Star Trek: Enterprise Season Three Review
For all the various Star Trek series down the years the arrival of Season Three has marked something of a turning point. With the exception of The Original Series, on which external pressures had a very detrimental effect to the quality of the episodes in its final year, all of the Treks have a markedly better third innings than their first two. It's as though for a while Star Trek shows get by on the simple momentum of being a Star Trek show, but that after two years it’s no longer enough to carry them on indefinitely, and that things need to be done to give the show some extra pep, a shot of adrenaline to revive it. For The Next Generation, Year Three was when it finally pulled its socks up behind-the-scenes, the revolving door of writers that produced an uneven first couple of seasons finally settling down to a dedicated, permanent staff, headed by Michael Pillar, who knew what they were doing and where the show should head. Voyager was exactly the opposite: Pillar left after two seasons but left a mission statement in the form of two parter The Basics (aptly named) reminding them to get back to what Star Trek has already done the best. They left behind the Klingon clones the Kazon and tried to tell more interesting stand alone stories. “Embrace the adventure!” we were told was the motto, and, while it never really came off, Season Three is arguably among the best that show ever managed to produce, before Seven of Nine came knocking and stole the entire show. Of black sheep of the family Deep Space Nine, meanwhile, there is a case to be made that it was doing perfectly well after two years and didn’t need any improvements, but the ratings said otherwise and so the threat of the Dominion was brought in, giving the writers an excuse to equip Captain Sisko with a vessel of his very own to command.
And this trend has now continued with Enterprise. While the first year was mildly entertaining in a soporific way, the second was deeply dull, a combination of hackneyed stories we’d all seen umpteen times before coupled with dull characters and no over-riding story to distract us. Viewers were falling asleep and drastic steps needed to be taken if Enterprise was not to suffer the ignoble fate of ending up with fewer episodes than TOS. Seeing the success of more modern series such as Buffy and 24, the two head honchos Rick Berman and Brannon Braga (cue chorus of pantomime boos and hisses) decided that what people wanted nowadays was much more of an on-going story, one that developed over an entire season and was not wrapped up neatly in forty-five minutes. Although this isn't new to Trek as such - both the movies and DS9 have had arcs that extended far beyond individual episodes - this would be the first time that things were planned out in full from the beginning, and not made up as they went along. Hopefully this would have the twin effects of rewarding long term viewers who had been more than patient up until now and, more importantly, attract people back to the Star Trek fold. Look! they were saying, we're up-to-date now, we can tell longer stories like the best of them (they also put the prefix Star Trek back on the title, a shame as I liked the fact it was just called Enterprise up until this point). This rethink was a sensible idea - Trek has been behind-the-times in its style now for almost a decade - but the question at the start of the year was: Would the plotline be interesting enough to merit spending an entire season with it?
In the Season Two finale The Expanse Earth is attacked by a hitherto unknown alien race called the Xindi, an attack which leaves seven million people dead. They discover that this was just a test for a larger weapon which the Xindi are making to, Death-Star-like, literally blow up Earth. Archer discovers, by the help of the mysterious Future Guy, that this isn't because the Xindi are building a new interstellar bypass but because they believe at some point in the future Starfleet, led by Earth, will try and wipe them out. As the fleet's number one vessel, the Enterprise is sent into the dangerous realm of space called the Expanse to track down these aliens and stop them before they can carry out their deadly attack, as well as find out exactly why they think as they do. It is, in short, an extended 9/11 parallel, although this grows less true as the season goes on: at the start it appears that the Xindi are acting alone but ultimately it becomes clear that they are but puppets to another race. Although it is perhaps morally questionable to draw such a comparison and then suggest a rather different motive than Al'Qaeda had, it is arguable that any story about an alien race attacking Earth is going to feel like a 9/11 story to a certain extent, at least for the next few years and, just as the 50s ignored the fact the Communists never actually invaded and had the Red Menace literally coming from planet Mars, what actually happened on that horrible day shouldn't stop the telling of such stories, as long as it is sufficiently respectful. TOS was itself an extended metaphor for Roddenberry's beliefs, and while the ultimate message of this season is a little trite (don't blame those caught up in the crossfire, it only takes a few bad eggs to spoil things) it is perhaps one of which he would have approved. In one of the featurettes it is said that 9/11 was never really at the forefront of their minds once the season started and, watching the show, that's not difficult to believe. Does it feel exploitative? No, I really don't think it does, although I am aware that others feel differently.
Initially, the season starts with what appears to be odd narrative choices. The very first scene in the first episode reveals in all their glory the Xindi Council which, given how much emphasis The Expanse put upon the fact we know nothing about this mysterious enemy feels odd, rather like revealing the Alien right at the beginning of that film. This revelation is immediately followed by a bizarrely inappropriate remix of the theme tune (an upbeat jaunty version that completely belies the ominous atmosphere the episodes themselves are trying to put across) and a dull first episode set on a Generic Mining Planet (as well as a boring new set in the form of a combat room) and all in all it doesn’t make for a promising start. The initial batch of episodes treat the search for the weapon and those responsible for it more as a McGuffin than anything else, a simple excuse to get from A to B in each show. With the exception of the second episode Anomaly, of which more in a moment, there are also some alarmingly old-fashioned “dull” episodes. Episodes like Extinction, Impulse and Exile are all stories with themes that have been done better previously, their respective tales of crewmembers-turning-into-aliens, the crew facing an insane crew of another ship and alien-lusting-after-female-crewmember adding nothing new to those that came before. These instalments come across as just as lacklustre as anything in the first two years, with the added frustration that one feels progress towards the ultimate goal of the season is being deliberately put off, making much of the first half of the season seem like padding.
However, somewhere around the halfway mark, things begin to pick up dramatically, and the season finally starts to gather pace. It’s become fairly easy to say this is purely down to the input of Manny Coto, the writer who joined the writing team at roughly this midway point and is nowadays heralded as solely responsible for the show’s latter day revival, but it’s difficult to believe otherwise. The second half has an energy and vibrancy to it that the first half, for all its high-vaunted aims of kicking the show up its arse, does not. While I don’t rate his first episode Similitude quite as highly as the general consensus (it has some very trite dialogue, and once again is something that has been seen before in Star Trek - as much as it pains me to say it, VOY’s Tuvix handled the equivalent “execution” scene far more poignantly for me) it certainly raises the bar about what the show should be doing. There are still some duds to be found in the second half of the year - Hatchery is pretty pointless, as is the deeply disappointing E^2 which desperately wants to be a mixture of TNG’s Yesterday’s Enterprise and DS9’s Children of Time but ends up being but a pale shadow of either – but overall the standard is considerably higher, helped along by an ever-increasing momentum as the search for the weapon hots up, helped along by a genuine sense of things spiralling out of control.
The reasoning behind showing the Xindi Council from the beginning becomes clear as we are privy to the various machinations going on within it. The Council is not, it seems, as one about exactly what should be done about the perceived human threat, creating divisions between the various factions and making matters even more complicated for Archer and his crew. Facing a united enemy is bad enough, facing an enemy that is fractious and prone to taking rash decisions irrespective of how others in the group feel is even more dangerous. The surprise star of the entire season is to be found here in the form of Randy Oglesby who plays Degra, the designer of the weapon who ultimately changes sides and helps our heroes. Just as Dumar emerged from the shadows in the last season of DS9 to become far more of a rounded sympathetic character than his initial Generic Bad Guy status led us to expect, so here Degra rises above the other anonymous members of the council to become a fully rounded individual. This begins in the episode Stratagem in which he and Archer come face to face for the first time. Archer begins by believing him to be the face of pure evil, the personification of the devils who wish to destroy his home, but the episode ends by giving him, for wont of a better word, a human face, and from this moment on their relationship starts to develop - even if Degra doesn't remember this initial encounter later on.
The backstory that emerges too is pleasingly less straightforward than expected. The reason the Xindi attacked Earth is perhaps not especially clever, but for once the ultimate alien menace makes sense and does not just appear from the blue, the various clues scattered through individual episodes of the first half of the season – especially in Harbinger, which is far more subtle a show than at first appears - finally bearing fruit in a most satisfactory way. This is one benefit of the continuing narrative that is taken full advantage of. Although ultimately the villains are a little too ethereal to pose a tangible threat – it’s never made clear exactly what they can and can’t do in our universe – their aims are clear cut and their actions are logical. Consequently, the episode in which all is revealed, Azati Prime, is arguably the best Enterprise had produced up until that point, showing far more clear-headed long-term thinking than has been the case since… goodness knows. (It also has the best assault on a Starfleet vessel EVER, including the movies). The design of the Xindi themselves, too, while fairly unremarkable, is decently executed. The idea of a single race being made up of six different groups – humanoid, arboreal, reptilian, insect, aquatic and avian – is as old as fantasy itself, but works well to distinguish between the various factions, and while it would have been nice to have seen more of the aquatics, obviously time and money was against this. The insect race, which is an entirely CGI creation, is the most ambitious continuing effect Star Trek has tried up until this point, and doesn’t once slip up in its execution. Indeed, the only let down regarding the Xindi is that it is the Reptilians who end up being the villains. Reptilian species have always had a hard time in Star Trek, from the Gorn onwards, and here the Reptilians come across as little more than green Cardassians, alien patsies who are being exploited by a higher force they can’t really understand.
It would be nice to say that our regular characters, too, are much improved but sadly that is not the case, with once again poor old Mayweather (Anthony Montgomery) getting the thin end of the wedge. Simply put, he gets nothing to do the entire season, absolutely nothing. It’s as though he is completely forgotten about, although the reality is probably closer to the fact he is just being ignored, an ill-defined flaccid character whose destiny of becoming the Harry Kim of the series is finally fulfilled. Even when there is a mutiny on the ship he doesn’t get to join in, and as for giving him the courtesy of an episode of his very own? Forget it! Hoshi (Linda Park) doesn’t fare much better, although at least she gets an episode (even if it is the boring Exile) and a fair whack of action in the finale. Malcolm Reed’s big story is to spend the year paranoid that new recurring character Major Hayes (Steven Culp), plans to take over his job. Hayes is the leader of the MACOs (Military Assault Command Operation soldiers), a group who have come on board to help with the mission but whose principal role ends up being cannon fodder, the Enterprise equivalent of TOS' Red Shirts. The conflict between Hayes and Malcolm climaxes in an amusingly unrestrained fistfight down an Enterprise corridor but doesn’t especially have any lasting interest for the viewer. Dr Phlox (John Billingsley), meanwhile, who was my sole highlight of Season Two, has a more quiet year, although he does get one of the five best episodes in Doctor’s Orders, a very enjoyable standalone tale with a sting in its tale.
Of the three main leads, Trip gets two things to do: one is showing his continuing rage at the initial Xindi attack which killed his sister, putting a human face on the cost, and the other getting to flirt with T’Pol, which works, just about, mainly down the fact that actors Connor Trinneer and Jolene Blalock have far more chemistry between them than the characters do themselves. The amount of T&A on display this year is, fortunately, more restrained - although T'Pol's bottom makes an appearance, and the several massage sessions she shares with Trip are more about titillation than relaxation, the very fact the Decon Chamber doesn't appear should be cause for celebration, and a sign the show has more lofty aims in mind these days. (Regarding the bottom scene: the first broadcast of that episode couldn't have been more badly timed, as it was shortly after the infamous Janet Jackson incident at the Superbowl which had caused such a furore - the initial telecast in the US thus had to edit the offending moment, although Canada was judged sufficiently liberal to see it uncovered, so to speak).
Indeed, nudity aside T'Pol has by far the most interesting time of any of the principal seven, and not just because she gets a new wardrobe. Just as the character herself suffers endless turmoil this season, both as her feelings for Trip develop and also her dependence on the drug-like Trellium, one gets the feeling the writers are struggling, never quite sure how far toward pure emotion they should allow this particular, not-so-easy-to-pin-down Vulcan to go. From the beginning of its run Enterprise has been criticised for allowing its portrayal of the Vulcans to be far too emotional and smug – a criticism for which there is some justification, even if it isn’t quite as bad as has been suggested elsewhere – and it is clear that now with T’Pol the scripters aren’t sure which tack to take. Should she break down completely, how does she go about restraining these emotions, how does she actually feel in moments of stress? This leads to an uneven portrayal that reverts between the open emotionality of the science officer smashing a PADD in front of Archer, through to her slightly desperate quest for more Trellium to feed her addiction in another of the standout episodes Damage. Although a fair amount can be excused through her problems with the drug, there is still an inconsistency about her that doesn’t sit entirely right and makes for an uneasy characterisation. This is reflected in Jolene Blalock’s playing: at no point during the season is one ever overwhelmingly impressed with her performance, and at times the more challenging scenes, such as those in which T’Pol breaks down, seem as much of a struggle for the actress as the character she is playing. At no times could one say she gives a bad performance: it’s just she doesn’t convince as completely as perhaps she should. Never having seen Blalock in anything else, I can’t say whether this is just because she isn’t as good an actress as she could be, or whether simply the mixed signals being sent from the writers confused the actress and made her uncertain.
Fortunately, the same can't be said about Scott Bakula, although he does at times overplay his hand too. Sitting down to watch this season I reflected that in the first two seasons Archer had done nothing to earn history’s respect – indeed, he has a habit of making a mess of things with his impulsive behaviour. However, this year he manages to turn that impulsiveness to his advantage. Basically, the Captain gets tough, and increasingly comes to the opinion that, in the case of stopping the Xindi, the ends justify the means. While his slightly hysterical actions in the second episode of the season, Anomoly, are a painfully blunt attempt by the scripters to make this point (Archer threatens to suffocate a prisoner if he doesn’t give the answers Archer wants) which doesn’t ultimately doesn’t work (we never believe Archer will really kill the man, and Bakula’s histrionic snarling doesn’t help) later on he makes many difficult choices that are far more challenging to the viewer and to him. This is a man driven by a single goal: save Earth, no matter what it takes. He’s prepared to sacrifice both himself (Azati Prime and others) and his crew (dragging a just-tortured Hoshi along to help him in Zero Hour) and also, most shockingly, he’s prepared to screw over innocent parties in his quest. In the already cited Damage he launches a raid on an innocent ship to steal a vital part of their warp core, a part that will repair Enterprise’s engines but strand that other ship three years from home – three years from home in a very dangerous area of space, it should be remembered. Debating the morality or lack of regarding this action could fill an entire review on its own, but there is little doubt that none of the other Captains from the main series would have even thought about doing such a thing. That the series was prepared to take such a risk with its leading man is perhaps the most admirable thing of the entire season. Bakula, who obviously had an input into the direction he wanted his character to go, evidently relishes the chance to play this darker side of Archer, and although he does get over excited sometimes – the aforementioned Anomaly, some of Harbinger and Proving Ground and even moments of Stratagem - overall he keeps the balance right. Unsurprisingly given he used to be Sam Beckett, he is often at his most fun when he lets his hair down, in such episodes as North Star and Carpenter Street.
But his confidence must have grown as he ended up the year as Captain of a much sturdier ship than when it began. There are a fair share of duds: Exile, Extinction, Hatchery, and E^2 being the worst offenders. Others don’t fulfil their promise: Carpenter Street sees Archer and T’Pol travel back to 2004, but the humour is too leaden to succeed in raising a smile (the joke about the clamping aside), while North Star feels as though it has come straight out of a missing season of TOS, its tale of a parallel-Earth which is still in its Wild West days out of place in an otherwise sensible season (that said, the very fact it is such a Kirk-style story lends it the amusing tinge of nostalgia: just forget which season it’s in). However, there is also a far higher quota than successful episodes than in either of the other seasons – the three episode run Azati Prime – Damage – The Forgotten easily as thrilling as anything seen in modern Trek, while individual tales such as Doctor’s Orders and Proving Ground (which provides a surprisingly convincing return for Andorian Shran), as well as Harbinger. The final episode itself, Zero Hour, provides a satisfyingly action-packed climax to the season, again arguably the best season finale since Captain Sisko had to abandon DS9, but the last three minutes almost ruin it, with a cliffhanger straight out of Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes remake. That was incomprehensible then, and this is incomprehensible now – it’s not thrilling, it’s just silly. It is, in modern internet parlance, a WTF? Moment. But that shouldn’t be the lasting impression of an otherwise greatly-improved third season. Although it’s not perfect, with some weak character work letting the side down, it’s an encouraging step in the right direction.
The presentation of this Season is identical to that of the previous two, with the box set containing seven double-layered single-sided DVDs. The disks are held in an attractive plastic blue holder, with a disk on every "page", and come with a booklet with details about each episode and two small adverts, one for other Enterprise DVD sets with special offers, the other for the Star Trek Experience in Las Vegas (Scotty is still beaming up those showgirls apparently). The blue case is held in a silver holder that fits together and is embossed with the name of the show on one side and the ship's emblem on the other.
As there were only twenty-four episodes this year, the episodes themselves are found on the first six disks, with the seventh devoted entirely to the extras, all of which are found there with the obvious exception of the episode commentaries and deleted scenes. Disk One opens with a trailer for the third season of TOS on DVD followed by one for Season Four of MacGuyver, which is apparently "one of the greatest action-adventure series of all time." And then, just in case you haven't had enough, there's one for Season One of The 4400. Luckily, you can skip all of these.
Each season thus far has had a little CGI opening to its menu, and this set is no different, featuring a group of Xindi ships flying about. The menus are instantly familiar to those with other Star Trek sets, made up to look like the LCARS displays that are seen on all the Star Trek computers, with appropriate sound effects. Each main menu lists the four episodes on that disk, with each episode having its own submenu, with the options Launch, Communications (choosing between 5.1 and 2.0 as well as subtitles), Chapter Log (with each episode split into eight chapters) and Return (to the main menu), as well as any extras that episode might have, such as commentary or deleted scenes.
All the episodes are subtitled as are the extras with the exception of the NX-01 files and the Borg Invasion trailer for the attraction at Las Vegas.
Although the video is at times pin sharp, at other time the same odd softness of image creeps in that has been noticed in the two previous sets. The picture also struggles a couple of times with various tessellated backgrounds and once with the Reptilians' body armour. Mostly good, but not as stellar as you would expect - hopefully the next season, which was the first to be shot on HD-video, will look better.
One thing to be aware of is that the first two episodes, The Xindi and Anomaly, are not the original versions screened, but the reruns. There is only one difference: the title of the series was not changed to Star Trek: Enterprise until episode three so the opening sequence on those first two episodes originally still called the show Enterprise. To make the season's episodes uniform, the reruns had their titles edited to conform to the Star Trek: Enterprise title card of the rest of the season, and it is these versions you will find on the disks. Not a biggie, but for pedants such as myself a minor irritant.
This is more like it: the audio does full justice to the space battles. Your room will shake and you will check round to make sure no conduits have come loose during the assault on Enterprise during Damage, while there is plenty of ambient subtly to be found in such locations as the prison planet in The Xindi. Very good.
Only two commentaries which appear on consecutive episodes North Star and Similitude. The commentator on North Star is Assistant Director Michael Demeritt, who gives a highly personable account of the making of the episode, which was a hard one for the cast and crew following the death of Assistant Director Jerry Fleck. A good track.
Manny Coto's commentary on Similitude is informative, explaining how he came up with the episode, how the story developed, what he liked and didn't like about the finished show, and so on. The most telling comment he makes is when he says: "One of the downsides of writing for Star Trek is that there are seven hundred episodes that went before... I think every concept we came up with for this series had already been done, or had been close to being done." And that, ladies and gentlemen, is ultimately why Trek needed a long rest, no matter how good these last couple of seasons were.
There is another commentary available for this season in the form of a podcast to be downloaded from the official Trek site here. This is another track for North Star, this time from writer David A Goodman (who also wrote Futurama's famous Trek episode Where No Fan Has Gone Before. Not having listened to this yet, I can't say what it's like, but as the previous season's podcast was well worth a download, I would imagine this one is too.
This time around three episodes get the Okuda treatment, as walking Trek encyclopedias Michael and Denise give us another batch of fascinating facts and obscure bits of trivia about the making of The Xindi, Impulse and Countdown. Onscreen graphics comment on all aspects of production, including bloopers, problems with filming and original story ideas - basically, everything you could hope for and more than you ever wanted to know.
Three episodes come with a selection of deleted scenes: Similitude (three), Chosen Realm (one) and E^2 (two). None are brilliant, although Porthos fans will welcome the chance to see him running away from a perspiring Dr Phlox - one relationship I didn't mention in the main review was how much time those two spend together, which is amusing: I bet over the season Phlox sees much more of Porthos than Mayweather.
The Xindi Saga Begins (13:07)
Half of this featurette is taken up with Berman and Braga talking about how they came up with the idea for the year-long arc. At times one despairs – after careful consideration, for example, they decided the most exciting stories were those in which the Earth itself is threatened (surely not!) – but this is still a good, if brief, look at the origins. If one was going to be critical of their approach, it’s that they wrote the cliffhanger for Season Two The Expanse without a clue how they were going to continue it, but as this is quite a tradition with Star Trek writers (Michael Pillar had no idea how TNG Borg classic The Best of Both Worlds would be resolved when its first part went before the cameras) one can hardly quibble. The second half of the featurette is a curious meander through a couple of episodes: Anomaly and its thematic sequel Damage are discussed, before a brief set of clips of Azati Prime that don’t have much to do with anything.
Enterprise Moments: Season Three (12:53)
Cast and crew talk about some of their favourite episodes from Season Three. Oddly no one mentions the cliffhanger as their top moment.
Enterprise Profile: Connor Trinneer (17:11)
Decent featurette with the actor reflecting on his favourite episodes throughout the first three years of the show (shame we don’t get to hear what he thought of These Are the Voyages though) and it’s nice to hear him reflect on the legacy of Trek engineers before him.
A Day in the Life of a Director: Roxann Dawson (17:23)
Far better than the Season Two set’s equivalent, this follows Dawson as she makes the midseason episode Exile. It’s not the season’s finest hour by any means, but is almost worth it for this extra alone, as we watch the former Voyager crewmember directing various scenes and then see the final product. We also briefly visit the editing suite to see her putting together part of the dream sequence from the show. Standard as far as this type of thing in general goes, but far more detailed than we’re used to seeing on these Trek sets.
Six minutes of the usual sorts of shenanigans. Blalock’s Beltran-like criticisms of the show were already starting: “That is the crappiest line,” she says at one point.
Fifty photos, mostly portrait shots of cast members and aliens with exotic make-up, with a smattering of behind-the-scenes shots near the end.
NX-01 Files 7-9 (1:23, 5:43 & 3:06)
Three more of the vignettes, semi-hidden within the displays on the main menus, that have featured on all the Enterprise disks thus far. The first sees John Billingsley talking about the origins of his nude scene, and his speculation on how well endowed Dr Phlox is. The second is more interesting, costume designer Robert Blackman, talks about the design evolution of the uniforms. The third sees writer Mike Sussman talking about his episode E^2, which feels as though it got cut out of the Enterprise Moments featurette to make up the numbers here.
It wouldn’t feel the same without this popping up. That woman who runs far too slowly away from the Borg continues to concern.
The season itself: far better than we had any right to expect. Not perfect, but getting there. The extras: the usual contingent we have come to expect from Trek DVDs, nothing more or less.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 07:29:16