Posts Tagged ‘Enterprise’

So, after my less than entirely satisfying encounter with late-period Enterprise and the serialised storytelling which seemed to define the series at that point, it seemed sensible to check out a much earlier, non-serialised episode and see if this was any more to my taste. (I know I have looked at a couple of first-season episodes in recent weeks, but not with any particular intent beyond just watching the show with my critic’s socks on. Some people have a critic’s hat, I have critic’s socks.) I ended up watching the first ‘normal’ episode to follow the pilot: Fight or Flight, first shown in October 2001 and written by the show’s creators, Rick Berman and Brannon Braga.

The episode kicks off with another of those peculiar non-grabby cold opens which are practically part of Enterprise‘s format: Hoshi visits the sickbay to look in on one of the animals genial Dr Phlox is looking after. Then again, part of the premise of the story is that the Enterprise has been out in space for a couple of weeks and nothing worth mentioning has happened, beyond discovering a slightly poorly slug, so it’s a bit difficult to see how else they could have pepped things up a bit.

Various things are used to establish the fact that this is still a ship and crew that is coming together: Phlox still treats the humans as specimens to be observed, there’s an odd squeak under the floor of Archer’s room, the torpedoes won’t shoot straight and T’Pol is a mood hoover in whatever room she happens to enter. Everyone (apart from the Vulcan) is getting frustrated by the lack of activity and is keen to get on with some proper exploring.

They get their chance when they come across an alien cargo ship, apparently derelict in space (the Easter egg in the script is that the aliens eventually turn out to come from Axanar, which later – which is to say, back in the 1960s series – had a medal named after it, not to mention a fan-made Trek movie which ended up causing immense ructions between the Trek rights holders and creative fandom). Despite T’Pol’s declaration that the Vulcan thing to do would be to let well alone and carry on with their original course, Archer goes aboard and insists that Hoshi comes along to translate, despite the fact she gets claustrophobic in an environment suit. The ship seems abandoned, until the boarding party discovers some odd machinery hooked up to the corpses of fifteen or so of the original crew, who have been murdered and strung up from the ceiling…

Fight or Flight does do a good job of establishing that the Trek principles that were in effect throughout the series set in the 2360s and 2370s no longer apply here in the 2150s: Enterprise is one small ship slowly heading out into a largely unknown galaxy, without the immense power of Starfleet and the Federation to back it up. There is much more of a sense of peril, which is most effectively communicated by the fact that Archer’s initial response to finding the dead crew is to pull his people out of there and warp out of the area as fast as possible.

Needless to say, they go back, but run afoul of the aliens who murdered the other ship’s crew, and here the episode’s A-plot and B-plot rather-too-neatly intersect, as you might expect from a Berman and Braga script: Hoshi has been struggling all episode with the realities of exploring the unknown, and has been contemplating asking to be taken home so she can return to a purely academic environment where she is more comfortable. But, needless to say, when the climax arrives, she conquers her self-doubt, develops the ability to speak an alien language practically spontaneously, and saves everyone from the bad guys. I suppose it makes up for the fact that most of her earlier scenes made heavy use of an extended metaphor where she was compared to a sickly mollusc.

It’s not just the pacing which is sluggish. Ha! Ha!

It’s all very glib, pat, and predictable, and it feels like it’s taking up bandwidth that could have been more profitably used to develop more interesting elements of the story: the murderous alien villains seem quite promising, but turn up too late to do more than be generically threatening before they are disposed of, for example. However, for me the really interesting development of the episode is one which barely receives any emphasis at all.

To begin with, Archer and the other human characters are just keen to start exploring and meeting new alien species, which is fair enough: this is the sort of thing which a lot of Trek pays lip service to, although (if we’re going to put on our pedantic socks) only a comparatively tiny number of episodes, across all the series, revolve around genuine exploration. But exploring only goes so far in terms of creating conflict and drama, and so there has to be a little bit more to it than just being menaced by natural phenomena and hostile aliens – it can’t just be scientific observation, there has to be an element of virtuous self-expression to it as well. Starfleet ships don’t just zip around looking at stuff, where possible they get involved and try to do the right thing – you could argue that the whole notion of the Prime Directive is, in dramatic terms, just a device to increase the conflict involved in this kind of situation.

The shift in Archer’s attitude from ‘let’s explore!’ to ‘let’s explore virtuously!’ thus seems to me to be what this episode is really about, but – in what seems to be another key Enterprise trope – rather than handling it through a dramatic scene, with different characters arguing their points of view, and the actors getting a chance to shine, Archer just thinks about it at lot, mostly off-camera, and eventually announces his decision to everyone else. It is in the failure to provide these key moments of character, tension and drama that Enterprise seems to consistently fall down: it seems to treat the resolution of rather hackneyed character arcs, most of them limited to individual episodes, as being of higher importance. Having hit upon a successful formula during the making of TNG – most latter episodes are built around a single character tackling a particular issue in this way – they seem to have been reluctant to abandon it, and it’s this which keeps Fight or Flight from being a more satisfying episode or reaching its full potential as anything more than meat-and-potatoes Trek.

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Some friends and I were having a discussion just the other night about the virtues (or not) and place (if any) of serialised storytelling in Star Trek. I say friends, but most of these people I’ve only met (and by met I mean ‘have begun to talk to via internet audio messaging’, as we live in four different countries) recently and all we have in common, I suspect, is a shared interest in Star Trek and games related to it. Things therefore got a bit fraught when I suggested I’m not necessarily a fan of ongoing storylines; our DS9 fan strongly argued that this was the best of the Berman-era series, which inevitably rolled on into a somewhat heated debate about whether Voyager is, in fact, any good at all, and so on. I nearly had to step in and calm everyone down.

The odd thing is that while I’m not at all a fan of Discovery (or Picard, much), and these are shows which are largely defined by their serial nature, I do like Deep Space Nine a lot, mainly because it does have that big, overarching storyline running for most of its seven seasons. Am I just having another one of my little interludes of total inconsistency? I would like to think not. I think this is really a case of plot as opposed to meta-plot; in DS9, the meta-plot about the Dominion threat to the Alpha Quadrant powers is there from the middle of the second season, motoring along in the background, but most of the episodes are standalones without particular continuing threads. In the newer shows, pretty much everything runs from one episode to the next.

As it happens I was thinking about this just the other day, when I watched a couple more episodes of Enterprise. Why am I watching so much Enterprise late at night at the moment? Well, to be honest, under lockdown, I find myself watching reruns of the original series and TNG two or even three times a day on regular TV, while a run of Voyager recently concluded and my sense is that DS9 really demands a complete rewatch if you want to fully appreciate it it. Plus it seems that Enterprise still has a bit of a bad rep – our Voyager fan has never even watched it – and I can’t resist an underdog.

The episodes I watched were Affliction and Divergence, from quite near the end of the show’s run. The story starts with the Enterprise returning to Earth for the launch of her sister ship, the Columbia, to which chief engineer Trip will be transferring for personal reasons. However, trouble is afoot, taking the form of genial Dr Phlox being kidnapped by persons unknown.

Well, naturally, Captain Archer won’t take this sort of thing lying down, and sets off in pursuit of the abductors (that old reliable Trek plot device, the Vulcan mind meld, gives them a clue as to the species responsible), but things are complicated by the fact that tactical officer Reed seems to have an agenda of his own. His initial reports that the Orion Syndicate may have been responsible starts to look very suspect when the ship is attacked by a Klingon vessel – although the Klingon boarding party is a decidedly odd one, the warriors in question lacking their bumpy heads and looking like nothing so much as members of a post-grunge rock band under a lot of fake tan…

Phlox, meanwhile, has found himself in a Klingon medical research facility (Klingon ideas about medical ethics are quite as alarming as you might expect) and discovered the truth: a plague is sweeping the Klingon Empire and he has been ‘recruited’ to find a cure. What the Klingons don’t initially come clean about is that the virus is one derived from human attempts at genetic augmentation (the same ones that produced Khan, he of wrath fame, back in the 20th century) – but rather than genetically enhanced super-warriors, the result is a new breed of human-looking Klingons who quickly expire, although not before infecting those around them.

Naturally, the Klingons aren’t keen on telling anyone about their little mistake, hence the attack on Enterprise, which was mainly to sabotage the main reactor – it soon becomes apparent that unless the ship maintains a velocity of at least warp five, it’s going to explode, which is a bit of an issue given that’s barely below its emergency maximum speed…

I have to say that I find myself very ambivalent when it comes to this particular story, even at a conceptual level. The origins of the whole thing surely lie in the thirtieth anniversary episode of DS9, where there is a very droll gag about the difference between the original series Klingon make-up and the more elaborate prosthetics used ever since the movies got going (‘It is not something we talk about,’ declares Worf, deadpan). Prior to this, explanations for the difference had ranged from there being different subspecies of Klingons (bumpy-headed ‘pure’ Imperial Klingons and human-Klingon ‘fusions’) to there being no actual in-universe difference, just a presentational one. The motive behind Affliction and Divergence is basically to continuity-cop the difference in Klingon appearance away.

What it all really boils down to.

And part of me, the tiny hard-core Trekkie part, really likes and responds to this particular impulse. The fact that Discovery (and, to a lesser extent, Picard) break so profoundly with established continuity is not the main reason for my dislike of them, but it is certainly a factor. But on the other hand, there is also something slightly mad about devoting eighty or ninety minutes of your TV show to resolving continuity inconsistencies that have developed over the course of a nearly-forty-year franchise: this is not a question your average viewer would have been burning to discover the answer to. In the past I have been deeply critical of long-running series and franchises that became overly-obsessed with their own lore and continuity.

(Perhaps if Enterprise hadn’t been canned and the original series-style Klingons had made more appearances, and the ramifications of the ‘human’ virus had been explored further, the episode wouldn’t feel quite so niche. But this turned out to be the last major piece of Klingon-focused Trek of its era.)

Perhaps part of the problem is that the episodes just feel like a piece of continuity-copping: it doesn’t feel like there’s any other compelling reason for the decision to tell this story. The big high-concept set piece – Star Trek does Speed! – comes midway through the story; the conclusion is a very generic late Berman-era space battle (the kind where people stand around on the bridge shouting out percentages as CGI starships zap away at each other inconclusively) while Phlox tersely issues medical technobabble.

Most of the rest of it feels almost entirely procedural, and here we come to the issue of the serialised storytelling: this episode refers back to many previous ones, including such elements as Archer’s recent experiences carrying the soul of legendary Vulcan Surak, Trip and T’Pol’s personal relationship, Reed’s relationship with the enigmatic Section 31, xenophobia on Earth, and so on. All this is probably more acceptable if you’ve been following along with the series to this point, but it makes for a much less satisfying experience watching the episodes in isolation.

Perhaps I’m doing the final series of Enterprise a disservice, and the episodes aren’t intended to be watched this way – the fact the season is almost entirely composed of two- and three-part stories is probably a clue to this end – and I know that these particular episodes are well-liked, by the cast and crew at least. But I have to say that for all that I appreciate the impulse responsible for them, I enjoyed them rather less than the best episodes of the first couple of seasons. Perhaps in the end this, like DS9, is a show you really need to watch from start to finish to be able to properly appraise.

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The cold open has become part of the standard structure of episodic TV drama: this is the name for the bit of the story that runs before the opening credits. The idea is to hit the viewer with a hook so arresting and engrossing they feel compelled to stick around regardless of the lack of stimulation provided by the title sequence. You do sometimes get the sense that some programme-makers have forgotten that this is its purpose. Dear Doctor, an episode of Enterprise from early 2002, has as its cold open Phlox, the ship’s doctor, pottering mildly around sickbay feeding his collection of pet animals. The effect is sort of gently agreeable rather than arresting or engrossing, which is a reasonable capsule description of the episode as a whole.

The writers responsible are Maria and Andre Jaquemetton. Phlox is our central character for this episode, played with customary warmth by John Billingsley, and the story is framed by his voice-over, which is a letter to a human doctor posted on Phlox’s home planet of Denobula. Phlox comments on his dealings with the rest of the crew, the possibility of a romantic liaison with one of the ship’s biologists (Kellie Waymire), his relationship with the captain, and so on.

It looks like the whole episode could turn out to be slice-of-life stuff until Enterprise comes across a spacecraft from a pre-warp civilisation, the Valakians. It turns out that the Valakian civilisation is in the grip of a terrible plague or similar disease (good job this is science fiction) and they are desperately looking for help from off-worlders (they have already been visited by other aliens, including the Ferengi). Big-hearted Archer decides to render whatever assistance they can to the Valakians; T’Pol looks disapproving as usual but agrees the risk of cultural contamination for the Valakians is small.

Medical investigations get underway and Phlox makes a number of curious discoveries: firstly, the Valakians share their planet with another humanoid species, the Menk, who are treated well but essentially subject to a sort of benign oppression by the more advanced race. However, the Menk are completely immune to the affliction threatening the Valakians’ future – and this is because it is not caused by a virus or bacteria, but flaws in the Valakian genome which are making the species non-viable.

Enterprise has a decent bash at the how-many-people-can-we-fit-into-one-frame challenge.

Meanwhile, the Valakians have asked Archer if he can give them the information they need to develop their own warp engines, as this will increase their chances of finding another race who can assist them. Suddenly Captain Keen-to-Help is having second thoughts, as the reality of long-term involvement in the Valakians’ affairs sinks in on him. T’Pol observes that Vulcan agreed to help Earth in roughly similar circumstances: nearly a century later, the Vulcans are still there. What are the limits of getting involved?

The question becomes a pressing one for Phlox and Archer both, as the doctor discovers the Menk have developmental potential currently being held in check by the fact they are dominated by the Valakians. Giving them the cure he has developed will mean consigning the Menk to their subordinate role in perpetuity – but he’s a doctor, tasked by his captain to give whatever medical aid he can. What should he do?

You can’t beat a moral dilemma as the driver for a great episode of Star Trek, and the premise here is a good one. However, despite the fact that this is very well-regarded as Enterprise episodes go, I think the realisation lets it down a bit in a couple of ways. This is still a strong and watchable episode, but it doesn’t quite sing as it might.

Much of it is shaped by the fact it’s framed by Phlox’s voiceover, as he writes about the reality of living as an alien amongst humans. You can see what they’re trying to do here, but the problem is that Phlox isn’t a terribly alien alien – there’s not a single strong characteristic you can grab onto to define the Denobulans, in the way you can with the most successful alien cultures in Trek. The Vulcans are brainy and logical. The Klingons are violent and honourable. The Denobulans, on the other hand, are polygamous and genial: I always find Phlox himself comes across as being rather like Frasier Crane under prosthetic make-up. As a result, you don’t really get that sense of seeing humans from a genuinely new and alien perspective, and the voice over just becomes a slightly unusual framing device.

The meat of the episode, however, concerns the moral dilemma of the situation involving the Valakians and the Menk. We shall, as usual, pass over the plausibility of the problem afflicting the Valakians (a species seemingly just spontaneously dying off due to something going wrong with their genome) as the plot is predicated on this, and just consider how the episode handles the dilemma faced by Phlox and Archer.

I say ‘Phlox and Archer’ because the episode was rewritten at the network’s request – in the original version, Phlox lies to Archer and says he hasn’t been able to develop a cure, effectively deciding the issue for himself. Billingsley apparently wasn’t a fan of the change, but I think it works well, giving both characters more depth (even if you can, if you really want to, construe the ending as Archer committing genocide). The episode is making good use of the Enterprise premise, anyway, as the absence of the Prime Directive forces the characters to think the problem through for themselves and genuinely make a decision about it.

The issue is that the problem and their cogitations are not well-presented, dramatically. There aren’t big scenes where dramatic revelations are made, nor do we get the kind of moment where Patrick Stewart used to shine so well, where the captain is forced to accept his humane instincts may not be entirely correct. Archer just leaves one scene thinking one thing, then comes back in in the next announcing he’s thought it over and changed his mind. The sweet spot of really effective drama and character development has been missed.

That’s basically the problem with this episode, the thing that keeps it from truly being a classic: all the elements and structure are here, but it doesn’t find ways to dramatise its ideas effectively. As a result it is intellectually involving, and the change of pace is agreeable, but it never quite grabs the emotions in the way it needs to.

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Unexpected, an episode of Enterprise first broadcast on October 17th 2001, opens with the ship (NX-01 incarnation, back in the 22nd century) experiencing various odd technical problems: vending machines producing the wrong items, gravity malfunctions, and so on. We get to see this when the gravity fails in Captain Archer’s bathroom (luckily he is only having a shower: things could have been a lot worse). This is quite a lavishly CGI-d scene for what is basically just a throwaway gag, but it is the cold open for the episode so it may have been intended to impress and lure in casual viewers (this may be overestimating the appeal of a damp Scott Bakula clinging to his shower head).

Well, naturally, the Enterprise crew are smart cookies and figure out the source of the problems: a cloaked ship is tailgating the Enterprise, causing problems with the warp exhaust, or something like that (it’s good old fashioned treknobabble). The aliens (who are called the Xyrillians) are very apologetic and explain they have been beset by engine problems, and are using the Enterprise‘s exhaust to recharge. Despite the fact that the episode strongly indicates that the Xyrillians are considerably more advanced than Earth, Archer decides to lend them chief engineer Trip (Connor Trinneer) for three days so he can fix their teraphasic warp coils.

Of course, this is Enterprise, so things aren’t as straightforward as they will be in centuries to come: Trip has to spend hours in an uncomfortable acclimatisation chamber in order to board the Xyrillian vessel, and when he gets there he finds it very disorienting and challenging (the direction and performances suggest the experience is a cross between severe jet lag and a bad trip). However, Trip’s trip improves when he discovers the human food the Xyrillians have laid on for him (they appear to have invented water-flavoured jelly), and the fact there is a distinct spark between him and Ah’Len (Julianne Christie), one of their engineers. Literally so: electricity crackles whenever they touch, which is not the most subtle metaphor ever, but what the hell. The two of them even take time out together to visit what is essentially a Xyrillian holodeck, where they stick their hands in some granules that create a temporary telepathic connection between them (easy, tiger).

Make sure she’ll still respect you in the morning, Trip.

All too soon it’s time for Trip to go home and the ships go their separate ways – but it seems he’s brought back more than happy memories and information on the Xyrillians. He starts growing extra nipples on the inside of his wrists, and the ensuing medical exam requires Dr Phlox to enquire if there was any romance during his time away. Yes, it turns out that Ah’Len has managed to knock Trip up, and he is now pregnant with an alien baby. Various surprisingly broad comedy scenes ensue, as the ship searches for the Xyrillians and Trip has odd cravings and frets about whether Enterprise is a child-friendly environment.

Unfortunately, Trip’s repairs have turned out to be no good, and when the ship catches up with the Xyrillians they are pulling their cloaked tailgating manoeuvre again, only this time with a Klingon battle cruiser. As these are especially brutal and shouty 22nd century Klingons, their first reaction on being informed of this is to declare that all the Xyrillians will be executed, but Archer talks the Klingon captain into letting them off in return for the Klingons getting some holodeck technology (we are pre-Prime Directive so they can get away with this), although not before Trip has to show his baby bump (actually, it looks more like a tumour) on the main viewscreen. Trip’s bundle of joy gets transplanted somewhere non-specific, the Klingon captain shouts ‘I can see my house from here!’ as he visits a holo-recreation of Qo’noS, and everyone heads off happily.

This is one of those episodes (written, by the way, by Brannon Braga and Rick Berman) with a toxic reputation and you can kind of understand why: while there are some good things in it (Trinneer’s performance is charming, and there’s a nice turn from Julianne Christie, who actually manages to make a bald scaly alien in a tinfoil jumpsuit rather alluring), in other places it is just inept or feels bizarrely misjudged.

The pacing is off, for one thing: you can tell that the character-based-emotional-core of the episode is Trip having to come to terms with the possibility of becoming a parent (the kind of theme other Trek episodes deal with reasonably successfully). But after spending a good chunk of the episode getting him over to the Xyrillian ship, and then establishing his relationship with Ah’Len (presumably so Trip doesn’t just come across as an easy lay), the episode only has about five minutes to contemplate this before they have to think about resolving the plot. The other issue is the tone, once the fact of the ‘pregnancy’ becomes apparent: it is much closer to goofy, gonzo comedy than you’d expect in Star Trek, with the other characters smirking and struggling to keep a straight face when talking to Trip.

I could probably also put my armchair xenobiologist’s hat on and comment on how very implausible the Xyrillian reproductive process seems – apparently the males of the species don’t contribute genetically to the embryo at all, they just host it, which begs all kinds of questions about how they maintain diversity in their genome and what the male gets out of the process at all. The fact they also apparently procreate by sticking their hands in holographic psychic gravel together also seems rather unlikely to me. But when the plot demands such things…

I suppose it is all part of an attempt to communicate just how weird and alien the Xyrillians are. This would work better if the show had not apparently been running out of money, for despite everything suggested by the script about the exotic environment of their ship – food growing out of the walls, grass growing on the floor – what we end up with are some of the most garish, ugly, cheap-ass looking sets ever seen in Berman-era Trek. (The technical incompetence of the episode extends into other areas: for instance, Christopher Darga, playing the Klingon captain, is very obviously looking at the wrong camera during most of his communicating-by-viewscreen scenes.)

And yet I find myself oddly reluctant to consign Unexpected to the same reliquary for horribly inept Trek where you will find episodes like Spock’s Brain, Angel One, Shades of Gray, and anything featuring mushroom-powered teleport drives. Quite what the point of it was supposed to be admittedly remains unclear, but there are certainly pleasures to be had along the way, from the performances to the fact that it is, in places, much more genuinely funny than most of the supposedly comedic episodes of Next Gen. It’s not great drama, or great SF, or even particularly great comedy. But it passes the test, some of the time at least, in that it engages, diverts and entertains.

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‘I’ve decided to put that novel idea on ice, I don’t think the maths underpinning the concept work,’ is something you only really hear while hanging around science fiction writers (or people with delusions of being science fiction writers). My writing coach, to whom I said this quite recently, was a bit startled and perhaps a little disappointed, but then they are a literary author and unfamiliar with the peculiar requirements of SF. I wasn’t delighted myself, as it was an idea I really liked, but I couldn’t imagine being able to sell it to a reader if I wasn’t completely convinced of its plausibility myself.

The idea in question was about an encounter between human beings and a very similar alien civilisation, whose main point of difference biologically is that they have three sexes. Many opportunities there for interesting alien world-building, also to see ourselves from a different perspective (I know it sounds a bit like an Ursula le Guin pastiche, but what can I say, if you’re going to rip someone off, make sure it’s someone really good). The problem is that, from a real-world perspective, a three-sex system of reproduction is incredibly inefficient and would almost certainly be out-competed by two-sex or one-sex organisms in the same environment.

(My research into this – still ongoing, Coach, if you’re reading this, so don’t abandon all hope – turned up some curious facts, such as the fact that even a two-sex system is fairly inefficient, but this is offset by the advantages it brings in terms of genetic diversity. Some scientists are still trying to discover why mono-sexual reproduction is not more common on our own planet.)

Well, anyway, having been kicking this idea around for quite a number of years, I have inevitably taken an interest in how other people have handled a similar notion. When multi-gendered aliens do turn up, it’s mainly as ‘colour’ – casual mentions of a particular species having five genders or whatever is basically a flag to indicate just how weird and non-human they are. The instance I’m most familiar with is the Azadian species from Iain Banks’ The Player of Games, who have a male, female, and ‘apex’ gender – this is a marvellous book, but for all that it is about the nature of Azadian society (as compared to the liberal utopia of the Culture), the biology of the inhabitants seems curiously secondary. I’m inclined to conclude the triple-gender arrangement is just a device to obscure (initially, at least) the fact that the Empire of Azad is an allegory for contemporary western civilisation, but I digress.

Speaking of liberal utopias brings us to a take on the triple-gendered aliens idea that actually made it onto TV – Cogenitor, an episode of Enterprise from 2003, written by Brannon Braga and Rick Berman. Some thought seems to have gone into the biological arrangements here, but as usual the focus of the story lies elsewhere.

The Enterprise is surveying a ‘hypergiant’ star when it encounters an exploratory vessel from the planet Vissia. Neither side have any knowledge of the other, but the Vissians are friendly and the two ships link up so they can learn more about each other. It turns out the Vissians are rather more advanced than the Humans (they have had warp drive for a thousand years), but the cultural exchange goes swimmingly, with Captain Archer forming an immediate rapport with his opposite number (the great Andreas Katsulas, in one of his last roles).

However, chief engineer Trip discovers that the Vissians have a third gender – their species is made up of males, females, and ‘cogenitors’. Only about 3% of Vissians are cogenitors, but they are vital to the process of reproduction. There is only one cogenitor on the Vissian ship (their own engineer and his wife are hoping to have a child), but Trip is disturbed by the indifference with which they are treated. The cogenitor (Becky Wahlstrom) doesn’t have a job beyond their role in facilitating procreation, doesn’t have their own property, doesn’t even have a name – it seems to Trip that they are treated worse than Captain Archer’s pet dog. Dr Phlox confirms that the cogenitor is every bit as capable, intellectually, as the other Vissians, which just makes Trip more certain he is witnessing a grave injustice.

This being Star Trek, Trip decides to help the cogenitor actualise themself as a person by teaching them to read and showing them old Earth movies (he starts with The Day the Earth Stood Still, which is not a movie I would personally show an alien only newly-acquainted with human beings, but whatever). And this being Star Trek, within a day the cogenitor has transformed into a bright and charming individual with a real passion for life and a desire to go beyond their traditional cultural role. But the other Vissians are appalled and outraged when they find out what Trip has been up to, leading to the cogenitor requesting asylum on the Enterprise

Enterprise has something of a bad rep as the show that killed off Star Trek’s second TV phase, and to be honest if you choose an episode at random you’ve a good chance of finding one which supports that idea. But some of its stories are strong and interesting, such as this one. This is not to say it is perfect – the dramatic meat of the tale is left to the third act, and in the meantime there is a lot of filler material which could easily have been snipped. This includes (I am somewhat pained to say) most of Andreas Katsulas’ scenes with Scott Bakula, and a very odd moment in which we get to see Lieutenant Reed’s approach to the fine art of courtly love, as he flirts with one of the Vissians – first he gets out his cheeseboard, then he invites her down to look at his phase cannon. One should perhaps not mock, as the not-uncomely alien in question still comes on to him like a rocket.

Seriously, though, if you’ve got Andreas Katsulas in your cast, why not give him more to do? I suppose you could argue that he is playing an important role, which is to demonstrate the potential for a positive relationship between Earth and Vissia, which in the end is (we presume) badly compromised by Trip’s interference in Vissian society and its consequences.

The episode isn’t in any real sense about the unusual biological arrangements of the Vissians, but about Trip and his decision. Here we find two of the great drivers of Berman-era Trek set in opposition to each other, to useful dramatic effect. There is the liberal humanistic idea that all sentient creatures have the same right to live a fulfilling, self-determined life, a right which is denied to the Vissian cogenitors – it’s made clear that the other Vissians are not actively cruel or callous, they just treat the cogenitors as non-people (quite how plausible this is, is another question, but that’s beyond the scope of this episode). And on the other hand there is cultural relativism, raised to the level of a moral imperative.

Another Starfleet officer might have known better than Trip, but the thing that enables this story to happen is the fact it is set before the adoption of the Prime Directive, which forbids interference in the internal affairs of other societies. This story has, by Trek standards, a very downbeat, even tragic conclusion, and you could certainly argue that if Trip had minded his own business and left well alone, things would have gone much better. Everyone else in the story – Archer, Phlox, T’Pol (at her least endearing this week) – encourages Trip not to sit in judgement on the whole of Vissian culture, or at least not to get personally involved.

And yet there’s a sense in which the episode isn’t quite playing fair here – we learn virtually nothing about the Vissians in the course of the episode, beyond their curious reproductive arrangements and the fact their hot young women are suckers for cheese and phase cannon. But we do see that, by human standards, they treat their cogenitors extremely poorly. There may be sound social and biological reasons for this, but if so they are left unrevealed. What is revealed (courtesy of an endearing performance from Wahlstrom) is the potential for the cogenitors to lead much more satisfying and fulfilling lives than they currently do.

By any normal, humane standard, then, Trip’s decision to help the cogenitor seems absolutely morally justifiable. And yet his sole eventual reward is, one imagines, immense guilt, even if we disregard a severe rollicking from Captain Archer. Either the episode is suggesting the appropriate perspective is one of almost superhuman detachment and absolute moral relativism (somewhat at odds with Trek’s standard liberal humanism), or the message of the story is that sometimes, there is no correct option, and whatever you do, bad things will be the consequence. The former is unrealistic and hard to swallow, the latter all-too-believable but unusually pessimistic for Trek. Either way, this is an impressive, thought-provoking episode.

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A few years ago now I wrote a long and slightly smug thing (no pun intended) about the enormous influence of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness on the development of SF and horror throughout the rest and the 20th century and beyond – or, to put it another way, this is a story which people have ripped off a lot. It occurs to me now that, retentively comprehensive as I tried to be, I still managed to miss an instance of insidious-alien-threat-discovered-buried-in-the-arctic-ice, namely Regeneration, a 2003 episode of Star Trek: Enterprise (yeah, I know the show was just called Enterprise at the time, but come on).

I’ve been watching more Trek than usual recently, but I found I’ve been sticking mainly to Next Gen and DS9. The perception certainly is that Voyager and Enterprise mark the point at which the franchise started to run out of ideas and disappeared into a creatively unrewarding fannish grotto. I’m pretty sure I haven’t watched an episode of Voyager in nearly 15 years; I hadn’t watched any Enterprise in over ten, until I decided to give Regeneration another look.

The story starts promisingly enough, with a science team at the North Pole uncovering wreckage of a mysterious alien ship. One of the things about this story is that the discerning viewer is way ahead of all the characters pretty much throughout, but there is still a bit of a frisson when the scientists discover a Borg drone frozen in the ice. (These are the Borg who travelled back in time from the 24th century to the 21st in the movie First Contact, and who’ve been frozen for a hundred years at this point. Does this seem impenetrably convoluted in terms of back-story? If you think so, then I can’t honestly bring myself to argue with you.)


Well, upon being dug up and defrosted, the Borg initially do what comes naturally to them and assimilate the science team, but then, in a somewhat surprising but plot-enabling move, steal the research team’s starship (a research team at the North Pole have their own starship? Really…?) and flee the solar system. As luck and narrative demands would have it, their course takes them into the Enterprise‘s area, and Captain Archer and his plucky crew are ordered to intercept…

Now, am I going to restrict myself just to talking about this episode or use it to try and figure out if Enterprise as a whole is any good or not? Hmmm. I have to say that my impression is that this is a well-regarded example of a superior Enterprise episode, which – if true – leads me to confidently say that as far as the best TV versions of Trek go, Enterprise is somewhere in the top six.

It all starts very promisingly with a nicely ominous sense of foreboding as the innocent scientists completely underestimate the potential Borg threat, and some long scenes of them examining the mysterious cyborgs and trying to work out just what the hell they are (not a bad way of making the Borg seem fresh again, I suppose). But the problem is that this distorts the story rather, with Archer and the gang not even making an appearance until after the first commercial break and a rather frantic pace afterwards. The plot is almost entirely procedural from this point on. There is, I suppose, the glimmering of a character arc where Archer’s initial desire to rescue the assimilated scientists is replaced by the realisation that the only good Borg is a prejudicially-terminated one, and another one where jolly Dr Phlox gets partially assimilated and has a bit of a gaze into the abyss, but neither of these is what you’d call developed or honestly resolves itself in a properly developed fashion.

And it’s hard not to shake the idea that this story was essentially hobbled from its conception by the requirement not to muck up the established continuity too much. This is primarily achieved in classic Enterprise style by the cunning ploy of the Borg not telling anyone what their name is (what, does this even apply to Phlox, who was briefly a member of the Borg collective consciousness?). But the need to keep the Borg mysterious and unknown limits the ability of the characters to interact with them in a meaningful way.

You could also argue that Regeneration also has the big problem of nearly every other Borg story from the 1990s onward, which is what you do with the Borg in the first place. Their reputation near the top of the pile as Trek antagonists rests on their first couple of appearances, in which they are pretty much the definition of an unstoppable menace. Part of the reason why the Borg are scary, particularly on their debut, is that the regular characters are themselves scared of them. Picard is clearly desperate at the end of the episode, openly admitting to being frightened, and his fear is partly because he has come to understand the nature of the Borg. Archer, on the other hand, never really seems that fussed about what the Borg exactly are and his attitude to them is more a sort of non-descript stoicism.

I suppose treating the Borg as the explicitly terrifying juggernaut of extinction that they started off as was never an option in a story set in the 22nd century and thus required to keep the characters in the dark is to their nature. Again, this kind of defies logic and common sense, as, given the ease with which Borg cubes have been depicted destroying large swathes of Starfleet, one would expect even a small infestation to go through a significantly less-advanced planet like a particularly salty dose of salts, and having the Borg simply run away into deep space rather than attempting to assimilate Earth is a bit out of character for them. But the needs of the story outweigh the needs of consistent characterisation (and isn’t that the definition of melodrama?).

So it’s hard not to be forced to the conclusion that this episode is mainly a result of the dog-whistle appeal of the Borg when it comes to the fanbase, which makes it rather unfortunate that these are the same fans most inclined to be nitpicky about Trek continuity. Shall we do this here…? Oh, I suppose not, suffice to say that there are, to put it mildly, differing indications as to when the Borg and the Federation and/or humanity first became aware each other, and when the Borg first started operating near Federation space, and Regeneration’s worst crime in this department is only to add to the muddle by pushing the date of their first encounter back in time by about 140 years.

Doing something with the Borg in Enterprise was probably a fairly obvious idea, but obvious ideas are not always necessarily good ones. Possibly if the story had been differently structured, with the Enterprise central to the story throughout and some of the Thing references trimmed, it might have meant there was more of an engaging story and that character arc for Archer might actually have worked. But I’m not entirely sure – the most engaging part of the story-as-broadcast is Phlox’s plight as the Borg slowly assimilate him, and yet even this is resolved in the most perfunctory manner, as he comes up with a cure with the greatest of ease. The story neither grips nor rewards, it just sort of trundles past. I must confess this is the first time I’ve watched an episode of Enterprise with my critical subroutines engaged since the pilot, but I have to say I still remember it being better than this. I’m just not sure I’m willing to make the time investment involved in finding out for sure.

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