When I read showrunner Manny Coto’s explanation that season four’s Vulcan three-parter was necessary to rehabilitate how Enterprise had been portraying them, I hadn’t seen the first season in many years and couldn’t recall how they’d been mistreated. Now, however, I’m stunned at how regularly and comprehensively Rick Berman and Brannon Braga are undermining the Vulcans, and just why Coto needed to tell a story about how Vulcan society had strayed from its core principles in order to retcon away the damage. Both “The Andorian Incident” and “Breaking the Ice” portray the Vulcans as deceitful, elitist, and racist, and position human (read: American) values and attitudes as a baseline that Vulcans stray from to their own detriment.
This isn’t merely an affront to Star Trek canon, but offensive cultural and social imperialism. The Vulcans embody elements of a number of non-American cultures, along with social and psychological characteristics that deviate from accepted norms, so demonising them is also an affront to Star Trek’s ideology of diversity. When I finally return to the season four story, I’m going to appreciate its restoration of Vulcan dignity far more than last time.
“The Andorian Incident” begins with a short teaser in a Vulcan monastery, where meditation is interrupted by armed Andorians in their first substantial appearance since the original series. Nothing else happens; it’s a teaser aimed at Trekkies excited to finally see Andorians again. To everyone else, their goofy appearance probably undermines any suspense.
This is also our first glimpse of Shran, the Andorian played by Jeffrey Combs in several Enterprise appearances. Combs was magnetic and entertaining as Weyoun on Deep Space Nine, but he never feels quite right for the brash, impatient Shran, but he neutralises the Andorian lameness as much as anyone could.
We then jump to Enterprise for more frat boy crap from Archer and Trip. Trip is in his ready room, grumbling that the Vulcan star charts take the thrill out of exploration, but Archer reminds him that they didn’t include a recently encountered protostar. This blemish on what they perceive as the Vulcan’s relentless belief in their own perfection amuses them immensely. Archer calls T’Pol in and they tease her about this mistake, which T’Pol rightly doesn’t seem to give a shit about. In the charts, Archer has also noticed a remote outpost on a planet just off their current course. T’Pol explains that it’s P’Jem, the monastery from the teaser. Showing uncharacteristic interest in Vulcan spiritualism, Archer asks if they can visit. T’Pol explains the monks may not let them in, but she’ll see what she can do.
She soon confesses to Phlox that she’s hesitant to visit P’Jem, because her arriving with a human crew would be ‘awkward’. T’Pol is, in as many words, espousing this newfound Vulcan prejudice against outsiders or ‘lesser’ races; they’ve gone behind Spock’s mystification at human traits to almost become benign fascists. It begs the question of why they would have ever bothered making first contact with humans after Zefram Cochrane’s warp flight, or stuck around to help them out. Their role as benevolent guides for humanity as they reach out into the galaxy is contradicted by their condescension, implying as it does that humans aren’t really worthy of their company or attention.
Archer, T’Pol, and Trip beam down to P’Jem and are greeted by a monk, who informs them they’re in deep meditation and can’t be disturbed. T’Pol senses his agitation, and Archer spots a hiding Andorian and a fight ensues as more appear. Cornered, the three of them are taken hostage along with the rest of the monks.
The Andorians are Imperial Guard soldiers, and are convinced that the neighbouring Vulcans are spying on them from P’Jem with a long-range sensor array, in violation of a treaty. T’Pol and the monks explain that Andorians are naturally suspicious and hostile, and T’Pol doesn’t have much faith in their accusations. Unfortunately, the Andorians don’t believe that Enterprise’s visit was coincidental, convincing them even further that the monks are hiding something.
The lead monk initially seems like the first in Enterprise to resemble a traditional Vulcan, lacking the haughty demeanour. Unfortunately, he soon asks T’Pol how she can stand the smell of humans on the ship. She says she has to use a ‘nasal-numbing agent’. Ugh. Vulcans should understand that an unfamiliar odour means nothing about a people’s quality, sophistication, and value, and also that bad smells can be adjusted to.
Instead, the Vulcans are calm, measured xenophobes, rejecting any cultural traits that differ from their own. T’Pol even tells Archer how badly he smells when he offers to share his blanket with her during the cold night. As offensive as Archer and Trip’s intolerance to Vulcan culture is, both sides are as bad as each other. Do Berman and Braga think this neutralises the problem?
After Archer is interrogated and beaten for information he doesn’t have, the Vulcan monks reveal to Trip that they have an old transmitter in their catacombs, their one concession to technology. While he and a monk move through the tunnels to find it, Trip notices a dark corridor. It apparently contains ancient relics that non-Vulcans should never see. The climax of the story is already becoming clear.
The rest of the episode involves their escape plan, which involves the catacombs, Reed and his team beaming down at the right moment, and other logistical stuff that doesn’t really matter. The ensuing phaser fight leads the crew and the Andorians into the reliquary, and the scuffle reveals a massive and decidedly modern metal door. Stunned, Archer opens it to discover an immense scientific operation: the long-range sensor array the Vulcans denied they would ever have built. The monks were lying all along, and the Andorians’ suspicions are vindicated.
The plot twist further corrupts the Vulcans: they’re sneaky and deceptive to the point of violating a treaty, all while sneering at Andorian aggression and general loutishness. Serenity and logic here conceals calculated betrayal and self-interest, not to mention lying to their allies, the humans, and risking their lives.
But worse yet, Archer and Trip glare at T’Pol with disdain, when even her implacable facade clearly reveals she knew nothing about the array and is disturbed by it. But she’s a Vulcan, right? They’re all as bad as each other. And the Vulcans are denied a voice, with no explanation given for their spying. A follow-up episode is coming later this season, but the abrupt end to this episode with no character questioning the Vulcans’ motives suggest that we’re not supposed to wonder about a rationale. The Vulcans are just deceitful, their intellectualism and spirituality merely instruments of cold, mercenary isolationism. In Enterprise, l.
The Vulcans were never meant to be perfect, but they were still valuable as a metaphor for the value of logical, considered judgement in certain situations, rather than relying solely on our emotional response as a barometer for moral action. By splitting logic and emotion between characters like Spock and McCoy, Star Trek examined how we can use the two traits in concert to achieve goals. In the Vulcans themselves, logic was an enlightened state that merely trips them up when compassion and sensitivity are necessary, not a fatal flaw.
But in Enterprise, Vulcan culture and ideology is a hindrance to thwart or overcome. No wonder lifelong fan Manny Coto was pissed off.
“Breaking the Ice” is about the shortcomings of Vulcan social interactions rather than their political and cultural philosophies, but sabotages their image just as well. The episode is otherwise a lovely slice-of-life story as Enterprise discovers a massive comet, bigger than any a human ship has ever approached. The shot that closes the teaser of the ship approaching and dwarfed by its misty white tail, overlaid by sweeping score, is quite gorgeous. The wonder of exploration again makes one of its fitful appearances in this show about human exploration.
What little conflict the story generates comes from a Vulcan ship suddenly turning up, asking to observe Enterprise’s examination of the comet in their benevolent but unpleasant way. They also send T’Pol an encrypted transmission which Trip only discovers by accident. He and Archer assume that T’Pol is discussing Enterprise with the Vulcans behind their back. Trip reads the message to confirm their suspicions, but it’s actually personal. T’Pol is being asked to return to Vulcan to marry the husband arranged for her when she was a child. To their credit, Archer and Trip don’t discuss the contents of the message, but Trip feels compelled to come clean. Fortunately, T’Pol is willing to open up to Trip about it after Phlox advises her to unburden herself now and then.
Unfortunately, their conversation doesn’t embody Trek‘s typical sensitivity towards foreign customs, with moral relativism informing the characters’ discussions. Yet Trip just insists that arranged marriages are archaic and restrictive, ignoring that because Vulcans are more socially progressive than humans in other ways, he shouldn’t just draw straight comparisons between their two cultures. But the script doesn’t broach these ambiguities. Instead, the subplot ends with T’Pol choosing to stay on Enterprise for now and reconsider the marriage. The final shot is of T’Pol with a slice of pecan pie, which Trip chided her for refusing earlier in the episode due to its decadence and lack of nutritional value.
So Vulcans are being positioned as needing to aspire to humanity, rather than a valid, autonomous culture that humanity can learn from, and vice versa. Trip’s kneejerk assumption that freedom of choice and pursuing your desires will solve all problems is arrogant and simplistic. Also, the arranged marriage trope, while established in the original series, is still a lazy shortcut to portraying the Vulcans as inherently backward compared to American norms, allowing the writers to easily paper over the cultural ambiguities.
The general shittiness of the Vulcans is most egregiously shown during a dinner Archer hosts for the captain of the Vulcan ship. The guy won’t eat their food, engage in conversation, or express anything beyond withering disdain, and no reason is given for his behaviour. The Vulcans are just dicks that Archer has to learn to work with, unfeeling bureaucrats who thwart human ambition. Reconfiguring the Vulcans in this way ultimately boxes the writers into a corner, because limiting their attitudes and contributions so severely means there won’t be much more to do with them before long. When you write a set of characters as intractable boors, they’ll become that for the audience too.
The non-Vulcan parts of the episode are quite charming, however. Mayweather and Reed take a shuttle down to the comet’s surface to take readings, and find time to make a snowman, carving its mouth with a phaser. This also leads to a nice bit of comedy, as a conversation they’re having with Archer cuts midway from their location to his clear view of them goofing off on the viewscreen. Plus, a surprisingly lengthy sequence that has nothing to do with the rest of the plot has Archer and the bridge crew recording a video for school kids, answering their questions about living in space. It’s not particularly great, but is a nice gesture to reminding us that these guys are pioneers, and not necessarily at ease with their celebrity status.
The only peril comes briefly when the shuttle gets trapped, but needs to escape before sunlight hits and fries them. Archer has to swallow his pride and ask the Vulcans for help, who sigh at his very existence before stepping in to pull the shuttle out with a tractor beam. Nonetheless, it’s nice to not have a direct conflict with the guest star for once.
So in both episodes, we have glimmers of promise and charm in Enterprise, but too many bad calls are still being made. Next: some alien civilisation visiting in “Civilisation”, and the Nausicaans return in “Fortunate Son”, just cuz.