My viewing of season three of Star Trek: Enterprise continues to surprise me by having completely failed to include a single lousy episode so far. The quality has been up and down, but it seems to bottom out at “average” rather than ever plummeting into “poor,” let alone “genuinely bad.” The overarching Xindi plotline provides a genuine sense of purpose and episode-to-episode continuity lacking in the first two seasons, while the conceit of traveling through space shot through with anomalies lets them get away with the occasional offbeat storyline that might otherwise feel like too significant a distraction from the A plot. It’s a nice balance, and I’m having trouble reconciling this string of quality with the same show and crew responsible for “A Night in Sickbay.”
Admittedly, neither of the offbeat entries in the most recent batch of episodes I’ve watched has leaned too heavily on the space anomaly gimmick. The first, “North Star,” did the “lost human colony in deep space” schtick we’ve seen throughout Trek‘s history but put a somewhat creative twist on it: A world of humans plucked unwillingly from Old West-era California to serve as laborers, who turned the tide and enacted a program of oppression against their former captors. One of the better excuses for a literal sci-fi western I’ve seen.
The other, “Carpenter Street,” did the “Trek on Earth in modern times” gag, sending Archer and T’Pol to 21st Century Detroit to prevent the Xindi from John Connoring humanity by creating a pandemic that would decimate the species long before the advent of warp technology, thus nipping the whole perceived human threat in the bud. What I found particularly interesting about this episode was its somewhat experimental nature for a Trek episode: It uses lots of gloomy lighting and shaky-cam. Kind of reminded me of that relatively early Farscape episode where John and Aeryn end up on Earth, if only for the similarly dark and naturalistic tone of the film.
Actually, come to think of it, the entire theme of this batch of episodes seems to be to take common Trek traits and put a fresh spin on them. “Similitude” throws one of the crew (Trip) into mortal danger, prompting the Captain to create a rapid-aging clone of him for the sake of harvesting neural tissue. It tackles a lot of the right-to-life questions seen in episodes of other Trek series, like “The Offspring,” but with the added question of the ramifications of the clone’s having been created specifically to be a tissue donor. The episode doesn’t really paint Captain Archer in the best light, but I kind of like that about this run of episodes. Archer has to balance the goody-goody Roddenberry vision of the future with the need to save Earth, and he doesn’t always make the most noble choices. This could have come off forced — and actually did the first time he threatened to torture someone — but fortunately since that one incident the writer has dialed it back and no longer appears to be attempting to paint him as Jack Bauer in space.
Actually, Enterprise came really close to selling out Trek to the post-9/11 “security by any means necessary” panic, but commendably the writers (and the characters) began to find alternate solutions. One of them, seen in “The Stratagem,” made for one of my favorite episodes of the series. For once, the good guys use a mind-screw on the bad guys. We’ve seen so many episodes of Trek and other similar shows where the hero is led to believe that they’re in a dire situation years down the road and that the status quo has changed forever, but I can’t think of a time I’ve ever seen the good guys use it on the villains before here. But rather than attempt to beat or scare info on the Xindi weapon out of its chief designer, Archer attempts to pull off a big fakeroo to trick him into giving up the codes willingly. And the bad guys figure it out, just like the good guys always do… but there’s a nice, punchy twist at the end to wrap things up nicely and flip the advantage back in Earth’s favor. And all without violence. I don’t know what other people think of this episode, but I loved not only the way it turned the tables on a sci-fi cliché, but also that it represented Trek righting itself before flying off the rails. The heroes won with smarts, not violence. Good stuff.
I also enjoyed the ending of “Chosen Realm,” which tread the familiar ground of extremists seizing control of Enterprise for their own purposes. Archer and crew ultimately win the day and outsmart the villains, but in the end they realize they didn’t need to: In the time the aliens had been searching for a weapon to win their civil war, the factions back home had escalated the conflict and essentially wiped out their entire race. Bleak.
And, finally, there were a couple other episodes (“Proving Ground” and “Harbinger”) that simply forwarded the main plot — nothing remarkable, but necessary. The latter, however, advanced the mystery of what caused the Expanse’s gravitational anomalies and, if I’m not mistaken, hints at a shift in danger levels to come. Actually, this most recent episode has helped me realize why I’ve enjoyed this season so much, and if the show goes in the direction I expect I’ll have plenty more to say about that next time I write one of these.