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Star Trek: Enterprise – Precious Cargo (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.

Precious Cargo is a disaster. It is a spectacularly terrible piece of television. It is the kind of episode that fans point towards when they want to belittle or diminish Star Trek: Enterprise.

To be fair, it isn’t as if the show has the monopoly on bad episodes of the franchise. After all, the original Star Trek gave us And The Children Shall Lead, The Way to Eden and The Apple. Star Trek: The Next Generation gave us Code of Honour, Angel One, The Child and Up the Long Ladder. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine produced Let He Who Is Without Sin, Profit and Lace and The Emperor’s New Cloak. Star Trek: Voyager is responsible for Fair Haven and Spirit Folk. When you produce twenty-something episodes of television a year, terrible episodes happen.

We are Trip, of Bored...

We are Trip, of Bored…

Indeed, they will keep happening. Precious Cargo cannot even make an indisputable claim to being the weakest story of the troubled second season. There are fans who will argue that A Night in Sickbay or Bounty deserve that accolade. Nevertheless, it seems like everyone is agreed that Precious Cargo is a disaster from start to finish. It is a collection of pulpy science-fiction clichés that feels overly familiar, a lazy comedy without any solid jokes and a complete lack of chemistry between the two leads.

Precious Cargo is a spectacular misfire, an ill-judged and poorly-constructed addition to the franchise.

"Wait, another Trip comedy episode?"

“Wait, another Trip comedy episode?”

Precious Cargo is the first episode credited to writer David Goodman. Goodman had been working in the industry since 1988. The year before he joined the writing staff on Enterprise, he had written the Star Trek homage Where No Fan Has Gone Before for Futurama. After the show was cancelled, he worked hard to get on the Enterprise staff:

I was out of work, Futurama had been cancelled, and I couldn’t find a job writing for a comedy. I had always wanted to write for Star Trek, so I started bugging my agent to get me a meeting. Brannon Braga had heard about my Futurama episode, and he and Rick Berman liked the idea of bringing a comedy writer onto Enterprise. I had a meeting with Brannon, where I parroted back to him all his quotes about Star Trek which I remembered from all the interviews I’d read of his over the years. He brought me in to meet with Rick Berman, and they hired me.

In many respects, hiring David A. Goodman can be seen as a continuation of Brannon Braga’s attempts to bring a different flavour to the writing staff on Enterprise. An industry veteran who had worked on shows like The Golden Girls and Futurama, he was not the kind of writer one would have imagined working on a Star Trek show.

Wake-up call!

Wake-up call!

The first season had seen Braga load the staff with writers who had experience outside science-fiction – James Duff and Andre and Maria Jacquemetton come to mind. This approach had not paid off particularly well, leading to a massive exodus from the staff over the year. As such, Braga seemed a bit more cautious in recruiting writers during the second season. Writers like David A. Goodman and John Shiban had a lot of experience outside of genre work, but they were also quite familiar with science-fiction storytelling.

Although not without any bumps, this approach did pay off. Two of the stronger episodes from the second season came from Shiban and Goodman. In particular, Goodman is an avowed (and enthusiastic) fan of the franchise. Like Mike Sussman, he has remained engaged with fandom and the show’s legacy. (He has posted on message boards and recorded commentaries.) Indeed, Goodman even wrote the reference book Federation: The First 150 Years, which can be seen as a companion to the series and a bridge to the rest of the franchise.

A cutting retort...

A cutting retort…

That said, when Goodman first arrived on Enterprise, he found himself struggling against his own writing history and his previous credits. Although Precious Cargo is the first episode credited to him, Goodman’s first writing assignment was to write background dialogue for the sitcom playing in the background during Carbon Creek. Once a comedy writer, always a comedy writer. In a way, this explains why the brief for Precious Cargo went to Goodman. It was intended as a comedy episode, and he was a comedy writer. That should be a good fit, right?

This pigeon-holing is rather unfortunate. Goodman is a great comedy writer, as his work on Futurama or even Family Guy will attest. However, his best work on Star Trek was serious in nature. Judgment is one of the franchise’s best Klingon-centric episodes, and The Forgotten is a beautiful example of the third season’s attempts to figure out long-form storytelling. Even North Star – for all its flaws – feels like a loving tribute to those cheesy sixties “parallel Earth” stories.

The script gets shot to hell...

The script gets shot to hell…

However, as Goodman himself has conceded, Precious Cargo was one hell of a trial by fire.

With Precious Cargo I was new to the staff, I didn’t fully understand the rules and I definitely didn’t – a lot of my problems with that episode were my fault, in terms of how I approached writing it. You learn as you go. I still say the piece of crap that I wrote was not the piece of crap that aired. (Laughs) I don’t take full responsibility for the episode, but I definitely had a lot to learn… even up to that point I had not written for one-hour television which was definitely very different from writing for half-hour. I had a big learning curve, and I learnt a lot.

It is a script that would likely have caused problems for even established writers on staff, so handing it to a novice seemed a little unfair.

Welcome to the jungle...

Welcome to the jungle…

As Goodman suggested, the episode went through something of a messy re-write process. In Uncharted Territory, Brannon Braga notes just how difficult an experience Precious Cargo was for the show:

Precious Cargo is, in my opinion, one of the worst episodes of Star Trek ever. … I did a re-write on it. I treated it like a screw ball comedy. I don’t think I did a very good job, and I struggled through it. … The episode was terrible. It was terrible. … It was embarrassing. I wish we could not air it. That was an episode that I may have even said to Rick, “Do we have to air this? Do we have to air all of our episodes?” Of course we did.

Such is the reality of television. UPN had been promised twenty-six episodes of Enterprise, and they needed to receive twenty-six episodes of Enterprise. It is the same logic behind episodes like Shades of Grey or The Neutral Zone. The objective was to fill the air for forty-five minutes.

"i met him in a swamp down in Degobah..."

“i met him in a swamp down in Degobah…”

In his audio commentary for Judgment, Goodman quipped that he was almost fired following Precious Cargo.

It is not hard to see why that might be the case. The episode is a dull plodding mess.

"Computer, set lighting to atmospheric."

“Computer, set lighting to atmospheric.”

Indeed, Precious Cargo is almost universally accepted as a disaster. John Billingsley, who can be quite candid in his assessment of the show, has named it as his least favourite episode of Enterprise ever produced:

I thought that was an unfortunate episode all around. It just didn’t work. Again, no fault of the actors. It just didn’t come together. And it was at a touchy point in our second season. We were holding on to not-great, but adequate audience numbers and after that episode our numbers just plummeted and we never got the audience back again.

While Billingsley might over-emphasise the correlation between Precious Cargo and falling ratings – after all, the show had been trending downwards since Broken Bow and the real plunge didn’t take place until the final third of the season – he does capture the mood at this point in the show’s run. Precious Cargo feels fatigued.

Trip finds himself in a bit of a fix...

Trip finds himself in a bit of a fix…

Like a lot of the second season, Precious Cargo feels like a rehash of stories we have already seen. Although there are shades of Elaan of Troyius and The Perfect Mate in the finished episode, there is also a sense that episode is mostly powered by pulpy clichés. A beautiful female princess is captured by evil aliens and rescued by our rugged non-nonsense male lead. The two find themselves trapped in a life-and-death situation. Sparks fly as her sense of decorum brushes against his roguish charm. Inevitably, they are stranded together. Romance ensues.

In a way, Precious Cargo seems to owe as much to Star Wars as it does to Star Trek. In particular, the plot feels like it is playing out a truncated version of the romantic arc between Han Solo and Leia Organa. Trip is very much cast in the role of Han Solo, the charming fast-talking down-to-earth guy with no pretensions. Kaitaama is playing the role of Princess Leia, the victim of an intergalactic kidnapping who finds herself consorting with a different class of man than usual.

Maybe Trip should fly Solo on this one...

Maybe Trip should fly Solo on this one…

The episode reinforces these similarities, practically inviting the comparison. Although Trip tries to put the escape pod down on a chain of equatorial islands, he instead crash lands in a swamp that cannot help but evoke Luke’s training on Degobah during The Empire Strikes Back. At another point, Kaitaama identifies Trip as her “only hope”, a choice of wording that conjures up images of Leia’s desperate plea to Obi-Wan at the start of A New Hope.

Interestingly, this isn’t the only example of the second season drawing from another iconic and popular science-fiction franchise. The second season of Enterprise has adopted something of a mix-and-match approach to science-fiction storytelling, an affectionate pot luck style of plotting. Often, these episodes borrow from within the franchise itself. Vanishing Point is stitched together from bits and pieces of Next Generation episodes like some grotesque Frankenstein’s monster. However, several episodes from the season look outside the confines of Star Trek for inspiration.

Swamped...

Swamped…

Precious Cargo seems to be an attempt to do the Han and Leia romance from The Empire Strikes Back in the context of Star Trek. Dawn will see the show blending bits of Darmok with the cult eighties science-fiction film Enemy Mine. In Future Tense, the ship encounters a surviving ship from the Last Great Time War Temporal Cold War that is bigger on the inside. Mike Sussman has joked that the production team vetoed his desire to have the ship to take the form of a phone box.

However, trying do a Han and Leia romantic comedy episode just emphasises how incompatible Star Trek tends to be with these other franchises. Despite the fact that popular culture tends to identify Star Trek and Star Wars as the two biggest science-fiction franchises, the two are rather diametrically opposed to each other. The Federation and Starfleet feel like benign (and more colourful) versions of the Empire; were Han Solo working in the Alpha Quadrant, he’d probably find himself allied with the Orion Syndicate or trading with the Maquis.

A cool reception...

A cool reception…

As major science-fiction franchises go, Star Trek tends to be quite structured and ordered in its utopian vision. Despite Picard’s protest that Starfleet is not a military organisation, it looks and acts quite like one. Of the five live action television series, only Deep Space Nine dared to suggest that Starfleet and the Federation are only one of many diverse ways of looking at the universe. (Although it should be noted that The Next Generation seemed to grow more open-minded and critical about blindly trusting authority as it progressed and evolved.)

This isn’t a problem unique to crossing over Star Trek and Star Wars. When IDW opted to cross The Next Generation with Doctor Who for Assimilation², the comic book miniseries never quite explained how the characters integrated so smoothly. After all, the Federation seems uncomfortably close to the kind of vaguely fascist dystopia that the Doctor frequently tears down, while the Doctor was precisely the sort of rogue imp for whom Picard had little patience. After all, the first thing Picard did with a de-powered Q in Déjà Q was to throw the character in the brig.

"We'll have you doing the Kessel Run in no time..."

“We’ll have you doing the Kessel Run in no time…”

Star Trek is a franchise that doesn’t lend itself to this particular brand of pulp space romantic comedy. Precious Cargo is basically a combination of genre elements with which the franchise has struggled in the past. Outside of the original series, Star Trek has never been consistently able to deliver on pulp or romance or comedy. The Next Generation worked so hard to establish itself as a serious (and not at all campy) science-fiction series that it constructed a framework into which these more fanciful elements do not comfortably fit.

However, even outside of the problems writing a wacky romantic comedy for Star Trek, Precious Cargo struggles with the chemistry – or lack thereof – between the two leads. The episode’s big guest star is Padma Lakshmi. Something of a renaissance woman, Lakshmi had been modelling since she was eighteen, but had also found success as a chef – her first cookbook, published in 1999, won the “Best First Book” award at the  Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. Lakshmi would go on to great success as the host of Top Chef, winning an Emmy for her work on the show.

Rather Arch(er)...

Rather Arch(er)…

Precious Cargo comes relatively early in Lashkmi’s career as an actress. Her prior credit is the much-maligned Mariah Carey vehicle Glitter. Lashkmi would go on to make a handful of television appearances during the first decade of the twentieth century, although her guest turns since 2007 (in 30 Rock and Royal Pains) feature the actress playing a version of herself. While Precious Cargo doesn’t give Lashkmi anything to work with, she shares absolutely no chemistry with co-star Connor Trinneer. Every line is forced, every delivery flat. There is no passion, no charge.

It’s hard not to feel a little sorry for Connor Trinneer here. The actor has a great deal of charisma and personality, and has made Trip one of the most engaging and best defined members of the show’s ensemble. The show seems to realise this – second season episodes like The Seventh and The Communicator have rather simple comedic subplots that boil down to “something strange happens to Trip; Connor Trinneer reacts.”

Tripped up again...

Tripped up again…

However, this likability has seen Trinneer saddled with some of the show’s worst attempts at comedy. Unexpected, Acquisition and Precious Cargo all feature Trinneer trying his best to sell material that simply isn’t up to scratch. There is something charming in Trinneer’s willingness to just go along with whatever crazy situations the writers throw at him, and the actor seems to genuinely trust the show. This pays off later on, when the third and fourth seasons find much more for Trip to do. For now, though, it means he gets stuck with Precious Cargo.

Precious Cargo is a pretty serious misfire, a script which takes a tired and clichéd science-fiction plot and doesn’t do anything particularly worthwhile with it. It is a romance without any romantic tension between the leads, a comedy without any laughs. It is, by all accounts, one of the weakest episodes of the season.

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

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6 Responses

  1. This is rapidly turning into the John Carter film.

    I think ENT has painted itself into a corner, tonally speaking. VOY came along at the right time; the nineties saw a boom is sci fi and fantasy, mostly cheeky in nature. You could get away with a pulpy throwback with lots of action, laughs and titillation. By this point we’re harder to tickle as an audience, and the writers aren’t sure whether they should go broad or stick to hard science fiction. Ultimately the show would reject both and go for a more political approach.

    I wonder if a better formula would be this: keep the comedy, but jettison the William Burroughs stuff and focus on the fear-mongering back home. It would be like NCIS in space — you’ve already got your Ducky Mallard in Phlox.

    • And an NCIS leading man in Scott Bakula!

      I think you’re right, though. At this point, Enterprise was a nineties show at the start of the new millennium. It was woefully outdated.

  2. I’m finally back to working my way through Enterprise after my surgery, and gee, what a welcome back. 🙂 When WILL Archer learn not to take strangers at face value every time he meets one? When WILL he learn not to lend out crew members without security? I don’t want him to be hostile towards new people, but he could give them something other than blind trust.

    I did get some small enjoyment out of the subplot where Archer paints T’Pol as a vicious, bloodthirsty killer in their sting to get information out of their prisoner, but mostly because I pictured Leonard Nimoy’s reaction if Kirk had tried to use Spock in a similar way. 🙂

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