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Star Trek: Enterprise – Dawn (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.

Dawn arrives at a very delicate moment in Star Trek history.

Star Trek: Nemesis had hit cinemas the weekend before The Catwalk aired. It had been an immediate and humiliating disaster for Paramount. It arrived in a stuffed Christmas season, amid a relentless onslaught of big budget blockbuster fare – competing for space against Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Die Another Day and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. It was the first Star Trek film not to open at the top of the United States box office, landing second to Maid in Manhattan.

Engineering a solution...

Engineering a solution…

The prognosis for Star Trek as a franchise had not been particularly optimistic for quite some time. The ratings had been in decline since Star Trek: The Next Generation went off the air. Star Trek: Enterprise was airing on a dying network. Changing management at UPN was less friendly to the franchise than it had been. However, the spectacular failure of Star Trek: Nemesis was perhaps the most public blow the franchise had taken. The critics now had ammunition; the vultures were circling; the franchise was on the ropes for the world to see.

The Catwalk had aired a few days after Nemesis crash-landed, when the franchise was still reeling. The first episode of Star Trek to air in 2003, Dawn was broadcast after the franchise and the public had time to properly process the disaster. It goes without saying that there was a lot of pressure on the episode.

Alien nation...

Alien nation…

The failure of Nemesis – the landmark tenth film in the franchise – had prompted all manner of discussion about the viability of Star Trek as a franchise into the twenty-first century. Science-fiction writer Christopher J. Priest described Nemesis as “an extinction level event. A franchise killer.” In contemporaneous interviews, Rick Berman conceded that Star Trek‘s future on the big screen was “uncertain.” More than that, though, reports already suggested that executives were pondering “whether the show is nearing its final TV frontier.”

There was a sense that Nemesis had exposed Star Trek as a spent force, that it demonstrated just how fatigued the franchise had become. Discussing his experience watching Nemesis, film critic Roger Ebert reflected, “Gradually it occurs to me that Star Trek is over for me. I’ve been looking at these stories for half a lifetime, and, let’s face it, they’re out of gas.” When Nemesis was released in 2002, Star Trek had been on the air continuously for fifteen years, producing six feature films and twenty-two seasons of television. That is a lot of material. No wonder it felt tired.

Shuttle up...

Shuttle up…

So Dawn aired against all these uncertainties. As an episode of Star Trek, it needed to do the impossible. It needed to be phenomenal. It needed to prove that Star Trek was still a viable and relevant television franchise. It did not do any of these things. Even if it had, it would not have mattered. On initial broadcast, Dawn was the second-lowest rated episode of Enterprise broadcast to that point, tying with Vanishing Point. Even if it had pulled a rabbit out of the proverbial hat, nobody was watching.

Some of that mournfulness seems to have been captured in the episode itself. As Trip faces his own death, he seems to articulate the sentiments that must have been playing out behind the scenes – glad to have been a part of something magical, and a little sad to see the end looming so close. It feels particularly pointed, given how Trip describes his experiences as “stories” rather than “memories.” He reflects, “Now there’s a story. I’m sure you have stories, too. That’s why we chose this life, right? See things we’ve never seen before. Hell of a ride, though. Hell of a ride.”

Flying on autopilot...

Flying on autopilot…

To be entirely fair, Dawn isn’t bad. Much like The Catwalk before it, Dawn is a competent and efficient (albeit unexceptional) hour of television. There is a baseline effectiveness here, the sort of middle-of-the-road reliability that John Shiban brought to his extended work on The X-Files. Dawn is an enjoyable and inoffensive hour of television, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The biggest problem is that it is also one of the strongest episodes of the season to date.

We’re still in the “Star Trek’s Greatest Hits” phase of the second season, where every episode appears to be a blend of various popular earlier episodes and common Star Trek (or broader science-fiction) tropes. Dawn is basically “Darmok meets The Enemy meets Gravity”, with a healthy dose of any other “shuttle crash causes unlikely team-up” stories from the franchise’s history. There’s something almost charmingly old-fashioned in this “human and alien learn to get along despite language and cultural barriers” story.

A beast of an ally...

A beast of an ally…

It is tempting to look at the first two seasons of Enterprise as an extension of the sort of complacency that was at play during the production of Star Trek: Voyager. After all, both Voyager and the first two seasons of Enterprise tend to fall back on stock Star Trek elements and storytelling, with little regard for how the television landscape was changing around them. However, there is a very different tone to Enterprise as opposed to Voyager.

It seemed like Voyager‘s reliance on stock Star Trek plotting and structuring was anchored in a sense of pride and triumph. Voyager launched when Star Trek was at its zenith. The Next Generation had finished a triumphant seven season run, earning an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Drama and transitioning to the big screen. Voyager was the cornerstone of UPN, the new network that Paramount had boldly launched to stake its claim on the market. Voyager seemed to rest on its laurels, secure in its own ascendency. There was no need to change.

Between a rock and a hard place...

Between a rock and a hard place…

In contrast, the first two seasons of Enterprise seemed to find the franchise at a point of crisis. Rick Berman and Brannon Braga have both suggested that they wanted to rest the franchise between Voyager and Enterprise, but the network and studio demanded that the show go into production. Braga had massive difficulty managing the writers’ room during that first season. Towards the end of the first season, there was a change in management at UPN – Star Trek was clearly no longer the golden goose.

In a way, the second season’s emphasis on revisiting successful Star Trek stories could be seen as an attempt to “double down” on the Star Trek formula. It wasn’t simply an attempt to keep doing what had worked before, it felt like a definite effort to revisit past successes and to prove that Enterprise could be a “Star Trek” show, even if it did not have the label in the credits yet. After all, Voyager was never quite as blatant in its homages to The Next Generation as Enterprise has been through this stretch of the season.

"Trip and Zho'Kaan at Tanagra..."

“Trip and Zho’Kaan at Tanagra…”

What is interesting about Enterprise is that each of the four seasons tried in their own way to reinvigourate an ailing franchise. The first season struggled to balance the need for something new with the more traditional trappings. The second pushed hard at nostalgia for the success of The Next Generation, trying to apply what had worked before one more time. The third tried to updates Star Trek for the twenty-first century, in terms of content and storytelling style. The fourth tried to connect Enterprise to the large franchise mythology.

None of these approaches quite worked, although the approach taken during the second season feels the most ill-judged. It is the approach that is perhaps the hardest to justify. It is the approach that also caused the most harm. This was the season that really solidified the impression that Star Trek had no new tricks; that the franchise was simply repeating what had worked before with little regard for how times had changed.

Feeling the burn...

Feeling the burn…

If certain aspects of the first season of The Next Generation harked back to the sixties, it felt like the second season of Enterprise harked back to the nineties. Dawn could have aired as an episode of The Next Generation. Indeed, it cannot help but evoke Darmok – a beloved episode from the fifth season of that show. This is good and solid Star Trek. This is what people think about when they think about second-generation Star Trek. It just feels like the same ideas have been looping for a decade and a half at this point.

It’s a shame, because there is a lot to like about Dawn. Most obviously, it feels like it harks back to the optimism associated with Star Trek as a franchise. Trapped on an unexplored planet with a strange alien, Trip and his counterpart are forced to cooperate in order to escape. Despite the fact that they cannot speak the same language, the two must come to grudgingly respect and understand each other if they hope to survive. They do. Dawn rather touchingly ends with the alien thanking Trip.

Don't sweat the little stuff...

Don’t sweat the little stuff…

However, there is just a slight shade of cynicism to all this. In Darmok, Picard forged a bond with the Children of Tama. The episode ended on the promise that the Federation and the Children of Tama might extend the hand of friendship towards each other – that there was hope for cooperation and understanding, even across lingual and cultural barriers. In contrast, Dawn ends with Starfleet and the Akronians going their separate ways. The best they can hope to learn from one another is to respect their boundaries and differences.

In some ways, this reflects Enterprise as Star Trek for the post-9/11 era. Gone was the utopian dream of a universe where everybody might intermingle and exist as friends. Instead, it seemed that the priority was to establish and understand boundaries with the other. Picard hoped to learn more about the Children of Tama and come to understand their culture. Archer settles for assistance locating a missing crew member and a warning to stay out of Arkonian space.

Balancing the scales...

Balancing the scales…

At the end of the episode, after Zshaar promises to discipline Zho’kaan, Archer tries to be more understanding. “It was a misunderstanding,” Archer offers. “I hope we can avoid them in the future.” The polite attempt to reach out is firmly rebuked. “I expect you to leave this system immediately, as agreed,” Zshaar responds, leaving promptly. Archer remarks to T’Pol, “I guess we won’t be adding the Arkonians to our list of friends.”

Although the show would really embrace the post-9/11 mindset at the end of the second season, it seems like Enterprise is a bit more wary of outsiders and alien cultures than any of the other Star Trek shows. Not only are the Vulcans introduced as secretive and untrustworthy allies, but it seems like the Enterprise seems to spend most of its time learning not to stick its nose where it doesn’t belong. For a show about the early years of the Federation, it seems like Enterprise is not particularly interested in building bridges or alliances or understandings.

"This is my boom stick!"

“This is my boom stick!”

In Minefield, the Romulans tell Archer and his crew to stay out of their territory. In Marauders, it is made clear that Archer cannot count on the Klingon High Council to remember how much he has done for them.  In The Communicator, Archer seems to confront the possibility that his attempts to observe a pre-warp civilisation may have caused an incredible amount of harm. In Vanishing Point, Hoshi imagines anonymous aliens infiltrating the ship. In The Catwalk, Trip complains about the smells and rituals of alien refugees.

Even later on, the second season seems a little skeptical and wary of alien cultures. The Klingon justice system serves to stitch Archer up in Judgment. The “wisps” in The Crossing claim to come in peace, but plot to hijack the crew of the Enterprise. Evidence of aliens buried in the Arctic turns out to be the Borg in Regeneration – planting a homing beacon that leads to untold suffering in the future. Even in Cogenitor, the joy of mutual exploration and peaceful coexistence comes with a warning about the harm that might be caused through interference.

Tough skinned...

Tough skinned…

Then again, perhaps the ending of Dawn is optimistic in its own way. After all, you cannot force somebody to be your friend. As Star Trek: Deep Space Nine reflected, the Federation could occasionally be imperialist in its approach to other cultures – attempting to erode their own cultural values and replace them with values more in like with those of the Federation. As Eddington argued in For the Cause, the Federation dream is that every race might one day be united under the Federation banner – an outlook uncomfortably reflected in the Borg.

Here, it is made clear that Zho’kaan has not been changed by his experience; he has not magically become more open-minded or tolerant. When they get back on the ship, Trip tries to temp Zho’kaan to try new things. “Our chef is making something called chicken marsala tonight,” Trip offers, in his friendly way. When Zho’kaan declines, firmly, Trip acknowledges, “Tarattaash. Got you.” Zho’kaan is not born again after his near death on the surface. He has not embraced Starfleet’s dream of a pan-galactic future.

"Don't beat yourself up over it..."

“Don’t beat yourself up over it…”

Zho’kaan is still the same person who landed on the planet. More or less. The “thank you” is a nice touch – suggesting that Zho’kaan has changed just enough to make peaceful co-existence possible, but not so much that buys wholeheartedly into Trip’s philosophical outlook. Starfleet and the Arkonians may not be friends, but they at least seem to understand one another. This is not an unqualified happy ending, but it is close enough. It is an ending that remains pragmatic, with just a faint trace of optimism.

Dawn is also notable for giving Connor Trinneer some good material. This is the best use that Enterprise has made of the actor since Shuttlepod One, one that uses Trinneer’s charm and sincerity to carry a dramatic plot – instead of using him to anchor a comedic plot or subplot. There’s something quite fun about seeing Trip interact with an alien. He is one of the better-defined members of the ensemble, and his Southern charm plays well against Zho’kaan’s overt aggressiveness.

A heated discussion...

A heated discussion…

It is also interesting to note the show’s episode towards continuity. Enterprise tends to have a very strange relationship with its own internal continuity. The writers seem more acutely aware of what came before than they were on Voyager or The Next Generation. There is a definite sense that the writing staff knows where the show is going week-in and week-out, that they have an idea of how the episodes fit in relation to one another.

Characters will frequently reference earlier episodes in dialogue. Here, Trip rhymes off reference to Unexpected, Precious Cargo and Cold Front, among others. The Communicator featured the captured Suliban ship from Broken Bow. Reed cited several earlier episodes as evidence of lax security standards in Singularity. Archer makes reference to the events of Broken Bow and Sleeping Dogs in Marauders. However, this feels like a very precise and meticulous sort of continuity – the kind that you might see on an internet bulletin board or website. Citations, so to speak.

The dark side of this moon...

The dark side of this moon…

There is a minimal sense that anything that has actually happened on the show has made a difference to any of the characters or to the ship itself. These little nuggets prove that the writers are watching their own show, but they don’t seem to add up to much. They exist to buttress dialogue that would work fine if it were changed to refer to unseen events or even offered without specific examples. It’s continuity that could be trimmed from the episodes without losing anything. The show is still largely episodic.

It is interesting, because the second season actually opened with some wonderful uses of continuity. The events of Minefield fed directly into Dead Stop, while the two existed as completely independent stories. Instead, Dead Stop took the status quo at the end of Minefield and used that to tell its own story. It was a nice compromise between a loose episodic structure and rigid serialisation. However, the show seemed to abandon that quite quickly, with only an occasional sense of progression to be found.

Pilot error...

Pilot error…

This is interesting because things start to change at this point in the year. Dawn marks the half-way point of the season. The next three episodes all pick up threads of continuity that had been left fallow since the end of the first season. There is a loose thread of continuity that runs through the second half of the season involving Archer and the Klingons. While this feels like too little too late – after all, the end of the first season had similar experiments with carrying story elements over from one episode to the next – it is a welcome change.

Dawn works well enough, even if it is a little too rote to be exceptional. At its core, Dawn is pure archetypal Star Trek storytelling. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, it seemed to arrive at a point where Star Trek needed to be reminded of that.

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

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4 Responses

  1. How sad that ENT has become so unmoored that it needs to be “reminded” of stock Star Trek tropes. 😐

    • Well, I think it happens to every sufficiently long-running franchise once in a while. Look at Doctor Who in the eighties. Which would be about the same point in its history – twenty-odd seasons in and facing cancellation.

  2. What’s frustrating about Enterprise so far is these paeans to the idea of continuity (referencing past episodes) without any real character continuity. The crew is still pretty broadly drawn and inconsistent from episode to episode. It feels like the writing staff is squandering the opportunity they have with this cast, because they’re really quite good performers.

    • Yeah, Montgomery is probably the weakest of the bunch, and even he is extremely likable in a way that… say… the background players on Voyager were not. But Linda Park and Dominic Keating are both horribly under-served. And it takes the production team a long time to realise just how perfectly Connor Trinneer has been cast.

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