Summary: ENTERPIRSE does CON-AIR.
One of the odder things about “Canamar” is that the episode is named after a place we never see, namely Canamar itself. The ad campaign for the episode also cited an alien prison, when in fact the entire episode takes place on board a hijacked prison transport. This is actually an improvement over the standard alien prison plot that we’ve seen in STAR TREK time and time again. Particularly since we just had an alien prison plot in Season 1 with “Detained” and a good deal of episodes to date have seen Archer imprisoned or held hostage. “Canamar” improves on them by turning Archer from a passive captive into an active conspirator scheming for a chance to break free while adopting an alter ego for the purposes of deceiving his captors. But where Shatner and Stewart adopted carefree roguish alter egos when forced to impersonate criminals in “A Piece of the Action” or “Gambit,” Bakula’s alter ego is a bit looser but still dour and brooding; a decision which passed up a chance for Bakula to shake up his Archer persona a little and play a role with some more panache.
There were two obvious ways to do an episode like “Canamar,” as a piece of social commentary on the justice system or as a more carefree heist plot. STAR TREK has done the former any number of times and “Canamar” is no competition for truly memorable episodes like DS9’s “Hard Time” or VOYAGER’s “The Chute.” Particularly since “Canamar” has nothing new to add insofar as social commentary goes and no clear message to offer despite a closing note by Archer suggesting this was the case. Aside from one life story, “Canamar” never shows us the actual prison and all we really know about the justice system is that it’s not very thorough, the guards scowl a lot and get violent with the prisoners. But those are just cliches and unlike Voyager’s “Redemption,” “Canamar” never goes any deeper. The latter option might have provided some entertaining material that would have flowed naturally from the interaction with the menagerie of alien criminals on the transport. But instead of opening up as Trinneer does, Bakula shuts down and aside from some moments of camaraderie with Kuroda, doesn’t seem to be feeling much of anything. His closing lines suggest that he considered this to be a horrific experience but we don’t really see that in his performance throughout the episode.
“Canamar” does offers better than average characterizations for the episode’s characters, however There’s Kuroda, its chief villain, played by Mark Rolston, who turns in a memorable performance as a hard and ruthless criminal in a hard and ruthless world. Sean Whalen’s Zoumas makes for an entertaining and irritating presence and even the token Nausicaan heavy has the occasional offbeat response that makes him seem more than just a token heavy. The result is to transform characters that would otherwise have been throwaway cardboard cutouts meant only to serve the interests of the plot into actual people.
A good deal of the credit goes to John Shiban‘s snappy dialogue while longtime STAR TREK director Allan Kroeker infuses the episode with a dark atmosphere more reminiscent of DS9 than of ENTERPRISE. The special effects department continues to outdo itself with two new ship designs that are both unique and memorable, gorgeous orbital scenes and plasma and crash effects.
ENTERPRISE’s end of the search story, though, could have been discarded entirely and the episode would have been more successful and suspenseful by focusing on the claustrophobic conditions of the transport without Archer and Trip or the audience knowing if anyone was even searching for them. Unlike VOYAGER’s similarly structured “The Chute,” the interaction with the Enolian doesn’t even offer any meaningful insights into the Enolian society. Instead, its only contribution is to ry and ramp up the tension with the threat of the patrol ships destroying the transport, which we know won’t happen anyway, and to show the progress of the search, which only weakens the suspense by pulling away from the situation Archer and Trip find themselves in.
All in all, “Canamar”‘s strength comes from its character interactions and its dialogue rather than any social commentary the episode was meant to deliver through an evocation of penal conditions or any suspense from a plot that has seen plenty of wear and tear over the years. As far as that goes it’s a serviceable episode that while not quite measuring up to some of the best ENTERPRISE episodes of the season, demonstrates how much the average episode has improved since the first season and how valuable John Shiban is to the writing team.