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Star Trek: Enterprise – Anomaly (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 August, we’re doing the third season. Check back daily for the latest review.

Anomaly continues the sense that the third season of Star Trek: Enterprise is essentially a new first season of the show.

That is most obvious in the way that the script works hard to establish the ground rules of the Expanse. There is a sense that the episode is very clearly establishing rules and plot points that will come into play later in the run. Anomaly not only explains why mining for trellium-D is such a profitable enterprise; explaining that ships without it are susceptible to all sorts of strange distortions to the laws of physics. Anomaly also introduces the spheres, strange structures that will become a key part of the third season’s mythology.

A good man goes to war...

A good man goes to war…

The show is also marking out ground for later exploration. Anomaly becomes a lot more potent in hindsight, with various decisions here reversed in later episodes. In Anomaly, Archer is a victim of piracy; in Damage, he is forced to commit piracy. In Anomaly, Archer tortures a prisoner in order to procure information that he needs; in Countdown, Hoshi is tortured by Dolim in order to procure information that he needs. It is not entirely clear whether these plot beats were figured out ahead of time, but – like the destroyed Xindi home world in The Xindi – they lend the third season a nice sense of moral symmetry.

Most interestingly – and, perhaps, most pointedly – Anomaly represents a clear return to two very early episodes of the first season. The script of Anomaly touches quite overtly on plot points from Fight or Flight and Strange New World. In some ways, it could be seen as a belated do-over.

Sparks fly...

Sparks fly…

One of the more interesting creative choices on the third season of Enterprise was the decision to split up the creative team of Mike Sussman and Phyllis Strong. Sussman had contributed four stories and another teleplay to Star Trek: Voyager before teaming up with Strong as part of the writing staff during the seventh season. Sussman and Strong were the first writers hired to work on Enterprise, and were tasked with being the first writers to write for the show after creators Rick Berman and Brannon Braga. The two had written as a team for the first two seasons.

In a way, it makes sense to split up Strong and Sussman. They are two veteran writers on a somewhat troubled writing staff. They work well together, but they seem to have an understanding of the show that it might be worthwhile to diffuse across a wider selection of episodes. The approach pays off quite well; both Strong and Sussman turn out to be quite adept writers on their own terms, contributing some of the season’s strongest work. Sussman is the sole writer credited on Twilight, while Strong is the sole writer credited on Damage.

"Prepare to be boarded!"

“Prepare to be boarded!”

Like The Xindi before it, Anomaly is a fairly simple episode in terms of plotting and structure. It is an attempt to demonstrate just how dangerous and treacherous the Expanse actually is. With the strong reactions to the Delphic Expanse from Klingons and Vulcans during The Expanse, it was made quite clear that the Expanse was a region of space where the normal rules of Star Trek do not apply. The opening sequence of Anomaly makes that quite clear as the ship itself seems to reject its new surroundings.

“The Cochrane Equation, it’s not constant here,” Trip warns Archer. “Either we get away from these anomalies or we’re going to have to rewrite the book on warp theory, and I don’t have to tell you how long it took Zefram Cochrane the first time around.” Cochrane is a character vitally important to Star Trek in general and Enterprise in particular. Cochrane’s faster-than-light technology makes Star Trek possible in a very literal sense. However, he was also the ambassador who showed up to welcome Enterprise into the Star Trek family. He is a tangible connection to the larger universe.

Scarred tissue...

Scarred tissue…

Anomaly suggests that the traditional rules of Star Trek do not apply. Most obviously, the very nature of the story runs counter to the ground rules that Gene Roddenberry established when he launched Star Trek. The original writers’ guide to Star Trek identified “space pirates” as an example of “bad science fiction.” In Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion, Jeri Taylor recalls Rick Berman’s mock difficulties with plotting Gambit:

“Rick has a little bust of Gene Roddenberry on his desk,” she recalled, “and he’d tied a little red bandanna around Gene’s eyes and said, ‘Gene always said he’s never do space pirates, and this is a space pirate story, and I don’t want Gene to see this, or hear it!'”

Indeed, Roddenberry’s dislike of the whole concept of space pirates was so strong that he even included another pirate-related example in the writers’ guide to Star Trek: The Next Generation, deriding “pirate princess” stories. Roddenberry’s aversion to space pirate stories makes a great deal of sense; the writer wanted Star Trek to be taken seriously, and not derided as trashy pulp.

"Oh my God... they've got a death star..."

“Oh my God… they’ve got a death star…”

Of course, Star Trek has broken this rule on quite a number of occasions. The threat in Journey to Babel seems to be a pirate ship. Star Trek: The Animated Series has an episode actually called The Pirates of Orion. As mentioned above, Gambit is designed so that Patrick Stewart and Jonathan Frakes can play pirates together. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine quite enjoyed these sorts of pulpy elements, casting mirror!Sisko as a scenery-chewing space pirate. In fact, Deep Space Nine revived the Orion Syndicate as a recurring entity.

As suggested above, the Orions seem to be an entire race of space pirates – to the point where Mike Sussman originally wanted to write the Orions into the script for Anomaly. This attempt to tie into previous continuity is perfectly in keeping with Sussman’s aesthetic – Civilisation is effectively a brick joke that lands in The Changeling – but the decision to create an entirely new species for Anomaly makes a great deal of sense. One of the key points of the third season is that Archer has wandered into a realm that operates beyond the normal rules of Star Trek. Bringing back continuity like that would miss the point.

All fired up...

All fired up…

While there are a lot of examples of piracy from across the franchise, Anomaly is notable for how brazenly it handles the idea of space pirates. The pirates aren’t just characters in the episode, they are largely the point of the episode. The reason for including the pirates is to demonstrate that the third season of Enterprise is quite distinct and apart from what came before. Indeed, it plays into a larger swing towards pulp science-fiction storytelling devices in the third and fourth seasons of Enterprise.

Naturally, this is not the only way in which Anomaly feels unusual or distinct. Director David Straiton has clearly watched The Expanse to prepare for the assignment, and brings the same sort of wonderfully disjointed kinetic style to Anomaly, creating a texture that feels quite different from the somewhat conservative style of the Berman era as a whole. Jay Chattaway’s score is also quite adventurous, moving away from the more traditional mood of the Berman era towards the sort of playful style that Ron Jones brought to his work on The Next Generation.

"Oh, hey... the Borg left their lights plugged in..."

“Oh, hey… the Borg left their lights plugged in…”

Still, all of this is dancing around the most controversial aspect of Anomaly; the episode’s torture sequence. Following 9/11, torture became a much bigger part of mass media than it had been before. As Alfred McCoy argues in Torture and Impunity:

While violence had long been a staple of Hollywood films, the sudden emergence of torture as a major multimedia theme was a distinct post-9/11 phenomenon. U.S. television networks began broadcasting hundreds of hours of popular television dramas that portrayed torture as effective, even exciting; video games with elaborate torture scenarios proliferated; and major Hollywood films featured graphic torture scenes.

Unsurprisingly, torture became part of the television landscape following 9/11, most notably (and perhaps infamously) as part of 24 – a show described as “either a neocon sex fantasy or the collective id of our nation unleashed” and which actually inspired some of the soldiers whole tortured inmates at Abu Ghraib.

Caged...

Caged…

To be fair to Anomaly, this is not the only time that a heroic character in Star Trek has used torture in service of their agenda. On Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Garak was a veteran torturer who tortured Odo in The Die is Cast. In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Spock forced his way into Valeris’ mind to obtain details of an assassination plot. While The Die is Cast was unequivocal in its condemnation of Garak and the uselessness of his technique, The Undiscovered Country was rather unquestioning of Spock’s methods.

That said, Anomaly is rather brazen in its portrayal of this torture. It is quite clear that Archer is stepping over a moral line, motivated by concern about the safety of his crew and the security of his planet. Reed spent most of The Xindi being overly paranoid and sceptical. Here, he acts as the voice of reason – he is horrified by what he witnesses in the brig. It should be noted that the technique of depriving his victim of oxygen has uncanny parallels to the technique of waterboarding that was widely used (if not widely acknowledged) by the United States by early 2003.

Dead space...

Dead space…

According to interviews with Mike Sussman, the airlock sequence was not necessarily his choice. As with a lot of television, the finished script had a lot of outside input:

A lot of the ideas in it were not mine: André had this idea of the Spheres that’s been kicking around for a year or two, and the Archer scene in the airlock is just very memorable; I can’t take credit – it’s just pure Brannon.

Indeed, Braga would go on to work on 24 with Manny Coto – albeit at the point where the series had begun to move away from its more sensationalist portrayals of torture as a means of information gathering.

Bringing it all to eel...

Bringing it all to eel…

The torture sequence was and is controversial, and understandably so. Scott Bakula was asked about it in contemporaneous interviews, quick to identify it as a “mistake” on Archer’s part:

“I think certainly blind anger can lead to mistakes, errors in judgement, it can allow you to miss the obvious and certainly my character is experiencing strong emotions and a greater sense of desperation than he has in the past,” Bakula explained, before being asked specifically about his torturing of a prisoner in last week’s Anomaly. “In terms of what the character was going to do, we don’t really know because the air didn’t run out and he didn’t die. Whether or not Archer would have let that happen is an element of the character that I hope is intriguing and exciting for the fans, as do the writers… When you’re playing a character and the audience isn’t sure what that character’s going to do, then the writers have succeeded in making good television.”

Bakula avoids weighing in too heavily on the controversy, but acknowledges that it exists. Indeed, positioning a scene like that in the second episode of the season is a very conscious lightning rod.

Talk about a reactive reactor...

Talk about a reactive reactor…

In the documentary In a Time of War, actor John Billingsley cited the scene as a piece of Enterprise with which he was deeply uncomfortable:

I was bothered by aspects of the Xindi arc, crystalised to me in one episode in which the captain essentially says, “I’m going to put you in the airlock and I’m going to kill you. I’m going to torture you if you don’t give me the information that I need, because the survival of my species is at stake.” It essentially argued that the ends justify the means. And I… I had a hard time with that. That, of all the episodes, was the one where it was like, “It’s not my place to call, and it’s not my place to say anything, but I feel a little soiled being in this episode.”

Billingsley is very much a professional, but it is easy to understand his discomfort with the sequence as aired. Anomaly seems to almost vindicate Archer, allowing him to use torture to get what he needs.

Don't MACO such a fuss about it...

Don’t MACO such a fuss about it…

However, Anomaly needs to be examined within the larger context of the Xindi arc. Although the arc was not clearly plotted out at the start of the year, there are several points at which the season seems to echo and reverberate – turning around on itself reflexively. After all, it seems quite clear that Trip’s bloodlust and anger will inevitably give way to tolerance and forgiveness, if only because he is the lead actor on a Star Trek show. The early episodes of the third season are intended to be unnerving and disconcerting, foreshadowing developments that come later.

Most obviously, the conversations between Archer and Orgoth seem particularly ironic with the benefit of hindsight. When told that the Osaarians have no cultural impetus towards lawlessness, Archer reflects, “For a people with no history of piracy, they’ve gotten pretty good at it.” After all, Archer himself will end up turning to piracy in Damage, something that would seem morally abhorrent to him at even this point in the series. “When you’re forced to resort to desperate measures in order to survive, you have to be clever,” Orgoth assures him.

Airlocked and loaded...

Airlocked and loaded…

While the piracy element of Anomaly is mirrored in Damage, the torture subplot comes a full circle in Countdown. In that episode, Hoshi is tortured by the reptile!Xindi to provide the codes for the weapon. Much as Archer forces Orgoth to betray his commanding officer, Dolim forces Hoshi to betray Archer and Earth. After all, the third season is careful to present the Xindi as a mirror to the Federation (and the United States) as much as a terrifying “other.” Indeed, Countdown is even the penultimate episode of the season, to lend more symmetry to the plotting.

The point of Anomaly is that Archer has very much lost his way – that he is operating in a part of the universe where the rules and logic of Star Trek do not apply. Ultimately, the third season is the story of Archer trying to journey back to that idealism and optimism – a journey which inevitably finds Archer understanding and empathising with his enemy. It is no coincidence that Xindi who haunt Archer’s dreams in Home are reptilian in design. They represent the very worst parts of Archer’s psyche, the darkness that he discovered inside himself.

A recovering pirate...

A recovering pirate…

The biggest problem with the airlock scene is not that it happens; the biggest problem is that it happens so early in the season. It is easy to see why the airlock scene happens in the second episode of the year; it is attention-grabbing and shocking. If Brannon Braga wanted to clearly delineate the third season from what came before, the airlock scene is a great way of doing that. Anybody watching Anomaly will notice that scene and understand how fundamentally opposed it is to the morality of the franchise.

However, it feels a little bit out of step with everything happening around it. Stories like Extinction and Impulse feature Archer trying to balance his larger mission with his individual morality. Shoving a pirate into an airlock and de-pressurising that airlock should be something that happens when Archer is really and truly desperate. This is not a minor transgression; it is the crossing of a Rubicon. It feels like a plot point that belongs much later in the season, alongside episodes like Damage.

Engines of change...

Engines of change…

Anomaly is also notable for playing into the larger motifs established by The Xindi. There is a very pulpy vibe to the story, with gigantic pseudo-Death Stars and space pirates. More than that, Anomaly feels like something of an early first-season episode of a show quite different than the one which launched two years earlier. Mike Sussman and Phyllis Strong were trusted by Rick Berman and Brannon Braga to write the third episode of the series; Sussman is trusted here to write the second episode of the season.

Much of Anomaly seems to exist as a commentary on two very early first season episodes. The initial set-up seems to recall Fight or Flight, with the Enterprise stumbling across a dead ship with a murdered crew. In Fight or Flight, Archer responded by provoking the mysterious assailants who had killed the ship’s crew members. Archer drew himself into a fight that he was in no position to win. It was only be the will of the writers that Archer survived the reckless encounter. So Anomaly puts Archer back in that original situation.

Trip likes to stay on top of things...

Trip likes to stay on top of things…

This time, Archer is a lot more cautious. When T’Pol suggests that “it might be best to complete repairs before [they] head deeper into the Expanse”, Archer is not convinced. “Those people have been dead for less than two days. Whoever attacked them could still be nearby. We’ll have to make repairs on the move.” It is certainly less noble than trying to afford the crew of the ship a decent burial, but it makes a lot more sense. It is a tactically justifiable decision, the responsible choice for a man charged with protecting almost one hundred lives.

Of course, that brings up the other notable aspect of Anomaly. It is the first episode of Enterprise to kill off a member of the crew. Crewman Fuller is killed off during the pirate attack, becoming the first casualty of the four-year mission. It seems quite strange that Archer should make it this far without losing anybody, particularly given his somewhat impulsive and haphazard command style. As Reed observes, “Considering all the hostile aliens we’ve met, I suppose it’s fortunate we haven’t lost more people.”

All part of the plans...

All part of the plans…

This wasn’t the first time that mortality has been suggested. Ethan Novakovich was almost killed off in Strange New World, Sussman and Strong’s first script for the show. He quickly got a last-minute reprieve, never to be seen again. Sussman has explained that the death of Fuller was a conscious choice on the part of the writing staff:

It was really important to kill somebody [after two seasons of no crew fatalities], and get the ship into really dire circumstances – and show the audience that this arc this season is really going to be different.

Sussman makes a valid point, even if Anomaly never makes as much out of the death of Crewman Fuller as it might. Indeed, the third season would reach The Forgotten before it figured out how to tell those sorts of stories. Nevertheless, it does underscore that the stakes are considerably higher than they had been before.

Arch(er)-villain?

Arch(er)-villain?

To be fair, it is easy to understand why the show was reluctant to kill off anonymous officers. It was important to avoid the “red shirt” syndrome that plagued the Star Trek franchise – a trope that had became industry shorthand. Not every supporting character death can be The Bonding or The Ship, and it is to the credit of Anomaly that it provides Fuller with a name and an acknowledgement. It might not be the best way to kill off a background extra, but it is a much more convincing and satisfying effort than most casual deaths of random support staff.

In many ways, Anomaly represents a bolder start to the season than The Xindi. It feels like an early episode of a completely new show, albeit one that has a firm idea of where it is going. The third season has yet to reach the point where it is actively paying off on the promise of The Expanse, but Anomaly extends that promise even further. It’s an episode that works well in context and even better in hindsight.

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6 Responses

  1. And this is where the show gets “good”.

    You’ve crystallized why ENT will never be my kind of show. Also, it’s becoming clear why you will find people praising this show over DS9. The bottom line on DS9 was that you don’t win a war by surrendering who you are. The response to the Changelings in “Homecoming” was practically Norwegian, you might say.

    Enterprise is a more jaded show, and one which apparently appealed (and continues to appeal) to a lot of people. The Pax Federatonica… an Earth-dominated universe to ensure peace and stability. Less hesitation to use lethal force or stamp out outrageous alien attitudes. All with a blissful lack of ambiguity, of course.

    • I suspect that this is where I’m going to be a little controversial.

      I’d argue that the resolution to the third season Xindi arc of Enterprise is arguably more optimistic than the resolution to the Dominion War on DS9. How the show actually gets there is more controversial – in large part because it’s also more clumsy – but the third season is largely a redemptive arc. The reptile!Xindi are problematic, but the Xindi arc does have a more upbeat resolution than What You Leave Behind. The biggest losses are at the start of the campaign (the attack on Florida) rather than the end (the attempts genocides of the Founders and Cardassians).

      The Forgotten and The Council are largely about trying to remember how to be Star Trek in a changed world, to the point where The Council would work as a good season finalé if the show didn’t feel the need for an obligatory action climax. I think DS9 was arguably more cynical overall, exploring the troubles of living in a pre-existing society labelled as “utopia.” I think the third season of Enterprise finally gets around to the idea (inherent in the show’s premise but largely ignored in the first two years) of acknowledging how difficult it is to try to better in a cruel and twisted universe.

      (And I think that most of Archer’s failures – which admittedly include torture and piracy – can be written off as missteps, given the season is structured to portray them as acceptable cultural norms in the context of the world Enterprise now inhabits that become part of a vicious circle. Archer isn’t better by default, he doesn’t start on (or even hold) the moral high ground, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t find a better way if he tries hard enough. Then again, part of me wishes that the writers had killed him off in Zero Hour as a redemptive sacrifice as the network wanted.)

  2. This is definitely a step up from the previous episode. I liked the space pirates, because it showed the twofold effect of the Expanse: the anomalies had warped them physically, and being trapped inside for years has twisted their morality.

    I’ve never seen 24, because given my political leanings it really did not sound like the type of show I would have liked. I Obviously I could be wrong, but from what I have heard of the series it sounds like it was saying that Jack Bauer was totally correct to be torturing suspected terrorists for information, and that anyone who objected was a hand-wringing liberal wimp who lacked the strength & convictions to keep America safe.

    In contrast, when Archer shoves the space pirate into the airlock and threatens to asphyxiate him, it’s obviously intended to be an extremely shocking, uncomfortable scene, with the audience (hopefully) asking themselves “What the f–k is he doing?!?” I agree, maybe it would have worked better later on in the season, but clearly the show did need to draw a line in the sand early on to demonstrate just how much the attack on Earth and the mission to stop the Xindi was affecting Archer.

    • 24 is… a deeply mixed piece of popular culture. There’s an infamous fourth season episode where a slimy ACLU lawyer tries to stop jack from torturing a suspect to prevent a terror attack. But there is a sense in the alter years that they became more aware of their complicated legacy. It’s quite skeptical of the institutions of the military and corporate interests, for example. But it’s most definitely a reflection of twenty-first century American political anxiety rather than a commentary upon it.

  3. I kind of agree with Roddenberry in that ‘space pirates’ just seems a bit…cliche/silly. Especially following up from the ‘evil space mine’ in the last episode. Both are concepts that would fit perfectly home on Voyager but seem like an odd choice in Enterprise when the series was setting the audience up for a war story with the Xindi.

    The torture scene felt unearned to me (very brief build-up to Archer going straight to torture), especially since it was unequivocally successful and Archer had no lasting repercussions for his actions as far as I could tell. He didn’t seem to regret it, and nobody in the crew has commented on it up to The Exile at least. But then again, after watching Discovery so far, it seems quaint to expect that a Starfleet captain wouldn’t use torture…

    • Archer very clearly does face consequences. Even glossing over the dramatic irony of his torture at the hands of the reptilians at the end of the season, it’s suggested that Archer’s desire to launch the suicide mission towards the end of the year is driven by a sense of guilt and shame. And he carries post-traumatic stress disorder into the fourth season with Home.

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