In brief: A fairly entertaining — albeit thin — wrap-up of this massive season-long storyline, but is the twist ending we get necessary or appropriate?
I'll give "Zero Hour" one thing: It did not bore me. It employs an endless series of sci-fi/action/Saturday-morning-serial clichés, but it does so with great technical expertise and brutally unremitting momentum. It clearly favors style over substance, action over useful dialog, technobabble over puzzle-solving, and insane — repeat, insane — plot twists over traditional endings. I kinda liked its reckless spirit of over-the-top action, big visuals, and a melodramatic ticking clock. I also laughed at the hoarier moments and the heedless bright ideas and goofy sci-fi oddities. This is fun — but, let's face it, pretty dumb.
And of course there's the matter of the last 60 seconds, where Trek reality becomes utter surrealism. I felt like I'd been transported to an alternate TV dimension where Star Trek meets The Twilight Zone meets The X-Files meets Quantum Leap, and goes through one of those spatial anomalies created by a Delphic Expanse sphere, emerging on the other side as a strange, twisted mass of ... something. The final 10 seconds reminded me of the inexplicable dimension-shattering ending of Tim Burton's version of Planet of the Apes. Jarring, and in that way weirdly compelling, but stranded without sense or meaning or plausibility.
Yes, Berman & Braga have turned the screw so far they've stripped the threads into a fine metallic dust. About all I can say is this: If the first words out of Scott Bakula's mouth when Archer wakes up next season aren't "Oh, boy!" then the writing staff should be taken out to the Paramount studio lot and summarily shot for squandering obvious opportunities.
In the opening scene, the Xindi reptilians are seen celebrating their imminent victory by eating live mice. Yes, live mice. I laughed. (How can't you?) They even hold the mice up to each other first, as if toasting with wine glasses. If there was any doubt that Dolum and his cohorts weren't Pure Evil, then this scene ... well, I don't know what this scene says. If they'd been eating newborn kittens after having drowned them, that would be iron-clad confirmation of Pure Evil. I don't know where eating live mice lies on the Evil Scale.
From here (okay, maybe a little later), it's up to Archer & Co. to get aboard the Xindi weapon and destroy it from the inside, while Trip and T'Pol work on the tech solution du jour to destroy Sphere 41 and bring down the sphere network. There's a ton of other stuff going on here, but not much actual story to tell. In my review of "Countdown" I drew a distinction between "plot" and "story." I will elaborate here by saying that a story is about people and ideas and characterization, whereas plot is about technological manipulation, battle scenes, phaser shootouts, fistfights, and moving objects from A to B in a given time X, preferably before something explodes.
If anything, the episode is proof that momentum and pacing and nonstop crisis mode can only get you so far. While there's no denying that this ongoing action/suspense/cliffhanger structure has played very much in Enterprise's favor this season (particularly the last third of the season), it becomes clear in "Zero Hour" that the exhaustion factor has taken its toll. I will be ready for something new next season.
"Zero Hour" is the final leg of this season's obvious mission to have its cake and eat it too. The Enterprise writers, in devising the Xindi arc, have managed to play the Quest For Peaceful Trekkian Solution right alongside the Quest For Big Action Movie. They brought the peaceful Trek scenario to its climax in "The Council" by having the Enterprise become allies with Degra and negotiate a peace with part of the Xindi council. They bring the action scenario to its climax here, in what is essentially a B action movie where I had pretty much predicted from the first frame (if not five episodes ago) that we would be seeing the Xindi weapon blow up just outside Earth's orbit. There is something to be said for formula conventions.
This is the kind of show that starts with a general concept and then adds everything plus the kitchen sink. For example, the sphere builders board the Enterprise and walk through walls and sabotage systems in their attempt to thwart Trip's technobabble solution to destroy Sphere 41. This is in addition to the fact that they have created a toxic anomaly field around the sphere, which the Enterprise must enter despite Phlox's assurances that exposure will kill the crew in a matter of minutes. (Even the ticking clocks have their own ticking clocks.) Everyone's skin begins to crack, making the Enterprise crew look like they might be reptilians.
But wait — here's a visit from Daniels, who tells Archer not to lead the boarding party, because he's too important to the future of the Federation, the founding of which he will be sitting down to sign in seven years — an interesting factoid, but maybe not after you've considered the source. I give up in trying to make sense of Daniels and his timeline illogic. He's like a message in a bottle, but without the message, leaving you with nothing to do with the empty bottle except smash it over your head.
And now here comes Shran and the Andorians to create a diversion for the reptilians so Archer's team can get aboard the weapon. Shran, it can be said, comes literally out of nowhere, which definitely makes him a function of plot as opposed to story. (Shran says Archer owes him one; so, apparently, do the writers.)
The most human aspect in the episode is Hoshi, who has to translate the Xindi weapon blueprints under awful pain and pressure. It's not enough that she's not even close to recovered from her torturous encounter with brain parasites; she's also wracked with guilt over having been forced to decipher the firing code for the reptilians. In the midst of all the chaos is Linda Park's performance as a person who is exhausted, sick, and suffering, and yet still performs with relative grace under pressure.
But no time for human emotions! We have a weapon to stop!
As for the solution of actually stopping the weapon, it comes down to the most obvious of action clichés. Part of me expected little else; after all, how many ways are there to blow up something so big with such a small armed boarding party? Still, I had to chuckle at the fact that humankind's fate comes down to Sato telling Archer which neon light tubes to invert under a control panel. You'd think that someday someone would be able to design a doomsday machine that couldn't be overloaded simply by short-circuiting the controls. The Xindi are apparently not those someones.
Archer says he will initiate the final sequence himself, and orders the rest of the boarding party to evacuate. "This isn't open for debate," Archer says, for perhaps the 90th time this season. Inevitably, Archer is jumped by an angry Dolum after activating the final sequence, leading to the obligatory B-movie fistfight, etc., replete with Archer getting beat up, thrown around, and hanging from a ledge, etc. Dolum's a big guy, so Archer defeats him by slapping a grenade on his back and them blowing him up, which is pretty amusing. Archer then runs toward the camera in slow-motion as explosions go off behind him, also in slow-motion. Then the weapon, nearing Earth's orbit, explodes.
So, to recap: Dolum gets blowed up real good; Archer runs in slow-motion; Xindi weapon gets blowed up real good.
Meanwhile, the Enterprise successfully destroys Sphere 41, causing a disruption which cascades through the network and causes all the spheres to implode — something the story is nearly ready to do. Without the spheres, the sphere-builder threat is neutralized, and the Delphic Expanse returns to normal space, explaining why we've never heard of the Delphic Expanse in later centuries (although still no explanation for why we've not heard of the Xindi in later centuries).
All of this tech-heavy madness is made almost amazingly watchable by the filmmakers — director Allan Kroeker, the editors, composer Jay Chattaway, the special-effects wizards. As a script, "Zero Hour" isn't much to behold; it's one of those shows that's all in how it's executed than in what's on the page. The technobabble is lame and arbitrary and the action scenes are painfully familiar. Despite that, "Zero Hour" is a watchable and entertaining example of a big-but-thin sci-fi action plot.
That brings us to the show's Ultimate WTF Ending. Maybe some would argue that Berman & Braga are to be commended for not giving us a traditional ending. I'm not so sure. "Zero Hour" is an episode that seems to demand resolution and payoff. While we get some of that, we also get the "shocker" of the year, a completely unrelated twist that I found more goofy than shocking.
We're left with questions: What happened to Starfleet? Why are American WWII fighter planes opening fire on Trip and Mayweather's shuttlepod over San Francisco? Why is Archer, badly burned, lying in a Nazi MASH unit? And why, oh why, is there an unknown alien in a Nazi uniform among them? Is this the past, the present, the future, an alternate universe? Is Daniels responsible? Has the timeline been manipulated and scrambled to save Archer from dying aboard the exploded Xindi weapon?
Is short, WTF?
The ending is an attention-getting — if corny — teaser for season four, but I can't endorse it as an ending for "Zero Hour." What if Enterprise had been canceled (which was a distinct possibility at the time this was shot)? Was an alternate ending with more resolution waiting in the wings?
Tune in next season. I will be.
End-of-season article: Third Season Recap