Monday, April 23, 2018

Enterprise 3x12 "Chosen Realm"

rating: ***

the story: Religious fanatics are angry about the crew's sacrilegious approach to the spheres.

what it's all about: Pretty much everyone seems to have fixated on the ending of "Chosen Realm," which echoes the conclusion to the original series episode "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield."  And while they are similar, there's also...plenty more that can be said about it.

For starters, it's the episode of the Xindi arc that most directly reflects its origins as a response to 9/11.  9/11 happened just as Enterprise was about to launch.  It took a few seasons, but the series eventually addressed its proximity to the terrorist attacks by way of metaphor: the Xindi attack Earth inexplicably, and Starfleet sends Archer and crew to try and stop further attacks.  Just as the Afghanistan and Iraq wars proved increasingly controversial, Archer faces his greatest moral struggles during the arc.  But "Chosen Realm" addresses the terrorists themselves.

Now, the terrorists had been acknowledged already, although the producers couldn't have known at the time that they were doing so.  At the start of the series a species called the Suliban was introduced as part of the Temporal Cold War.  The Suliban were named after the Taliban, who at the time were best known for smashing ancient Buddha statues.  No one knew they would suddenly become a lot more relevant for harboring the terrorists who caused 9/11.  So "Chosen Realm" features entirely unrelated aliens, who are caught up in an internal conflict, much as the Muslim world generally in the backdrop of the 9/11 terrorists disagrees about certain tenets of faith.  And of course these aliens are terrorists.

What's actually the most interesting aspect of the episode is that not only does it continue the seemingly inexplicable fascination with spheres that had no obvious connection to the Xindi threat itself, at the time, but even gives us the first real hint of what they actually are, and what they were designed to accomplish.  In hindsight, that makes "Chosen Realm" more important than it initially seems.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Echoes of "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" are surely noteworthy...
  • series - But this episode is ultimately more significant in explaining the purpose of the spheres.
  • character - It seems like a lost opportunity not to have included one of the aliens here in the season's host of recurring characters.
  • essential - A direct look at 9/11 and its psychological impact.
notable guest-stars:
Taylor Sheridan

Enterprise 3x11 "Carpenter Street"

rating: ***

the story: Xindi-Reptilians attempt to engineer a bio-weapon in Earth's past.

what it's all about: Episodes set in the current day tend to feel like money-savers.  The original series did it first, naturally, only to do it again in the movies with Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, and eventually Voyager did it, too, the Bill Gates-evoking "Future's End" two-parter.  "Carpenter Street" at first glance looks like a waste of such an opportunity, but it really isn't.

It's actually got a lot going on.  The most convenient angle, and probably what ultimately made the Temporal Cold War look most like a cheap gimmick, was using Daniels mostly as a kind of time-traveling cab driver (although that would be a fantastic gimmick!), bringing Archer and T'Pol to the exact moment they need to thwart the latest Xindi plan.  "Thwart the latest Xindi plan" sounds as bad as trivializing Daniels, but it's actually the second best thing about the episode.  Or best, depending how much you like the next thing I'm going to talk about.

The present day (2004) is represented mostly at night, and by a scuzzball whose major contribution to showing Archer and T'Pol what 2004 looks like is having them bring him to the drive-thru of a fast food restaurant.  We'd already seen this guy scarfing down delivery pizza.  The drive-thru scene is classic, especially as T'Pol clearly wants no part of it, right around the time when our real world culture was transitioning away from taking fast food burgers for granted and seeking healthier alternatives.  Yet this guy lives on the stuff!  Take everything else out of the story, and having our future characters experience the present this way...absolutely perfect.

But the scuzzball is also unwittingly a pawn of a Xindi faction.  Up till now, the various Xindi species hadn't really distinguished themselves.  "The Shipment" had focused on a Xindi-Sloth, and we'd begun to suspect that Xindi-Humanoid Degra was probably going to be more important than he seemed.  What about the others?  Were any of them truly nasty?  "Carpenter Street" answers that in a big way, and also foreshadows the later truly nasty turn the Xindi-Reptilians take.  The Walking Dead's infamous bat-swinging Negan, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, plays one of them, and apparently seriously contemplated quitting acting because he hated the prosthetics process.  I know some characters who would've been happy if he had...!  But it also sucks that Star Trek actually had Morgan in an episode, and we didn't even get to see his face.  In the words of McCoy (circa Star Trek Beyond), "Typical."

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - The tradition of visiting the present day maintained.
  • series - Yet it actually proves incredibly relevant in hindsight.
  • character - Daniels, and the whole Temporal Cold War, kind of feels sabotaged.
  • essential - The drive-thru scene is a classic.  And prescient!
notable guest-stars:
Jeffrey Dean Morgan
Leland Orser
Matt Winston (Daniels)

Friday, April 20, 2018

Enterprise 3x10 "Similitude"

rating: ****

the story: Phlox raises a clone of Trip with the intention of harvesting his body parts.

what it's all about: If you've never seen "Similitude," that summary sounds pretty grim, so let me just get this straight.  This is an episode built around the ethical dilemma of the situation.  The clone leads an accelerated life, so his whole life is two weeks long.  The episode absolutely knows that the situation is screwed up, and the clone even finds out there's a chance he could have his lifespan slowed down to normal, and that becomes part of the story, too...

It's an absolutely gut-wrenching experience, for the clone, and for Archer and Phlox, who agonize and argue over the situation.  And the funny thing?  It's the ultimate Trip episode, regardless of whether or not it's technically him featured in the story.  Trip had developed over the course of the preceding two seasons into the heart of the series, and his personal stakes in the Xindi conflict only helped solidify that status.  His relationship with T'Pol reaches its most satisfying point in "Similitude," besides; by the end of the series they had drifted apart, but at least for one episode and its peculiar circumstances, they were able to find peace together.

Beyond "Twilight," "Similitude" is also the ultimate creative statement of the Xindi arc.  Archer finds himself pushed to his limits trying to find his way in a truly "screwed up situation."  The biggest problem he faces with the clone is that he knows he needs Trip, and the clone won't live long enough to truly replace him, and even the risky lifespan-extending procedure isn't guaranteed to succeed, so he doesn't find it worth the gamble...even if it means the clone must die.  The ending of the episode, in which Archer and the clone attempt to make sense of the experience, is one of the true classic scenes of the whole franchise.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - A classic character moment in all of Star Trek.
  • series - A perfect use of the Xindi arc.
  • character - The best Trip episode.
  • essential - In a lot of ways, this may be Enterprise's best episode.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Enterprise 3x9 "North Star"

rating: *

the story: The crew finds a colony of humans...living like they were in the Old West.

what it's all about: It should always be noted that my rating system is as much a reflection of an episode's overall worth as it is a judgment of its entertainment value, although I tend to give precedence to worth over value, knowing impatient fans need to know the former more than the latter.  The particular episodic nature of the franchise for most of its run has a natural conflict with an era that values serialization above everything else.  If I give an episode any stars at all (I've really omitted them for only about a dozen entries), it means it has some viewing worth, and anything beyond that is really a judgment call on my part.  It's sad that an episode can't just be enjoyed for its entertainment value, but I've come across episodes that have long been my favorites that I've been shocked to give one or two stars to, based on my criteria. 

"North Star" is a huge reflection on franchise lore.  As such I'd like to say it's essential viewing on some score or another.  Gene Roddenberry originally envisioned Star Trek as "Wagon Train to the stars."  Wagon Train was one of many popular TV Westerns.  When the original series did a Western episode ("Specter of the Gun"), it was almost entirely befitting, even if it had also done Roman Empire episodes ("Bread and Circuses"), Nazi episodes ("Patterns of Force"), gangster episodes ("A Piece of the Action"), and even several hippy episodes!  And later series would do Westerns, too (Next Generation's "A Fistful of Datas"), as well as Cold War spy episodes (Deep Space Nine's "Our Man Bashir") and even old-time sci-fi serials episodes (Voyager's "Bride of Chaotica!").  "North Star" grounds its events into the same kind of thought as the original series, while holodecks invariably produced the results otherwise.

It even has something to say about the season, on a metaphorical level, another reminder, before things got really hairy, of the crew's intrinsic humanity (with apologies to T'Pol, Phlox), and how to keep it despite circumstances.  But I'll keep that as an implied value.  Really, it's just fun viewing at a basic Star Trek level, one of those episodes that ought to remind fans what the franchise is all about, and not just leaving them begging "for something more relevant."

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - A good example of what Star Trek started out as.
  • series - A latent commentary on the Xindi arc.
  • character - Maybe one of those episodes that would've been improved with just one creative alteration: focusing on, say, Phlox and Archer.  Phlox makes everything better!
  • essential - A nice throwback, but your level of enthusiasm is your own call.
notable guest-stars:
James Parks

Enterprise 3x8 "Twilight"

rating: ****

the story: Archer's long-term memory is compromised.

what it's all about: There's only one, flimsy, reason not to love "Twilight," and that's if you're a grump.  Being a grump in this instance means either that you hate "reset button" episodes, or you hate subsequent series chasing after Next Generation's "The Inner Light."  Which itself was chasing after the classic "City on the Edge of Forever."  Basically an episode that sort of exists out of continuity, its events technically never having happened.

So let's get that out of the way, because they're both the same issue.  A "reset button" episode is one where the ending means the characters somehow manage to erase the events of the story from ever happening.  One of the more obvious ones would be Voyager's "Year of Hell," where for two episodes the crew literally spends a whole year with everything going wrong, but by the end of it a solution is found (destroying the time ship that helped make it possible) that means they can relive that same period with a completely different experience.  "City on the Edge of Forever" is the classic episode where McCoy jumps through a time portal and does something that erases reality as he and his colleagues (and viewers) knew it.  Kirk eventually figures out that McCoy saves someone who was supposed to die, and the heartbreaking final moments of the episode see him prevent that from happening, even though Kirk has fallen in love with the woman he has to restrain McCoy from stopping getting run over in the street.

Next Generation's "Inner Light," meanwhile, is a more exotic story.  An alien probe gives Picard the experiences of someone else's lifetime.  The more he settles into it, the sadder it becomes to know that at the end of the episode, walking away from this means that man's life is essentially a tragedy.  Picard gets to resume his life, but he retains all the bittersweet memories he shared and even participated in.  Deep Space Nine's "Inner Light" episode was a deeply personal, poignant experience between Sisko and his son, "The Visitor," in which Jake becomes separated from his father because of an anomaly, and lives the rest of his life trying desperately to reunite with him.  It's routinely listed as one of the best episodes of the franchise.  Voyager's was "Timeless," in which a guilt-ridden Harry Kim, years into the future, tries to rewriter history so that he and Chakotay can get everyone else home, and not crashed on a desolate ice planet a long ways from home. 

So if you have no idea what "Twilight" is, that's its tradition.  But like the episodes from the other series, it's an experience that's deeply intrinsic to Enterprise.  "Visitor" was all about a bond unique to Deep Space Nine, "Timeless" is tied up in Voyager's premise, Picard's particular cerebral nature made "Inner Light" typical of him, and no character no matter how often they followed his tendencies could've sold the impact of "City on the Edge of Forever" quite like Kirk.

"Twilight" is in a lot of ways the Xindi arc in a nutshell.  If you were to skip the rest of the season, this one experience would explain the whole story perfectly.  In a larger sense, it also explains T'Pol's bond not just with Archer but the crew around her, an association that made no logical sense to her at the start of the series, but something she found increasingly hard to walk away from later, despite a number of clear opportunities.  In a sense, it is a "shipper" experience.  If Voyager never came closer than "Resolutions" in exploring the potential of a Janeway/Chakotay relationship, "Twilight" is the ultimate "might have been" between Archer and T'Pol, who otherwise pursued a real, and very complicated, relationship with Trip, notably throughout the Xindi arc.  A lot of fans saw equal potential with an Archer romance, which aside from "Twilight" never materialized.

"Twilight" makes it very clear why their relationship happens, and is a quiet tragedy for T'Pol.  While viewers only experience her explaining events to Archer once, this is something she must do on a routine basis, every time Archer's short memory needs reminding of an increasingly elaborate sequence of events, growing longer with every passing year.  Thanks to the reset button, events do play out differently, and much more happily, as far as the Xindi arc goes, but it's hard not thinking of the experience as being as much about T'Pol's endurance as the outcome of their mission.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Part of a long and prestigious tradition in Star Trek lore.
  • series - Yet intrinsically a part of the season narrative.
  • character - A bold exploration of both Archer and T'Pol.
  • essential - One of those episodes you can very easily recommend as exemplifying the whole series.
notable guest-stars:
Gary Graham (Soval)

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Enterprise 3x7 "The Shipment"

rating: ***

the story: Archer finally talks with a Xindi involved in the construction of their doomsday weapon.

what it's all about: "The Shipment" marks a definite shift in the season, between episodes where the crew probed the Expanse looking for answers and finally where they chased after the Xindi themselves.  As such, it's always been a favorite of mine, especially in how it features Archer in the unlikely predicament of having friendly relations with the first significant Xindi he meets. 

But it's actually more significant, in hindsight, as the first real spotlight for Degra, the Xindi scientist tasked with designing the weapon that will obliterate Earth, the follow-up to the attack that set off the arc at the end of the second season ("The Expanse").  Degra would become crucial to the arc; although he made his debut in the season premiere ("The Xindi"), he remained a fairly anonymous figure along with the rest of the Xindi Council in their few appearances before "Shipment."  He would eventually become Archer's most important ally.  As such, "Shipment" amounts to a dry run of his whole arc.

Archer definitely took an emotional rollercoaster ride throughout the season, and sometimes he appeared to go off the rails.  So this is an important moment for him, too, where he passes the Starfleet ideal with flying colors, which given everything else is an important moment to commemorate, to have at all, especially as it is the first time he's confronted with concrete experience with the Xindi.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Even in Deep Space Nine I always wonder if arc-specific moments translate well with casual viewers, regardless of how well they're executed.
  • series - No such compunctions for Enterprise fans.
  • character - Our first real look at Degra, who becomes crucial to the whole arc.
  • essential - If you ever wanted a single moment in the arc where the good guys looked unabashedly like good guys, here's your chance.
notable guest-stars:
Randy Oglesby (Degra)
Steven Culp (Hayes)

Enterprise 3x6 "Exile"

rating: **

the story: An alien with information about the Xindi attempts to use Hoshi as a bargaining chip.

what it's all about: "Exile" is the first Hoshi spotlight that doesn't cast her in a vulnerable position because of neuroses but rather because of the situation itself.  In a way, its most significant aspect is foreshadowing later in the season when she's once again become a hostage, this time to the Xindi themselves.  Otherwise it's most useful as connecting tissue for the spheres mystery and getting closer to the Xindi.

A lot of observers seem to have fixated, upon original broadcast, the Beauty and the Beast nature of the plot, which is a fairly superficial understanding of the plot, insofar as the alien who tries to trick Hoshi into becoming his companion (an old Star Trek trope) turns out to be ugly, or maybe because of the arrangement he proposes.  Either way, Hoshi is never coerced; it's always her decision, even when he's trying to manipulate her.  She shows great strength of character throughout the episode.  It's really a remarkable turnaround for the character, a sign of the added experience she and the rest of the crew has at this point. 

It was probably bewildering, in these early episodes, all the emphasis on the spheres, not having any idea how they connected to the Xindi or the arc itself.  In hindsight they're a hugely significant element, and therefore any and all material concerning them, especially in these episodes, must be considered accordingly, especially the clever way in which the producers plotted this particular course.  If the crew was slow to come across the Xindi themselves, it was intriguing, learning about the spheres.  After all, they were directly responsible for the Expanse itself.  And, ah...never mind.  If you don't know yet, I won't spoil it for you.  In this review, anyway...

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - A familiar story trope that again might seem mystifying to casual viewers trying to understand the relevance to the season arc.
  • series - But to dedicated fans, it makes a ton of sense, especially the spheres material.
  • character - This is the most assured Hoshi we've seen to date.
  • essential - It foreshadows later Hoshi material, but in hindsight maybe if the alien had been an agent of the Xindi the relevance would've been more obvious.
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