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Star Trek: Enterprise – Bounty (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.

Just when it seemed like Star Trek: Enterprise was on a roll, it produces Bounty.

To be fair to writers Mike Sussman and Phyllis Strong, and showrunners Rick Berman and Brannon Braga, Bounty has all the makings of a network-mandated episodes. It is easy to see the stock plot elements manufactured from a checklist provided by the network. T’Pol in her underwear! Space battles! Klingons! The script also demonstrates a clear reluctance about some of these elements, as uncomfortable to be making Bounty as the viewers are to be watching it.

An enlightening experience?

An enlightening experience?

It is perhaps telling that Bounty was buried as the second half of a “double feature” with First Flight on initial broadcast. Not a feature-length adventure or a two-part episode, the scheduling of Bounty seems a little conspicuous, as if everyone involved is trying to get it out of the way as quickly and quietly as possible. Viewers watching UPN on 14th May 2003 would have tuned in for First Flight as usual. If they were lucky, they simply tuned out afterwards and returned to watch The Expanse a week later.

It is a much smoother transition from First Flight to The Expanse, but that does little to justify Bounty. The last stretch of the second season has generally done a good job of bidding farewell to a particular style of Star Trek. However, Bounty is an episode the embodies the worst tendencies of Enterprise. Sadly, those tendencies that may not actually be going anywhere.

"You're gonna sit there, and like it."

“You’re gonna sit there, and like it.”

Watching Bounty, it is very hard not feel sorry for actress Jolene Blalock. Enterprise has been less than kind to its lead female actress. Even the strongest T’Pol episodes tend to feature the character as passive and disengaged, relying on other (male) characters to step in and “rescue” her – consider Fusion, Shadows of P’Jem or Stigma. For all T’Pol is saddled with having to carry the show’s sex appeal, she never feels as vital or as compelling as Seven of Nine did on Star Trek: Voyager.

However, Bounty offers a new low in the series’ portrayal of T’Pol. To be fair, putting T’Pol through pon farr was almost inevitable. It doesn’t matter that the franchise had been ambiguous about whether the blood fever affects female Vulcans as profoundly as it affects their male counterparts; Amok Time was one of the most iconic episodes of classic Star Trek and T’Pol is a Vulcan lead character. She will experience pon farr, just as certainly as Tuvok would experience it in Body and Soul. (Tellingly, both Bounty and Body and Soul treat pon farr as an obligatory secondary plot, not a driving plot itself.)

Captivating drama...

Captivating drama…

That said, T’Pol is not just a Vulcan. She is the “sexy” character on Enterprise. This means that putting her through pon farr is not the same as putting Spock or Tuvok through pon farr. Bounty does not afford T’Pol the dignity of isolation or murderous rage, let alone combat to the death. Instead, T’Pol is placed in her underwear so that she can go through heat – paraded through a variety of embarrassing situations as Enterprise tries to balance “creepy” and “sexy.” The result would be a franchise lowlight, even if it weren’t saddled with a largely generic primary plot.

So Jolene Blalock spends most of Bounty in her underwear, lusting after Phlox in the decontamination chamber. Blalock does her best, trying make lines like “you have no idea what you’re denying yourself” work and generally being a good sport about an absolutely abysmal script. Bounty is the kind of episode that fans feared when the decontamination chamber first appeared in Broken Bow, the kind that the series had spent most of the second season trying to avoid. By this point in the second season, it feels like Enterprise had almost outgrown that cheesy exploitation.

"I appear to be detecting... sweeps."

“I appear to be detecting… sweeps.”

The second season contains notably fewer “characters in their underwear scenes” than the first season. In fact, A Night in Sickbay contains a sequence that is obviously meant to mock the concept by featuring Archer in the chamber with his dog. In Cogenitor, Trip’s “decontamination” consists of a quick injection. Even Bounty features the revelation that Phlox installed curtains in the decontamination chamber, because the way he (or anybody) could just peer through the window was kinda creepy. “Not everyone is comfortable with the idea of disrobing in front of others.”

There is a clear sense that Enterprise really doesn’t want to do this episode, certainly not at this time. For all that Bounty is a story about T’Pol going through pon farr, the episode goes out of its way to emphasise that the entire situation is artificial. Asked if she has experienced this before, T’Pol responds, “It’s not time.” The entire subplot feels like a pointless distraction; it feels weird that Trip is delivering meals to Phlox and T’Pol while running the ship and strange that the crew have time to evacuate an entire deck and send in security team in environmental suits during their rescue mission.

"Don't worry, we've still got time for the b-plot."

“Don’t worry, we’ve still got time for the b-plot.”

Bounty has the feeling of a network-mandated episode. In an interview during the third season, John Billingsley suggested that UPN was leaning on Enterprise to provide more sordid pleasures:

“I know Dawn Ostroff at UPN definitely asked for, and is probably demanding, a higher flesh ratio on every show,” he says, citing one of the many voices. “I suspect that a lot of fans aren’t too happy with that. Others will dig it. Who knows?”

Dawn Ostroff had taken over the running of UPN in 2002, and would then take over the CW in 2006 – making her “the longest-running sitting broadcast entertainment president” by 2010.

No time to argue.

No time to argue.

Ostroff is a controversial figure – despite her impressive career, she oversaw the decline of UPN and struggled with the CW. Television is more of a business than an artform, and Ostroff adopted a very traditional approach to management. Ostroff is the executive who provoked the wraith of internet fandom for cancelling Veronica Mars in its third season and refusing to greenlight an eighties-set Gossip Girl spin-off. There is an argument to be made that Ostroff did not entirely appreciate the complexities of managing a “minor” or “niche” network in a changing era of television.

Of course, Ostroff’s decisions were entirely justifiable from a business perspective – as the decision to eventually cancel Enterprise would be. However, they suggest an executive with little appreciation for managing cult properties. Given that the twenty-first century would see smaller networks finding great success leveraging those types of properties (look at Battlestar Galactica, to pick a contemporary example), it suggests that Ostroff was not entirely in tune with the media landscape around her.

Jolene. Jolene. Jolene, Jolene!

Jolene. Jolene. Jolene, Jolene!

UPN had developed a reputation among the industry as a network that very consciously and very calculatedly targeted the lowest common denominator. This was the network that thought it would be appropriate to broadcast The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer, an infamously tasteless sitcom about a freed black slave who becomes Lincoln’s butler. The show lasted four episodes in October 1998, amid a minor media firestorm. UPN was the network that thought it would be appropriate to air a staged terrorist martyrdom as part of W.W.E. on July 7th, 2005 – the date of the London bombings.

The Star Trek production team had been relatively well-insulated from the network during the production of Voyager. Perhaps the most obvious influence of UPN on the production of Voyager was the introduction of the costuming of Seven of Nine, or the weird pseudo-wrestling crossover Tsunkatse. It also seems possible that the network pushed Voyager away from long-form storytelling, but the show itself seemed to transition away from serialised plotting of its own initiative in its early seasons.

"What do you mean we're not appearing in the third season?"

“What do you mean we’re not appearing in the third season?”

In contrast, Enterprise was subject to a lot more network interference. In the documentary Uncharted Territory, Rick Berman reflects on how surreal it was to start receiving notes from the executives, something that had not been part of his previous work on the franchise:

It was an exhausting process, because it was a whole new thing we had to add into our days. Suddenly having pages of notes come over. Now, most television producers today would laugh you – would laugh at me – for saying what I’m saying, because they get notes constantly. From the production company, from the studio, from the network. But we were spoilt and all of a sudden we were getting notes and we had page-upon-page of them, right down to changing preposition. It was frustrating. And that all had to do with a new administration. We did get a sense that there was a network that we were involved with that was not really interested in a science-fiction show. Whether the network’s change of course – in terms of what they were looking for – had anything to do with our ratings falling, I don’t have a clue.

Both Rick Berman and Brannon Braga have talked at length about their difficulties dealing with the network, and a sense that the people managing UPN since the transition in power had no interest in (or understanding of) the franchise.

Spineless...

Spineless…

So Bounty embodies a lot of the worst excesses of Enterprise – a cynical and crass attempt to pander towards a very young and very male demographic by a television network that has yet to figure out that teenage boys can probably find better examples of sexual titillation through a simple internet search. Enterprise is often unfairly maligned by critics and fans for trying to pander to the lowest common denominator; that is not entirely fair, but episodes like Bounty make a compelling case for the prosecution.

Everything about Bounty feels tired and fatigued, another compelling argument for the dramatic change in direction at the end of the second season. However, for the first time, it feels like Bounty is pointing to more fundamental and underlying problems with Enterprise – those to do with the show’s structure as a piece of television rather than a pop culture artifact after 9/11. Shows like The Seventh and The Crossing suggested that the narrative of Enterprise had warped by the War on Terror, and suggested a change in direction was necessary to work through that. The Expanse deals with that.

In a bit of a fix...

In a bit of a fix…

In contrast, Bounty suggests more unpleasant underlying issues with the show. It would be tempting to cast Bounty as an exorcism of some of the show’s underlying issues – to suggest that this is part of the “farewell tour” aesthetic of the rest of this final stretch of the season. It is not as tidy as all that. Enterprise continues to have issues with gender throughout the remainder of its run. Rajiin is another “beautiful sexy alien” plot, while Exile gives Hoshi her own alien stalker.

In terms of the larger context of the show, Enterprise never quite figures out what to do with T’Pol as a character. As character development goes, “T’Pol becomes a drug addict” is only a marginal improvement over “T’Pol gets hot and bothered.” Even the fourth season of Enterprise struggles with its handling of plots concerning sex and sexuality. The return of the Orion Slave Girls in Borderland is an affectionate homage to the show’s history, but the entire plot of Bound feels like a colossal misfire – particularly coming from Manny Coto, a writer generally credited with “saving” the show.

"I love what you've done with the freighter. It practically glows."

“I love what you’ve done with the freighter. It practically glows.”

Even outside of that truly dire plotting, Bounty feels like a stunningly superfluous episode. It is nice to see Enterprise engaging with the idea that earlier stories have consequences, and to accept that the ending of Judgment should have repercussions. However, it really feels like Enterprise is just stalling for time instead of actually telling a story that is worthwhile on its own merits. Judgment had fascinating things to say about contemporary America using the Klingon Empire, and The Expanse is quite clever in its symbolic use of Duras. Here, it just feels like the show trying to fill airtime.

After all, if the show wanted to do an episode about Archer escaping from captivity, it has had plenty of opportunities. David A. Goodman wanted to extend Judgment into a two-parter, and there is a sense that strongest parts of Bounty would have been enhanced and extended by just writing it as a conclusion rather than a half-hearted sequel. More than that, the second season has already done an “Archer in chains” story with Canamar, a script that hits on many of the same beats – right down to Archer sympathising with a character introduced as a villain.

It is a good day to make a token late-season appearance.

It is a good day to make a token late-season appearance.

There is a sense that Bounty was constructed by throwing a bunch of familiar elements together; possibly at the behest of the network. The episode features Klingons for the sake of featuring Klingons – right back to the dreary days of Sleeping Dogs or Marauders. There is nothing interesting to be said about the Klingon Empire here, no real purpose for them in this episode. It feels like they are part of Bounty because there was a loose thread of continuity from Judgment and because Klingons are stock Star Trek aliens.

More than that, there is an awful lot of padding in the episode – even outside of the terrible subplot featuring T’Pol. At one point, we get a completely gratuitous scene where Trip and Reed blow up a decoy buoy – almost as if Sussman and Strong are meeting their quota of explosions for the episode. When Trip instructs Reed to detonate the buoy, Reed responds, “With pleasure, sir.” Sadly, the episode never seems to take the same relish getting where it needs to go. It just feels like a dull slog – an episode that exists to get that syndication package up.

Climbing ratings is one thing they don't have to worry about...

Climbing ratings is one thing they don’t have to worry about…

In fact, the opening scene almost concedes as much. When Skalaar shows up, Archer tries to explain what Enterprise is doing in orbit of his planet. “We’re studying this planet. I have three science teams on the surface. We’re also here for a little shore leave.” He adds, “It’s been a while since we’ve had a chance to relax.” Twenty-six episodes a season can be a long time, and it makes sense that everybody involved in the show just wanted to go home at the end of the year. The second season of Enterprise would be the last season of Star Trek to make it to twenty-six episodes.

Perhaps that is the metric that should be used. “At least it isn’t Shades of Grey,” fans should acknowledge. Of course, as disappointing and as cynical as Shades of Grey was, it did not feature a gratuitous subplot parading the show’s female lead around in underwear. Bounty is precisely the sort of episode that Enterprise does not need at this point in its life-cycle. This is an episode that critics can use to beat the show – and feel entirely justified. Even Salon‘s robust defense of the first two seasons was forced to acknowledge that the second last episode to air was a bit crap.

Hoping Enterprise takes a quantum leap in storytelling...

Hoping Enterprise takes a quantum leap in storytelling…

Perhaps the most notable fact about Bounty is the fact that it introduces the Tellarites to the world of Enterprise. According to writer Mike Sussman, this was something he and Phyllis Strong had decided to do once they were given the story brief:

Phyllis, Chris Black and I have dropped in references to the Tellarites in a bunch of episodes: Carbon Creek, Civilization, Dead Stop, etc. The hunter in Bounty was originally a nondescript alien, but making him a familiar species helped jump-start the episode. I hope we’ll see the Tellarites again soon… maybe even pay a visit to their homeworld of Tellaria.

This is, in essence, a feature of Sussman and Strong’s writing for Enterprise. More than any writing duo on the staff at this point in the run, Sussman and Strong are likely to play with continuity.

"Third season resolution: spend less time being taken prisoner."

“Third season resolution: spend less time being taken prisoner.”

This is both a strength and a weakness. Regeneration is a stunningly clever piece of continuity work that very wryly ties Enterprise firmly into the Star Trek canon as a missing link between two well-loved pieces of continuity; the script is very cleverly designed to tease fans even as it does that, becoming a playful late-season episode. However, Sussman and Strong occasionally get a little bit too carried away with their references and in-jokes. Civilisation is hardly improved by an explicit link to The Changeling.

It is interesting to see the Tellarites again, even if they are nowhere near as iconic as the Andorians. (One assumes that the Orion Slave Girls, for all their problems, are more memorable and familiar than the Tellarites.) As nice as it is to see another update of a sixties alien design, there is very little about Bounty that feels like it needs that dangling thread of continuity. What does Bounty gain from using a Tellarite, except to confirm that they exist within the world of Enterprise? That seems like a rather disappointing net gain from a forty-five minute episode of television.

He floored them...

He floored them…

There is also something a little frustrating about how Bounty approaches the Tellarites. Sussman and Strong basically take Sarek’s pithy one-line dismissal of the Tellarite delegation in Journey to Babel, and apply it to an entire species:

“Sarek has that one line: ‘Tellarites do not argue for reasons — they simply argue.’ Now, he could just be making a generic insult, [but] I would imagine Tellarites are like that Monty Python skit, The Argument Clinic — I think the Tellarites are people who ‘argue in their spare time!’”

In a way, this is part of a larger (and fairly common) approach to continuity in science-fiction in general and Star Trek in particular, a tendency to use continuity as a way to turn entire cultures into caricatures.

Going too (pon) farr...

Going too (pon) farr…

There is a tendency among science-fiction fans to take generalise observations as universal truths. It makes a certain amount of sense in the context of a fictional universe – the Tellarites only appeared once in a supporting role, so it makes sense that we’d take the word of Spock’s dad in matters of Tellarite culture. However, it also speaks to the way that fandom tends to crave rules and order in their shared universe; the larger a universe grows, the more rigidly it boxes itself into these rules.

Enterprise had difficulties keeping within its own continuity – in Bounty, Archer escapes from a Klingon ship via an escape pod; in Sleeping Dogs, T’Pol had said Klingon ships don’t have escape pods. As such, reinforcing this granular approach to continuity seems a little counter-intuitive. The fact that Sarek made a borderline racist slur to avoid answering an awkward question from another delegate in Journey to Babel is suddenly the defining feature of Tellarite culture. (Fontana’s script uses the remark as a way of characterising Sarek, and it seems reductive to treat it as a universal truth.)

Bouyed by the idea of the looming summer hiatus...

Bouyed by the idea of the looming summer hiatus…

After all, this approach would cause a lot of trouble in the way that Enterprise approached the Vulcans as a species. Star Trek fandom has (understandably) a massive soft spot for Vulcans. However, the franchise has made it quite clear that Spock was very much the exception rather than the rule when it came to Vulcans. Stories like Amok Time and Journey to Babel do not paint a flattering picture of Vulcan culture, arguably one in line with the selfish jerks portrayed on Enterprise. First and second season Soval is just the logical extension of Valeris or Solok.

The portrayal of the Vulcans in Enterprise might fit reasonably well alongside the actual material presentation of Vulcans in earlier shows, but it runs counter to the reductive and simplistic interpretation of Vulcans that suggests they are emotionless and logical founding members of the Federation. Just like the simple or reductive impression that Tellarites like to argue, because Sarek said it that one time. Of course, there is an argument that the more cynical portrayal of the Vulcans could be seen as anti-intellectual, but that is a problem stemming back to at least Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

Sleeping on it...

Sleeping on it…

Still, it does not make much difference. The fact that Skalaar is a Tellarite rather than a Tarkalean has a minimal impact on how Bounty plays out. This is not a bold introductory episode like The Andorian Incident. This is not an example of Enterprise consciously building towards the idea of the United Federation of Planets. This is a bit of continuity wedged into a fairly generic plot of an episode at the tail end of the second season. This is very much Enterprise going through the motions – a script that belongs in the largely dull middle stretch of the year.

The Expanse cannot arrive soon enough.

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

6 Responses

  1. At least Braga can rest easy.

    You know, I think a lot of people (me included) pinned the creepy overtones of VOY and ENT squarely on Braga. This was the fellow, after all, who turned VOY over to his amazonian girlfriend and later spoke of his giantess fetish. At most, he received some ribbing over it (If there’s anyone who is an authority on sexual regularity, it’s a Trekkie!), but Enterprise ‘confirmed’ a lot of suppositions about the man. Myself, I recall accusing him of being another hacky, sleazy producer on this blog.

    Well, we owe him an apology.

    • Well, Braga has made no shortage of questionable decisions. We’ll get to that in the T’Pol character arc in the third season.

      I suspect that a lot of the fan attitude to Braga comes from that now-infamous interview late in TNG where he basically defined himself as the “kinky” member of the young turks working on Star Trek. This was when Braga was quite young and still new on staff, and part of me suspects that he was trying to be provocative. This was the same interview, I think, where he argued that he never watched the original Star Trek, and that he had Roddenberry’s blessing.

      I think he has since conceded that he regrets that interview, given all the backlash that has built up over the years.

      (And, to be fair, Braga is admittedly quite kinky, but not necessarily in the way you’d expect – on the commentary to Broken Bow, he argues that Melinda Clarke is sexier with her Suliban make-up than without it. And not in a way that is mean to Melinda Clarke. Which is something that feels just weird enough and low-key enough to be a genuine observation than an attempt to shock.)

      And while Braga has his name on any number of episodes with questionable sexual elements (Sub Rosa, Genesis and Threshold come to mind), it’s not as if he’s the only writer to adopt a questionable approach. Bryan Fuller and Lisa Klink wrote Retrospect under Jeri Taylor’s oversight, for example – Voyager’s really cringe-worthy “date rape” episode.

      It’s actually weird to be having these sort of conversations. (Not with you in particular, just in general.) Sometimes I feel like I’m mounting a defense of Berman and Braga, when I’d like to think that I’m actually reasonably critical of them. I think, for example, they come out of these reviews less favourably than Michael Piller or Ira Steven Behr come out of reviews of their showrunning period. They’ll probably come out less favourably than Manny Coto or Jeri Taylor, when I get to those episodes. I think that just demonstrates how incredibly strong the anti-Berman and anti-Braga atmosphere around Enterprise can be.

  2. Re: the episode itself

    I don’t know what to think of the Tellarite pirate. On the one hand, he could be a Pakled or a Breen or whatever. Why did it have to be a scholar race? A layman wouldn’t bat an eyelash, but a Trekkie would probably be annoyed and a bit baffled. Much like how the Andorians are acting more like TOS Klingons, and failing to make much of an impression as a result. Is it still continuity if it’s wrong??

    On the other hand, it’s nice the Tellarites have some characterization outside of “space rabbis”.

    • I just really don’t like the “Sarek said something in a scene once that was meant to demonstrate that he was stand-offish and kinda rude, but we like Sarek so it’s now the defining attribute of this species” aspect of Tellarite characterisation on Enterprise. It’s like the show was so exhausted from all the bashing they got over the suggestion that “Vulcans were never nice people” that they just took the path of least resistance.

      I’m not sure I’d agree with the Andorians being bland. Not necessarily because of the scripts, mind you, but Jeffrey Combs is great. As ever.

      • Oh, definitely. I like how he modeled Shran on James Cagney (if only he spoke in the Cagney accent). And the whole image of gangsters with blue antenna tickles my fancy.

        Then again I’m one of the weirdos who enjoyed the grey aliens in SS uniforms.

      • I thought I was the only one who could kinda go with “EVIL ALIEN SPACE NAZIS!” Not a great two-parter, but pulpy and silly in ways that we’re entirely unobjectionable. Plus it kinda put the kibosh on the Temporal Cold War, albeit in a way that made no sense. So, you know, internally consistent then!

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