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Star Trek: Enterprise – Oasis (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.

Oasis is an interesting story.

It was also an interesting story that time it was produced as Shadowplay during the second season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Ghosts of Star Trek's past...

Ghosts of Star Trek’s past…

In many ways, Oasis feels like a companion piece to Rogue Planet. Both are stories that feel like attempts to adapt classic maritime mythology into Star Trek: Enterprise, to capture the sense that deep space really might be magical and mystical. In Rogue Planet, Archer is lured into the jungle by a mysterious siren. In Oasis, the crew of the Enterprise discover a “ghost ship” and get trapped in a version of The Tempest, itself an old maritime legend.

While there are some very heavy similarities to Shadowplay – something we’ll return to – much of Oasis can be seen as the retelling of a much older sea myth. Many critics believe The Tempest to be the last play that William Shakespeare wrote alone, dating to the early years of the seventeenth century. Indeed, the story predates any recorded example of the name “Enterprise” given to a sea-faring vessel.

Perfect dinner table conversation...

Perfect dinner table conversation…

The set-up is intriguing. Archer entertains a trader over dinner, and they share stories. After some haggling about coffee, the trader reveals a potential source of supplies that the ship needs so badly. There is a catch, of course. When asked why he didn’t strip down the crashed ship he found abandoned, he responds, “The crew objected.” When Archer points out that he said there weren’t any life-signs, the trader replies, “There weren’t. There wasn’t anything alive.” The teaser ends on Trip asking if the ship is “haunted.”

This is a fascinating set-up. After all, ghost stories are part of the ancient maritime tradition. It makes sense that they would carry over into the early years of deep space exploration. One of the nice moments of Strange New World saw Mayweather telling a story that existed half-way between a standard alien-of-the-week plot and a good old-fashioned ghost story, illustrating how the two could easily coexist side-by-side. The teaser to Oasis makes it seem like the show might explore that.

This crew is still quite green...

This crew is still quite green…

Unfortunately, as with Rogue Planet, this interesting twist on maritime myth and legend gets brushed aside for a fairly standard plot. The idea of doing The Tempest in a science-fiction setting is another example of the show trying to build off maritime history, but one that feels more than a little tired. After all, “doing the The Tempest as science-fiction” has been a stock genre trope since Forbidden Planet in 1956.

And yet, despite that, there is a hint of self-awareness to all this. After all, Forbidden Planet is generally agreed to have been an influence on the early production of Star Trek, despite Gene Roddenberry’s protestations after the fact. Indeed, The Cage owes a great deal to that classic science-fiction film, suggesting that you could read Forbidden Planet as a sort of proto-Star Trek, if you felt so inclined.

Give a little, get a little...

Give a little, get a little…

So doing a story influence by The Tempest, which itself influenced Forbidden Planet, which itself influenced Star Trek, inside the first season of a Star Trek prequel, feels like a very self-referential decision, albeit one filtered through several levels of abstraction. It makes sense that a prequel to the classic Star Trek would do a story that riffed on Forbidden Planet at some stage or another. In fact, the only way that Oasis comes close to working is as a piece of self-commentary.

After all, Oasis falls into the familiar “we’ve seen all this before” pattern that has defined a significant portion of the first season of Star Trek: Enterprise. Even more than Civilisation or Sleeping Dogs or Rogue Planet, Oasis is a story that most Star Trek fans will remember beat-for-beat. The plot twist – heavily foreshadowed – is that most of the inhabitants of the ship are holograms created by one of the two survivors to assuage his own guilt. It is very similar to Shadowplay, where a lonely old man recreated his old village in order to deal with the loss of his own friends and colleagues.

Night of the living dead senior staff...

Night of the living dead senior staff…

That earlier story even heavily featured actor Rene Auberjonois, who guest stars here. However, his role in the story has changed between the two tellings. In Shadowplay, Auberjonois played Odo, one of the characters uncovering the mystery about this tight-knit community. In Oasis, Auberjonois plays the man preserving the mystery about the tight-knit community, the man who built holograms of his old friends to help keep him sane.

There’s a level of self-reference here that suggests the similarities are not entirely accidental. After all, while writer Stephen Beck may be new to the franchise, he was surrounded by writers like André Bormanis and Mike Sussman who took great pride in their knowledge of the Star Trek canon. Even producer Brannon Braga has claimed to have been “very aware” of Deep Space Nine while it was on the air, making it unlikely he would have missed the plot lift. Even if the writers had missed it, it seems unlikely that the production staffers like Mike and Denise Okuda would have failed to mention it.

Exhuming the past...

Exhuming the past…

Even Rene Auberjonois himself recognised the similarities between Oasis and Shadowplay, as he mentioned to Scott Bakula during the filming of the episode:

I was sitting with Scott Bakula at lunch about two or three days into shooting the episode. He said, “I like this script. I think this is a good one.” I said, “Yeah, we did this one in season three.” And he looked at me and said, “What?” I said, “It was the same sort of story.” That was not really a putdown, but when you’ve done that many years of writing stories, there will be recurring themes.

This just underscores how unlikely it is that Oasis could enter production without anybody on staff noticing the similarities. Indeed, casting Auberjonois suggests that the writers and producers were at least aware of these similarities.

He's not there...

He’s not there…

Oasis becomes a much more interesting piece of television if one assumes that the production team were aware of Shadowplay, as opposed to an accidental duplicate of a show produced eight years earlier. The episode is still flawed. It’s still populated by crudely drawn characters, following a predictable arc, and with a twist that is fairly easy to deduce ahead of time. However, if one assumes that Oasis was crafted as a deliberate reference to Shadowplay, it feels like a very self-aware piece of Star Trek.

In fact, Oasis might be the most traditional episode of Enterprise produced to date. While it has become something of a stock criticism to suggest that a certain episode could have been produced for Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Voyager with only a handful of changes, Oasis pushes this idea to its logical conclusion: this was an episode produced for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine with only a handful of changes.

"You'd think he would have changed the bulbs out here once in twenty-two years..."

“You’d think he would have changed the bulbs out here once in twenty-two years…”

The production design of the Kantare feels like something of a throwback. While a lot of the new make-up designs for Enterprise have been elaborate and intricate, the Kantare are just normal people with some scales on their forehead, recalling the frequency with which the earlier shows would feature uncannily human-like aliens. The multi-coloured cloth jumpsuits that the crew wear look like no alien costume designed for Enterprise so far – the show has favoured spandex or plastic or leather over cloth. You could slot the Kantare into an early episode of Deep Space Nine or The Next Generation without anybody batting an eye.

These choices seem unlikely to be a coincidence, just like the decision to cast Rene Auberjonois is unlikely to be a coincidence. Auberjonois is a respected and recognisable character actor, but Star Trek fans are likely to recognise him instantly as Odo. His face isn’t disguised as Ethan Phillips’ was when he appeared in Acquisition, and his voice is distinctive enough that any casual Star Trek fan will recognise him upon coming within earshot of the episode.

Body of proof...

Body of proof…

More than that, Oasis luxuriates in Auberjonois’ presence. Of course, he’s a great actor, so it makes sense to focus on him – but the camera lingers on him very heavily. His character is very much in the background of the first encounter between the Starfleet crew and the Kantare, as Kuulan takes charge and gets the lion’s share of the dialogue. However, the camera keeps cutting back to him – to the point where the first act closes with a shot where Auberjonois is conspicuously in the middle of the frame.

The audience is clearly meant to recognise him. While drawing the audience’s attention to his character undermines the suspense a bit – as it invites the audience to wonder why the show is so interested in that supporting character – it serves to emphasise this guest appearance. The camera doesn’t seem to be focusing so much on Chief Engineer Ezral as it is focusing on former Star Trek lead actor Rene Auberjonois.

Here there be space ghosts, from coast to coast...

Here there be space ghosts, from coast to coast…

So we have a former Star Trek regular who has returned to Enterprise, bring a bunch of rather outdated Star Trek aliens with him to guest star in a plot borrowed wholesale from an old Star Trek show. It seems highly unlikely that all of these factor are entirely coincidental. Indeed, the game seems to become clear once Ezral’s true nature is revealed. He is a lonely old man who has created ghosts of his old crew to keep him company as he sits on a dead rock in the middle of nowhere.

In short, Ezral feels like an old Star Trek fan struggling to come to terms with the existence of Enterprise. It’s no coincidence that the Kantare have been trapped on the surface of the planet for twenty-two years. While Star Trek had been on the air for fifteen consecutive years at this point, the overlap with Deep Space Nine meant that the first season of Enterprise was the twenty-second season of televised Star Trek that had been produced since the franchise was revived.

"See, you just cross out the name 'Odo' and write in 'Trip'..."

“See, you just cross out the name ‘Odo’ and write in ‘Trip’…”

As Ezral tries to explain the situation, he seems less like a man wrestling with his own guilt and more like a person reluctant to let got of something he loved dearly. “They were holograms,” Trip argues of the crew. “They were our friends, our family for over twenty years,” Ezral counters, echoing the sentiments felt by many Star Trek fans towards the characters inhabiting the franchise. Indeed, this sense of friendship with fictional characters was at the heart of Fry’s affection for the show in Futurama‘s Where No Fan Has Gone Before.

As Ezral talks with Archer and the crew, it seems like he is an old man not ready to face the changes that come with a bold new vision of Star Trek. He speaks about trying to preserve the past so he might be able to share it with his daughter. “I did everything I could to make it like it was, for her,” he insists. He fails to understand that it isn’t enough to expect a new generation to like something because you liked it. “She deserves more,” Trip states matter-of-factly.

"We found these costumes in storage."

“We found these costumes in storage.”

This seems to rather hilariously foreshadow the “this is not your father’s Star Trek” advertising campaign for JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot. As played by a lead character from an earlier Star Trek show, trapped inside a narrative from another Star Trek show, Ezral seems like a relic of Star Trek‘s past. He is terrified of change, afraid that the universe might morph into something that he may not recognise.

Ezral’s central character arc is being willing to accept a new world full of new possibilities, instead of clinging to a past handily signified through references to old-school Star Trek. Indeed, his character arc is complete when he acknowledges Archer as a worthy starship captain and makes himself welcome on board the Enterprise. “You have a beautiful ship,” he admits, perhaps referencing the infamous fan outcry over the “Akiraprise.” The show continues to wink at the camera as he confesses, “I haven’t been in space for a long time. It feels strange. Good, just a bit strange.”



His final speech to Archer is worth reprinting in full. In many ways, it’s framed as an old fan struggling to accept a new kind of Star Trek, and perhaps this is what the producers sought to convey with Oasis:

“Twenty two years, Captain. I’ve lived here for twenty two years, and that ship down there may seem like nothing more than spare parts to you, but to me it’s home. I don’t want to leave. I am happy here. Comfortable. But Mister Tucker wants me to believe that I’m being selfish. He says that now that I have the opportunity to leave, I should. That Liana deserves more. Maybe it’s time I stopped being so afraid of change. Will you help me take my daughter home?”

It is a surprisingly touching piece of dialogue, about an old man learning to be a bit less afraid of the fact that his daughter might have something that belongs specifically to her.

"Damn, I need to watch more re-runs..."

“Damn, I need to watch more re-runs…”

In many ways, Ezral gives voice to more conservative elements in just about any fandom. His speech could arguably apply as much to JJ Abrams’ reboot of Star Trek or to Russell T. Davies’ relaunch of Doctor Who. It’s really a question of whether the fan is question is willing to engage with something new and different that doesn’t necessarily conform to their expectations, because it isn’t trying to appeal exclusively to them.

This doesn’t mean that fans shouldn’t be critical, or that they should be blindly accepting. Instead, it suggests that they should try to keep an open mind about new iterations of things that they loved. After all, if Star Trek is to survive, it cannot be the sole provenance of old men. More than that, to suggest that Star Trek should remain one thing is to deny the capacity for growth or evolution. Ezral is facing the same crisis here that gripped older fans when The Next Generation began airing.

"Ah yes, but did Shadowplay have gratuitous phaser battles?"

“Ah yes, but did this ‘Shadowplay’ have gratuitous phaser battles?”

That is, undoubtedly, the most satisfying way to read Oasis. It’s still a clunky episode, one with a rake of pacing problems and an obvious reveal at the end, but it’s also a thoughtful reflection on the relationship that exists between Enterprise and Star Trek fandom at large. This is a very gentle and very kind-hearted attempt to recruit them on-side. Somewhat improbably, it might just be the most heartwarming episode of the first season.

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

4 Responses

  1. Ira Behr went for the meat cleaver, but Braga reaches for the scalpel… the prick is tiny and barely noticeable. 😉

    If this interpretation is to believed (and why not, after all it took 15 years for fans to catch up with Behr’s satire), then Archer’s crew is meant to evoke fear They’re confronted with classic characters and react to them with hostility. In fact, this is even darker than “Shadowplay” because Odo allowed the old man to keep his fantasy. humming along. Trip has none of it.

    I’d find it more heartwarming if ENT offered something worth fighting for, something other than survival. That’s a hurdle for genre entertainment to overcome since 9-11.

    • I think there’s a weird insecurity to the first two seasons of Enterprise, a sense that the show is struggling to figure out its own identity while still dealing with the weight of what came before. There’s a strange irony to trying to resist all the pressures associated with the “Star Trek” label while sticking almost rigidly to the format of The Next Generation and Voyager.

      (I recently watched Future Tense, which has one of the more obvious examples. It features the Tholians, because the Tholians remain one of the more compelling alien species to some groups of fandom. The show even goes out of its way to model the ships so they resemble those featured in The Tholian Web. However, the series stops short of actually featuring a Tholian itself, because who wants to put a talking mood crystal on prime-time television? It feels like the perfect example of how Enterprise is both enticed by and terrified of its own past.)

      Oasis, I think, signposts that conflict between the franchise’s past and its (potential) future as part of the main plot.

  2. This episode doesn’t get enough credit for how bland, uninspired, and downright tedious it is-considering Season 1 of Enterprise, this is a standout, which is a serious accomplishment-in the worst way possible.

    • I actually didn’t mind it too much, considering some of the episodes around it. Which is perhaps a reflection on the season more than the episode.

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