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Star Trek: Enterprise – Civilisation (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.

After Breaking the Ice hinted at what Star Trek: Enterprise might become, Civilisation is an episode that nudges the show right back into its comfort zone. It’s an episode of Star Trek that feels like it could have been produced for Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Voyager, with only a minimum amount of change to the script. However, what is strangest about Civilisation is the way that it feels like a rather direct throwback to the very classic Star Trek show, serving as a tale about our hot-blooded captain fighting evil imperialist adversaries and seducing sexy alien space babes.

Of course, there’s a sense that this sense of regression is exactly what the show is aspiring towards. After all, Archer was advertised as “Captain Kirk’s childhood hero”, and it makes sense for the show to play with the classic Star Trek tropes that are regarded so affectionately by popular culture. Unfortunately, Civilisation lacks the spark and wit necessary to make such a pulpy homage work, instead feeling too much like a dull retread.

David Ickes was right!

David Icke was right!

One of the stock criticisms of Enterprise is that the show was more of a prequel to The Next Generation than to the original Star Trek. There are a lot of valid arguments that support this position; most obviously, there’s the fact that These Are the Voyages… chose to focus on two actors from The Next Generation in the final hour of televised Star Trek to date, but also the fact that the show’s production design hues closer to Star Trek: First Contact than the work of Matt Jefferies.

While the standard fan narrative is that Enterprise really only started to pay its dues to the original Star Trek during its fourth season, that’s an overly simplistic account of events. While the show may not have featured Klingons with flat foreheads or Orion Slave Girls during its first three seasons, it did include any number of nods to the classic Star Trek show. The Andorians and the Tellarites would make major appearances, and the Axanar from Fight or Flight are a sly reference to Whom The Gods Destroy.

Getting her head on straight...

Getting her head on straight…

Even here, the Malurians are named in reference to a system casually destroyed by the probe Nomad during the events of The Changeling. This is a very typical reference from writer Mike Sussman, who tended to make these sorts of tiny continuity connections between Enterprise and the original Star Trek show. It doesn’t distract too much from the events in Civilisation, but uses continuity to construct a pretty dark joke.

After all, Sussman wrote much of the information glimpsed in In a Mirror, Darkly, off-handedly revealing little details like Hoshi Sato’s death on Tarsus IV, the mass murder referenced in The Conscience of a King. So the fact that this entire species is wiped out in the background of an episode of the classic Star Trek show is precisely the sort of reference that Sussman liked to make. It might be big or glaring or obvious, but it definitely exists.

"We call this 'pulling a Kirk'..."

“We call this ‘pulling a Kirk’…”

Still, Enterprise doesn’t just inherit continuity from its predecessor. It inherits a format, a collection of stock stories and tropes, some writers, and a host of expectations. The strongest connection between Civilisation and the wider Star Trek mythos has nothing to do with some casual reference to an obscure piece of background information in a show produced more than three decades earlier. The strongest connection is the fact that Civilisation is very much written in the style of classic Star Trek.

You could substitute Kirk into this story quite easily, which is not something you could say of Breaking the Ice or even The Andorian Incident. You wouldn’t have to change too much about Civilisation to get it to work as an episode of the classic Star Trek show. The ship stumbles across a primitive alien civilisation that just happens to resemble ancient Earth, allowing the wardrobe department to save some costs and produce some familiar outfits. Our hero leads a team down. While there, he discovers something is amiss; he ultimately seduces the female guest star and thwarts some aggressive aliens.

They don't come in peace...

They don’t come in peace…

This very much recalls the Cold War narratives of stories like Errand of Mercy or Private Little War. Indeed, some classic old-school “devious” Klingons would work quite well within the framework of Civilisation, particularly a grinning adversary like John Colicos’ Kor. Sure, the Malurians’ ultimate objective is not political dominance, but it’s close enough. Their plot to exploit the resources of the indigenous population and carelessly causing destruction as a result does add a modern sheen to the story, but barely.

Instead, this plays as a fairly standard Cold War parable about sinister aliens seeking to exploit an innocent civilisation. This isn’t helped by the reveal that the Malurians are just reptiles in disguise. It is a plot reveal that plays to Cold War science fiction. Just as the Malurians disguise their reptilian features to pass unnoticed, so do communists hide their seditious natures to undermine the authority of the state.

"Oh no, I've wandered into one of Janeway's programmes again, haven't I?"

“Oh no, I’ve wandered into one of Janeway’s programmes again, haven’t I?”

This isn’t the only familiar trope at play here. Archer gets an action scene that is very much choreographed in the style of William Shatner, with lots of throwing and ducking and rolling. It feels more like a throwback to sixties choreography than the fight scenes featuring Picard, Sisko or Janeway. Similarly, the idea of giving Archer a girlfriend-of-the-week is something that feels like an attempt to cast him as an adventuring rogue in the style of James Tiberius Kirk. While Picard, Sisko and Janeway each had at least one one-episode-love-interest, none of the three had an episode like this so close to the premiere.

There are other familiar touches as well. Although every Star Trek show has done an episode or two with an alien society designed to evoke a particular period of Earth’s history, the decision to make Akaali culture resemble Earth during the renaissance recalls the frequency with which Kirk and his crew would stumble across a society that happened to look and feel so very familiar. Civilisation feels like a companion to episodes like Return of the Archons. (Even the hooded disguises recall Errand of Mercy.)

Cloak and dagger...

Cloak and dagger…

Even Archer’s modus operandi here seems designed to evoke Kirk more than his successors. Obviously Enterprise is set in a time before the Prime Directive existed, but Archer’s primary objective here appears to be to prevent imperialism by a foreign power. That is very much in line with the Prime Directive as articulated by Kirk and Spock, rather than the “the universe does not want them to live” variant that was informed Picard’s philosophy in episodes like Pen Pals and Homeward.

Writers Mike Sussman and Phyllis Strong play up this decidedly “retro” vibe. The episode places emphasis on older things, as if to stress the fact that Civilisation is meant to feel like an old-fashioned throwback. Struggling to come up with a lie to explain his presence, Archer offers, “We’re picking up an antique.” Riann is an “apothecary”, a rather outdated profession – Phlox explicitly points out that she would be a scientist or physician elsewhere. There’s a sense that Sussman and Strong know that all of this has been done before, with the villainous Garos offering a stock and repeated introduction to those entering his store.

Masks...

Masks…

Even the Malurians themselves feel like a throwback. The revelation that they are reptilian aliens wearing “human suits” can’t help but evoke the miniseries V, one of the more popular depictions of first contact between humans and aliens in American popular culture. Even the nature of the reveal – tearing a bit of the face off to uncover a reptilian eye – seems to designed to emulated the reveal of the Visitors’ true nature in V.

The episode even leans rather heavily on traditional old-fashioned UFO lore, as if harking back to the innocent days before The X-Files inexorably linked such things to government conspiracies. When T’Pol suggests visiting where there is the least risk of cultural contamination, Archer wryly notes, “This must be why aliens are always landing in cornfields.” When Trip suggests taking a native back to the ship for scientific research, T’Pol responds, “I’d advise against that. If I’m not mistake, the fear of alien abduction caused a great deal of apprehension on your planet for centuries.”

"Hm. Strange that the quartermaster's collection of old period costumes comes in handy so regularly..."

“Hm. Strange that the quartermaster’s collection of old period costumes comes in handy so regularly…”

All of this lends Civilisation a decidedly “retro” vibe, which isn’t too surprising. Sussman and Strong seem to be approaching Enterprise as if trying to ground it in the same cultural moors as the original Star Trek. Their first script for the show, Strange New World, was steeped in sixties story elements – from sixties drug culture to old-fashioned paranoia. The duo would go on to write episodes like the social-commentary-and-issue-driven Detained and the old-fashioned fifties-and-sixties-style high-concept science-fiction horror of Dead Stop.

It’s to the credit of Sussman and Strong that their attempts to evoke classic Star Trek work infinitely better than the attempts made during the troubled first season of The Next Generation. There’s nothing here that misses the mark as badly as Justice, and Sussman and Strong both understand that the language and structure of television has come a long way from the sixties. As much as episodes like Strange New World and Civilisation might hark back to an earlier style of Star Trek, they don’t feel like thawed out left overs in the same way that stories like The Last Outpost or Angel One might.

"I wonder if they used the same installation company as the Vulcans on P'Jem..."

“I wonder if they used the same installation company as the Vulcans on P’Jem…”

Still, Civilisation doesn’t work quite as well as Strange New World did. There are a number of reasons for this. As fun as it is to do a good old pastiche of classic Star Trek storytelling tropes, there’s a sense that there should be more wonder to all this. The teaser features Archer overjoyed to discover a planet that is home to a civilisation. Unfortunately, Civilisation loses that sense of wonder rather quickly as it all becomes rote.

There is no opportunity in Civilisation for Archer to immerse himself in another way of life, to explore their world, to see the universe through the eyes of another culture. Despite the title of the episode, we come to know relatively little about the Akaali civilisation. Archer and the crew have barely arrived before they find themselves tied up in thwarting a sinister plot by a bunch of evil alien space reptiles. All we ultimately know about the Akaali is that they vaguely resemble human renaissance culture, and we don’t learn anything beyond the Malurians beyond the fact that they are exploiting the Akaali.

Under cover...

Under cover…

There is an unfortunate subtext carried over with the retro fifties and sixties plotting. When Archer investigates Garos, the shop owner tries to explain why the locals are suspicious of him. “Unfortunately these people don’t have the medical technology to cure it so this woman blames the newcomer, me. “ It feels like the set-up for a good old-fashioned Star Trek moral about how xenophobia is bad and it’s wrong to react with suspicion and hatred towards what you don’t know. Unfortunately, it turns out the locals are entirely correct to suspect the foreigner.

Civilisation falls back on some of the most reactionary politics of fifties and sixties science-fiction. The Akaali look so much like humans that Archer and his crew can pass with a minimum of cosmetic surgery. Indeed, T’Pol can get away with tucking her ears under her hair. However, the Malurians are very obviously distinct and different – looking like giant reptiles. Civilisation is essentially a story about how people who look like us are probably good and trustworthy, and people who don’t look like us are probably bad and untrustworthy.

And he didn't even give her his phone number...

And he didn’t even give her his phone number…

Given the wonder with which Breaking the Ice treated the mission of Archer and his crew, Civilisation can’t help but feel like a regressive step. In Breaking the Ice, the very act of mapping a comet was treated as a fascinating experience. Here, the discovery of a pre-warp civilisation is not quite enough to sustain an episode on its own merits. It needs another few Star Trek plot conventions thrown in on top to keep things interesting.

In many respects, Breaking the Ice felt like a companion piece to Prime Factors and State of Flux from the first season of Voyager. It was a flawed episode, but it was an episode that was very consciously built around exploring the unique potential of this iteration of Star Trek. It was a glimpse at what Enterprise could be, that no other version of Star Trek had been before. If that is a fair assessment, then Civilisation feels like a companion piece to Heroes and Demons. It follows an episode (or two) that was true to the premise of the show, only to deliver fairly generic Star Trek narrative tropes.

Well, this is definitely anachronistic...

Well, this is definitely anachronistic…

And while Civilisation is certainly functional, it’s never as energetic as it needs to be. There’s no sense that Mike Sussman and Phyllis Strong are having any fun playing with these familiar storytelling hooks. Civilisation is an example of a familiar Star Trek formula, rather than an exemplar of it. Riann isn’t developed enough to seem like more than a romantic interest for Archer. The Malurians don’t make an impression beyond “thuggish bad guys.” The resolution is trite, the action sequences are functional, the dialogue is efficient.

There is very little memorable about Civilisation, for better or for worse. As such, Civilisation is unlikely to rank with episodes like Unexpected or Acquisition among the worst episodes of the season, but it is unlikely to make any impression at all. It’s the first truly forgettable episode of Enterprise, the first episode of the show with no features that endure beyond a few trivial continuity notes that tie into the large mythos.

Archer was immediately transported back to a wasted youth playing civilisation...

Archer was immediately transported back to a wasted youth playing civilisation…

In a way, that is almost worse than being a bad episode. The second season of Enterprise probably contains fewer out-and-out clunkers than the first season and quite a few impressive shows. However, the vast majority of the second season is comprised of episodes like Civilisation, shows that feel formulaic and indistinct. Enterprise’s second season it is a weaker year of television because so much of it seems like a bland and forgettable run of episodes.

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

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4 Responses

  1. Again we see the pitfalls of putting Star Trek on some sort of pedestal, as you’ve astutely shown. TOS was not composed on stone slabs and Gene was not talking to a bush the whole time… Was Ayn Rand omniscient? Was L Ron Hubbard? It’s getting to the point where I’d love to see Bioshock 3 sets in some backwards dystopia based on the brain farts of a long-dead futurist writer.

    Snark aside, “Civilisation” is the episode that convinced me ENT’s problems were deep-rooted and could not be laid at the feet of Braga, Berman, UPN or anyone else. The political incorrectness is there if you want to go searching for it. The more glaring problem is the total joylessness on display here. If Bakula and co. can’t fit into a boilerplate yarn about Kirk punching lizards and liberating aliens, something has definitely gone awry. After all, Richard Dead Anderson accomplished both of those feats no problem!

    There is something very strange at work on the ENT soundstage. I can’t put my finger on it; but somehow, veterans sci-fi writers and a panel of actors with experience in genre TV have all simultaneously forgotten how to do sci-fi. I hope the mystery is examined later in these excellent reviews.

  2. In his review of this episode, J. P. Halt says, “for the Enterprise drinking game: T’Pol says something sensible and Archer ignores her… *drink*,” and yes, it’s starting to feel like that. T’Pol has the patience of a saint if she’s still putting up with this.

    Tucker’s mutiny seems not to have been even mentioned to Archer? It seems as if there should have been some dialogue about it afterwards; that’s the truly important thing that happened this week.

    I was surprised at how gorgeous T’Pol was with long hair. Most of the things Spock did to hide HIS ears were not that flattering, but then Spock was already perfect, just as he was. 🙂

    I was amused that this episode gave Archer a BRAND-NEW reason for a starship captain to kiss the female guest star. Well, new to me; I guess I don’t know if this ever happened in TNG, DS9, or VOY. But I know it never happened to Kirk. 🙂

    • Something I only learned after I’d written the review. This was the episode that the one that was shot on the week of 9/11. So if the cast seemed a little lifeless, I can understand why that might be.

      (Sadly – or not – I don’t believe T’Pol ever wore a headband to disguise her ears ala Spock in The Voyage Home. But yes, being entirely shallow, Jolene Blalock looks absolutely stunning with long hair.)

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