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Star Trek: Enterprise – Vox Sola (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.

Vox Sola is a rather sedate late-season instalment of Star Trek: Enterprise. Largely designed as a bottle show, Vox Sola has a rake of interesting ideas, but doesn’t offer any particularly insightful exploration. The alien creature of the week is unique and distinctive, but the episode constructed around it feels rather lacklustre. There’s a sense of late-season fatigue at work here, with Vox Sola feeling rather like a more low-key variation on the strange-space-phenomena-of-the-week story template that Star Trek: Voyager would use routinely.

"It's alive!"

“It’s alive!”

Vox Sola is the last Enterprise script credited to writer Fred Dekker. Recruited at the start of the first season, Dekker would depart the show before the start of the show’s second season. Unlike other fresh-faced recruits like André and Marie Jacquemetton or Antoinette Stella, Dekker had quite an impressive resumé when it came to genre work. His work included genre fare like Night of the Creeps and The Monster Squad.

However, Dekker had also been the writer and director of Robocop 3, a rather infamous science-fiction sequel. The movie had done enough damage to Dekker’s career that his next writing credit was on Enterprise eight years after the initial release of Robocop 3. Nevertheless, having a writer and director like Fred Dekker on staff was a boon to the show. At the very least, The Monster Squad is on the way to becoming a cult classic.

"There's... something in the bay!"

“There’s… something in the bay!”

Dekker himself has been quite candid about his time on Enterprise. Asked if he felt like the show had not paid enough homage to what came before, he replied:

Ironic question, because I feel the show was too beholden to Star Trek history!  A key reason I wanted to be involved was to tell stories pre-Kirk, pre-Picard, pre-everything we know about Trek canon.  I thought it would be a great opportunity to start with a totally clean slate and do a show about the first space explorers with warp drive capability.  What would be out there?  What life forms would we encounter? Unfortunately, apart from one episode (Fight or Flight), I feel like the first season quickly devolved into rehashing all the stuff we’d already seen – Look, more Vulcans! Hey, it’s the Andorians!  Oh, no, those darn Ferengi!  Yawn.  But the cast and crew – and my fellow writers — were fantastic.

Dekker is expressing a sentiment shared by a number of different creative forces on the show. He’s arguing that Enterprise really needed to be more adventurous and exciting. It’s something repeated quite frequently about the early years of the show.

Making a mess of things...

Making a mess of things…

Dekker’s two other script credits for the season are The Andorian Incident and Sleeping Dogs. The Andorian Incident is a reasonable well-liked early instalment of Enterprise, albeit one that tends to coast on a rather powerful ending and the appeal of the returning iconic blue-skin aliens. Sleeping Dogs is one of the more bland and generic offerings of the first season. It isn’t as bad as Unexpected or Terra Nova or Two Days and Two Nights, but it just occupies space.

Vox Sola does something similar. The episode is not the most distinctive of the season, even if it is perfectly functional. There’s no real “umph” to it, no energy and no vibrancy. It’s an episode where a bunch of stuff happens, our heroes react to it, and then continue on their way. There’s no profound character moments, no exciting twists, no nuances and nothing that seems too far outside the norm. This is a shame, because a script about an alien fungus infesting the Enterprise should be great fun.

Archer's hanging on in there...

Archer’s hanging on in there…

The script has a number of good ideas, but no real idea on how best to execute them. The space monster is an absolutely intriguing creation. The design is quite wonderful and memorable. The alien organism was nicknamed “the linguine monster” by director Roxanne Dawson in the On the Set Documentary, but undoubtedly given much more colourful nicknames by fans. (The fact that Dawson can’t seem to describe the creature without giggling suggests that she is aware of the comparison.)

Indeed, Vox Sola is largely noteworthy for the production of an On the Set documentary charting the development of the episode. It’s an insightful glimpse at the level of design and craft that goes into crafting just about any episode of Star Trek. Although the documentary was not broadcast, it is pack with all manner of interesting observations. For example, Brannon Braga suggested that the design of the creature should be based on a cover illustration of a H.P. Lovecraft book, most likely The Tomb and Other Stories.

Let's see what's on the slab...

Let’s see what’s on the slab…

Coupled with a rather insightful – and decidedly playful – text commentary from Michael and Denise Okuda, Vox Sola might be the most average episode of Star Trek ever to get this sort of in-depth treatment. Then again, it’s a nice glimpse at precisely how much work actually goes into producing even a decidedly “average” episode of Star Trek. One of the nicer aspects of the current home media age is the ability to peel back the layers and explore how everybody working on a Star Trek show does their job.

It is very easy to gloss over the level of care and skill that goes into producing an episode of Star Trek. After all, this isn’t a show that can shoot on location in Los Angeles. Whole cultures and societies and creatures need to be crafted week-in and week-out, with the show moving at a relentless pace. The budget is significant, but the demands are phenomenal. The level of care that goes into constructing the world deserves acknowledgement and recognition.

This week on Star Trek: Enterprise, T'Pol stubbornly refuses to get into the spirit of "hide and seek."

This week on Star Trek: Enterprise, T’Pol stubbornly refuses to get into the spirit of “hide and seek.”

At the same time, this doesn’t stop Vox Sola from feeling more than a little bit stale. It’s nice to get a sense of the crew relaxing. Reed, Sato and Mayweather check out a movie together. Archer and Trip watch water polo in the Captain’s Mess. Two lower-deck staff are left running Engineering. There’s an endearing sense of what day-to-day life on the ship must be like, as seen in shows like Breaking the Ice or Dear Doctor.

Unfortunately, there’s also a sense that these scenes really need to start telling us about these characters. It’s great to have more scenes focusing on the crew relaxing together, but they really need to let us know more and more what these people are about. In Vox Sola, we spend a great deal of time with Archer’s love of water polo, but we never get a sense of what that says about him. Mayweather jokes about how Reed likes to blow things up, but it feels like a rather superficial take on the guy.

Reed presents a force (field) to be reckoned with...

Reed presents a force (field) to be reckoned with…

In one of the strange scenes of the episode, Mayweather gets to handle an important diplomatic communication with the Kreetassans. Given how awkwardly the last contact went with the Kreetassans, it seems odd that the helmsman is dealing with them – that he doesn’t summon Hoshi or T’Pol to the bridge. In fact, given that Vox Sola affords a little character arc to Hoshi, it would seem to make sense for Hoshi to reconcile with the offended Kreetassans. When your helmsman does a better job with the awkward aliens than your linguist, it suggests that at least one of the two is in the wrong job.

It’s a sequence that exists to give Mayweather something to do. That’s not a bad thing. So far, there has been a shortage of episodes that give Mayweather things to do. However, Vox Sola just throws the scene in there, with no build-up or pay-off. Mayweather wasn’t even present in the earlier scene where the Kreetassans stormed off the ship. Archer never gets to reconcile with these rather strange aliens. It’s a scene that gives Mayweather something to do in the easiest manner possible, without questioning why Mayweather should be doing this.

Alien aliens...

Alien aliens…

Hoshi’s character arc is similarly confused. One of the better aspects of Sleeping Dogs was the way that Dekker brought Hoshi and T’Pol together. Their scenes in that episode brought out T’Pol’s more sensitive side, while allowing Hoshi to admit her own insecurities to somebody outside the Starfleet command structure. There’s a sense that this should have been the start of an interesting relationship between the two.

While it might be too much to hope for a friendship like that which develops between Trip and Reed, perhaps T’Pol and Hoshi could exchange books or converse in Vulcan or discuss cultural differences occasionally. However, Vox Sola seems to resent their relationship back to zero. It is as if their interactions on the Klingon ship never happened. “Any progress?” T’Pol asks at one point. Hoshi snipes back, “Believe me, you’d be the first to know.”

Boy, is that gonna be a pain to clean...

Boy, is that gonna be a pain to clean…

We get a whole subplot about the tension that exists between the two them. “I didn’t ask for you to keep count of every time I make a mistake, or to second-guess all of my decisions,” Hoshi insists. This seems rather strange, particularly since a key conversation in Sleeping Dogs had T’Pol acknowledging that Hoshi has to deal with her own insecurity and self-doubt. If T’Pol is that acutely aware of Hoshi’s issues, it seems odd that she would place such pressure on the linguist.

In fact, Vox Sola goes a good deal further. “You’ve been looking over my shoulder ever since you came on board,” Hoshi protests. “Double-checking my log entries, my translations.” It seems odd that this is only coming up now. After all, Dekker wrote an earlier episode where the two characters were placed in a high-pressure environment and Hoshi was struggling with the pressure. Why didn’t Hoshi raise that resentment there? Why didn’t T’Pol’s empathy in Sleeping Dogs help to defuse it?

Drinking it all in...

Drinking it all in…

This is inevitably leading to a scene where T’Pol expresses her admiration and respect for Hoshi, that has been misconstrued somewhat. “If you feel I’ve been unfair to you, I apologize,” T’Pol offers, “but I hold you to a high standard, Ensign, because I know you’re capable of achieving it.” This is really just the same conversation that Hoshi and T’Pol had back in Sleeping Dogs, only Hoshi is a bit more aggressive towards T’Pol this time. Arguably, even that subplot was just a replay of Fight or Flight.

This brings us to the biggest problem with the character work in the first season of Enterprise. It is great that the show has afforded considerable space to character work. In particular, episodes like Breaking the Ice, Dear Doctor and Shuttlepod One are all happy to give the characters room to breath. However, there is a tendency to take this space for granted. If you’re going to try to focus on character-based storytelling, there needs to be some measure of growth and development. It doesn’t have to be seismic, but it has to be there.

Tripping over the language...

Tripping over the language…

So it feels quite frustrating that this is the third “Hoshi has self-doubt issues” subplot that the show has done to date. While it might be too much to present Hoshi as completely acclimatised to deep space exploration, it feels a bit much to devote another subplot to how Hoshi worries about being good enough to do her job. Archer and T’Pol seem a bit less patient with her than they were in Fight or Flight and Sleeping Dogs, and that perhaps reflects the mood of the audience as well. There must be some forward momentum of some sort.

Vox Sola compounds this issue with the decision to feature a fairly standard “watch the crew invent some familiar tech” plot. For a series about getting Star Trek to go “back to basics”, Enterprise has been quite keen to feature familiar Star Trek technology. Broken Bow saw Reed introducing the crew to “phase pistols.” In Unexpected, Trip experienced a holodeck. The Xyrillians also have something quite similar to cloaking technology and the Kantare have the ability to create holograms of people.

It could just eat him up...

It could just eat him up…

Here, Reed gets to invent what he terms “a stable EM barrier”, but what most science-fiction fans will instantly recognise as a force field. It’s a subplot that feels like it exists to pad out the episode, given that the force field exists only to allow T’Pol and Hoshi to address the creature. They could just as easily have used the ship’s intercom to the same effect, and barricaded the cargo bay to contain the creature.

There is absolutely no reason that we need to see Reed invent a force field. Instead, it’s the perfect demonstration of the sort of techno-fetishism that caused so many problems on Star Trek: Voyager, where the crew would whip up magical  solutions to the problem of the week using nothing but technobabble. To be fair, we know that the future shows will find a use for force fields, but Reed’s magical invention is brushed aside fairly quickly on Enterprise itself. Indeed, the ship’s brig still uses locks.

This is Travis' time to shine!

This is Travis’ time to shine!

That said, there are a number of nice touches to Vox Sola, even if they can’t redeem the episode. It’s nice to meet some crew outside the senior staff – even if characters like Rostov and Kelly don’t quite become regular fixtures on the show. Similarly, it’s nice that Vox Sola is framed as a horror story, only to morph into a first contact tale with a peaceful resolution. It turns out that it is possible to make contact with organisms that are so alien and so unique, and that it is possible to reason with them.

(This is quite effectively mirrored in the awkward – or, to quote Trip, “briefest” – first contact with the Kreetassans. The Kreetassans are horribly offended by something, but the crew can’t figure out what they are talking about. Eventually, it turns out that Kreetassan culture is offended by the sight of others eating. When Mayweather asks how they eat, the aliens responds, “We eat the same way, but not in the presence of others.” It’s a nice reminder at how strange other cultures must seem.)

This isn't quite what Archer signed up for...

This isn’t quite what Archer signed up for…

Still, Vox Sola can’t help but feel like a decidedly average hour of television, and another episode demonstrating late-season fatigue at the end of what has been a long and troubled first season.

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

3 Responses

  1. It’s troubling that Archer can only bother to be civil when it’s a “filler” episode.

    • Yep. I was watching the second season recently, and I was surprised at how much I liked Archer in Canamar. Again, it’s pure filler – but it’s an episode that seems to have a reasonable understanding of how Archer might work differently than his predecessors. Of course, that transitions right into The Crossing, where we’re back to “paranoid jerk” mode again.

  2. One of the problems this episode seemed to face was that the writers tried to give every member of the ensemble cast a scene of some sort. In TNG we more often saw an episode focus on 2-3 or even 1 of the characters, and then rotate around to give the whole cast some time through the season. One week would be a Wesley episode, another would focus on Data and Geordi, or Riker, or whatever.

    This enterprise episode included everyone, and so I had the sense the plug was pulled on the whole Trip bonding with Archer scene way too fast. Just as we are getting a glimpse into these two characters, the monster yanks us back to the plot, and then we have special moments where everyone gets to do their little bit to help out.

    I think they should have made Archer more physical. He plays waterpolo. That’s as rough a contact sport as rugby. He drink beer. Archer would literally be punching Trip in the shoulder and laughing. We see him almost do this in this episode, but you get the sense that the legacy of Picard looms over the show, and the need for some stoic vision of the captain. I think the whole episode should have focused on Archer and Trip and the aid of the other characters should have been pushed to background events. The water polo and Archer’s anger at his own failure should have taken up far more. We should have learned more about some of Archer’s past. Maybe he was penalized in water polo a lot for breaking rules. Trip seems to rip on California here too, which wouldn’t be a surprise, given his character’s backstory. They could have built that out as well.

    At least we don’t have scenes of people playing classical music in their quarters for once. That was massively over-used in TNG and Voyager. Travis should listen to alien hip-hop or house music smuggled from the Orian Syndicate. But that would have required them to have hired a composer.

    So many wasted opportunities. Ah well.

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