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Star Trek: Enterprise – Season 1 (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.

The first season of Star Trek: Enterprise is caught at a crossroads.

On the hand, it needs to be something new and exciting. The first Star Trek show of the new millennium, Enterprise has to find a way of updating the franchise and pushing forward. It has to find a way to challenge audience expectations and demonstrate that – after fourteen consecutive years and twenty-one overlapping seasons – Star Trek still has something fresh and exciting to offer fans. After all, the television landscape had changed significantly since the late eighties. It was time for Star Trek to change with it.

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On the other hand, there’s a clear desire to seek familiar comforts. Star Trek has been on the air consistently for over a decade now. That wouldn’t be the case if the franchise didn’t have its own merits. There’s a sense that the first season of Enterprise is drawn to the idea that it can keep doing what worked before, offering generic Star Trek stories with a new cast and a new theme tune. This is still Star Trek, after all. There’s nothing gained by changing it to the point where it is unrecognisable.

Throughout the first season, these two impulses seem to be at odds with one another, leading to a surreal sense of whiplash. Episodes that feel as unique as Breaking the Ice, Dear Doctor or Shuttlepod One sit alongside generic shows like Civilisation, Sleeping Dogs or Rogue Planet. The show frequently pushes itself in interesting directions, only to pull relent as it approaches the point of committal. The result is a first season that is uneven, but intriguing, one that has great potential – if not necessarily the will to fulfill it.

ent-shockwavepart1mTo be fair, this is what first seasons are for. Both Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager faced the same conflict in their first seasons – whether to find their own voices or simply try to emulate Star Trek: The Next Generation. Despite some initial hiccups, the second half of the first season of Deep Space Nine managed to carve out a niche for itself. However, once Michael Piller departed half-way through the first season of Voyager, the show settled into a routine of producing generic Star Trek plots.

So Enterprise‘s crisis of identity is neither unprecedented nor unexpected. However, there is a sense that it is slightly more important for Enterprise than it was for Deep Space Nine or Voyager. For one thing, the show had inherited the declining ratings from Deep Space Nine and Voyager, with a sense that Star Trek was rapidly losing ground in the television market place. The stakes were a lot higher than they had been before.

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There were also larger forces at play. By 2001, television was on the cusp of a revolution. Shows like Oz, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, The X-Files and The Sopranos had demonstrated that audiences were looking for more than simple episodic plotting. In many respects, Deep Space Nine had been ahead of the curve when it came to long-form plotting and serialisation. The revolution would kick into full swing in 2002 with the launch of The Shield and The Wire, solidifying the sense that television had entered a new “Golden Age.”

For context, Enterprise launched opposite 24, a show that found an audience by embracing the serialisation and engaging with the national mood. 24 enjoyed eight seasons on television, before Fox tried to transition it into a movie franchise. When this didn’t quite materialise, the studio managed to bring it back to television for a successful miniseries four years off the air. In contrast, Enterprise ran four seasons before a reboot of the Star Trek franchise with the original cast.

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So much of Enterprise feels decidedly old-school. The first season of the show seems extremely conservative when it comes to narrative. Plots are confined to the forty-five minute episodes. Character arcs and plot threads are rarely carried over. There are minimal teething problems. Despite a rushed launch in Broken Bow, the ship itself is happily cruising through the cosmos by the end of Fight or Flight, falling into the weekly episodic space adventure structure you’d expect from Star Trek.

When Hoshi has a crisis of confidence in Fight or Flight, it is resolved within the episode. It isn’t carried over into the next couple of shows. Naturally, it ends with Hoshi getting over her trepidations in forty-five minutes, which feels a little trite. Enterprise isn’t a show adventurous enough to send a primary cast member home as a failure in the second episode, so the happy ending is all but assured – creating a sense that there are absolutely no stakes.

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Similarly, the first season of Enterprise carefully and meticulously avoids any crew casualties. A death of a crew member had been considered in Strange New World, but it was removed because the writers acknowledged that there was no room to deal with the death. While this is a very self-aware decision from the production team, they ignore the obvious solution – kill the character off and deal with the fallout properly over the next couple of shows. Instead, the production team allow the show’s episodic structure to hinder its storytelling.

This lack of a willingness to plot character beats across episodes – rather than simply inside individual episodes – is particularly frustrating. While Hoshi confronts her own insecurities and deals with them in Fight or Flight, she essentially has play out the same character arc in Sleeping Dogs. It feels like Archer confronts the same flaws over-and-over again, without making any significant progress. Archer never feels like he’s growing, so much as caught in a loop.

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Early episodes like Terra Nova and Broken Bow reveal that Archer is human-centric and borderline racist. He is forced to accept assistance from the Vulcans at the climax of Breaking the Ice, in a moment that should represent significant character growth. Unfortunately, he’s right back to the same routine in episodes like Fallen Hero or even Detained, which are also about teaching Archer to be less racist in his dealings with other species.

These problems are compounded by the fact that the series is completely unwilling to let Archer fail. He makes a number of bad decisions throughout the season, but always manages to scrape by without any real cost. He tangles with a more powerful enemy in Fight or Flight, only to be saved at the last minute by a convenient arrival of an alien species. He sends an away team down unprepared to a planet in Strange New World, where everybody narrowly avoids killing each other.

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That’s part of what is so fascinating about Shockwave, Part I. It’s an episode that acknowledges the possibility that the crew could make mistakes that will have serious consequences. Of course, they aren’t responsible for thousands of deaths, but it does reinforce the sense that risk is their business. Even then, it is softened by the fact that we know that the show would never have the crew responsible for such a massive loss. A middle-ground would be nice though – allowing Archer to confront the level at which his crew are competing.

Similarly, the show seems afraid to end on anything that might be considered an unhappy note – leaving the audience contemplating the decisions that Archer is facing on a weekly basis. The original ending of Dear Doctor featured Archer and Phlox disagreeing over the episode’s central moral, a decision that would have greatly enhanced the story. Desert Crossing ends with Zobral quite accepting of the fact that Archer has essentially doomed his people.

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It should be noted that these problems cannot be laid squarely at the feet of producers Rick Berman and Brannon Braga. Their plans for the first season of Enterprise were much more ambitious than what was eventually broadcast. The network and the studio wanted something more traditional. It’s impossible to say that Berman and Braga’s vision would have been stronger, but it’s also unreasonable to blame them for all the problems with the show in this iteration.

It is also worth noting that the show did play around with aspects of continuity. References to early episodes are quite common, creating a sense that there is some flow from story to story. Oasis makes passing reference to Unexpected. Desert Crossing contains a conversation about the events of Silent Enemy. The crew set a course for Risa in Fallen Hero, but only arrive there in Two Days and Two Nights, after spending a few episodes in transit. They aren’t much, but they are a step in the right direction.

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The show occasionally goes a bit further. Shadows of P’Jem acknowledges the consequences of Archer’s decision at the end of The Andorian Incident, even if it feels somewhat delayed. The events of Detained ripple through the tail end of the season. The show avoids the more interesting questions raised by the episode – what happens to the Suliban? what about the other camps? does this escalate the conflict? – in favour of broader philosophical issues.

It is nice that Archer’s decision does come back to haunt him, even if never feels like he deals with the direct repercussions. This is a first season, there is room for growth. It’s more about marking out territory and providing room for the show to grow and develop. There are more than a few aspects of Enterprise that suggest the show could grow into something very unique and very interesting, even if the show isn’t ready to commit to them immediately. Deep Space Nine and The Next Generation took time to find their feet.

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There are a rake of episodes that offer a glimpse at a different type of Star Trek. Breaking the Ice may not be perfect, but its a more relaxed and luxuriously paced Star Trek show than we’ve seen in quite a while. It gives a sense of the majesty of outer space, with the crew discovering a comment and taking the time to answer letters from home. It hints at a more character-based Star Trek show, along with other episodes like Dear Doctor and Shuttlepod One. Some of the stronger parts of Cold Front had nothing to do with time travel.

Of course, the production of the first season was quite troubled. Brannon Braga brought over a few established Star Trek writers from Voyager, recruiting Mike Sussman, Phyllis Strong and André Bormanis to work on the show. However, he also made a serious attempt to recruit outside writers to the show – writers like Fred Dekker, James Duff, Antoinette Stella and the Jacquemettons. This isn’t a bad approach. The Jacquemettons worked on Mad Men, Fred Dekker wrote and directed Monster Squad and James Duff created The Closer.

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However, it was an approach that created a lot of work. It became clear that some of the writers were having difficulty pitching a Star Trek story at the right level.  Braga has remarked that he had to re-write every single script from the first season. Most of the staff were gone by the start of the second season. Chris Black was the only new writer to survive, joining the season past the half-way point and writing three episodes in the last third of the year. (For comparison, Dekker and the Jacquemettons wrote three each for the entire season.)

Still, despite the difficulties presented, it is a shame that the changeover was so complete and so absolute. The Jacquemettons may have written Acquisition, one of the season’s clunkers, but Breaking the Ice and Dear Doctor suggest they could have grown if given more time. Having learned a lesson about drawing in writers from outside genre television, it seems like Braga’s future picks for the writing team were a tad more conservative. David A. Goodman, John Shiban and Chris Black all had experience in what might be described as science-fiction television.

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This would result in a second season that was a lot more conservative in terms of storytelling and plotting – produced by a bunch of writers who knew Star Trek and who knew science-fiction, and were capable of crafting functional stories the checked the right boxes. The result was one of the most bland seasons of Star Trek ever produced, and which moved away from the more ambitious aspects of the first season in favour of the more conservative elements.

The result was more episodes like Rogue Planet, Sleeping Dogs or Civilisation – stories that felt like generic Star Trek, rather than shows native to Enterprise. These were stories that could have been produced for Voyager with a minimum of change. They were perfectly functional and didn’t rank with the worst of the season, but were also completely uninteresting and quite indistinct. A few years after the show went off the air, they blur into fuzzy recollections of plot points and visual design.

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The show rather quickly moves past the idea of space as something mysterious and unknown, brushing against the familiar. That narrative impulse is at work in the first season, existing at odds with the more ambitious attempts to tell different types of stories. The novel is brushed aside in favour of the familiar. We get one episode about the intriguing “boomer” subculture, Fortunate Son. In contrast, we get three episodes featuring Klingons. The show does little to flesh out the Suliban as a culture, but there is time for a trip to Risa in Two Days and Two Nights.

Despite its eagerness to get away from the hyper-advanced trappings of the later Star Trek shows, Enterprise can’t seem to wait to reintroduce many of the familiar and tired Star Trek clichés. We get de facto cloaking devices in Unexpected and Shockwave, Part I. Trip encounters a holodeck in Unexpected. Malcolm invents a force field in Vox Sola. Although the show has generally steered clear of techno-babble solutions, it is weird how the show fetishises Star Trek technology.

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This suggest confusion about how Enterprise approaches the idea of being a prequel. The lure of a Star Trek prequel should not be technological. Why should the audience care who invents a magical piece of future tech or be impressed by the early reveal of a gimmick with which they are already familiar? If anything, this reinforces the franchise’s undertones of technological determinism – creating a sense that Star Trek isn’t so much the story of how mankind built a better future as much as how mankind discovered the replicator, which made a better future.

The appeal of a Star Trek prequel should be able mankind learning to take their place in the stars, confronting problems and issues that force them to re-evaluate their positions, opening them up to new worlds and new philosophies. It should be about building a better future, not about building technology that we recognise from other depictions of a better future. Continuity should exist as a means to this end, not an end of itself. (Which is why it’s very hard to get too bothered about the minor continuity glitches here and there.)

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When continuity becomes the primary focus of a story, you end up with something like Acquisition – a show self-consciously skirting established continuity rather than telling a good story. Shadows of P’Jem doesn’t work because it foreshadows the founding of the Federation, a cornerstone of Star Trek continuity. It works because it suggests that things cannot go on as they are and that there must be a better way forward.

Perhaps this all sounds a little overly-critical. The first season of Enterprise isn’t bad. It’s not great, but – taken as a whole – it’s not a bad year of television. It features some stinkers, but also some interesting experiments. But that’s to be expected. A first season of a Star Trek spin-off isn’t necessarily about hitting a high level of quality – it’s about finding an identity for the show. Besides, any season that produces Shuttlepod One must be doing something right.

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To its credit, Enterprise tries a host of interesting things. It doesn’t always follow through as well as one might hope, but it does try. Some of them work very well, some of them fail spectacularly. However, it’s still much more ambitious that Voyager, and there’s a sense the production team are genuinely trying. Even acknowledging the traditionalism and conservatism at work, pulling the show back towards “generic Star Trek”, this is more ambitious than any first season of any Star Trek spin-off – including The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine.

It’s just a question of whether the show will continue to push and develop those interesting strands, or fall back into familiar routines and patterns.

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

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19 Responses

  1. I would be cool if in every tv show season review you listed your top 5 or top 10 episodes for it.

    • Yep. I was thinking something like that. Thinking about putting together a list in order of preference for every Star Trek production of the fiftieth. It would be fun, but insane.

      • That would be very cool!

        I think it might make more sense to rank-order the episodes within series, rather than across series, though. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy deal with a different galaxy than the one Picard and Riker have, and things that are good policy for 23rd-century conditions would be bad policy for 24th-century conditions, and vice versa. (Or, if you prefer, stories that would get past the censors and would appeal to the audience in 1967 are different from the stories that could get past the censors and appeal to the audience in 1987. :-D)

        But whether you choose to rank order the episodes within series or overall, it would be an interesting exercise for you and interesting reading for us, your faithful followers. 😉

      • Ha! Maybe. I think when I’m finished.

        That said, you seem to suggest that ranking them altogether would put TOS at a disadvantage, but I suspect that there’d be a very high concentration TOS episodes (particularly late season one) in my top fifty for the franchise overall. In fact, probably in my top ten. (Ironically, the shows that would fare least well in such a ranking would likely be the two most modern ones, Enterprise and Voyager.)

  2. Horrifyingly my favorite season of 24 (s.5) matches the Xindi arc almost perfectly. ENT could haved used more Jean Smart, in my opinion.

    • Everything could use more Jean Smart.

      I adore the fifth season of 24. It’s probably my second favourite, after the first. (Although I like the first sixteen or so hours of the second as well.)

  3. A fair and thoughtful review.

    I think shows like ’24’ and ‘The Wire’ often derive more credit than they deserve in being innovative because they exist outside the dreaded fantasy/sci-fi ghetto. The 1990s was full of shows that developed the idea of myth arcs (‘The X-Files’), seasonal arcs (‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’) and both (‘Babylon 5′) that non-genre shows of the 2000s owe a strong debt to – ’24’ in particular, beneath it’s ripped from the headlines gimmick, had a lot of structural dna from Joss Whedon’s programmes.

    ‘Enterprise’ felt old fashioned next to mainstream television. Next to genre shows it felt archaic. That isn’t to say a lot of individual episodes weren’t a lot of fun and the show a pleasure to watch, it just meant that it lagged very far behind even when it was brand new.

    In fact I wonder if ‘Deep Space Nine’ was not much ahead of its time, as very much in touch with genre television of the 1990s. It was ‘Voyager’, and later ‘Enterprise’ that were the ones out of step.

    • That’s a fair point.

      I was rewatching some of the “final chapter” last week and it is amazing how shoddily some of it is structured by today’s standards. That’s not a knock on the show, just an observation about how primitive and alien that form of television plotting must have seemed to those writers at that point in time. I don’t think that DS9 was a television milestone, because it didn’t have the cultural reach to be, and I don;t think it was anywhere near the first show to do that sort of plotting (Homicide is typically treated as ground zero), but I do think it was probably a little bit ahead of the curve for a show of its genre, pedigree and profile.

      But yep, Enterprise was really stale in its first two years. You can see attempts to try and remedy that, like trying to start a speed boat engine, but it never quite gets going.

      • I don’t know, I still think the sci-fi and fantasy shows were by and large swimming the same way ‘Deep Space Nine’ was at the same time; even ‘Charmed’ was running seasonal arcs by the close of the 90s. It certainly was not unique to speculative fiction shows and didn’t really start there but I think it dominated those genres earlier and to a greater extent than mainstream television.

        Oddly ‘Homicide’, though as you say very influential, belongs to a very conservative genre in this regard; the massively popular ‘Law & Order’ franchises were running unrelated criminal of the week storylines deep into the current decade for instance.

      • Yep. Fair point. And that’s to say nothing of Babylon 5. But it is worth remembering (as strange as it seems) that DS9 wrapped up in early 1999. So while I don’t think it can claim to be first (or one of the first) I still think it’s an early adapter. It is, I think ironically, the last Star Trek show that could have gotten away with episodic storytelling without feeling old or tired.

  4. How you see Enterprise being close related to the new 2017 Star Trek series?

    • To be honest? Minimally.

      I suspect that the decision to do another prequel to Star Trek, but one unrelated to the last attempt, is very much an acknowledgement that Enterprise didn’t work. And I think that’s underscored by positioning Discovery MUCH closer to TOS than to Enterprise.

      (Indeed, my pet theory about doing the prequel is that it allows Fuller to do a show without worrying about the branching continuity created by the Abrams films. Sure, fans know it’s set in the “Prime” timeline, but the fact that it takes place before Star Trek (2009) means that there will be minimal functional differences between the two timelines. So it’ll be accessible to fans of the new movies as much as classic fans. If Fuller did it later in the timeline, he’d have to spend a lot of time explaining how it did/didn’t match up with the new movies.)

      Then again, I never thought I’d hear the word “Xindi” ever again, so I could very well be wrong.

      • Heh, that’s an interesting observation. Doing an “interquel” between Enterprise and TOS is essentially trying to do a prequel again, but not in some distant time period thats unfamiliar so not a prequel to the entire universe of Trek but really to a specific show and set of characters. I wonder if they’ll pull it off. I hope it’s more like “prime” Trek (and given whos behind it, I strongly suspect it will be, which leaves me excited for the show) as I don’t want a Hollywood action show, but that’s just me. I also would have suspected that the show would never even acknowledge Enterprise and pretend it doesn’t exist, but given the fact that Abrams Trek not only doesn’t do this but actually embraces Enterprise, probably not. I mean, Andorians are coming back, and while a TOS invention, I’m sure their far greater amount of appearances on Enterprise influenced that decision.

        Btw, what do you think Enterprise actually got right, and do you think it did anything better than the other shows? Do you think it will be re-evaluated or will it always be remembered as the crappy spin-off that couldn’t?

      • Well, it’ll always be a failure. It’ll always be the show that killed the nineties iteration of Star Trek. Whether or not that’s fair, or whether or not that would have happened regardless of the show’s quality, that’s how it’ll be remembered.

        But I do think that a more nuanced attitude is emerging. There are fans who like the show attending conventions, particularly in Europe. There are references to it in blockbuster films. I don’t think it’ll ever attract the response that Deep Space Nine has, where it has attracted a hardcore groups of fans and a cultural niche among a certain brand of pop cultural historians in the years since it went off the air. But I would hope it’ll be more fondly remembered than Voyager.

      • I assume by that you don’t think it did anything well 😛

  5. Good write up. I gotta say, though it was far from perfect and in no way great tv on the whole I dug this season. Probably the second best of Trek’s first seasons, behind the original of course.

    • Thanks!

      Yeah, I mean, I have a soft spot for it. But be warned, the second season of Enterprise “broke” me. It was the season I stopped watching Star Trek live. It is a slog. Particularly in the middle, when it’s just dull. The final stretch at least has a bit more energy as it swings to extremes.

      • Funny – it was the same with me. I was around 16 at the time the 2nd season aired in Germany and just stopped watching it from one day to another. It did not feel worth it. Interestingly, nowadays I seriously enjoy Enterprise, despite its many flaws. Maybe it is a bit of nostalgia, but at least it helps you see things in a more nuanced way than from the overly contemporary perspetive.

      • Yeah. I mean, Enterprise is at least more interesting than Voyager, even if it only really gets good in its final two years.

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