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Star Trek: Enterprise – Fight or Flight (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This January, we’re doing the first season. Check back daily for the latest review.

Fight or Flight is reasonably solid as second episodes go. It’s very clear that Rick Berman and Brannon Braga are making a conscious effort to avoid the mistakes of Star Trek: Voyager. There’s a sense that they are trying to give Star Trek: Enterprise its own unique mood and flavour. As such, Fight or Flight feels like a story that isn’t just tailor-made for Enterprise, but is tailor-made for early in the first season of the show. It isn’t a story that could be done by another spin-off, and it’s also not a story that could be done by Enterprise even a year later.

While Fight or Flight works on a conceptual level, the execution feels a little strange. While Broken Bow was a big and bombastic Star Trek pilot with its own feel and rhythm, Fight and Flight feels almost quaint. As a piece of television, it’s constructed in a very meticulous and very precise manner, one that seems suspiciously outdated for a show broadcast in late 2001.

Slugging it out...

Slugging it out…

As with a lot of the first season of Enterprise, Rick Berman and Brannon Braga are credited on the script for Fight or Flight. It’s quite easy to see the influence of both writers on the finished teleplay. While Braga’s documented affection for pulpy horror plays into the plot and atmosphere, the episode’s script is structured with in the same careful and efficient way that Rick Berman wrote Brothers. It’s a great example of how to structure a piece of television, even if it feels a little too clinical and mechanical for its own good.

Fight or Flight is built around two major plot and character arc, with various elements from each echoing into the other and the script tying them together at the climax. On a macro-level, the crew of the Enterprise all deal with the realities of space travel in their own way. Reed has teething trouble with the weapons. Trip is anxious about being left behind on the ship while his colleagues go on adventures. Archer struggles with tough decisions.

Just hangin'...

Just hangin’…

While these are all part of the episode’s event-driven plot about a mysterious alien ship and the threats that lurk in the darkness, Fight of Flight devotes particular focus to the character of Hoshi Sato, the screw’s linguist. Hoshi gets a clear and defined character arc as she struggles to figure out if she has a place on Enterprise. Inevitably, and to the surprise of nobody, Hoshi decides to stay on Enterprise despite its teething difficulties.

It’s worth pausing here to acknowledge that this is an example of Enterprise‘s conservativism. Hoshi Sato is listed in the show’s credits, so the audience knows that she is safe. As such, she is going to remain on the ship. While “young crew member with anxiety about first mission to deep space” is a story with a lot of possibilities, it only has one possible arc on a Rick Berman Star Trek show.

In space, everyone can hear you scream...

In space, everyone can hear you scream…

The writers of Enterprise are particularly fond of citing The Right Stuff as a major influence on the show – the idea of astronauts bravely venturing into the unknown, helping to bring mankind a little closer to the stars. However, as Chris Black made a point to argue on the Uncharted Territory documentary, the space race was not safe. The space race was not tidy. Many people inside and outside the United States died in the effort to get into space. Quite a few died without even leaving orbit.

Fight or Flight, the show’s story about the realities of being all alone in outer space, has the opportunity to reinforce this idea. After all, the crew of Jonathan Archer’s Enterprise are pioneers. His ship isn’t a floating hotel like Picard’s Enterprise. It’s rough and untested and maybe a little unprepared for what lies ahead. In many respects, it evokes Q’s wonderful speech about space from Q Who?, where the trickster warns that “it’s not for the timid.”

Some neck...

Some neck…

Fight or Flight forces both Archer and Sato to confront the reality that they may not be ready for what is waiting out there. However, the show glosses over these stakes by having both characters (inevitably and unavoidably) reach the same conclusion: everything will be okay in the end. And, because of the way that Enterprise is structured, that means everything will be okay by the end of the episode.

We know that this is a Star Trek show. We know that it is going to follow some pretty basic rules. We know what the outcome of Hoshi Sato’s uncertainty must be. Hoshi Sato is not going to decide to go home. Hoshi Sato is not going to get herself killed. Hoshi Sato is not going to get anybody else killed. Rick Berman’s version of Star Trek is not a show willing to pull the rug out from under the audience like that.

A dogged explorer...

A dogged explorer…

Enterprise would have arguably been a much braver show (and possibly a much better show) if it were willing to do something like that this early, but it’s simply not that adventurous. This is a shame, as television in general (even network television) was becoming a lot more bold and adventurous with ideas like this. Enterprise‘s contemporary, 24, would become ruthless in culling its central cast. In the next episode, Strange New World, the show is even reluctant to kill off a minor character to assure the audience that the transporter is still risky.

Of course, the decision to have Hoshi remain and to avoid killing off crew members so casually is perfectly defensible. Killing off random characters in order to generate tension is a lazy plot device, and it is nice that the first two years of Enterprise try quite hard to avoid the “redshirt” cliché. However, avoiding that cliché doesn’t mean you can’t kill or shuffle characters off. It just means that you should make a point to give the death resonance or meaning rather than using it as a cheap device. (Consider, for example, The Bonding or The Ship.)

Creature comforts...

Creature comforts…

In that respect, getting Hoshi off the ship could work. We’ve come to know her a little bit. Captain Archer manually recruited her for the mission. She’s the only member of the staff that we saw him headhunt. She gets a pet slug here. She isn’t a random redshirt, she’s a proper character. Getting rid of Hoshi – either killing her or sending her home – would be more upsetting and shocking than simply killing a stunt double.

Of course, getting rid of Hoshi would generate all sorts of problems. She is one of the only two non-white lead actors on Enterprise. Sending her home or killing her off would make the cast less diverse. That’s certainly true. However, there’s no reason this story couldn’t work with a character like Trip or Reed. The show has an abundance of white male characters; it wouldn’t miss one this early in the story. And killing Trip off would serve as a wake-up call about the dangers of space flight to Jonathan Archer.

Archer keeps his ear to the ground...

Archer keeps his ear to the ground…

Still, Fight or Flight plays out with the easiest resolution ever. Hoshi Sato has doubts about her role on Enterprise, cracks under the pressure and… finds her space legs at just the right moment. Jonathan Archer has trouble reconciling his conscience to the pragmatic decisions that he must make as commanding officer, and so leads the crew into a fight where they are hopelessly outgunned and… another ship conveniently shows up and saves him.

There’s a sense that Fight or Flight could have been a brutally subversive and harsh reminder of the sort of stakes that the cast of Enterprise would face on a daily basis, but the episode opts for the safest possible outcome. This feels like the voice of Rick Berman, who cast himself very much in the role of defending Gene Roddenberry’s vision after the passing of the franchise’s creator. Which is understandable, but very much conflicts with the sense that Enterprise is trying to be a more modern or updated piece of television.

"This plot resolution appears quite regularly in our databanks..."

“This plot resolution appears quite regularly in our databanks…”

The script for Fight or Flight feels particularly old-school, structured to juxtapose the crew (and Archer’s) storyline against the more intimate storyline involving Hoshi Sato. It’s pretty much the same structure that Rick Berman used in Brothers, comparing and contrasting the relationship between Data and Lore with the two children on the Enterprise. It’s an effective story structure, feeling like a very traditional approach to structuring an episode; it’s a classic technique, because it works.

And yet, it feels almost quaint. Fight or Flight is incredibly on the nose. It is so heavy-handed with its central metaphors that it’s refreshing when Phlox is self-aware enough to acknowledge that the situation of Hoshi’s slug closely mirrors her own difficulties adjusting to life in outer space. “She needs to get back to an environment that is more suited to her,” Hoshi remarks. Phlox, who recognises that Hoshi is projecting as much as the audience does, responds, “Perhaps some place where she could teach.”

The reason Reed is so minor a character in the first season is because he's busy dealing with all the health-and-safety paperwork for the armoury...

The reason Reed is so minor a character in the first season is because he’s busy dealing with all the health-and-safety paperwork for the armoury…

Sadly, the rest of the script doesn’t seem quite as astute and as self-aware. Enterprise runs straight into the conventional Star Trek clichés. It turns out that Hoshi can adapt to outer space, if she’s willing to push herself. It turns out that Archer’s attempts to do the right thing will help them to earn friends in deep space. These are core Star Trek ideals – and they offer a wonderfully optimistic world view. The problem is that Fight or Flight doesn’t earn them.

It’s worth noting that the third season retains many of the same plot and character arcs that play out early in the first season. Once again, the Enterprise finds itself in a situation for which it is not prepared; once more, it braves the unknown. Characters have to ask themselves whether they are suited to this new status quo, and the fact that Archer isn’t entirely ready costs quite a few lives. However, the season ends on an optimistic note, with many of the core Star Trek values affirmed.

Body of proof...

Body of proof…

Many of the big moments in the third season revolve around the idea that Archer has to come to trust others, and that he has to convince others to trust him. That trust is developed over a relatively long run – the adjustments to the new status quo do not occur instantly. Looking at the first season, it seems like the show could have used that approach early on. What if the first few weeks had been tough on the crew? What if their faith had been really tested? What if the happy ending were earned rather than bestowed?

Archer’s plot in Fight or Flight is incredibly frustrating. The character essentially confronts the reality that space can be pretty horrific. In a very Braga touch, he discovers that mysterious attackers are harvesting the bodily fluids of other species. The reveal of the bodies hanging upside down, being pumped by sinister technology, is a beautiful piece of body horror that plays perfectly to Brannon Braga’s sensibilities.

Well, Reed's still a more efficient security officer than Worf...

Well, Reed’s still a more efficient security officer than Worf…

Space is not necessarily a nice place, inhabited by nice people. The earliest episodes of the first season of Star Trek seemed to suggest that the galaxy was a graveyard haunted by the ghosts of horrors almost beyond our comprehension. Fight or Flight tries to capture that sense of confused horror. The aliens in the episode are never identified and we never even see them. They are just a faceless horror lurking in the void.

And so Archer has to confront the idea that there are some fights he cannot win. He has to make a tough call, realising that the entire crew would be placed in danger if the harvesters return. It’s a pretty bleak story, but it underscores just how horrific space can be. Of course, Archer’s conscience won’t allow him to follow that course, and he relents. He returns to do the right thing – to give the dead a respectful burial and to destroy the pump harvesting all those delicious bodily fluids.

Everything is ship-shape...

Everything is ship-shape…

The inevitable happens. The sinister and mysterious aliens return to collect their precious alien smoothie, only to to discover a collection of suitable replacement fluid donors loitering around. Recognising that human bodies also produce the fluids in question (or similar substitutes), the aliens begin preparations to harvest the ship. It is immediately clear that the Enterprise is absolutely no match for the predatory aliens, and Archer faces the realisation that he has made a decision that will have dire consequences.

Of course, it doesn’t. Archer doesn’t even get a bloody nose. A ship similar to that of the first victim shows up, and Archer manages to convince them to help fight off the aggressors. Reed even gets to launch one of his spatial torpedoes, in the most absolutely pointless gesture of military force in the history of Star Trek. Everybody is happy. Archer makes friends with these new aliens. In a nice nod to classic Star Trek, the aliens are revealed to be the Axanar, aliens mentioned briefly in Court Martial and Whom the Gods Destroy.

"Let's see what's out there..."

“Let’s see what’s out there…”

This is all well and good, and very much in keeping with the utopian ideals of Star Trek, but it suffers a bit from the same problem that haunted Broken Bow. This is meant to be a show about a rougher era of space travel, a harsher time in the history of Earth. It’s meant to be about building up to the utopian future of Star Trek. Instead, it seems like we’re practically there. The Enterprise has many of the same do-hickeys that we take for granted on Star Trek, just with slightly different names. Now it seems the broader narrative rules of Star Trek are already in place.

It’s very hard to buy into this. To be fair, this is a problem with the larger show as much as it is a problem with Fight or Flight itself. At this stage of its life, Enterprise was not a show willing to commit to long-form storytelling. The addition of the Temporal Cold War to Broken Bow suggested that there might be recurring plot elements that would pop up from time to time, but even that was not something planned out for the long term. Enterprise was intended as a very episodic television show, and so every episode had to neatly resolve everything raised in those forty-five minutes, tidying them away.

A rocky second episode...

A rocky second episode…

Brannon Braga concedes the problem in the documentary Uncharted Territory:

I think part of the problem, honestly, was that being stuck with this %@#!in’ stand-alone episode sh!t was actually crippling us creatively. It’s really hard to do that. Star Trek was primed to do something different. It should have done something different from the beginning – it should have been that land-based season; it should have been serialised storytelling. Star Trek needed it! Enterprise needed it to truly set itself apart. And I blame the studio for pushing us to do more of the same, because that wasn’t our intention. People will think I’m full of sh!t, but I’m not.

Due to this storytelling model, it seems like Fight or Flight is a story about how all the crew’s anxieties about space flight can be helpfully resolved in forty-five minutes.

Peas in a shuttlepod...

Peas in a shuttlepod…

Indeed, the episodic nature of Enterprise even means that Fight or Flight somewhat undermines the impact of Strange New World. The next episode makes a big deal of the ship find a habitable planet. However, the final scene of Fight or Flight has Hoshi and Phlox setting her pet slug free on – an admittedly desolate – planet. Still, one assumes that Hoshi would not be so cruel as to release the slug on a planet incapable of supporting life.

Even if the planet in Strange New World is even more habitable, the discovery is undercut by the fact that the ship casually sent two members of the crew down to a planet at the end of the very last episode. The obvious thing to do would be to release Hoshi’s slug onto the planet from Strange New World either at the end of Fight or Flight or early in Strange New World. However, that would mean pulling an element from one story into another, which would run counter to the episodic approach of this first season.

Ready for launch...

Ready for launch…

It doesn’t help that Fight or Flight is very on-the-nose when it comes to characters and dialogue. There’s little room for ambiguity or subtext in any of the interactions between the crew members. Everybody seems to say what they are thinking, in a way that doesn’t feel particularly organic. Archer even provides helpful character exposition to his dog while recording his Captain’s Log. The Captain’s Log has always been a handy expository tool, but here it’s being used to shoehorn in basic character beats.

It’s trite to suggest the old television (and movie) writing maxim of “show, don’t tell”, but it applies here. Fight or Flight leaves little to interpretation, as if afraid the audience might not be able to pick up on various character motivations if they are not clearly articulated. Charles Tucker is arguably the character most affected by this, behaving more like an over-eager teenager than a professional department head and close friend of Captain Archer.

"Picard never had to put up with this crap..."

“Picard never had to put up with this crap…”

“I wish I had an ear for languages,” he laments to Hoshi. “The Captain’s going to need a translator with him a lot more often than an engineer.” It’s very hard to feel particularly sympathetic to a Chief Engineer who is readily willing to forsake his profession because he might get to leave the ship more often if he did something else. It was fun to imagine Chief O’Brien as a working-class stiff on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but it’s hard to believe that Trip could be the Chief Engineer of the first warp five ship while being so fickle.

Later on, during a dinner with Archer, he proceeds to completely misread the room. This is a man who is supposed to be a personal friend to Jonathan Archer. While Archer is stressed out over his decision to abandon the dead bodies, Trip is pestering him about how cool the trip must have been. “I heard they were humanoid, is that right?” he asks. “Did they look anything like us?” He fails to pick up on the fact that Archer is moping and giving reluctant one word answers. “But you didn’t recognise the species?” he presses.

Trip would develop into one of the more interesting members of the ensemble, in no small part due to Connor Trinneer’s incredibly charming performance. However, the first season has a great deal of trouble with the character, presenting Trip as a character it is very hard to accept in any position of authority. He’s very much like Bashir was in the first year of Deep Space Nine, but without the awareness of Bashir’s shortcomings. (First season Bashir almost played as parody of Roddenberry’s idealised future humans.)

Still, despite these problems – which aren’t really problems so much as choices that make Fight or Flight feel like a televisual artefact – there is quite a lot to enjoy here. Fight or Flight is structured in a way the emphasises the differences between Enterprise and other Star Trek shows. Working hard to create a sense of atmosphere, the show has a relaxed pace. It takes Fight or Flight twenty minutes to get to the reveal of the dead bodies on the alien ship – something that would have closed a five-minute teaser on Voyager or Deep Space Nine.

While this isn’t something that Enterprise should do week-in and week-out, it’s a nice touch. It underscores that space exploration really isn’t as easy for these people as it would be for Kirk or Picard. While elements like “the grappler” or “phase cannons” or “spatial torpedoes” are all just modifications of familiar concepts, the pacing of Fight or Flight creates a palpable sense of difference between Enterprise and Voyager. You could not tell this story on Voyager; you’d need to add some more twists or hooks or high concepts.

There’s an elegance to all that – a reminder of how impossibly vast space can be. It’s something that the first season of Enterprise should really do more often. Fight or Flight might be flawed, but it does seem like a workable template for a different type of Star Trek from what came before. It might still be too episodic and risk averse, but it feels more unique than something like Two Days and Two Nights or Acquisition.

The cast are also getting a bit more comfortable. John Billingsley has already begun to steal small scenes as Phlox. While the show is very much centred around Archer, T’Pol and Trip, Billingsley is among the finest performers in the ensemble. He takes the obligatory “quirky alien” role and makes it perfectly his own. His scene with Mayweather plays very well. “If I’m not mistaken, they are preparing to mate,” he observes of two crew members. “Do you think they might let me watch?” The more I watch of Enterprise, the more I suspect that the decon chamber is just an elaborate set-up by Phlox.

Fight or Flight is an episode that feels very old-fashioned and very classical in its design and function. While the story does emphasise the differences between the world of Enterprise and the worlds of the other shows, it refuses to break from the Star Trek template in a meaningful way. The resolution is somewhat trite and entirely predictable, and the layering of the stories is efficient, but also just a little heavy-handed.

The result is an episode that works better as a collection of smaller parts than it does as a collective whole. It’s certainly something different from the final season of Voyager, but it’s not something that feels as new as it should.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of Star Trek: Enterprise:

2 Responses

  1. Good review. I just started Enterprise out of morbid curiosity and I certainly don’t hate it so far. This one’s third act is indeed way too pat, which I suspect will become an issue for me before long, but I definitely dug the contemplative pace and almost uncannily terrifying reveal halfway through.

    • Yeah, I’m kind of an Enterprise apologist, particularly in its first and third seasons. But I would suggest being wary of its second season. I’ve mentioned it before, but that was the season that “broke” me of a life-long Star Trek obsession. It was the first Star Trek season I stopped watching “live.” To be fair, at least part of that was down to the hatred on the internet, but a fair amount of it is down to how cripplingly generic the episodes are.

      Oh, how goes DS9, by the by?

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