In brief: Some new places, and new faces, but some hoary old techniques. Call it a mixed bag.
It's been six weeks since the Enterprise entered the Delphic Expanse. And the Xindi are well aware of its presence. In the opening minute we see a sort of Xindi roundtable council meeting, where arguments over What Enterprise Knows are being presented by several different alien species, including one that looks like a giant fly — or maybe an ant — as well as a reptilian creature and a weird kinda-walrus-thing in a tank. The fly wants to send out forces to destroy the human ship. Maybe that's justifiable since I make it a rule to kill any fly that invades my living space.
The Enterprise crew, however, is still very much in the dark. They have not come across any hard evidence pointing to the Xindi. And, so far, the weirdest thing to have happened is that some containers are bouncing around from one wall to the other in a cargo hold, because gravity seems not to be working quite right in the Delphic Expanse. For the crew, indeed, there's been a bit of wandering and waiting thus far in the Delphic Expanse. The puzzle of the Xindi, which Archer's new mission has implored he assemble, has yet to supply any pieces.
But Archer has a recently acquired lead from a cargo captain whom Reed says is of "questionable character." Archer doesn't much care about his questionable character, because We Need Answers Dammit and we're not going to find them without taking a risk or two. The Enterprise follows the lead to a world with a harsh mining facility, where apparently a Xindi laborer is known to reside.
And so begins season three with "The Xindi," a so-so premiere that invites our curiosity while also delivering several notable disappointments that invite us to think, "You're kidding, right?" Here's an episode that tells us there is not one but five distinct species of Xindi, while also giving us a story where, almost hilariously inevitably, Archer and Trip are, yes, tricked into being imprisoned and must subsequently escape and/or be rescued. Meanwhile, 7 million human deaths from "The Expanse" have for the moment been reduced via microcosm to a personal vendetta for Trip, who has nightmares about the death of his sister.
There's a nightmare sequence where Trip sees his sister about to be killed by what we might as well call the Xindi Swath. It's an effective sequence in its visual sense of stark, melodramatic contrasts — a white, pristine paradise about to go up in the flames of a hellfire. I was less than thrilled, however, by the first moment in this episode where Trip comes in contact with his first Xindi (Richard Lineback), grabs him by the collar and says, "I'm not sure why, but I'm just itching to kick the hell outta you," which is dramatic overstatement.
(1) But of course Trip knows why he feels the way he feels, and (2) that doesn't make his actions justified under the circumstances. Given the level of information Trip has, his unchecked aggression here strikes me as not unlike an American in 2003 grabbing by the collar the first random Arab he bumps into on the street and accusing him of being a terrorist. I'm not saying such an exchange couldn't (or doesn't) happen, but in the 22nd century, Trip strikes me as cavalierly un-Trek-like here, revealing pumped-up visceral aggression without the benefit of reasoned thought. It might've been nice if the story challenged Trip on this point at least a little.
Then, of course, we get to the passage where Archer Goes to Jail™, which as of right now I'm declaring is this series' most obvious cliche — the equivalent of the Shuttle Crash™ on Voyager.
It's at this point my imagination takes hold, since the story's certainly doesn't. I'm imagining the initial writing of the first draft of the "Xindi" script, where Berman and Braga have gotten to the point where Trip and Archer meet the Xindi — who might be able to direct them to his homeworld — and the door in the mining shaft is closed by the mining foreman, who has told them, tellingly and telegraphically, "Take your time." The Xindi prisoner then informs them that they, like he, have been lured into a trap of forced slave labor.
I'm imagining Braga sitting at the computer keyboard (in this particular fantasy sequence, boss Berman dictates while right-hand man Braga does the typing). Berman stops dictating, having hit a wall, and Braga then suddenly remembers an important office tool at his disposal: He looks down at his keyboard, which has one of those plastic overlays that explains what the F-keys are programmed to do. Above F12, it says "SEND ARCHER & CREWMATE TO JAIL." Braga decides now would be a good time to press this button, since F12 is an oft-used function key that writes two acts' worth of script pages in which Archer and a random crew member (with Trip's initially equal chance multiplied by three before the random selection is made) are locked into a holding cell and must then find a way to escape, preferably by crawling through caves, tunnels, and/or ventilation shafts.
Braga presses F12. Accompanied by the default Windows XP chord sound, a dialog box appears that says, "Automatically generate random imprisonment-and-jailbreak narrative?" Braga then clicks "OK," at which point 16 pages of standard jailbreak material is generated from a database of events from previous Enterprise scripts and other action movies — in this case including Archer (and the random crewmate and the tagalong guest-star prisoner) traipsing through raw sewage and then crawling up through a shaft that is about to be filled with flames that would kill them.
These events do not allow Archer and Trip and the Xindi prisoner to escape, however, as they are forced out of the shaft (flames, etc.) and caught by the guards.
About here, I'm imagining, is where Braga hits another wall and presses F11. Accompanied by the default Windows XP chord, a dialog box now appears that says, "Automatically generate shootout-and-escape sequence?" Braga clicks "OK," and this generates several minutes of sustainable action and shooting and the narrow escape of our crew and rescue team with, of course, zero casualties (unless you count the Xindi prisoner).
(Triumph voice on.) I kid, I kid. (Voice off.) I suppose it's to the credit of the production team and director Allan Kroeker that this lackluster material is somehow made watchable, almost to the point of being mildly entertaining. Completely unsurprisingly, "The Xindi" is terrific from a production standpoint, and if the writing had been up to par they might've had something here. The technical aspects of this show — the production design, the lighting, the direction, the editing, the visual effects, the action choreography, the Michael Westmore makeup — are right where they should be. The alien mining facility is a triumph of dusty, murky, grubby art design, intensely cold colors, incessantly coughing actors, and exterior CGI shots that convincingly and simply say "unfriendly."
Stephen McHattie, playing the mining facility's foreman, turns in an effective — if stylized — performance that suggests a man who has been breathing toxic air for his entire life, and probably longer. Meanwhile, Scott Bakula plays Archer in an almost unremittingly grim, no-nonsense tone. Archer is strikingly serious, of no smiles, and exudes an attitude of getting the job done so the ship can get on with its important mission.
We're also introduced to some of the ship's new Military Assault Command Operations team (MACOs), led by Major Hayes (Steven Culp). They provide much of the action in the inevitable rescue scene, but are otherwise of only limited story value. Now that they've been established, I hope future episodes will develop them or give them a purpose beyond action scenes.
Of course, no review of "The Xindi" would be complete without a healthy deriding of the "Vulcan neuro-pressure" scene. Vulcan neuro-pressure, described by T'Pol as "a very intimate act," might help the grieving insomniac that is Trip sleep through the night, so Phlox talks T'Pol into giving Trip lessons in said technique. (For the writers, such a technique is probably in lieu of a mind-meld, which, as we know, the Vulcans deem illegal in this century.)
This eventually leads to a laughable scene in which both T'Pol and Trip appear shirtless for, well, no good reason. The problem with this scene is its utter and shameless transparency. It has nothing to do with sex or intimacy or characters but simply panders — like all of Enterprise's previous attempts at pseudo-sexual material (with the exception of Hoshi's night in "Two Days and Two Nights") — to the audience with sex-LIKE material that really has nothing at all to do with sex and everything to do with puerile snickering.
When are the producers going to grow up and get over it? Do they honestly think people tune in to their show for scenes like this? I'll tell you what — under the right circumstances and writing, I'd be much more in favor of seeing two of the characters actually having sex rather than be fed this juvenile Sexuality Lite that thinks it's funny because, tee-hee, we can put almost-naked people on the screen and show non-sex sex!
Bah. (Yep, it's F10: "Automatically create non-sexual circumstance for character 'T'Pol' to remove her shirt? [OK/Cancel]")
Anyway, enough. The bottom line is that "The Xindi," while giving us some elements that work reasonably well and laying some groundwork in terms of new faces and situations, is too much business as usual: prison breaks, shootouts, a few hints that we might be going somewhere but precious little in terms of believable Xindi motivation (aside from cartoon exclamations that they "must finish the weapon!"). We do learn, at least, that there's a mystery of contradictions here somewhere; the Xindi homeworld has (apparently) already been destroyed for over a century, which doesn't track with what Future Guy told Archer regarding the Xindi and their motives. Will this end up a mystery, or a muddle?
As I said before, this season has potential. "The Xindi" is proof that such realized potential still lies ahead of us, since it doesn't lie here.
Next week: Archer does his best impression of Janeway's interrogation in "Equinox, Part II."