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Star Trek: Enterprise – Season 2 (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 second season of Star Trek: Enterprise is a strange beast, breaking down into roughly three sections.

The first section runs from Shockwave, Part II through to A Night in Sickbay. There is a nice energy to these episodes, with the first appearance of the Romulans in Minefield and nice internal continuity between otherwise stand-alone adventures like Minefield and Dead Stop. Carbon Creek is a fun diversion and A Night in Sickbay at least tries to do something novel and exciting – even if the show can’t quite pull it off. This stretch of the season feels like an organic development from the first season, a collection of episodes of variable quality; balancing the desire to try new things with nods to the franchise’s strengths.

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The final stretch runs from Judgment to The Expanse. The third season looms large over these episodes, with a sense of impending change in the air. These episodes seem to bid farewell to a version of Star Trek that has existed since the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Judgment gives the Klingons one last epic story, Regeneration checks in on the Borg. The Breach offers a traditional Star Trek morality play, while Cogenitor brutally subverts it. Even episodes like Horizon and First Flight call back to the earliest episodes of Enterprise, as if to offer one last reflection on what might have been.

However, the second season is dominated by a long middle stretch – episodes running from Marauders through to The Crossing. While episodes like Future Tense provide an occasional reprieve, this middle stretch of the season is workmanlike and functional. This is the first two seasons of Enterprise as they are often dismissed: a lite version of Star Trek: Voyager in the same way that Star Trek: Voyager is a lite version of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In that long and dull middle stretch, it feels like the writing staff might as well be blowing dust off of scripts written for the seventh season of The Next Generation.

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Unfortunately, while the first and third sections of the season have a lot to recommend them, it is the middle stretch that sets the mood for the season. The second season of Enterprise has more than a couple genuine stinkers – Precious Cargo, The Crossing and Bounty come to mind – but the season never hits the sustained lows of the third season of Star Trek, the first and second seasons of The Next Generation or the second season of Voyager. However, there is long string of episodes that are just dull and uninspired; formulaic and familiar.

In that extended run in the middle of the season, there are episodes that can be easily reduced to “[earlier episode or pop culture reference] by way of [earlier episode or pop culture reference]” without missing anything much. Marauders is The Magnificent Seven by way of Star Trek”, The Communicator is A Piece of the Action by way of First Contact”, Singularity is “Bliss by the way of The Game”, Vanishing Point is “Realm of Fear by way of Remember Me”, Precious Cargo is “Elaan of Troyius by way of The Perfect Mate”, Dawn is The Enemy by way of Darmok.” And so on.

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The result is a second season that is exhausting and draining. Watching it on original broadcast was a disheartening experience; each week seemed to bring more of the same. The long stretch from the end of October to the start of April was unforgiving; each week seemed to offer more evidence that Star Trek was tired and played out, a franchise disengaged from not only the world around it but also from the changing rules of its own medium. Coupled with the spectacular (but entirely foreseeable) failure of Star Trek: Nemesis, the second season of Enterprise seemed to seal the franchise’s fate.

There is a very real tragedy to all this. For all that the tail end of the second season sees a massive up-swing in quality and energy, it is perhaps too little and too late. By the time that Judgment had begun a late-season revitalisation, Rick Berman had already announced a bold new direction for the third season. That last stretch is a lame duck. In a way, the second season of Enterprise plays like a microcosm of the series itself; a dramatic upswing in quality and ambition at a point where fate has already made its decision.

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One of the stock criticisms of the first two seasons of Enterprise is that that show was just following in the footsteps of The Next Generation and Voyager, that many of the episodes from those first two seasons were just retreads of retreads; the show was just a photocopy of a photocopy. This criticism is not entirely fair, but it is also not entirely unfair. Episodes like The Crossing make it very hard to argue that Enterprise had confidently found its own direction, awkwardly trying to graft metaphors for the War on Terror into storytelling structures almost forty years old.

The world is constantly changing. Just as The Next Generation had to adapt the core principles of Star Trek for the aftermath of the Cold War, Enterprise would have to figure out how to tell Star Trek stories in the aftermath of 9/11. It is not as simple as rejecting the franchise’s utopian vision – as scripts like The Seventh and The Crossing seem to suggest – but simply a careful recalibration to account for the fact that the way American audiences looked at the world had changed. For all that might be easier to wish for utopia in times of prosperity, hope is arguably more essential in times of strife.

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The problem with the second season of Enterprise is that the show seems to exist in a state denial about these changing circumstances. Stories like The Seventh and The Crossing are undeniably rooted in the War on Terror, but the show seems reluctant to admit it – there is a sense that much of the season tries to carry on as if it is simply “business as usual.” However, it is not business as usual. It cannot be business as usual. So the result is a season that feels like it is going through the motions, trying to pretend that nothings has changed when everything has changed.

This logic applies as much to the storytelling as to the show’s relationship to the world around it. The early episodes of the second season have fairly strong continuity ties; Minefield plays beautifully into Dead Stop, an example of how it is possible to have firmly delineated episodes that build on one another. However, this style of story development was the exception rather than the rule. Most obviously, Canamar would have made a lot more sense if it was developed as it was originally pitched – as the conclusion to Judgment.

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Enterprise is a show that felt quite disconnected from contemporary television. Enterprise is still using the same storytelling engine that had powered The Next Generation and Voyager during the Clinton administration. There is a minimum amount of serialisation, to the point that it feels like a surprise when Archer’s escape from Rura Penthe at the end of Judgment becomes a plot point in Bounty and The Expanse. Episodes tend to be clean and clearly cut, each telling a distinct forty-five-minute story.

As such, a lot of the “big” episodes of the season feel insubstantial and pointless. The Andorians only appear in Cease Fire, despite the sense that Enterprise should be engaged with the pending formation of the United Federation of Planets. Shran is a break-out supporting character, but he only appears five times in the first three seasons; one of those appearances is a very minor cameo. Outside of Shockwave, Part II and The Expanse, the Suliban and the Temporal Cold War only appear in Future Tense; that episode goes out of its way to avoid providing answers or hints.

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Similarly, Stigma revealed that T’Pol caught Pa’nar Syndrome during the events of Fusion, but the show does not bother to set-up or pay-off that revelation. There is no mention of T’Pol’s medical condition before the opening teaser of Stigma, and indication of how this diagnosis materially affects T’Pol from this point on. Stigma was publicised as a huge HIV/AIDS allegory for the show, garnering a great deal of positive press for the series. However, it is clear that the show has no idea where to go with that; and no energy to do anything bold or provocative.

There is a cynical sense of the show trying to have its cake and eat it here, trying to make a few token nods towards serialisation and long-form plotting while retaining the nineties episodic model of television production. The idea of the Federation advances further in the Babel One/United/The Aenar three-parter in the fourth season than it does across the entirety of the first two seasons. By the end of The Expanse, we don’t know anything more material about the Temporal Cold War than we did by the closing credits of Broken Bow.

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The second season largely feels like it is wandering and meandering – as if unsure of where it wants to go or even if it wants to go anywhere. There is a dull familiarity to a lot of the stories, something that even the writing staff have candidly acknowledged. The second season of Enterprise is season of television that seems rudderless and lethargic, as if being constructed on autopilot by all involved. There is very little verve or energy here. A Night in Sickbay is perhaps the most ambitious episode of the season, but it comes quite early in the run and quickly gives way to more conservative fare.

Still, there is an impressive baseline of competence here. It is very easy to take for granted the amount of effort that goes into a forty-five minute episode of Star Trek. Not just the scripting and directing, but the production design and special effects. The level of affection and detail that goes into the background of episodes like First Flight is a testament to the skill of all involved. There are moments in Enterprise where the series brushes against the limitations of CGI technology – the establishing shots of the conference in Stigma come to mind – but the show is pushing itself from a technical perspective.

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Even the writing and direction is a well-oiled machine. After all, this iteration of Star Trek has been on television for a decade-and-a-half. Those involved have some idea of what works and what doesn’t. For all its myriad problems, the second season of Enterprise is never really an embarrassment in the way that truly and spectacularly bad seasons of Star Trek can be. It does not have many more out-and-out duds than the average season of Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Are Precious Cargo and Bounty that much worse than Shattered Mirror and The Muse or The Price and Ménage à Troi?

The problem is that there are really not that many classics here. Although there are some interesting and fun stories in the first few episodes of the season, it is possible to watch two-thirds of the season without finding an episode that deserves to rank as a genuine classic. That is a long time to wait for an episode that vindicates and validates an entire series. That is a lot of “filler” to wade through – whether on a weekly basis (as on original broadcast) or in a marathon binge. It isn’t just a tendency to revisit old ideas that weakens the show, but a sense that the show has difficulty finding new spins to put on those old ideas.

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Even allowing for that long and exhausting stretch of conservative competency, the classics towards the end of the season are generally quite introspective and self-critical. Judgment puts Archer (and arguably the show) on trial; Regeneration literalises the show’s anxiety about colonisation from The Next Generation while firmly tying itself into continuity; Cogenitor is highly critical of the franchise’s rather sterile and clean approach to morality. It feels like the second season only finally comes to life once the ending looms large in the distance, as if the writing staff were finally cutting loose.

After all, the final stretch of the season makes it quite clear that this is the last televised season of Star Trek that will look like this. This the last time that the franchise will adopt the structural approach to storytelling that really began in the first season of The Next Generation and was largely refined by Michael Piller in the third. It was a storytelling engine that had kept on running through The Next Generation and into Voyager, even as Ira Steven Behr repurposed and remodeled it for his own use on Deep Space Nine.

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The second season of Enterprise is the last season of Star Trek to use this classic model. After this, everything changes. Although there is a sense that the writing staff weren’t sure if they’d get a fourth season, it must have seemed apparent that the show would not be able to slip back into this sort of storytelling after a sustained and high-profile attempt at serialisation. While the fourth season abandons the idea of an over-arching story, it offers shorter and more sustained story arcs. Tellingly, the done-in-one stories like The Observer Effect and Daedalus (and Bound) are among the weakest of the year.

It seemed like Enterprise had barely begun before it was already almost over. The threat of cancellation was already hanging in the air. There were a variety of reasons for that – declining ratings, shifting demographics, changes in the management of UPN. Towards the end of the second season, Brannon Braga was skittish about assuring anything beyond the third season. In a way, The Expanse represents the death of a very traditional and old-fashioned version of Star Trek. The second season of Enterprise is the last season in that particular style.

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Star Trek had enjoyed an incredible reign in pop culture consciousness from the late eighties through to the nineties. Although this long stretch of the franchise had arguably entered its twilight era with the end of The Next Generation (if you measure success commercially) or the end of Deep Space Nine (if you measure success critically), this seems like the first time that the production team has acknowledged that times and realities change. The second season of Enterprise has an almost funereal atmosphere, reminding viewers that change usually represents the death of something old.

Sixteen years is a long time by any measure. It is an eternity in television. It feels like it is time to try something new. To go boldly once again.

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

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3 Responses

  1. I know this is an odd question, but a lot of hardcore Trek fans (the kind who care about continuity, as in little dates and facts always matching up) claim that Enterprise contradicts the image of the 22nd Century presented in earlier Treks, esp TOS. I’m actually unaware of any image being presented of the 22nd Century, it seems they just avoided that time period, like how they avoid the Beta Quadrant. Any truth to their claims?

    • I think it’s more that Enterprise sits on a straight line from the present day to TNG more than on a straight line from here to TOS aesthetically speaking, if that makes sense.

      • I get you. Id actually have preferred that if the show turned out good, but it didnt, so its just one of a million nitpicky details that stick out like a sore thumb

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