Star Trek: Enterprise Season Two Review
Apologies in advance, but I’m not going to be putting much effort into this review. Even though there have been thousands written before about the many incarnations of Star Trek, I’m sure if I thought hard enough about it I could find a new angle, something different to say about the franchise, something that hasn’t been observed before, but I don’t think I’ll bother. It’ll be far easier just to recycle old sentiments that have been said time and again, sentiments such as “the franchise needs a rest,” “it’s lacking creative energy,” “T’Pol’s there for the lads” etc, etc. It won’t win any awards or plaudits, but at least it’ll get me through its writing without breaking a sweat and I can go off and do something more interesting afterwards for a while, before having to come back and do the same again for Season Three. A lazily drifting review is what I’m aiming for here – hopefully well written, nice to look at, with the odd amusing joke or vague hint of something that could have been done better, but overall nothing that’s going to be worth remembering or bothering with. After all, if those in charge of Enterprise’s sophomore year couldn’t be bothered doing anything new, why should I?
Enterprise had had a reasonably promising first year. While it still had some of the hallmarks of later seasons of Voyager (storytelling that sometimes fell a bit flat, an excess of action at the expense of intellect, a cat-suited woman wandering round) there was enough in it to suggest that once it found its feet it would be able to stand up on its own and head off in new, far more interesting, directions. It had a pretty strong cast, an attractive look about it, and, most importantly, an intriguing premise that, if handled properly, could be rewarding both for casual viewers and dyed-in-the-wool Trekkers. All the creators had to do was make sure that Season Two went somewhere, that it didn’t spend its time telling twenty-six self-contained stories with little regard for the big picture that was at the heart of the show’s premise. As long as it remembered to lay in subtle building blocks about such important issues as the future of the Federation, the war with the Klingons and the gradual reconciliation between the Vulcans and Earth, as well as developing its characters into more three-dimensional beings, all would be fine.
A shame, then, that they didn’t. Seeming to forget why they thought a prequel was a good idea in the first place, instead we got a second year’s worth of episodes that in development terms were a carbon copy of the first year’s. Instead of big moments, these instalments are largely self-contained, with seemingly little interest in anything other than telling generic, occasionally appallingly hackneyed stories that have already been told countless times before, both within and outside the Star Trek franchise. Worse still, it would appear that at times the reason for this is that they have absolutely no judgement on what does and doesn’t make a good story, leading to expensive-looking episodes such as Carbon Creek and Marauders that look nice but are utterly dull and pointless. Had Berman and Braga’s creative energies (not, as some wits would have it, necessarily an oxymoron) been so depleted that they actually thought these stories would do? Many would say that it was a simple case that they didn’t care any more, that Trek to them was just a cash cow that, to mix a metaphor, needed to bled until it was bone dry but I do not believe that – no writer, no matter how jaundiced, wants to produce substandard work. Instead, this season is the starkest sign yet that the franchise desperately needed an infusion of fresh blood to survive – as it is, it’s not only a very sick patient, but one which has given up the struggle for survival.
Things start off the way they mean to go on with the resolution of the Season One cliffhanger Shockwave, resolved not through clever plotting but tech, the witless get-out-of-jail-free card Braga in particular has become infamous for. Following this we have the afore-mentioned Carbon Creek but then things picked up somewhat with an episode Minefield. While this isn’t a standout episode it does a reasonably good job of cranking up the tension, gives Malcolm Reed (Dominic Keating) some decent scenes with the Captain, and, most promisingly of all, isn’t neatly resolved at the end. One of the most common criticisms of Voyager was to wonder aloud how it was that a ship that suffers so much damage can repair itself miraculously when nowhere near a Starbase, and the episode following Minefield, Dead Stop, seems designed to answer that point. Encouragingly the one episode follows on immediately from the other, suggesting that we aren’t going to get the usual staccato style of Trek episodes in which a typical hour has little to do with those on either side of it, but sadly this turns out to be the exception rather than the rule, and the season quickly conforms to type. Characters do throw in more references to past episodes than ever before but it comes across as more a gratuitous effort to do so rather than a naturalistic piece of dialogue. (It also goes wrong on occasion – in one late episode Archer asks if an area of the ship called the Catwalk has extensive shielding, a bit silly of him considering an earlier episode, unsurprisingly called The Catwalk, was built around the very fact that it did). Sadly there is no sense of a bigger picture here, no impression we’re being led towards anything. Many episodes that feel like they might be going somewhere in the following episode instead end extremely abruptly (the pacing on some during the middle part of the season in particular feels off, endings so rushed everything is literally resolved in a minute or so), a problem so prevalent that when one ending is finally followed up – Archer’s escape from Rura Penthe in Judgment is raised again in Bounty - it is surprising rather than expected. We get nothing about Starfleet’s development or the larger picture in regards to how the Enterprise’s voyages are being perceived and there’s even precious little about the Temporal Cold War – following the season opener, only one episode before the finale even mentions it, Future Tense, and even in that it is reduced largely to the status of a mcguffin (although kudos does go to that episode for including what can only be described as a TARDIS). It’s as though the powers that be had realised that it was a bit of a mistake and wasn’t that interesting anyway. The Andorian situation is only touched on in one episode, and that in a peripheral sort of way, so that the only good work done towards future arcs is with the Klingons, with whom Archer and co have a few run-ins which would seem to be naturally leading towards the animosity we know must come between Kronos and Earth. That aside, long-term arcs are a dead loss.
So, if there’s little bigger picture to deal with, the success of the season must fall squarely on the shoulders of the individual episodes and how they are. Now TNG’s entire run was based on this principle (as, indeed, was TOS’) but whereas they were both breaking new ground, here there’s little remarkable or even very memorable. There are a few half-decent sci-fi ideas thrown in – the repair station in Dead Stop is nicely sinister for example – but in general the episodes fall into one of two categories: either rewrites of earlier Trek episodes, or tales so bland and inconsequential that nothing in them seems to matter very much. Although it would be tedious to list the number of episodes almost identical in theme to earlier stories, here's just a random sample of them to underline just how many episodes this includes, and how bereft of new ideas this season is: there's Carbon Creek (VOY's 11:59), Singularity (the crew go mad and turn on each other), Vanishing Point (Hoshi becomes invisible to the others), Judgment (a variation on Star Trek 6), The Breach (VOY’s Nothing Human), and Bounty (T’Pol gets the pon farr), and that’s just off the top of my head. There are numerous others that have familiar elements within them, and it’s a rare episode indeed that goes by without at least a glimmer of recognition of something that has gone before. There’s also a repetition of motifs – I lost count of the number of times Archer got captured and imprisoned somewhere – and a general unwillingness to try anything even remotely new or adventurous. Those episodes that aren’t instantly familiar fall into the other trap of giving us secondary characters with dilemmas too generic for us to have any feeling for what they’re going through or investment in the outcome – episodes like Marauders (a group of people terrorised by Klingons), Canamar (a group of prisoners trying to escape a detention camp), and Bounty (a bounty hunter with latent morals).
But then, perhaps this is being a little unfair. After all, when the series began it was announced that it would be eschewing the more plot-driven tendencies of recent Treks and concentrating instead on the seven main crewmembers. Unfortunately, here again there are mixed results. Archer has a number of tricky decisions to make which gives him some backbone – his reaction to Trip’s misdemeanour in Cogenitor is especially interesting – and while he doesn’t have any standout episodes, it’s certainly fair to say he, and Bakula, have a good year - it's particularly heartwarming to see the Captain making an effort to bond with his crewmembers by inviting them to breakfast, even when in some cases, such as Reed, it proves hard work. The main arc of the season concerns Archer and T’Pol’s increasingly close bond and her gradual transfer of loyalties from the Vulcan High Command to the crew of the Enterprise, but even that is botched by the absurd suggestion early on that the two are attracted to each other. Quite aside from the fact that Trek Captains and First Officers never have that sort of thing going on (whatever those people who write about Kirk and Spock will tell you) it is an insult to both Archer and T’Pol’s character to even think about it, trivialising what does eventually, in spite of this early setback, become a close relationship between the two. (Early episode A Night in Sickbay has attracted a fair amount of fan criticism, and while I haven’t read any details on why I can only imagine the scenes set in Archer’s imagination are to blame, as I found it otherwise a fairly jolly if innocuous tale.) Much better episodes later dealing with them include The Seventh, in which she asks for his help for the first time, and Stigma which, despite its blunt AIDS-allegory (which is about ten years out of date) shows T’Pol moving closer towards the crew and away from the council in a naturalistic fashion. In general T’Pol has the best material of the season to work with, helped by Jolene Blalock’s gradual loosening up of the character.
The third part of the central triumvirate, Connor Trinneer’s Trip, has the dubious honour of being in the worst episode of the season, Precious Cargo, (an almost unbelievably clichéd hour of television) but also one of the best, Cogenitor. This is yet another story which we’ve seen before, this time aping TNG’s The Outcast, but Trip’s dilemma is none the less real for that, and Trinneer handles it adequately, even if his best moments don’t come during the problem itself but its aftermath with his subdued reaction to Archer’s telling-off. The character benefits from the fact he is Archer’s right-hand-man and so gets to go on lots of adventures with him, giving him plenty of action during the season, but as far as developing his character goes, it’s a dead loss – again, aside from the details about how Archer and he first met, there’s precious little new we know about him now than we did at the beginning of the season
Still, he doesn’t fair as badly as poor old Hoshi and Travis who are given exactly one episode each. This is the season in which it becomes clear the writers consider the character of Travis Mayweather a dead loss, another Harry Kim piece of easy-going cardboard about whom you would insult one-dimensional life forms if you compared them to him. Aside from being temporarily killed in Dead Stop, he is completely forgotten about until way near the end of the season in a story entitled Horizon. For his fans it’s not worth the wait, either, as this is just a variation on Season One’s Favourite Son, with not even the fact his family are introduced proving much of a draw (on a side note, I don’t think any other Trek series has shown quite so many of the crew’s family members this early – we’ve already seen members of Archer’s, Reed’s, Hoshi’s, Travis’ and Phlox’s). The rest of the time poor Anthony Montgomery is left to just look concerned on the Bridge and, occasionally, fill in some lines of dialogue in the Mess Hall. Faring only slightly better is Linda Park’s Hoshi, who also only gets one episode, the aforementioned Vanishing Point, which at least is mildly entertaining (as well as unintentionally ironic in that it’s a story about the character slowly vanishing from the notice of her fellow crewmembers). Fortunately her role as translator still means she gets plenty to do the rest of the season, but as a person she doesn’t grow at all – we learnt more about her in the one episode Two Days and Two Nights last season than we do over the course of twenty-six here. Reed, too, hasn’t much luck – his early moment of glory in Minefield being to mess up defusing a mine with the result his leg is skewered and pinned to the surface of the hull, leaving it up to Archer to come and rescue him. He does get to develop the prototype Red Alert, though, which is something, even if at this stage it’s called Tactical Alert (on a side issue, surely this is the writers making the characters deliberately obtuse for the sake of stringing it along: Red Alert must be more logical?)
Aside from T’Pol, then, the only character who really develops is Doctor Phlox. In my review of the first season I said that his was the most undefined of characters, and while this year we don’t learn anything radically new about him as a person, his personality certainly manages to sink into the consciousness much more. He’s not as interesting a medic as Bashir, say, or the EMH (or McCoy, but that should be taken as read) but he runs rings around boring old Crusher. Billingsley’s consistently charming performance manages to do what Ethan Phillips never could and stay the right side of irritating – in other hands, a character that breaks into an overly-lengthy grin Joker-style would have been inviting a swift right-hook, but fortunately Phlox never does. More importantly, he convinces utterly as a doctor, something both Bashir and the EMH never did – while they said their lines convincingly and made the right noises, Billingsley manages to inhabit the role of the profession almost entirely, Phlox swinging from a reassuring bedside manner to one of sombre gravitas in just the right way. This is a man who both cares and has empathy for his patients, whether it be a man from a race hated by Phlox’s people or the Captain’s pet beagle. As someone whose family is full of doctors, I’ve never seen in Trek before someone who I could actually believe had spent his life working to make people better, both physically and emotionally, but I can here. Personally, we learn there is great sadness in Phlox’s life with an estranged son, an idea that is subtly introduced and sparingly used, and we begin to realise that there is much more to this man than the bright-eyed man who cried “Optimism Captain!” in the pilot. He even gets an episode in which he gets to really yell at someone in The Breach, a chance Billingsley takes full advantage of and for all this, and for the fact that he makes more of an impression than any of the other regulars this year (even those with more to do like T’Pol) he’s my pick for best character of the year.
But, even if the stories are lacklustre in the extreme, and the character work very choppy, the visuals are anything but. I can’t remember seeing a Trek series outside the films looking more lovely. The use of CGI in the series especially has come on by leaps and bounds in the last couple of years and is now more confident than ever. From Dr Phlox’s space bat in A Night in Sickbay through to alien vistas in which we see a shuttlepod land and then (the key difference) the crew get out, it all helps to make the show a more completely immersive experience and take away a little from the occasionally still-too-obviously studio-bound alien planets. Even that regular feature of Trek series, the caves, get an overhaul as in The Breach they acquire an extra dimension, Travis, Reed and Mayweather having to abseil down a long shaft – it sounds silly, but all these things help (although Rura Penthe looks rubbish). Even if the odd bit of computer trickery isn’t entirely successful – the Xindi attack in the teaser of The Expanse doesn’t have the impact it should (it’s certainly a step down from disaster blockbusters) and the little people populating the Interspecies Medical Conference aren’t that convincing, overall the use is successful. (I found the alien ship in The Crossing particularly striking). Also watch out for a couple of new sets - the aforementioned Catwalk which looks very nice, and the gym, which is a little sparse but has one of those fun spinning round thingies in it and is used well in the episodes.
Indeed, in general, the production values of Enterprise are second to none. It’s a well put-together, finely crafted show. It has a good range of actors, a good crew behind the scenes, and does everything extremely competently. There’s only one area which lets the side down, and unfortunately it’s the most important: the scripts. Although there are few points where the episodes are technically weak (aside from the few that end too quickly, all are structured well) they commit a far greater crime in telling real dull stories. Even Voyager, about which I have few good things to say, managed to pull the proverbial rabbit out of the hat occasionally and bring in something new and interesting to provide some variety in what it did (thinking more along the lines of Bride of Chaotica rather than Dark Frontier) but at no point during this season does Enterprise do likewise, giving us instead a completely flat, monotone season with not one truly memorable or outstanding episode. Instead, stories blend into each other in the memory, leaving only vague impressions – Archer gets imprisoned a lot, Phlox gets to do plenty of medicine, Hoshi struggles to translate - behind. The lack of inspiration is heavily underlined by the introduction of the Borg in late episode Regenerations - I would have no problem with having the Borg in an episode if it was done in a clever way (I rather thought the Ferengi episode in the first season wasn’t bad) but which here isn’t, instead leaving us with an episode with no purpose other than to cash in on that enemy's popularity. Lazy writing, indeed, and endemic for the season as a whole, which brings back so many Trek motifs and storylines of the past that I find it hard to think of one genuinely new idea it has throughout its nearly twenty hours of screentime. A tired season of television.
The disks are presented in a near-identical way to the first season. The episodes come on seven dual-layered single-sided disks, held by a blue plastic container which has each disk on its own “page.” This is held in a clear plastic sleeve together with a twelve page booklet which has episode synopses and details of any special features they have, as well as a general “Story-so-far” and some guff about the Borg. The clear plastic sleeve is held in a sturdy two-piece plastic container that fits together and has the Enterprise logo embossed on it. All the packaging once again insists the series is called Star Trek: Enterprise which, of course, it isn’t at this point, but other than that it's a very attractive, well put together set.
The opening CGI-animation leading to the menus on the disks this time has four Klingon Birds-of-Prey in orbit around a planet. The menus themselves are identical to Season One’s, designed to look and sound like one of the computer displays on the ship. Each disk’s episodes are listed on the main menu, and each has its own submenu from which you can access any special features pertaining to that episode, such as commentaries or deleted scenes, as well as chapter hopping and fixing your audio and subtitle requirements. All episodes and extras are subtitled with the exception of the audio commentaries and the Borg Invasion Trailer.
A little soft again in places but other than that fine. The transfers handle the series' sudden shifts from light exteriors to dour interiors and back again well, and there is no sign of any digital artefacting or general encoding problems. Very good.
Play back an early season of TNG on DVD and then compare its audio to one from these Enterprise sets and you'll see how far the aural Trek experience has come in fifteen years. Adding greatly to the atmosphere, the audio on these episodes is excellent, and even if it's not completely immersive it certainly kicks in when it counts with the many battles. Even the caves sound pretty good.
Co-writers Michael Sussman and Phyllis Strong commentate on two of their episodes. While their track for Dead Stop is quiet and a bit dull, they liven up when called upon to defend Regeneration. Fully aware of the criticisms heaped on the episode, Sussman in particular tackles the various controversial aspects of the episode and, even though some of his explanations are not wholly convincing, it’s nice to hear the writers were aware of the reaction from the fan community.
There’s also an extra commentary available for the episode Judgment featuring its scripter David A Goodman. Coming in the form of a podcast its available at the official Star Trek site and is worth a listen.
Two episodes, Stigma and First Flight get the Okuda treatment from husband-and-wife team Mike and Denise, their trivia tracks consisting of the usual mix of behind-the-scenes titbits and information about the fictional Trek universe.
Missing scenes from five episodes are included, namely Minefield, A Night in Sickbay, Dawn, Cease Fire and The Expanse. As with the first season’s selection, they are presented by showing the transmitted scenes around them in black and white, and the missing portions in colour, which works very well.
Enterprise Moments: Season Two
Average nineteen minute look back over the season, in which cast and crew discuss their favourite episodes. Notable only for Bakula saying he told Berman and Braga halfway through the season they needed to start paying off some of the building storylines.
Enterprise Profile: Jolene Blalock
Is it just me or is the fact Blalock’s name appears in the opening credits over footage of a rocket taking off suggestive? Or have I just been watching too many Leslie Nielsen films? Either way, this is a fourteen minute featurette as much about T’Pol as the actress who plays her. There’s the usual gush about how great everyone is to work with, but a large part of this is made up of the actress’ own thoughts about being on the show at the end of the second season (a shame we don’t hear from her more irate side). If you’re a fan, fine but otherwise this is standard stuff.
LeVar Burton: Star Trek Director
Burton talks from the set of First Flight about the episode and his direction of it. An okay six-minute interview but it’s a shame he wasn’t also asked about the other Enterprise episodes he’s helmed (although maybe not for his feelings about the franchise in general, given his more recent comments).
David G Trotti, a 2nd Assistant Director, talks about the recreation of the Rura Penthe set from Star Trek 6 for the episode Judgment in this four minute featurette. Unlike the first Season’s instalment, this dose of Enterprise Secrets is much more serious, and as such not as much fun. Okay.
Inside A Night In Sickbay
Although it’s not highly regarded among fans, A Night In Sickbay is the episode that gets its own featurette this season. An eleven minute look back with principal actors Bakula and Billingsley remembering how much fun it was to make, visual effects Ron B Moore talks about the making of the CGI-bat, and Rick Berman utters some bland platitudes. I didn’t mind the episode at all (besides the silly Archer-T’Pol element) but surely there were other episodes - Carbon Creek, or Marauders - that would have made a more interesting focus in regards to production matters.
Eleven minutes of goofs, gags and giggles. If you enjoy outtakes you’ll enjoy these but it always strikes me that these are the sorts of things it’s much more fun to be involved with than to watch.
Fifty photos from the season, mainly behind-the-scenes shots and stills from the episodes themselves. Curiously the crew shots that are usually taken at the beginning of every season is not included – was one taken this year? The photos this time around are shown in a display matching the rest of the menu, meaning they are not full-screen. There’s really no benefit to this, and the one advantage this could have had – the chance to include captions – is not taken, a shame as it’s not clear in a couple of photos who the people are or what’s going on.
NX-01 Files 4-6
Bakula talks about people who have visited the set, Linda Park about her character and the show in general and Anthony Montgomery tells how excited he got the day Whoopi Goldberg came to the set, as well as reflecting on how odd it is now to be famous. All three are nice, if disposable, contributions in these short featurettes.
Borg Invasion Trailer
Hooray for the obligatory appearance of this trailer for the attraction at Star Trek: The Experience in Las Vegas. That poor woman still looks doomed to me.
The episode Carbon Creek sums up this season perfectly: nice to look at, well made and acted, an immaculately pristine forty-five minutes of television that is nevertheless a complete waste of time, having no purpose or point other than to fill in a slot on the schedule. Even those with high boredom thresholds such as myself will find this a frustrating, deeply unsatisfactory season, one that really showed how much trouble the franchise was in. The extras, too, are mediocre with no real flashes of insight, adding up to a dull addition to the Star Trek library.