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.
Vanishing Point continues the “remix” formula that we’ve come to expect from the second season of Star Trek: Enterprise. In particular, Vanishing Point is a rather heady Star Trek: The Next Generation cocktail. It has shades of Remember Me, Realm of Fear, The Next Phase and even The Inner Light – with a healthy dose of Brannon Braga’s questions about the nature of reality. All of these elements blend together to form Vanishing Point, an episode that feels overly familiar and rote despite an intriguing set-up.
It is a shame that it doesn’t work better. Vanishing Point brings us back to the idea that Archer and his crew are pioneers in space exploration. The teaser reminds us that the crew of the Enterprise still don’t take the transporter for granted – that it is still something of a mystery to them, despite the audience’s familiarity with the device. Vanishing Point feels like the first time that Enterprise has emphasised this sense of novelty and inexperience since the first season.
However, the episode feels like something of a disappointment. The entire story turns out to be a gimmick and a twist. There is nothing wrong with this sort of storytelling. After all, the franchise has played these sorts of games before. Indeed, some of Braga’s best scripts – Frame of Mind and Projections come to mind – touch on similar ideas with similar twists. The problem with Vanishing Point is that these twists seem a bit too loose or too disconnected to properly resonate.
Vanishing Point feels like the rough sketch of a good episode doodled quickly on the back of a napkin, a collection of connective clauses all designed to keep the story ticking for forty-five minutes before ending on a fairly stock twist. There is a great deal of potential here, but Vanishing Point never quite delivers on it.
It is interesting how Rick Berman and Brannon Braga seem to have treated Hoshi Sato as the audience identification character for the first two seasons of the show. Although the character eventually got shuffled towards the back of the ensemble, there was a clear effort by Berman and Braga to treat Hoshi as the most grounded and relatable cast member in their scripts. While she would eventually be overshadowed by Reed and Phlox among the four “supporting players”, Hoshi did seem to start out as a major character.
After all, Hoshi’s two big character-driven episodes in the first two seasons are credited to the show’s creators. Hoshi was the focus of Fight or Flight, the first episode of Enterprise to air after Broken Bow and the show’s first character-centric story. Hoshi was the character who had to prove that she belonged on the ship, who had to properly acclimatise to life on the final frontier. Apparently Berman and Braga were so fond of Hoshi’s character arc in Fight or Flight that they opted to repeat it in Sleeping Dogs.
The pair even wrote a very effective and thematically important scene for Hoshi in The Expense, the show’s second season finalé. Although the sequence was cut when the episode ran ten minutes overtime, the sequence once again used Hoshi as a representation of the show’s anxieties or uncertainties. As the ship’s mission changes to become more militaristic, Hoshi once again questions whether she belongs on the Enterprise. It is a lovely little bookend to her character arc, and it was a shame to lose it.
Vanishing Point once again puts Hoshi at the centre of the story – building an episode around the character’s insecurity and uncertainty. In a way, this seems to be the biggest problem with Hoshi as a character; there seems to be only one major storyline for her character. Each of her major appearances in the first two seasons features the character confronting her own anxieties and fears. The character seems to question her self-worth twice a season.
Still, it is nice that the show seemed to focus so keenly on Hoshi as a character in her own right. The cast of Enterprise feels strangely old-fashioned. It is predominantly white and male actors, and predominantly human characters. It is a major step backwards from the diverse ensembles featured on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Given that Mayweather already feels like a glorified extra, a strong secondary focus on Hoshi might help to foster a sense of diversity.
Unfortunately, that is not to be. None of the writers apart from Berman and Braga seem to have a strong interest in the character. As such, Hoshi slips further into the background during the show’s final two seasons. Even during the first two seasons, the bulk of her character development and character moments are confined to a handful of episodes. Hoshi is less well-developed than any member of the ensembles of The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine. The same is certainly true of Mayweather.
Then again, that seems to have been a concious decision on the part of the producers. Discussing Horizon, Anthony Montegomery conceded that the supporting members of the ensemble were generally out of focus:
“They just have to make sure the trifecta of Trip, T’Pol and Archer is always met because that’s the key,” he says. “There are seven people. It’s not called Star Trek: Mayweather. It’s not called The Travis Show. So I’m really not worried about it.”
Vanishing Point is the tenth episode of the second season, and the first episode focused on Hoshi. Before this, the only character-centric episode not focused around that trifecta is Minefield, a story that still dwells on Archer’s relationship with the rest of his crew.
So it is nice for Vanishing Point to give us a bit of focus on Hoshi, even if it feels like the kind of story we’ve seen before. After all, this is just another iteration of Hoshi’s self-doubt and anxiety that must be conquered before the closing credits role. The episode’s big character beat sees Hoshi making the decision to conquer her fears and commit to her life on the final frontier – just like her decision to stay in Fight or Flight or her willingness to buckle down and get past her awkwardness in Sleeping Dogs.
Then again, Hoshi’s character arc is not the only piece of Vanishing Point that feels recycled. Like a lot of the surrounding episodes, Vanishing Point feels like an episode of Star Trek that has been constructed out of half-used ideas. It is easy enough to recognise the various episodes contributing to this hodge-podge pot luck of an episode plot. Even fans who can’t identify specific episodes will get a sense of deja vu around proceedings.
The idea of a transporter accident rendering a character invisible and intangible (except through floors, of course) came up in The Next Phase. The question of what happened during transport was broached in Realm of Fear. The story element of a character having a life-changing vision in a very narrow space of real time was the subject of The Inner Light. A character’s fear and concern about mysterious disappearances and unexplained phenomena occurred in Remember Me.
These are all elements that Star Trek has explored before. These are all elements that have worked reasonable well when placed at the centre of a single story. However, throwing all these story elements into the mix together feels like something of an overload. None of the elements have room to breath or develop, none serve to enlighten us about Hoshi or serve as a compelling hook. Vanishing Point is so packed full of good ideas that it doesn’t have time to do anything with any of them.
Even the elements of the story that don’t seem to have been lifted from earlier episodes feel rough and scatter-shot. Vanishing Point seems to change focus with every act break. First, Hoshi’s anxiety about being replaced is expressed through the mysterious (inexplicable) competence of Crewman Baird. There is an off-screen hostage situation that unfolds and resolves itself in the space between scenes. Then Hoshi begins to fade away. Then aliens appear and threaten to blow up the ship.
The idea here seems to be to evoke dream logic – a tight sense of thematic evolution that doesn’t necessarily make logical sense. Hoshi’s own uncertainties and insecurities are at the root of everything happening here. Indeed, there’s something quite clever in the idea that Hoshi’s disappearance is psychological rather than pseudo-scientific in nature – she is afraid of fading away or disappearing, rather than she is literally disappearing or fading away.
The problem is that none of this feels earned. None of this feels like a plausible chain of events. Unlike other Brannon Braga “mind-bending” and “reality-warping” scripts like Frame of Mind or Projections, Vanishing Point tries to conceal its nature as a delusion until the last few moments. As such, the bulk of Vanishing Point works hard to maintain some thing air of plausibility. The haphazard stop-and-start plotting reality hurts the episode in that context.
It is okay for a dream not to make sense, but if you want the dream to provide a facsimile of reality, some compromise is needed. Vanishing Point also suffers because it forces Hoshi into a very reactive and passive role. In order to preserve suspense, the show needs Hoshi to accept the reality of the situation around her. As such, she never explores or interrogates the strange circumstances around her. She never pursues questions that might give away the twist.
The episode teases the audience with the possibility that not everything adds up. Hoshi seems very curious about how Crewman Baird could translate better than she could, but she never seems to investigate it. On the bridge, she catches a slip from T’Pol that suggests all is not what it appears to be. “How could you possibly know that?” Hoshi asks, before getting distracted by the crisis. She never returns to the issue, because that would force the episode to play its hand earlier than anticipated.
The result is a rather unsatisfying episode that could have been much stronger. Had Hoshi figured out the nature of her predicament earlier on, the episode could have embraced its surreal tendencies; it could also have forced Hoshi to confront her fears in a more direct and effective manner. It could have allowed Vanishing Point to engage Hoshi’s deep-seated issues head-on. After all, Vanishing Point introduces us to Hoshi’s family, but tells us nothing about her actual relationship with them.
Vanishing Point does at least touch on some interesting questions about transporter – at least in theory. Vanishing Point makes much of the fact that transporting is still a relatively novel technology. “Have you ever done this?” Hoshi asks Trip. He replies, “No, but the Captain has, and Malcolm did it twice. They said there’s nothing to it.” When Hoshi materialises, Reed quips, “Welcome to the club.” There is a sense that using the transporter is not something done casually.
“It’s going to be a while before any of us gets used to being taken apart and put back together again,” Trip observes. “It seems perfectly natural to be anxious about it.” The transporter has always been something of a metaphysical puzzlebox. It asks all sorts of fascinating philosophical questions about self and identity, even when it isn’t doing crazy things like combining or dividing crew members.
Even when the transporter works perfectly functionally, there are a lot of deep existential questions to be asked about the process. Although Star Trek tie-ins have been tackling these questions since at least Spock Must Die!, even pop culture outside of the franchise has explored the issue. One episode of Breaking Bad summarises some of these questions:
What do you think all those sparkles and sh!t are? The transporters are breaking you apart, man! Down to your molecules and bones! They’re making a copy! The dude coming out on the other side? That dude isn’t you. It’s a color xerox.
So you’re telling me that every time Kirk went into the transporter, he was killing himself? So over the whole series, there was 147 Kirks?
At least! Dude, why do you think McCoy never likes to beam nowhere? ‘Cause he’s a doctor, b!tch! Look it up. It’s science!
Glib though it might be, Skinny Pete and Badger raise some rather hefty questions about the process of transporting. Indeed, The Prestige offers a very clever exploration about the philosophical questions implicit in this fictional technology. One very important aspect of the story hinges on the development of transporter-like technology and the issues raised.
To be fair, Star Trek never quite embraced these sorts of heavy questions head-on. Indeed, the subject would not be explicitly broached until the fourth season of Enterprise. In what turned out to be the franchise’s last transporter episode, Daedalus rather casually and off-handedly dismissed “all that metaphysical chatter about whether or not the person who arrived after the transport was the same person who left, and not some weird copy.”
While Vanishing Point doesn’t broach the issue directly, it does treat Hoshi’s trip through the transporter as a metaphysical rather than a pseudo-scientific experience. Hoshi has to complete the journey on her own terms, rather than relying on vague techno-babble to ferry her across. She has to directly confront all her discomfort with the experience in order to get home. Vanishing Point would be a lot more interesting if it was willing to explore these tough questions, but there is some sense of the metaphysical horror at work.
(It is also nice to get a sense of space-age urban legends. Hoshi’s imagined story about “Cyrus Ramsay” can’t help but evoke the campfire stories that Mayweather told in Strange New World, helping to foster a sense that all this technology and space exploration is still a mystery to mankind. The show could have done with one or two more episodes focusing on these twenty-second century urban legends. Interestingly, the story of Cyrus Ramsay seems to foreshadow the show’s next big transporter episode, Daedalus.)
Vanishing Point is also notable for containing a shout-out to director Stuart Baird. It seems likely that “Crewman Baird” was named in honour of the director of Star Trek: Nemesis. After all, the film was only a few weeks away from release at this point, and Rick Berman had been working very closely with Baird in getting the cast of The Next Generation ready for what would be their final adventure together. However, the reference does not seem entirely flattering.
After all, Baird is introduced usurping a member of the regular cast – perhaps reflecting the sense that Jonathan Frakes was passed over for the gig. (For his part, Frakes has stated that he would have happily directed the film – were he asked.) Hoshi’s questioning of Baird’s basic competence and familiarity with the ship (“Crewman Baird doesn’t know the first thing about our linguistic database!”) reflects a lot of the cast and crew’s anxieties about Stuart Baird, who “knew nothing” about the franchise. After all, the director kept calling LeVar Burton’s character “Laverne.”
Vanishing Point is an episode that has a lot of potential. It teases a number of fascinating ideas. However, the execution ultimately feels too clumsy and haphazard. Vanishing Point suffers from holding back what might be a decent midpoint twist to the final minutes, which makes the rest of the episode feel random and rudderless. It also feels like something of a reheat rather than a fresh dish.
- Shockwave, Part II
- Carbon Creek
- Dead Stop
- A Night in Sickbay
- The Seventh
- The Communicator
- Vanishing Point
- Precious Cargo
- The Catwalk
- Cease Fire
- Future Tense
- The Crossing
- The Breach
- First Flight
- The Expanse
Filed under: Enterprise | Tagged: Brannon Braga, Breaking Bad, character, eneterprise, ensemble, enterprise, focus, hoshi, metaphysics, Rick Berman, sato, star trek, star trek: enterprise, star trek: the next generation, the next generation, the prestige, Transporter, trifecta, vanishing point |