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Star Trek: Enterprise – Cease Fire (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.

It is weird to think that Star Trek was dying in early years of the twenty-first century.

After all, the original series had greatly increased its cultural cachet at the height of the Cold War. The adventures of James Tiberius Kirk offered an optimistic alternative to total nuclear annihilation and a doomsday clock that was rapidly approaching midnight. Logic would suggest that utopian fantasy was all the more essential when contrasted against harsh reality. In fact, it seemed like cynicism and pessimism thrived in the (relatively) peaceful and prosperous decade following the collapse of the Cold War. The X-Files and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine were inescapably products of the nineties.

I'm blue dabba dee dabba dii...

I’m blue dabba dee dabba dii…

So one imagines that the dread and fear that took root in the wake of 9/11 might somehow make the optimism and hope of Star Trek all the more essential. After all, pundits and commentators wasted no time in suggesting that irony and cynicism were passé. Stephen Thompson, editor of The Onion, suggested that the age of irony had ended only a week after the attacks.  Graydon Carter, editor of Variety, observed, “I think it’s the end of the age of irony. Things that were considered fringe and frivolous are going to disappear.” In a highly publicised Time article, Roger Rosenblatt rejoiced.

Of course, irony was far from dead, as films like Team America: World Police demonstrated. The Colbert Report became a cultural phenomenon. The Onion is still in business. However, the speed with which these commentators latched on to the idea of the death of irony suggested that the mood had changed perceptibly. Maybe not definitively, maybe not completely, but there was a change in the air. If ever there was a time for the optimism and the utopianism of Star Trek, it would be this particular moment.

"This is the point where everything changed..."

“This is the point where everything changed…”

However, it seemed like 9/11 eroded the franchise’s faith in utopia. Understandably – and perhaps inevitably – Star Trek: Enterprise found itself warped by images and iconography associated with the attacks. The tradition idyllic alien worlds associated with the franchise – visible in early episodes like Strange New World and Civilisation were quickly replaced by landscapes evoking the popular mood – apocalyptic cityscapes of Shadows of P’Jem and Shockwave, Part II, the deserts of Desert Crossing, the militaristic settings of Detained and The Communicator, or even the darkness of Rogue Planet.

It was as if 9/11 had warped the psychological landscape of the Star Trek universe, throwing everything into doubt. Far from responding to that real-world tragedy with optimism and hope, it seemed that Enterprise only lost certainty in itself. Cease Fire is an episode that feels plagued by self-doubt and insecurity, even as it tries to find its way back to the franchise’s trademark idealism. It may not quite find its way back to the path, but it makes a reasonable effort.

It's all in ruins...

It’s all in ruins…

To be fair, Star Trek was not the only piece of science-fiction that seemed affected by the events of 9/11. It seems that the entire genre became darker and heavier in the wake of that atrocity, as if the collective subconscious was trying to process the trauma. Dystopia became an even stronger recurring theme for twenty-first century science-fiction, as Paul Constant noted in his review of Edan Lepucki’s California:

But still, in the same way that readers of the 1990s eventually grew weary of icy suburbs populated with dark comedy and sly sociopaths, a reader in this decade sometimes wants a vacation from the postapocalyptic landscape. Even California-style literary death-worlds, with their gorgeous depictions of desolation, are starting to grate with their mysterious befores, their boundless suspicion, and their endless capitalizations of simple nouns for emphasis (the Spikes guard the Land, while others live in Communities, and the Group figures into the Plot of the Book, too). Must we end all the time? Can’t we write the world whole again?

As presented in Cease Fire, Weytahn (or Paan Mokar) is yet another apocalyptic city landscape. It is a ruin of city, filled with wreckage and ruins. The plant life is dead, killed by an ash cloud that never seems to lift, branches contorted in a grotesque mockery of life. It seems like any settlers or inhabitants are long gone; there is no wildlife to speak of, only the sound of fire fights in the distance.

An Andorian incident...

An Andorian incident…

The production design on Weytahn is starting to look quite familiar. It calls to mind the dive bar setting of The Seventh, the ruins of Shockwave, Part II, the failed world of Shadows of P’Jem. During the eighties and nineties, the alien worlds of Star Trek have generally been quite peaceful and tranquil. Even the troubled colonies in Journey’s End or The Maquis looked like paradise. A little repair work might be required to help the communities featured in The Storyteller or Preemptive Strike, but they were still places where people could live.

To be fair, Enterprise contains its own idyllic worlds. The alien world visited in Civilisation feels very much in keeping with the franchise’s classic aesthetic – a colourful and functioning society with a problem for our heroes to fix. While there are still examples of functioning worlds to be found in Enterprise – the version of Rise presented in Two Days and Two Nights comes to mind – they are now the exception rather than the rule. In the wake of 9/11 Enterprise seems to drift between scarred and scorched worlds.

A walk among the ruins...

A walk among the ruins…

The imagery seems to consciously evoke coverage of the 9/11 attacks. After all, it was quite common for commentators to parse the footage of the horror by reference to cinema. New York City looked like a war zone, an apocalyptic nightmare. “There was a horrible way in which the ghastly imagery of Sept. 11 was stuff we had already made for ourselves as entertainment first,” film critic Dave Thomson noted. Perhaps that explains why so much twenty-first century cinema would play off the attacks – as if reliving the horror time and time again. It was perhaps the easiest way to process what had happened.

This perhaps reflects the clear wounds that had been dealt to the philosophy of the Star Trek franchise. After all, the Federation had always been an extrapolation of the United States into the future – a “final frontier” built from John F. Kennedy’s “new frontier.” So the brutal terrorist attack upon the United States inevitably reverberated into the franchise itself. Deep Space Nine had interrogated and examined the Federation during its seven-year run, but it did so from the comfort and stability of the nineties. The political climate surrounding Enterprise was something altogether different.

A dusty dust-up...

A dusty dust-up…

It should be noted that 9/11 would still be something of a pressing concern to the franchise when JJ Abrams decided to reboot the series towards the end of the decade. As Stephen McVeigh contended in The Kirk Doctrine:

A good deal of the power of the new Star Trek emerges from its juxtaposition of the course of American history as it was expected to continue in 1991 and the radical change of course it experienced on September 11. 2001. The traumatic effect it had on the United States (and Star Trek’s narrative) is inestimable.

However, much of that trauma is evident in Enterprise as well. Episodes like Cease Fire suggest that Star Trek‘s idealistic future might be further away than ever before; that the utopia the franchise had taken for granted might be lost forever.

"I have a cunning plan!"

“I have a cunning plan!”

“I imagined my first diplomatic mission would involve sitting around a big table, toasting with champagne, signing things with lots of pens,” Archer jokes in Cease Fire. It feels like a nod towards the standard presentation of diplomacy in episodes like The Vengeance Factor, Life Support or Alliances. It was a very comfortable vision of negotiation, on that imagined humanity always rising above it all to provide a civilised context for even the most tense negotiations. Even the Klingons or Cardassians could be counted to park themselves at a big conference table for some rhetorical posturing.

In contrast, the situation in Cease Fire is a bit more precarious. This is not some abstract conflict unfolding light years away from our heroes. This is a conflict that has been waging for centuries, with both sides bitterly dug in. Archer does not have the luxury of sitting on the sidelines to help secure peace; he has roll up his sleeves and wade into a much less sterile conflict than Star Trek is used to confronting. There is a sense that this is Star Trek trying to account for the reality of geopolitics in the twenty-first century, where everything seems more complex than it once was.

"You know, I really should let Malcolm talk me into bringing some red shirts along..."

“You know, I really should let Malcolm talk me into bringing some red shirts along…”

This is an interesting shift. After all, Star Trek tended to like its wars reasonably clear cut. While the Dominion War challenged the utopian ideals of the Federation, it was hardly a moral quagmire; the Changelings were so obviously evil and fascist that they built an army of drug-addicted soldiers. There were elements of complexity allowed to creep into individual conflicts – for example, those featured in The High Ground or The Hunted – but our heroes always felt safely removed from the nuance or particulars. Those planets appeared once, and our heroes tended to warp away at the end of the episode.

Of course, it is not that these sorts of geopolitics suddenly became complex in the twenty-first century. War is always complicated. Generation conflict tends to create murky and complicated positions, even in the era of “the Evil Empire” or during the so-called “unipolar moment.” However, it seems like the conflicts of the early twenty-first century forced popular culture to accept that war was never entirely clean-cut. As much as we might want it to be. Even the Second World War was much more complex than its historical narrative typically allows.

Ashes of Eden...

Ashes of Eden…

Appropriately enough, Cease Fire was broadcast in the awkward lacuna between the “victory” in the War in Afghanistan and the inevitable War in Iraq. Indeed, Cease Fire aired the same week that between six and ten million people worldwide marched in opposition to the war. That same week, it was revealed that the United States had more than 100,000 troops positioned in Kuwait, ready to move when the time came. Operation Iraqi Freedom would launch just over a month following the broadcast of Cease Fire.

Arguably the biggest problem with Cease Fire is that it never quite commits to its cynicism. For all the effective post-9/11 imagery, the wasteland of Cease Fire never seems as chaotic or turbulent as it might. Despite the damage and destruction, the hatred and recrimination, everything is under control. Shran might be operating out of a worn-down old bunker, but he seems to have clear control of his men. When Archer’s shuttlepod is shot down, it is not a comment on the randomness of war or the difficulty managing a conflict of this type, it is a sinister and well-orchestrated plot.

"You know, decon is a lot less erotic when you don't let me put on any mood lighting or sexy music."

“You know, decon is a lot less erotic when you don’t let me put on any mood lighting or sexy music.”

The battle lines on Weytahn (or Paan Mokar) seemed fixed, the combatants clear. Not only is Archer able to navigate through the battlefield towards Shran with ease, Tarah is able to track the crash survivors without any major difficulties. This combat zone seems much less harrowing than those presented in episodes like Nor the Battle to the Strong or The Siege of AR-558. This is to say nothing of the long-lingering question about how orbital (or even suborbital) craft factor into ground warfare in the Star Trek universe; one imagines that the Andorians might be better cast as insurgents than equal combatants.

And yet, despite all this, there are some interesting aspects to Cease Fire. Perhaps more than The Andorian Incident or Shadows of P’Jem, Cease Fire emphasises that these sorts of situations cannot be reduced to a simple trail of cause and effect. Notably, both the major Andorian and Vulcan characters are presented as sympathetic. Archer (and the audience) never question Shran’s sincerity, but this to be expected; The Andorian Incident and Shadows of P’Jem were more sympathetic to the Andorians and the Vulcans.

"I've told you 'til I'm blue in the face!"

“I’ve told you ’til I’m blue in the face!”

However, Cease Fire is also the first time that the show makes a conscious effort to develop Soval as a sympathetic character. Soval migth still be arrogant, but he is not openly antagonistic. He may not be pleased, but he trusts Archer enough to follow him into a war zone. It is also established that Soval was not always a pencil-pushing diplomat. He was once a soldier, and so has practical and useful input into Archer’s adventure. He is even wounded providing cover fire. While Soval clearly does not like Archer, he does seem to afford Starfleet some measure of respect, paving the way for his role in The Forge.

More than that, Cease Fire is the first episode featuring Vulcans and Andorians that subverts a last-minute “the Vulcans are evil” twist. In The Andorian Incident, it is revealed that the Vulcans have been secretly using a religious shrine to spy on their neighbours. In Shadows of P’Jem, the Vulcans are supporting and empowering an oppressive regime in return for mineral rights. The fact that both episodes treat these developments as plot reveals is strange; Enterprise has gone out of its way to suggest that the Vulcans are untrustworthy since Broken Bow.

Logic under fire...

Logic under fire…

Given that Stigma revealed that the Vulcan High Command was systematic persecuting and victimising the members of a minority afflicted by a deadly illness, it would not be unreasonable to suspect that the Vulcans might be behind the ambush of Archer’s shuttlepod in Cease Fire. “What better way for them to justify an invasion than to blame us for killing their envoy?” Tarah asks Shran. Shran, having clearly softened in his old age, observes, “They are devious, but I doubt even they would go that far.”

Cease Fire avoids this rather obvious twist. The weapons that shoot down the shuttlepod are clearly Andorian in nature, and Tarah is revealed as the villain of the piece. Acting like a character who escaped Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, she boldly declares, “All we want is a chance to fight for what’s ours before cowards like Shran negotiate it away.” Of course, he motivations are not the only piece of character logic carried over from The Undiscovered Country. Tarah is the only significant character in Cease Fire who is not recurring; inevitably, she is a villain.

Locking antennae...

Locking antennae…

The character of Tarah is not really strong enough to support the narrative weight imposed upon her. Even Valeris was more developed in The Undiscovered Country. Casting the wonderful Suzie Plakson in the role helps, but the reveal that Tarah is a traitor might make more sense if the audience knew or cared about her. That said, it is not as if using Tholos (Shran’s right-hand man from the first season) would lend the betrayal any more poignancy. As with Stigma before it and Future Tense following it, Cease Fire really suffers from the largely episodic format that Enterprise has adopted at this point in its life-cycle.

Shran and the Andorians were popular characters. In fact, Manny Coto would go on to suggest that he considered adding Shran to the primary cast in the unlikely event of securing a fifth season. The positioning of Cease Fire suggests that the production team were aware of his popularity even at this early stage of his life-cycle; Cease Fire aired during Sweeps. However, this is the first time that Shran and the Andorians appeared since Shadows of P’Jem in the first season. This is the only time they appear in the second season.

A cold betrayal...

A cold betrayal…

It had been twenty-six episodes since Shran had last appeared, and twenty-four episodes before he appeared again. Comb’s appearances as Shran were about as frequent as his appearances as Brunt on Deep Space Nine, despite the fact that Brunt was a minor recurring player and Shran was a fan favourite. One would have expected Combs to appear as Shran almost as frequently as he had appeared as Weyoun on Deep Space Nine, a character vitally important to the show’s central mythology.

Then again, Enterprise is still treating these sort of long-burning plots as a “once a season” storyline. The idea of the founding of the Federation is not a driving narrative for Enterprise, but treated as a theme to which the show can occasionally return. Cease Fire would be an episode that would carry a lot more weight had it arrived late in the first season or at the start of the second. Positioned here, it feels like an item checked off a list; “the Vulcan/Andorian episode” eats another of the season’s twenty-six episode order.

Engineering a solution...

Engineering a solution…

Indeed, even actress Jolene Blalock had recognised the plot thread as one dangling. In a contemporaneous interview with Star Trek Magazine, she acknowledged that the writers seemed to have difficulty building and paying off arcs:

I’d like to see the writers readdress [the ramifications of] Shadows of P’Jem. If the Vulcan high command is superior and all-powerful and there’s an element of it that is corrupt, I think that needs to be addressed. Right now, it’s been put on the shelf for quite some time. I’d really like a chance to address that again, but I don’t get much input. The writers are completely capable and they have a vision of where they’re going.

The Vulcan/Andorian arc was not the only storyline suffering from being left on the shelf. Outside of Shockwave, Part II and The Expanse, Future Tense is the only episode of the second season to engage with the idea of the Temporal Cold War.

Trip learns that asking himself "what would Archer do?" is not the best command strategy.

Trip learns that asking himself “what would Archer do?” is not the best command strategy.

Contemporary television was trending more towards serialised and long-form story-telling.  As with Stigma and Future Tense, Cease Fire serves as an effective illustration of the difficulties that Enterprise was having adapting to the changing televisual landscape. Dramatic change was not just inevitable, it was imperative. After all, there were more than six hundred episodes of Star Trek at this point; it was harder to come up with an entirely new storyline for a forty-five minute storyline at this point. An episodic approach was not just outdated, but it felt like Star Trek was eating itself.

And, despite this, there are points where it seems like Cease Fire might come close to working. Archer jokes about toasting a treaty over a big conference table, but the final scene actually follows through on that. Cease Fire seems to suggest that the utopian future of Star Trek might simply be obscured, and not lost forever. In fact, there are points where Chris Black’s script seems to hit upon an interesting idea about the franchise’s utopian vision. What if that sort of idealism is as subversive and as radical as it ever was?

"I don't know... with a little remodelling..."

“I don’t know… with a little remodelling…”

At one point, Archer reflects, “Maybe we’re not out here to just scan comets and meet new species. Maybe we’re out here to prove that humanity is ready to join a much larger community.” In the nineties, the idea of a utopian Federation seemed almost quaint; a major galactic power that had finally defeated its long-standing political and economic rivals. The idealism of The Next Generation was arguably easy in the context of the nineties, when the United States seemed to have vanquished the last of its political or philosophical rivals.

In contrast, the idea of a better future is much harder to grasp in times of social and political chaos. The utopian ideals of Star Trek were all the more important because they had been thrown into doubt. The idea of a bunch of political rivals coming together to act in the greater good is a lot harder to accept in the wake of the confusion and discord surrounding the invasion of Iraq. Cease Fire hints that the utopian ideal of the Federation is not a concept that can be taken for granted; it needs to be earned.

The best laid plans of Andorians and Vulcans...

The best laid plans of Andorians and Vulcans…

It was an idea suggested in Shadows of P’Jem, and one that the series would revisit in Babel One and United. The emergence of a political block like the Federation would have major political and social ramifications – it is no wonder that the Romulans reacted to the formation of that alliance with fear and uncertainty. Of course, Enterprise never develops this fascinating idea as well as it might. Instead, it leaves it largely unsaid. It seems like Enterprise never quite embraced the potential for pure earnest idealism in the wake of 9/11.

Cease Fire is a deeply flawed episode that would be easier to forgive in another context. Its placement suggests that Enterprise has no real idea where it wants to go with any of the ideas or characters at play. As with a lot of the second season, Cease Fire feels like the show is trying to find a holding pattern. As its title suggests, the episode is a clear attempt to steady a ship that has come under heavy fire. It is a stalling tactic at a moment that calls for bold vision and big ideas. Cease Fire may not be enough.

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

9 Responses

  1. Honestly, a cynic Star Trek is not something I’m interested in. It’s just not. Make a new property instead of taking the Alan Moore route.

    • Well, there are shades of cynicism.

      I think that Deep Space Nine balances the franchises optimism with cynicism quite well. And I think the third season of Enterprise does a better job than most give it credit for – starting out grimdark and wandering back to the light.

  2. This episode is a good summation of everything I like and dislike about Enterprise. The show flirts with some powerful ideas. Bright futures aren’t easy, optimism has to be earned and you have to crawl through the muck and mire to get there, retrofitting the theme that enemies become friends. The problem is it doesn’t commit hard enough to truly sell these ideas. There is the potential for a great prequel here, but maybe it came at a time when there was an idea that Trek was a formula and the ensemble and setting were just variables to be plugged in. This plagued Voyager as well, which should have been a great sequel, and were it released today probably would be.

  3. “cultural cache” should be “cultural cachet”

  4. Did it occur to the author that this plot evokes disputed atolls in the South China Sea? Or in the Yellow Sea?

    As a non American even back in the day that’s where my mind went with this plot.

    • Interesting, as while I know there were obviously disputes in the nineties and at the turn of the millennium, they didn’t really enter my awareness until the past decade or so, following that 2011 agreement. It’s not a bad read, though.

  5. I just see Combs as a bright spot of joy at this point. I like him too much, so when he appears here, it’s a highlight of the season.

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