An emerging trend of early Enterprise is that it’s choosing the wrong stories in trying to achieve laudable goals. “Strange New World” was about the thrill of new explorers walking on a lush, unknown world, but the story engine was just paranoid characters turning on each other. A dangerous scenario, sure, but it’s not an intrinsic extrapolation of the dangers of exploration. Instead, a disposable plot is laid on top of a momentous event as a half-hearted excuse for conflict.
“Unexpected” makes a similar mistake, trivialising a first contact story with lame and offensive comedy. The crew discovers an unknown alien stealth ship hidden in their wake, feeding off Enterprise’s plasma emissions to restore their systems. The aliens are friendly and Archer agrees to send Trip over to help them fix their ship. Trip befriends a female crew member, who shows him a holographic imaging technology just like the good old overexposed holodeck, one of Enterprise‘s first, needy nods to The Next Generation. Inside the simulation, they play a telepathic ‘game’, exchanging thoughts when they immerse their hands in a stone bath. Trip is suitably impressed, but on returning to the ship he discovered that that stone bath somehow got him pregnant.
Yep, it’s a male pregnancy story: Star Trek does Junior. Intended as a demonstration of the potentially bizarre, accidental repercussions of a first contact scenario, his pregnancy is still the wrong repercussion to choose, largely because it’s played for laughs. As the pouch on Trip’s chest grows, he whines about their failed efforts to track down the alien ship. Trip having misgivings about a pregnancy he didn’t ask for is understandable, but ‘Unexpected’ takes it way further: this is a comedy about men revolted by pregnancy, with jokes that suggest the process of having a baby is gross, ridiculous, and unsettling. For example, the extra nipple he inexplicably grows on his arm leads to numerous suppressed giggles, because breastfeeding’s icky, right?
When Archer and other male crew members are laughing at Trip – completely failing as Star Trek characters in the process (prequel, schmequel) – they’re regarding pregnancy as that thing the women do. They take care of that for the dudes because it’s beneath them. Trip being pregnant isn’t a remarkable development in the possibilities for humans to create life. It’s a comedown, a humiliation, a trivial turn of events. The lack of even much scientific interest anticipates the anti-science attitude of the JJ Abrams films.
What’s worse is that due to the decision to tell the story as a comedy, the episode doesn’t even broach the possibility of Trip wanting or being allowed to either keep or terminate the pregnancy, even though it was done without his consent. At that point, they can’t know if he was violated or merely the victim of an accident. The only option that’s ever mentioned is to find the alien ship and have them safely remove the gestating child. By keeping the episode light, Enterprise takes a pro-life stance by default, wilfully avoiding a weighty and topical issue.
The typically left-leaning Star Trek should at least present both sides of the issue even if it doesn’t outright advocate abortion, so not even acknowledging it is indicative of the ideological timidity of this era of Trek. The Enterprise writers would tackle a similar topic more bravely in season three, when Trip has to be cloned so he can be sacrificed in order to save the ship. But that’s a less incendiary situation than a clear-cut abortion story, which is a hot-button issue that’s clearly off the agenda this early in the show’s run, and perhaps at all by this point in such an established, lucrative franchise. Making pregnancy gross is apparently preferable. Better that they not go near this subject matter at all if they’re too timid to even touch the abortion debate, especially if doing so means treating pregnancy as a sexist, immature joke.
By not taking chances on provocative subject matter, Enterprise is failing in its obligations to the show that featured a black woman, an Asian man, and a Russian on the bridge in the 1960s. It ultimately never even featured a single explicitly identified LGBT character, which even Gene Roddenberry saw as necessary before he died. TNG, DS9, and Voyager all could have stepped up, of course, but Enterprise ended up being the last chance. For a 21st century Star Trek show to fail to depict non-heteronormative relationships rejects the inclusive Roddenberry future by conditionalising it.
An unrelated screw-up is the appearance of the Klingons. When Enterprise finds the alien ship again, this time hiding in a Klingon ship’s wake, Archer can only deliver Trip to them by reminding the Klingons of the Empire’s debt to him for returning Klag in “Broken Bow”. T’Pol admits that she hadn’t heard the chancellor explicitly mention a debt, but it absolutely makes sense that the Empire would owe Archer one. Why not make that the catalyst for a more significant, Klingon-centric episode or storyline down the road, demonstrating how Starfleet exploration will be partly determined by negotiations, favours, and alliances? Instead, they blow that story idea on the Trip-gets-pregnant story. Ugh.
Otherwise, the execution of the episode is fine and Connor Trinneer is already demonstrating the easy charisma that would earn him such prominence in later seasons, but the rotten core of this episode means it’s barely worth commenting on.
“Terra Nova” is a lot less contentious, but about as interesting. The ingredients are there for a compelling story, but the execution can’t raise it above the mediocre. The cast are still too cautious and the direction too familiar and safe.
Earth’s history of space exploration rightly gets some attention this early in the show’s run. Enterprise visits Terra Nova, site of the first human interstellar colony, which hasn’t been visited since Earth lost contact with it 70 years before following some hostile transmissions. Archer, Reed, T’Pol, and Mayweather beam down to find the old colony abandoned, and encounter some natives living underground. Covered in paint, dressed in rags, and barely speaking, they’re not alien residents but humans. After the Novan adults were killed by radiation from a meteor strike, their children fled underground to survive, and are now convinced that Enterprise means them harm because their parents believed they were poisoned by Earth.
The Novans have developed their own culture and way of life, with the decades distorting their English into a less elaborate version of the future dialect in the Hawaiian section of Cloud Atlas (“they come from the overside”, “he speaks in shale”). So we get a decent Star Trek conundrum: when the crew discover that the radiation has now contaminated the Novans’ water supply, should they take them back to Earth against their will or leave them in the only place they’ve ever called home to work out a solution themselves? After Enterprise uses old photos to convince one of their elders that they are indeed descended from humans, the Novans agree to be relocated to another part of the planet. This being the obvious solution from the beginning takes most of the sting out of the ethical dilemma though, so the story isn’t terribly successful.
The climax, of course, involves an accident and Archer proving his good intentions by saving someone with the technology he could easily use to kill. The bog-standard plotting wouldn’t be so tiresome if the script had focused more intently on establishing Earth’s history of space exploration, the significance of the Nova colony, and the crew’s feelings about being part of history. Lip service is paid to those elements, but we don’t feel that Terra Nova is genuine future history. The story is too brisk and efficient for that, so an enticing chapter of Star Trek‘s past becomes a footnote to an average episode.
Odds and Ends
- Reed says ‘lavatory’, because he’s British, and 22nd century Brits written by uninformed Americans evidently speak the same way as 20th century ones do: posh, because they’re British, of course. No doubt Dominic Keating didn’t yet have the influence to tell the writers this sounded ignorant as hell. Even a well-spoken Brit like Reed would say ‘toilet’ or ‘loo’; I sincerely doubt ‘lavatory’ will come back into common parlance by 2251.
- I’m surprised by how stiff and uncomfortable Jolene Blalock is with the Vulcan demeanour at this point. Her flat delivery makes T’Pol seem robotic rather than conveying Vulcan authority and wise calm. This surprises me because in later seasons, she’s actually pretty good. Early days, I suppose.
NEXT: For those who were missing them, the Andorians finally return to screen Trek in “The Andorian Incident”, as does Jeffrey Combs, and then we have some Vulcan business in “Breaking the Ice”.