Revisiting Enterprise: "Broken Bow"

Star Trek: Enterprise has a pretty poor reputation, and I’ve decided to investigate whether or not it truly deserves it. The first season was recently released on Blu-ray, so I’ll be taking in these episodes for the first time since their Australian broadcast in 2002, and a lot has changed in Star Trek and TV SF in general since then.

Back then, we’d had multiple Star Trek shows on the air for years. Today, Trek fans get one highly questionable movie every few years, so it’s easy to forget that many of us were feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the Trek on the air in the 1990s and early 2000s. Plus, the timidity of Voyager‘s seven, cosy seasons didn’t inspire much confidence in the next show from the same team.

To their credit, Trek custodian Rick Berman and long-time Trek writer Brannon Braga did shake up the premise. Instead of another 24th century show, they gave us a prequel, set 100 years before the original series and following the crew of Earth’s first substantially warp-capable vessel. That meant no Federation and no Roddenberry utopia. Many of the familiar alien races wouldn’t have been encountered yet, and the crew would be facing a more mysterious and potentially hostile galaxy.

On paper, Enterprise was promising. Ironically, what could be viewed as the limitations of a prequel concept actually could have freed the show to become genuinely about exploration again. The Next Generation ended up focusing largely on social and political dilemmas and scientific mishaps in an increasingly familiar universe, and Deep Space Nine told a more serialised story about war and intrigue. Voyager, however, should have restored that sense of wonder and perhaps even some sublime terror, being about a ship lost on the other side of the galaxy. That it became a safe retread of TNG didn’t bode well for much awe in Enterprise.

And the first two seasons were greeted with frustration and indifference. I recall Enterprise‘s plots quickly becoming generic TNG/Voyager retreads, rarely living up to the show’s premise about the first significant human exploration of the galaxy. I watched quite a few episodes from the first two seasons, but gave up early in the third. The stories were painfully familiar; they felt like Trek product.

I chose an odd time to give up on the show though, because the third season took a radically different direction. With ratings falling, Berman and Braga devised a serialised narrative that responded to the post-9/11 climate in which Archer’s crew had to hunt down a new race that had attacked Earth before they could do it again. Despite straying even further from the prequel premise, the Xindi storyline was more ambitious. The characters were forced into some morally ambiguous situations out of desperation, perhaps showing us the kind of crucible that the Roddenberry utopia was born in. The scripts weren’t sharp enough to fully explore or embrace that, but the high stakes made for better television.

That season and the fourth and final one have a much higher reputation among fans than the first two, so I finally watched them on DVD a couple of years ago. Although hardly masterpieces, they’re significantly more engaging and accomplished than what came before, and certainly have more energy than Voyager. The fourth was largely multi-part episodes that finally made a concerted effort to connect Enterprise to the original series and built towards the formation of the Federation. Even weird fan service stories (like the explanation for the ridge-free Klingons in TOS) were still well-told compared to the dullness I remembered from season one.

These two seasons redeemed Enterprise somewhat in the years since its cancellation, although they doubtfully have much chance appealing beyond the Trek faithful. But then, many of those faithful have long since dismissed the show entirely. Having seen Enterprise at its best, I’ve found myself defending it to some extent, which I wouldn’t have dreamed of a decade ago.

So with this new Blu-ray release, I’ve decided to revisit the show and see if the early episodes have more to offer than I thought. I’m not suffering from Trek fatigue as I was during the original broadcast, and there are later episodes of this show that are pure Trek and stand up with the best of the franchise.

I’m only cautiously optimistic though.This reappraisal could be an exercise in futility, in which case this blog series will be an entertaining opportunity for snark. Let’s find out, starting with the feature-length pilot, “Broken Bow”.

Broken Bow

Watching this pilot feels like being pulled painfully in different directions. The competing demands that Enterprise establishes for itself make this a disorientating first installment of what should be, given the relative freedom from continuity, the most narratively straightforward Star Trek spin-off of all.

We’re quickly rushed through the introduction to Archer, his crew, and this new-old Enterprise, the NX-01. The conceit of starting the mission early due to first contact with the Klingons should make for an adequate entry point, setting up the premise while establishing some stakes by rocking the boat early. But the script is so eager to get into space that we’re given little sense of 22nd century Earth and the culture and political situation that has led to the mission. We’re told again and again that the Vulcans have been both guiding humans and holding them back, and Archer’s father’s role in the NX-01 is demonstrated in some limp flashbacks, but other than that we’re supposed to take it all for granted, as if the writers forgot this isn’t just another 24th century show and we need to be shown more than usual. Surely Enterprise was intended to bring in some new viewers too, but the script relies on the viewer having a Trek shorthand.

Compounding the problem is that once we’re introduced to Trek‘s past, the timey-wimey Suliban story is thrown at us, instantly suggesting that turning back the clock on Trek was always a half-hearted exercise. This ongoing subplot, about genetically engineered aliens taking orders from a mysterious figure from the future, feels jarringly wrong for a show that’s supposed to be about our tentative first steps into the greater galaxy. This “temporal cold war” story – a term doled out so matter-of-factly in this episode that it’s laughable – was insisted on by the network, UPN, who were wary of the prequel format and wanted a connection to Trek‘s better-known future. Presumably we were meant to speculate about Future Guy’s identity and whether he was a figure from Trek‘s future history, but since the subplot would end up having no connection to established lore, it’s ultimately a pointless distraction from the central premise.

To its credit, “Broken Bow” uses this story as the framework for the crew’s exploration. The crew’s behaviour on Rigel X is markedly different to what we’re used to on Trek: they’re gobsmacked by the smorgasbord of alien cultures but not terribly open-minded about them. A scene where Trip yells at a woman for apparently depriving her son of air demonstrates that these aren’t the preternaturally wise explorers from the earlier shows, with T’Pol having to explain to him that the child is being weaned and that he’s jumping to conclusions.

But the Suliban-dominated climax seems lifted from a later episode of a different show, not appropriate to the first installment of a series about pioneers. Putting time travel in the first episode is Enterprise running before it can walk, and it’s as clumsy as you’d expect. With no thematic link to to the premise, Future Guy and his machinations are a distraction pandering to viewers expecting a dazzling story rather than a simpler one well-told, as if watching a show about Trek‘s past would be homework without some treats being thrown in.

If the look of the show had been more adventurous and confident than the script, these incongruities might not be as jarring. There are some nice touches: the cramped ship sets resemble a submarine’s interior rather than the plush corridors of the Enterprise-D or Voyager, and the uniforms connote ‘astronaut’ more than any previous Trek outfits.

But otherwise the show feels just like Voyager, and “Broken Bow” is remarkably close in style to “Caretaker” from seven years earlier. A prequel series was an opportunity to break with tradition and excite viewers with a radically new template. But instead, no doubt thanks in part to studio and network conservatism, the cinematography, score, editing, and acting style are more or less identical to what’s come before. The clash between a new creative direction and Trek-as-product cuts to the core of why Enterprise is seen as such a compromised venture.

But the majority of the episodes, after all, aren’t affected by the Suliban subplot. The next episode will be Enterprise as a pioneering space exploration show, so greater cohesiveness may render it more enjoyable. It’s a theory, anyway…

Odds and Ends

  • UPN was no doubt responsible for the infamous and embarrassing decontamination sequence, where T’Pol and Trip have to rub gel over each other’s half-naked bodies in quarantine, the camera closing in on shining midriffs and biceps like a bad porno. Star Trek‘s attitude to sexuality has always been pretty square and bashful, so it’s rarely ended up pandering, at least not effectively. A scene this calculated and pointless clashes with the charming dorkiness of Trek, but ironically ends up being lame in its own, special way.
  • Helmsman Travis Mayweather’s childhood on primitive cargo ships, which prompts the scene where he shows Trip the zero-gravity ‘sweet spot’ on the ship, is a welcome embrace of the show’s time period. Trip’s wonder at discovering it wouldn’t work on the earlier shows, and embodies the enthralling weirdness of space travel. Given that Travis is one of the most underused regular characters in any of the shows, I suspect this won’t be drawn on much in future.
  • Wow, Archer and Trip are borderline-racist dicks in this episode. Their sneering contempt for T’Pol, which they justify by their frustration with Vulcan ‘meddling’, is jarring for a pair of Trek characters. I’d assume that this is to illustrate that these are more flawed, unsympathetic characters than we’re used to, but the script doesn’t really criticise them for it, which is unsettling.
  • Hey, it’s Deadwood‘s Jim Beaver with short hair and a moustache as a Starfleet senior type with a few lines.
  • The episodes don’t look nearly as good on Blu-ray as TOS and TNG because CBS is using the high-definition masters that were struck way back in 2001, when the technology wasn’t nearly as advanced. The CGI is upscaled from 480p too, at least at this early stage. “Broken Bow” looked DVD-quality throughout, which is a shame. I gather that later episodes look more like genuine HD.
    One of the main draws of this set though was the feature-length documentary which addresses the show’s problems and setbacks with great candour. The other is a one-hour conversation between Berman and Braga where they discuss the numerous criticisms that have been lobbed at them over the years and the absurd network interference that further mucked up the show. So I’m confident the Blu-ray will still end up being worth the investment.

NEXT: “Fight or Flight” and”Strange New World”

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