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Star Trek: Enterprise – Rogue Planet (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.

And with Rogue Planet, Star Trek: Enterprise wanders back into “generic Star Trek territory.

Rogue Planet is a story that could easily have been told on any other Star Trek spin-off. Indeed, a great deal of its story elements feel inherited like hand-me-down clothes. Hunters chasing sentient game is a stock science-fiction trope, but it is one that the franchise has explored quite frequently. The first season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine gave us Captive Pursuit, another story about our heroes interfering in the hunt of a self-aware life form. The fourth season of Star Trek: Voyager introduced the Hirogen, a bunch of big-game hunters that put the Eska hunters to shame.

In fairness, wearing a glowing green eye patch on a pitch black planet probably isn't the best strategy...

In fairness, wearing a glowing green eye patch on a pitch black planet probably isn’t the best strategy…

Indeed, it hasn’t even been that long since Star Trek did an episode about hunters pursuing sentient prey. The final season of Voyager had produced Flesh and Blood, a gigantic feature-length television movie around the Hirogen and their pursuit of holograms that had developed self-awareness despite not meeting the more obvious criteria for sentience. This isn’t Enterprise retreading old ground; this is Enterprise retread ground that hosted a big song and dance less than fifteen months earlier. As with Civilisation and Sleeping Dogs before it, Rogue Planet has a definite “been there and done that” feeling to it.

That’s a shame, because there are a host of interesting elements here. They just are pushed into the back seat for a stock science-fiction plot.

Oh, Trip, have some respect!

Oh, Trip, have some respect!

There are a lot of problems with the plotting of Rogue Planet. Given its pulpy roots, science-fiction has long harboured an affection for the concept of “big game hunters”, so they are a very familiar genre element. While this might be Archer’s first encounter with a species like this, any viewer with any experience with any science-fiction will be familiar with concept. The idea of a fantastical nature reserve feels like a stock plot element.

The “twist” in Rogue Planet is incredibly easy to foresee, because it’s really the only way a story can develop. The hunters only show up to generate conflict, and there can only be conflict if Archer takes exception to something they do. Since the idea of hunters pursuing self-aware organisms is a stock science-fiction plot, then it is inevitable that Rogue Planet will reveal that the hunters are stalking self-aware prey and Archer will try to stop them.

The most dangerous game (of laser tag) imaginable...

The most dangerous game (of laser tag) imaginable…

There are obvious questions here. Even after Damrus assures Archer that his party “don’t touch” the “higher primates”, Archer seems disdainful of the hunting practise. “Taking wild animals is part of our tradition,” Damrus offers. Archer responds, “Hunting went out of style on Earth over a hundred years ago.” This seems to ignore an suggestion of cultural relativism on Earth, ignoring the fact that allowing indigenous people to hunt for sustenance and in line with their beliefs is considered part of modern cultural preservation.

Of course, all of this becomes moot once it’s clear that the Eska are hunting self-aware lifeforms, but it does betray a very western-centric attitude on the part of Archer. Indeed, Archer’s disdain for the practice of hunting as a cultural tradition – and the fact that Reed feels the need to promise not to kill anything – suggests the sort of attitudes that Roddenberry established in Lonely Among Us. There, Riker sternly lectured the Anticans, “We no longer enslave animals for food purposes.”

Shining some light on the matter...

Shining some light on the matter…

It is unclear whether the chicken and steak that Archer and the crew enjoy is shipped frozen from Earth (or other colony worlds) or simply replicated by the convenient “protein synthesiser.” If it is only replicated, it seems strange that the Vulcans would act so contemptuously towards it – if no animal died to producer the meal, it seems illogical to complain about what it looks like. If it is producing by farming, it seems odd to be so disgusted by hunting in principle – provided it is conducted humanely.

The episode’s climax seems similarly unsatisfying. Archer and Phlox come up with a way of masking the “chemical signature” of the alien life form. Ignoring the fact that this is the sort of technobabble deus ex machina that fans would frequently see on Voyager, and why the ethics of Dear Doctor don’t apply, there’s also the question of how effective this is as a long-term solution. It’s a problem that could likely be fixed with improved scanning techniques or technological leaps.

She really got into his head...

She really got into his head…

As T’Pol points out, “Even if we stop them, their people will continue to come here and hunt. They’ve done it for hundreds of years.” It’s hard to see this as a happy ending. Instead, it seems like a stopgap measure. If Archer really felt that strongly about the exploitation of the native species, he would work with Starfleet and the Vulcans to figure out a way to protect the planet in the long-term. However, that would require work and planning and foresight, and distract from the adventures of the week

So Rogue Planet feels incredibly rote. It is very disappointing, particularly considering it is the first contribution from writer Chris Black. Hired mid-way through the first season to help stop up a writers’ room that was haemorrhaging talent, Black would go on to become the first “native” writer on Enterprise. While writers like Mike Sussman, Phyllis Strong and André Bormanis would remain with the show for a long period of time, Black was the first writer recruited specifically for Enterprise to last longer than a season.

Hunter's (rogue) moon...

Hunter’s (rogue) moon…

Although Black didn’t remain on the show for its fourth season, he did become a pretty important part of the writing staff. In the documentary To Boldly Go, Brannon Braga singles Black out as the most successful of the new writers recruited for the first season of Enterprise. He was nominated for a Hugo Award for his script to Carbon Creek and Mike Sussman affectionately named the character of Grergory Itzin’s Admiral Black for him in In a Mirror Darkly.

However, what is interesting about Chris Black is that he is a writer with very clear genre experience. In putting a writing staff together for Enterprise, Braga had tried to recruit from outside the standard pool of science-fiction writers. He drew in a bunch of talented people with a wide range of experience. Breaking the Ice and Dear Doctor are credited to André and Marie Jacquemetton, who would go on to produce Mad Men. Fortunate Son was written by James Duff, who went on to create The Closer. These are talented writers, and Braga deserves recognition for spotting that talent ahead of time.

Picture perfect...

Picture perfect…

Still, after the departure of Antoinette Stella and Tim Finch half-way through the season, it seems like Berman and Braga decided to replace departing writers with new talent that had experience in genre work. Chris Black’s experience included Poltergeist: The Legacy, Xena: Warrior Princess and Cleopatra 2525. This conservative approach towards replacing departing writers would continue into the second season. David A. Goodman has joked that his work on Futurama got him a job on Enterprise. It seems quite likely that John Shiban was hired on the basis of his experience on The X-Files.

This represents a pretty seismic shift in the way that Enterprise is being run. In essence, it is Berman and Braga backing away from the bolder moves that they made at the start of the first season. The writing staff on Enterprise becomes a lot less broad as a result of these changes. The first season struggled a great deal, but it had no shortage of ambition for all its spectacular missteps. The second season becomes a lot safer and a lot more stable – but a lot less exciting – as a result of these changes.

All fired up...

All fired up…

From around the midpoint in the first season through to the start of the second, the writers’ room on Enterprise changes from a bunch of up-and-coming young writers with no idea how to write science-fiction into a bunch of people who know genre television backwards. This change is very much reflected in the show. While the first season of Enterprise tends to vacillate between brilliant and terrible within the space of a single episode, the second season becomes a lot more stable and consistent; but becomes a bit more generic in the process.

To be fair, this makes a great deal of sense. The writers that were recruited at the start of the show’s run struggled with science-fiction. In the documentary To Boldly Go, Braga confesses that he re-wrote pretty much every episode of the first season. That is simply not sustainable in the long-term. Writers like Mike Sussman, André Bormanis and Chris Black have talked about the difficulty that outside writers had becoming fluent in the language and conventions of Star Trek. There is a point where it is not viable to have a writers’ room where so much energy is expended consistently bringing those contributors up to speed.

Eska tradition demanded that Reed had to wear the safety goggles and sign eight different waivers before joining the expedition.

Eska tradition demanded that Reed had to wear the safety goggles and sign eight different waivers before joining the expedition.

So this was very much a trade-off that had to be made. The producers on Enterprise had to sacrifice some of the ambition and novelty of those outsider writers in favour of a more consistent and reliable approach to the show. It’s unfortunate that the two could not be reconciled. It is interesting to imagine how the Jacquemettons – writers of two of the more ambitious and interesting episodes of the season – would have evolved into the second season. But this is all “shoulda woulda coulda.”

And, to be entirely fair to writer Chris Black, there’s no shortage of interesting elements to Rogue Planet. They just get smothered by an overly conventional plot. The idea of the eponymous planet is fascinating – a ball of dirt floating free in space an sustaining itself through energy released from the core. This is a fascinating scientific concept, and it is plausible that planets could sustain life for quite some time while hurdling between stars.

"Just try to look commanding..."

“Just try to look commanding…”

More that that, there’s something delightfully ethereal about a planet that never sees a sunrise, a world bathed in darkness. In many respects, the world of Rogue Planet seems like something from a fairytale rather than a work of science-fiction – not that there is too much difference. With its perpetual night and ghosts that lure unsuspecting travellers from their beds, Rogue Planet seems like an intersection between Star Trek and the realm of the faerie.

In many respects, Rogue Planet seems to recall the myth of sirens that would lure the captains of sailing ships to their doom. When Archer recalls his first encounter with the shape-changer, it sounds like he could be talking of the sirens from classic mythology. “It was like I was being drawn to her. Like I didn’t have any control over what I was doing. I can’t explain it.” Given how Enterprise is a show about the early years of space exploration, and how Rogue Planet opens with Archer having his photo taken as part of twenty-second century myth-making, it seems like the show is trying mix and match mythology and science-fiction.

"There is a loneliness inherent in that whisper from the darkness..."

“There is a loneliness inherent in that whisper from the darkness…”

Even the poem that Archer cites – The Song of Wandering Aengus by William Butler Yeats – plays into this theme. As Sajjadul Karim notes in Celtic Tradition: The Guiding Force of William Butler Yeats, the poems was itself an attempt to rework a piece of classic Celtic mythology into something radically different:

One poem that illustrates how Yeats mixes folklore and nationalism is The Song of Wandering Aengus. In this poem, Yeats refers to Aengus, the Irish god of love. He was said to be a young, handsome god that had four birds flying around his head. These birds symbolized kisses and inspired love in all who heard them sing. In the poem, The Song of Wandering Aengus, one can clearly see Yeats’s fascination with the occult as a way of incorporating classic pagan and Celtic myths as a means of creating an alternative reality for his own nationalistic intentions.

It seems like Rogue Planet teases a similar idea, an attempt to recontextualise a classic piece of folklore within the context of Star Trek. If this is the case, it feels just a little disappointing that this myth-making takes a back seat to a story about aggressive alien hunters pursuing the most dangerous game of all.

Archer won't cave to pressure...

Archer won’t cave to pressure…

Still, Rogue Planet looks quite nice. The planetoid is a beautiful visual concept. Even the shots of Enterprise orbiting over the dark surface of the planet makes for a much more striking visual than the generic planet of the week. The production design is typically top-notch here. In particular, the retro-future look of the Eska hunting party is quite endearing. It all feels decided pulpy. There’s an incredible amount of neon of display here, feeling like a conscious throwback to eighties science fiction. Even the Enterprise landing party looks like they are about to play a game of deadly laser tag as they stalk the surface of the planet.

Director Allan Kroeker does a great job giving Rogue Planet a foreboding and impressive atmosphere. Kroeker tries to frame Rogue Planet as something like a fairy tale in space. It doesn’t quite work, because it’s still a story about evil alien space hunters, but Kroeker does a lot to distinguish the feel of the planet from the standard planet of the week. He frames shots to make it seem a bit more ethereal and alien than simply “a planet where it is dark all the time.”

Smile!

Smile!

Although back in the background following Shuttlepod One, Reed does get a few nice moments here. There’s more of Reed’s over-compensating macho posturing as he boasts about his Eagle Scout badges and begs to spend time on the surface with the hunting party. As with Strange New World, Dominic Keating gives Reed just the right amount of sass and cheek, reinforcing the impression that Reed isn’t overly impressed with Archer’s command style, but would never come right out and say it.

Still, despite these small elements, Rogue Planet still feels like something we’ve seen before. And quite recently (and frequently) at that.

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

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