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Star Trek Enterprise episode review – A Night in Sickbay

Summary: Archer obsesses over the health of his dog while fantasizing about T’Pol as Berman and Braga give this episode their unique touch.

star trek enterprise a night in sickbayThere are different kinds of bad episodes. There are episodes that are poorly written, episodes whose direction is so unstructured and clumsily paced that they’re dreary and unwatchable, episodes ruined by bad acting and episodes that simply should never have been made. It was never a good idea to have Spock’s brain be stolen by alien women leaving him with a remote controlled body. Having the DS9 crew play alien hopscotch or turning Paris into a catfish were never high points of their respective shows either. The problem with episodes like these are that they leave you wondering what the hell Berman and Braga could have been thinking when they wrote this. “A Night in Sickbay” is one of those episodes.

Though the subject matter is much less exotic than some of the above mentioned episodes, “Sickbay” manages to achieve much of the same effect with a bizarre episode that has Archer’s emotional dependence on his dog move well into the creepy range while displaying some of the more unprofessional behavior of his career (and considering some of the low points of Archer’s actions thus far, that is saying a lot). Star Trek Captains have had their share of angst and all but Kirk had large spells of celibacy, but they’ve also found more crucial issues to worry about. And better ways to cope than to become emotionally dependent on a pet to the extent that their ship takes second priority. Archer having a near breakdown and abandoning his responsibilities over something like this seriously undermines his credibility and his decision making abilities and his very fitness for the job. What is particularly baffling is the way that “Sickbay” chooses to throw away the credibility that Archer has gained this season in episodes like “Shockwave 2,” “Minefield” and “Dead Stop” in favor of resurrecting his worst qualities and basing an episode around them. Namely his speciest arrogance towards aliens, his emotional dependence on a pet and his lack of professionalism as a Starfleet officer. While some of Archer’s earlier conversations with Dr. Phlox suggest that this might all be done in favor of character growth for Archer, instead it turns out to be a way of setting up a romantic relationship arc between Archer and T’Pol.

This is particularly foolish since at this point the Human\Vulcan interaction between Archer and T’Pol is one of the few things Enterprise has succeeded at and manages to recapture some of the Original Series spirit. “Sickbay” demonstrates every intention of tossing this out the window by having both characters indirectly admit to being attracted to one another. Even if we overlook the simple fact that Star Trek series have blown just about every single relationship between cast members ever attempted, it comes down to the fact that the producers have demonstrated their intention of turning a subtle interspecies rapport into a romance. Where before the key difference of viewpoints between Archer and T’Pol came from their differing species, we are now supposed to view it as coming from differing genders. The character of T’Pol has always hovered between a role as a Spock\Data character and the exploitative sinkhole that Seven of Nine fell into on Voyager. So far the clothes and the decontamination scenes have been suggestive of Seven of Nine, but the actual story elements have been more suggestive of Spock\Data. “A Night in Sickbay,” which at best serves as a trial balloon for this story element and at worst the beginning of a romance arc, serves notice that T’Pol’s story is set to follow through on the innuendo. That is a poor decision and exactly the kind of thing that some of Enterprise’s recent improvements suggested the show had matured beyond. Fortunately, having learned nothing from the Janeway\Chakotay storyline, Berman and Braga were here to give this episode their own ‘unique’ touch.

“Sickbay” opens with a welcome note of continuity as Enterprise revisits the Aliens of the Week from the first season’s “Vox Sola.” The continuity is welcome but not the aliens themselves, who had a limited role in “Vox Sola” and whose only purpose here is to behave in a hostile and unpleasant manner, thus seemingly justifying Archer’s behavior. That “Vox Sola” was one of the worst episodes of the first season suggests that maybe the fruit of a rotten tree is also going to be rotten. The opening scene which features Hoshi, T’Pol, Archer and Porthos rubbing each other down in the decontamination chamber is unwelcome. Considering the innuendo that’s come to be associated with the chamber scenes, it’s a bizarre note that serves to introduce an episode where Archer’s emotional dependence on his dog reaches new lows. It’s also only the second suggestion of bestiality since the Ferengi inspected Archer’s cabin in “Acquisition,” which is remarkably restrained for Brannon Braga.

Whatever mix of retro-futuristic projection and sleazy motives inspired the decontamination chamber, it’s about time for it to go. It’s certainly not a credible way of demonstrating the more primitive technology of the Enterprise era, especially since its process makes no sense whatsoever. If it’s suspected that one or more people in the group may have picked up some sort of infection, crowding them together into one room certainly doesn’t lessen the chances of transmission. Nor does having them rub gel all over each other as a way of preventing the spread of disease. Separate chambers would make a lot more sense and so would spraying the gel through some sort of automatic system. That’s probably why the best cure for the flu isn’t to get a mix of infected and uninfected people together into a small room, breathing the same air and rubbing gel all over each other. It is a good way to spread the flu, though. If the producers should have learned anything by now, it’s that Enterprise won’t resonate with viewers because of gimmicks or sleaze but because of solid storytelling.

“Sickbay” aims at something between low comedy and character growth for Archer and achieves neither. The credibility Archer has gained from the “Shockwave” two-parter, “Minefield” and “Dead Stop” is squandered on a storyline that plays out like a dog version of ER rather than dealing with the problems of his ship and the potential danger to his crew or the obligations of his mission; Archer spends his time obsessed with his dog and T’Pol, in that order. Indeed, Archer seemed a lot more relaxed when he had to choose between sacrificing a member of his crew or risk the destruction of his ship in “Minefield” than he does when his dog gets a virus. T’Pol’s suggestion that he spend more time worrying about his ship, rather than being treated as legitimate criticism worth listening to becomes sidelined into Archer’s obsession with her. So that when Archer becomes angry over her comment, it isn’t because she’s voiced a criticism that made him question his conduct, but it’s because of a romantic factor. And there is no clearer demonstration than that of how transforming a professional relationship into a romantic one impinges on the discussion of command related issues. As a professional, T’Pol can try to make Archer reevaluate his actions and offer a clash of viewpoints, in a romantic light his and her comments merely become the product of ‘sexual friction’ and thus have no meaning in of themselves.

Worse yet, Archer snaps back into his contempt for any race that doesn’t share his identical values. His own jingoism when it comes to the Denobulan’s pets or lack thereof precisely mirrors the arrogance of the aliens on the planet below who naturally expect Enterprise to be doing things their way. Both view anyone who doesn’t share their worldview as the equivalent of barbarians. This time it’s not amused contempt, but outrage because the aliens didn’t bother to ensure that his pet, whom no one to be brought along, wouldn’t catch any diseases. It’s not just narrow-minded or incompetent, it’s Archer’s refusal to accept the consequences of his own actions. He chose to take a pet along to an encounter with a culture that he knew could be offended by some rather unpredictable things. He never bothered to double check and make sure that the planet didn’t have any diseases his dog could contract. Apparently he didn’t think that an alien race who was offended by public eating might take umbrage at his dog urinating anywhere it liked. Yet Archer can’t seem to comprehend that he might be responsible for any of this or that he might have prevented it from happening. Instead he chooses to blame others, all the more conveniently so when they happen to be aliens. It’s an emotionally immature inability to accept the consequences of his own actions. Yet another matter that T’Pol points out to him and is ultimately dismissed as the product of more ‘sexual friction.’

On two separate occasions, Archer then voices threats against the aliens. It’s a particularly bizarre point that Archer has descended to. He’s destroyed any possibility of a diplomatic relationship with entire alien races and fought with them based on some rather questionable pretexts, but wrecking humanity’s relationship with an important species and even raising the possibility of violent action because they let his dog catch the sniffles is definitely a new low, and not one Archer can explain away with a rambling speech about gazelles. It’s a component of the greater problem, which is Archer’s egocentric view of the Enterprise as an extension of himself rather than the vehicle of Earth’s exploratory and political aims. Thus, like an emperor who can avenge an insult to his horse by razing a city, Archer can lash out at an alien race for not seeing to his pet’s needs. The episode makes much of Archer’s eventual apology, but the situation that caused the need for an apology is a product of his own actions, which he never really recognizes. Nor does he seem to comprehend that what happened might have been seriously hurtful and offensive to the aliens, just as if their pet had urinated on an important human relic. His only sincere apology is to Phlox and that only because he manages to emotionally relate to Phlox through his story about his unsatisfactory relationship with two of his children.

Though it is Phlox who provides this episode’s only worthwhile material. John Billingsley is Enterprise’s best actor and he manages to perform some of the most ridiculous material without ever looking ridiculous himself. It’s a skill that’s greatly in demand here and manages to make the little touches such as nighttime rituals like clipping his nails add up to more in characterization than the entire Archer-centered storyling does for Archer. It’s also the most development Phlox has gotten since “Dear Doctor,” which really suggests that perhaps Enterprise is seriously misplacing its priorities. He seems to have been sidelined like Mayweather, without there being any reasonable cause for it. The show really shouldn’t wait for Archer’s dog to get sick again to give Phlox the attention he’s due.

Enterprise’s second season had been competent thus far with four generally well-received episodes and Enterprise’s improving ratings suggest that viewers like what they’re seeing. These episodes may have had their flaws, but “Sickbay” leads back to some of the more disastrous first season episodes and contains the germ of a storyline that would seriously hurt what Enterprise has achieved until now. The upswing in the ratings suggests that the producers don’t need to fall back on a romance between T’Pol and Archer or more exploitative decontamination scenes and instead look at what made those episodes work.

And Archer might seriously consider just getting a cat.

Star Trek Enterprise episode review – Vox Sola

Summary: Archer gets captured yet again, this time by a giant ball of CGI goo, and reminiscences about water polo. Vaugh Armstrong plays yet another alien. Enterprise wastes another forty minutes.

The most interesting thing about Vox Sola is not its plot, its characterization or even its special effects, but its title: it all goes downhill from star trek enterprise vox solathere. Every Star Trek series has done its usual ‘Alien invades the ship’ episodes and with little in the way of a story, Vox Sola adds one of the more mediocre examples of the genre. What little in the way of a plot exists follows the usual Enterprise formula of 5 minutes of story and 40 minutes of episode accompanied by the most unadorned and unoriginal plot cliches. Indeed, virtually anyone who has ever seen more than two Star Trek episodes knows quite well that the gimmick meant to disable the alien will cause it to begin hurting the hostages thus forcing the rescuers to abort the attempt. Even many of Enterprise’s worst episodes have tried to reinvent the cliches they’ve used, Vox Sola though makes no such attempt and is simply satisfied to artlessly regurgitate them.

Of course no awful Enterprise episode would be complete without featuring Archer in captivity yet again. At this point, like many Star Trek fans, when I think about the next six years of Enterprise still to come, I hope and pray that Archer is never taken prisoner by anybody, or anything ever again. The attempt by the producers to butch up Archer by getting him involved in sports backfires a bit when they decide that his sport of choice is water polo. Though it does bring Vox Sola as close as it ever comes to comedy when in a truly surreal moment engulfed by a mesh of goo that looks like congealed ropes of milk that’s gone bad, Archer inspires Trip to go on fighting by recounting his courageous water polo victories against all odds. It seems bad enough that they have to lose their lives, do they really need to lose the last remnants of their dignity too?

It’s a testament to how little the main threat of the episode matters that what little suspense the episode has comes not from the actual alien invader, but by way of the friction between T’Pol, Hoshi, Reed and Phlox which itself lacks bite and feels thematically out of place this late in the season. The alien manifesting first as some fairly mediocre T2-era virtual CGI goo and then as buckets of real goo that Bakula is slathered in, possibly as penance for his acting, barely manages to hold the interest of even its victims let alone the audience. Its means of introduction via a failed first contact with an alien race, which finds public eating as distasteful as public copulation, would probably have made for a far more interesting episode. But then just about anything would have produced a more interesting episode than Vox Sola which is essentially an abbreviated and glacially-paced version of some of the most dreary TNG and Voyager episodes ever made.

From questionable continuity references for the sake of appeasing the fans (how likely is it that Reed was really the first human to implement the force field?), to slowly developing ‘plot twists’ you could see coming a mile away (so we’ve got a great plan for crippling the alien but it’s only halfway through the episode, gee wonder what could go wrong), and to Archer once again aimlessly stumbling around the galaxy, Vox Sola manages to encompass much of what is wrong with Enterprise and none of the positive factors. At times it seemed as if Vox Sola might actually give Enterprise that sense of continuity we haven’t seen since Silent Enemy with its movie night, but the two crewmembers we meet are only disposable redshirts. It might be a good idea for Enterprise to take a lesson from its predecessor Voyager and actually begin cultivating recurring crewmembers (and no, occasional references to Chef don’t count) to produce that sense of community and to actually make the viewer care about the redshirts. It would also be more helpful if Enterprise’s decks had a little more life and color to them. And of course it would have been helpful if Vox Sola had a little more life and color of its own.

Based on a script by Robocop 3’s Fred Dekker and the inevitable Berman\Braga story (which makes one wonder if the writers can’t come up with an unoriginal idea without the help of the producers) with some desperately flashy camera angles by Roxann Dawson, Vox Sola is simply what happens when you drain every possible ounce of creativity, drama and originality out of a script. It’s not a bad episode, because bad implies some thwarted aspiration. Whether it’s the Captain turning into a salamander and mating with her pilot or the Enterprise turning into a Mayan temple; truly bad episodes are those that are prepared to take risks and are therefore interesting even if they aren’t watchable. On the other hand dreary fare like Vox Sola is neither interesting nor watchable. It’s simply a wasted forty minutes.

Next week: Looks like Archer gets captured again. Now there’s a shocking episode premise.

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