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Star Trek: Enterprise – Harbinger (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 goes almost without saying that the third season of Star Trek: Enterprise was an attempt to revitalise a franchise that had already been on television for a decade and half. It was an attempt to do something quite radical and dynamic with a television property that had become rather staid and conservative. Star Trek: The Next Generation had been perfectly calibrated for the late eighties and early nineties, but its approach towards storytelling was increasingly outdated after seven seasons of Star Trek: Voyager.

One of the recurring issues in the first season of Enterprise was the conflict between the established franchise structure and something more adventurous and exciting. So many of those first season episodes seemed laboriously paced and awkwardly arch; there was a sense of dull routine rather than exciting adventure. The show would occasionally try to deviated from the established template (to varying degrees of success) with stories like Dear Doctor, Shuttlepod One, and A Night in Sickbay, but narrative conservatism won out in the sophomore season.

"So... sweeps?"

“So… sweeps?”

In many ways, Harbinger plays as a return to those earlier experiments in story structure. It is an episode that is not driven by story. Although the strange alien discovered by the crew provides a suitably dramatic climax, most of Harbinger is built around established character dynamics. Trip and T’Pol begin working through the sexual tension that has existed between them since the start of the third season; Reed and Hayes do something similar in a very different fashion. In the meantime, the ship just cruises along en route to the third season’s next big plot beat.

Harbinger is not entirely successful in this regard. There is a sense that the franchise is still figuring out how to construct episodes that don’t conform to a rigid story structure, with the mysterious alien visitor serving as an effective crutch to help get around these problems. Still, it is an interesting experiment and an example of how the show is consciously trying to reinvent itself in a manner that is more than simply cosmetic.

Expanding his Sphere of influence...

Expanding his Sphere of influence…

As a rule, the Star Trek franchise is largely story-driven. This is not to suggest that the characters are shallow or one-dimensional or anything like that; after all, Kirk and Spock are recognisable pop culture archetypes, as are Picard and Data. There are any number of great Star Trek character studies that exist to shed light on these characters and their dynamics. However, most of those character studies are driven by the plot of a particular episode. Character is generally revealed through reaction to outside events.

Sisko’s long dark night of the soul in In the Pale Moonlight is driven by the Dominion War and spurred on by particular events like the invasion of Betazed. Bashir and Garak’s rumination on morality and friendship in The Wire is a result of a near-death experience on the part of Garak. Picard’s alternate life in The Inner Light is a result of some science-fiction technobabble and his trip down memory lane in Tapestry is prompted by a near-fatal encounter on an alien planet. This does not diminish any of the episodes, but provides a sense of context.

Shooting for the sky...

Shooting for the sky…

Even the franchise’s “day in the life” episodes like Data’s Day or Lower Decks are structured around stories that might be interesting to support their own episodes; Data foils a Romulan plot, and the Enterprise involves itself in Cardassian intrigue. Of course, this arguably demonstrates that there is always something exciting or interesting happening it the wider Star Trek universe, but it also suggests that the franchise is primarily plot-driven even in its more character-oriented moments.

There are exceptions of course. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine would make a number of successful attempts to tell this sort of story. Far Beyond the Stars might be prompted by the death of Sisko’s close friend, but it seems like a story that exists quite disconnected from any outside events or motivations. Similarly, Looking for par’Mach in All the Wrong Places is an episode that exists primarily to explore character dynamics quite separate from any larger external event. (Grilka arriving on the station is what spurs the plot, rather than intrigue or space stuff.)

Feeding speculation...

Feeding speculation…

In contrast, most of Harbinger is spent in peace and tranquility. This is very much an episode that exists within the negative space of the larger third season arc. With the exception of the subplot involving the Sphere Builder, the episode does little to spur on the Xindi arc. It is very consciously an episode that unfolds as the ship is in transit between the larger plot points of Stratagem and Azati Prime. Unlike Doctor’s Orders or Hatchery, the show does not concoct a large-scale dramatic event to drive the plot of the episode.

Instead, Harbinger plays as something akin to “down time” for the crew; this is a chance for everybody to catch their breath and to allow various character arcs to play out a little more fully. There is time to explore the relationship between Trip and T’Pol and to allow Reed and Hayes to get some of that aggression and frustration out of their system. It is a storytelling style that feels quite distinct from the established Star Trek template, and perhaps more keenly in line with the television aesthetic of the twenty-first century.

"Tension? What tension?"

“Tension? What tension?”

Part of that shifting aesthetic is down to progression and evolution. Television is still a relatively young medium, even compared to film. It operates according to a very different business and production model, which means that its evolution is not parallel. While the major networks and primetime dramas in the eighties and nineties adhered to a very clear “one episode, one story; except two-parters” structure, the dawn of the new millennium saw that rule becoming relaxed. Shows could take a break from narrative-driven storytelling to do character pieces.

In a way, this is a result of a larger shift towards arc-based storytelling, even on network television. If the storytelling focus is on the larger season rather than the individual forty-five-minute block of television, then the emphasis slips away from the individual episode as a plot-driven narrative of itself. It has been argued that the televisual revolution spurred by The Sopranos changed the way that television was produced and consumed; that it changed the way that everybody involved in television looked at the individual episode.

Special guest director: Quentin Tarantino...

Special guest director: Quentin Tarantino…

(To be fair, it is possible to overemphasise the work done by The Sopranos at the expense of the way that various genre shows like The X-Files and Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Babylon 5 really pushed out the envelope during the nineties. In fact, it is perfectly reasonable to argue that Deep Space Nine was ahead of the curve in some respects. This is to say nothing of eighties primetime soaps like Dynasty or Dallas. At the same time, it seems like The Sopranos was the point at which the mainstream accepted it and it truly entered popular consciousness.)

Harbinger is very much an example of this approach in action. It is hard to describe Harbinger in terms that don’t refer to its place in the overall arc. This is not an episode that can stand on its own two feet, independent of the episodes around it. Scripts like Doctor’s Orders and Hatchery are very much plot-driven, and would only need some revisions to turn them into standalone stories. In contrast, the major beats of Harbinger are driven by character rather than plot, dating back to character dynamics established in The Xindi.

Rubbing it in...

Rubbing it in…

Enterprise had experimented with this sort of storytelling before. In the first season, scripts like Cold Front, Dear Doctor, Shuttlepod One and Two Days and Two Nights had attempted to prioritise character ahead of story, albeit with mixed results. Even allowing for the problems with these episodes, they suggested a more character-driven approach to storytelling than anything in the last three seasons of Voyager. However, after A Night in Sickbay, the second season largely pulled back from that sort of storytelling in favour of a more conventional approach.

There is a sense that the writing staff is still getting used to this approach to storytelling. Appropriately enough, the idea of training and learning recurs throughout Harbinger, as if to suggest that the entire episode is a learning exercise. Hayes schedules training drills so that the MACOs might pass on their experience to the crew, while Trip tries to apply the neuro-pressure techniques that T’Pol taught him to Corporal Hayes. In both cases, the results are presented as uncomfortable and unconventional, as if acknowledging Star Trek is not used to this storytelling style.

Seeing red...

Seeing red…

Reed takes exception to the manhandling of the senior staff by the MACOs. “It’s just a little blood, sir,” Hayes reassures him. “No one got hurt.” Reed is having none of it. “These are training sessions, Major,” Reed responds. “If your men can’t understand that then I’m going to put a stop to this right now.” Similarly, both Phlox and T’Pol are worried about Trip’s experiments with neuro-pressure on Corporal Cole. It seems like there is a lot of anxiety and uncertainty about the application of new skills and techniques.

This is almost uncharted territory for Star Trek, a franchise that had grown quite comfortable in an existing template. There was a way to tell stories that worked very well for almost sixteen years; why would the franchise make an effort to fix something that was not broken? Of course, this meant that Enterprise was grossly unprepared for the dynamic change in tone and mood that came when its circumstances did change and the franchise could no longer comfortably rest on its laurels.

"We're opening all sorts of doors with this..."

“We’re opening all sorts of doors with this…”

Early in Harbinger, the ship encounters a rather strange stellar phenomenon. Travis cannot make head nor tail of what is happening. “I can’t understand it, Captain,” he confesses. “It’s like the stars keep shifting positions.” Without the stars to guide them, how can the crew hope to navigate what lies ahead? More to the point, how can it be “Star Trek” if the crew cannot rely on the stars themselves? The Delphic Expanse is repeatedly portrayed as a section of space where the normal rules do not apply, particularly when it comes to Star Trek storytelling.

This is not what fans have come to expect from Star Trek, and it is not the kind of story that Star Trek writers have a lot of experience telling. The romance that unfolds between Trip and T’Pol across the third and fourth seasons of Enterprise is unique in the franchise. There is a sort of melodrama and angst that is heightened when contrasted with the other long-term romances in the franchises; even those that share thematic or structural similarities, like those between Kira and Odo or Tom and B’Elanna.

A literal sphere of influence...

A literal sphere of influence…

Over the course of the final two seasons of Enterprise, Trip and T’Pol often seem like they’ve wandered out of a highly emotional late-night soap opera, which is jarringly at odds with the larger aesthetic of Star Trek. It something that feels rather strange in the context of the franchise, with even Jolene Blalock criticising it:

“They write it, I do it. I don’t see it, personally,” Blalock told Kate O’Hare at Zap2it. “T’Pol’s a Vulcan — how could she have a relationship? And he’s so emotional. My goodness, he’s like a nut case. So how are this nut case and this person who has her stuff together going to find common ground? Maybe that’s the basis. We’ll find out, because I’m not sure how that’s going to evolve.”

It is a very fair point. T’Pol has always been a problem character for Enterprise, with a clear sense that the writers have no idea how to handle her as a character. In fact, Mike Sussman’s script for Twilight even suggested that she had an attraction to Archer before the show paired her off with Trip.

A Hayes-ing ritual...

A Hayes-ing ritual…

Enterprise has always had trouble finding a niche for T’Pol within the framework of the show. It is never entirely clear what function she is supposed to serve within the ensemble. The Expanse had shrewdly teased the idea that T’Pol might embody the utopian ideals of the Star Trek franchise during a season where everything would be thrown into doubt. The final episode of the second season had suggested that T’Pol might be the voice of reason and consideration in contrast to Trip’s blood-thirsty rage.

Unfortunately, the third season struggled to follow through on a lot of the character beats suggested by The Expanse. The writing staff spend a significant portion of the season trying to figure out what to do with T’Pol, while Archer and Trip jump backwards and forwards in their character arcs depending on the needs of the particular script. Archer is willing to torture an alien in Anomaly, but is reluctant to kill zombified Vulcans in Impulse. Trip appears to have made peace with the loss of his sister before Proving Ground, but needs to revisit the arc in The Forgotten.

A touching romance?

A touching romance?

As such, the character choices in the third season in general – and Harbinger in particular – can seem a little forced. Even the actors involved had trouble making sense of what was unfolding. Connor Trinneer recalls trying to work out the emotional logic of their dynamic with his co-star:

“Jolene and I had to find the truth…and how that gets created,” the actor said. “We have had a lot of conversations about it. In fact, we shot ‘the day after’ scene first before we shot the rest of it. We had a lot of conversations about how we could stay true to our characters, and Jolene has the tough job in terms of how to rationalize that with the character traits that are Vulcan.”

This isn’t even the weirdest speed bump that the characterisation of T’Pol would hit over the course of the third season; Azati Prime and Damage would reveal that the character had become a drug addict, in one particularly ill-judged character development.

Star Trek is not wired this way...

Star Trek is not wired this way…

At the same time, as awkward as it might be in places, the romance between Trip and T’Pol is interesting as one of the rare examples of the Star Trek franchise actively wallowing in relationship melodrama. Deep Space Nine might have spent years teasing the relationship between Kira and Odo, but the progression was quite linear and logical. Odo’s angst was largely contained to very particular episodes like Crossfire and Children of Time. The same is true of the relationship between Tom and B’Elanna, which evolved relatively organically after a forced start.

In contrast, the relationship between Trip and T’Pol mines each and every opportunity for angst. In Harbinger, the two characters sleep together before T’Pol insists that it was just an “experiment.” In Home, Trip goes to Vulcan with T’Pol and even attends her wedding to Koss. In The Aenar, Trip decides that serving on the same ship as T’Pol is too much to bear, so he transfers to the Columbia. In Terra Prime, the two characters are “gifted” a child created from their combined DNA; they are forced to watch their child die.

A lot to drink in...

A lot to drink in…

This is a pulpy and over-the-top interpersonal relationship, even by the standards of Star Trek. This is not how fans have come to expect characters to interact with one another. Perhaps this is a lingering sense of Gene Roddenberry’s perfect people, or maybe it’s just a reflection on the franchise’s tendency to push character dynamics into the background in favour of plot and story, but the relationship between Trip and T’Pol seems very odd in the context of Star Trek. Even on Deep Space Nine, there was a much more grounded approach to subjects like love and romance.

There are undoubtedly points where Enterprise pushes the relationship between Trip and T’Pol a little bit too far. At the same time, it does feel unique and novel; in a franchise with over seven hundred episodes, that is quite an accomplishment. It feels experimental and ambitious, even if it is not experimental and ambitious in the way that most fans would expect. The heightened emotional dynamic between Trip and T’Pol arguably fits quite comfortably with the pulpier vibe of the third and fourth season seasons.

State of Phlox...

State of Phlox…

Similarly, Harbinger allows some pay-off to the tension that exists between Reed and Hayes, with the two military men brawling in the gym and through the corridors. On paper, this is a very odd scene for a Star Trek episode; this is not how interpersonal dynamics are supposed to play out in this universe. This is the sort of heightened melodrama that viewers expect from other contemporary television. However, the juxtaposition is effective. There is something delightfully “wrong” about the idea of two heroic Star Trek characters settling their disagreements with their fists.

It is quite easy to structure the brawl between Reed and Hayes into a larger criticism of the third season, arguing that Enterprise is attempting to pander to the lowest common denominator and is losing sight of what makes Star Trek such a unique television franchise. However, this criticism feels somewhat superficial; it suggests that the third season is a complete endorsement of all its narrative tropes, from the War on Terror metaphor through to the “two manly men fight out their issues like manly men do” vibe of the brawl between Reed and Hayes.

Beating the point home...

Beating the point home…

Instead, a significant portion of the third season of Enterprise is about trying to take contemporary realities and find a way to reconcile them with the rules of the Star Trek franchise. For all that the third season of Enterprise is a metaphorical exploration of the War on Terror, it is a metaphorical exploration of the War on Terror that offers an optimistic and utopian conclusion; the Xindi arc hinges on the capacity that it is possible for radically different people to work together to build a meaningful peace. The third season is about finding the way back to Star Trek.

Even within the confines of Harbinger, that larger thematic arc plays out. Harbinger is very shrewdly and very keenly aware of the “wrongness” underpinning the fight between Reed and Hayes. Tellingly, the fight sequence is not played as some epic action beat. Velton Ray Bunch’s score does not soar majestically as it does during the franchise’s other major hand-to-hand combat scenes. The direction is not particularly dynamic or stylised; instead, the two characters seem almost pathetic as they wrestle through the corridors.

"I didn't even get to torture him!"

“I didn’t even get to torture him!”

It seems quite clear that Harbinger is not revelling in the long-delayed knock-down fist-fight between the two characters where Reed can final prove his own worth to both himself and to Major Hayes. Instead, Harbinger builds to a climax where Reed and Hayes must put their differences aside in order to save the ship from a very grave threat. It is the quintessential conclusion to a Star Trek episode, even if the route that the episode takes to reach that point is somewhat unconventional.

Even the final scene between Reed and Hayes exists to assure viewers that this is not as radical or subversive as it might originally seem. Archer’s dressing down of Reed and Hayes cannot help but evoke Kirk’s disappointment with his officers in The Trouble with Tribbles. There is a sense that Enterprise is reminding viewers that the Star Trek franchise has always had a certain pulpy vibe to it. The writers on Enterprise made a conscious effort to bring that pulpy vibe to the fore, with Manny Coto making a particular effort to connect the show back to its roots.

The fight stuff...

The fight stuff…

(As if to emphasise the pulpy vibe, Harbinger even features a nice little shout-out to Pulp Fiction. When Trip assures Reed that there is nothing going on with Corporal Cole, and that neuro-pressure doesn’t mean anything, Reed is not buying it. “I guess this Vulcan neuro-pressure isn’t that intimate after all,” Reed reflects. “In that case, I’ve got a nasty little pain just–“ It is a scene very clearly written to echo the “foot massage” conversation from Pulp Fiction. Ironically, Michael Piller was heavily influenced by the film during the first season of Voyager.)

According to actor Steven Culp, the fight between Reed and Hayes was originally intended to be much more dynamic. Unfortunately, production constraints stepped in:

“Originally, it was going to be even more elaborate than it ended up being,” Culp says. “It was originally going to spill out into the hall and sort of go on like The Quiet Man, the John Wayne movie. It would just sort of go on all over the ship. But in practical terms, it couldn’t be done in the time allotted. So instead, [stunt coordinator] Vince [Deadrick Jr.] would work out a section of the fight. Vince would take on the technical fighting stuff, and then Dominic and I and [director] David Livingston would sort of shape it all into more storytelling terms.

“As it ended up,” he goes on, “Dominic and I pretty much did the entire fight when we were shooting it. [The stunt doubles] did a lot of the fancy kicks that (a) we could not do and (b) would not do for safety issues. Often times though, even when they would say, ‘OK a stunt double will do that’ I would go, ‘But Vince, I learned the punches. Let me try to do it.’ After we’d do it, Vince would go, ‘God, I’m really glad we got that footage because now we can really intercut it.'”

Perhaps it is for the best that the episode did not have time to film those sequences; the fight is all the more effective for its relatively intimate nature.

Manny Coto’s script also plays up the homoerotic undertones to Reed’s relationship with Hayes. Enterprise has always had something of a difficult relationship with Reed’s sexuality, responding to early rumours that he would be the franchise’s first gay character by repeatedly and awkwardly asserting his heterosexuality at any given opportunity. Coto seems to cheekily acknowledge the possibility that Reed is deeply closeted, with Harbinger paralleling the unresolved tension between Reed and Hayes with the unresolved tension between Trip and T’Pol.

Engineering his own destruction...

Engineering his own destruction…

In fact, Trip and Cole even talk about Reed and Hayes as if they are two oblivious individuals who would make the perfect match for one another. “His training regimen hasn’t changed since I joined up,” Cole reflects of Hayes. “Major Hayes likes consistency.” Trip responds, “So does Malcolm. He told me that while he was in Starfleet training, he ate the exact same three meals every day for a year.” Cole observes, “They’re definitely cut from the same cloth.” Trip jokes, “Maybe that’s why they get along so well.” However, he might be on to something.

Harbinger never labours the point, but there is a sense that the wrestling match between Reed and Hayes is about letting out frustrations and simmering emotions in the same way that the one night stand between Trip and T’Pol was. It remains intensely frustrating that the Star Trek franchise would never actually bite the bullet and feature an openly homosexual character, but it seems like Coto’s script for Harbinger at least acknowledges some of the unspoken subtext.

Cracking under pressure...

Cracking under pressure…

Of course, Harbinger is not entirely character driven. A lot of the episode exists as “a bunch of stuff that happens on the way to the next big event episode”, but the story does feature something resembling an overarching plot. Recovering a pod from the middle of a strange interstellar phenomenon, Archer comes face-to-face with the Sphere Builders, the characters responsible for the strange spacial properties of the Expanse. Although the plot eats up little screentime and provides little concrete information, it does provide a climax to the episode.

The Sphere Builder does not confirm much, but he does reveal that there was some measure of truth to the back story suggested in Chosen Realm. The Delphic Expanse is not just a random spacial anomaly, it is an attempt at colonisation by an outside force. The Sphere Builders are essentially terraforming the galaxy, trying to create an environment that is more appropriate to their particular needs. It is a fairly logical explanation for everything that has happened so far in the season, even if it feels like a lot of it is made up as the show goes along.

"World-building?" "No, sphere-building."

“World-building?”
“No, sphere-building.”

The revelation that the Sphere Builders are an imperialist and colonising force is interesting in the larger context of the third season. Much of the Xindi arc is constructed as a meditation on the War on Terror, but it is quite telling that none of the major players in the arc are clear-cut stand-ins for terrorist organisations or enemies. The Xindi are not al-Qaeda; the Sphere Builders are not Saddam Hussein. Instead, it seems like the third season is very much fixated on the American side of the equation.

The Xindi play out as a metaphor for a fractured and divided American people governed by fear and anxiety. The Sphere Builders might be read as a similar criticism of the worst excesses of American foreign policy; shrewd manipulators that seek to further their own agendas in a politically unstable region by stoking the fires of hatred and paranoia. Much of the War on Terror can be traced back to American foreign policy as applied to the Middle East, trying to cultivate a favourable political environment for United States interests.

Peas in a pod...

Peas in a pod…

The third season of Enterprise never really explores the Sphere Builders in too much depth. They become major players in the arc, but they never receive the same attention as the Xindi themselves. Perhaps this is because they were a relatively late addition to the over-arching plot of the season, or perhaps it is because there is not enough room with everything else going on; maybe the Sphere Builders are more effective for the mystery around them, maybe revealing too much would make them feel like retreads of existing aliens.

Harbinger is a very messy piece of television, and one that doesn’t necessarily perfectly execute all of its ambitions. At the same time, it is an example of Enterprise beginning to capitalise on the potential of long-form plotting, realising that it is possible to do interesting things in the negative space that exists between the larger tentpoles of a year-long arc.

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2 Responses

  1. Is this where Jolene started to go berserk?

    She’s trying to find the truth to her character? Oh, this is just sad.

    I can think of a few google image searches that would clear it up for her. Can you see Coto reacting to her input? He probably quoted Roman Polanski. Say the f—-n’ words. Your salary is your “motivation”!

    • I like Blalock a great deal. It is a pretty crappy situation for an actress to be in. In many respects, Jeri Ryan got a much better deal on Voyager. (That said, I think Ryan is the stronger actress; she is one of the two best actors on Voyager, and one of the franchise’s more underrated performers.) I can see how being told “you’re going to be the new Spock!” and then playing T’Pol could leave a performer bitter and unsatisfied. And unlike some of the other forgotten Star Trek primary cast members, I don’t think that Blalock faded into the background because she’s a weak actor.

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