This May, we’re taking a look at the fourth (and final) season of Star Trek: Enterprise. Check back daily for the latest review.
It seems entirely appropriate that the United trilogy sits in the middle of the fourth season.
The three-parter is not the strongest of the season’s multi-episode epics, abandoning the clean three-act structure that made the Kir’Shara trilogy so successful in favour of a disjointed two-parter-and-coda format that prevents the story from feeling as cohesive as it might. It jolts and starts, never really finding the proper flow for the story that it wants to tell. There is a sense that the production team’s desire to do both a “birth of the Federation” story and a “visit to Andoria” story within the same three-part narrative ultimately hinders the storytelling.
However, there is something satisfying in watching Star Trek: Enterprise commit to the idea of the birth of the Federation. It could be argued that this is an example of the fourth season’s continuity pandering, but the Federation is far more fundamental to the fabric of the franchise than something like Klingon foreheads or that ghost ship from that third season episode. If Enterprise is to be a prequel, it should devote some attention to building the fabric of the shared universe. The Federation is an essential part of the idealistic future of Star Trek.
However, the most compelling aspect of the United has nothing to do with continuity and history. Instead, it is simply reassuring to see Enterprise embracing the franchise’s utopianism and hope for the future, particularly in the context of January 2004.
Utopian idealism is an important aspect of the Star Trek universe. Put simply, the Star Trek franchise hopes for a future in which mankind has all but eliminated hunger and famine, where everybody’s needs are met, where people get along with one another and with people who are different from them. At its best, the franchise celebrates diversity and hopes that mankind’s future might just be brighter than our past. To quote Gene Roddenberry, it is a future where “there will be no hunger, there will be no greed and all the children will know how to read.”
On a more basic level, the Star Trek franchise assumes that mankind can survive and prosper beyond the twenty-first century. By the end of Star Trek: Nemesis, Earth stands towards the end of twenty-fourth century, perhaps with its greatest conflicts and struggles behind it. The Dominion are vanquished in What You Leave Behind and the Borg seem to be dissolved in Endgame. This is a future where mankind has survived the threats of nuclear apocalypse, global warming, viral pandemic and much more. This is a future where mankind not only survives, but thrives.
It is no wonder that fans are attached to that particular vision of the future, when which seems to suggest that mankind is capable of manifesting heaven on Earth given enough time and the right attitude. Consider Michael Dorn advocating for the franchise’s return to television:
We could definitely use more of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s optimism. It feels like we’ve gotten further and further away from that…. [But] I don’t think Star Trek: The Next Generation could get greenlit in its original form. Sci-fi has taken on a different look these days. We don’t see the social messages that it was famous for. If you look at science fiction’s origins, there was always social commentary mixed in with its monsters and aliens. And we don’t see any of that these days…
Of course we’re worse off by not having a Star Trek show on television. But only if it’s good. It would be nice if Star Trek could be a catalyst for change, along with being an entertaining show.
Considering that the original Star Trek was conceived and broadcast at a point where it seemed like a nuclear war might break out at any moment, it provided a marked contrast to the images of atomic detonation and duck-and-cover lessons in school classrooms.
It should be noted that Star Trek was not unique in this regard. Indeed, when Gene Roddenberry originally developed the show in the sixties, there was a tendency towards bright and hopeful science-fiction. As Graeme McMillan notes:
There was a stretch of time — from the early 20th century through the beginning of comic books — when science fiction was an exercise in optimism and what is these days referred to as a “can-do” attitude. There appeared to be no problem that couldn’t be dealt with either by the one-two punch of positive thinking and, well, punching— or by intellect and inspiration: new inventions were dreamed up that automated everyday tasks and made the impossible not only possible but also commonplace.
Even a director as cynical as Stanley Kubrick dared to imagine a peaceful future for mankind in 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the most cynical aspect of the whole film was how mundane and banal humanity had rendered these fantastical developments.
At some point, that optimism seemed to fade from the public imagination. The future seemed to lose its shine. Utopian gave way to cynical dystopia. The transition seemed to reflect a broader shift in the popular culture, as sixties idealism was eroded by seventies disillusionment. The change was not clear or linear, of course. While there is a tendency to romanticise the sixties as the decade of counterculture revolution and free love, it had its own dark shadows. Charles Manson and Vietnam haunted the second half of the decade.
Certainly, the sixties had its fair share of apocalyptic science-fiction. Planet of the Apes is perhaps the most obvious example. However, there was a visible shift in the tone of science fiction film into the seventies; the decade was populated by bleak films like The Omega Man, Soylant Green, The Warriors, Assault on Precinct 13 and Logan’s Run. It seemed like society was coming apart at the seams, collapsing under its own weight. The bright and cheerful future of the sixties had faded from view, giving way to tales of violence and destruction.
This shift arguably reflected the a change in the national mood. Following the death of John F. Kennedy and the failure of the countercultural revolution, it seemed like any hope of a better future was lost. The late sixties gave way to scandal and humiliation, feeding through into a cycle of cynicism and decay during the seventies. The Vietnam War escalated into a national tragedy, leaving deep scars. Richard Nixon was forced to resign. Oil prices soared. New York was bankrupt. New York rioted.
Star Trek arguably went through its own transition. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was arguably the last gasp of Gene Roddenberry’s peculiar sixties idealism, with the film’s emphasis on psychic communion and the novel’s fascination with twenty-third century free love. This gave way to the more militaristic trappings of the Nicholas Meyer and Harve Bennett era as evidenced by Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, with its strong naval imagery and meditations on mortality. This was, after all, the film that killed Spock.
This cultural shift did not go unnoticed by cultural critics. Discussing the release of The Terminator in Time Travel, Primal Scene and the Critical Dystopia, Constance Penley suggested that the collective imagination had lost the ability to believe in a better world:
A film like The Terminator could be called a ‘critical dystopia’ inasmuch as it tends to suggest causes rather than merely reveal symptoms. But before saying more about how this film works as a critical dystopia, two qualifications need to be made. First, like most recent science-fiction from V to Star Wars, The Terminator limits itself to solutions that are either individualist or bound to a romanticised notion of guerrilla-like small-group resistance. The true atrophy of the utopian imagination is this: we can imagine the future but we cannot conceive the kind of collective political strategies necessary to change or ensure that future. Second, the film’s politics, so to speak, cannot be simply equated with those of the ‘author’, James Cameron, the director of The Terminator, whose next job, after all, was writing Rambo (his disclaimers about Stallone’s interference aside, he agreed to the project in the first place). Instead The Terminator can best be seen in relation to a set of cultural and psychical conflicts, anxieties and fantasies that are all at work in this film in a particularly insistent way.
It is a terrifying idea, that the last half-century has been so traumatic and uncomfortable that mankind is uncomfortable even daring to imagine a better world. Worse than that, there is a sense that these apocalyptic dystopian futures might just be the best worlds that we can imagine.
To be fair, there were exceptions to this general trend. Most notably, Star Trek: The Next Generation was a profoundly utopian show throughout its seven years on the air. Roddenberry’s idealised humanity would occasionally grate in episodes like Lonely Among Us or The Last Outpost or The Neutral Zone, but it remained optimistic about the human conduction even after the show found its groove during its third season. The characters all got along, the ship looked immaculate; it was a future where humanity explored the cosmos in a luxury liner.
Seth MacFarlane has described Picard’s Enterprise as the most professional working environment in the history of television, and there is something to that. The Next Generation is populated with hyper-competent characters with a knack for problem solving. There are very problems that the Enterprise crew cannot solve, and there is an incredible optimism to the show’s portrayal of humanity’s place in the cosmos. If anything, The Next Generation proves more utopian than its predecessor, willing to embrace other perspectives like those of the Klingons.
However, as Stephen Marchie argues, there was just a hint of deconstruction and cynicism sneaking in around the edges of the franchise:
It is worth noting, however, that Star Trek: TNG asked the question of whether humanity was valuable at all. In the original series, there was little doubt that the humans were the best species in the universe. Just about everybody else with a spaceship was either a savage or a psychopath. That’s why they called space “the final frontier.” It was a way of recreating the swashbuckling history of early explorers. TNG had a greater stake in inclusiveness, and was more hopeful about its place in the future. It believed that almost everyone in the universe, not just on earth, could get along. Even Klingons could work with the Federation.
Even the Star Trek series that followed TNG — Deep Space Nine and Voyager — were much more profoundly ambivalent about the technologically enabled future. Deep Space Nine ended in genocide, and the premise of Voyager was that warp 9-plus speed didn’t matter when considered against the vastness of the universe. The TNG movies, too, were full of anxieties: the war against the Borg in First Contact, the fight between organic and synthetic versions of the same species in Insurrection. The true inheritor of Star Trek, of course, was the series Battlestar Galactica, in which humans are literally chased across the universe by evil robots, as they search for the original earth. It couldn’t get more technophobic.
As Marchie points out, the two spin-offs were noticeably darker in tone.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine deconstructed and interrogated the franchise’s utopia, unfolding in the aftermath of a sixty-year atrocity committed by the Cardassians against the Bajoran people and culminating in a war that lasted two whole seasons. Star Trek: Voyager was a bit less overt in its darkness, but it was largely a show about a hyper-advanced ship wandering through the galactic equivalent of the third world and which was consistently fascinated with the idea of blowing up the eponymous ship and killing the entire crew.
While there had been a clear trend towards cynicism from the end of the sixties through to the turn of the millennium, the trend only accelerated in the early years of the twenty-first century. There are any number of reasons why this might have happened. Most superficially, advances in filmmaking technology allowed filmmakers to rendering increasingly detailed and convincing apocalyptic scenarios. Advancing computer-generated imagery allowed for destruction on a catastrophic scale, allowing for the destruction of cities and even planets.
However, it also notable that this widespread apocalyptic destruction came to be defined through imagery and iconography associated with 9/11; attention paid to the physics of collapsing buildings, dust clouds in urban centres, a focus on ground-level perspective of the carnage. Again, the influence was undoubtedly driven by media; the footage of the attacks was ubiquitous, and it became impossible to imagine destruction on that scale without evoking the imagery of 9/11.
As a result, those events have become a touchstone for blockbuster destruction, regardless of genre or tone. The goofy space opera Guardians of the Galaxy climaxes with a gigantic space ship crashing into an urban cityscape, much like the climax of the more sombre Star Trek Into Darkness finds the Vengeance tearing through a skyscraper-laden San Francisco. The found footage monster movie Cloverfield and the superhero epics The Avengers and Man of Steel both consciously incorporate 9/11 imagery into apocalyptic action.
At the same time, it seemed like the science-fiction genre became a lot darker and more sombre. When Zack Snyder focused on Krypton in the opening scenes of Man of Steel, it genuinely felt like a world on the edge of collapse. Even original science-fiction properties like Elysium or District 9 or Moon tended to focus on broken futuristic societies. The same was true of animated properties, with Wall-E unfolded against the backdrop of an abandoned planet overflowing with garbage.
Enterprise itself was very much affected. The early episodes of the first season were very much typical Star Trek adventures. The planet in Strange New World might have been home to a spore that rendered the away team paranoid and aggressive, but it still looked like a paradise. On 9/11 itself, the production were overseeing Civilisation, a story that featured Archer visiting a picturesque renaissance world. After 9/11, there was a shift in how Enterprise came to view the universe. This was evident in the settings of Shadows of P’Jem or Shockwave, Part I.
During the second season of the show, it seemed like Enterprise was wandering through a hostile and antagonistic universe. Episodes like Shockwave, Part II and Cease Fire unfolded in ruined urban environments. Episodes like Minefield and Dawn emphasised how hostile and belligerent other species could be. Episodes like The Seventh and The Crossing suggested that the alien was hostile and worthy of suspicion. Regeneration pre-figured the renaissance of zombie cinema following 9/11, while The Expanse depicted an unprovoked terrorist attack on Earth.
Indeed, recent years have seen something of a response to this trend in contemporary science-fiction, a rejection of this grim nihilistic attitude towards mankind’s future. Christopher Nolan constructed Interstellar as an ode to optimistic sixties science-fiction, a nostalgic call back to an era where space travel was exciting and limitless. Brad Bird would direct Tomorrowland, a science-fiction fable about attempts to build a better world that actively engaged with mankind’s recurring fascination with its own destruction.
Discussing his work on Tomorrowland, Brad Bird openly acknowledged that the film was an attempt to capture the wonder and optimism that defined the science-fiction of his youth:
But I do think that, when I was a kid, we all thought the future was going to be better than the present. There were bad things happening back then as well, but we thought that there was a bold new world on the horizon, one that would solve problems and battle catastrophes. And now, it just seems like it’s this kind of worst-case-scenario shrug. If you voice any sort of hope for a better world, you’re looked at as naive or childlike. My question is, what changed?
It is an interesting to ponder, but it seems undeniable that ther has been a gradual shift in the portrayal of the future from the late sixties that has perhaps accelerated in recent years.
One of the underrated aspects of the fourth season is the production team’s attempt to recapture some of the lost innocence and optimism of the original Star Trek show. Indeed, the fourth season seems willing to bend and distort continuity in order to play towards that idealised idea of the Star Trek future. The Kir’Shara trilogy dedicates three whole episodes to explaining how the adversarial Vulcans in Broken Bow eventually became friends with Earth, ignoring the undercurrents of antagonism that run through the Vulcan episodes dating back to Amok Time.
With the United trilogy, the Federation is positioned as an embodiment of the franchise’s futuristic utopia. The idea of an interstellar organisation comprised of hundreds of species working towards a common good is romantic and optimistic, and the United trilogy finds the show consciously aspiring towards that objective. The negotiations proposed in Babel One are consciously framed as a move towards the origin of the Federation, as if the Star Trek universe is being conjured into existence.
As with a lot of the fourth season, there is a sense that Enterprise is being rather heavy-handed. Discussing the possibilities of an understanding between the Andorians and the Tellarites with T’Pol in United, Archer remarks, “This operation is important, considering that it might lead to an alliance of planets.” Much like T’Les’ comments about Trip and T’Pol’s potential children in Home or Arik Soong’s reflections on the current state of cybernetic research in The Augments, it feels like United is labouring the point. Still, it is not a bad idea.
Of course, it is perhaps a little simplistic to equate the Federation with the larger utopian future of Star Trek. Certainly, the franchise has occasionally and repeatedly been critical of the operational structure of the Federation; most notably in The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, but also in some of Gene L. Coon’s scripts for the original show. These criticisms were legitimate and understandable, an example of astute self-criticism on the part of the franchise itself.
At the same time, the Federation works as an embodiment of the core principles of the franchise, of that deep-seated optimism that many fans associate with Star Trek. The Federation is a bunch of radically different individuals who manage to overcome those differences in order to become something bigger and greater than themselves. There is something inherently romantic about that, and it is reassuring see Enterprise embrace that philosophy so eagerly and so readily during its final season.
There are points in the United trilogy when the show threatens to dive too deeply into the sort of insufferable “humans are special” rhetoric that marked so many of the franchise’s more problematic hours like Lonely Among Us or The Last Outpost or The Neutral Zone. This is most notable during the conference scene in United. Archer challenged Shran and Gral. “Instead of insulting you to make you feel at home, and putting up with your arrogance as a sign of my respect, why don’t the two of you try behaving like humans for a change?”
Archer elaborates, “There’s one thing humans seem to do better than any species we’ve met. When we’re faced with a common threat, we put our differences aside and try to co-operate.” There is an uncomfortable subtext to this, with Archer essentially telling a bunch of aliens to quit acting like aliens and embrace his culture because it is obviously better. Never mind that Archer actually needs the support of the Tellarites and Andorians to help him catch the Romulans in the act.
There is something rather awkward about this, harking back to some of the more unfortunate characterisation of Archer during early episodes like Terra Nova and Fortunate Son, where the show seemed to adopt the position that Archer was the absolute moral authority on anything. Watching United, it does seem like Archer’s approach to the concept of an alliance of planets might well lead to the organisation that Azetbur sarcastically dismissed as a “homo sapiens only” club in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.
It is a minor issue with tone, but one that undercuts some of the good work of the episode. It is nice to have an episode that so readily an eagerly embraces an optimistic vision of the future rooted in the belief that very different people and societies can find common ground. However, Archer’s suggestion that the common ground must be on human terms seems ill-judged. On the other hand, United has Archer go out of his way to respect Shran’s culture and tradition, while The Aenar is constructed as an exploration of Andorian culture. So this is not a fatal flaw.
Babel One repeatedly draws attention to the barriers that divide the parties. The episode emphasises the alien nature of the species involved in these negotiations. “Aside from breathing oxygen, it doesn’t seem to me that Andorians and Tellarites have a hell of a lot in common,” Archer reflects when asked to broker peace between the two species. The issues comes up again when Reed and Trip sneak on board the drone. “I’ll try to get their life support online,” Trip observes. Reed wrily reflects, “Right. With our luck, they probably breathe fluorine.”
While the other Star Trek shows treated this futuristic union as an inevitable status quo, the United trilogy repeatedly suggests that the alliance is fragile and volatile; that it might not hold, and that it might break at any given moment. Making a veiled reference to the workings of the Temporal Cold War, a chaos unfolding behind the scenes, Archer admits, “If I’ve learned anything these past few years on Enterprise, it’s that the future isn’t fixed.” The Federation is no longer a constant upon which the crew might count.
Part of this undoubtedly reflects the precarious nature of the fourth season. Enterprise was effectively a lame duck at this point in its run. The show had barely been renewed for a fourth season, following heated negotiations with all parties involved; the series was officially cancelled between the broadcast of Babel One and the broadcast of United. This lends the episode some poignancy. “Do you think we’re moving too fast?” Archer asks T’Pol. He might be speaking for the writers, covering a lot of ground very quickly. However it is the only time that the show has left.
As with a lot of the fourth season, there is a faint sense of frustration underpinning the United trilogy. It seems like the production staff working on Enterprise have finally found their niche, embracing the history and legacy of the franchise. No sooner has the show made its peace with the weight of thirty-odd years of Star Trek than it finds itself staring down the barrel of the gun at the prospect of cancellation. Enterprise was meant to represent the beginning of Star Trek. In its fourth season, it faced the possibility that it might be the end.
In his conversation with T’Pol, Archer ruminates on his own place in the grand scheme of things, a scene that feels like the show ruminating on its own place in history. Explaining why he would volunteer to fight Shran in United, Archer seems to treat himself as expendable. “I’m the only one who can be killed,” he reflects. His earlier conversation with Shran also touched on the issue of legacy. “Perhaps future ships will be named after our vessels, especially if we do something historic together,” Shran observes, resisting the urge to wink at the camera.
One of the clever things about the United trilogy is the decision to play into the volatility and instability of the core idea. While the other Star Trek shows took that utopia for granted, Enterprise suggests that the future cannot be expected. Episodes like Cease Fire and Babel One suggest that the very idea of a diverse group of people coming together in common interest is radical and subversive. It is not the status quo, but is instead a conscious rejection of the status quo.
Trying to figure out who might be attempting to sabotage these talks, Archer is shocked at the suggestion that the Romulans might have a stake in preventing such an alliance from emerging. “We’ve never threatened them,” Archer reflects. “As far as I know, neither have the Andorians or Tellarites. Maybe they’re afraid of something else. The species in this region have a history of not getting along. This conference could’ve been the first step in changing that.” It is not any particular action that threatens the Romulans, but the very idea of the Federation.
This might be another example of the contemporary political climate intruding into the narrative. Enterprise was very much a product of the Bush era, for better and for worse. The era was reflected in the reactionary politics of episodes like The Seventh or The Crossing. It also bubbled through in the characterisation of Archer as a man struggling with his father’s legacy, one of the defining narratives of the Bush era as a whole. The entire third season is a single extended metaphor for the War on Terror, and an examination of Star Trek in that context.
The Federation has historically been presented as an extrapolation of American ideals into the future. It has been argued that the entire Star Trek franchise is a fantasy of a benign American empire, one that rejects the explicit imperialism and exploitation associated with European empire-building. The Federation is built upon the principle of consensus-building, the notion that humanity leads a coalition of willing allies in their adventure to the stars. In the context of early 2005, this prospect probably seemed less likely than ever.
During the War on Terror, the United States effective bypassed international consensus during the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. These actions involved a collection of international allies nicknamed “the Coalition of the Willing” – most notably the United Kingdom. While it is too much to insist the United States acted unilaterally, these military interventions occurred without the backing of the major international bodies established in the wake of the Second World War. There was no United Nations support, no European Union consensus, no NATO sign-off.
The Invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were supported by thirty-five and thirty countries respectively, but there was a sense that the United States was very much isolating itself in the world. In the months immediately following 9/11, senior officials gestured that America “willing, if necessary, to act alone” to combat terrorism and secure global stability. Colin Powell would later admit that the briefing he gave to the United Nations Security Council on Iraq was inaccurate. French refusal to support the War in Iraq prompted immediate (and petty) backlash.
There was a palpable anxiety about the ability to the Bush administration’s ability to build international consensus. Richard Haas, a veteran of both Bush administrations, argued that the United States needed a multilateral approach:
On the larger issue of the American role in the world, Haass was still maintaining some distance from the hawks. He had made a speech not long before called “Imperial America,” but he told me that there is a big difference between imperial and imperialist. “I just think that we have to be a little bit careful,” he said. “Great as our advantages are, there are still limits. We have to have allies. We can’t impose our ideas on everyone. We don’t want to be fighting wars alone, so we need others to join us. American leadership, yes; but not American unilateralism. It has to be multilateral. We can’t win the war against terror alone. We can’t send forces everywhere. It really does have to be a collaborative endeavor.”
That said, it is perhaps too easy to blame all this on the War on Terror. Even before 9/11, there was some suggestion that the American political mood had become “much more conservative, much more hostile to multilateralism.” After all, a lot of the anti-terror legislation introduced in the wake of 9/11 had actually been drafted in the nineties as a response to events like Waco or Oklahoma City. Similarly, there was a conscious political shift in the late nineties towards the political right.
This was true even in the context of Enterprise itself. With its predominantly white, male and human crew, Enterprise lined up comfortably with that conservative tone. However, this was not a response to 9/11; Broken Bow had been written, cast and filmed before the attacks took place. Rick Berman and Brannon Braga might have been responding to something in the national mood in how they constructed the show, but the core ingredients were in place before 9/11.
9/11 provides a clear bisecting line when it comes to discussing the divide between the twentieth and twenty-first century. It dramatically changed American and global politics, to the point that it could reasonably be argued that the world was a different place on the 10th of September than it was on the 12th. At the same time, these attacks and their response did not occur in a political or social vacuum, as much as that might have seemed to be the case. In some instances, the War on Terror might be read an acceleration of pre-existing trends.
Even allowing for all that, there is something quite striking in the way that Babel One and United embrace the optimism and liberalism associated with the Star Trek franchise. The three-parter is very much a struggle for the soul of the franchise at a time when its future had never been less certain. While the previous spin-offs had taken the franchise’s post-scarcity future for granted, Enterprise seemed to position the prospect of a better future as subversive in its own right.
In an increasingly cynical time when it seemed the United States might have to “go it alone”, it felt almost radical to suggest that there might be a better way. Optimism and hope about the future are no longer taken for granted, they can no longer be assumed. The idea of an alliance between the Andorians and the Tellarites is not an inevitability; it is a challenge to the turbulent and chaotic status quo. That is a fairly brave idea, and it marks the fourth season of Enterprise as a worthy successor to the Star Trek franchise.
The future might yet be saved.
Filed under: Enterprise | Tagged: Alice Eve, anton yelchin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Earth, Federation, J. J. Abrams, james t. kirk, John Cho, Minefield, Romulan, spock, star trek, star trek: enterprise, Tellarite, Zachary Quinto |