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Star Trek: Enterprise – Breaking the Ice (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.

Breaking the Ice is the first episode of the first season of Star Trek: Enterprise not to reserve a “story by” credit for Rick Berman and Brannon Braga. (Although – in the To Boldly Go documentary – Braga has suggested that at least some of the episode came from his own ideas.)

It is instead credited solely to the writing team of Maria & Andre Jacquemetton. A husband-and-wife writing team, the duo have a long history of writing for television. Before they worked on Enterprise, their credits included Baywatch Nights. However, they are probably more notable for the work that they did after Enterprise, working as executive producers and writers on Mad Men. The duo have won WGA awards for their contributions to Mad Men and been nominated for Emmys.

Guess who's coming to dinner...

Guess who’s coming to dinner…

It is very easy to take the pedigree of the writers on Star Trek for granted. After all, Ronald D. Moore went from a Star Trek: The Next Generation fan with a spec script to the showrunner on the rebooted Battlestar Galactica. Bryan Fuller went from a workhorse on the Star Trek: Voyager staff to a television auteur with work on Dead Like Me, Pushing Up Daisies and Hannibal. Brannon Braga has been prolific since his departure from the franchise, while Ira Steven Behr and René Echevarria have worked consistently in genre television.

It is tempting to claim that Enterprise was something of a formative experience for the Jacquemettons, but that would be disingenuous. Despite writing the show’s first script without a credit to Berman and Braga, the duo were not around long enough to make an impression on the show. They departed at the end of the first season, along with most of the writing staff. Indeed, the most significant influence that Enterprise had on their career was probably the fact that they used to discuss the idea for Mad Men with creator Matt Weiner while they were working on this show.

They're cracking up out there...

They’re cracking up out there…

Still, while hardly a demonstration that Jacquemettons were a creative force to be reckoned with, Breaking the Ice is a solid little episode. It ranks as the strongest episode of Enterprise since the pilot. In many respects, it recalls the Prime Factors/State of Flux duology from the first season of Voyager. It is a flawed episode that has no shortage of ambition, offering a taste of what could make its show unique in the Star Trek pantheon.

It is an episode that celebrates everything that makes Enterprise unique as compared to the other Star Trek shows, taking a great deal of pleasure in things that the audience had come to take for granted in the franchise. It’s a quiet character piece, where what little plot exists is pushed very much to the background, and which offers a much more nuanced view of human/Vulcan relations than Strange New World or The Andorian Incident.

Those Vulcans are cold so-and-sos...

Those Vulcans are cold so-and-sos…

Brannon Braga reportedly recruited the Jacquemettons to work on Enterprise because of their experience outside the science-fiction genre. When constructing the new writing staff for Enterprise, Braga made a conscious effort to seek out writers with a wide range of skills and experience. It was a gutsy move, and one that suggested that Braga wanted the first season of Enterprise to be much more ambitious than it ultimately turned out. It is interesting to hear the plans for the first season of Enterprise, especially compared to the episodes as broadcast.

Of course, it’s impossible to discuss this ambitious experiment without conceding that it was a failure. All of the new writers recruited at the start of the season were gone by the launch of the second season. Tim Finch and Antoinette Stella left the show midway through the first season. Stephen Beck finished up around the three-quarter mark of the year. Fred Dekker and the Jacquemettons lasted longer, departing before the start of the second season. Veteran writer Mike Sussman would wryly joke that he and collaborator Phyllis Strong survived “three purges.”

Note: not to scale...

Note: not to scale…

In the internet age, these changes did not escape the notice of Star Trek fandom. Writers like André Bormanis found themselves trying to explain the rate of attrition in interviews:

In the television business, writers frequently move from show to show. It’s rather uncommon to remain on a show for more than a season or two. Whether or not a given writer stays can depend on a number of factors, and I really don’t know all of the details of why particulars writers have stayed or moved on, so I don’t feel that I can speak to that.

It did seem like Enterprise was going through a very painful growing process.

Meditating on it...

Meditating on it…

All of this is a shame, because Breaking the Ice teases a glimpse of how Braga’s approach to recruiting the writing staff might have paid off for the show. It’s an episode that structurally resembles a typical Star Trek episode, but which feels quite unique. It takes advantage of the relaxed pace of Enterprise to bask in the trappings of the Star Trek universe. While there is a standard “away team rescue” storyline, it is pushed very much out of focus as the episode centres on a bunch of personal relationships among the main characters.

There’s a sense of wonder about the cosmos here, as the Enterprise discovers the largest comet on record; there’s also some small sense of what the ship’s mission means to the people back home – a sense that the Enterprise crew is genuinely blazing a trail. Like the introductory teaser of Strange New World, we get a sense that the universe is still wondrous and exciting to this inexperienced crew. The novelty of space exploration hasn’t worn off yet.

Nothing helps Reed's moral quite like gratuitous explosions...

Nothing helps Reed’s moral quite like gratuitous explosions…

Interviewed in Science Fiction Television Series, 1990-2004, the Jacquemettons discuss the challenges posed trying to this familiar universe through fresh eyes:

“In the beginning, we tried to make Enterprise different from the previous Trek series,” they say. “But we fell back on old habits and found ourselves revisiting previous episodes. Ultimately, it proved very hard to deviate or tear ourselves away from the original formula. The series never attracted the new viewership we hoped for.”

While their later episodes stumble into familiar territory, Breaking the Ice does maintain some sense of novelty, because it’s an episode elegant in its simplicity. The ship discovers a comet and deals with some nearby Vulcans.

Don't worry Malcolm, I'm sure this is the worst experience you'll have in a shuttle this year...

Don’t worry Malcolm, I’m sure this is the worst experience you’ll have in a shuttle this year…

This relatively simple story structure allows room for more world-building and character development. The episode opens with Trip and Phlox assessing pictures drawn by Trip’s nephew’s class. Later on, Archer records a message to curious school children back on Earth. Reed and Mayweather spend some time on a comet. Meanwhile, T’Pol deals with an urgent communication from home, and Trip feels guilty about reading her communications.

None of these are story threads that could justify eating up an entire episode, but using Breaking the Ice as a framework to play with these separate threads works surprisingly well. Indeed, Breaking the Ice might just be the most relaxed and introspective first season episode of any Star Trek show ever, even allowing for the obligatory last act action sequence. It’s a show that is comfortable enough to enjoy being Star Trek. It’s telling that the strongest episodes of the first season of Enterprise are those that feel relaxed enough to give the cast and characters space.

Rocking out...

Rocking out…

Sure, the situations are a little forced and there’s perhaps a little too much exposition, but Breaking the Ice offers the show’s best character work to date. There’s even a sense that show is having its own corny sense of fun. The “letter to Earth” sequence is worth it for Trip’s indignance at getting “a poop question”, which itself seems like a knowing wink at the famous “the Enterprise has no bathrooms?” and “how do they go to the toilet?” questions that have perplexed hardcore fans for decades.

Even the Vulcan snowman is adorable, in an undeniably goofy way. It seems like the kinda thing that would be great fun to do in space, even if Reed feels like the wrong character to come up with the idea. We don’t know much about the main cast yet, but what little we know of Reed suggests a somewhat stereotypical stiff-upper-lip officer whose humour stems more towards wry wit that wacky hijinks. It is weird for Reed to seem so giddy, rejecting the notion of a snowball fight not because it is unprofessional, but because, “The EV suits would take all the fun out of that.”

A slice o' life...

A slice o’ life…

In contrast, the subplot might have worked better with Travis coming up with the idea of the snowman and building most of it while Reed humours him against his own better judgment, perhaps offering the final touch with a wry grin. Indeed, the subplot may have worked better with Trip and Travis, if the T’Pol subplot didn’t necessitate keeping Trip on the ship. Still, pairing Reed and Travis seems like a conscious attempt to do something with Travis, much like his scenes with Trip in Strange New World.

Sadly, this is probably the least successful character dynamic of the episode, and Travis would begin to fade to the background quite quickly, the show never quite figuring out how to make Travis work as a character. Oddly enough, Shuttlepod One would strike bro-mantic gold with the next male supporting character pairing by cutting Travis out altogether, locking Trip and Reed together in the eponymous shuttlepod.

Snow escape...

Snow escape…

Still, the other interactions work a lot better. Enterprise continues to define itself as post-9/11 Star Trek, reacting quickly and subtly to the shifting political climate. Breaking the Ice treats the idea of the senior staff monitoring correspondence rather casually – suggesting that it’s perfectly understandable for members of the senior staff to read mail marked as private or confidential. While this is something that makes a lot of sense for a military operation, but it’s hard to imagine Picard casually sifting through letters to his senior staff or Sisko prying into letters sent to Kira.

The show seems quite sympathetic to Archer and Trip in this situation, despite the obvious invasion of privacy and violation of trust. When Trip feels guilty about prying, he offers some rationalisations suggesting he felt obligated to poke around in T’Pol’s business. “All they had to do was send it through regular channels, mark it personal, and we’d have left it alone. But no, they had to encrypt it, force me to start snooping.” It’s a tough job, protecting the safety of the ship.

Big brother is watching...

Big brother is watching…

This is very much in tune with the times. Archer and Trip suspect that T’Pol is receiving instructions from a foreign power, and so they feel validated in reading the message. Never mind that Vulcan is technically an ally to Earth, it is still a foreign power. In light of subsequent developments involving the NSA and the way that the agency pried into the affairs of both domestic and foreign citizens (and leaders), this plot point feels very much rooted in post-9/11 realities.

However, at the same time, it is worth noting that Breaking the Ice does attempt to soften the relationship between the show’s leading trio. In the show’s earlier episodes, both Archer and Trip could seem staggeringly racist in their interactions with (and comments about) T’Pol. Here, the relationships seem a great deal warmer, if still uneasy. They both seem more disappointed, rather than angry, at the prospect that T’Pol might be a Vulcan spy.

Tripping over his words...

Tripping over his words…

Trip is very proud of the drawings that his nephew sent, and tries to force T’Pol to take one with her, but it’s good-natured; just like his attempts to convince her to try pecan pie. Similarly, T’Pol herself is quite polite in offering her assessment of the artwork. “This rendering is crude, yet surprisingly accurate,” she remarks. “Which one do you want?” Trip insists. “This one’s nice. Or maybe you want First Contact. Or how about this one?”

And, regardless of the morality of the “snooping”, Trip’s willingness to come clean because “it’s the right thing to do” – and T’Pol’s subsequent (albeit begrudging) decision to trust him – reflects some growth in their relationship. It makes Trip a much more sympathetic character than the passive-aggressive wing man that he was in Broken Bow, and helps T’Pol seem much more sympathetic than the ice queen featured in Unexpected. Breaking the Ice paves the way for the relationship between Trip and T’Pol that becomes a recurring thread through the rest of the show.

One small step for Malcolm...

One small step for Malcolm…

If Breaking the Ice represents a softening of the characters’ views towards T’Pol, it also represents a softening of the show’s attitudes towards Vulcans. The Vulcans are still unpleasant, rude, condescending and awkward, but Breaking the Ice is really the first time that the show concedes that they may have a point. Archer has spent a great deal of the first season randomly blundering into situations that he is not prepared to handle, but has always managed to extricate himself with a minimum of fuss and no consequences.

In Strange New World and Fight or Flight, T’Pol advised Archer to take a more cautious approach to exploration. His gung-ho attitude ending up putting members of his crew at risk. Although he managed to resolve both situations without any loss of life, the show never quite called Archer on his recklessness. Similarly, The Andorian Incident saw Archer wandering into an age-old dispute between the Andorians and the Vulcans, unilaterally deciding on a resolution to the crisis. While Archer undoubtedly did the morally correct thing in that circumstance, the episode never forced Archer to acknowledge the risk that he was taking.

Blazing a trail...

Blazing a trail…

Breaking the Ice starts pretty much the same way. Archer discovers a Vulcan ship is watching the Enterprise as it investigates the comet. Archer is suitably offended by the perceived Vulcan interference, and seeks to demonstrate that humanity is perfectly capable of managing the expedition by itself. There are all manner of awkward moments, particularly when Archer makes the mistake of inviting Captain Vanik to dinner. Archer is clearly on edge, trying to put the best foot forward.

Inevitably, things go wrong. The shuttlepod winds up trapped beneath the surface of the comet. Archer finds himself trying to recover the craft. As the crisis develops, Vanik offers his assistance, well aware of Archer’s pride. Based on episodes like Fight or Flight or The Andorian Incident, one might expect Archer to single-handedly rescue the shuttlepod at the last minute, thus proving his command ability to the Vulcans.

This week in sadly cut dialogue: "You want me to say that I need you, Vanik? I. NEED. YOU."

This week in sadly cut dialogue: “You want me to say that I need you, Vanik? I. NEED. YOU.”

Instead, Breaking the Ice forces Archer to concede that he can’t do it. He is forced to accept the offer of assistance from the Vulcans. It’s a big character moment, based on what we know of Archer as a character – all the pent-up daddy issues he carries as a result of the Vulcan High Command’s refusal to assist his father. This is a concession, a humbling. It’s a tacit acknowledgement that if Enterprise is to be a show about the mankind learning the interstellar ropes, then help will be needed.

In a way, it recalls Picard’s learning experience in Q Who? That episode was also about forcing the lead of a Star Trek spin-off to confront his own pride, and to accept that there will be situations he cannot resolve without assistance. In many respects, Q Who? was a coming of age story for The Next Generation. It was the point at which the show confronted the hubris and smug superiority of the first and second seasons, accepting that the cast still had some developing and growing to do.

The Vulcans are running rings around them...

The Vulcans are running rings around them…

Sadly, Breaking the Ice doesn’t fill quite the same role in the development of Enterprise. This isn’t a turning point for the series; at least not in a measurable and quantifiable sense. The first season would do another character-centric piece with Shuttlepod One in the middle of the season, but Breaking the Ice doesn’t herald a new approach to Star Trek on television. Enterprise hasn’t suddenly evolved into a character-centric drama. The first season is full of standard Star Trek plots executed in a standard Star Trek manner.

In that respect then, it recalls Prime Factors and State of Flux from the first season of Voyager. It’s not so much a leap forward as a glimpse sideways – a somewhat flawed look at what Enterprise could have been instead of what it became. It’s an episode that has a somewhat flawed execution, but a lot of nice ideas. While not all the character interactions and dynamics ring entirely true, enough of them do to make Breaking the Ice seem like a worthwhile experiment.

"The kids call it a Feren-can..."

“The kids call it a Feren-can…”

It would have been nice to get an episode or two paced like this around a first contact or a nebula survey or some other familiar Star Trek staple. Breaking the Ice is a story about the wonder and majesty of space exploration, where all of the things we take for granted in Star Trek are fresh once again. Even if the execution is fumbled slightly, it’s still preferable to an episode like Acquisition or Two Days and Two Nights.

Breaking the Ice is a massively underrated episode of the first season. It’s a rare moment in a chaotic first season where Enterprise seems almost entirely at peace with itself.

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

4 Responses

  1. Another great review,

    Some of these episodes I’ve completely forgotten about, I guess because at the time I’d drifted somewhat away from Star Trek and towards fantasy TV like Buffy and Angel. Very interesting to return to them with the benefit of hindsight.

    • Thanks!

      What’s interesting, I think, about the first season is that nobody at the time recognised the stuff that wasn’t formulaic Star as an attempt to do something different. So I think that Breaking the Ice is an underrated gem.

      In my imagination, this is the second episode of Enterprise and Cold Front is the third. Then Dear Doctor with the original ending.

  2. I actually liked this one! The comet was so gorgeous that I could have forgiven the episode a lot, just for giving us that “oh, WOW” feeling about exploring space. But there wasn’t a lot to forgive this time around, though I do think T’Pol’s eating pecan pie at the end was maybe going a little far. 🙂

    I thought the scene with the recording to the schoolchildren was fun, and I’m liking Dr. Phlox more and more. He reminded me a little too much of Neelix at first, but he’s shaping up to be a helpful bridge across species and a genuinely nice person.

    I liked it that T’Pol was able to talk sense into Archer and that Archer was able to do something very hard for him — swallow his pride — in order to rescue his crew.

    I thought it was a nice twist on the ongoing human/Vulcan tension to have T’Pol receiving secret communications that turn out to be … just a private letter. She continues to conduct herself honorably in spite of the humans’ suspicions.

    I’m surprised that everyone involved is judging other species by their own standards. Yeah, Vulcans don’t have human manners; that’s because they’re not human. Yeah, humans don’t act like Vulcans; that’s because they’re not Vulcan. First contact was long enough ago that I’d have thought everyone would have figured this out by now. Sheesh.

    But aside from that — which is an ongoing issue and looks as if it will pervade the series for much/most/all of its run, I liked this one. What a relief. 😛

    I said that I liked character development and morality plays, didn’t I? Looks like it’s still true! 😀

    • I am quite fond of Breaking the Ice. It’s one of the underrated episodes of the first season. I think it captures a lot of what the show is trying to be, a lot of the wonder of what it must be like to venture out into the cosmos for the first time. There’s a very relaxed pace to the episode, but that’s what I like about it. It leaves room for scenes like the classroom scene, which would be cut from a tighter show. I could have used more episodes like this. There are only a handful of similar episodes scattered across the first two seasons, but I like them all.

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