Summary: Enterprise produces its first breakout episode of the season as Reed and Trip fight for their lives in a damaged Shuttlepod running out of air.
Until now Enterprise’s first season has been less than stellar with more misses than hits and few episodes that are likely to be remembered half a decade down the road, but Shuttlepod One is likely to be this season’s breakout hit. It’s also the episode that comes closest to recapturing the Original Series style than any other episode so far.
The premise is simple enough. Two men, one shuttlepod and not enough air. And there are endless Golden Age SF stories on this theme, most focusing on finding ingenious ways out of the problem or killing each other. Shuttlepod One instead plays it as a character piece in which Reed and Trip, two officers with clashing personalities, fight and bond over the situation. The resemblance to TOS is certainly not accidental as much of the same material was also present in Gallileo 7, a story about a trapped shuttle, a conflict between a calm, logical officer and an emotional one and a solution involving dumping the engine’s fuel and igniting it as a distress beacon. Shuttlepod One mostly dispenses with the problem solving and instead focuses on the character relationships so that the solution comes as more of an afterthought than anything else. By causing the characters to believe that the Enterprise has been destroyed, it unleashes a well of desperation and anger that wouldn’t otherwise have been there.
With Brannon Braga as the writer of this episode, it would have been reasonable to expect the destruction of the Enterprise to be the result of some sort of temporal anomaly ala Timeless. Braga, though, seems well aware of his reputation and instead the only exotic phenomena are the fairly plausible and scientifically up to date micro-singularities. Instead Trip and Reed come to believe that the Enterprise has been destroyed because they notice some of the debris from a collision between Enterprise and an alien ship. This is probably the biggest plot hole in the episode, since it assumes that the Enterprise’s chief engineer could mistake some torn off hull fragments for the complete wreckage of the ship. Even with sensors down, visual inspection alone should have discredited that notion.
Still unlike the Golden Age SF stories, the competence of the characters is clearly not an issue here, but as in the TOS novel Kobayashi Maru, it’s a test of the way they face death. The decisions they make certainly aren’t very good and getting drunk towards the end probably isn’t much of a command decision either, but it’s not an unrealistic depiction of the way people can face desperate situations. Reed reacts with emotional detachment even as he makes some attempt to reestablish posthumous emotional connections with fragments of his past. Trip reacts with emotional displays and spur-of-the moment decisions. And as in Gallieo 7, it’s ultimately the emotionally withdrawn officer who makes the final risky gamble of jettisoning their fuel/engines as a last ditch effort to attract help.
While the basic plot is obviously not original and any number of shows have done similar episodes, Shuttlepod One is also the most intensive piece of character work and character growth we’ve seen so far, despite all the Archer and T’Pol materials that have been thrown at us so far. Indeed, the scenes with Archer and T’Pol in this episode only serve to deflate the tension of the isolated pod and gives us two Archer moments that are petty in ways we would have thought that he’d be beyond by now. But then of course there’s nothing like throwing two people together into a life and death situation to achieve character growth. Or at least that was the idea behind the fairly mediocre Andorian Incident and Shadows of P’Jem, which tried this same basic storytelling trick twice with Archer and T’Pol.
In addition to the character work though, Shuttlepod One offers plenty of nice touches from the mashed potatoes used as hull sealant (don’t try this at home kids), the gruesome turn that the shaving scene takes and the bourbon bet. It’s this kind of thing that fills out character interactions in ways that words can’t and it’s also why the Archer/T’Pol interactions in Andorian Incident and Shadows of P’Jem had no real depth to them. Hopefully though they don’t decide to try and get Archer and T’Pol drunk in order to hurry things up. After P’Jem’s rope scene, somehow that possibility doesn’t seem too far fetched.
Beyond the character work, Shuttlepod One is one of the few Enterprise episodes to have broken free of the usual TNG-lite and recycled Voyager material. It’s all the more surprising therefore that it was co-written by Rick Berman and Brannon Braga, the people one could hold quite responsible for TNG and Voyager in the first place. Longtime Trek director David Livingston delivers shots of tight shuttlepod interiors that play on the sense of isolation and desperation and the FX sequences display empty space with occasional grey asteroid rubble and dirty drifts of debris. It all only emphasizes how far we’ve come from Voyager’s ‘Technobabble Saves the Day’ solutions and comfortable environments.
Next week: Behold the magic and mystery of reruns.