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Galaxy Quest Blasts to the Stars

There’s a long history of fan fiction that plays with the idea of the actors on a Science Fiction show actually ending up in a real life Science Fiction situation, most notably Jean Lorrah’s “Visit to a Weird Planet.” “Galaxy Quest” is likely the only piece of fanfic to actually make it to film. Originally written by a “Star Trek” fan and intended to showcase the real life “Star Trek” cast, the script eventually evolved into a story about a Star Trek-like classic SciFi series, whose actors bear a certain amount of resemblance to the Original Series cast.

Like “Star Trek”, “Galaxy Quest” is a canceled classic network series that became a cult classic in reruns. (Galaxy Quest was canceled at the end of its second season. “Star Trek” was nearly canceled at the end of its second season, but survived to continue in a disastrous third season on Friday nights sans creator Gene Roddenberry, before being canceled.) Like the Star Trek cast, its actors have become sufficiently identified with the roles they played, as to seriously damage their ability to find other work.

Star Trek relaunched with a new motion picture. So does “Galaxy Quest”, but it’s a motion picture inspired by a “real life” adventure that begins when a naive race of aliens which has modeled itself on the television broadcasts of “Galaxy Quest” reruns seeking aid from the actors. The idea of an alien race picking up fictional material from humanity to reshape their own societies has been done quite often. The original “Star Trek” series itself featured an episode titled “A Piece of the Action” that had an alien race transform itself into a gangster culture (Al Capone not Snoop Dogg) based on a book carelessly left behind. This proceeds from the idea that our concept of fiction might itself be foreign to an alien race.

The Thermians on “Galaxy Quest” follow this model, having no other way to comprehend fiction, except as lies. In that way the Thermians become the diametrical opposites of the society that rejected the fiction of “Galaxy Quest.” Where the mundane approach is that fiction is worthless because it is unreal and believe nothing, the Thermian approach is to believe everything.

“Galaxy Quest” begins and ends with a Science Fiction convention filled with fans whose devotion to the show is gently mocked. The Thermians are the ultimate fans. If the faith of the fans occasionally wavers, as when passionate fan Brandon (Justin Long) is temporarily shaken by Jason Nesmith’s (Tim Allen) rant that the show is not real, the faith of the Thermians never wavers. Being human, the fans believe in the show as an act of faith. The Thermians naturally believe, because faith is innate to them. Throughout the movie the actors are called upon to prove worthy of that faith by saving the Thermians, to be in turned saved by their fans, led by Brandon, who provide crucial technical information and even landing directions for the returning NSEA Protector.

“Galaxy Quest” is essentially a story of faith packaged as an action movie. Much like the two upcoming Star Wars fan movies, “1977” and “Fanboys”, “Galaxy Quest” spoofs the devotion to a SciFi movie or TV show, even while affirming it.

Tim Allen’s Jason Nesmith is part William Shatner and part every TV leading man whose time has come and gone, but still can’t let go of his glory days. Ultimately he learns the same lesson that Shatner did, that a Captain is nothing without his crew.

Tim Allen channels not just Shatner’s arrogance but his boundless self-confidence, the energy and focus that causes Shatner to be parodied endlessly. A good deal of the ribbing aimed at Shatner comes about precisely because he is so serious about himself, that it becomes funny. The popular clip of Shatner interpreting Elton John’s “Rocket Man” comes about because with the seriousness of an actor who spends a lot of time breaking down the most trivial things in terms of his studies in acting, Shatner interpreted the artistic “ideas” of a silly pop song in terms of ego, superego and id. That is also why Shatner never quite understands the parodies of himself. Allen thankfully avoids any all too obvious vocal Shatner parody, instead he captures the sense of faith that underlies an actor, who in believing in his own performance, believes in himself. Unlike the rest of the crew, Nesmith does not need to learn to beleive. He needs to learn a sense of proportion and to believe in others besides himself.

Alan Rickman lends dignity to Alexander Dane, echoing Leonard Nimoy’s discomfort with being typecast as a SciFi character, who comes to realize the effect his performance which he has held in contempt, has had on the character of his fans. Rickman is best remembered for his turn in “Die Hard” as Hans Gruber, here he manages to convey the petty arrogance and condescension which he infuses into his villains, and yet allow such a man to grow and learn, as Dane does throughout the course of the movie.

Sigourney Weaver brings style and life to a character that could have easily fallen by the wayside, just as her fictional counterpart did on the screen. Weaver’s Gwen DeMarco isn’t well written, but she is well acted. Weaver is one of those few actresses who can easily dominate a scene no matter what she is wearing or what her character is, and she duplicates that feat here as well.

Tony Shalhoub’s Tech Sergeant Kwan is the weak point of the movie. Besides wondering why an Asian actor was not cast in an Asian part, Shalhoub’s performance is weird, but not particularly entertainingly so. Another actor might have made it work, but he does not.

The always excellent Enrico Colantoni turns in a stand out performance as Mathesar, the leader of the Thermians. Full of naive goodness and yet vulnerable and capable of being hurt, Matlhesar is the alien as a child writ large.

Daryl Mitchell isn’t as irritating as he usually is, though his role is yet another minstrel show of cheesy racial stereotypes. Sam Rockwell overplays his part, but that’s almost expected in a character who was killed off and is desperate for the spotlight. Justin Long plays pretty much the same part he plays everywhere else and isn’t nearly as irritating as he is in the Apple commercials. Also look for Rainn Wilson, The Office’s Dwight Schrute in a small part as one of the Thermians.

What is particularly startling about “Galaxy Quest” is how much better of a movie it is, than all of the “Star Trek The Next Generation” cinematic features combined. With the Star Trek franchise, that “Galaxy Quest” is based on, in severe decline. Perhaps it’s time for Paramount to look back to “Galaxy Quest” in order to recapture the Star Trek spirit.

Star Trek is now at its lowest point since the cancellation of the Original Series

Star Trek is now at its lowest point since the cancellation of the Original Series. In some ways Star Trek is even worse off today since it has a fraction of the fan base Star Trek had back then still left.

Two years ago there were two great white hopes that were going to save the franchise, Enterprise and Nemesis. Both have failed. Enterprise is not gaining viewers but losing them, it’s staying alive but it isn’t doing anything besides surviving. Nemesis was a disaster of colossal proportions that will likely bury the film end of the franchise for the foreseeable future, if not forever.

Both of these disasters had creative and marketing components. Enterprise kicked off after two Star Trek series that alienated most Star Trek fans and left a shrinking demographic as well as a perception that the franchise was just a money machine cranking out low quality material with the brand name on them.

By the time Enterprise came around the pilot’s ratings testify that a lot fewer people and critics were willing to give it a chance. Where during the TOS era, Star Trek had the aura of a daring and promising show canceled before its time, by the time Enterprise premiered the situation had long since reversed itself and now had the aura of a soulless franchise that nobody but geeks and nerds still liked and that should have been put to sleep years ago.

Star Trek has accumulated a lot of ill will over the years from SciFi fans from its own fans and from mainstream viewers. Enterprise’s shaky first season and lack of engrossing material has not helped either. Now Enterprise is yet another dwindling SciFi series dismissed by everyone and propping up a shaky network which itself exists only through corporate stupidity.

Enterprise has gone where DS9 and Voyager have already been. Not only has Enterprise not revived Star Trek, but it’s yet another nail in the coffin of its decline.

Nemesis did have quality problems, mainly due to footage being cut in
a way that damaged the movie’s ability to tell the story, nevertheless
it was and is the best TNG film ever made. It is also the last because
it should have been the first. It should have been the movie that
energized the transition of the TNG franchise to the big screen.
Instead the franchise went with a disastrous attempt to have Kirk hand
over the baton. The next two movies were just as bad in terms of
quality, they had promising elements but they were amateurishly
scripted, amateurishly directed and were more TV productions, than
film productions. And by the time Nemesis was announced, Star Trek
films had come to be viewed the same way that Star Trek TV series had
come to be viewed, as soulless cash cows for a franchise that had gone
on too long.

Paramount misread the situation disastrously when the quality of the
movie and the positive test screening responses led them to schedule
it as their high profile December release where tough competition
prevented it from gaining the publicity and the screens it needed
while gaining the ire of overworked critics trying to protect their
favorite films like Two Towers and Gangs of New York from competition
and regurgitating the popular view of the franchise by critically
savaging Nemesis. And released a mere 5 days before the 800 pound
gorilla that is the Peter Jackson version of LOTR, it was demographic
suicide. Since studio executives rarely take responsibility for their
stupid decisions, Nemesis and Star Trek itself will likely be blamed
instead. And that will almost certainly end the film franchise unless
they actually recognize that the problem with Nemesis was not a
creative failure, as a scheduling failure. But that’s not likely,
nevertheless official Paramount statements on Nemesis should be
watched carefully for indications of the party line the studio will
take.

But with Nemesis bombing and Enterprise dying the same slow death as
every Berman created series, Star Trek is now in real trouble. It has
lost its film franchise and its grip on the TV franchise is only as
secure as its sinking ratings and Paramount’s continuing commitment to
UPN. Neither is all that stable and all that certain 5 years from now.

That leaves us right back where the franchise was between TOS’s
cancellation and STTMP’s premiere, with Star Trek novels which seem to
be the only part of the franchise doing really well, with Star Trek
fandom itself and the fan collaborations, artwork, fanfic,
conventions, discussions and activity that kept Star Trek alive
originally.

Obviously Star Trek’s fandom has shrunk and much of the more committed
fanbase is aging. By the time Enterprise goes off the air, they will
be increasingly less of a factor in any calculations. And in a
franchise whose younger audience has become increasingly disconnected
from the franchise’s roots and now increasingly consists of fragmented
fanbases for the different spin offs, keeping Star Trek alive will be
more difficult. Star Trek’s active fanbase has shrunk. There are much
fewer people who have seen the latest series and many don’t even think
that Star Trek should survive or that there is any point to keeping it
alive.

Many are pinning their hopes on a revitalization of Star Trek. Some
are calling for the removal of Rick Berman, but there is no real
reason to believe that this would improve things. Rick Berman may
indeed move on if he takes the fall for Nemesis and Enterprise, but
statistically speaking, his replacement is likely to be worse, not
better. And in any case revitalizing Star Trek may at this point be
near impossible as the case of Nemesis showed. Star Trek has a bad
reputation, it can’t be changed now by simply putting a good product
out there because neither viewers nor critics will give it a chance.
Even were a talented showrunner placed in charge of Enterprise today
and the show became one of the best series on television, most scifi
fans, let alone critics and mainstream viewers would continue to
ignore it or comment on repeat all the usual cliches about the
franchise.

Still others have proposed taking Star Trek off the air for a while to
build interest again, but in Hollywood that makes something an
irrelevant property. Star Trek today exists for two reasons, because
it’s a franchise that Viacom can market and exploit in different ways
and because it props up UPN. If UPN goes and Star Trek has been gone
from the air for half a decade or so, it will never come back on the
air because attention will have shifted to other properties and Star
Trek will not be revived simply to prop up the merchandising licenses.

So what is to be done? Not much. Star Trek will still remain on TV
through some lucky factors. Star Trek fandom will maintain some of the
franchise’s presence and merchandising sales. Beyond that, all good
things must end. TV shows don’t last forever. There was a time when
Star Trek seemed like it might be special, like it might be the
exception. That time is past. Star Trek in its various incarnations
has gone on longer and done more than any other SF show out there. Its
best stuff has sunk into popular culture, it has inspired kids to
become scientists and astronauts. It’s become a part of history. But
history is the record of things past and keeping Star Trek alive may
now have become impossible. Ultimately Kirk had to face his own
mortality and the time to do so the same may have come for Star Trek
itself.

Of course things seemed pretty hopeless back when Star Trek was first
canceled. There were three networks and Star Trek was an expensive
show to do. The actors, the writers and the producers went on their
way to other jobs sure that the whole thing was over. It wasn’t though
but the set of events that brought Star Trek back on the air were not
predictable back then and the set of events that might revive Star
Trek may not be predictable now. For now Star Trek is still hanging on
and who knows what tomorrow will still bring. It might take careful
watching to spot the Vulcan mind meld and Genesis plot devices that
can create life from lifelessness and cheat death one more time.

Star Trek Enterprise episode review – Babel One

Synopsis: Enterprise is sent to escort the Tellarite ambassador to a peace conference with the Andorians only to find themselves in the path of a mysterious ship sabotaging the talks.

star trek enterprise babel oneReview: “Babel One” looks set to be the first episode of the first great three-part series, not only in this season of ENTERPRISE but of STAR TREK as a whole (which admittedly is not that difficult since there isn’t all that much solid competition.)

Many of “Babel One”‘s elements are admittedly not original. The peace conference and the enemy out to sabotage it for example are a staple of STAR TREK. STAR TREK VI’s plot, for example, hinged around a peace conference and a staged attack using a prototype cloaked ship. ENTERPRISE’s own pilot, “Broken Bow”, revolved around Enterprise transporting a Klingon home while being ambushed by Suliban with special abilities. So did the season’s closing episode.

But discarding the question of originality, “Babel One” is a strong episode that sets out the relationships between the alien species that will make up the Federation, features strong characters, decisive moves by Archer, cinematic quality direction, top notch special effects and a story that moves quickly and efficiently. Despite its status as a prequel to the Original Series and an episode that focuses heavily on Original Series species’, including some we barely ever saw outside TOS, in many ways “Babel One” more strongly resembles a TNG episode. Indeed in its focus on diplomatic measures and alliance building, the conspiracies of the Romulans and the blend of humor and suspense makes “Babel One” far closer to TNG than any other series.

The camera work on “Babel One” at times moves into gimmicky range and is rather flashy but it’s also enjoyable to watch especially during some of the Andorian fight scenes or Shran jumping down to the deck from above. The special effects are also excellent. The angle of the Tellarite shuttle’s arrival is well done. Romulus is simply spectacular and the Romulan ship is massive and eerie in a way that suggests cinematic quality effects. Even the production values are well done with the Romulan ship’s corridors appropriately spooky and alien.

T’Pol is flat this week again, though she really is given little to do, but the rest of the cast turn in solid performances. Archer is edgier now, and seems more willing to snap at Trip. Trip and Reed are recovering their relationship again and the actors play off each other cleverly and naturally. There’s even a reference to “Shuttlepod One” in their banter. The one weak note is struck by Brian Thompson, best known from the X-FILES, who is hired primarily because of his size. Whatever menace he has is ruined however whenever he opens his mouth and he is rather unsuitable for a Romulan commander, as Romulans are expected to be clever and devious, rather than large and bombastic. Thompson would have worked well enough as a Klingon, but as a Romulan he’s the dumb kid trying to play 3D chess.

From the clever Hoshi and Archer dialogue training at the start of the episode (though does Archer really need Hoshi to teach him how to insult people?) to the introduction of the Tellarites, the episode moves smoothly to intrigue and suspense and revelation. It’s simple and yet ENTERPRISE’s past seasons are littered with episodes seemingly incapable of mastering cohesion or style. Jeffrey Combs as Shran is an always welcome character and while his relationship with Archer is still often acrimonious, he clearly is letting his guard down more. Archer for his part clearly has a certain camaraderie towards Shran despite their endless clashes. It’s a good thing too, as a character that has often come off as a weak and unprofessional Starship Captain.

Shran reveals that like Archer he was also the commander of the first ship of its class and his revelation about Talas seems to tie in with Archer’s own possible thoughts about T’Pol. And aside from telling us more than we needed to know about Andorian mating practices, this is the only weak point about the plot. T’Pol mentions that her ‘divorce’ from her non-husband is official and now suddenly her status is up in the air again. Reed seems to know that she and Trip had something together, though it’s not clear how. Long after that storyline seemed to have been dropped, Archer is displaying an interest in T’Pol again. The camera angles in their scene together as Archer asks if “they’re moving too fast” are a particularly odd touch.

Of course T’Pol had left her husband in “Kir’Shara” yet suddenly ENTERPRISE has defaulted back into its old folly of ‘There’s Something About T’Pol.’ STAR TREK has not had a good history of crew relations. ENTERPRISE has had a thoroughly awful one. While some may pine away for the glory days of season three when T’Pol began losing her mind and giving Trip massages to help him stop stressing over the few million dead back on earth or “A Night in Sickbay” in which Archer worried desperately over his dog and T’Pol in that exact order of importance, the rest of us would rather watch reruns of Welcome Back Kotter translated into Norwegian than another painfully contrived attempt at romance. Let alone some abomination such as a storyline in which Trip and Archer fight over T’Pol. Personally I’d rather sit through The Passion 2: The Christening than Archer and Trip yelling over which of them will have the chance to spend the rest of their lives annoying each other to death. ENTERPRISE has an opportunity here, to explore interspecies relations minus the innuendo. Hopefully it will not waste it again in the hopes of luring a few fans with yet another pointless relationship or T’Pol in skimpy outfits. It did not work in season three or any other season. It will not work now.

“Babel One” is a strong episode at a time when ENTERPRISE desperately needs one. It contains many of the basic ingredients that can save the show and can make itthe series it was meant to be, about building the Federation and bringing us into the era of Captain Kirk’s Enterprise. Many people accuse critics of Enterprise of hating the series. I cannot speak for everyone but I hope that ENTERPRISE survives. I hope to see a fifth season and a sixth one after that. I don’t believe that will happen, though, without improvements in quality and without a shift in focus. “Babel One” is what ENTERPRISE needs to be doing if it is to have a fifth season.

STAR TREK is a great universe and it would be a terrible shame for it to die here and now. Much as when the fictional Enterprise is in peril, the power to save it lies with the writers. They can decide ultimately if it lives or dies by working hard enough and well enough and making the right choices to save the series. Ultimately it is not the fans or UPN who will keep ENTERPRISE alive, it is its writers. People like Manny Cotto, Mike Sussman and Andre Bormanis among others have shown they’re capable of producing good and even great episodes. In their hands rests the future of the franchise.

Next week: Archer vs Shran, but where’s the referee?

Star Trek Enterprise episode review – Observer Effect

Synopsis: Aliens capable of possessing the bodies of the crew at will observe their reactions to a deadly virus.

Review: It’s another episode from the Reeves-Stevenses, best known for writing William Shatner’s novels, and, like “The Forge” before it, at star trek enterprise observer effecttimes comes off more suited for a written format than a visual one. Nonetheless “Observer Effect” is one of the strongest episodes of the season thus far, in no small part because of veteran STAR TREK director Mike Vejar’s work in conveying the eerie qualities of the aliens.

While the basic premise of “Observer Effect” is nothing unusual, suggesting any number of STAR TREK episodes from TNG’s “Where Silence Has Lease” and VOYAGER’s “Scientific Method”, what sets “Observer Effect” apart is that like “Daedalus” it stylistically and thematically strongly resembles classic STAR TREK episodes. Indeed scenes such as Archer’s and Phlox’s confrontations with the aliens are strongly suggestive of Kirk and McCoy. By contrast, though, the chess opening of the episode is more in line with the stylistic flair of VOYAGER or third season ENTERPRISE.

The opening suggests a series of maneuvers; a game of chess that will be played out until the endgame, which is a surprising reversal of the strategic situation by emotional means. It is also a metaphor with the alien possessing Reed as the logical rule-bound type who can predict outcomes ultimately being outmaneuvered by emotion, which he cannot predict. Human emotions, empathy and its very irrationality stymie logic as effectively as they stymie the predictive abilities of the alien using Reed as a host.

“Observer Effect” opens with the aliens acting as observers studying the humans around them and ends with them departing, making alien observers the bookends of the episode in another noteworthy stylistic touch that we have seen in the past but is still worth mentioning. With the question of originality there are of course dozens of episodes from the Original Series and through VOYAGER that could be referenced but then it’s increasingly hard for ENTERPRISE to do a genuinely original story. “Observer Effect” is a worthwhile reworking of classic STAR TREK themes, namely human empathy vs. highly developed but cruel intelligences and self-sacrifice vs. logical cost and benefit analysis.

Mike Vejar’s excellent direction of course brings the eerie concept of alien possession to a whole new level. And it is interesting to note that about the only time Anthony Montgomery takes center stage and about the only time he’s interesting is when an alien has taken possession of his body for the entire episode. Reed, who has also been woefully neglected this season, gets a little screen time too — albeit as another possessed body — but he manages to make the most of what little time he has. Hoshi surprisingly also gets a good deal of sudden development, though the poker story is dubious and simply doesn’t fit with the character as depicted at all. Trip mainly reprises his sick and out of it material from “Shuttlepod One”, which gives him rather little to do but he does it capably enough.

All in all, “Observer Effect” much like “Daedalus”, is a good episode somewhat mired by a lack of originality and an overly abrupt ending. But it nevertheless strongly resonates of the Original Series and features some strong performances and excellent direction and will be a worthy addition to your tape library once ENTERPRISE goes off the air.

Next week: Andorians are feeling blue and the Tellarites haven’t discovered razors yet but it was good of “Observer Effect” to reference Tellarites and beat the Tellarite referencing rush.

Star Trek Enterprise episode review – The Forge

Synopsis: Archer and co. investigate the bombing of the Earth embassy on Vulcan.

Archer Star Trek Enterprise Federation The ForgeReview: The premise of the three-part Vulcan arc is an interesting one, especially considering the need to bridge the gap in continuity between ENTERPRISE’s mangled portrayal of the Vulcans and the STAR TREK portrayal of the Vulcans, the two often completely incompatible. “The Forge” itself also tosses out a variety of interesting ideas into the mix, which may or may not be delivered on properly in future episodes. However, “The Forge” itself is nearly impossible to review on its own because it’s simply more a fragment of an episode than an episode.

As with the Augments arc, “The Forge” appears to be part of an attempt to return to the prequel concept as a bridge to the Original Series and has a nice selection of continuity references to TOS. While it still continues to be filled with negative Vulcan stereotypes, the arc appears to be moving towards the argument that these Vulcans are bad primarily because they are the Vulcans in authority and prefiguring a social upheaval on Vulcan that will bring it more in line with the Vulcan we know. Of course the entire premise that such events had occurred in recent memory fly in the face of all of STAR TREK, as we know continuity and ENTERPRISE even in the best of situations go together about as well as oil and water. And for those troubled by that, ENTERPRISE’s own premise renders it as being outside of STAR TREK history via time-tampering from the future, rather than a continuing part of STAR TREK history as a whole.

The actual Vulcan drama is hit and miss with Ambassador Soval returning as a strong character but the Vulcan high command crudely portrayed and poorly acted. Soval’s speech to Archer, though, sounds like recycled deep throat cliches. Admiral Forrest is somewhat unnecessarily killed for shock value where having him severely injured in sickbay would actually have been more far more effective. Trip’s reaction of callously not caring about the embassy guard’s body but his mind is out of character for him. Trip has many failings but inhumanity hasn’t been one of them until now.

STAR TREK has more traditionally done three-part episodes and ENTERPRISE’s new attempt to carry out these arcs has its flaws. Like “Borderland,” “The Forge” feels like less of an episode and more of a preview to an episode. But where “Borderland” had more content and a solid ending, “The Forge” strings together exposition scenes and some action with the end result being more of a snack than a full dinner. Considering that the episode begins with a bang, the succeeding action mostly drags in scenes in which various people discuss or argue with Vulcans. There is no real sense of loss or catastrophe aside from Archer’s scene with the coffins.

Once in the desert the pace does not actually pick up any but the interest level increases mainly because we are finally exploring Vulcan. Some elements such as the sandfire are well done, though the special effects for it and the Sehlat are quite inferior. The Sehlat in particular looks like CG from the early 90’s. The editing attempts to compensate for this by showing it only in quick shots is effective to a degree but still would have been better done with the Sehlat entirely out of sight. Just as the electrical sandstorm worked much better as flashes from behind rocks, so too the Sehlat worked better as a growl than a CG creation. Special effects problems also plague the embassy bombing with the pillar collapsing blast scene looking just downright silly. I don’t know if ENTERPRISE’s budget has been cut or just stretched (in light of the lower UPN licensing fee) but in such a situation, suggestion is better than showing poor effects.

All in all “The Forge” raises some interesting ideas and possibilities but lacks real meaning until future episodes pick up the ball or don’t.

Next week: I’ve got Surak in my head and I can’t get him out.

Star Trek Enterprise episode review – The Communicator

Summary: Reed loses his communicator on a planet resulting in the return of the ‘Archer taken prisoner’ storyline.

star trek enterprise communicator“The Communicator” takes its story idea from an Original Series episode, “A Piece of the Action,” in which Dr. McCoy forgets his communicator on the surface of an alien planet and the crew speculates that the aliens could use it to reproduce a lot of the Federation’s technology. Of course the Enterprise continues on its way regardless and no one could seriously imagine Kirk being willing to die for a communicator, let alone sacrifice members of his crew, which in part is why the Original Series was a much more fun show to watch than Enterprise is and why Kirk was a Captain you might actually want to serve under.

Following the lead of last week’s episode, the B-plot is a mildly amusing story about Trip getting the cloaking device on his hands. Literally. Of course the cloaking device is actually a technological device that cloaks things in its radius by drawing power and can be turned on and off. It’s not magic invisibility dust. Which is essentially what “The Communicator” pretends it is. And you also have to wonder why a piece of advanced technology like this is still being kept in storage on board Enterprise ever since the first episode, instead of being sent back to Earth or turned over to somebody.

In “The Communicator,” Reed’s missing communicator triggers a search effort by the Enterprise crew, not an unreasonable thing to do. Nevertheless, they trigger the suspicion of the innkeeper and some military officers and choosing to use their fists rather than their phasers in a fight in which they’re outnumbered, Archer and Reed unsurprisingly end up in lockup. Thus we have the return of the first season’s favorite storyline, Archer in captivity. The second season until now had been delightfully free of the latest incarnation of this storyline, and granted this is a plot always guaranteed to maximize viewer suspense as millions of people all over America and the world stare at their television sets in tense anticipation wondering whether the Captain will be rescued at the last minute or killed, thus ending the series for good. The result is completely unpredictable each and every single time.

Still to maximize suspense, the episode throws out a contrived deadline for Archer and Reed’s execution that really makes no sense, except as a way of building tension for a last minute rescue. Archer and Reed just gave the appearance of cracking by telling the General some important information about the enemy’s plans. So rather than interrogating them further and getting the whole story, he decides to have them both killed and their organs cut out for examination. He decides to have it done to both of them, even though one set of organs would probably suffice for medical reasons. It’s a very logical plan, if you happen to be Dr. Evil.

But then once you get past the Prime Directive issue, “The Communicator” offers just another rewind of the same plot for the same episode that every Star Trek and non-Star Trek series has been doing for years. Substitute ‘drug smugglers’ for ‘militaristic aliens’ and ‘police officers’ for ‘Starfleet officers’ and odds are that you’ve seen this same plot more times than you’ve seen Spock’s ears. Up to now the second season has been showing creativity in even its weakest episodes: “A Night in Sickbay” may have been bad for a number of reasons, but it was certainly creative and different from the usual Star Trek episodes. As were “Carbon Creek,” “Marauders,” “Dead Stop” and “The Seventh.” Stylistically innovative episodes that were clearly making serious attempts to be different than the kind of Star Trek episode we’ve learned to expect. The same cannot be said for “Communicator,” which brings out all the usual cliches and whose only redeeming moment is T’Pol’s closing speech.

The episode is supposedly about the importance of the Prime Directive, and although it’s not openly referred to as such, Archer appears to have adopted it wholesale to the extent that he’s willing to sacrifice Reed and himself to uphold it. It is rather odd that Archer would be more fanatical about the Prime Directive than later starship captains like Kirk and even Picard. It’s hard to imagine either of these characters willing to let a member of his crew be killed outright, rather than doing what he could to save him. Even the Vulcans themselves weren’t willing to go that far in “Carbon Creek.” But despite a last minute plea to let Reed live, that’s essentially what Archer is willing to do in “The Communicator.”

Ironic, however, is that Archer is too hopelessly dim to realize that his earnest efforts to hide their true identities actually end up making things a thousand times worse as he leads his captors to believe that their enemies have advanced weaponry in their possession. In the good faith belief that he’s actually making things better, rather than much worse, with each and every word, he assures them that they’re prototypes, which of course tells the general that it’s important to attack the Alliance as soon as possible before they actually have weapons like that in the hands of every enemy soldier, thus making war inevitable. Although they don’t currently have nuclear weapons the jet planes and the reconnaissance aircraft suggest they will soon enough. The planet might have survived first contact, but they’re a lot less likely to survive nuclear war.

The only thing surprising is that the episode actually seems to realize some of this and allows T’Pol to deliver, what is for Enterprise, a surprisingly insightful closing speech. More insightful certainly than Archer’s canned justifications for the Prime Directive. Not only does Archer begin with the rather questionable claim that technological sophistication is equivalent to social maturity so that first contact should depend on a species’ level of technology, a premise for which there are plenty of counter-examples beginning with the Klingons themselves, but he goes on to claim that Earth circa first contact was ready for it. Apparently it was the kind of social maturity that involves a post-war planet that still has internal warfare and wide swatches of post-war devastation proving its worthiness by having an old drunk build a warp capable ship out of spare parts. But then “The Communicator” isn’t meant to be a discussion of the Prime Directive, the Prime Directive is just a surface coat of point over an old plot that mainly serves to showcase Archer heroically facing his death before being rescued at the last second. It’s certainly an improvement over a sleepless Archer threatening to wreak havoc on the aliens who let Porthos catch a virus, but as a story “The Communicator” is a contrived retread.

Next week: Enterprise’s crew catches the space flu and discovers the dangers of trying to fly a starship under the influence of supposedly ‘non-drowsy’ cold medications.

Star Trek Enterprise Season 1 Review

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 star trek enterprise season 1 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 star trek enterprise season 1qualities 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.

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