A series’ first season is its defining moment. While the first season may be full of clumsy scripts, poorly thought out plots and insufficient characterization, it is the testing ground in which it finds its balance, its sea legs so to speak. In the first season the character relationships will not yet have really come together, yet certain patterns will have become noticeable that will shape the future of the series.
Certainly this is particularly true of Star Trek series, which take years to become polished enough to produce their best material, and so there is no reason to expect Enterprise’s first season to have produced the great classic episodes that might one day become associated with the series. As such, any criticism of the first season must be written and read with this knowledge in mind.
At the same time the basic identities of the characters, the style and feel of a series do tend to become set in its first season. Essentially, the first season of a Star Trek series serves a similar role as pilots do to many other series. It produces patterns which may be modified somewhat, but still influence and define the show’s future. Attempts to redefine the show’s dynamic (witness Stewart’s attempt to transform Picard into a man of action) may fail and ring flat.
So while plot arc-intensive episodes like “Cold Front,” “Shadows of P’Jem” and “Shockwave” may grab the audience’s attention, the real impact of Enterprise’s first season will likely be felt in the more character centered episodes like “Shuttlepod One,” “Fallen Hero” and “Fight or Flight.” Despite any impressions to the contrary, plot arcs are created on the spot and even when a series bible exists it is frequently modified by the writers and producers. Characters, on the other hand, become fixed beyond a certain point so that the writers come to discover that they are dealing with a set mould that is difficult if not impossible to change. In sum, the failures and successes of the future of a series are rooted in the patterns that can be noted in its first season. There are many patterns emerging now.
One is the question of setting. With its emphasis on space exploration, Enterprise functions far better in stories set in space than in those set planetside. With episodes like “Fight or Flight,” “Silent Enemy,” “Fallen Hero”, “Shuttlepod One,” “Breaking the Ice” and “Cold Front,” Enterprise demonstrated that space-based bottle shows play to its strengths. These are its emphases on isolation, exploration, unknown threats and personality clashes. On the other hand, there is something about planetside stories that causes the writers to revisit every cliché from the past four series resulting in clunkers like “Terra Nova,” “Strange New World,” “Rogue Planet,” “Civilization,” “Oasis” and “Desert Crossing.” A promising episode like “Dear Doctor” had a strong beginning when it was set in space and collapses into a Voyager retread when it touches the ground. Where space provides the chance to break new ground, visiting a planet or an alien culture results in another retread from the cliché factory.
This is more than a random question of space vs. planets, though. “Two Days and Two Nights” was a strong planetside episode and “Unexpected” was an extraordinarily weak space episode. They demonstrate that Enterprise’s strong episodes are produced when the show focuses its energies inward on the characters and situation in the appropriately named ‘bottle shows.’ But Enterprise has a good deal of trouble creating believable alien cultures or imagining the pre-TOS state of the galaxy. It is a flaw that will need to be addressed, since if Enterprise is to play a part in birthing the Federation, it cannot remain isolated in space forever.
Another pattern involves Archer’s behavior. From “Broken Bow” to “Shockwave” he has come off as man whose responsibilities outweigh his abilities. In his best moments the writers have managed to transform this into a positive trait as a character arc, but in the far more frequent weaker moments, it highlights his inadequacy. On a situational basis from episode to episode, Archer’s character has come to be defined by a combination of naivete, self-righteousness and a propensity for getting captured. All three of these issues go directly to the question of his incompetence and nothing will kill a character in a commanding role sooner than a belief that he is incompetent as this leads viewers to question every decision he makes. Even the clearly legitimate ones.
Worse, it leads to an attitude of contempt towards the character of the type which doomed Captain Janeway. Shows live or die by their leading character: for better or worse Archer is Enterprise’s main character, ensemble cast or not. Viewers will relate to the show based on his behavior and his attitude. If they don’t like it, they will change the channel. Ideally, Star Trek Captains have been people to be admired. Archer does not manage to meet that standard. The Producers would find it a very good idea to take a long hard look at what isn’t working and fix it before Archer becomes an objection of derision in the Janeway mode.
Like Kirk, the producers have meant Archer to walk the line between explorer and military man. Where Picard was the explorer and Sisko the military man, Archer is once again meant to be the synthesis of both. But a similar intention existed for Janeway and went mostly unfulfilled. While much more credible work has been done in giving Archer such a background, the synthesis remains less than entirely convincing.
The premise of Enterprise has Archer facing both a military challenge in the form of the Suliban and the challenge of exploration in moving into a strange and unknown universe. The Temporal Cold War combines both challenges in one, and in episodes like “Shockwave” it is where Archer comes closest to combining both aspects of his personality: the explorer who looks at the universe with awe and the military man who views it as a threat. There is an essential schism in such a point of view that must be bridged. The Original Series did so by throwing a strange variety of threats and experiences at the viewer, so that the threats were awe inspiring and as much forces of nature (Trelane, Nomad, Khan) and the experiences were in and of themselves threatening (The Guardian, The library, the giant amoebae.) But while the Temporal Cold War qualifies as the extraordinary, too much of Enterprise qualifies as the ordinary.
It is axiomatic that Science Fiction should be at least two steps ahead of current science. Not the current accomplishments, but the current ideas, otherwise it merely becomes a dramatized Nova production. Good Science Fiction goes beyond a science textbook and into the realm of the extraordinary. Yet Enterprise has shown us few extraordinary things thus far. Enterprise has attempted to portray the intermediary stage of exploration and discovery as extraordinary, and at times in episodes like “Breaking the Ice,” it has even succeeded. But paradoxically it has come closest to successfully dramatizing the challenges of space exploration in its military episodes such as “Fight or Flight” and “Silent Enemy.” This is indeed in keeping with the Original Series tradition of episodes like Balance of Terror. The beauty of these episodes and the “Gallieo 7” redux, “Shutlepod One,” has been their simplicity. And for better or worse simplicity has been the watchword of Enterprise.
From its opening titles depicting a linear acceleration of human exploration untroubled by any historical ambiguities, to its approach to moral dilemmas (e.g. Phlox’s dissenting voice being smoothed out of “Dear Doctor” in favor of mutual agreement), Enterprise has tended to choose a simplicity suffused with idealism over complexity. In each episode the viewer is meant to know exactly how he or she should feel about the events and the characters in it through dialogue that is thoroughly unsubtle in conveying a simplistic homogenized universe. There are ways in which Enterprise resembles Star Trek’s Original Series, but unpredictability is generally not one of them. That is a problem.
In its time the Original Series was a controversial show and even today many of its episodes remain intellectually and politically challenging. The same simply cannot be said for Enterprise. Indeed Enterprise seems to have been created as a ‘safe’ way of doing something different while still maintaining the apron strings to the franchise. As such, Enterprise has the same relationship to the Original Series as Voyager had to the Next Generation. Conceptual spin-offs from successful series that in the transition lose many of the rough edges that made the original shows worthwhile. In revisiting an earlier era, Enterprise is relying on nostalgia to fill the gaps created by its lack of adventurous storytelling. Archer is the embodiment of that nostalgia.
He’s Kirk without any of the bad habits that wouldn’t play as well to a 21st century audience. As with Voyager, most of those questionable qualities have been passed on to a proxy character. Tom Paris on Voyager, Trip Tucker on Enterprise. But this has the effect of rendering the Captain into an unrealistic person. A character’s strength comes from his ability to overcome character flaws or to function despite them. Characters with deep personal flaws make for compelling viewing and paradoxically are more respected. Kirk’s misogyny and reflexive hostility, Picard’s arrogance and anti-social isolationism made them compelling and interesting characters. It allowed us to view them as complete and well rounded individuals. On the other hand the attempt to make Janeway and now Archer into commanders capable of anything, while staying celibate and being beloved by everyone turns them into candidates for sainthood and little else.
Archer’s characterization as a naive and self-righteous man with a big Starship setting the wrongs of the galaxy right, often without first bothering to check who’s wrong and who’s right, negates the premise of Enterprise as an under-powered Starship exploring a strange galaxy as beautifully expressed in episodes like “Fight or Flight” or “Silent Enemy,” rather than the classic mighty Federation throwing its moral and physical weight around. By negating this premise, Enterprise is transformed into Voyager Mark 2 with minor differences in uniforms and starship design and Archer’s character is key to this aspect of the premise.
Perhaps the casting of Bakula himself was a mistake. From Shatner to Stewart to Brooks to Mulgrew, Star Trek’s Captains have been larger than life characters who might chew the scenery but nevertheless dominated the scene. They might be accused of many things, but they were never boring and Archer simply is.
In retrospect Bakula may not have been the best choice to serve as the focus for that kind of energy and worse yet he has chosen to play the character as increasingly laid back and good humored. Even his fits of anger seem half-hearted. This is a style that might work for SG-1 where Richard Dean Anderson’s sardonic delivery compensates for the weirdness around him, but on Bakula it lends a dreary air to a show that is already paced too slowly and has a shortage of interesting and exciting characters.
Where Bakula’s casting was a much praised choice, Blalock’s casting was greeted not too positively by many, including myself. Nevertheless, she has done a very capable job in a somewhat ambiguous role. Still, the T’Pol character often hovers too close to being Seven of Nine Mark 2. The costume, which is completely unnecessary, tends to invite this comparison as does the series’ all too often treatment of T’Pol’s Vulcan nature as a flaw that must be corrected by exposing her to ‘normal’ human behavior in the Seven of Nine vein. But this mistake leads into the more fundamental mistake at the heart of Enterprise’s premise.
There are few writers who aren’t aware of the dictum that conflict is necessary to drama. While this has some truth to it, conflict tends to be more overused than underused. There are few dramas that have too little conflict versus. dramas that have too much conflict.
In part this is because conflict is used to cover up bad work. To produce artificial excitement and suspense in circumstances and situations that lack it by introducing artificial obstacles. Thus a producer might decide that a cop show needs an obstacle and so introduces an obnoxious Captain who interferes with the police work. Enterprise has attempted to do something similar by re-imagining the Vulcans as obstructionist imperialists and giving Archer the goal of succeeding at exploration, despite the Vulcans.
Yet this is an innately flawed concept. Enterprise was an attempt to return to an Original Series style of exploration, which needed no situational obstacle except the limitations of technology and the danger of the universe itself. Relegating the triumph of the exploration of space to a quest to prove the Vulcans wrong reduces it to a crude contest whole ultimate outcome is already known to the audience and relieves it of the joy of exploration.
Placing such a Vulcan onboard is a pointless move, as Star Trek under Rick Berman has a tradition of creating premises with sources of conflict and then smoothing away characters who serve as sources of conflict–witness the premises of DS9 and Voyager that involved large numbers of non-Starfleet crew members serving on board to provide conflict, only to see that conflict become filed away rather quickly. The same phenomenon is occurring with T’Pol at an even more rapid pace as she has gone from being a source of conflict to a staunch ally in less than a season.
The best conflict comes from differing viewpoints defined by fundamental differences in character, as McCoy versus Spock. This type of conflict can quickly be reduced to a cliche as was done when Worf began to approach every situation from a martial viewpoint. It bogs characters down and makes them entirely predictable. If we know what a character is about to say every time he opens his mouth, the character has become an uninteresting cliche. At the same time creating contradictions and depths in character relationships keep them fresh.
T’Pol for now has not really formed consistent relationships or become a cliche, in part because her writing suggests that the producers are unsure of which way exactly they’d like her to go. At first she was the obstacle onboard as an extension of the larger Vulcan obstacle placed in the Enterprise’s path. She then became Enterprise’s ally and Archer’s confidant. She must however be far more than another Major Kira or Commander Chakotay.
Unfortunately much of the rest of the crew also falls into the category of undeveloped cliches. Even in their tightest bonding moments, how far have Reed and Trip really gone from the stereotype of the quiet introverted Englishman and the brash extroverted Southerner? Yet they are the most developed crew members after the Captain and T’Pol. In retrospect, “Shuttlepod One”‘s lasting impact has been to provide the two with a bonding moment to serve as the basis for a lasting friendship, much as similarly themed “The Chute” did with Paris and Kim on Voyager.
Reed and Trip certainly have more energy than Paris and Kim ever did, and the two actors in question are also far superior. It would be a shame if the emotional vulnerabilities uncovered in “Shuttlepod One” were as thoroughly forgotten as they were on Voyager in the post-“Chute” episodes, in favor more goofy scenes of the two prowling around bars. Friction and conflict can be used to build relationships more complex and interesting than friendship. As natural antagonists the two are interesting, as friends they’re more of a punchline. Both the actors and the characters deserve better. Hopefully in the second season the show can manage to hang on to both of these elements, rather than discarding their clash of viewpoints as merely a stage in their bonding process.
By contrast, Hoshi and Mayweather are little more than a character outline that can be summed up in one sentence, one sentence would suffice for the both of them too. The attempt to develop Mayweather as a Boomer has clearly failed with “Favorite Son” and should not be revisited. It is hard to say whether it is a case of a weak character or weak actor or both. But it does seem as if Mayweather has become the Ensign Kim of the crew, though without the disastrous relationships since Trip already has a premium on that. Hoshi is a pleasant but also undeveloped character whose main characteristic references the most damning moment of another minority female communications officer from a far earlier series proclaiming, “I’m Afraid, Captain.”
While Dr. Phlox had the most potential from the outset he really has mostly remained on the sidelines as far as character development is concerned. Occasionally he steps out from the sidelines to guide the action as in “Vox Sola” or “Terra Nova,” but this tends to reduce him to a Deus Ex character.
The key problem is that he lacks motivation. The motivation to be on Enterprise, to be a Doctor, to be or do anything. All he has is a mild curiosity and affability that is pleasant and his status as an alien that so far has mainly served to produce comic relief as it did in “Two Days.” Traditionally, Star Trek’s non-humans have been reduced to wanting to be human (Data, EMH) not wanting to be human (Spock, Worf, Odo) or being faintly curious and bemused by humans (Neelix, Garak.) For now Phlox appears to belong to the latter category, yet only time will tell if he becomes a Neelix or a Garak.
Finally there is the premise of the 29th century villain and a temporal cold war. While this is an interesting idea, interesting ideas do not necessarily translate into effective premises, especially considering that Enterprise was an attempt to deal with the Birth of the Federation. Rather than dealing with the struggles of the time Enterprise has saved its biggest ammunition for an intangible enemy that does not relate to this era. That is unfortunate as the struggles of Earth to come to terms with itself and its place in the galaxy has more story material than a temporal cold war does.
The premise of Enterprise appears to be an attempt to combine two incompatible premises into one. As a result, the first season of Enterprise can be split down between the bulk of episodes featuring various Aliens of the Week and Dilemmas of the Week and recurring storylines involving TOS races and a few key episodes involving the Suliban, who come off as not particularly interesting when compared to the TOS races and even to some of the Aliens of the Week; even as they take the emphasis of the series off the Birth of the Federation and into X-Files territory.
That brings us to our fifth and final key mistake, the Suliban. In part the problem of the Suliban is that of Species 8742, it confuses concept with effect. Enterprise expects us to find the Suliban interesting because they can shift their shape and have lots of fascinating special abilities. This does not remotely make for an interesting species. When first introduced, the Klingons were little more than short men with funny faces. What made them compelling was their ruthlessness, directness and fervor. So too with the Romulans and the Cardassians, key characteristic traits of those races emerged and defined them. The Suliban have no such characteristic. When we think of a Suliban soldier, we think of abilities rather than character. “Detained”‘s attempt to compensate for that by giving the Suliban a backstory proved that they were about as interesting as Voyager’s average Species of the Week.
While those characteristics were driven as much by the actors as by the writing, Enterprise has saddled the Suliban actors with makeup that retards facial expressions. This prevents the actors from being much of a presence, so that John Fleck has to do most of his acting with his voice. It’s a triumph of effect over concept. The Suliban may have some excellent special effects behind them, but no worthwhile concept and so like Species 8742, they lack screen presence as a major enemy.
With season two, Enterprise has a chance to learn and grow from some of its mistakes and build on its strengths. It has produced some strong space episodes and must now learn to break new ground in dealing with planetside episodes and alien cultures, just as it has done in space with episodes like “Fight or Flight,” “Shuttlepod One,” “Shockwave” and “Silent Enemy.” Progress and development will not occur by repeating the past mistakes of the franchise, but by breaking new ground.
Enterprise has set the basic mould for its cast of characters, some are featureless and others have a troubled development arc ahead for them. Aspects of Archer’s character need to be rethought. T’Pol has emerged as a strong character but what has been gained will be lost if she is allowed to become a Seven clone. Dr. Phlox still remains the most intriguing character of the series but he needs development, a goal and a purpose to fulfill that promise and produce the kind of compelling episodes his character is capable of. Viewers have compared Phlox to Garak. Yet without the secrets, the guilt and the mixed motivations, episodes like “The Wire” would have been impossible. Phlox needs to become a more complex character, rather than the comic relief he has too often strayed into.
Like TNG and DS9, Enterprise needs to rethink some of its premises. Early on, TNG made a disastrous attempt to be TOS. DS9 then made a disastrous attempt to be TNG. Both shows recovered from that by the second season. With season one behind, it is time for Enterprise to find an identity hidden amid the choices made in its early days.