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Star Trek Enterprise episode review – The Xindi

Summary: Leave behind everything you know because it won’t work here. Well, actually it will work here. Forget we said anything; feel free to take along everything you know.

star trek enterprise xindiReview: After drooping ratings and a widely popularized overhaul, ENTERPRISE might have been expected to come out swinging in its season three premiere to amaze and win back viewers with something new and exciting. But while “The Xindi” clearly has more FX and production dollars invested in it and more action scenes than the average episode, all told it’s a rather commonplace affair. While season three ran under the tagline ‘Leave behind everything you know because it won’t work here,’ “The Xindi” is clearly a poor demonstration of that philosophy. Indeed, if we eliminate the actual Xindi elements from the episode, what we have left is an episode that could just as easily have taken place in any of the earlier seasons.

After the previous season ended with the Enterprise NX-01 vanishing into the mysterious and ominous Expanse to confront unimaginable horrors and wonders, “The Xindi” is a rather pedestrian episode in which the only major effect of the Expanse appears to be some flying cargo crates. Not only that, aside from brief scenes of the Xindi council, we end up with another typical ENTERPRISE storyline in which Archer and Trip are captured by another group of funny looking aliens with cardboard motivations and T’Pol and Reed have to arrange a rescue. A plot twist that the show hasn’t just done to death but actually resurrected and done to death all over again. The addition of the Xindi arc rather than enhancing the episode further impoverishes the non-Xindi content as it removes any need for the writers to give the non-Xindi events any depth because they’re just marking time to the Xindi encounter.

Aside from Archer acting slightly edgier, most of the intensity and drive we saw in “The Expanse” seems to have been replaced by the ennui of their routines as if the characters are just as bored by what they’re doing as we are. Only Trip manages to retain some of the energy from the season two finale, and that too is promptly squandered by the episode’s end. “The Expanse” was certainly far from perfect but it set up some interesting potential stories. “The Xindi,” by contrast, not only fails to follow up on that potential but shows that the writers would rather return to the same old stories than actually try anything new.

Indeed in many ways “The Xindi” is a rehash of the original ENTERPRISE pilot, “Broken Bow.” Like the debut, Archer and his crew are venturing into the unknown with a new mission that seems interesting on paper, a mysterious new enemy Archer needs to learn about, an informant who is located and then pursued by enemies resulting in a shootout, an escape from an alien base during which time the informant is killed, and an episode that ends with tantalizing suggestions about the nature of the new enemy. Perhaps the producers should have gotten the message that a new ENTERPRISE might require new writers or at the very least new ideas, instead of the same old ones recycled and massaged into a slightly different form.

The episode’s highlights, aside from Trip’s dream of course, concern the Xindi themselves. Moments like the Xindi council and the view of the shattered Xindi planet evoke some of the awe and mystery the episode should needed. The sense that we’re going, if not quite into uncharted territory, but into at least somewhere bigger and different than we’ve seen on ENTERPRISE in the last two years. But those moments were sadly few and far between. Trip’s story appeared to have potential initially with an effective dream sequence and a seeming addiction to sleep aids but the show’s gift for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory manifested itself again as by episode’s end the story was reduced to another clumsy and graceless attempts to boost its sex appeal by getting T’Pol’s clothes off. As absurd as previous attempts like the ‘Spread Your Germs Around’ blue light decontamination chamber have been, “The Xindi” manages to hit a new level of absurdity with the Vulcan topless back massages that also relieve stress over the death of loved ones.

The military team have no particular function except to upstage Trip’s red shirts with a display of efficiency and precision design that make them look cool and us wonder why every starship in the future doesn’t come with a similar team, but don’t really tell us anything about the characters or let us get to know them. And it’s doubtful that they can repeat this trick too many times because it would foil ENTERPRISE’s traditional plot device of getting Archer captured. At the same time, I found myself more interested in them than in the regular cast, which is never a good sign. Nor was being able to guess that Archer and Trip would be captured the minute they walked into the mine, despite having not read any spoilers for the episode. These are all signs that a lot of this material is growing stale. Season three seemed advertised on the premise that it would be delivering fresh material that seems to be on back order.

Next week: Archer goes 24’s Jack on a Xindi.

Star Trek Enterprise episode review – The Expanse

Summary: After an alien attack devastates Earth and kills millions, Archer takes his ship on a new mission into the Delphic Expanse to locate the aliens responsible for the attack.

star trek enterprise the expanseIn many ways “The Expanse” is more of a 40 minute trailer for upcoming episodes in the revised and retooled 3rd season version of ENTERPRISE than an episode itself. Unlike the retoolings of previous spin-offs like DS9’s “Way of the Warrior” or VOYAGER’s “Scorpion,” The Expanse serves as a secondary pilot after “Broken Bow,” minus the character introductions. As such, “The Expanse” is less about what’s actually happening on screen and more about the premise that it sets up for next season. Like a trailer, it’s a flashy showcase chock full of ships, special effects, space battles, alien races, plot twists and emotions. And like a trailer it’s also shorthand for the kind of abrupt changes, many of which should probably have been played out in a more gradual transition.

Attacks on Earth have been more commonplace in the STAR TREK movies than any of the series because they imply a raising of the stakes to something so major it requires its own showcase. Like “The Expanse,” two ORIGINAL SERIES movies featured probes carrying out attacks on Earth, both of which turned out to be somewhat misguided. Two NEXT GENERATION films featured attempted attacks, which were more menacing and lethal in nature but still none of the four films or even DS9 came close to “The Expanse” in showing the sheer devastation and scale of destruction. The improvements in special effects are what make it possible but it’s Enterprise’s need to reassert the importance of the crew and their mission in the face of falling ratings and interest that prompted Berman and Braga to cut a swath across the more optimistic STAR TREK worldview of the future, as the Xindi probe devastates Earth in a way that not even the Borg had ever managed to do. Even if ENTERPRISE’s producers choose to jettison or back off some from the resulting changes to the series, the deaths of millions makes it impossible for the series or Archer to go back to ever being as naive and carefree as before while maintaining credibility.

The special effects of the probe’s attack are occasionally spotty but it’s the crew’s reactions along with Archer’s log entries that really convey the impact of the attack. Still, despite effective scenes including the crew’s first reaction to learning the news and Trip confronting the devastation at home, “The Expanse” is doing too many things at once to really focus on the effects of the attack on the crew. There’s Duras constantly menacing Enterprise and while the resulting Klingon scenes are entertaining and the space battle is ENTERPRISE’s best, it mainly seems to be there in order to present an on-going threat, as if the Xinti attack and the threat of the Expanse wasn’t enough for an audience the producers seem to be assuming is on the verge of ADD and won’t watch or enjoy the episode if there isn’t a constant stream of action. Duras’ pursuit is an important continuation of the events in “Judgment” and “Bounty” that brings Starfleet and the Klingons closer to hostilities, but cramming them into an already crammed 40 minute episode dealing with other major events was not the way to go.

After all, within those same 40 minutes millions die on Earth, the Suliban kidnap Archer for a conversation with Future Guy, Enterprise returns to Earth, Archer challenges Vulcan authority again, gets a new mission then travels for months to its destination and Enterprise’s crewmembers deal with the impact of all these events. There is a lot of good character scenes here, from T’Pol and Phlox’s discussion of their status as the only aliens on board a human Starship to Archer and Trip drinking together during the night. There are good action scenes including the sight of the first other armed Starfleet ships we’ve seen up till now as they rescue Enterprise, and the Enterprise rolling behind a pursuing Klingon ship masked by gaseous clouds in a hoary but yet entertaining revisiting of WRATH OF KHAN. There are revelations, from the first photon torpedoes to an update on the departure of the second Warp 5 starship, to the suggestion that Future Guy might be human after all. But pack a lot good scenes that never quite manage to flow into one another tightly together in a package whose primary role is to setup future material, and you have an episode that hits a lot of the right notes but never quite comes together in a symphony.

As a second pilot “The Expanse” covers a lot territory that “Broken Bow” missed, most importantly by giving us a sense of Earth and Starfleet that we never really got before “First Flight.” There are still missed details that future episodes should clear up including the question of the soldiers of what army are on board Enterprise exactly and why Earth needs an army in the first place. It also marks the diminution in importance of the Suliban, whom “Broken Bow” presented as nemeses but have now become reluctant allies at best. Since the pilot, the Suliban have failed as menaces or as characters and while some viewers may be complaining about their defanging in “The Expanse,” comparisons to the defanging of the Borg on VOY are not warranted simply because unlike the Borg, the Suliban were never impressive or terrifying. The Xinti, from the brief glance we got in Starfleet’s version of Area 51, also seem to rely on extensive makeup but it still looks more natural than the Suliban and certainly more menacing. Most importantly, though, “The Expanse” provides Archer with a sense of purpose and gravity that he’s never really had before. Archer has been a temperamental character who acted on impulse. Now those qualities come closer to being grounded by the dedication to serving a larger purpose as Kirk’s and Sisko’s were.

Ultimately, “The Expanse” is a trailer and so its impact and how we see it in the context of the larger series has to wait for the third season of ENTERPRISE to begin. It promises a lot, but how much subsequent episodes deliver remains to be seen.

Next week: Summer O’Reruns

Star Trek Enterprise episode review – Future Tense

Summary: The Enterprise encounters a ship from the future whose possession is immediately contested by both the Suliban and the Tholians.

The X-Files is often brought up when discussing Enterprise’s Temporal Cold War arc and with good reason. Like the X-Files, it’s full of star trek enterprise future tensemysterious forces, secret conflicts and strange mysteries. Also like the X-Files,the arc often seems light on content and heavy on suggestion. But where “Broken Bow,” “Cold Front” and “Shockwave” pursued conventional storytelling approaches via traditional action and suspense stories, “Future Tense”‘s real story is focused around the discovery of a ship from the future and the impact of the implications of that discovery on the crew. From T’Pol coming to terms with the reality of interspecies mating to Trip and Reed pondering whether it would be better to know the future or remain in the dark, this is what “Future Tense” does best and what it’s meant to do.

The action component of “Future Tense” though, which consists of Enterprise running from one place to another while being chased by CGI ships to be capped off by a Deus Ex Machina ending, is weak and peripheral to the core story. The action component mostly seems to exist in order to inject some excitement into a Sweeps episode and provide a reason for Enterprise to dispose of the 31st century ship. While the Tholian’s first appearance is intriguing, we’ve all seen Enterprise being chased around and blasted away at by Suliban cell ships more than enough times by now. It all feels formulaic and unnecessary especially when dangerously mounting radiation levels from the ship, or perhaps the fear that humans weren’t ready for such advanced technology, could have provided all the plot justification for activating the beacon in the first place.

Dropping Pandora’s Box into the lap of the characters is a standard SF plot and has been done on Star Trek plenty of times before but thanks to Enterprise’s prequel premise, “Future Tense” can open that box and show surprises inside that link directly to the back story not merely of the series but of the entire franchise. Enterprise has often mishandled this material by having Archer directly reference aspects of the future he couldn’t possibly know with terminology that was too on the nose (“Dear Doctor”), but FT gets it right by having the revelations come directly from the future in an unexpected way. In “Cold Front,” Daniels suggested that he was not entirely human and “Future Tense” explains what he meant as by the 31st century, a significant portion of the human race has apparently interbred with other species resulting in a hybridized humanity that is a significant and intriguing change. It’s also one that gives the Enterprise-era Humans and Vulcans in the pre-Spock era food for thought.

The 31st century ship itself, which in a Dr. Who vein, is bigger inside than outside is also a nice demonstration of future technology that also star trek enterprise future tenseallows the set designers to save money by using a smaller model. Thusfar TREK has not been very good at coming up with futuristic technology that would genuinely surpass anything we had seen in the 24th century, but this space-saver starship is the first futuristic technology to make it in. Trip and Reed’s Groundhog Day Effect juxtaposed with their topic of conversation served to give the ship’s powers credibility along with a real life demonstration of the impact of knowing what will come next and did it in a clever and offbeat way in a series that all too often delivers predictable dialogue and scenes that tell rather than show. “Shockwave 2” came far too close to giving us the distinct impression that the 31st century holds the same relationship to the 24th century as the Enterprise era does to our own; namely that the people were the same and the gadgets had improved a little but were still completely recognizable. “Future Tense”‘s tesseracting starship helps to restore some of that sense of mystery the 31st century is supposed to hold.

Like the aforementioned X-Files, FT does suffer from the problem of being an arc episode that unlike “Cold Front,” “Broken Bow” or “Shockwave” fails to significantly advance the story. It doesn’t reveal anything that moves the story forwards, it doesn’t develop the Tholians or the Suliban any further and it doesn’t really tell us much we didn’t already know. Its strength is in the character moments; it works best as the characters respond to the revelations as in the conversations between T’Pol and Dr. Phlox, T’Pol and Archer, and Reed and Trip. Its weakness comes about because an episode that should have stayed with those character moments is grafted onto action and fight scenes that aren’t really necessary and don’t work. In an attempt to inflate what should have been a smaller story into a bigger event episode, “Future Tense” almost loses touch with what makes the story work in the first place.

Next week: Archer’s beatings return as a major story focus as he goes off to Alien Prison.

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