Tuesday, February 15, 2011

'Star Trek: Enterprise' Season Three (2003)

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

Star Trek Enterprise - The Complete Third SeasonThe mere mention of the name "Star Trek: Enterprise" is often enough to send even your average "Star Trek" fan running for the hills.

Some background: Conceived as a prequel to reinvigorate the aging franchise, but executed with all the fun of a swift kick to the groin, "Star Trek: Enterprise" (then titled simply "Enterprise") premiered to a very respectable 13 million-or-so viewers on the now defunct UPN network.  The first season of the show was a mish-mash of poorly conceived ideas and even poorer execution.  The characters, obviously lacking depth, were woodenly portrayed by what must be the worst cast of any of the "Star Trek" shows or movies (and, yeah, that includes the dubiously cheesy performances of the 1960s original).  To make matters worse, the show was saddled with an ill-conceived "temporal cold war" storyline that made almost no sense, but which the show's producers insisted was simply mysterious and very "X-Files."

Throughout its first and second seasons, the show barreled forward with all the subtlety of an enraged bull in a china shop where everything is painted red.  The producers, instead of crafting actual prequel stories, would trot out villains and characters from the other modern "Star Trek" shows with little regard for believability or continuity, while its own cast would begin to decry the quality of storytelling on the show.   And those 13 million viewers that the show started with?  Less than half remained after only two seasons. 

So the show that was supposed to rejuvenate the franchise needed to be rejuvenated.  How would producers Rick Berman and Brannon Braga (who had now been producing non-stop "Star Trek" episodes and feature films since the early 1990s) do such a thing?  Well...

Season Two ends with a vicious attack on Earth by a mysterious alien probe that leaves some 7 million people dead, whole cities and towns in Florida vaporized in seconds.  Captain Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula) of the starship Enterprise is informed by the time traveler Daniels (Matt Winston) that the alien pilot aboard the weapon is from a race known as the Xindi, who reside in an area of space known as the Expanse.  Ships rarely venture into the Expanse, a region surrounded by a cloud of gas and radiation that will let ships enter, but rarely leave.  The inside of the Expanse is lawless, patrolled by pirates and slave traders, and ships are subject to dangerous and unpredictable spacial anomalies.

Daniels further reveals that for some reason, the Xindi believe that Earth is responsible for the destruction of their homeworld at some time in the future, and that this first attack was merely a precursor to a larger assault that will destroy the entire planet.  Archer and his crew are ordered by Starfleet to enter the Expanse, track down the Xindi and stop the second attack by whatever means necessary.  To assist in this venture, the crew of Enterprise - First Officer and science officer T'Pol (Jolene Blalock), Chief Engineer Charles "Trip" Tucker III (Connor Trinneer), Tactical Officer/Security Chief Malcolm Reed (Dominic Keating), helmsman Travis Mayweather (Anthony Montgomery), linguist Hoshi Sato (Linda Park) and Doctor Phlox (John Billingsley) - are joined by a team of MACOs (Military Assault Command Operations aka space marines) led by Major Hayes (Steven Culp).

The entire season follows this single story arc, with a few sidetrips here and there, as Enterprise traverses the Expanse, seeking information about the Xindi and attempting to locate and destroy their weapon before it can be launched and attack Earth.  As the situation grows more desperate, Archer and his crew will be forced to make difficult choices in order to accomplish their mission.

It's strange to say... I don't hate this third season of "Star Trek: Enterprise."  Certainly, many people do; there's no denying that.  And even in liking it, that statement comes with a number of caveats.  For the most part, the main characters of "Star Trek: Enterprise" are not written particularly well; they do and say stupid things, and the cast is just as bad as they ever were.  Of particular note is Jolene Blalock, whose wooden portrayal of T'Pol has to be one of the worst parts of the entire affair.  It's a shame, then, that so much of the season is spent on watching T'Pol develop an addiction to space-heroin.

Just look at the end of that sentence for a moment.  Hear how absurd it sounds when you read it.  It's almost like it's so bad, it's good.  When the show finally buckles down and shows T'Pol actually cooking and then injecting her space-heroin (called "Trellium-D" - actually an ore mined from asteroids and used for insulating starship hulls), it's so far gone you can't help but just roll with it.   Of all the poorly treated characters in the history of "Star Trek," T'Pol has to take the cake.  Not only saddled with such laughable stories as space-junkie, she was also the subject of the show's poorly conceived AIDS allegory, and then later in the fourth season, is forced to marry someone she doesn't love in order to help her mother... only to have her mother senselessly killed only weeks later.  The show even kills T'Pol's own child in the fourth season, thereby proving that the producers likely hated her just as much as many of the viewers.

But I digress, back to Season Three... I said I liked it.  Here's why: it's all about the plotting.  For the most part, the Xindi arc of Season Three presents some pretty interesting concepts and stories, even if the characters that are propelled through them are junk.  The Expanse does seem legitimately dangerous, and the show has fun with concepts like the fact that Trellium-D turns Vulcans into violent, uncontrollable maniacs, or the idea that the Xindi are actually six distinct sentient races that evolved together on the same world (humanoids, arboreals, insectoids, reptilians, aquatics and the extinct avians).

In fact, the Xindi humanoid Degra (Randy Oglesby) is one of the better guest characters developed in the modern 'Star Trek" franchise.  Degra is designer of the massive weapon intended to destroy Earth, but he's not a villain - though he does start out as an antagonist.  The man is a genius, but is noble and motivated only by a desire to save his family and his race from impending doom.  Once he realizes that he's been misled, he works tirelessly to help Archer stop the weapon before coming to his own tragic end.  His death is perhaps one of the best moments of the entire season, and Oglesby plays it well.

So it's strange to me that there are a number of things that I really like about this season, and yet the one, most important thing in any well-made drama, the characters, are its major failing.  An attempt is clearly made to make Captain Archer more badass, more cool, but Scott Bakula simply can't (or won't) rise to the task.  Every single one of his line deliveries feels entirely wrong, like he's putting the emphasis on the wrong words or not saying things with the intended tone.  The rest of the cast is given chances to shine, but rarely do so, either.  The show's only two really worthwhile castmembers are Connor Trinneer as the southern-fried chief engineer Trip and John Billingsley as the unfailingly optimistic Phlox.  Billingsley seems to really enjoy playing his character, putting energy and fun into it whenever possible, but he also knows when to be serious.  He shares a fine moment with Trinneer in "Similitude," when Trip's clone is about to undergo a terminal medical procedure.

Trinneer's emotional arc for the season works better than anything the writers come up with for Archer or T'Pol.  Trip's sister Lizzie is killed in the initial attack on Earth, so Trip's motivation for the mission into the Expanse is pure revenge.  Ultimately, he's forced to come to grips with the fact that the Xindi may not be evil, and that his rage may be misdirected, even while he's still attempting to come to grips with his grief.

So cool ideas, really cool action sequences, decent plotting... it all builds into something that's actually quite enjoyable, in the right mindset.

And then comes that absurdity again.  The show builds some pretty decent emotional resonance in the season finale, "Zero Hour," in which a bittersweet victory is achieved.  Earth and the Xindi are saved, the Expanse has been dissolved, but many, many people are dead, including (or so the crew believes) Captain Archer.  What do the producers of "Star Trek: Enterprise" pull out of their hat for this not-poorly-conceived-or-executed ending?

Say it with me now: Alien.  Nazis.

The show takes all the good will it had just built over the course of the last year and completely chucks it out the window. File this one right next to the space-heroin.  The season is cheated out of a proper ending for no logical reason that I can discern.  After spending so much time and effort coming up with a season that doesn't outright suck like the previous two, the producers are totally willing to flip a giant "fuck you" to the audience at a critical moment. 

And yet, once again, I can't say that I hate this season.  I've probably gotten a bunch of "yeah, right" and "is he serious?" thoughts from readers on this one, but I can't lie.  I kinda like it.  I don't hate watching it.  Shit, I even own it on DVD.  I can't even say I wouldn't make the leap to a Blu-Ray upgrade (especially since there's some dang nice effects work).  I have more to say, but I'll save it for the upcoming review of Season Four...

(PS, a wee bit of full disclosure here at the end... the godawful second season of "Enterprise" led me to my sole professional writing credit.  Is that irony?  These days it sells in paperback for a mere 12 cents...)