“On this site, a powerful engine will be built. An engine that will someday help us travel a hundred times faster than we can today. Imagine it–thousands of inhabited planets at our fingertips. And we’ll be able to explore those strange new worlds, and seek out new life and new civilizations. This engine will let us go boldly where no man has gone before.”
-Zephram Cochrane (“Broken Bow”)
Alright, all you who just groaned audibly can leave. *points to door*
I think Enterprise deserves a whole host of second chances. I still haven’t figured out if it failed because of the fans or the studio, because a decade after its cancellation, I keep running into a a great many folks who admit that they actually really liked it. And re-watching it now, it feels just as good as Voyager, and season three and four have some stuff that’s up there with the best of TNG and DS9. So what really happened? Hopefully, I’ll be able to piece that together this week.
My theory is that, by the time Enterprise came around, television had grown too cynical, bandying about buzzwords like “gritty” and “dark.” I think if Enterprise had been made now, with shows like Once Upon a Time and Supergirl reminding people that it’s OK to have fun while watching TV, it would have been a much bigger success. The biggest problem was that it was a 90’s show trying to make it in a post-9/11 world, and it felt naïve. Think of Stargate, another huge 90’s franchise that spawned a fantastic ten-season show (Stargate SG-1) and then a spin-off with a great cast whose writers ran out of ideas in season two (Stargate: Atlantis). They tried to embrace this new “gritty” aesthetic in 2009 with Stargate: Universe, but it was so different from the fun, colorful shows that preceded it that it alienated its fans and only lasted two seasons.
Star Trek actually did a bit better. By the time Enterprise embraced this popular darkness with its spectacular season three Xindi arc (which was a direct commentary on 9/11), fans began to slowly trickle back, though studios had already given up, tragically. The financial failure of Nemesis was another nail in the coffin, with skittish studio execs interpreting it as a loss of public interest interest in Star Trek which had moved beyond its time as a huge financial juggernaut. And so, Enterprise was cut short (though it did run for a season longer than the Original Series), and we’re all super depressed about that because the show had boatloads of potential.
That’s not to say that it didn’t rub some fans the wrong way either. Though it did a pretty good job of staying within established continuity, it did make a few slip ups that apparently some folks found unforgivable (which is hilarious because if you compare the universe of TNG’s first season and its seventh season, it’s like they both follow completely different rules). But enough about that. Let’s talk about how awesome the show is.
Star Trek: Enterprise (2001-2005)
The Ship: the prototype NX-01 Enterprise, Earth’s first warp 5 vessel. With no shields, no tractor beam, experimental phasers (added after its launch), and a transporter nobody trusts, it still manages to be a super tough ship. It’s a great design, hinting at the DS9-era Akira class vessels that served (or rather will serve) in the Dominion war two centuries later. I am curious why they chose to name it Enterprise since canon lists in films like The Motion Picture don’t mention it among other pre-Federation vessels of the same name, but it is a prototype, so I can deal with it.
The Captain: Jonathan Archer is a good mix of Kirk and Sisko. He’s confident to the point of reckless, but he’s also a good leader in rough situations. He’s an optimist, but not a blind optimist. He knows when to be cynical and when not to be. Plus there’s a vulnerability about him. Like Janeway, he’s in completely unfamiliar environs and, though he’s able to hide it behind suitable quantities of rugged swagger, you can tell that he’s well aware of how alien and dangerous the galaxy is, especially in command of an experimental ship that is quite often outclassed by others they encounter.
The Premise: *flutters fingers mysteriously* Many eons ago… Well, not really eons…
Before the existence of the Federation, Starfleet’s first deep-space vessel is sent to explore the galaxy, something Earth has been itching to do ever since First Contact 90 some odd years prior. Despite concerns that the advanced Vulcans have been holding Earth warp technology back (for fear that they would artificially accelerate Earth’s development), Enterprise makes contact with many new races and discovers a great many worlds.
In their third year, Earth is attacked by a mysterious weapon that kills a lot of people in the Americas, and Enterprise is sent to find out who sent it, leading them to a year-long conflict with an enigmatic race called the Xindi whose attack on Earth was motivated by a situation more complicated than mere aggression. *shoots a sidelong glance at the shady Sphere Builders*
In its final year, Archer begins to influence events that, in time, lead to the creation of the Federation, a historic coming together of various races committed to peace, betterment, and exploration.
The Best Episodes: There are a bunch I love.
“Broken Bow” is one of the best pilots in the franchise. It sets up the characters really well, captures the whole, “we’re in space and we have no clue what we’re doing” feeling, and gives a story that’s a good mix of action and character stuff. It looks great, and there’s lots to make fans happy, especially first contact with the Klingons. I also love the idea of the Vulcans being the “bad guys” so to speak. And the scenes on Rigel really do a good job of establishing “humans” as a separate species. They feel so completely out of place and overwhelmed that when T’Pol insists they return to Earth, you can see that a few of them are actually considering it, even though they say they want to keep going. It’s a good paradox that really serves to drive the series as a whole.
“Similitude” is probably my favorite episode from a dramatic standpoint. It’s a My Sister’s Keeper sort of story, with a clone being raised to donate essential neural tissue to a dying Trip (a procedure that will kill the clone). When the clone (whose name is Sim) begins to question his existence, Captain Archer is faced with a murky ethical dilemma that has no easy solution. The writing is excellent and it’s wonderfully acted.
“Regeneration” is a really cool episode. Now, it messes with continuity, BUT the fault of said continuity error is the Borg from First Contact, so it’s a cool internally-consistent continuity error. Starfleet didn’t officially encounter the Borg until Q sent the Enterprise D into the Delta quadrant. Before that, the only humans who had ever really learned anything about them were Seven of Nine’s parents, the Hansens, but they were assimilated…*womp womp* But the pieces of the Borg sphere that the Enterprise E destroyed in 2063 are discovered in Antarctica (very The Thing) and the Borg escape! Archer pursues them and things get weird, but they never actually learn what these cyborgs call themselves, so the timeline is still pretty much preserved. But it’s a quickly-paced action story and I’m fond of it.
“Twilight” is another well-written story (Never thought I’d ever utter THOSE words…). It’s an alternate future tale that has Archer (who’s been suffering from short-term memory loss as a result of a creepy brain virus…thing) witnessing the Xindi weapon destroying Earth and then waking up years later with T’Pol having to tell him once more the tale of what’s been happening in the years since Earth’s destruction. It obviously resorts to a great big, giant reset button in the episode’s climax, but it’s a nice exploration of just how big the stakes of their mission in the Expanse really are. Plus, it explores a facet of Archer and T’Pol’s friendship that’s really quite touching.
“North Star” is another cool one just because of the Western theme. Star Trek has done westerns before (“Spectre of the Gun” in TOS, and “A Fistful of Datas” in TNG), but this one just captures the atmosphere really well. It’s not a comedy episode. It’s a genuinely interesting look at racism in small towns in a really cool setting. Plus, we get to see Archer be all cowboy-y…and really pull it off well, I might add.
Season 4 gave us a number of three-part episodes that are quite good, but I’m rather fond of the Borderlands/Cold Station 12/The Augments trilogy, which brings back Brent Spiner as Dr. Soong’s own ancestor, Arik Soong. It’s a nice prequel of sorts to “Space Seed” and The Wrath of Khan, and it also sets up the legendary explanation, a few episodes later, of why the Klingons look the way they do in TOS. But on its own, it’s a nice action episode with some great acting.
I also need to give mad props to the Mirror Universe two-parter “In a Mirror Darkly” which is one of the best episodes of its kind in the franchise. Not only does it commit to its subject matter to the point of having a whole new opening credits sequence, but it features the 22nd century encountering a 23rd century ship (complete with colorful Kirk-era costumes). The whole thing is just delightful fan service, and it’s clear that everyone involved had a lot of fun. There’s also a kooky cameo by a Gorn!
Why It’s Awesome:
Like all Trek series, it takes some time to find its footing, but I think it does a good job of establishing its aesthetic early on. Voyager explored completely unfamiliar space, but they had advanced Starfleet technology surrounding them. With Enterprise, you really feel like this crew is placing BOATLOADS of trust in a ship that, they quickly learn, isn’t the biggest fish in the pond. They’re proud of it, but they’re well aware that they’ll all probably explode in the next fight they get into.
Plus, the cast had a lot of potential. I love the Archer/T’Pol detente, as well as the T’Pol/Trip romance. The latter feels so organic and touching that, when the series ends and we don’t get to really explore it further, we really feel let down. It’s a similar dynamic to the Tom/B’Elanna romance in Voyager, but a bit rougher. It’s not just a case of clashing personalities, but also two damaged people finding each other and finding completion out of it as he helps her with her trellium addiction, and she helps him deal with the death of his sister. I REALLY wish we’d gotten more of that, because the writing was just spectacular.
Also, I love Hoshi. Hoshi is probably my all-time favorite character because she’s a lot like myself. She’s jittery, doubts herself a lot, but (unlike me) when the world is exploding around her, she can pull herself together and do something awesome. I always really liked that about her. She’s the voice of the crew’s uncertainty, and she finds a great dynamic with the rest of the folks onboard. She’s also sort of the “Reg Barclay” character, and we all know how much I love Reg. PLUS! In the mirror universe, she’s this hot bamf who kills all her opponents and becomes Empress of the Terran Empire, which is basically the coolest thing ever.
I’m deeply saddened that Enterprise was never given its due, because I really do like it, and think it does a great job of furthering the Trek spirit. It did resort to a few canon-bending gimmicks early on to build an audience, something outspoken internet critics lambasted, but I maintain that Enterprise deserves its place in the Trek canon. It did outstanding things in seasons three and four, and were it not for an audience that craved something less optimistic, it would have continued.
We did get four seasons, though, which is better than Firefly. That’s a victory in itself. We won’t talk about the meh finale episode “These are the Voyages…” because they had to throw something together in a hurry (I would have like it better if we had just gotten to see Archer’s speech at the end!), but apart from that, Enterprise rocks, and now I plan on marathoning it all and enjoying every minute of it.
Next week, we’ll be looking at where Trek has gone since what is known as the Prime Timeline ended. See you then!