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Star Trek: Enterprise – Damage (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This August, we’re doing the third season. Check back daily for the latest review.

The stock comparison for Damage is In the Pale Moonlight.

This makes a great deal of sense. After all, both are Star Trek episodes that hinge on a series of morally questionable decisions made by the lead actor in a moment of sheer desperation. In In the Pale Moonlight, Benjamin Sisko starts a chain of events that builds towards the assassination of a Romulan Senator to trick the Romulans into joining the war effort. In Damage, Jonathan Archer resorts to piracy in order to obtain the parts necessary to make a meeting with Degra in order to plead against the use of the Xindi weapon.

A met a man who wasn't there...

A met a man who wasn’t there…

There are some notable differences, of course. In purely practical plotting terms, Sisko dominates the narrative of In the Pale Moonlight; the entire story is related directly by Sisko to the audience in the form of a personal log. In contrast, Damage is split between the demands of Archer’s own arc in the episode and various other continuity elements; the episode needs to get Archer back to his ship and devote a considerable amount of time to T’Pol’s addiction. As a result, it lacks the keen focus that made In the Pale Moonlight so compelling.

At the same time, there is something much more direct about Damage. Sisko is quite detached from the horrors of In the Pale Moonlight, with the audience insulated from his choices through the use of a framing device and Sisko himself insulated through his use of Garak to conduct all the unpalatable actions. In contrast, Archer makes a point to bloody his own hands over the course of Damage. He doesn’t have somebody else to make the decision for him; he leads the boarding party himself.

Everything comes apart...

Everything comes apart…

It is a very bold an unsettling choice, a culmination of a character arc that has been pushing Archer towards this sort of horrific choice since Anomaly. The third season of Star Trek: Enterprise has not been entirely consistent when it comes to its character arcs, working better in broad strokes than in fine detail. Nevertheless, Damage represents a very clear commitment to the promise of the third season of Enterprise; an interrogation of the franchise’s core values in an increasingly morally ambiguous world.

Damage is a deeply uncomfortable and unsettling episode of Star Trek, but it is arguably a necessary one. It is, in many ways, a criticism of the moral absolutism that informs a lot of discussion about terrible situations, suggesting that reality is often a lot more complicated than people might hope it would be.

Drowning his sorrows...

Drowning his sorrows…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Doctor’s Orders (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This August, we’re doing the third season. Check back daily for the latest review.

If Harbinger was a surprisingly experimental piece of Star Trek, then Doctor’s Orders is something far more conventional. If Harbinger was an attempt to do something relatively novel within the framework of Star Trek: Enterprise, then Doctor’s Orders offers the viewer something they’ve seen before.

This applies in a very literal sense. There are quite a few similarities between the plot of Doctor’s Orders and One. Both are effectively one-hander bottle shows focusing on a popular member of the cast, working from the premise that an anomaly of the week requires the rest of the crew to go into stasis. From that starting point, both episodes become studies of isolation and loneliness. Both character find themselves confronting hallucinations while dealing with a perceived threat to the ship.

Yes. Doctor's Orders was a very strange choice for Sweeps.

Yes. Doctor’s Orders was a very strange choice for Sweeps.

To be fair, this is neither the first nor the last time that the Star Trek franchise will feature a plot largely recycled from existing elements. With over seven hundred episodes in the can, there will inevitably be some overlap and similarities. However, Doctor’s Orders feels familiar in another more primal sort of way. One of the big tensions of third season is a need to balance the demands of a larger story arc with a twenty-odd episode season. There is a very odd equilibrium to be struck between the long-form story and episodic standalone adventures.

Doctor’s Orders is very much an old-school episodic Star Trek adventure that could exist quite apart from the demands of the third season as a whole. It is an example of the sorts of internal tensions at work on the show.

The sleep of the just...

The sleep of the just…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Harbinger (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This August, we’re doing the third season. Check back daily for the latest review.

It goes almost without saying that the third season of Star Trek: Enterprise was an attempt to revitalise a franchise that had already been on television for a decade and half. It was an attempt to do something quite radical and dynamic with a television property that had become rather staid and conservative. Star Trek: The Next Generation had been perfectly calibrated for the late eighties and early nineties, but its approach towards storytelling was increasingly outdated after seven seasons of Star Trek: Voyager.

One of the recurring issues in the first season of Enterprise was the conflict between the established franchise structure and something more adventurous and exciting. So many of those first season episodes seemed laboriously paced and awkwardly arch; there was a sense of dull routine rather than exciting adventure. The show would occasionally try to deviated from the established template (to varying degrees of success) with stories like Dear Doctor, Shuttlepod One, and A Night in Sickbay, but narrative conservatism won out in the sophomore season.

"So... sweeps?"

“So… sweeps?”

In many ways, Harbinger plays as a return to those earlier experiments in story structure. It is an episode that is not driven by story. Although the strange alien discovered by the crew provides a suitably dramatic climax, most of Harbinger is built around established character dynamics. Trip and T’Pol begin working through the sexual tension that has existed between them since the start of the third season; Reed and Hayes do something similar in a very different fashion. In the meantime, the ship just cruises along en route to the third season’s next big plot beat.

Harbinger is not entirely successful in this regard. There is a sense that the franchise is still figuring out how to construct episodes that don’t conform to a rigid story structure, with the mysterious alien visitor serving as an effective crutch to help get around these problems. Still, it is an interesting experiment and an example of how the show is consciously trying to reinvent itself in a manner that is more than simply cosmetic.

Expanding his Sphere of influence...

Expanding his Sphere of influence…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Twilight (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This August, we’re doing the third season. Check back daily for the latest review.

Twilight is a fascinating piece of Star Trek.

There are some significant flaws with the episode, particularly in how it treats T’Pol as a character and the eagerness with which it grabs at the famed “reset button.” However, despite these problems, Twilight is pretty much perfectly positioned. Eight episodes into the third season, the new status quo has been established. The ground rules have been laid down. Over the past seven episodes, fans have been given a sense of how the third season of Star Trek: Enterprise is supposed to work.

Keep your shirt on, Archer...

Keep your shirt on, Archer…

However, there is a palpable sense of unease about the larger arc – a question of how Star Trek can tell a story like the Xindi arc while remaining true to itself. The Shipment was an awkward attempt to impose a traditional Star Trek moral structure upon the season. North Star and Similitude are very much traditional Star Trek morality tales set against the backdrop of the larger arc. Like many of the stronger shows towards the tail end of the second season, these episodes seem to ask how you can apply old Star Trek standards to the twenty-first century.

Twilight is an episode about what happens if the Xindi arc goes wrong. Obviously, this is a story about what happens if Archer cannot save Earth from the Xindi, documenting the slow death of mankind as they are hunted through the cosmos. However, on an external level, Twilight is a story about what happens if Star Trek bungles this big grasp at relevance. It is no coincidence that the debilitating impairment that Archer develops involves his long-term memory. If the franchise forgets itself, all is lost.

Everything dies...

Everything dies…

Twilight is not just the story about the death of Earth or the death of humanity. It is a story about the death of Star Trek. Two years earlier, the franchise had seemed almost invincible; the idea of there not being any Star Trek on the air after the end of Star Trek: Voyager seemed almost absurd. However, by the time that the show had reached the third season, its existence was very much in peril. Twilight is a story about how horrible and apocalyptic the future might be; how Star Trek might find itself hobbled and then destroyed.

As its name implies, Twilight is a lament for the franchise; perhaps a tacit acknowledgement that the show was nothing more than a dead man walking at this point. The result is a surprisingly moving piece of television, a thoughtful and considerate examination of just how much is on the line for the franchise as well as the characters.

Waking dream...

Waking dream…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Impulse (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This August, we’re doing the third season. Check back daily for the latest review.

Impulse is a Star Trek zombie story.

It might sound absurd, but it works very well. After all, the Star Trek franchise rooted in pulp space horror, with extended stretches of the original show portraying space as haunted. In some ways, Impulse could be seen as a logical extension of Regeneration from late in the second season. Both episodes are very much modelled on the classic zombie horror movie formula, both deal with how traditional Star Trek morality applies to that formula, and both are even directed by veteran Star Trek producer David Livingston, who brings a nice kinetic feel to the adventures.

Dead space...

Dead space…

Impulse works a lot better than it really should. There are some plotting issues created by the secondary storyline grafted into the episode, and the show doesn’t quite develop its Vulcan themes as well as it might. However, it compensates for these issues with an incredible sense of energy and momentum. The third season of Star Trek: Enterprise might be the first season of Star Trek to be seriously facing cancellation in decades, but it had an entirely new lease on life.

Impulse is a bold and exciting piece of television, one that feel vital and urgent. It recaptures some of the appeal of the new status quo that had been somewhat squandered by Extinction and Rajiin.

Reed shirt...

Reed shirt…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Bounty (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This April, we’re doing the second season. Check back daily for the latest review.

Just when it seemed like Star Trek: Enterprise was on a roll, it produces Bounty.

To be fair to writers Mike Sussman and Phyllis Strong, and showrunners Rick Berman and Brannon Braga, Bounty has all the makings of a network-mandated episodes. It is easy to see the stock plot elements manufactured from a checklist provided by the network. T’Pol in her underwear! Space battles! Klingons! The script also demonstrates a clear reluctance about some of these elements, as uncomfortable to be making Bounty as the viewers are to be watching it.

An enlightening experience?

An enlightening experience?

It is perhaps telling that Bounty was buried as the second half of a “double feature” with First Flight on initial broadcast. Not a feature-length adventure or a two-part episode, the scheduling of Bounty seems a little conspicuous, as if everyone involved is trying to get it out of the way as quickly and quietly as possible. Viewers watching UPN on 14th May 2003 would have tuned in for First Flight as usual. If they were lucky, they simply tuned out afterwards and returned to watch The Expanse a week later.

It is a much smoother transition from First Flight to The Expanse, but that does little to justify Bounty. The last stretch of the second season has generally done a good job of bidding farewell to a particular style of Star Trek. However, Bounty is an episode the embodies the worst tendencies of Enterprise. Sadly, those tendencies that may not actually be going anywhere.

"You're gonna sit there, and like it."

“You’re gonna sit there, and like it.”

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Star Trek: Enterprise – The Catwalk (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This April, we’re doing the second season. Check back daily for the latest review.

The Catwalk is a solid, if unexceptional, piece of Star Trek.

Given the problems that the second season of Star Trek: Enterprise has been having to date, it feels like a breath of fresh air. As with a lot of the episodes around it, The Catwalk feels a little familiar. There are refugees with a secret; an alien take-over of the ship; a clever bluff to reclaim the ship from a position of weakness. If we are looking at The Catwalk in the “… by way of …” formula that seems to apply to most of this stretch of the second season, The Catwalk is “Starship Mine by way of Basics.”

"Right, right! Goddammit, Trip, now we'll never get the high score!"

“Right, right! Goddammit, Trip, now we’ll never get the high score!”

However, The Catwalk feels a lot more functional than many of the earlier episodes in the season. A large part of that is down to the way that writers Mike Sussman and Phylis Strong play to their strengths. The inevitable alien hijacking and threat is relegated to the background; The Catwalk is almost half over by the time that anything actually happens. While the episode’s pacing is a little uneven, it does allow Sussman and Strong a bit of room to explore the characters, building up the sense that the crew is something of a family unit.

While The Catwalk isn’t innovative or particularly adventurous, it works quite well. The idea of pushing the whole crew into a confined space and having them weather the storm together feels like it captures a lot of the pioneering sense of adventure that the show has allowed to fade over the second season.

Don't forget to turn out the light...

Don’t forget to turn out the light…

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