“The Expanse” had already prepared fans for what they could expect in the fall of 2003, when Enterprise would take Star Trek for its most sustained serialized storytelling ever, an entire season of a single arc. Deep Space Nine had done direct stretches of six and ten hours, sure, and famously had the most involved writing in franchise history, but this was going to be more ambitious still. Would it be enough to win back the interest of viewers?
3x1 “The Xindi”
The season premiere actually began modestly. Archer and crew barely had any contact with the eponymous foes, actually. Their scenes might have been mistaken for outtakes from a Malon episode from Voyager (and that’s basically what most people seemed to take away from it). But there were a lot of introductions all the same. Xindi Council members played by Rick Worthy, Tucker Smallwood, and Scott MacDonald (Dolim, the only name out of the bunch that would be used regularly, though the others might be called Jannal and Mallora, respectively). Randy Oglesby also debuts as Degra, the builder of the weapon that must be prevented from reaching Earth. Considering that these are the first Xindi seen, and they’re all important ones, this is less than a slow start than a slow build, especially for Degra, who would become one of the signature recurring characters of the series, through the work of a single season. Additionally, Steven Culp (who had, a little less than a year ago, been left out of the final cut of Star Trek Nemesis as the new first officer under Captain Picard) shows up as the lead MACO, Major Hayes, representing the big change of the ship, the presence of military personnel, a first for Star Trek. Daniel Dae Kim appears as another of these commandos, but really, the lack of material he sees in this role leads directly into the biggest role of his life the following season. Don’t make me tell you what that it.
The big discovery of this episode is the first encounter with the mysterious spheres that are scattered throughout the region. It’s the first sign that there’s much more to this arc than simple investigation and confrontation. Like the original Temporal Cold War stories in the early seasons, there’s a lot more going on than is apparent, and it’s this kind of textured storytelling that helps distinguish Enterprise, regardless of whether or not fans appreciate it.
One of the early revisits with the Xindi Council is also a rather patented Star Trek excuse to have some pretty girl scamper around. But like Voyager learned, even the old tricks seemed like magnified sins when the fans were looking for excuses to revolt.
Here’s another important piece of the puzzle, another piece of layering, as we learn what kind of dangers exist for T’Pol to stick around this region for too long. Two words: Zombie Vulcans! And that’s pretty much what this one amounts to, and this one, at least, proved to be pretty broadly entertaining, something that was important to the ark but also worked pretty well episodically.
Where there’s Hoshi, there’s anxiety, so even when she stumbles into an unexpected way of contributing her unique skills to the mission, it proves complicated, when her unique mind attracts a lonely alien with information but a need for leverage. Don’t worry, though. It’s not the last time she gets into this kind of trouble this season.
3x7 “The Shipment”
Here’s when I really started to get into the season, however, when the subtleties really started to come through. Star Trek was always at its best, in any incarnation, when it delved into this territory, dating back to “Balance of Terror.” But I might argue that part of what frustrated fans…was that they liked it a little more clear-cut. They liked to know exactly who the villains were, and they really liked to know who exactly the hero was. When you started out with someone like Kirk, who became something of a folk hero, who and what else were you really going to want? They hated Kirk in The Motion Picture, when his foe was his own doubt. But they loved him in Wrath of Khan, when he tangled with an unmistakable villain. They didn’t care for Deep Space Nine, which had this kind of storytelling all over the place. And they hated the Voyager version of the Borg, which couldn’t leave the most clearly black and white foils alone. Well, here was when Enterprise took what was supposed to be the consummate antagonist of a whole season, and made it sympathetic. It was fantastically brilliant, and pushed the season to its truest and best work.
At once a patented Star Trek reboot glimpse of the future (perfected, it may be argued, in “The Visitor” from Deep Space Nine, and “Timeless” from Voyager), and also a study of how important, once again, Archer really is, whether to the mission of the series from the start, or this season specifically. And it’s a terrific glimpse into the depth of T’Pol as well, without ever really drawing attention to it, just a study of her unerring patience, which goes far beyond simple Vulcan logic and sense of duty. And to tease the climax of the arc is a pretty neat trick, too. If “The Shipment” elevates the season, then “Twilight” encapsulates it, and just maybe, exceeds it.
3x9 “North Star”
The only way to follow up entries like that is to circle back to pure Star Trek, which in this case is an improbable visit to a world, right in the middle of all this, that is straight out of the Wild West. And even this gets put right into the context of what’s really important. It’s not hard to imagine what the writing room was like breaking episodes like this, especially for a couple of creators like Rick Berman and Brannon Braga, who were constantly criticized as basically the reason this phase of the franchise came to such an ignominious end. Yet, after Deep Space Nine, you could hardly find any other efforts to capture the essence of what Star Trek had been from the start, not simply aping it (as Enterprise was repeatedly accused of doing) but making it (arguably, and heretically) better than it ever was. I’m not saying that “North Star” is a classic, but like much of the franchise in this period, it was hardly as bad as suggested.
Another reason for an episode like “North Star” would be that the creators knew better than the viewers just how dark everything would really become. And this intentional contrast, again, was hardly new in Star Trek. You try doing episodes like “The Shipment,” “Twilight,” and “Similitude” back to back to back, especially with the knowledge of how most of the rest of the episodes to come would hit. “Similitude” was my favorite from this season, and the fact that it revolved around Trip certainly didn’t hurt. Like “Twilight,” it took a step out of ordinary circumstances but imperiling the life of the chief engineer, to the point where a clone is created to provide necessary material to save him. But this clone becomes another Tuvix, someone the crew really doesn’t just want to say goodbye to. It’s a defining, perhaps the defining, episode for Trip, and again draws out from Archer how important keeping the right pieces in place really is. As great as Conner Trinneer is, Scott Bakula conveys a considerable amount of gravity, as he’s forced to make some of his toughest moral calls in the series. Knowing the history between Archer and Trip, as sparingly as it was actually used, adds another layer to everything, too.
3x11 “Carpenter Street”
Daniels pops up as we again are told about the historic consequences of getting things wrong, with a trip to the past (our present, though this isn’t really emphasized, possibly because there’s very little time, and only one hour, to tell this time travel story), and another franchise appearance for Leland Orser, for whom this episode basically serves as something of a thank-you, his version of Vaughn Armstrong finally getting to play a human.
3x12 “Chosen Realm”
This would be the episode that seemed drawn directly from the original series, but it’s more important as another look at the spheres, and the first time Star Trek had done religion directly since Deep Space Nine.
3x13 “Proving Ground”
What might be seen as a convenient excuse (and a somewhat flimsy and unlikely one at that) to bring Shran into the season instead turns into another, perhaps the best of how little the Andorian fits into the typical mold for a beloved recurring character. If anything, this one makes it that much more difficult for fans to have any positive feelings for him, and yet, it’s not just a ploy to demonstrate again how hard it was to form the alliances that would lead to the Federation, but how strong a character Shran really was, how much integrity he was allowed to have, thanks to the trust Jeffrey Combs had already engendered with fans. No other actor could have pulled this performance off.
Like “The Shipment,” like “Twilight,” like “Similitude,” this was an extremely important hour, the one that took an established Xindi, Degra, and turned him into a regular and intriguing presence, as Archer attempts to trick him into betraying his people. The idea of the episode was as much a stratagem as anything else, just an incredibly clever idea that took everything to a still greater level. As I suggested in my ‘Deep Space Nine’ recaps, while I adored that series and all it did for advancing the cause of serialized storytelling in Star Trek, what its extended arcs really lost was a sense of what individual entries were really meant to accomplish, to give them separate and deliberate identities. But what some of the more episodic episodes did on a regular basis, Enterprise learned volumes from, and drew on to accomplish the best hours of its full season arc.
This was the breather episode that pretty much sat back and let viewers and the crew absorb everything that had been going on. Not surprisingly, a lot of the long-simmering threads, which in themselves were never going to cover entire hours, had their biggest spotlights here. Reed’s professional rivalry with Hayes, or the romantic overtones of the complex therapy sessions between T’Pol and Trip (who lost his sister in the original Xindi attack), or sphere builders, who were shortly to emerge, but were seen here and “The Expanse” already, long before their presence would add yet another overt layer to the arc.
3x16 “Doctor’s Orders”
Given that much of what Enterprise did was similar to what Voyager had done for seven seasons, it’s not a surprise that some episodes would overlap pretty obviously, and so as Seven had before him, Phlox attempts to run the ship on his own, and fight his sense of isolation right to the end of it. Given that there was no other reason for the spotlight to fall on him in this particular season, it was as good an episode as any for the good doctor.
Almost the ironic version of “Twilight” and “Similitude,” Archer does an extreme dive into an episodic dilemma, being transformed into the mother figure for some Xindi-Insectoids (ten metaphorical bucks if you can name the other Xindi species). As the only spotlight for that particular species, why not embrace it for what it is?
3x18 “Azati Prime”
Besides, what follows is the season’s version of the Deep Space Nine serialized arcs, beginning here, as Archer apparently reaches his destiny when he sacrifices himself so that the Xindi weapon can be stopped. But since we’re not all that close to the season finale…
An episode that recalls events from earlier in the season, and anticipates those yet to come, while also being one that simply allows Star Trek to sit back and reflect on a bloody battle just endured. Casey Biggs, familiar as the ill-fated Cardassian Damar, makes an appearance. The Sphere Builders, as we’ll now call them, officially make their entrance.
3x20 “The Forgotten”
While Archer continues the work begun in “Stratagem” by convincing Degra to help his crew stop the Xindi weapon, the effects of “Damage” continue, as those who have fallen so far are given their due.
If the midst of this run, another episode that recalls Star Trek templates, as an alternate version of the crew, its descendents thrown into the past and matching up with their counterparts. Another opportunity to watch Jolene Blalock demonstrate her considerable acting credentials.
3x22 “The Council”
With that entry out of the way, we’re back in the thick of it, with Degra and Archer attempting to sway the rest of the Xindi Council, basically making this a sequel to the season premiere, that episode that seemed like such a random waste of time. More Sphere Builders are seen, too, adding to our knowledge of just what is really going on.
Otherwise known as Hoshi’s second big opportunity to get into a lot of trouble thanks to her unique credentials, as Dolim leads to Xindi opposition to the sudden willingness to cooperate with Archer, and contradict the wishes of the Sphere Builders.
3x24 “Zero Hour”
The big finale. You know what happens here. Archer saves the day. Obviously. And yet, the wheels always spinning, he apparently doesn’t get to celebrate, but not in the way it seems: he’s thrown into the past, WWII where an alien peers down at him, along with the Nazis…
Like a lot of Star Trek from around 1994 onward (the point where everyone was finally supposed to embrace the franchise, but instead found lots of excuses to love just about anything else, including: The X-Files, Babylon 5, Xena, Farscape, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Stargate), this breakthrough season came with bad timing. Battlestar Galactica had grabbed all the genre buzz with the first act of the bold revisioning spearheaded by Ronald D. Moore (name sound familiar?), leaving very little for Enterprise, no matter what it did creatively.
To be fair, it didn’t seem like this arc said a whole lot, one way or the other, about what the series had initially set out to do, and even barely a tangential relation to the Temporal Cold War, though I would hardly argue that the Xindi, who had never been heard about before, and therefore would never been seen again, meant little, or were another version of Enterprise telling an irrelevant version of Star Trek history. Rather, all that being said, it was a greater argument for the challenges and chances for heroics that the series had promised from the start, and without resorting to known concepts like the Romulan War. Like the Denobulans, the Xindi ultimately represented a complicated if unknown basis for the Federation, which after all was never really defined in its membership, just as turning back to relatively obscure species like Andorians, Tellarites, and Tholians helped flesh out the foundation.
The incredible work, and amount and quality of it, done for the season should have been a watershed moment for the franchise, but for many, it was “too little, too late,” another oversimplified excuse for fans who were all too ready to wash their hands of a franchise that had failed in all of its ambitions, as indulgent as the studio had been for a complete decade by then, “ready for a break.”
Was it the right call, to ignore the third season of Enterprise? Well, maybe the fourth season held some answers…