In brief: Now that's more like it.
Praise Jeffrey Combs.
Shran may not be Weyoun, but Jeffrey Combs is Jeffrey Combs, and his appearance in "Proving Ground" is like a godsend from beyond the borders of the Delphic Expanse. Shran is a familiar face we respond to, because he has an actual personality, and personality is one thing that has been woefully lacking this season on Enterprise. It's the current key missing ingredient, as far as I'm concerned. I don't much care about the plot arc or the fate of Earth because I don't much care about the characters.
The problem with the Delphic Expanse is simply this: The Xindi are total ciphers. (Far more interesting are the mysterious spheres, which I'd argue have been better developed as characters, which I guess is a problem since the spheres are inanimate objects and the Xindi are supposed to be people.) Consider the Xindi's presence here. What do we get? The same laughable — if they weren't so lamentable — scenes we've gotten all season: Xindi council guys grumbling about The Weapon and demanding answers for why it isn't ready to be deployed now, now, now!
I say, enough, enough, enough!
Also consider Xindi operative Degra (Randy Oglesby), who has been the guy overseeing the development of The Weapon in most if not all the Xindi episodes thus far. He might be the only Xindi bad guy so far to be given a name. And yet, unless you, like me, were checking press releases for the credits every week, it's unlikely you'd even notice he was the same guy. He could just as easily be an interchangeable Xindi placeholder, because he's as much a cipher as the ones sitting at the roundtable. (Come to think of it, he's often among those at the roundtable.)
So it's probably about time the writers port in a character from outside the expanse who predates this season. Enter Shran ... and enter the most purely enjoyable episode of Enterprise since "Anomaly." (Yes, "Twilight" was better, but more weighty and therefore less fun.)
The secret of "Proving Ground" is that it uses a character established in the first two seasons to lend credence to a story arc that has been hard to buy into because (1) the blandness of the Xindi and (2) the fact the Xindi are not accounted for in the Trek canon and thus don't feel like a legitimate end result of the timeline. The Andorians and the Vulcans (and the humans who have intervened in their previous affairs), however, do feel like Trek-canon elements, so there's something about this episode that seems more grounded in Trekkian reality. In short, it feels like there's something at stake here, because the Andorians and the Vulcans are players, whereas the Xindi are pawns.
If it sounds like I'm arguing in favor of a return to more traditional Trek character interaction and a Federation-building backdrop rather than this ongoing race against a vague doomsday situation ... well, I'll just say the writers might be on to something here.
Then again, they are able to play both aspects here pretty well (aside from the hopeless Xindi council meetings, which need to go away). We get Shran and the Andorians, and we get some worthwhile development along the Xindi front. Degra and his team are testing a prototype, smaller-yield version of The Weapon on the moons of an uninhabited world. (Being someone who must bring logic where it is not welcome, I must again ask why the Xindi needed to "test" an even earlier version of The Weapon on Earth in "The Expanse" only to do more tests here.)
Archer wants to spy and learn as much as possible about what's going on. Shran offers his help in a "joint venture" that ultimately becomes Archer's scheme to steal the prototype from the Xindi for study.
The central question is whether or not Archer can trust Shran. Is Shran's offer of help really what it seems to be, or does he have other motives, perhaps under the orders of the Andorian Imperial Guard? You can probably guess which, but the idea itself still proves interesting. Just what is Shran up to and why?
I appreciated the exchanges between Archer and T'Pol regarding caution versus trust. From what the Vulcans have experienced, the Andorians tend to have self-serving agendas. Archer argues in favor of giving Shran the benefit of the doubt given their history, which has not been "friendly" per se, but has shown a certain level of honor and fairness. At the very least, Shran has a nagging need to repay old debts.
The notion of working toward building a new trust is also demonstrated in some serviceable scenes between Reed and Andorian Lt. Talas (Molly Brink). It starts off a bit clichéd, with Talas and Reed initially disliking each other, but the relationship evolves reasonably into that of two military professionals who reach a mutual respect. Also, it plays a piece in the plot that shows Archer was thinking ahead and not lulled into trusting Shran completely.
The Xindi story takes some decent turns as the Enterprise crew witnesses a test of the weapon on a moon (playing like a smaller-scale version of the opening scene of "Twilight"), and then learn that the test was actually a failure — apparently, the writers have decreed, because of sabotage by Gralik (see "The Shipment"). I call this a writer's decree because it seems to me like a big jump to conclusions on Archer's part given his limited information. The weapon didn't work right, so Gralik must have been responsible? Don't know if I buy that.
Never mind, because Combs is what makes this episode work. Shran is under orders from the Imperial Guard to steal the weapon for the Andorians as a means to deter a possible Vulcan invasion (the paranoia!). Combs and the writers skillfully walk a line that allows us to empathize with Shran's situation even as he deceives Archer. I guess you could say that Shran is only as deceitful as he has to be under the circumstances, and that his deceit has no directly malicious intent. The character maintains a certain integrity behind the ruse. He does what he has to as a military officer serving his people; he's not serving Archer. The dynamic is tons more interesting than faceless Xindi plotting to destroy Earth for who-knows-why.
There are a couple standout scenes involving Shran over the viewscreen. In one scene he wanders into the Xindi's test range, claiming to be a member of the "Andorian Mining Consortium" looking for a valuable substance called "Archerite." It's a rather amusing con job that makes for a funny sequence.
The other one is between Shran and Archer, and takes place after Shran has stolen the weapon and fled in his ship. The Enterprise tracks the Andorians, and Archer and Shran face off over the viewscreen in a dramatically charged exchange where it is clear that no one intends to back down. This proves entertaining and satisfying thanks to the solid performances. Scott Bakula is convincing as Archer in no-nonsense badass mode, and Shran — finding himself at a tactical disadvantage — has to give in, disgusted. The icing on the cake is Shran's decision to willingly transmit his data on the Xindi weapon to Archer, even after a confrontation that has left Shran's ship crippled. It makes perfect sense using Shran's brand of logic, where he feels a certain loyalty to Archer so long as it doesn't conflict with his higher priorities. Shran, it must be said, is becoming a complicated and interesting guy.
By the way, the reason this showdown works so well when scenes of this type can easily fall flat is because we have a stake in both the characters and we understand their behavior patterns. There is a context to the conflict, rooted in legitimate character interaction.
Alas, this is the context that is missing with the Xindi, and it's the reason this story arc — despite the nods to continuity, despite the upped action — will remain ho-hum ... until the Xindi become figures we can respond to with something besides a blank stare.
Until then, I'll take Commander Shran any day.
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