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Star Trek: Enterprise – The Council (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.

From a technical standpoint, The Council is the third last episode of the third season. From an arc-based standpoint, the third season Xindi arc is not completely resolved until the events of Home three episodes into the fourth season. However, there is an argument to be made that The Council represents the logical conclusion of the third season arc. Sure, Countdown and Zero Hour provide a suitably bombastic resolution to the year-long story, but The Council is the story that really resolves the central conflict driving the season.

After twenty-one episodes of moral ambiguity and ethical compromise, The Council exists to assure viewers that Star Trek: Enterprise has not forgotten the optimistic humanism that has guided the franchise. The Council confirms what most even-handed fans had probably deduced from The Expanse and what had been rendered explicit in The Shipment. The third season was never about getting away from the core utopian values associated with the Star Trek franchise; instead, it was about an attempt to get back to those hopeful ideals.

"I told you not to interrupt me when I'm working on my tan!"

“I told you not to interrupt me when I’m working on my tan!”

As the name implies, The Council is a rather talky script; it is certainly the most talky script between this point and the end of the third season. The episode’s plot finds Archer making his case to the Xindi Council, appealing for a peaceful resolution to the escalating crisis. Archer puts aside his anger and his thirst for retribution, in the hope of finding common ground that might accommodate both sides without resort to warfare or attempted genocide. Naturally, Archer is not entirely successful; the season needs an action climax. However, he is close enough.

Much like The Forgotten, it turns out that The Council is a script about moving beyond grief and hatred towards reconciliation and understanding. It affirms that the third season of Enterprise is (and was always) following a very traditional Star Trek arc.

"Et tu, Dolim?"

“Et tu, Dolim?”

When it first began, it felt like the third season of Enterprise was an arc that would take the show away from the heart of the franchise – in both a literal and a figurative sense. After all, the Xindi had never been mentioned before the events of The Expanse and Archer was charting a course into unfamiliar territory. The third season of Enterprise saw the show (largely) moving away from familiar Star Trek trappings. The Vulcan High Command barely registered; it was the only season of Star Trek not to feature the appearance of a Klingon.

Fans had grown increasingly impatient with the prequel, feeling more and more frustrated at the lack of progress at universe-building and history-making. Part of the joy of Enterprise was the idea of watching Archer build the familiar Star Trek universe. It was widely expected that Archer would play a key part in the formation of the Federation, even if that detail was only explicitly confirmed in Zero Hour. So taking a year out to spend time with a new alien species investigating an attack never alluded to within the canon felt like the show was drifting.

"Not Hoshi! Couldn't you have taken Mayweather?"

“Not Hoshi! Couldn’t you have taken Mayweather?”

In a more abstract sense, the idea of building a whole season around a metaphor for the War on Terror also seemed like uncharted territory. Although not entirely deserved, the Star Trek franchise had established a reputation as a progressive and liberal science-fiction franchise. The idea that the third season might embrace a “grim and gritty” aesthetic along with an “ends justify the means” aesthetic was understandably upsetting to fans who had come to expect optimism and idealism from the franchise.

Of course, there is a sense that fandom’s memory is a little hazy here. Fans who balked at the idea of Star Trek supporting and encouraging the foreign policy of the Bush administration would point to the franchise’s rich history of anti-war rhetoric. The reality is that Star Trek was never entirely liberal or conservative in its politics. As much as episodes like A Taste of Armageddon or Errand of Mercy criticised the Vietnam War, fandom tends to gloss over the implicit support of the war in scripts like The City on the Edge of Forever, The Apple or The Omega Glory.

Sparks fly...

Sparks fly…

However, narratives of history tend to gloss over the sort of nuance or contradiction inherent to the human condition. The best stories are simple, and so the approach is reductive. Many fans watching Enterprise would argue that the Star Trek franchise would never embrace or endorse contemporary American foreign policy, and that even the remote possibility that the franchise could justify those questionable actions was a fundamental betrayal of everything that Star Trek held dear and served as proof of how far Enterprise had drifted from its Star Trek roots.

As such, the great irony is that the third season of Enterprise brought the show much closer to its roots than either of the first two seasons. To pick a rather banal example, this is obvious from the more frequent use of the word “Federation” during the final stretch of the third season – an obvious, explicit invocation of the franchise’s legacy and the show’s future. Even within The Council, Archer mentions the Federation to Degra as an ideal towards which they might aspire. “That future you spoke of,” Degra reflects. “Perhaps this is where it begins.”

"Thank goodness they killed Degra. I was worried. My character doesn't even have a name!"

“Thank goodness they killed Degra. I was worried. My character doesn’t even have a name!”

Part of the central appeal of Star Trek is the optimism inherent in the premise of a future where mankind has ventured out into the galaxy in search of knowledge and understanding. Many of the creatives involved in the franchise credit Star Trek‘s enduring success to that optimism. As Patrick Stewart observes:

Gene’s view of the future was fairly utopian and benevolent, mostly. And it’s one of the reasons, I always believed, why the series continues to be such a success. What is it, 50, 60 years? There’s nothing like it. No other show has ever had a history of this. And it is because of the fundamentally optimistic view of what happens in Star Trek.

It has been suggested that what really helped Star Trek resonate with science-fiction fans in the sixties was the inherent optimism of the premise, particularly when contrasted against the apocalyptic tone of contemporaneous science-fiction like The Planet of the Apes or A Canticle for Leibowitz or A Boy and His Dog.

Walking through the air...

Walking through the air…

It could be argued that these same factors make Star Trek a vitally important franchise in the context of the twenty-first century. “There is not a new hopeful, optimistic vision of the future that I am currently aware of,” confessed Ronald D. Moore in 2012. He continued:

“I’d argue that in the last few decades in America, when people are asked what they hope the future will look like, they still turn to Star Trek,” Moore said. “They hope we put aside our differences and come together as humanity, that we rise above war, poverty, racism and other problems that have beset us. They hope that there’s a future where we set off into the galaxy to have peaceful relations with other worlds.”

In a century defined by warfare and political instability, with terrorist attacks and financial uncertainty, it feels like Star Trek should still resonate with the viewing public. That optimism and idealism exists in stark contrast to the apocalyptic imagery that populates contemporary popular culture.

"There! Is! One! Light!"

“There! Is! One! Light!”

However, one of the most enduring criticisms of Star Trek is that the franchise is less interesting in the question of how such a peaceful and utopian society might be constructed than it is in telling stories set within that framework. At certain points in the run of the franchise, particularly the early years of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the human characters are presented as so superior and evolved that they might as well be aliens. They have moved so far beyond their base emotions that they almost exist outside the viewer’s frame of reference.

The human characters on Star Trek can occasionally feel like pure fantasy constructs, a depiction of mankind on its best possible day; with no suggestion about how mankind might actually go about realising that. It often seems like Star Trek is completely disinterested in how (or even if) its utopian can be created or maintained. In its crudest form, the franchise seems to offer facile answers to tough questions. If mankind invents the replicator, scarcity ceases to be an issue and so we can all get along. It is hardly a profound revelation.

UPN were less than pleased when Rick Berman asked for the budget for a sixth Xindin species.

UPN were less than pleased when Rick Berman asked for the budget for a sixth Xindi species.

Then again, this is not to suggest that the Star Trek franchise needs to justify its utopia. There is something quite heartwarming in the idea that resource scarcity is the primary reason that people are prone to questionable behaviour. It is not entirely convincing, but it’s nice to believe. “Solving selfishness by allowing everyone to have anything they want” is a rather broad one-stop solution to all of mankind’s woes, but the truth is that the Star Trek franchise is predicated on the idea that people are basically decent underneath it all.

Even contemplating the mechanics of how mankind built the utopia featured in Star Trek distracts from the simple value of imagining a world where mankind doesn’t kill each other over petty squabbles. Ignoring the logistical questions of how such a world is built or maintained, that’s a powerful and inspiring image. There is no denying that it affords a lot of comfort to a lot of people; any criticism or exploration of the franchise’s depiction of a peaceful and stable future built on mutual cooperation much acknowledge that simple fact.

Seeking Council...

Seeking Council…

Nevertheless, the question of how the Star Trek universe came into existence is compelling in its own right. When Enterprise was first announced, the premise seemed fascinating. Setting a new Star Trek series between the events of Star Trek: First Contact and the iconic classic series provided an opportunity to explore how that optimistic future came about. How did mankind evolve from where we are now to that point? The Star Trek canon made it clear that mankind endured a number of horrific catastrophes before striving forward. How did we overcome?

It initially seemed like Enterprise might want to tackle these issues, that the show might grapple with questions about how mankind went from a bunch of paranoid apes who almost killed each other in a nuclear war to the leaders of a vast interstellar alliance of well-intentioned and like-minded species. Although Broken Bow was produced before the events of 9/11, those themes would have resonated with a version of America who woke up to discover that their own future was no longer as certain or as stable as it had been during the prosperous nineties.

That dead Sphere Builder really tied the room together...

That dead Sphere Builder really tied the room together…

The first two seasons of Enterprise dropped the ball in a big way. Although the show was technically a prequel to the original Star Trek, it frequently felt like a sequel to Star Trek: Voyager where the biggest difference was that fact that the cast and crew had zippers on their uniforms. There were a few cosmetic changes to the show, but the general mindset and the writing style felt tired and familiar. It seemed like the horrors of World War III were a distant memory to the crew, as distant as the instability of the twenty-first century.

As such, the Xindi crisis in the third season finally delivers on a lot of the promise inherent to the basic premise of Enterprise. Archer and his crew respond to the crisis in a way unlike any other Star Trek cast, feeling genuinely lost in a quagmire that is not too far removed from the political realities of the twenty-first century. The arc of the third season fulfils the potential teased with the prequel setting; it is about navigating from the bitterness and pettiness of twenty-first century politics towards the utopian ideals of the Star Trek universe.

And like that... she was gone...

And like that… she was gone…

Trip and Phlox concede as much in The Council. Accompanying Phlox to the mess hall, Trip concedes, “Ever since the attack on Earth, all I’ve thought about is getting back at whoever was responsible.” Phlox completes the thought for him, “Now we are making peace with them.” The third season of Enterprise begins in a place that is instantly recognisable to anybody familiar with the reality of the twenty-first century, and concludes with what feels like a very Star Trek resolution; the belief that different cultures can learn to understand one another.

The Council is rather explicit in characterising the Xindi arc as a metaphor for the War on Terror. This makes sense, given Manny Coto’s fondness of the “Star Trek as allegory” school of storytelling. Some of the metaphors feel a little heavy-handed, particularly when it is revealed that the Sphere Builders presented the aquatic!Xindi with their own version of the infamous “dodgy dossier” to spur them to war. “They presented what they claimed was a visual record taken from the future,” Jannar explains. Degra offers, “It showed mankind destroying our new homeworld.”

Divine provenance...

Divine provenance…

As with his script for Chosen Realm, Coto emphasises the idea of the Sphere Builders as deities. The episode’s teaser presents the Sphere Builders in the same way that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine would frequently portray the Prophets. This depiction of the Sphere Builders recurs through both Countdown and Zero Hour. Even beyond the obvious parallels with the Prophets, the make-up and production design on the Sphere Builders evokes both the Founders and ancient humanoids from The Chase. It cannot help but recast the conflict in a religious light.

When the Sphere Builder confronts Degra, his subordinate looks on in what approaches religious awe. “Not everyone has forgotten what we have done for your people,” she warns Degra. “You’ve turned away from us. Come back.” There is a sense that the Sphere Builders enjoy the devotion they have cultivated among the Xindi. When Degra presumes to question her, the Sphere Builder inquires, “What have we done to lose your faith?” Degra responds, “You never deserved my faith.”

"Malevolent. Aggressive. Adversarial."

“Malevolent. Aggressive. Adversarial.”

In classic Star Trek style, it seems as though Degra’s rationality is tied to his developing atheism. “I was brought up to revere them,” he tells Archer. “I taught my own children to give thanks to them at the end of each day.” Coto is very much a fan of the aesthetic of classic Star Trek, and with that comes a very strong mistrust and disdain of religion as a concept. Degra’s character arc is very much in keeping with shows like Return of the Archons or Who Mourns for Adonais?, rather than the more open-minded approach adopted by Deep Space Nine.

As with Chosen Realm, there is a sense that this attitude is informed by the events of 9/11. In many respects, the War on Terror was characterised in religious terms. In particular, the aftermath of the attacks saw a marked increase in Islamophobia. The continuing War on Terror has found Muslim Americans under scrutiny for their religious beliefs. For example, there was a massive controversy over plans to open an Islamic community centre on Park Place, a few blocks from what had been the site of the World Trade Centre.

"Mister Tucker, why did you suggest I wear reed on this highly volatile mission towards the end of the season?" "No reason."

“Mister Tucker, why did you suggest I wear reed on this highly volatile mission towards the end of the season?”
“No reason.”

Even outside of the response to Islam itself, the events of 9/11 have been credited with launching “the new Atheism.” Sam Harris would publish The End of Faith in August 2004, a book that would become a touchstone for those atheists who found themselves increasingly concerned about the role of spirituality and belief in contemporary life. In many respects, it seemed like an old front in the culture war was opening up one again; that yet another divide had presented itself to an increasingly fractured public.

As such, the inclusion of the religious element in the Xindi plot feels a little blunt. Over the course of the third season, those characters who hold religious beliefs are frequently portrayed as misguided at best and dangerous at worse. It seems like part of Degra’s journey towards redemption is the rejection of his faith and spirituality, rather than simply a reevaluation of it. This is very much in keeping with the traditional Star Trek attitude towards religion rather than Deep Space Nine‘s more open-minded approach to issues of faith and spirituality.

Tabled for a later discussion...

Tabled for a later discussion…

Then again, the Xinid arc can occasionally seem just a little bit too black and white. The third season needs an action climax, so it is inevitable that the weapon must be launched. As a result, The Council cannot end with a completely peaceful resolution to the crisis. The reptile!Xindi and the insect!Xindi were always going to go rogue and betray their colleagues as part of a last-ditch attempt to destroy Earth. However, the third season has seemed clumsy in how it has handled the reptile!Xindi and the insect!Xindi in the context of an arc about coming to understand alien cultures.

The show has been rather unambiguous about the reptile!Xindi as early as episodes like Rajiin or Twilight or Carpenter Street. The reptile!Xindi are angry and scary dudes who like to kill things and complain about how crap their fellow Xindi are. The insect!Xindi do not come across much better, with scripts like Stratagem and Hatchery practically wallowing in how distinctly “other” those weird green CGI aliens must be. Apparently alien cultures can only really be understood if they look vaguely familiar.

Pod person...

Pod person…

Dolim is a bad guy. He has always been a bad guy. Actor Scott MacDonald conceded as much in an interview with The Star Trek Communicator:

I think that Dolim, like all of the best villains, isn’t really self-aware. Dolim truly believes that the humans will be the end of the Xindi, and he proceeds in a militaristic fashion in that way. I don’t think it’s like a venomous thing where he wants to kill everything in the galaxy. From the Xindi point of view, Dolim is the go-to guy who makes the tough decisions to preserve the life of the Xindi. That’s how I see him. I think that’s how you have to see him. He believes he’s absolutely correct in what he’s doing. The main thrust of it all is that I think Dolim thinks that the Reptilians are the superior species. That basic prejudice of, ‘Yes, we all are Xindi, but the best Xindi is my Xindi.’ That can be a fatal flaw, but it is so human.

MacDonald does great work with the role, and Dolim makes a pretty convincing super villain for Countdown and Zero Hour, but it still feels a little shallow.

"Nothing untrustworthy here. Nope."

“Nothing untrustworthy here. Nope.”

To be fair to Coto, the script for The Council presents a version of Dolim who feels like more than a moustache-twirling psychopath. When Degra challenges Dolim, the reptile!Xindi quite correctly points out that his opponent threw the first stone. “Were you using sound judgment when you attacked my ship?” he wonders. When Degra points out they were simply trying to reach the Council, Dolim responds, “I was protecting this Council!” When matters escalate, he warns his colleagues, “If this Council will not defend its people then it has no reason to exist.”

It is hardly the most nuanced or sophisticated characterisation in the franchise, but there are parts of The Council that present Dolim as more than a monster. The episode suggests that Dolim might genuinely have the best interests of his people at heart, believing that he can do the things necessary to ensure the survival of his species. Even in his final conversation with Degra, he seems almost idealistic about the Xindi nation. “I have always believed that all Xindi long for unification,” he reflects. “It’s in our blood.”

In-fighting among all the in-sects...

In-fighting among all the in-sects…

While this is a fairly predictable approach to characterising a villain in a metaphor for the War on Terror, it still presents Dolim as character with a clear psychology. In fact, it would suggest that Dolim is a twisted reflection of the kind of man who Archer almost allowed himself to become in episodes like Anomaly or Damage, the kind of character who can justify the most horrific actions in the name of the greater good. In fact, both Countdown and Zero Hour make a number of allusions between Archer and Dolim.

However, even The Council ultimately reduces Dolim to a cartoon bad guy. The episode makes it perfectly clear that Dolim is really looking out for his own interests, using his concerns for the Council as a smoke screen. When the Sphere Builders first suggest hijacking the weapon, Degra seems uncomfortable with the prospect. “The weapon’s well guarded,” he explains. “The casualties on both sides would be heavy. We’d be risking civil war.” It is certainly a legitimate concern for a true patriot. That passes almost immediately.

"This place is a health and safety nightmare!"

“This place is a health and safety nightmare!”

“A temporary schism cannot be avoided, but eventually Reptilians will preside over a stronger unified Xindi empire,” the Sphere Builder promises. “We will guarantee Reptilian dominance if humankind is eradicated.” It seems like that is all that Dolim needed to hear; for all his concerns about “casualties”, he pretty casually murders the insect!Xindi at the end of Countdown. It seems that Dolim is not even allowed the luxury of honesty; for all his rhetoric, his own self-interest is paramount.

As he murders Degra, he takes the time to taunt his fallen comrade and to promise even more senseless violence. “When the humans have been eliminated, when the Council has been replaced by reptilian rule, I am going to find your wife and children and do the same to them,” he vows. “Your traitorous bloodline will end at the tip of my blade.” That seems a bit excessive, particularly given the pleasure that Dolim takes in gloating. There is a sense that Dolim might work better as a character if his arc was played as grim tragedy. Instead, he relishes it.

Building trust... as well as Spheres.

Building trust… as well as Spheres.

It could be argued that Dolim is simply the product of an alien culture. “There’s a story about him,” Degra warns Archer early in the episode. “I don’t know if it’s true, I’d like to believe it isn’t. His daughter gave birth to a son. He had a deformity in his right arm, not life-threatening but enough to preclude his ever joining the military. Commander Dolim had his own grandson poisoned.” How a culture treats its weakest members can be quite revealing. After all, for an aggressive and predatory species, it is unreasonable to expect an emphasis on compassion.

(Not unrelatedly, one of the most effective methods of characterising an alien species on Star Trek has always been how they treat their dead. The Next Generation really began to flesh out Klingon culture in Heart of Glory, an episode that introduced a Klingon death howl. Deep Space Nine began to treat the Ferengi as more than a joke in The Nagus, the episode that explained how an individual’s “vacuum desiccation remains ensured that they remained a vital part of the Ferengi economy even after death.)

"Well, this is awkward..."

“Well, this is awkward…”

The Star Trek franchise has used that sort of story to illustrate the differences inherent in Klingon or Jem’Hadar culture. They are not human they adhere to different logic. However, the story is framed in such a way that Dolim is undoubted and unquestionably a villain. The brutality of the Klingons or the Jem’Hadar is most often framed in terms of honesty and candour; there is a sense that the cultures do not hide what they are. The might be different cultural values, but they are governed by over-arching rules and laws.

The fact that Dolim murdered his own grandson with poison rather than by his own hand and that it is more of an urban myth than a demonstrable fact seems to suggest the practice is not even expected within the cultural norms of reptile!Xindi society. The implication seems to be that Dolim is a particularly nasty piece of work. It is a fairly blunt piece of character development, as murdering a child is pretty much pop culture shorthand for “… is a monster.” Never mind that the child in question was physically disabled.

"Well, at least we get to blow something up real good..."

“Well, at least we get to blow something up real good…”

The murder of Degra confirms that Dolim is the season’s big bad, as if that were ever in doubt. Apparently actor Randy Oglesby saw that plot development coming. In the documentary In a Time of War, actor Scott MacDonald recalls:

Randy predicted it. I want to say this; Randy predicted it. He said to me, “You know you’re goign to kill me.” When I got the script in the mail, at the house to read, he called me that day and he was kinda chuckling. He was unhappy he was being killed, but he said, “I told you. I told you.” And I said, “Can you believe that dialogue? Can you believe that scene?” We really had one of those penultimate actor situations where we arrived on set – David Livingston directed the episode – he said, “You know, you guys are good together. I think I’m just going to get out of your way. Show me what you’re going to do with this.” We kinda stalked each other, tentatively.

That confrontation is shot beautifully by Livingston. There is one particularly memorable shot where Dolim enters Degra’s chambers and his distinctive silhouette is framed over Degra’s face. Without even showing Dolim, Livingston makes it clear what is about to happen.

"You didn't trip the alarm, did you?"

“You didn’t trip the alarm, did you?”

Proving that mankind can make peace with (most of) the aliens who would threaten them, The Council closes off the thematic arc of the third season. The Delphic Expanse might operate according to laws alien to the Star Trek universe, but some constants hold true. There is a bit more action and adventure left in the third season, but it seems like Enterprise has finally found itself. That makes the whole trip worthwhile.

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4 Responses

  1. >For example, there was a massive controversy over plans to open a mosque on Park Place, a few blocks from what had been the site of the World Trade Centre.

    As many others have pointed out, so must I – it wasn’t a mosque, it was a community center.

  2. I now realize that these reviews have passed over the scene where Reed reacts to the growing casualties aboard the ship – which occurred here, in “the Council.” I realize there were larger matters to discuss and that your reviews will often glance over the subplots, but I really do like Reed’s reaction to the most recent death. Just as the long-form plotting and militarization helped draw this series further from Voyager and nearer to DS9 (ie, further from Hell, closer to Heaven), between this and “the Forgotten,” the series had made excellent strides at evading the indifference which “redshirt” deaths usually instilled in Star Trek characters – just as DS9’s “the Ship” marked the moment where that series looked at the deaths of extras as tragedy, rather than accepted cliche. I’m the viewer who actually does care whether random redshirt #000773 dies and it’s extremely off-putting to me when the program’s cast seem to care less than I do (Voyager again being the glaring example because of the series’ own premise). And likewise any other fiction – I’m the guy who mourns for unseen casualties aboard strafed airplanes or crumbled skyscrapers. Reed calling out the others for their apparent lack of concern over the rising body count aboard ship was, to me, the standout Reed moment of season 3.

    • That’s actually a very good spot, and part of the thematic framework of The Council – which is largely a rejection of the sort of “gung-ho let’s kill the terrorists!” narrative that I think a lot of fandom were expecting following The Expanse. I can’t believe I missed it, but very good observation.

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