Advertisements
    Advertisements
  • Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives









  • Awards & Nominations

  • Advertisements

Star Trek: Enterprise – The Shipment (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.

An episode like The Shipment has been inevitable since The Expanse was first broadcast.

Nobody watching The Expanse could have truly believed that Star Trek would ever truly lose itself in the midst of an epic War on Terror analogy. Trip’s character arc over the course of the third season is not hard to predict. His raw anger and hatred in The Expanse are not a new status quo for the character, they are very clearly the starting point for a character arc that will circle back around to the core values associated with Star Trek. Trip might be raw and vengeful, but he will come to forgive and heal.

Woah, woah, woah... he's on fire...

Woah, woah, woah… he’s on fire…

That is largely the arc of the third season, albeit with a coda where Archer punches out an evil lizard man atop a flying bomb, because evil lizard men and flying bombs are pretty damn fun. Indeed, the third season works through the bulk of its big moral arc in The Council, so that the final two episodes of the season can be devoted to “stuff blowin’ up real good” without any of those awkward analogies getting in the way. The effort to resolve the big moral arc of the season two episodes before the finalé would seem to suggest that this resolution is a foregone conclusion.

As such, The Shipment feels a little redundant – particularly this early in the season. It is an episode designed to reassure viewers that Jonathan Archer has not suddenly transformed himself into Jack Bauer. However, at this point in the season, the audience has been given little reason to fear that Archer has been so transformed. The Shipment seems like an overly preemptive reassurance that arrives a little bit too early for its own good.

#NotAllXindi

#NotAllXindi

To be fair to Archer, the character has done a fairly good job of adhering to his core morality, at least to this point in the season. Sure, the character has made the sorts of reckless and half-cocked decisions that the audience associates with his command style – “of course I’ll keep this potentially dangerous virus in storage while the ship is going through a series of dangerous spacial anomalies!” and “yeah, sure, I’ll leave Hoshi alone with her psychic stalker!” – but his heart has broadly been in the right place to this point in the series.

Whatever the practical (and even logical) problems with his decision to preserve the alien virus in Extinction, he was trying to preserve the last relic of an alien culture. In Rajiin, his own heroism is exploited to put a Xindi spy on the ship. In Impulse, Archer prioritises efforts to save the crew of the Seleya despite the danger to his away team. Archer might have demonstrated a shorter temper with his senior staff since he entered the Delphic Expanse, but he is still fundamentally Archer.

"That's no moon."

“That’s no moon.”

(In this respect, the torture sequence from Anomaly feels very much like an anomaly. It is a scene that exists to demonstrate how far Archer is willing to go for his mission, but one that feels curiously out of whack with the stories going on around it. That sequence would arguably work a lot better were it positioned later in the season – perhaps in the run up to Damage. In terms of Archer’s behaviour in the first half of the season, Anomaly stands out quite a bit. Nevertheless, it is not so glaring that the audience needs an entire episode to reassure them everything is okay.)

The Shipment arrives at a point where the third season really grapples with what the Xindi arc actually means for Star Trek as a franchise. The episodes in this stretch of the season really engage with what it means to be Star Trek. One of the central points of Twilight is that the Xindi arc could go horribly wrong and destroy everything that fans know and appreciate about the franchise. North Star is an old-fashioned allegory story (a western!) updated for the new millennium. Similitude is a classic Star Trek moral dilemma against the backdrop of the Xindi arc.

"It's okay Malcolm. You can wear camouflage if you want to."

“It’s okay Malcolm. You can wear camouflage if you want to.”

It feels like Star Trek: Enterprise is really beginning to grapple with the weight and consequences of a story like this. After all, the Xindi arc cannot be a simple metaphor for the War on Terror, because the War on Terror has come to embody many of the worst aspects of contemporary American culture. The Xindi arc has to be an exploration of the War on Terror that remains true to the heart of Star Trek, and not just the pulpy sensibilities serviced by stories like Rajiin or Exile.

After all, Star Trek is staring down the barrel of the gun at this point in its life-cycle. Just over a month after The Shipment aired, it would be announced that the third season would only run for twenty-four episodes instead of the usual twenty-six. There was a significant chance that the show would not be renewed for a fourth season. All those hopes of seven seasons and a movie franchise seemed to be dashed. The franchise’s future was quite uncertain, and there was an apocalyptic cloud hanging over the series.

He's going through a phase...

He’s going through a phase…

It is worth noting that Star Trek: Nemesis haunts the third season. The spectacular failure of the tenth Star Trek film casts a significant shadow. (The reptile!Xindi costumes are modified Reman outfits, for example.) This is most notable in the casting of veteran actor Steven Culp as Major Hayes, the leader of the MACOs stationed on Enterprise. Culp had actually appeared in a deleted scene of Nemesis, as Picard’s new first officer Commander Madden:

My agents had sent me a slightly different version of the scene and asked me if I was interested in going in and reading for it. I know I sound like the pickiest actor in the world, but my first response was “absolutely not.” It was such a tiny little scene. But then I ended up reading the script over the weekend, and I thought it was just a terrific script, and then I saw how the character of Madden actually fit into the movie and I thought it would be the coolest thing in the world to just show up at the end of this movie and take over as second in command on the “Enterprise”. Originally I was going to do it as a total cameo appearance with no credit, because it just seemed like a cool thing to do. So yes, I did enjoy shooting that scene. As soon as I heard they were cutting 40-50 minutes out of the film, though, I had a feeling that the scene would not survive and I was right.

Like a lot of the character-driven scenes in Nemesis, Culp’s appearance was cut from the film and left in the deleted scenes. It is interesting to wonder whether there is a salvageable movie to be found in that material; given the tendency to “milk” fans of Star Trek, it is surprising that there has not been a “writer’s cut” or a “producer’s cut” of the film released incorporating scenes like that.

"Dynamic entrance!"

“Dynamic entrance!”

Nevertheless, the decision to cast Culp as Hayes feels like an acknowledgement of Nemesis. The failure of Nemesis caused a severe drop in the franchise’s stock, and contributed to the clear change in direction with The Expanse. It seems appropriate that Culp should finally get to join the Enterprise in one capacity or another. In an alternate version of Nemesis, Culp got to be the second-in-command of the Federation flagship as it continued on its bold new mission. However, in reality, Culp is the leader of a paramilitary squad adding muscle to a ship on a military mission.

The MACOs are one of the most obvious differences between the show the Enterprise had been in its first two seasons and the show that it became in its final two seasons. With their camouflage uniforms, grenades and rifles, the MACOs are handy visual reminders that Enterprise is under siege – both the show and the ship. Picard might have been a little optimistic when he declared that Starfleet was not a military in Peak Performance, but even Star Trek: Deep Space Nine never seemed quite as militaristic as Star Trek: Enterprise does right now.

"Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories about the death of worlds.”

“Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories about the death of worlds.”

As such, Hayes is a pretty effective signifier of how much has changed. He is the physical embodiment of how radically Enterprise has evolved in the gap between its second and third seasons. No wonder Reed feels insecure around Hayes; Hayes is very much an existential threat to the fabric of the show. As much as Star Trek has always been a show about the military in space, it has never been as overt about it. Hayes is a different breed of character than Reed or Tuvok or Odo. For all its flaws, Hatchery would touch on that conflict quite clearly.

That said, there is something quite clumsy about the execution of The Shipment. Despite their bickering in episodes like The Xindi, Harbinger and Hatchery, Reed and Hayes get along perfectly well here. Given the structure of the episode, the decision to take Reed and Hayes down to the surface feels like a symbolic gesture on Archer’s part, an attempt to mediate between what Star Trek had been and what it might become. However, Reed is presented as the most blood-thirsty of the trio. “Let’s not forget the seven million people who were killed.”

He can't see the forest for the trees...

He can’t see the forest for the trees…

There is a lot of The Shipment that just feels a little off – a little bit off-key. This is the most predictable story of the third season, the episode where Archer must learn that his enemy are not monsters at all. It is the quintessential Star Trek story – one that has been told time and time again since Balance of Terror found the Romulans to be sympathetic. Of course the Xindi are not genocidal barbarians. As Gralik sums up, “If everything you’ve told me is true about the attack on your world, I hope you remember that all Xindi are not your enemy.”

It is a very nice story. It is arguably an essential story. The whole idea of The Expanse must have made a lot of fans uncomfortable, it was perhaps necessary to reassure them that Enterprise was still an optimistic Star Trek show. However, the execution feels clumsy and predictable. It feels safe, familiar, comfortable. The third season would find a way to make these points without feeling so transparent. Archer’s growing sympathy for Degra in Strategem feels a lot more natural than his dynamic with Gralik here. It is just as inevitable, but it feels more organic.

"So, if they're shipping us, do you prefer 'Reyes' or 'Heed'?"

“So, if they’re shipping us, do you prefer ‘Reyes’ or ‘Heed’?”

The Shipment feels confused – even beyond the weird lack of any dynamic between Reed and Hayes. For all that The Shipment is a story about how not all Xindi should be judged preemptively, the show works pretty hard to suggest that each of the subspecies of Xindi can probably be judged preemptively and accurately. There are very clear class and race divisions within Xindi culture, in how the different subspecies respond to one another; but the show never engages with that.

When Archer asks if Gralik was even suspicious of why Degra wanted so much material, Gralik explains that he trusted Degra because he was a primate!Xindi. “Degra and his people have always been fair, truthful. That may have been why I believed him when he said the shipment was for research. Perhaps he’s become as untrustworthy as the reptilians.” Apparently Xindi don’t judge other Xindi based on the content of their character, but by the texture of their skin.

reptile!Xindi. You can't take 'em anywhere.

reptile!Xindi. You can’t take ’em anywhere.

The fact that Gralik is implied to be correct here (and shown to be correct over the course of the third season) somewhat undermines the central point of The Shipment. Archer seems to learn that not all Xindi are complicit in the attacks upon mankind, but also seems to learn that reptile!Xindi are the ones that you have to watch out for. The Xindi delegation arriving on the colony consists of Degra and a bunch of reptile!Xindi. Over the course of the season, Archer learns to reason with Degra. However, the reptile!Xindi remain villainous.

There is a very weird dissonance at the heart of The Shipment. While Gralik is validated for his crass generalisations about reptile!Xindi, the racism displayed by the reptile!Xindi towards the arboreal!Xindi is clearly intended to paint the reptile!Xindi in a negative light. The reptile!Xindi describe the arboreal!Xindi as “such lethargic creatures.” When the arboreal!Xindi report that Gralik is missing and offer to search for him, the reptile!Xindi insist, “We don’t have time for you to go foraging through the forest.” That sounds a little bit racist.

Scrap that.

Scrap that.

It feels weird that nobody on the writing staff caught this paradox at the heart of The Shipment. It is apparently only wrong to be racist against people who look kinda like you do. It they look really different, then it is probably fair game to make all sorts of generalisations. The Shipment is one of those episodes where it feels deeply problematic that the most alien-looking Xindi turn out to be evil. Given that The Shipment exists as the big “Star Trek is still optimistic!” episode in the opening third of the season, the subtext feels more than a little ill-judged.

The Shipment is not helped by the presence of another one of those “fun facts about the expanse” subplots that disguise clumsy exposition for plot advancement. The third season really struggles trying to maintain a sense of momentum through subplots in episodes like Impulse, Exile and The Shipment. Luckily, the show moves away from this sort of storytelling at this point. Twilight, North Star and Similitude are unimpeded by their own (literally) trivial subplots.

"So, who's up to sing 'row, row, row your boat' later?"

“So, who’s up to sing ‘row, row, row your boat’ later?”

However, The Shipment devotes considerable space and time to a plot about Trip figuring out how Xindi technology works. It turns out that they use organic components. This is a detail that might seem interesting in a throwaway line, but struggles to maintain a subplot across forty minutes. Indeed, it feels like Trip would be better served in the episode’s primary plot – he makes for a much better voice for vengeance and anger than Reed. Instead, like Extinction before it, The Shipment builds to a silly scene of Trip running through the ship carrying an object.

That said, there are aspects of The Shipment that are interesting. One of the more fascinating aspects of the Xindi arc is the way that the show generally avoids characterising the Xindi as terrorists. Sure, the sphere builders add a religious element to the arc, but the Xindi are very much presented as galactic nation state rather than a collection of ragtag extremists. They are organised and official. They have uniforms; they behave like a government body. Degra does not speak for a bunch of zealots or extremists.

Everything is on the table...

Everything is on the table…

Degra is not buying material on the black market. He is not constructing dirt bombs or plotting to send anthrax letters. Degra is very clearly fashioning a weapon of mass-destruction on an industrial scale. Rajiin revealed that he had deadlines and lab technicians. In an interview with Star Trek Magazine, Brannon Braga likened him to Oppenheimer:

“We knew we wanted to create an Oppenheimer-like character who was the mastermind behind building the bomb, who was very committed to his species but wracked with guilt, just like Oppenheimer. We always knew we wanted to do it.”

If Degra is Oppenheimer, then the Xindi weapon is the atomic bomb. If the Xindi weapon is the atomic bomb, then the Xindi are not terrorists or Nazis or any foreign threat. The Xindi are a reflection of contemporary America. Indeed, their government arguably seems quite federal. The Xindi are simultaneously one monculture and several distinct individual cultures.

"Remind me to set my communicator to 'silent'."

“Remind me to set my communicator to ‘silent’.”

Gralik suggests that the Xindi are decentralised. Like the Suliban in the first season, Gralik suggests that the exodus from their dead homeworld scattered the population. “The descendants of those that escaped are scattered across the Expanse,” he explains to Archer. “Many live peaceful lives, but obviously not all.” Degra does not claim to be advancing the cause of one fraction of the scattered Xindi. When Gralik asks why Degra is building a weapon, Degra replies, “It concerns all of us. We’ve learned there’s a threat to our people.”

As such, The Shipment positions Archer and the crew of the Enterprise as terrorists. When Reed points out that the Xindi stuck first, Archer replies, “Because they were told we’re going to attack them. They think they’re acting in self-defence. By destroying this complex we’ll be confirming their worst fears about humanity.” In short, Archer and his crew will be using violence in order to feed fear. Of course, fear is not the primary objective of the strike, but Archer is aware that it will be a consequence.

Things are about to get hairy...

Things are about to get hairy…

In fact, due to their tactical disadvantage, they even consider terrorist tactics. Hayes is very clearly planning on using a bomb to destroy the facility. “The suppressors are in place,” he assures Archer. “The blast wave should be mostly confined to the facility.” Even allowing for the blast suppressors, this is a calculated attack at a strategic non-military target that will kill civilians. The Xindi attack in The Expanse killed civilians, but putting Archer in that position adds a harrowing complexity to the larger arc.

Would Archer literally become the monster he is trying to fight? It is a tried-and-tested storytelling dilemma, one that has been trotted out time and time again in the larger context of the War on Terror. It feels like “he who fights monsters…” is the inevitable outcome of any debate on whether the ends justify the means, through “slippery slope” logic. It might not be original or inspired, but it is a point that needs to be broached in the context of a larger story like this. The Shipment never quite hones in on it as well as it might, the execution feeling a little clumsy.

Mapping it out...

Mapping it out…

That is the biggest problem with The Shipment as part of the larger arc. It is an episode that was inevitable in this context, but the execution feels rather haphazard and awkward. The Shipment isn’t just a story that needs to be told as part of the Xindi arc, it is a story that needs to be told well. It is well intentioned and sincere, but those attributes will only get the story so far. It is not quite far enough.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: