arcs. Where season two felt too much like clockwork routine, season three will plunge us into the unknown, with a new enemy and a lot of unanswered questions. Where the crew's mission in season two was broad to the point of being undefined, in season three they have something specific to investigate and focus on.
"The Expanse," more than anything, gives this series a much-needed sense of purpose, and I think that's important. While it's true that a legitimate purpose could've been defined under the previous parameters of the series, the simple fact of the matter is that the writers after two years had not found one, and it didn't appear they were on the way to doing so anytime soon. To shake up this series and take it off in a new, unfamiliar direction is not a bad idea, and if handled properly can be a good one.
Naturally, there are possible pitfalls. First and foremost is the issue of continuity within the Star Trek universe. More so than season one, I believe that season two allowed some liberal revisions to the Trek history in telling its stories. Season three opens itself to the possibility of going even further down that road. Already, with a massive attack on Earth resulting in 7 million dead, I'm finding it pretty hard to believe that the events of "The Expanse" could've happened and not been something acknowledged later in the Trekkian timeline. Obviously, this is because it was created by the Enterprise writers, who didn't feel a need to stay within the boundaries of the existing franchise history. Or perhaps they have some wild card up their sleeves that could tie this in with the temporal cold war and manipulated timelines — which has its own frightening implications in terms of out-and-out narrative cheating. But the bottom line is this: "The Expanse" and its consequences do not naturally fit into the timeline as we already know it, and so it will be the dramatic effectiveness of what is to come that will determine whether or not we choose to accept these alterations to the canon. I don't mind careful or clever bending of the rules or even obvious contradictions to the fictional history, provided it is done for a good reason and is made convincing up to a point. After all, this is only television we're talking about. The question is whether it's good television, and I think that's what makes the difference when it comes to contradicting the Trek canon. If it's good, I can be more forgiving.
Another potential pitfall, of course, is in the ensuing stories themselves. This upcoming season rides on whether the writers provide us an adequate and appropriate depiction of the Xindi threat, the Enterprise's investigation, and the attitudes of our characters in the wake of a brutal attack on Earth. The results could be excellent, awful, or anything in between. Given "The Expanse's" taste of what lies ahead, I'm hopeful. With the 9/11-like theme of a surprise attack in "The Expanse," the upcoming season has the opportunity (and I would also say the obligation) to deal with post-9/11-like themes in a Starfleet setting. The response to the Xindi attack needs to be addressed in not merely military terms, but also long-standing Star Trek terms. Our characters would be wise to ask, for example, just how much we can believe about the Xindi based merely on Silik's and the Shadow Man's say so. (After all, let's not forget that Silik & Co. killed thousands in "Shockwave" merely to protect their own front in the temporal war. Who's to say they aren't manipulating this new situation or at least pieces of it?)
Also, the Earth military team that has been put aboard the Enterprise, which went unseen in "The Expanse," will undoubtedly be an important presence in the coming season, and could be an interesting source for conflict and debate. In the post-9/11 United States, the question has often come up: Just how far are we willing to change our lives and our philosophies in the interests of better security? That's a question I expect to see tackled in this post-"Expanse" series. There are also emotional considerations, like the visceral issue of revenge. It should be interesting to see, for instance, where Trip's character goes in the aftermath of his sister's death at the hands of the Xindi. In "Expanse" he was understandably angry and bitter; that's a response that needs to be examined further. It would be easy to show his dark side emerging and depict his thirst for vengeance; it might be more interesting, however, to have him do some soul-searching and confront his dark side when and if it does emerge. Other obvious character arcs will undoubtedly include those for T'Pol (who jettisoned her Vulcan High Command career to remain aboard the Enterprise) and Archer (who will have to make very different and important decisions in his new mission), but I'm hoping the other supporting characters will also get some worthy analysis, and hopefully more so than in season two.
I spend so long discussing "The Expanse" because, for this series and its current direction, it is more significant than possibly all the rest of the second season's episodes combined. Dramatically, the writers have an opportunity to take this series to some new places and explore some darker and deeper elements that haven't been seen on Trek since maybe the height of the Dominion War on DS9.
But another key question remains — and will likely for some time remain — unanswered: Can Enterprise go off in this direction and still return as a believable prequel to Star Trek? My hope is that the Xindi plot can become an important and interesting aspect of this series, without selling out to superficial action at the expense of its characters and the Trek ethos. At the same time, my hope is that the Xindi plot will not have to define what Enterprise is all about. This series has a new direction and purpose, but in many basic Trekkian ways, the writers would be wise to remember where they came from before they arrived here.