Revisiting Enterprise: "Fight or Flight" and "Strange New World"

The series itself begins. My thoughts on the second and third episodes of Star Trek: Enterprise‘s first season are after the jump.

Enterprise has more responsibility to its audience after its pilot than Deep Space Nine or Voyager had. Those shows were the next iteration of 24th century Trek, so similarities to TNG were understandable and forgivable. But Enterprise sends us back to 100 years before the original series, so a lot has to change. Coming straight after Voyager and from the same production team, if Enterprise resembled its predecessor too much, its markedly different premise would smack of an empty promise.

In its second and third episodes, that promise is starting to feel tenuous. Both stories are about the awkward first steps of interstellar exploration, but there’s still an air of obligation and familiarity. The cosiness of modern Trek – all steadicam and non-melodic strings – remains draped over the show, stifling its potential.

In “Fight or Flight”, Enterprise finds dead aliens on a stranded ship being harvested for a chemical in their blood. T’Pol insists that they leave in case the perpetrators return. Archer eventually acquiesces, but his conscience forces him to turn back and see to the bodies with dignity despite the risk. Meanwhile, Hoshi is grappling with anxiety about her suitability for the mission.

The plot supposedly reflects the differing approaches to exploration of humans and Vulcans, although this is the latest instance of Archer’s recklessness being presented as acceptable behaviour and T’Pol’s caution making her a killjoy. Vulcans are oddly self-serving and passive-aggressive in Enterprise, which undermines their fundamental logical appeal and ignores why the Kirk/Spock relationship was so narratively useful. An easy route to drama apparently demands that Archer is positioned as right and T’Pol wrong, so the dilemma that the episode tries to present is sabotaged. That Archer is judgemental and almost bigoted against Vulcans still isn’t questioned, and Scott Bakula’s shouty performance makes the character shrill and irritating rather than appealingly ambiguous.

The circumstantial elements of the episode are where it shines, reminding us that this crew is still shaky and the ship unreliable. Their hasty departure has led to teething problems that symbolise the uncharted territory they’re wandering into: Reed is still working out how to target torpedoes, and the translator matrix is often useless. A Star Trek crew being unable to fire weapons, not due to some anomaly but because they suck at it, is refreshing. The Enterprise crew are underdogs here, which suits the pioneer nature of the series and helps offset the blandness of the characters at this early stage.

The cast are still finding their rhythms too. Linda Park is a little overwrought as the anxious Hoshi, but her insecurity fulfills the premise: a senior officer wouldn’t freak out about their skills in Voyager. Bakula doesn’t sell bravado well, and his loud-talking is somehow meant to compensate. And Phlox is more an overly friendly, vaguely sociopathic scientist than the curious but reassuring doctor he later becomes.

“Fight or Flight” is simultaneously a fresh angle on Star Trek and drearily familiar. There’s not enough raw energy to the direction and performance to sell that this is a show about a crew on the frontier. I don’t think the show ever becomes that, but it does develop something of an identity of its own. I’m curious to see when that becomes truly evident.

“Strange New World” starts off strong but doesn’t go the distance. The opening scene has some random crew members chatting in the mess hall before they notice a gorgeous blue planet outside that they weren’t expecting. This lower decks viewpoint is so welcome, because with one scene the ship feels like a community with social strata. Star Trek shows have long seemed like an exclusive club where only the senior staff get to strut their stuff, as if they’re the only ones who do anything on the ship. Deep Space Nine was more successful at portraying the station as a community, but Voyager failed its own premise woefully by not showing the crew evolving into a society as a reaction to its isolation. Enterprise‘s embrace of this so early, even in this one scene, is encouraging. I wonder how long it will last.

Then again, the two main crew introduced in that scene become potential redshirts for the main story. Against more sane objections from T’Pol that they should probe the planet for safety reasons before sending people down, Archer takes a group down to survey this Edenic world. He bluntly couldn’t give a toss about scientific exploration and let’s T’Pol handle that. He even lets Trip, Travis, and the redshirts camp out overnight telling ghost stories while lame old T’Pol does some actual science.

Sure enough, bad stuff happens. The crew become convinced they’re not alone despite evidence to the contrary and start accusing T’Pol of colluding with aliens against them. You know where this is going. The story is serviceable and Connor Trinneer demonstrates some of the presence that will make him the show’s MVP before too long, but it’s garden-variety Trek.

What potentially makes it an Enterprise episode is that Archer letting his excitement for a new world cloud his judgement nearly kills five of his crew. I was certain that the final scene would be he or T’Pol reflecting together that if they had surveyed the planet from orbit properly, they would have identified the risks that befell them. Archer would then have felt appropriately contrite about being a reckless moron who doesn’t deserve to command a starship of 82 people, and realise that exploration is dangerous and that we have to eat our greens before we get dessert.

But nope, no such scene. The script doesn’t even hint at Archer needlessly jeopardising his crew. The episode just ends with them leaving safe and sound. The central dilemma of the episode is ignored as soon as it’s introduced. The Archer/T’Pol discussion should have been the payoff that turned a standard Trek story into an Enterprise one, and give Archer some much needed humility, which Bakula plays better than the jock material he’s being given.

Still, there are nice moments as we share in the crew’s joy at setting foot on a gorgeous, uncharted world. And a central conflict in Enterprise‘s execution may be rearing its head. T’Pol fills the role of future Trek characters in their wise caution and focus on science, but here’s she’s the buzzkill. Whether this is a deliberate, meta clash between old and new Trek (whichever way you look at it) or just an opportunity to script some easy bickering is unclear.

Odds and Ends

  • Enterprise’s shuttlebay with its retractable staircase, plus the environmental suits, give the show a welcome NASA spin that differentiates it vitally from the design of earlier Trek shows. The ship itself does too. Some production departments seem more able to differentiate from existing Trek than others, such as the writing team.
  • Porthos the Cute Dog is already getting on my nerves. Archer is the all-American, sport-loving, dog-loving captain, which is disappointingly conventional after the more cerebral Picard, Sisko, and Janeway. You could argue that this makes Archer a logical precursor to Kirk, who was more physical than the later captains. But it smacks of a network who wanted a more traditional American hero in the lead, and Bakula isn’t quite the guy to play that role.

NEXT: “Unexpected” and “Terra Nova”

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