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Star Trek: Enterprise – Season 3 (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.

The third season of Star Trek: Enterprise is a mess.

It is very clearly the work of a production team still figuring out how to plot long-form stories and struggling with the logistical difficulties of mapping out a single narrative across what was originally planned as a twenty-six episode season. There are extended periods where narrative momentum stalls; there are key moments where it seems like the show has no idea where it wants to go next. It seems like the production team never sat down in the gap before production began to figure out what story they wanted to tell, and ended up improvising.

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However, it is also a bold and ambitious piece of television. It demonstrates an energy and excitement that had been lacking from the Star Trek franchise since Star Trek: Deep Space Nine went off the air. It is a season of television that doesn’t always work, but that is to be expected when the production team are trying something new. The failures of the first two seasons of the show often stemmed from a lack of ambition on the part of the production team; the failures in the third season are rooted in a surplus of ambition. It is hard to find them too objectionable.

The Xindi arc doesn’t always work as well as it might, but it works more than often enough to excuse the clumsy missteps along the way. There is something compelling and dynamic about a Star Trek show that is willing to push itself so far outside its own comfort zone. There is a spirit of adventure to the third season of Enterprise that had been sorely lacking from the first two seasons of the show. The biggest disappointment is that it took the show this long to find that confidence and that adventurousness.

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Any discussion of the third season of Enterprise must acknowledge and concede the flaws with the season as a whole. On the most superficial of levels, the show is as prone to error as any other season of Star Trek. Providing a season arc might help to guide the season along a clear path, but it does mean that the show will avoid every possible misstep along the way. There are episodes of the third season that deserve to be ranked alongside Precious Cargo or Bounty as the worst that the show ever produced.

Some of the weakest episodes of the season have nothing to do with the season arc (Extinction), while some are tied into the mythology (Carpenter Street, Chosen Realm), but bad episodes are bad episodes. Any twenty-odd episode season of television is bound to produce a few misfires. It is the nature of the medium that not every forty-five minute block can be a masterpiece. Even Deep Space Nine would churn out disasters like Shattered Mirror or The Muse or Let He Who Is Without Sin… or Profit and Lace.

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It should also be noted that season arc tends to stall a little bit in the middle of the season. In particular, it seems like the show drags in proven Star Trek concepts to help bide the audience over. Proving Ground brings Shran into the third season, only to send him back on his way once the episode’s forty-five minutes are concluded. Carpenter Street sends Archer and T’Pol back to contemporary Detroit to foil a sinister reptilian plan. Repeated references to it in scripts like Azati Prime and The Forgotten do little to justify the pointless sidequest.

That said, the loose plotting of the Xindi arc in the first two-thirds of the season does have advantages. It affords the writers the opportunity to produce episodes like Impulse or North Star. Neither is completely essential to the Xindi arc, even though both have strong thematic ties to the larger questions of the season. However, they are both highly enjoyable adventures that stand rather well on their own, and fit comfortably with the aesthetic (if not the plot arc) of the third season as a whole.

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If the plot arc is messy, then the character arcs are all over the place. It feels like the writing staff might have been better served to plot some of these dynamics out ahead of time, because most of the major characters tend to shift dramatically between early episodes of the season. Archer is ready to torture a prisoner in Anomaly, but is worried about killing zombified Vulcans in Impulse. He is willing to grow a clone of Trip that he can organ-harvest in Similitude, but is relaxed enough to let a bunch of suicide bombers past security in Chosen Realm.

Similarly, Trip’s arc tends to move backwards and forwards, depending on who is writing the script at a given moment in time. Episodes like The Xindi and Twilight emphasise that Trip is interested in retribution and revenge against the Xindi; however, his conversation with Shran in Proving Ground suggests that he has actually reconciled himself to the possibility of a peaceful solution to the current crisis. Nevertheless, Trip is back to angry and bitter in The Forgotten and The Council so that he can work through those emotions.

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T’Pol suffers the worst from all this. It seems like the writers have never had any idea about what to do with T’Pol. The script for The Expanse teased an exiting and confident direction for the character, proposing that T’Pol might serve as the voice of the optimism and utopianism inherent to the Star Trek franchise in contrast to the anger stirring in the hearts of her fellow crew members. The third season never develops this character arc, instead choosing to turn T’Pol into a drug addict during the final third of the season.

These are all perfectly legitimate criticisms of the third season, and they all serve to qualify the season’s successes. However, the third season of Enterprise largely work. Dedicating a season-long arc to an extended metaphor for the War on Terror was a risky proposition. After all, the third season began only days before the second anniversary of 9/11; those feelings were still fresh to most Americans. Star Trek fandom tends to celebrate the franchise’s legacy of social commentary, but only when it gets the “right” answer.

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The original Star Trek engaged with the Vietnam War as it was happening. Many fans point to the anti-war messages of episodes like A Taste of Armageddon and Errand of Mercy as an example of Star Trek at its best; however, those same fans tend to gloss over the jingoism of stories like The Apple or The Omega Glory. Trying to engage with contemporary politics is a risky venture. Sometimes you end up on the wrong side of history almost immediately, broadcasting A Private Little War within days of the Tet Offensive.

There is some worth in trying to engage with the big issues of the time, even if that engagement is clumsy or awkward. The third season of Enterprise kicked off less than a year following the invasion of Iraq; the ink was not dry on history, yet. Chosing to grapple with something that big and that recent takes a lot of courage, no matter how it ultimately plays out. For all the flaws with the season, Enterprise deserves a great deal of credit for handling such a crucial issue so directly.

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The broad arc of the season is fascinating and compelling. One of the big issues with Enterprise is the sense that show is increasingly outdated in a changing world. This refers both to the political climate of the early twenty-first century, but also to the shifting demands of television. The first two seasons of Enterprise were very staid and old-fashioned, anchored in a sensibility more suited to the early nineties than the new millennium. The third season finds Enterprise wondering what twenty-first century Star Trek might look like.

This is evident in both the structure and the content of the story. The idea of a season-long arc was surprisingly bold for a Star Trek show in 2003. Television was becoming increasingly serialised, and the Star Trek franchise had remained largely episodic – with the obvious exception of Deep Space Nine. While Deep Space Nine was undoubtedly a major influence on the third season of Enterprise, it is important to stress that this was a slightly different narrative experiment than the Dominion War had been.

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Deep Space Nine gets a lot of (mostly deserved) credit for embracing serialisation during its run. However, it is possible to overstate just how serialised the show was. Broadly speaking, the Dominion War was more of a new status quo than a long-form story. The six-episode “Occupation” arc at the start of the sixth season and the ten-hour “Final Chapter” arc at the end of seventh season wer heavily serialised; however, most of th show took place away from the front lines telling stories that tended to treat the conflict as an event colouring (rather than dictating) the action.

For example, it would be possible to shift around most of the “non-event” episodes of the Dominion War without breaking internal continuity. The Siege of AR-558 could easily be moved to another system and set during the sixth season; the writers would just have to port It’s Only a Paper Moon back with it. Inquisition could be moved around quite easily, with only the details of the accusations against Bashir changing as the writers adjusted it. This is not to diminish these episodes, simply to distinguish between what Deep Space Nine did and what Enterprise attempted.

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While the third season of Enterprise is not always elegant in how it integrates the individual episodes into the arc, there is a conscious effort to provide a sense of forward momentum. There is very much an “a leads to b leads to c” internal logic that ties together even mediocre episodes like Rajiin and disappointing episodes like Carpenter Street. The show does not forget about those stories, even if they are ultimately rather embarrassing when taken on their own terms. There is a learning curve involved, as with anything, but it works surprisingly well.

Again, there is a sense that at least some of these problems are a result of choices that the production team made at various intervals. If there were any Deep Space Nine writers currently working on the staff – or if an effort had been made to cultivate and preserve the experience learned in the writers’ room on Deep Space Nine – it seems that plotting the arc of the third season would have been a lot easier for all involved. Rick Berman and Brannon Braga did consult with Ira Steven Behr towards the end of the second season; he might have been of more use.

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Similarly, it might have been easier to structure the season if the show had actually experimented with long-form storytelling in the first two seasons. The first two years of Enterprise were incredibly conservative in terms of storytelling and narrative, so it is no wonder the production team struggled to adapt to the demands of a different style of Star Trek. Still, even allowing for these issues, the third season holds together quite well. It could definitely hold together better than it ultimately does, but it is not bad for an improvised first attempt.

The final seven-episode stretch holds together remarkably well. Much like the “Occupation” and “Final Chapter” arcs on Deep Space Nine, the story ebbs and flows from episode to episode. Still, there is a clear sense of momentum and purpose to the plotting. Even serves an important thematic point in the context of the show’s arc. It exists to suggest that there must be a future for the show and the characters outside the Xindi arc and that it is vitally important for the show to find a satisfyingly optimistic resolution to this plot.

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Much of the third season plays as an extended metaphor for the difficulties facing the production and development of Enterprise. The beating that the ship and crew take in Azati Prime perhaps captures the feeling of those working on the show, facing constant media speculation about an increasingly inevitable cancellation. The funeral service that opens The Forgotten was broadcast just as speculation was heating up about whether Enterprise would manage to secure a fourth season at UPN.

The future was a recurring anxiety for the series. Scripts like Twilight, Stratagem and suggested that the very future of the franchise was in doubt. Daniels showed up in both Azati Prime and Zero Hour to assure Archer that he was a vital and important part of the Star Trek canon, a canon that was under threat from any number of outside forces. The first season of Enterprise had launched to considerable fanfare, but the third season finds itself under fire from all sides. The franchise’s future is all but certain.

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The third season of Enterprise is not only confronting the challenges of serialisation. It is also trying to figure out how to integrate the franchise’s utopian idealism with a cynical political landscape. The first two seasons of Enterprise pretended that it was business as usual and that nothing had changed, leading to tone-deaf metaphors like The Seventh and The Crossing. Even acknowledging the changing context of Star Trek in a post-9/11 world was a big step for the franchise.

Again, it largely works. It works a lot better than most commentators might have expected. Early episodes like The Shipment make it clear that Enterprise will not be completely abandoning the hope inherent to the Star Trek franchise. It is quite clear that Archer must find a diplomatic solution to the crisis, and that any other attempt to resolve the situation will just cost more lives. The larger arc of the season is resolved in The Council, when Archer addresses the leadership of the Xindi and finds common ground upon which an alliance might be brokered.

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For all that the third season of Enterprise represents a departure from the established Star Trek template, it is largely a story about the show trying to find a way back to itself. There are a number of recurring motifs that populate the season. In Harbinger and , Mayweather has trouble finding the stars by which he might navigate; in Azati Prime and The Forgotten, Archer yearns to return to a mission of peaceful exploration. As easy as it is to dismiss the third season of Enterprise as “grim and gritty”, it is also an endorsement of traditional Star Trek values.

There are, inevitably, a few missteps along the way. The imperialist and racist subtext of Extinction would be unjustifiable in any context, but it is particularly embarrassing in the context of a season about the War on Terror. The handling of religion (and religious fanaticism) in scripts like Chosen Realm and The Council is particularly shallow and superficial, treating spirituality with all the nuance of Who Mourns for Adonais? or The Apple. Even in the context of 2003/2004, there have been more care taken.

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Similarly, the presentation of the reptile!Xindi and the insect!Xindi feels rather shallow in light of the larger themes of the season. The third season of Enterprise suggests that it is possible to reach a mutual understanding between societies that initially appears to be openly hostile or radically opposed. Over the course of the season, Degra goes from a weapons designer responsible for seven million deaths to the proponent of peaceful coexistence. Trip comes to forgive the man who built the weapon that killed his sister.

In contrast, the reptile!Xindi and the insect!Xindi are repeatedly and consistently portrayed as distinctly “other.” They are the Xindi who show up when the third season needs unquestioned “bad guys” in episodes like Rajiin or Twilight or Carpenter Street. When Archer tries to preserve a nursery full of insect!Xindi children in Hatchery, it is not a gesture of compassion or good-will; it is because he has been affected by chemicals designed to alter his behaviour. The third season repeatedly suggests that peace with reptile!Xindi and insect!Xindi is impossible.

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This is obviously highly problematic within a season that is designed as a metaphor for the War on Terror. The third season of Enterprise suggests that it might be possible to understand and forgive the enemy, but only if the enemy looks like you. The season suggests that there are some enemies who are just so “other” and “alien” that they are beyond reconciliation or negotiation. This issue is reinforced by the decision to turn Dolim into a villain for the sake of having a season villain; he is not allowed the complexity afforded Dukat or Damar, for example.

That said, the decision to turn the reptile!Xindi into two-dimensional baddies does serve a clear purpose. As much as the arc of the third season is about Enterprise finding its way back to traditional Star Trek values, the constraints imposed on the writing team meant that the third season was always going to need an action-driven climax. While The Council wraps up a lot of the thematic arc of the third season, Countdown and Zero Hour exist to provide the requisite thrills. As such, it is quite handy to have ready-made baddies that Archer doesn’t feel guilty about killing.

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This is not to excuse the issues caused by this portrayal, merely to put them in context. After all, the third season of Enterprise finds the franchise embracing its pulp sensibilities. The reptile!Xindi look like villains from an old sci-fi movie serial or comic book, with their green skin and purple robes. The weapon itself is ultimately just another version of the Death Star. The aquatic!Xindi are characterised in a manner similar to the Guild Navigators in Frank Herbert’s Dune.

This pulpy aesthetic extends even beyond the central arc. The third season of Enterprise enthusiastically embraces the goofier aspects of Star Trek with reckless abandon. Impulse is basically a zombie episode; North Star is a literal space western; Exile is a gothic horror take on Beauty and the Beast. These are all concepts that feel very much in line with the trashier side of the original Star Trek show, but which would seem completely out of place on any of the other spin-offs.

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It is difficult to imagine a season of Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Voyager that would climax with Picard or Janeway wrestling with an evil lizard man on top of a giant bomb in orbit of Earth. While the holodeck provided a convenient excuse for (carefully regulated) silliness in the later spin-offs, it seems unlikely that any of the shows would have gotten away with so blatant an homage to Arena or The Squire of Gothos. There was a change in the air, and that change arguably made the fourth season possible.

The third season definitely marked a turning point in how the production team approached the aesthetic of the original Star Trek. They certainly seemed less wary of being labelled “weird” or “odd.” During the second season, the producers had vetoes Mike Sussman’s plans to include the Defiant in Future Tense. By the time the fourth season came around, the show would let Sussman build a two-parter around that piece of classic Star Trek continuity in In a Mirror, Darkly.

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That said, the pulp sensibility was not always a good thing. Extinction is one of the pulpiest episodes of the season with its lost cities and dead civilisations, but it is steeped in the same sort of imperialism and xenophobia that underscored a lot of those trashier colonial adventures. Similarly, it could be argued that T’Pol’s drug addiction subplot in Damage is part of a larger attempt to ramp up the trashy melodrama around her relationship to Trip, a creative choice that inevitably feels exploitative and crass.

Yet, despite all these qualifications, there is an energy and vibrancy to the third season. It seems like Enterprise has really embraced its potential. The show is no longer simply an imitation of The Next Generation or Voyager. Even with its similarities to Deep Space Nine, it is something utterly unique within the Star Trek canon. This is the sort of adventurous and ambitious storytelling that the show really needed during its first season. It is not flawless, but at least it is not simply going through the motions.

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When the third season works, it is transcendental. When the third season doesn’t work, it is generally making its own mistakes. That has to be worth celebrating.

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10 Responses

  1. I don’t I could totally picture Janeway wrestling with a lizard man. Remember, she was engaged in a battle with a hirogen wearing a nazi uniform. Voyager can be quite pulpy.
    Excellent analysis of the Star Trek season I ever watched.

    • With VOY, there is a constant sense of taking the piss out of Star Trek.

      I’d like to say VOY was comfortable in its skin, less afraid of pissing off the TOS fans and others who took Gene’s utopia so seriously. But the cynic in me knows that’s not the case.

      Star Trek is one of the most derivative series out there… B5 was no longer on the air. So now we’re competing with SG-1 and that pulpy, self-aware mockery it was known for..

      In the early Aughts, sci-fi was on life support, and Braga had nowhere to turn but the counter-terrorism theme. And so it went.

      • I’m not sure I’d describe Voyager as “taking the piss out of” so much as “fundamentally misunderstanding why fans liked Star Trek.” Some of the final three seasons could seem a little mean-spirited, with Night serving as a particularly vindictive farewell to the Jeri Taylor years, but I think the first four seasons honestly had the best of intentions when it came to producing Star Trek. It’s just that those intentions weren’t backed up with a solid understanding of how or why the franchise works and were undercut by a toxic complacency that assumed the franchise was pretty much unsinkable.

    • Thanks William.

      That’s a good point about Janeway. She also hunted giant viruses. Having rewatched them recently, the first three seasons of Voyager have a delightfully odd feeling to them, with transporter accidents and weird science. Never quite as pulpy as the final two seasons of Enterprise, but it is rather distinct from TNG or DS9.

      • Ah yes, the giant viruses. The effects reminded me of the langolier effects in the Stephen king miniseries of the same name. The effects were equally terrible. Threshold actually had good makeup.

  2. I really like your detailed reviews of the seasons and individual episodes, especially since you don’t treat Enterprise as just a hollow void of useless garbage like a lot do. While it’s certainly not a great show, and on the bottom tier of the Trek franchise (I personally rank it a teensy bit above Voyager though), it has some good moments, some good episodes and some dare I say inspiring ideas. I was wondering though, ever going to do season 4? How do you think it compares to Season 3? If someone says anything positive on ENT, it’s usually to praise the final season.

    • Funny you should mention that! I’m writing the reviews now. They’ll be starting early May, once I finish the episodes carried over from Season Two of Voyager. I want to say the fourth or fifth of May?

  3. Actually, I’m watching the Trek shows on and off (in a non-linear fashion) on Netflix, and I think I’m leaning a bit more that ENT’s best is actually season 3 and not 4. Now I like the concept and the plots of season 4 technically more, the prequel plot of building toward the Federation is more interesting than anything to do with the nonsensical Temporal Cold War, and my favorite individual episodes are probably still the Romulan and Terra Prime two parters, the best character development (out of really mediocre characters mind you) and action and excitement is in the third season, which honestly is a pretty impressive season given what ENT had to work with. I think Twilight and The Forgotten btw are also some of my favorite episodes in Trek

    • I really like the idea that bubbles through the fourth season that we’ve reached a point where the Federation is actually a subversive idea. Like “imagine a world where people got along and worked together in common interest… how CRAZY would that be?” It’s a nice approach, and it sort of echoes through the best episodes of the fourth season.

      But, at the same time, I’m a sucker for the third season’s “Star Trek is taking a battering, this is not what we were meant to be, but we kinda have to find our way back to what we want to be” arc. The Forgotten is massively underrated, as is Twilight.

      But I’ll admit that I even like some of the third season episodes that everybody is supposed to hate. I like the vaguely deconstructionist western of North Star, if only because it’s nice to see the franchise engaging with its roots while acnowledging the the old west was probably not a nice place. (This was before Django Unchained popularised melding the western with movies about slavery, so it’s good to see that tackled even obliquely.) And I kinda like Exile because it’s such a weird little episode that harks back to the Lovecraftian vibes of TOS while touching on some nice gender politics stuff.

    • I like the way ENT handles the formation of the Federation, even if we barely get to see it since the series was cut short. Instead of the naive “oh you’re an alien race, lets hold hands” approach most of Trek had previously (although much of Trek in general is naive admittedly) exhibited, it’s species largely at each others throats wanting to kill each other forced to fight a bigger threat that leads them to the tables. Just a refreshing take on Trek, with some pretty good episodes to boot. Again, way more interesting than the Temporal Cold War or Xindi, IMO.

      I’m not sure if “The Forgotten” is that underrated. Here’s a semi popular YouTuber who ranks it along the likes of “Yesterday’s Enterprise” and “Beyond the Pale Moonlight”, which if you’ve seen David Goodmans infamous Futurama episode, is probably a death penalty offense in the future Star Trek religion: https://youtu.be/kY4uXDHBjMs?t=10m4s

      As for North Star, I dislike it I admit, esp as its actually largely a rip off of a bad VOY episode, but I did enjoy your take on the episode. Season 3 is weaker overall than Season 4 simply because half its episodes are unnecessary and unremarkable while the majority of 4 IMO is good, with its more unremarkable episodes still being decent. However objectively (though not my favorite episodes of the series) the two truly standout episodes of the entire series are Twilight and Forgotten, for acting and being pretty exciting.

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