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Star Trek Enterprise episode review – Proving Ground

Synopsis: Archer finds dubious Andorian allies in his quest to stop the Xindi weapon.

star trek enterprise proving groundReview: 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.

Star Trek Enterprise episode review – Chosen Realm

Synopsis: Fanatical aliens who worship the creators of the mysterious spheres hijack Enterprise.

Review: “Chosen Realm” has many of the ingredients of a good and possibly even great episode. There’s a strong performance by both Archer and the Prenom. There’s a story with current events and sociopolitical relevance. It’s an episode written by promising ENTERPRISE newcomer Manny Coto, who had also been responsible for the rather intriguing “Similitude” and directed by Roxann Dawson, who has quickly become a veteran series director. But “Realm” never actually becomes a great episode or even a particularly good one.

star trek enterprise chosen realmThere are a number of reasons for this. First is the formulaic plot that when stripped down to its skeleton is yet another story about aliens hijacking a starship and forcing the crew to retake it. And as formulaic plots go, “Chosen Realm”‘s is a thoroughly uninspired, by-the-numbers rendition of episodes we’ve seen a hundred times over. Right down to one of the aliens proving to be a sympathetic ally and aiding the crew in the retaking of the ship. It’s all predictable. Very predictable indeed.

But not only is it predictable but it’s also clumsily executed. Archer is too quick to cooperate with the hijackers while at the same time picking arguments over religion he knows will achieve nothing instead of using the Prenom’s obvious desire to bond with him for his own purposes. The method of Archer’s execution–his chat room style conversation with Phlox and Phlox’s bat would have been great moments in a comedy episode–but feel out of place in the stridently serious “Chosen Realm.” The hijackers go from open ruthlessness in taking lives to ignoring missing personnel and being satisfied with trying to chase down the saboteur instead of lining up members of the Enterprise crew and threatening to shoot them if the saboteur didn’t turn himself in. Behavior that would have been entirely in character for them. But the Prenom abandons his supposed ruthlessness just in time for the crew to get the drop on him. The result is action scenes with no real intensity or impact.

It’s also a little hard to believe that the Prenom had read Archer’s logs, that he and his crew had full access to Enterprise’s systems and yet didn’t know the function of the transporter. Even if he hadn’t read up on it before this, it would have taken a few seconds of reading the logs to determine what it really was for. Certainly the notion that a starship would build a special device for executions on board a ship that doesn’t have all that many people on it to begin with should have raised some serious suspicions.

All this might not have mattered too much if “Chosen Realm” had managed to make the characters and the ideas gripping enough to make us overlook the threadbare plot. Unfortunately the script doesn’t have ideas so much as it has cliches with no real life or depth. Like many religions on STAR TREK, the religion of the aliens is absurd and vague. Where real religions and ideologies connect to the lives of their worshipers in a real way, no matter how unreal they might be, religions on STAR TREK usually fall into two categories. They’re either incantations of vague spirituality in which the religion is hodge-podge of new age and a Hollywood writer’s surface grasp of eastern philosophy that neither stands for anything or means anything except ‘peace’ and ‘love’ and ‘destiny’; or their entire religion is defined by fanatical lunacy in which they’re out to slaughter everyone who doesn’t believe as they do. “Chosen Realm” is a textbook definition of the latter, especially since Archer frames his accusation in almost these exact same words. But it rarely feels like a real religion, a faith people would be willing to kill and die for.

Even the most extremist and fanatic religions are not defined by fanaticism, so much as the fanaticism is an expression of their interaction with the larger world. But “Chosen Realm” makes the commonplace STAR TREK mistake of assuming that creating a believable religion is just a matter of throwing together an absurd belief with fanatics who rant on about it. But no real life religion is as simple as that and the result is another two-dimensional villain overcome by the predictable and unchallenged good of Starfleet ideals. By the time we learn that the entire conflict over their belief system lies in a difference over how many days the spheres were created in, the episode has stopped even bothering to maintain the illusion of its credibility.

And that is a shame because drama comes from a conflict in which the victory is not easy or inevitable. An episode in which the villain is easily beaten would be boring. Similarly, a battle of ideas in which there’s never any doubt as to the outcome holds little interest. No episode whose battles are fought solely with weapons and in which there is no actual contest of ideas can seriously claim to be an episode about ideas. STAR TREK’s best episodes of ideas have been episodes that were never that simplistic. There are no complications in “Chosen Realm,” though, no doubt as to who is right. There is a physical struggle but no intellectual struggle.

Its strongest point is the guest-starring performance by the actor portraying the Prenom, who in cooperating with Dawson plays the character as a man who genuinely believes himself to be a hero, instead of an obvious villain as such characters are often portrayed on TREK. As such, he’s closer toKurtwood Smith‘s ‘Annorax’ than F. Murray Abraham‘s ‘Ru’afo’. That makes his final revelation on the planet all the more tragic when he finally has no choice but to see himself as the villain.

But Coto’s script gives little to anyone else on the Enterprise crew other than fight or distract the guards. T’Pol has an out of character angry confrontation with the Prenom over science vs. religion but has little else to do except be casually restrained when attempting to prevent the Prenom from destroying his enemy’s ships. Thus once again demonstrating that the ENTERPRISE producers have again forgotten that T’Pol as a Vulcan has superhuman strength and special combat training. And instead she ends up as another helpless female in yet another episode.

Archer gets the bulk of the dialogue but he never manages to to come off as particularly cogent in dealing with the Prenom and no real connection ever occurs. Coto’s script seems to be making some attempt to link the Prenom and Archer perhaps as a commentary on the possible person Archer could become if he continues down a path of ruthless fanaticism. But that element never really comes through in the episode, especially as Archer is confronting a physical threat, and the Prenom’s threat is independent thought. The Prenom needs to see himself as a hero while Archer has increasingly abandoned that notion in favor of a brute force pragmatism. The Prenom makes a great show of his sensitivity and empathy to compensate for the self-indulgent nature of his brutality while Archer conceals those outwardly in order to do what has to be done because he knows he has no other choice.

Ultimately the invocation of religious fanaticism, suicide bombers, and holy wars bringing down societies is supposed to seem topical and relevant but it never does. Aside from the suicide bomber preparing to blow himself up as a crewmember watches, “Chosen Realm” doesn’t feel particularly relevant. A truly insightful episode should have something more to say than ‘killing people in the name of religion is bad’ or at least find a better way to say it. “Chosen Realm” very badly wants to be “Let This Be Your Last Battlefield” but lacks either the intensity or the struggle. So, unfortunately, it fails to make the grade as either an action episode or an ideas episode, leaving it with little to offer except a memorable guest star and yet another hole punched in Enterprise’s side.

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