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Star Trek: Enterprise – The Expanse (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.

And, finally, everything changes.

It feels inevitable. Maybe not in this particular form, maybe not in this particular way, but Star Trek: Enterprise needed something. The show needed to stop feeling like a relic of the early nineties – a great song played on loop to the point where it became nothing more than generic white noise. The Expanse gives the show a clear sense of direction and a clear sense of purpose. It is not a direction that is unanimously loved, and it is not a purpose that is realised as well as it might be, but it finally feels like Enterprise is boldly going in its own direction.

A walk among the wreckage...

A walk among the ruins…

In many respects, the obvious point of comparison for The Expanse is an episode like The Jem’Hadar or A Call to Arms. It is an episode that is clearly written to reach an ending so that the show can start doing something new. These episodes tend to tease a brave new future, one utterly unlike anything that Star Trek has done before, but they play like extended forty-five minute trailers. Watching The Expanse, it feels like show runners Rick Berman and Brannon Braga are thinking more about the direction than the destination. That’s not a bad thing at this point.

Polarising as it might be, and occasionally awkward as it might be, The Expanse was utterly necessary. Enterprise is a Star Trek show that exists in the shadow of 9/11. That horrific terrorist attack has reverberated throughout the series. The War on Terror informs and distorts narratives like Shadows of P’Jem, ShockwaveThe SeventhCease FireThe CrossingJudgmentRegeneration and Cogenitor. However, there is a sense that Enterprise never accepted that heavy pull of gravity.

Homecoming...

Homecoming…

Sometimes it worked; Judgment, Regeneration and Cogenitor are all examples of the series trying to apply its own morality to a more complicated and confusing geopolitical climate. However, the War on Terror made it hard to reconcile Jonathan Archer as both an explorer and a paranoid reactionary. The unquestioning trust in authority in The Seventh, to the point where he did not question the Vulcan High Command’s mindwipe of T’Pol? The all-consuming dread upon meeting something different in The Crossing? These do not fit well within Star Trek.

So The Expanse pushes all that to the front. The opening teaser features a strange alien ship appearing and carving a large scar in the surface of the planet – a very visual representation of the damage done to the utopian optimism of Star Trek. Now that the scar had been literalised, it could be discussed and explored. The Expanse made sure that nobody was talking around the elephant in the room; everybody was now charging right at it.

The way ahead is cloudy...

The way ahead is cloudy…

The Expanse is very clearly a shift in focus for Enterprise. In the documentary Uncharted Territory, Brannon Braga recalls how the idea developed from conversations with Viacom Group Chairman Jonathan Dolgen:

At some point during the year, I believe it was Jonathan Dolgen – basically the head of everything, big Star Trek fan – who said, “You have to shake everything up.” Jonathan Dolgen is a super-smart guy who used to run everything. He loved Star Trek. He was the one between seasons two and three who said, “You have to shake everything up.” He gave us permission to do anything. He basically said, “You better f%&kin’ figure something out that’s big.” And that’s when I did what I always wanted to do – I wanted to tell a season-long arc and make the stakes very high. That’s when you can make the stakes very high. You can’t put Earth at stake in episode three and then resolve it. You can’t go back to that again. So I could put Earth at stake. And that would end up being the end of season two.

Dolgen was quite right. There was a need to shake things up. After all, so much of the second season had been running on autopilot with generic episodes like Marauders clogging up airtime.

Fighting the Future Guy...

Fighting the Future Guy…

As its title implies, The Expanse is a breath of fresh air. It gives Enterprise a whole new sense of freedom and adventure, an opportunity to break away from what came before and to do its own thing. To be entirely fair, that freedom does not always lead to perfect results, but it leads to more ambition and excitement than the show had managed to muster since Broken Bow. Whatever critics might feel about the direction that Enterprise took, it is clear that the show itself felt more confident than it had ever been before.

In fact, The Expanse seemed to ripple backwards from the end of the season. Rick Berman officially announced the “epic” new direction to the press in March 2003, shortly before The Crossing aired. It seems safe to say that the writing staff were aware of the looming change a little earlier – even if the particulars were still being developed and worked out. As such, it seems like the last stretch of the second season might be the last opportunity to tell particular types of stories. So shows like Judgment, Regeneration and Cogenitor really went for broke.

Klinging in there...

Klinging in there…

The Expanse itself is more a statement of purpose than a coherent story. The episode is riddled with all sorts of plot holes and logical leaps. The most obvious question is why the Xindi would test their weapon on Earth itself? Why not some uninhabited world? After all, Future Guy reveals to Archer that the Xindi believe that mankind will wipe out their entire species; you don’t just casually provoke a planet full of genocidal madmen by poking them with a stick. It seems like rather poor planning.

It is possible to come up with any number of excuses or justifications – ranging from the comical to the “sort of plausible it you squint at it.” Maybe this is an early example of just how terrible the Xindi Council are at organising things, setting up a recurring motif in the third season. Maybe it was a planning error. Maybe the Sphere Builders told them to do so and they just did. Maybe they wanted to be sure the weapon would work outside the strange spacial physics of the eponymous region, and across the same distance?

Expansive re-tooling...

Expansive re-tooling…

Similarly, why does Archer seem to take Future Guy at his word? Here, Future Guy serves as a pretty convenient mechanism to deliver vital exposition, but he really doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to being a decent guy. Archer accuses Future Guy of murdering seven million people; however, the episode seems to suggest that Future Guy is innocent. No mention is made of the fact that Future Guy was responsible for the deaths of three thousand people in Shockwave, Part I. It is all just a question of scale from that point.

It doesn’t matter; the logic that drives The Expanse is abstract at best. Symbolic necessity trumps clear plotting. Future Guy provides the exposition instead of Daniels because that means the Suliban get to show up, providing a clear link back to Broken Bow. The Xindi weapon is tested against Earth because The Expanse needs a very real and very visceral event that can be used as a launch pad for all sorts of War on Terror metaphors. Those metaphors hit a bump when the Xindi aren’t really terrorists, but they make sense in the context of Enterprise.

"It's a season finalé. I thought I was due an appearance."

“It’s a season finalé. I thought I was due an appearance.”

Trying to account for logical motivations or for cause-and-effect misses the point. The Expanse is not a tightly-constructed story building to an inevitable cliffhanger with a clear resolution plotted in advance. It lacks the clockwork precision and self-assuredness of A Call to Arms. Instead, it has same the rough-and-ready desire to break away from what came before by any means necessary that drove The Jem’Hadar. (After all, The Jem’Hadar is itself similarly loose in execution.)

The Expanse is a bridge to get to a larger story that Rick Berman and Brannon Braga want to tell, with little real regard for the mechanics necessary to get there. It is a delightfully unusual approach for Star Trek. The franchise has a tendency to be particularly logical and routine in its plotting and structuring. Instead, The Expanse recalls the more relaxed plot structure of episodes like Breaking the Ice or Cold Front, where the episode almost plays as a collection of scenes built around a common theme.

"Trip, there's been a disaster... the viewing figures are in."

“Trip, there’s been a disaster… the viewing figures are in.”

Interestingly, despite the obvious parallels, Rick Berman claimed in contemporary interviews that The Expanse was not an attempt to consciously evoke the iconography of 9/11. Instead, he argued, it was simply carefully-generated research that led to the decision to attack Earth:

“I think one of the things that motivated us is in analysing the 10 existing Star Trek movies, we were looking for something that would help torque up our series and add a little dimension to get a little added excitement towards the end of the season. We did a little analysis of our own, and we saw that two of the most popular movies … were Star Trek IV [The Voyage Home], which was the one about whales, and Star Trek VIII, which was First Contact. These were both films that had to do with the future of Earth being at stake. And we decided that that would be a great place to start. … It wasn’t literally for a long time that we suddenly realized [the parallel]. But the idea of aliens coming to destroy Earth has been around a lot longer than 9/11.”

There is a sense that Berman is being just a little coy here. For all that Star Trek VI: The Voyage Home and Star Trek: First Contact demonstrated that audiences liked threats to Earth, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek: Nemesis refute that.

Running out of time...

Running out of time…

After all, it is hard to escape the obvious parallels with the War on Terror. We get no less than three scenes of Trip helpfully explaining that he plans to get out there and avenge his planet on those responsible – an obvious commentary on the War on Terror and contemporary American foreign policy. The Vulcans even get cast in the role of “completely useless and even undermining ally” so that Archer finally has to just “go it alone” – again, reflecting many contemporary observations about the American response to the attacks.

The retooling of the show is literalised in the actual on-screen refitting of the Enterprise itself. Enterprise is converted from an exploration vessel to a battleship; Archer even requests a group of specially-trained marines to provide clear muscle for his new adventure. Picard’s insistence in Peak Performance that Starfleet is not a military is – once again – firmly rejected, one of many clear and clever acknowledgements of the franchise’s history included in The Expanse. There is no way The Expanse is not about the War on Terror; even the opening attack is a suicide mission.

An empire goes to war...

An empire goes to war…

As John Putman notes in Terrorising Space, The Expanse very consciously and clearly sets itself up as a parable on the War on Terror:

The Xindi attack and the crew’s reaction are not the only parallels to post-9/11 terrorism. For example, the remainder of the Xindi probe that attacked Earth lands in Central Asia, not so coincidentally the heart of al-Qaeda and Afghanistan. Likewise, rather than have the Enterprise remain near Earth to protect it, Archer takes the battle to the Xindi homeland, just as the U.S. government took the war to Afghanistan in its global war on terrorism. Even the Delphic Expanse is described as a dangerous region of space where many Vulcan ships have gone missing. The Vulcan ambassador Soval adds that the region is also rumoured to hold several hostile alien species and unexplainable phenomena and that in some areas of the expanse, even the laws of physics do not apply. This depistion of the Delphic Expanse in many ways mirrors descriptions of Afghanistan as a mysterious and dangerous region that is home to hostile ethnic groups, and where powerful groups, like the British and the Soviet Union seemed to have lost their way and struggled to survive.

It seems like Enterprise is grappling with a changed world, updating itself for contemporary realities.

Mission: Unaccomplished...

Mission: Unaccomplished…

And so The Expanse is positioned as both a pilot and a finalé. It is a very exciting and eccentric combination. The Expanse intentionally and repeatedly calls back to Broken Bow in a number of ways. Most obviously, the Suliban and the Temporal Cold War reappear, but there are a number of other nods. Enterprise gets to leave spacedock again – a literal relaunch. The main body of the episode opens on Qo’nos, as Broken Bow closed on Qo’nos. There is even a deleted scene about Archer worrying that Hoshi might leave; reflecting his recruitment of her in the pilot.

However, The Expanse extends back even further than Broken Bow. Forrest gives Archer a tour of the refitted Enterprise in a shuttlepod, harking back not only to Broken Bow but beyond. The shuttle tour has been a feature of Star Trek introductions – from the introduction of the refitted Enterprise in Star Trek: The Motion Picture to the introduction of the next Enterprise in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home or the introduction of Voyager itself in Caretaker. In fact, the shuttle tour is such a vital part of the whole ship-christening experience that All Good Things… retroactively gave Picard one.

Shadowy plotting...

Shadowy plotting…

It is telling that Archer’s last line in The Expanse mirrors Picard’s last line in Encounter at Farpoint. Journeying further than anybody had ever gone before, Jean-Luc Picard declared, “Let’s see what’s out there.” For all the problems with the first season of The Next Generation, that succinct statement was a charming motto for the next sixteen years of the franchise. Archer quite pointedly inverts that sentiment. “Straight and steady. Mister Mayweather. Let’s see what’s in there.”

It reflects a very clear change in mood and tone. While Picard was taking the Enterprise on a journey of limitless possibilities and infinite wonder, Archer is embarking on a much more confined and claustrophobic adventure. The universe to be explored by Picard was vast and spacious; the Expanse itself is firmly delineated and defined. More than that, though, there is a sense that Enterprise is consciously trying to look inward – to become perhaps a bit more introspective and reflective.

Alien bodies...

Alien bodies…

Although The Expanse constructs a clear narrative allegory for the War on Terror, it is worth noting that the Xindi themselves are not a direct stand-in for the nebulous “enemy” in the same way that the Klingons had been during the Cold War. There are points of comparison, of course – the Xindi see themselves and humanity locked in a struggle for survival; the Sphere Builders add some pretty strong religious undertones to the conflict. There are points in the third season (particularly Chosen Realm) where the show does touch on the “other” in the War on Terror.

However, for the most part, the show is quite careful to avoid making the Xindi an easy narrative substitute for al-Qaeda or Iraq or Afghanistan or “the Axis of Evil.” The Xindi are not a terrorist faction or an oppressive dictatorship; they are a legitimate government that seems to accept some principles of democracy. They are not interested in inspiring terror or spreading their beliefs, and they are not interested in small-scale attacks. They are not portrayed as militarily inferior to Starfleet – in fact, they are much stronger and more numerous than the Enterprise.

Taking their Chance(llor)...

Taking their Chance(llor)…

Instead, The Expanse is much more interested in what the experiences of Archer and his crew say about the War on Terror as an American experience at the start of the twenty-first century. The Expanse – and the resulting arc – is more interested in seeing how Archer and his crew respond to a War on Terror type situation than constructing a meticulous and careful approximation of the War on Terror itself. Can hope and optimism endure under such conditions? Just what is Archer capable of doing in moments of desperation and rage?

The third season gets a lot of flack for seeming to argue for an “ends justify the means” approach to morality. Certain sections of Star Trek fandom would loudly (and boldly) declare that the third season is an unquestioning propagandist piece for the Bush administration’s approach to the War on Terror. While there are undoubtedly troubling aspects of the third season that could be said to embrace this philosophy – particularly early in the season – but this is an overly simplistic interpretation of the season.

Fire and brimstone...

Fire and brimstone…

The third season of Enterprise is generally no more morally compromised than the sixth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Indeed, it ultimately affirms Star Trek‘s humanism and optimism, even in the face of untold horrors. However, The Expanse goes out of its way to stress that this is simply Star Trek with a new paint job; that this has not suddenly transformed into the grim and imperialism mirror universe when nobody was looking. The engine has been remodeled and reworked, but the heart is still the same.

After all, Trip’s thirst for vengeance is obviously being set up so that it might eventually be subverted. In one scene, he complains to Archer, “I can’t wait to get in there, Captain, and find the people who did this. And tell me we won’t be tiptoeing around. None of that non-interference crap T’Pol’s always shoving down our throats. Maybe its good thing she’s leaving.” Of course, it becomes quite clear over the course of the third season that it is a good thing for Trip (and the rest of the crew) that she doesn’t leave.

"Giving the crew a copy of Event Horizon before they shipped out may not have been the best idea..."

“Giving the crew a copy of Event Horizon before they shipped out may not have been the best idea…”

The Expanse makes T’Pol something of a standard-bearer for classic Star Trek values, as the Vulcan on the crew and with Trip implicitly linking her to the Prime Directive and typical Star Trek morality. With the change in mission, T’Pol hesitates; she contemplates her place on the ship. After all, the episode explains that The Expanse has a detrimental effect on Vulcans, another wonderful symbolic touch that suggests how careful Star Trek needs to be in there. Eventually, T’Pol decides to stay. Not because she wants to, but because the crew needs her. “You need me, Captain.”

This decision to treat T’Pol as a standard-bearer for traditional Star Trek morality is an inspired touch – it seems to give the character a direction she sorely lacked during the first two seasons. Indeed, her decision to remain on the ship in The Expanse is perhaps the most proactive T’Pol has been to this point in the show. As such, the decision to turn T’Pol into a drug addict over the course of the third season feels misguided at best and disastrous at worst. It seems like the show comes close to figuring out T’Pol, and then veers roughly in the opposite direction.

Failure to launch.

Failure to launch.

However, even outside of positioning T’Pol as the voice of Star Trek morality, The Expanse is also quite clear that Archer is still Archer. Archer talks a good game in The Expanse. Sharing a drink with Trip, he promises, “We’ll do what we have to do, Trip. Whatever it takes.” On the surface, it seems to endorse an “ends justifies the means” morality, but it also exists to set limits on Trip’s bloodlust. Archer seems to be suggesting that he will do what is necessary, but will not indulge Trip’s thirst for vengeance.

After all, The Expanse goes out of its way to have Archer treat Duras mercifully. Despite the fact that he would be perfectly justified in destroying Duras’ ship during the second of Duras’ three attacks, Archer is careful to do as little damage as possible. When Reed asks what weapons yield to use, Archer replies, “Start low. We just want to get them off our backs.” Even during the third attack, Archer tries to reach the Delphic Expanse so as to scare Duras off his trail. Destroying Duras’ ship is a measure of last resort.

"I really hope he already had kids. Otherwise we just created a pretty big continuity issue."

“I really hope he already had kids. Otherwise we just created a pretty big continuity issue.”

Of course, the presence of Duras is more than just a nice nod back to Judgment early in the season. The Expanse is very much about bidding farewell to the trappings of traditional Star Trek and of the early years of Enterprise. The Suliban and the Klingons are both entirely absent from the third season – the third season is the only season of Star Trek without a Klingon, and the only season of Enterprise without a Suliban. There is a sense that Enterprise is bidding goodbye to all of that. At least for the moment.

The Delphic Expanse is suggested as a place where the normal rules of Star Trek are up in the air. Indeed, it is actively hostile to the Vulcans and the Klingons, two of the most iconic classic Star Trek aliens. The footage that Soval shows to Archer makes it quite clear that the Expanse is no place for Vulcans, and Duras’ two support ships refuse to follow him into the Expanse. Archer figures as much when Duras demands that Enterprise turn around. “That’s why Duras wants us to come about. He’s afraid of the Expanse.”

Clouding his judgement...

Clouding his judgement…

It is worth mentioning that even the tempo and speed of Enterprise has changed. The Expanse is helmed by veteran Star Trek director Allan Kroeker, who became the go-to director for series premieres and finalés from here on out – very much setting the tone for the last two seasons. There is a very kinetic style to his work on The Expanse. Star Trek has traditionally been quite conservative in its cinematography and direction, favouring static shots to dynamism. In contrast, even the low-stakes climactic confrontation with Duras bristles with a fresh energy.

To be clear, the franchise’s long-standing tendency towards static shots makes a great deal of sense. Television is a very demanding medium in terms of time, one where there is not always time for complexity and experimentation. This is particularly true when dealing with special effects, which become even more difficult to integrate with dynamic action sequences. The Expanse has a sense of vibrancy and energy that has been sorely missing from Star Trek since the end of Deep Space Nine – a desire to really take Star Trek and do something new and different with it.

A shake-up...

A shake-up…

In Uncharted Territory, Braga has talked about how The Expanse engendered a new enthusiasm and excitement in his work:

Great things happened at the end of season two. We wrote, I think, a killer finalé. I was excited to go into season three, for the first time in a while. Or, at least, the first time since my last showrunning tenure on Voyager, which I loved. This was the first time I felt excited – truly and genuinely excited – to be working on Star Trek. I couldn’t wait until season three.

That excitement carries over to the third season, where – even outside the Xindi arc – Braga gave writers like David A. Goodman and Manny Coto more freedom than they would have enjoyed during the first and second seasons.

Raising the roof...

Raising the roof…

The Expanse is a big episode. It is almost cinematic in scope. In fact, the episode features the most sets and the largest guest cast on the show since Broken Bow. It seemed like even the network itself got into the spirit of the occasion, with UPN actually publicising the series on its evening news broadcast. Given the hostility that Enterprise was facing – and would continue to face into the third season and beyond – from the network, this gives a sense of the scale of The Expanse.

There are lots of other nice touches as well. The inclusion of Duras and the carrying over of continuity from Judgment feels more interesting and satisfying in The Expanse than similar efforts in Bounty. It feels like the show is making an effort to demonstrate that story points extend beyond a single episode, a point that will be vitally important for an extended arc tracking the ship’s investigation of the Xindi threat. It is nice to have a dry run for that sort of storytelling here. (That said, it feels strange that the issue of Archer’s escape doesn’t come up in the fourth season.)

"Hey! You even painted over that scrape that Trip left last time!"

“Hey! You even painted over that scrape that Trip left last time!”

More than that, it seems like the script is fairly candidly acknowledges some of the more unsatisfying recurring issues with the first and second season. The subplots involving the Klingons and the Suliban are treated as somewhat tired and uninspired, events that feel overly familiar and formulaic. Sending Duras after Archer, the Chancellor complains, “Twice, twice he’s been captured, and twice he’s escaped.” There is a sense that the show has been there and done that, to the point where even the Klingons are recognising the familiar patterns.

Similarly, the Suliban attack upon the Enterprise is treated as business as usual. As in Shockwave, Part II and even Future Tense, it is clear that the Suliban are tactically superior to the Enterprise. However, that does not seem to bother Archer. “Captain,” Reed reports, “we’ve got Suliban ships. Eight of them, approaching at high warp.” Archer does not respond with anxiety or concern. Instead, there is mild frustration. “Just what we need,” he reflects, as if aware that the Suliban are crowding a narrative by doing the same thing they generally do.

The silhouette of things to come...

The silhouette of things to come…

The Expanse acknowledges this dull repetitive plotting in a script that roundly rejects these beats. The Suliban and Duras are familiar threats that never steal the narrative focus. The Suliban are gone by the end of the first act; Duras is just a mild irritation as the ship deals with bigger issues. It does a lot to provide the show with a sense of scale while heralding the arrival of something more novel and exciting. The Expanse concedes the problem with these stories by demonstrating just how rote they are.

The Expanse changes the rules for Enterprise, radically altering the mood and dynamic of the show. Whether the results were entirely desirable is open to debate; that the course alteration was necessary is simply a statement of fact. This is a very brave and daring piece of Star Trek, a very clear attempt to take the franchise where it has never gone before.

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

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