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Star Trek: Enterprise – Exile (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.

If Impulse was Star Trek doing contemporary horror, then Exile is Star Trek doing gothic horror.

It is quite impressive how committed Exile is to its gothic horror trappings. Tarquin doesn’t just live alone in exile and project flattering images of himself; he lives in an honest-to-goodness gothic mansion lit by candles, where he dabbles in the occult while wearing what is a highly stylised dressing gown and between tending to the graves of his beloved(s). Exile does not skimp on its pulpy trappings. Like a lot of the early third season episodes, Exile would make for a satisfying dime-store paperback sci-fi novel; several images from the story would make a suitable cover.

It was a dark and stormy night...

It was a dark and stormy night…

That said, it is quite difficult to pull off gothic science-fiction. The original Star Trek pulled it off on a number of occasions – most obviously with The Squire of Gothos. The later spin-offs have struggled getting the right balance of po-faced seriousness with heightened absurdity. Star Trek: The Next Generation attempted Sub Rosa in its final season, while Star Trek: Voyager had some early experiments with Janeway’s gothic horror fantasy. Neither could be deemed a resounding success, and Exile stumbles a bit in the execution.

There are a number of leaps that the plot doesn’t quite articulate as well as it might. It is hard to believe that Archer would leave Hoshi alone with Tarquin, even with a phase pistol tucked under her pillow. The revelation of Tarquin’s powers should terrify the crew; having the ability to alter another person’s perception across lightyears is utterly unlike anything these exploreres have seen before. However, everybody seems to accept it at face value so that the plot can move along at a reasonable rate.

Somebody has a fixation...

Somebody has a fixation…

The way that Exile ties back into the larger arc is somewhat clumsy, right down to the convenient segue into The Shipment that comes in the final scene. In many ways, the structure of Exile recalls that of Extinction, an effectively stand-alone story that contains a very trite nods to the larger Xindi arc without any substantive connection. Despite the vital exposition that Tarquin provides in his final scene (and the subplot involving the spheres), Exile feels rather unnecessary in the larger scheme of things.

And yet, despite all that, Exile has something quite interesting to say. Written by Phyllis Strong, directed by Roxann Dawson and starring Linda Park, Exile is a very rare episode of Enterprise. It is a story with a very clear (and somewhat prescient) feminist subtext that has some very astute observations to make about certain facets of what might be deemed “nerd culture.” Specifically, male nerd culture.

He sees you when you're sleeping...

He sees you when you’re sleeping…

This is not the first time that Star Trek has offered commentary on its own fandom. The tail end of the third season of The Next Generation featured two episodes that explored ideas of how fans engage with the show. The Most Toys was a story about a greedy “collector” whose entitlement issues led him to claim possession of a very real and substantial part of the television show. Hollow Pursuits was about a loner who constructed elaborate fantasies to escape from reality, crafting his own “fan fiction” starring the characters.

It is interesting to note that The Most Toys and Hollow Pursuits were (largely) focused on male characters. Kivas Fajo might have kept Varria in slavery, but Data was the real object of his attention. In Hollow Pursuits, it was Geordi who tried to forge a connection with Barclay. The idea that he was effectively reducing Troi and Crusher to objects of his sexual fantasy was glossed over by the plot, brushed aside with a joke about Riker’s height. So what makes Exile interesting is the way that it engages with that culture from an explicitly female perspective.

Dream man...

Dream man…

Exile is quite candid that Tarquin is a stalker. He lets himself into Hoshi’s thoughts uninvited. The opening scene suggests that Tarquin was spying on her in the bathroom, a really blatant violation of privacy. Tarquin does not declare himself to Hoshi immediately. Instead, he invites himself into her thoughts and begins snooping around. He allows Hoshi to think that she is going crazy before he officially declared himself to her. It is made quite clear that Hoshi is not safe from Tarquin anywhere on the ship.

It is interesting to note how the male cast respond to Hoshi’s concerns. Hoshi tells Reed about her encounter, but he is dismissive. When Hoshi pushes the matter, he very reluctantly promises that he’ll be alert. “All right, I’ll keep an eye out.” Given Reed is the chief of security and has been characterised as being paranoid and insecure, that doesn’t inspire too much confidence. It seems like Reed simply isn’t taking Hoshi’s concern seriously, and is trying to dismiss it or cast it aside.

This man... this monster...

This man… this monster…

Phlox is not much better. After he assures her that he can find no evidence of mind-altering substances, Hoshi asks, “So basically this is all in my head?” Phlox’s response is simple, “It appears to be.” He goes on to assure her, “On Denobula, when a person under stress hallucinates it’s considered healthy.” Of course, that glosses over the fact that Hoshi is not a Denobulan. It would be perfectly healthy for T’Pol to bleed green blood, but he should probably be worried if Hoshi started.

It is interesting that the male characters tend to dismiss Hoshi’s fears by referencing their own cultural norms. Reed compares Hoshi’s nightmares to his own nightmares about insect!Xindi, while Phlox suggest hallucinations are healthy for Denobulans. Both Reed and Phlox ignore the fact that this is not as simple as that. Hoshi’s experiences are much more specific and much more particular than all that. Reed and Phlox are more interested in reassuring themselves than with dealing with Hoshi’s problem.

"What do you mean you don't think that this is 'wholesome'?"

“What do you mean you don’t think that this is ‘wholesome’?”

This could be seen as a commentary on how society responds to issues like stalking. Women are statistically thrice as likely to be stalked than men. Stalking is also a crime that has remarkably low prosecution, conviction and incarceration rates, as TK. Logan, Jennifer Cole and Lisa Shannon note in Partner Stalking:

Arrest rates of stalkers, among cases where the police are called to intervene, tend to be relatively low, ranging from 25% to 39%. Fewer studies have examined prosecution and conviction rates of stalkers. The NVAW Survey found a prosecution rate of 24% for partner stalking cases with female victims who reported stalking to law enforcement, 54% of those cases were actually convicted, and 63% of those convicted were incarcerated, which ultimately means that only 8% of stalking perpetrators among cases reported to law enforcement were incarcerated.

After all, stalking was not taken seriously as a crime until the nineties. So Exile does not reflect particularly well on the male crew of the Enterprise even before Archer decides to leave Hoshi alone on an alien planet with an alien who can alter her perception of reality.

I always feel like, somebody's watching me...

I always feel like, somebody’s watching me…

Nevertheless, Tarquin is not a regular stalker by any stretch of the imagination. Tarquin has a fixation on a woman he has never met, and who he has only glimpsed remotely. He knows every detail of Hoshi’s life, every facet of her existence. He is able to casually drop trivia facts about her childhood into conversation. When Hoshi politely declines to try desert by claiming her stomach is unsettled, Tarquin replies, “You told your grandmother that every time she tried to serve you soba noodles. Now it’s one of your favourite foods.”

After all, Tarquin has not just be following Hoshi around. He has been voyeuristically enjoying her memories and her history. “Listening to your thoughts has been very pleasurable,” Tarquin!Phlox tells Hoshi. “I’ve been with you for several days. Studying your mind, your memories. Learning so many things about you.” He has been binge-watching reruns of Star Trek: Enterprise. In many respects, Tarquin conforms to many of the stereotypes of cult fandom, compensating for a bitterly lonely existence by investing himself in another world.

Beastly...

Beastly…

“I’ve lived here for a very long time, Mister Reed,” Tarquin explains. “My only contact with the outside world has been through telepathy.” It is interesting how Enterprise tends to treat Star Trek fandom as an isolated and fringe experience. Oasis presented Ezral in a similar light, a lonely old man on an isolated world populated by imaginary friends from another life. Perhaps this is a reflection of the show’s dwindling ratings and vocal internet culture – it seemed like not enough people were watching Enterprise, but those who did tended towards obsessive.

However, while Oasis was quite sympathetic and affectionate in its portrayal of fandom, Exile is quite scathing. For all that Tarquin is an exiled and lonely old man, he has very clearly developed his own entitlement issues. Tarquin plays as the worst excesses of contemporary fandom. He leverages his power over Enterprise in order to bend Archer and Hoshi to his whims. He knows that the ship needs him as much as he needs then, and that he has the power to turn off Enterprise once and for all.

Putting the matter to bed...

Putting the matter to bed…

In many respects, Tarquin feels like a rather stinging critique of the worst corners of Star Trek fandom – those vocal voices who feel that the franchise exists to service their needs above all others. Tarquin arrives in the narrative at a moment of desperation for Archer and the Enterprise; they need leads on the Xindi. Similarly, those more vocal and entitled voices in fandom realised that the show itself was just as desperate. With ratings dwindling, it seemed like “the base” was all that was left, granting them more power than they might otherwise have.

And so Tarquin is presented as a “collector” not too different from Kivas Fajo. Indeed, he even collects the last book written by a long-dead culture. However, more creepily, he collects people for his own entertainment. When Hoshi discovers a make-shift graveyard, he explains, “When I lost Morianna I began to search for another, then another. Sometimes I don’t know what is worse, being alone or having to bury the people I’ve come to care about. It’s been many years since I found someone like you.”

The collector...

The collector…

Rather tellingly, Tarquin seems to care less about Hoshi as a person than as an object. Despite all his rhetoric, it does not seem like Tarquin latched on to Hoshi because she is a wonderful person; she just happened to be the first woman in a while who was susceptible to his powers. He is possessive and domineering. Even though they are on a dead world, he still tries to restrict her access and movements. He is outraged when he discovers that she has wandered outside. “I asked you to stay inside!”

He treats Hoshi as an object to be kept. Despite the fact that he lives in exile, he seems to spend very little time with her once she has agreed to stay. “If you need anything else, let me know at supper tomorrow,” he asks. “I’ll be working most of the day.” Working at what? The guy claims to be in exile. It seems rather strange behaviour for somebody who just wants a human connection. Instead of treating Hoshi as a welcome relief from isolation and loneliness, he just seems happy to have her in his possession.

Going around in circles...

Going around in circles…

For a telepath, he is unwilling to share himself with Hoshi; it seems their exchange is a one-way street. When Hoshi asks whether he is listening to her thoughts over dinner, he politely assures her, “Not since you arrived. Now that you’re here with me I would rather get to know you the way other humans do.” However, despite that, he is able to tell that she has wandered into the garden surprisingly quickly. It seems quite possible that he was eavesdropping pretty continuously.

Tarquin’s dialogue is decidedly self-centred, always emphasising his own self-worth and his own tragedy. “The others had similar doubts, but over time they came to appreciate what I had to offer them,” he advises Hoshi. “No one will ever understand you the way I can.” In his last line, he assures her, “You’re on a dangerous mission. I don’t want to see you harmed. Who knows, you may change your mind about me someday.” He seems to think that Hoshi only needs to stay alive because she may still belong to him one day. What a nice guy.

Monstrous...

Monstrous…

Exile is not just an episode about fan culture and possessive attitudes towards the Star Trek franchise. Exile is touching on ideas that will become more and more apparent in the years after Enterprise went off the air. Tarquin seems like the voice of a particular strand of male nerd culture, one that feels entitled and victimised in the way that it deals with women. As Arthur Chu explained:

We (male) nerds grow up force-fed this script. Lusting after women “out of our league” was what we did. And those unattainable hot girls would always inevitably reject us because they didn’t understand our intellectual interest in science fiction and comic books and would instead date asshole jocks. This was inevitable, and our only hope was to be unyieldingly persistent until we “earned” a chance with these women by “being there” for them until they saw the error of their ways.

This logic seems quite close to the way that Tarquin treats Hoshi. He believes that he is a cultured and sensitive soul who deserves companionship. More than that, he believes that he can earn Hoshi’s love through the simple act of being in proximity to her over an extended period of time. Tarquin claims to understand and appreciate Hoshi, but that understanding and appreciation is not the result of genuine friendship, but simple exposure.

Nothing to worry about Hoshi, I'm sure that the guy who almost drove you made is entirely trustworthy...

Nothing to worry about Hoshi, I’m sure that the guy who almost drove you made is entirely trustworthy…

One of the really interesting aspects of the third and fourth seasons of Enterprise is the way that show seems to pick up on the mainstreaming of traditional nerd culture. The show seems more comfortable with classic pulp science-fiction tropes and storytelling and iconography that it had been before – as if understanding (and even anticipating) that “nerd culture” was assimilating itself into the mainstream. (Or vice versa, depending on who you ask.) So Enterprise could pander to kitsch and camp, with stories like North Star and Rajiin.

However, this merge of “nerd culture” and broader “popular culture” did not go as smoothly as it might. There have been points of conflict between the two camps. Friction is inevitable in situations like this, and it seems like there are certain segments of “nerd culture” that are uncomfortable having to share their interests and hobbies with broader demographics. To certain fans of these quirky properties, video games and comics (and science-fiction) represented an escape from the outside world; so to see the outside world intruding provokes a very vocal response.

A by-the-book "nice guy"...

A by-the-book “nice guy”…

In particular, it has been noted that some members of the subculture have occasionally reacted strongly to the perceived intrusion of women and minorities into spheres traditionally reserved for white male nerds. Histories of bullying and scapegoating have made these groups particularly sensitive to allegations of discrimination. As Laurie Penny argues:

Two generations of boys who grew up at the lower end of the violent hierarchy of toxic masculinity – the losers, the nerds, the ones who were afraid of being creeps – have reached adulthood and found the polarity reversed. Suddenly they’re the ones with the power and the social status. Science is a way that shy, nerdy men pull themselves out of the horror of their teenage years. That is true. That is so. But shy, nerdy women have to try to pull themselves out of that same horror into a world that hates, fears and resents them because they are women, and to a certain otherwise very intelligent sub-set of nerdy men, the category “woman” is defined primarily as “person who might or might not deny me sex, love and affection.”

It is perfectly understandable, and even sympathetic. However, it does lead to attitudes that make it very difficult to integrate and interact. Tarquin’s behaviour towards Hoshi is very much in keeping with this attitude. Tarquin has lived a very tough and very harsh life, but that does not justify his behaviour. It is perhaps telling that Tarquin manifests himself as a white man to Hoshi, an Asian woman.

A garden-variety stalker...

A garden-variety stalker…

In some respects, Exile seems quite ahead of its time. By offering its own blistering take on male resentment and entitlement issues, Exile rather skilfully foreshadows a culture war that will not fully explode until a decade after the show goes off the air. Phyllis Strong is onto something very clever here, even if the rest of the episode does not come together quite as well as it might. Exile is an episode that has some surprisingly deep ideas underpinning what could easily be just another genre pastiche.

That said, there are serious flaws with Exile. While the portrayal of the rest of the crew make sense in context, nobody on the Enterprise comes out of Exile looking particularly good. Archer doesn’t even have any substantial proof of Tarquin’s good intentions (or ability to generate results) when he agrees to leave Hoshi alone on the surface. He even warps the ship off into an unrelated subplot so that Hoshi spends most of the episode stranded on a planet alongside a creep with entitlement issues.

To be fair, if this is Reed's attitude towards potential security breaches, no wonder Archer wanted the MACOs along.

To be fair, if this is Reed’s attitude towards potential security breaches, no wonder Archer wanted the MACOs along.

More than that, the subplot involving the spheres feels a little pointless. The third season is struggling a little bit with serialisation. In most of these early episodes, Enterprise interprets “serialisation” to mean “adding a distracting subplot that teases another minor detail of the Expanse.” It is not an approach that works particularly well, with several early-season episodes like Impulse and The Shipment undermined by the decision to pair them with arc-building subplots.

Here, an investigation into the spheres gives us a nice sequence of Archer and Trip trying to land a floating shuttlepod from the outside, but it doesn’t feel like it adds anything of worth to the story. It is just filler. The biggest revelation coming out of the subplot is the suggestion that there are at least fifty spheres and that they have been designed for some vague and sinister purpose. Those are nice details, but they don’t justify the subplot. Exile would arguably work better in the subplot from Impulse had been grafted in instead.

Shootin' the (space) breeze...

Shootin’ the (space) breeze…

That said, there are some nice touches to the episode. The production design is lovely, and director Roxann Dawosn really commits to the idea of bringing a gothic horror story to life. It is hard to explain why Tarquin does not have more advanced technology, but the candles and silverware and hardcover books add a nice atmosphere to the story around them. Much like Impulse committed wholeheartedly to the idea of doing a zombie film, Exile goes all-in on the concept of “science-fiction gothic horror.”

Even the script commits to the idea, with Tarquin dabbling in science that is pretty clearly occult. His powers do not seem to adhere to anything approaching natural sciences. “You’re searching for a weapon that could annihilate your planet,” he tells Archers. “I may be able to find it, but I’ll need an object that’s associated with the Xindi.” He explains, “Every artifact retains an imprint of the people who made it, who used it.” This is an idea that seems like it might belong in a show about magic rather than science – it is an element right of a Robert Bloch script.

Shattered hopes...

Shattered hopes…

In its best moments – stylistically – Exile feels very much like a companion piece to Robert Bloch’s scripts for the original Star Trek. This is an episode that fancies itself a spiritual successor to What Are Little Girls Made Of? or Catspaw or Wolf in the Fold. That makes it a very esoteric and surreal piece of Star Trek, one that feels very much out of step with the production style of The Next Generation. How much the episode works will ultimately come down to the audience’s tolerance for that sort of storytelling.

Exile is a bit clumsy in its execution, but it does make some interesting points and commit wholeheartedly to its premise. It is perhaps an example of how Enterprise is having a bit of difficulty with its long-term plotting, but also serves to demonstrate that the show has a renewed energy and vitality. Exile is not among the strongest of the season, but it is not quite as flawed as Extinction or Rajiin.

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4 Responses

  1. Watching this episode, I kept thinking to myself “Considering she has a creepy alien lusting after her, why oh why is Hoshi wandering around in a skimpy negligee?!?”

    Aside from that one point, as well as the other issue you raised, namely the rest of the crew not really taking Hoshi’s concerns seriously (and then leaving her all alone with a pervy alien), I liked this episode quite a bit…

    1) Tarquin does have a sympathetic backstory, and we can understand why he is acting the way he is, but at the same time the episode never once attempts to gloss over the fact that what he is doing is absolutely wrong and totally inexcusable.

    2) Tarquin really looks like a properly alien life form, instead of just some humanoid with yet another variation of a bumpy forehead.

    3) Hoshi is granted a certain amount of agency in this story; she is the one who rescues Enterprise and forces Tarquin to let her go, rather than Archer charging in like the cavalry.

    4) Linda Park does a good job carrying the episode.

    5) The direction by Roxann Dawson is amazing.

    • Yep, I was surprised at how much I liked Exile on rewatching it. Because the concept sound terrible.

      (Rajiin is quite similar. I was bracing myself for something awful, so was relieved to get something that was fairly okay-ish.)

      I honestly think Exile is massively underrated, even in the broader context of a third season that is itself massively underrated. (See also: North Star.)

  2. This is the first episode of the 3rd season that I’ve unequivocally enjoyed. It’s a Trek take on ‘Beauty and the Beast’, even down to the “there is one place in the castle you must never enter!” part. And it ends (thankfully) with the female lead unequivocally rejecting the creep who kidnapped her and lied to her.

    In terms of Star Trek, it definitely reminded me of Catspaw (the TOS episode that’s a Halloween special), especially when the doors open themselves to reveal a gothic interior =) And just like Catspaw, the aliens’ magic wand/orb is the key to the telepathic aliens’ power in the end 😛

    Darren, I think comparing the episode to angry ‘male nerd culture’ is a very insightful take. To be honest, I have a feeling that it was more unintentionally honest than an actual skewering of male toxicity. But it does lend the episode a subtext that is quite meaningful today.

    • I don’t know, though.

      It is, to the best of my knowledge, the first episode of Enterprise written by a female writer working solo. I suspect Strong would not have been oblivious to certain strains of entitled male fandom online. Even when Enterprise was on the air, I was aware of how creepy online guys could be talking about T’Pol and Sato, even if I didn’t have a vocabulary to properly articulate it. I’ll always tend to give writers the benefit of the doubt.

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