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Can Justin Lin Make Abrams Trek into Star Trek?

The strange thing about the Star Trek Beyond trailer is that it actually looks like TOS. Justin Lin has talked about watching the original series and you can see it on screen.

It’s the first movie since Insurrection and ST6 that isn’t obsessed with an attack on Earth. Instead the crew crashes on a bleak planet. There are strange aliens, conflict and resolution. That’s a whole lot of TOS episodes right there.

Just having a movie focused on an alien planet, instead of another race to save Earth is already closer to Star Trek.

I don’t know the plot so maybe I’m completely wrong. But with Abrams back to his first love of Star Wars and Simon Pegg doing more of the writing than Transformers hack Roberto Orci, Star Trek Beyond might actually be closer to Star Trek than to Abrams Trek.

Roddenberry Sucked, But No One Else Made a Successful Star Trek Series

Gene-Roddenberry_l

William Shatner has found another way to extend his career with the Chaos on the Bridge documentary.

As everyone knows, TNG had a shaky start. As everyone also knows, everyone involved hated Gene Roddenberry.

Fine. Roddenberry was by many accounts an ass. By many accounts most of those taking shots at Roddenberry, including Shatner, were also asses who were difficult to work with.

We’ve had the myth that Roddenberry didn’t have much to do with the success of TOS. And of course he didn’t have much to do with the success of TNG.

So why is it that no one else has been able to make a successful Star Trek series?

All those amazing TNG veterans. The guys who really made it work flamed out with three spinoff shows, DS9, Voyager and Enterprise alienated fans, went into the ratings basement and have mostly been forgotten except by niche cults.

We’re still talking about TNG. Is anyone going to be doing a documentary about DS9’s first season or Voyager’s last season or what the hell happened on Enterprise? Maybe Tim Russ will get around to it.

Roddenberry wasn’t a good writer. But he was a good showrunner. Some of his ideas were stupid, but he could put together a Star Trek show that would talk to people and still be popular long after it went off the air.

Rick Berman, Ira Steven Behr, Ronald D. Moore, Brannon Braga couldn’t make a Star Trek series that would do what TOS and TNG did. Maybe one day someone else will, but right now the franchise’s TOS legacy is being milked by Abrams. And when that’s done, it’ll be back to square one with a franchise no one knows how to move forward.

But if Gene Roddenberry were here and younger, he would have.

Roddenberry had his faults, but he wouldn’t be sitting on his ass making documentaries about how everyone else sucks.

Why Star Trek Enterprise Failed

(I’ll keep this brief after the earlier marathon post this morning.)

Enterprise was an attempt to get back to classic Star Trek. It wasn’t a very good attempt because the people making it didn’t understand classic Star Trek very well… or like it very much. Enterprise was how they saw TOS. It was their version of it.

Audiences had fled DS9 and Voyager. The ratings were low. The franchise was in trouble. So they tried to make a classic Star Trek series. Or star trek enterprise azati primewhat they saw when they looked at Star Trek.

Make the Captain an old-fashioned wild card type. Put in a Vulcan. Keep the crew small and mostly human. Make the technology cruder. Have the humans dislike the aliens. Show some skin. Break some rules. Get them to explore space. Show how the Federation got started. Then throw in some exit strategies so continuity doesn’t matter too much. A temporal cold war. Pre-Starfleet starship. There’s your classic Star Trek series.

That summary wasn’t completely wrong, but it was completely incomplete. It was something like Star Trek, but it wasn’t really Star Trek. It was Voyager with a new skin, but without the gimmicks or a large cast. It felt empty, because it was.

Enterprise wasn’t the show that the producers wanted to make. It was the show they had to make. There was nowhere else to go. The gimmicks had failed, so they went throwback. They went prequel, which was popular then. Then after them came the reboot, which is popular now.

Every story, every fictional universe has its built in rules. The parameters that cover how things work in it. First you learn the rules. Then you can break them. Berman and his favorites boasted of breaking the rules. They were going to make Star Trek their own way. And they did. It failed. Then they tried following the rules, but they didn’t know the rules. They never learned them. So they imitated what they saw.

When they looked at the Original Series, they saw a sparse show focused around the ship’s captain and one or two subordinates. They saw crude technology. They saw a lower comfort level with aliens. They saw space portrayed as a dangerous place. They saw sexism. They saw “seat of the pants” tactics and stories where the captain goes to a strange place, is captured, breaks free, acts like a jackass and moves on.

And they copied all those things. One after another. And they didn’t understand what they were doing wrong. They didn’t like TOS and didn’t really get it. It wasn’t a show they could take seriously. It was like the Adam West Batman to them. So they tried to make it a little more serious. And that made it even worse because their idea of serious was Voyager. On top of their bad clone of TOS, they pasted in Voyager.

The Original Series was more than the sum of its parts. It was more than Shatner and Nimoy breaking out of another cell on an alien planet Star Trek Enterpriseand then yelling at the aliens about doing the right thing. It was about more than a human dominated crew in an intergalactic federation. It was more than Uhura in a miniskirt and repeating back what she heard on her earpiece before being forced to make out with Kirk.

When Berman and Braga looked at TOS, they saw the flaws. And they thought, “If this is what the fans want. We’ll give it to them. We’ll have a captain who constantly gets captured and yells at aliens. We’ll have a Vulcan to be uptight all the time. We’ll have a good-looking guy who sleeps with chicks. We’ll try to fix it up a little so it’s not as stupid as the old one, and then we’ll give the dorks exactly what they want.”

But TOS was more than the sum of its flaws or its silly moments. Its core was its ambition. Its fans saw what it did best. But the people who made Enterprise saw it as a dumb silly show and tried to make a classier version of it. A show that fans would agree was classic, but that would also let the producers do their thing. Win-win.

That’s how we got Enterprise. That’s why it failed.

Star Trek Enterprise episode review – Bound

Synopsis: Orion women in skimpy clothing invade Enterprise. Yup that’s the plot.

Review: The original STAR TREK went out with the sadly embarrassing “Turnabout Intruder” that was a nauseating display of sexism and idiocy that demonstrated how far TOS had fallen without Gene Roddenberry. “Bound” is not ENTERPRISE’s final episode, though it’s close and it is written by Manny Coto, who seemed like the show’s best hope for salvation.

star trek enterprise bound

If Star Trek anticipated nothing else, it anticipated the Kardashians

I would not have been at all baffled if it had turned out that “Bound” was actually written by Brannon Braga and Rick Berman, it would have been irritating and a just cause for ranting on how Berman and Braga have lowered and ultimately destroyed STAR TREK; from the pen of Manny Coto though, it simply elicits a sad sigh of regret. We can, I suppose, blame UPN for pushing the producers to use sex to sell the series but that’s overly simplistic at best.

Supporters will probably call “Bound” a tribute to TOS but that is not the case. “Trials and Tribbelations” was a tribute because it attempted to recapture what was enjoyable about an original series episode framed in the current period. “Bound” is just sleaze packaged in a plot aimed at audiences too dumb for actual stories who would otherwise be watching AMERICAN IDOL.

TOS was a great series, it was the birth of STAR TREK; but it was also the product of its time. I asked once whether anyone really wanted to see a remake of “Mudd’s Women” and apparently Manny Coto was under the impression that indeed they did. But a tribute celebrates what is best about a TV show, not what is worst and that is exactly what “Bound” does.

It is not incomprehensibly awful like “A Night in Sickbay” or “Unexpected”; it is simply tedious, cheesy and devoid of quality while degrading the close of a series that has shown sparks of potential and brilliance but never entirely broken free of its chains of mediocrity. It also makes you wonder why STAR TREK, which was once considered revolutionary for its time now produces episodes that seem stuck on sexist cliches and exploitation of women.

Consider T’Pol and 7 of 9’s ‘modified’ uniforms, which makes no real sense whatsoever. Consider some of the gratuitously exploitative scenes featuring both characters. Consider how likely T’Pol and Seven are to lose their minds or otherwise become unstable, ‘just like women do.’ When T’Pol takes command of Enterprise it’s usually captured or beaten to pieces. Indeed Earth is even destroyed and the human race wiped out, because T’Pol rather than Archer was in command.

Fans tend to pass these things by but they might choose to ask themselves whether STAR TREK’s nosedive is not indeed tied to an inability to break free of this mentality and reclaim values that place it in the forefront of equality rather than relegating it to the worst cliches of past periods. When STAR TREK is rebuilt again, and I say ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ because I am a fan and remain eternally optimistic, this must be one of the issues addressed.

Before “Bound,” a rerun of “Twilight” aired, which indeed is arguably ENTERPRISE’s greatest episode (regardless of what the polls say.) Let us remember ENTERPRISE for the “Twilight”s and not the “Bound”s, just as we remember STAR TREK the Original Series for “City on the Edge of Forever,” not “Turnabout Intruder.”

Next Week: Mirror, Mirror on the wall, who’s the evilest Archer of them all?

Star Trek Enterprise episode review – Affliction

Synopsis: Columbia’s launch coincides with Phlox’s kidnapping and an unfolding disaster in the Klingon empire.

Review: If you close your eyes for a moment you could almost imagine “Affliction” as part one of ENTERPRISE’s pilot, a pilot that might have been and might have fueled a stronger and better STAR TREK series. Instead, it features the launch not of Enterprise but of Columbia, the younger sister and rather than being the pilot, it is one of the show’s final episodes – as the promos now trumpet with glee-like excitement.

star trek enterprise afflictionIf Season four will be remembered for nothing else, it will be for finally paying attention to STAR TREK continuity and making a good faith effort to be not the new and edgy and hip STAR TREK Berman and Braga tried to make it, but a portrayal of the years leading up to the original series, to Enterprise NCC-1701 (no bloody A, B, C, D or E) and the universe as it was then. If ENTERPRISE will be remembered for little else, “Affliction” will likely go down in the fan record books as finally solving the great Klingon dilemma and the racial gap between TOS Klingons and TNG Klingons in a clever and plausible way.

ENT’s relationship to continuity has often been downright abusive and while season four has not always gotten it right, it has done what no other STAR TREK series has done since TNG and shown affection and respect to the original series that started it all and made an honest effort to follow in its footsteps. It is perhaps not surprising that it was thanked with the same treatment meted out to the original series of being shunted to an unpopular time slot and then cancelled. But unlike the Original Series, whose third season was often dismal and disappointing in comparison to its earlier work, ENT’s season four cannot be accused of that and episodes like “Affliction” are a large part of the reason why.

Reminiscent of the larger-scale galactic episodes of TNG and DS9 that seem to have almost forgotten, “Affliction” sweepingly moves from earth to the Klingon Empire, from Section 31 to the Augments, from the intimate depths of Trip and T’Pol’s minds to the scope of galactic threats and counterthreats and the birth of a new Klingon race. “Affliction” is in many ways what the “United” trilogy should have been but wasn’t. It also admirably fits the characters into the scale and scope of galactic events. From Hoshi’s mindmeld to T’Pol and Trip being drawn together even from far away to Phlox’s moral dilemma and that of the Klingon doctor instrumental in bringing him there, to Reed locked in a physical cell and the moral cell of his conflicting obligations; the characters are not left out nor are they saddled with makeshift threats as was the case in “United.”

Like TNG and DS9’s O’Brien, Reed is a man of duty with a black and white view of the world. DS9’s strongest episodes often came in testing O’Brien by pitting his black and white loyalties against the grayer universe that forced him to do immoral things such as in “The Assignment.” Reed’s strong sense of duty combined with his black and white view of the world causes Section 31 to be a far more tenacious test for him than it ever was for bumbling Bashir.

Meanwhile T’Pol’s mental abilities are expanding with a mind meld to Hoshi that is almost casual and then drawing Trip and even Hoshi into her mind. Despite being set up in “Observer Effect,” Hoshi’s martial arts are still unbelievable but overall good use is made of her. Meanwhile on Columbia, Captain Hernandez is proving to be a credible Captain and Trip a better engineer when he abandons the histrionics and concentrates on doing his job. All too often it was hard to grasp why with his complete lack of professionalism Trip had the job he did, “Affliction” reminds us that he’s actually good at something beyond yelling and throwing fits.

The Klingon response to the Augments is both logical and resolves the long-standing contradiction of two Klingon races. The core idea of genetically-engineered Klingons is not all together original, but the solution and its integration are. At least ENT will be remembered for bringing the Klingon races together and bridging one of STAR TREK’s more enduring gaps;not between its period and that of TOS but between TOS and TNG. All in all, “Affliction” is a strong beginning for what hopefully will be an even stronger conclusion.

Next week: Archer gets ridged.

Star Trek Enterprise episode review – The Aenar

Synopsis: Archer and Shran’s quest to stop the Romulan drone takes them to Andoria and an Andorian sub-species of blind telepathic pacifists.

star trek enterprise aenarReview: “The Aenar” is not a bad episode or a particularly good one. As an episode that stands on its own it’s reminiscent of some TOS and TNG episodes, though still dramatically weak. As a follow-up to a three part series of episodes dealing with the birth of the Federation and the rise of the Romulan menace, it’s effectively a no-show. If “Unity” sidelined much of the alliance and the Romulan threat in favor of Shran’s desire for vengeance, “The Aenar” sidelines much of it in favor of well…the Aenar themselves.

The Aenar are interesting in some ways and if nothing else can be said for ENTERPRISE it has managed to explore the Andorians far more than STAR TREK ever has. It’s not the best epitaph for a series but it’s better than no epitaph at all. Still, where “Babel One” and even “United” were laying the groundwork for the birth of the Federation, “The Aenar” isn’t laying the groundwork for much in particular. Ultimately the Andorian trilogy fails because it feels the need to drag in too many divergent elements to the point that it increasingly loses its dramatic focus and by “The Aenar” has no clear point.

In “Babel One” Enterprise was dealing with a Romulan threat and the need to bring about peace between Andorians and Tellarites. In “United,” Enterprise crafted an alliance between them to stop the Romulan threat. In “The Aenar,” the Tellarites are discarded and the alliance has really come to nothing, failing to stop the Romulan drone, and so the solution comes from the telepathic link between an Andorian brother and sister. It’s not an entirely uninteresting story but it’s not the birth of the Federation either.

The hidden underground city and its interiors and the Aenar themselves do seem like a TOS throwback though the situation lacks the intensity TOS would have invested in it. By a convenient coincidence of course it is also the sister of the kidnapped Aenar who encounters Archer and Shran. Though the Aenar are secretive and no more than a handful of Andorians have ever seen an Aenar, they seem to have no problem inviting Archer and Shran to their hidden underground city and have contacts with the Andorian government. Quite a lot for a half-mythical species barely anyone believed existed. Thus while “The Aenar” is a throwback to TOS, it also feels like a throwback to ENTERPRISE’s first season.

The Romulan story has become increasingly weak, being limited to political tension that Brian Thompson is simply not capable of carrying. His tale of being a former disgraced Senator who questioned the warmongering of the Romulan Empire might have added depth to the Admiral’s character an episode ago but is now just a detail thrown in far too late and performed by an actor not at all capable of using it to add subtlety and depth to the character. THE X-FILES understood Brian Thompson’s limitations and used him appropriately. ENTERPRISE made him the chief antagonist and then kept him safe far from the action. This is not the ideal formula for great drama and it’s no surprise that it doesn’t deliver any great or even particularly mediocre drama.

Jeffery Combs is still doing his best as Shran and bonds far better with the Aenar girl than he did with Talas and remains the most watchable part of the episode. Scott Bakula has improved a good deal since the first season and there has been real growth to his character. By contrast Connor Trineer’s Trip and Jolene’s T’Pol remain tedious and annoying and their soap opera detracts from what strengths “The Aenar” has by burdening the episode with yet more silly dramatics. It’s almost enough to make one appreciate sitting through Paris and Torres’ soap opera. At least there was more yelling and Klingon weapons and less passive aggressive whining. Now Trip is asking for a transfer and Archer seems to be the only one left on board Enterprise who doesn’t know about him and T’Pol.

It isn’t as if anything can save ENTERPRISE now despite the well-intentioned if ultimately futile attempts to influence UPN and Paramount executives; still, with this being quite possibly the last year of STAR TREK ever, it would have been nice if the series had produced a higher level of quality towards its end. “Babel One” had the potential to lead to a truly great and memorable three-part episode that dealt with the Romulans and the birth of the Federation and perhaps justified ENTERPRISE’s existence. Instead it stands out as a strong episode followed by increasing mediocrity.

Next week: Phlox in peril or is that phleril?

Star Trek Enterprise episode review – Dead Stop

Summary: In a space age revival of an old fable, Enterprise discovers a station whose offer of repairs turns out to be too good to be true.

star trek enterprise Dead StopIn one of the closer intersections between episodes thus far on Enterprise, “Dead Stop” begins shortly after last week’s episode. The Enterprise’s hull is damaged and so is Malcolm’s leg. The situation seems problematic until, in what is the first of several continuity references, Enterprise gets directions from a Tellarite freighter to a repair station (though in light of what happens later in the episode it may be reasonable to conclude that there was no Tellarite freighter at all). Where the natural instinct of a Voyager episode might have been to populate the episode with some weird foreheaded Alien-of-the-Week for the crew to pit their skills against, “Dead Stop” goes for the ghostly feeling of an automated computerized station. A place that is seemingly empty and at once filled with an unknown presence. And it works.

The writing team of Mike Sussman and Phyllis Strong, who up until this point had churned out mediocre and mostly forgettable episodes like “Civilization,” “Fusion” and “Strange New World” manage to deliver here, greatly aided by Roxann Dawson’s smooth and crisp direction and some of the unquestionably best lighting on the series thus far. Dawson displays here some of the potential she demonstrated in “Workforce, Part II,” infusing every scene with an uneasy atmosphere. Despite the seemingly lighter subject material, “Dead Stop” manages to have the sense of danger and tension that “Minefield” simply did not. Bakula, meanwhile, displays the anger and frustration he should have been showing in last week’s episode. While Mayweather’s eventual resurrection is no real surprise, nor is the menace posed by the station, the way they come together is effective and one of the few surprising twists of an Enterprise episode thus far.

From the eerily white interior of the station’s corridors to the dank yellow conduits (visually suggesting that the pristine package is an illusion with a grimmer interior), to the computer itself, suggestive of The Matrix’s towers of human batteries on a smaller scale, “Dead Stop” is overshadowed by a mostly unspoken menace. Like much of classical Star Trek and much of science fiction, the show returns once again to the theme of human violation by technology. Somewhere between “Spock’s Brain” and the Borg, “Dead Stop”‘s repair station is indicative of a smaller evil with plenty of unspoken implications. By not addressing its history, the writers suggest that Enterprise might return to the subject at some later date or that it’s a mystery best left alone. The final scene of the station’s broken parts slowly repairing themselves again is one of the best narrative uses of FX since the conclusion of Voyager’s “Year of Hell, Part I” showed pieces of Voyager’s hull being ripped away and flying directly into the camera.

With its classical Star Trek themes, “Dead Stop” is an Enterprise episode that achieves the series goal of being strongly suggestive of an Original Series episode. “Dead Stop” nails the sense of isolation and dislocation produced by space travel, the responsibilities of command and the strangeness of what might be out there. It’s one of the few Enterprise episodes where the crew of the Enterprise could be easily interchanged with the original Enterprise crew.

And the episode certainly has no shortage of continuity references. We encounter 24th century technology like the Replicator and the Protoplaser for the first time, along with more than a few Star Trek universe tidbits, even not counting the “Spock’s Brain” premise of the episode itself. While it might be nice if Enterprise had stayed away from 24th century Next Generation technology–after three races with cloaking devices, two holodecks and numerous other gadgets–the proverbial starship seems to have sailed on that one.

“Dead Stop” also functions well as an ensemble episode, with nearly every crewmember having an important scene or two. Hoshi gets to deliver the premature eulogy for Mayweather, Phlox has his own well played autopsy scene and Reed and Trip have their own little adventure before being bawled out by Archer in one of his rare displays of command ability and suggestive of TOS’s own “Trouble with Tribbles.” Mayweather contributes most to the episode by being dead, of course, which gives him an important non-speaking role mostly in absentia. One might even argue that the station’s willingness to take the least important member of the Enterprise senior staff in exchange for its repairs was still quite a bargain.

Next week: Archer shows us how well he balances the twin priorities of dog ownership and starship command.

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.

Star Trek Enterprise episode review – Detained

Summary – Archer earns frequently captured flyer miles, T’Pol demonstrates again why she belongs in command and the episode hammers home its message with all the subtlety and grace of a Rush Limbaugh broadcast in a predictable Andorian Incident Redux storyline.

star trek enterprise detainedIt’s interesting to note that the bulk of Enterprise’s critical and fan favorite episodes take place in space. Episodes like Broken Bow, Cold Front, Breaking the Ice, Silent Enemy, Fight or Flight and Shuttlepod One manage to capture at least some of that thrill of exploration and bring a fresh sensibility to the usual Star Trek cliches. On the ground though, Enterprise tends to produce retreads featuring even more forgettable aliens of the week than Voyager and stories with as little or even less complexity. Detained is no different in that regard and follows the usual Enterprise formula of five minutes of story per forty minutes of episode. It also manages to repeat the same mistakes of crew characterization that have made Captain Archer a laughing stock and Mayweather the latest incarnation of Wesley Crusher.

In the course of an unfinished season, Captain Archer has been captured more than a few times. Unlike Captain Kirk though, Archer doesn’t tend to get captured by the Greek god Apollo, aliens from another galaxy or an omnipotent child; but by anyone who goes to the trouble of shooting down his shuttlecraft. This isn’t a great record for a starship Captain and it makes for fairly uninteresting viewing. Worse yet, Archer seems perpetually clueless, blundering from one mishap into another and justifying it with what he undoubtedly thinks is a charming smile and a paen to the virtues of curiosity. Though his ship has been attacked many times and he’s learned that there is a temporal war going on, Archer still seems to be strolling as casually around the universe as in Strange New World where he decides that an alien planet couldn’t possibly be dangerous because it looks so pretty.

Meanwhile the writers seem to have decided that competence is the exclusive purview of repressed Vulcans and repressed Englishmen, while celebrating the emotional incompetence of the humans as a testament to their virtue. Consider Trip’s behavior in this episode where he undermines his commanding officer’s authority by questioning her actions on the bridge and interrupting her negotiation with the Colonel. And this isn’t the first time. You have to assume that Trip is either an idiot or has so much contempt for T’Pol that he would actually treat her this way. After all, Archer called T’Pol on the carpet for much less.

Archer goes back to making his decisions based on a completely baseless confidence in his own ability to be able to grasp complex sociopolitical situations in 5 minutes or less and to make decisions that affect billions of lives based on his feelings, without actually following any kind of rules. A good deal of this probably happens because while the producers may have toured submarines to get ideas for how the Enterprise engine room should look, they didn’t bother brushing up on even the basics of military discipline. This makes Archer look like an incompetent egomaniac time and time again, or for those who have been following the reruns of the third Star Trek spin-off, a lot like Captain Janeway. Worse yet where Kirk, Picard and Sisko were larger than life figures whose decisions had larger than life moral grandeur, Archer is a weak character whose attitude comes off as pettiness, rather than principle.

Often it’s because Bakula is simply a weaker actor. Consider Detained, in which Dean Stockwell playing the villain not only turns in a much better performance with little material and an underplayed character, but in his character’s worst moments still manages to maintain more dignity and stature than Bakula manages to retain in his best. It’s one of the most memorable performances since Mark Alaimo’s subversion of the Gul Dukat character and almost as enjoyable because it involves acting, something Bakula seems increasingly incapable of. But it’s also because Bakula is being given no material to work with. His character’s motivations and behavior make no rational sense. All that’s left is to play him as a cartoonish Dudley Do-right that isn’t grounded in any kind of realistic expectations. Shatner could have played these scenes with the kind of outrageous scenery chewing that made even the worst TOS episodes fun. But all Bakula can do is turn in the same bland performance so that you can barely tell the difference between a scene in which Archer is eating toast and a scene in which Archer is protesting the oppression of an entire people.

Which of course makes the decision to pair Archer with Enterprise’s weakest character and weakest actor, a very big mistake. It’s the bland leading the bland as Archer and Mayweather spend three times as much time as is necessary to establish that the Suliban in the camp are innocent and oppressed and the guards are nasty and sadistic. For anyone who fails to grasp this point through the subtle cinematic device of having the guards repeatedly shock the prisoners for no legitimate reason whatsoever and shove small children and make them cry, the guards are further dressed up in militaristic uniforms with high black collars and straps around the chest, a favorite Star Trek design when emphasizing the Naziesque qualities of the Alien Villain of the week, last used in Voyager’s Counterpoint.

The characters of the Suliban themselves don’t come through very well mainly because of the poor quality of the Suliban makeup which renders the actor’s faces mostly immobile while depriving them of distinguishing features. The Suliban makeup seems to have been rather poor to begin with and its cakey quality would not have been out of place on TOS. On Enterprise it looks cheap and ugly. Even Andromeda manages to produce a Vedran complete with four feet, yet Enterprise can’t give its chief race of villains a more unique look than what TOS would have come up with on a bad day. The fact is, Voyager aliens that we’ve only seen for three minutes at a time have come with better makeup than this (and costuming!). Witness the enemy aliens in Voyager’s Homestead among many other examples of completely throwaway makeup designs that are more effective than what amounts to a covering of caked yellow mud.

It’s no surprise, then, that the actual story itself turns out to be as crude as the makeup with the basic message being reinforced by a ridiculous lecture from Archer referencing the American internment camp of WW2. You have to wonder if in the aftermath of WW3, Khan Noonien Singh, the banning of genetic enhancements on Earth and their persecution as we saw on DS9’s Bashir storyline, Archer can’t think of a more relevant example for a being race persecuted for the exact same reason. Of course this would assume some measure of familiarity with Star Trek canon on the part of Braga and co, which would force them to dip into the seedy world of continuity pornography, e.g. maintaining a concordance and doing their research and thus their jobs. It would also distract from the political message being hammered home here with all the grace and subtlety of a Rush Limbaugh broadcast.

It’s not simply a question of continuity or ideology; like most Enterprise episodes, Detained is simply devoid of elementary storytelling values. There’s no real suspense, no twists and turns. Braga in his interview bragged about writing a prison-break story, but all the fun of such a story is in the possibility of being caught and playing a cat and mouse game with the guards. The actual assault is rather straightforward and over in a matter of minutes. The bulk of the episode instead engages in a repetitive series of humanizing Suliban incidents, Bakula alternately looking deeply concerned and sneering at his former co-star and Mayweather trying to remember where he left his personality. Much of the action in this episode is a redux of “The Andorian Incident” right down to the planting of the charges and Reed’s British Invasion. The real winners here are Dean Stockwell and Jolene Blalock, who has some of her best action lines since “Civilization” (another forgettable and not altogether dissimilar episode.)

What is left of Detained when you distance it from its current time and place in history? Like much of Enterprise’s first season it’s a wasted opportunity consisting of recycled material, another snoozeworthy performance from Bakula, poor storytelling and a clarion call for repairing the characterization of Captain Jonathan Archer before he goes down in Star Trek history as Mr. Janeway.

Next week: Ectoplasm invades Enterprise. Can the Ghostbusters be far behind ?

Star Trek Enterprise episode review – Rogue Planet

Summary: Archer and Co. dress up in Borg gear, pester more aliens who don’t really want them there and Archer goes looking for his ideal shapeshifter/telepathic woman in the jungle.

Like many Enterprise episodes this season, Rogue Planet researches some astronomy to dig out an interesting planetary science concept of a star trek enterprise rogue planetrogue planet detached from its solar system and in permanent darkness where the native lifeforms survive by clustering around heat vents and uses it as the backdrop for a fairly unoriginal and pedestrian story involving hunters whom every experienced Star Trek viewer knows are up to no good five seconds after we meet them, and a mysterious woman whose secret is just as transparent. Despite a strong performance by the actor playing the lead hunter, both the woman and the hunters are reduced to two-dimensional caricatures with a handful of lines and are denied even any kind of meaningful confrontation with each other.

Like much of this season, the episode features nothing in the way of strong guest stars and at the same time little in the way of conflict or drama for the regular crew. Beyond Archer pursuing his dream woman in a rather silly plot that seems to have been lifted from TOS, when viewers might have actually experienced some suspense over the appearance of a strange woman on an alien planet who can seemingly disappear into thin air. Bakula’s fairly bland performance also does little to help matters. Shatner, Stewart or Brooks might at least have put passion and scenery-chewing into the episode but Bakula seems to stumble through it in an uncertain daze.

Indeed the strongest performance in this episode comes from Jolene Blalock during T’Pol’s confrontation with Archer and not coincidentally it is also the closest Rogue Planet actually comes to genuine conflict and questioning of a character’s values and actions. Something the ep could have used a lot more of.

In the end Rogue Planet has nothing to say about ecology, psychology, ethics or really anything at all. And worse yet it doesn’t have much in the way of suspense, character conflict, or even basic drama of the crudest kind. One of TOS’s first episodes, the rather weak Man Trap, which had the same premise of a telepathic shapeshifting woman-creature, understood at least that much; but like much of this season RP seems entirely satisfied to let the characters stumble through a recycled and listless plot devoid of challenge and conflict and grafted onto a few lines from an astronomy textbook in hopes of bringing that sense of exploration to the viewer. The result is a fairly bland and colorless episode that is as uninvolving to the viewer as it is to the Enterprise character and amounts to a Trekified version of Bambi once you get past and discard the basic premise of a rogue planet, the only real impact of which on the bulk of the episode is the Borg-like (yet noticeably cheap and uninventive) infrared headgear that the characters wear while in the forest.

Next Week: The promo pretty much said it all.

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