In brief: Thankfully, the F-key the writers used this time around was F5 — refresh.
Good heavens, why in the world didn't they make this the season premiere?
Last week's "Xindi," which mostly transplanted to the Delphic Expanse so many of the typical Enterprise cliches that are old and tired, ultimately arrived at a place where I mainly sensed a balloon (already) deflating. But with "Anomaly," Enterprise bounces back in a big way. This episode works for nearly every reason "The Xindi" did not.
Here's an hour that, unlike last week's "Xindi," actually feels like the NX-01 is in uncharted waters — physically, emotionally, environmentally, and morally. The crew makes some intriguing discoveries. Meanwhile, we discover just how determined Captain Archer has become to get answers.
This episode, for starters, is proof that action-centric Trek can indeed work, and work well. After the meaningless paint-by-numbers action scenes of "The Xindi," the action of "Anomaly" is tightly focused and staged with a legitimate purpose. This is clearly one of the best efforts on Enterprise from an action standpoint, and one of the better Enterprise installments so far overall.
"Anomaly" — a title that proves to be the weakest aspect of the episode — begins as, yes, a series of anomalies bombard the ship and play havoc with the laws of physics. The bulkheads bend, meal trays go crashing to the ceiling, and Archer's coffee goes floating in midair. The funkiness of the physical laws also has a more serious consequence: Warp speed is impossible, leaving the Enterprise stranded in the region until Trip can find a workaround.
About here is where the Enterprise happens upon a ship floating dead in space. The crew, along with members of the MACO team (who, in a goofy costuming choice, wear their backpacks even when running around their own ship), investigate the derelict and find its dead crew — killed in a violent raid. This investigation scene at first seems like a redundant replay of "Fight or Flight" from two years ago (darkened corridors, corpses, etc.); the scene is brief, however, and the story keeps us moving forward toward answers, which is among the episode's strengths.
Lest they be attacked by the perpetrators who raided the alien ship, Archer orders the Enterprise to get as far away from the derelict as limited speed will allow. But the Enterprise is quickly found and boarded by the alien assault team anyway, leading to a protracted action sequence that for once works, despite — and perhaps even because of — its drawn-out nature. The same sort of shootouts and fights that I complained about in "The Xindi" are effective here, because they are well-executed pieces in a puzzling situation, rather than well-executed pieces in a meaningless and obvious situation. Jay Chattaway unleashes an aggressive score of in-your-face drumbeats, which suggests that maybe the musical attitudes for TV Trek are being revised.
The alien raiders are actually of a race called the Osaarians, whom Phlox recognizes as not indigenous to the expanse. Before being repelled and escaping in their ship, the Osaarians steal a bevy of supplies from the Enterprise, including all the fuel reserves, which introduces a dire situation in need of a swift answer. Also, one of Trip's engineers is killed in the raid, which I believe is the first crew fatality since the series started.
One Osaarian raider (Robert Rusler) is captured and thrown in the brig. Archer wants information from this prisoner that may help the Enterprise find the Osaarian ship and recover the stolen supplies. The prisoner balks. Archer threatens. The prisoner looks Archer in the eye and tells him he is too "evolved" to resort to the kind of tactics he will need to in order to get answers — at least, for now. After some time trapped in the expanse, he says, the Enterprise crew will learn to become ruthless predators in order to survive. (According to him, the expanse lets you in, but it doesn't let you out. It's an interstellar Roach Motel.)
In some of its basic elements, this episode reminded me of Voyager's "The Void," in which Voyager became trapped in an area of space not unlike what is represented here by the Delphic Expanse, and was assaulted by supply thieves not unlike what is represented here by the Osaarians. If the basic premise of "Anomaly" reminds me of "The Void," where it goes from its starting point does not; "Anomaly" is sort of a "Void" in reverse. "Void" was about Janeway cooperating with others to find a mutual escape. There is no such hope of that notion here. If "Void" was the ultimate in idealism and optimism and unbending Trekkian values, then "Anomaly" is the ultimate in ruthless pragmatism and buying survival for whatever it might end up costing you.
Although there's plenty else going on, the primary conflict in "Anomaly" is the showdown between Archer and the uncooperative prisoner, and the question of the lengths Archer will go, or not go, to get crucial information out of him. What is perhaps most striking about this episode is its focused single-mindedness. Once the plot is in motion, it doesn't let up or become distracted with irrelevancies. It becomes a series of clues and follow-ups, punctuated by bigger mysteries, action sequences, and Archer showing a determination that edges into obsession.
Let's talk for a moment about Archer, a changed man compared to last season. Just like in "The Xindi," we have here an Archer who is utterly determined to complete his mission. He exhibits a steely resolve and an all-business demeanor, apparently born from the massive weight put upon him. He isn't unpleasant to his crew, but he isn't exactly friendly, either. He's got a darker and more decisive sensibility; he's terse, direct, serious. In his scenes with T'Pol, for example, he's quick to make up his mind and challenge anything that resembles inaction. In his mind, inaction will lead only to disaster.
I'm not sure yet whether or not I'm ultimately going to like this new version of Archer, or whether it should've grown more gradually over the course of the season, but dramatically I do find him interesting so far, and Scott Bakula's performances make it worth watching. There's a scene where Archer opens a channel to the Osaarians and tersely says: "This is Captain Archer. Remember us?" — a greeting that I found refreshing in its unwillingness to screw around and waste time with needless verbiage.
I'm also not sure if this new Archer will make for a weaker T'Pol, who has here the thankless role of being the quiet Voice of Reason in a situation that seemingly demands far more impulse and guts than reason. When Archer proposes a plan to go up against the Osaarians, T'Pol quietly says, "They are heavily armed. Are you sure it's wise to engage them?" The way she says it — virtually walking on eggshells — is almost child-like, which could be a major pitfall for this character.
The episode does its best to keep supporting characters alive. Trip offers a realist's voice that works because it doesn't venture too far into forced cynicism. In discussing with Reed the crewman who died in the Osaarian assault, Trip bleakly muses, "I doubt he'll be the last," and calls the Enterprise's mission a "one-way ticket." (I welcomed the weighty tone of this scene.) The episode also shows Trip as overworked and still unable to sleep, and I found myself interested in the idea that he could possibly become dependent on sedatives for sleeping, if Phlox were not barring them.
The chase plot turns out to have a surprising amount of enticing material. The Enterprise follows the Osaarians' ion trail into a cloaking field that hides a massive spherical space station 19 kilometers in diameter, more than 1,000 years old, and apparently capable of generating huge amounts of power. It might hold the key to some other Delphic Expanse mysteries, like the source of the strange anomalies that defy known physics.
Visually, I was impressed by the straightforward clarity with which the cloaking field and the sphere are envisioned. The crew ventures inside the sphere (some more wonderful visuals) and finds that the Osaarians are using it as a storage base for their piracy operation. Here the crew is able to retrieve their stolen supplies and find information in an Osaarian inventory database, which leads to Hoshi's subsequent discovery of Xindi words printed on a looted item.
That word, "Xindi," appears to be the word most likely to send Archer into Crazy Mofo mode. Archer Needs Answers Dammit and interrogates the Osaarian prisoner about what he knows about the Xindi. More balking prompts Archer to drag the prisoner into an airlock and vent the atmosphere. Archer makes demands while the prisoner begins to suffocate. This is a dramatically potent scene, made compelling by Archer's no-nonsense, bordering-on-obsessive single-mindedness; the moral questions; and the aggressive filming technique. Would Archer have actually let the guy die if he hadn't agreed to talk? I tend to doubt it, but the extent of the action speaks for itself — this is an edgier Archer who may end up doing some questionable things in the interests of getting the job done.
The final act provides a superb space battle that is an example of how action on this show should be done. For once, we get an action scene that employs an explicit goal (downloading a valuable Xindi database from the Osaarian ship's computer) while utilizing clever battle strategies with a logic we can follow.
"Anomaly" is, simply put, entertaining. It works as sci-fi, as action, as mystery, as setup. It provides lots of nice details that can be built upon down the road. It is not perfect. It doesn't scrutinize Archer's actions as much as it probably could. (When released, the prisoner tells Archer, "So, you have let your morality get in the way after all." Not sure I buy that line, since Archer already got the information he wanted and had no reason to continue holding him. Seems more like the writers are trying to let Archer off the hook for the earlier torture scene.) If there's a larger comment on Archer's growing obsession, it's done without words, in the final shot, where he loads the database onto the screen. As the Xindi information fills the room, Archer's ever-serious expression says all that needs to be said.
Next week: TNG's "Genesis" + DS9's "Children of Time" = ???