Summary: Archer is held hostage a second time and Enterprise turns in another competent and professional, if uninspiring episode.
The title of Shadows of P`Jem refers to a previous episode, The Andorian Incident. Like that show, P`Jem features Archer and T’Pol held hostage, bad Vulcans and Jeffrey Combs’s Andorian character. Unlike it, however, Shadows of P`Jem is a more multi-dimensional episode that does a better job of showing some of the complex political undercurrents in the situation.
The direction by long time Trek director Mike Vejar is competent and professional as always and the FX department offers some gorgeous shots of Enterprise. The exterior shot of Enterprise moving to an interior shot of Archer brooding is not simply good FX, but reminiscent of Voyager’s Good Shepherd episode in the way that it ties in the universe outside with the people preparing to face them inside the ship. The sets are nothing spectacular but they are plausible. Jeffrey Combs, who was a recurring character on DS9 as the Vorta Weyoun, shows that he can create an entirely distinct character in the Andorian commander Shran. P’Jem also recycles another Trek guest star, bringing back the actor who played the condemned murderer in Repentance as the rebel faction leader. The shot of San Francisco bay outside as seen through porthole windows in Starfleet command is a particularly nice touch.
The episode begins with fallout from Archer’s actions in Andorian Incident, which have angered the Vulcans and rightfully so. After all, Archer decided to intervene in a conflict between two races each more powerful than humanity. Not a very smart move to say the least, but Archer unsurprisingly doesn’t see it that way. While the Admiral worries about humanity’s role in the greater political situation, Archer seems to have no concerns about the real world, except for a deep and abiding grudge against the Vulcans.
The current focus of that grudge is the Vulcan High Command’s recall of T’Pol. Archer even declares that the Vulcans took something valuable away from his father by not letting him live to see the launch of Enterprise and that they’re now doing it again by taking T’Pol away. It’s a rather bizarre turn of phrase, as is Archer’s attachment to her. She’s been on board for half a year and crew transfers are not unusual in any service. How long does he expect her to stay, anyway? But this follows a common pattern in which Archer leads with his heart and not with his head. Now Faith of the Heart may be the theme song for the series, but it’s not a great command style — though in Shadows of P`Jem it does reap some benefits for Archer when Shran feels sufficiently indebted to Archer for his similarly impulsive action in Andorian Incident and decides to mount a rescue attempt.
Most of this material is meant to serve as background for a T’Pol episode in which she responds to Archer’s insistence for an emotional affirmation of his feelings with the usual Vulcan sideline answers we’ve gotten to know quite well from the Kirk\Spock moments of the original series. The producers seem unsatisfied with that dialectic and so they’re placed in another hostage situation and this time they’re tied up too. Of course this is pushed well beyond the bounds of good taste during the mostly unnecessary rope scene to the point that it seems to border on the edge of fanfic. The producers at some point are going to have to decide if they want the Archer\T’Pol interaction to be based on the loyalty and friendship of the Kirk\Spock model or if they want to capitalize on their idea of sexual tension. But they have to understand that they can’t have both. As a result, some of the episode’s strongest T’Pol scenes don’t involve Archer but her interaction with Doctor Phlox in the mess hall and the terrorist in the camp.
Still the episode manages to produce some foreshadowing and intriguing, if minimalistic, political content. The Andorian/Vulcan political intrigue is clearly more than just border tensions, something Archer might have done well to realize before he turned over P’Jem to them. The Andorian culture also seems to have a strong sense of honor in addition to their militarism. However the producers should be careful when fleshing out this relatively sketchy original series race to give them characteristics that contrast with the Klingons, or risk having the Andorians become Klingons with blue skin and antennas.
They might also learn from their mistakes on Voyager and Janeway’s lack of credibility. Now anyone who’s seen a Voyager episode knows the pattern in which Janeway does something foolish but everything turns out alright in the end. This pattern is repeated again in Shadows of P’Jem. It’s almost shocking to realize that Voyager’s response to a hostage situation in Friendship One was actually competent and professional compared to the ineffectual bumbling of the Enterprise crew in Shadows of P`Jem. Trip unquestionably comes off worst of all when he spends his encounters with the Chancellor and the Vulcan Captain yelling aimlessly at them instead of coming to the meeting with a strategy and attempting to elicit some sort of cooperation and keep the lines of communications open. It’s a natural reaction for a worried family member or friend but it’s also borderline idiocy in a starship officer who’s in the direct chain of command.
Trip then tops it off when he inexplicably goes down to the planet in full Starfleet garb, sending the remaining two ranking members of the bridge crew to search for the shuttle pod instead of bringing down an entire armed security team into hostile territory. Some of this bizarre behavior might be explained if Trip never received any tactical training or if Earth has been so devastated that it didn’t have an operating military organization in half a century.
The behavior of the Vulcans only adds to the impression of an alternate universe since their actions and attitudes have no correlation with anything we have seen in Star Trek up to now, even clashing with their behavior in Andorian Incident. They seemed completely unwilling to defend P’Jem and the monks, even after it was exposed as a listening post and there was no further need for secrecy, yet they’re prepared to launch a raid and get in the middle of a civil war on an alien planet? Between fleet movements, propping up alien governments, hard line militaristic attitudes and commando units complete with explosive launchers, the Vulcans seem more like an Empire than anything else. It’s as if all the strategic and tactical know-how humans once had and regained in the post-Enterprise era was transferred over to the Vulcans. Shadows attempts to compensate for this by once again painting the Vulcans negatively but this does little to change the fact that the Vulcans knew what they were doing in a situation that didn’t require technological acumen so much as a basic grasp of strategy and intelligent decision making.
But this only sums up an episode where everyone but the humans know what they’re doing. Both the Vulcans and Andorians have an efficient rescue plan set to go. Even the hostage takers know what they’re doing. Only the humans proceed to bumble around, bluster and finally walk away without a single success. In point of fact, everything that is achieved in this episode from T’Pol’s second chance to the Captain’s rescue is accomplished through the aliens. There are necessary plot reasons for this, but it just isn’t particularly smart storytelling because it’s hard to respect the abilities of incompetent people. The premise of Enterprise must be based on more than just the enthusiasm of the Enterprise crew but also a certain degree of ability. Enterprise has recycled the idealism of Pulp SF heroes, but has forgotten that one of their hallmarks was competence, without which, your characters are reduced to buffoons bumbling around in a world they’re not prepared to handle, yet surviving anyway. That’s not drama. It’s comedy.
Next Week: Two men. One shuttlepod. Let the slash fanfic begin.