In brief: Some individual moments are good, but overall it's an unsatisfactory way to "wrap up" this series.
One of the interesting things about Star Trek after 39 years is how the library and time settings have grown so expansive, and yet so familiar, that storylines can drop us into the middle of wherever (and whenever) and we instantly recognize where (and when) we are. We don't bat an eye, because we realize that, hey, here we are in TNG's seventh-season episode "The Pegasus," which happened 11 years ago and now is happening again (for us, anyway). In Star Trek, it's almost a natural occurrence. Timelines don't matter for the audience because Star Trek, at this point, is happening simultaneously in all forms at all times, as a part of the imagination.
"These Are the Voyages" knows this about Star Trek, and that's somehow comforting. Flashback, flash-forward, whatever you want to call it: In this universe it's a perfectly appropriate approach that allows for an unusual way of telling a story. And, more than that, it demonstrates how Star Trek itself has transcended its own mythos and exists as a larger-than-life milieu, TV ratings and box-office sales notwithstanding.
On any other day, that would be what we might see is being demonstrated here. On this particular day, however — on which Star Trek: Enterprise is airing its final episode and the franchise itself is going away for the first time since TNG started 18 years ago — I'm not so sure it works. Check that; I know it doesn't work — not as presented. What I don't know is whether it could've worked given better execution. I suspect it maybe could've.
The central conceit of "These Are the Voyages" is that it's actually framed as a TNG episode (I'm tempted to call it "Pegasus 1.5") in which Commander Riker looks at a holodeck program depicting the crew of the NX-01 on their final mission before the signing of the charter that will eventually form the United Federation of Planets.
The central problem with "These Are the Voyages" is that, really, this doesn't make any emotional sense as a series finale for Enterprise. Riker looks at events in order to gain insight about himself (a recommendation from Counselor Troi), and to decide what to do about the central dilemma he faced/faces in "The Pegasus." In short, he's using the NX-01 crew as a tool to resolve a personal conflict. Wouldn't it have been better for this premise to simply look back at the NX-01 crew to study it as history, as a turning point in human society? By making the show about Riker's personal problem, the show painfully short-changes the historical context of the NX-01 crew. Granted, the historical context is a focus in the episode, but it really doesn't have much to do with William Riker (or vice versa).
I guess it's just as well that Enterprise was canceled, because by the looks of things from what this episode tells us — which takes place six years after the events of "Terra Prime" — nothing of any significance would've have happened in the course of the next six hypothetical seasons of this series. The members of the Enterprise crew are not going to change. Not. One. Single. Bit. Hell, they don't even look any older. Forget six years; this episode might as well take place six weeks after "Terra Prime."
Quite frankly, that's depressing. If the narrative is going to move forward several years into the future, couldn't it at least show that the characters have changed ... even a little? TNG's finale, "All Good Things," and Voyager's finale, "Endgame," both showed hypothetical futures in which characters had moved on to new things. But here, Sato is still a communications officer, Mayweather is still a helmsman (both are apparently still ensigns, which is just ridiculous), Trip is still the chief engineer, and so on. Everyone is exactly where they were six years earlier, and there isn't even so much as a hint that they've advanced during that time.
What about Mayweather's talk in "Demons" about reconsidering his personal options and possibly moving back to Earth? I guess it was just that — talk. And what about Trip and T'Pol, who went through the agonizing loss of their child in "Terra Prime"? You might think that their relationship would've evolved after such an emotional turning point. But from the looks of things, they've soldiered on in neutrality for the last six years ... until the prospect of the crew now about to split up forces them to take stock of their relationship one last time. One would hope that they haven't been spending the last six years playing Will They or Won't They. If they have, we can at least be glad we didn't have to watch it.
And yet the framing device of TNG is somehow comforting. I grew up on TNG and will always have a soft spot for it, and there's something reassuring about the idea of future generations looking back upon the past. Several sets from TNG have been reproduced for a number of scenes aboard the Enterprise-D, much the way the TOS sets were reproduced for "In a Mirror, Darkly." The emotional nostalgia is present and accounted for. There's also a new CG version of the Enterprise-D that looks great.
But there's a built-in problem with the use of flashback for the storytelling, which is that the scenes don't gain any momentum. Every time we start getting into the scenes involving the NX-01, Riker pauses the program, or fast-forwards to later in the day, or inserts himself into the story, until we're all too aware that he's literally driving the narrative and that none of these events are actually happening, except in a holodeck.
There's also the bigger problem of the historical record, which is to say, most of this shouldn't even exist on record. There are private conversations here that couldn't be a part of any record, unless they were reproduced from published memoirs or extrapolated from someone's subjective interpretation. There can be no objective truth in a recording like this — at least as far as private conversations go — and we begin to realize that we must be watching the 24th-century equivalent of a made-for-TV movie in which the narrative is "based on a true story." After getting over the initial gee-whiz effect of TNG settings, the holodeck framing device gradually becomes a distraction and a big liability for the events being depicted.
The final mission of the Enterprise before it returns to Earth to sign the charter is less than enthralling. It involves Shran coming to Archer and asking for help (Archer, of course, owes him) to rescue his kidnapped daughter from some aliens whom he'd had some vague dealings with. They want something that might best be described as this week's MacGuffin, because it certainly has no more relevance than that. This leads to some typically generic action scenes with a less-than-epic scope, hardly befitting a series finale. It's perhaps ironic that Shran is the only character in the story to have changed in any significant way in six years (he has a family), while the human characters have apparently all become mechanical slaves to their jobs.
Foreshadowing alert: Troi in the holodeck mentions how Trip doesn't know he won't return from this mission. Trip sacrifices himself in the course of the episode to save Archer. It might be called a heroic sacrifice, if not for the sheer incompetence of how it's depicted. First there's the whole silliness of how the aliens so swiftly get aboard the Enterprise after we've already been told the Enterprise is safe. Then there's the way the hostage situation actually plays out — underwritten and overplayed — with Trip flipping out, knocking Archer down, and then leading the aliens to a panel where he pulls out a cable and blows himself up along with the bad guys.
This is painfully contrived and poorly, ham-handedly executed. It's exactly as if Trip had said to himself, "Well, this is where I've been preordained by an already-written history to sacrifice myself, so let's git 'er done!" How many times have we seen exactly this sort of crisis situation play out, where the Enterprise crew is always able to figure out how to cleverly escape — but not this time, simply because the plot demands that Trip die. This is not a satisfying death scene for a major character by any stretch of the imagination. It borders on goofy.
Similarly, the all-too-muted reaction to Trip's demise is puzzling. Archer consoles T'Pol, but the episode never stops to think that maybe it should be the other way around, considering how Archer has been best friends with Trip for countless years and T'Pol is, well, a Vulcan. There's no funeral, no service, nothing — at least, not on-camera. Perhaps funerals, services, etc., have been done to death and are seen as cliché, but you simply can't purport a heroic death of a major character and then not deal with it.
All that said, the level of downright hate for this episode is strangely fascinating. Jolene Blalock famously called it "appalling" in an interview, and fans denounced it on the Internet as an unmitigated travesty — sight unseen — weeks before it even aired.
Personally, I find the vitriolic bile leveled at this episode (and the vilification of Berman and Braga in particular) from the Internet Trek community to be somewhat over-the-top. Judging by comments I've seen on message boards, you'd think Berman and Braga had strolled into a hospital nursery and murdered a room full of newborn babies. No, this episode does not work, but is it the worst episode of Enterprise ever made? Worse than "Precious Cargo" or "Bound" or "A Night in Sickbay" or a dozen others? Hardly. This isn't even the worst episode this season. It's a mediocre show with some highlights and lowlights. The episode itself probably would've fared better had the concept not unfortunately also served as the series finale.
What's kind of sad is that the episode is actually, genuinely well-intended. It has general ideas and sentiments and historical perspectives that are in the true spirit of Star Trek. It's just that the generalities are not adequately developed as specific ideas for the Enterprise characters, and the show ultimately comes across as an ill-executed, ponderous, miscalculated melding of two Trek series, neither of which comes into real focus. Like much of Enterprise as a series, it doesn't stop and ask: Who are these people, exactly? What do they want out of life? What makes them tick? Perhaps it's not about the individuals but about the state of the Federation — but even then, I was left confused because this story seems to make a distinction between the alliance being formed here and what will ultimately become the Federation. My thinking is, if we're going to fast-forward six years, why aren't we seeing the actual Federation charter being signed? Perhaps I'm confused.
And perhaps that confusion is justified. The whole episode builds up to a speech that Archer is scheduled to deliver, and just as he's walking out to deliver it, Riker interrupts with, "Computer, end program." The sound you heard immediately after that line was fans across the country throwing objects at their television sets. Perhaps ending two episodes in a row with a speech by Archer would not have been ideal, but the anticlimax of ending the story before the would-be dramatic payoff is just flat-out wrong.
As a final act of redemption, "These Are the Voyages" does get the last 30 seconds right, with a series-melding montage that blends TNG, TOS, and Enterprise, with three captains speaking the famous Star Trek mantra. It's the right note for an episode that contains a number of wrong ones.
And that's how Trek comes to an end after a run of 18 consecutive years — with a somewhat ponderous whimper that still manages to show its self-affection. Maybe too much misdirected affection for TNG. And not enough for the characters we've been watching for the past four seasons.
Previous episode: Terra Prime
End-of-season article: Fourth Season Recap