One of the best ways to measure where Enterprise is at this point is by looking back at where previous Star Trek series were at this stage, just ten episodes into their first season.
TNG at this point had produced several disastrous episodes such as “The Naked Now” and “Justice” that would haunt the series in reruns. Its ninth episode, “The Battle”, featured the introduction of the new series menace, the Ferengi, that were doomed to become comic relief for a decade to come. And it ended with “Hide and Q”, one of the more mediocre Q episodes of the series. By this point many Star Trek fans had decided that the attempt to create a Star Trek series without Kirk and Spock had failed miserably and they had justification for thinking so. TNG’s pilot was ambitious but it was also deeply flawed. Many of the episodes suffered from an attempt to recapture TOS’s spirit, but instead were painfully serious blunders featuring ham handed and joyless philosophical meditations. At the same time there were hopeful signs if anyone cared to read them. Code of Honor pointed towards the strength that TNG would find in its Klingon themes. Q had already become a fixture of the series and would go on to serve as an effective foil against Captain Picard. Still no fan could have been blamed for giving up on the series at this point. Fortunately most fans chose to keep watching and TNG increased its viewership despite being in syndication, it became one of television’s dominant series.
DS9’s first ten episodes also had no shortage of embarrassing and clumsy material such as “Past Prologue”, “Babel” and “The Passenger.” Like TNG, its key strengths were also becoming visible in its reliance on characters. Odo’s isolation in “A Man Alone”, O’Brien being forced to choose between the rules and what had to be done in “Captive Pursuit”, Sisko’s relationship with his son in “Babel” and the complexity and diversity of station life itself. In both series, the strengths and weaknesses that would prove to both attract and repel viewers over their seven year runs were already on display ten episodes in.
The question is, where does Enterprise stand on this scale? For the most part Enterprise has consisted of episodes that painstakingly reexamine standard Star Trek plots under the guise of Birth of Space Exploration episodes. Enterprise has stripped away the complexity of the usual Star Trek material and instead attempted to bring them to life by examining the mechanisms of exploration and taking a look back into the past of Star Trek continuity, rather than creating more complex plots based around showing us what we haven’t seen before or the political and military intrigues of a crowded galaxy. The result, though, has often been episodes with little content based on plots that aren’t particularly original. With the exception of Suliban arc episodes such as “Cold Front”, these episodes had nothing new or original to offer us. They do not stand out in memory and make uninspiring rerun viewing at best.
When such plots are linked to character growth of the other crew members as in Fight or Flight or Fortunate Son, they can work. However, so far most of the episodes linked to Archer’s character growth and Trip’s relationship to Vulcans: Civilization, Strange New World and Andorian Incident have failed rather badly. Enterprise seems to have adopted human contact with Vulcans as a major theme, but it is a theme that has simply failed to take off and seems rather forced. Though humanity has supposedly been in contact with Vulcans for some time, Trip had a Vulcan teacher and Archer even served aboard a Vulcan ship; they are bafflingly clueless about Vulcans. Despite all this experience in “Breaking the Ice” Archer appears to be unaware that Vulcans will not engage in small talk or have lunch with him. As such it relies more on minor cultural blunders to define the relationship, which would have long been overcome by this date, rather than focusing on divisions produced by more fundamental issues and agendas. Enterprise’s view of the Vulcans is one-dimensional, as is its view of humans and the resulting collision is not particularly interesting. As such the Vulcan theme, on a par with TNG’s Ferengi menace, may need to be dramatically retooled.
A further aspect of the problem is the essential blandness of the two Enterprise characters, around whom most episodes revolve, Archer and Trip. Some Star Trek Captains may have been offensive and widely hated, but up until now they have never been bland. But that is the best way to describe Captain Archer. He lacks any of the quirks or flaws of a Kirk or a Picard or even a Sisko or Janeway. In the aftermath of such controversial characters, he is simply the result of an attempt to produce a character who is thoroughly amiable and inoffensive and whom no one could possibly hate. But that very attempt has produced an uninteresting character, a bland leading man with no distinguishing characteristics. There is essentially nothing interesting or unique about Archer. Nothing to set him apart as a memorable character like Kirk or Picard.
While some blame for this may be laid at the door of the producers, ultimately character actors like Shatner and Stewart gave their characters life, resulting in what for better or worse were unique characters imprinted on the American pop culture psyche. On the other hand, Archer is eminently forgettable. He is distinguished by nothing except his very quality of inoffensiveness. Archer has come closest to making an impression in episodes such as Fight or Flight or Cold Front, where he was forced to struggle with difficult choices that helped define his character and led away from blandness and towards defining moments that helped place his character on a moral geography. Those were good episodes, but realistically speaking most episodes will not be up to their standards and a Captain should ideally make an impression whenever his character is on screen. For better or worse, even Sisko and Janeway managed to do that. Archer feels more like a blank space titled ‘Insert Starship Captain Here.’
To some extent that charge can also be levied against the general crew makeup, which is heavily white anglo-saxon male with the minorities serving as junior officers. Traditionally, alien characters have become a series’ breakout characters. SpockData characters for instance have often taken over the series as the Doctor and Seven of Nine did on Voyager. For now, however, the producers have designated Archer and Trip for the bulk of the airtime. Hopefully this will begin to change and more interesting characters such as Doctor Phlox, T’Pol and Reed who are played by more talented actors will begin to get more airtime.
Ultimately the key difference between Enterprise ten episodes in and TNG, DS9 and Voyager ten episodes in, is that the failures of those shows often came from testing the limits. Enterprise’s failures on the other hand are produced by conservative and derivative plots and a failure to take chances. Star Trek series have tested the limits early on, defined them and used them as parameters for the rest of the series. Enterprise is doing its best to be inoffensive and giving viewers nothing to object to and nothing that might alienate them. The viewership numbers showing less of a falloff suggest that this may be working, but it has also resulted in a less interesting and less compelling show; at least thus far.