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Star Trek: Enterprise – Unexpected (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.

So, male pregnancy, eh?

Talk about a nipple slip...

Talk about a nipple slip…

It’s interesting to note that Braga once sat in on a pitch session for Star Trek: Voyager where an aspiring writer suggested a similar plot for Tom Paris. Braga was less than impressed:

“The crew of Voyager take an R&R on this M-class planet. Right? Really nice place. OK? Everyone has a blast. But as they’re about to return to the ship, a native woman runs up and stops them, and it turns out that Lieutenant Tom Paris has gotten her pregnant….”

“Whoa, hold on there.” Braga sits up. “We didn’t do a good job on Paris the first season. He came off looking like a sleaze; now we’re trying to decreepify him.”

“OK, say they were having, you know, a real relationship -“

“Sure, but how do we handle that? It makes Paris look awfully irresponsible if he gets an alien pregnant. He didn’t use a condom?”

“Well, uh, she’s an alien, maybe -“

“Of course. We could have him say, ‘How was I to know that sticking my tongue in her anus would get her pregnant?'”

It’s a flippant and dismissive response from Braga, but it’s interesting that he felt the need to revisit the idea – albeit with a twist – so early in the first season of Star Trek: Enterprise.

Electricity in the air...

Electricity in the air…

In a post-season analysis with Star Trek Communicator, Braga defended the idea, arguing that this was the kind of mistake you could justify on a prequel like Enterprise:

“It’s all a big trip to him,” puns Braga. “When Trip goes on the alien ship, he can’t wait to get over there. But then he gets there and very quickly realizes he wants to get the hell out. It’s too much. It’s too weird. That’s the kind of stuff you would never see a Riker do, because they’re just too seasoned. And Connor just brought more to Trip than we could’ve imagined.”

It’s a reasonable argument, but it still doesn’t justify Unexpected.

Archer's excitement bubble over...

Archer’s excitement bubble over…

There is an interesting idea at the root of Unexpected. There’s a decent science-fiction premise buried somewhere in this mess of an episode. After all, it’s nice to get a sense that not all species conform to our own ideas of sexuality and gender. It’s worth reinforcing that just because a creature resembles us doesn’t mean that we should project our own constructs on to them. There’s a nice first contact story to be written here, about the accidental dangers of interaction with other life forms.

However, that’s not how Unexpected ultimately plays out. Unexpected is an episode about a man who becomes pregnant. Isn’t that a hilarious concept? And then he does all those things that women do when they’re pregnant, right? He becomes hormonal and moody and maternal, because that’s hilarious, right? It means we get to see a man play-acting as a sexist stereotype of a woman, like they would do on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine occasionally. I mean, everyone loved Profit and Lace, right?

Yes, the Klingon actually says "I can see my house from here..."

Yes, the Klingon actually says “I can see my house from here…”

(And thus begins a trend of Enterprise looking longingly at Deep Space Nine to try to figure out why fans loved it so much, only to miss the point entirely. After all, the first season of Enterprise gives us a Ferengi episode in Acquisition, an ensemble Risa sex farce like Let He Who Is Without Sin… in Two Days and Two Nights, and a direct plot lift from Shadowplay (including one the same core cast members) for Oasis. Enterprise may not have the best taste in source material.)

Male pregnancy is not a novel concept. It dates back to at least Ancient Greece, if not further. It can work on a number of levels. It can be an allegory, a way to explore gender issues, a subversive twist, a piece of commentary. In modern pop culture, however, it tends to play as either broad comedy or horror. After all, one of the more popular interpretations of Frankenstein suggests that the novel is about the horror of male birth. Male pregnancy is frequently a source of body horror – with Alien serving as the most iconic and popular example.

T'Pol sees this coming a mile off...

T’Pol sees this coming a mile off…

There are elements of that to Unexpected. Indeed, the “pregnancy” such as it exists, seems like a close conceptual cousin of process depicted in Alien. “When reproducing, the Xyrillians only utilize the genetic material of the mother,” Phlox remarks. “The males simply serve as hosts.” This would seem to undermine the idea of pregnancy, suggesting that Trip is little more than just a host to a parasitic organism implanted without his consent. Like the chestburster from Alien, it doesn’t take residence in his stomach region, instead growing in his chest area.

Although the process of implantation may have been much more pleasant than for any of the victims in that classic science-fiction horror franchise, Trip’s pregnancy still serves as an analogy for rape and sexual assault. It is just a different type of violation. The alien here doesn’t use physical force to take advantage of Trip. Instead, the process is more analogous to date rape. Perhaps Unexpected acknowledges the expanding comprehension of sexual assaults – that the act does not need to involve physical violence or coercion to constitute a sexual assault upon a person.

Well, we was certainly drugged...

Well, he was certainly drugged…

After all, spousal rape was legal everywhere in the United States until 1975; it remains a somewhat contentious legal issue. Although date (or acquaintance) rape has a long history, it was only really acknowledged by law enforcement agencies (and the mainstream media) in the mid-nineties, with the federal Drug-Induced Rape Prevention and Punishment Act only passed in 1996. As such, acknowledging that a character could be taken advantage of without realising it until later is perhaps a clever way of touching on the issue.

Except that Unexpected never really acknowledges that Trip has undergone a violation. Instead it is treated as a simple cultural misunderstanding. Indeed, Archer treats it as something of a joke, while T’Pol proceeds to blame Trip for putting himself in the position in the first place. This might place as a clever indictment of rape culture if Trip himself expressed even the slightest hint that he felt betrayed and exploited.

Notice that Phlox never explains quite HOW Trip is going to give birth...

Notice that Phlox never explains quite HOW Trip is going to give birth…

The Xyrillians themselves seem to shrug off the whole thing as an honest mistake, while Trip seems more weirded out by the decontamination procedures boarding the alien vessel than the fact that he has been used as a host vessel for an alien organism. It’s possible that the fetus is manipulating him, adjusting his hormones to make him feel so comfortable with the idea, but that just raises even more uncomfortable rape-y subtext.

So Unexpected spends considerable time dancing around all the issues that arise with this sort of story, which is par for the course in Star Trek “science-fiction rape” stories. As with Troi in The Child, Trip spends most of Unexpected being remarkably non-contrarian and very relaxed about how his body is to be used. The words “abortion”, “rape” and “consent” are never used. Everybody – including Trip – seems to accept that the organism’s right to exist inherently trumps his own right to bodily integrity.

Something fishy here...

Something fishy here…

Trip wants the organism out of him, but only if its safety can be assured. “There’s got to be some way to get this thing out of me without hurting it,” he suggests. “Can’t you create a surrogate chamber or something?” Phlox replies, “The embryo has integrated with your pericardium. I wouldn’t be comfortable extracting it without more information on the gestation process.” And that is officially the end of that. There’s no further debate about the conflict of rights. Or any of the thornier issues involved in a plot like this.

Indeed, when Archer does manage to track down the Xyrillian ship, Trip is rather blaisé about the whole thing. When Ah’len tries to explain herself, Trip responds even-handedly. “No need to apologise, but I would be real appreciative if you could get this out of me, assuming it’s safe.” Given how uncomfortable he was acclimatising to the Xyrillian ship, and his somewhat racist attitudes towards T’Pol, this all seems like a rather surreal way of avoiding any dramatic issues that might stem from a situation like this.

Out of this world...

Out of this world…

Instead, Unexpected plays into the other school of modern storytelling about male pregnancy. It plays the whole thing as a comedy, evoking horrible memories of films like Junior or Rabbit Test. This feels like an error in judgement. Star Trek, as a franchise, has a pretty hit-and-miss track record when it comes to comedy episodes. Pitching a comedy about male pregnancy as your fourth episode feels like an invitation for disaster. It’s a minor miracle that Unexpected only finds itself in contention for the title of the worst episode of the season.

Cue your stock gags about pregnancy. Ha! People have strange cravings! Ha! Women get hormonal! Ha! Something about nipples! Ha! Fixation on children and childproofing, even in the most illogical of situations! Connor Trinneer is a very good sport about all this, and it’s to his credit as an actor that he emerges with his dignity intact. Trineer is disarmingly charming the role of Trip, and he makes the character endearing despite the scripts he has been given.

Tinned Trip...

Tinned Trip…

(Jolene Blalock, unfortunately, is saddled with even worse material, and hasn’t yet had a showcase episode to demonstrate her own talents. Here, shemakes passive-aggressive swipes at Trip. “This engineer wanted you to see her planet?” she asks. “Perhaps the next step would have been to meet her holographic parents. If I’m not mistaken, on some planets that’s a precursor to marriage.” She also observes, “One of the first things a diplomat learns is not to stick his fingers where they don’t belong.” These may have worked as wry and deadpan lines in the style of Nimoy, but Blalock delivers them as dismissive and condescending insults.)

What’s interesting about Unexpected – and what tends to get glossed over when discussing the episode – is the rather relaxed pacing. So far, the plotting of Enterprise has been very traditional and very old-fashioned. Both Fight or Flight and Strange New World took their time getting to the core of the story. As a Star Trek show for the new millennium, Enterprise felt a little leisurely and indulgent.

All fired up...

All fired up…

Since nineties, television – like other media – had been getting faster. In the middle of the decade NBC’s internal forward-looking group – NBC 2000cut the gap between programmes and trimmed the fades to black on commercials to ensure that television moved fast enough to hold the viewer’s attention. Around the same time, the pacing of television shows became faster and tighter, culminating in the modern trend of “speed plotting” – a trend that is very much reaching its apex at the moment with shows like Homeland and Scandal.

Even by the standard of the time, the pacing of Enterprise seemed relaxed. The audience is half-way through Unexpected before the episode’s a-plot kicks into gear, which feels a little surreal. One suspects that this played a part in audience attrition for the show – viewers tuning out because Enterprise was not keeping pace with the style of television to which audiences were responding. After all, this was the era where CSI was rapidly climbing in the ratings – it was the second-highest rated show of the 2001/2002 season.

I'm really going to milk these nipple puns...

I’m really going to milk these nipple puns…

It’s also worth contrasting Enterprise with the breakout new drama of the 2001 season, Fox’s 24. Despite being set in real-time, the show moved at (an only occasionally literally) breakneck speed. Watching the first season of Enterprise, the show feels strangely dated from a plotting, pacing and directing perspective – feeling very much like a holdover from the early-to-mid-nineties. Along with the show’s aggressively episodic nature, it feels like something of a holdover.

That said, the first half of Unexpected is reasonably solid – even if it does feel like the episode is meandering to buy time. The opening scene featuring the failure of the gravity in Archer’s shower is an endearing (if rather hallow) reminder that this future isn’t quite as high-tech as Star Trek fans are used to. And it’s nice to wallow in the strangeness of an alien first contact, to get a sense of how weird it would be to visit with an alien species. The scene with Trip in the airlock is delightfully uncomfortable.

It's a wash...

It’s a wash…

That said, it does feel a little disappointing that Enterprise has gone back to the holodeck so quickly. The holodeck has to rank as one of the most abused pieces of Star Trek technology – a storytelling crutch often used to indulge in gratuitous plotting and which represents the sort of “magical technology” from which Enterprise seeks to escape. Reintroducing it so early in the run – even in the hands of another species – feels like a regressive decision. Of course, Unexpected is not the only first season episode to feature holographic technology heavily.

(It also creates something of a plot hole. The Xyrillians manage to convince the Klingons not to destroy them by providing the Klingons with holodeck technology. It seems strange that the Enterprise would facilitate that trade – and play into what amounts to extortion by the Klingons – without asking for the technology themselves. Then again, it is entirely possible that a trade did take place off screen, and we have the Xyrillians to thank for episodes like Spirit Folk.)

Balancing the scales...

Balancing the scales…

The involvement of the Klingons is rather weird as well. It’s another example of how Enterprise is unwilling to completely give up the trappings of 24th century Star Trek. The Klingons are dropped rather casually into the plot, with a minimum amount of fuss, to create some convenient tension in the last act. Using the Klingons in such a capacity makes them seem like stock aliens, diminishing the novelty of twenty-second century Klingons. If Archer can so casually (and so off-handedly) bump into the Klingons, it makes it all feel a little rote.

Trip cracks jokes about spending time in decontamination with the Klingons. T’Pol suggests that Archer is on good terms with the High Council, and nobody calls her on it. Hoshi was excited by the prospect of perfecting her Klingon in Broken Bow, but it’s not even mentioned here. There’s no sense of mystery or wonder about bumping into a bunch of Klingons, despite the fact that a fleeting first contact was made only a month or so earlier. What had been wondrous and alien has become very… normal and run-of-the-mill.

Again with the Klingons!

Again with the Klingons!

There are lots of little things about Unexpected that work, even if they can’t redeem the episode itself. Connor Trineer is great in a thankless role, demonstrating what an asset he’d become to the show. And Dominic Keating gets a couple of nice small moments as Reed, particularly his somewhat bemused reaction to Archer’s suggestion that they ignite the ship’s exhaust. Keating plays the scene as if Reed is simply humouring his superior officer.

(Those looking to read Reed as the franchise’s first homosexual lead character – even if he is deeply closeted – will quite enjoy the scene where Reed and Trip discuss the visit to the Xyrillian ship. Trip very clearly wants to talk about Ah’len, and it seems like the conversation might move into sexist “lads talking about women” territory. However, Reed only offers a perfunctory “interesting scales” before launching into the topic that really holds his interest. “So, did you get a look at their weapons?”)

Colour me excited...

Colour me excited…

Unexpected is a disappointing mess of an episode, and an unfortunate choice for the fourth episode of Enterprise to air. The previous episodes have all been flawed, but they were at least interesting – there was a sense of a show that was trying to do something new and different. Unexpected represents a slip backwards in many respects: sexist unfunny humour; awkwardly dancing around reproductive politics; Klingons treated as standard; holodecks and cloaking devices.

It turns out that the past is not really a foreign country. It’s just a different holographic wallpaper.

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

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9 Responses

  1. Reed always struck me as far more closeted asexual than closeted homosexual, at least later on in the shows run (‘E²’ for instance.) Though of course given the near total invisibility of asexuals on TV that was probably entirely accidental.

    On the episode itself it really was bizzare wasn’t it? Maybe one needs the skills of Messrs Schwarzenegger & DeVito to pull off this sort of ‘comedy’.

    • That’s probably a more valid point about Reed, actually. The only real evidence of any homosexual interest from Reed is his fairly charged chemistry with Hayes in the third season. (I’d name the episode, but I have difficulty delineating the third season’s story arc. I’m going to guess… Harbinger. Juxtaposing it with Trip and T’Pol suggests the writers knew exactly how it would play. It’s probably the ship-iest male/male relationship since Bashir and Garak.)

      You’re right, asexuals are pretty much invisible in pop culture, though. I don’t believe it was even really acknowledged as a sexual orientation (not sure that’s the right word, but get what I mean) until the mid-nineties, and – even now – it is a characteristic that is almost invisible.

      I don’t loathe Junior, even though it’s kinda terrible. Being the best male pregnancy comedy is a low bar to pass. (I wonder if not seeing it in a while also helps.)

  2. >Yes, the Klingon actually says “I can see my house from here…”

    With dialogue like that, I don’t envy you coming up with funny captions for this series. So many images from this show (from Archer planting his face into T’Pol’s breasts to Archer sawing a tree while bare-chested and wearing beads) have already descended to self-mockery that encourages mute glares of stupefaction (but after the fantastic burn you made at Mayweather’s expense in your “Captain’s Holiday” review, I’m eager to see what Enterprise provokes from you).

    • I don’t hate Enterprise. I actually feel really sorry for the first two seasons where the show can’t seem to work the strength to break out of a spiral that (if we’re being honest) probably began on the last season of TNG and continued through Voyager.

      But the show does itself no favours a lot of the time. That said, I kinda admire the hot sweaty mess that is A Night in Sickbay, because it’s the last point that Enterprise tries to do anything new for about half the season. The second season of Enterprise just sucked the joy out of Star Trek for me, and that’s down to episodes like Marauders and Precious Cargo and Vanishing Point more than A Night in Sickbay.

  3. Ouch! Nice parting shot, Darren.

    Based on my own limited experience trawling for positive reviews, it seems the fanbase is of two halves. There are the casual viewers, people who weren’t that familiar with Trek to begin with, who will always fondly look back on ENT as their gateway drug. And then there are the old style Trekkies, fans who recognize the old-fashioned and (at times) tone deaf nature of the show, but get a nostalgic buzz from its nonetheless. I’m sure more than a few ENT supporters are are inclined toward unpopular opinions (it’s Colin Baker all over again). And nothing in ENT is that scandalous or base that it hasn’t already been done in the previous 24 seasons of Trek.

    It’s still formulaic and lazy, but not without precedent. 😉

    • I actually prefer Enterprise to Voyager, by a considerable margin – even if which actually had more “good” episodes is open to debate. I think that were was a lot that could have worked better, but I think it’s possible to see how (and often why) it went wrong in the way that it did. Nevertheless, Season 2 was the first Star Trek season in memory that I did not watch live all the way through; it kinda killed my interest in Star Trek as an on-going concern; which is a shame, because I think the last two seasons have a lot to recommend them.

  4. This could have been a thoughtful discussion about the ethics surrounding abortion. This could have been an interesting episode about not making assumptions about other species. It could have been about humans’ strange attitudes towards sex, so much less matter-of-fact than that of this week’s aliens.

    But no, we got male pregnancy. *insert eye roll here* Male pregnancy is a staple of bad fan fiction, and it’s rather a shock to find various staples of bad fan fiction in the show.

    At least the holodeck isn’t old hat to the likes of me, so I enjoyed those parts of the show way more than you did. 😉

    • Actually, that’s an interesting point about your experience coming to Enterprise first. (Ahead of TNG/DS9 and most of Voyager.)

      You’ll be experiencing most of the tropes of the Berman/Braga era for the first time watching these episodes. In fact, if you make it to the second season, you’ll be watching a lot of those stories for the first time even though they are largely recycled from TNG/DS9/VOY episodes. I wonder how that will affect your experience. I came to the show through TNG/DS9/VOY, so I was exhausted by these types of story long before I got here, so I’m curious what you make of them.

      • My favorite episodes of TOS are all either about character development — e.g. “Journey to Babel” — or they’re morality plays — e.g. “The Devil in the Dark.” So I generally think about the episodes on a somewhat smaller scale than you do, more interested in character and in ethical implications than in tying what’s happening to the political climate of the time. So depending on what “the tropes of the Berman/Braga era” ARE, I might overlook some of the things that you think are important. I guess we’ll see. 🙂

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