In brief: A TOS story channeled reasonably through modern Trek sensibilities.
There should be a tally somewhere (and come to think of it, there might be) of just how many societies in the Star Trek mythos have employed a fight to the death as a matter of honor and/or custom.
But first things first. The Romulans are busy causing mayhem with their remote-controlled drone, as they themselves sit in a control room on Romulus. Occasionally, an unhappy senator checks in on them, flanked by two Remans, in a nod to the movie that was the nail in the coffin of the TNG film franchise (snark). They destroy a Rigellian ship while masquerading as the Enterprise. They apparently want to do more than drive a wedge between the Andorians and the Tellarites. It's an attempt to "destabilize the entire region," says Archer — a line that seems rooted more in news headlines than in Star Trek.
The Romulans are loath to man these ships, because they want to cause this mayhem without the possibility of it being traced back to them. The Romulans seem to believe — for reasons beyond my comprehension — that the drone can absolutely not be traced back to them. Obviously they have severely underestimated the fact that their technology is recognizable — enough for T'Pol to have easily put the pieces together in last week's "Babel One."
Because of this common threat to the region, Archer's mission is to hunt down and stop the drone, with a search radius that will require a small fleet. He thus attempts to forge an alliance between all the involved parties — the Andorians, Tellarites, Vulcans, and Rigellians — with the Enterprise coordinating the search as the command ship since it seems the humans are the most neutral of everyone involved. This is a bit simplistic, I will admit, but it serves its purpose as a hint of the kind of obstacles and eventual cooperative efforts that will pave the way to the founding of the Federation. (Manny Coto said his idea of a fifth season, had the show not been canceled, would've had focus on the formation of the Federation as a United Nations-like case study. That could've been interesting.)
But of course it's not going to be that easy. Talas ends up dying from the phaser wound she suffered at the end of the previous episode. This results in a bereaved Shran demanding the Tellarite who killed her answer for his crime in a traditional Andorian Ushaan — a fight to the death using traditional (and wicked-looking) Andorian ice-cutting blades. The scene where Shran demands the Ushaan is a nice showpiece for Jeffrey Combs, who walks into the room and starts off quiet before unleashing the yelling and histrionics. Combs does a good job here of overacting without it coming across as bad acting.
The fight to the death storyline has "original series" written all over it — especially once it becomes clear that Archer is going to stand in for the Tellarite under the death match's right of substitution rule. Now we have a match between two people who are essentially friends — reminiscent of "Amok Time" — although this whole Andorian notion seems awfully Klingon-like in terms of honor, respect, etc.
What I like best about this idea is the way Archer is boxed in by the pure logic of the situation. If the match is prohibited, the Andorians will pull out of the alliance. The Tellarites refuse to participate, and even if they hadn't, any outcome would likely end in the withdrawal of one party. So Archer volunteers to fight, since he knows Starfleet will go forward with the alliance effort even if Archer dies. Noble, logical, and brilliantly foolish.
What I thought was painfully lame, however, was the script's way of getting out of this with both Archer and Shran still alive. The fight scene itself is adequately staged as action/fun, but the loophole that allows Archer to defeat Shran without killing him completely lacks imagination. We learn after the commercial break that the rules say the match ends "when one fighter is rendered defenseless." That's so disingenuous on the script's part that it's not even a loophole. How can the fight be a death match if the rules themselves don't specify that the fight only ends when one fighter is, well, dead?
With the fight settled, the alliance can proceed, marking the first time these species have worked together in a common effort. It's not the founding of the Federation, but it's a start.
Meanwhile, Trip and Reed are trapped aboard the Romulan drone and attempt to override the controls. When that doesn't work, Reed goes for a lower-tech solution: sabotage by overloading his phase-pistol. Apparently, the overload feature is actually in the phase-pistol manual, hopefully in a chapter called Blowed Up Real Good. The Romulans struggle to regain control of the damaged drone, and in one scene, they lock Trip in a room and expose him to deadly levels of radiation. I'm not sure if radiation exposure works like this; my thinking is that if you're doubling over in pain because of radiation poisoning, the damage to your body is already done. Removing you from the room isn't going to reverse the damage like giving a suffocating man oxygen. Call it the plot-device version of radiation poisoning.
The drone itself is agile and erratic, making the dogfights a little more interesting as it darts here and there and tries to make people dizzy. At one point, Trip and Reed go to an airlock and are ejected into space and somehow thrown clear of the drone. I suspect this works much like when someone is "thrown clear" during an auto accident — ejected from the vehicle and yet somehow, miraculously still okay. The drone then escapes back to Romulan space.
"United" somewhat challenges conventional structure if this is to be considered part two of a trilogy, because the central storyline involving the formation of the alliance is wrapped up here. Indeed, the episode ends on yet another twist, as it's revealed that the pilot hooked into the drone is not Romulan but what resembles an albino Andorian. It's a bizarre revelation that does not follow from anything we would've expected from watching the story unfold. Think of the last five seconds of "Zero Hour," but in a way that's intriguing instead of merely distracting.
Next week: Who are the white Andorians?