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Star Trek: Enterprise – Minefield (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 April, we’re doing the second season. Check back daily for the latest review.

Shuttlepod One worked very well in the first season, didn’t it?

The episode was one of the highlights of the first season, received very well by both the cast and fandom. So it makes sense to revisit that basic set-up early in the second season. This time it isn’t Malcolm Reed and Charles Tucker facing death in the cold void of space. Instead, Jonathan Archer and Malcolm Reed find themselves struggling with a mine as a countdown ticks away in the background. Facing all-but-certain death, characters are thrown into conflict with one another. Sparks fly, drama happens.

Let's go outside.

Let’s go outside.

To be fair, Minefield ups the stakes dramatically. It takes the same high-stakes characters-against-the-void drama that made Shuttlepod One such a success and then blends it with Star Trek: First Contact and throws the Romulans into the mix just two months before the release of Star Trek: Nemesis. It is very much a high-concept cocktail of episode, a show with a lot going on and a lot of focus in contrast to the more relaxed pace of something like Carbon Creek.

Minefield does feel a little bit too derivative and like it is promising something that never quite arrives. However, it is built around a very sound structure, makes good use of the special effects available for the show, and gives Scott Bakula and Dominic Keating a chance to play off one another. It offers a lot of promise for the second season, only to be retroactively tainted by the fact that the second season never delivers on any of these promises.

All I need is the air that I breath...

All I need is the air that I breath…

Reed is a pretty great character, if only because he was a wonderful air of mystery about him. Objectively, we don’t know too much more about Hoshi Sato or Travis Mayweather, but there’s something delightfully sly in Dominic Keating’s performance. Keating plays Reed so that it always seems like he’s working very hard to hide something, or as if he is the only person in the room who is in on a particular joke.

The series has capitalised on this before, leading to the inane “Malcolm likes pineapple” plot from Silent Enemy and the wonderful “British officer and Southern gentlemen get stuck in shuttlepod” culture clash in Shuttlepod One. Of the three supporting human players, Reed is the one who offers the most potential for drama or chemistry. In Shuttlepod One, he demonstrate remarkable chemistry with Trip. In Minefield, the show decides to go for broke and team him up with Archer.

Reed is ordered to order breakfast...

Reed is ordered to order breakfast…

The relationship between Reed and Archer is interesting. There’s always a sense that Reed might respect Archer on an official level, even if he has difficulties with his commander on a personal level. There were quite a few points in the first season where it seemed like Reed was being downright sassy in conversation with Archer – when he lamented the lack of a water polo pool in Strange New World or when he promised not to kill anything in Rogue Planet.

In Minefield, the writers run with that very low-key conflict by pushing it to the fore. Reed objects to Archer’s very personal command style. Archer is on first-name terms with his senior staff. He routine invites them to dine with him. He meddles in their personal lives. In Silent Enemy, he seems to think that Hoshi has nothing better to do than to figure out Malcolm’s favourite food. It’s an approach that is markedly different from that adopted by Kirk, Picard, Sisko or Janeway.

"Damn instructions are in Vulcan!"

“Damn instructions are in Vulcan!”

Kirk referred to most of his senior staff by their last names (or nicknames). Picard maintained a professional distance, preferring to serve as a mentor and authority figure to those under his command. Sisko would invite the crew around for dinner and play baseball, but he had very little patience for anybody questioning his decisions. Janeway’s approach varied from episode-to-episode. Early on, she was very remote, although the writers did occasionally try to write her as a mentor.

In contrast, Archer is very folksy. This makes a certain amount of sense. Scott Bakula is a charming actor, who works best when it comes to human interaction. Archer’s weakest moments are typically the “big” and “iconic” Star Trek moments, the ones that rely on Bakula to speechify or lecture. His “gazelle” speech at the end of Shockwave, Part II is a disaster. Bakula is most comfortable playing a nice guy, like the universe’s most chirpy neighbour. (And the later seasons work well by playing sharply off that.)

And the gloves are on...

And the gloves are on…

This makes a certain amount of sense. If Janeway was a scientist rather than a captain, Archer was a test pilot. The Enterprise is Archer’s first command, and there is very little indication that Archer has spent too much time at the top of the chain of command before the launch. As a pilot testing the new and advanced engines, Archer was likely quite disconnected from the practical issues of commanding a crew of dozens. It is perfectly reasonable that he would not fit the standard military mould.

That said, there is a bit of a problem here. Archer is a very personable captain, one who doesn’t maintain traditional professional distance from his crew. However, there is a reason why authority figures in high-risk situations tend to work at that distance. Professional distance is important when lives are at stake and when all of the crew might not make it home safely. However, Archer avoids any issue like that over the course of the first two seasons.

A bit of a fix...

A bit of a fix…

This is a problem that has haunted the series since early in the first season. Fight or Flight implicitly raised the issue when Archer made an ideological choice to do the right thing that put his crew at risk. Strange New World explicitly raised the issue when one of his crew was scrambled by travelling through the transporter. In both cases, Archer narrowly averted disaster. However, he didn’t seem affected by the stakes. He kept making the same sorts of choices, and the show kept letting him escape unscathed.

Minefield raises the issue explicitly. Trapped on the bulkhead by a mine, Reed is perfectly willing to sacrifice himself to save the crew. Early on, he even suggests amputation as a work-around. “What’s more important?” Reed asks. “My leg or your ship?” The choice may tough, but the answer is obvious. Instead, Archer spends most of the episode arguing against Reed and insisting that there is a way to save Reed, Reed’s leg, and the ship itself. It appears the mine is the only sacrifice Archer considers acceptable.

Suits him, eh?

Suits him, eh?

In a way, this is the same problem that Star Trek: Enterprise has faced from the first season. The audience knows that Reed is going to survive, because we know he’s in the credits. This is the same problem with Fight or Flight – which would have been a much stronger episode if it ended with the conclusion that Hoshi couldn’t cut it on the ship. If Minefield ended with Archer losing the first member of his crew, it would be a shockingly powerful episode.

The fact that nobody really knows Reed would make it all the more effective – Archer’s earlier attempt to awkwardly connect with Reed over breakfast would become tragic foreshadowing. The show was understandably reluctant to fall back on the classic Star Trek red shirt trope, treating crew members as expendable to prove how serious the threat of the week might be. However, the solution was not to ban all death entirely; the solution was to make each death weighty and significant.

Floating in a most peculiar way...

Floating in a most peculiar way…

But Enterprise is not that kind of show. Despite broadcasting at the start of the twenty-first century, the show is very conservative in narrative terms. Shows like E.R. and 24 were willing to kill of stars left, right and centre. Writer John Shiban, turning in his first script for the show, found this restrictive:

The writer went on to talk about the ways he’s had to adjust to writing for the more family orientated audience of Star Trek. “I won’t say there weren’t a couple of moments in our first two weeks – when Brannon Braga would say, ‘If this were X-Files, yes, we would kill this person.’,” he related. “As much as I love the Star Trek franchise and the Gene Roddenberry future, this is kind of a different animal, because it’s much more like the Mercury astronauts going out there. For me as a writer, it’s exciting to go in places where the characters don’t know what’s happening.”

Shiban is not alone in this regard. Writers like André Bormanis and Chris Black, along with actor John Billingsley, have all criticised the show’s willingness to play it safe during those first two seasons. The reluctance to put any body we know in any serious danger undermines the episode.

Reed hasn't got a leg to stand on...

Reed hasn’t got a leg to stand on…

Minefield is even explicit in how non-fatal this incident is. Despite a mine tearing through the hull and injuries to almost a quarter of the crew, we are assured that there were “no fatalities” once again. This is so important that the episode states it a couple of times. After Reed confirms no loss of life, Trip repeats it. “I’ve got one piece of good news. I did a head count. We didn’t lose anyone.” It is a strange fact to stress in an episode about heightening tension.

Indeed, this fixation on assuring the audience that “everything is okay” seems almost ironic in the wake of Shockwave, Part I. In that episode, thousands of colonists died as a result of a Suliban attack. However, Archer released Silik from his custody for no good reason. In fact, the second part of the two-parter glossed over this loss almost entirely. It seems that fatalities are only acceptable when they happen to anonymous strangers; and – in that case – they can happen on an almost impossible scale.

"Have you tried turning it off and back on?"

“Have you tried turning it off and back on?”

That said, it’s hard to complain too loudly. Minefield teases a number of interesting ideas. The most obvious is that it seems to hint at serialisation in a number of forms. Shiban credits this continuity to Brannon Braga – suggesting that Braga was the one who added the Romulans to the original idea and who insisted that the damage from Minefield should carry across into the next episode. These are both nice touches which hint at the idea that Enterprise might be trying to lean a little bit towards serialisation.

The Romulans are, after all, an iconic part of Star Trek lore. They first appeared in Balance of Terror, an early first season episode. That episode revealed that the Romulans had waged a war against Earth that had taken a hefty toll on both sides. As such, the appearance of the Romulans in Minefield seems to suggest that perhaps they might become a recurring foe for the series. They were dutifully teased in Shockwave, Part II, in a reference significant enough that Archer acknowledges it here.

Keeping a lid on it...

Keeping a lid on it…

To be entirely fair to Braga, the inclusion of the Romulans is a nice nod to the wider Star Trek continuity. Enterprise drew considerable criticism from certain aspects of fandom for either messing up established continuity or avoiding it completely. Minefield does pay attention to a lot of the Star Trek lore that came before it. For example, the episode does not feature any visual communications with the Romulans, so as to preserve the twist in Balance of Terror.

Of course, despite Braga’s assurances that the episode’s continuity would be “airtight”, Minefield ended up with its own continuity errors. The episode features Romulan ships using cloaking technology, when the cloak was apparently a new invention in Balance of Terror. It’s not a seismic gaff, but it should have been caught at some point in the process – after all, the cloaking devices on the ships are not actually necessary to the plot of the episode itself. Still, while it is definitely an error, it is not the end of the world.

He has fallen and he cannot get up...

He has fallen and he cannot get up…

As with the mention of the Federation in Shockwave, Part II, it seems like the series is hinting at a larger story arc about the founding of the Federation. This would be a step in the right direction. Although the first season had several strands of continuity running through it, it seemed like there was no larger plan for it all. In an era where even network television was embracing arc-based storytelling and serialisation, it seemed like Enterprise was lagging behind.

So there were some promising steps made towards the end of the first season and into the start of the second. Behind the scenes, the show had hired writer John Shiban, best known for his work on The X-Files – a series that pioneered arc-based storytelling on network television. Sure, Shiban is no Vince Gilligan or James Wong or Glen Morgan or Howard Gordon. Shiban is not one of the top-tier writers from The X-Files. However, he was involved in the show’s mythology arc.

"Thattaway..."

“Thattaway…”

In front of the camera, the second half of the first season had tentatively played with serialisation and stories that spilled across multiple episodes. Shadows of P’Jem followed on from The Andorian Incident. Fallen Hero and Desert Crossing featured the crew heading to Risa, a trip leading to Two Days and Two Nights. Episodes like Desert Crossing and Two Days and Two Nights followed on from the events of Detained. These weren’t big steps, but they were moving in the right direction.

Minefield looks like the show might be continuing in the right direction. It is written by a writer familiar with serialised arcs, introduces a race that will become important later on and damages the ship in a way that doesn’t magically repair between episodes. Even David Bell’s score seems to evoke the arc-based Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Unfortunately, Minefield seems to have been something of a false start. The second season is ultimately considerably more episodic and formulaic than the first.

"Cut the red one! It's always the red one!"

“Cut the red one! It’s always the red one!”

There is only a single Andorian episode in Cease Fire, despite the fact that the first season had two. Outside of the premiere and finalé, there is only one Temporal Cold War War episode in Future Tense. There is a minor arc involving the Klingons that runs through Judgement, Bounty and The Expanse, but it feels superficial at best. The connection between Minefield and Dead Stop is the strongest connection that exists between any two episodes of the season.

Perhaps this should not be a surprise, and had in fact been attended all along. John Billingsley stated in interviews that the Romulans were unlikely to become a recurring threat like the Klingons had been. Brannon Braga described the inclusion of the Romulans in Minefield as “synergy” with Star Trek: Nemesis, the feature film that was due for release a few months later. After all, it makes sense to do some small manner of cross-promotion, even if the time difference in-universe makes it difficult.

I am disappointed neither Reed nor Archer try to ride the explosion like a wave...

I am disappointed neither Reed nor Archer try to ride the explosion like a wave…

Braga remarked that writer John Logan was perhaps interested in writing a Romulan episode for Enterprise, but also admitted, “I think you’ve for to be real careful about going back to the old guys too much, because it looks like you’re desperate.” It is also quite possible that things could have been very different had Nemesis turned out to be a box office hit on release in December 2002. Had the movie featuring the Romulans been a success, the team may have been more eager to port them to the show.

After all, things were changing at UPN. A management re-shuffle had taken effect in early 2002. Former chairman of the Paramount Television Group Kerry McCluggage had been forced to stand down to save Paramount as much as $30m a year. McCluggage has been described as “a strong supporter of the franchise.” In contrast, McCluggage was replaces by Les Moonves. Moonves has been described as a man “who hates all things sci-fi.”

Communications are... unconscious...

Communications are… unconscious…

All of a sudden, the production team on Enterprise found themselves dealing with a new UPN management team that did not understand Star Trek. Producer Rick Berman shared a particularly funny anecdote in In Conversation:

That’s one of my favourite stories. We were pitching a story. Again, I won’t mention any names. But we’re dealing with one of the highest ranking people at this network. We’re explaining how we’re writing an episode where there’s a fire out on the hull and the guys have to get into space suits and go out on the hull of the ship and they go across the hull and put the fire out and one of them… da da da da da… And there’s like five of ’em sitting around a table, they’re all nodding and going “that’s great.” And this one person in question – one of the highest, if not the highest, ranking person person in the room – said, “I just have one question: what’s a hull?”

This was another example of the franchise’s falling cache with the network and the studio. The declining ratings and the box office failure of Nemesis were just nails in the coffin.

Enemy mine...

Enemy mine…

There was change in the air around Enterprise. Going into the second season, star Scott Bakula was already getting a bit skittish on the idea that Enterprise had “seven years guaranteed.” Even this early in the show’s run, the cracks were becoming visible. In a way, Minefield serves as something of a crossroads for the show. It’s an obvious point where Enterprise might have branched off and become something radically different; however, the show fell back into its familiar routine rather quickly.

Still, it is perhaps a bit too much to criticise Minefield for the fact that it didn’t represent a bold new direction for the series. It is not John Shiban’s fault that that show never opted to follow up on the plot points seeded here. The Romulans would not appear until the fourth season of the show, where it seemed like Enterprise made a genuine effort to build them up as a legitimate threat to Starfleet and the surrounding galactic powers.

"It's the Hugo nominations. Suck it, Voyager!"

“It’s the Hugo nominations. Suck it, Voyager!”

Minefield is also interesting for its focus on the use of mines. Although mines have a long history of use in warfare, dating back to at least the American Civil War, there had been considerable debate generated about their use in the nineties. During the nineties, the Internation Campaign to Ban Landmines made considerable progress in turning public opinion against landmines:

The ICBL was able to successfully utilize symbolic politics in innovative and powerful ways to achieve their goal. As mentioned previously, the ICBL was able to shape public perceptions of the issue and frame it as a global crisis in need of an immediate solution. By highlighting the disastrous effects of mines, the ICBL was able to induce the Nobel Committee to recognize the causes importance and award the Nobel Peace Prize to ICBL leader Jody Williams on November 10, 1997. Like in the indigenous rights movement earlier that decade, the symbolic effect of this act had ripples far beyond the immediate award. In the months that followed, several key states unilaterally accepted the ICBL’s call for abolishing mines as “resistance signaled outlier status” and “reputational pressures overcame their resistance to an immediate comprehensive ban.”

In 1997, the use of landmines became a domestic politics issue in both England and France. The United States’ refusal to sign the Ottawa Treaty based on a refusal to provide an exemption for the Korean DMZ has also become a high-profile political issue.

I hope there isn't a Trip wire out there...

I hope there isn’t a Trip wire out there…

Of course, Deep Space Nine had explored the use of mines in warfare before. In A Call to Arms, mines were deployed by the Federation to prevent Dominion reinforcements from simply swarming through the wormhole. However, Minefield feels a bit more engaged with the idea of mines as a weapon of warfare. The idea of the Enterprise stumbling across an old minefield and encountering the power of the weapons first hand feels like a nice subtle way for Star Trek to engage with a political issue.

It’s also worth noting that the production on Minefield is quite impressive. This is an episode that probably could not have been done on any of the earlier spin-offs. The idea of doing an episode on the hull feels like a shout-out to the most memorable action sequence from First Contact, a scene where Picard, Worf and Hawk tried to take back the deflector dish from the invading Borg drones. It worked very well there, so it makes sense to try something similar within the framework of Enterprise.

"Well, there goes the no claims bonus..."

“Well, there goes the no claims bonus…”

After all, First Contact is the big cinematic success of the Berman era. It is the best-loved film starring the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Although it earns that title by default, it is an entertaining and engaging movie in its own right. It is well-loved, and is one of the last pieces of Star Trek from the Berman era to make a significant impact on popular culture as a whole, rather than simply within fandom.

Rick Berman has cited First Contact as a heavy influence on Enterprise, although that would seem quite clear. First Contact star James Cromwell passed the baton to the crew in Broken Bow. The Borg from First Contact appear in Regeneration. The plot from Carbon Creek makes detailed reference to the events of First Contact. The teaser for In a Mirror, Darkly riffs on that wonderful climactic scene. even the design of Archer’s Enterprise owes a clear and conscious debt to the design of Picard’s second Enterprise.

He hasn't got a leg to stand on...

He hasn’t got a leg to stand on…

Still, even if it does seem like a homage, the idea of trapping Reed on the hull of the Enterprise makes for a pretty effective high-stakes thriller and a wonderful example of the sorts of horrors that could be awaiting Archer and his crew in space. While the first two seasons suffered from a reluctance to have Archer confront those potential horrors, Minefield deserves some credit for at least broaching the topic.

The episode’s production design is also noteworthy. It is easy to take the level of skill and craft that goes into an episode of Star Trek for granted. Minefield looks quite wonderful. While the work on the hull is very effective, it’s the small touches inside the ship that stand out. It does seem like Enterprise has been seriously damaged by the mine detonation. In particular, the make-up and costume work on Connor Trinneer deserves special mention, making it look like Trip has been up for days.

"There is a helpline on the mine, but it's a 1-800 number." "Screw that, we'll do it ourselves."

“There is a helpline on the mine, but it’s a 1-800 number.”
“Screw that, we’ll do it ourselves.”

Minefield might be just a little bit too derivative for its own good. It very much feels like the show is trying to capture a lot of what worked with Shuttlepod One and First Contact while trying to tie into Nemesis just to top it all off. However, there’s an endearing efficiency to the story, and the episode capitalises on all of its intriguing ingredients.

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

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2 Responses

  1. This episode was well made in many ways, but their refusal to ever kill anyone, ever is really undermining things.

    Have you read Larry Niven’s Ringworld series? I thought Jim Kirk was a lucky bastard until I met Jonathan Archer. Archer’s lack of willingness to make hard decisions, his insistence on having it all, should come back to bite him, BIGtime. He SHOULD realize that making hard decisions is the captain’s freaking JOB. But no, the script writers magically make everything work out okay for him, so much that I figure Archer must be Teela Brown’s son.

    (If you haven’t read Niven, people on his Earth have a legal limit on the number of children they may have, but there’s a lottery for exceptions. Teela Brown is the sixth-generation child of that lottery; the lottery has effectively bred humans for LUCK, and Teela Brown has such strong luck that the universe ties itself in knots rather than cross her. It seems as if the universe is rolling over for Archer in the same way.)

    I really want to send Archer forward in time, let him watch Kirk make difficult decisions, let him see Kirk let the woman he loves be killed in a car accident because sometimes you DO have to give something up for the greater good. Geeze Louise.

    I mean, I do like happy endings; I’m not one of those people who think that only darkness is authentic or realistic and crap like that. But an earned happy ending is so much more satisfying than one where luck just magically smooths the obstacles away.

    • Yep. It’s astounding to think that Enterprise gets as far as it does without killing anybody, even a supporting cast member. In some ways, it’s commendable. But it also feels very much like the show is waiting for a train that never arrives. I think back in Fight or Flight, I argued that the show would have been a lot stronger if it had been willing to send Hoshi home at the end of the episode, acknowledging that she didn’t have what it takes to be out there. I like Hoshi, but there does need to be a sense of stakes to the drama, and Enterprise simply doesn’t have it to this point.

      (That said, I’m actually quite fond of Minefield, if only because I really like Malcolm Reed’s interactions with Archer, which seem to be constant (usually sarcastic) befuddlement at how Archer ever ended up in a command position. “No, I can’t say I do watch water polo.” “Of course sir, I’ll promise not to kill anything.”)

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