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.
Acquisition feels like a misstep for the first season of Star Trek: Enterprise.
It’s not the worst episode of the season. In fact, it falls rather comfortably into the show’s “big middle” – the random and generic episodes that take Star Trek clichés and execute them in a competent manner while overlooking the opportunity to do something a bit more novel and exciting. Acquisition ranks with failures like Civilisation or Sleeping Dogs or Rogue Planet. It is competently executed and contains a few moments of merit, but there’s a feeling that this has all been seen before.
Of course, Acquisition serves to foreground a number of pressing concerns about the production of Enterprise. It’s something of a lightening rod to certain aggressive elements of fandom. Bringing back the Ferengi for a guest appearance proves that the show is more of a prequel to Star Trek: The Next Generation than to the original Star Trek. Glossing over continuity issues by refusing to name these marauding aliens demonstrates that the show clearly doesn’t care about continuity at all. Trying to do a comedy episode featuring the Ferengi demonstrates the producers have no idea what does and doesn’t work in Star Trek production.
All of this is, of course, nonsense. Acquisition isn’t a bad episode because it plays with continuity, or because it features the Ferengi. It’s a bad episode because it’s a comedy adventure that isn’t particularly funny or exciting.
Acquisition is ground zero for discussions about how Enterprise tries to integrate with the larger Star Trek continuity. Every Star Trek fan worth their salt knows that the Ferengi made their first appearance in The Last Outpost during the first season of The Next Generation. The Ferengi had been mentioned during the pilot, Encounter at Farpoint, and there was every indication that the show was trying to set the Ferengi up as the villains for the new revived Star Trek show.
That didn’t work. Despite a number of attempts across the first couple of seasons (from The Battle through to Peak Performance), the Ferengi never really worked as a credible antagonist on The Next Generation. They were basically trolls, a hyper-exaggerated parody of capitalism that had been composed when The Next Generation was very much pitching itself as a show about how the future is hyper-enlightened. The Ferengi were reduced to comic foils.
On Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, writer Ira Steven Behr worked very hard to redefine the Ferengi. He tried to build up their culture and flesh them out, devoting a couple of episodes every year to an exploration of Ferengi society. The “Ferengi episodes” enjoy a divisive reputation among fandom. Likely tainted by spectacular late-series misfires like Profit and Lace and The Emperor’s New Cloak, the Ferengi are a polarising species even after all the development they have received.
Still, incorporating the Ferengi into Enterprise was always going to be controversial. After all, we know that they don’t “officially” make contact with the Federation for another two centuries. Invented in the late eighties, the Ferengi were never even mentioned during Kirk’s era. So bringing them back for a prequel is frequently cited as an attempt to build continuity between Enterprise and The Next Generation rather than between Enterprise and the original Star Trek.
Of course, Acquisition is downright cheeky in the way that it skirts continuity. The word “Ferengi” is never mentioned once. When Archer demands to know who has seized his ship, Ulis responds, “Who we are is unimportant.” The wording of the sixth rule of acquisition changes by a single word between here and The Nagus, a change that exists purely to irritate certain kinds of fans while being entirely justifiable in the context of the narrative. (Translation convention, amendment, revision, character mistake; take your pick.)
In many respects, Acquisition luxuriates in teasing the fans, as if aware of how much this is going to irritate certain hardcore elements of fandom. Ulis uses an energy whip, a weapon that has only ever been used in one other Ferengi appearance – their very first guest appearance in The Last Outpost. The show’s teaser basks in a close-up of Ulis, as if to assure fans, “Yes, this is really happening.” Indeed, the first act is spent revelling in how bizarre it is to have the Ferengi stalking the sets of Enterprise.
In one interview during the show’s second season, Braga seems to take a great deal of pleasure in pointing out how close Acquisition skirted the line, only to avoid any significant breach of the letter of continuity:
“We’re very aware of that, and we try very hard. We have made a few mistakes but nothing major. I read all these things on the Internet, these ‘continuity pornographers’ as I like to call them, though I didn’t invent the term. These people honestly think that Rick and I are morons! Of course we know that the Ferengi didn’t make first contact with Archer. They made it with Picard. The only people who see the Ferengi are Trip, T’pol and Archer, and they never find out who they were. They were ‘those weird looking guys’ and they never see them again, so you can have fun with continuity!”
As with a lot of Braga’s interviews, he frames his argument in a rather provocative manner, but he makes a good point. As Mike Sussman wonderfully argued during his own interview with The Star Trek Communicator around the same time, Acquisition wasn’t even the first “unofficial” contact with the Ferengi. That honour goes to Little Green Men on Deep Space Nine.
It is worth stressing that the idea of “Star Trek continuity” has always been elastic. After all, we call Spock a Vulcan rather than a Vulcanian. The first season of Star Trek took quite some time to figure out who Kirk was meant to work for. The franchise never seems sure how similar Vulcans or Romulans appear to sensors. Even on the more modern shows, the concept of the Borg evolved dramatically over their first few appearances from Q Who? through to Star Trek: First Contact. Warp ten is different between Where No One Has Gone Before and Threshold.
Continuity changes and evolves. If Enterprise were beholden to every line of dialogue ever spoken in Star Trek, it would find itself operating within an absurdly narrow threshold. Continuity is great for character develop and world-building, but it can be unduly restrictive when trying to tell an interesting story. Continuity should a tool that helps tell better stories, rather than a straitjacket hemming writers and producers in.
In many respects, then, Acquisition seems to argue that point quite well. It’s possible to tell a story that doesn’t violate the letter of continuity that still feels derivative, hallow and unsatisfying. Acquisition could be read as a passive-aggressive swipe at Star Trek fandom using “continuity” as a catch-all term to define their own dissatisfaction with Enterprise – suggesting that “more” continuity is not necessarily a good thing, and adherence to literal continuity has no actual bearing on quality.
Acquisition‘s problems have nothing to do with continuity. It is quite easy to produce an episode that plays this cheekily with Star Trek canon and still produce an entertaining episode of television. Regeneration might not be perfect, but it takes what is essentially the same brief as Acquisition – “introduce Archer and his crew to a major Next-Generation-era enemy while skirting continuity” – and executes it with a lot more fun and panache.
Even the Ferengi themselves aren’t really the problem with Acquisition. To be fair, the franchise has never go the Ferengi to work consistently, but it is possible to build great episodes around Ferengi characters and culture. House of Quark, Family Business, The Bar Association, Body Parts and The Magnificent Ferengi all count among the strongest episodes of their seasons of Deep Space Nine. It is possible to produce a good Ferengi episode, even if statistical evidence suggests it is a lot less likely outside Deep Space Nine.
The problem with Acquisition is that it isn’t really that funny. It’s not a gag that sustains itself over forty-five minutes. More than that, it’s a very insular gag that isn’t aimed at casual viewers – it’s a gag aimed at Star Trek fans that will recognise the Ferengi. With the way that the teaser emphasises these big-eared aliens and the countless nods and winks towards franchise history, Acquisition is an episode that is very much intended to appeal to hardcore Star Trek fans.
Even the guest stars comprise a nice piece of Star Trek trivia. Ethan Phillips becomes the first former Star Trek regular to guest star on Enterprise, beating Rene Auberjonois by an episode. Three of the four Ferengi have appeared on Star Trek before, with appearances scattered across all four previous Star Trek shows. Two of the four have even played Ferengi before, and one of those two got to play an alien playing a Ferengi. It’s all a gigantic franchise in-joke.
All of which feels like a delightful piece of irony. Acquisition is clearly targeted towards Star Trek fans, while at the same time being almost scientifically calibrated to irritate die-hard fans. Issues like the stunt casting and guest appearance of a not-particularly iconic-pre-existing Star Trek species are things that are designed to court Star Trek fans, while the clever skirting of continuity and the use of the Ferengi seems like the kind of thing that will provoke a strong negative gut reaction from those same Star Trek fans.
These are – ironically enough – the same sort of mixed messages that would lead Rick Berman and Brannon Braga to optimistically label These Are the Voyages as “a valentine to the fans.” It’s a demonstration of how Enterprise doesn’t seem to know what fans want from it. Which is appropriate enough, because it seems like fans don’t necessarily know what they wanted from Enterprise. Too much continuity? Not enough continuity? References to classic Star Trek? Its own unique identity?
For example, there’s the oft-cited argument that Enterprise is more of a prequel to The Next Generation than to the original Star Trek, which ignores the presence of the Andorians from The Andorian Incident onwards, the entire plot of Shadows of P’Jem, various other continuity shout-outs included in scripts like Civilisation. While the first few years of Enterprise may feature bumpy headed Klingons, Nausicans, Ferengi and Borg, they also featured the Andorians, Tellerites and Vulcans.
The first season of Enterprise gets a lot of flack for following the adventure-of-the-week format established in The Next Generation and Voyager, which is a fair criticism in some cases. However, despite how it may have turned out, there was a very conscious effort not to turn this into a simple retread of Voyager. Watching the first season of Enterprise, it’s interesting how many cues it seems to borrow from the first few years of Deep Space Nine rather than from any of the surrounding shows.
Deep Space Nine veteran Jeffrey Combs is brought in as a recurring guest star. Rogue Planet is a direct lift from Captive Pursuit. This is a Ferengi comedy episode. Oasis is a direct plot lift from Shadowplay. While Acquisition buried Voyager regular Ethan Phillips under a mountain of Ferengi make-up, Oasis featured Deep Space Nine regular Rene Auberjonois prominently without any make-up. Even the relationship between Krem and Ulis here recalls the relationship between Rom and Quark. (“My cousin knows what’s best for me,” Krem explains. “He manages all my financial transactions.” He adds, “I don’t have the lobes for business.”)
However, the similarities were more than merely superficial. Enterprise experimented with loose serialisation between The Andorian Incident and Shadows of P’Jem and between Detained and Desert Crossing, evoking the early attempts at serialisation made during the first few seasons of Deep Space Nine. In fact, when Berman and Braga were ultimately forced to revamp the show, they chose to relaunch Enterprise with year-long arc that bore an uncanny resemblance to the Dominion War.
This is an approach that is rather different than the approach adopted towards the first season of Voyager. There, the production team made a conscious attempt to emulate The Next Generation – with generic planet- and alien-of-the-week stories drowning out the show’s unique flavour. The first season of Enterprise has at least made a conscious attempt at building a world and developing continuity.
In the documentary Uncharted Territory, Brannon Braga acknowledges that the production staff even sought the input of Deep Space Nine producer Ira Steven Behr to help iron out problems with the show in its first two seasons:
I needed help. We brought in Ira. And he sh!t all over the show. I mean, he sh!t on the show like I have never heard. All the crabby internet stuff balled into one nuclear weapon. He hated the show, hated the characters, hated the concept, just thought it was a piece of sh!t. It was one hell of a job interview. I don’t even know why he came, to be honest. At the same time, I saw some of his critiques were not invalid. I think he was saying “I want to come in and shake this place up.” I think at that point, Rick and I weren’t quite looking for that level of shake-up.
According to Behr, he simply provided “a very clearheaded critique of what the show needed to do to fulfill its premise.” Then again, Ira Steven Behr can be a… confrontational figure.
Behr himself has conceded that the meeting – apparently between the second and third seasons of the show – did not go entirely as Rick Berman and Brannon Braga may have intended:
Rick called me up, it was his initiative. He asked me had I seen Enterprise, I told him no. He asked if I could look at it–they were thinking maybe of stepping back and that “this be another DS9 experience,” whatever that meant. I didn’t really think it over in terms of what were the chances of that reality happening again. They sent me the three shows, I went in, had a two hour meeting with Rick and Brannon. It was a very cordial meeting, but everything I said I am sure they did not like hearing. I would not liked to have heard it if someone came into my office and talked as bluntly as I was talking to them. Though again, it was done all cordially. After it was over I am sure they were uncomfortable, I was very uncomfortable, we shook hands, Rick said, “well, all interesting stuff, we’ll think it over,” and I never heard from him again. That’s the whole story and it’s barely a blip in anyone’s lives, it has no impact whatsoever on the franchise. It’s just something that happened.
Still, regardless of how the meeting went, it is another example of how firmly Deep Space Nine was entrenched in Berman and Braga’s vision of Enterprise. Which is, of course, entirely reasonable. After all, Deep Space Nine was a show that was several years ahead of its time in terms of storytelling and in terms of subject matter.
Along with the new writers recruited to work on the show in the second half of the first season through to the start of the second, this reflected a change in the attitude towards Enterprise. The first season of Enterprise had begun with Braga recruiting a writing staff with a minimum of genre experience. However, when many of those early writers did not work out, Braga replaced them with writers who had experience working in cult television.
In many respects, the clear emphasis on emulating Deep Space Nine during the second half of the first season reflects a show that is adjusting its goal posts. Deep Space Nine was and is a show that was loved by Star Trek fandom. It is the very definition of cult television. It is superbly produced, brilliantly written and very well constructed. However, it is also a show that lack the same mass market appeal that defined The Next Generation. While the ratings on Deep Space Nine started out strong, it is the first of the spin-offs to experience the viewer decline that eventually led to the cancellation of Enterprise.
It seems like – at this point in the season – Enterprise has accepted that it is not going to be a breakout science-fiction drama hit, and has begun to firmly settle into the niche of a cult genre show. The tale of the first season sees the show trying to court fans and win them over. The problem is that the show isn’t entirely clear on how to do that. It tries to bring back popular alien races – but it brings back the Ferengi. It tries to feature actors from the earlier shows – but places them in rehashes of familiar plots. It tries to do classic archetypal Star Trek stories – but they all wind up feeling like retreads.
The problem with the first season of Voyager was that the show never seemed to try hard enough. It rested on its laurels, coasting off the success of The Next Generation rather than trying to develop its own strengths. Enterprise has found itself wrestling with its narrative conservatism and its desire to break new ground, but the last third of the first season suffers from a reluctance to push that much forward, instead trying to reassure fans with familiar set-ups and familiar aliens. The results are less than inspiring.
There are aspects of Acquisition that are potentially interesting. The idea of doing almost the entire first act with Ferengi dialogue is fascinating – it’s a novel twist on the alien-of-the-week episode. It’s the kind of adventurous attitude that Acquisition should have run with. Instead, the plot feels like a stock “the ship is taken over with absurd ease by a bunch of hostile aliens” plot, with the caveat that these hostile aliens just happen to be Ferengi.
The episode’s comedy never really lands. The Ferengi greedy; that is their defining character trait as a species. It’s a joke that only stretches so far. That said, Scott Bakula does get to have some fun with the guest cast – this is the sort of script that Bakula does well, falling into the “tough day at the office but not world-ending” level of threat. However, the show never makes the Ferengi seem like credible villains, despite the threat to sell a third of the crew into slavery. So it’s very hard to engage with the episode’s action beats.
Acquisition is a disappointing episode, but not for reasons that have to do with violating continuity or with the presence of Ferengi, at least not directly. Instead, a large part of the probliem is how the show struggles with those two points – catching itself between a rock and a hard place. It’s an episode that paradoxically sets out to please the existing fanbase, while completely misunderstanding what that fanbase wants. Then again, that’s hardly a cardinal sin; as noted above, there’s a solid argument to be made that even the fans don’t know what they want.
- 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