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Star Trek: Enterprise – Stratagem (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.

With Stratagem, the third season of Star Trek: Enterprise gets its head back in the game.

The recent stretch of third season episodes seemed to lose sight of what made this such an intriguing premise. Although Rick Berman had conceded that there was an escape hatch in place in case the Xindi arc could not sustain a full season of television, it was increasingly clear that the third season of Enterprise would be a single extended arc exploring Archer’s attempts to find the source of a deadly threat against mankind. It was a bold experiment for a show that had been quite rigidly episodic to this point. At least in theory.

Archer's on candid camera...

Archer’s on candid camera…

In practice, the third season of Enterprise seemed to flounder a little bit once it got past the initial burst of speed powering it into the third season. All of a sudden, the crew found themselves involved in a number of increasingly stand-alone adventures with superficial ties to the larger arc. Episodes like Extinction and Chosen Realm could easily have been produced and broadcast during the show’s first two seasons, with minor alterations. Exile and North Star were only loosely connected to the season’s plot. Carpenter Street was a time travel episode.

Proving Ground had suggested that the show was ready to re-focus its attention on the matter at hand and get back to the imminent threat posed by the Xindi. At the same time, the episode was also keen to stress its episodic nature – most notably in its role as the show’s annual check-in with the Andorians. Stratagem is very much its own self-contained story, but it is a lot more confident about how it fits in the larger scheme of things, and where it fits in the broader arc of the season.

Engineering a convincing set-up...

Engineering a convincing set-up…

There is a tendency to think of arc-based storytelling as a form of narrative that is predicated on forward momentum – that the story is constantly pushing forward with a clear finish line in sight. According to this model, the goal is to advance the story at just the right pace – not so fast that you wind up having to stall in order to end at the right time, but not so slow that your last couple of chapters become a mad sprint. This is particularly true when the story arc has a very clear objective for the characters to accomplish, like saving the world.

However, this is a somewhat superficial approach to serialised storytelling. At its best, the form is as much about what came before as what came after; the characters are defined as much by where they have been as where they are going. The strongest and most compelling long-form storytelling finds a way to enrich (and decode) past stories even as it presses forward, allowing the current story to revisit or reinterpret what came before – whether adding dramatic irony to give a story beat extra heft or even adding new context to past events.

"That's no moon."

“That’s no moon.”

One of the more interesting aspects of Stratagem is how the story goes backwards to go forwards, in a very literal sense. The story opens with the ship and crew returning to the test site from Proving Ground in order to continue their investigations, while ending with a very clear destination in mind that will drive the final stretch of the season. “We’ve returned to the site where the Xindi were testing the prototype weapon,” Archer explains. “An analysis of the debris may tell us more about it.” Sometimes you have to know where you’ve been to see where you’re heading.

There is a sense of logical progression here, amounting to more than simply assuring the audience that Archer and his crew have ventured deeper and deeper into the Expanse following a trail of breadcrumbs threaded into otherwise standalone episodes like Raijin or Exile. It seems like the arc might have a bit more forward momentum than simply “Archer stumbles across the weapon and disarms it after a string of episodic adventures.” At this point in the season, the producers were reassuring viewers that they still had a plan after a meandering stretch of the season.

One of those days...

One of those days…

In December 2003, new arrival Manny Coto promised fans that Rick Berman and Brannon Braga were “pretty sure where it’s going to end and how it’s going to end, let’s put it that way.” Around the same time, Berman insisted:

We’ve got stories beat out through episode 16 and that will put us into [a] 10-episode march towards the end of the season. And we’re already starting to beat out the various things we need to do to take us from there through to the end of Season Three.

It sounds like there was a plan. A ten-episode story arc spanning the tail end of the season was a decidedly ambitious order, one that would match the scale of the “final chapter” that had closed out Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Now Degra's just trolling...

Now Degra’s just trolling…

Things would not be so easy. Stratagem is only the fourteenth episode of the third season, but it is also ten episodes from the end of the year. In December 2003, news had begun to filter through the grapevine that UPN was not entirely satisfied with the performance and viability of the third season of Enterprise. As a result, the third season would be cut from the standard season order of twenty-six episodes to a more modest twenty-four. The outlook did not seem bright.

To be fair, the cut in the number of episodes would not be a big deal of itself. Although the Star Trek franchise had prided itself on twenty-six-episode seasons, the season orders of prime time television dramas had been decreasing in the late nineties and into the new millennium. As its name implied, 24 only had twenty-four episodes in a season; The X-Files had dropped to orders of between twenty-two and twenty episodes in its final season; CSI had launched with twenty-three-episode seasons;  Law & Order was on twenty-four.

"See? Drinking's much more fun than genocide."

“See? Drinking’s much more fun than genocide.”

However, this cut in the season order did not happen in a vacuum. There was a larger context to consider, and that that context was the growing sense that UPN was unhappy with the state of the Star Trek franchise. Media commentator Marc Berman pulled no punches in his assessment of the situation:

“If ratings for ‘Enterprise’ continue to go down next season, it’s going to hurt the franchise,” Berman says. “They can still do a movie or a TV special if there’s not a weekly series – it is and will always be a viable franchise if treated properly.”

The box office failure of Star Trek: Nemesis had invited pundits to wonder whether the franchise was finally finished. It had been a multimedia juggernaut for a decade and a half; that is a very long time in television and film. Perhaps the end was in sight.

"So, are these projected or did you install screens?"

“So, are these projected or did you install screens?”

This line of speculation was only fuelled by gossip and commentary. It seemed like everybody was laying into the show. A few weeks after the broadcast of Stratagem, CBS chief and UPN overseer Les Moonves openly doubted whether Enterprise would be renewed for a fourth season. It seems like even the cast were frustrated by the lack of support from the network. On the Wayne Brady Show around the same time, Scott Bakula joked, “Man, this is more free ad time, which is more than we get on UPN!” It felt like one of those “funny because it’s true” things.

Even voices within the franchise weren’t rushing to support the youngest Star Trek sibling. Majel Barrett Roddenberry suggested that cancellation might not be such a bad thing, that “pulling back right now a little bit would just give everybody, and the head, a rest. It would be nice to put on the television set every day for a week and not hear the words Star Trek.” Even William Shatner mused, “Unfortunately, the current product seems to have come to an end.”

"He just Shat all over over us."

“He just Shat all over over us.”

While Ronald D. Moore was breathing new life into Battlestar Galactica, he seemed ready to bury the franchise that helped to launch his career. Moore was quite blunt in his assessment of where the franchise found itself at this point of its lifespan:

I think you also just need some time to sort of reevaluate what is Star Trek. What should it be. You need to start over with a new team… If you look at Enterprise – just look at it… forget the story… just look at it visually. It does not look remarkable different from Next Generation, in my opinion. I think it is edited in the same way, the way it’s staged, the direction that they’re allowed to do, how they tell a story, the lighting scheme – a lot of it is very, very redolent of Next Generation, and I don’t think… It has not moved on with television. It’s still stuck in a very old groove.

It is a very valid criticism of the first two years of Enterprise and explains why Battlestar Galactica was such a breath of fresh air that even reviewer Jamahl Epsicokhan acknowledged his preference for Moore’s vision; Epsicokhan argued that Battlestar Galactica was a show that “feels like it actually belongs in the 21st century.”

The most Degra game of all...

The most Degra game of all…

With all of this going on around it, it is no wonder that Enterprise felt the future was bleak. A recurring theme of Mike Sussman’s third season scripts is a fascination with the future of the Star Trek franchise in particular and Enterprise in particular. This was most obvious in Twilight, but it also plays a part in both Stratagem and . Although Stratagem does not involve any actual time travel, the plot teases the idea of an apocalyptic future where the Xindi have successfully wiped out Earth.

More than any other season of Star Trek, it seems like the third season of Enterprise is preoccupied with the stakes of the current plot. The very future is at stake. No less than four times over the course of the season are the audience confronted with the possibility of total apocalyptic failure on the part of Archer and his crew. Sisko never had to contend with these sorts of nightmarish futures, even at the height of the Dominion War. Then again, Deep Space Nine was assured a full seven seasons.

"Ethic schmethics. I'm sure he won't mind."

“Ethic schmethics. I’m sure he won’t mind.”

Legacy has always been an issue for Enterprise, reflecting the show’s awkward position as both youngest sibling and earliest prequel in the larger context of the Star Trek universe. The show has always had an eye on the future, both in the context of the stories lying ahead within the fictional Star Trek universe and the possibility that it might be the first Star Trek spin-off to last less than seven seasons. (Star Trek: The Animated Series not withstanding.) This explains the third season’s fascination with apocalyptic alternate futures.

Stratagem even draws the theme of legacy into the episode itself. Much is made of Degra’s family, and particularly his relationship to his daughters. It is the character’s primary motivation across the episode. “I’ve learned that our work, in the end, means very little,” Degra advises Archer. “Our real legacy is the children. I would do anything to protect mine.” In a very real way, Enterprise is the youngest child of the Star Trek franchise, finding itself in a world that seems increasingly hostile towards the multimedia property.

Pilot error...

Pilot error…

The episode opens with Archer and Degra adrift in space, having mounted a daring escape from an insect!Xindi prison camp after the destruction of Earth and a terrible Xindi civil war. Much like Archer in Twilight, it appears that Degra is suffering from memory loss that has left him unable to process the trauma of what has unfolded. It is a nice thematic mirror of Archer and Degra, suggesting that the two characters are more alike than either will concede at this point in the season; it suggests the Xindi are not so different.

To be fair, this is a fairly obvious arc for the third season. Although Enterprise might exist in the context of the War on Terror, it is still a Star Trek show. It still has utopian themes and ideals. The Xindi were never going to turn out to be one-dimensional monsters, any more than the Jem’Hadar or the Cardassians had been before them. If that was not obvious from the outset of the season, it became quite clear over the course of The Shipment. The third season is primarily about an attempt to recapture the franchise’s optimism in the face of horrific trauma.

Things get shaken up....

Things get shaken up….

And so Stratagem continues the process of humanising Degra that had been hinted at in earlier episodes that had painted Degra as more compassionate and moderate than Dolim. While suffering from memory loss, Degra confesses to Archer, “I don’t understand how a Xindi and a human could put aside their differences so quickly.” That is a piece of quintessential Star Trek dialogue, as corny as it might sound. Just swap out the words “Xindi” and “human” and you’ve got yourself an all-purpose moral for any Star Trek situation.

Degra is presented as a man who is more than just the architect of Earth’s looming destruction. He is a husband and father who was asked to do something unconscionable in order to protect his family and his home. “I was ordered to begin designing the weapon,” he confesses to Archer. “I devoted years to it. I made so many sacrifices. So did my wife.” It is perhaps a cliché, but it is no less effective for being a cliché. Given the militaristic undertones of the third season, it is reassuring to have the show so firmly restate its utopian principles.

"I am become death, literal destroyer of worlds..."

“I am become death, literal destroyer of worlds…”

The show rather explicitly parallels Degra to Robert Oppenheimer rather than Osama Bin Laden or Saddam Hussein, a very clear indication that the character is not so different and reinforcing the idea that the Xindi are not a metaphor for a nebulous terrorist “other.” Instead, the Xindi are a mirror to the Federation and to the audience. The Federation has always been presented as an idealised version of the United States, while the Xindi present a more fractured and unstable iteration of the same idea; perhaps reflecting anxiety in the face of a changing world.

That said, all of this is somewhat undercut by the repeated insistence on portraying the reptile!Xindi and insect!Xindi as two-dimensional bad guys. This has been repeatedly suggested over the course of the third season, particularly in episodes like Twilight. To be fair, the third season does need an antagonist, and Dolim fits the role quite comfortably; the problem is the way that the show steadfastly insists that the reptile!Xindi and insect!Xindi are inherently evil and untrustworthy. Given they are the Xindi that look the most alien, it is rather uncomfortable.

Burning curiosity...

Burning curiosity…

Here, it is suggested that the insect!Xindi are just waiting for an excuse to turn on their allies. “It’s been a while since you referred to those overgrown grasshoppers as your own people,” Archer remarks to Degra, suggesting that perhaps it is correct to define the insect!Xindi as “other.” Since the show is going to reveal that the Xindi are “not so different” from humanity, it helps to be able to distinguish the insect!Xindi and reptile!Xindi from the other Xindi; that way they can get to be the bad guys.

Of course, Stratagem does not present a real dystopian future. Instead, it is merely a simulation concocted by Archer to help him gain the trust of Degra in the hopes of finding the Xindi weapon. As such, the incorporation of the insect!Xindi into this grim alternate future might be read as a reflection of Archer’s own knee-jerk prejudices and assumptions. However, the problem is that the show seems to support them. “The insectoids were always the aggressive species, but I never thought them capable of this,” he confesses, but he accepts the reality of the situation nonetheless.

"Not doing anything suspicious over here. No siree..."

“Not doing anything suspicious over here. No siree…”

In fact, the climax of the season will find the reptile!Xindi and the insect!Xindi betraying their fellow Xindi in order to provide a suitably action-packed finalé to the year-long arc. In light of all that, it does seem like Archer’s decision to cast the insect!Xindi as backstabbing traitors is not so much a cultural misunderstanding as much an insightful reading of the situation. It is a plot point that undercuts the moral themes of the larger arc, suggesting that perhaps it is okay to make broad sweeping assumptions about other people, as long as they look different enough.

And yet, despite all this, there is a great sense of fun to Stratagem. Unlike Twilight or , there is no time travel involved in the episode. The apocalyptic vision confronting Degra is just an elaborate ruse designed to trick the character into revealing more details about the weapon. It certainly seems like an overly elaborate ruse on the part of the Enterprise crew, a much more creative (and exciting) way of extracting that information than would be used on a show like 24. It is convoluted and contrived, but the premise is fun enough that it works.

"I love it when a plan comes together." "Wrong twentieth century television show, Trip." "Nuts."

“I love it when a plan comes together.”
“Wrong twentieth century television show, Trip.”
“Nuts.”

After all, the basic plot of Stratagem feels like an old Mission: Impossible episode. In fact, it feels like a very specific Mission: Impossible episode, playing like an update of The Train. That classic Mission: Impossible episode found the team staging a train journey between two foreign dignitaries in an attempt to expose a hidden secret. The Train originally aired in March 1967, between the broadcasts of The Devil in the Dark and Errand of Mercy. It’s a delightfully pulpy premise, and it’s nice to see Enterprise blowing the dust off it.

In a way, this is just another of example of Enterprise reconnecting with its pulpy roots. The third and fourth seasons of Enterprise feel more and more like stylised science-fiction throwbacks, with the production design becoming just a little more camp and the plotting becoming a little pulpier. To be fair, this isn’t always a good thing – the racial and sexual politics of episodes like Extinction, Raijin and Bound are regressive, to say the least. However, it does seem like Enterprise is branching away from the increasingly sterile template established by Star Trek: The Next Generation.

No holding back...

No holding back…

More to the point, Stratagem feels rather strange in the context of the larger themes of the season, with Archer and his crew taking time out from a desperate mission to play make believe. Even the crew’s journey back to contemporary Earth in Carpenter Street was treated as a dark and gritty affair. In contrast, the idea of Trip and T’Pol desperately working hydraulics while Hoshi feeds Archer all the information that he needs feels more like wacky hijinks than “the fate of the entire world.”

This is a good thing. With its parallels to the War on Terror and its preoccupation with the end of the franchise, the third season of Enterprise might easily suffocate under its own weight. Certainly, there is no shortage of heavy and sombre episodes scattered across the season. Episodes like Stratagem and North Star work so well because they proof that Enterprise has not completely embraced darkness and cynicism, even when it seems like there are so many reasons to do so.

Cutting deep...

Cutting deep…

Stratagem might not be the most elegant or sophisticated episode of the show’s third year, but it counts among one of the most enjoyable. And there is a lot to be said for that.

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7 Responses

  1. This story actually reminded me of a movie from the late 80s called “Breaking Point”. It is a remake of a previous film called “36 hours”. It stars Corben Burnsen as a high ranking US Army officer (named Pike which you have to love given we are talking Trek) kidnapped before D-Day and the Germans try to convince him that the war has been over for a year so he will let slip when and where D-Day will happen. When he finally does tell them however the Germans don’t believe him that it will happen at Normandy.

  2. Your point about how the alien xindi are the evil ones, whereas the human xindi are more sympathetic reminds of what Ds9 did so well in contrast with antagonists. When the viewer first meets the Jem’hader and the Vorta, the audience’s sympathy is with the sorta because it looks more humanoid. As Ds9 goes on, however, the viewer realizes that the Jem’hader are actually more capable of honor and a degree of compassion than the Vorta are.

    • The Jem’Hadar are a fantastically nuanced creation, but I think even stories like Faith, Treachery and the Great River instil the Vorta with their own sense of tragedy. I’d love a version of Dolim who was more like one of the named Jem’Hadar characters from Hippocratic Oath or To The Death or Rocks and Shoals. I think it’s the biggest single flaw with the season.

      • It’s true that the vorta do gain sympathy in that episode. Part of the reason I like ds9 is my favorite Star Trek series is the quality of actors they got for the supporting characters. Mark Alaimo, Andrew Robinson, and Jeffrey combs are all superb actors who bring so much pathos to their roles. In fact I would love to see a show just about them.

  3. One of the most interesting parts of this episode was at the beginning. Degra wakes up in the simulation, and one of the first things he asks Archer is what species he is. Degra is responsible for designing a weapon that has killed seven million humans, but he’s never actually even met a single humans, much less know what they look like. This probably wasn’t an intentional subtext when this episode was made, but in 2017 this brings to mind the whole drone warfare controversy. It seems to become much easier to kill people from a distance when you never actually see them, when they’re just some impersonal “enemy” whose deaths you don’t have to witness.

    • To be fair, drone warfare was just on the cusp of becoming a thing. I think that the debate was warming up by the start of the next season, if only because I researched it for the Romulan trilogy in the fourth season.

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