Star Trek: Enterprise Season Four Review
When Enterprise first began one of its stated aims was to try and reproduce those elements of The Original Series (TOS) that had made the original show so popular. As its third season drew to a close, however, it seemed destined to repeat one of TOS' less notable achievements, namely cancellation after three years. Despite the general consensus that Season Three had been a significant improvement over the first two lacklustre years, ratings had not risen sufficiently to justify continuing, and it looked like this voyage, like Captain Kirk's, was destined to end prematurely. As he did with the series itself, new producer Manny Coto stepped into the breach and managed to save what appeared an unsalvageable situation, managing to persuade UPN executives, despite their better judgement, to give the show a final shot. Money, as ever, proved the clincher: appealing to the god that television executives worship above all others, he said he could produce a fourth season with a significantly reduced budget, and not lower the quality. And so, reluctantly, the executives ordered a stay of execution, to see if Trek really was turning a corner under the guidance of this brand new messiah.
Of course, the problem then was, how does one go about saving a show if one has even less money to spend on it? This was the dilemma faced all those years ago by Roddenberry and co on TOS’ last year, and so it was here again. The solution Coto came up with was to divide the season down into multi-part stories, thus ensuring that the same sets could be used for several weeks, hugely cutting down on production costs. Where once the two-parter was a rarity (TNG didn’t have a proper one until its third season cliffhanger) and the three-parter a once-only novelty (the beginning of DS9’s second season) now they became the norm. The cumulative effect this decision had was to very successfully hide the fact there was less money to go around (this season looks and feels no different production-wise to any that went before it) but gave the format of the show a very different feel to what had gone before.
Once the daft Season Three cliffhanger was resolved with opening two-parter Storm Front (I mean, really, alien Nazis in the White House? What were they thinking?) it quickly becomes clear that, far from the budgetary problems constricting the show, this was to become the most ambitious season, in terms of story-telling, that Star Trek has seen for years. Although Season Three’s season-long story had a scale only previously seen with DS9’s Dominion Arc, it also felt quite insular and, ultimately, inconsequential: we all knew the Xindi plan would be stopped, and once that happened nothing that occurred during the season would matter very much. It was a fun diversion, but of no relevance to the extended Star Trek universe. In comparison, this season is almost exactly the reverse. Whereas the first two seasons rather timidly shied away from the initial premise that the series would be essentially an origin story for Star Trek, watching as the seeds are sown for the formation of the Federation, Season Four positively embraces the idea, conjuring up almost from nowhere whole swathes of back story that begin to fit all the various jigsaw pieces into place. Epic is not a word that, truly, very often belongs to Star Trek – scale and scope were always very much more Babylon 5’s style – but here things really do begin to coalesce, and one gets a feeling that great things in the universe are happening.
For a fanboy, it’s a veritable wet dream of back story, allusion and references both great and small to future events and plots. We get to see the first multi-world alliance as Enterprise, the Vulcans, Andorians, Tellarites and others team up to defeat a common foe. We watch the first steps being taken towards a formal alliance, steps that for once don’t feel forced but a natural progression, a logical journey that doesn’t depend on sudden about-turns in a single episode but instead are brought about gradually. We see the Vulcans accept humanity as equals – well, almost. We spy on the Romulans as they begin to play around with the idea of causing lots of trouble and, staying in the spy arena, we learn about the origins of Section 31, the covert group that was to cause Dr Bashir such a lot of trouble in DS9. Unsurprisingly with long-term fan Coto now fully in charge, and the husband-and-wife team of Garfield and Judith Reeves-Stevens (who have written countless Trek novels down the years) joining the writing team, the episodes are littered with smaller continuity references, too: besides the above listed we catch sight of a youthful T’Pau, a Selat, the concept of IDIC explained, an amusingly feminist postscript regarding Orion Slave Women, Data’s grandfather, the mystery of the Missing Klingon Cranial Ridges solved and – sigh – an unnecessary addendum to a long-forgotten episode of TNG.
The most fitting of all these is the glorious two-parter In a Mirror Darkly. Not only are these episodes the best of the season, but arguably the best two episodes Enterprise ever produced. It’s an irony that some would say accurately reflects the state of the series that the very pinnacle of what the show offers involves a story set in the Mirror Universe, with none of the regular characters appearing, but as these episodes are so much fun one can just blow a raspberry at such naysayers. This is a two-parter which shows how much Enterprise has grown in confidence over the past two years, a swaggering show-off of a story which wallows in its own indulgences, able to do so fully in the knowledge that the fans will revel in it as much as the makers. Although the plot is exactly the same as all other Mirror Universe (a power play between evil versions of our characters) this is the first truly self-contained MU tale since TOS’ Mirror, Mirror, and is just as satisfying. Fanwank of the highest order, the highlight is the meticulous reconstruction of the Kirk-era ship. Marking a suitable conclusion to the earlier efforts in TNG’s Relics and DS9’s Trials and Tribble-ations, the production team finally dare to give us a complete bridge, corridor, quarters, everything, and the results are nothing short of stunning – if it didn’t look so pristine and new, it’d be hard to believe the bridge wasn’t the one Shatner and co walked on all those years ago. As with previous casts, everyone involved seems to be having a whale of a time playing bad versions of themselves, Bakula’s hamming it up surely a tribute to the great Shat himself. From the moment we get an alternative version of the opening credits, right through to its amusing – if predictable – resolution, it’s an absolute joy. And my goodness, doesn’t Linda Park turn out to be quite the sexpot when she lets her hair down. Less Hoshi, more Hottie Sato.
Of course, the fact that so much of the season is aimed squarely at the hardcore fans - the first time Star Trek has ever so blatantly targeted that group – has its downsides. While people who can recite the Enterprise’s specifications down to its last millimetre will be in their element, this is not a season accessible to newcomers. As such, and as much as someone like myself will enjoy it, it is perhaps not the best direction to take if one wishes to widen the audience. Although I imagine it’s perfectly possible to watch a fair bit of this season not knowing the back story behind them, the newcomer would surely ultimately feel they are missing a lot, and as a result grow bored and wander off. It’s almost as though the writers thought, “To hell with it, we know we’re getting cancelled this season, let’s give the fans what they’ve always wanted before it’s too late.” The debate about whether the franchise, no matter how good these latter seasons of Enteprise have been, was fated to be retired is one that raged long before the show’s eventual cancellation and will no doubt continue to do so for a considerable amount of time yet, and as such has no place in a review like this (for the record, this reviewer thinks that yes, Trek was doomed, even from the moment the Enterprise left spacedock at the beginning of Broken Bow). However, to gear a season so towards one relatively small group is a dangerous business (something Doctor Who discovered to its cost in the early Eighties) and, while this season was fun, it would have grown tiresome to have continued in such a vein for another three years. If Season Three was a diversion, Season Four is an indulgence, a very pleasant indulgence to be sure, but still not quite the right direction if Enterprise really and truly wanted to make it to Season Seven.
And having these multi-episodic tales meant that, if one didn’t like a particular one, one was stuck with it for weeks on end. That said, there aren’t any that are actually weak stories, so it comes down to personal preference which ones resonate with individual viewers – I could have done with a couple of episodes less of the Andorian-Tellarite plot for example, simply because I didn’t find it particularly interesting and seemed to be leading to foregone conclusion. There’s also that constant suspicion that some of the stories are artificially padded out to meet their extended running times: the first two three-parters, especially (the Augments segment starring Brent Spiner and the story dealing with the Vulcans), feel like stories that could have fitted into one, or at most two, parts quite easily. There’s also that old Trek problem of weak resolutions to multi-part stories which again rear up here – once more, the Andorian-Tellarite tale suffers from this especially. The multi-episodic style also gives the season a bitty rhythm – although the overriding developments are nicely done, taken as a whole the season is not as satisfying as the previous simply because it jumps around so much. It's swings and roundabouts though, as this season has far more memorable individual tales to the previous – whereas Season Three’s episodes all blend into an homogenous whole making recalling specific episodes almost impossible, this time there’s plenty to recall – the Augments, the Klingon ridges, and so on. Indeed, some of the best moments come from the rare single-parters: not These Are the Voyages, obviously, but Home, Daedalus and Observer Effect all have good moments in them, whether it be Trip’s anguish at seeing T’Pol getting married (a real sign of Enterprise’s maturity – can you imagine such a development happening even on DS9?), meeting the creator of the transporter, or the chilling coldness of the initially mysterious alien observers. (I could rant for hours about what a colossal misfire These Are the Voyages... is but as every other fan under the sun has already done this it's best left alone. But it is a highly disappointing end).
As with last season, this plot-driven ethic meant that characterisation once more takes a backseat. That’s not to say there aren’t some interesting bons mots along the way, it’s just that they aren’t as plentiful as perhaps one would have wished for. Archer continues his transformation into all-round tough guy, and this year more than ever is constantly sure he’s right, brooking no argument from those around him. Whether it’s the conviction he’s carrying the founder of modern Vulcan’s soul within him, or taking on Shran in a battle to the death to keep alive a peace treaty (a classic TOS-like moment, although why they missed the opportunity to gratuitously rip his shirt I’ll never know) he sometimes asks for trouble, but always manages to come out on top, which is vaguely disappointing: although at least it finally makes his reputation as “Kirk’s childhood hero” credible. It would have been good to see him tripped up at least once, though, but sadly not. That said, Bakula is his usual excellent self, although his habit of striking noble poses whenever Archer strikes a pose is a bit overdone.
The surprise win as far as personal development goes, however, is with Trip, who up until now has drifted along quite genially, which not even the death of his sister last season could entirely erase. Now, however, he gets a proper arc for the first time when he decides to leave the ship. This is well developed over several episodes: firstly he sees T’Pol marry, then he finds himself ever more frequently having run-ins with the Captain regarding proper courses of action (it probably doesn’t help that Archer is always proved right either). Now it can be argued that the idea of the arc itself is flawed, in that we know Trip isn’t really going to leave the ship, and ultimately the series isn’t quite brave enough to follow it through it as much as I would have liked - Trip does transfer across to his new ship, which is then entirely coincidentally caught up in Enterprise’s latest adventure, before Trip returns to his rightful place – but it’s a nice piece for the character anyway, and Trinneer handles it well. Conversely, despite appearances to the contrary, T’Pol drifts badly this year. There’s a lot made about the fact that, following the discovery of an ancient Vulcan thingummy that has serious theological consequences for both her and her race, she is studying anew what it means to be a Vulcan, but we don’t get to see any lasting consequences of that, or indeed any changes in the way she has been acting. Instead we see her moping over Trip and becoming ever-more emotional, overdone as before by Blalock. Over the course of four years her playing of T’Pol has changed beyond all recognition: whereas in the first season she maintained the stoic poise of a Vulcan in complete control of her feelings, now she’s quite happy to let emotions run rampant across her face. While this is to some extent built into the character’s story, the level of change in such a short space of time is alarming and undisciplined on the side of the actress: T’Pol is a character struggling with her own inner demons, but surely we shouldn’t see quite as much as we do?
Of the other regulars, poor old Anthony Montgomery as Mayweather is once again completely forgotten – although in his limited screentime he never strikes one as a hugely impressive screen presence, the actor’s enthusiasm for the series really should have merited him more of a part. Linda Park, too, doesn’t get a lot, although she plays the small character moments she’s given well with a wryness which, together with her seductive turn in the Mirror Universe, suggests that once again here was an underused performer who had far more to give. Dominic Keating once again doesn’t impress especially – his big moment, in which he has to decide to whom he is loyal, Archer or Section 31, isn’t capitalised on, but John Billingsley as Phlox once again gets the thumbs-up; besides a silly scene in which he becomes a puffer fish, he seizes any small moments he’s given and manages to do far more with the character than on paper is really there. (Not sure about his Evil Phlox voice though).
Overall, though, this was a series which had finally hit its stride. Confident of itself like never before, it finally figured out what it had to do to keep up-to-date with other modern telefantasy shows, and under the skilled guidance of Coto was improving all the time (it's telling that Berman and Braga's two main contributions to the series, the premise for the season opener and season finale, both feel like relics from an earlier time, and are both botched jobs). The cast had found its voice, and the writing staff appeared to have been rejuvenated. A shame, then, that this wasn't the show that replaced TNG back in 1994, as, by the time this fourth season rolled round, it would been seen as a worthy successor to that great series. As it stands, it was a show in the wrong place at the wrong time, hampered by the inept legacy of the last few years and the burden of eighteen years continual production. Just as in politics people eventually demand a change at the top, no matter how good the previous administration, so too here Star Trek ultimately suffered both from an oversaturation of the market and with the fact one man stayed in charge far too long. However, if this is truly the last we see of the good starship Enterprise, no matter what the class, at least it will have gone out on a strong note: this season makes a far better climax than Voyager's last would have been. Not brilliant television, by any stretch of the imagination, but far better than it had any right to be.
All twenty-two episodes of the season are presented on six single-sided double-layered disks. The set-up is identical to all three previous seasons, the disks housed in a plastic “book”, with a disk per page. This didn’t feel as sturdy to me as previous sets, however, perhaps due to the fact there’s a disk, and therefore a page less: the holder does feel quite delicate. This holder also contains a season booklet with details for all episodes, as well as an introductory essay of the story so far, and an advert for the other Star Trek series on DVD, and there’s also a flyer for Star Trek: The Experience. The holder is housed in a clear plastic sleeve embossed with the Enterprise insignia, and this in turn is held in by a hard plastic box with two parts that slot into place, which also have insignia on them.
Each disk, with the exception of the last, has four episodes. On putting in the disk one is presented with the Paramount DVD logo. There then follows a little CGI introduction to the menus consisting of the Enterprise joining the Vulcan fleet from the episode United. The menus are designed to look like Enterprise computer displays, and are accompanied by appropriate sound effects. The Main Menu consists of the four episodes, and selecting one leads to that episode’s sub-menu. Each sub-menu has four basic options: Launch, Communications (audio and subtitle options), Chapter Log and Return (to the main menu). In addition, if there are any special features accompanying that episode they may be selected from here too.
All episodes and extras (with the exception of the NX-01 File and Borg Invasion trailer) are subtitled.
All episodes are presented in their original 1.78:1 ratio. The picture quality is a slight improvement over the previous seasons but not as significant as one would hope given the fact this season was filmed on HD film. There's still a softness, detail is lost at distance, and there's a thin layer of grain over practically everything. Not bad at all, but not as crystal clear as I was expecting.
Very nice for a show like this, with once more the space battles coming across especially nicely - even when on the Bridge, a ship attacking shakes both the Bridge and your speakers. There is a flaw at one point though: in a scene on the Bridge in The Aenar Archer’s voice changes pitch for a brief second as though slowing down, although there’s no comparative slow down of video, before the sound returns to normal. Other than that, no problems.
There are three commentaries on the disks, all three taken from the Official Site where they are free to download, writer Mike Sussman's on In a Mirror, Darkly Parts One and Two and the Reeves-Stevens's on Terra Prime, both joined by the Official Site's editorial director Tim Gaskill. The sound quality on these isn't great, but they are fairly interesting.
Text Commentaries by Michael and Denise Okuda
What are the Okudas going to do to fill their time now? After all their sterling work on the various Trek disks, have a good long rest I would imagine. These final contributions (unless we get The Animated Series on disk at some point) are as good as ever, combining titbits of trivia, behind-the-scenes facts, cast credits and everything else you can think of. In a season filled with past episode references such as this they are in their element, and I'm sure they could have filled up twice as many episodes with commentary as these three (namely The Forge, In a Mirror Darkly Part Two and These Are the Voyages...)
Three episodes come with a deleted scene, Storm Front Part One, The Aenar and In a Mirror, Darkly Part Two. All are short and unexciting.
Enterprise Moments: Season Four (16:22)
Run-through of the series with brief contributions from most of the cast, Manny Coto and the Reeves-Stevens. Feels briefer than the other Moments series, but other than that a decent enough summary of the last season.
Inside the Mirror Universe (15:40)
Quite rightly devoting an entire featurette to the highlight of the season, this covers everything from the initial ideas (Sussman: It was my idea! Coto: No, it was mine!) through to the recreating of TOS’ look (turns out the set designers have been secretly rebuilding a Kirk-era bridge for years, the old fanboys). An enjoyable look at these episodes, even if a tiny bit of the material on offer is repeated from the commentaries.
Enterprise Secrets: Season Four (5:51)
Fans of David Trotti from earlier Enterprise Secrets will be relieved to learn the genial 2nd Assistant Director returns to host this last instalment, which reveals who some of the faces are who appear in the audience at the treaty signing. A nice featurette.
Visual Effects Magic (13:24)
Enjoyable documentary that covers episodes from Seasons Two, Three and Four. Visual Effects Supervisor Ronald B Moore enthusiastically talks about creating a CGI character a la Gollum while both the creation of the alternative-universe New York and the launch of the Columbia are discussed.
That’s a Wrap (8:59)
Footage and interviews at the wrap party which was attended by cast members past and present. Oddly no sign of a couple of the regulars – no Blalock, no Trinneer and no Porthos – but looks to have been a good do.
Links to the Legacy (4:23)
The Reeves-Stevens explain how they snuck in lots of continuity references that filled in the back stories to such matters as Section-31 and the Andorian homeworld, revealing themselves to be utter fanboys who finally got to play with the proper toys. I’m all for this sort of thing so good for them.
NX-O1 File Ten (4:42)
Another of these semi-hidden Easter Eggs, this looks at the protest organised by the website saveenterprise.com in front of Paramount Studios following the show’s cancellation, while Trinneer and Bakula comment favourably on the phenomenon. Not subtitled.
Sigh. Given these are such a regular feature of DVD releases these days, I really wish I found outtakes amusing. But I don’t. Not in the least. Oh look, someone forgot their line and went “Wibble, wibble,” instead, creating much merriment. Pfft. Let’s just put it down to a Vulcanian sense of humour bypass on my side and move on.
Sixty production stills and behind-the-scenes snapshots. Does exactly what it says on the tin.
Borg Invasion Trailer
Sob. This’ll be the last time I ever get to review this ever-present feature. Never again will I be able to comment on that poor woman running too slowly from the nasty Borg. Never again will I be able to remark on the most terrifying moment in the thing, when Janeway appears. Never more will I be able to say “This is the trailer for an attraction at the Las Vegas Star Trek: The Experience exhibition at the Hilton Hotel.” Borg Invasion trailer, I will miss you.
A good season of television gets a decent set of extras, although as a whole the similarity of the extras on the four Enterprise sets does ultimately grow repetitive.
And so, after eighteen years, six hundred and twenty-four episodes, four motion pictures, four hundred and seventy-four hours, and at least eight references to DS9’s waste removal system, the Berman era of Trek has come to an end. Whatever one’s personal opinion of the man himself is, the achievement of modern Trek is truly remarkable. Without TNG we wouldn’t have had the extraordinary burst of science-fiction and fantasy television that began in the early nineties and still shows no sign of slowing down today. Without DS9 we wouldn’t have seen Trek storytelling truly evolving, embracing the strange new worlds of continuity and conflict. Without Voyager we wouldn’t have had anything to complain about and without Enterprise we wouldn’t have had Manny Coto and Scott Bakula, two men who added so much and could have done so much more if time and circumstance had been different. Over the past few years it’s been painful to watch the franchise, once so majestic, slowly wither and die, but that’s not to take away from the immense enjoyment it has given, and will continue to give, down the years. Like all good things it’s right and proper it’s now come to an end, and should remain dormant for a long time if not forever, but despite all the flack he’s taken over the years, and although some of it was much deserved, Rick Berman can look back with pride on what he did with Gene Roddenberry’s legacy. So thanks Rick, and to everyone else who made it a voyage well worth taking.