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Star Trek: Enterprise – Extinction (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.

In many respects, The Xindi and Anomaly opened the third season as if it were the first season of a new show. In particular, Anomaly built consciously and cleverly off of Fight or Flight and Strange New World in providing a solid foundation for the year ahead. The comparison works quite well. By that logic, Extinction and Rajiin serve as Unexpected and Terra Nova. They are two of the weakest episodes of the season, harmed by their close proximity to the start of the year. Anybody wanting to reach Twilight or Damage has to get through Extinction and Rajiin.

In many respects, this early lag in the third season demonstrates just how inexperienced the creative team were at long-form serialised storytelling. The only arc comparable to the Xindi arc in the entire Star Trek franchise is the Dominion War arc on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. There, the writers were clever enough to launch the new status quo with an unheralded six-episode interconnected story. The Dominion War had its share of duds, but the opening salvo was magnificently confident.

Archer's not feeling himself lately...

Archer’s not feeling himself lately…

In contrast, the third season of Star Trek: Enterprise suffers out of the gate. The Xindi and Anomaly do good work setting up plot points and character beats that will be of use later in the season, but there is no real sense that the writing staff has any idea what that use might be at this point of the season. Two episodes into the third season, the show is already back to fairly formulaic adventures that stand quite cleanly alone. It is not too difficult to imagine Extinction or Rajiin as episodes in any other season – albeit with some slight tinkering.

However, this is only part of the problem. Long-form storytelling need not become a burden. There is a great deal of value to be had in drifting away from a serialised story arc to tell a quality standalone tale. Unfortunately, Extinction is not a quality standalone tale. In fact, it is one of the worst episodes of Enterprise ever produced. Airing it as the third episode of a bold new season feels like a poor choice.

"C'mon, wouldn't you like to go back to being a torturing and almost genocidal human?"

“C’mon, wouldn’t you like to go back to being a torturing and almost genocidal human?”

According to David A. Goodman in In a Time of War, the writing staff was asked to develop pitches that could be inter-spaced and mixed into the larger Xindi arc:

Rick said, at the beginning of the year, “Come up with episodes that can stand alone in case we decide to drop this Xindi thing. I want stories in development just in case the Xindi thing doesn’t pay off, or we decide to drop it.”

Despite the swagger on display in The Expanse, it seems like Enterprise was not entirely committed to the larger Xindi arc. For his part, Berman expressed a desire that “each episode was a stand-alone story.”

All fired up...

All fired up…

It seems like there were a lot of question hanging in the air, even as the writing staff plotted the season. Interviewed over the summer, Brannon Braga suggested that the Klingons would become a big part of the year:

“This doesn’t bode well for humanity’s relations with the Klingons,” Braga continued. “They are not happy. In fact, the prosecutor in Judgment says that we’re lucky they didn’t hold our planet responsible for Archer’s ‘crimes.’ I always felt that was an ominous hint at larger things to come.”

Somewhat ironically, the third season would become the only season of Star Trek not to feature a Klingon (or part-Klingon) character in any capacity.

Going green...

Going green…

To be fair to Rick Berman and Brannon Braga, the writers were quite candid about how loose and informal the new structure of the show had become. Interviewed while filming Extinction, Berman offered:

“We don’t have the whole season arc worked out,” Berman says. “We have a lot of thoughts and directions we want to go and elements that need to be reached and arcs that need to be concluded–but we don’t have it all worked out yet. As to whether this arc inside the Delphic Expanse is going to last half a season of two-thirds of a season or the whole season, it has yet to be determined. I think there is a good possibility that it will last the entire season.”

The ideal length of the central story arc really seems like something that the writing staff should have worked out earlier in the process; to still be searching for a basic structure while filming the third episode seems haphazard.

All clearing...

All clearing…

That said, this loose structural approach does allow for quirky standalone stories like Impulse and North Star. It does allow the staff a certain amount of freedom to manoeuvre and evolve. After all, Deep Space Nine faced similar sorts of issues with its own long-form plotting; it was unsure what to do with the characters of Winn and Dukat even within its epic ten-part finalé. However, opening the Dominion War with a gigantic six-episode story that has a very clear structure and storytelling objective bought the series a lot of trust and good-will. Enterprise does not have that.

So producing an episode like Extinction early in the season would feel somewhat ill-judged even if the episode weren’t absolutely terrible. Given the reaction to Threshold, it seems weird that Star Trek would opt to do another “forced evolution” episode so soon. While Genesis has its own pulpy charms, it is hard to believe that Extinction was a story that needed to be told. It is quite difficult to connect the episode thematically to the larger arc, with plot tying in through the conveniently dead arboreal!Xindi who visited the planet.

Everything is in ruins...

Everything is in ruins…

It seems like nobody has anything nice to say about Extinction. In the documentary In a Time of War, Brannon Braga singled the episode out as a stinker in an otherwise strong season:

There were some bad episodes in season three. One in particular – called Extinction – in which the crew de-evolved or something. One of the singularly most embarrassing episodes of Star Trek I’ve ever been involved in. There was a Hoshi “Beauty and the Beast” episode that was crappy.

In defence of the season, both of those episodes (and Rajiin) air in the first third of the year. There is a definite learning curve in play here.

Talk about contaminated...

Talk about contaminated…

Even director LeVar Burton hated the episode, if Doug Mirabello (assistant to Rick Berman) is to be believed:

“People generally knew when an [Enterprise] episode was bad. We even had one director go to the producers and tell them he was ashamed to direct the episode where our crew turned into lizard people. The finalé was one of those where you’d go down to the stage and see people shaking their heads while reading the script.”

Burton’s filmography on Enterprise is beautifully scattershot, taking in the best and the worst that the show had to offer.

Dead to the world...

Dead to the world…

To be fair, there are some interesting ideas in Extinction. The central virus is a fascinating concept in theory – an infectious agent that literally transforms its host. The allegorical power of such a concept is quite brilliant; imagine an idea or a concept that spreads virally. It is a delightfully twenty-first century concept, reflecting an era where ideas are all but expected to go “viral.” The central premise of Extinction could be a potent metaphor for the spread of fanaticism or even the volatility of pop culture trends.

Indeed, the central premise of Extinction seems to mirror the third season of Enterprise as a whole. Just like Archer and his away team find themselves infected and transformed by an outside agent, Enterprise itself has been radically altered by the realities of the War on Terror. The show’s core DNA has been overwritten, to the point that shows like The Xindi and Anomaly feel like early episodes of a completely different show. Based on the premise alone, Extinction should be a very self-aware way to explore the radical shift in Enterprise.

This is who we are.

This is who we are.

Even on the most basic of levels, the virus featured in Extinction feels like a logical extension of what the Borg do. It is amazing to think that the Borg have never weaponised their nanoprobes in such a fashion, because that would be horrific and unsettling and brilliant. The virus in Extinction literally re-writes a person in order to make them into something different; that is a terrifying concept. There is a reason why the Borg have endured so long, and Extinction feels like a logical extrapolation of that concept. We have met the enemy, and they are quite literally us.

All of these ideas would make for a much more satisfying episode than the one written and broadcast. Extinction is a terrible piece of television – on multiple levels. The plot logic seems questionable at best. If the alien virus is designed to make the infected return to the planet, how does the virus spread? After all, the infected would be conveniently congregating on one abandoned planet. This would also make it quite easy to eradicate the virus, and makes it hard to imagine how it could become an epidemic, unless the first case occurred light years away from the planet and the infected person spread it on the way home.

A bump in the road...

A bump in the road…

Why wouldn’t Tret simply raze the planet? Even if that were logistically impossible, why not put up warning buoys? More than that, why is it such a big deal if somebody gets infected on the surface of the planet? After all, they are not going to leave. As long as outsiders stay away, there is no real chance of infection or contagion. It is very hard to imagine how the situation depicted in Extinction is sustainable or credible. Star Trek is a franchise that invites the viewer to suspend their disbelief (North Star is coming up), but Extinction makes nothing resembling sense.

This is to say nothing about Archer’s decision at the end of the episode to keep the virus alive as a way of preserving a long-dead culture. On paper, this is very much a big Star Trek moment – one built of respect and sympathy and understanding. Archer can forgive the virus for what it did to him, demonstrating that he is not as cold and ruthless as The Xindi and Anomaly suggested. In theory, it is a nice idea. It fits quite comfortably with André Bormanis’ affection for the franchise’s idealistic roots.

A vial decision...

A vial decision…

In practice, it is a terrible idea. It is almost impossible to justify Archer’s decision at the end of Extinction on an ethical or practical level. In practical terms, the ship is still traveling through a region of space where it is subjected to the whims of strange physics. Anomaly demonstrated the damage that these encounters could do. No matter how secure that virus is, it would be very easy for that vial and any containment unit to shatter during one of those strange events. If that happened, the crew would be infected and Earth would arguably be doomed. It is just a terrible decision.

On an ethical level, Archer is essentially preserving a biological weapon. It is tempting to think of the virus as the last relic of a dead world, but that does not mean it deserves to be preserved. Would atom bombs or smallpox deserve to be preserved if mankind came to an end? It is sad that an entire race died, but that does not make the virus any less abhorrent. It is an agent that infects the host and changes them against their will. devolved!Archer had no real memory of Enterprise, and only the faintest sense of his original self. That is truly horrific.

"I'm thinking about keeping the forehead. It looks distinguished."

“I’m thinking about keeping the forehead. It looks distinguished.”

The virus is as much a weapon of mass destruction as the Genesis Device was in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. It is an instrument that re-writes entire worlds and recreates them in the image of another species. Ignoring its questionable design, the virus is a tool of genocide – both literal and cultural. It is an imperialist tool, one which allows its designers to redesign entire worlds in their own image. Archer’s sympathy for these long-dead aliens is laudable, but it feels ill-judged and misguided. Would he feel the same way if the virus had been used against Earth instead of Tret’s anonymous species?

There are other awkward sequences that feel like the script for Extinction could have used another polish (or a complete re-write) before pressing ahead into production. The sequence where Trip presents T’Pol with the peaches feels a little incongruous; sure enough, it exists to set up a tidy resolution. There is a really weird climactic moment where Trip has to race through the corridors of the ship to recover the peaches. It seems a little surreal; surely he could just walk or ask somebody else to pick them up and bring them to sickbay? The tension feels completely contrived.

Chew it over...

Chew it over…

However, plotting problems aside, there are more fundamental issues with Extinction. It is a staggeringly racist piece of television. For a franchise that prides itself on being forward-looking and open-minded, Star Trek has tendency to make pretty terrible storytelling and plotting decisions. The third season of Enterprise has a decidedly retro and pulpy aesthetic – what with the reptile!Xindi costumes and the space pirates and so forth – but this is the first point at which it feels like the show follows that aesthetic to a truly questionable place.

Extinction is a rather uncomfortable narrative, feeling like an update of all sort of racist colonial stories about “primitives” and “savages” discovered by white explorers during their voyages to strange new worlds. The jungle setting only amplifies this uncomfortable subtext, with Reed remarking, “I never much cared for the tropics.” It is not too difficult to reimagine Extinction as a late nineteenth century short story in a “weird fiction” magazine about lost cities and dense jungles. In light of all this, some of the choice in Extinction feel… ill-judged.

Into the wild...

Into the wild…

Extinction is a story about how a bunch of advanced explorers stumble across a tropic jungle and find themselves “going native.” When “infected”, the members of the away time start behaving like stock depictions of indigenous “savages” in pulp literature – they so not stand up straight, start talking in generically foreign accent, and kidnap the white female member of the team. Naturally, the more “advanced” civilisations have to contain and control (and “cure”) this indigenous population. For their own good, of course.

The people affected by the virus are presented as a very foreign and alien “other”, existing almost beyond the comprehension of the crew. “Does he still look like one of your crew?” Tret demands. “Does he recognise you or even speak your language anymore?” It seems weird that Tret’s rhetoric seems to give Trip and his crew pause – if only for a second. The episode seems to give serious consideration to the suggestion that Archer should be killed off because he no longer speaks English.  The virus itself might be a biological weapon, but devolved!Archer is still a person.

Mostly armless...

Mostly armless…

As such, Extinction conjures up a whole host of unpleasant associations between science-fiction and colonialism. As John Rieder noted in Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction, there is a long association between the genre and colonial pursuits:

Science fiction comes into visibility first in those countries most heavily involved in imperialist projects – France and England – and then gains popularity in the United States, Germany, and Russia as those countries also enter into more and more serious imperial competition. Most important, no informed reader can doubt that allusions to colonial history and situations are ubiquitous features of early science fiction motifs and plots. It is not a matter of asking whether but of determining precisely how and to what extent the stories engage colonialism.

In fact, it is possible to argue that Star Trek itself has skirted up against that unfortunate association since its inception. After all, the franchise’s roots in the western genre forms a tangible connection to “manifest destiny.”

Trippin'...

Trippin’…

In particular, science-fiction stories that explore issues of evolution and Darwinism are particularly liable to wander into these sorts of unfortunate associations. As Patrick B. Sharp argued in his introduction to Darwinism in The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction:

Darwin’s scientific narratives became one of the primary vehicles for the transmission of colonial assumptions about race and gender into science fiction. When creating their stories, authors, filmmakers and cartoonists producing the early texts we now label as science fiction drew heavily from such closely related colonial genres as the scientific race treatise, the travelogue, and the “lost race” story. Darwin and his contemporaries reconfigured these narratives in their accounts of human evolution, and SF authors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries explicitly drew upon the language and ideas of evolution in telling their stories. Over time, the problematic colonial assumptions of Darwin’s evolutionary narrative became encoded into the very structure of science fiction in a way that still lingers, often contradicting the explicit aims and goals of the SF texts that contain them.

Coupled with other “throwback” elements of the third season (including T’Pol’s very retro white jumpsuit), this colonial subtext feels distinctly unpleasant. It is something that really should have been caught and ironed out at some stage of the production cycle.

Going viral...

Going viral…

Extinction is also notable for introducing the words “Star Trek” into the opening credits sequence – an acknowledgement that the show is definitely part of the larger franchise. Enterprise has always had a complicated relationship with the rest of the franchise. Rick Berman and Brannon Braga had worked hard to delineate Enterprise from what came before. The uniforms would have zips. The opening credits would have Faith of the Heart playing over a historical montage instead of an orchestral piece playing over shots of space. It would be called “Enterprise” rather than “Star Trek: Enterprise.”

Of course, that was not going to last against the backdrop of falling ratings and network retools. “Star Trek: Enterprise” appeared in the credits of every episode following Extinction. It would be retroactively incorporated into DVD and blu ray branding as a way to help bump up sales. Of course, it is debatable how radical a change this actually was. After all, nobody was really convinced that Enterprise was its own thing. Anybody watching the show knew that it was part of a much larger franchise. In fact, many complaints about early episodes suggested that it was too similar to the previous shows.

Mapping out the arc...

Mapping out the arc…

Interestingly, the name change was somewhat controversial to those working on the show. In the documentary In Conversation, Mike Sussman recalled that the writing staff still referred to the series using its original name:

This hasn’t really been brought up, but – even when the network decided to change the name of the show – the scripts always said still “Enterprise.” As far as Rick and Brannon were concerned the show was still called “Enterprise”, until the very end.

This reluctance and resistance makes a great deal of sense. After all, Enterprise was subject to increasing executive meddling as the series went on. The Star Trek franchise had enjoyed a great deal of freedom in previous years, and labeling the show “Star Trek” was a prime example of the erosion of that freedom.

"Oh boy. Well, at least I don't pregnant in this one."

“Oh boy. Well, at least I don’t pregnant in this one.”

Despite all these problems, there are a few interesting aspects of Extinction. It is nice to get a reminder – however small – that Archer is still a pilot at his core. “I managed to piece together some of their starcharts,” he tells T’Pol. “It took me half the night to figure out how they map co-ordinates, but I’ve been able to reconstruct the ship’s course over the past few months.” This is a nice little detail, one that serves to illustrate Archer’s own unique set of skills and sensibilities. It is a very small detail, but it arguably makes more sense as a character beat than the episode’s closing scene.

Still, this is not nearly enough to redeem Extinction, which is one of the worst episode of the show – if not the entire franchise.

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22 Responses

  1. He wanted to do Theshold again, but do it right.

    Oh Brannon, you poor deluded sap!

    • Controversial opinion incoming: Threshold is not even the worst episode of the second season of Voyager.

      That should in no way be read as an endorsement of Threshold.

      Rewatching the season at the moment, and – goodness – is it a terrible piece of television.

      • For me, the first half of voyager season 2 is almost all terrible. From the 37s to maneuvers the episodes are all bad with the exception of projections which is at least interesting. The second half of the season at least tried to be ambitious with the Kazon arc, however, which makes it somewhat better than the later seasons of voyager. From season 3 to season 7 voyager seemed to just become content with mediocrity and never bothered to ambitious in its plotting and characterization. By the way I also don’t think Threshold is the worst episode. That “honor” goes to sacred ground for me.

      • I really don’t remember hating Sacred Ground all that much, but I’ll be watching it over the next few weeks – so you’ll know soon. 🙂 But I’ll concede a fondness for S3/S4 of Voyager. Not great Trek; often not even good Trek, but it has more life than the rest of Voyager, I think. Place, Basics aside, the two-parters are pretty boss.

        Personally, second season lowlights are Tattoo (magic white space gods!) or Alliances (if you can’t trust middle class white slaveowners, who can you trust?). But the first stretch of the season has little to recommend it. You’re right though. With Meld, it gets better. I’d forgotten how freakin’ great Meld was; I think it might be my favourite Voyager episode.

        The Kazon arc is a half-good idea (serialised storytelling!) mired by the fact that Piller doesn’t seem to accept that his favoured plot elements simply aren’t working (more Kazon! more Paris as lovable rogue!)

  2. All I ask is that Braga be less disingenuous.

    If Archer is our guide in this tale, then why is he so foggy and unfocused? As you pointed out in “Breaking the Ice”, at least Trip was honest about his reasons for fishing through T’Pol’s mail. Archer would never be so bold. He would whinge. He would complain of everyone being out to get him. He would put on airs of being this great humanist who everyone keeps picking on.

    If Archer wants to preserve a bio-weapon, okay. Too often the Captains on these shows preach to other people on how to behave. Maybe it’s time for a Star Trek Captain to learn from his enemies for once. I may have mentioned this before, but I found Captain Jellico to be a fascinating character on TNG. He had a logic behind his bravado, and insecurities, and loads of depth. Having this show being spearheaded by a hawkish captain might be just the ticket.

    Except that’s not really Braga’s game. I’m not even sure what his agenda was. Maybe he studied Moore’s scripts and took note of how he hid subversive themes inside of standard Trek slogans. I don’t know. Only he knows, and he’s not telling. I

    “In fact, it is possible to argue that Star Trek itself has skirted up against that unfortunate association since its inception…”

    That’s perfectly fine, so has Doctor Who. Both shows have undergone self-examination….and regession. If Gatiss takes over Doctor Who, we’ll be seeing more of this Cold War nostalgia.

    Phew. What a rant!

    • I’d love a show based around Jellicho, who is definitely one of the franchises best one-and-done characters, along with Gul Madred and Shelby. (And, hey, the Klingon Chef from the second season of DS9, but I think he was technically a two-and-done character.)

      I think what becomes quite obvious as the third season progresses is that everybody on staff has their own version of Archer. André Bormanis seems like the most traditional Star Trek writer on staff, so it’s not surprising that Extinction has a nod toward franchise utopianism that doesn’t make a lick of sense in any context. In contrast, David A. Goodman seems write Archer only a shade or two more cynical, trying to avoid harming the Vulcans in Impulse and playing cowboy in North Star; Goodman writes a version of Archer who actually seems more well-adjusted than he was for most of the first two seasons. Sussman and Strong both play up Archer’s angst. Braga likes gritty action hero Archer.

      Coming from outside the show, Coto writes Archer as the gritty character he needs to be for the story to work, even if Coto’s scripts (particularly Azati Prime and The Council) seem to suggest that this is not sustainable in the long term. It is no wonder that Coto was the big fan of “Archer dies at the end of season three” idea, because I think it sums up why he became one of the season’s stronger writers (Chosen Realm aside); Coto respects the Xindi arc as necessary, but only so much as it brings you back to traditional Star Trek values. Azati Prime is the episode that really suggests Archer might have to die to redeem the franchise, and The Council alludes to it with the death of Degra to redeem the Xindi.

      • Fascinating stuff.

        How about a Captain with a multiple personality diagnosis? A franchise first.

      • Isn’t the old rumour (unsubstantiated, as far as I can tell) that Mulgrew argued Janeway was bipolar? It’s not multiple personality, but it’s perhaps the same idea.

        (I’d contend Janeway was also at least three different characters; the weird “we’ve no idea what we’re writing” mess of the first two seasons, giving way to Jeri Taylor’s Mary Sue, morphing into Brannon Braga’s “Janeway is probably not all that healthy, psychologically speaking.” Those are, of course, overly crass summaries, but I think S1-S2 Janeway is distinct from S3-S4 Janeway, and S5-S7 Janeway. Although S1-S2 Janeway suffers from the chaos behind the scenes, and the fact that Taylor and Piller seem to have different ideas for the character.)

  3. Another excellent informative review. This was the first Star Trek episode I ever saw. I guess it’s a good thing that the next on I saw was twilight.

  4. I believe Braga actually said this was his attempt to do Threshold “right”. It’s even more amusing that Threshold is essentially “Genesis” in TNG, another horrible episode. So it’s sort of a copy of a copy. Braga tried three times to make this idea work and failed each time. Geesh…

    “On an ethical level, Archer is essentially preserving a biological weapon. It is tempting to think of the virus as the last relic of a dead world, but that does not mean it deserves to be preserved. Would atom bombs or smallpox deserve to be preserved if mankind came to an end? It is sad that an entire race died, but that does not make the virus any less abhorrent. It is an agent that infects the host and changes them against their will. devolved!Archer had no real memory of Enterprise, and only the faintest sense of his original self. That is truly horrific.”

    Also didn’t Archer let an entire species go extinct because “evolution wants it to happen” in the first season? I can’t take the character speaking against genocide then at all seriously in light of that (also can’t take his emotional speech at the end of Observer Effect seriously either, even if its a good episode, but I’m getting ahead of myself).

    • “It is amazing to think that the Borg have never weaponised their nanoprobes in such a fashion, because that would be horrific and unsettling and brilliant. ”

      I just noticed this. There’s a VOY episode where the Borg actually plan to do this, but don’t because…reasons?

      • Was this the one where they were too busy putting heads on spikes, or was that another one?

        Ah, Voyager Borg episodes.

      • Apparently its the “Dark Frontier” episode. They kidnap Seven to program it (why they need her, who knows) but I guess just give up on the idea after the episode.

      • Cheers!

    • Well, as I said in one of the comments, there are fifty shades of Archer, depending on who is writing him. Much like Janeway. Neither character found a voice as definitive as Kirk, Picard or Sisko.

      • I actually like Janeway and Archer at times, but overall they’re just not well written, my least favorite captains, but I don’t even like Kirk that much either outside Wrath of Khan.

      • I think Kirk coasts through TOS based on Shatner’s raw charisma. To be fair, I think that’s true of a lot of the TOS cast, who aren’t really defined until The Search for Spock, but are just insanely likeable as background players. (You could make a similar case about sections of the TNG cast in the first three or four seasons, particularly Geordi.)

  5. Everyone’s heard of Chekov’s Gun, but in this episode we get Chekov’s Peach!

  6. By chance I saw Genesis for the first time just a few hours before this episode. Genesis definitely was better in terms of the ‘body horror’ concept. And dear lord, Archer’s decision to keep a biological weapon onboard the ship in the middle of space where waves are distorting ordinary objects every few hours…if Enterprise had DS9’s moral courage, I think Phlox would have made an official objection in the ship’s log.

    • I think the ending was very clearly Bormanis going “but Star Trek is about loving new lifeforms, so Archer can’t kill it”, without actually thinking the idea through beyond its superficial “Star-Trek-y-ness.”

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