Monday, April 22, 2013

What Went Wrong? - Star Trek Enterprise

A followup to my reflections on the Voyager finale, I want to talk about Star Trek: Enterprise.

I followed the series into its third season when it originally aired, and then I gave up on it. Since then I've looked back on many of the episodes I missed after I quit (including the series finale) and I see I didn't miss much.

The episodes were stiff and often boring. The characters stale and flat. The series had a lot more action than any other Trek series, but most of it was actually boring. The series finale? Even more rushed than Voyager's.

It seemed like such a terrible idea to make a Star Trek prequel series. It led to all the predictable problems: the "past" ended up looking more modern than the "future" in the previous Star Trek series. And for 40 years we've come to know that Kirk did this first, Picard did this first, Janeway did that first--then Enterprise comes along and says wait, no, Archer did all of that first!

Why bother? Why go backwards and retcon everything? Why not move Star Trek forward?

Well, I read an article in Star Trek Magazine just before the premier that stated Enterprise was going to feature a very loose crew. Since the series takes places before Starfleet solidified, the rank structure would be less rigid, the chain of command would be nearly nonexistent, and you're more likely to see people wandering the corridors in jeans and t-shirts.

It sounded like a good thing, and it gives some insight into why the producers chose to make a prequel series in the first place. The Trek formula was old. Four series in a row all following the same style. There needed to be a shakeup to keep it fresh. Making a series after the Dominion War wouldn't have allowed them to do that, but going back to the beginning of Starfleet would. That was the whole point of Enterprise.



What went wrong?

Well, for starters, the show had the goal of changing the Star Trek formula, but ended up following the formula even more rigidly. The rank structure was as hard and fast as any Starfleet vessel. There was no casualness among the crew. Nobody walked around in civilian clothes, and they socialized as human beings even less than on Voyager. In other words, they still did not act like normal people, but like Starfleet officers.

Captain Archer was supposed to be this loose, easygoing guy who doesn't really pay much attention to rank and makes friends with the crew like they're his drinking buddies. That's what the article promised, too.

What we got instead was an unemotional, pacing captain who spent all his time trying to be commanding. He wasn't easygoing or friendly at all. We're told he fraternizes with the crew, but we never see it, so as far as the audience was concerned it wasn't true.

As I said before, I can see why the producers picked Scott Bakula as the new captain. He is a very loose, easygoing kind of guy. If only more of Scott Bakula had ended up in the character of Jonathan Archer. If only the writers and producers had let the actors be loose, friendly and casual on the set. It might've saved the show.

Going back to before Kirk also lent itself to uncomfortable retconning. No, Captain Kirk didn't do that first; this guy Archer did it first. No, Picard wasn't the first to encounter the Borg; Archer encountered them. It didn't make sense. If Starfleet knew about the Borg, and if a cure for assimilation was that easy, why wasn't Picard's crew prepared for them?

This is the big danger of doing a prequel: not matching up with established show history. Instead of shaking up the formula, the first two seasons of Enterprise really are more of the same, but with retconning. It was unwelcome.

It seemed the only thing the producers did to shake up the formula was try to make Enterprise into an action series, like the original Star Trek. But most of the action sequences weren't interesting to watch, nor were they very exciting. It was like they were still following the Trek formula in the action, so all of it ended up being passive. And it wasn't TV limits either. Firefly, meanwhile, was doing way more exciting action. Personally, as a viewer, I think it had to do more with inexperience. The producers were so used to the Trek formula they didn't know how to break out of it, so when they tried, they were only able to go partway.

As evidence, I cite the use of transporters. The series is set before transporters became commonly used on people, so they don't use transporters to visit planets. They take shuttle pods. They stuck to this rule except when the plot needed them to board an alien vessel and get out in a hurry. Even as late as season 4 they were using transporters to pull people out of tight places. The producers were so used to transporters they couldn't figure out how to do Star Trek without them.

The end of season two saw the NX-01 entering The Expanse to save Earth from a superweapon! In any other context, it would have been cool, but I remember what I was thinking at the time: if Archer went into the Expanse and did all these things first, why isn't he remembered in the future?

Once the NX-01 went into The Expanse, the rank structure became even more rigid because now it's a military ship, complete with an entire army of red shirts! It didn't come across as an exciting development. It was so rushed and contrived it came across as a desperate attempt to save the series from cancellation. Just pump more action and sex into it; that'll do the trick!

My shark-jumping moment came when T'Pol practically stripped on camera. Star Trek resorting to sex to get ratings? What network is this? Fox?! That's when I quit.

The series did have a couple good moments though. Seeing how Starfleet met the Ferengi in "Acquisition" was fun. "Minefield" and "Dead Stop" were also outstanding. Made great use of the retro setting. A problem that would've been easy to solve in the future is pretty complicated here. But my favorite episode is "Singularity," in which radiation from a black hole causes the crew to exhibit obsessive behavior. It's funny in a very dark, dangerous way. Alas, the series never really found a stride.

The Temporal Cold War introduced in season 1 and finally concluding in season 4 was never a very interesting idea. Soldiers taking orders from their future selves...? We'd had enough time travel crap thanks to Voyager, and the idea just made no sense. Wouldn't their future selves know they're going to fail? What's the point?

The only other moment from the series I can remember that actually made good use of the retro setting was the three-part story with Brent Spiner as Dr. Soong trying to recover the embryos from the Eugenics Wars. That was a very good idea, too. We know very little about the Eugenics Wars, and it was nice to have a little more background on what they were about. There was some decent action there, but even then much of it was pretty slow-paced and passive.

Then the series finale. All that buildup to Archer's speech, and we don't get to hear it. We don't get to see what a difference Archer made and how he is basically the savior of the quadrant for founding the Federation. It would have been bold, but also awkward because Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway and every other character in the future doesn't mention him once.

Enterprise was quite a gamble, but I think it was doomed from the start just for the retcon risk. It's easy to judge in retrospect, especially for somebody who wasn't involved in the production, but as a viewer and a lifelong Trek fan, this series bugs me so much.

Looking back on Star Trek: Enterprise, it was very courageous of the producers to try changing the formula. But it was clear nobody involved in the production actually knew how. They tried to pump more action into the series, but it only went halfway. Starfleet was supposed to be new and loose, but the crew sure didn't act that way. They still acted like Starfleet officers to the core.

Maybe if the formula had actually changed, things would have been different. If Archer really had been an easygoing guy more likely to share a drink with his crew than to order them around; if the crew had been loose, friendly, and not so duty- and rank-oriented; if the show hadn't retconned Archer as first to do everything we already knew Kirk or Picard did first... We might've had a good show. Instead, the series adhered to the Trek formula just the same, so all it did was retcon itself into Trek history.

Thinking about it this way, I do respect the producers for trying to change things up. I wish it had worked, but at the same time I'm glad it didn't. Star Trek needed to rest. Now if we can only convince J. J. Abrams to stop retconning Star Trek, it can rest in peace.

3 comments:

  1. Who is that beginning photo? I love his closed eye look. Kind of a devil may care guy, light the candle. I suppose I should know who his is or was. The man with the black and white head gear and mike. That is the one pic in the lineup that always grabs me.

    ReplyDelete
  2. It appears to me, aside from the aliens: T'Pol, Phlox, the human characters all of them appeared to be dull, stubborn and predictive. Jonathan Archer was also annoying at times. It is hard to keep up watching a show like this.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. yes, the crew being almost entirely human was also a handicap for the series because, as we all know, humans are uninteresting :-)

      Delete