In brief: Glib characters, glib plot, glib everything.
"Harbinger" is like Star Trek for the Instant Gratification Generation. Watch it and maybe be amused by the crazy and goofy and silly things happening on the screen, but certainly do not to give them a moment's thought. Scratch the surface and there's a void beneath. Or endless cliches, maybe.
In a disposable pop-culture society for people with terminal ADD, "Harbinger" is perhaps the Star Trek outing we deserve. It features trashy and superficially amusing character-based antics, and a general commitment to exploring the Xindi arc (albeit in its mostly nonsensical way). It has these things, but that's not to say it makes any sense of them.
The show is like the ultimate passive-aggressive pissing contest that's just waiting to turn active-aggressive — and then does.
What can you say about an episode where two characters have sex that is apparently so meaningless as to be inexplicable, while two other characters beat the living crap out of each other in a scene that looks like it belongs in 48 Hrs.?
One diagnosis could be that Enterprise has officially jumped the shark. Another could be that this was intended as silly fun gone over the top. I will do my best to argue some form of a middle ground, since the actors somehow manage not to embarrass themselves in this material.
In Character Situation #1 (situation, not story), we have Lt. Reed and Major Hayes in an escalating conflict over the administration of the training regimen for the Starfleet personnel. Reed feels threatened by what he perceives as Hayes encroaching on his turf. A pissing contest ensues that is fueled by an ever-increasing level of testosterone and posturing. Reed, frankly, asks for it. Hayes is juvenile enough to take the bait. It all leads to a scene where the two pummel each other with the gloves off, literally.
As male posturing for the Fight Club generation (I happen to love Fight Club, by the way), this is kind of fun, and features some superb stunt coordination — but is really, reeeeeally dumb. At least Fight Club knew it was ridiculous and had Intelligent Percolating Irony. Reed and Hayes, by contrast, are written like walking alpha male cliches. What does this add up to? Not much. It allows for an admittedly satisfying scene where Captain Archer reads them the riot act for their teenage-level behavior. Good for him. (The storyline is shallow but scores some points, I guess, for histrionics and general mayhem.)
In Character Situation #2, we have a Love Triangle™. Actually not, because there's nothing remotely so meaningful brewing here as love. No, we have a Would-Be Sex Triangle, with the vertices being Trip, T'Pol, and MACO Cpl. Amanda Cole (Noa Tishby). Trip has taken to giving Vulcan neuro-pressure to Amanda, which drives T'Pol into some form of Vulcan jealousy, which turns her into the ultimate passive-aggressive personality — one who claims to be above the kind of behavior she is obviously engaging in.
Since neuro-pressure is a Vulcan discipline Trip isn't skilled enough at performing, T'Pol insists on taking over the sessions with Amanda (to "undo the damage"), which she uses as a feeler to gauge Amanda's feelings for Trip. It turns out that Trip and Amanda have some things in common, like both being raised in Florida, etc. Certainly they have more in common than Trip and T'Pol do.
My thinking is that Amanda and T'Pol should've just duked it out, winner gets Trip. You see, that way we'd have had plot parallelism with the Reed/Hayes story — I mean, situation. In such an event, my money's on Amanda, because she's pretty athletic-looking. Catfight time!
No such luck. Instead we get T'Pol turned into a muted passive-aggressive that is superbly performed by Jolene Blalock, but absolutely a wrongheaded characterization as written. Do we really want to see a Vulcan reduced to such shallow jealousy and such calculated, subtle verbal assaults, no matter how coolly delivered?
Consider the scene where T'Pol asks Amanda about her interest in Trip. T'Pol essentially then uses this information to beat Amanda to the punch. One is tempted to wonder what Amanda might feel about such a violation of trust perpetrated by the ship's first officer, no less. Not to worry: The writers promptly discard Amanda as a character immediately after this scene, since she's served her purpose as a catalyst.
And consider the scene where T'Pol makes the first move on Trip. It's a complete and utter contrivance, with no basis in human or Vulcan behavior. It has a basis only in sitcom one-liners. The tit-for-tat dialog between Trip and T'Pol may sound clever (or, more likely, corny), but it has zero psychological believability. They're like two pawns in a game of amusement for and by the writers. What is this supposed to be about? The writers are clueless. It's about only the fact that it happens, and not why it happens. If that's enough for you, then enjoy. Personally, I think it's BS.
The next day, T'Pol dispassionately writes the whole thing off as a Vulcan lab experiment in human sexuality, something that's been on her list of things to try ever since resigning from the High Command. Uh-huh. (I wonder what else is on the list. Maybe "Get a tattoo.") All things considered, Trip takes it pretty well. If it were me, she'd have just lit a powder keg.
In the past I've asked for risk-taking. I've asked for characters that have sex rather than engage in lame TV pseudo-sex. One could say "Harbinger" is the end result I deserve. But no, because "Harbinger" is reckless at the expense of all credibility. You can tell the writers didn't take any of this remotely seriously and aren't really expecting us to, either. It's the very definition of a glib payoff, delivered with a smirk.
Anyway. I'd better get to the sci-fi plot here. It involves an alien found in a gravimetric field (or something) that looks like a growing expanse of bubble gum. The plot provides some interest by explaining that the field lies equidistant from five spheres. An alien with weird sci-fi properties is found in a small pod just inside the sci-fi field. Archer pulls the pod out; the Enterprise is nearly swallowed in the process.
Given everything else that has happened in the Delphic Expanse, I must question the wisdom of Archer stopping to pull an unknown sci-fi alien out of a dangerous sci-fi field to ask a bunch of questions with no apparent sci-fi answers. Never mind the ethical issues of his interference; is it really worth the risk when you're already on course for the red giant where the Xindi weapon is supposedly being built?
Of course the alien gets loose and threatens the ship with destruction. "He's disrupting systems as he goes. We can use that to track him." Yeah, sort of like tracking a tornado by watching the damage path! The alien, which looks kind of like a Suliban, finally tells Archer, with an evil smile, "When the Xindi destroy Earth, my people will prevail!" Then he vanishes to Never-Never Land or into the Temporal Cold War timeline/continuum or who-knows-where. Your guess is as good as mine.
The problem with this aspect of "Harbinger" is that ... well, the Xindi arc already has too many friggin' harbingers. Everything is a harbinger that keeps us in the dark while portending ominous doom. There's only so far you can go with pseudo-clues before the audience begins demanding answers. To be fair, there are nods to continuity here — the spheres, as I mentioned — but too much of the Xindi arc is based on facts in an incomprehensible void. Maybe I'm wrong and this will eventually make sense. One can hope. But for now I'm not particularly impressed, because anything can happen, there are no rules, and none of it has a need to matter. The alien here doesn't obey the laws of physics. Unfortunately, I have no idea why that is and, more importantly, I don't much care.
There's a reason I quit watching The X-Files, which was its general tendency to exist as a series that pretended the whole plot was only one or two or maybe 17 twists away from almost making half-sense.
"Harbinger" is not boring, but at what cost to logic or understanding or characterization or plausibility or any sense that anything happens for a reason beyond the purely random assembly of characters and facts and behavior patterns and plot pieces?
Next week: The fate of the ship lies in Phlox's hands.
Note: This episode was re-rated from 1.5 to 2 stars when the season recap was written.