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.
Rajiin is not as bad as Extinction. So there’s that.
Rajiin continues the pulpy theme that runs through the third season of Star Trek: Enterprise and into the fourth. There is a sense that the writing staff are cutting loose with a collection of decidedly retro science-fiction tropes that they found in the old storage cupboard. The third and fourth seasons have a gonzo energy to them, with elements like the reptile!Xindi and the evil!alien!space!Nazis feeling like ideas that escaped from the types of magazines where Benny Russell used to work.
At its best, this new storytelling freedom allows the show to cut loose with ideas that would have made Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Voyager blush. The show would never have attempted episodes like Impulse and North Star in its first or second season. Even if the episodes are not flawless, they have an energy and vitality that was sorely lacking in the first two years of the show. It feels like the writing staff are really having fun with the concept, playing with the sort of goofy ideas that they never would have attempted a year or so earlier.
Of course, there is a flip side to that coin. The biggest misfires of the third season are generally rooted in that pulpy storytelling style. Extinction was effectively a “lost race” story that felt like a throwback to colonial narratives about explorers in exotic parts of the world. Rajiin is the story of an alien seductress who our hero rescues from slavery, only to use her womanly wiles to seduce the crew for a sinister purpose.
There was an interesting trend in popular culture towards the start of the twenty-first century. It seemed like the entertainment industry began to look backwards. While the scale may be exaggerated by industry doomsayers, there has definitely been an increase in the number of sequels, prequels, remakes and reboots produced by the major studios. More than that, there has been a conscious focus on “reviving” classic properties so that they might be renewed and reinvented for a modern generation.
There were sixteen years between Star Wars: Episode VI – The Return of the Jedi and Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. In contrast, there will be only a decade between Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith and Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. With Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Harrison Ford dusted off his leather hat to play Indiana Jones almost two decades after Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
The new millennium fostered a clear nostalgia for pulpy genre material. This was particularly evident in science-fiction, as M. Keith Booker noted in Alternate Americas:
If comedies such as Men in Black and Mars Attacks! gained ironic energy from a certain nostalgia for earlier SF films, it is also the case that turn-of-the-century SF film seemed in general to look backward more than forward. For example, not only was the second Star Wars trilogy (released in the years 1999-2005) a prequel to the first trilogy, but it clearly built on nostalgic memories of that first trilogy, which had appeared almost a generation earlier.
Indeed, the Star Trek franchise itself would profit from this nostalgia when JJ Abrams rebooted the franchise with his 2009 blockbuster.
In a way, Enterprise already acknowledged these trends. Indeed, it was hard to hear the words “sci-fi prequel” without thinking about the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Still, the first two seasons carefully moderated their nostalgia. One of the more frequent criticisms of Enterprise was that the show was more of a prequel to The Next Generation than to the original Star Trek show. The first two years were careful about rationing continuity and nostalgia; the show featured the Tholians in Future Tense, but they would not actually appear until In a Mirror, Darkly.
In contrast, the third and fourth seasons are a lot more eager to embrace pulpy old-school science-fiction sensibilities. The production design in the final two seasons of the show feels a lot more like the stylised throwback aesthetic of Star Wars than the more restrained look and feel of Star Trek. In particular, the reptile!Xindi sport some gloriously evil make-up, but also some absurdly silly costumes. Dolim looks like he uses the same tailor as the Ming the Merciless, although he probably picks his up off the discount rack.
When he oversaw The Next Generation and Voyager, Rick Berman was quite careful about how the franchise should be perceived. Berman worked very hard to give Star Trek a veneer of pop culture credibility. There was a sense that he was afraid that viewers might laugh at some of the more absurd and far-out imagery. The Andorians barely appeared on The Next Generation, large due to Berman’s stated dislike of antennae. Make-up was kept practical and verisimilitude was favoured. That philosophy continued into Voyager and into the first two years of Enterprise.
The third season of Enterprise seems to allow itself a bit more freedom. Watching the show, it feels a bit more comfortable in itself. Enterprise is no longer worried about the audience laughing at its more outlandish science-fiction trappings. Then again, a cynic might suggest that it is easier to be feckless when nobody is watching. There are stories and designs and images in the third and fourth seasons of Enterprise that would never have been tolerated on The Next Generation or Voyager.
This takes place against a larger pop culture backdrop. In the early part of the decade, nerd culture was become more and more mainstream. It was becoming more and more accessible to indulge in pop culture that would have been portrayed as “nerdy” or “geeky” only a decade earlier. Camp and quirky became more readily accessible to the mainstream, with the internet and home media placing previously inaccessible content only a mouseclick away. As the amount of channels grew and access increased, it became easier for people to accept the eccentric.
There are lots of examples. The relaunch of Doctor Who rendered the entire classic series (or what survives of it) accessible to an entire generation of fans more tolerant of wobbly sets and dodgy effects than ever before. Snakes on a Plane was rather infamously produced to pander to vocal sections of internet fandom rather than to broader movie-goers. While it was often dismissed by fans in the eighties and nineties, the new millennium saw the camp sixties Batman! rightful reevaluated as a pop art delight.
So the ease with which the third and fourth seasons of Enterprise embrace quirky retro imagery seems like a facet of that. Enterprise is no longer ashamed at the idea that it might be a nerdy or a geeky piece of entertainment – that it might be something that could be dismissed as a piece of genre work. While the declining audience figures undoubtedly influenced the decision to really embrace that side of the show, it also feels like a reflection of larger contemporary trends in popular culture. These episodes would have seemed even more absurd in the nineties.
This broader swing towards what might be described as “quirky” nerd culture has become a bone of contention. Both sides of the equation seem skeptical of the other. Patton Oswalt has wondered whether nerd culture can survive its encounter with the mainstream, while mainstream pundits wonder about the influence of geekery on the production and distribution of larger pop culture. The influence really exploded a few year after Enterprise went off the air, but it had been bubbling away in the background for quite some time before that.
The engagement between traditionally nerdy sensibilities and the larger zietgeist has led to clear and obvious conflicts – another (admittedly more esoteric) culture war playing out in the background. It could be argued that many of the vocal disagreements and discord about traditional nerd culture were about entrenched interests trying to protect their niche spaces from intrusion and invasion by larger outside forces. Like any war, the battle lines were clearly indicative of broader strategies and objectives.
This seems to be a factor in the whole of the “fake geek girl” and even the “gamer gate” movement, about trying to establish firmly delineated bastions of traditional nerd culture against perceived tourists and immigrants. In particular, the reaction to those labelled “social justice warriors” by the gamer gate movement is very much territorial – there is a clear sense that feminist critics like Anita Sarkeesian are seen as intruders venturing into a realm that had previously been considered home to people with radically opposed views of what games should be.
It is very easy to talk about Enterprise in the context of 9/11 and the War on Terror. Indeed, given the larger arc of the third season, it is impossible not to talk about larger contemporary politics. However, it is more difficult to talk about Enterprise in the context of popular culture as a whole. After all, Enterprise is very much on the periphery of popular culture. The Next Generation had been absolutely massive and mainstream, even receiving an Outstanding Drama Series nomination at the Emmys in its final year.
In contrast, Enterprise was a footnote at best. Broadcast on UPN, it would never have the same penetration that The Next Generation enjoyed. More than that, the show was hardly a ratings success. So it is very hard to argue that Enterprise was a massively influential piece of pop culture. So Enterprise was never going to be a show setting larger pop culture trends. Indeed, for its first two seasons, it seemed like Enterprise was rather obviously and consciously behind the curve. However, it is still interesting to note points of overlap and foreshadowing.
(To be fair to Enterprise, the writing staff have diffused themselves quite effectively in the contemporary television landscape following the cancellation; Brannon Braga and Manny Coto worked on 24, André Bormanis and Brannon Braga worked on Cosmos, David A. Goodman ran Family Guy and American Dad, Mike Sussman helped create Perception. The writing staff might not have had quite the same penetration as those who worked on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but Enterprise does have a clear creative legacy.)
Rajiin is very much a piece of pulpy trashy science-fiction. Archer rescues a slave girl from an alien bazaar, and she promptly seduces most of the crew as part of a cunning plan to extract vital information for the evil reptile!Xindi. Even without the phaser fights and insect!Xindi boarding parties, Rajiin seems like the kind of story that belongs in a well-worn science-fiction paperback with a questionable cover. The original title of the episode was even “Enemy Advances”, although “Rajiin” manages to retain that generic exoticism associated with such science-fiction tales.
Rajiin is not as bad as it could be, but it is still not any good. In many respects, Rajiin finds the show returning to ideas that never worked before and would never work after. It is an episode that is consciously designed to be “sexy.” Rajiin is a character who gathers essential scientific data on the crew by running her hands all over their bodies. However, Enterprise should know by now that these plots don’t work. Bounty was humiliating for just about everybody involved. Fans hated A Night in Sickbay. The decon chamber was ridiculed.
The show had even made a conscious effort to back away from the idea of Archer as a spiritual successor (or predecessor) to Kirk. Archer enjoyed only a handful of romantic relationships over the series, with Scott Bakula never seeming entirely comfortable as a dynamic and powerful romantic lead. The idea of Archer as a captain with a girl “in every space port” died out with Civilisation, although a deleted scene in The Expanse was careful to explicitly mock the idea by having Archer’s never-seen-before-never-seen-again love interest joke about it.
So, with all of these very serious problems, it seems rather strange that Manny Coto would feel the need to revisit this sort of “sexy” plotting with Bound in the fourth season. Between Precious Cargo, Rajiin and Bound, it seems that Enterprise had no luck with its “sexy female alien” plots. It feels strange that the show felt the need to keep trying with a plot that is generally quite thankless. It seems quite possible that UPN has heavily involved in these sorts of plots, asking for more flesh and sex in the show. (Apparently a little “neuropressure” only goes so far.)
Even allowing for the “sexy slave girl spy” plot, there is something distinctly uncomfortable about Rajiin. As a franchise, the Star Trek spin-offs have always been a little skittish about the issue of sex. Deep Space Nine tackled the subject better than the other shows, but there was a sense that people in the future were generally rather sterile and restrained. So there is something disconcerting about the way that the franchise spin-offs tend to tie sexuality and seduction to evil and corruption.
Like the Intendent (and even the Borg Queen) before her, Rajiin is a woman dangerous because she knows how to harness her own sexuality. Indeed, Rajiin is suggested to be open-minded when it comes to using her seductive powers. This feels like an example of the “depraved bisexual” trope, a stereotype far too prevalent in media:
She lies. She cheats. She seduces. She cheats. She has indiscriminate sex. She cheats. She leaves a beloved character and cheats. Her most important trait, other than the individual heartbreaking, is that she drives a backhoe through any relationship she can find. The film and television bisexuals main progress over the last few decades is that now she breaks up lesbian couples too.
Given the general absence of gay and bisexual characters in the wider Star Trek universe, this feels particularly problematic. The fact that the Intendent and Rajiin (and – very arguably – the Borg Queen) seduce and flirt with other female characters is used to mark them as “other” or “perverse”, a very unfortunate decision.
Rajiin’s flirtation with Hoshi is just a little cringe-worthy – it’s no more or less embarrassing than her flirtations with Archer or other male crewmembers. “I’d love to hear your language,” Hoshi breathlessly remarks, a well-honed pick-up line if ever there was one. Rajiin replies, “Actually, I speak quite a few.” The tasteless puns practically present themselves, and you can imagine the Enterprise writing staff wondering how close they can coming to making a juvenile pun about Hoshi and Rajiin’s language skills as they write the scene.
If the flirtation scene between Hoshi and Rajiin is just embarrassing, the confrontation between Rajiin and T’Pol seems ill-advised. Confronting T’Pol in her quarters, Rajiin attacks her. The two women are wearing their pyjamas, and there is the uncomfortable sense that the episode is trying to treat this wrestling sequence as titillating. However, it climaxes in what is quite obvious a rape metaphor, as Rajiin holds T’Pol down and harvests her neurological information – in a manner not unlike Tolaris did in Fusion.
The sequence is deeply uncomfortable. T’Pol is very clearly shouting “no!” as Rajiin pins her to the ground. However, the episode is completely disinterested in the implications of the scene. Once Rajiin has finished with T’Pol, no reference is made to the event – despite the fact that it is clearly very different from Rajiin’s attempts to gather information about Archer or Hoshi. Indeed, the climax of the episode seems to present Rajiin as a redeemed character with an understanding and appreciation of humanity, rather than a space!rapist.
Even outside of the character of Rajiin herself, Rajiin is a very messy and disjointed episode. Even the subplot about synthesising trellium-D feels clumsy and awkward – falling into the familiar Star Trek trap of mistaking technobabble for high-stakes drama. When the episode cuts to Trip and T’Pol’s doomed attempt to synthesise the compound, it is very hard to care about what is happening. The scene opens with Trip asking, “What’s the molecular pressure?” It continues with nonsense like, “Boy, this stuff is tricky. Decrease the theta bombardment by six – no, seven percent.”
Why should the audience care about any of this? The scene builds to a gigantic explosion, but most of the dialogue before that point is just gibberish bantered back and forth. It resembles the climax of Jetrel, where a significant dramatic beat is undermined by the fact that the characters are just spouting scientific-sounding words back and forth. The idea of doing a subplot focused on Trip and T’Pol is a good idea, as their third season dynamic is interesting – gratuitous nudity aside. However, the execution of Rajiin leaves a lot to be desired.
However, Rajiin also demonstrates something of a learning curve for Enterprise, as it seems that the show is getting a little more comfortable with serialisation and long-form storytelling. On of the interesting aspects of this approach to storytelling is the way that the larger arc can be used to “shore up” individual episodes that might otherwise be weak or shallow. If the audience is interested in the larger arc, threading that arc through lackluster episodes can help to buoy those episodes and maintain interest.
There are lots of examples. While it is quite easy to pick out highlights from serialised television, it becomes harder to recognise weaker episodes when they are wired into a great whole. Consider Lost, the big iconic serialised network drama of the 2010s. There are fans who had a very serious and tangible dislike of episodes focused around Jack or Kate, but who would tune in to see how those episodes connected back to the larger mythology. Unsurprisingly, those episodes with the weakest connection to the larger plot were the ones most frequently derided or dismissed.
Stranger in a Strange Land is perhaps the most obvious example of how an episode suffers when it is separated from the mythology. Derided as “the secret origin of Jack’s tattoo”, the episode was criticised for representing an obvious narrative stall – demonstrating that the show was “at a standstill.” In fact, Damon Lindelof used that narrative stall as a way to convince the network to let the show start pushing its serialisation forward and beginning to wrap up its larger plot threads and arcs. Even when fans did not care for individual episodes, they watched for the arc.
Interviewed by Dreamwatch in December 2003, actor Dominic Keating cited this as part of the appeal of the third season’s arc-based format:
So I think they were right to think of a season, at least, where each episode is joined and has an arc, so there’s a story for the audience to follow. It’s in the nature of 24, and ER has had major arcs at times that are like this.
I think putting us in the Delphic Expanse and having us chase the Xindi is a clever move for keeping an audience interested. People don’t mind missing an episode or two or even three if they know it’s just a particular episode. But if they miss an episode in an arc of episodes that has a story that interests them and has got them on the edge of their chairs somewhat, then they’re missing something any time they miss an episode. So, when you’ve got a high stakes arc, they’ll be more inclined to make sure that they watch it. And, hopefully, they’ll watch us.
It is an approach that makes sense, and the show’s writers seem to have taken it to heart. Even Extinction had a (relatively tiny) connection back to the larger plot arc.
It seems like Chris Black is acutely aware of the lure of serialisation. For all that Rajiin is a mess of an episode on its own terms, but it very meticulously ties itself into the larger arc of the season in an attempt to secure itself. Even if the viewers do not care for the cliché and mundane primary plot, Rajiin is careful to insist that it ties into the larger serialised plot. It features the first reappearance of the Xindi Council since The Xindi, features an attack on Enterprise by reptile!Xindi and insect!Xindi and very clearly builds towards Carpenter Street.
As such, if Rajiin cannot be “good”, it is content to be “important.” If it cannot deliver a self-contained plot that will satisfy viewers on its own terms, it will provide a sense of movement in the larger year-long arc around it. Of course, Rajiin is arguably just a stalling tactic to buy time (“I haven’t been able to assess how much data was lost,” Degra confesses after an accident with his research, “this will obviously delay us”), the plot does not advance that far and the threads come to a narrative dead-end in Carpenter Street, but there is a very clear logic at work here.
Even the smaller elements of the script demonstrate an attention to detail. At the start of Rajiin, it is clear that Archer has not completely recovered from his experiences in Extinction. Visiting Sickbay, Phlox asks, “Have you had any other symptoms?” Archer replies, “Just dreams. I keep seeing myself back at that alien city.” Phlox explains, “You were transformed into a different species. Don’t expect to recover overnight.” Of course, had Extinction been produced as part of the first or second season, the show would have had Archer recover overnight.
While it is nice to see the show making an effort to tie everything together, it does feel a little strange that Archer is more troubled by the events of Extinction than by his torture of Orgoth in Anomaly. While it makes sense for Rajiin to carry over some plot details from Extinction, it feels like a rather strange emphasis to place on Archer’s character arc. One of the pitfalls of serialising a Star Trek show is that it means having to incorporate “remember that time you transformed into a lizard?” into a larger character arc.
That said, there is a clear sense that the third season is finding itself. The first stretch of the third season is particularly rocky, because it feels like Enterprise had no idea of where it was going when The Expanse wrapped up. With scripts like Rajiin, it feels like the show is working hard to find the right balance between the script of the week and the demands of the larger season. On a purely practical level, it is nice that the show has threaded trellium-D into these episodes – demonstrating that key problems are not magically fixed between episodes.
It is also nice to see the Xindi actually doing stuff, instead of just conversing in what looks like a set from the Star Wars prequels. The fact that the reptile!Xindi and the insect!Xindi are the de facto villains of the season remains a little cliché and problematic, but it is nice to get an actual encounter between Archer and the Xindi. Rajiin does not make a big deal of it, but this is Archer’s first contact the enemy. That said, it does reopen all those “why don’t they simply destroy the Enterprise?” questions that have been hanging in the air since The Xindi.
That said, the casting of the Xindi Council does compensate for some of the issues with its portrayal. Randy Oglesby and Scott MacDonald play beautifully off one another. The two had worked together on the original run of the Pullitzer-prize-winning The Kentucky Cycle. As MacDonald recalls in In a Time of War:
Randy Oglsby is a great friend of mine, so we had a pretty good actors’ shorthand. I just leaned over to him and said, “Okay, how about this? My race hates your race.” And Randy just perked right up and said, “Okay.” And that became our dynamic – that even when the script didn’t necessarily have us fighting, we were needling each other. We didn’t like each other much. I think those guys picked up on that, and they’re all great writers, and they just wrote right at that.
Oglesby and MacDonald provide two of the more memorable Star Trek guest characters. The rest of the Xindi Council is equally well-constructed. Tucker Smallwood and Rick Worthy are veteran supporting actors who provide a bit more weight than the roles really require. (Smallwood jokes his anonymous character was named “Depac.”)
Rajiin is one of the weaker episodes of the third season, and the show suffers from airing Extinction and Rajiin back to back. However, there is a sense that the writing staff are feeling a little more comfortable with the larger arc-based storytelling and at weaving those elements into individual episodes. Even if Rajiin does not advance the season’s larger arc as much as it might seem to, there is a sense that the show is making a genuine effort to embrace serialisation and long-form storytelling.
Filed under: Enterprise | Tagged: Archer, bisexual, chris black, enterprise, geek culture, lesbian, nerd culture, pulp, reptiles, seduction, sexuality, slave girl, slave girls, star trek, star trek: enterprise |