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Star Trek: Enterprise – Similitude (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.

It is hard to talk about Similitude without talking about Manny Coto.

It is quite easy to get distracted from the episode itself, which is a sublimely moving piece of working with skilled direction from LeVar Burton and a beautiful central performance from Connor Trinneer. More than that, Similitude is very much pure Star Trek. It is a metaphor about the human condition, wrapped up in a morality play fashioned from some admittedly questionable science-fiction. This good old-fashioned allegorical science-fiction in a style that really works, capitalising on the status quo of the third season of Star Trek: Enterprise to tell a moving story.

Send in the clones...

Send in the clones…

And, yet, despite all that, this is the point at which Manny Coto arrives. Much like it is impossible to talk about The Bonding without talking about Ronald D. Moore, it is impossible to talk about Similitude without talking about Manny Coto. Coto arrived on the show fresh from Odyssey 5, and quickly made himself invaluable and essential. While his scripts were quite hit-and-miss on an episode-by-episode basis, Coto demonstrated an aptitude for producing television in general and Star Trek in particular.

Indeed, Coto managed to climb the franchise rungs faster than any producer and writer since Michael Piller in the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Piller had found himself running the show after Michael Wagner suddenly decided to step down only a few episodes into the season. Coto had a bit longer to get the lay of the land; he would have half of the third season to establish himself before being placed in charge of the writers’ room for the start of the show’s fourth year when Brannon Braga stepped back into a more supervisory role.

Genetically engineered engineer...

Genetically engineered engineer…

A number of factors helped to establish Coto as an almost mythical figure in Star Trek lore. The dramatic change in tone and style into the fourth year, which catered to a core group of Star Trek fans – including Coto himself – surely helped. The fact that Coto was succeeding Brannon Braga probably helped establish his credibility as well – a vocal section of fandom has complete disdain for Braga’s style. Despite the fact that Coto was only in charge for twenty-four episode, he made a surprisingly enduring contribution to the franchise as a whole.

Hindsight seems to suggest that Similitude was almost prophetic; it is the story of incredible growth and development over an incredibly short amount of time, making a deep and lasting impression.

Designer baby...

Designer baby…

It is impossible to over-state just how firmly Star Trek fandom has lionised Manny Coto. The official website titled a retrospective interview with the producer as “the man behind Enterprise”, while another interview introduced him as a force trying to find “a way to save the day” on the troubled spin-off. That is just the official website. Brannon Braga himself is quick to praise Coto in In a Time of War:

I finally got the right alchemy! When you have the right alchemy on a writing staff, everything starts to work. It is just that simple. What I needed on this show from the first day was Manny Coto, because Manny was a fan and a showrunner-level person. There’s a difference.

One of the more interesting aspects of Manny Coto’s relatively brief engagement with Star Trek is just how much mythmaking goes on around that particular writer. The Star Trek franchise is a monument of American popular culture, so it makes sense that even the production side of the franchise has developed its own set of legends and histories.

To thine own self be Trip...

To thine own self be Trip…

There are a variety of stories and myths that build up around various production decisions and personalities. Gene Roddenberry cultivated a cult of personality around himself, casting the production of Star Trek as a war between his principles and the stubbornness of the studio and the network. The reality was more complicated, of course, but it was fascinating to hear all the little snippets and suggestions of the epic struggles and changes that took place behind the scenes. (Of course, Roddenberry tended to gloss over the contributions of others to promote his own.)

Even the later Star Trek spin-offs have developed their own lore and history. Ronald D. Moore offers a quintessential rags-to-riches story set against the backdrop of the chaotic production of The Next Generation, as Moore managed to get his spec script into the right hands at the right time while on a studio tour. The stories around the production of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine tend to play up the sense that Ira Steven Behr marched to his own drumbeat, subverting and deconstructing the expectations of executives as often as fans.

"Of all the souls I encountered on my journeys, his was the most... human."

“Of all the souls I encountered on my journeys, his was the most… human.”

Some of these stories are true; some are exaggerations; some are outright lies. However, one of the wonderful things about a project as big and vast as Star Trek is the way that it seems build up this mystery around itself. Consider the narrative of Coto’s arrival on Enterprise, as he relates it on the 2005 audio commentary for Similitude:

This episode was written almost a week after I had gotten on to Enterprise. I had come over from my previous series Odyssey 5 and was… I was looking forward to… Brannon had told me, “You’re going to come in, it’ll take a week to learn the ropes and mull about and read the scripts.” But, of course, I was there for a day, and Brannon brought me in and said, “Forget what I said earlier, you gotta get writing.” They were in trouble and behind.

It is almost a narrative worthy of the show itself, with the new kid in town arriving just as things seemed to be falling apart. This hectic schedule explains why Carpenter Street and Chosen Realm were so jumbled; the third season was a rocket ship trying to hold itself apart as it tore through its season order.

Clonin' around...

Clonin’ around…

Coto himself seems to acknowledge the almost mythic quality of his arrival on the show, in another take on that story about his first day:

The first thing I remember is when I walked in for my first day. Brannon (Braga) was in his office, standing at the window, smoking a cigarette and looking desperate, like everything was falling apart. They were in a hole, script-wise, and I really got the sense that Brannon was kind of at the end of his rope, so to speak, as far as getting scripts. So it was an interesting sense of “Wow, desperation, this is either going to work well or it’s going to be a disaster.” But I’ll never forget Brannon standing at the window, staring out glassy-eyed. It’s kind of how we are now on 24. I think every show runner gets to this place somewhere in the middle of a season because it’s just an incredibly hard job with so much to do that it becomes overwhelming.

It reads almost like a hook for some cutting-edge behind-the-scenes television drama about the production of a major science-fiction franchise.

Putting the ship in a bit of a fix...

Putting the ship in a bit of a fix…

Of course, all this mythologising and storytelling would be for nothing if it didn’t have a happy ending. Similitude is a damn fine piece of Star Trek, and a pretty effective introduction for Coto. In many ways, The Bonding set a tone that followed Ronald D. Moore even beyond his work on the franchise. It might be too much to describe Similitude as a mission statement from a future showrunner, but it is an episode that showcases Coto’s understanding of and familiarity with the Star Trek franchise and the way that the universe works.

Most obviously, it is clear that Coto loves Enterprise. He loves the franchise dearly, but he also a deep affection for this particular show and this particular cast. While the third season features a healthy amount of pop nostalgia – and Coto’s fourth season will only up the ante – Similitude is very much a love letter written specifically towards Enterprise even as it remains true to the spirit of the larger franchise. While Twilight and North Star hark backwards to give classic Star Trek stories a new twist, Similitude looks back over the last couple of seasons.

"I'm not shaving. That's how serious I am."

“I’m not shaving. That’s how serious I am.”

Similitude takes a concept that worked in the second season and largely tries to repeat that success. Similitude owes a rather conscious debt to Cogenitor, which isn’t too much of a surprise – Coto is an avowed fan of the episode, gushing over it in his 2014 commentary with actor Connor Trinneer and various blu ray special features. Similitude is very much built from the same foundation as Cogenitor, constructing a classic Star Trek morality tale against the backdrop of the larger changes in the franchise and the contemporary zietgeist.

On an even more basic level, Similitude works in large part because it acknowledges and recognises the strengths of Cogenitor – and then consciously plays into them. While LeVar Burton is not a director who can salvage a mess like Terra Nova or Extinction, he is a director who works very well with actors. Burton elevates his character-driven scripts, and is a large part of why Cogenitor and First Flight work as well as they do. Burton is a director who can beautifully capture the romance of Star Trek. He did great work on Cogenitor, and he does great work here.

Baby on board...

Baby on board…

Similarly, Connor Trinneer has an engaging charm and innocence that makes him the perfect fit for a story like Cogenitor or Similitude, seeming both grounded and vulnerable, accessible and introspective. Trinneer had demonstrated that charm as early as Unexpected, managing to wring some small measure of humanity out of a thankless script. Similitude would not work with Scott Bakula or Dominic Keating or Anthony Montgomery or John Billingsley. Trinneer’s talent for making Trip a particularly sympathetic character probably contributed to the decision about the character’s fate in These Are the Voyages…

Coto’s script also relishes lots of other continuity nods and references, but primarily to the history of Enterprise rather than the other spin-offs. At one point, Sim gets to play with the remote-control toy that young!Archer built with his father in Broken Bow, a nice way of connecting Archer to Sim and Trip. At another point, Sim wonders if he can think of anything worse than dying alone in a shuttlepod. “Actually, I can imagine a worse fate,” he eventually decides. “Being stuck in there with Malcolm.” It is a little nod to Shuttlepod One, another of Coto’s favourite episodes.

Chief concerns...

Chief concerns…

It is worth noting that Twilight, North Star and Similitude are all episodes dealing with familiar subject matter. Twilight is a gigantic homage the franchise’s most popular time-travel and alternate reality stories, placed in a blender and served up in a nice shot glass. North Star is an old-fashioned “parallel earth” story that harks back to the classic Star Trek series. Similitude shares more than a couple of similarities with episodes like Tuvix. Something similar happened in the middle stretch of the second season.

However, the end result is dramatically different. Second season episodes like Vanishing Point, Precious Cargo and Dawn often felt like they were simply recycling what had come before, offering reheats of a once appetising meal. They seemed almost like a post-traumatic response to the show’s misfortunes – an attempt to go through the motions in an attempt to recapture past glories. There was a lifeless quality to them, a dull familiarity and repetition which hurt the show. That middle stretch of the second season is murder on any rewatch.

First flight...

First flight…

In contrast, the third season episodes might revisit key storytelling devices and ideas, but they are undeniably rooted in the franchise’s moment. Twilight, North Star and Similitude would all seem odd and out of place against the backdrop of the first or second season; they might easily seem like scripts going through the motions. However, each of those three scripts are undeniably engaged with what is happening around them. It seems quite clear that Enterprise can no longer deny the questionable health of the Star Trek franchise, and that gives these stories a sense of urgency even beyond the Xindi arc.

Just as Twilight teases the death of Star Trek if this story arc goes wrong, and North Star explores the flawed western roots of the franchise, Similitude provides another vehicle for introspection and consideration. As portrayed by Connor Trinneer, Sim’s innocence and vulnerability provides an effective contrast with mood of the season – a reminder of how easy it would be to lose sight of the franchise’s optimism. Since Judgment towards the end of the second season, Enterprise has been quite introspective and reflective about what it means to be Star Trek in the twenty-first century.

"Damn it, I know I shoulda asked a red shirt to check that."

“Damn it, I know I shoulda asked a red shirt to check that.”

These elements conspire to give Similitude a sense of weight and very solid emotional core. Although Sim’s memories are hard to explain in just about any logical or biological sense – memories are not part of DNA, after all! – they provide a clear context for the episode. Similitude is a story about remembering who and what the show is, a thread that runs through this stretch of the season. Enterprise‘s third season identity crisis is reflected with varying degrees of success (and abstraction) in The Shipment, Twilight, North Star and Similitude.

As such, it is important that Sim retain Trip’s memories – memories are a vital part of identity. In many respects, Sim serves as an embodiment of the ultimate optimism of Star Trek. When he considers cutting and running, he cannot bring himself to do it. It is not in his nature. It is telling that – separated from Trip himself – Sim provides context and commentary. Most obviously, Sim finally confesses Trip’s feelings for T’Pol, so that their romantic plot can move forward. More than that, though, Sim is able to reassure viewers uncertain about the anger Trip displayed in The Expanse.

Growing a conscience...

Growing a conscience…

Episodes like The Expanse and The Xindi suggested that the loss of Trip’s sister had pushed the character to a very dark place – that the tragedy and death had left Trip with a simmering anger and bloodlust that could ultimately become destructive and harmful. Sim, however, recontextualises those emotions and memories to put them in a more optimistic framework. “You want to know what really stopped me?” he asks Archer after he is unable to abandon the ship. “My sister. And she was my sister as much as Trip’s.” He explains, “I don’t want what happened to her to happen to anyone else.”

From tragedy flows compassion and decency, sympathy and empathy. It is very clearly where the larger arc has been heading since The Expanse, but show has found itself reiterating the idea repeatedly across this stretch of the season. Sim is just removed enough from the raw tragedy that he retains some sense of perspective. His optimism and hope foreshadow the ultimate direction of the Xindi arc. It is a much more interesting and engaging way of confronting these worries and doubts about what Star Trek is and might become than the blunt (and mixed) message of The Shipment.

Funeral for a friend...

Funeral for a friend…

Of course, there is a lot about Similitude that feels awfully convenient. In its own way, Similitude relies as much on contrivance and coincidence as North Star. North Star might have relied on more obvious and apparent logical leaps, but Similitude has its fair share of “what…?” moments to get the story moving in the necessary direction. Most obviously, it seems a little weird that Phlox just brought something like the “Lyssarrian Desert Larvae” on to the ship without telling anyone. How many does he have? Shouldn’t they be highly regulated?

Similarly, it is hard to figure out how Sim retains Trip’s memories. In his first audio commentary for the episode, Coto concedes it was an oversight on his part, something that could have been fixed by a line of dialogue. The fact that Sim has Trip’s memories is rather transparently a vehicle for the story, a way to humanise Sim almost immediately and allow him to advance some of Trip’s character arc indirectly. Similitude is strong enough that these contrivances feel justified in a storytelling sense, but there is something a little clumsy in the execution.

Fresh meat...

Fresh meat…

The fact that Sim retains any of Trip’s memories automatically skews any possible commentary on the ethics of human cloning as a medical practice. Sim is like the worst nightmare of all those people terrified of the idea of organ harvesting from “headless human clones” at the turn of the millennium. It is every bit as sensationalist as The Island or Never Let Me Go, but without any of the inherent criticisms of capitalism woven into both of those later human cloning allegories.

The whole cloning metaphor is skewed by the suggestion that it is an “all or nothing” process, that the only way to save Trip is to grow a replacement that attains consciousness and then has to be brutally butchered for spare parts. For a show about future possibilities, Star Trek can seem quite reactionary when engaging with key scientific issues. The franchise seems to react with knee-jerk horror to the idea of cloning or genetic engineering. Apparently it is easier to grow an entire replacement of Trip than it is to just clone the necessary tissue or raw materials quite separate from consciousness.

Kissing goodbye...

Kissing goodbye…

Similitude is at its weakest when it deals with the lingering questions of morality about growing Sim as a donor for Trip who will inevitably die before the end of the episode – whether due to natural causes or as a result of the operation. The whole dilemma feels forced, which undercuts the debate around Sim’s sentience and the morality of the crew’s decision. Still, Coto does a nice job of tying it back into the larger arc. As forced as the dilemma might be, the episode is driven by the larger Xindi arc unfolding in the background; remove that hovering threat and the show completely falls apart.

At the same time, it is clear that Coto understands the voices of the cast. As insane as the solution might be, it is an idea that only Phlox (or maybe the EMH) would suggest. Phlox’s ethics are decidedly value-neutral, in keeping with Dear Doctor or The Breach. He tells Archer, “I don’t make this proposal lightly, Captain, but I’m obligated to provide you with all available options.” T’Pol is cast into the role of the franchise’s conscience, as she was in The Expanse and will be in Damage. She warns Archer, “Simbiots are living, conscious entities. We’ll be growing a sentient being for the sole purpose of harvesting tissue.”

Everything falls apart...

Everything falls apart…

For his part, Archer is in the same grim ends-justify-the-means approach that he demonstrated in Anomaly and will demonstrate again in Damage. On the more recent commentary, Coto argues that this decision is specific to this character in this situation:

Picard would have probably not done this. He would have said, “If I do this, it makes us… what are we? Is it worth saving humanity if humanity can do this?” I can see that coming from Picard. What I liked about Archer is that he’s willing… yes it is wrong, yes it is a sin, but you get the sense that he’s willing to take the sin on himself and let humanity go forth. He’s willing to take it. That’s why he’s playing.. you can see he’s playing this tortured. It’s a very… there’s a Christian sense about it, in that he’s willing to take the sin on himself. “I will be your bad guy. I will take on the sins of the world. I may be damned for it, but…”

It’s the greater good we’re looking at.

Exactly. “And other people may not do what I’m doing, but I’ll let them argue about it. I’m going to do it.”

It is a valid interpretation of the character, and one that comes to the fore as the series progresses. At the same time, it hints at a bit of a problem with the portrayal of Archer in the first half of the third season.

Some feet...

Some feet…

Quite simply, Archer’s conscience doesn’t seem to have a throttle at this point in the season. There is no sense that Archer’s desperation is growing over the course of his time in the Expanse, no clear erosion of his values. Archer’s willingness to compromise his morality fluctuates wildly from episode to episode. There is no clear sense that Enterprise has established a Rubicon for Archer to cross; the character seems to alternate between a relentless no-nonsense man-on-a-mission and a boy scout struggling with a radically changed status quo.

There are points where Archer seems more ruthless than Sisko ever did: he tortures a prisoner for information in Anomaly; he grows a sentient life form for spare parts in Similitude. However, there are also points where Archer does his best Picard impression: trying to preserve the alien culture in Extinction; trying to save the Vulcans in Impulse; trusting Gralik in The Shipment; talking Macready down in North Star. It seems like the writing staff never sat down and figured out the proper levels of Archer’s interpretation of the phrase “whatever it takes.”

"Next time I think about updating the warp core, just kill me."

“Next time I think about updating the warp core, just kill me.”

To be fair to the writers, Archer’s character arc becomes a lot more consistent in the second half of the season, as the show embraces the ambiguities and uncertainties inherent in a long-form story like this. While Archer’s behaviour in Anomaly and Similitude might feel somewhat discordant with the episodes around them, Damage is pitched at just the right level at just the right time. While the moral dimension of Similitude is interesting, it feels somewhat clumsy in construction and in timing.

However, Similitude works much better as a metaphorical story about life itself. Sim’s mayfly existence works quite well as a very literal interpretation of “they grow up so fast”, that familiar feeling that parents (or other relatives) have when watching children grow and mature. Sim is very much a child of the community of the Enterprise, a being who grows to adulthood right before their eyes. It is a surprisingly touching and intimate Star Trek plot, one that harks back to concepts like The Inner Light. Similitude might have been even stronger if it jettisoned the moral dilemma element.

Sim Tucker, we hardly knew ye...

Sim Tucker, we hardly knew ye…

After all, Archer’s log tells us that Sim “has practically become a member of the crew” – but there’s not really enough time to show it. He gets one short scene with Hoshi and one short scene with Reed. He does not interact with Mayweather, and his dynamic with his “father” (Phlox) feels somewhat underdeveloped in the time afforded to it. However, there is something quite touching about the interactions between Sim and Archer, and Sim and T’Pol. Sim is a character who is completely innocent, but who finds himself learning how the world works.

As such, he presents an interesting dilemma for Archer. This is a child, one who sees the world in a very optimistic and idealistic way. How does Archer reconcile that with what he plans to do to Trip and what his larger mission is in the Expanse. “He’s starting to look like Trip,” Archer tells Phlox at one point. Then Phlox suggests an inevitable reality that confronts any parents of a young child. “And he’s beginning to ask questions. Where did I come from? Where’s my mother and father? Why am I here?” How does Archer explain all that to such an innocent life? It’s a great emotional hook, and one quite relatable.

"That is one nice LCD television..."

“That is one nice LCD television…”

On his most recent commentary, Coto admits to being a big fan of literary science-fiction, acknowledging the influence of Harlan Ellison on the script for Similitude:

I’ve always been into big science-fiction writers. One of my favourite science-fiction writers was Harlan Ellison. He wrote a story called Jeffty is Five. Which was a different concept – it was a story about a five-year-old boy who was stuck at the age of five and never grows up. It’s about how his parents try to deal with that… It’s just a fantastically moving story, so I wanted to do something that captured that emotion. I kind of reversed it, in the sense of “what if there’s a being who grows old in a couple of weeks?” And life flashes by so quickly.

It has been a while since Star Trek engaged so meaningfully with big science-fiction writers and ideas. Sure, the franchise has played with genre elements and staples, but Similitude feels connected with classic science-fiction in the same way as Tin Man or The Inner Light might.

Boy to man...

Boy to man…

Although there are lots and lots of rumours about where Coto planned to take a hypothetical fifth season of Enterprise, one of those rumours builds on his obvious affection for classic science-fiction storytelling. In In Conversation, Garfield Reeves-Stevens explains that Coto had considered approaching some of these writers to work with the Enterprise staff to craft a season-long arc:

The one thing he told us that he had hoped to do for season five was that… the writing room had come right down, and he was going to keep that… but what he wanted to do was reach out science-fiction novelists – like Baxter, Niven, people like that – have them come up with a big science-fiction arc that then the writing team would take on. So the “looking back” phase, that was the theme of season four; but then season five was going to be “science-fiction.”

It is an interesting idea – perhaps one much bolder than “have Shran join the crew” or “do an entire season in the mirror universe” or even “do the Romulan War.” It is an idea that was obviously of interest to Coto, and one that fits quite comfortably with the way that Similitude approaches its storytelling.

Keeping the demons at bay...

Keeping the demons at bay…

Similitude is a thoughtful and emotional little episode that works in spite of some fairly significant flaws. However, it is also notable as the introduction of Manny Coto, the writer who would come to play a significant role in shoring up the series as it headed towards its fourth and final season.

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One Response

  1. So, Phlox is Garak with a medical degree? He offers up a menu of options to the Captain, some ethical, others not. And T’Pol is his foil, a representative of Roddenberry ethics.

    I love this interpretation and I’m sorry it didn’t get much airplay.

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