In the Beginning, Trek Created Aliens and Catsuits
Original airdate: September 26, 2001
"Broken Bow" Plot Summary:
An Oklahoma farmer shoots a Klingon who has killed several mysterious aliens on his property. The wounded alien is taken to Starfleet's rudimentary headquarters, where the Vulcan delegation argues in favor of allowing him to die honorably. But Captain Jonathan Archer agrees with several admirals that the Klingon should be returned to his own people. He quickly recruits a crew for the new ship Enterprise, with warp engines designed partly by his own father. While engineer Tucker frets over the untested systems, Ensign Mayweather has some fun in zero g and alien Dr. Phlox studies human vicissitudes, Archer quarrels with Vulcan advisor T'Pol, who doesn't believe humans have the experience nor the maturity for complex inter-species interactions.
Matters get complicated when the Klingon is kidnapped from Enterprise by the mysterious Suliban, a race of shapeshifters under the command of a shadowy being from a future century. T'Pol helps Tucker modify the ship's sensors to follow the aliens' trail, though she disapproves of Archer's plan to pursue the kidnappers and retrieve the Klingon. When they arrive at a gas giant hosting a complex of hundreds of magnetically connected ships, Archer and Tucker infiltrate the aggregate and retrieve Klaang. The captain becomes the first person ever to use the transporter when his crew dematerializes him to save him from the Suliban.
On the Klingon homeworld, Klaang announces that he is ready to die for disgracing the empire, but first he offers his blood to the council. The cells revealed altered DNA, a biological message from the Suliban and possibly from the future. When Admiral Forrest learns of their discoveries, he orders Archer and the Enterprise not to return to Earth, but to remain in space trying to learn about the new adversary. Though T'Pol is scheduled to return to Vulcan, Archer asks her to remain on board as his science officer. The crew prepares to explore strange new worlds.
Before I begin to discuss this new series, let me make clear where I'm coming from. We all know there's no such thing as an objective review, no matter how erudite or professional the tone of the reviewer -- we all have different interests and values that are reflected in our analyses. Enterprise's network slots me in a demographic along with other 30-something females who are outside their target audience. Fans, who tend to be less interested in marketing concerns, will probably be more interested to know that I grew up loving Classic Trek, never missed an episode of Next Gen, adore Deep Space Nine, have a love-hate relationship with Voyager, am still impressed by Babylon 5, like Andromeda, am lukewarm on Farscape, haven't seen enough Roswell to have strong opinions about it.
So let me confess my heresies. I don't really care whether the Enterprise writers stick strictly to original Trek canon. There are certain aspects I'd like them to jettison completely -- the apparent lack of female captains before Kirk's era, for instance -- and others I won't lose sleep over, like what year hand phasers were supposedly invented. I'm a lot more committed to the themes and tone of the original series than the plot details. I also don't care whether the special effects are state-of-the-art or sort of mediocre -- they're not going to be better than in really great movies -- nor whether the Klingons wear old-style minimalist makeup versus cool contemporary prosthetics. Worst, perhaps: I don't care whether the show offers really original science fiction ideas. Some of my best-loved episodes (TNG's "Best of Both Worlds," Voyager's "Deadlock") are highly derivative of other SF television or novels.
If the episodic stories are well-told, if the characters are consistent and intriguing, if the show keeps a sense of fun while exploring intellectual, political, social and occasionally spiritual issues, Enterprise will make for fine entertainment. If the stories are boring, if the characters are used gratuitously, if there's overt sexism or racism, if the drama keeps taking us where we've already gone before, then the show won't be worth my time even if it has action sequences, special effects and makeup that set industry standards. Those are my values. They're certainly not the only valid reasons to enjoy a show, but they're what I'm watching for. And now you've been warned.
From its sappy pop theme song to its Vulcan first officer, Enterprise comes across as a bizarre sort of retro. It's meant to seem nostalgic, not to the hundreds of thousands of people who watched Star Trek and The Next Generation, but to viewers so young that they have only a vague sense of the spirit of these predecessor sequels. Despite such nods to the original series as a good old Southern boy fighting Vulcan logic and admirals named Leonard and Forrest, Enterprise doesn't so much go back to the roots of Trek as attempt to reinvent them. Thus it offers excellent production values and some fine action, but long-time fans of the series may find little of substance to keep them interested.
It's been alleged that a Trek series sinks or swims on the strength of its captain, though Seven of Nine changed that formula somewhat on Voyager. Archer has been compared to Kirk, but he reminds me more of Farscape's John Crichton, with the inevitable comparisons to Sam Beckett, the character Scott Bakula played on Quantum Leap. He certainly commands attention well and seems "captain-like" according to the old-school models -- Picard, Sheridan, Dylan Hunt. He takes more guff from his crew than most of them, which I like -- reminds me of Space: 1999's John Koenig, the most human of all the space-opera commanders I've encountered, because leaders seem more authoritative when they're challenged yet maintain their authority like Archer than when everyone rolls over and barks for them like Janeway. Speaking of rolling over and barking, I like a man who brings his dog into space. I'm a tad curious about who walks it during interplanetary crises, what T'Pol will do when it starts humping her leg, and whether Tucker will eat it if the food stores run low.
The original Trek pilot was about a Starfleet captain facing humans with godlike powers; Deep Space Nine's pilot was about a Starfleet captain thrust into the position of Emissary to alien gods; Caretaker was about a Starfleet captain forced to make peace with her adversaries and strand her crew deep in space for the greater good. Enterprise is about a Starfleet captain who's in over his head from the get-go, facing a conspiracy he knows nothing about, posturing and bluffing to cover both his own ignorance and the insecurity of all his people embarking on this new venture. The stakes seem lower, even with a time-traveling villain who may be trying to rewrite history, because we know how things must turn out at the end of this seven-year series. (If they don't, the thousands of Trekkies who despised "Endgame" for being such a cheat of an ending for Voyager may make good on their threats never to watch or purchase a Trek product again -- I admit that the lack of Star Trek in the title does make me a little nervous.)
So Archer makes a decent impression, despite the clichéd bonding scenes with his father (yet another Trek character with no mother to speak of!) His snapping at T'Pol seems forced and petty -- there's little chemistry between those characters, sexual or adversarial -- but his friendship with Tucker provides some nice moments, as does his sociable bickering with Dr. Phlox. This captain has a more homey, all-American image than the previous four and he definitely seems to enjoy action, but he's unconvincing as a politician in the scenes with Starfleet and Vulcan brass, and he looks a little silly rolling around during the battles -- one needs either a fantastic physique or a certain Shatneresque aplomb to pull those off, something no Trek captain has had since, well, Shatner.
Normally in a first review I'd sum up my impressions of the cast, but in this case some of them made so little impact that I honestly can't say I have any impression. Take Reed, for instance: if I hadn't read the press materials, I wouldn't have a clue what his job on the ship will be, since all discussion of weapons seemed to take place between slash-fan-fantasy-first-officer Tucker and Vulcan-from-Quark's-"Love Slave"-holonovel T'Pol. I would be remiss if I didn't mention Bakula's co-stars, namely Jolene Blalock's nipples, which make two VERY prominent appearances (to be fair, Connor Trinneer's crotch gets burgeoning screen time too). Mayweather has the Wesley Crusher "Gosh golly gee, we're in space!" enthusiasm down pretty well, and Sato screams as well as Chekov ever did, but they both remind me far too much of the token black guy and the token female communications officer from Galaxy Quest.
In fact Enterprise reminds me far too much of Galaxy Quest without the sense of humor about itself. It has the feel of 1960s science fiction, all right, but not the wonder and triumph of the first forays into space. Instead it's bogged down in the details, whether the ship's paint is all right, whether the transporter will function, whether the humans can improve their wussy sensors to alien standards. There are too many young white boys taking up adversarial positions versus those who are Other -- Vulcans, women, any being they can't understand or relate to. I'm sure the crew tensions will be ironed out all too quickly, the way they were with the Maquis on Voyager in the early seasons -- or else they'll be exacerbated past the point of believability, as with Seven of Nine on Voyager in the later seasons. Neither formula works well for the development of humor or complex relationships, two staples of the first two Trek series that made them enormously popular not just with the young male demographic but with a huge cross-section of society all over the globe.
The Taliban -- excuse me, the Suliban -- have great potential as adversaries mostly because of what we don't yet know about them. T'Pol dismisses them as a backward culture, yet they've clearly got the futuristic equivalent of biological warfare up their biosynthetic sleeves, and their magnetic conglomerate space station looks great even if it's hard to believe technologically skilled aliens could be stupid enough to build an aggregate that a simple dispersal device could break apart. That must be their backward side coming to the fore. Their mysterious dark energy time-traveling leader looks awfully like Andromeda's mysterious dark energy time-traveling leader, but I find myself wondering whether he will turn out to be Captain James T. Kirk. We need some explanation for why we've never heard of Archer and the Enterprise NX-01. I'm guessing Kirk's ego could not tolerate the existence of a previous Enterprise, so he traveled through time to wipe it from history -- and we already know he succeeds because we've never heard of this Archer dude.
Then again the mysterious dark energy time-traveling leader might just turn out to be Brannon Braga, who includes all the cheap sex staples for which many Trek fans despise him. Alien exotic dancers with incredible tongues dancing in Star Trek's equivalent of the Mos Eisley cantina. A female officer whose breasts precede her into a room by several seconds. A medical condition which requires that a male and female officer give themselves and each other rubdowns with oily lube. Braga's Vulcan first officer smirks absurdly often and acts like Janeway on her worst days -- Spock was half-Vulcan, he could get away with the occasional raised eyebrow or fit of annoyance, but T'Pol's supposed to be a professional and a proponent of logic, not a wiseass. Younger viewers may not care, and indeed I may not care if T'Pol turns out to be a wonderful character in her own right -- Vulcan characteristics haven't been consistent between the original series and the later generations, anyway, but the jingoistic way with which humans treat them on Enterprise smacks of a kind of racism absent from Roddenberry's Trek. The most "alien" alien, Phlox, has thus far been used for comic relief, and given his resemblance to Neelix one wonders whether that situation might become permanent.
The production values remain the most consistent aspect of the franchise. The gross-out shots of a dissected Suliban look disturbingly believable. "The Lights! Camera! Launch Ship!" sequence borrowed from Star Trek: The Motion Picture encourages positive comparisons between the old Trek and the new. One almost wishes there were more of that -- more wonder and curiosity, less fear and anger, though at the end there's a ridiculously quick reversal when Archer announces they're staying out in space and everyone looks happy, even people like Sato who probably only packed as much underwear as they needed for the short maiden voyage.
The theme song speaks of seeing the dream come alive and touching the sky, accompanied with NASA-type PR footage of early spaceflight. It sounds like one of those songs that get played with montages at the Olympics or during the Superbowl and makes one think about the long road behind, not the shining path ahead. Perhaps it's time for a change to the anthemic music and future-seeking quest of Star Trek in order to appeal to a younger demographic, but I'm not convinced that the retro sexism and xenophobia strongly in evidence in this pilot won't become too much a focus of the show, giving the crew a few too many flaws to triumph over, missing the optimistic inevitability built into the Treks that have gone before.
After the pilots of both Deep Space Nine and Voyager, I was in love. I'm not in love with Enterprise -- I'm not even sure that I'm in like. But there's enough potential to keep me watching, for now.