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Star Trek: Enterprise – The Catwalk (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.

The Catwalk is a solid, if unexceptional, piece of Star Trek.

Given the problems that the second season of Star Trek: Enterprise has been having to date, it feels like a breath of fresh air. As with a lot of the episodes around it, The Catwalk feels a little familiar. There are refugees with a secret; an alien take-over of the ship; a clever bluff to reclaim the ship from a position of weakness. If we are looking at The Catwalk in the “… by way of …” formula that seems to apply to most of this stretch of the second season, The Catwalk is “Starship Mine by way of Basics.”

"Right, right! Goddammit, Trip, now we'll never get the high score!"

“Right, right! Goddammit, Trip, now we’ll never get the high score!”

However, The Catwalk feels a lot more functional than many of the earlier episodes in the season. A large part of that is down to the way that writers Mike Sussman and Phylis Strong play to their strengths. The inevitable alien hijacking and threat is relegated to the background; The Catwalk is almost half over by the time that anything actually happens. While the episode’s pacing is a little uneven, it does allow Sussman and Strong a bit of room to explore the characters, building up the sense that the crew is something of a family unit.

While The Catwalk isn’t innovative or particularly adventurous, it works quite well. The idea of pushing the whole crew into a confined space and having them weather the storm together feels like it captures a lot of the pioneering sense of adventure that the show has allowed to fade over the second season.

Don't forget to turn out the light...

Don’t forget to turn out the light…

There are some obvious problems here. The most obvious is that the threat to the ship feels like something of a false compromise. The boarding party only come on board around half-way through the episode, meaning that Archer and his crew spend only ten minutes or so dealing with what should be a pretty significant threat. At the same time, this ten-minute high-stakes adventure seems at odds with the more relaxed character interactions that drove the first half of the script.

There is a sense that The Catwalk might be a stronger episode if it committed to one idea or the other – if it were simply a bonding experience for the crew in tight quarters, or if it were only the story of a bunch of alien hijackers. The episode suffers from trying to be both, meaning that neither aspect is developed as well as it might be. The character interactions seem truncated and the episode’s climax seems oddly rushed.

"Oh no, the Nexus is back!"

“Oh no, the Nexus is back!”

Indeed, it seems like the hijacking plot element was added to the script simply so the show could have an action climax. It is a shame, because there’s something quite heart-warming about watching the crew all locked in a room together. The first half of The Catwalk seems to hark backwards to the more relaxed plotting of the early first season, playing like a companion piece to Strange New World or Breaking the Ice. It feels like this is just one part of space exploration that is a bit less heroic or epic than we’ve come to expect from the franchise.

This is the kind of thing that Kirk or Picard simply wouldn’t have to worry about, reinforcing the idea of Enterprise as a proto-Star Trek. One of the more interesting aspects of Enterprise – and something the show never really developed as well as it might – is the sense that the other Star Trek shows took a lot for granted. With outfits that look more like work overalls than jumpsuits, the crew of the Enterprise were really guinea pigs who didn’t treat the universe as casually as their successors would.

I love this idea that - with his impeccably maintained white overalls - Chef may be the most professional member of the crew...

I love this idea that – with his impeccably maintained white overalls – Chef may be the most professional member of the crew…

Star Trek tends to draw a lot from the myth of the American frontier. Even the famous “final frontier” alludes to the Western myth in the same way as John F. Kennedy’s “new frontier.” It is often suggested that Star Trek is in effect a western set in outer space. The original Star Trek owed a lot to Wagon Train. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine drew from The Rifleman. The first season of Star Trek: Voyager played up the franchise’s western iconography. Even Enterprise got in on the act with Marauders, with a mining outpost bullied by renegades.

In many ways, The Catwalk feels like another story of the American frontier adapted for the Star Trek universe. With a heady storm brewing outside, Archer and his crew are forced to “hole up” in the catwalks linking the nacelles to the body of the ship. It recalls the stories about the earliest frontier settlers circling the wagons to weather blizzards, or small towns huddled in local churches to shelter from howling winds.

Family time!

Family time!

Archer alludes to this in his conversations with T’Pol. “You know, there’s a bright side to all of this,” he reflects. “It’s bringing the crew closer together. If you forget about the storm outside, this is almost like going on a camping trip.” Some might point out that the storm outside only enhances the mood, as these explorers find themselves struggling in cramped living conditions with only a bare minimum of facilities and diversions.

There is something quite warm and affectionate here, with Archer pausing to help a crew member with a crossword or the senior staff sitting down to play poker. It plays almost like a larger family Christmas – packing as many members of the same family into as tight a space as possible, there’s a delicate balance between mild irritation and warm affection at place. They even argue about the choice of film.

"I can't let you do that, Trip!"

“I can’t let you do that, Trip!”

“Who’s picking these movies?” Hoshi asks, in a scene familiar to anybody who has ever attempted to organise a family movie night. “Shouldn’t we all get a vote?” And yet, despite their griping, everybody does gather around the warm glow of the monitor to watch the film. Even T’Pol gets into the spirit of the occasion, wryly predicting a plot twist. Asked how she could deduce the twist ahead of time, she reflects, “Isn’t it obvious?”

Despite this nice set-up and familial atmosphere, The Catwalk does emphasise some of the weaknesses of Enterprise as a television show. Most obviously, for a ship with a small population, it seems like the audience never knows anybody outside of the main cast. The Catwalk does not feature any members of the crew outside the senior staff, and there is no room for returning faces. The crew of the Enterprise seems to be the seven people in the opening credits, the alien guest stars of the week, and a bunch of anonymous extras.

Engineering an escape...

Engineering an escape…

To be fair, the first season had put a little effort into developing a recurring cast outside the leads, with supporting characters like Cutler and Rostov appearing in a couple of episodes each. Neither character appears here. Rostov would appear once more in The Crossing. Cutler would be quietly retired when actress Kellie Waymire passed away in November 2003. However, the show never developed the supporting ensembles that had worked so well on Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The nature of The Catwalk emphasises this absence.

Still, there is some room for solid character work. As with Shadows of P’Jem, Sussman and Strong seem particularly interested in the dynamic between T’Pol and Archer. Sussman and Strong seem to imagine Archer as something of a mentor to T’Pol, encouraging his Vulcan second-in-command to embrace new cultures and new possibilities. He encourages her to mingle with the crew and to open herself up.

"Hm. Never realised there's an autopilot here. Do we really NEED Mayweather?"

“Hm. Never realised there’s an autopilot here. Do we really NEED Mayweather?”

However, as with their teleplay for Fusion, Sussman and Strong seem to suggest that there is more to T’Pol than meets the eye. Her withdrawn nature is not merely logical detachment; she keeps her own secrets, remaining enigmatic and mysterious. Early in the episode, T’Pol lies to Archer about the fate of the last Vulcan ship to encounter a similar stellar phenomenon.

“A Vulcan starship encountered a class five over a century ago,” she tells her superior. “The vessel was nearly destroyed.” Later, Archer reveals that he double-checked. “I did a little research in the Vulcan database. That class five storm a century ago involved the Starship T’Plana. Apparently, they couldn’t outrun the wavefront. It was lost with all hands. I thought you said it was nearly destroyed.” T’Pol simply responds, “I must have remembered incorrectly.”

The tooth of the matter...

The tooth of the matter…

It is an interesting conversation, because The Catwalk never quite explains why the facts don’t line up. Did T’Pol make a mistake? Is this very obtuse foreshadowing of her Pa’nar Syndrome diagnosis in Stigma? Was it a matter of pride for T’Pol? Was she trying to keep something private? Was she trying to allay Archer’s concern about the damage that might be wrought by the storm? It is a little exchange that does a lot to suggest that T’Pol is a character with her own secrets and her own motivations, even if it is never entirely clear what those are.

Then again, it seems like Sussman and Strong had their own plans on where to take the character. The duo have written a number of scripts centring around T’Pol as a character, and they each suggest that T’Pol is somewhat more complicated than the human crew around her might suspect. Indeed, Sussman has conceded that he was hoping to build to the idea that T’Pol’s father was a Romulan rather than a Vulcan.

"Don't worry, I've watched enough Star Trek to know that ship hijackings always work out well for the hijackers."

“Don’t worry, I’ve watched enough Star Trek to know that ship hijackings always work out well for the hijackers.”

Giving T’Pol her secrets and building a sense of mystery around the character is one way of delineating between T’Pol and Seven of Nine, particularly if the show is going to try to make Archer her professor of the humanities and have her fit the requisite “gradually humanised outsider” role that every Star Trek show seems to demand. (And Deep Space Nine subverts.) The show has struggled to figure out what exactly to do with T’Pol as a character, and things will only get more confused between now and the end of the show.

The other interesting aspect of The Catwalk is the use of the Takret refugees. Enterprise aired in the shadow of 9/11. In a way, those terrorist attacks formed a more significant division between Enterprise and the rest of the franchise than any gap in the internal chronology. The attacks on the World Trade Centre had changed the way that America saw the world, and the way that it looked at itself.

A little empty inside...

A little empty inside…

The show would touch on that theme most directly in the third season, but it ripples through the first and second seasons. This was most obvious in the message-heavy Detained, but the terrorist attacks also coloured episodes like Shadows of P’Jem and The Seventh. The country’s attitude towards outsiders and foreigners had changed in the wake of the attacks, and that seemed to be reflected in the way that Enterprise examined alien cultures.

Most obviously, the show seemed to be a little more wary of alien species than its predecessors had been. In Vanishing Point, Hoshi’s subconscious anxieties manifested in visions of anonymous aliens infiltrating the Enterprise and turning its internal mechanisms against itself. In Dawn, it seems like that best possible first contact scenario is not one that ends with two people accepting and embracing each other; instead, it seemed like the show would settle for everybody knowing well enough to leave each other alone.

Catwalk of life...

Catwalk of life…

These attitudes reflect a broad response to the terrorist attacks. Xenophobia and racism have trended upwards in the first decade of the twenty-first century. There was a 1700% spike in racially-motivated violence after 9/11. The policies and rules governing immigration into the United States (and the experience of immigration itself) have changed dramatically since 2001. Even outside of statistics supporting this observation, there is also anecdotal evidence suggesting that America became a less welcoming place for outsiders.

This is not an issue exclusive to the United States. This mistrust and anxiety about foreigners also surged in Europe. Half of Britain’s mosques have been attacked since 9/11. Germany and France have also had to deal with their own issues related to migration and outsiders. The globalisation of the nineties might have made the world seem smaller, but the events of 9/11 made it much scarier.

Everything goes according to plan...

Everything goes according to plan…

Interestingly, The Catwalk plays with and subverts a lot of these anxieties. From the moment that the refugees arrive on the ship, the episode makes it clear that they are not who they claim to be. “What if they begin to ask questions?” Guri asks his fellow travelers. Later on, it is revealed that they are tampering with a “plasma manifold” just before Trip finds that “the anti-matter injectors” have come on-line.

The episode seems to be hinting that these refugees are a potential threat. It seems like The Catwalk is building to a reveal that the Takret have infiltrated the ship and forced the crew into the catwalk as part of a sinister plot to hijack the vessel. The casting of veteran character actor Zach Grenier as one of the refugees helps. A veteran character actor who had just come off a pretty major role in 24, Grenier has a surprisingly marginal role in The Catwalk. It is as though the episode is just waiting to reveal him as a sinister mastermind.

Travis lightens the mood...

Travis lightens the mood…

Even Trip seems frustrated with the guests. He offers commentary that sounds like standard anti-immigration nonsense. “We’re supposed to keep an open mind about different cultures, but these guys are driving me crazy,” he tells Archer at one point. “They only need to sleep once a week, so they’ve kept us up the last two nights with their strange rituals. Chanting, walking in circles. They’ve practically taken over the compartment.” This is the sort of rhetoric that is used to demonise immigrants and outsiders.

However, The Catwalk cleverly subverts all of these uncomfortable suggests. It turns out that the Takret refugees are actually fleeing persecution. They are not involved on the attack on Enterprise, and even help Archer to figure out the identity and motivations of the would-be hijackers. After all, though the militia is looking for the refugees, it is pointed out that they have a history of seizing fancy-looking vessels in the storm. There is not necessarily a causal link between the refugees and the hijacking – despite their shared history.

Deep purple...

Deep purple…

The Catwalk ultimately seems sympathetic to the refugees. Indeed, despite Archer’s immediate suspicion and frustration with the refugees, he seems genuinely concerned by their plight, wishing them good luck as they go their separate ways. It feels like The Catwalk is offering something of a commentary on how suspicious 9/11 has made people of outsiders – an acknowledgement of the lingering mistrust and discomfort. It plays out in the background of the episode, never feeling quite as forced as the similar commentary in Detained.

The Catwalk is a competent episode. It has a few moments of brilliance, and some inspired touches, but it never commits to these ideas as well as it might. It’s hard to call it a classic, but it does represent a welcome relief from what has been a muddled half-season.

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

4 Responses

  1. Precious Cargo was so bad that it took me months to come back and investigate the next episode, The Catwalk. And it is just as you describe it: competent.

    I also liked the T’Pol moments: her “misremembering” of the previous Vulcan experience with the stellar phenomenon. I liked her admitting her discomfort fraternizing with the crew. And I loved her “Isn’t it obvious?” moment when watching the old western movie.

    But the episode doesn’t rise above mere competence, and after having suffered through the previous awfulness of Precious Cargo, I finally realized why I have been so vaguely disappointed with Enterprise to date.

    It’s just episodes. Just weekly episodes.

    All the other iterations of Star Trek take place after TOS, so therefore they can spin out their own storylines. They can afford to be episodic if they want, with occasional two-parters and callbacks to events of the TOS.

    But Enterprise is a prequel. It NEEDS to build towards a very well known history as told in TOS and TNG. It needs to fill in the blanks. Connect the dots.

    But far, far too many of the episodes in the first two seasons to date are not bothering to connect the dots. They are just wasting our time, telling us weekly stories that may or may not be interesting of their own accord.

    But what they are decidedly NOT doing is filling in those blanks.

    And this is what is frustrating me. It frustrated me in the original broadcasts, and it is frustrating me in my rewatch.

    • I don’t mind Enterprise “not filling in the blanks.” I just want it to be good television. Which it is not, especially in these first two years. I quite like the third season, even if that has less to do with the Star Trek canon than the fourth.

      I just want good stories, well told. Enterprise is largely incapable of that for extended stretches of this run in the middle of its second season. It’s almost worst than being consistently awful, because at least that would involve trying.

  2. “there is also anecdotal evidence suggesting that America became a less welcoming place for outsiders.”

    *laughs in pain and frustration with the hindsight of the Trump Presidency and the coronavirus*

  3. This was an okay episode. It was another lost opportunity to do some deep character development. That fact that we get excited about the small exchanges between Archer and his crew speaks to how effective a real conversation between characters might be. Instead, we get Archer being confused that T’Pol doesn’t share every American human interest and activity possible, or Reed mentioning pineapple again.

    One can imagine how a scene like this would play out if Garak was stuck with someone, or Sisko was wandering through a confined crowd of his subordinates.

    Reed is more than pent up in this episode. He often acts with a weird lack of decorum for someone who is supposed to be rigid and obsessed with respecting superior officers.

    Mind you, his character is only sketched in with the vaguest of details.

    I’m glad the writers didn’t just make the alien refugees into criminals or backward savages, which is something I expected from them.

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