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Star Trek: Enterprise – Canamar (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 story behind Canamar is much more interesting than the story told in Canamar.

On the surface, Canamar is quite simple – Star Trek does Con Air.” However, it had an interesting journey from original pitch to televised episode. Indeed, Canamar developed from David A. Goodman’s attempts to break out Judgment, trying to figure out what would happen to Archer after he had been found in Klingon court. Originally, the crew would have rescued Archer from a prison transport rather than Rura Penthe. However, producer Brannon Braga took such a liking to the “Archer on a prison transport” concept that he pulled it out of Judgment and assigned it to John Shiban to script.

"Have you seen Con Air?" "No." "Good. Then this'll all seem new to you."

“Have you seen Con Air?”
“No.”
“Good. Then this’ll all seem new to you.”

However, Braga also divorced Canamar completely from Judgment. Archer would no longer be a prisoner on a Klingon prison transport. Instead, he would find himself mistakenly arrested by an entirely new alien species a couple of episodes before he’d find himself arrested by a more recognised alien species. It feels somewhat redundant, with the first act of Canamar rushing through set-up of plot beats that would feel more organic and fluid if they came from an early episode explicitly designed to build to the idea of Archer on the prison transport.

Canamar is a prime example of just how out of touch Star Trek: Enterprise was with the television landscape, reinforcing the sense that the second season of the show was a holdover from some much earlier period of television production.

"It's the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs. I've outrun Imperial starships."

“It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs. I’ve outrun Imperial starships.”

On the audio commentary for Judgment, writer David A. Goodman explained the origin of Canamar in the last act of Judgment:

The original act was not going to be on Rura Penthe. It was originally… Enterprise was going to intercept the prison ship that Archer was on and rescue him from that. As we were breaking it, Brannon really liked that part of the story, so much so that he decided it was a whole episode, and he and John Shiban hashed it out – and Chris Black, they all worked on that story – and it became Canamar later in the season. So, since we knew it couldn’t be a prison ship, we had to think, “Where does this last act take?”

So Judgment got a new ending that took place on a prison planet, and the second season got an entire episode that took place on a prison transport.

A clean break (out)...

A clean break (out)…

It could be argued that this creative decision weakened both Judgment and Canamar. David A. Goodman had originally hoped to extend the ending of Judgment into another episode, feeling that the relatively easy resolution to the plot undermined the drama:

We were talking about the rescue attempt and how that would happen. I actually lobbied – lobbied hard – for this to be a two-parter, because I thought there was something fun about doing an episode where T’Pol was in command of the Enterprise and Archer was on Rura Penthe for an extended period of time. I actually think it would have helped sell the idea.

At the end of this episode, if Archer had been on Rura Penthe for a long period – like maybe if had a full beard or his hair had grown out a little. Everybody felt it was just a little too easy with the rescue, with Malcolm just showing up. If he’d been there a while, you wouldn’t have had that problem. You probably would have bought that they were working on their escape plan.

Canamar also suffers as a result of this decision. While the story’s set is lean and efficient, it is also contrived and distracting. Taking the weight of set-up away from Canamar and instead using the plot of another episode as a starting point would create a much more robust script.

It's meant to be Nausicaan, not Nausicaan't...

It’s meant to be Nausicaan, not Nausicaan’t…

After all, the plot beats necessary to get Canamar to where it needs to start feel a little absurd at this point in the life-cycle of Enterprise. Most obviously, it seems bizarre that the crew are comfortable leaving Archer and Trip alone on an alien world with nothing but a shuttlepod. Two years into the mission, it seems that nothing good has ever come from leaving main cast members alone with a shuttlepod. In Shuttlepod One, Reed and Trip almost died when their shuttlepod sprung a leak. In Dawn, Trip was shot down while flying a shuttlepod through alien territory.

Indeed, it seems like John Shiban has already developed his own set of Star Trek storytelling tropes. Shiban would not remain on staff beyond the second season, but there are recurring elements to his scripts. All three of his solo scripts feature the regular cast absent-mindedly getting into trouble after encountering close-minded alien species. It fits quite comfortably with the post-9/11 aesthetic of the season. Then again, Shiban’s work on The X-Files was also fascinated by the horror trope concerning the foreigner as alien monster – scripts like Teso Dos Bichos, El Mundo Gira and Badlaa come to mind.

"And here I am, stuck in a comic relief subplot..."

“And here I am, stuck in a comic relief subplot…”

To be fair to Shiban, it is a storytelling technique that works. His three solo scripts all get where they need to go with considerable speed. Canamar is no different. The fascist paranoia of the Enolians gets Archer and Trip on to the prison transport with ease, while a series of short scenes of exposition bring T’Pol and the crew up to speed before the first act break. It’s not pretty, but it works. However, it is also quite distracting. The abruptness of the early scenes of T’Pol and the crew investigating Archer’s disappearance avoids any “are they dead?” nonsense, but also feels distractingly workman-like.

Canamar suffers from the same problem that haunts episodes like Stigma, Cease Fire and even Judgment – a problem that has been apparent from Fight or Flight, and has only become more obvious over time. The need for a clear beginning, middle and end within a forty-five minute episode forces writers to cram awkward set-ups and resolutions into episodes that might benefit from more space, and diminishes important plot and character beats by making it apparent that they will be resolved by the end credits. Canamar wastes an act to get where the story starts, when it could just pick up the ball from Judgment.

"We really should stop letting Archer leave the ship like that..."

“We really should stop letting Archer leave the ship like that…”

There is a sense that Star Trek is showing its age. Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager had been on the air for fourteen years before the launch of Enterprise, and the storytelling had never really evolved. That storytelling stagnancy had largely been prompted by success and over-confidence; why both changing if the formula still works? To be fair, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had actually been ahead of the curve when it embraced serialisation, but it was looking more and more like a narrative cul-de-sac in the context of the Star Trek franchise.

This episodic approach to storytelling made sense in the context of the late eighties and nineties. That was an entirely different model of television production, for a market with different social and economic realities. It made sense to keep things tight and self-contained in an era before home media made it possible to easily own entire seasons and where television viewing was arranged more like a business appointment than a casual get-together. If this led to some unnecessary and convoluted plotting, there was nothing that could be done. It was a fact of life.

Conviction...

Conviction…

However, by the year 2000, things were changing. As Jason Mittell noted in The Wire in the Context of American Television:

Traditionally television has been a schedule-driven medium, with networks programming series with prescribed timeslots. Research within the television industry suggests that most viewers typically only saw around 1/3 of the episodes of a favored series, and that event ardent fans could not be guaranteed to see more than 1/2 of a series during its first run. Thus producers realised they could not assume that a viewer had seen previous episodes or were watching a series in sequential order, leading to a mode of storytelling favoring self-contained episodes and redundant exposition.

The rise of home video helped change this limitation. VCRs became more widespread in the 1980s, although the difficulty in programming timers to record a program made it fairly uncommon for viewers to use the technology to “time-shift” favorite programs. The rise of DVRs in the 2000s made this a much more common practice, with viewers automatically recording their favored series and watching at their convenience – even though DVRs are still only found in a minority of households, they helped change the television industry’s assumption that viewers could not be expected to watch a series regularly and in sequence.

This approach tendency towards serialisation is often credited to cable networks like HBO. However, the major networks also contributed to the shift.

"You know, the black pseudo-leather uniforms probably should have clued you into the fact that we're sort of fascists."

“You know, the black pseudo-leather uniforms probably should have clued you into the fact that we’re sort of fascists.”

Mainstream television was embracing serialisation in a big way. Since the turn of the millennium, every winner of the Outstanding Drama Series Emmy has been been heavily serialised – whether produced by a cable or broadcast network. The West Wing, The Sopranos, Lost, 24, Mad Men, Homeland and Breaking Bad all clearly established that long-form storytelling was no longer the luxury of small cult television shows like Babylon 5. It would not be surprising when the third and fourth seasons of Enterprise embraced serialised plotting; it was simply surprising that the show waited so long.

However, while Canamar continues to make a strong case that Enterprise is somewhat old-fashioned and outdated in its storytelling, the episode also has a number of small connections to the franchise’s future. The episode marks the first off-hand mention of “Melvarian mud fleas”, which would be used as a comical reference in JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot. However, the use of “Melvarian mud fleas” as a fun alien concept is not the only nod towards the franchise’s future to be found in Canamar.

Flyboy...

Flyboy…

Canamar was the first of two episodes of Enterprise to be scored by Brian Tyler. Already a rising star when he signed up to work on Canamar and Regeneration, Tyler would go on to greater success as a film composer – scoring Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World. Tyler has a fondness for the franchise, admitting to being a fan of the series in all its incarnations. In fact, his affection shone through in the way he approached the show:

A music editor temped in my stuff and the producers heard it and called me up and asked me if I wanted to score it!  I’m a life-long Star Trek fan – anything that comes out Trek, I have it – and they didn’t know it.  So I told them I would score it if they gave me a tour of the Enterprise – and they wrote it in as part of the contract!  So when we recorded the score for Canamar, I conducted it and then we walked over to the set.  I got the full tour, it was really great!  Then for the next season they basically sent over a bunch of the scripts and told me I could pick anything – I was so busy that I could only pick one – and there was a Borg episode, Regeneration, and I just knew I had to do that one.  I’m very glad I was a part of that run, and I’m very sad that Trek is going off the air now.

Indeed, Tyler’s work on Canamar was even used as a temp track on the movie Timeline. Once again, the more traditionalist aesthetics of Enterprise come to the fore. As a rule, the Star Trek franchise has shied away from the idea of the soundtrack as a distinctive ingredient, and Tyler’s music does occasionally feel a little toned down to fit the standard Star Trek mould. However, there are moments where the artist’s unique flavour shines through.

Engineering an escape attempt...

Engineering an escape attempt…

Tyler provides a loose bridge between Enterprise and JJ Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot. Tyler’s history with both the franchise and director Justin Lin have led many pundits to speculate he might score Star Trek III. However, his music has already been included in the reboot, albeit somewhat tangentially. He scored the music for Children of Dune, the 2003 miniseries featuring future Enterprise guest star Alec Newman. That music has been widely sampled and repurposed for film trailers. In fact, War Begins was used as the basis of the distinctive background music for the second and third Star Trek trailers.

Outside of all the interesting stuff happening behind the scenes, Canamar itself is a fairly bland episode. It is very blatantly an attempt to do a high-stakes adventure episode, and it works quite well in that context. There is a reason that “hijacked prison transport” is such a common storytelling setting, as it comes with a whole host of interesting dynamics and stakes. Canamar doesn’t do anything particularly interesting with the setting, but it really doesn’t have to. This stuff comes baked in.

Fight or flight... why choose?

Fight or flight… why choose?

The guest cast in Canamar are not so much characters as broadly-drawn archetypes. Kuroda Lor-ehn is a career criminal with an ambitious escape plan trying to manage the situation as he executes it. The Nausicaan prisoner is raw (and somewhat unthinking) muscle. Zoumas is the talkative comic relief. The Enolian guards are cruel at best, and possibly corrupt at worst. Canamar never fleshes out the supporting cast, instead using these archetypes right out of the box. The fact that it works as well as it does is a testament to the robustness of these archetypes.

That said, Canamar is quite clearly hindered by the realities of television production. For a prison transport, the ship is remarkably empty and quiet. These production limitations feel particularly pronounced at the point where Kuroda decides to release Archer. This is met by silent shrugs of protest from the assembled extras, because giving them lines would eat into the budget. It feels weird that hardened criminals should be so passive and silent in context, undermining some of the episode’s atmosphere.

"Damn it, why couldn't I be seated next to the Nausicaan?"

“Damn it, why couldn’t I be seated next to the Nausicaan?”

To be fair, the production team does the usual great work with make-up and costuming considering these limitations. Canamar is a very slick production. For all that Star Trek had been reluctant to update its storytelling, its production was always top notch. There are some genuinely effective action sequences and special effects shots, with Canamar accomplishing a lot of what it sets out to do. Canamar is perhaps a little too formulaic and familiar to stand out from the rest of the season, but it executes that formula with considerable confidence.

In fact, it feels like Canamar offers a more workable characterisation of Archer than many surrounding second season episodes. For most of the first two seasons, Enterprise has been quite inconsistent in its characterisation of Archer. Is he a brash inexperienced commanding officer thrown in at the deep end who needs to learn the responsibilities of commanding the first warp five ship? Or is he a bastion of moral certainty in an uncertain time, the embodiment of human decency and fortitude in a chaotic universe? Is he an arrogant commander who needs humbling, or is he the best hope for peace in the galaxy?

Smuggler's blues...

Smuggler’s blues…

While the swings in the characterisation of Archer are slightly less dramatic than the swings in the characterisation of Janeway, it feels like the writing staff have yet to figure out what makes Archer different from the other leading characters in the franchise, and what Scott Bakula brings to the role. This isn’t necessarily a problem; it took the staff on Deep Space Nine about two years to figure out how to tailor the character of Benjamin Sisko to the acting style of Avery Brooks. However, Archer is much more of a leading character than Sisko, the head of the table rather than the centre of the ensemble.

A lot of the problems with Archer have stemmed from the show’s tendency to avoid Scott Bakula’s strengths as a performer. The climax of Shockwave, Part II hinges on Bakula’s ability to deliver a stirring monologue in the style of Kirk, Picard or Sisko. However, Bakula is not a stage actor in the same way that Shatner, Stewart or Brooks were. Bakula’s style is more naturalistic than Shakespearean or operatic. So when Archer expresses concerns about the Vulcans, he does not seem like a man with the weight of the universe on his shoulders; he just seems like a paranoid racist.

Don't beat yourself up about it...

Don’t beat yourself up about it…

Canamar offers a glimpse of a version of Archer that might possible work better. After all, each Star Trek lead has their own unique approach to the role. James T. Kirk was an adventurer; Jean-Luc Picard was a diplomat; Sisko was a builder; Janeway was a scientist. What is Archer? Canamar suggests a possible answer. Perhaps Archer is a pilot. It is an idea that has been fleetingly suggested before, and would provide the basis of First Flight at the end of the season. It also explains Archer’s tendency to leap without looking and shuttle his crew around like a one-man bus service.

In many respects, Janeway and Archer are considered the “flawed” leads of the Star Trek franchise. That is not to suggest that Kirk, Picard and Sisko did not have their blind spots; instead, Janeway and Archer seem like characters not suited to the role of command. This could be down to issues with writing – after all, both characters are written in a wildly inconsistent manner across their shows. However, it makes a certain amount of sense in the wider context of the franchise as a whole.

"Well, at least they left the shuttlepod intact..."

“Well, at least they left the shuttlepod intact…”

Janeway did not come to command through a career path that prepared her for the role. She was meant to command a short search-and-recovery mission on a scientific vessel. As a result, she was arguably woefully unprepared for the responsibilities of getting her crew home. Many of her best moments in the first season involve Janeway reveling in her scientific roots, geeking out over strange phenomena or delivering lectures to the senior staff as her own science officer. While this doesn’t account for the way that Janeway was written as three different characters, it does explain a lot about her.

The emphasis on Archer as a pilot offers a similar character justification. It suggests that Archer is perhaps more of a nuts-and-bolts individual than any of his predecessors, and that he is perhaps an awkward fit for the mission. First Flight takes this idea to its logical conclusion, conceding that perhaps Enterprise was a little sabotaged from the very beginning. It is no coincidence that First Flight aired right before The Expanse completely re-wrote the show. Canamar puts some emphasis on Archer as a pilot, as he helps Kuroda fly his hijacked prison ship.

Archer keeps his head down...

Archer keeps his head down…

This is an approach that suits Scott Bakula quite well. Archer has to win the trust of Kuroda by claiming to be a smuggler. To be fair, this is something of a Star Trek staple. The franchise is very fond of having its straight-laced lead characters play at dashing roguery – look at Picard in Gambit and Sisko in Through the Looking Glass. However, Archer does not overstate his own roguishness. Bakula plays it in a decidedly naturalistic way. When Archer claims to be a smuggler, he doesn’t start chewing in the scenery. Instead, he presents a character who simply makes his living flying space crafts and keeping schedule.

There is a lot to like in this portrayal of Archer. He seems to win Kuroda’s trust in a rather straight-forward manner. There are no sinister mind-games, no tests of loyalty. There is just polite and candid conversation that gives way to gradual sympathy and understanding. Canamar underscores a genuine decency to Archer’s character. Even as the ship seems ready to break apart under the pressure, Archer still tries to save Kuroda. Archer might not be the best commander that the franchise has ever seen, but he does have a clear moral compass that he tries to follow.

"I'm going to have to jailbreak the hardware, Cap'n."

“I’m going to have to jailbreak the hardware, Cap’n.”

Of course, this approach to Archer does not last. Archer is back to his paranoid self by the end of the first act of The Crossing, an explorer absolutely terrified of the unknown and justifiable suspicious of anything that does not conform to his understanding of the universe. Still, Canamar seems to point the way forward for the character. The best moments in the third season play off against Archer’s lack of qualification for the mission, but also juxtapose his sense of fundamental decency against the horrible acts he is forced commit. (In contrast to Sisko’s tendency to blinker himself while committing such acts.)

Canamar even offers a faint hint of social commentary on top of it all – although it is clearly an after-thought in an action-adventure script. Kuroda is a career criminal who has been hardened and sculpted by a brutal criminal justice system. “I learned far more in prison than my father could have ever taught me,” he tells Archer. “After I was released, I chose to put my new skills to use. I suppose I should be grateful. If it wasn’t for the Enolian Guard, my life would have been quite dull.” This underscores the oft-cited argument that a prison system obsessed with punishment is just a school of crime.

Criminal enterprise...

Criminal enterprise…

Although Kuroda is barely developed, it is hard not feel some small measure of pity for the character – even after Archer foils his efforts to kill a ship full of guards and prisoners. When Archer tries to save his life, Kuroda refuses. “I won’t go back,” he insists. Although the decision not to include the ship’s explosion in the final cut of the episode undermines the ending, Kuroda does get a lovely character moment when he takes the chair as the ship falls to pieces around him. This is a moment where Kuroda is finally in charge of his own destiny, even if that destiny leads to a gigantic explosion.

Of course, the potentially scathing indictment of the criminal justice system is largely squeezed out of the script. Archer only really gets to address the issue in the final scene, as he verbally attacks the Enolian official. “As you’re aware, my Engineer and I were falsely arrested. We almost wound up in Canamar. Makes me wonder how many others don’t belong there. You wanted a report? You’ve got one.” And then Archer and Trip just wander off, underscoring the sense that it’s easier to complain about injustice than it is to actually try to fix it.

"Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got some more episodic adventures to enjoy."

“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some more episodic adventures to enjoy.”

Canamar is a functional piece of television, albeit one that feels quite old-fashioned by February 2003. It does what it sets out to do, but it doesn’t set out to do anything particularly ambitious.

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

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5 Responses

  1. Danny Trejo in space? ENT would still be on the air today!

    *Adding that to “Lieutenant George in space” (Bashir), “Ally Sheedy” in space (Ezri), and “Butters Stoch in space” (Ensign Kim).*

    • “Lieutenant George in space” might be the best description of Bashir that I have ever read. Well done, sir.

      (Although I’ll likely always see him as the Star Trek character who just landed on the wrong show.)

  2. I still can’t get behind Archer. The remedy, I think, is to kill him like Piller threatened to do with Picard, forcing Riker to take command. I’m sorry if that sounds mean-spirited or fanboyish, but I think Archer works better as a symbol than a man. And I doubt that Bakula can dig deep and find new angles to the character like Sir Pat did with his captain.

    Moreover, Bakula is just not energetic enough to carry this show (great, now I’m ageist). I buy Archer all too well as a crusty dogmatist; someone who has seen too much and lost to much to embrace new cultures or ideas.

    I’m not saying Trip is a viable replacement, at least not at written, but he could develop into one. The reality is Trip should be the one tooling across space, getting lost in TRULY alien cultures, overwhelmed with a mixture of wonder and apprehension, and dealing with great mistakes and personal losses in an untamed expanse, and Archer should be back on earth processing reports and haranguing Trip over the viewscreen for not doing things by the book.

    • I actually quite like the version of Archer that the show nods towards at the end of the second season – the test pilot who is a nice (but woefully underqualified) guy. I think that plays to Bakula’s strengths more than attempting to emulate Kirk or Picard. In the special features, I think Chris Black argues that many writers tried to write Bakula as if he was Harrison Ford, which seems to completely miss Bakula’s strengths as an actor. Bakula doesn’t have the edge of Ford, even as he shares that all-American charm.

      Although – and I’ll talk about this in the third season – the network wanted to kill Archer off at the end of Zero Hour. Which would have been… interesting. Manny Coto has admitted that he was tempted.

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