In brief: A shallow Trek adventure by the numbers.
"North Star" takes a high-concept situation and filters it through the most obvious and worn of Star Trek formulas. The result is an episode that's all about setting and rarely about substance. What little substance we have here is awfully tired, and reveals a dearth when it comes to depth.
The trailers make this look like a fun send-up of the Western genre. It's not. I'd have gladly taken the send-up over what we get here, which is an all-too-simplistic alien abduction premise that becomes an earnest but barely-scratching-the-surface meditation on prejudice. It then limps to its insipid action climax involving the clichéd shootout on Main Street and obligatory fistfight in the horse's stall. If you want a sci-fi Western that's actually fun, then go watch Back to the Future Part III, because "North Star" is a bore.
The episode's assumption is that we'll go along with the story merely because it's Trek ported into a Western. That's Level One thinking. Level Two thinking would've come up with a story to make the Western setting necessary or interesting. At the very least, the writers could've exploited the setting for some good gags. (There is a gag involving an anachronistic shootout between gunslingers and phaser, um, slingers, but it's not a very funny gag.) There is one scene-changing wipe in the episode, which I found amusing in an in-joke kind of way. But it's not representative of the episode's tone, which for the most part is painfully straight. This is not a satiric homage in the vein of, say, Voyager's "Bride of Chaotica!" but merely a mediocre outing in Western clothing.
The idea is that some aliens called the Skagarans kidnapped a bunch of humans from America's Old West some 300 years ago and brought them to this planet in the Delphic Expanse to use as a colony of slave labor. Would space travelers with advanced technology really need to resort to bringing primitive slave labor all the way here from Earth? I tend to doubt it, but we must press on.
Since that time 300 years ago, the humans have overcome the Skagarans. The onetime oppressors are now the oppressed — second-class citizens that the humans subjugate in order to keep them in check (they are commonly referred to pejoratively as "Skags," and the opening scene shows a Skag lynching). The Message is that these humans are in arrested development in their prejudices as well as their clothing. But I wonder if a human colony that has learned of space travel and come to accept Earth as a long-ago myth would still look like they just stepped off the set of a Western. Maybe, maybe not; the episode doesn't much care.
The story takes its time getting off the ground. The first act establishes the villain with the standard cliché (I hesitate to say "homage") of a run-in between him and Archer at the town saloon. Meanwhile, T'Pol and Trip strike a deal to borrow a horse and ride out to the town's outskirts to investigate. The scene where T'Pol reluctantly rides with Trip on the horse is an example of an idea that wants to be funny but simply has no inherent humor; the fact alone does not equate a funny situation, and the writers don't build it into anything.
The episode essentially has three guest characters, all Western clichés. There's the sheriff (Glenn Morshower), who lays down the law, but not harshly; the crooked, wrong-headed deputy (James Parks), who's the villain of the piece; and schoolteacher Bethany (Emily Bergl), the noble sympathizer who ventures into the woods late at night to teach the Skagaran children how to read and write and 'rithmetic. Schooling the Skagarans, by the way, is against the law.
Archer joins Bethany for the night's lesson, which is interrupted by the deputy, who gets to invoke Enterprise's #1 cliché by ensuring that Archer Goes to Jail™. The next day the sheriff releases him with a warning, but the message is clear: Archer cannot allow these humans to continue oppressing the Skagarans.
One thing I liked about the episode was Archer's swift decisiveness. Because these people are human and have an awareness of their history, he sees no problem in intervening. He lands a shuttlepod right in the middle of Main Street, which is an amusingly anachronistic image. He strikes a reasonable dialog with the sheriff and explains how humanity has evolved and left old prejudices behind. He convinces the sheriff to put aside the past and ill-will toward the Skagarans so this colony might eventually rejoin the human race.
Also anachronistic (but less amusing) is when the Evil Deputy and his underlings force a shootout, resulting in bullets being answered with phaser-fire from the Enterprise's faceless MACOs. This action climax is obvious, tired, and blatantly obligatory, and involves the expected Western standbys, including a guy being shot and rolling off a sloped roof in slow motion and other guys ducking behind troughs of water. In the tradition of modern action heroes, Captain Archer can be shot through the shoulder and naturally still go mano a mano with the villain and win. T'Pol is taken hostage with a gun to her temple; I liked Reed's solution — he takes a tip from Jeff Daniels and shoots the hostage.
The problem here is that the Evil Deputy is not a character representing the troubling or subtle nuances of prejudice, but simply a cardboard source of conflict to initiate the fighting at the end. This guts any possibility of drama, because we are not watching a fight for ideas, but simply a fight for the sake of staged television action. It's so obviously going through the motions that we abandon any hope the deputy will stand for any ideas, even bad ones.
The one thing Enterprise needs to be wary of this season is its cookie-cutter use of gratuitous fourth-act action. They say television writing is all about structure, and the structure that this season has settled into is one that mandates a predictable shootout in the final act. Sometimes it works when the story supports it, as in "Twilight," but this mechanical pattern has also played into "The Xindi," "Rajiin," "Impulse," and now here. It's going to play itself out if the writers aren't careful. (Let's not devolve this show into a slicker version of Andromeda.)
And enough with the gratuitous staccato film exposure. Just because it's an action sequence doesn't mean it justifies staccato effect. In Saving Private Ryan, yes. In the Old West, no. Visually speaking, I have no objection to staccato effect, but it shouldn't be used constantly and for no reason.
The closing passage makes an attempt to put this all in perspective. Bethany and Archer have a pithy discussion about how far humanity has evolved in 300 years while this lost colony hasn't evolved a day. Why are these colonists still stuck in the Old West, anyway? It's an interesting question, but that's all it is — a question dropped in our laps. The episode brings no insights, answers, or reasoned thoughts to the whys and workings of this colony. The writers' interest strikes me as perfunctory, as if they were simply more interested in showing the Old West than in figuring out why it might still exist.
Who knows: Sealed off from the rest of humanity, an isolated culture with so few people might not have the capacity for much growth. Unfortunately, this is a point the episode doesn't bring up, because it doesn't bring up any points. We can see here that prejudice and stagnation are bad things, but we don't see how or why they came to be or what anybody in this colony really thinks about them.
Next week: One of the regular characters dies ... and it's not Mayweather!
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