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Star Trek: Enterprise – Shadows of P’Jem (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.

Shadows of P’Jem is a wonderful episode. It is, in many respects, the first true post-9/11 episode of Star Trek: Enterprise, and it is a surprisingly thoughtful one at that.

In many respects, Enterprise has already established itself as Star Trek for the George W. Bush era. Archer is the franchise’s first white American male lead character since Kirk, and his contempt for politics and thirst for action mirrors the popular image of George W. Bush – a dynamic man with no time for questions or hesitation. Even little touches – like the fact that officers drink beer rather than champagne, or the anti-intellectual contempt that Archer and Trip feel towards Vulcans – suggest a Star Trek show that is very much in line with Bush’s America.

Shadows on Coridan...

Shadows on Coridan…

However, Shadows of P’Jem was among the first episodes written after the events of 9/11, and it’s an episode that seems quite thoughtful and introspective. The franchise has often used the Federation as a stand-in for American values and ideals. Shadows of P’Jem twists this idea on its head, offering the future Federation members as stand-ins for various facets of American foreign policy.

Shadows of P’Jem is a considerate and reflective look at what Walter Nugent termed “the habits of empire”, a look at the cost and consequences of imperialism in a post-colonial age, and how those issues tend to fester.

A night in sickbay...

A night in sickbay…

The aliens on Star Trek frequently exist as mirrors to humanity. In particular, they frequently serve as a way of exploring political or moral concerns through allegory. The Romulans are a futuristic version of the Roman Empire, perhaps reflecting the oft-cited comparison of the United States to a “modern Rome.” The Borg are either consumerism or communism writ large, depending on who you ask. The Ferengi are pure unchecked capitalism.

The Federation is frequently a stand-in for America itself. A powerful geopolitical block composed of various entities working for the greater good, the Federation seems to be constantly at odds with itself. It struggles to balance its desire for galactic peace with its occasional tendency towards imperialism, weighing how best to use its power and influence on the galactic stage. Star Trek: The Next Generation was mostly optimistic in its appraisal of the Federation. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was mostly cynical.

"And I... ee... I will always love you... oo..."

“And I… ee… I will always love you… oo…”

There is a particularly cynical train of thought that suggests the Star Trek franchise is essentially based around America’s post-World War II “realization that they missed their chance to be an empire.” Jay Goulding argued that Star Trek was very much an American imperialist fantasy in Empire, Aliens, and Conquest:

Behind the friendly helpful hand of the Federation with its statutes of full and free development we have two major forms of domination: a cultural domination which leads Kirk and friends to teach aliens how to be American; and a political domination based on devastating firepower. The cultural domination is achieved by leaving teachers (sociologists, historians, anthropologists) behind on each newly explored planet while the political domination comes in the form of Federation patrol ships that periodically stop to check up on planets while moving from one Star Base to the next.

This rather over-simplifies things – as does any argument trying to reduce scores of hours of television by dozens of authors into one sweeping consensus – but that argument is hardly groundless. (One need only look at episodes like The Return of the Archons or The Apple, where Kirk decides to unilaterally “fix” a society he deems broken.)

Looking out for his crew...

Looking out for his crew…

Indeed, given the historical connections that exist between Star Trek and the western genre, it’s a wonder these imperialist themes aren’t more pronounced. After all, the western genre is rooted in the expansion westwards – the so-called “manifest destiny” that caused so much harm to the indigenous peoples of North America. Traces of this remain a part of the show’s DNA, as the franchise has had to confront from time to time. (The Borg are perhaps the most obvious example, a grotesque all-consuming counterpoint to the Federation.)

One of the more interesting aspects of the Star Trek, and one of the things that tends to get glossed over in historical appraisals of the show, is the fact that series never really had a consistent political position. Where Star Trek stood on an issue depended on who was writing an episode. Gene L. Coon was acutely aware of the franchise’s imperialist tendencies, and tended to subvert them in episodes like Errand of Mercy or The Devil in the Dark. In contrast, Gene Roddenberry tended to play them up in shows like The Omega Glory.

Hostages to fortune...

Hostages to fortune…

Mike Sussman and Phyllis Strong are on record as massive fans of the original Star Trek, and so it makes sense that Shadows of P’Jem takes a critical look at imperialism in the Star Trek formula, particularly in light of the events of 9/11. Shadows of P’Jem seems to suggest that Star Trek has reached a point where America’s imperial phase is not just a romantic futuristic fantasy, but a depressing historical reality.

As a prequel, Enterprise stands on some rather strange ground. It’s a show about the early years of what would become the Federation, when the member states all existed independent of one another. Indeed, The Andorian Incident revealed that various future members were initially at odds with one another, a decision that heightened dramatic tension – these people eventually become friends? The script for Shadows of P’Jem cleverly takes these conflicted elements of the American psyche and plays them off one another.

Rebels with a hazily-defined cause...

Rebels with a hazily-defined cause…

As two future members of the Federation, the Vulcans and Andorians represent two different sides of American foreign policy. The Andorians help local rebels fight to overthrow a corrupt regime on a resource-rich planet. Although Shran doesn’t explicitly mention it, one suggests that the rebels would be quite friendly to Andoria on overthrowing the corrupt government. In contrast, the Vulcans actively enable and support a corrupt regime (possibly even a puppet regime) in order to maintain their own access to the natural resources on the planet.

Depending on how cynical one is feeling, it could be argued that these represent the two faces major of American foreign policy in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Like the Andorians, the American foreign policy has supported rebellions and political instability where it might serve their purpose. Like the Vulcans, the American foreign policy has been willing to support corrupt governments (to paraphrase William Casey, “our bastards”) where it furthered their end.

Best. Rescue. Ever.

Best. Rescue. Ever.

Enterprise reinforces these associations through production design. The Andorians are very much associated with blue – their skin and their ships are coloured blue, while Andoria itself is covered in frozen water. In contrast, Vulcans are associated with red – though their blood may be green, their ships and their deserts are typically rust-coloured. Those are two of the three colours on the American flag. Humanity, perhaps, represents the white in the flag – what Charles Thompson described as the “purity and innocence.”

This might be the most endearing twist that Enterprise puts on the whole prequel concept, suggesting that the Federation isn’t so much an expansion of American foreign policy into the future, but instead a clever and optimistic subversion of it. This is something that becomes particularly obvious in the show’s fourth season, as the rise of the Federation is perceived as an immediate threat to the Romulan Star Empire – turning the origin of Star Trek into the struggle of two competing fantastical visions of the future of American foreign policy.

I'm beginning to think that Trip is lucky to get left on the ship so often...

I’m beginning to think that Trip is lucky to get left on the ship so often…

This was the show engaging in one of the stronger criticisms of the troubled first season. Broken Bow was supposed to be the first step towards the idealised future of Star Trek, but it was set on an Earth that had already conquered war and famine and poverty. If Enterprise was to be a show about how present-day mankind reached the bright utopian future depicted on Star Trek, that seemed like an odd place to start.

Shadows of P’Jem does a lot to reinforce the idea that Enterprise could be a show about building a better future, in the grand Star Trek tradition. It’s an episode that demonstrates how far the cast has yet to travel to reach the idealised future depicted in the rest of the franchise. It suggests that the people who would become the Federation have a very questionable past, and that the Federation cannot simply be repeating the mistakes of modern foreign policy in outer space on a larger scale. You can’t build a better future without acknowledging contemporary failures.

They can't see the Forest for the trees...

They can’t see the Forest for the trees…

And yet, for all this cynicism about colonialism and exploitation, there’s a strange optimism at the heart of Shadows of P’Jem. In many respects, it foreshadows the best way that Enterprise would engage with the post-9/11 climate. It suggests that we have to be better than this. Cynicism and pessimism became the de facto mode of political engagement in the wake of 9/11, and understandably so. Being cynical means it’s hard to be disappointed; being disengaged means there’s less chance of having the world fall out from under you.

However, Enterprise would be strongest when it tried to counter that cynicism with optimism. In The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, the Federation served as a metaphor for contemporary America, for better or worse. One of the shrewder aspects of Enterprise is the way that it reconceptualises the Federation. The Federation was no longer a stand-in for America extrapolated into the future. It became an ideal to strive towards. It was the show’s illustration of just how desperately the franchise’s optimism was needed – because the future had to be better.

"Janeway never had to put up with this crap..."

“Janeway never had to put up with this crap…”

Still, all of that is in the future. Shadows of P’Jem is an astonishingly insightful script from writers Mike Sussman and Phyllis Strong, particularly given that it was written in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. As Sussman and Strong note on the episode commentary, the events of 9/11 had a massive impact on the development of Enterprise:

The show really took a left-turn after 9/11. It was such a shock to everybody. I never really talked to Rick and Brannon about it, but I think their conception was like the first half of season one, this sort of genteel exploration…

… optimistic, “we’re going to see what’s out there”…

And I’m sure that the show – had 9/11 not happened – would have had many different twists and turns, but it very quickly threw us into a war footing. We were feeling it in real life, and it felt almost irresponsible not to be addressing that in some way. Star Trek has always mirrored the geopolitical conflicts that were going on – be it the Cold War or whatever. That ended up expressing itself much more in season three, but you start to see elements of it, even in season one.

I believe that this was one of the first ones written shortly after 9/11.

As an episode about terrorism produced in the wake of a massive terrorist atrocity, Shadows of P’Jem is a very thoughtful piece of television.

They're a little tied up right now...

They’re a little tied up right now…

Shadows of P’Jem is essentially an episode about how terrorism does not take place in a vacuum. The dilithium-rich planet of Coridan has been manipulated by the Vulcans and the Andorians for decades. The Vulcans are explicitly stated to be exploiting its natural resources, supporting the government in return for “a mining agreement.” It seems reasonable to imply that Andorians are not supporting the rebels out of the goodness of their hearts.

From the outside, Coridan appears to be quite a prosperous planet. After all, it has material wealth. Archer regals Trip with stories about gigantic shipyards and technological wonders. However, outsiders seem to know very little about what life on Coridan is actually like. “Your people have been coming here for decades,” Archer remarks to T’Pol. “You must know something about their culture, the kinds of food they eat, what they do for fun.” Of course, she can’t. It’s all abstract. Vulcan is only interested in Coridan as far as it can serve their ends.

If this is what it takes to spend some quality time with his first officer...

If this is what it takes to spend some quality time with his first officer…

The same is arguably true of the crew of the Enterprise. They only discover the truth about the situation on Coridan due to the rebels. Had Archer and T’Pol never been taken hostage during their trip to the planet, it seems unlikely that the crew would have looked beyond the image cultivated by the planetary government, an image of a peaceful and prosperous (and welcoming) planet.

In some respects, this is a wry twist on Star Trek storytelling conventions. The franchise tends to work on the assumption that planetary governments are monolithic and absolute, that our heroes are able to tell just about everything important about a culture from walking through a few corridors and standing in a few meeting rooms with some important people. Of course, real-life political situations tend to be a great deal more complex than those presented through aliens-of-the-week on Star Trek, but Star Trek tends to take these sorts of narrative shortcuts.

"It's just a tourist trap, really..."

“It’s just a tourist trap, really…”

These shortcuts are, of course, entirely justifiable. The number of sets and number of actors available to an episode are limited by budgetary concerns. In practical terms, there is only so much world-building that can be done in a forty-five minute episode of television. Indeed, even Shadows of P’Jem struggles with this – we get a lot of information about Coridan, but we never discover exactly what the rebels want beyond the overthrow of the state.

We can intuit a great deal from the information that we do get, but the particulars feel a little hazy. Are they fighting based on philosophical differences or over the division of wealth? Are they idealists or opportunists? Is there popular support or are they really a fringe group? These are all elements that would go a long way to fleshing out the conflict on Coridan, even if they aren’t necessarily essential to the episode itself. Still, one of the stronger aspects of Shadows of P’Jem is the way that it sets up a prosperous monolithic society only to subvert it so brutally.

Vulcan commandos, for when extreme prejudice is the only logical option...

Vulcan commandos, for when extreme prejudice is the only logical option…

When the Chancellor is informed that Archer and T’Pol have been kidnapped, she isn’t surprised. “The radicals will want something in exchange for the hostages,” she offers. “They always do.” It sounds like she has a lot of experience dealing with this sort of situation, suggesting that she made a conscious choice not to mention it to Archer when she invited him to tour the city. The fact that T’Pol is unaware suggests that even the Vulcans help to downplay the risk.

Coridan might have prosperous cities and material wealth, but it appears that quite a few of the citizens live in poverty – Reed notes the presence of “shanty towns” that exist around the larger cities. These communities are shot in such a way as to conjure up images of urban decay – the shacks look cobbled together and the environment is less than invited. This is a society where prosperity has not been shared, and where resentment festers.

A grueling experience...

A grueling experience…

“Looks like these people have a lot to learn about building a free society,” Trip remarks on uncovering all of this information. Skulking with Reed through one such town, he observes, “I guess not everyone gets to live in Emerald City.” There are hints that these communities are not adequately prepared for the cold nights, and that factors like alcoholism may also be at play. (It seems like the Andorians not only provide weapons, but also “Andorian Ale.”)

Although the Vulcans do not maintain a military presence on Coridan, it is presented as a colony in all but name. “That government is kept in power by the Vulcans,” the rebel Traeg informs Archer. “If you’re with them, you’re on the wrong side.” Vulcans are associated with power and influence on Coridan, to the point where Traeg refuses to believe that Archer could command T’Pol. “Never heard of Vulcans taking orders from anyone,” he muses.

Stand-down after the stand-off...

Stand-down after the stand-off…

Indeed, when the Vulcans do arrive at Coridan, they immediately adopt a condescending and patronising episode. “They’ve threatened the life of a Vulcan officer,” Sopek notes. “We must discourage any such incidents in the future.” He should like a father figure ready to administer a wrap across the knuckles to teach a disobedient child straighten up and fly right. Sopek seems to treat a military intervention as something akin to a light disciplining.

Sopek demonstrates just how much control the Vulcan High Command exercises over Coridan. “This isn’t your planet,” Reed observes as Sopok plans his military intervention. “Maybe the Coridan government has something to say about this.” Sopek doesn’t appear to even consider the possibility. “I’ve already been in contact with the Chancellor. She’s given me full authority to implement this action.” In fact, the final Vulcan military operation is conducted with absolutely no oversight or participation from the Coridan government. Sopek operates with carte blanche.

Bonding while bonded...

Bonding while bonded…

It’s also worth noting that Shadows of P’Jem is an episode that exists as a direct sequel to The Andorian Incident. In fact, it opens with the Vulcan government officially responding to Archer’s actions in at the P’Jem monastery, revealing that the Andorians did not react kindly to the discovery of the listening post. “The Andorians gave the monks three hours before they started their bombardment. Fortunately, they all got out in time.”

Even if there are no casualties, it does underscore that Archer’s decisions have repercussions, something the show has largely avoided to this point. It’s a nice step towards serialisation for the show, suggesting that perhaps Enterprise is interested in telling stories that build off one another, reaching towards the later Star Trek series. It is something that Enterprise has been relatively reluctant to do, favouring done-in-one standalone episodes and adventures up to this point in the season.

A heal-face turn...

A heal-face turn…

Still, while it’s nice to acknowledge that Archer’s actions have consequences, Shadows of P’Jem doesn’t quite balance those consequences. The Vulcans storm out of a meeting at Starfleet Headquarters, and bluster about withdrawing their support for the mission, but there’s no real sense of what this decision means. After all, given that Dear Doctor told us that the Vulcans have spent ninety years on Earth, one would imagine the situation would be a bigger deal.

The only real consequence from Soval’s bluster is the threat to remove T’Pol from the Enterprise. However, this is an empty threat. The audience knows that Enterprise isn’t going to have T’Pol depart in the middle of the season. This is ties back into a recurring issue with the first two seasons of Enterprise – the series’ general conservatism. Although broadcast at a time when television drama was going through a massive transformation, Enterprise was still an old-fashioned production.

Two guest stars out of the blue...

Two guest stars out of the blue…

There was no way that Shadows of P’Jem would end with T’Pol no longer a part of the main cast. She had been a member of the ensemble at the start of the episode, she would be a member of the crew at the end. Much like The Next Generation had been unwilling to have Worf leave the ship for an extended period of time in Redemption, Enterprise would not be willing to do something risky like having T’Pol transfer off the ship for an episode or two.

So Shadows of P’Jem feels rather disingenuous when it places so much emphasis on T’Pol’s planned-but-never-gonna-happen absence. “I haven’t received another assignment,” she confesses to Phlox, in a scene clearly meant to make us worry about her future, when it seems like proof that even the Vulcan High Command knows that Jolene Blalock will be sticking around. Similarly, Archer’s earnest “I just thought you might enjoy one final mission with your captain” feels a little heavy-handed, much like Phlox’s suggestion that the crew is planning a “going away party.”

Holding on together...

Holding on together…

Much like Hoshi’s personal crisis in Fight or Flight, this is the sort of decision that would carry more weight if the show could convince the audience it might follow through. It would be easier to invest in the dramatic stakes if the show had been willing to demonstrate that nothing was entirely safe and that these things could not be taken for granted. More than the other Star Trek shows, Enterprise tries to ground its stakes in characters – but is reluctant to follow through.

The series spends a great deal of time convincing the audience that everything is safe, making it harder to get on board when the show insists that everything is up in the air. In many respects, T’Pol’s subplot here feels like something of a retread of all those “Wesley almost goes to the Academy but then doesn’t” plots from the first three years of The Next Generation. Television drama has come a long way in the years since those plots, and Enterprise is a show that might actually have the freedom to follow through on a threat like this, if only for a few episodes.

A fun shoot...

A fun shoot…

Enterprise would never quite get a handle on these sorts of stakes, but it would do better. While it isn’t necessarily that much more convincing, at least the “Trip may be leaving” subplot from the fourth season has the character actually leaving the ship. It might have been more effective to keep Connor Trineer off-screen for a few episodes, but it is much more effective than what happens in Shadows of P’Jem, where T’Pol is going to leave and then she isn’t.

Shadows of P’Jem also features the rather infamous “Archer in T’Pol’s boobs” moment. It’s a very cheap gag, and ranks with the decontamination chamber as an example of the show punching well below its weight. It’s juvenile, crass and awkward. Along the decontamination sequences, it diminishes and objectifies T’Pol in a way that Seven of Nine was never diminished or objectified. It is frustrating that these are the sorts of “titillating” sequences that were thought to be “modernising” Star Trek instead of engaging with broader changes in television drama as a whole.

The whole sequence also has the unfortunate side effect of playing up sexual tension between Archer and T’Pol in a very crass manner. The Next Generation managed to maintain the tension between Picard and Beverly quite well over its seven season run. It did this by suggesting that both were close enough in rank (he was a captain; she was a commander), but mainly that Crusher operated with a lot more autonomy than most of the rest of the senior staff, except maybe Troi.

Back to Earth...

Back to Earth…

In contrast, Archer is T’Pol’s direct superior. More than that, Archer’s character doesn’t really lend itself to romantic repression in the same way that Picard’s does. There’s also the inevitable fact that this all leads to A Night in Sickbay. While Attached and Lessons may have their problems, they represent a much more mature an exploration of a romantic superior-subordinate dynamic than A Night in Sickbay.

Still, these aren’t major problems. Shadows of P’Jem is a well put together episode. Special mention must be made of the guest cast. It’s always great to see Jeffrey Combs return as Shran, and Shadows of P’Jem effectively confirms that Shran will become a recurring character – he’s not a casual “done-in-one” guest star. It’s also nice to bring back Soval and Forrest, even just for the opening scene, providing some sense of the impact that Archer’s mission is having in a larger political context.

He's all ears...

He’s all ears…

Any excuse to see Gregory Itzin is worthwhile, and he does a good job as the Vulcan commander Sopek. It is very hard to believe that Star Trek was never able to cast Itzin in a recurring role, despite the fact that he has cone consistently good work on the franchise. Even Jeff Kober is well-cast in the comparatively minor role of the terrorist Traeg. Kober is an actor who exudes menace, and does a nice job with a fairly under-developed guest role.

The production design is also quite striking. When taken hostage, Archer and T’Pol are effectively kept in a corrugated metal shack and threatened with what look like projectile weapons, something that looks quite out of place on Star Trek. It does a lot to convey the sense that Coridan is not an advanced world, despite the meddling of the Vulcans and Andorians. It appears quite like a third-world country in outer space, which fits with the theme of colonial exploitation.

This is what happens when Archer goes on a flight of fancy...

This is what happens when Archer goes on a flight of fancy…

As with Civilisation, Strong and Sussman make a point to include a shout-out to the original Star Trek. This time, the shout-out is a little more pronounced. Coridan was the planet at the heart of the Federation dispute in Journey to Babel, the second season episode of Star Trek that introduced Spock’s father to the show. However, this isn’t just a nice nod to piece of preexisting Star Trek lore. It creates a nice thematic tie to Journey to Babel, drawing attention to just how far the Vulcans, Andorians and humans will come in the years following Shadows of P’Jem.

It’s also interesting that the script for Shadows of P’Jem inadvertently adds another genocide to Mike Sussman’s Star Trek bibliography. Sussman and Strong made a point to feature a race that would be wiped out in The Changeling as the bad guys in Civilisation. Sussman’s biography for Hoshi Sato in In a Mirror Darkly revealed that she was murdered as part of the massacre that provided the back story to The Conscience of a King.

Journey to Coridan...

Journey to Coridan…

In Journey to Babel, Sarek describes the planet as “under-populated and unprotected.” This clashes somewhat with the depiction of Coridan in Shadows of P’Jem, where Hoshi notes the planet has a population of “billions.” As such, one can infer a genocide between the events of Shadows of P’Jem and Journey to Babel. Sussman really likes to remind viewers that the Star Trek universe can be a cruel place, eh?

(Ever willing to reconcile casual continuity errors with po-faced seriousness, the expanded universe rather dutifully provides such a genocide for Coridan between the events of Shadows of P’Jem and Journey to Babel. The planet serves as a casualty of the Romulan Wars in The Good That Men Do. It’s both the perfect example of Star Trek fandom’s inability let casual references conflict if at all possible and a demonstration of how ruthlessly creative they can be in resolving said conflict.)

Chewing it over...

Chewing it over…

Shadows of P’Jem is not a perfect episode. It makes some poor choices when handling the T’Pol subplot, and the consequences of Archer’s actions during The Andorian Incident don’t seem as severe as they might be. Still, it remains a strong installment of the first season. It’s a very thoughtful glimpse at the form that post-9/11 Star Trek might take, an exploration of the legacy of American foreign policy and the unintended consequences of these sorts of decisions.

Over the rest of the first season, the show would try to engage with post-9/11 realities, but never quite as astutely and insightfully as it does here.

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

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2 Responses

  1. Gotta love those Vulcan combat cruisers. So gorgeous, so impractical.

    If the metaphor holds, I wonder what’s left now that Romulus and Vulcan have both exploded…

    • Yep. I do love some of the ship designs on Enterprise. It’s a shame that the CGI was not HD-ready and that the production team didn’t have the time or the budget to re-render them for the blu ray release.

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