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Star Trek: Enterprise – Borderland (Review)

This May, we’re taking a look at the fourth (and final) season of Star Trek: Enterprise. Check back daily for the latest review.

Borderland establishes the format that will come to define the fourth season of Star Trek: Enterprise; the mini-arc, a single story told over two or three episodes before moving along to the next adventure.

Technically speaking, Storm Front, Part I and Storm Front, Part II established the format for the season. However, the franchise had done multi-part season premieres before. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was particularly fond of the format, seguing from a status quo altering season finale into a multi-part season opener; The Homecoming, The Circle, The Siege, The Search, Part I, The Search, Part II, The Way of the Warrior, Image in the Sand, Shadows and Symbols. This is to say nothing of the massive six episode arc that opened the sixth season.

Put your hands together for Mister Brent Spiner.

Put your hands together for Mister Brent Spiner.

Borderland represents a departure because it signals that the fourth season of Enterprise will be comprised entirely of multi-episode stories. Historically, Star Trek shows had typically done one or two multi-part stories in a season, give or take a cliffhanger to bridge two years of the show. The fourth season of Enterprise would tell seven multi-part stories eating up seventeen episodes of the twenty-two episode season order. It was certainly a bold departure for the series and the franchise.

In fact, Borderland begins the franchise’s first three-part episode since the second season of Deep Space Nine. (Although determined fans could likely stretch logic a little to suggest that Tears of the Prophets or Zero Hour were season finales that formed a three-parter when tied into the two-part premieres that followed.) It is a curious departure, and one that immediately helps to establish the fourth season of Enterprise as something quite distinct.

A slave to continuity...

A slave to continuity…

The third season of Enterprise had been a bold departure for the franchise, the first attempt to construct a full season-length narrative for the franchise. The results were a mixed bag, with the arc suffering from the fact that the production team failed to map a rough guide to the season ahead of time. The early stretch of the third season seemed to be given over to narrative dead-ends and weird standalone stories that did little to advance the plot. However, the production team eventually found their pace.

In fact, it seems like the fourth season learned a lot from the plotting mistakes made during that early stretch of the third season. Although the fourth season is not a single continuing story arc, it is clear that the writer have an idea of where they want to go with these stories. Home is technically a standalone story positioned halfway between the third and fourth seasons, but it also manages to set up plot points that echo through many fourth season stories and which even pay off during the season’s final two-parter, Demons and Terra Prime.

Life in Brent-Spiner-wood.

Life in Brent-Spiner-wood.

Still, even as the fourth season learns from the third season, it also declines to copy that basic structure. When Rick Berman and Brannon Braga sent Archer back to an alternate version of the Second World War in Zero Hour, Berman suggested that the ship and crew could treat that as a jumping off point into another season-long arc. Manny Coto declined the invitation, and instead decided to deal with that plot thread within a single two-part story before returning the crew to the twenty-third century where he might begin to tell his own stories.

Even though Coto opted not to tell one single unified story across twenty-two episodes, the fourth season was still a highly serialised bit of television. This is obvious in a number of respects, both subtle and overt. Plot threads and elements bubble through the season, occasionally paying off in the most unlikely of places. For example, Home sets up the launch of the Columbia under Captain Erica Hernandez, which becomes a plot point in Affliction and Divergence. Those same two episodes tie back into the hijacking of the Bird of Prey at the start of Borderland.

A new direction...

A new direction…

However, the most overt example of this serialisation was the decision to structure the season as a collection of mini-arcs, a number of two- and three-parters that would tell stories using a wider canvass than Star Trek usually afforded its production team. However, as Mike Sussman concedes in the documentary Before Her Time, the decision was not motivated purely creative by creative concerns:

The budget, season four, had been cut. So there was a question of how maintain the quality that Star Trek fans in particular expect to see. It ended up being a blessing in disguise, because you could then take a story that instead of just doing it as a one-parter you could do it as a two-parter or a three-parter so you could amortise sets. You could build sets that were more fantastic. You could rebuild the original bridge for the mirror universe show because you were going to use it for two episodes. You could spend more time getting into these characters, and these worlds, and learn more about the Vulcans because you were now spending more time on Vulcan. The advantage of doing a two- or three-hour “movie” spread over a couple of episodes… you could tell a really fantastic story in that amount of time, and do it with an almost cinematic feel. And I wish we’d done more of that. I wish we’d done it earlier.

The multi-episode format was very much a concession to help save money, in the same way that transitioning from shooting on film to shooting on digital was a cost-saving measure and much like the studio’s efforts to keep the series afloat by funneling money directly from licensing was a cost-saving measure. In a way, this is an insight into how the mechanics of television work; how important narrative decisions are dictated by economic and political necessity.

It has been twenty-eight episodes since our last relaunch.

It has been twenty-eight episodes since our last relaunch.

It helps that contemporary audiences were becoming more comfortable with long-form storytelling on television. HBO series like The Sopranos had demonstrated that audiences and critics would respond to a television series that could tell a single unfolding story across multiple episodes. While HBO was still very much a boutique television channel, there were signs that the mainstream was moving in that direction as well. Although it had a rocky first season, 24 was in the process of becoming a ratings juggernaut with its ticking clock serialisation.

There were lots of reasons that audiences and networks were more accepting of serialised storytelling on prime time television. In May 2004, TiVo stunned the industry by boasting that it could recruit ten million users within four years. By 2008, there were over seventy-five million viewers using TiVo or an equivalent service; by 2013, there were more than one hundred and ten. The ability to record and store shows directly off television encouraged the model of consumption now widely known as “binging.” DVD only made the option more appealing.

"Can we get HBO up here?"

“Can we get HBO up here?”

However, it seemed like the season-long arc was not ideally suited for television series with mass appeal. After all, it is unreasonable to expect the average television view to consume twenty (or more) episodes in a single sitting. Most of the successful serialised television dramas of the early twenty-first century tended to strike a balance between episodic narratives and the demands of a long-form story. Lost is perhaps the best example of this, balancing a series-long mystery with more immediate smaller arcs and character-driven flashback episodes.

Many of the shows built around single long-form narratives struggled to find and audience and were cancelled in their first seasons: The Event, Flashforward, AlcatrazRevolutionTerra Nova. The key seemed to be finding the golden mean. The early seasons of 24 generally told two stories across a twenty-four episode season, and struggled to find an audience. It was only when the series started structuring the season around short contained four-episode “bursts” that 24 really took off as a phenomenon.

"Trip, I'm going to need a cupholder installed if we're going to binge House of Cards on the viewer."

“Trip, I’m going to need a cupholder installed if we’re going to binge House of Cards on the viewer.”

Three or four episodes seems like the optimum amount of episodes for “binge” watching. Three episodes of a forty-minute television show amounts to about two hours; that is roughly the length of a good movie. It is possible to sit down and consume three or four episodes without feeling guilty in the same way that one might after a full thirteen- or eighteen-hour binge. In fact, it is perfectly reasonable for most people to set aside two- or three- hours after work, rather than committing to an entire day.

(This is perhaps why contemporary audiences seem to have adapted so readily to the shorter season orders and why shorter BBC seasons are so perfectly suited to this model of consumption. Consuming a full twenty-odd episode season in three- or four-episode chunks would take a full week’s commitment. In contrast, most thirteen-episode seasons can be consumed in more “reasonable” chunks over a typical weekend. It is no coincidence that Netflix are prone to release their thirteen-episode seasons on a Friday, expecting customers to watch it over the weekend.)

"You're the pineapple guy, aren't you?"

“You’re the pineapple guy, aren’t you?”

There is a certain giddy thrill to this format for the fourth season of Enterprise, one that seems particularly suited to the show’s much stronger performance on time-shifted viewing than on weekly broadcast. Indeed, there is something oddly appropriate about Enterprise transitioning into a model of smaller multi-episode arcs. The third and fourth seasons of Enterprise found the show embracing its pulpier side, what with evil space reptiles and evil space Nazis, not to mention slave girls and space cowboys. The structure of the fourth season seems to reflect this shift.

The result is something that feels more like the old-fashioned pulp science-fiction “serials”, right down the somewhat perfunctory cliffhangers between episodes. Cold Station 12 features a particularly underwhelming cliffhanger that seems to exist merely because the break between the second and third episodes in the story happened to fall at that point; there is a sense that the cliffhanger might be dramatically improved with some old-time peril music playing over a montage as an announcer encourages the audience to tune in same time next week.

Orion needs catsuits!

Orion needs catsuits!

After all, the format of the old film serials was typically to put familiar characters through multiple serialised adventures. The studios did not release one single long-form story featuring particular characters and actors, instead releasing multiple long-form serials. There was not one single Batman or Zorro serial that spread across years; there were several individual stories that were serialised in a dozen or so instalments released across a year. (Coto even nods towards the format in Storm Front, Part I by having Hoshi intercept “something called The Shadow.”)

To pick the most famous example, Universe released three massively successful serials during the thirties that featured the character of Flash Gordon and a recurring ensemble. Flash Gordon was a thirteen-part adventure originally serialised in 1936, later condensed into a ninety-odd minute Flash Gordon: Rocketship. Two years later, Universal released the thirteen-part Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars, which was later broadcast on television as Space Soldiers’ Trip to Mars. 1940 saw the release of Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe.

A page turner.

A page turner.

That pulp science-fiction aesthetic is reflected in more than just the format of the episode. Borderland is an episode that revels in old timey science-fiction tropes, with Arik Soong cast as a mad scientist while Archer is thrown into conflict with a bunch of evil slavers. There is very much a “zap! pow!” science-fiction aesthetic to the episode, with T’Pol getting to take down a bulk Orion played by Big Time and Archer executing a beautifully set up gag with Soong’s magnetic handcuffs. It is a lighter and funner sort of action than the drama that drove the third season.

It makes a certain amount of sense for the final season of Enterprise to adopt a format that so explicitly evokes the classic serials. The fourth season is very much dedicated to establishing Enterprise as a sequel to the original Star Trek, going so far as to explain how the Klingons lost their ridges and offer a capsule history of the Federation. However, the adventure serial format allows Enterprise to consciously evoke a format associated with an earlier type of pulp science-fiction entertainment.

Remote reaches of the quadrant.

Remote reaches of the quadrant.

Those science-fiction serials were part of the history of science-fiction before the début of Star Trek, and are as much a part of the franchise’s history and origin as anything involving Vulcans and Klingons. In Star Trek FAQ, Mark Clark argues that these serials were a formative influence on Gene Roddenberry’s science-fiction show:

The influence of Flash Gordon becomes most apparent when the Enterprise squares off against the evil galactic empires of the Klingons and Romulans in episodes such as Errand of Mercy and The Enterprise Incident, or when Kirk battles alien monsters in rock-’em, sock-’em yarns like Arena (featuring the Gorn, a giant lizard) and A Private Little War (with the Mugato, a horn-headed white gorilla). But the underlying concept of space travelers venturing to new worlds, meeting strange creatures (some friendly, others hostile), getting into various predicaments and often having to slug their way out is straight out of Flash Gordon.

There is something quite appropriate about bringing those references back to bear on a season explicitly set up to serve as a prequel to that classic show. The third and fourth seasons of Enterprise find the show engaging with a pulpier design aesthetic. In this three-parter, that aesthetic plays through the rich purple colour scheme of the eponymous research facility in Cold Station 12, a design that looks like a compromise between contemporary and sixties design.

"Hello, I'm looking for an audience. Have you seen them anywhere?"

“Hello, I’m looking for an audience. Have you seen them anywhere?”

Still, there is a clear sense that Enterprise struggles a bit with the three-parter format. The production team have difficulty mapping out a story so that it fits within the three part structure. Borderland, Cold Station 12 and The Augments are a weird fit for an extended three-part adventure. To be fair, The ForgeAwakening and Kir’Shara fit the format a lot better, while Babel OneUnited and The Aenar are structured a bit more carefully to avoid padding or over-extension.

However, the story that begins with Borderland feels relatively slight for an epic three-part saga, particularly given that later stories like Affliction and Divergence or Demons and Terra Prime are conform to the more traditional two-part structure. This story does not feel particularly “bigger” than either of those two examples. That said, it is telling that the second half of the season largely focuses on two- rather than three-parters, whether due to the limited number of episodes for the available stories or because the writing staff found two-parters easier.

Now we're in the Big Time.

Now we’re in the Big Time.

Stretching a story like this out to three parts takes a lot of work. There is a lot of padding to be found in the Borderland three-parter. The most obvious example is the amount of time that is spent in the laboratory in Cold Station 12, turning a minor diversion into a full-length episode, but there are lots of smaller examples of the show trying the stretch out the story to fill the one-hundred-and-twenty minute runtime. The character of Smike in Cold Station 12 is a narrative dead end, but the stretch marks are obvious even in Borderland itself.

The entire subplot focusing on the politics within the Augment group feels like a narrative dead end. Malik’s power play against Raakin feels like pure filler. It is an arc with a preordained conclusion, given that Raakin is far too reasonable to serve as an antagonist for this three-part story and Malik was introduced beating up a whole ship full of Klingons. It could be argued that the arc exists to demonstrate that Malik is violent and duplicitous, but that would be obvious even without all the awkward intrigue.

Disrupting your viewing habits.

Disrupting your viewing habits.

More than that, it undercuts Malik’s eventual confrontation with Archer towards the climax of Borderland. It would be much more exciting to have Malik show up out of the blue towards the end of the episode, rescuing Soong from the Enterprise and beating up Archer on his own ship. Keeping Malik hidden for a little while after that teaser would allow the episode to build suspense around him, making the character a bit more mysterious rather than treating him like a teenager throwing a tantrum.

To be fair, a lot of this is down to the fact that Malik and his fellow Augments are not really that interesting. They are fairly generic bad guys, one of the franchise’s less successful attempts to replicate the raw charisma that made Khan Noonien Singh such a compelling antagonist. Some of that is simply down to the realities of casting; as Ricardo Montalban substitutes go, Alec Newman is no Benedict Cumberbatch or Tom Hardy. However, a lot of that is simply writing. The Augments never feel like fully-formed characters.

Malik aforethought.

Malik aforethought.

After all, the focus on characters like Soval or Shran in later three-part stories is nowhere near as distracting as the focus on the Augments in this three-parter. On a superficial level, the audience is already invested in Shran or Soval in a way that they are not invested in Malik. However, Shran and Soval feel a lot more nuanced and developed than Malik and his motley crew. This is to say nothing of the fact that Jeffrey Combs and Gary Graham feel a lot more comfortable in their roles than Alec Newman does here.

Even within Borderland, this charisma deficit is quite apparent. The entire plot of Borderland could be described as padding. Archer’s encounter with the Orion Syndicate is very much a dead-end designed to stall the plot so that the Enterprise crew do not encounter Malik and his Augments too early. However, the plot affords the audience (and the cast) the opportunity to spend time with Arik Soong. Brent Spiner is having great fun in the part, and Soong is a joy to watch, even if his casting might seem a little cynical. Any time spent with Soong is enjoyable.

"He's going to play a droid and I'm a 'noid."

“He’s going to play a droid and I’m a ‘noid.”

While there are definitely some issues with the pacing and management of these gigantic three-part episodes, there is no denying that the format has its advantages. John Billingsley was quite fond of the format:

“I think the idea of having the multi-episode arcs was the best way of having your cake and eating it too, getting some kind of a sustained narrative drive which you can’t do in any standalone episodes, and not necessarily tying up a whole season the way we did in season three when we were chasing the Xindi. I thought some of the best work of the season was, for instance, the two or three episodes about the race of supermen with Brent Spiner (TNG’s Data, and in Enterprise Doctor Noonien Soong). And I thought the Vulcan arc where [T’Pol’s] mother died was very strong.”

While the three-episode format does mean lots of padding and stretching of the material, it also affords room for smaller character interactions and exchanges that would not necessarily be possible had the story been condensed to a leaner two episodes.

Bidding the show farewell.

Bidding the show farewell.

For example, it seems unlikely that the little thread about Trip and T’Pol’s relationship would have survived a more utilitarian cut of the episode, with the references to a Vulcan “honeymoon” making it clear that their romantic attraction will not be going away simply because T’Pol went through with the ceremony at the end of Home. The fourth season gets a lot of credit for its integration with larger Star Trek continuity, but it also does an excellent job of maintaining internal continuity in a way that approaches the storytelling of Deep Space Nine.

The extended also affords a more involved exploration of the story’s themes. The Borderland trilogy allows a more nuanced and considered exploration of genetic engineering than earlier stories. While Star Trek has traditionally been wary of transhumanism, the extra space in episodes like Cold Station 12 and The Augments allows for more reasonable debates on the merits of the process; the repeated references to Denobulan genetic engineering or Archer’s father are a very nice demonstration of the potential to use that research for a good purpose.

A narrative dead end...

A narrative dead end…

Arik Soong was a relatively late addition to the plot of the three-parter, as Manny Coto explained in Before Her Time:

I’m pretty sure that the Eugenics Wars and Doctor Soong… I can’t remember who came up with Doctor Soong, because I think Doctor Soong was an addition. I originally wanted to do Colonel Green. Colonel Green, for some reason, I have a fetish for Colonel Green. I can’t describe it, but I’ve always found him a fascinating character because there’s this dark… he’s like a Hitler. In the original series, when they mention Colonel Green, it’s like, ‘Oooh, the Federation had a Hitler in it. That’s fascinating.’ So the original character of Soong was going to be Colonel Green, then we heard that Brent Spiner wanted to do a series, so we changed the character to Doctor Soong. I think it might have been the Reeves-Stevens who came up with the Soong idea, I don’t remember. Either way, that’s how that arc came about.

Coto’s interest in Colonel Green bubbles across the season; the character even makes an appearance in Demons.

Klingon to the old ways...

Klingon to the old ways…

It is hard to imagine the Borderland trilogy working anywhere near as well with a character like Colonel Green. After all, the character had been introduced in The Savage Curtain as one of the most evil men who ever lived. While it might have been possible to give the character something approaching a redemptive arc, it seems highly unlikely that the three episodes could have painted Colonel Green as anything resembling a tragic figure. Soong is very much the emotional centre of the arc, which is a nice use of Brent Spiner.

Of course, the casting of Brent Spiner in the role is very much stunt casting for the show. However, it is a very particular form of stunt casting, akin to Manny Coto’s desire to include Jack Donner in Home and Kir’Shara. It is an example of Enterprise connecting with its own legacy as a Star Trek show. Brent Spiner is only the tip of that iceberg. In a Mirror, Darkly, Part I and In a Mirror, Darkly, Part II arose from plans for William Shatner to guest star. In These Are the Voyages…, Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis pop by.

"Brent Spiner's not the only veteran Star Trek guest star to stop by!"

“Brent Spiner’s not the only veteran Star Trek guest star to stop by!”

Spiner’s guest role resulted from Rick Berman reaching out to the actor:

Um… you know, I think Rick Berman just called me and asked me if I wanted to do the show, and he said they’d write an arc if I’d do it. And they’d pay me well. [Laughs.] And I said, “Sure, I’ll do that! Do I have to wear a lot of makeup?” And he said no, so I said okay. They were nicely written and nicely directed episodes. I enjoyed working with Scott [Bakula]. So it was good to do, and, as you said, it did serve to enhance the Soong legacy.

Spiner’s willingness to do the guest appearance was a nice gesture to the show, a way of conferring legitimacy upon it.

Make sure you have all the necessary data to make a decision.

Make sure you have all the necessary data to make a decision.

After all, Data was (and remains) one of the most iconic Star Trek characters. Of course, no Star Trek character will ever be as iconic as Kirk or Spock. However, the cultural impact of Star Trek: The Next Generation is frequently dismissed or overlooked. The show was a massive phenomenon. It was not a “cult” show in the way that three subsequent spin-offs could be described as “cult” television. It a recognisable and iconic piece of nineties television. It was part of the pop cultural landscape.

Picard and Data were pop culture icons in a way that tends to be obscured by history and the series’ status as a science-fiction spin-off. Patrick Stewart was named “sexiest man alive” by TV Guide while the show was on the air. The series was popular enough to earn a high-definition remaster from scratch, even if sales were not quite high enough to justify a similar remaster of Deep Space Nine. If the reader will allow some minor wordplay, there is an entire generation of fans who grew up with The Next Generation as their Star Trek.

Problems materialise.

Problems materialise.

There are certainly criticisms that could be made about the first two years of Enterprise serving more as a prequel to The Next Generation (or a sequel to Star Trek: First Contact) than as a lead-in to the original Star Trek. Indeed, those criticisms circle back around in These Are the Voyages…, an episode that seems to treat The Next Generation as the alpha and omega of the franchise. It would be easy to read Brent Spiner’s guest appearance in the Borderland arc as part of that, on a purely superficial level.

However, the fourth season of Enterprise is careful to share the love when it comes to continuity and references. The fourth season definitely does not play as a prequel to The Next Generation rather than a prequel to the original Star Trek. Even within Borderland, Coto is careful to saturate the fourth season with references and nods to classic Star Trek continuity. The eponymous region of space recalls the “Triangle” from the FASA roleplaying game. Orion Slave Girls make their first reappearance since Whom the Gods Destroy…

"Go ahead. Make a pineapple joke."

“Go ahead. Make a pineapple joke.”

With that in mind, Brent Spiner’s guest appearance is very much an attempt to confer legitimacy upon Enterprise as a television show. In practical terms, actors like William Shatner or Leonard Nimoy or Patrick Stewart were never going to actually appear on the fourth live action spin-off. Manny Coto lacked the resources or leverage that JJ Abrams had when he attempted to coax Leonard Nimoy back for Star Trek, and – even then – Abrams was not able to secure William Shatner for even a cameo appearance.

In practical terms, Spiner is the best possible ambassador from the wider Star Trek franchise. In its own way, the Borderland trilogy is an attempt to do what The Next Generation did with Unification, Part I and Unification, Part II, tying the larger franchise together and integrating the show with its predecessors. Of course, Unification, Part I and Unification, Part II did not serve as the prelude to an entire season meditating upon the franchise’s history and continuity. (That said, Relics did air less than a year later.)

"And then Frakes says..."

“And then Frakes says…”

“You belong to the future, and someday you will fulfill humanity’s promise,” Soong informs his children during the teaser to Cold Station 12. There is considerable value in having Brent Spiner deliver that line on Enterprise, a series that was by all accounts dead in the water by this point in the run. The fact that the show had barely secured a fourth season on a dying networks suggested that Borderland was more than just a catchy title; it was a metaphorical expression of anxiety over the show’s place in the franchise. Spiner confers a legitimacy upon the show.

There are points at which Spiner’s guest appearance feels contrived. In its own way, the “identical grandparent” trope is as hackneyed or silly as anything involving the “decontamination chamber” in the show’s first two seasons and every bit as soap opera as any of the plotting involving Trip and T’Pol across the run of the fourth season. As with a lot of the continuity references in the fourth season, the casting of Spiner as Soong walks a fine line between affectionate homage and cynical fan service.

"How does Noonien sound as a name for a grandkid? Think I might need to wait for the stigma to wear off?"

“How does Noonien sound as a name for a grandkid? Think I might need to wait for the stigma to wear off?”

Indeed, The Augments leans a little bit too heavily into that fan service in Soong’s final scene. The final conversation between Soong and Archer serves to draw attention to the character’s place in franchise history. The fact that the character is named “Soong” and played by Brent Spiner should be more than enough, not to mention the thematic transhumanist links that exist between genetic engineering of the human genome and the field of advanced robotics. Nevertheless, the show strains to spell out the continuity connection in the bluntest possible terms.

“Perfecting humanity may not be possible,” he reflects. It is a line that should be enough to forge a connection between the work of Arik Soong and the work of Noonien Soong. (In fact, one of the subtlest elements of the three-parter is that it hints at why the Soong family might consider “Noonien” an appropriate first name.) However, the script pushes that even further. “Cybernetics,” Soong muses. “Artificial lifeforms.” This is already too much, but he elaborates, “I doubt I’ll finish the work myself. Might take a generation or two.”

Redemption Soong.

Redemption Soong.

At least Soong stops just short of literally saying the words “the next generation”, even if the meaning is clear. However, it is a somewhat hamfisted and heavy-handed reference. It is indicative of a recurring problem with the fourth season as a whole, a sense that the production team is unwilling to let any reference or thematic bridge remain implied when it can be explicitly articulated. The fourth season’s recurring fixation on a human-Vulcan hybrid child is another such example, as if Enterprise is impatiently awaiting the arrival of Spock.

And still, despite all of this, the guest casting largely works. A lot of this is down to the joy of seeing Spiner play a more ambiguous role than that of Data, which remains perhaps his most iconic performance. While The Next Generation afforded Spiner the opportunity to play ambiguous or villainous characters whenever the actor stepped into the roles of Noonien Soong or Lore, not to mention actor showcases like The Schizoid Man, Power Play or Masks, none of these diversions afforded Spiner the same space and freedom that he has with Arik Soong.

"I thought only Michael Dorn got to play with this set..."

“I thought only Michael Dorn got to play with this set…”

Of course, Spiner’s longstanding association with the franchise makes it impossible to divorce Soong from Data. Nevertheless, Soong is an interesting character in and of himself, affording Spiner the opportunity to play an emotional arc that was only loose implied in his work as Noonien Soong. Although there is a sense that there is only a three-part story built around Soong because of Spiner’s established relationship with the franchise, the character and the performance are interesting and engaging in their own right.

There is something delightfully perverse in bringing Brent Spiner back so that he might be cast in a role that is initially framed by reference to Hannibal Lecter. The initial meeting between Archer and Soong in the correctional facility at the start of Borderland is very clearly intended to evoke Anthony Hopkins’ iconic intellectual psychopath, although it seems fair to concede that Hopkins’ performance has been a significant influence on virtually every refined psychopath to appear in popular culture since the early nineties.

"Memory is what I have instead of a view. Luckily, this is the fourth season, so what a view!"

“Memory is what I have instead of a view. Luckily, this is the fourth season, so what a view!”

Nevertheless, the presentation of Soong’s cell is designed to recall that of Lecter. While Lecter covered the walls of his cell with artistic depictions of Florence, Soong covers his walls with notes and theories. Much like Chilton manipulates and goads Hannibal by stripping away those drawings, the administrators taunt Soong by clearing down his cell every once in a while. They tell Soong that his notes are burned, and there is a sense of perversity and cruelty to the practice as presented in Borderland, even if it is softened by revelations in The Augments.

Much like Lecter, Soong is presented as a dangerously intelligent and manipulative psychopath. His access to materials is strictly regulated. “I apologise for the clutter,” he tells Archer. “I’m not allowed traditional recording devices.” Much like Lecter converted a pen into a lock pick to enable his escape, Soong used a recording device in his last escape attempt. Soong teases, “On the rare occasion I get stuck on a problem, I find a vigorous escape attempt helps to clear the head.” Indeed, the entirety of Borderland is an elaborate escape attempt on the part of Soong.

"You'll have to excuse me. I was just composing my Lecter notes."

“You’ll have to excuse me. I was just composing my Lecter notes.”

In a way, this demonstrates the appeal of the three episode format. Although Cold Station 12 and The Augments work hard to render Soong as a more sympathetic and relatable character, the fact that this is a three-part story means that bulk of Borderland can be devoted to establishing Soong as a selfish and manipulative character with his own agenda at heart. Although the encounter with the Orions is something of a narrative dead-end, it serves the character well while fitting with the season’s format.

Borderland is very much a proof of concept for a new approach to Enterprise. Appropriately enough for an episode featuring the third relaunch of the eponymous starship in four seasons, Borderland sets a new course for the series.

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10 Responses

  1. “Some of that is simply down to the realities of casting; as Ricardo Montalban substitutes go, Alec Newman is no Benedict Cumberbatch or Tom Hardy. ”

    Eh, I think they did an okay job portraying the “augments”, IMO Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy were absolutely terrible in their roles as Khan and Picards evil twin..I mean clone, so in comparison this episode did a much better job.

    • To quote JK Simmons, the two worst words in the English language are ‘good job’.

      Star Trek is traditionally held to a higher pedigree than that. Even when the script lets the side down…even when a dodgy prop goes “phuft” and fails to impress…you always had those theatre-caliber actors to fall back on. It’s also a major reason why Star Trek was given a film franchise.

      At this point in the show’s life, Star Trek has been left in the dust by sci-fi action/action franchises such as Stargate, which took the pulpy elements and ran with them, and is basically showing up to the ball field after the game has already ended. In addition to that, they are now forced to make do with middling actors (sorry, but it’s the truth) and old hands from The Next Generation who, let’s be perfectly honest, probably aren’t juggling a very busy schedule.

      It’s not at all surprising that ENT turned into basically a ‘victory lap’ for the cast of TNG and DS9. They cost about the same as the nobodies we see every other week, but they can massage the scripts much better.

      • Your response has little to nothing to do with my comment. Your constant responses to me are getting more bizarre. You’re writing a lot of essays and analysis’s to me (and others). I think you take this stuff just a bit too seriously.

      • Btw, outside Patrick Stewart, when has Trek relied on “theatre-caliber actors”? Trek has always used nobody and frankly mediocre actors, outside the AbramTrek films.

      • Well, Shatner was a renowned theatrical actor when he was cast, to pick one example. Avery Brooks is an opera performer, right? I believe he also lectures on acting, to the point where he would even occasionally lecture over video link in his Starfleet uniform from the set.

        But the casting directors (and writers) have talked a great deal about how they found that stage training generally worked better than screen training for Star Trek actors and guest stars, in part because of the operatic nature of the material and perhaps because of the unreality of it and lack of emphasis on natural elements. Although not necessarily stage actors, I think Brent Spiner and Michael Dorn were both seen as comedy performers, and their performance styles sort of demonstrate that theatrical flourish.

      • You’re quite right about the TNG and DS9 ensembles being fantastic. A lot of what people love about the TNG cast really comes from the performances as much as the writing. Riker is Frakes, Crusher is McFadden and Geordi is Burton, to pick two examples.

        That said, I’m not quite as cynical about Enterprise (or indeed Voyager). But you’re right that the franchise changed too little too late for its own good.

      • I don’t believe he was a “renowned actor”, if Wikipedia is be trusted:

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Shatner#Early_stage.2C_film.2C_and_television_work

        He was a moderately successful stage actor, not famous or renowned from what I can tell. Of course he’s also just a terrible actor in any case, no matter his education.

        Also I should qualify my statement, DS9 did have a few semi-successful actors in the cast, but then again thats often considered the best version of Trek partially for the acting.

      • That’s a fair point. Shatner’s seventies filmography testifies to his complete lack of judgment in choosing roles. (Columbo and Airplane II are perhaps the highlights of that sad stretch.) But he was a stage actor compared to Steve McQueen, Paul Newman and Robert Redford. I think that’s a pretty good pedigree. After all, I wonder how many Americans knew Patrick Stewart before TNG, and most Irish and British audiences would likely simply have recognised him as Serjanus from I, Claudius.

    • I though Cumberbatch was great, leaving aside questions about whether or not he really needed to be Khan. Intense, poised, superior. More manipulative than Montalban, but still carrying himself as a leader.

      Hardy was one of the better things about that misbegotten film, leaving aside that his character was an absolutely terrible idea.

      • Cumberbach overreacted more than Shatner, and was a generally bad villain and the whole movie just made my brain hurt. It was aggressively stupid in a way I never expected Star Trek to ever be. It’s why I can never call things like VOY or ENT or even the last TNG movies the “worst of Trek” because Abrams brought the bar so far lower, yet also made Trek far more successful, what a strange paradox.

        Shinzon was a lot worse IMO, but then again when he’s dressed as Nosferatu in space, it’s hard to take him seriously.

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