Friday, February 18, 2011

'Star Trek: Enterprise' Season Four (2004)

Starring Scott Bakula, Jolene Blalock and Connor Trinneer
Created by Rick Berman and Brannon Braga

Star Trek Enterprise - The Complete Fourth SeasonMany things changed between Season Three and Season Four of "Star Trek: Enterprise."  The show took a budget cut, reducing the number of episodes from 26 at the onset of the show to the more standard 22.  Producer Manny Coto would take over as showrunner, and for the first time ever, "Star Trek" would be shot on high-definition video instead of film.  Popular novelists Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens joined the writing staff and creators and longtime producers Rick Berman and Brannon Braga would step back from the day-to-day creative duties.  The winds of change were blowing through "Star Trek" after being in continuous production since 1987.

Too little, too late.   The show was moved to the Friday Night Death Slot.

We last left our cardboard cutout heroes as they had been mysteriously transported to an alternate version of Earth in the midst of World War II.  Here, the Nazis had invaded the United States, aided by alien weaponry.  We spend two whole episodes mucking about in a Nazi-infested alternate New York City before finally getting back to stories that aren't entirely idiotic, and the show decides to utterly ignore these two episodes for the rest of its run.  They might as well have never happened.  So let's move on:

The Enterprise, badly damaged on its mission into the Expanse to stop the Xindi weapon, must spend some time in dry dock being refit.  Captain Archer (Scott Bakula) suffers from guilt over his questionable actions in the Expanse, and is ordered to take some time off by Starfleet after he insults the Vulcan ambassador, Soval (Gary Graham), in a debriefing.  He goes on a mountain climbing trip with Captain Erika Hernandez (Ada Maris), a former girlfriend and now Captain of Earth's newest starship, Columbia NX-02.  Meanwhile, Commander Charles "Trip" Tucker III (Connor Trinneer) accompanies T'Pol (Jolene Blalock) home to the planet Vulcan where he is forced to confront his romantic feelings for here when he discovers that she is being forced to marry a Vulcan named Koss (Michael Reilly Burke).  It seems that T'Pol's mother, T'Les (Joanna Cassidy) has been fired from her prominent position, and the only way to gain it back is through Koss' family influence.

Once Enterprise gets back on its journey, it will encounter a variety of new threats, ultimately leading toward a singular destiny: the formation of the Federation.  Archer and his crew will face threats from Earth's past, such as a band of genetically engineered "Augments" - human soldiers created with greater strength and aggression, led by the mad scientist Dr. Arik Soong (Brent Spiner).  They will clash with the corrupt leader of the Vulcan High Command, who turns out to be an agent of the Romulans.  They will foster the first-ever alliance between the Andorians, Tellarites and Vulcans - three powerful races that have never, ever worked together for any common cause before.  They will face Klingon plagues, transporter mishaps, Orion slave women, and even a trip to an evil alternate universe.

If there's one theme that builds across the entire season, it's the idea of unification and Earth's maturing presence in the galaxy's political landscape.  The three-part episodes, "Babel One," "United" and "The Aenar" show Enterprise's pivotal role in getting the Tellarites, Andorians and Vulcans to work together to face a Romulan threat.  This is the kind of prequel story that "Star Trek: Enterprise" should have been telling from the get-go, instead of wasting its time with the Ferengi, the Borg or episodes where (sigh) Archer frets about his sick dog.  As fun as the third season's Xindi storyline was, it was essentially one that could have been told by any of the other "Star Trek" series.  But Season Four of "Star Trek: Enterprise" actually manages to start feeling like a prequel, setting up the pieces for why and how the other shows exist the way that they do.

Season Four loads itself up with connections, in-jokes and callbacks to the other shows.  Brent Spiner guest stars as Arik Soong, a scientist imprisoned for stealing illegal genetically modified embryos.  Soong would be the great grandfather of Dr. Noonien Soong, creator of the android, Data from "Star Trek: The Next Generation" - Spiner also played Data, Noonien Soong, and Soong's two other androids, Lore and B-4.  Another two-part episode, "Affliction" and "Divergence" reveal an in-universe reason why the Klingons look so different in the original "Star Trek" as they do from the other shows.  It even weaves in a bit of continuity from "Deep Space Nine" by introducing an earlier version of the sinister Section 31 special operations group.

The cast hasn't improved at all.  If anything, some of them are even worse.  Given chances to step into the spotlight, Dominic Keating as Lt. Malcolm Reed and Anthony Montgomery as Ensign Travis Mayweather prove themselves utterly incapable of giving anything resembling a natural performance.  Montgomery in particular during a storyline involving a former flame coming aboard the ship in "Demons" and "Terra Prime," drops the ball in every way.  I wonder if he even wanted to be on the show at that point.

Scott Bakula continues to ham it up.  If you thought William Shatner was a bad actor, try watching some of Bakula's Jonathan Archer, and you'll gain a new appreciation for James T. Kirk.  Shatner at least had chemistry with his costars (even if their personal relationships were strained).  Bakula stumbles once again through all these episodes, only at times showing through that he can actually be a fun, engaging presence on-screen like he was in "Quantum Leap" or his recent guest appearances on "Chuck."

But for all the faults of the cast, once again the plotting in "Star Trek: Enterprise" seems to succeed despite them.  Bringing in some new writers leads to some inventive sequences that had never been done on "Star Trek" - there was a clear amount of effort being put into showing something new.  Action sequences became less about ships lumbering across the screen firing a couple shots at each other.  One sequence involves Tucker having to climb a cable from Columbia to Enterprise while at warp speed, or another where Archer uses the ship's artificial gravity to subdue a Gorn, and even another where the ship uses the tail of a comet to sneak into orbit over Mars to rescue hostages.

A two-part episode, "In a Mirror, Darkly," takes a trip into the famous Mirror Universe, which had first appeared in the original "Star Trek," and then again several times on "Deep Space Nine."  However, this episode doesn't feature characters from the show crossing from one universe to another.  Instead, we follow the evil versions of the Enterprise crew as they liberate the Federation starship Defiant from the Tholians.  Fans may remember that the Defiant had slipped into some kind of dimensional crack in the original series episode "The Tholian Web."  A recreation of the original "Star Trek" sets and costumes from the 60s was done for this episode, and though it is essentially just a trashy soap opera in space, it all works.  These episodes are a hilarious homage to the original series, featuring goateed Vulcans, old-school sound effects, and more.  

The show is clearly having more fun in its fourth year, which does sort of make it a shame that it never got a fifth.  Sure, by then, better shows had premiered.  But there was clear improvement going on at "Star Trek: Enterprise."  The show had finally broken free of the same directorial style from 1987, unlocking its cameras from the tripod and allowing for more energetic shot compositions and editing.  The sets got brighter and more colorful and even the show's effects began to take on a new style.

But it was all for naught.

And not just because the show got canceled.  Because let's talk for a moment about the series finale, "These Are The Voyages..."  You may recall how in my review for Season Three, I mentioned how the show tossed out all the good will it had built up over the course of the season with that ridiculous Nazi cliffhanger?  Well, it does it again here - only worse.  

"These Are the Voyages..." might be one of the worst hours of television produced for such a major, big-budget franchise.  The storyline is dismissive of the Enterprise cast, and ultimately doesn't even make sense.  While the rest of the season is content with making allusions to "the next generation," this episode literally goes into an episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation, bringing castmembers Jonathan Frakes, Marina Sirtis and Brent Spiner along for the ride.  Taking place during the Season 7 episode, "Pegasus," in which Commander William Riker (Frakes) of the Enterprise-D suffers a crisis of conscience, "These Are The Voyages..." has Riker visiting Archer's Enterprise NX-01 via holodeck simulation.

Yeah.  That's right.  The final episode of "Star Trek" after an uninterrupted 18-year run is a holodeck adventure set during a TNG episode from 1994.  I might have been able to forgive the laziness of such a thing if the episode were any good... but it's not.  It mostly wanders around with Riker chatting up the crew about their favorite foods, and about Commander Tucker who is fated to die on this mission.  It's boring.  Archer frets about writing a speech to give to the Federation delegates.  T'Pol thinks about whether or not she's still in love with Tucker.  The rest of the crew just kind of stands around and makes bland comments about what a great decade they all had together.  There's some nonsense about Shran (Jeffrey Combs, the show's best recurring character by far) trying to rescue his kidnapped daughter.  The show never bothers to explain why any of this is happening, and instead focuses on Riker taking the entire length of this episode to make his decision... which, in the TNG episode he made on the spot during the episode's climax.  So this episode doesn't make sense internally or externally, since its timeline doesn't match up with its frame story.

If there's one thing about "These Are the Voyages..." that doesn't suck, it's seeing the big ol' Enterprise-D rendered in modern special effects.  The damn thing looks great.  The final moments of the episode, in which we see several starships Enterprise and hear that famous narration by Patrick Stewart, William Shatner and Scott Bakula, has some nice nostalgic value.  But otherwise, this episode is a total waste of a finale.  In fact, the previous episode, "Terra Prime" actually functions better as a finale than this episode does.  That episode deals further with a peace conference to begin establishing the Federation, and dealing with human prejudice towards aliens.  Archer's speech to the gathered alien and human delegates is essential "Star Trek," and if the show had gone out on that note, I think the whole season would get a hardier recommendation from me.

"These Are the Voyages..." should be a lesson in how not to end your show.  They should teach it in screenwriting and production courses for this reason.  Thankfully, this would not be the last of "Star Trek," though it would take several years for it to find its way back to screens.  But man, what a shitty episode.  "Star Trek: Enterprise" was not a great show, or barely even a good one.  Its characters were mostly uninteresting, and the cast was almost uniformly awful.  But towards the end, it managed to show that there was still some kick left... just not enough, at the time.  Of course, I'm perfectly happy with where we ended up.