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Star Trek: Enterprise – Proving Ground (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.

Proving Ground is an odd episode to sit in the middle of the third season’s larger arc involving the Xindi and the threat against Earth.

In a very real sense, it is more serialised than a lot of the episodes leading up to it. The episode even opens with a fairly sweeping “previously…” section that is sure to include a lot of nice action shots from the first half of the year. Proving Ground contributes more to the arc than anything like Carpenter Street or Chosen Realm, featuring the testing of the Xindi weapon. It also features the Andorians, suggesting that Star Trek: Enterprise has not completely divorced itself from its original place in the Star Trek canon.

Drinking away the blues...

Drinking away the blues…

At the same time, the episode is also very episodic. Shran makes a very quick cameo in Zero Hour, but this is the extent to which the Andorians are involved in the larger plot of the third season. Much like the second season, there is a sense that Shran has been slotted into “the obligatory Andorian episode” as a way to fill a production slot in a chaotic season. The sense of weight and impact of the episode is relatively minimal, like Cease Fire before it. The conclusion seems to be that Shran might be a nice guy underneath it all. It’s hardly shocking.

More than that, the structure and plot of the episode can’t help but emphasise some of the more misguided creative decisions of the third season, with Proving Ground introducing a bunch of clever (and exciting concepts) into the arc only to take them right away at the end. The fact that Proving Ground is so fun and enjoyable is almost a detriment, inviting the audience to wonder whether some of that love and affection might have been distributed across the season.

Look who just blue in...

Look who just blue in…

Proving Ground practically runs through a list of things that made the idea of the Xindi arc so appealing in the first place. There is a sense of consequence and continuity, with Shran acknowledging how fond he has grown of Archer while the Xindi continue to develop and test their weapon of mass destruction. In fact, the Andorian Guard’s interest in the Xindi superweapon suggests that the events of The Expanse might have a bigger impact outside the events of this single season. There is a sense that the attack might ripple beyond this journey into darkness.

Similarly, it is nice to see the crew of the Enterprise struggling with maintenance in this remote and isolated section of space. If Enterprise is going to commit to the idea of Archer effectively “going it alone”, it is nice to get a sense of just how dangerous that must be. The first half of Proving Ground is focused on the ship and crew attempting repairs under tense conditions. Even with the assistance of the Andorian Guard, it feels like the crew is understocked and understaffed. It adds a nice tension to the mission.

Enemy mining consortium...

Enemy mining consortium…

More than that, it is nice that Proving Ground allows a little bit of the rest of the show to bleed into the third season arc. One of the big themes of Enterprise concerns the formation of the Federation, focusing on the developing relationship between Earth and Vulcan. The Andorian Incident added the Andorians into the mix, just to keep things interesting. The second season largely stalled that arc to focus on isolated and stand-alone stories, so it is interesting to see Shran drift back into Archer’s orbit. Even allowing for the betrayal at the climax, this feels like growth.

There is a sense that the crew of the Enterprise are not really “going it alone”, even though it might feel that way to them. Archer might feel like he has nobody he can count on, but it is quite clear that Shran is sincere in his concern about his counterpart – that he does feel a sense of duty and obligation to the “pink skin.” That is a surprisingly optimistic sentiment, even buried beneath the realpolitik and cynicism that mark out the third season. One of the larger arcs of the third season is a sense that Enterprise is learning to be Star Trek again, and Proving Ground capitalises on this.

Counciling against impulsiveness...

Counciling against impulsiveness…

All of that aside, there is a great deal of value in the opportunity see Jeffrey Combs again. The actor remains one of the franchise’s most valuable players, and Shran is horribly underutilised in the first three seasons of the show. The third season of Enterprise has its own supporting cast of characters, but it is nice to see that the show has not forgotten about some of the more intriguing guest stars from the earlier seasons. Shran is a character who adds a lot of drama to a story, playing well off the primary cast. He’d work very well in the third season setting.

All of this makes for a very engaging episode, even if Proving Ground draws attention to just how much difficulty the writers on Enterprise are having structuring and telling a long-form story. All the appealing elements of Proving Ground are elements that would work a lot better if they were serialised or woven into the large arc of the season. Proving Ground works very hard to confine these elements to a single episode, placing the toys into the pram at the start of the episode and then removing them at the end.

Blue blood...

Blue blood…

Take the damage done to the ship. There is a sense that Enterprise should really be more beaten up at this stage of its journey; the crew have been on their own in hostile territory for quite some time. They should feel the strain. In fact, Proving Ground needs that damage in order to get the human and Andorian crews working side by side. It would make sense to carry that damage over from an earlier episode – Chosen Realm certainly provides an opportunity – rather than having to contrive a convenient “anomaly field” so as to damage the ship just as they meet Shran.

Similarly, Shran’s arrival seems like the kind of plot element that would feel more organic if it were properly set up and established earlier in the run. Shran advises Archer that his engines are much more powerful than those on Enterprise, explaining how he could catch up with the ship so quickly, but it feels like an excuse. Shran just happens to arrive at a point in the narrative where Archer needs him (with the damage) and where his objective can be obtained (right before the two crews find the testing ground).

"What's a Borg Sphere?"

“What’s a Borg Sphere?”

This is the type of plotting that might work in a more episodic setting. After all, if characters like Archer and Shran are going to interact, it makes sense to have an event that draws them closer before a high-stakes mission and an eventual conflict. In a single episode of television, that justifies all sorts of storytelling coincidences and contrivances. Of course they both stumble across the same anomaly! Of course they meet a common enemy! Of course they are both on the same planet at the same time!

This becomes a bit more strained when the episode in question has to fit within a larger arc. The episode where Archer first encounters the Xindi weapon was always going to be a “big” arc episode; the episode where Shran finds Archer was always going to be a “big” episode. Combining them both into a single episode and tying up everything neatly at the end feels a little stilted. It feels like it misses out on a lot of the fun of arc-based storytelling, the opportunity to introduce elements separately and allowing them to coalesce organically.

Bracing for trouble...

Bracing for trouble…

It might have been more interesting to have Shran around for a few episodes before he betrayed Archer. It might have been more effective had the audience come to trust the Andorians before their feint was revealed. The third season is meant to be an experiment in serialised storytelling, so it feels strange that stories like Carpenter Street, Chosen Realm and Proving Ground are so thoroughly insulated from one another and from the larger plot. With the season past the half-way point, it feels like time is running out.

Sure, Shran sends on the plans for the weapons at the end of the episode and returns in Zero Hour, but it feels more like an imitation of long-form storytelling than an example of it. Imagine having Shran counselling Archer in an episode like Impulse or The Shipment. With T’Pol serving as the voice of reason, Shran would make a convincing advocate for force. Scenes of Archer, Shran and T’Pol in the new operations centre practically write themselves, casting Shran in a role roughly analoguous to that of Martok on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

They really should bottle his water...

They really should bottle his water…

With both a Vulcan and an Andorian playing a major role in the arc about an alien attack on Earth, drawing the Andorians into the third season story arc would have been a great way of keeping the foundation of the Federation near the heart of the show, even at a point where the series had wandered off in its own direction. It would also ensure that the betrayal at the climax of Proving Ground and the triumphant return in Zero Hour would have more significance in terms of the arc itself, rather than relying on knowledge of the Star Trek canon.

On another level, it would also make sense to have more than one ship exploring the Delphic Expanse in search of the Xindi. The Expanse rather awkwardly handwaved that no other Starfleet ships were ready and the Vulcans were unwilling to send aid. However, this was just a transparent contrivance to get to the “our heroes alone” plot of the season. After all, how could earth ever trust the Vulcans as allies if they were not willing to commit even a single vessel to the mission or allow a single willing Vulcan officer to accompany the Enterprise?

Arch(er) foes?

Arch(er) foes?

There is some indication that the production team were not entirely happy with this direction. According to Mike Sussman, the original pitch for featured the Columbia on a mission to exist Archer and his crew. In In a Time of War, David A. Goodman argued:

I always liked… I’m a fan of the original Star Trek, and I always liked the “fleet” element of Star Trek. I was getting tired of Enterprise always being alone. I wanted a fleet. I was pushing for Vulcan ships or something. Let’s make it a fleet so they’re not alone out there! Nobody listened.

Having the Enterprise accompanied by an Andorian ship might have helped to foster a sense of the idealism and team work associated with Star Trek, the idea that people are never entirely alone (or without hope) even in their darkest hour.

"Hey, look. The round things."  "I love the round things."  "What are the round things?"  "No idea."

“Hey, look. The round things.”
“I love the round things.”
“What are the round things?”
“No idea.”

As with a lot of the characterisation in the third season, it feels like Proving Ground is undercut by the fact that the larger arcs of the season have not been properly plotted. It feels like big character moments in the larger arc have not been sufficiently well-organised in advance. The writing of various major characters seems to be handled on a case-by-case basis. Just how far Archer is willing to go and just what Archer is willing to sacrifice depends more on the individual writer than on the particulars of the situation.

In Anomaly, he is ready to shove a prisoner out an airlock, but in Impulse he is willing to risk the lives of his team to try to save a ship full of psychotic Vulcans who are trying to kill him. In Similitude, he is happy to harvest a clone of Trip for organs, while in Chosen Realm he respects the religious wishes of his guests enough that he doesn’t have Phlox run invasive bodily scans that might have identified these zealots had turned themselves into walking bombs. Archer is as paranoid or as trusting, as cynical or as optimistic, as the plot demands.

"No, I'm not doing a Kreetassan apology."

“No, I’m not doing a Kreetassan apology.”

The awkward characterisation in Proving Ground concerns Trip. In The Expanse and The Xindi, it was established that Trip had lost his sister in the terrorist atrocity that spurred this mission into the Delphic Expanse. Trip was understandably angry and enraged by what had happened. If T’Pol advised Archer to respond with diplomacy and open-mindedness, Trip wanted revenge and retribution. Viewers were understandably uneasy with Trip’s bloodlust going into the third season, but it clearly existed as the starting point of an arc.

The logical thing to do with Trip is to use him as a metaphor for trauma and grief; over the course of the season, Trip comes to realise that his enemies are people just like him. Trip understands that the future must be built on understanding and forgiveness rather than hatred and bloodshed. As such, the third season was rather consciously setting Trip up for a quintessential Star Trek arc, allowing the character to drift away from the core principles of the franchise so that he might find them once again. Later in the season, The Forgotten is a large part of that journey.

Xins of our fathers...

Xins of our fathers…

The problem is that Proving Ground forgets that Trip has not yet had that big epiphany moment. Trip has not actually met and talked to a Xindi. So it seems weird that Trip seems positively calm and even-handed when Shran talks to him about the possibility of vengeance. “I’d love to get my hands on whoever ordered that attack, but that’s not why we’re here,” Trip states. “You have no desire to make these people pay for the death of your sister?” Shran asks. “I just want to make sure they don’t get the chance to finish what they started,” Trip responds.

This is very much the “right” answer to this ethical and moral query, and it serves an important purpose within the framework of Proving Ground. It allows Shran to see that humanity is not embroiling itself in the same cycle of violence and recrimination that has trapped the Vulcan and Andorian people for decades. However, while the scene works well in the broader context of the Star Trek franchise and the particulars of the episode, it still feels like it was positioned rather unfortunately in the context of Trip’s story within the season itself.

A cool customer...

A cool customer…

This is very much the problem with Proving Ground in a nutshell. It does a lot of things very well, but those same aspects draw attention to just how much the show is struggling with the idea of telling a serialised narrative across an entire season of television. It is a solid standalone story, but it only underscores the fact that this stretch of the season has been populated by a series of very standalone stories with only nominal links to the larger story that is supposed to be unfolding around them.

Ironically, it seems like Shran is more connected to the world outside the third season than to the third season itself. While Archer and his crew are largely isolated from the wider universe, Shran is in constant communication with the Andorian Imperial Guard. There is some slight static on the signal, but Shran doesn’t seem to feel any of the supposed loneliness or disconnect that the third season has been trying to foster by confronting Archer with desperate situation after desperate situation.

"Should I help Archer and/or(ian) do my duty?"

“Should I help Archer and/or(ian) do my duty?”

It seems like Archer and his crew are the only people who can’t get signal in the Delphic Expanse. Degra is able to live stream his vital weapons tests back to those Council Chambers so that his fellow representatives can complain about his work. These sequences of the Xindi characters bickering are getting a little tiring, and it is nice that the show begins to move beyond this characterisation of the species with the very next episode. Proving Ground solidifies the idea of Degra as Robert Oppenheimer, with Archer describing the testing ground as a Xindi “Bikini Atoll.”

That said, the subplot about the development and testing of the Xindi weapon does draw attention to just how little sense The Expanse actually makes as an episode. If Degra can run tests like that inside the Expanse – and if the weapon is still in this early stage of development – why risk letting the humans know that there was a genocidal threat lurking out there? Sure, the Xindi assume the weapon cannot be traced back to them, but the subplot of Proving Ground reinforces the sense that the start of the arc was not entirely thought through.

"You put me through four hours of make-up for this?"

“You put me through four hours of make-up for this?”

(There is also a sense that the budget is straining when it comes to portrayals of the non-humanoid Xindi characters. Although the insect!Xindi and the aquatic!Xindi show up for the actual test, the early conversations are framed so as to exclude those expensive special effects. “Where are the others?” Degra demands. “Delayed,” his colleague explains. There is a sense of mid-season fatigue to the whole thing, as if the show is struggling to figure out how to tell the story it wants in both narrative and production terms.)

This is not to suggest that Proving Ground doesn’t have its charms. Shran’s betrayal of Archer is a great dramatic beat, as is the tense sequence that follows. Is Archer bluffing? Has his time in the Expanse changed him? Even some of the small touches are very charming, such as Shran getting into character as a representative of the “Andorian Mining Consortium” who is desperately scouting the system for traces of the rare mineral “Archerite.” His pitch persona and his insistence that “the Andorian Mining Consortium runs from no one” is delightful.

"Destroyer of moons."

“Destroyer of moons.”

Proving Ground is not a bad episode. In fact, it’s actually quite a good one. The problem is that it is good in ways that undercut and undermine the season around it at a point where the season needs all the help it can get.

3 Responses

  1. I was joking before about T’Pol sounding like Aeryn….and I’m trying not to read too far into this… But Shran is basically Scorpius, isn’t he? And Degra is Captain Crais?

    Clearly a sign I’ve been watching too much sci fi.

  2. Man, I liked this one just because I love the Andorians. Their ships are even more cheerful than Enterprise.

    At this point, I wish there was a spin-off series called “The Adventures of Captain Shran”. It would likely be far more entertaining that Enterprise.

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