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Star Trek: Enterprise – Observer Effect (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.

Much as with Daedalus, there is a weirdly mournful tone to Observer Effect.

The basic plot of the episode follows two Organian characters hopping from body to body while watching Archer and his crew confront a deadly virus that infected Trip and Hoshi during a routine planetary investigation. The closing line of the teaser even features organian!Reed promising “somebody always dies.” Sure enough, that turns out to be true. Both Trip and Hoshi “die” over the course of the episode, while Archer himself is sentenced to certain death. These deaths are ultimately reversed, but they set a tone for the episode.

Trip gets it in the neck.

Trip gets it in the neck.

Observer Effect seems to be a tacit acknowledgement that Star Trek: Enterprise is effectively dead in the water, that the show is now limping towards the end of the fourth season where it might be retired permanently. Two weeks after Observer Effect aired, UPN would announce that Enterprise was cancelled. There would be no last-minute reprieve for the show. Although Observer Effect had been written months before the decision was made, the production team knew that the writing was on the wall.

However, what is most interesting about Observer Effect is not so much the fascination with the inevitable death of Enterprise, but the episode’s fascination with those watching (and commentating upon) the spectacle from the sidelines.

They like to watch.

They like to watch.

Observer Effect is a rare stand alone episode in the midst of a fourth season that is largely dominated by two- or three-episode arcs. Indeed, there are only five stand alone stories across the entire twenty-two episode season, and two of those five (Home and These Are the Voyages…) effectively serve as bookends on the year. As such, Daedalus and Observer Effect stand out as something of an oddity in the larger context of the season unfolding around them; the only two standalone episodes airing back-to-back.

There is a good reason for this. Daedalus and Observer Effect arrived at the end of what had been an expensive run of episodes for the show, even allowing for the clever decision to amortise costs by doing epic multi-episode arcs. In fact, Observer Effect was something of a last-minute replacement for another story idea suggested by Judith and Garfield Reeve-Stevens that would have focused on Colonel Green and Starbase One. That story was scrapped by Brannon Braga, and the pair were asked to deliver another story.

Waiting for God-like aliens.

Waiting for God-like aliens.

As with Daedalus before it, Observer Effect is a script consciously designed to save money. As Garfield Reeve-Stevens explains on the episode’s commentary, the story and style of the episode was largely dictated by pragmatic concerns:

So Manny and Brannon called us in, and what they said was, “We need an episode that’s going to save us some money.” They actually told us that sometimes you can do that by having no guest stars and by having the crew “inhabited.” And then Manny gave us one other thing. He said, “It would be great for a tie to the original series if the aliens who were inhabiting our guys were Organians.”

Indeed, it should be noted that Judith and Garfield Reeve-Stevens’ Observer Effect is a much more effective bottle show than Daedalus was. Both Observer Effect and Daedalus were filmed on standing sets, but Observer Effect is an episode with no guest stars and no major special effects of which to speak.

The young and the restless.

The young and the restless.

Casting the two observers as Organians adds little of value to the script beyond adding an obvious call out to Errand of Mercy. The episode closes with organian!Reed remarking that the Organians have “five thousand years” to prepare for first contact with humanity, an ironic reference to an encounter that arrives only a century removed from this particular story. However, what is the value in casting the aliens as Organians, beyond slipping in a reference to the original Star Trek show?

In fact, it seems quite hard to reconcile the Organians presented here with the Organians who appeared in Errand of Mercy. In that episode, the Organians were presented as detached and isolationist, with no real interest in corporeal life. It was not that the Organians were disdainful or suspicious, they just existed above it all. Kirk and Kor were not portrayed as threats to their existence or even as minor irritations. In fact, the Organians went to a lot of trouble to put on a show for Kirk and Kor just to prevent them from killing one another.

Injecting a little continuity into the plot.

Injecting a little continuity into the plot.

Observer Effect plays on the familiar Star Trek trope of god-like entities “testing” the crew. Perhaps the most iconic example is the way that Q seeks to judge humanity in both Encounter at Farpoint and All Good Things… Although Q might be the most obvious example, it was fairly common on Star Trek for god-like beings to “test” the crew to determine their worthiness. Arena is one such example, with the Metrons forcing Kirk to fight a Gorn with the lives of his crew in the balance. Spectre of the Gun forces Kirk to relive the shootout at the O.K. Corral.

However, while this is a familiar Star Trek trope, there was no sense that the Organians were “testing” Kirk or Kor in Errand of Mercy. If anything, the Organians were pandering to Kirk or Kor just hoping that the poor stupid mortals didn’t accidentally kill one another. The Organians in Errand of Mercy bend over backwards in order to avoid any bloodshed on the part of their mortal guests, assuring Kirk that they are perfectly fine if the Klingons line them up and shoot them or threaten to destroy the village.

Nothing to (Or)gain from all this...

Nothing to (Or)gain from all this…

As such, this is hard to reconcile with the Organians portrayed in Observer Effect. This is true on both a superficial level and a broader level. The budget restrictions imposed on Observer Effect force the two Organians to hop between the bodies of various crew members, which is something quite distinct from their behaviour in Errand of Mercy, unless they’ve been keeping a village full of dead bodies around just in case. More than that, their behaviour and purpose in Observer Effect is hard to fit within the template established by Errand of Mercy.

In Observer Effect, it is revealed that the Organians are staging an elaborate and sadistic test to determine whether species are worthy of first contact. Alien species land on the planet featured in the episode, become infected with a native virus, and then the Organians watch what happens to determine if the aliens are acceptable to them. Sometimes entire ships are lost, sometimes just a handful of crewmembers. A Klingon ship blew up a contaminated shuttlepod to prevent infection.

Needling the point...

Needling the point…

This seems quite malicious for a species so eager to avoid bloodshed in Errand of Mercy. It also seems a rather indirect application of their powers. At the climax of Errand of Mercy, the Organians are able to prevent Starfleet and the Klingon Empire from going to war by making their weapons literally too hot to handle. While the idea of cultivating an alien virus on a particular planet makes sense within the plot and themes of the episode, it also seems rather indirect for the Organians considering what is at stake.

To be clear, none of these are plotting issues. Indeed, there is a sense that the Reeve-Stevens are trying to build an arc for the Organians by suggesting that this encounter fundamentally altered Organian society, which would explain some discrepancies. However, there is a clear sense that there is something “off” about the portrayal of the Organians, something that is very difficult to reconcile between their two appearances. It feels like Observer Effect is a story that is somewhat hindered by its continuity.

Talk about a wet blanket.

Talk about a wet blanket.

In fact, Observer Effect might actively be improved by creating a new race of non-corporeal beings staging this horrific moral conundrum. Alternatively, the alien species could be left anonymous, making it fun to imagine or posit possible connections without committing to anything absolute. To pick one example, it is fun to speculate that the anonymous aliens in The Royale might have been the Nacene from Caretaker, although explicitly stating that would open up all sorts of possible continuity issues.

The only reason to feature the Organians in Observer Effect is to create a tangible link to the original Star Trek show. It could be argued that this is a recurring fixation of the fourth season as a whole, which is very much engaged with tying into the classic sixties Star Trek series. Sometimes those connections work well, but sometimes they can feel indulgent or distracting. In Observer Effect, those connections feel contrived and forced. They add nothing to the episode but some small in-jokes, while causing all manner of continuity-related headaches.

Not an enlightening addition.

Not an enlightening addition.

Still, the basic premise of the episode is quite interesting. As with Daedalus, there is a sense that Observer Effect is driven by familiar Star Trek tropes and clichés. As Garfield Reeve-Stevens concedes, Star Trek is quite fond of the “possession” plot device, which has driven episodes as diverse as Return to Tomorrow, The Turnabout Intruder, Lonely Among Us, Power Play, The Assignment and Cathexis; this is to say nothing of Joe Menosky’s more archetypal scripts for Dramatic Personae or Masks.

However, even outside of that, Observer Effect feels very familiar. The old “crew battles a deadly virus” plot is a reliable Star Trek standard, to the point that it was employed quite early in the first seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in The Naked Now and Babel. Similarly, Star Trek: Voyager did its own “morally suspect aliens experiment on the crew” plot in Scientific Method, albeit with those aliens more actively involved in the sadistic torture of the crew.

"There is one more way to kill a crew, but it is as intricate and precise as a well-played game of chess."

“There is one more way to kill a crew, but it is as intricate and precise as a well-played game of chess.”

To be fair, Observer Effect acknowledges as much. The episode places considerable emphasis on the idea of familiarity and pattern recognition. Indeed, the teaser opens with organian!Reed and organian!Mayweather playing chess together. “It’s not as if it’s difficult,” reflects organian!Mayweather. “The total number of possible outcomes is limited.” He adds, “Chess is so predictable, I’m surprised anyone bothers to play it.” There is a sense that this applies to a television franchise with over seven hundred episodes as well; there is a point where every story’s been told.

Throughout the episode, the two Organians make repeated references to past events. organian!Reed asks Phlox, “I mean, are you approaching this strictly on a symptomatic level, or do you believe there’s any similarity to other conditions you’ve seen in the past?” Visiting Trip and Hoshi, organian!Mayweather wonders, “Have either of you faced serious illness before?” He presses the issue, “I was curious to know how you’d compare this experience with other illnesses you might’ve contracted.”

"Does it seem like Travis is acting strange to you?" "I'm not sure he's defined enough as a character to offer a reliable baseline."

“Does it seem like Travis is acting strange to you?”
“I’m not sure he’s defined enough as a character to offer a reliable baseline.”

Indeed, one of the wry aspects of the script is how completely oblivious the rest of the cast are to the fact that Reed and Mayweather are being inhabited by two non-corporeal aliens. organian!Reed gets a strange look from Archer when he makes casual reference to the particulars of the Klingon expedition that landed “years ago”, but Archer shakes it off. When organian!Mayweather just randomly shows up and starts pestering Trip and Hoshi about what it feels like to be dying, Trip just politely sends him away. No wonder they accidentally let a killer virus on board.

Although it entirely possible that the Organians are manipulating the behaviour of the crew, this seems somewhat counter-intuitive. After all, the whole point of this sadistic experiment is to see how humans react without direct interference; barring discovery by Phlox or Archer, of course. As such, Observer Effect hardly makes a compelling argument for the competence of the crew. It is no wonder that Sato and Trip accidentally bring back a killer virus to the ship. They cannot even spot two god-like aliens walking among them.

"It rubs the decon gel on its skin, or else it gets the hose again..."

“It rubs the decon gel on its skin, or else it gets the hose again…”

Observer Effect puts emphasis on how tired organian!Reed is with all of this stuff, how familiar he is with the pattern and flow of events, of the twists and developments that stem from this particular scenario. If anything, he seems quite exhausted by all the repetition. Early in the episode, he seems quite wary of the whole enterprise. “If it was left to me, I’d stop our observations immediately,” complains organian!Reed. “We have nothing more to learn from humans.” Later, the same Organian observes that he has been shown “nothing” that he hasn’t seen before.

organian!Reed’s complaints should seem quite familiar, at least in the context of Enterprise. The first two seasons of the show were broadly criticised for hewing too close to established Star Trek formulas, for recycling plots that had already been repeated and reused. When Enterprise launched, there were already over six hundred episodes of Star Trek behind it, not to mention books and comics. It was inevitable that the series would hit a few familiar notes. However, the first two seasons – the second in particular – borrowed liberally (perhaps excessively) from the canon.

Take your protein pill and put your helmet on...

Take your protein pill and put your helmet on…

As with Daedalus, there is an interesting subtext to Observer Effect. As the title implies, the episode is fixated upon the idea of watching and looking. This is reflected on multiple levels through the teleplay, from the detachment and commentary of organian!Reed and organian!Mayweather to the shots of the bridge watching Archer and Phlox try to save Hoshi to Trip and Hoshi communicating with the rest of the ship through the glass screen of a small rectangular window into the decontamination bay.

It is also worth noting, to make this all suitably self-aware, Observer Effect is one of the rare fourth season episodes to get a commentary from the production team. In many respects, it seems a strange choice given that episodes like Home, any of the Borderland trilogy, either Affliction or Divergent and These Are the Voyages… all lack commentary and are arguably of greater importance to the production history of the season. Much like organian!Reed and organian!Mayweather observe and comment on the crew, the commentary team observe and comment on the episode.

"Well, this has got to help rating, right?"

“Well, this has got to help ratings, right?”

(That is not to suggest that the commentary for Observer Effect is a poor choice or even a poor commentary; it is just an unlikely choice given the lack of commentary on other more obvious candidates. Participants Judith and Garfield Reeve-Stevens and Mike and Denise Okuda are insightful and affectionate, and there are a number of fascinating observations to be found. Indeed, at one point Denise Okuda points out that Observer Effect was one of the rare episodes of Enterprise to use live feeds to record actors watching other actors in real time.)

In some ways, organian!Reed and organian!Mayweather could be read as a metaphor for the difficulties of engaging with an online fandom. To be fair, Enterprise was not the first Star Trek show to have an online fanbase. As one might expect, Star Trek fans were among the internet’s early adaptors, and there are quite a few usenet boards dedicated to the franchise with activity dating back to the early nineties. It is possible to dig through archival discussions of The Next Generation and Voyager while they were on the air, for example.

Red lights.

Red lights.

Similarly, the production team had engaged with online fandom in a number of ways. On Deep Space Nine, Robert Hewitt Wolfe was a very active and vocal message boards user, willing to discuss the particulars of production with an engaged fanbase. Writers like Ira Steven Behr and Ronald D. Moore would engage in playful (and informative) question-and-answer session with the fans. Michael Piller even did one such session in the lead up to the release of Star Trek: Insurrection. So the internet was not a novelty when Enterprise debuted.

However, the internet had become much more ubiquitous and accessible in the time that Voyager had been on the air. It was no longer just home to a hardcore base of early adaptors; instead, the internet had become a forum where anybody could discuss anything. For all its faults, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back offered an effective summary of the internet in 2001 when Ben Affleck’s Holden McNeill defined it as “a communication tool used the world over where people can come together to b!tch about movies and share pornography with one another.”

You'd had to have been on another planet not to have known about the internet.

You’d had to have been on another planet not to have known about the internet.

It turns out that people also liked to come together to “b!tch” about Star Trek. Watching Enterprise at the time, the internet could feel like a cacophony of disproportionately negative response, of voices raised in protesting screaming so they might be heard. There is a sense that the writing staff on Enterprise were taken aback by this. As André Bormanis reflected in In Conversation:

Enterprise premiered in a time when the internet and message boards were becoming a big part of the culture. People just wanted to pick things apart. They’re not there to praise you.

There was a definite tension between the writers and the audience. Chris Black recalls getting a delivery of (literal) garbage accompanied by a note reading “this is what you’ve done to Star Trek.” During the second season, David Goodman would post on TrekBBS in defense of Regeneration. Mike Sussman maintained profiles at TrekBBS and Memory Alpha.

"But no one's made the decision to abandon the infected show... er, I mean, crew members."

“But no one’s made the decision to abandon the infected show crew members.”

organian!Reed evokes a lot of the clichés about a certain strand of online fandom. He is continuous griping about the predictability of the plot. He even has statistics to support his critique. “That happens thirty seven percent of the time,” he remarks when Phlox identifies the pathogen. Later, he reflects, “When the first death occurs on the ship, there’s a sixty eight percent chance the rest of the crew will become infected.” He dismisses the quality of the work he is watching, and yet continues to watch it despite his insistence that it brings him no pleasure.

In some ways, it feels like Observer Effect is meditating on a highly critical fanbase that are being afforded the opportunity to watch the show collapse. Observer Effect suggests that the slow death of Enterprise is a grotesque spectacle that is viewed with ironic detachment by a fanbase that perhaps never engaged with the show. There is something uncomfortably voyeuristic about the whole thing, as demonstrated by the episode’s repeated emphasis on observation and detachment. (That emphasis bleeds through even into the title.)

"HBO had to lock Sorkin in one of these things to keep him out of the internet flames when Newsroom debuted."

“I hear HBO had to lock Sorkin in one of these things to keep him out of the internet flames when Newsroom debuted.”

It should be noted that this challenge was by no means to Enterprise. Other writers and television shows were grappling with the same sort of fan scrutiny. Aaron Sorkin had faced similar issues in 2002, incorporating them into his script for The Poet Laureate on The West Wing. A year after Enterprise went off the air, Rescue Me creator Peter Tolan would become embroiled in a high-profile argument on Television Without Pity. He lamented:

Before posting his first comment, “I sat there and thought, ‘Should I do this? My gut is saying no,’ ” he said in a phone interview Friday. “I thought maybe I could explain some things.

“But all you do,” he has since concluded, “is paint a target on your back.”

In a New York Times article prompted by Tolan’s confrontational encounter with the show’s online fanbase, Star Trek veteran Ronald D. Moore reflected that the internet had changed “the immediacy of the contact” between creator and audience. Moore was very engaged with that online audience as part of his work on Battlestar Galactica, hosting chats and putting out podcasts around the show.

You have to Reed the cooments.

You have to Reed the cooments.

The internet certainly democratised film and television production, allowing creators and providers with ease of access to fan opinions and insights. In the years since, the number of channels have only increased with the development of platforms like Twitter and Tumblr dedicated to instant conversation. With a wealth of information at their finger tips, and many creators willing to engage or respond directly with their audience, it is no wonder that fans could feel more involved in the production and development of their favourite popular culture.

There was, of course, always an element of this to fanzines and fan fiction. However, the internet age has only served to further blur the distinction between the audience and the producers, the actors and the observers. Writers as diverse as Pulitzer prize winner Annie Proulx and Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling have had to grapple with issues of fan fiction and fan ownership of their narratives and characters in a way that would never have happened twenty years earlier. The internet has made fans more informed and engaged than ever.

Fans are never Sato-fied...

Fans are never Sato-fied…

It is, of course, highly debatable whether this is a good thing. After all, storytelling is not a democracy. All the Hollywood horror stories about focus group testing will attest that there is a good reason why audiences don’t get to set the direction of the stories they are told. After all, audiences – by their nature – do not like to be confronted in their entertainment. They do not want to be upset. More often than not, they do not want to be surprised, unless the surprise happens to conform to their expectations of a surprise.

On the commentary for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Manny Coto confessed that he would never have had the courage to kill the character of Spock, for fear of what fandom would do to him. The production team on The 100 found themselves thrown into chaos when their fandom revolted at a death that was necessitated by production and storytelling necessity. There is similarly something deeply uncomfortable about the X-Files fanbase militantly demanding that Chris Carter surrender the franchise for failing to meet their expectations.

"Hey. No wifi on here."

“Hey. No wifi in here.”

It is interesting that this online era of fandom should emerge in parallel with the auteur theory of television production, perhaps demonstrating the divide that still exists in popular imagination between prestige drama and genre fare. Certainly, it seems unlikely that there would ever have been a slate of articles insisting that Vince Gilligan surrender Better Call Saul or David Simon hand over The Wire. However, properties like Star Trek and The X-Files tend to provoke these sorts of responses in audiences who feel a clear sense of ownership and entitlement.

Even allowing for the implied gulf between “auteur” and “genre” television, there is something disconcerting about these expectations and the implied shift in the balance of storytelling power. The storyteller should be more than just a polling clerk assigned the task of consolidating fan opinion into a cohesive narrative. This is even leaving aside the potential for grotesque spectacle when writers do attempt to engage with a potentially antagonistic fanbase. That can turn ugly fast, as Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness writer Bob Orci learned.

"Enough chit-chat. Where's my pineapple injection?"

“Enough chit-chat. Where’s my pineapple injection?”

Perhaps there are limits to the entanglements. Perhaps some distance is necessary. As House of Cards executive producer Beau Wilmont argues:

Though he frequently engages with fans online on social media, he said he rarely reads the increasingly ubiquitous recaps. “One thing I definitely don’t do is look to connect to any social media or articles or commentary in a prescriptive way as in, ‘We should add X.’ That has to be a discovery, and to approach it in any other way is pandering or schematic. We have to do exactly the opposite of what the audience is expecting.”

That certainly seems like reasonable advice, particularly if television is to be considered a legitimate art form in its own right.

Flowers in her hair...

Flowers in her hair…

To be fair, Star Trek is something of a special case for historical reasons. After all, many of the production team working on Enterprise in its final year had began as fans in one form or another. After all, it is hard to imagine that the fourth season could have been produced without a bunch of zealous fans working tirelessly behind the scenes at all levels of production. Michael Piller had all but encouraged the hiring of fans from the moment he put Ronald D. Moore on staff and set an open submissions policy in place.

However, the connections between the franchise production team and the fanbase had deeper roots than all that. During the show’s original three-season run, Gene Roddenberry had cleverly cultivated the fanbase to exert pressure on the network to support and renew the show; Bjo Trimble’s letter-writing campaign has become something of legend, often credited with helping to get the original show renewed for a third season. As such, the franchise was never going to turn on (or completely abandon) its fanbase.

All Tripped up.

All Tripped up.

There is a sense of that echoing through Observer Effect. Although organian!Reed is cast in the mould of a cynical message board critic chipping away at a plot that he has seen a thousand times before, the script is careful to treat the character in a fairly sympathetic manner. organian!Reed and organian!Mayweather are ultimately responsible to resurrecting Trip and Hoshi, mirroring the myth of the fandom managed to resurrect the original Star Trek during the gap between its second and third seasons.

Indeed, somewhat idealistically, Observer Effect ends with the suggestion that the crew of the Enterprise have found away to pleasantly surprise their two guests. organian!Mayweather speaks up in defense of the crew, and organian!Reed eventually acknowledges that he is correct, that this crew are “different.” It hints at the idea of a reconciliation between the show and a fanbase that had been highly critical of the show while it was on the air. Observer Effect offers a happy ending to this particular drama.

Let us sit around the decon chamber and tell sad stories about the death of shows...

Let us sit around the decon chamber and tell sad stories about the death of shows…

In some ways, this parallels the production team’s experience. Brannon Braga has talked about his hopes that “one day a new generation will discover Enterprise not knowing they’re supposed to hate it.” On attending a Las Vegas convention in 2007, Braga was genuinely moved when a young fan confessed that Enterprise was his favourite of the franchise. Discussing the show’s legacy in In Conversation, Braga has contended that the show was much better received in Europe, perhaps removed from the internet fan culture.

That said, while Observer Effect can be read as a metaphor for the show’s sometimes strained relationship with its fanbase, it also hits on suitably archetypal Star Trek themes. Judith and Garfield Reeve-Stevens structure Observer Effect as something akin to a “prime directive” narrative, which really shouldn’t be a surprise given that their first Star Trek novel was actually titled Prime Direction. Given how essential that doctrine is to the larger Star Trek mythos, it feels entirely appropriate to incorporate it into the final television season of the Berman era.

"Captain, are you sure I can't get them to rub even a little decon gel?"

“Captain, are you sure I can’t get them to rub even a little decon gel?”

However, what is most striking about Observer Effect is the way that the story reverses the traditional Star Trek dynamics. In many ways, Enterprise worked best when teasing or subverting classic Star Trek tropes; casting the Klingons as a metaphor for the United States rather than Russia in Judgment, or presenting the very idea of the Federation as a subversive threat to the status quo in Cease Fire or Babel One. In Observer Effect, the Reeve-Stevens do something similar with the classic “prime directive” story.

The classic “prime directive” narrative finds the crew coming into contact with a less advanced civilisation and wrestling with the issue of whether or not to intervene in order to prevent something horrible from happening. These are all based around the so-called “prime directive”, a core doctrine of Federation foreign policy that seeks to limit direct and indirect interference in the affairs of other cultures, a doctrine that can be traced back to the franchise’s broadly liberal moral framework.

Don't sweat the small stuff.

Don’t sweat the small stuff.

There are a wealth of examples of this kind of story to be found in the franchise’s extended history, from The Apple to Pen Pals to Dear Doctor. There is also a variant where the crew grapple with minimising the damage done by exposing these primitive cultures to advanced societies, whether by accident or enemy action, from A Private Little War to Who Watches the Watchers? to False Profits to The Communicator. In the vast majority of these cases, the narrative presents the Starfleet crew as the “advanced” society. (They can make food from air, after all.)

There are obvious reasons for this. In many ways, Star Trek offers a quintessentially American vision of the future, to the point that the Federation might have its capital in Paris, but it feels very much like an American institution. The original show was very much an extrapolation of Kennedy era ideals into the far future, with the spin-offs coloured and informed by contemporary American culture. The importance of the prime directive is a part of this, rooted very much in American self-image and geopolitical philosophy.

Food for thought.

Food for thought.

The prime directive is tied into issues around American moral responsibilities and obligations, tied to its place in global politics. During the Cold War, the prime directive seemed tied to questions of galactic stability and defense of the status quo, an attempt to respect the autonomy of local governments in the midst of a larger conflict between powers like the Federation or the Klingon Empire. A Private Little War and The Omega Glory seemed to tie the prime directive into the contemporary reality of the Vietnam War.

After the Cold War, as the United States found itself the world’s only superpower, the prime directive became a debate about the obligations that came with such a role. Does a more “advanced” society have the right to play god? Does even well-intentioned intervention carry with it the spectre of cultural imperialism? Doesn’t every society deserve the freedom to develop on its own terms? These were the questions that Picard would grapple with in stories like Pen Pals, Who Watches the Watchers? and Homeward.

"Seriously? I can't believe nobody on this ship is interested in a little hot decon gel action!"

“Seriously? I can’t believe nobody on this ship is interested in a little hot decon gel action!”

To be fair, there were hints of an evolving attitude towards the prime directive even during the nineties; Deep Space Nine seemed to have little patience for a moral doctrine that would allow innocents to continue to suffer in favour of moral high-handedness. As Steven Birkner argues, The Next Generation‘s application of the prime directive was deeply problematic:

So it seems that post-TOS Star Trek is alone in presenting this policy as an uncritically positive one, which is problematic in several ways. First, if Starfleet’s mission is one of exploration and contact, a doctrine like the Prime Directive seems to fly in the face of that mission. Up-close observation of other civilizations will inevitably lead to interaction and influencing affairs, as has happened on a few “observation” missions gone wrong. One wonders why Starfleet’s mission statement wouldn’t be more along the lines of “to boldly stay home, mind our own business, and read a good book.”

Secondly, the criteria for when the Prime Directive no longer applies seems to be either arbitrary, callous, or highly prejudiced. Contact is generally deemed okay when a civilization has achieved warp drive or made contact on their own. Why would these be the deciding factors? A culture that’s chosen a less technologically advanced path can be as ethically or intellectually evolved as one with warp drive. In an effort to avoid colonialist thinking, the Prime Directive ends up embracing it, deeming certain cultures “worthy” of contact and aid when they prove themselves to be more like the Federation.

The very premise of Deep Space Nine runs against the spirit of this interpretation of the prime directive, with Sisko assigned to help a devastated planet recover from catastrophe. When Bashir (who it the Deep Space Nine character most clearly in line with the world view of The Next Generation) points out that Sisko’s plan to rescue a planet full of exiles in Battle Lines would clearly violate the prime directive, Sisko has no time for that argument.

"You know, I'm beginning to suspect Phlox might not be a qualified doctor at all. Maybe Chris Black was on to something with that 'veterinarian' idea."

“You know, I’m beginning to suspect Phlox might not be a qualified doctor at all. Maybe Chris Black was on to something with that ‘veterinarian’ idea.”

However, the franchise’s approach to the prime directive was undoubtedly altered by the War on Terror. The opening scene of Star Trek Into Darkness finds Kirk gleefully overriding the prime directive to save a pre-warp civilisation simply because he doesn’t want them to die. Later in the film, both Pike and Spock voice their objections to Kirk’s actions, but the narrative never seems particularly convinced. Given Into Darkness is a film explicitly rooted in the War on Terror, the dismissal of the prime directive feels tied back to all of that.

While the United States had spent most the nineties avoiding complex involved military and political entanglements in developing nations in the same way that Picard avoided taking responsibility for less “advanced” planets during The Next Generation, the twenty-first century changed everything. The early years of the new millennium found the United States committed to intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, with advocates like Tony Blair insisting that such intervention was a moral imperative.

A bloody disaster.

A bloody disaster.

American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan remains hugely controversial, particularly given the high body count in both soldiers and civilians and the political instability generated by the decision to intervene. Nevertheless, the geopolitical realities of the War on Terror have kept that debate open even as the Obama administration winds down its commitments to the region. The Obama administration committed to withdrawing from Iraq, but backpedaled on withdrawing from Afghanistan.

The debate waged (and continues to wage) over the possibility of United States intervention with Syria. Within the administration, figures like Samantha Power and John Kerry have advocated for more direct involvement. In contrast, Barack Obama himself has resisted calls for the United States to directly involve itself in the Syrian Civil War. Appropriately enough, this debate even found itself framed in terms of Star Trek. Commentators speculated as to whether the prime directive would or would not allow Kirk to intervene in such a circumstance.

"I'm dead tired." "Don't worry, Trip. You'll get used to it."

“I’m dead tired.”
“Don’t worry, Trip. You’ll get used to it.”

All of this provides a context for the reframing of the classic prime directive debate in Observer Effect, which cleverly reverses the standard “prime directive” dynamic by having a more advanced alien species watch as Archer and his crew struggle with a catastrophe. Over the course of the episode, Archer and his crew face a deadly contagious illness in the same way that Sarjenka’s people are confronted with geological instability or that the Boraalans have to deal with atmospheric dissipation. The Organians occupy the role traditionally played by Federation characters.

The result is a clever flip on the standard narrative, one that affords the Organians the same narrative arc that confronted Picard in his own prime directive stories. They are initially detached, but eventually allow themselves to bend the rules for the greater good. They even wipe the crew’s memories, like Picard did with Sarjenka in Pen Pals. In flipping the dynamic while telling a very prime directive narrative, the episode offers a much more sympathetic and humanist approach to the sort of hypothetical ethical dilemma that informed Dear Doctor.

"I'll be Bakula."

“I’ll be Bakula.”

In fact, Observer Effect even allows Archer to make some very thinly-veiled criticism of the Next Generation era prime directive stories. “Maybe you’ve evolved into beings with abilities I can’t comprehend, but you’ve paid a hell of a price,” Archer observes. “You’ve lost compassion and empathy. Things that give life meaning. And if that’s what it takes to be advanced, I don’t want any part of it.” It could be read as a rejection of the portrayal of the Next Generation crew during the first two seasons, in episodes like The Last Outpost and The Neutral Zone.

In a way, this is notable of itself. This implied criticism of The Next Generation, and particularly of the first two seasons, marks a rare occasion where the fourth season is actively critical of the franchise’s history. Of course, picking at the first two seasons of The Next Generation is low-hanging fruit as far as self-criticism goes, but it is still remarkable in a season as devoted to continuity as the fourth season. Certainly, Archer’s rejection of this future in Observer Effect stands in sharp contrast to the veneration of the whole Next Generation era in These Are the Voyages…

"Heeere's Trip!"

“Heeere’s Trip!”

Observer Effect is a strange and disjointed little episode, but a fascinating one nonetheless.

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7 Responses

  1. Oh wow, you know TNG season 1-2 really screwed up when Archer of all people can lecture Picard about morality.

    But then again, given that Archer probably wiped out the Valakian by withholding a cure, him arguing with move evolved aliens to try and intervene and save him makes him all the despicable. “Screw the Valakians, they have bad genetics, they deserve to die a linger death, we’re the ones that should be saved, we were merely the victims of an accident, we’re far more worthy.”

    • Well, to be fair, a big recurring theme of the fourth season is the idea that Archer is not the man he used to be.

      Paxton in Demons and Terra Prime is even presented as a version of Archer from the first season to be defeated and subdued, inheriting his place of work from his father and trading in xenophobic stereotypes while insisting that mankind can really go it alone. I think there’s a clear sense that the production team are arguing that Archer has evolved. (After all, compare S1 Archer to mirror!Archer, and there’s not that big a difference in their philosophies.)

      Of course, then These Are the Voyages… goes out of its way to have a scene where Archer insists that T’Pol has always been a racist. So, you know, swings and roundabouts.

    • I disagree. There is a pretty big difference in that the Valakians are evolving, while Archer and his Crew have made a miraculous recovery.

      What the Organians did, was not “species changing” or even having a big impact (although Daniels would disagree). Phlox would have figured out the right radiation dose eventually – in this case the Medical part of Starfleet will find that Cure.

      Granted, a breach of non interference is a breach of non interference – but if Star Trek has taught me one thing, it’s that not one single situation is only black and white. The Prime Directive is a very good “raised finger” to remind our protagonists (or us), that every single thing they do, does have effects on others and sometimes, the balance is a very fine line, that needs to be held very careful.

      The morality of “Dear Doctor” is very different. And Archer tried to find that very fine line of balance, in that he ordered Phlox to ease the suffering. Stopping evolution is something completely different.

      Also, as a European, i think the US (and also, we Europeans) ripped that fine line apart quite often in the last 35 years. We breached the Prime Directive so often in the worst ways possible, that i can’t even think about specific arguments…Germany still tries to find the middle ground, but still exporting weapons to give others the ability to change the underlining baseline is extremely hypocritical – which Archer wasn’t.

  2. I admit, Reed’s expression here (img. 2) mirrors my own when I learned ENT was cancelled.

    Interesting thing about Syria. Remember, Clinton has repeatedly said that the biggest mistake of his presidency was leaving the Rwandans to their fate. After the debacle of Somalia he could not afford to send peacekeepers to another east African hellhole. That event really embarrassed the hell out of the everyone, to the extent that the Germans (though there were economic motives involved) tanked their economy and destroyed their credibility by allowing in 5 million refugees. The pendulum has swung back again. And you can certainly sense it in the early seasons of Enterprise, and in the new Abrams films.

    I wish I knew the answer. Rebuilding a country from scratch will require a permanent military presence. We’re lucky if it takes a decade. Americans expect a cake walk. (Ironically, by plunging the world into a recession Bush undercut his own vision. Rwanda was a hard sell to the American people during a boom.)

    • Yep. I mean, on of the more interesting aspects of rewatching Enterprise is watching its politics evolve over the four seasons. The first season is very much stereotypical Bush era “going it alone”, while the second is that with paranoia and xenophobia ramped up. The third is very much an exorcism, and the fourth is largely concerned with coalition-building and regaining optimism. Of course, there are bumps along the way and forks in the path, but I think it holds true to a certain extent.

  3. In this episode, it really felt like Dominic Keating was doing an impersonation of Ewan McGregor in Attack of the Clones, with Travis his young padawan.

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