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Star Trek: Enterprise – Terra Nova (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.

Terra Nova is a rather unfortunate fifth episode for Star Trek: Enterprise. The show is in its first season, so there are bound to be mistakes and missteps along the way. However, Unexpected and Terra Nova provide a one-two punch of unfortunate back-to-back episodes, shows that aren’t just the result of an uncertain creative time stumbling while trying to find their groove. Like Unexpected directly before it, Terra Nova is an episode that is toxic from the ground up.

It is, in short, precisely the kind of story that you don’t want to tell about mankind’s first adventures into the cosmos. While the episode very much evokes the mood and style of classic Star Trek, it also inherits all the franchise’s worst colonial impulses. This is an episode that belongs alongside the more ill-judged entries in the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, like The Last Outpost or Lonely Among Us.

He's got faith, faith of the heart...

He’s got faith, faith of the heart…

Terra Nova takes a fascinating starting point – something very intrinsically tied to the premise of Enterprise – and twists it into a show about our human protagonists dealing with silly off-world people. Those silly off-world people happen to be humans, who need to be reminded of their humanity, in such a way that our protagonists can feel proud and superior about how advanced and sophisticated they are. Those silly humans who have “gone native” could really learn a lot from our super-advanced heroes.

Terra Nova feels like an episode that sets Star Trek back fourteen years, proof that some of the worst aspects of Roddenberry’s vision of the franchise have endured surprisingly well.

On yer bike, Reed...

On yer bike, Reed…

Brannon Braga has gone on record dismissing Terra Nova as his least favourite episode of Enterprise:

Ironically enough, my least favorite episode was a very, very early one called Terra Nova. There happens to be an irony there. It was about finding a lost colony of humans, but it was boring and it was unfortunate that it was such an early episode.

While there is hot competition for the title of “worst episode of Enterprise”, Braga has a point.

Hate to point it out...

Hate to point it out…

From a storytelling point of view, Terra Nova is just an awful piece of work. It’s an episode with no real suspense, no meaningful character work, no strong central mystery, no memorable climax. It is quite clear what has happened early on. The great mystery of what happened to the colony of Terra Nova is resolved pretty quickly. Indeed, one wonders why Earth could really never be bothered sending a ship to look into the problem, since it was so handily solved.

The episode never really closes that plot hole, even drawing attention to it in the scene directly after the opening credits. After hearing the mystery of the disappearing colony, T’Pol asks, “Why didn’t you send a vessel to find out what happened?” Archer responds that the trip would have taken eighteen years, which is true when the colony was founded. However, it seems strange that human space travel made no significant leap forward in the seventy years before the launch of the high-profile “warp five engine.”

It's nice to see that space missions were always as diverse as Archer's...

It’s nice to see that space missions were always as diverse as Archer’s…

More than that, there are other human ships that appear to be out on the fringes. Asking a boomer ship to take a six month detour between deliveries does not seem particularly unreasonable – especially given the suggestion that Terra Nova has become something of an urban legend on the space ways. When asked why humanity never asked the Vulcans to investigate, Trip replies, “Asking favours of the Vulcans usually ends up carrying too high a price.”

Humanity may have eliminated war and poverty, but pride remains – pride that is willing to sacrifice dozens of lives in order to maintain face. However, that sets the tone for Terra Nova, an episode with a title that – appropriately enough – translates as “New Earth.” This isn’t an episode about exploring strange new worlds, it’s a story about finding strange new cultures and trying to force them to conform to a very particular social norm.

Reed's just lucky he's in the main credits...

Reed’s just lucky he’s in the main credits…

However, back to the plotting problems. The show’s central mystery is solved almost immediately. Reed is captured by the natives, and held hostage. However, the episode never mines this for any tension. Instead, the plot contrives to have a number of situations occur whereby Archer can assert his superiority over the natives and force them to accept his assistance an his will. One of the natives has lung cancer, so Archer is able to treat her. Another gets trapped under a log, and Archer uses a phaser to free him.

All of this is very contrived and very routine. It’s the plotting path of least resistance, one that never throws any curve-balls or subversions or twists or suspense. Everything happens in such a way that the plot plays out to Archer’s advantage, with the situation never escalating out of control and the show never seeming real or tense. Archer has an answer for everything, the episode is always entirely on his side, and anyone who opposes him is very clearly wrong.

Cliffhanger...

Cliffhanger…

It is an absolutely terrible plot. As a story, it is dull. It isn’t engaging or exciting. The episode’s climax features a random character trapped underneath a fallen log on the familiar Star Trek cave sets. The story isn’t about a clash of two cultures, but a “primitive” culture learning to accept that the “more advanced” culture is correct. Leaving aside the unfortunate colonial subtext of that basic plot, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for tension or insight or development.

It doesn’t help that the episode is so incredibly proud of itself. In the episode’s closing scene, Travis reflects on the events of Terra Nova, as if to assure the audience of their importance. Discussing the disappearances of Judge Crater and Amelia Earhart, he observes, “A lot of people spent years, decades, trying to figure out what happened to them, but neither of those mysteries holds a candle to Terra Nova. And we solved it!” Getting on the self-congratulatory bandwagon, Trip remarks, “Did more than that. Those people were a year or two away from extinction. We didn’t just find them, we saved their lives.”

Coming to town...

Coming to town…

The closing scene is incredibly irritating, both inside and outside the narrative. Outside the narrative, there’s a sense that the show is actually proud of Terra Nova as an episode – as if Enterprise really wants to hold this story up as an example of the kind of thing that it should be doing every week. Inside the narrative, there’s a sense that we are meant to be cheering for this hyper-advanced culture that has bestowed its beneficence upon those poor stupid primitives. It’s incredibly patronising and unsettling.

Which brings us to the episode’s subtext. After all, it isn’t just bad plotting that makes a truly spectacular clunker of an episode. If an episode wants to claim a place among the worst that the franchise has to offer, there has to be something even more unpleasant lurking beneath the surface. After all, Profit and Lace and Code of Honour transcend mere terribleness by embracing the worst side of Star Trek and managing to represent the very opposite of what the franchise strives for.

Here's mud in your eye...

Here’s mud in your eye…

Race is a very important part of Terra Nova, to the point where Archer himself comes across as a human supremacist. “Despite how they look, they’re still human,” he advises his senior staff. “We’ve got to find some way to talk to them.” The implications of that statement alone are unsettling. Is the fact that don’t look human justification for assuming they cannot be reasoned with? Why does Archer assume that humans are particularly susceptible to reason? Would he give up on them if they weren’t human?

When Travis points out that they don’t seem to want to talk, Archer responds, “If I can’t make first contact with other humans I don’t have any business being out here.” It becomes a weird matter of pride, with humanity as the common ground between the crew of the Enterprise and the colonists. This very casually suggests that the ability to common ground or understanding is not universal. “Humans help each other,” Archer suggests, as if the colonists’ humanity is the only reason he is concerned about the fact they may die slow and painful deaths from radiation poisoning. If they were Vulcan, on the other hand…

Reach out and touch somebody...

Reach out and touch somebody…

Terra Nova plays like a justification of colonialism. The colonists are very much characterised in unfortunate stereotypes defining them as a stock Western depiction of a “primitive” culture. They are covered in mud, despite that fact that they do seem to have access to water, and most of the caves are constructed of rock. Why would they cover themselves in mud? It can’t be for disguise, as there’s no reference to predators?

They speak in nonsense, using mystical-sounding words like “overside” and “skyship.” At one point, one colonist remarks, “I’m leg-broke.” However, it’s hard to figure out how this makes any sense. The children who survived the radiation were capable of building a rudimentary society that could work machine guns, catch animals for food and explain advanced concepts like space weapons and Vulcans.

"You'd be surprised to know that our skin is fantastic!"

“You’d be surprised to know that our skin is fantastic!”

The idea that the kids did all this at an age where they did not know words like “surface” or “starship” feels a tad convenient. Jamin references “mud drawings” in Phlox’s sick bay, despite the fact that he knows what “mud” is and that the display is not “mud.” Even if he doesn’t know words like “diagram” or “display”, surely he could just drop the word “mud” from the description that comes to mind. The best thing about all this is that at least Terra Nova doesn’t milk the language divide to much.

It’s an obvious affectation by the episode, an attempt to define the culture as conforming to stereotypical depictions of native cultures. Indeed, the episode even features an extended sequences where the colonists play wind instruments created from the bones of small animals. Naturally, it evokes the sound of pan flutes, as associated with Native Americans. It’s yet another decision that forges a connection between the Novans and various indigenous cultures.

Shining light on native culture...

Shining light on native culture…

Coupled with the emphasis that the episode puts on the “humanity” of the Novans, this creates all sorts of awkward subtext. Most notably, this plays like a story about the Enterprise crew finding a bunch of colonists who have “gone native”, an archetypal nineteenth-century colonial narrative as Barbara Tedlock explains in Ethnography and Ethnographic Representation:

The negative portrayal of “going native” appeared in late-19th-century colonial fiction, in which the colonizers were created and then embraced within a deeply racialized discourse that also represented the colonial other. Although the colonizers were shown as being at the top of the evolutionary cultural and racial hierarchies, they were also imagined as capable of falling from this pinnacle. Degeneration, “going native,” or, in its most excessive form, “going troppo” became a common theme in narratives of white travel and residence in tropical lands. Two classic narratives of this sort are Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. In Conrad’s depiction of Kurtz’s descent into savagery, he produces a narrative of degeneration that reveals the vulnerability of colonists in foreign lands. London’s characters, like many ethnographers, do not live as the locals do, and v they maintain the marks of colonial prestige, power, and authority vested in material objects such as clothing, watches, and radios. Their way of “going native” is through moral degeneration rather than the adoption of the surface trappings and cultural inscriptions of the native other, such as tattoos.

This feels like the kind of story that Enterprise should be contemplating with great care and sensitivity. After all, given that Star Trek is rooted in American popular consciousness, it needs to be very careful when dealing with something that has obvious implications with American cultural history – particularly an aspect of that history that is frequently glossed over.

New worlds...

New worlds…

When the Enterprise first arrives, the Novans are sceptical of the crew. They belief that the arrival of the Enterprise heralds the end of their civilisation, that Archer has arrived to lay claim to their land. When Archer informs them that the tunnels are radioactive, Jamin responds, “If our tunnels are infected you wouldn’t want them so badly.” The Novans respond with fear and trepidation at the arrival of humanity.

To be fair, T’Pol does call Archer out on his attitudes. She objects to his plan to bring them back to Earth. “When you get them back to Earth, what will you do?” she asks, rhetorically. “Send them to school, teach them to read and write, wear human clothing, eat human food, teach them to live on the surface, enjoy the sunshine?” Archer responds, “You’re damn straight. They’re human beings. It’s their birthright.” He seems to realise the problem with his attitude. However, Terra Nova doesn’t interrogate that colonialism enough. In act, as much as it calls Archer out on that instance, it indulges in others.

A shaky start...

A shaky start…

However, Terra Nova works hard to insist that the Novans are fools to be cautious of Archer and his crew. “We only want to help you, make you healthy,” Travis assures them. Towards the climax, Archer gets indignant about Jamin’s reluctance to trust him. “It’s your turn to trust me,” he demands, insisting that Jamin hand him back the phaser – a rather symbolic gesture vindicating Archer’s right to the superior firepower. (And reinforcing the idea that only Archer is advanced enough to use it, despite the fact that the Novans can use guns, which would appear similar in principle.)

Indeed, the episode ends with the relocation of an established and unique culture, in what feels like an echo of the many times that so-called “advanced” cultures have forced “primitive” communities to relocate. This feels like an attempt to justify those horrific acts, endorsing a viewpoint not too dissimilar to the infamous “white man’s burden.” According to Terra Nova, in some cases, it is perfectly legitimate for a more “advanced” civilisation to manipulate and cajole a “less” advanced civilisation into accepting their instructions. After all, these hyper-advanced humans do have their best interests at heart.

"Hey, look! I found a line for us in the script!"

“Hey, look! I found a line for us in the script!”

It’s a shame that Terra Nova turns out so poorly. After all, the story of mankind’s journey to the stars should be absolutely fascinating – the tale of a race that reached out into the cosmos and found itself. The story of the first colony founded outside the solar system feels like an excuse to explore how mankind progressed from the modern world towards the utopian ideal of Star Trek. Adding a mystery on top is a nice way to reinforce the sense of adventure and excitement about the frontier.

And there are little touches that work. It’s nice to get a glimpse of how culture has changed slightly to adapt to the brave new world of interstellar adventuring. Like the interstellar ghost story from Strange New World, there’s something fascinating about unsolved space-age mysteries. “I always thought lost colonies affected boomers more than anyone else,” Travis reflects, which makes you wonder how many colonies went missing. As the ship arrives, he muses, “I promised my dad I’d see this place someday.”

"I'll just slip into Bashir mode, if that's okay with you?"

“I’ll just slip into Bashir mode, if that’s okay with you?”

Of course, the episode squanders a lot of this. As with Strange New World, Terra Nova finds itself wandering between something novel and something overly familiar. After all, despite the trappings and set-up, the plot for Terra Nova is very much a Star Trek standard. However, it is a Star Trek standard that hasn’t got too much play in the last thirty-odd years. While Terra Nova does feel familiar, it doesn’t feel like a retread of Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Voyager.

Instead, the set-up seems like a call back to original Star Trek series. There’s even a nice homage to Miri as Reed idly plays with a bicycle wheel. This is a story about a Federation cultural experiment that has gone horrifically wrong. It’s a pretty classic Star Trek episode template, one particularly popular with the original show, very much in line with episodes like Patterns of Force or Bread and Circuses or The Omega Glory. Indeed, Trip’s description of the colony site as a “ghost town” harks back to the original Old West atmosphere of classic show.

At this point, Archer really wishes that he'd brought an expendable ensign on the mission...

At this point, Archer really wishes that he’d brought an expendable ensign on the mission…

Sadly, this isn’t enough to salvage the episode. With such a fundamental mangling of what should be an interesting one-line premise, Terra Nova hits on what will become a recurring problem for the first season of Enterprise. Quite frankly, the show did not have the strongest writing staff coming out of the gate. The writers from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager had mostly gone their own way. At the same time, Paramount discontinued its “open submissions” policy as introduced by Michael Piller on the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, cutting off one potential channel for story-generating ideas.

André Bormanis, Mike Sussman and Phyllis Strong were carried over from Voyager, but Brannon Braga worked hard to recruit a new writing staff for the show. He made a conscious choice to recruit from outside science-fiction and genre work. He recruited writers from dramas and from soap operas and from all sorts of shows. The underlying logic was sound: it might be nice to get some variety in the stories again, rather than having writers who were versed in Star Trek narrative conventions.

Don't sweat the landing...

Don’t sweat the landing…

However, this approach had drawbacks. As Mike Sussman explained in the To Boldly Go documentary:

Brannon had really wanted to hire people who had more of a character-y background to work on Enterprise, more than the science-fiction background that may have been predominant. But a lot of it was hit-and-miss. A lot of people who we hired didn’t really know about the Star Trek legacy and the lore.

That particularly became an issue. At that point there had already been – I don’t know – 500 episodes of all the various series? If you’re pitching an idea that’s been done – if you don’t know the canon, the history of the show – it’s really hard to get up to speed. So a lot of those writers who weren’t familiar with Star Trek kinda fell by the wayside.

That feels like it might have been a problem with Terra Nova. It’s an episode that doesn’t seem aware that Star Trek has occasionally had difficulty dealing with issues of colonialism, and so isn’t equipped to navigate that minefield.

Should Mayweather really be surfing the ship's intra-web at work?

Should Mayweather really be surfing the ship’s intra-web at work?

It is worth noting Terra Nova is the only Star Trek writing credit for Antoinette Stella. Stella has a reasonably long history on television. She has worked on shows as diverse as Hey, Arnold! and Melrose Place. However, neither of these shows suggests an aptitude for the kind of storytelling that works within the context of Star Trek. It seems quite clear that trying to draw somebody with Antoinette Stella’s experience into the world of Star Trek would require considerable oversight and care.

Doing that in the middle of a difficult first season is a risky move, as it seems unlike Brannon Braga and Rick Berman would have the time necessary to help bring the less experienced writers up to speed. Predictably, Antoinette Stella did not last on Enterprise. She departed before the first season was finished, along with Tim Finch. Terra Nova is the only script credited to Stella, and her last on-screen credit appeared on Dear Doctor.

Music to my ears...

Music to my ears…

As Brannon Braga conceded during To Boldly Go, there was significant attrition on the first season writing staff:

It was really stressful. I was having difficulty putting a writing staff together. I put together a whole new staff, and most of them didn’t survive. One guy did – Chris Black. Of the ten writers I hired in season one, none of them lasted.

That is an absolutely brutal rate of turnover. Michael Piller did face a similar issue during his first season on The Next Generation, but he managed to keep the writing staff together until the end of the year. It seems like Enterprise was struggling from the outset.

Everything looks ship-shape here...

Everything looks ship-shape here…

Naturally, this came with a cost. Brannon Braga was the most experienced writer on staff. So he stepped in to fill the void. As well as serving as creator and executive producer, he frequently found himself rolling up his sleeves and jumping in:

I think I probably re-wrote just about every single episode of season one. And I don’t say that as a badge of honour, because some of the episodes did not work at all. I didn’t want to, I just felt like I had to.

Whatever problems there might be with Braga’s approach to Star Trek, that is a phenomenal level of work on top of his other obligations. It’s a miracle that any of the season hung together at all.

Look, Travis, I like that you get some lines here, but maybe you should fly the shuttlecraft and concentrate on not landing us on a cave-in...

Look, Travis, I like that you get some lines here, but maybe you should fly the shuttlecraft and concentrate on not landing us on a cave-in…

That said, this obviously put a strain on Braga. Rick Berman and Brannon Braga were left to pick up a lot of the slack. The first seven episodes all give at least a “story by” credit to Rick Berman and Brannon Braga. In the middle of the season, the duo take a bit of a break, but each of the last twelve episodes are each credited in some way to Rick Berman and Brannon Braga. Considering the difficulty that most shows have getting an executive producer to manage even thirteen episodes a year, that is an insane workload.

It immediately disproves any suggestion that either writer or producer “didn’t care” about Enterprise. After all, nobody works that hard on a project to which they feel indifferent. At the same time, it is apparent that fatigue had to set in. It’s impossible to maintain any consistent level of quality over that volume of work in that short a period of time. As such, it seems like the show’s writers’ room was another area where Enterprise was sabotaged by its own ambition.

"Maybe I can't relocate them to Earth, but I'm sure I can still find a reason to relocate them somewhere!"

“Maybe I can’t relocate them to Earth, but I’m sure I can still find a reason to relocate them somewhere!”

Brannon Braga clearly had a vision of the show, but it wasn’t one that was necessarily pragmatic or practical. The show would do a much better job recruiting writers as it went a long, but this was a crippling problem out of the gate. The first season of Enterprise is a superbly produced piece of television, but the writing simply isn’t consistent enough. It is all over the place. It’s tragic that this happened on the first season of the show, hobbling Enterprise out of the gate.

Terra Nova might not be the worst episode of Enterprise, but it’s a critical blow this early in the first season. Following Unexpected, it’s another example of the show wallowing in the more uncomfortable Star Trek clichés. Unexpected demonstrated how inconsistent the franchise could be when it came to comedy, particularly comedy built around gender. Terra Nova is an example of what happens when the franchise doesn’t check its more imperialist tendencies.

Archer won't cave under pressure...

Archer won’t cave under pressure…

That these aired at the fourth and fifth episodes of the first season is downright tragic.

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

2 Responses

  1. Well, once again, T’Pol seems like the only character with a clue. I don’t like her the way I liked Spock — heck, I flat-out adored Spock — but so far, she’s the only character I consistently respect.

    This show seems like such a mixture; there are some things that seem pretty cool, and then the scripts go on to squander their promise…

    • Yep, there’s a host of really good ideas that I’m not sure the writing staff are capable of delivering upon in this first season.

      That said, there are a number of first season episodes that I do really like, because they slow down the pace a little a bit on touch on the idea of what it might be like to be the first ship travelling out there.

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