Synopsis: Archer finds dubious Andorian allies in his quest to stop the Xindi weapon.
Review: Proving Ground may very well stand as the best Xindi arc episode to date, not because like “Twilight” it does something extraordinary. Instead it stands out because it has the qualities that should be commonplace in ENTERPRISE episodes but sadly haven’t been.
“Proving Ground” manages to be a suspenseful episode because the suspense doesn’t come out of staged threats or characters behaving like idiots for the convenience of the plot, but out of the interactions of the agendas of well-rounded and written characters. All out of a story that finally gets the season back on track with the Xindi arc instead of wandering around aimlessly through various distractions. And most of all, a story that brings back the sense of imminent danger to humanity that we haven’t really seen since “Twilight” and probably the end of last season before that.
Chris Black writing on his own for once manages to inject life into even the most mundane scenes with snappy and witty dialogue that actually develops the characters. We even have a meaningful scene dealing with Trip’s sister, one of the first real growth scenes this season that have so far reduced his grieving process to a series of erotic massages from T’Pol, with of all people, Shran. Bakula comes off as a bit stiff and irritable but Jeffrey Combs manages to make the most out of every second of his screen time. This is unquestionably his best performance as Shran; the conflict between his liking for humans and his duty to the Imperial Guard makes the Shran character fully multi-dimensional as he moves seamlessly from comedy to tragedy.
But even the more minor scenes and characters get their due. The interaction between Lt. Talas and Lt. Reed is fun to watch but it also develops her sufficiently enough to make her actions in transmitting the probe data to the Enterprise credible. The tension within the Xindi High Council is tighter and more explosive than ever. So tightly wound that an explosion between the moderate and extreme Xindi seems all but inevitable. And all the while Shran has now been developed into something like Archer’s Q, a nemesis of sorts who nevertheless respects the Captain even if he more often acts as an obstacle.
On the directing side, veteran STAR TREK director David Livingston turns in another professional effort. The episode under him plays out like a heist movie with quick sharp scenes that focus on the essentials and don’t waste time on anything else. Suspense builds slowly but surely and unlike “Chosen Realm” is never squandered with an easy resolution but instead builds to the final confrontation between Archer and Shran that almost has a touch of WRATH OF KHAN to it. And for once Archer doesn’t defeat an opponent through heroics or technobabble or luck; but by out-thinking him and ultimately out-bluffing him.
The Andorian sets themselves lit with blue are a nice touch and somewhat reminiscent of the Enterprise-D sets suggesting that maybe the Andorians had more to do with the visual decor of Starfleet than humans did. The Andorian visual communications have an oddly faded 60’s touch very reminiscent of STAR TREK’s Original Series look. The Andorian Starship may not look like it would be believable on TOS but the Andorian General looking out from that circular screen looks as if he would be very much at home talking to Captain Kirk over it. The contrasts between the three sets of command bridges, Xindi, Human and Andorian help give the episode a grand scope visually that can’t simply be done with CGI starships. Playing out the same scene while moving from the perspective three locales builds up the suspense nicely.
Meanwhile the Xindi story has now been significantly advanced with Enterprise scoring its first real victory over the Xindi. The data losses of last week have been partially recovered, though this incident suggests Enterprise needs better data backup protection. And with data on the probe and a prototype destroyed, Enterprise now has given Earth a fighting chance against the coming Xindi assault. And ENTERPRISE, the series, has produced what may well be the best episode of the Xindi. Certainly the best at progressing the story, at showing life-like characters interacting with each other and at delivering a suspenseful and entertaining story that’s worth every minute.