Friday, September 3, 2010

Star Trek: Enterprise Season Four

The fall of 2004 marked the dawn of a whole new era in genre programming, with the debut of Lost, which, at least temporarily, opened the floodgates to networks becoming receptive to wild ideas, bold concepts, and big stories. But wide audiences weren’t flocking to sci-fi, at least not in the traditional sense, at least not outside of cable (where niche fans were gobbling up Stargate and Battlestar Galactica with renewed vigor), and certainly not to Star Trek, which was now seen as a relic. And the only victim left was Enterprise, which had just completed one of the most ambitious franchise seasons ever. The fourth season would be one last-ditch effort to win fans, if not audiences, over again.

4x1 “Storm Front, Part I”
As the first assault, this one was calculated not only to wrap up the Temporal Cold War arc in play since the pilot, but basically to wipe the slate clean, a big story to let fans know that things would really be changing. After a season with the Xindi, the series would once again be recreating itself, and to do so this time would require a massive effort to convince everyone that this time, there would be no mistaking how relevant to the series itself it would be. I’m not saying this to criticize the Xindi season, because unquestionably I consider it the achievement of the series, but for viewers who just kept leaving (as they did during the acclaimed Dominion War arc of Deep Space Nine, which came to define that series) who were looking for one last reason to stay. Because Star Trek fans really were looking for reasons like that, even if they continually got and rebuffed them (weird situation I still will never be able to completely begin to answer - bottom line, Star Trek itself could never be what they ultimately found they were currently looking for). So to conclude something like the Temporal Cold War, which had been a recurring if not entirely focused arc since the beginning, was a decision that basically said, We know you don’t really like this, so give us a moment and we can finally just move on. But as convoluted as it seemed to finish it during WWII, I still contend to this day “Storm Front” did a lot more than it seemed to. Whether it was the intention of the writers or not, the alien manipulating events stands for me as the answer to the riddle of Future Guy, who was the man behind the curtain of the whole thing, and this is as good an explanation for why he would never become directly involved, that everything was really just a lot of people fighting from temporal fronts that basically didn’t really have as much power as they would like others to think. And so someone stranded in his own past, powerless to do a whole lot, sounds like exactly the kind of dilemma Future Guy could have gotten himself in, repeatedly, like Annorax from “Year of Hell.” That in itself, completely fascinating to me, and maybe that’s why it worked for me, exactly as this arc was always presented. I filled in the blanks. But a lot of fans wanted all of it pretty literally and deliberately spelled out. Well, that’s Enterprise in a nutshell, and why this season did what it did, and why, once again, it seemed like “too little, too late.”

4x2 “Storm Front, Part II”
The other big deal about this first multi-part story of the season was that it was also the last appearances of Daniels and Silik, two of the defining recurring characters of the series, with John Fleck, thanks to story circumstances, getting to show his human face for a change. That both characters are dead by the end of the story is pretty accurate as a metaphor, too.

4x3 “Home”
Viewers still waiting patiently for that fresh start might as well consider this the season premiere, because it’s here that everyone really gets a chance to breathe, for the first time since “Azati Prime,” really. Like “Damage” and “The Forgotten” before it (and “Family,” from Next Generation), this is a full-on reflection episode, with Archer getting into full Janeway mode (circa “Night”), questioning every decision he’s made since his mission began, crying on the shoulder, basically, of Erika Hernandez (Ada Maris), which is ironic, because Hernandez happens to represent the future, the next deep space captain, a symbol of his success, no matter what he may be feeling at the moment. The episode also takes a good long reflection on the relationship between Trip and T’Pol, with another of the great endings in franchise lore, as Trip finally realizes how much he cares for the Vulcan, at the worst possible moment. Easily one of my favorite episodes of the series, surpassing the two previous examples of this story from the third season, and setting up the rest of the season, which is another irony, because it’s a rare standalone episode in a season full of multi-part stories. Again, I have to emphasize the worth of an episode like this to a greater appreciation for the series itself, because this is exactly the kind of depth no one ever gave it credit for, even though it had as much of it as any other Star Trek, if not at times more, because this is exactly what fans were clamoring for at the time, because they claimed it was completely absent. The creators actually were listening, and giving the fans exactly what they wanted. But some people just are never satisfied. I know from this kind of frustration. But sometimes obstinance is misplaced, and good things are lost, unappreciated, because of it.

4x4 “Borderland”
Modern fans often accuse Star Trek of looting from one of their favorite memories, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and whether or not they’re always accurate is kind of beside the point. But to suggest that it’s always bad to resemble success is another of those perverse behaviors indigenous to fan culture, which is always looking for signs of weakness. Maybe it was a mistake for Enterprise to begin its glorious quest for redemption by being the first franchise incarnation to directly tap into Wrath of Khan for inspiration, simply for this fact. I don’t know. But once again, I apparently was against the grain in liking the idea, which sees the concept of genetically-enhanced specimens, referred to here as Augments brought back for the first time since “Dr. Bashir, I Presume?” in Deep Space Nine, but at a time when calling it controversial in the story doesn’t even begin to cover it. And at the heart of it is an entirely different origin story, with Brent Spiner returning to Star Trek as Arik Soong, the ancestor of the man who created Data. Alec Newman, who made a big for genre immortality in the Dune TV movies, gets to follow in the footsteps of Ricardo Montalban, portraying Malik, the leader of this band of Augments. Also features the first appearance of the Orions in the season. Being the second aliens (after Vulcans) to have been created and leave a significant impact in original series, it was only natural for Orions to feature prominently, finally, in Enterprise.

4x5 “Cold Station 12”
The second act of this story is memorable for me in that Jeremy Lucas, Phlox’s medical colleague, friend, and pen pal, is finally seen, and played by franchise veteran Richard Riehle, making this his welcome, defining role (I always appreciated how the lifespan of Star Trek kept giving actors this kind of opportunity, to say nothing of the scores of individuals who made careers behind the scenes helping to make all of it a cohesive project for decades).

4x6 “The Augments”
Concluding the arc and foreshadowing later developments in the season, the Augments stir some big problems with the Klingons. By the end of it, Soong is thinking of abandoning his work in genetics…in favor of work with robotics!

4x7 “The Forge”
One of the frequent complaints about Enterprise was that its version of Vulcans seemed a lot more emotional than other, very famous examples in the franchise, which certainly must have come like another cardinal sin. So the third multi-part story of the season looked to see why that might possibly have been, finally settling on another famous Vulcan, Surak, and how his teachings and cultural impact might have been working at the time. Kara Zediker assumes the role of T’Pau, a venerated elder when last seen in “Amok Time,” but here a scrappy outsider looking to bring her people back from the edge of political quagmire and back to logical correctness. Robert Foxworth, so memorable in Deep Space Nine in two episodes, makes a return to Star Trek for the proceedings. To help continue to theme of transition in the season, Admiral Forrest is killed off in a terrorist attack, marking the end of another major element of the early seasons (though not the last appearance).

4x8 “The Awakening”
Archer and T’Pol get into the nitty-gritty of the arc in this episode (which, technically speaking, features the first appearance of T’Pau), while the Andorians get into the season picture for the first time.

4x9 “Kir’Shara”
The concluding act sees the best material for both Shran and Soval of the series, as the two engage in a battle of wills that both characters have sort of been waiting for since their debuts, so it’s only natural that it’s between them that they finally find it.

4x10 “Daedalus”
The transporter episode that the creators were probably dying to do since the start, prompted perhaps by the expectations of the fans, but also tying perfectly into both the original Year One aspirations and the new intentions to more properly sync up with the feeling of the original series. And it doesn’t get much more deliberate than the hapless famous visitor who gets into a whole heap of trouble. Yet because a lot of other franchise incarnations did similar stories, it probably seemed less fresh and necessary than it actually was, especially for this particular series. Hapless famous folks and errant gods were the backbone of Gene Roddenberry’s interests in the original series, and much of what I left out in my recaps for it involves these stories.

4x11 “Observer Effect”
This was another such story, but unlike “Daedalus,” it was actually a story Enterprise had already told plenty of times already, except this time, it was with Organians, a known commodity.

4x12 “Babel One”
In a season of multi-part stories, had the series continued, this would probably have become known as the most important one, since it not only involves a lot of important groundwork for Archer’s ability to mediate between eventual founding members of the Federation, but is the first (and ultimately last) major Romulan arc. Tellarites, after “Bounty,” have their most significant Enterprise appearance in this opening act, while Shran pops up again (his increasing presence would have led to a possible ongoing status in the aborted fifth season). Brian Thompson makes another franchise appearance, for the duration of this arc, as the lead Romulan attempting to create a little interstellar war, something that had been hinted at in “Kir’Shara.”

4x13 “United”
The secondary (but apparent primary) purpose of the arc takes center stage as Archer finds himself trying to convince cooler heads to prevail when Shran takes it personally when a Tellarite attack leads to the death of his partner.

4x14 “The Aenar”
After four seasons, we finally get a close look at Andorian culture, a visit to the home world and the revelation of a sub-species (the title folks) even more grossly affected by all that cold weather (why else did you think they were blue, just because it looked cool?), while the first real right between Starfleet and the Romulans finally occurs. With the most famous piece of history from this era looming, the Romulan War, one might have imagined Enterprise, had it run the standard seven seasons, would have come to more closely resemble Deep Space Nine, but this story ends up being the only chance to see what it might have looked like, with the Xindi season ending up like an example of everything it would have never been able to do.

4x15 “Affliction”
For twenty years, Star Trek fans got to wonder just how Klingons went from smooth-headed (original series) to bumpy-headed (The Motion Picture), which was made all the more confusing when they showed up in “Broken Bow” with the modified look. This two-part story finally gave them the answer (though it got about the same reaction as the second Star Wars trilogy, which finally showed just how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader), tying into the events of the Augments trilogy earlier in the season. Intrigued by what they saw, the Klingons thought they could take genetic modification and make a better warrior, with Phlox kidnapped to help the process. As another layer, Trip has decided he can no longer serve on the same ship as T’Pol, at least not without being tortured by unrequited love, so he transfers to the Columbia, commanded by Erika Hernandez. His temporary replacement as chief engineer, Kelby (Derek Magyer), debuts as the final recurring officer of the series. And you’re craving a third layer? Apparently Reed previously worked for Section 31, the shadowy organization previously featured in Deep Space Nine, and Harris (Eric Pierpont, returning once again to Star Trek, and gaining his own signature character at last) would like to have him back. Could you possibly ask for more ambition from the season?

4x16 “Divergence”
As Reed struggles with his conscience, Phlox struggles to aid the Klingons in the unexpected consequences of their new program, and Trip has to make a little emergency repair on his old ship, in the most harrowing circumstances possible. If any story in the season seemed designed to attract as much attention from fans as possible, this one was definitely it, which also demonstrated that the altered version of the attempt to attract the new kind of viewers Star Trek could no longer ignore, it was really working, and being done in much the same way as the third season, if only those viewers could be induced to care. But for a series already in its fourth season, with all the necessary material for why anyone should care about it done when no one cared, even with material that didn’t need knowledge of an entire franchise (but it definitely would not have hurt), it was probably asking too much. Clearly, this was the point where Star Trek was forced to acknowledge that it was a lost cause to rescue this phase of the franchise.

4x17 “Bound”
The big Orion episode, completely inverts everything that fans might have assumed about the species. Might even have been appreciated, if it hadn’t been interpreted as one more attempt by the series to attract attention by juvenile means (it should be noted for the record that no matter how many times material for T’Pol was generated to strengthen her as a character, many viewers were given just as many impressions that she was there to be the babe, even after Seven of Nine the apparent and most blatant attempt to make a series regular fit that role, even though sexuality was a constant feature of Star Trek from the very beginning; it just wasn’t something “serious fans” wanted to think about).

4x18 “In a Mirror, Darkly, Part I”
Like the Klingon arc, this multi-part story was jam-packed with goodies for fans. The Mirror Universe, a famous element of both the original series and Deep Space Nine, returns (with uniquely-fashioned opening credits as a fantastic touch), with an origin once again recalling Star Trek: First Contact, while a lost ship from “The Tholian Web” is revisited, and oh yes, the Gorn are seen for the first time “Arena” (another of the show’s attempts to give modern viewers completely digital aliens, something the franchise had been toying with since Species 8472, but really only became a staple with the Xindi-Aquatics and -Insectoids; this time, however, with a known commodity in play, fans were less pleased with the results, though they seemed fine with the Tholians, seen for the first time). Anyway, we also see Forrest again!

4x19 “In a Mirror, Darkly, Part II”
The great twist of this act is that it becomes a Hoshi story, as her mirror counterpart outsmarts everyone and proclaims herself Empress in the surprise ending. Also, Gregory Itzin makes a final franchise appearance.

4x20 “Demons”
In the final multi-part story, which many considered, or would like to have seen as, the true series finale, Peter Weller stars as John Frederick Paxton, who represents not only ties to franchise lore, but also the first reminder since the conflict between Archer and Vulcans that humans themselves weren’t exactly ready to start up the Federation. Harris returns, and Mayweather receives the most attention he’s gotten since the second season in a subplot with an old girlfriend caught up in the middle of this crisis.

4x21 “Terra Prime”
Every other element on this concluding act might as well not exist, because for me it’s really the last exploration of the relationship between Trip and T’Pol, who help advance the cause of the future Federation as Paxton unwittingly proves it’s possible for humans and Vulcans to procreate. But the real impact of this comes from Conner Trinneer’s best acting in the series, as he mourns the death of the controversial offspring that ties everything together, a sort of belated sequel-in-spirit to “Similitude.”

4x22 “These Are the Voyages…”
Part of the uproar (the only true instance of passion from the audience during the entire run of Enterprise) over this series finale was that it robbed the cast of its last spotlight, a funny thing to complain about, since hardly anyone ever admitted to even liking it. But not only did I fail to understand what the big problem was, I reveled in this hour, from the tie-in to a favorite Next Generation episode (“The Pegasus”) to how it tacitly acknowledges that, basically, this became Trip’s show, not Archer’s (almost as if in echo of how Spock became more popular than Kirk). What the creators must have been thinking, as many fans began wondering, isn’t that hard to figure out. They knew that this was the final opportunity for this phase of the franchise to express itself, that they wouldn’t be making anymore movies, that this was the last of the four TV shows to run under this regime. So it had a lot of things to acknowledge, and three of the most generous actors from this generation, Jonathan Frakes, Marina Sirtis, and Brent Spiner (making a voice cameo), all of whom were past series regulars who either reprised their famous roles or variations on them in later incarnations, host the occasion, putting Archer and his crew in a definite historic context, and giving everyone a last chance at a final word, including Shran. Confined to a single hour, it worked extremely well for what it had to do, conclude a series three seasons earlier than what had become the average.

This was the longest of all the recaps (I don’t anticipate any of the films warranting as much space), and probably adds to the idea that I’ve been remarkably indulgent, especially for a lot of Star Treks that were apparent failures, especially the one that finally caused Paramount itself (long and apparently the only entity on the planet ignorant of the fact) to realize a fresh start was needed with the franchise, but I don’t aim to apologize. It was a pretty deliberate move on my part, to spend a lot of time with incarnations that by most accounts didn’t deserve a cursory look, much less an expansive one. I set about the Fan Companion because it was exactly that, a perspective from someone who happened to be a fan of the entire franchise (but not completely so, despite how it might have seemed).

Enterprise for me was so much more than Series V, as it was originally known amidst fan speculations when announced by the studio. It wasn’t just another Star Trek, just as Voyager wasn’t, and Deep Space Nine. I never approached a Star Trek with the expectation and the need to enjoy it, but that’s how I ended up watching each new incarnation. Just as the creators kept learning as they went along, most clearly when revamping Next Generation starting with the third season, which made the next decade and a half of the franchise possible, I watched and saw how the storytelling became a little more sophisticated, a little more nuanced, as the seasons went by. While for some it’s a bit inconceivable to call anything past Jean-Luc Picard, himself a study in advanced sophistication (that was the natural gift of Patrick Stewart), by such terms, I could see Star Trek develop a better and truer idea of itself, of its potential. The franchise always aimed to be more than an episodic adventure. It’s why Kirk, Spock, and McCoy were so memorable in the first place. They weren’t just random people going off on random adventures, but characters populated in stories with an incredible amount of heart, passion, and purpose. In the 1960s, it was necessary to tell these stories a certain way, and with very little faith in this enterprise, the work that was accomplished in three seasons was astonishing. And that it got new opportunities to expand, was beyond reason. That’s what fans should have been reflecting on, maybe, not constantly henpecking. Star Trek became a cash cow, but it never sold out. New incarnations only expanded its horizons, again and again pushing against perceived limitations. When Q said, you’re a pesky thing that’s not worthy of what you’ve been given, it was the creators challenging their fans, who ironically decided to side with Q on that one.

And yet by the end, when “These Are the Voyages…” ended with Kirk, Picard, and Archer reciting the famous mission statement of the franchise, it still somehow rang true.

And to this day, that mission is still continuing.

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