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Star Trek: Enterprise – Silent Enemy (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.

Silent Enemy is very much a game of two halves.

It’s an episode that suffers from the decision to incorporate two radically different plots into a single episode. In many respects, it’s a show that suffers from Star Trek: Enterprise‘s decidedly old-fashioned storytelling aesthetic: the sense that most hours of Star Trek need to have two plots running through them for pacing and structural reasons. This storytelling technique is a decidedly outdated approach to television, reflecting the narrative conservatism at play in the first season of the show.

We come in peace...

We come in peace…

Silent Enemy is built around two plots. The primary plot sees the ship coming into conflict with a bunch of strange predatory aliens who do not respond to attempts for contact, and who grow increasingly belligerent over the course of the episode. Archer and his crew find themselves facing an opponent far stronger and more aggressive than they are. It’s a pretty bleak, pretty heavy plotline. Inevitably, the show decided to pair it with something a bit more light-hearted, so we get Hoshi trying to figure out what Reed’s favourite food is that Chef can bake him a super-special birthday cake.

While the combination of plotlines isn’t the worst in the history of the franchise – the episode doesn’t feel like Frankenstein’s monster in the same way that Life Support does, for example – it’s still rather incongruous. Silent Enemy is an episode weakened by the decision to combine these two into a single story; the desire to offset the doom of the “Enterprise under siege” story with something a bit more easy-going and comedic.

Alien aliens...

Alien aliens…

To be fair, there is a lot that Silent Enemy does well. It is a script from André Bormanis, who has worked on the franchise since the final season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Along with Mike Sussman and Phyllis Strong, Bormanis was a veteran of Star Trek: Voyager who joined Brannon Braga’s writing staff on the latest Star Trek spin-off. While outside writers like André and Marie Jacquemetton or James Duff might be struggling with how to write within the lines of Star Trek, Bormanis clearly knows what he is doing.

And so the main plotline of Silent Enemy moves along with an impressive sense of purpose. This is an episode that very clearly knows what it wants to be about, but it’s also an episode written by somebody who knows the Star Trek production team inside out. It is an episode that knows exactly what a writer can expect from the special effects team, and one that has clearly put a lot of thought into what distinguishes Enterprise from the other Star Trek spin-offs.

Having his cake and eating it too...

Having his cake and eating it too…

The primary plot of Silent Enemy is built around the isolation of the Enterprise. It’s a plot that relies on Archer and he crew operating alone on the frontier, with a minimum of experience and guidance on how to interact with the various alien cultures that they might encounter. While Fortunate Son had suggested the live contact with Earth was relatively easy, Silent Enemy stresses how far Enterprise has gone beyond the reach of Starfleet. It opens with the ship dropping message bouys, and informs us that even the Vulcans are days away at their maximum warp while Enterprise herself retreats home.

“My guess is we have a lot of people on board waiting to call home,” Archer remarks, and it’s nice to get some sense of how Enterprise relates to the people back on Earth. It might have been nice to get some hint that Trip was in a relationship before we get a “dear John” letter from “the” Natalie, but it does a lot to convey just how far out the Enterprise has gone. However, as with so much else in Silent Enemy, these elements are undermined by the show’s secondary plots – the live video calls necessary for that plot do eat away at this sense of isolation.

The dogs of war...

The dogs of war…

The central plot of Silent Enemy has the ship pursued by an aggressive alien species that seems completely unable or unwilling to establish communication with Archer. As writer André Bormanis explained on the commentary:

In the episode, what I really wanted to try to accomplish was… you would really have a hard time understanding the motives of an alien civilisation, of alien beings. On the original Star Trek, a lot of the alien cultures were obviously metaphors. They were stand-ins for the communists or some other aspect of a social issue that Gene Roddenberry wanted to explore in metaphorical terms. In this episode, I really wanted to address the idea: if we were to encounter an alien species, would we really have any idea what their values are, what their motives are, why they do what they do? I think that would be a really big challenge.

Silent Enemy is essentially an episode constructed around truly alien aliens, underscoring how weird and bizarre mankind’s adventures into the wider cosmos could be.

All shaken up...

All shaken up…

That said, there are a few miscalculations. While Silent Enemy preserves the ethereal weirdness of the attackers by having their final demand delivered by a re-sampled recording of Jonathan Archer, the fact that they do make direct and comprehensible contact before the end of the episode does remove a little bit of the mystery. “Defenseless,” they state through their Archer remix. “Prepare to surrender your vessel. You are defenseless. Prepare to surrender your vessel.”

It’s a line of dialogue that exists to clarify this is not some cultural misunderstanding. After all, it is quite possible that some of the earlier confrontations in the episode were not malicious – perhaps these aliens were adhering to their own first contact procedures and were unaware of the impact their actions would have on the Enterprise crew. Perhaps their scans simply prompted an unusually strong reaction in human crew members. Perhaps they had misinterpreted the actions of the Enterprise and were taken what they felt to be justifiable defensive action.

Shed some light on the matter...

Shed some light on the matter…

That last communication makes it quite clear that these are aliens that know they are being aggressive. These are aliens that understand enough to comprehend that their actions are predatory. As such, the message justifies Archer’s use of extreme force in defending his ship and his crew. It removes any faint trace of moral ambiguity that might otherwise surround his actions by making the intentions of the alien ship crystal clear. As alien as they might be, this is not some failure to communicate.

Silent Enemy feels like the kind of show that could only be done on Enterprise, an episode about the early days of mankind’s space exploration, as Archer is forced to face the fact that the cosmos is filled with strange objects both wondrous and gross. “Not every species has motives that can be understood in human terms,” T’Pol advises Archer. While most of the aliens on Star Trek tend to feel distinctly human, it is nice to have a counter-example, creatures that are distinctly unfamiliar and creepy.

This is what happens when you send redshirts to investigate a strange noise...

This is what happens when you send redshirts to investigate a strange noise…

A lot of the success of the primary plot of Silent Enemy hinges on how strange these aliens are. It is worth noting that writer André Bormanis originally considered taking the show a slightly different direction:

I wondered whether they might be Romulans until we decided to do a CGI alien effect. I think the technology of their ship, though, was too sophisticated for Romulans in this era, so that argued against making them Romulans too.

Although it may have been fun to tease future appearances of the Romulans, it’s hard to disagree too strongly with the finished result.

Keeping the crew in the dark...

Keeping the crew in the dark…

Although the CGI itself has inevitably dated slightly in the years since Silent Enemy was originally broadcast, the episode’s production design remains quite striking. Dan Curry and his team deserve an incredible amount of praise from bringing these creatures to life – creating something that feels a little unsettling and unnerving. There are a wealth of little touches which make these creatures seem rather unlike the standard rubber forehead aliens associated with the franchise, from the vaguely translucent skin to the sideways mouth to the weird little eye stalks.

Indeed, the production on Silent Enemy is particularly noteworthy. The make-up and costumer departments help create a sense of the pressure under which the crew are operating. Reed and Trip both grow five-o’clock shadows over the course of the episode, and their costumes look more lived-in as the show goes on. It’s a nice way of underscoring the oppressive nature of the threat – reminding the viewer that this threat isn’t going away.

Sadly, the phase cannons are eating up all the energy that would be used for electric razors...

Sadly, the phase cannons are eating up all the energy that would be used for electric razors…

Veteran Star Trek director Winrich Kolbe also does a wonderful job bring the script to life. The sequence where the ship is boarded is shot in a delightfully effective manner – the lighting on the alien ship as it pulls into the darkened hangar makes it look almost ethereal, while the darkened sets navigated by torchlight provide an eerie atmosphere. It’s something that feels like it came from a horror film, and which nods back towards the pulpier roots of the Star Trek franchise as a while. It is very well realised by all involved.

It is worth noting that the primary plot of Silent Enemy is something that feels more in line with the original Star Trek show than it does with any of the other spin-offs. The original Star Trek tended to suggest that outer space was as terrifying as it was wondrous. There are several points in the original run of Star Trek where it seems like Kirk is very close to confronting some Lovecraftian horror. The Man Trap was the first episode of Star Trek to air, after all – wind howling on a dead world haunted by the spectre of monsters long thought extinct.

Holding the enemy at bay...

Holding the enemy at bay…

Those early episodes suggested that the universe was a haunted house – it was filled with all manner of truly alien wonders that were as deadly as they were beautiful. The fact that Robert Bloch worked on the original Star Trek probably helped to solidify that Lovecraftian vibe, something that the later spin-offs moved away from. Although elements of horror remained a part of the franchise, it seemed like Picard and his contemporaries typically explored a much safer universe. The horror elements of episodes like Conspiracy, Q Who? and Schisms were very much the exception rather than the rule.

So the primary plot line of Silent Enemy works well. It is just weakened by the decision to pair it with a lightly comic plotline about trying to figure out Malcolm Reed’s favourite food. In many respects, Enterprise was a very conservative show when it came to structure and narrative. The television landscape was changing in the twenty-first century, and much of the first two seasons of Enterprise seem like examples of an out-dated approach to plotting for television.

"Don't run, we are your friends!"

“Don’t run, we are your friends!”

The show adhered almost religiously to the idea that plots should be resolved within the forty-five minutes allotted. The idea of carrying character baggage from episode to episode seemed to be frowned upon. While an occasional reference might be made, seemed to be a firm commitment to ensure that each episode should be able to stand on its own two feet, as opposed to embracing a more serialised approach. In many respects, this marked Enterprise as a show from the late eighties or early nineties, rather than a show for the twenty-first century.

To be fair, the show would get a little bit more confident later in the run. Episodes like Desert Crossing and Two Days and Two Nights would build off the events of Detained. The damage done to the Enterprise in Minefield would carry across to Dead Stop. The third and fourth seasons would embrace multi-episode arcs and ambitious long-form storytelling. However, it was very much a sharp learning curve for Enterprise, and the show began feeling rather behind the times.

Archer makes a good first impression...

Archer makes a good first impression…

The idea that a rather heavy primary plot needs to be balanced by a light-hearted subplot feels like an artefact of the eighties and nineties. It’s one of those perfectly logical approaches to television production that tries to reduce writing a teleplay to a formula. The primary plot is dark and heavy, so you need something a bit more enjoyable to keep the hour from feeling too oppressive. It is, in theory, a sound way of approaching a story like this.

After all, Star Trek has got the formula to work before. Perhaps the closest precedent to “Hoshi tries to discover Malcolm’s favourite food so the crew can bake him a cake” plot thread from Silent Enemy is the “Jake tries to get his dad a baseball card to cheer him up” storyline from In the Cards on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. That episode is set against the backdrop of a pending interstellar war, and it serves as one of the most heart warming episodes of Star Trek ever produced. So the core idea of Silent Enemy is not fundamentally broken.

"One less crewmember to invite to Mr. Reed's birthday..."

“One less crewmember to invite to Mr. Reed’s birthday…”

There are a number of differences, though. In the Cards decides to bring the comedic plot to the foreground, rather than leaving it in the background. As such, it cleverly juxtaposes the silly adventures of Nog and Jake with the fate of the entire Alpha Quadrant. It allows the episode to explore the idea that little rays of hope are needed especially during the bleakest hours. “Even in the darkest moments, you can always find something that’ll make you smile,” Sisko narrates, closing the episode.

Silent Enemy makes no such connection. The episode isn’t built around the idea that “Malcolm has had a really tough week, but his crewmates do genuinely appreciate the work he puts in, despite his isolation.” This isn’t a week in the life of Malcolm Reed that involves facing an impossible adversary, and ends with him enjoying the company of new-found friends. Silent Enemy is an episode that is about two very different things and struggles to tie them together.

"I'll drink to that..."

“I’ll drink to that…”

One gets a sense that Silent Enemy could have worked better with a more substantial subplot. Mike Sussman has talked about how difficult it was to find the time to do a plot covering the first death of an Enterprise crewmember in these early seasons. Silent Enemy would seem like the perfect place to slot such a subplot. It would tie in rather logically and directly with the primary plot of the episode – the question of whether the ship is ready for the things waiting in the darkness, and if it will ever be ready.

Silent Enemy hits one one of the more interesting themes of the first season of Enterprise – the idea that Archer and his crew might not be ready for the horrors waiting in deep space, but that doesn’t mean they should stop. After all, they may never be ready. The direct risk to the ship forces Archer to confront this reality, but it is heavily undercut by the decision to constantly cut away to a jokey subplot about Malcolm Reed’s favourite food.

T'Pol should really lighten up...

T’Pol should really lighten up…

Indeed, it seems really weird that Archer so casually orders a member of his senior staff to devote so much time to an investigation into what another senior officer would like to eat. This is particularly frustrating since this is the most that Hoshi has had to do since Fight or Flight. One might imagine Hoshi’s efforts would be better spent investigating the strange alien craft. It really isn’t too flattering that Archer considers her duties so undemanding she can be assigned to something like this as “a top priority.”

The pay-off is suitably generic. There is some novelty in seeing Star Trek characters enjoying some beer together, rather than wine or champagne, but it feels too much like an after school special on the importance of friendship. Reed actually says the line, “Pineapple! That’s my favourite!” It feels like the show doesn’t even trust Dominic Keating to convey as much with a simple excited exclamation of “pineapple!” or the audience to make the connection. Instead, Reed has to explicitly (and clumsily) confirm that pineapple is, in fact, his favourite food.

"Quite."

“Quite.”

That said, it is nice to get a little hint at the background of Malcolm Reed, even if the driving plot point feels a little too trite. A lot of Reed’s background is as you might expect. The character is very much withdrawn and private. He has the most ridiculously British parents in the history of television – a doting mother and a disapproving father. “Give Malcolm our best,” his mother asks Archer. His father is having none of that emotional nonsense. “Safe journey, captain,” he offers, turning off the transmission.

Interestingly, Silent Enemy continues the recurring trend of coding Reed as a closeted gay man. There’s a sense that he is a disappointment to his father, reflecting the difficulty that many gay young people have coming out to their parents. Malcolm is classified as a very private and withdrawn individual, to the point where even his sister and his former room mate cannot claim to have understanding of how he works.

Here there be monsters...

Here there be monsters…

(Similarly, the episode suggests that Malcolm broke with family tradition to join Starfleet. “The Reeds have been navy men for generations,” his mother informs Archer. “Until Malcolm decided to join Starfleet,” her husband cuts in. “I suppose the ocean wasn’t big enough for him.” Reed has never seemed like a character particularly interested in the wonders and majesty of space, instead fixated on his own efficiency and proficiency. This suggests that Reed may simply have wanted to get away from his family and their expectations.)

The episode does make a number of other hints. At one point, Hoshi talks to Malcolm’s former roommate, who claims that Malcolm used to go to a sea food restaurant because “he had a thing for” a waitress there. “I think he hates fish,” the roommate offers, which arguably serves as another example of Malcolm over-compensating. Shuttlepod One reveals that Malcolm’s first choice of ration pack is actually “Chilean sea bass.” Perhaps this another example of Reed a conscious effort to play up his heterosexuality in the company of male colleagues, as in Broken Bow, Shuttlepod One or Two Days and Two Nights.

"Phase cannon to right of them, phase cannon to left of them, phase cannon in front of them, volley'd and raged."

“Phase cannon to right of them, phase cannon to left of them, phase cannon in front of them, volley’d and raged.”

After all, Silent Enemy gives us our first glimpse of how Reed responds to flirtation from a member of the opposite sex. When Hoshi tries to figure out what Reed like to eat, she invites him to her quarters for dinner. Far from a suave ladies’ man, Reed is immediately uncomfortable. “That’s very flattering,” he tells her. “I’m just not sure it would be appropriate.” It’s a delightful example of Reed completely misreading a conversation, but one that underscores how awkward he is with members of the opposite sex, despite his bravado. Over-compensating, eh?

Silent Enemy is a solid episode that is hampered by the decision to combine two very different plots into a single episode, without out any real way of tying them together. The alien attack plot is undermined by the light-hearted Malcolm Reed subplot, while the Malcolm Reed subplot feels a little too disconnected from everything else going on around. Silent Enemy is and example of two functional subplots that simply do not work well together.

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

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4 Responses

  1. It was SO good to see Archer finally realize that the galaxy is a dangerous place, and they might be under-prepared for it. So it was rather strange to see him simultaneously assign his communications officer a “top priority” that’s not at all important. I mean, sure, make Reed a cake for his birthday; that’s a good thing to do. But why does it have to be his favorite food, and why does this take priority over figuring out how to communicate with the aliens who are attacking your ship?

    I think it’s strange that they assume that everyone communicates via sound waves. Surely some species could communicate with light pulses or scent or sign language or something. If a brand-new species doesn’t respond to hails, maybe they don’t use sound to communicate. How come *I* can think of that, and Starfleet’s finest can’t? I continue to believe that this is an alternate reality where science fiction doesn’t exist. 🙂

    Anyway, quibbles aside, this was a stronger episode than most I’ve seen so far from Enterprise, and it makes me hopeful!

    I’ve noticed in Enterprise that they say the name of the ship without the definite article — they say things like, “Enterprise wasn’t ready,” or we need to have Enterprise repaired.” In TOS, they habitually used the definite article with the name of their own ship and the names of other ships — “Get THE Enterprise out of there,” or “THE Exeter was patrolling in this area six months ago.” Any idea why the switch? Do all the non-TOS series do this?

    • The use of the definite article really crept in with DS9 and (mainly) Voyager. DS9 referred to the station without a definite article, which makes sense. However, it retained the definite article for ships. The Rio Grande, the Defiant, etc. Voyager really pushed the idea of dropping the definite article. I suspect that is why it carried over to Enterprise; the most influential writers on Enterprise were those who had worked on Voyager.

      But TNG was very definitely THE Enterprise.

  2. Yeah, this was two great episodes crammed together to become one decent, reminiscent of The X- Files’ Home Again. It did give the impression there’s something spooky about Malcolm, like he’s some sort of ghost, which was interesting but perhaps clashed with the tone of the episode.

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