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Star Trek: Enterprise – Carpenter Street (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.

This is the point at which it becomes all but impossible to argue that the production team knew what they were doing this season.

The third season of Star Trek: Enterprise holds together reasonably well, if the viewer pulls back to a big enough distance. The broad arcs are discernible and logical – there is a clear start point and a reasonable trajectory, even if the first half of the season tends to get a bit lost. It really pulls itself together during the second half of the season, with one or two exceptions, building towards a finalé that satisfies both the demands of a year-long arc and the franchise surrounding it. It is not perfect, but it is not bad for a first attempt.

Hey kids! It's Leland Orser!

Hey kids! It’s Leland Orser!

Of course, it is also quite clear that the production team really had no idea what they were doing – or even what they were trying to do. The fact that it comes together in the second half of the season all but concedes that it doesn’t hold together in the first half. The first half of the third season is populated with standalone episodes that tend to either fit thematically (North Star, Similitude) or tonally (Impulse, Exile) with the general direction of the show, but a rather limited sense of progress or advancement.

Carpenter Street is the point at which any real sense of trust between the audience and the production team snaps like a twig. It is a story that features the characters time travelling to modern-day Earth in the middle of a gigantic story arc about how they are more isolated than they ever have been before. It throws away any sense of internal logic or consistency, never really exploring how an alien species that can travel back to Detroit in 2004 should have a problem with Earth in 2153. And, crucially, it is not fun enough to excuse those issues.

Hey kid! It's Jeffrey Dean Morgan! (Really!)

Hey kid! It’s Jeffrey Dean Morgan!
(Really!)

A large part of the appeal of the third season of Enterprise is the fact that it pushes the show out of its comfort zone. The season has its flaws, but those problems are easily excused; there is a sense that the production team are trying something they have never done before, playing without a safety net. Mistakes are inevitable, but they can be forgiven as the price for novelty. After two years of generic Star Trek storytelling, the third season is a breath of fresh air into a stale room.

As such, a lot of the missteps of the third season can be forgiven. Extinction is still a horrible misjudged (and incredibly racist) piece of television that ranks with the worst that the franchise ever produced, but the sluggishness of The Xindi can be excused as a show learning the ropes again. Raijin is generic pulp storytelling that plays up the worst tendencies of the show, but the earnestness of The Shipment can be written off as a show that was genuinely on shaky ground.

Moving past prologue...

Moving past prologue…

The big problem with Carpenter Street is that its problems all come back to cowardice. It is a story that breaks away from the core premise of the third season, desperately seeking the comfort and familiarity of an old Star Trek storytelling staple. The franchise has been using the old “Star Trek characters visit modern-day Earth (or close enough)” plot since Tomorrow is Yesterday half-way through the first season of the original Star Trek. (That said, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine generally avoided it.)

It is a storytelling approach that can work beautifully – there is a reason that everybody loves Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, and that Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II represent a highlight in the run of Star Trek: Voyager. It seemed all but inevitable that Enterprise would do a story like this at some point, if only because of the pull of nostalgia that seemed to draw the show towards those classic Star Trek tropes. (It is a surprise that the show gave the audience an honest-to-goodness western episode first.)

A face (and hairstyle) you can trust...

A face (and hairstyle) you can trust…

There is something rather tired and safe about all this, a sense that the production team are getting rather uncomfortable with the idea of a season-long arc that threatens to subvert (but ultimately reinforces) a lot of the franchise’s core values. Positioned half-way through the third season, Carpenter Street feels like it is a conscious effort to do something suitably “Star Trek-y” in a season that is trying to do something new and exciting with the classic formula. It feels like a very safe episode, from a scripting standpoint.

The problem is that a trip through time to modern day Earth should be largely redundant for the cast of Enterprise. Before the launch of the show, there was much discussion about how the characters on the series would be a lot closer to modern-day Earth than any of their predecessors. As such, it would follow that a lot of the fun of contrasting those visitors to contemporary culture would be lost. If these characters really were that much more human and relatable than other Star Trek characters, then there would be little point to the trip.

Time cops...

Time cops…

In a way, Carpenter Street demonstrates just how thoroughly Enterprise had let itself become generic Star Trek. Part of what is particularly galling about all this is the fact that writers Rick Berman and Brannon Braga take advantage of the opportunity to pile in all the Roddenberry-isms they could possibly imagine, having Archer and T’Pol shake their head disappointedly at the state of the modern world. Carpenter Street sacrifices the fun of The Voyage Home or Future’s End for the pontification of The Neutral Zone.

Discussing the use of petrol, T’Pol wonders, “Were they aware at this time that Earth’s supply of fossil fuel was nearing depletion?” Archer responds, grimly, “They had been for thirty years.” When Loomis claims that the reptile!Xindi are paying him “five thousand a piece” for his victims, T’Pol rhetorically ponders, “Is that what human life is worth in the twenty first century?” When Loomis takes them to a drive-through, we get a repeat of T’Pol’s disgust over the idea of consuming meat in Broken Bow.

"Also: time travel still does not exist."

“Also: time travel still does not exist.”

To be fair, that last example is awkwardly played for laughs that it never earns. However, there is a distracting earnestness to the interactions between T’Pol and Archer about the realities of life in twenty-first century America. It is only surprising that the two characters don’t occasionally turn to the camera and shake their heads in a disappointed fashion. It feels like the kind of awkward moralising for which the Star Trek franchise is mercilessly lampooned, without a hint of self-awareness.

Then again, there is something vaguely interesting about the darkness – literal and metaphorical – of Carpenter Street‘s vision of contemporary America. In general, the Star Trek franchise tends to be at least a little affectionate towards contemporary culture. Kirk and his crew tended to be more befuddled than disappointed or angered in The Voyage Home, despite the film’s environmentalist themes. Even in The Neutral Zone, the crew of the Enterprise seemed almost amused by the old-fashioned charm of L. Q. “Sonny” Clemmons.

His bark is worse than his bite...

His bark is worse than his bite…

It is interesting to compare the nostalgic portrayal of fifties America in Carbon Creek with the gritty depiction of modern America in Carpenter Street. This grimness is emphasised by the decision to set the story in Detroit, which has long been depicted as a wasteland. As Race and Revitalization in the Rust Belt argued in relation to the Detroit Area Survey of 2004:

No longer does anyone call Detroit the Model City. The image of Detroit changed after the riots of 1967, the departure of Barry Gordy and the election of Mayor Young. It is now the most maligned and negatively stereotyped city in the nation. It is portrayed time and time again as a city of decaying housing, exceptionally high violence, extreme racial segregation, inept administrators, poorly per- forming schools, abandoned factories and once elegant but now dilapidated hotels, office buildings and mansions. The most frequently published picture of a home in Detroit is the Ransom Gillis residence, located near downtown Detroit at John R and Alfred. The urban critic Camilo Jose Vergara shows this home time and again in his essays and books to illustrate that Detroit was once a prosperous city with magnificent mansions, but has turned its back on its heritage and is now an vast urban wasteland inhabited only by those too poor to leave.

This is a city which selected “Robocop” as its most iconic pop cultural icon. It is a city that is frequently provides a basis for science-fiction dystopias, from Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop to Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring. Even before the current recession, the city was frequently described as “an urban wasteland.”

Slice o' life...

Slice o’ life…

Carpenter Street practically wallows in this grimness. Of course, the show never touches on the racial politics that inform a lot of the history and politics of Detroit. The first victim kidnapped by Loomis is an African-American prostitute, but his victims seem to come from all corners of the community. There is no exploration of the socio-economic factors that has contributed to pop cultural portrayal of Detroit. The police are seemingly unaware of the disappearances, but still show up in the closing scene to offer a happy ending.

Instead, the episode sets the vast majority of its scenes at night and among industrial landscapes or creepy tenament buildings. The opening sequence features a guest character picking up a prostitute only to brutally attack her before handing her over to an evil reptile!Xindi so he can conduct experiments upon her. Carpenter Street codes itself as something of a horror movie, with the human antagonist acting like a serial killer and naming the character “Loomis.” Gritty is the order of the day.

Balancing the scales...

Balancing the scales…

On paper, this makes a certain amount of sense. Enterprise was largely defined and shaped by 9/11 and the War on Terror. The terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon had ushered in an uncertain future. Whereas the nineties had been a decade of peace and stability, the new millennium was a more uncertain period. So presenting it as a nightmarish dystopia makes a certain amount of sense. Not only does the third season of Enterprise suggest that the future is uncertain, it implies that the present is apocalyptic.

After all, Archer’s conversation with Daniels at the start of Carpenter Street reveals that the events of the third season – an extended metaphor for the entire War on Terror – were entirely unforeseeable. The Xindi attack on Earth – a clumsy metaphor for 9/11 – is presented as an event that broke the internal continuum of the Star Trek universe. “I thought you and your colleagues were supposed to be keeping an eye on the time line,” Archer protests. “You’re from the thirtieth century. Hasn’t all this happened already?”

Time out...

Time out…

“History doesn’t mention anything about a conflict between humans and Xindi,” Daniels responds. “The events that are taking place are the result of temporal incursions. They are not supposed to be happening.” It is a sentiment with which many Americans could empathise in the early years of the twenty-first century. After the end of the Cold War, the future looked (relatively) optimistic and inviting. However, the events of 9/11 shattered that sense of comfort and security. In a single morning, a lot of assumptions (and even certainties) were destroyed.

Naturally, these events had a much greater impact in the real world. However, they made significant ripples in the pop cultural consciousness. Suddenly the conspiracy theories of The X-Files were no longer fun distractions. The optimistic futurism of Star Trek was completely undermined, leading to the hasty decision to devote the entire third season to exploring the current geo-political crisis – a move that took the show “off book” and into territory that was literally and figuratively uncharted.

In time, all warriors are cold warriors...

In time, all warriors are cold warriors…

If Carpenter Street contributes anything to the overall arc, it cements the thematic connection to the Temporal Cold War. The Temporal Cold War has always been a metaphor for outside forces intruding into the narrative of Enterprise, warping and distorting the show to their own ends. The Temporal Cold War provides a link to the future of the franchise, satisfying the network. The Temporal Cold War provides an excuse to launch the ship in Broken Bow, thus curtailing the original plan to spend a stretch of the season on Earth, also at the network’s behest.

Even in The Expanse, Archer receives the information that launches the show into the third season from “Future Guy”, as if to make it clear that this was never the original plan for the show. When Daniels intrudes into Carpenter Street, he makes it clear that the third season is literally directionless and lost at this point – that he cannot see an overall pattern emerging, even from his own omniscient vantage point. The conversation between Archer and Daniels seems almost to be an approximation of dialogue about the show.

City on the edge of 2005...

City on the edge of 2005…

In that exchange, Archer gives voice to any number of logical criticisms about the changes that have been made to Enterprise, and the failures to deliver on past promises. “You said I’m supposed to play some crucial part in history,” Archer ponders, wondering how this arc affects the story of the origin of the Federation. “Does this have something to do with it?” Daniels shrugs. “I wish I could say that it does, but I don’t know. I told you, none of this was supposed to happen.” He seems to be standing in for the writers at this point in the season.

Of course, any interesting angle on Carpenter Street is immediately undercut by the fact that it is – quite simply – not very good. The episode attempts to do “grim and gritty”, but feels spectacularly tone deaf. Despite all the night time shooting and serial killer villainy, the show finds time for truly awful jokes and po-faced moralising about how terrible the twenty-first century is. The episode never quite commits to any of its ideas long enough to sell them, zig-zagging between any number of lazy conceits.

Into darkness...

Into darkness…

Take, for example, the scenes between Loomis and his employers. The scenes are shot so as to keep the face of the reptile!Xindi concealed from the twenty-first century creep, but their purple space-age jumpsuits are perfectly visible to Loomis. More than that, he seems to know the routine of how they operate once he hands over the victims, suggesting that he does (or has done) more than converse with a silhouette in the rafters. Who does he think he’s working for? It’s a campy conceit that would work better if the episode weren’t so focused on being dark and grim.

As if to prove how topical it can be, Loomis repeatedly wonders whether he might be working with a terrorist. “Look, I don’t know what you guys are up to, and I don’t want to know,” he explains. “It’s not my business. But the cops don’t take kindly to people who help terrorists.” Later, he tells T’Pol, “Just tonight, I thought maybe he’s some kind of terrorist. But I swear if I knew that for a fact I never would have agreed to help him.” What kind of terrorists wear bright purple spandex?

Holding the line...

Holding the line…

This is without even getting into any of the crazy time travel logic of the episode. To be fair, virtually any time travel episode requires a suspension of disbelief from a plotting perspective. The very existence of time travel as a plot device suggests all manner of arbitrary internal logic that opens up a host of “why didn’t they –?” or “what if they –?” questions. That is probably why so many Star Trek time travel stories send the crew back in time accidentally, so the plot doesn’t have to account for the arbitrariness of what is happening.

Here, though, it is impossible to avoid picking plot holes. If the reptile!Xindi can travel back in time to 2004, why do they need a bio-weapon? Why not just beam back a few thousand storm troopers with some high tech weaponry and burn the planet to dust? Or why not simply travel further back in time, and interrupt the conversation between Picard and Q from All Good Things… with a well-timed phaser blast into the primordial goo? It would save a lot of lives in the long run, right?

"You know, I could probably wipe out the human race with just a disruptor, but convoluted plans are more fun."

“You know, I could probably wipe out the human race with just a disruptor, but convoluted plans are more fun.”

More than that, why conduct these experiments in a first world country at the start of the twentieth century? Why not conduct them somewhere with wider-scale corruption? Why not travel slightly further back to a time when there was zero chance of resistance? With time-travelling reptile!Xindi, you could of a beautiful David Icke lizard people story! More practically, why not just jump back to a time when non-consensual human experimentation was accepted by those in authority? Vosk wouldn’t mind company, surely!

Never mind the illogical loop holes around the decision to send Archer and T’Pol back in time to stop the Xindi. When T’Pol asks the same question, Archer replies, “It took him a long while to get permission to interact with me. There are clearances. He said it would take too much time.” So it’s actually easier for Daniels to travel back through time to find two unqualified individuals and send them back in time to stop the reptile!Xindi than it is for Daniels (who is trained and employed to do this sort of thing!) to just do it himself? No wonder the timeline is so screwy.

T'Pol really floored him...

T’Pol really floored him…

On the commentary track for The Forgotten, writer and producer David A. Goodman takes the time to single out Carpenter Street as a third season story that makes nothing resembling any sort of sense:

This is really where I criticise Rick and Brannon, I think there was sometimes an effort… we would do an episode, and it just didn’t make any sense. I’m not going to rail on it, but Carpenter Street was like this excuse to do them going back in time to Earth, to destroy Earth. And, y’know, the Xindi can do that, but they can’t blow up one Federation starship? As a geek, I was like, “C’mon! We could spend little more time figuring this out!”

Goodman is entirely fair and reasonable here, demonstrating that even a ten minute conversation talking through the internal logic of Carpenter Street might have made for a more satisfying story.

Going through a phase...

Going through a phase…

To be fair, this would be less of a problem if Carpenter Street were any good on its own merits. David A. Goodman’s script for North Star is hardly water-tight, but it is still an entertaining and fun little story that manages to hit on some of the bigger themes of the arc and the wider franchise. In contrast, the script for Carpenter Street is just woeful. The dialogue is trite and forced, the jokes aren’t funny, the pacing is terrible. There is a very serious argument to be made that it is the franchise’s worst time travel episode.

Even the opening scenes are terrible. The teaser has a nice idea. It features Loomis wandering around his modern day apartment, inviting the viewer to wonder if they’re watching the right show. Then a reptile!Xindi appears, as you do. In theory, it’s not a bad idea. The problem is that the effectiveness of the image is undercut by the fact that the teaser features a Xindi on a mobile telephone. It is a ridiculous image that feels like it should be a camp classic, but is played entirely straight.

"What do you mean we could have worn something less conspicuous...?"

“What do you mean we could have worn something less conspicuous…?”

After watching Loomis pick up his first victim, the show jumps back to the crew of the Enterprise. Everything slows to a crawl. As fascinating as the exposition dump from Daniels is in a larger thematic sense (it is always fun to see the writing staff confess that they have no idea what is going on), it amounts to several minutes of various characters shrugging their shoulders before ending up where the plot needs them to be anyway. The episode might have worked better just cutting to Archer and T’Pol in the past, with a line or two of exposition before moving on.

Again, North Star is quite informative here. The episode opens with Archer and his crew already in the action, instead of starting the act and then spending a few minutes waiting for Archer and his crew to arrive at the action. One of the most frustrating aspects of Enterprise – and of Rick Berman and Brannon Braga’s collaborations in particular – is the amount of plodding time wasted on exposition. It is one of the ways that Enterprise feels like a very old-fashioned and outdated television show, where every little detail is articulated ad nauseam.

Mean streets...

Mean streets…

This is a shame, because Carpenter Street actually has a pretty interesting guest cast. Leland Orser has appeared on Star Trek a couple of times, dating back to The Die is Cast eight years earlier. His guest appearance in Revulsion (not to mention a slew of credits outside the franchise) demonstrated that Orser is a wonderfully reliable actor when it comes to horror stories. He plays sleazy characters very well, and Loomis is a particularly sleazy character. It is just a shame that Loomis never feels like more than a two-dimensional bad guy.

“In one individual we’ve managed to find the worst qualities of this era,” T’Pol reflects, in another horribly on the nose piece of dialogue. “Greed, violence, moral corruption.” The problem is that she is entirely correct. Loomis is a generic sleazy henchman – an “Igor” to the mad scientist reptile!Xindi. The problem is that Loomis is actually the central guest character of the episode, and so he needs to be more than just a cardboard cut-out for the story to work around him. Despite Orser’s best efforts, the character never worked.

Looking in...

Looking in…

The episode is also notable for a guest appearance from Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the generic reptile!Xindi bad guy. Apparently his experience on Carpenter Street was so terrible that he almost called it quits:

I had to pay my bills. I knew I’d play some guy saying some stuff. Then I got a call saying I needed to go in for a prosthetic fitting. I remember them dripping goop on my face, and I had straws sticking out of my nose. I couldn’t eat lunch. I was claustrophobic. I’d go home in tears. This was the job that made me want to quit acting.

Unfortunately “some guy saying some stuff” just about sums up the role. If Orser is stuck in a thankless role, than Morgan is completely wasted playing a one-dimensional bad guy with no character development or even characterisation.

Roadtrip!

Roadtrip!

Carpenter Street is a waste of an episode. It is one of the weaker episodes of the season, at a point where Enterprise really needed to prove that it had some idea where it was going and what it wanted to do. Instead, Carpenter Street suggests that the show is just as lost as its worst critics might suggest.

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6 Responses

  1. “Ha! It’s about time the people who run this planet of yours realised that to be dependent on a mineral slime just doesn’t make sense.” – Jonathan Archer, “Terror of the Zygons”

  2. In seriousness, though.

    What is with this writing team?

    You have Berman on hand to remind Braga of Trek’s core values. And Braga is pushing his counterterrorism theme.

    So, ah…who fell asleep at the wheel? Who gave T’Pol gorgeous dialog like, “Is THIS what a human life is worth in the 21st century?”, and then have her threaten to cap somebody in the head with a phase pistol? For smoking?

    • I imagine exhaustion/desperation played a part in it, but I’m perhaps more sympathetic to Berman/Braga than most. By that stage, I think the two were burnt out and under siege. Certainly not at the top of their game. (And at the top of their game, they were never as good as Piller/Behr/Taylor were at the top of their respective games.)

      • Yep, I think you nailed it.

        Braga really needs to satisfy himself before he sits down at a keyboard…. I’ve heard kinder talk from women in a los angeles S&M dungeon. And it’s not just T’Pol being T’Pol. Because when we flash back to Carbon Creek, her ancestor T’Mir is emasculating her crewmates in a low monotone. Some trapped miners elicit a shrug.

      • Well, one of Braga’s more infamous early career moments was the interview in which he caused ructions in fandom by discussing his interest in S&M and kinky sex, and Seven of Nine is very much an icy queen dominatrix character. (Seriously, the response was almost as bad as that time he claimed to have never watched the original series. Part of me kinda likes young Brannon Braga, provocateur; I think he makes a delightful partner “level-headed and always professional” Ronald D. Moore.)

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