Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Star Trek: Enterprise: The Pilot Episode

Well, here we are: the first season of the (to date) final series of Star Trek.

For space reasons, I'm going to focus here on the pilot episode and then do the first season in the next couple of days. This really does (mostly, or at least significantly) feel like starting over with a completely new show. This isn't a spin-off of a well-established universe; it's that universe from a different angle.

The idea of going back in time to see the early voyages of a pre-Federation ship called Enterprise is a very interesting one, especially after having spent so much time in the 24th century with diminishing returns. I'm interested here for the same reason I was interested in the JJ Abrams movie, in that it was an attempt to go back to a time when exploration was more dangerous, more exciting, more visceral. It's an excellent premise, but, as I get through the episodes, one that this series has a hard time grasping completely.

I'm going to come out right away and say I blame Rick Berman and Brannon Braga for every failure of nerve involved. These guys have been up Star Trek's ass for so long that they are completely trapped in a formula they either can't get out of or are unwilling to. So despite the premise and the possibilities it offers (leading to a sometimes very effective paradox where the technology needs to be stripped down but the special effects are better than they've been on any previous series), there's too often a retreat back to formula. Where Star Trek could've been reinvented here as both space opera and serious science fiction, I think the creators just weren't willing to go far enough. I've always blamed Berman for turning the whole thing into Berman Trek, no matter what lip service he kept paying to Gene Roddenberry's vision, just doing what, ultimately, only he thought was appropriate for the series. (And if you guys think the Prequels are bad, just wait and see what Rick McCallum is going to do to Star Wars when George Lucas dies--I've always maintained that, despite hoping for the best.)

I think another problem with starting this show in 2001, just one summer after Voyager ended, is that you had four basic types of Star Trek fans in the audience.

1. The obsessives who were going to complain about anything the show did no matter what it was.
2. The continuity fetishists who were going to freak out every time the series seemed to deviate from what had been established--I honestly blame Rick Berman and Co. for that, because they spent so much time playing up to those people with published chronologies and stories that sometimes only existed to establish canon, despite the fact that even Gene Roddenberry felt there was too much continuity obsession on the original series when he tried to reinvent it for Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
3. Cat ladies and gentle intellectuals who really just wanted to see Chakotay and Janeway meaningfully hold hands or Picard and Q play chess or Worf and the EMH get involved in a discussion on the merits of Gilbert & Sullivan vs. Klingon opera. They're the reason why we got the same six plots over and over on Voyager, because they found comfort in the routine and weren't any more interested in being challenged as viewers than Berman and Braga were in challenging them.
4. People who were just tired of so much damn Star Trek.

I don't know which part of the base had the highest population, but I suspect it was 4. A lot of people who have ever mentioned this show to me (my Mom, a lifelong Trek fan, included) were just sick of it and didn't feel the need for more. I certainly felt that way; when this show premiered, I had just started at NIU, literally the same week as the premiere. I only watched two, maybe three episodes before giving up, because I was worried about classes and in the process of moving into my apartment at the time. I hadn't been keeping up with Trek for almost a decade by that point, maybe more, and though I was intrigued by the premise, I just couldn't be arsed to keep up.

What I'm saying is, I'm not surprised this show failed. It would've failed no matter what it did. It was inevitable.

So now, here I am, 10 years later, hoping for the best. I think I have a decent understanding, sight unseen, of the factors that led to Enterprise's cancellation. So let's just go to the episodes and see what the series itself manages to do narratively.

1. Broken Bow (my rating: 4 out of 5)
Not a home run, but a solid premiere. It establishes not only the premise (Starfleet in its earliest days of exploration, before the United Federation of Planets), but the tensions of the world we're going to be (hopefully) invested in. There are certain things that the writers are just going to have to avoid, but on occasion it forces the writers to be a little cleverer with their solutions. Here we see first contact with the Klingons (Tiny Lister, first Klingon ever; not bad), the first mission of the Enterprise NX-01 (the first warp 4-capable Starfleet vessel), and the tension between a humanity that can be rather brash and demanding and a Vulcan intellectualism that can too often be condescending.

Some touches I like:

:: The design of the Enterprise itself is wonderful; hints of the iconic saucer design, but light and not as bulky as some of the TNG-era ships. Also, we don't have to worry about the concept of families aboard the ship, an idea that TNG never pulled off and which, honestly, the show seriously ignored whenever convenient. "Hey, let's go fight the Borg with all of these assimilation-ready children crawling the ship!"

:: I love the NASA-inspired blue jumpsuits; the members of Starfleet finally seem first and foremost like astronauts.

:: There's a sense of wonder about exploration--strange new worlds, new life and civilizations, etc--that was too often missing from the previous three series, which approached exploration as kind of routine.

:: I like the way the technology is a combination of what we have here in the 21st century and what's to come on TOS, but without being self-conscious or showy about it.

:: The alien makeup is incredibly good, much better than I've come to expect from Michael Westmore. A race like the Suliban feels truly alien instead of a guy with a vagina on his forehead.

:: I like seeing the Klingons; my understanding is that the series will eventually explain why the Klingons on this show look like the Klingons on TNG instead of the Klingons on TOS, although why a canonical explanation is needed is the kind of continuity fetishist BS I get really tired of. Science fiction fans really do lack imagination sometimes...

I also like the language barrier here between the humans and the Klingons; I'm glad the show is taking things like that into consideration.

:: That the crew have to improvise on the fly and that warp technology, phasers, and matter transporters can't be taken for granted. The look on Archer's face when they use the transporter to rescue him is priceless.

:: In keeping with the somewhat more adventurous, swashbuckling, space operatic additions to Star Trek, Captain Archer is a nice throwback to Captain Kirk, who himself was in the tradition of the "science hero" of the 1930s, the man who is part scientist, part conqueror, and part two-fisted man of action. Time will tell if he's got the romance part, too, but he's certainly a man of action and curiosity. Without the Prime Directive to play a major role in every lazy plot, Archer is more free to leap into the action, which I like. I'm not saying there can't be smart plots, but I am sick of Voyager using the Prime Directive as a hindrance for plot convenience (especially considering how thoughtful and interesting Janeway was when the series began...). And I appreciate the casting of Scott Bakula, one of my favorite actors; Quantum Leap is one of my favorite TV series of all time, so the science fiction connection is nice.

:: Character-wise, I don't hate anyone yet, but I'm suspicious of Malcolm Reed. He's got a little bit of a Julian Bashir-in-Season-One vibe. Trip is kind of a stock character, but I dig Travis Mayweather and how excited he is about piloting the Enterprise. I also think Hoshi Sato is extremely fucking cute. Dr. Phlox is a neat, fun character I look forward to seeing more of.

:: Yay, Porthos! Nice symbolic touch, his being a beagle, and the Captain bringing him on an exploration voyage.

:: Jolene Blalock is very interesting as T'Pol; I think it's to her credit that she plays the character straight despite the fact that she's obviously on this show for the same prurient reasons that Jeri Ryan was on Voyager, and like Ryan she rises above the obviousness. Still, seeing her and Trip Tucker have to rub each other down to avoid contamination... we get it, this is the "sexier" Trek series. But I hope we get to explore more of the Vulcan culture through her, simply because they've always fascinated me and getting to see her interact with the Vulcan Council has a lot of potential. It's the same reason I always wished they'd focused more on Tuvok on Voyager, because I think the Vulcans are endlessly fascinating.

:: It can't be said enough that the special effects on this show are really, really good.

:: The Suliban are a neat idea that don't really live up to their potential here. They're kind of scary because, at this point, humans have never experienced something like them and they just seem so dangerous.

Unfortunately, the Suliban bring me to the one thing I just flat out didn't like, which is that the plot hinges on a concept called the Temporal Cold War, where someone from the future (I have my initial suspicions which will probably turn out not to be right) is commanding the Suliban Cabal. It does raise the question (which could be interesting) of what happened to the Suliban that they're commanding from the future, since this is the first we're ever hearing of them in Star Trek and I have to assume they're not much of a power in the galaxy in the next hundred years, when TOS takes place.

But what really gets me here is that, ugh, this is more time travel! After Voyager (and, frankly, the Mirror Universe crap on DS9), I am so beyond tired of time travel as the go-to plot device on Star Trek. I really hope this doesn't get overused, because I'm just done with that whole routine.

Even with the hiccup, it's a good platform to start on. Makes me want to see where it goes.

Oh, and a note on the theme song: the first time I heard it, it was just silly (and ugh, listen to it, of course it's a Diane Warren song). The opening title sequence looks like someone's YouTube tribute to the history of flight and space travel. I'm not saying that there couldn't be a Diane Warren song that you could use as the theme of this series without being fairly silly, but did it have to be the song Rod Stewart sang over the end credits of Patch Adams? The saccharine tone of that awful movie comes through in every note. Still, you get oddly used to it, and at some point I came to accept it, and now I'm just disappointed they didn't get Meat Loaf to sing it and Jim Steinman to arrange it because, like I say, if you're going with cheese, at least shoot for the whole damn wheel.

I think this show probably lost 15% of its audience during the opening credits. There's setting the show apart, and then there's scaring the people you already have.

Well, I'm here now. Like I said, next few days, I'll have the first season post up. Let's go boldly.


Devilham said...

"I think this show probably lost 15% of its audience during the opening credits. There's setting the show apart, and then there's scaring the people you already have."

You called it buddy, and your line about Meatloaf is spot on....the whole wheel....genius!!!

Cal's Canadian Cave of Coolness said...

I think I am going to start watching this one again and follow along with you.

Jon K said...

I have to admit, I watched the pilot when it first aired, and got bored stiff with it (same with Smallville, to be honest). Years later (and a few years back), when the Sci-Fi channel started airing reruns of Enterprise in a three-hour block (or whatever it was) on Monday nights, I decided to give the series another chance. I think that watching it in blocks without having to wait a week between episodes works in Enterprise's favor, especially when you have to get past some fairly dumbass episodes (but then, every Trek series has their dumbass episodes -- yes, I'm talking to you, Spock's Brain). The Temporal Cold War really didn't work for me as an ongoing plot point, but I did enjoy seeing things progress on the series. You should be happy with the amount of airtime Vulcan culture gets, and I know I was happy to see some old school Trek aliens make appearances!

And no, I don't recall anything about the Klingons in this series that explained away why the Klingons in the original series looked different.

Lee said...

I am not on friendly terms with this first season, I do however like the pilot and several episodes or at least parts of episodes to come in the first season.

Watching it the second time with no real hopes or expectations was actually a much more rewarding experience.

I'm proud to say that I have an actual Enterprise NX01 baseball cap from one of the costumes that is surprisingly comfortable.

There are some really important and challenging episodes in the following seasons and by the fourth it firmly finds its feet.

@ Jon K the Klingon change of look is explained in the fourth season episode Affliction - in spectacular and satisfying manner.

Personally I could have lived without it but they do it in a very clever and natural feeling way despite the issue of if they should have or not.

You have some really horrible Star Trek coming your way but then you have some really awesome stuff as well.

Tallulah Morehead said...

"4. People who were just tired of so much damn Star Trek. I don't know which part of the base had the highest population, but I suspect it was 4. A lot of people who have ever mentioned this show to me (my Mom, a lifelong Trek fan, included) were just sick of it and didn't feel the need for more."

Count me solidly as a #4. I'd been watchng Star Trek since 1966, and I was well and truly sick of it. I mAde it through 2 seasons, but never even tuned in again after that.