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.
It is surprising just how hasty some sections of Star Trek fandom are to dismiss North Star as absurd or ham-fisted or ridiculous.
It is precisely those qualities the make North Star quintessential Star Trek.
To be fair, North Star is an episode that really requires a sympathetic audience. It is a story that is absurdly easy to criticise and nitpick. It is a story that really operates according no logic but its own, and North Star lives or dies based on how ready and willing the audience is to go along with that somewhat questionable internal logic. After all,this is a classic “planet of the [nouns]” story, where the “[nouns]” happen to (conveniently) conform to some standing soundstages and existing costumes on a Hollywood studio lot. (“[noun]” can be “cowboys”, “gangsters”, “Romans.”)
The premise is so audacious that it seems almost unfair to pick at it. It seems a coincidence that these humans abducted and carried half-way across the galaxy (or the quadrant) should conveniently happen to have the resources and materials necessary to construct a perfect replica of a classic western town, with not a brick out of place and not an anachronism in sight. Not only were they about to fashion the tools to build houses, but also to make clothes and tools and weapons. They even have old-timey photography and shot glasses!
Doesn’t it seem strange that these humans were not only able to build a perfect working replica of the Universal Studios backlot, but that they would want to keep it that way for centuries? Sure, the script offers some vague handwave about the rejection of more advanced technology, but it seems that any slaves who had just overthrown their masters would probably want to keep some of that advanced technology around just in case another hyper-advanced civilisation came along. (Are these the only Skagarans in the universe? If not, how does the colony defend itself against others?)
It is weird that there has been no material progress among the community in the hundreds of years since they were abducted from Earth. There were no environmental or societal factors that would have caused social change – no evolution in the role of women prompted by the difficulties of actually setting up a society in the first place, no breaking down of class barriers by shared suffering. To suggest that the world of North Star could have any basis in material, social or psychological reality is absurd.
But, then, this is the point. This logic could be applied to just about any other “planet of the [noun]” stories in classic Star Trek. Sure, the Sigma Iotans had a guide book to help them, but it feels weird that they could so perfectly mimic twenties Chicago in A Piece of the Action, down to items technically unrelated to organised crime – pool or women’s fashion. Similarly, it feels weird that the Ekosians should so perfectly mirror Nazi Germany in Patterns of Force. Wouldn’t Gill have at least changed some of the iconography? And isn’t it convenient that their oppressed minority were called “Zions”?
Even seemingly innocent episodes are rife with these sorts of incongruities and contrived coincidences. The Romulans are effectively set up as space!Romans in Balance of Terror, with home planets named Romulus and Remus along with a Roman ranking system. It is possible to handwave these elements with varying degrees of seriousness (Diane Duane does a great job in The Romulan Way), but the point still stands. There is a sense that Star Trek is only able to get away with aliens like the Klingons or the Romulans because they date back to the sixties.
It is tempting to write all of this early weirdness off as advances in television production. Basic production realities change with time – a fact arguably acknowledged by the production team when they changed the Klingon makeup between The Day of the Dove and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Of course, the franchise occasionally tries to explain it away – as in Affliction and Divergence. Most aliens in Star Trek were humanoid because of constraints in sixties television, but we still got The Chase.
By this logic, it seems quite clear that the reason Star Trek gave us so many “planet of the [nouns]” stories was at least down to financial considerations. It is a lot easier to shoot on standing sets with existing props and prepared costumes than it is to build an entire society from scratch. In the sixties, that meant that gangsters, cowboys and Romans were the ideal choice. Hollywood was coming out of its boom era, with most of the major studios curating expansive collections of props and materials.
At the same time, this is an overly simplistic attempt to account for why Star Trek could produce episodes like Bread and Circuses, A Piece of the Action, and Patterns of Force with such regularity. The idea of doing a “parallel earth” story had its own innate appeal to the producers and writers. Sure, the internal logic might be (even more) questionable than usual, but the story could serve as a vehicle for pointed commentary and wry observation. For all their absurdities, Bread and Circuses, A Piece of the Action and Patterns of Force all have things they want to say about the real world.
Television was a lot more surreal in the sixties, as a rule. Viewers were more likely to embrace abstract imagery or stylised production design. It would be impossible to imagine something like The Web Planet airing on the BBC today, but it remains a weirdly wonderful chapter in the history of Doctor Who. Similarly, while contemporary Star Trek shows might get a free pass for an anniversary special like Trials and Tribble-ations, it is hard to imagine Picard or Sisko embracing the same weirdness that Kirk faced every week. When the shows tried, you got Move Along Home.
Television in the fifties and sixties was largely rooted in a theatrical tradition and an expressive style, rather than a cinematic or naturalistic approach. As David Thorburn argued in his entry on Television Aesthetics in The Television Encyclopedia:
In its first or imitative phase, American television recycled it s ancestors — radio, theatre formats and movies, though an early boycott of TV by the Hollywood studios kept most American feature films off the screen during the medium’s first decade. One way to understand the misnamed “golden age of live television” is to recognize that 1950s taste hierarchies, which assumed theatre’s inherent superiority to movies, underpinned many journalistic and scholarly accounts of the shift of prime time production from live dram as made in New York to filmed series made in Los Angeles.
Although television had already begun to transition towards a more cinematic style – and, with that, gradually towards verisimilitude and naturalism – the late sixties were populated with heavily stylised television productions like the classic Star Trek or Batman! or Get Smart or The Prisoner.
This highly theatrical and stylised approach to storytelling has seen something of a resurgence over the last decade or so. Perhaps reflecting the reality that television is less of a broadcast medium (and more of a “narrow cast”) medium than it once was, it seems like naturalism and verisimilitude are no longer governing concepts in popular culture, as they were in the nineties. Highly stylised (and once esoteric) films like Sin City can now easily find an audience. It is hard to imagine something as kitsch as Iron Sky garnering as much attention in the nineties.
So North Star is absolutely ridiculous. It is quite unapologetically ridiculous. But that is the fun of it. There is really no way to construct a story like North Star without alienating a fairly significant portion of the audience. It is to the credit of writer David A. Goodman that he is willing to embrace the idea so completely and so committedly. North Star goes “all-in” on the concept of “planet of the cowboys”, and those four words offer a fairly clear audience litmus test. If the audience shivers at the mention of “planet of the cowboys”, continue on to Similitude. Otherwise, saddle up.
On the episode commentary, Goodman acknowledges North Star as a very clear homage to that old-fashioned Star Trek storytelling:
There was a way that shows were done in the sixties, which was big action and colourful. Star Trek is really… The Original Series is of its time. As was The Next Generation, but there was… one of the things that was sort of lost, I think, in the sequel series was that fun, bold, audacious style of storytelling that the Original Series did – where you’re on a cowboy planet, a Roman planet, a Nazi planet. They seem sort of campy as you say them, but they were done in all seriousness. I think it’s one of the reasons Star Trek – the Original Series – lasted so long in reruns. It’s like, “Wait a minute… there’s a planet of Nazis!?” It’s audacious. And well done. Those two things combined. And I think that’s what I like about this episode is that we’re doing it on a modern budget with modern writing, but it’s like, “Wait… a planet of cowboys!?”
It is an episode that probably would have given Brannon Braga pause during the first two seasons, when Enterprise had a much more conservative aesthetic.
In fact, Goodman has acknowledged that the producers working on the third season had a much more open-minded approach to pitching episodes. In In a Time of War, Goodman explains that North Star was an episode that never would have seen the light of day a year earlier:
Brannon also said, “Old Star Trek is not off the table. Parallel planets are not off the table. Doing Original Series stories is something that we’re open to.” He didn’t really say that in season two, but he said it in season three. So I pitched North Star. I pitched “Wagon Train gets kidnapped from Earth, replanted on another planet and Enterprise finds that planet. So western town!” It’s very old school Star Trek. It’s very much like A Piece of the Action. It was also Omega Glory, a little bit of that; and Bread and Circuses, very similar to that. I’m very proud of that because it did harken back to things I love about the Original Series.
Although the fourth season of Enterprise has a much stronger continuity tie to the original Star Trek, the third season has a very clear aesthetic continuity with the sixties show. Impulse is a space horror in the style of The Man Trap or The Immunity Syndrome. Exile is an homage to Robert Bloch.
In fact, Goodman credits the genesis of North Star to Brannon Braga himself. The pitch originated with Braga wondering how it would be possible to update a sixties “parallel earth” story for contemporary television:
In fact, this episode came from Brannon challenging me to come up with a “parallel Earth” story like they had on TOS, but one that would fit Enterprise. My favorites of those TOS ones were A Piece of the Action and Patterns of Force, since they didn’t rely on impossible to explain things like “Hodgkins Law of Parallel Planet Development.” So it was really inspired by those episodes, and since it’s a Western setting, I paid homage to Spectre of the Gun by naming one of the aliens Cronin. Kit was not named after “Miss Kitty” on Gunsmoke, but was named after Olivia DeHavilland’s character in one of my favorite guilty pleasure westerns Santa Fe Trail. For those who say “why do a concept like this again?” I can only say that I tried to use an old concept to say something new, or at least relevant. I hope it comes through.
It is very clear that Goodman relished the opportunity to play with that old Star Trek standard. While there is a handwave explanation to account for the larger questions, North Star is more interested in having fun with its gimmick than in trying to account for it.
Like A Piece of the Action, North Star is an episode that is so prima facie absurd that it is quite easy to miss everything that is happening under the hood. Goodman’s Star Trek scripts tend to hone in on very big central concepts that inevitably dominate the subsequent discussion and analysis. Coupled with the spectacular failure of Precious Cargo – a script he takes every opportunity to disavow – Goodman is frequently underrated and dismissed as a Star Trek writer. (It is also interesting to wonder if his career as a comedy writer also colours that perception of him.)
To pick one example of how Goodman’s tendency to focus on big ideas tends to drown out discussions of nuance, Judgment is a stunning piece of television and a franchise highlight, but engaging with the episode means that fans have to get past the rather glaring similarities to Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. As a result, it is easy to miss the beautifully pointed social commentary concerning the looming invasion of Iraq or even the historical issues with the portrayals of the Klingons. To a certain (vocal) subset of fans, the episode will never get past the initial hurdle.
When talking about North Star, it is very easy to get lost in discussions about how it is “the western episode” without focusing on why that is important, how it plays with western tropes, and what it has to say. This is the episode where Archer gets to wear a cowboy hat and a long leather coat, while Trip rides a horse. Surely that is enough to define the story, much like the idea of William Shatner hamming it up in a business suit or improvising the rules of Fizzbin is enough to make A Piece of the Action an instant classic.
It’s a shame, because North Star actually has some very interesting and pointed things to say. Most obviously, there is something quite clever in doing a western story, given that even Gene Roddenberry classified Star Trek as a literal space!western – the oft-cited quotation about “Wagon Train to the stars.” Goodman acknowledges this influence, even naming the liberator of the human slaves Cooper Smith in homage to the lead character from the television show Wagon Train.
Goodman acknowledges the obvious connection on the commentary, in discussion with fellow writer Chris Black:
The original idea was this thought that a wagon train was kidnapped by these aliens and brought to this planet. So I threw in all these weird references to the TV show Wagon Train – which everybody is too young to remember. Even I’m too young to remember!
Is that your sort of inside homage to Gene Roddenberry having pitched Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the Stars”?
It makes a great deal of sense. Even on a clever in-joke level, the idea of having a space!western intersect with a western in space is inspired.
At the same time, there are a whole host of deep set connections between Star Trek and the classic western film. Kirk and Picard both introduced every episode of their shows with a reference to the “final frontier”, itself a riff on Kennedy’s “new frontier” that explicitly defined space as just another “American frontier”, albeit one bigger and more significant than one dividing east from west. The march of mankind into space could be seen as an extension of the march westward. While Roddenberry tried to avoid the imperialism implicit in “manifest destiny”, the connection was obvious.
Indeed, one of the nicer little lines in North Star implicitly acknowledges the connection. In conversation with Sheriff Macready, Archer explains his own life story. “I was born in up-state New York,” he tells the local. “Spent most of my adult life in San Francisco, though. You’ve heard of San Francisco?” All Macready can offer is, “Pacific coast?” What had seemed to be the final frontier by Macready was something that Archer transcended in young adulthood, setting his sights on a much bolder frontier.
One of the more interesting aspects of North Star is that writer David Goodman and director David Straiton do not construct the episode as a nostalgic old-fashioned western. It is a nostalgic old-fashioned Star Trek episode, in that it offers a point of intersection with a more grounded pulpy genre, but the western at the heart of the story is decidedly revisionist. David Straiton films North Star with a whited out and desaturated appearance, feeling more like contemporary western films like Unforgiven or 3:10 to Yuma than classic fare like Shane or How the West Was Won. It feels gritty.
This is reflected in the script. As much fun as Goodman is having writing a “parallel earth” story, he is not uncritical of the genre. Consider the characterisation Cooper Smith, the liberator named for the lead character in the classic television western Wagon Train. The reference initially seems quite charming and flattering – Cooper Smith was the man who saved mankind. However, North Star quickly reveals that this is largely revisionism. “To the humans he’s a folk hero, our liberator. I’m sure that’s what you were taught. But the Skagarans, they call him rakh’tar. It means butcher.”
There is a none-too-subtle subtext to many early westerns that makes them quite uncomfortable on rewatch. The push westwards is mythologised as the expansion of civilisation. The destruction of entire cultures is portrayed as the simple act of “taming” a wilderness. This is portrayed as a destiny, a responsibility, a duty of the white settlers. As Prem Chowdhry argues in Colonial India and the Making of Empire Cinema:
The western genre, for example, came close to the imperial adventure films in conveying a similar ideological premise in its imperial-style adventure on the American frontier. It gave a specialised national form to a more widespread historical process – the general thrust of European expansion into Asia, Africa and the Americas. A popular theme of the late 1930s, as seen in the classical period of the western genre, was the slow march of white settlers across the continent escorted by regiments of US cavalry to disperse the native population. The Hollywood western made the Native American appear as intruders in their own land and thus provided a paradigmatic perspective through which to view the whole of the non-white world. The domestication of their wild land is encoded in notions of civilisation, progress and manifest destiny in a striking similarity with the emprie films. US identification with colonialism and imperialism was quite clear, despite certain reservations and its stand as an anti-colonial power in relation to Europe at this time.
These problematic aspects of the western were arguably carried over into the DNA of Star Trek, occasionally finding expression in episodes like Friday’s Child, The Apple or The Omega Glory. A particularly cynical perspective would argue that Star Trek was “an embodiment of a particular American anxiety following World War II – the realization that they missed their chance to be an empire.”
Goodman is a writer who is very politically conscious, and whose work is very much engaged with the social and political context around it. This is not to suggest that the rest of Enterprise is politically disengaged – although Stigma was hardly a crowning accomplishment, the entire third season is an attempt to engage with zeitgeist – but that Goodman’s scripts seem particularly engaged with old-fashioned Star Trek allegory and metaphor concerning the contemporary political situation. Although Sussman is not a big fan of “message” stories, Goodman seems to relish them.
Goodman’s scripts seem particularly uncomfortable with the foreign policy implications of the War on Terror. Judgment is the tragic story of a once-great power swept up in imperialist bloodlust – – notable for being one of the rare occasions in the franchise where the Klingon Empire is closer to the writer’s perception of contemporary America than Starfleet or the Federation. In contrast, the North Star takes one of the great American pieces of American mythology and rather brutally subverts it.
Once again, Enterprise displays a slightly more nuanced view of alien cultures than Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Voyager typically would. It is easy to imagine North Star as a more traditional Star Trek allegory, about two different cultures coming to respect and understand each other. However, the script also acknowledges that matters are rarely so simple. Over centuries, the boundaries between the two subcultures are not as concrete as some might like to believe.
Since the end of the first season, Enterprise has moved a bit away from the franchise’s tendency to treat alien cultures as grand or monolithic. Judgment featured a Klingon character asking Archer if he assumed that all Klingons were warriors; given the way the franchise has typically portrayed Klingons, it is hard to blame Archer for the assumption. Similarly, Fallen Hero revealed that not every alien ship Archer encounters is sent by the government, while shows like Shadows of P’Jem, Detained and Desert Crossing suggested that worlds were as likely to be disharmonised as unified.
(This is not to suggest that there is anything inherently wrong with monolithic cultures. After all, The Next Generation and Voyager only had forty-five minutes to tell a story, and there was no need to over-complicate things. More than that, most Star Trek aliens exist as a metaphor or commentary on some part of the human condition, so it makes sense that their portrayals would focus on one particular aspect of their culture. Still, it feels like Enterprise‘s attempt to embrace the idea of diversity and divergence reflects a changing outlook on the outside world after 9/11.)
Nevertheless, it is nice that North Star takes the care to suggest that the conflict between the humans and Skagarans is not cleanly defined. They are not two distinct subcultures, despite Bennings’ attitudes. Bethany is herself part-Skagaran; given that the visual markers are recessive, making it easier to “pass”, it is interesting to wonder just how many other members of the community shared Skagaran DNA. For all his hatred of the alien species, Bennings himself could be part-Skagaran.
This effort to firmly delineate the inhabitants of the planet into two opposing tribes is inherently destructive, an arbitrary and harmful construct. It is quiet a clever and understated plot point in the larger context of North Star, something that feels like a worthwhile commentary on communities that have been forced to live quite close to each other, while feuding for generations. It is a very small touch, but one that firmly identifies North Star as a twenty-first century allegory.
At the same time, despite these contemporary tweaks, North Star is also firmly engaged with its criticism of the western genre. The episode implies that the same attributes that are treated as virtues in the western myth can become vices in a larger historical context. The humans kidnapped by the Skagarans are indomitable, but so indomitable that they they actually impose slavery on another alien race. The settlers are able to remake an entire world in their own image, but that image is outdated and hyper-violent.
At its core, North Star is a western about slavery, written almost a decade before Quentin Tarantino would cover the same ground (more directly) with Django Unchained. Although the historical (and even geographical) area traditionally covered by the western overlaps with the history of slavery in the United States, most western films tended to gloss over the issue, as Mary Ann McDonald Carolan contends in The Transatlantic Gaze:
As Fischer points out, when American filmmakers adapted some of the conventions of the spaghetti Western, they tended to downplay the political elements while increasing the volume and intensity of the violence. Thus, a subset of the Western that employs extreme (and seemingly unwarranted, in some cases) violence tends to ignore one of its basic tenets, namely the critique of American expansionism, hegemony, colonial power, and unwarranted brutality to native culture.
Slavery is another aspect of that tendency to romanticise American history and avoid the questionable implications. “Westerns all the time bend over backwards not to deal with slavery,” Tarantino explained when asked about Django Unchained. “So I wanted to take slavery and not ignore it, but also tell an exciting adventure story around it.”
North Star does not feature any African American characters or actors – however, the treatment of the Skagarans makes their absence particularly ominous. Maybe only white land-owners were abducted by the Skagarans for their workforce, or maybe there is another secret shameful chapter in the history of Cooper Smith. North Star never brings up the historical abuse of African Americans directly, but it is heavily implied. The Skagarans are kept in servitude, treated as if they are inherently less intelligent than the settlers and even Skagaran literacy is outlawed.
In making this rather provocative connection, North Star acknowledges the way that western narratives typically gloss over the unpleasant aspects of the period. North Star opens with a lynching by a mob led by the sheriff’s deputy. The derogatory term “skag” retains the tough “k” and “g” sounds associated with the various racial slurs that would have been in casual use at time. For all the joy that North Star takes in its setting, the script is wryly subversive; there is no way that a contemporary network drama would handle the topic directly.
North Star also works reasonably well in the context of the larger Xindi arc, even as it stands apart from the third season’s larger plot. North Star is one of the few standalone stories in the third season that is not anchored to the primary arc by some exposition-driven subplot. There is no distracting secondary plot to be found here, no story about Archer and Trip visiting a sphere or Trip and Phlox playing with a Xindi weapon. The word “Xindi” is only mentioned once, and the show seems quite candid about its standalone nature.
And yet, despite this, it actually ties in surprisingly well with the larger themes of the third season. North Star feels more important to the larger threads of the third season than something like Rajiin or Exile, despite their obvious nods towards the unfolding Xindi story. North Star is a tale about cycles of violence in the American psyche, reinforcing the sense that violence begets violence and suffering begets suffering. The third season has suggested that the Xindi and Starfleet are both reacting to forces outside their control, perpetuating needless conflict.
North Star emphasises the ironic nature of violence and retribution. The Skagarans began as oppressive slave masters and ended as slaves, while the humans began as slaves and responded with brutality. Asked to related the history of these two people, one young student explains, “Our ancestors took the humans from their planet and brought them here.” When Bethany asks why that was, the young child explains, “To make them work.” Now the Skagarans serve as slaves to the humans.
In keeping with Goodman’s larger engagement with the War on Terror, North Star wonders whether it is possible to maintain some pretence of humanity when faced with horrific violence. The entire situation is arguably a microcosm of the conflict that spans the twenty-four episode third season – a battle of bitter recriminations, based in understandable and palpable fear of a nebulous enemy. When an entire way of life is in danger, it becomes easy to compromise and to slip. The challenge is to resist those impulses.
“You’re judging them on something that happened over two hundred years ago,” Archer insists. Macready replies, “And it’s my job to make sure it never happens again.” Does Archer feel the same way about the Xindi threat, carrying the same level of responsibility? It is telling that North Star ends with the rehabilitation of Sheriff Macready, a character who was complicit and tolerant of horrific abuses motivated by anxiety and uncertainty. Macready seems like a character Archer will come to understand more as the season continues.
We only hear snippets of the conversation between Macready and Archer at the climax of the episode, but what we do hear is telling. “We did what we had to do,” Macready insists, an oft-recycled justification of horrific conduct. Archer makes similar justifications himself over the course of the year. However, Archer advises him, “I understand, but if you do make it back to Earth you’re going to have to leave all that behind.” It is a nice set-up of Archer’s own post-traumatic issues in Home at the start of the fourth season.
Archer’s final scene of the episode finds him staring down at the planet from the ship with Bethany. It is written to consciously mirror a similar sequence with Picard and Lily in Star Trek: First Contact. In the film, Picard assured Lily that the future was utopian and idealistic; as such, the re-staging feels a little ironic and self-aware. Could Archer give Bethany the same speech with the same conviction and the same certainty? It seems like the utopian ideals of Star Trek are under threat.
So a visit to “the planet of the cowboys” feels particularly important for Archer and the crew, at least philosophically. This is part of Star Trek‘s DNA, and that DNA is deeply problematic. Allowing Archer to confront those problems ties nicely into the philosophical questions of the third season. “You must think we’re barbaric,” Bethany reflects. “All the things humanity’s accomplished, building ships like this, travelling to other world, and we’re still down there shooting each other.” It seems ironic in the context of the third season as a whole, and North Star is aware of that.
Appropriately enough, North Star is a story about direction and guiding principles. It is a story about what Star Trek is, where it came from, and where it might find itself going. It is also a decidedly fun romp – a playful and silly little story that never takes itself too seriously even as it plays with big ideas. North Star is sandwiched between two well-loved classics, but it is also sorely underrated on its own terms.
Filed under: Enterprise | Tagged: a piece of the action, david a. goodman, david goodman, david straiton, django unchained, enterprise, planet of the, Slavery, star trek, star trek: enterprise, western |