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Star Trek: Enterprise – Dead Stop (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.

Dead Stop is an interesting beast.

One of the stronger episodes from the second season of Star Trek: Enterprise, Dead Stop follows on directly from the events of the previous episode without serving as a direct continuation. It is very rare to see this approach taken on Star Trek, and it’s the perfect example of the sort of episode-to-episode connections that were lacking during the show’s first two seasons. Dead Stop is not a direct follow-on to Minefield, but it is fascinated with the fallout from that episode.

A model ship...

A model ship…

And yet, despite this, Dead Stop is also based around one of the most generic premises imaginable – a sentient space station with a sinister agenda. With a few choice edits, the premise could easily be adapted for Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Voyager. Indeed, it’s not too difficult to imagine Kirk and Spock dealing with the rogue space station at some point during their five year mission. It is a story that could – in broad strokes – even work for a television anthology series.

The beauty of Dead Stop is the way that it blends these two conflicting elements together, to construct a show that feels like it showcases the best parts of Enterprise while working from a core story that could be told across the franchise.

Piecing it together...

Piecing it together…

Re-watching Enterprise all these years later, the show feels decidedly old-fashioned. Although it was produced in the early years of the twenty-first century, it feels like a product of the nineties; not in terms of production value or special effects, but in terms of writing and plotting and pacing. The first two seasons of Enterprise all feel like a very traditional style of television. Lots of done-in-one stories with clear resolutions, a core cast that is always safe, relaxed pacing and minimal continuity between shows.

For the first two seasons, it felt like Enterprise was being produced for the syndication television market of the nineties. The idea seemed to be to do stories featuring the same cast that could be shuffled around in broadcast order, and did not require too much audience loyalty to follow. Enterprise may have featured a little more titillation, and some minor swearing, but it was not a radical departure from what came before. This was not Star Trek blazing a trail. This was Star Trek playing it safe.

Archer's dogged determination to repair his ship...

Archer’s dogged determination to repair his ship…

In hindsight, this is one of the weaknesses of the first and second seasons. Everything feels like it’s a little cookie-cutter and conventional and overly familiar. After The Next Generation and Voyager, audiences have had fourteen years of “starship encounters a problem that is fixed in forty-five minutes, unless it’s a two-parter.” Television had been saturated by forty-five minute science-fiction adventure shows in the wake of The Next Generation, so the template felt tired.

And yet, the template itself wasn’t really the problem. For all that serialisation has become popular and the hallmark of “mature” and “developed” drama, there is something quite appealing about a show that the user can drop into and out of at will – something that does not require a “have to see every episode in order” level of devotion from a viewer. There is something quite appealing about a forty-five minutes of television that the viewer can simply watch without committing to another twelve or more episodes.

Ship shape, eh?

Ship shape, eh?

This isn’t to dismiss arguments about the show’s conservative approach to narrative. While Dead Stop demonstrates that the traditional approach to telling Star Trek stories could still work, the episode running through the middle of the season demonstrate that it was not working consistently. If a certain approach to television can only produce a handful of great episodes of television a year, it is definitely worth examining that approach.

Even if the formula were working consistently, it is never a bad idea to try new things or experiment; it feels as though some of the fatigue during the second season of Enterprise was due to the fact that writers were beating well-worn paths within familiar boundaries. Writers like Brannon Braga and Chris Black and André Bormanis have all expressed frustration at being hemmed in by a particular style of Star Trek.

"Warning. Unsafe phaser usage will void warranty."

“Warning. Unsafe phaser usage will void warranty.”

Still, there is room for well-told stories that are reasonably self-contained and not simply a piece of a much larger puzzle. While it is perfectly valid to criticise Voyager for never really trying to find its own voice, the show did produce some wonderful stand-alone episodes of science-fiction. Stories like Counterpoint or Nemesis or The Blink of an Eye easily compare to the best in the franchise. The problem was that the show was not consistently hitting that level of quality.

The Next Generation managed seven seasons of this sort of storytelling, but the middle four seasons were packed with stories that were of a consistently high quality.While there are legitimate discussions to be had about the evolution of television as a medium, and whether Star Trek was keeping pace, there is also an argument to be made of the quality of the stand-alone stories that the franchise was producing.

Phlox gets his Scully on...

Phlox gets his Scully on…

If the first two seasons of Enterprise had consistently produced episodes on par with Dead Stop or Cogenitor, critical and fan reaction to the show would likely have been very different. The second season of Enterprise is perhaps the most exhausting season of Star Trek ever produced, and not because any of it is particularly terrible. Certainly, the first two years of The Next Generation are much worse in terms of quality from episode to episode.

The problem with the second season is that the high points seem to be scattered at opposite ends of the season, producing a long and exhausting and generic middle section. The quality is more mediocre than particularly good or particularly bad, which is arguably a bigger problem than being terrible outright. At least there is some form of perverse pleasure to be had trawling through the first two years of The Next Generation. There is also a clear sense of direction, which is lacking from this second season.

Okay Computer.

Okay Computer.

Dead Stop really is a great episode of Star Trek. It might just be the best script produced by the writing duo of Mike Sussman and Phyllis Strong. It might just be the best episode directed by Roxann Dawson. It’s a superb high-concept science-fiction thriller that takes a genre staple (evil computer!) and executes it with a great deal of skill and affection. It is a remarkable tight production, where pretty much everything comes together.

It does this while remaining true to what Enterprise was in its first and second seasons. Dead Stop doesn’t feel like an anomaly or a deviation. All the standard plotting elements for Enterprise are there. The pace is typically relaxed, with Archer and his crew taking two-thirds of the runtime to figure out that the station is up to no good. There are long sequences of our characters appreciating the novelty of fancy alien technology.

Giving Reed a bit of a leg-up...

Giving Reed a bit of a leg-up…

All the standard Enterprise ingredients are here. Archer trusts his gut, Trip is somewhat unprofessional, and Travis is just sort of there. There is a sinister and alien threat to the crew, with Archer out of his depth; however, Archer inevitably manages to escape without losing a single member of his crew. If you were to look for an episode that fit the broad-strokes template of a first or second seasons instalment of EnterpriseDead Stop would check all the boxes.

However, it finds a way to make all of these elements work to its advantage. The slow pacing allows suspense to build. Archer’s gut feeling mirrors the unease of an audience seasoned enough to realise that things that seem too good to be true usually are. Trip’s disobeying of orders provides a nice mid-episode tease. The under-developed Travis Mayweather is used as a plot device for the episode, as if the repair station is cynically picking the main cast member least likely to be missed.

I spent an entire scene waiting for Phlox to make a tasteless joke about how Mayweather was no less responsive than usual...

I spent an entire scene waiting for Phlox to make a tasteless joke about how Mayweather was no less responsive than usual…

Of course, the audience knows that Enterprise is not going to kill off a main cast member. At the start of the twenty-first century, network television became a bit more blood-thirsty. Shows like 24 were willing to kill off main cast members just to prove that they could, and to catch the audience off-guard. While Enterprise always lacked that sort of courage – Fight or Flight or Minefield would be much stronger episodes if the show were a bit more bloodthirsty – Travis is the most likely character who could be killed off.

Writers Mike Sussman and Phyllis Strong seem wryly aware of this fact. Mayweather doesn’t feature that heavily in the script outside of being the victim of the evil repair station. Anthony Montgomery is introduced as a piece of hunky beefcake before being summoned into the trap – in what seems like a delightful gender inversion of traditional horror tropes. (Usually it’s the attractive female cast members that are sexualised and then murdered in the horror film.)

"This isn't what it looks like."

“This isn’t what it looks like.”

Despite the fact that Travis is at the heart of the episode, Anthony Montgomery spends the bulk of the show lying down. He gets almost as much airtime as fake!cadaver!Mayweather as he does playing the real deal. Even then, he is carried out of the station by Archer and T’Pol. The script seems to playfully acknowledge the fact that Mayweather is the least-developed member of the ensemble. After studying Mayweather’s quarters, Reed confesses, “I’m afraid there isn’t much here.” Reed really is pithy, isn’t he?

Dead Stop makes room for character interactions and dynamics. While Hoshi’s monologue about Mayweather’s pranks feels a little bit like telling rather than showing, the rest of the episode has fun throwing the cast together. Connor Trinneer is great as Trip, and Dead Stop is populated with wonderful little character moments for the engineer. The revelation that he never repaired the scratch from Broken Bow is quite nice, as is his savouring of the replicated catfish.

Multiple choice!

Multiple choice!

Reed gets some nice character beats as well. The decision to have Reed and Trip sneaking around the station is nice nod to their developing friendship, and something that feels a lot less uncomfortable than their attempts to pick up alien chicks together in Two Days and Two Nights. There is something quite fun in the idea that Trip is very good at talking Reed into going along with his stupid plans, a dynamic that never really existed on Star Trek before.

Reed even gets some nice moments with Phlox in sickbay. “It can’t be ethical to cause a patient this much pain,” Reed complains. “It’s unethical to harm a patient,” Phlox clarifies. “I can inflict as much pain as I like.” John Billingsley is wonderful. Although the Enterprise ensemble does have some weak links, Dead Stop cleverly plays to the stronger members of the cast and the strongest dynamics that exist between the members of the cast.

Trying to Trip him up on the details...

Trying to Trip him up on the details…

Dead Stop also benefits from a wonderful sixties vibe. Sussman and Strong were always writers with a fondness for the original Star Trek show, to the point where the villains in Civilisation were an in-joke tied back to The Changeling. It is no surprise, then, that Dead Stop feels like an episode of sixties science-fiction updated for the contemporary television. It would not take too much work to reimagine it as an episode of The Outer Limits or The Twilight Zone.

The production design on the space station evokes 2001: A Space Odyssey, with its brightly-lit sterile white corridors. Roxann Dawson’s hauntingly emotionless voice recalls not only HAL, but also the sorts of computers that hassled Kirk so frequently. There are other touches as well; Robert Blackman had revised the Enterprise uniforms for the second season, making the overalls a brighter shade of blue. The result is an episode brighter and more colourful than most contemporary television.

White light...

White light…

These brighter colours stand out more, helping episodes like Dead Stop to feel like they might actually be leading towards the distinctively colourful future that featured on the classic sixties Star Trek. Enterprise would never allow itself to become so stylised that it would fit perfectly with the sets and styles of the original Star Trek, but the introduction of more colour in these seasons does create a sense the show is making some steps to embrace the aesthetic of the original Star Trek.

Even the themes of Dead Stop feel like are channelling sixties uncertainties. The idea of an evil computer seeking to exploit mankind is a fixture of science fiction, but it is a sentiment that was particularly popular in the sixties. This anxiety played itself out across popular culture in a number of different forums. HAL is perhaps the most obvious example, but there are plenty of others – like Alpha 65 from Alphaville.

It's still more comfortable than the last hotel I stayed at...

It’s still more comfortable than the last hotel I stayed at…

Theses fictional examples reflected real-world concerns, as Sungook Hong explains in Man and Machine in the 1960s:

In 1960, the father of cybernetics Norbert Wiener published a short article titled ‘Some Moral and Technical Consequences of Automation’ in Science. Wiener distinguished here between industrial machines in the time of Samuel Butler (1835-1902, the author of the novel on the dominance of humans by machines, Erehwon) and intelligent machines of his time. Machines circa 1960 had become very effective and even dangerous, Wiener stated, since they possessed “a certain degree of thinking and communication” and transcended the limitations of their designers. Describing in detail game- playing and learning machines, he contemplated a hypothetical situation in which such cybernetic machines were programmed to push a button in a “push-button” nuclear war. Simply by following the programmed rules of the game, Wiener warned, these machines would probably do anything to win a nominal victory even at the cost of human survival. Since machines became so fast, smart, and irrevocable, humans, unlike humans in the industrial age, “may not know, until too late, when to turn it off.” The fictional dominance of humans by machines, which Butler had worried about and vividly depicted in his Ehehwon, had been transformed into a reality.

In an era where the world could end with the push of a button, and automation systems were growing ever more complex, people were understandably unsettled at what advances in computer technology might bring.

Reed-ing the pain on his face...

Reed-ing the pain on his face…

Naturally, Star Trek has more than its fair share of these machines. Kirk found himself facing genocidal or dictatorial computers regularly, in shows as diverse as Return of the Archons, What Are Little Girls Made Of?, The Changeling, The Apple and The Ultimate Computer. The concept was such a familiar trope of the classic Star Trek show that the franchise’s first full comedy episode – I, Mudd – was able to play with the assorted conventions of that type of story.

While the “evil computer” trope never died in popular culture (see The Terminator) and later Star Trek spin-offs did inevitably do their own “evil computer” episodes, the anxiety was never quite as strong as it had been during the sixties. The anxiety was so firmly entrenched in the sixties zeitgeist that Mad Men even based the mental breakdown of character Michael Ginsberg around this fear. Born in a concentration camp during the Second World War, Ginsberg had seen the horrors of industrialisation.

Everything is finally looking up...

Everything is finally looking up…

The computer in Dead Stop plays on these fears. Indeed, its predatory scheme seems to convert biological entities into living computer cores – not just slaves, but slave drives. “Essentially, the station was using your brain to enhance its processing power,” Phlox helpfully explains at the end of the episode. It’s a distortion of what should be the relationship between man and machine. Machines should exist to service people, not the other way around.

Dead Stop hits on quite a few of the traditional body horror themes associated with these kinds of stories. When the computer scans Enterprise for damage to be repaired, it also returns the details of Malcom Reed – suggesting that the damage done to his leg is no different than the chunks missing from the ship’s hull. “This facility may have the technology to repair Mister Reed as well,” T’Pol reflects, hitting on the sort of fears that underpin these technological horror stories. Perhaps we are no different than machines.

There is something (cat)fishy going on here...

There is something (cat)fishy going on here…

If machines can be as exploitative and as predatory as living organisms, does that suggest that living organisms are no more than advanced machines? Human bodies might have blood and bones instead of coolant and towers, but is there a point where the distinction blurs? If Reed’s leg can be fixed as easily as a hole in the ship’s hull, doesn’t that suggest than any differences are ultimately superficial? If our brains can be harnessed to serve the machine, does that mean we are not so different?

Many fans, including Ina Rae Hark  in the BFI’s guide to Star Trek, have made the connection between the repair station and the Borg. Although there are significant differences between the Borg Collective and the repair station, there is a fairly significant thematic overlap between the two. Both the collective and the station serve to harness organic beings in order to expand their mechanical power. Both are built from the fear that mankind might find itself at the mercy of a sinister computer entity.

Mayweather is under the weather...

Mayweather is under the weather…

Aside from the fact that it is a spectacularly-constructed done-in-one science-fiction thriller and mystery, Dead Stop is also notable for its use of continuity. Dead Stop follows on from Minefield without serving as a direct continuation. Both Minefield and Dead Stop are self-contained, to the point that either could be enjoyed on their own terms. However, Dead Stop takes the ending of Minefield and uses it as a starting point, with Archer’s opening log making reference to “the incident in the Romulan minefield.”

Here, we get to see some stuff that really should have been a part of Enterprise from the beginning – a sense that the ship is on its own in the wider cosmos, and playing outside its league. During the first season, Enterprise came under heavy fire repeatedly, but there were seldom any significant problems that carried from episode-to-episode. The same is true of Voyager, where the state of supplies and repair in a given episode depended on the plot rather than anything that had come before.

T'Pol certainly knows how to make an entrance...

T’Pol certainly knows how to make an entrance…

On the commentary for Dead Stop, Mike Sussman concedes as much:

We’d largely been doing stand-alone episodes for most of the first season, with the exception of the season-ender. This was one the first times that we did a show that was really based almost entirely upon the previous episode and addressing many of the issues that came up. This episode was sort of the after effect, really, of the Minefield show. I think our viewers were happy that we did not forget these issues and developed them and resolved them in interesting ways, hopefully.

Enterprise could really have used more of this light episode-to-episode continuity, demonstrating how big a deal the mission was and how high the stakes were.

Carry on...

Carry on…

Dead Stop is populated with little shout-outs and acknowledgements to early episodes. Most obviously, Enterprise has been clearly damaged by the events of Minefield. Reed is undergoing painful physical therapy to recover from having a spike jammed through his leg. However, there are more subtle nods to be found. Archer’s desire to have breakfast with each and every member of his senior staff is referenced.

When dressing down Reed and Trip, he refers to a conversation in Minefield. “You’ve made it clear to me that you think discipline aboard Enterprise has gotten a little too lax,” he remarks to Malcolm. “I’m beginning to agree with you.” These are all details that are articulated in such a way that viewers aren’t locked out of the story, but which create a sense that the characters are listening to one another and that events have consequences.

Sadly, the twenty-minute scene where Archer convinces the computer he does not want a full starship wax done for 100l of warp plasma had to be cut for time.

Sadly, the twenty-minute scene where Archer convinces the computer he does not want a full starship wax done for only an extra 100l of warp plasma had to be cut for time.

Even smaller interactions are informed by what came before. When Hoshi visits sickbay, Phlox is not sure she’d want to see Mayweather. “You may find this disturbing,” he offers. “I’ve seen a body before,” Hoshi informs him. She then refers back explicitly to the events of Fight or Flight. “Fifteen of them on that alien ship.” It’s a nice touch, a way of reminding the audience that the characters aren’t forgetting things that happened a season or two ago.

It is very easy to get swept up in the idea of continuity as an aspect of serialisation. The show’s third season would offer tighter continuity as part of a season-long story arc. However, it is possible to maintain continuity without that level of connectivity. Dead Stop is an episode of Enterprise that demonstrates that the traditional stand-alone structure is viable for a twenty-first century Star Trek show, within reason. It proves that continuity is not something that exists solely in season-long narratives.

It's still classier than most of the car washes I've been to.

It’s still classier than most of the car washes I’ve been to.

Dead Stop is a classic Star Trek episode, and one of the best episodes of Enterprise produced. It is a demonstration that the classic model of Star Trek could still work, even in the changing television landscape of 2002. It just needed good scripts and great direction. Sadly, not all of the second season would measure up to the standard set by Dead Stop.

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

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4 Responses

  1. Can’t fault ENT for this one; I can’t think of a Trek episode where we visit and exotic port and someone isn’t arrested, molested, or taken hostage.

    At least the NX-01 crew got to explore around. Remember “Natural Law”? It begins with the gorgeous exterior shot of a DS9-type station and bazaar. I’d go so far to say it looked like a screencap from Farscape. To hear Tom and Harry tell it, it’s an awesome place. We cut to the Voyager interior, and that’s it! We don’t even see many of the alien delegates “overcrowding” the ship.

    • I’d actually forgotten Natural Law until I actually looked it up. I suspect there are entire stretches of Voyager like that. (And the first and second seasons of Enterprise, for that matter.)

      • Sorry, it’s a peeve of mine I guess.

        It’s like those live-action Superman TV shows where he twirls his cape like a matador and “flies off” with a sound they added in post.

  2. At first I thought that ARCHER was the one who’d been replaced by a duplicate, because he was so uncharacteristically cautious, suspicious, and savvy. THIS Archer almost feels like a starship captain! Can we keep him? 🙂

    A nice episode; I wish Archer were always like this.

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