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Star Trek: Enterprise – Shuttlepod One (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.

Shuttlepod One is the best episode of the first season of Star Trek: Enterprise.

If you want to be particularly cynical about it, you could argue that it’s the show’s first absolutely unequivocal success. Enterprise‘s first season is a lot stronger and more interesting than most give it credit for, even if most of its stronger episodes were qualified successes – like Breaking the Ice, Cold Front or Dear Doctor – that hinted at a new type of character-driven Star Trek without entirely committing to it.

... it is very cold in space...

… it is very cold in space…

The first season of Enterprise tried quite a lot of new things that didn’t always work. That’s fine. That’s what a first season should be for. The greater tragedy is that the second season (or even the tail end of the first season) didn’t necessarily try to improve on those experimental successes, and instead fell back on that conventional Star Trek plotting that had been competing with that more experimental style in the first two-thirds of the first season.

In many ways, Shuttlepod One is the unlikely zenith of the first season. It comes off a string of flawed-but-intriguing episodes only briefly interrupted by the misfire that was Sleeping Dogs. However, the episode was written by creators Rick Berman and Brannon Braga to save budget in the second half of the season, filmed as a way to recoup budget overruns from elsewhere in the year. Despite that, it’s a compelling glimpse of Enterprise as it seemed to want to be – very much character-driven Star Trek.

Reed has a close shave...

Reed has a close shave…

On the wonderful episode commentary with actors Dominic Keating and Connor Trinneer, along with director David Livingston, Brannon Braga remarks that Shuttlepod One could easily be adapted as a stage play. It certainly isn’t too hard to imagine. After all, most of the cast of the original Star Trek performed The Machiavellian Principle, a script written by Walter Koenig, at the infamous Ultimate Fantasy convention. Alexander Siddig and Andrew Robinson have performed Robinson’s The Dream Box together.

That’s the beauty of Shuttlepod One. It is essentially a story about two characters trapped in a confined space together, the essence of drama. This isn’t the only time that Star Trek has used this plot device – Day of Honour from Star Trek: Voyager and Waltz or even Duet from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine both come to mind – but it is perhaps the only time that it feels entirely organic rather than the climax of a planned character arc.

All on (circuit) board...

All on (circuit) board…

Reed and Trip are an unlikely pairing. Indeed, the show had not made a conscious effort to for a “bromance” between the two prior to this point. It seemed like either character was being positioned to be the other half of a male friendship formed with Travis Mayweather. Trip and Mayweather spent quite some time together in Strange New World, trading ghost stories and reinforcing each other’s paranoia. Reed and Mayweather built snowmen on a comet in Breaking the Ice.

Before Shuttlepod One, it’s hard to think of any extended interaction between the duo. The pair led a somewhat under-manned and overly-ambitious attempt to rescue a kidnapped T’Pol and Archer in Shadows of P’Jem, but were very much in the background of a plot built around T’Pol and copious amounts of political intrigue. It doesn’t seem like the show has been consciously building to an episode where Trip and Reed form a deep friendship while facing their imminent deaths.

We are Trip of Borg...

We are Trip of Borg…

And that is part of what appeals about Shuttlepod One. It feels random rather than pre-determined. Neither fate nor the writers were conspiring to lock Reed and Trip in a shuttlepod together. The show needed a bottle episode to help save budget, so Rick Berman and Brannon Braga came up with doing a show on a shuttlepod. They picked Reed and Trip because Dominic Keating and Connor Trinneer happened to play well off one another.

The randomness of the set-up really enhances the episode. One of the big problems with the first season of Enterprise has been the sense that this isn’t really as novel as it should be. Archer and his crew aren’t facing the sorts of threats and stakes that you might expect for a culture blundering out blindly into the cosmos. The ship has wandered in risky situations, but always finds its way out easily enough. Archer doesn’t lose a crew member until the show’s third season.

Ship shape...

Ship shape…

The show has made some effort to convey that space is wondrous and magical. The relaxed pacing of episodes like Breaking the Ice or Cold Front has allowed the show to wallow in how much fun it must be to venture out among the stars. However, it has never seemed particularly dangerous. For all the anxiety about using the transporter, it provided a resolution to the action at the climax of Broken Bow and didn’t do any permanent damage in Strange New Worlds. The ship met advanced aliens in Fight or Flight or Silent Enemy, but it managed to fight them off by the end of the episode.

In contrast, Shuttlepod One underscores how scary space can be, how easy it would be to die in that large mostly empty cosmos. Reed and Trip are off on a routine mission, and come back to find themselves facing certain death. T’Pol’s academic curiosity is provoked by the possibility of discovering “micro-singularities”, but those micro-singularities casually threaten to kill Reed and Trip. These are tiny objects, so small they can’t even be seen by human eyes. And, by chance, they could wind up killing these two officers.

Malcolm need his safety blanket...

Malcolm need his safety blanket…

The first scene of the first act rather cleverly acknowledges that the Enterprise has not in fact been surprised sixteen episodes into the first season. It’s a nice way of admitting what the audience already knows – there’s no way that the Enterprise would actually have been blown up. Archer and his crew are simply ferrying some aliens home. They are blissfully unaware of the crisis facing Reed and Trip. This does a nice job underscoring how small the scale of the threat is, despite the danger – Reed and Trip are facing almost certain death, but Archer and his crew aren’t even aware of that possibility until half-way through the episode.

Shuttlepod One may have been dispatched on a casual mission, but as soon as the Enterprise has to abandon it – even temporarily – it is clear how large space really is. At warp five everything might seem closer, but space is still just a gigantic mostly-empty void. Trip suggests that they try to make contact with a message relay, only for Reed to point out just how isolated they really are. “It’s going to take weeks, maybe months for our signal to reach Echo Three. By the time Starfleet got a ship out here we’d be, we’d be long dead.”

The tension eased up a bit when Reed discovered the shuttle's on-board karaoke system...

The tension eased up a bit when Reed discovered the shuttle’s on-board karaoke system…

Trip tries to look on the bright side. “We’ve got nine days,” he insists. “We’re bound to find someone out here.” He adds, “God knows who’s going to be lurking around the next planet we run into.” Reed responds with facts, “But that’s just it, sir. At impulse, we’re not likely to be running into any planets. Not for at least six or seven years.” Trip’s attempts to remain upbeat feel more and more disconnected from reality. “Then somebody can run into us,” he suggests. “You ever think of that? Or see us on their sensors. The possibilities are endless.”

Shuttlepod One does a lot to reinforce the idea of space as hostile terrain. It’s something that the first season of Enterprise has flirted with in episodes like Silent Enemy or Fight or Flight or Strange New World, but Shuttlepod One hammers it home perfectly.  Trip and Reed banter back and forth about the likelihood of rescue, but the cold hard numbers are on Reed’s side. Space is big. Space is vast. The statistical odds of bumping into help are so small as to be statistically irrelevant.

Trip was really ticked off when he discovered Reed deleted his season of the Golden Girls to make room for all his letters.

Trip was really ticked off when he discovered Reed deleted his season of the Golden Girls to make room for all his letters.

Indeed, the episode all but concedes that space is a terrifying and horrific place. The only reason that Reed and Trip survive is because they aren’t really lost in deep space. They are on a Star Trek episode. Trip is arguing from a position that is entirely internally consistent with the Star Trek universe as fans know and love it. You can’t seem to throw a rock in deep space without hitting another life form or space organism or ship or civilisation or something. Reed, in contrast, is arguing from a position closer to reality – we know that space is just huge wide open spaces.

Shuttlepod One repeatedly draws attention to the conflict between the reality of space as we know it to exist and the narrative conventions of Star Trek. Indeed, Reed serves as something of a meta-fictional commentator. At the climax, he is practically commenting on the script. “This is like the plane flying over the desert island in a lost-at-sea movie,” he observes. “Sorry. Happy endings. I must think happy endings.” He has difficulty distinguishing between the way the story actually ends and the way that his own dream narrative ended.

Trip is really glad that both he and Malcolm went to the bathroom before they left the ship...

Trip is really glad that both he and Malcolm went to the bathroom before they left the ship…

The episode opens with Reed reading Ulysses and smugly dismissing American pulp literature – derisively referring to “comic books and those ridiculous science fiction novels.”  Discussing Zephram Cochrane, the inventor of the warp engine and thus father of the entire Star Trek universe – as well as a stand-in for Gene Roddenberry in Star Trek: First Contact – Reed suggests another line of pulp literature that inevitably informed the development of the franchise. Cochrane, Reed suggests, “probably spent his nights reading about cowboys and Indians.”

In short, Reed seems to be dismissing Star Trek itself. After all, the franchise is rooted in all those examples of pulp literature. Trip finds himself defending the franchise, particularly contending that such pulpy material can have depth and meaning. “I’ll have you know that Superman was laced with metaphor,” he replies to Reed. “Subtext layered on subtext.” The same defence could be offered for Star Trek, in a similar argument.

Reed's got some bottle...

Reed’s all bottled-up…

Reed argues that he and Trip will die alone in space because that is how the universe works. It is cold and random and empty and meaningless. In contrasts, Trip seems to argue along the narrative logic of Star Trek. They’ll bump into somebody! They’ll be rescued! The universe is not so cruel and so brutal! It’s the classic argument between cynicism and optimism, where Reed consciously frames his cynicism and pessimism as realism. That suggests that Trip’s optimism is fantastical.

One could argue that Shuttlepod One is an attempt to frame the world view of Star Trek in opposition to harsh cynicism. Reed is statistically quite correct. However, despite that, Trip’s optimism ultimately wins out. It’s a decidedly heartwarming episode. In many ways, this could be seen as a companion piece to Shadows of P’Jem. Shadows of P’Jem was a show about how people need to be better than they currently are, juxtaposing Vulcan colonialism with the idealism of the yet-to-arrive Federation. Shuttlepod One is an episode about how pessimism and cynicism are not always correct.

That's the OTHER Vulcan nerve pinch...

That’s the OTHER Vulcan nerve “pinch”…

Of course, even aside from all this, Shuttlepod One is just a phenomenal piece of television. It seems that the entire production just flowed. On the commentary, the participants all observe that there were relatively few re-writes on the script. Connor Trinneer notes:

I recall Rick, when he came down to chat about it in the beginning. He said it was pretty much from [his and Brannon Braga’s] heads to paper. And that was the shooting the script.

Similarly, Brannon Braga notes how unusual it was to have a finished script ten days before the shoot began, particularly during what had been a hectic first season. “We were very often behind on scripts,” he recalls. “We never shut down, we always got the show done, but this was a luxury.”

"Hey, at least we got these cool branded jackets, eh?"

“Hey, at least we got these cool branded jackets, eh?”

Director David Livingston remarks on how convenient it was to effectively film the episode in sequence:

The guys didn’t shave for the seven days of the episode.

Were we able to shoot in sequence?

We did. We shot in continuity. We had to. Absolutely in continuity. That would have been bad, if we hadn’t. That took more production time, because we had to keep taking apart the shuttle and putting it back together for all the different scenes. But it was controllable, and the guys were able to do it quickly. That would not have been good if the guys had not been able to do that.

Trinneer and Keating recall being able to rehearse ahead of time in Keating’s apartment.

Another night in sickbay...

Another night in sickbay…

All of this adds up to a fantastic finished product. Shuttlepod One ranks as the single best episode of the first season, but also one of the best episodes from the show’s four-season run. It’s just a delightfully character-driven episode that trusts the two leads to carry the story and comfortably relies on putting two lead characters into conflict to sustain a full forty-five minutes of conflict. The show actually ran over time, and the producers had to cut a story about Trip’s early friendship with Archer, which Braga than recycled for use on Terra Nova.

The show does a good job sketching out its two lead characters, and Keating and Trinneer play very well off one another. The two actors have done a lot to sketch out and define their roles in the ensemble, despite some early missteps. Keating has been at the periphery of the ensemble, but is one of the more intriguing players. The early scripts of the season tended to play Trip as a character prone to aggression or macho posturing (as in the dinner scene in Broken Bow), but Trinneer helped to soften that a little bit in his acting choices.

Brandishing his brandy...

Brandishing his brandy…

Shuttlepod One offers the most insight into Reed, if only because the character has been mostly defined as reserved or aloof. In Silent Enemy, we discovered that he had the most stereotypically British parents in the history of the universe. While the doting mother and quietly disappointed father were hardly innovative  characters of themselves, Shuttlepod One finds a lot of drama in how Malcolm Reed chooses to speak with them in what he believes to be the final days of his life.

“Captain Archer claims you told him you weren’t even aware that I was serving on Enterprise,” he remarks, in a nice nod to Silent Enemy. “I find that difficult to believe, considering I wrote you twice in the weeks prior to our departure. Now, it is possible that you never received those letters. You were, I believe, in the process of moving back to Malaysia at the time. But you must have spoken to Aunt Sherry during that period, and I know she received my letters.”

"Overcompensating? I don't know the meaning of the word..."

“Overcompensating? I don’t know the meaning of the word…”

It’s such a beautiful of conveying Malcolm’s buttoned-down passive-aggressiveness. He doesn’t accuse his parents of not reading his letters or not caring about his choices, but he insinuates pretty heavily. That’s one of the more interesting things about Reed as a character – the fact that so much of his character exists in what he consciously chooses not to say. It is some very fine writing, with Reed seldom opening himself up for personal conversation. (It also has a much more satisfying conclusion than “Malcolm likes pineapple.”)

It’s no wonder that Reed was rumoured to be the franchise’s first gay character. His heterosexuality is one of the few things he makes a repeated and conscious effort to assert over the course of the series. Given the difficulty he has articulating everything else, one might be forgiven for wondering. Even here, he engages in stereotypically macho posturing with Trip. When Trip asks if Reed knew the waitress Ruby, the security officer replies, “I ‘knew’ her more times than I can remember.” Given the awkwardness with which he responded to perceived romantic advances from Hoshi in Silent Enemy, that seems rather boastful.

A cure for what ales you...

To be fair, this will teach Archer to hide his hooch on a shuttlepod with Trip for a couple of days…

Similarly, Reed’s decision to narrate his letters to his ex-girlfriends rather than simply writing them down – and the show delivering them over voice-over – seems like it is more for the benefit of Trip than for any of the women in question. In one of the episode’s more poignant scenes, Reed confesses that those entanglements didn’t seem to make much of an impression on him. “Those girls I talked about – Rochelle, Deborah, Catelin – none of them worked out because I could never get very close to them.” It seems like the boastful “macho” mask that we saw in episodes like Broken Bow has slipped, if only for a moment.

He talks about feeling more “comfortable” with the crew of the Enterprise, as if he has finally found a bunch of people that he might be able trust, that he might be able to relax around, that he may be willing to drop his guard in front of. Maybe Reed can finally be himself. After all, he joined Starfleet to be who he wanted to be, rather than to be what his father wanted him to be. As a character, it is very easy to read Malcolm as an extremely closeted man, struggling with his own sexual identity. Even though the show would decide not to make Reed the first gay Star Trek regular, there remains a lot of subtext.

Engineering a solution...

Engineering a solution…

In fact, one can’t help but wonder if the show decided to include the “Malcolm fantasises about T’Pol” scene simply to dismiss once and for all any lingering rumours about the sexuality of Malcolm Reed. The scene does feel decidedly gratuitous, and is arguably the episode’s only significant misstep. One of the more frequent – and persistent – problems with Enterprise was a tendency to reduce T’Pol to a sex object. While Shuttlepod One is hardly the worst example, it is part of a larger pattern.

The scene feels particularly unnecessary because the show hadn’t suggested any attraction between Reed and T’Pol before and would never really mention it again. It would have made more sense to have Trip confess an attraction towards her. It is certainly the most conclusive, definitive and undeniable proof that Malcolm is sexually attracted to women. Still, it doesn’t quite undermine all the other subtext around Malcolm; he could always be a closeted bisexual.

Reed reads...

Reed reads…

Still, Shuttlepod One is a highlight of Enterprise, and a demonstration that the show could carve out a niche for itself by finding more room for its characters. Unfortunately, Shuttlepod One doesn’t quite set the tone for the rest of the show. Unfortunately, it remains something of an outlier in the grand scheme of things. That doesn’t change the fact that it is a fantastic piece of television.

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

 

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6 Responses

  1. Are European parents really this horrible? Trek and television in general would have us think so! (Although judging by British comedies I’ve seen, children get it as bad or worse.)

    Great piece, I see now why Reed intrigued so many viewers.

    • I do think that there is something a little “stock British parents” about the Reed family, what with the passive aggression and lack of warmth. But I think it works quite well with the character. Reed is probably the most passive-aggressive lead character in the franchise’s history; there are points in the first season (Strange New World, Rogue Planet) where he seems to be making fun of Archer while doing exactly as he is told. A lot of that is Keating’s delivery, but it is something I really like about the character.

  2. Great review.

    I was very much a Reed fan watching the show originally (though I do like Trip too) and this was an episode where he really seemed to ‘click’ for the first time.

    Bizarrely, of all shows, I was reminded of ‘Red Dwarf’ and Rimmer and Lister!

    • Thanks.

      I think Keating had a better idea of Reed as a character than the writers for most of the first season. Silent Enemy is a terrible character-centric episode, and it really seems like the staff were like, “We have to do something with Reed.” Shuttlepod One really is the point where the writers and actor seemed on the same page.

      I’d watch a Red Dwarf reboot with Conor Trinneer and Dominic Keating.

  3. This was a wonderful episode! But then, I adore character development.

    As soon as they said that the ship would be there in two days, but they only had enough air for one day, I thought, “So one of you has to die so that the other one can live. Will they mention that?” And I was moved that the WAY they mentioned that was for Trip to try to sacrifice himself so that Malcolm could live. In another universe, one of the guys would try to kill the other one, but in the STAR TREK universe, one of the guys tries to kill himself so that the other one could live. That attitude — that showing us the best of human nature — is a big part of what draws me to Star Trek.

    • Shuttlepod One is a legitimate contender for the best episode of Enterprise ever produced, and possibly the best script written by Brannon Braga (which is quite an accomplishment).

      I’m a little sad that the show never quite recaptured this sense of space as something scary while painting exploration as something noble. It is quintessential Star Trek. I’d argue it’s easily the best episode of the season.

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