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Monthly Archives: November 2003

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Star Trek Enterprise episode review – Carpenter Street

Synopsis: Archer and T’Pol do Starsky and Hutch going back in time to the 21st century to stop an attempt by the Insectoid Xindi on earth’s past.

star trek enterprise carpenter streetReview: It’s odd for ENTERPRISE producers to schedule two retro episodes like “North Star” and “Carpenter Street” so close together, and indeed the two episodes do have a lot of similarities. Both borrow the visual style of an action genre, the western and the 70’s cop show. Both are fun to look at with strong direction but aside from the occasional comic moment, take themselves far too seriously in stories that don’t add up to very much. But “Carpenter Street” isn’t nearly as visually adventurous as “North Star” and it takes itself even more seriously. Where “North Star” committed itself completely to the material it was paying homage too, “Carpenter Street” picks and chooses a few elements with no real enthusiasm or vigor.

Time travel episodes on STAR TREK and elsewhere in Sci-Fi usually provide plenty of comic material. From Kirk claiming that Spock’s ears were crushed in a cotton picker, to Picard doing Shakespeare to dodge paying the rent, to militia goons capturing Torres and Chakotay. “Carpenter Street” has some comic moments, but not nearly enough, and its only real high points are T’Pol recovering her strength this season in her tough, no-nonesense treatment of Loomis; and Archer offering to untie Loomis so he can hit him again. Most of the remaining comic moments come from Loomis but instead of being played broadly for laughs, Loomis is played by an actor who tends to play disturbed characters and his performance isn’t really broad comedy but nervous and fidgety; a lot like his guest role on NYPD Blue.

For whatever reason, “Carpenter Street” is set in the present day even though if the car Archer drives had been removed, the episode could just as easily have been set in the 70’s or the 80’s which would have been more adventurous and in keeping with the visual theme. A theme into which Loomis’ apartment, haircut and fashion choices would have fit in perfectly. Also it would be more credible than having the Xindi pick our time out of all the other points in Earth’s history they could have gone to. After all, what are the odds of that anyway? Presumably Braga and Berman thought that a present day setting would be simpler to do and make the threat more relevant to the audience; but it’s not like the audience was sitting on pins and needles anyway worried about the Xindi virus being released. “Carpenter Street” could at least have had some fun with the 70’s.

In some ways, the idea of integrating “Carpenter Street” into the Xindi arc rather than having the characters take a vacation from dealing with the superweapon due to obliterate the human race as in “North Star” was smart. But on the other hand, if the Xindi could travel back to Earth’s past, then why bother with the entire process of designing a weapon and flying it to Earth. All they really had to do was go back a few thousand years and wipe out a handful of nomadic proto-humans. The Borg in FIRST CONTACT behaved logically since they didn’t want to wipe out humanity, just assimilate it. The Xindi though want to wipe out humanity and instead they tinker around with a bio-weapon in recent human history when there are much easier ways to accomplish their goals if they can travel through time. “Rajiin” too starts to make very little sense if the Xindi had all of Earth’s past at their disposal. So does sending the weapon prototype to attack Earth in the 22nd century instead of the 19th when Earth would have had no defense against it. And so the integration with the Xindi arc rather than being a strong point begins to raise questions the episode can’t answer but that just cast doubt about the credibility of the Xindi arc.

The actual use of the Reptilian Xindi in the realistic 20th century set designs also pointed up how fake and shiny and plastic the Xindi star trek enterprise carpenter streetReptilian costumes look. On ENTERPRISE or another spaceship, Sci-Fi designs don’t stand out nearly as much, but put up against textured natural materials like wood and brick, the costumes look like something off the discount post-Halloween sale rack. Having the Xindi alter their appearance, or using humanoid Xindi, might have expanded our knowledge of them, saved money on makeup and been creepier than the latex. ENTERPRISE often uses humanoid-looking aliens with just a dab of latex here or there when it shouldn’t, but this was one case where the producers should have gone for a humanoid look. There might have been a scene where one of the Xindi would peel off the human mask to reveal the Reptilian inside that would again have been more disturbing than having Reptilian Xindi running around the city.

The oddest part of “Carpenter Street” might be the episode’s decision to hang most of it around the character of Loomis, a low grade sleazeball without much in the way of interesting or redeeming qualities. The episode begins with him and ends with him, even though aside from occasional bits of comic relief, he contributes nothing to the episode. At one point the rumor regarding “Carpenter Street” was that the producers were looking for a ‘name star’ to play the part of Loomis and that may explain why Loomis ‘looms’ so large in this episode. But since at the end of the day the producers ended up a casting a capable but generally unknown actor who’s played a number of roles on STAR TREK over the years, it’s unclear why the Loomis character continued to play such a large role in the episode.

In order to accommodate the Loomis character, the episode had to have Archer do some pretty stupid things. First his plan to sneak in alone using Loomis and then take on the Reptilian Xindi is nothing short of foolish. Loomis is not trustworthy, as we find out later, and when your team only has two people on it and the enemy outnumbers it, splitting up is just senseless. In “Rajiin” and “Twilight,” we’ve seen that the Reptilian Xindi are very tough and very formidable and easily defeated the MACO’s even when the numbers were even. Archer taking them on alone is nothing short of insane and his being able to do it so easily discredits the Xindi as a capable enemy.

And why keep Loomis around anyway once Archer was inside? There is no real reason except that the plot calls for a bit of suspense that has Loomis attacking T’Pol. Like most of what happens in the episode, Archer’s decisions make no sense except as setups for action scenes borrowed from TV shows with even worse writing. All in all Loomis is the single biggest weakness because the plot warps around him. If an actual big name had been cast in the part, centering the episode around him might have made some sense. But lacking any depth, complexity or redeeming qualities, Loomis is nothing more than 30 seconds of comic relief stretched out to 15 minutes. T’Pol at one point suggests that Loomis encapsulates the worst qualities of the 21th century, which we might take as the writer’s view of Loomis. Except of course the worst qualities of the 21st century would involve mass murder, brutal dictatorships and theocracies and the eugenics war, which STAR TREK once again forgets about. Loomis is just a petty sleazeball. He doesn’t represent the moral failings of the 21st century, just the failings of this episode.

Star Trek Enterprise episode review – Similitude

Synopsis: When an accident puts Trip into a coma, a mimetic symbiote is grown with a lifespan of only 15 days to serve as a donor of neural tissue.

Review: “Similitude” is an interesting episode with an interesting concept. LeVar Burton‘s direction is smooth but unremarkable, giving the characters room to breathe while Manny Coto‘s script works through the material without any of the clumsiness that might be expected from a new writer. Bringing back Archer’s boyhood remote control spaceship from “Broken Bow” was a nice touch of continuity as was revisiting Dr. Phlox’s issues with his son. Coto has clearly done his homework.

star trek enterprise similitudeLike VOYAGER’s controversial “Tuvix”, this episode involves the creation of a ‘new’ crew member out of an old one and sacrificing his life to save the life of the original. It does dodge some of the controversy by soft pedaling the elements that made “Tuvix” so controversial, however. “Similitude” doesn’t really feature the destruction of a unique being, since there really isn’t much of a difference between Trip 1.0 and Trip 2.0 or Sim. Where Tuvix was a unique combination producing a personality very different from either Tuvok or Neelix, Trip 2.0 quickly becomes all but indistinguishable from Trip 1.0 making the entire debate somewhat moot.

The only difference between them is that Trip 2.0 has a few days extra memories spent around the ship. The situation might have been better if it had been the teenaged Trip who had to make the decision and fight for his life since there would at least have been a clear difference between the two of them.

“Similitude” also dodges the bullet of having the captain force the new crew member to die in two ways. First by giving him a limited lifespan so that his death becomes inevitable anyway. Second, despite an intense scene between Archer and Trip in Trip’s quarters, Trip ultimately makes the decision to undergo the operation himself. These, however, aren’t weaknesses because “Similitude”‘s focus really isn’t so much on the controversy of the situation, despite the apparent analogies to stem cell research and cloning, as on the character interplay of the cast and Trip 2.0’s evolution within the ongoing Xindi arc. That’s why when Trip decides to undergo the procedure the reason he gives ties in with the beginning of the entire Xindi storyline in the Xindi probe’s attack on earth.

In a way “Similitude” is actually closer to lifespan episodes like TNG’s “The Inner Light” that give us the sense of experiencing somebody’s life being lived from beginning to end within the constraints of a single episode. Of course the problem is that Trip’s life isn’t very interesting and neither is Trip. We relearn such revelations about Trip that he loves engineering, key lime pie and T’Pol. Oh and he apparently has had the same hair cut for 30 years, unless the hair style was also encoded in his DNA, which considering this episode’s scientific credibility is entirely possible. It’s Trip 2.0’s plight that is interesting, not his personality.

Usually when STAR TREK does episodes of this kind, medical techniques of questionable morality figure prominently. Such as the research on Bajoran slave laborers by the Cardassian holographic physician Creel Mosset or Dr. Crusher’s colleague who used patients as test subjects. Despite their moral qualms, the characters end up succumbing to the necessity of using these means to serve the end of saving the lives of their crewmembers even while shaking their heads over the moral leap. “Similitude” is no different in that regard, with Archer being prepared to go much further than ever before to save Trip’s life and oscillating between appeals to Trip’s humanity while treating him as less than human. Like “Tuvix” there isn’t much of a debate in “Similitude” and the appeal of the other side is mostly the unspoken presentation of Trip 2.0’s life weighed against the necessity that drives Archer’s actions.

Unlike “Tuvix” though the crew isn’t presented as being quite the amoral Stepford zombies that VOYAGER’s crew was. Here the crew members find different means of relating to Trip 2.0. But then unlike “Tuvix,” “Similitude” never pushes the moral dilemma to the breaking point, leaving no middle ground besides rescuing a crewmember through cold-blooded murder. That is probably a good thing since either letting Trip 1.0 die in the name of morality or killing Trip 2.0 to save a friend would be a decision that would make it impossible for a large portion of the viewers to view Archer as a credible Starship Captain. So despite Archer’s murder threat the choice is ultimately left up to Trip 2.0 to make. Still, you have to wonder if Archer isn’t exploiting the Xindi state of emergency to take an action that has more to do with his personal friendship for Trip than with the mission itself. But at least the Enterprise crew is portrayed as more professionally oriented and lacking the cliquish feel of a false family that made “Tuvix” so unnerving. They remain friendly with Trip 2.0 even as they categorize him as ‘disposable’, which is still disturbing but in a whole different way.

Trip 2.0’s own challenge to Archer over what makes him different from Trip 1.0 goes to a long time question on STAR TREK which has offered plenty of duplicates, clones, time traveling selves and other challenges to personal identity. First we might simply argue that a difference that makes no difference is no difference at all and so if we can’t define clearly how Trip 2.0 is a different person, then we’ve failed to prove that he is. An alternative track might be to argue Continuity of Consciousness, that what matters is not simply a perfect duplicate but the continuity of the consciousness of the original person. You can create an exact duplicate of someone with the same body and memories but without a continuity of consciousness we would end up with a different person. The problem with that is the transporter, which regularly breaks apart crewmembers into energy and then reassembles them from the pattern stored in the buffer. So arguably continuity of consciousness falls apart with each transport, as Dr. McCoy feared, and every time you’re transported you die and a stranger with your memories shows up on the pad on the other side. That would mean that Archer himself is probably Archer 4.0 or 5.0 by now.

But putting aside the philosophical questions, it’s important for the characters to pretend that there is a difference so they can do what they need to do. And if they can’t pretend that he really isn’t human, they can at least pretend that he isn’t one of their friends because that way it would be even harder to recognize what they’ve done. Of course we create moral boundaries by drawing lines to demarcate moral and immoral acts. Both the animal rights and abortion debates center around such lines, where different belief systems draw them, how you define who has rights, and how you balance necessity with morality.

After “Similitude” it’s no real surprise that the mimetic symbiotes have not exactly become standard equipment in the sickbay across Starfleet. We could all too easily imagine the horror of a Blade Runnerish society, with two classes of citizens: those who are the long-lived and those who are short-lived and which 15-day doubles are raised and disposed like everything else in a consumerist society.

The final funeral service in which Trip 2.0 is treated like an officer who died in the line of duty instead of an organ donor with a built in self-destruct sequence does show exactly how “Similitude” differs from “Tuvix.” The crew recognizes the moral cost of their actions and attempts to recognize Trip 2.0’s humanity in the best way they know how. Ironically enough it is Trip 1.0 who is confused at the service since it centers around a man he’s never met, himself.

Next Week: The day before Thanksgiving hasn’t been kind to ENT.

Star Trek Enterprise episode review – North Star

Synopsis: Proof positive that you don’t need a holodeck to do a holodeck episode.

Review: There’s no denying that “North Star” looks great. David Straiton‘s direction is amazing with a desaturated look, tilted camera star trek enterprise north star angles and affectations that STAR TREK episodes usually don’t go for, it all culminating in the spectacular final shootout. But like some of the holodeck episodes on TNG or VOYAGER, with scenarios mimicking noir detective stories or black and white pulp sci-fi TV adventures, the producers have loosened their grip and allowed the director some creative freedom. And it paid off. Unfortunately it’s also the only thing that worked.

STAR TREK has done westerns before but they worked by either employing broad comedy as a takeoff on the cliches of the West as in TNG’s “A Fistful of Data”‘s or as social relevance employed to test human progress in TOS’s “Specter of the Gun” (it’s notable by the way that both of these were holodeck episodes, though “Specter” actually took place in the holodeck of the mind.) “North Star,” though, seems to want to take both routes at the same time and manages to do neither, which is what often happens when you try to combine incompatible objectives. “North Star” would have been better off going straight for the comic angle we see early as a tribute to the genre and then writing the whole thing off as an imaginary event or a fantasy or some such thing. Or, if the producers wanted social relevance, the material needed to be updated to the 22nd century as with ENT’s own “Marauders” or at the very least they should have done something more than unimaginatively pile every single western cliche in the book on top of one another and borrow a premise from one of VOY’s worst episodes, “The 37’s,” to justify it all and expect people to care about the moral issues involved.

When movies were first being made and the film industry was in a similar state to Internet companies in the late 90’s, westerns were shoveled out the door at a frenzied rate. Today the western is all but dead on film, on television, and even at the bookstore because you can’t simply keep reusing the same cliches over and over again without even the most apathetic and mind-numbed viewer getting sick of the whole thing. But that’s exactly what “North Star” does and unlike “A Fistful of Data”‘s (written by Brannon Braga by the way), it expects that by replacing Native Americans with aliens who actually look more similar to the humans than movie “Indians” ever did, the audience will forgive the banality. Of course it doesn’t work anymore than STAR TREK: INSURRECTION did when it tried the same exact thing, replacing Native Americans with more Caucasians and almost-indistinguishable-from-humans alien characters. Even without the western setting, the whole ‘persecuted minority’ plot is threadbare and a faded retread of far better STAR TREK episodes.

Good westerns reexamine history and the place of the characters in it. Western comedies play off all the old cliches for comic effect. Bad star trek enterprise north star westerns pile on the tripe into a formulaic framework that was old long ago. “North Star” is a bad western beginning with its premise. Apparently humans are such good workers that lots of alien races are willing to travel all across the galaxy just to ship off a bunch of humans to do slave labor for them. Inevitably, like zombies in a mad scientist’s laboratory, the humans rebel and overthrow the aliens making you wonder why the aliens didn’t just save themselves the bother and build androids or return to the negotiating table with the representatives of their striking alien unions.

The premise then becomes even more absurd since apparently for centuries, despite overthrowing an alien race with transporters and phasers, they haven’t made an ounce of progress in all that time. Not technological progress and not even any kind of social progress. But the west couldn’t exist as an isolated phenomenon. It was a consequence of social and political and technological trends occurring elsewhere in the United States. Even “The 37’s” assumed that the descendants of the human slaves would reach technological parity with their captors but “North Star” asks us to believe that the result would be a static society duplicating the west in every feature. None of this would be a problem if the whole scenario wasn’t real or if it was all being played for laughs but by introducing the Scags and playing out emotional scenes that ask us to care about what’s happening here, the episode requires that we believe in what’s happening with more conviction than bad poker bluff. And once the episode asks the audience for emotional investment, it has to deliver a credible plot and premise, which “North Star” fails to do.

There’s no question that at times the episode is fun to watch, particularly the final shootout, which is directed and edited with all the bravado star trek enterprise north star and gusto of a spaghetti western. But it doesn’t work as a purely fun episode because instead of being played for laughs, we instead get burdened with the tedious and preachy ‘Scag’ storyline that Bakula and Bergl take as seriously in their performances as if every word of dialogue and every plot twist wasn’t as old as D.W. Griffith. It certainly doesn’t work as a socially-relevant episode because the entire premise is absurd.

So that leaves “North Star” as a flashy and good-looking episode without the substance it pretends to have. It’s too serious to be funny and too funny to be serious.

Next week: Can Trip come back from the dead just like Spock and Jesus did?

Star Trek Enterprise episode review – Twilight

Synopsis: Archer loses his ability to form long term memories and flashes forwards through time when infected by Trans-temporal parasites.

Review: Time travel episodes have traditionally been STAR TREK’s strength, after all, the greatest episode of the franchise is generally

star trek enterprise twilight

This isn't the Twilight where he's a vampire

acknowledged to be “City on the Edge of Forever.” As STAR TREK has grown older and become more static, this has increasingly come to be the case as time travel episodes allow for a reset button that let shows do what they normally wouldn’t dare. Namely, disturb the status quo, bang up the ship, kill off major characters or have those characters carry out morally questionable actions, or confess their love for one another

VOYAGER’s “Year of Hell” had Voyager and its crew endure a number of drastic events that the show never allowed to happen and is a classic example of the mold “Twilight” closely resembles. “All Good Things,” TNG’s great finale in which a mentally degenerating Picard copes with the destruction of humanity and changes made in the future resonate in the past, also represents this fine tradition.

But “Twilight” is no worse of an episode even if it does walk (or warp) along a well-trodden path. In a season supposedly dedicated to revolutionary change, in which only one episode thus far (the increasingly aptly titled “Anomaly”), delivered on; “Twilight” helps shake things up. Like VOY’s “YOH,” “Twilight” suggests that things may not go all that smoothly and that there will be bumps in the road. Its vision of Xindi dedicated to wiping out every trace of humanity, to the last man, woman and child is shocking and harrowing in a way that “All Good Things…”‘s more intellectualized eradication of humanity never quite reached. Thusfar the Xindi haven’t been all that impressive of an enemy, certainly failing to aspire to the impressive stature of the Borg or the Dominion, but the thoroughness and ruthlessness they display brings them yet closer to credible and memorable foes.

Blending elements of “AGT…” and “YOH,” Mike Sussman‘s script summons up a post-history of humanity that combines the former’s eloquent vision of the mortality of one man juxtaposed with the morality of the human species as a whole, with the latter’s personal history of a ship and crew driven to the brink of destruction in stages of battering pursuit to annihilation. Scott Bakula gives one of his best performances as Archer and Blalock delivers another strong performance as T’Pol. She still, however, puts on emotional displays that seem a bit out of place, like the look of naked anguish on her face as Earth is destroyed. Despite the nature of the temporal parasites that infect Archer, his incapacity is more prosaic and natural than the time-hopping we might otherwise have expected in this type of episode.

Like MEMENTO’s main character, his inability to remember makes his problem natural enough to seem less of a science fictional trope and more of an authentic crippling disability. Indeed, towards the end Archer seems to be able to maintain his memories for a bit too long which raises some questions, but of course the same objection was made of MEMENTO. Nevertheless, the resolution is both natural and plausible. Unlike “All Good Things…”‘s or “Timescape”‘s or “Before and After”‘s emphasis on the mind-bending contemplation of the artificiality of time, ENTERPRISE takes the temporal mechanics for granted and focuses instead on the people.

“Twilight” was clearly a priority for producers simply based on the amount of money that must have gone into it. From the Xindi destruction star trek enterprise twilightof Earth, to multiple space battles with Xindi ships, to the Xindi destruction of the Enterprise Bridge, there are some great special effects here. And the image of the convoy, of the last six thousand humans seeking a place of refuge, goes beyond FX and becomes one of those memorable and moving FX shots in line with “Call To Arms”‘s shot of the fleet or “Year of Hell”‘s shot of Voyager’s hull being ripped away as the ship goes to warp. The budget has clearly been bent more than a little to make all of this possible and on occasion the makeup suffers with inconsistencies cropping up in T’Pol’s makeup and Hoshi and Reed having to make do with different hair styles to show their age.

Some may criticize “Twilight” as a ‘Reset Button’ episode whose events don’t actually affect succeeding episodes and are wiped clean by the end of the episode. But that’s not all together accurate. Reset Button episodes allow for things to happen that couldn’t happen on the show itself, such as the death of the entire crew and the destruction of Earth and the Enterprise. They also allow writers and producers to set up future storylines or explore some possible ideas they’ve been toying with to get viewer reactions.

‘Reset Button’ episodes should also make the writers and producers ask themselves whether perhaps they shouldn’t be pushing the limits of what can happen in regular episodes as well. In that sense, “Twilight”‘s success also points out the need to break a lot of the unwritten rules that STAR TREK series have become saddled with. “Anomaly” and “Twilight” are both useful steps in this direction and it needs to happen more than only in these rare moments.

Next Week: Go West, young man.

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