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Star Trek: Enterprise – Singularity (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.

Star Trek: The Next Generation casts a pretty long shadow.

Singularity aired over eight years after All Good Things… and it still feels like an attempt to re-capture the mood and atmosphere of that second-generation Star Trek spin-off. Singularity feels like it might have made for a passable seventh-season instalment of The Next Generation, airing somewhere between Phantasms, Masks and Genesis. You would probably only have to tweak Singularity ever-so-slightly for that earlier cast.

"Hai!"

“Hai!”

Of course, this fixation on The Next Generation is not unique to the second season of Star Trek: Enterprise. After all, Star Trek: Voyager spent a significant portion of its run trying to re-capture the magic associated with The Next Generation. There were lots of generic aliens- and anomalies-of-the week. The second season of Enterprise is just interesting in this regard because it is really the last gasp of this sort of nostalgic storytelling on so wide a scale.

It would not be easy. It would take the box office failure of Star Trek: Nemesis, a change of management at UPN, falling ratings and the threat of cancellation. Nevertheless, Enterprise would eventually manage to exorcise the ghost of The Next Generation. In the meantime, Singularity offers a reminder of just how closely Enterprise was hewing to The Next Generation.

"Are you sitting comfortably? Then we'll begin."

“Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin.”

Of course, Singularity is not the only (or even the last) episode of the second season to owe a conscious debt to The Next Generation. For all that The Communicator draws from A Piece of the Action, it also seems to draw from First Contact. Vanishing Point is a cocktail of Realm of Fear and Remember Me. Dawn merges Darmok with Enemy Mine. Precious Cargo is The Perfect Mate by way of Elaan of Troyius. This is before we get into the appearance of the House of Duras in episodes like Judgment or The Expanse.

However, Singularity is much broader in its influences. It is a very episodic piece of Star Trek. Our heroes approach a strange interstellar phenomenon; something strange happens; one (or two) members of the crew try to right the ship; there is a last-minute crisis narrowly averted. It’s a familiar plot-structure, and one that was used quite frequently on The Next Generation and Voyager. It is very rote, very predictable, very familiar. It is the kind of story that the show’s critics love to cite.

Snooze-fest...

Snooze-fest…

Singularity‘s use of pseudo-science to justify a particularly weird and wacky development makes it feel like a seventh season episode of The Next Generation – coming at the point when the more senior members of the production team were focused on the launch of Voyager or the production of Star Trek: Generations, as the rest of the staff struggled to fill a season order of television. In many ways, the second season of Enterprise has the same creeping sense of fatigue found in the last season of The Next Generation.

In these types of story, the details of the strange anomaly and the effect that it has on the crew can change from episode to episode. Maybe it is a satellite; maybe it is some strange space radiation; maybe it is a living organism. Maybe it makes the crew angry; maybe it makes them de-evolve; maybe it makes them happy. The details are subject to change. In Singularity, a black hole in a trinary system makes the crew obsessive.

"Would you miss him, Captain? Would you?"

“Would you miss him, Captain? Would you?”

It feels like something of a Star Trek mad-lib, a plot generator used to fill in a gap in a season order. “The crew encounters a [blank] that makes the crew act [blank].” The finer details of how or why it would do such a thing is left hazy. After all, the primary objective here is to get an episode into production. It is a tried-and-tested approach to writing Star Trek. It is no surprise that the formula has become such an established part of the franchise.

Singularity is credited to writer Chris Black. Black was the only new recruit from the first season to stay on with Enterprise. Brannon Braga’s attempts to build up a new and experimental writing staff during the first season had largely failed, and the heart of the Enterprise writing staff was the same veterans who had worked with Braga on Voyager. Whereas writers from outside genre television – like Andrea and Maria Jacquemetton or James Duff – had struggled to write for Star Trek, Black had adapted quite well.

You know, if you told me back in A Night in Sickbay that Archer and T'Pol would have a shower scene...

You know, if you told me back in A Night in Sickbay that Archer and T’Pol would have a shower scene…

A large part of this was probably down to Chris Black’s familiarity with genre television. Black had worked on shows like Xena: Warrior Princess, Poltergeist: The Legacy and Cleopatra 2525. As a result, Black knows his genre material. His first season scripts are very traditional and old-fashioned, but it is clear that he knows how to structure and write a piece of late nineties genre television. Singularity is just as sturdy a construct as Rogue Planet. It’s a stock piece of nineties science-fiction television.

To be fair, Singularity is no more or no less absurd than any other plot that moves along a similar line. It might seem a bit arbitrary that the radiation would render the crew obsessive; it seems particularly arbitrary that it would affect Phlox in the same way as his human colleagues. It seems highly unlikely that the human brain would be affected in that way by that sort of phenomenon, but Star Trek has never been obsessive about scientific accuracy or nuance.

Tripping him up...

Tripping him up…

The biggest problem with Singularity is how dated it feels. It is a very old-fashioned piece of television in a changing television landscape. According to an interview with Rick Berman, Singularity was to be “a day-in-the-life episode” of the show:

The series co-creator also provided new information on the ninth episode – the title of which is still unknown. “Episode #9 is a day-in-the-life episode. We sort of follow Archer and the gang through a typical day on the Enterprise, but all of a sudden there’s a rash of obsessive-compulsive behaviour going on,” Berman said.

“T’Pol and Archer are teamed up in an effort to save everyone’s lives. There’s a lot of humour in it, but it’s pretty scary as well.”

There is something quite ironic about Berman’s description of Singularity as “a typical day on the Enterprise.” The episode is, in many respects, a typical episode of Enterprise. However, it does not feel any different from any other episode.

Night, night!

Night, night!

Star Trek has done various “day-in-the-life” stories over the years, from Data’s Day through to Lower Decks. Compared to these episodes, there’s nothing unusual about Singularity. The way that Berman talks about Singularity seems to imply that it will be a character-focused piece of television, a chance to watch the cast and crew going about their business in a way that will allow the viewer to understand more about how they work.

The problem is that there is no real character work or insight to be found in Singularity. There is a sense that the episode might have served as an interesting vehicle to explore these characters, but the finished version is just too generic. What does Phlox’s obsession with dissecting Mayweather tell us about him as a character? What detail of Hoshi Sato’s psychology is revealed by her fixation on cooking for the rest of the crew? How does Trip’s work on the chair illuminate our understanding of him?

"Hey, have you seen Mayweather around?"

“Hey, have you seen Mayweather around?”

There is amble opportunity for character insight or development, but it feels like Singularity really has very little to say about its primary cast. There is no reason why Mayweather couldn’t become obsessed with cooking instead of Hoshi. What more do we know about any of the cast after the episode has finished? What more do they know about each other? What more do they know about themselves?

Most of the obsessions are based around characters’ professions rather than their personalities. Phlox only seems to be interested in dissecting Mayweather because he is the ship’s doctor, and that’s what doctors do. Similarly, Trip fixes the chair because that’s an engineering problem. There’s very little sense about how these issues are specific to any of the characters – rather than to their jobs on the ship. The two characters whose obsessions seem most personal are Reed and Archer.

Soup's you, sir!

Soup’s you, sir!

Archer very clearly has unresolved issues with his father, as has been clear since Broken Bow. So asking Archer to draft an introduction to a new biography – and having him become obsessed with it – should provide some solid character work. Instead, Singularity has Archer fixating on the actual writing rather than the subject. Archer becomes obsessed with the words, rather than his relationship with the man. It feels like a missed opportunity, perhaps the most obvious of Singularity‘s missed opportunities.

In contrast, Reed’s little subplot fits quite comfortably with his character arc and dynamic. Reed’s snarky personality here calls to mind his sassy attitude towards Archer in the first season. There has been a sense – explicitly articulated in scripts like Minefield – that Reed really isn’t too comfortable with how Archer chooses to run the ship. Episodes like Rogue Planet and Strange New World have suggested that Reed is occasionally sarcastic or snarky towards his commanding officer.

Sizing him up...

Sizing him up…

Singularity just lets all that out, in what feels almost like a moment of catharsis for the character. “I’ve been trying to get him to pay closer attention to security since we left spacedock,” Reed tells T’Pol, “but he’s more interested in fraternising with the crew. Inviting them to breakfast, and to watch water polo. I intend to implement some long-overdue changes, and if the Captain won’t approve them then I’ll go directly to Starfleet Command.”

None of this is particularly novel, even if it does fit quite comfortably with how Dominic Keating has been playing Reed since the first season. Still, this is the closest that Singularity comes to an actual character beat. Reed’s little rant is perhaps the only moment in Singularity that feels like it illuminates a particular character, instead of simply deriving some quirk from the show’s set-up or the position they occupy on the senior staff.

"I have been, and always shall be, your first officer..."

“I have been, and always shall be, your first officer…”

Black’s script seems to wryly acknowledge this problem with characterisation, pointing out that sometimes defining character is difficult within the parametres of the writing brief. Archer’s obsession with the prologue to his father’s biography allows for a few comments about the nature of creative writing. He also has difficulties with characterisation. “How am I supposed to sum up my father’s life in a page?” he wonders. “It would’ve been easier if they’d asked me to write the book.”

T’Pol suggests picking an incident to serve as a microcosm. “Perhaps by focusing on one incident, a single event that exemplifies your relationship with your father, you’ll be able to condense your thoughts.” One little moment that serves to define and illuminate a character. One can almost see a workable version of Singularity in that conversation – a version which did use a single event to exemplify these characters and their relationships with one another.

Mixing it up...

Mixing it up…

Unfortunately, that is not the version of Singularity that made it to production. Instead, we get lots of continuity gags and references. Reed and Trip each find themselves obsessing about a minor trapping of the larger Star Trek franchise. A considerable amount of space in Singularity is dedicated to the design of the command chair and the proper protocol for when the ship comes under threat. It is full of winking nods and references.

Trip struggles with the design of the captain’s chair. “Do you think a cup holder’s too much?” Trip ponders, citing an obvious design flaw with certain command chairs. “I’m also upgrading the status displays. He’ll be able to access tactical data from the armrest.” Even Trip’s joking reference to “Reed Alert” and the constant disagreements about the accompanying klaxon serve as an obvious shout-out to the franchise’s “Red Alert.”

Seat of power...

Seat of power…

Again, perhaps Black is being rather wry here. Reed and Trip could be read as obsessive Star Trek fans fixated on the minutiae and continuity of the franchise. After all, tech- and detail-obsessed fandom is low-hanging fruit when it comes to parodying Star Trek fandom. It is not too hard to imagine obsessive fans fixating on questions about the captain’s chair or the ship’s alert procedures, while completely glossing over character or theme. Perhaps Singularity is having some fun with the idea.

Maybe the second season of Enterprise can be seen as Star Trek exorcising its demons – to dispel the ghosts that haunt the franchise, holding it back. After all, the release of Star Trek: Nemesis is less than a month away at this point. Nemesis was the movie that would finally bury The Next Generation once and for all. The spectacular box office failure would prove that The Next Generation was dead. Coupled with falling ratings for Enterprise, this would lead to a flurry of desperate creative activity and reinvention for the franchise.

Does not scan...

Does not scan…

The Next Generation was a landmark of genre television. It defined Star Trek for the eighties and nineties. However, there was a sense that Voyager and Enterprise spent far too long in the shadow of that television series. By this point, the law of diminishing returns had set in. It was time to bury that particular iteration of the franchise. Enterprise would radically redefine itself in its third and fourth seasons. JJ Abrams would reinvent Star Trek for an entirely new generation before the end of the decade.

However, before all of this reinvention and reworking, the needed to be some sense of closure. There must be a death before the the rebirth. In a way, the entire second season of Enterprise is an extended death for a particular version of the franchise; it was a long and slow and cold decline, a creative nadir mirrored in the contemporaneous collapse of the Next Generation movie franchise. Episodes like Singularity are very much a part of that, demonstrating why things could not continue as they had been.

"Can you drive stick?"

“Can you drive stick?”

Singularity demonstrates why Enterprise seems so old and dated. The second season is – in many respects – a relic. It does not fit with the changing television landscape at the start the twenty-first century. Resting on the success of The Next Generation, there was never a real imperative to change. Singularity feels almost quaint and old-fashioned, as if somebody blew the dust off an old script and changed some of the character names. There’s a sense that we’ve seen this all before, and quite often at that.

With Singularity, it seems like the eight-year-long on-and-off-and-on eighth season of The Next Generation might finally be winding down. However, there is still some distance left to travel.

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

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7 Responses

  1. The Spock reference gave me a migraine, so thanks for that. 😛

  2. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve only seen a handful of TNG episodes, so “Singularity” didn’t remind me of TNG. What it reminded me of was TOS’s “The Naked Time” … except that it was nowhere near as good. But then, I guess they couldn’t have T’Pol crying in the briefing room about the fact that she’d never told her mother she loved her. 😉

    Still, it seems as if the events of this episode should make Starfleet determined to have a Vulcan science officer on every ship. 🙂

  3. Thanks for an excellent review. Noting that the story would have been greatly improved if Archer had struggled with the nature of his relationship with his father rather than merely being hung up on the words is a particularly good insight.

    • Thanks Doug. The show really does struggle with Archer’s relationship with his father, in the sense that it’s this big thing that they have no idea what to do with. Ironically, I think it plays quite well in the background of Demons and Terra Prime at the end of the run, as a point of contrast between Paxton and Archer.

  4. Everything you say about this episode is true. And yet, I think it is a little bit better than you suggest. Consider: Phlox’s obsessive analysis of Travis actually leads T’Pol to the solution to the mystery. Malcolm’s obsessive attention to the tactical alert actually saves the ship. Furthermore, Trip’s solution to the iconic Captain’s Chair problem eventually ends up with him lowering the chair by a centimeter, suggesting that Trip is actually very good at his job. Hoshi and Travis, as you’ve already pointed out, are not very well fleshed out characters, so I don’t worry too much about their storylines. Therefore, only Archer’s story is less than optimal, and I really don’t find it to be too bad considering that he pulls it together enough to help T’Pol save the ship. Thus, there’s the beginning of a budding romance between Archer and his ship, remeniscent of Kirk’s love affair with his ship.

    Finally, I have to tell you: the “Reed Alert” joke was so brilliant that it actually encouraged me to stay with the show in its original airing for another year.

    The “Reed Alert” joke is an example of a rare type of joke that I’ve thought of as the “found joke.” In other words, it was never meant to be a joke, there was never any intentional setup, but then the writer suddenly realized that it was sitting there right in front of them. The only other example I can think of that is better than “Reed Alert” is from the original movie version of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple”:

    “Oscar: I hate little notes on my pillow. Like this morning. ‘We’re all out of cornflakes. F.U.’ It took me three hours to figure out that ‘F.U.’ was Felix Unger”

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