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Star Trek: Enterprise – The Communicator (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.

One of the biggest problems with positioning Star Trek: Enterprise as a prequel is that the original Star Trek was very much a product of its time. It is very difficult to line-up a television show broadcast in the early years of the twenty-first century with a series that was produced towards the end of the sixties. It is a completely different world, and so the show itself must inevitably be completely different.

This reflects itself in the production design of Enterprise. One of the more frequent fan complaints about the series concerns the design of the new ship. After all, it doesn’t look like anything Matt Jefferies would design. If anything, it looks like the missing link between a modern submarine and the Defiant from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. All the pastels and mood lighting have been replaced with functional grey and buttresses. Kirk’s Enterprise and Archer’s Enterprise speak to two different aesthetics.

"What we've got here is failure to communicate..."

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate…”

Of course, it is possible to land a little closer to the classic design as Scott Chambliss demonstrated with his work on JJ Abrams’ reboot. Then again, this only reinforces the point. The general mood and tone of design when Star Trek hit cinema screens in 2009 was markedly different from the mood and tone of design when Broken Bow first aired in 2001. It just so happened that one was more compatible with Jefferies’ original vision than the other. (And even then, Chambliss’ update is markedly different.)

However, while the design of the ship itself is a handy indicator of just how difficult it is to line up a show produced in the first decade of a new millennium to a show produced before man walked on the moon, there are more substantial cultural and social differences at play. The Communicator is another second season Star Trek mash-up, this time taking the ending of A Piece of the Action and offering a perfect example of how Enterprise could never be an entirely comfortable companion to classic Star Trek.

"Westmore's not gonna like this..."

“Westmore’s not gonna like this…”

A Piece of the Action is a very well-loved piece of Star Trek. More than that, it is a very well-known piece of Star Trek. Even people with only a passing familiarity with the franchise will recognise the episode premise – “planet of the gangsters” is the sort of goofy sci-fi premise that sticks in the head, much like “planet of the Nazis” or “planet of the Romans.” The image of Kirk and Spock in fedoras stalking around a studio back lot is quintessential goofy Star Trek imagery.

It is the kind of premise that his hard to duplicate twenty or thirty years later. When Star Trek: The Next Generation wanted to do a gangster episode or a western episode, it used the holodeck as a narrative short cut. The idea of completely imaginary people in a computer simulation was more plausible than a planet full of human-like aliens that had conveniently arranged their culture around some relic from mankind’s history.

"Diagnosis: alien!"

“Diagnosis: alien!”

You could not get away with something like A Piece of the Action or Patterns of Force on any of the later Star Trek shows. When the third season of Enterprise attempts to do a “western on an alien planet” in North Star, the entire show seems to creak under suspension of disbelief. The franchise has worked so hard to get away from that cheesy and goofy production approach that it is impossible to reconnect completely.

The Communicator underscores this quite effectively. When Leonard McCoy accidentally forgot his communicator at the end of A Piece of the Action, it was a goofy joke. It was an excuse for Kirk to give the episode a nice punchline. It was very transparently a silly ending to a silly episode, one that was not intended in an entirely serious manner. However, The Communicator takes what was a goofy punchline and plays it entirely (and grimly) straight.

In the pale dusk light...

In the pale dusk light…

For his part, writer André Bormanis has insisted that he didn’t develop The Communicator based on that final conversation on the bridge of Kirk’s Enterprise. Discussing perceived similarities between the two episodes, he commented:

Given that over 600 episodes of Star Trek have been produced, it would be hard not to find similarities between Enterprise episodes and shows from the other series. The premise of The Communicator actually came to me when I lost my cell phone a few months ago. I wasn’t thinking of A Piece of the Action, but of course there is a parallel there.

Bormanis has a fair point, even if one glosses the fact that the second season of Enterprise had a tendency to take familiar Star Trek plot elements and stories, and rework them slightly.

Not all there...

Not all there…

Still, there is no getting around the fact that The Communicator invites comparisons to A Piece of the Action. Even the official announcement of the episode’s plot made reference to that classic Star Trek episode:

The eighth episode of the second season explores a premise hinted at in the original Star Trek. Remember the end of A Piece of the Action when Dr. McCoy confessed to leaving behind his communicator on the gangster planet, and Kirk joked that it “upsets the whole percentage”? Well, The Communicator picks up on this idea, but with a far more serious tone. When the NX-01 crew goes undercover to survey a pre-warp society on the brink of war, Lt. Reed loses his communicator. He and Archer go back to retrieve it, and things do not go well.

This isn’t a passing similarity. This a very direct reference and acknowledgement. If any fan ever wondered what happened after the closing scene of A Piece of the Action, The Communicator offers an answer – filtered through the lens of modern Star Trek.

Don't leave 'em hanging...

Don’t leave ’em hanging…

The Communicator feels very much like a modern take on a classic Star Trek set-up. The world seen here feels like it could have appeared on the sixties show. Many of the concerns of the sixties echo through the episode. The ideological conflict with “the Alliance” seems like the Cold War that was unfolding around Star Trek and which found reflection in countless allegories over the show’s run.

More than that, Bormanis’ script for The Communicator is stuffed with references that make the episode feel like a throwback. The language and the iconography seem to hark back to the Second World War. The brown uniforms of the soldiers here, the threat of medical experimentation upon prisoners, a reference to “the Chancellor” and to political “rallies” all seem to suggest the Second World War – a conflict that had a tremendous formative impact on classic Star Trek. Reed even mentions Winston Churchill.

Point and shoot...

Point and shoot…

Even outside of the references to the Cold War and the Second World War, The Communicator feels very old-fashioned. At one point, Reed suggests a tried-and-tested escape technique. “An upset stomach?” Archer asks. “Do you really think he’d fall for that?” Reed replies, “Well, it may be an old trick where we come from, but maybe they haven’t heard of it here.” It is a technique that even worked for Kirk on occasion. It is telling that The Communicator proposes – and rejects – a standard classic Star Trek escape plan.

(Similarly endearing are the observations about what Trip could do with a cloaked hand. “Be useful in a poker match,” Mayweather suggests. “I could probably become a world-class magician,” Trip offers. “It might be helpful on movie night, if you bring a date,” Mayweather says. There is an awkward pause. We’ve all seen A Night in Sickbay. Then Mayweather clarifies, “In case you want to steal some popcorn.” It’s an endearingly hokey and old-school punchline, like the episode itself.)

"Nope. Not there."

“Nope. Not there.”

While A Piece of the Action ended with McCoy realising that he left his communicator behind, The Communicator opens with Reed reaching the same conclusion. Nobody laughs about how silly the situation is. It is dead serious. Immediately, Archer and his crew plan to recover the lost piece of technology, recognising the risk of cultural contamination posed by the hyper-advanced piece of technology. What follows is a fairly heavy forty-five minutes of television, including beatings and torture and a planned execution.

The second generation of Star Trek is frequently criticised for taking itself entirely too seriously. It is very serious, and very grave, and very respectful. There is a very obvious anxiety around camp or goofiness – a fear that that those producing the show might be seen to be mocking the franchise or its fans. This very tense and very structured approach to producing Star Trek perhaps suggests why none of the spin-offs ever managed to produce an episode as funny as The Trouble With Tribbles or A Piece of the Action.

"Wait! There it is!"

“Wait! There it is!”

As a result, The Communicator feels a lot closer to something like First Contact than A Piece of the Action. It is an episode that takes its premise entirely seriously. There is no room for show-boating or hamming it up in the style of William Shatner. This is all very grave business. The prospect of contaminating an alien culture is something that the show takes entirely seriously, and a responsibility that weighs heavy on Archer’s shoulders.

On the one hand, this makes for a pretty serious tonal shift. It is a demonstration of precisely why Enterprise could never fit entirely comfortably within the world of the original Star Trek. The show could never treat something like this as a punchline. The franchise has reached a point where it treats everything with a level of seriousness that would make McCoy’s mistake abhorrent rather than endearing. In the twenty-first century, we are more wary of cultural contamination and meddling.

Drinking in the details...

Drinking in the details…

In a way, perhaps The Communicator can be read as something of a criticism of the the ethical framework of the original Star Trek. Perhaps The Communicator is a rebuke to the end of A Piece of the Action in the same way that Crossover was a cynical response to Mirror, Mirror. Crossover suggested that Kirk had been arrogant to impose his own morality on a universe he did not understand. The Communicator suggests that perhaps Kirk and classic Star Trek could be glib when it came to issues like cultural contamination.

Perhaps the darkness in The Communicator is a good thing. Archer and the show have often been rather flippant about the risks of space travel and exploration. It is great to see Archer trying to take some measure of responsibility for his actions. This does feel like a version of Archer who has learned something over the course of episodes like Strange New World or Desert Crossing or A Night in Sickbay. His willingness to lay down his life to protect this culture may be stubborn to the point of unreasonableness, but it is heroic.

Pistols at dawn...

Pistols at dawn…

Similarly, Bormanis’ teleplay shrewdly avoids a clear-cut happy ending. Archer and Reed are rescued; the technology is recovered. However, not everything is resolved. The damage is not undone. “We could have done a lot of damage to those people if we’d left any of it behind,” Archer remarks of the recovered technology. “We did do damage to those people,” T’Pol corrects him. It seems that Archer cannot but agree with her assessment.

“We’ve changed their perception of the Alliance,” he concedes. She elaborates, “They now believe their enemy is capable of creating genetically-enhanced soldiers, not to mention particle weapons.” Archer connects the rest of the dots. “And thanks to that Suliban ship, they also think the Alliance has developed invisible aircraft.” T’Pol replies, “You don’t have to leave technology behind to contaminate a culture.”

Does not scan...

Does not scan…

It seems likely that Archer and Reed completely changed the course of history for an entire species. Their cover story could have sparked a nuclear war that would have destroyed all civilisation on the planet. In captivity, Reed and Archer both contemplate whether their lie will do more damage than the truth. There is no way to know. The Communicator very cleverly refuses to answer that question – inviting the audience to reach their own conclusions, while accepting perhaps no easy (or right) answer exists.

Then again, perhaps it emphasises that Enterprise needs something more than the simple episodic formula that it has adopted. The audience will never hear about this planet again. We will never discover the consequences of this contamination. There is no suggestion that Starfleet or the Vulcan High Command will monitor the situation, trying to prevent escalation caused by Archer’s interference. The ending of The Communicator is particularly bleak because the audience knows there will be no follow-up.

"This is going to turn up on my performance review, isn't it?"

“This is going to turn up on my performance review, isn’t it?”

The Communicator is probably one of the episodes that most effectively demonstrates the potential of the “Star Trek remixed” format that Enterprise has going on at this point in the second season. The second season is populated with episodes that borrow and steal from the rest of the franchise. Often, a second season of episode of Enterprise can be summed up using a simply “… by way of…” formula. (Sometimes it is an episode and a movie, sometimes it is two episodes.)

All too often, the second season of Enterprise feels a little dull and generic – as if the show is going through the motions and falling back on old narrative tricks and tropes. Precious Cargo gains nothing from synthesising Elaan of Troyius and The Perfect Mate. Dawn is a tired rehash of Darmok and Enemy Mine. However, every once in a while, these cocktails produce something absolutely fascinating and compelling.

Frickin' phasers!

Frickin’ phasers!

Judgment is a fantastic piece of television, all the more powerful for how it draws on Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Cogenitor might be one of the most compelling episodes the franchise ever produced about the Prime Directive. While The Communicator does not rank quite that highly, it does find something interesting to say about the episode that it uses as a launching pad. That makes it a highlight of this stretch of episodes.

It is also interesting to see Enterprise continuing its weird relationship with continuity. The Communicator reveals that the Suliban stealth ship has been in the hold since the events of Broken Bow. It feels a little weird that the show has gotten this far without using it. Of course, it makes sense that they would not throw it away, but it would have probably made more sense to use in Shockwave, Part I if they had it around. (And one imagines that the Suliban might have taken it back in Shockwave, Part II.)

"Funny how this never came in handy before this point, huh?" "Best not to think about it too hard."

“Funny how this never came in handy before this point, huh?”
“Best not to think about it too hard.”

As with the ending, there is a sense The Communicator is teasing the limits of the episodic format. Enterprise is in a very weird stage at this point of its lifecycle. The show is as episodic as it is ever going to get, but there are still the occasional little references to things that happened earlier in the run or in the previous season. There’s no sense that each week is building on something and towards something, but there is a sense that Enterprise is more keenly aware of its own internal details than Star Trek: Voyager ever was.

It is also worth mentioning the subplot involving Trip and his invisible hand. It is a cute little bit, but it feels as throwaway as the plot that put Trip in command of the ship during The Seventh. It feels like padding to help the episode reach the required length, but the fact that the show keeps returning to Trip to carry these little plots suggests that the writing staff have identified Connor Trinner as something of a breakout member of the ensemble. Certainly, he is the show’s second best comedic performer, behind John Billingsley.

Disappearing act...

Disappearing act…

Then again, there is something almost poetic in that closing shot of Trip opening the door in sickbay, his hand mostly visible – but not entirely there. Perhaps it’s a representation of where Enterprise is at this point in its life-cycle. It is almost fully-formed and almost all there, but it also feels like perhaps a little bit is still missing. It is not all there. There is still a hole that needs to be filled, and the show can’t quite figure out how to fill it.

Still, The Communicator feels like a worthwhile effort. It is an episode that takes a very familiar and memorable part of the classic Star Trek mythos… and then makes it its own. It is an episode that could be read in a way that is critical and questioning of what came before. Deep Space Nine was asking similar questions in its own second season, albeit with more consistency and more regularity. That said, The Communicator is easily the strongest episode of this stretch of the season.

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

6 Responses

  1. I would gladly cut Archer’s “directive” speech out of Dear Doctor and stick it here.

    • Yep. This does feel a bit more cut and dried, in that non-interference doesn’t make our leads complicit in the death of a species. (Quite the opposite, if their intervention did spark a major war on the planet.)

  2. You mentioned Enterprises set design on the review, looking nothing like Kirk’s era. I’ll admit, I very much like this design, it’s utilitarian and functional, something to be expected from first of its kind long-range ship. The technology is still new, they probably never built a ship as large as Enterprise, and it probably has to be crammed with all the necessary equipment for a long-term mission. It was a nice touch that even the captain’s quarters are cramped.

    I’ll give the Enterprise team credit when it comes to recreating the Constitution Class for A Mirror Darkly, they didn’t just faithfully recreate the cardboard set like they did in TNG’s Relics, which looked like crap. They went in, used proper materials, and they went ahead and replaced those paper displays with actual computer screens, some with live readouts of the technical aspects of the ship. Given how uptight the fandom is, this took real cajones.

    By updating the look, it went a long way towards making the TOS era ship look like a real futuristic ship. The fact that the utilitarian design has been totally replaced by bright warm colors and clean open corridors implies a more advanced/larger ship. In fact, when we see the technical readout of the ship when they are hunting for the Gorn, the display is in the bright TOS colors, and we see the ship is actually immensely complex, it’s just that all the machinery has been hidden behind the walls and panels, which all serves to disorient the viewer into believing that the ship is incomprehensibly advanced. It also speak to the era the ship was designed in, a time where fashion has changed and the colors help speak to a more optimistic time. It’s amusing that as the series went on, each iteration would sap the color out of their uniforms and bridge design. By the time we get to Enterprise-E in Nemesis, there’s only grey, grey and red, it feels so depressing.

    • I like that a bit more colour creeps into Enterprise beginning in the third season, particularly reds and purples. (The design of Cold Station 12, for example, feels half way between ENT and TOS.)

  3. I did enjoy most of this episode, but I really want Archer and T’Pol to call some sort of meeting and to hammer out a policy. Archer and Reed did a lot more damage with their lies than they’d have done if they simply kept their mouths shut; it’s as if they didn’t have any idea in mind of where the line was and what should never happen.

    Of course, I know the Prime Directive hasn’t been invented yet, but T’Pol has talked about the Vulcan policy of non-interference enough that Archer defaults to it in this situation … and yet it’s as if he’s never actually thought about it. It seems as if the guy thinks more about freaking WATER POLO than he does about the mission of exploration that he’s actually commanding.

    It was mostly a good episode, and I’m glad we got that somber conversation at the end about how they’ve ALREADY damaged this culture, but I wish Archer would THINK.

    • Yep. I quite like The Communicator, as sombre as it is. Perhaps because it is so sombre. It’s the weirdest follow-up to A Piece of the Action you could imagine, though.

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