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Monthly Archives: October 2003

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Star Trek Enterprise episode review – The Shipment

Synopsis: The Enterprise arrives at an isolated colony where a part of the Xindi weapon is being built, forcing Archer to entrust the survival of his mission to a Xindi.

star trek enterprise shipmentReview: “Shipment” finally kicks the Xindi arc into high gear and gives us a look at what ENTERPRISE’s third season might have been like without a lot of the interruptions and episodes that were supposed to deal with the Expanse or the Xindi but more often than not didn’t add up to much. Not only do we meet our first Xindi character with any depth and complexity, but we also get a look at how strange Xindi technology is and the backstory of the Xindi races themselves.

While “The Shipment” does not offer a particularly original plot, its strength is in the character drama aided by another strong performance from a guest star and sketching out the nature of the Xindi, thus broadening the arc. As in “Anomaly” we get to see some more of what Archer is prepared to do on this mission even if he falls back on his usual good nature fairly quickly and the Xindi back story proves to be a lot more interesting than the Xindi council scenes have been so far.

Not everyone gets a lot of screen time in this episode. Hoshi and Mayweather are not exactly front and center and it’s a little difficult to understand why they bothered to bring in Steven Culp for what amounted to a redshirt role most of whose lines could have easily been given to an actual redshirt or some random security ensign we’d never see again. This is of course the kind of job he and his team were brought in for but it still ends up being done by Archer and Reed as usual while he mostly stands in the background and gives two word answers or asks three word questions.

By contrast the episode does a good job of working Dr. Phlox into the action by having him research the biological end of the Xindi biomechanical technology. Trip once again nearly manages to blow himself up while fiddling with Expanse technology and T’Pol is back to playing the stay at home commander. Still, “The Shipment” does a good job of balancing everything together to make a complete and coherent episode instead of A and B and C stories that run on different tracks or a single story that feels stretched thin for material as the series has done in the past.

Season three of ENTERPRISE also seems to be doing better at featuring powerful and memorable guest stars who challenge our characters worldviews in episodes like “Anomaly,” “Rajin,” “Exile,” and now “Shipment.” Earlier seasons had all too often neglected guest stars in favor of throwaway alien races of the week who threatened the Enterprise and then went away never to be seen again. It’s also good to see that ENTERPRISE has a mythological back story worked out for the Xindi in just a few episodes, having perhaps learned from the mistake of the Suliban, who were defined primarily by their abilities rather than any meaningful back story. The various Xindi races are still not making enduring impressions except for the Insectoids who are being portrayed as increasingly evil based on their appearances. Wouldn’t it have been surprising though if for once it was the human looking aliens who were evil and the insectoid looking aliens, whom viewers would naturally assume were evil, who turned out to be the moral ones? It would be somewhat more challenging than once again associating ‘being different’ with being evil and ‘being human-like’ with being good.

While the Xindi Archer deals with is not one of the humanoids, he’s the next closest species to human. It might have been more daring if it had been a colony of insectoids instead, creatures whom Archer wouldn’t be able to relate to as easily and whose very inhumanity would cause him to see them as enemies. The suspense in “The Shipment”‘s plot ultimately revolves around the decisions Archer must make which about the nature of the man Archer chooses to trust. While the plot is not original, its ability to generate suspense rests on a willingness to keep the audience in suspense as to whether the Xindi will help Archer and the Enterprise or betray them.

Whether he knows what has really been going on and is pretending not to in order to manipulate Archer long enough to turn him over to the Insectoids, or whether he really is a scientist and engineer outraged at the uses to which his craft has been put to. “The Shipment” is a successful episode precisely because between Chris Black’s writing and the performances, the suspense is there nearly until the end. But an Insectoid would have been a more successful vehicle for exploration, though, of course the makeup would have made it difficult for the actor’s facial expressions to be properly visible.

On the production values front, the actual Xindi biomechanical technology isn’t all that new to STAR TREK since VOYAGER had organic gel packs and the Xindi version look like spaghetti worms but the portrayal is alien enough to be intriguing, even if the production values are somewhat lacking. The Xindi gun Trip is playing around with also looks far too toylike, as does the display. The weapons explosion is also a little hokey with an over-the-top fiery blast. With Andre Bormanis having gone from science consultant to writer and story editor, would it be too much to expect an explosion in space to look more like a radiating energy wave and less like a car bomb in Beirut?

The sets for the Xindi home had a nice homey feel like a futuristic hobbit hole and the shots of the compound from above are a little too dark to make out many details, but still good-looking. And the shot of Enterprise between the intersecting curves of two planets is a striking touch of composition that shakes up the all too often generic space background scenes.

Next week: Enterprise confronts its terrible future. And no it’s not syndication.

Star Trek Enterprise episode review – Exile

Summary: ENTERPRISE does Beauty and the Beast with a lonely old alien telepath.

star trek enterprise exile“Exile” may remind some viewers of the second season ENTERPRISE episode “Vanishing Point.” “Exile” features Hoshi experiencing strange hallucinatory images that cause her to doubt reality and become isolated and cut off from the crew. However, where “Vanishing Point” was a 43 minute waste of time that all turned out to be a dream, “Exile” features what may be ENTERPRISE’s best guest star of the entire series. Indeed ‘Tarquin’ is in many ways reminiscent of an Original Series tragic character like Methuselah or Kodos the Executioner; driven and brooding and doomed by his destiny. Those types of characters and indeed complex characters of any kind have become increasingly rare on STAR TREK and vanishingly rare on this show, so Tarquin is a breath of fresh air in an all too often stale enclosed room.

Season three has so far been in danger of neglecting the development of the ensemble cast in favor of focusing excessively on Archer, Trip and T’Pol. “Exile” helps balance that out not only with character development for Hoshi that in part helps explain her linguistic abilities, but also a nice scene for Phlox that serves to develop his character specifically, and Denobulans in general. The general track of Hoshi’s development has involved her learning to overcome her fears as in “Fight or Flight” or” Sleeping Dogs” or “Vanishing Point.” “Exile” is less about Hoshi dealing with a narrowly targeted phobia like claustrophobia or fear of transporters than dealing with an opportunity to retreat into an isolated life.

Meanwhile “Exile” also follows up on “Anomaly”‘s mysterious sphere that turns out to be part of a network of such spheres radiating gravitational anomalies thus causing the Expanse to exist. The artificial nature of the Expanse may then help explain why we never heard about it in any other STAR TREK series. The exploration of the sphere manages to weave together what the ENTERPRISE crew has learned about the Expanse from Trellium-D and the Vulcan reaction to it, to the Xindi charts and the spheres themselves. The spacewalk also offers the opportunity for comedy, which for once isn’t broadly overacted by Trinneer. The scenes of Archer and Trip trying to shoot down the shuttle also make for some nice visuals, particularly as they shoot up at the shuttle. The actual shuttle crashing back down to the surface of the sphere has the unrealistic feel of a 3D object with no actual mass moved around in Lightwave rather than the real world. however. A problem the colliding asteroids in last week’s Impulse also suffered from.

Overall, though, it’s the interaction between Hoshi and Tarquin and the performances of the two actors that make the episode. Phyllis Strong’s script by contrast is rather weak and leans on classic cliches from bad novels right down to the echoing manor and the host who warns his guest not to go outside and the graves right outside the door. Even Roxann Dawson’s usually strong direction is muddled and having Hoshi constantly changing into new outfits to indicate the passage of time was clearly a bad idea. Still, she and the actors got the character scenes right. It would have been all too easy for Park to fall into a victim mode but instead she remains strong and defiant. It would have also been all too easy to write off Tarquin as a cliche, a lonely telepathic voyeur-kidnapper but instead he retains a tragic dignity as he appeals for an understanding that he knows will never come, and even if it comes, will never last. To the end Tarquin is neither evil nor good, he’s simply an exile who like Hoshi is isolated by his own uniqueness and abilities.

The crystal ball falls a bit on the absurd side along with Strong’s other cliches. It is rather odd that Hoshi would use the crystal ball to see scenes of space battles the Enterprise fought years ago instead of seeing what is happening now. The idea of objects retaining psychic impressions from their owners is also pretty silly. Heavily influenced by some questionable research about human psychic abilities, science fiction widely adopted psychic abilities as being scientifically legitimate; though in fact they’re extremely questionable to say the least. While BABYLON 5 had a backstory explaining its human psychic abilities, STAR TREK has generally portrayed psychic abilities as an alien ability. This conveniently avoids questions of credibility raised by belief in psychic phenomena and the general fraudulence of those phenomena.

Still, it’s one thing when those powers are portrayed as being able to make telepathic contact which could at least be somewhat plausible given an alien biology. On the other hand, psychic resonance is definitely on the kookier side of the spectrum and pretty difficult to justify without resorting to Theosophy or some other lunatic philosophy of that kind. Furthermore, Hoshi’s ability to use the crystal combined with Tarquin’s repeated references to her uniqueness would almost seem to suggest that the writers are setting her up for some sort of psychic ability. Of course actual mind reading skills would probably be the only thing that could explain her ability to learn a completely alien language in days or even hours. Though it still wouldn’t explain how she learned to read an entire alien book in an entirely unknown alien language a short time after she first laid eyes on it without help or a Rosetta Stone of any kind. That’s pretty difficult to justify even with psychic powers, let alone without them. The producers have been giving Hoshi superhuman abilities for some time now and while “Exile” does at least begin to try and justify those abilities, what’s being portrayed is still far in excess of what is possible or plausible.

Tarquin’s final appearance is almost unexpected and despite the rather different tones of the episode’s two storylines, Archer and Trip’s outer space adventure and Hoshi’s quiet battle of wills in Tarquin’s manor, the episode manages to come together again as Archer and T’Pol finally get a lead on the weapon even as they begin to realize the extent of what they are facing here.

Next week: Rerun of the S3 premiere.

Star Trek Enterprise episode review – Impulse

“Impulse”

Overall episode score: 7.0
Performances: 6.5
Writing: 5.0
Direction: 8.0
FX and Production Values: 8.0

Summary: ENTERPRISE does EVENT HORIZON with Vulcan zombies. Fortunately there’s a method to the madness.

star trek enterprise impulseThus far s three has not exactly been T’Pol’s year. Her primary role on the show seems to have been to serve as Trip’s unclad masseuse and in the last two episodes she’s hit a particularly low point. In “Extinction” she was reduced to helplessly scrambling away from the mutated crewmembers like an extra in a slasher movie with no trace of the specially trained operative with Vulcan strength her character is supposed to be. In “Rajiin” she was reduced even lower to a psychic rape victim. This week she’s back in sickbay again but at least there’s some character development in it for her.

EVENT HORIZON substituted a spaceship for a haunted house and a mysterious faster than light space drive for an Indian burial ground, but essentially the material was the same. Ever since the Vulcan ambassador tried to frighten Archer with grainy green videotape of psychotic Vulcans running amok in the expanse, the resemblance to the movie’s data log was unmistakable. And since ENTERPRISE’s early season episodes tend to be better on continuity, Vulcan zombies was a concept that a Brannon Braga-produced series could never pass up; it was almost inevitable that Enterprise would run into them sooner or later. Once it does the resulting plot is a predictably formulaic series of zombie chase scenes not significantly different from most horror movies or for that matter STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT, except that the Vulcan zombies are never scary. The results are more reminiscent of season two’s “Sleeping Dogs,” in which characters scramble around a rundown broken Klingon ship with a Klingon stalking them. The one thing STAR TREK has never really done well is horror and “Impulse” is no exception. Still, veteran Trek director David Livingston goes all out to do some great work right down to the flashy, final horror movie-style nightmare sequence and if “Impulse” never manages to be disturbing, it’s not his fault. Even the FX are well directed with dramatic pans across an asteroid field roiling with tumbling rocks.

Vulcan zombies are just hard to take seriously and horror is premised on the idea that the characters are in a situation beyond their control and in which some of them will not survive. On STAR TREK, on the other hand, the situation is almost always under control, even if it’s via Deus Ex Technobabble, and we know the cast members will survive. The franchise simply doesn’t do horror well because TREK episodes are too afraid to let go of their control. The only out-of-control element involves T’Pol’s growing instability but at this point seeing crew members go wonky is nothing special. Archer, Reed, and Hoshi did it two episodes ago and the last time T’Pol lost her sanity was during last season’s “Bounty,” not to mention “The Seventh” or “Strange New World.” Fortunately, unlike “Bounty”‘s abysmal T’Pol B-Plot, T’Pol’s instability here serves to allow some character development.

“Impulse” also features a long overdue look at how the crew has been coping with their mission and the Expanse. A look that should have been part of the arc and developed episode by episode instead of giving us Archer as an alien werewolf, T’Pol’s massage parlor, the obnoxious alien of the week or any of the other nonsense that has sidelined season three’s promising storylines. It’s nice to see a return of movie night and a discussion about morale as ENTERPRISE picks up on season two material right down to T’Pol silencing Phlox at the screening. That’s the kind of thing that lets us see Enterprise as a single entity, a ship and a crew, rather than the cast wandering around through empty hallways while battling the alien of the week or a virus of the week whom we’re certain to never see again. Like TNG’s Ten Forward or DS9’s Promenade or Voyager’s Holodeck, it’s important to emphasize rituals that bind the crew together outside emergency and duty situations. It’s what makes the setting of the ship, and by extension the show, three-dimensionally believable.

Star Trek Enterprise episode review – Rajin

Overall episode score: 6.0
Performances: 7.0
Writing: 3.5
Direction: 5.0
FX and Production Values: 6.5

Summary: A Xindi spy romances and probes the Enterprise crew.

“Rajiin” picks up the Xindi arc and references events in previous third season episodes like “The Xindi,” “Anomaly” and “Extinction” that has Archer dealing with the aftereffects of his mutation, the Enterprise searching for a way to synthesize the hull compound suggested by the Osaarian and the council mentioning Enterprise’s attack on the mine. There are more scenes of the Xindi leaders, which sketch out the agendas of the individual Xindi races a bit more and their long-term plans beyond what the premiere showed us. The Expanse still seems more like VOYAGER’s Delta Quadrant than the unimaginably mysterious place that terrified both Vulcans and Klingons at the end of the last season; but the alien bazaar is nicely done both conceptually and visually. Vejar’s direction shines most in the bazaar scenes filled with strange goods and animals for sale by strange species. Like “Broken Bow” and “The Seventh”‘s takes on STAR WARS’ Mos Eisley, it’s an effective evocation of interspecies trade and mingling. And what 24th century Earth should probably look like but never does.

Like the behind the scenes looks at the Suliban’s interactions with Future Guy, the Xindi council scenes serve to position the conflict as being something greater than just isolated threats to the Enterprise. But at the same time the council also seems to be following the classic pattern of bad aliens/reasonable aliens subdividing the threat into the same categories of evil enemies and ones that can be negotiated with that have served as the resolution for many a STAR TREK episode. It would have been more interesting if their positions hadn’t been quite as biased to appearances, if perhaps the humanoid Xindi had been the most ruthless while the insectoid Xindi had been the most sympathetic to the humans. It would have put forwards the traditional STAR TREJ message of disassociating outward appearances from inner humanity. Much in the same way that TOS’s “Devil in the Dark” recontextualized the monster to show a mother, it might have also been interesting if instead of being an attractive woman, “Rajiin” had been something that outwardly looked like a monster. It would have had real possibilities for changing how we think about the Xindi instead of doing yet another episode about a mysterious seductive woman with a hidden agenda and thus going where STAR TREK has already gone so very many times before.

Like other ENTERPRISE episodes in the past, “Rajiin” becomes a struggle between the high road and the low road that only tangles the story and the motivations of the characters even more. While Archer was perfectly prepared to send back the Cogenitor to a life of slavery in order to maintain good relations with an alien species, he’s prepared to fight all comers in the alien bazaar in a completely alien part of the galaxy on behalf of another slave. At the end of “Cogenitor” Archer asks Trip what kind of example he’s been setting, which is a really hard question to answer because a lot of the time Archer doesn’t seem to know himself. Is this meant to be part of Archer’s character growth in the Expanse, is he being manipulated by Rajiin, is it because he’s attracted to the slave in question but he wasn’t attracted to the Cogenitor? Or is Archer simply being written inconsistently because the show’s writers and therefore also its characters are not operating within any kind of consistent moral framework? It’s important for characters to have worthy goals but without a consistent understanding of how they solve problems in order to achieve those goals, stories become exercises in plot contrivance.

But “Rajiin” suffers from the same problem that the series does as a whole. This is, after all, the show that featured the first Vulcan to serve on board a human starship even as they paraded her around in skimpy clothing at every opportunity. This is also the season which took Trip’s post traumatic disorder suffered after the death of his sister and turned it into an opportunity for a topless massage. ENTERPRISE wants to do serious stories but it also wants to desperately appeal to the lowest common denominator with desperate tactics like these. And the two are not all that compatible, particularly because unlike when in the Original Series, it smacks of a kind of cynical desperation that treats the audience with contempt while scrambling for ratings. It’s no surprise that “Rajiin” seems to place as much emphasis on the deliberations of the Xindi council as on T’Pol and Trip doing the heterosexual version of K\S fan-fic. Except, of course, for the suggestions of intimacy in Rajiin’s encounters with Hoshi and T’Pol, which once again serves to present homosexual contact as threatening and a violation, rather than portraying it positively. If B&B have to stage exploitative scenes, they could at least avoid associating same sex intimacy with rape against an otherwise heterosexual character as an offensive stereotype in movies and TV shows.

If the high road in “Rajiin” holds up, it’s because of an effective performance from the guest starring actress in taking a part that could easily have been reduced to a heavy breathing cliche and infusing Rajjin with a distinct personality that’s always present. And overall the performances generally do hold up, as aside from the massage scene everyone manages to keep their dignity and take the material seriously aided in no small part by Vejar, STAR TREK’s best director. Unlike LeVar Burton in “Extinction”, whose episodes usually look good, Vejar is not only good visually but good at working with the actors to get the right performance out of them. Whether it’s an alien trader doing an almost lighthearted impression of an alien trader on the original series to Rajiin’s intense concentration on everything around her, “Rajiin” boasts the right performances every time. It’s likely more to his credit than to Friedman’s script that “Rajiin” doesn’t become another “Favorite Son.” And while the battle scenes don’t live up to the standards of “Anomaly” or the fight scenes to the standards of “The Xindi,” this fourth episode of the season manages both satisfactorily. More importantly than the action scenes are the interactions between Archer and Rajiin that play well and without which no amount of action scenes could have salvaged the episode. Ultimately Rajiin’s report to the council hinges on the credibility of those scenes and as a result so does the entire episode as a whole.

Next week: What could make a Vulcan lose his or her mind?

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