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Star Trek: Enterprise – The Crossing (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 Crossing represents a troubling return to form for the second season of Star Trek: Enterprise in a number of ways.

In terms of basic storytelling, the show is back at the point where it is simply throwing Star Trek plots into a blender and serving up a rather unappetising smoothy. The Crossing is packed with familiar Star Trek tropes – it is Return to Tomorrow by the way of Power Play through Cathexis. The idea of non-corporeal entities hijacking living bodies is not particularly novel, and The Crossing really has nothing new to offer in terms of that sort of story. There is no element of The Crossing as fun as Leonard Nimoy’s performance in Return to Tomorrow or the hostage crisis stakes of Power Play.

Here's Trip!

Here’s Trip!

However, even without the feeling of reheated leftovers, The Crossing is a very ugly little story. It reflects the reactionary post-9/11 politics of the show, the sense of isolationism and xenophobia that have become part of the fabric of Enterprise. The Crossing is essentially a fifties horror film repurposed as a post-9/11 cautionary tale about the dangers of trusting people who are not like you. It feels like a pretty solid indication of just how thoroughly Star Trek has lost its way. The decision to just externalise these anxieties in The Expanse is long overdue.

The fact that The Crossing is credited to the two showrunners driving Enterprise is quite worrying, particularly given that it serves to express an uncomfortable subtext running through the season.

Having a gas time...

Having a gas time…

To be fair, the aliens in The Crossing pretty much have to be hostile. Otherwise, there’s no real story. It’s hard to wring forty-five minutes of drama out of “Archer meets a bunch of strange new aliens, and they’re pretty cool.” Drama does require conflict – whether ideological, physical or philosophical. So the non-corporeal aliens in The Crossing provide that conflict. Of course, there are other ways to generate drama. The Crossing could create more nuance around the aliens, or have only one or two turn out be villains. Instead, these entities are presented as an entire race of space mind-rapists.

It is easy to see why The Crossing seemed like a good idea. Brannon Braga has a huge fondness for old-fashioned science-fiction storytelling. His scripts tend to play with trippy science-fiction concepts like the nature of time and reality. More than that, Braga also has a history of writing episodes that evoke classic cheesy science-fiction and horror. He is credited on episodes like Sub Rosa, Genesis and Threshold. He also wrote Cathexis, which is perhaps the most obvious ancestor of The Crossing, in that it evokes fifties body-snatching horror.

"What, Doc? Now you're inviting people to watch?"

“What, Doc? Now you’re inviting people to watch?”

In May 1995, the outdated “red scare” Invasion of the Body Snatchers aesthetic of Cathexis felt rather surreal. However, applying the same paranoid narrative to March 2003 produces a very different result. As Krista E. Wiegand notes in Islamic Terrorism, a lot of the anti-terrorist rhetoric of the new millennium borrowed quite explicitly from the anti-communist paranoia of the fifties:

More important is the depiction of the enemy as someone whose negative acts must be abolished in order for our lives to be orderly and safe. Even though these threats and dangers today are often labeled as such in a reactive fashion, the “difference, danger, and otherness” present in cold war rhetoric is still a major component of rhetoric today, even though the enemy has changed.

If the rhetoric of fifties paranoia applied to post-9/11 discourse, it makes sense that the metaphors remain just as effective. The Crossing feels like a paranoid thriller about terrorists infiltrating and attacking the Enterprise. Like the chest-thumping patriotism of The Seventh, there is a sense that Enterprise is more interested in trying to follow the national mood than in trying to examine it.

Mayweather certainly duct that predatory alien!

Mayweather certainly duct that predatory alien!

The Crossing appeared as part of a broader resurgence in fifties-style paranoia and anxiety in popular culture. The first decade of the twentieth-century saw a massive resurgence in the alien infiltration and invasion narrative, as David M. Higgins reflected in American Science Fiction after 9/11:

American men are often represented as victims in post-9/11 alien invasion narratives, and part of what’s interesting about the shift in imperial ideology that occurs after 9/11 is that America as a whole is able to occupy the subject position of the victim in order to draw on a kind of sacred power of reactionary violence in the service of the expansion of its global advantage. This was also true during the Cold War, when the United States was able to imagine itself as under attack from Soviet forces and acting to defend and liberate Third World countries in the name of their own supposed freedom to operate free market economics. Yet even during this time, America was never able to imagine itself as the absolute victim (and thus the bearer of absolute moral authority) in the way that became available in the aftermath of 9/11.

That theme of paranoid victimhood runs through The Crossing, an episode that opens with the ship fleeing a larger and more powerful opponent. The crew of the Enterprise are powerless victims in the face of more advanced entities who are able to swallow the ship whole and take control of the crew’s bodies.

He has a phaser and he's not afraid to use it!

He has a phaser and he’s not afraid to use it!

That theme of powerlessness is reinforced by a really creepy rape motif that runs through the episode. Reed uses the verb “penetrate” to describe the encounter between Trip and the wisp. He also tries futilely to fight one off as it attempts to take advantage of him. Even ignoring wisp!Reed’s awkward sexual advances on female crew members, Archer assures him, “Humans don’t like doing things without their consent.” After Phlox fights one off, he describes it in similar terms, “It was disturbing. The lifeform was trying very hard to reach me.”

There is a very stranger masculine anxiety at work in The Crossing, with the way that the creatures force themselves upon the predominantly male cast. It is perhaps telling that wisp!Reed is the first real confirmation that something is amiss here – the entity inhabiting Reed’s body uses him to perv over female crew members, but also to broach issues of gender fluidity. “If you came to us, you could experience what it’s like to be male,” wisp!Reed advises T’Pol. “Wouldn’t that be helpful to you?” wisp!Reed is not only a mind- (and potentially body-) rapist, he also poses a challenge to firmly-established gender roles.

Talk about a cold reception.

Talk about a cold reception.

There is something just a tad reactionary about all this. The choice of Reed as the vehicle for this particular entity is certainly intriguing; Reed was rumoured to be the franchise’s first openly gay character in the run-up to the show’s broadcast, and his sexuality has been the subject of much discussion and speculation despite the writing staff’s best efforts to assert his heterosexuality in episodes like Broken Bow or Shuttlepod One. Having an obviously evil alien take his body without consent (after he tries to fight it off) and use that body to threaten female crew members while raising issues of gender feels pointed.

Then again, The Crossing is hardly subtle. If Canamar worked hard to humanise Archer by presenting him as a fundamentally decent and sympathetic guy, The Crossing veers back towards paranoid insecurity. The Crossing confronts Archer with something beyond his frame of reference, and he remarks immediately with fear and trepidation. “T’Pol thinks they just want to get to know us,” Archer confesses in his log. “Maybe she’s right. Maybe I don’t trust them because they’re so different. I’d hate to think that was the case.”

Food for the soul...

Food for the soul…

To be fair, some of Archer’s paranoia is justified. After all, the first energy being takes control of Trip without his consent. Even if Trip claims to have had a wonderful time, a little suspicion is understandable. (It’s a particularly nice touch to have Archer check if Trip is still Trip by making reference to “Tarpon Beach” so that Trip can correct him.) Archer is dealing with beings of tremendous power that introduced themselves by confiscating his ship without any attempt at a peaceful greeting. One might forgive him for responding with the same indignation that Picard harbours for Q in Encounter at Farpoint.

However, this is not mere suspicion. It is outright paranoia. There is no hint of curiosity or excitement about first contact with creatures that claim to be benign. These are, chronologically speaking, the first non-corporeal entities to appear in the Star Trek canon. There should be some measure of curiousity from the commander of the first warp five ship. There is much to learn here, much to share. Consider Janeway’s more open-minded attitude towards aliens that eventually turned out to be predatory in Prime Factors or Dragon’s Teeth.

A healthy glow...

A healthy glow…

When Archer asks wisp!Trip where the former resident of the body has gone. “He’s exploring another realm,” wisp!Trip explains. “My realm. But he’ll be back.” wisp!Trip informs Archer, with what could (at that point) be sincerity, “We’re explorers like you.” However, rather than expressing any curiosity, Archer responds with borderline revulsion. There is a sense that the franchise’s fear of transhumanism is at work here – the idea that anything beyond a body given by nature is an aberration. Here, moving beyond mortal bodies has turned an entire society into space mind-rapists.

The Crossing works hard to justify Archer’s paranoia. While taking possession of Trip the first time could be an accident, the second hijacking makes it clear that the wisps have little respect for what they deem to be lesser species. As soon as Archer expresses come slight hesitation about his paranoia, Phlox arrives to assure him that the creatures do not like to take “no” for an answer. That is promptly followed by the assault upon Reed, the point at which it becomes irrefutable that the aliens are up to no good. So Archer is entirely correct to respond with fear and paranoia towards anything that is different towards him.

Mission accomplished.

Mission accomplished.

In many respects, The Crossing updates Return to Tomorrow for a more suspicious and untrusting Star Trek. Kirk responded to Sargon’s request to borrow his body by asserting that “risk is our business”, a succinct expression of the show’s sixties optimism. Exploration and adventure were part of the job description. Receiving an offer that would make most reasonable people deeply uncomfortable, Kirk loaned out his body to help save a dying culture, even as two of the three members of that culture proved somewhat untrustworthy.

In contrast, The Crossing has Archer finish off an entire race of predatory non-corporeal beings without batting an eye. The Crossing seems to confirm that Enterprise is no longer a show about exploration and new worlds. Perhaps it never was; perhaps that show was dead before Broken Bow was even broadcast in late September 2011. Later in the season, Cogenitor will eulogise that type of Star Trek and First Flight will suggest that Enterprise was doomed before it even began. In the meantime, The Crossing seems to illustrate that romantic Star Trek is dead and gone.

A mist-ery!

A mist-ery!

The third season of Enterprise is controversial and divisive, with many critics arguing that it represents a clear departure from traditional Star Trek. Episodes like The Crossing seem to suggest that it is getting harder and harder for Enterprise to do that sort of traditional Star Trek in the current social and political climate, suggesting that changing the narrative parameters was a necessary decision. For any flaws it may have, the third season is more honest and candid about its attempt to reconcile a post-traumatic 9/11 story with conventional Star Trek values.

The comparisons with Return to Tomorrow are interesting, because they suggest an intriguing thematic link back to the original Star Trek. Over the course of its first two seasons, Enterprise struggled repeatedly with the legacy of its parent franchise. After all, The Crossing was broadcast at a point where the show had yet to add the “Star Trek” prefix to its opening credits. Nevertheless, the show’s difficulty dealing with the aftermath of 9/11 provides a stronger spiritual link to the original Star Trek than most would concede.

Reed alert.

Reed alert.

One of the more interesting aspects of Star Trek is the way that fandom has latched on to the narrative of a progressive and liberal vision of the future. Barring a few missteps, this is largely true of the spin-offs and feature films – stories that engage with utopian ideals and embrace the values of traditional western liberal democracy. However, the politics of the original television show are decidedly more complex and confused than the franchise’s legacy might suggest. They are often arbitrary and contradictory, with the show flip-flopping on various moral and philosophical positions.

This is to be expected. After all, Star Trek was the result of a disparate group of writers with different ideas and outlooks. When writing science-fiction allegories, there are undoubtedly going to be differences of opinion. With something as controversial as the Vietnam War unfolding in the background, there were bound to be mixed signals. When fans and critics talk about the portrayal of Vietnam in Star Trek, they tend to focus on Gene L. Coon’s blistering critiques of the war in episodes like A Taste of Armageddon or Errand of Mercy. (Or even his work with David Gerrold on The Trouble With Tribbles.)

An out of body experience...

An out of body experience…

However, such discussions tend to gloss over the scripts from the first two seasons that support the war, whether it’s the “some wars need to be fought” message of The City on the Edge of Forever or the “we need to protect the primitives” subtext of shows like Friday’s Child, The Apple or A Private Little War or even the “war is bad, sure… but everybody should just adopt American standards” attitude of The Omega Glory. The Vietnam War was a massive divisive issue in contemporary American politics, so it makes sense that Star Trek itself would be divided on the issue.

The parallels are underscored by the scheduling of The Crossing. Much like A Private Little War was broadcast in the midst of the Tet Offensive that helped to shift public opinion on the Vietnam War, The Crossing is the first episode of Enterprise to air after the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom in late March 2003. Much more than any of the other spin-offs unfolding in the gap between the Cold War and 9/11, it is impossible to divorce Enterprise from its own particular moment in history. Much as Star Trek could only be a product of the late sixties, Enterprise could only be a product of the early noughties.

"It's alien. Kill it."

“It’s alien. Kill it.”

Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek:Voyager were the product of less turbulent times, allowing them more internal consistency on the big issues of the day. However, in facing something like the War on Terror, Enterprise finds a strange common ground with its pop culture ancestor. Much like Star Trek seemed unable to figure out a firm and consistent ideological stance on the Vietnam War, Enterprise buckles a little under the weight of the War on Terror.

It is hard to determine a consistent ideology to account for Enterprise‘s approach to the War on Terror. There are scripts that seem cynical about the more vocal responses to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Episodes like Detained and Judgment seem uncomfortable with the reflexive paranoia and hate-mongering provoked by the atrocity. Shadows of P’Jem suggests that violence begets violence; Cease Fire proposes that a peaceful response to violence can be a radical move. These are episodes that fit (reasonably comfortably) within the stereotypically liberal framework of Star Trek.

"Invasion of the body borrowers" does not have quite the same ring to it...

“Invasion of the body borrowers” does not have quite the same ring to it…

In contrast, there are episodes that seem to embrace more aggressive political positions. Shockwave, Part I has Archer respond to a catastrophic tragedy with swift violence against those responsible. The Seventh is a story about trusting those in authority to know best, even when they have violated your personal autonomy. The Crossing is a story about how things that are different should be treated with suspicion. Minefield and Dawn are stories about how exploration goes a lot better if people are willing to just leave different cultures alone.

This is the first time that a Star Trek show has seemed so consciously (and thoroughly) divided on a contemporary issue since Vietnam, and it suggests that perhaps there is this is the perfect time for Star Trek to be Star Trek. The backdrop of Vietnam gave the original Star Trek a palpable sense of urgency and import, and perhaps the War on Terror could do the same for Enterprise. It seems like The Expanse becomes more and more necessary with each passing episode. The Crossing seems to insist that Star Trek can no longer do good old-fashioned exploration stories, but suggests nothing to take their place.

"Bridge, I've got an emergency down here. It appears that the writing staff remembered that Michael Rostov exists."

“Bridge, I’ve got an emergency down here. It appears that the writing staff remembered that Michael Rostov exists.”

Of course, The Crossing arrives at a very turbulent time in Enterprise‘s life-cycle. Audience figures were about to go into freefall, with Judgment and Horizon both recording record lows for the series. More than that, Rick Berman had taken advantage of the broadcast lull in March to officially confirm that there was a change coming down the line:

“I think our final episode of the season is going to be quite startling because we’re going to do a cliffhanger that will put a new twist on the series as it enters its third year. I don’t really want to get specific about it, but we’re not talking about a tiny change. We’re talking about a change that is going to, to some degree, alter our mission and, to some degree, change the tone of the series. We’re very excited by it. This idea will be introduced partially in the final episode of this season and then more dramatically dealt with in the opener next season.”

This marks seven of the final eight episodes of the second season as lame ducks. Berman had publicly confirmed that there was a radical change in direction coming, and the next seven episodes were just marking time and spinning the wheels.

Killing the franchise...

Killing the franchise…

In a show more concerned with long-term plotting, those seven might serve to tidy up long-running plot threads. They might tidy away what had been done so that something new might be built. There was a definite change in the air; there was clearly blood in the water. There was a very real chance that these final eight episodes would be the last ever examples of a certain approach to Star Trek storytelling that had begun with Evolution or The Bonding way back in 1989. There was a clear funereal atmosphere hanging over the show.

In many respects, these final eight episodes can be seen as a closing curtain call for a particular version of Star Trek. Enterprise would radically reinvent itself in its third and fourth seasons, but it would never fully revert back to this reliable fourteen-year-old storytelling model. For better or for worse, these eight episodes close the book on a very long and very complicated chapter of Star Trek history. It is a cliché to suggest that nothing would ever be the same again, but it is very much true in the context of Star Trek.

A touchingly creepy scene...

A touchingly creepy scene…

So it is appropriate that The Crossing argues that the classic Star Trek storytelling model is perhaps not compatible with the new social and political realities; just as it is appropriate for Judgment to mount a defense of the series. Horizon takes the show back to its troubled first season for a bizarre interlude, while The Breach and Cogenitor are both classic Star Trek morality plays in their own way. Regeneration cements Enterprise‘s place in the canon, and revives the iconic Borg one last time. First Flight jumps back to before Broken Bow to look at what might have been.

Enterprise has been pronounced dead, for the first time. The show will be resurrected as something different, only to die and be resurrected once again. The show approaches each of these three deaths in a different way. The cliffhanger of Zero Hour is an act of petulent rebellion, while These Are the Voyages… is an attempt to tie eighteen years together. However, the first death is something a bit more modest. These eight episodes, in their own way, bid farewell to Enterprise as it was launched out of Broken Bow and how it fits with The Next Generation and Voyager.

Well suited to the task...

Well suited to the task…

The Crossing is perhaps the strongest example of how the second season of Enterprise feels like a stillborn season of television; it often feels like the show is going through the motions, pantomiming what it thinks viewers want from Star Trek while struggling to reconcile those familiar beats with its grip on the national mood. It is no coincidence that The Crossing was broadcast just as Rick Berman and Brannon Braga were trying to figure out how to reboot the show for its third season; such a reboot seems more crucial than ever.

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

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6 Responses

  1. Sad when a genre show, of any stripe, is trapped in a story it doesn’t want to be in. The only show I can think of which misses the mark as badly is Torchwood in its first two years. That story of course had the opposite problem: it was stuck on scummy, post-recession earth when the real fun was to be had was with Marsters and the time police. Enterprise doesn’t really want to be in space. They’re more like granite-faced garrison troops on the Romulan Neutral Zone than impressionable explorers.

    • Aha, so that was the problem. Instead of Archer we should be following the adventures of a young, leggy Nechayev. 😉

      • Actually, I’ll admit to having a very weird crush on Nechayev growing up. The iciest of icy blondes. So, yep, I’d watch that show.

    • That’s a fair point. I think the series never quite recovered from the shock of 9/11 in its first two seasons. Which is quite a callous thing to say about a tragedy like that; its effects on the Star Trek franchise aren’t near the top of anybody’s concerns, and rightly so.

      I know I’m in the minority on this, but I do think that the third season works quite well as a metaphor for Star Trek trying to work through that shock and trauma, beginning in a very cynical and dark place, but ending in a more utopian mindset. There are a whole host of problems along the way, but I think it’s better than most give it credit for being.

      • I was certainly incredulous when I heard about the plot for season 3 from friends (friends who sneeringly called it “waging war against the Iraxians and their WMDs”). Even after season 4 won me back, I didn’t appreciate that the show had actually turned the corner a season earlier until much, much later. I still haven’t seen all of season 3, but I was very pleasantly surprised to find the conflict with the Xindi was (mostly) solved through diplomacy and establishing trust between their people, rather than force of arms.

      • Controversially, I’d argue the third season is underrated and the forth is overrated. The third has its fair share of clunkers, but it really swings for the fences.

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