Summary: Trip is trapped with an alien enemy pilot on a moon where the climate gets rather toasty at daybreak.
With “Dawn” Enterprise returns to what it has done best so far: well told and suspenseful episodes grounded in classical science fiction plots like “Dead Stop,” “Shuttlepod One” and “Singularity,” rather than the sleazy antics of “Fusion,” “A Night in Sickbay” or “Precious Cargo.” “Dawn”‘s proximity to “Cargo,” an episode that also involved Trip and an alien crashing on a planet and waiting for rescue, is unfortunate in that it might color some people’s judgement of the newest episode unfairly. But the similarities and disparities between the two episodes do an excellent job of demonstrating what works on Enterprise and what doesn’t.
Ever since the day ST:TNG aired its pilot, one of the standard criticisms of a Star Trek episode and series has been its lack of originality. There are a distinct shortage of new ideas out there, even in sc-fi, which is thought to be the literature of the future. While science fiction is concerned with new concepts of technology, it still relies on many of the same plots that were old when Rome was young. Some science fiction shows have responded to this problem with bouts of extreme stylization and introverted storylines, but Star Trek has always been at its best when it commits itself to the core story and tells it with integrity and truth. “Precious Cargo” is what happens when your story rings false, “Dawn” is what happens when it rings true.
John Shiban, who previously wrote “Minefield,” delivers a seemingly simple script that avoids the kind of false notes that would have had Trip easily befriending the alien or ending the episode on a purely positive note as many Voyager episodes did. Instead, Trip’s demonstration of goodwill by tossing away his weapon and untying the alien and his speech on the importance of their cooperation just results in a vicious and brutal fight. Nor is there any quick-fix language solution. Trip doesn’t jury rig a universal translator or learn the alien’s language after a few phrases as Hoshi seems to every week. Rather, they get by on situational context with the words themselves being ambiguous so that even at the end with the universal translator back on line, Trip fails to realize what the alien wants.
Thus “Dawn” is a more realistic look at first contact in an Enemy Mine style reminiscent of TOS and TNG episodes like “Arena,” “The Enemy” and “Darmok.” Roxann Dawson has quickly proven herself as Enterprise’s go-to Director and avoids the bells and whistles in favor of a clean rendering of the story. For once even Scott Bakula hits all the right notes in his performance, frustrated and tense during the search but quietly threatening during his encounters with the alien Captain. Although the alien Captain has few lines and little screen time, Enterprise follows through on the slightly more complex rendering of the alien antagonist commander in “Catwalk” by having the alien Captain be both threatening and diplomatic as Archer himself is; rather than just an Alien of the Week uttering standard canned threats, but is the alien equivalent of Archer, who is thinking in ways that we can relate to resulting in a three-dimensional rather than two-dimensional character for an even minor appearance.
Enterprise’s makeup also improves from the rather bland ‘humans with slightly facial ridges’ we see every week or the shoddy Suliban makeup to the Jem’Hadar-looking alien makeup of “Dawn.” While it is derivative of the DS9 villains, it still seems more natural and alien than a lot of what we’ve seen on Enterprise thus far. Having the aliens come equipped with some sort of poison-spitting sac is also a nice touch that doesn’t cost much but emphasizes the alien nature of the character.
Other nice minor touches include revelations of more Vulcan diplomatic failures strewn about the quadrant. Phlox spending some time on the bridge, which aside from the EMH we’ve seen doctors do far more on other Star Trek series rather than keeping Phlox constantly locked up in his sickbay or confined to the mess hall. Trip’s dazed recitation of his experiences in prior episodes and his concluding note that the alien undoubtedly had similar experiences. It’s a little thing but it adds depth to a moment and a place we wouldn’t naturally expect it since in the Star Trek universe the aliens of the week all too often seem to have no independent existence prior to this episode and aren’t likely to have one after it. Dawn’s scripts gets us to think about what the alien pilot might have been doing before Trip encountered him and the Alien Captain’s dialogue with Archer causes us to wonder what his situation might be afterwards. And those are the little touches that develop a story and hit the right notes.