This May, we’re taking a look at the fourth (and final) season of Star Trek: Enterprise. Check back daily for the latest review.
The fourth season of Star Trek: Enterprise is obsessed with continuity.
More than any other season of Star Trek, the fourth season drips with references and nods towards the franchise’s rich history. Nothing is off limits. The fourth season explains how the Klingons lost their ridges, what happened to the Defiant, how the Federation came to be, the origins of the Earth-Romulan War. It features prominent guest appearances from Brent Spiner, Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis in roles explicitly tied to their part in the franchise. There are trips to Vulcan and the mirror universe, Romulus and Andoria.
This obsession with continuity is part of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it arguably serves to make the show more insular and introspective at a point when the franchise was on the cusp of collapse. These references could distract from storytelling and feel like indulgence for the sake of indulgence. On the other hand, it is not as if a broader audience was watching Enterprise at this point. Pandering to the fanbase makes sense when the fans are the only ones left. More than that, if the franchise is dying, it makes sense to have its life flash before its eyes.
However, what is most striking about the nostalgia running through the final season of Enterprise is the way that it feels almost ahead of its time. In the way that fourth season looks backwards, it seems to almost be looking forwards.
It has become passe to moan about the death of originality in mainstream popular culture, to argue that the vast majority of popular entertainment is merely repackaged content in the form of sequels, spin-offs, remakes or reboots. After all, sequels have been part of the film industry since its earliest days, particularly during the thirties and forties when film content was treated as even more of a conveyor belt than it is today, product designed to fill theatres operated by the movie studios themselves.
If anything, the current era offers greater freedom and opportunity for directors and writers working within the studio system. Directors like the Wichowski Sisters and Christopher Nolan can leverage past successes into the freedom to make their own films on large budgets with the support of the studio apparatus. More than that, directors are actively invited to put their own stamp on these reboots and remakes, giving them a unique flavour. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is very much a David Fincher film, just as The Dark Knight is a Christopher Nolan film.
Complaints about the death of originality in popular culture often seem rooted in a perspective of nostalgia, a curmudgeon’s way of suggesting that things are not as good as they once were. By and large, native film and television industries around the world are more productive than they have ever been before, and independent studios within the United States (with the assistance from philanthropists like Gigi Pritzker) are producing a wide variety of content to suite a wide variety of tastes. As much as nostalgia might disagree, it is not the worst time to be engaged with pop culture.
However, there is undoubtedly a strong pull towards nostalgia, towards old ideas and classic concepts reimagined for the contemporary age. It is undeniable that the gap between “reboots” is getting shorter, with various high-profile properties getting scrapped and restarted with incredible frequency. Audiences will have seen three Spider-Man franchises within a decade of one another with the arrival of Spider-Man: Homecoming in 2017. Warner Brothers are launching two franchises starring Batman in parallel with one another.
The reason for this fascination with franchises and established properties in contemporary cinema is quite obvious: money. It is called the film industry for a reason. As Mark Harris argued back in 2011, around the point that that current debate about nostalgia and originality kicked into gear:
There is more that a whiff of moral panic about Harris’ argument, as if to argue that prequels and reboots are the new rock’n’roll or television that will dilute a once purely artistic medium. However, it is hard to argue with the general observation that a certain style of storytelling has risen to prominence.
To be fair, there are practical reasons why blockbuster cinema has embraced superheroes and toys. The revolution in CGI at the turn of the millennium made it possible to realise these characters on their world in live action rather than simply animation. A film like Transformers would have never been possible during the early nineties on anything approaching. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man would have looked a lot more like the campy Japanese television show without the advances in computer-generated imagery.
Audiences watching the nineties version of The Flash could never have imagined a world where a show like Legends of Tomorrow would have been feasible on a weekly television schedule or budget. Viewers who grew up with the camp of Adam West’s Batman! and the beauty of Batman: The Animated Series would never have anticipated the sheer scale or spectacle of The Avengers or Batman vs. Superman. It is still impressive to live in a world where CGI has reduced Lou Ferrigno’s involvement with the Hulk to nothing more than a series of quaint campy cameos.
Whether this leap in technology corresponds to a leap in quality is highly debatable, but it seems likely the ability to depict such spectacle played a large part in in explaining how it became a dominant form. The reason that nostalgic properties like superheroes and giant robots have been elevated from children’s animation is likely down to the fact that it is now physically possible to realise them in live actions. Stock criticisms about the infantilisation of popular culture ignore the fact that kids are also fascinated with sharks (Jaws), dinosaurs (Jurassic Park) and aliens (E.T.).
It should also be noted that these sorts of films enter production because audiences buy tickets to them, just like they used to buy tickets to westerns and musicals. (Both genres arguably rooted in similar romantic nostalgia and certainly no more or less valid a form of mass entertainment.) This is why so many think pieces fixate upon the idea of “superhero fatigue” or “franchise fatigue”, waiting for a point where audiences reject the genre. The reason these sorts of stories are popular now is because it is possible to make them and audiences respond to them.
The realities of movie production and the changing demographics of theatre attendance have changed the way that studios approach film production. Advances in home media have made it harder to convince audiences to leave the comforts of their homes, as reflected by recent plans to stream new releases directly into living rooms or even to allow audiences to text in movie theatres. This means that big tentpole releases need to be events, need to operate within particular parametres and need to come with a built-in hook.
(It should be noted that this is largely just an extrapolation of preexisting trends. When commentators decry the death of originality in Hollywood, they tend to refer to the golden age that existed during the seventies; the era that produced The Godfather, Apocalypse Now and The French Connection. It was a period during which Hollywood was in turmoil and gave incredible freedom to incredible filmmakers. It was undoubtedly a great time for the medium. It was also something of aberration that was quickly “corrected.”)
Still, even allowing for these practical considerations, there has been a notable shift towards nostalgia and reflection in twenty-first century popular culture, even within original properties like Interstellar or Mad Men. It has been argued that this trend is itself a response to the cultural shock of 9/11, a desire to seek comfort in the familiar at a chaotic and turbulent time:
Even though nostalgia hits every generation, it seems awfully early for 28-year-olds to be looking back. One possible explanation, say authors who focus on generational identity, is the impact of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The political and economic climate of the late ’90s had been as soothing as a Backstreet Boys ballad: no wars, unemployment as low as 4 percent, a $120 billion federal surplus.
Neil Howe, an author of several books on what he calls the Millennials (another term for Gen Y), draws a parallel between this nostalgic wave and the one boomers embraced with the film American Graffiti in 1973. That movie depicted the recent past, the early ’60s, which seemed to have vanished forever.
In that respect then, the nostalgia that permeates the fourth season of Enterprise feels considerably ahead of the curve, coming half a decade before the mainstream media would seize upon pop nostalgia as a subject of cultural concern.
The Borderland trilogy is obsessed with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, a film released over two decades earlier. However, there are other small indications of the season’s fixation on the past. For example, Borderland reintroduces the iconic green Orion Slave Girls from The Cage. Mike Sussman is one of the finest continuity smiths ever to work in the franchise, and so manages to stick a references that ties together Blood Oath and Star Trek: Insurrection within the opening minutes of The Augments.
In some respects, the fourth season of Enterprise sets the tone for what JJ Abrams and his writers will do with Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness; this is particularly obvious with the Kir’Shara trilogy, which ties together political commentary on the War on Terror with a deep dive into the history and iconography of the franchise. The only difference is that the fourth season of Enterprise is more interested in deep cuts from the franchise history, while Star Trek and Into Darkness go for the bold iconic images and beats. Which makes sense.
If nostalgia can be rooted in a response to past trauma, Enterprise is not merely reflecting the larger cultural shock of 9/11. The show is working through its own looming cancellation. As Manny Coto has conceded, the writing was very much on the wall by this point in the run:
You’re always hoping that they’ll change their mind and that the ratings will pick up. In reality, once a show’s ratings go down, they rarely, rarely pick up. Usually, it’s impossible. But it wasn’t go for broke. That season was not going to be unwatched. Star Trek has a long history. Every episode airs somewhere and is on DVD, and they’re watched and re-watched and expanded on in novels. So we were really creating something to last, even though I knew the writing was kind of on the wall. But I will say there was a small part of us that was hoping that if the ratings at least stabilized – which they did, I believe – Paramount might keep the show going.
Given the deals that had to be cut to keep Enterprise on the air for that final season, it would take nothing short of divine intervention to secure a fifth season. This incarnation of Star Trek was dying. The Rick Berman era was coming to an end.
It is hard to overstate just how big a deal of this was, particularly from the perspective of May 2016. It is easy to look back on the end of Enterprise as a temporary hiatus with a trilogy of blockbuster feature films keeping the franchise alive while Bryan Fuller works on a top secret television series that will bring Star Trek back to its native format. Star Trek was too big a franchise to just die, as Bryan Singer’s attempted revival and a possible animated series will attest; still, the cancellation of Enterprise was shocking. The franchise had been on top of the world a decade earlier.
The Rick Berman era had lasted eighteen years, encompassing twenty-five seasons of television. There had been four feature films directly produced by Berman in that time, and another two carried over from the earlier iteration of the franchise. There had been a thirtieth anniversary celebration and even a makeshift theme park in Las Vegas. UPN had begged Berman to keep Star Trek on the air, to the point that Berman and Braga had been more wary of jumping right into Enterprise. As such, the idea that a Star Trek show could die so ignobly was a shock.
With that in mind, it makes a certain amount of sense to seek comfort in the past. Enterprise was going to be the first live action Star Trek show to be cancelled without a full seven seasons. There was a sense that this made the show a failure. It didn’t matter that many shows died with shorter runs, or that the television landscape was a lot more competitive than it had been when earlier spin-offs were on the air. Enterprise would inevitably be accused of “killing” the franchise, fairly or not. That was a pretty heavy burden to put on a young spin-off.
The strong sense of continuity that runs through the fourth season might be seen as a response to that. Enterprise is consciously and repeatedly asserting that it is definitely Star Trek. Connections that had been left unspoken or implied in the first three seasons are rendered explicit here. After spending three seasons avoiding any movement towards the foundation of the Federation, the fourth season commits wholeheartedly to fleshing out the secret history of the Star Trek universe.
It is easy to criticise this approach as insular or shortsighted, as a television series that turned its focus inward and fixated upon appeasing the core fanbase with a collection of hardcore nostalgic Star Trek tales. However, that is not the worst approach to take to what is essentially a coda to eighteen years of television. As John Billingsley reflected in Before Her Time:
Season four had episodes that I liked. I don’t think it had the weight of season three. But I thought it was lovely that Manny – who was obviously such a fan of the original show – was prepared to have a two-episode arc devoted to ‘why do the Klingons look different?’ You know, I thought that was kinda lovely. It worked in a different way. We’re going to make this show about saying ‘thank you’ to the fans. And I thought that was kinda lovely. I don’t know that that spirit could have necessarily sustained us for another three years. I think that was very much a valedictory season, and – as such – I think it worked very well.
Billingsley makes a number of compelling points. Adopting that same continuity-heavy approach across another three seasons of television would likely become exhausting. The idea of spending an entire season in the mirror universe, as was mooted as a possibility for the fifth season, sounds like bad fan fiction. However, as a fond farewell to the franchise, a full season of nostalgia is excusable. It could be, to borrow a phrase, “a Valentine to the fans.”
It should be noted that one of Manny Coto’s plans for the hypothetical fifth season of Enterprise involved approaching veteran science-fiction writers like Stephen Baxter or Larry Niven to plot arcs for the show built around science-fiction high concepts. This hypothetical approach attracts a lot less attention than rumours about doing the Romulan War or visiting Stratos, but it reflects Coto’s aesthetic. The executive producer’s first scripts for the series were Similitude and Chosen Realm, which fall comfortably into the “Star Trek as sci-fi allegory” subgenre.
While it is not likely that a sustainable television series could have been built up around this model of nostalgia-driven storytelling, the truth is that Enterprise had long ceased to be a sustainable television series. For all the messiness of the in-jokes and references in the Borderland trilogy and beyond, there is an energy and excitement to the plotting that is almost infectious. There is a “to hell with it” indulgence at play, as the production team decide that the mainstream audience has left Star Trek and start pandering to the base.
However, watching the fourth season with the benefit of hindsight is quite revealing. It is fascinating to note just how similar the fourth season is in approach to the JJ Abrams’ Star Trek films, albeit it in a more esoteric and eccentric fashion. The fourth season is excited to be playing with all of these toys, much like Star Trek and Into Darkness; the only real difference is the toys they have chosen to play with. The fourth season plays with fringe toys like Klingon foreheads and Brent Spiner; the Abrams film plays with iconic toys like Khan and Leonard Nimoy.
More than that, there is an aspect of the fourth season that seems ahead of its time. The way that the fourth season treats Star Trek continuity as a fetish object to be venerated and celebrated feels similar to the way that contemporary adaptations approach their source material as holy texts. This is most obvious in shot-for-shot adaptations like Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, but the truth is that so many superhero blockbusters work to import in-jokes and continuity (not to mention mimicking exact panels and dialogue) from the monthly comics.
The reality of adaptation in contemporary media is a lot more fixated upon ideas of continuity and canon. It seems highly unlikely that Tim Burton would be allowed to take such a strange and surreal approach to Batman in this day-and-age, when adaptations are all but expected to come with primers and footnotes citing issues and influences for various creative decisions. Even something as controversial as Zack Snyder’s films are rooted in this idea of fidelity and continuity; with Snyder citing continuity in defence of the controversial conclusion to Man of Steel.
More than that, the fourth season places a lot of emphasis on the shared universe and the connections that exist between pre-existing pieces of continuity. In fact, many fourth season episodes could be reduced to “[continuity object #1] meets [continuity object #2]” pitches; the Borderland arc is “Data’s origin meets the Eugenics Wars”, the United arc is “seeds of Romulan War meet seeds of the Federation”, the Divergence arc is “Klingons meet Khan.” The fourth season occasionally feels like a piece of string being used to tie the universe together.
There are obvious criticisms to be made of this approach. While all those references in earlier episodes served to make the Star Trek universe seem larger and more nuanced, all these answers only serve to make it seem smaller. Star Trek is a franchise about exploring the unknown and meeting the alien; spending so much time explaining background material to stories that have already been told undercuts a lot of the charm of that basic premise. Archer is no longer exploring outwards, he is wandering around in loops.
Still, these decisions seem incredibly prescient. The fourth season feels like it might have been produced a decade later, reflecting trends that took root as the concept of the “shared universe” grew in stature following the success of The Avengers. Peter Jackson fashioned The Hobbit into a trilogy of films that seemed to spend more time setting up The Lord of the Rings trilogy than telling their own story. Rogue One will expand a single line of dialogue from the original Star Wars into a feature film.
With all of that happening in popular culture, the fourth season of Enterprise seems to have been ahead of the curve. This season of television would have arguably fit more comfortably in the current pop culture landscape, fleshing out the untold mysteries of the Star Trek universe. Indeed, it has been suggested that Bryan Fuller’s Star Trek show might possibly take the form of an anthology series jumping around the shared continuity, exploiting the shared universe in a manner not dissimilar to that on display here.
It is a reminder of just how deep and broad the Star Trek universe actually is, stretching from the icy moons of Andoria to the history of parallel universes. Given that the “shared universe” has become a popular storytelling model for the major studios, the fourth season makes a compelling argument for Star Trek as a property ideally suited to the modern media landscape. After all, the various Star Trek shows and films were developing an expanse shared universe before the term really broke into the public consciousness.
This was part of the appeal of the fourth season to executive producer Manny Coto, who has talked about how those connections appealed to him:
Fans tend to nitpick and really look at and be possessive of continuity, but when you sit back and really think about 700-plus episodes over so many years, it’s remarkable how consistent the universe actually is, given all that time and so many people working on it. I wanted to add another chapter to that great tapestry.
In that way, Star Trek shares a lot with the comic books that inspired this modern fascination with shared universes and continuity fetishism.
In fact, it is remarkable that Paramount has not yet capitalised upon the opportunities presented by the Star Trek shared universe. Of course, it should be noted that both Star Trek and Into Darkness are “mid-tier” blockbusters by the standard of twenty-first century box office returns. Nevertheless, they rank as two of the most successful films in the franchise, even when adjusted for inflation and particularly when overseas box office is taken into account. Given the franchise’s status as a relatively well-known international brand, it is surprising it has yet to be exploited.
Then again, it could be argued that the franchise has never really proven its versatility. The most successful iterations of Star Trek look quite alike to most people; starships wandering through space encountering aliens. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is the only series to truly depart from that basic “ship wanders through space encountering aliens” premise, and it never quite broke out beyond the fanbase. Although it is very much loved by fans, it is largely ignored by anybody else. As a result, Star Trek appears to lack the versatility of superheroes.
On the other hand, it is not as if the Star Wars franchise had a particularly broad base when Disney decided to franchise it into a wider shared universe. Although Star Wars had the benefit of greater popular and financial success to launch the shared universe, it seems like Star Trek might be just as flexible. Indeed, Paramount has openly acknowledged an interest in expanding the brand:
Television can be particularly paracosmic. By my count there are roughly 710 hours of in-canon Star Trek movies and television encompassing—thanks to time travel and mirror universes—more than 14 billion years of history. That’s a big paracosm, with a lot more room for stories. “I often think about the areas of the Star Trek universe that haven’t been taken advantage of,” Paramount’s Evans says. “Like, I’ll be ridiculous with you, but what would Star Trek: Zero Dark Thirty look like? Where is the SEAL Team Six of the Star Trek universe? That fascinates me.”
Of course, given fandom’s rush to dismiss both Deep Space Nine and Into Darkness as “not Star Trek”, it is understandable that the company is wary. Indeed, even the mention of “the SEAL Team Six of the Star Trek universe” generated some hints of fan outrage – as if episodes like The Chain of Command, Part I or Apocalypse Rising or The Omega Directive were unheard of within the franchise.
As disjointed and nostalgic as the fourth season of Enterprise might be, it also seems curiously ahead of its time, imaging the fun that might be had in tying together a shared Star Trek universe in a way that few of the prior series had done. While this approach to storytelling was not without its problems, it does suggest that Star Trek was more in line with contemporary geek culture than most would credit it. Unfortunately, it was perhaps several years ahead of its time.