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.
It is customary, these days, for television shows to map out their mythologies years in advance. Depending on when you ask him, executive producer Bryan Fuller boasts of having a six- or seven-year plan for Hannibal, despite the fact that the show spends each cancellation period on the bubble line for NBC. Indeed, the move away from the standard television pilot format means that shows are encouraged to have long-form plots and arcs mapped out.
However, that isn’t always the case. The X-Files was very much made up as it went along, with little real thought put into how the show’s sprawling alien mythology hung together beyond the immediate future. Even heavily serialised shows like Lost or 24 were plotted as they went along, with plans radically changing as the show evolved. Unlike film, where you (mostly) need a finished story before you start filming, television is a medium where you don’t really need an ending in mind as you begin telling the story.
So it really shouldn’t be a surprise that Star Trek: Enterprise introduced the idea of the “Temporal Cold War” without any real idea of how the story was meant to develop or conclude. Although structured as something of a serialised arc among a (mostly) episodic couple of seasons, the Temporal Cold War is something that makes very little sense in the context of the show. Even years after the fact, the Temporal Cold War is a mystery, with Brannon Braga casually dropping the reveal that, well… Archer did it.
Of course, that plot development doesn’t make a lot of sense… but that’s par for the course. It is very hard to tie the various Enterprise time travel episodes together into a logical and cohesive narrative. Cold Front doesn’t even bother to answer questions immediately relevant to its own narrative, let alone hint at logical future developments for the series’ recurring time-travel plot line. It’s a story that seldom makes sense within individual episodes, let alone when they are strung together.
And yet, despite that, Cold Front is a pretty great episode. Part of that is down to the Temporal Cold War plot line, with Cold Front introducing a welcome sense of ambiguity to the conflict and selling the idea that Archer has wandered into something much larger than he can comprehend. On an otherwise quiet mission, Enterprise finds itself embroiled in a conflict between two forces that Archer does not fully understand, as if the ship and its crew have found themselves engaged on one front of a war in heaven.
However, Cold Front works just as well with the elements that exist outside the Temporal Cold War. As with Breaking the Ice, the episode plays like a regular day on board the Enterprise, as Archer and his crew find themselves welcoming religious pilgrims on board and making friendly first contact as they gather to watch some beautiful interstellar phenomenon. It’s an episode that draws attention to the quiet wonder and majesty of deep space exploration, elegantly and effectively.
The idea that a “war in heaven” might manifest abstractly on the mortal plan is not an idea new to science-fiction. That said, it did became quite fashionable in popular science-fiction during the early years of the twenty-first century. Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis is a comic book epic about how such a conflict might impact on the mortal plane. The “time war” from Russell T. Davies’ revived Doctor Who serves as another high-profile example of how a conflict between higher entities warps the world as inhabited by lesser species.
Producer and writer Russell T. Davies used the time war as an excuse to streamline the rather convoluted continuity narrative associated with Doctor Who, but he also built it into the mythology. The horror of the conflict was described in poetic and lyrical terms, as the lead character referred to “the Skaro Degradations, the Horde of Travesties, the Nightmare Child, the Could-Have-Been-King with his army of Meanwhiles and Neverweres” among others.
Although it was only fleetingly glimpsed on screen in episodes like The End of Time, Part II or The Day of the Doctor, there was a beautiful sense that the “time war” – a conflict between two empires with control over time itself – was something so conceptual that it could barely manifest itself upon the screen. It would be impossible to fathom what a conflict would look like. We’re told that, “at its heart, millions die every second, lost in bloodlust and insanity. With time itself resurrecting them, to find new ways of dying over and over again. A travesty of life.”
While the Temporal Cold War never embraces this level of abstraction, Cold Front does a reasonable job reinforcing the idea that there are some concepts that transcend our frame of reference. Archer spends most of Cold Front confused and disorientated, with the episode doing little to enlighten him or the audience. That is part of the charm. Revealing some future technology, Daniels offers, “You might call it a Temporal Observatory. I know this must seem a little overwhelming.” Archer replies, simply, “Overwhelming doesn’t quite cover it.”
Cold Front suggests all manner of interesting ideas, confirming very little one way or the other. For example, we ultimately learn little about Crewman Daniels. “Are you human?” Archer asks him. Daniels cryptically responds, “More or less.” Is it possible that – so far in the future – humanity as we know it has ceased to exist? Is Daniels genetically-engineered like Silik, just better at hiding it? Has mankind integrated so fully with the intergalactic community that labels like “human” no longer really apply?
Daniels is similarly cryptic when dealing with Trip. When Trip asks if Daniels grew up in Illinois, the time-traveller responds, “Oh, I’m from a place called Illinois, sir. Just not the one you’re familiar with.” There’s a lot that can be read into that, just like a lot can be read into his response to Trip’s relief at discovering Earth still exists. “That depends on how you define Earth.” There’s a sense that Daniels may come from a time so far in the future that much of our own frame of reference doesn’t really apply to him.
This sense of mystery and ambiguity continues into the plot of the episode itself. Daniels is nominally the good guy, and Silik is nominally the bad guy. After all, Silik works for a character so shadowy that he is actually a shadow, and who uses his brief appearance this week to offer clichés like “you won’t need enhanced vision where you’re going.” The only thing we’re missing from Future Guy is an evil laugh.
And yet, despite this, Silik saves the ship. Trip discovers that what looked like an act of sabotage from a recurring villain was actually a blessing. “Somebody got in here and disconnected it from the primary antimatter feed,” he informs Archer. “If they hadn’t, that cascade would have continued right into the reactor core, and this ship would have gone up just like the Great Plume of Agosoria.”
Archer confronts Daniels with this information. “Are you implying Silik was sent here to save my ship, and if he hadn’t we would have been destroyed today?” he demands. As you might expect, no answer is forthcoming. “I am not implying anything,” Daniels states simply. And yet, despite that, the events of Cold Front make it quite clear. Had Silik not intervened, the ship would have been destroyed; and Daniels is working to stop Silik. This immediately makes the conflict more intriguing and engaging.
There are, of course, logical problems with this. After all, when Daniels reappears in Shockwave, he stresses the importance of Archer to the history of the Federation – a point he reiterates in Zero Hour. If Archer is so important, then why was Daniels willing to stand by and allow the ship to be destroyed? After all, if Archer is responsible for the founding of the Federation, then presumably dying so early into his mission is not ideal.
As with anything, there are possible explanations, depending on how willing you are to contrive an excuse. The beauty (and horror) of time-travel stories is that they are free to contort in just about any way the viewer likes to imagine. It is quite possible that the Enterprise was meant to be destroyed here, and Silik’s decision to save the ship radically warped the time-line. It would make sense that Archer and his ship were barely mentioned in any of the other Star Trek shows if he died less than half-a-year into his mission.
It is entirely possible that Silik’s meddling reset the time line, creating an alternate version of Star Trek history. That would allow the show a bit more freedom and lee-way when dealing with issues of franchise continuity – similar to the semi-reboot that launched JJ Abrams’ Star Trek films. After all, based on the similarities between the flow of history in the alternate universe from JJ Abrams’ films and the original version of events, the time line in Star Trek seems to make every attempt to repair and heal over all but the most horrific of deviations. So the resulting time line could be “close enough” without being exactly alike.
As such, you could argue that the Daniels who appeared in Shockwave was a version of the character from an alternate future. The timeline had changed. Since Archer had survived the events of Cold Front, he had gone on to found the Federation in this alternate timeline. So the version of Daniels from Shockwave was still obeying his imperative to “protect history”, he just wasn’t aware that his own history had been altered.
The logic is hardly water-tight. After all, Daniels is able to deduce other temporal anomalies in later episodes – he is aware that the Xindi attack on Earth is a deviation from the expected continuity, suggesting that his own time line is not being consistently re-written to match the shifting status quo on the show. Then again, this is an abstract concept. It is a perfectly justifiable approach to shrug the shoulders and just state that it is “timey wimey.”
Whatever difficulties it may case with future Temporal Cold War plots, the idea that the bad guy could be working to save Enterprise and that the good guy would happily continence the ship’s destruction adds a delightful layer of irony to the episode. It does seem like Archer trusts Daniels a little too readily – I’m not sure I’d trust my waiter with the weight of history itself based on the fact that he remembers my order – but it does make it seem like Archer and the crew have wandered into the middle of something much larger than themselves.
“Who do you think was responsible for the antimatter cascade that nearly destroyed your ship?” Silik teases Archer. “It was them. I was sent to prevent it.” Towards the climax of the episode, Silik seems almost disappointed in Archer’s decisions and behaviours. “You may have endangered your future, John,” he remarks with a strange sincerity. It does a lot to make Silik seem like a more complex character – suggesting that he could develop into something quite interesting and unique in the franchise. Unfortunately, Silik is never developed as thoroughly as he might be.
There is a sense that Cold Front missed a trick here. The episode is very much about faith. It’s no coincidence that the Enterprise finds a bunch of pilgrims trying to assign meaning to a complex stellar phenomenon. In a way, Archer and Silik are doing the same thing – trying to comprehend something that exists on a much larger scale than they could possibly realise. The experience must have a religious element. As noted above, Archer and Silik are bearing witness a war in heaven.
Silik’s faith is practically blind. It’s a nice touch that Cold Front opens with Future Guy removing his enhanced vision. He doesn’t know the answers to any of the questions facing him, he just trusts blindly. When Archer presses Silik for details, the Suliban honestly replies, “I’m not privy to that kind of information.” While it appears that Daniels trusts Archer with a bit more information, it seems like Cold Front misses an opportunity to contrast the types of faith experienced by Archer and by Silik.
As with Broken Bow, there’s a sense that the Temporal Cold War is effectively intruding on the narrative. After all, it is a plot that was added to the show at the insistence of the network – so it works quite well as a metaphor for network interference. In Broken Bow, the meddling of Future Guy leads to the early launch of the Enterprise, depriving Rick Berman and Brannon Braga from the “grounded season” they had planned for the show’s first year on the air.
Cold Front makes a point to categorise the Temporal Cold War as a piece of interference. It is an interruption to the flow of things, to how Enterprise should be unfolding. Silik seems to briefly convince Archer to help him by suggesting that getting this plot over and done with will return the show to its regularly-scheduled programming. “If you want to continue on your mission you’ll help me find them.” Archer’s last line of the episode suggests that he wants to get Enterprise back on track, “Let’s get back on the road, Travis.”
There’s a sense that the Temporal Cold War is a conflict that Archer and his crew can’t really fight or affect. It is something that arrives, throws all of their plans into disarray, leaves them scrambling to keep up and ends with our heroes confused and thankful to have survived intact. As with forcing Archer to accept Vulcan assistance in Breaking the Ice, it serves to effectively humble the crew and to reinforce the idea that there is a sense of danger to their mission and their exploration.
Of course, that isn’t the only similarity between Cold Front and Breaking the Ice. In the background of Cold Front, there’s a rather endearing first contact plot about Archer and the crew establishing relations with a bunch of intergalactic pilgrims. It’s hardly an exciting or innovative Star Trek plot, but the show works hard to stress how novel this sort of contact must be to the crew of the Enterprise – how genuinely exciting it is to come into contact with people so different and unique.
One of the nice moments of the episode has an enthusiastic Archer dealing with a rather cynical alien captain. When he establishes contact with the alien vessel, Fraddock immediately demands to know what Archer wants. “Nothing,” Archer replies. “We’re new to this region and we’re eager to make contact with other species.” Fraddock responds, simply, “Oh.” He seems delightfully weary of Archer’s enthusiasm; there’s a sense he’d have been happier if Archer had been making a bunch of demands.
Cold Front deals with the issue of religion in a delightfully open-minded way. Organised religion has been something that the franchise has struggled with over the decades. In episodes like Who Watches the Watchers?, the franchise seemed almost aggressively atheistic, while Star Trek: Deep Space Nine embraced a more enlightened and tolerant attitude towards other belief systems.
As such, it’s nice that Cold Front is so tolerant of these religious pilgrims. There are lots of nice touches. The pilgrims come from multiple different species, suggesting that religion need by rooted in concepts of ethnic identity, and that religion can be inclusionary instead of exclusionary. While T’Pol objects to the concept of time travel, she doesn’t feel the need to argue with the pilgrims about their belief that the universe began at this particular spot.
The crew seem genuinely excited about the religious experiences afforded by this contact, with Phlox happily explaining that he has participated in all manner of spiritual activities on Earth. “Do you follow a particular faith, Captain?” one of the pilgrims asks Archer. One imagines Picard would have to struggle to avoid including the adjective “primitive” in his ever-so-polite response. Instead, Archer responds more tolerantly. “I guess you could say I try to keep an open mind.”
There is very much a sense that Cold Front is unfolding against the backdrop of a regular day at the office. Trip is proud to show off his engines, while Reed is paranoid. Even Sato and Mayweather get a nice character sequence on the bridge of the ship, with Mayweather taking the captain’s chair for a brief moment. These feel very much like the small character-building moments that existed in Breaking the Ice.
While these little scenes hardly represent triumphs of character-based storytelling, they do add up quite well. As with Breaking the Ice, there’s a sense that we might be getting a glimpse at what a character-driven version of Enterprise would look like. Taking a rather simple Star Trek premise and playing it out in a relaxed manner is an endearing way of making something very old seem new once again. It’s certainly more satisfying than reheating a premise wholesale as in Civilisation.
It is also nice to get a sense of continuity on the show. Not only does the “Temporal Cold War” hark back directly to Broken Bow – with Future Guy explicitly referencing his plot to spark a Klingon Civil War – but Trip makes casual reference to his experiences in Unexpected. These sorts of nice continuity details do help to ground the show – to create the impression that these people are processing some very weird stuff week-in and week-out.
Robert Duncan McNeill directs Cold Front, and does a wonderful job. Given the central time-travel narrative and the threat of destruction, Cold Front can’t quite take the same relaxed pace as Breaking the Ice. However, McNeill makes a point to start the episode relatively relaxed. He allows the actors room to work with each other during the first half of the show, making Cold Front feel quite comfortable before he starts amping up the tension.
Once Daniels has revealed himself, McNeill does an very effective job of building towards the climax. The end of Cold Front doesn’t offer any real plot resolution. There are no answers to the big questions posed by the script. The episode ends with Archer and the crew continuing on their way, with no idea what to make of events. So there’s a lot of pressure on McNeill to ensure that the script’s action beats carry the episode.
McNeill constructs an impressively cinematic conclusion to the episode. The last act is really just an extended chase sequence, between Daniels and Silik and Archer, and McNeill keeps the tension ticking over. All of the fight sequences are handled effectively, but it’s the closing fight on the hangar deck that works best. Although the CGI has dated slightly, Silik makes the most cinematic escape in history of the franchise.
Cold Front is a rather wonderful episode from the show’s first season. It introduces a number of interesting ideas for the Temporal Cold War that the show never really decides to explore. However, it also gives its characters room to develop and offers a nice glimpse of day-to-day life on Enterprise, interrupted by something immeasurably and impossibly large.
- Broken Bow
- Fight or Flight
- Strange New World
- Terra Nova
- The Andorian Incident
- Breaking the Ice
- Fortunate Son
- Cold Front
- Silent Enemy
- Dear Doctor
- Sleeping Dogs
- Shadows of P’Jem
- Shuttlepod One
- Rogue Planet
- Vox Sola
- Fallen Hero
- Desert Crossing
- Two Days and Two Nights
- Shockwave, Part I
Filed under: Enterprise | Tagged: Archer, chaos, colf front, future, future guy, past, plot contrivance, robert duncan mcneill, silik, star trek, star trek: enterprise, Temporal Cold War, time travel, Time War |