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  • Ric Crossman

6.1.11 Cake Or Death

Silent Enemy

One of the Silent Enemies looms threateningly in a dark Enterprise corridor.
“Space-home invasions are up 200%! Can you afford NOT to install phase cannons?”

Silent but deadly, this one. Get it? Because it blows right past you, stinking of shit.

"How English; Everything Stops For Tea"

Perhaps that sounds a little hyperbolic. “Silent Enemy” is one of those episodes that floats in the vast middle-space of Trek appreciation. No-one puts it on their “best of” lists for the show in general or even its first season, but neither does it show up in people’s lists of shockers.

This puts me in an unfamiliar role, then, because I think “Silent Enemy” is pretty terrible. Usually when I’m arguing an episode should be reappraised, it’s because I think there’s something good or clever going on with it that a lot of people have missed. Here I need to do the exact opposite. I need to explain why this story should get much more hate than it does. There are basically two positions you can take on “Silent Enemy”. It’s either an OK sci-fi episode that simply doesn’t work as Trek, or it’s an obvious shambles that wouldn’t work no matter which fictional universe you set it in.

Let’s start with the former. That way, I can at least say something nice. In fact, if you take the A plot of this episode in isolation, there’s an awful lot to recommend it. The basic idea of a silent, implacable threat showing up at random intervals to inflict increasing damage on our heroes’ spaceship is a fundamentally sound one. It’s well-realised, too, with strong design work on both the alien attackers and their predatory vessels – even the alien’s wee shuttle looks appropriately menacing. Little touches like the X-Files-esque corridor scenes and the aliens’ use of Archer’s own message to freak the crew out help generate a real atmosphere of confusion and menace.

All of which is good stuff. I’ve always been partial to at least playing around with the idea of an uncaring and terrifying galaxy. “Silent Enemy” clearly fits into that tradition, and it doesn’t disgrace itself with its own variation on the formula. Yes, we could pick fault. The alien intruders are rather better designed than they are rendered, for example. That’s an uninteresting and minor quibble, though. The real problem lies elsewhere. As in outside the A-plot. What ends up sinking “Silent Enemy” is that this chilling tale of terrifying alien attackers that reside beyond man’s ability to understand, let alone defeat, is then paired with a tale about Hoshi panicking over how hard Reed is to bake for.

I can’t think of any circumstances in which this would have been an encouraging idea for a B-plot – it’s nowhere near as charming as it thinks it is, and it plays too much into the cliché of Brits making things difficult with their stubborn reserve. It’s particularly ill-judged here, though. Every time Hoshi makes another phone call to discuss culinary preferences, the building dread over the alien menace gets a new hole torn in it. There’s a difference between using a B-plot as a release valve for a heavy A-plot, and just repeatedly letting all the air out until the whole endeavour lies flat and deflated. The Search For Malcolm’s Birthday Tea is very much an example of the latter, especially for those of us who’ve seen Genesis Of The Daleks and/or Allo Allo.

Malcolm's parents, 50% of whom are played by Guy Siner.
"Is this about a little tank?"

The subplot isn’t all bad. It does at least have some thematic tie-in to the main story. Not only do the aliens themselves refuse to communicate directly, they’re prevent communication elsewhere. By taking out the two subspace amplifiers, they ensure Enterprise can’t call for back-up from Vulcan. They make silence itself the enemy. This is then reflected in Hoshi’s attempts to get anything useful first about and then from Lieutenant Reed. That’s kind of nice. It’s also of very limited use, though, since one plot thread is about psychologically and physically isolating people so you can steal their ship, and the other is about a guy who’d rather just be left alone to do some work (and how did no-one spot the light farce of Malcolm misinterpreting Hoshi’s offer rather clashes with the fact that he’s working through dinner in an attempt to keep the crew from being murdered?). While there’s an upside here, then, it’s ultimately not up enough to overcome the underlying problems.

(I also distinctly remember being very disappointed by this episode because it’s the first one where Reed’s sexuality is nodded at, and it’s suggested he’s into women. In the run up to Enterprise, there’d been a rumour going around that one of the regular characters was going to be gay, and for reasons I no longer recall the smart money had been on Reed. “Silent Enemy” was the first real indication I had that this wasn’t going to turn out to be true, or – perhaps worse – that Berman and Braga had imagined a 22nd century in which people still felt uncomfortable about coming out, because that was one part of the future we shouldn’t feel optimistic about. Either way, I felt let down.

And yes, I knew the door was still open for him to be bisexual, but then the door was open for every character to be bisexual, and yet none of them ever had been since the franchise began.

None of that is directly the fault of this episode, I realise. I figure that it needs to be said, though, and it’s better to hang it on an episode that’s already rubbish, rather than drag down one that works on its own merits.)

“We Come In Peace, Shoot To Kill”

Considered independently of it being a Trek episode, then, “Silent Enemy” is something of a curate’s egg – the kind of story that’s difficult to rank because its quality level varies so massively from scene to scene. Lucky for me then that the story look very different when we squint at this episode through the lenses ground by the franchise’s past. Unluckily for everyone else, what results is not a pretty sight.

There are two principal ways we can argue the story is aesthetically incompatible with what has come before. The first, as I argued all the way back in my first real post on the site, is that Trek is at its best when exploring how cooperation is possible between radically different people and peoples, and how conflicts can be resolved without either siding having to come out ahead. Just as with Not-Nancy, the gangly ambush-stalkers of “Silent Enemy” swim completely against that idea.

Actually, though, this isn’t what bothers me here. Much of my objection to “The Man Trap” was specifically based in its de facto status as the Original Series‘ pilot. However far from it we may have travelled later, it introduced Roddenberry’s Milky Way as first and foremost a dangerous place, filled with hostile monsters hungry for your most vital ionic compounds. “Silent Enemy”, in contrast, comes sufficiently far into the history of the franchise that it can be recognised as anomalous, and treated as such. This absolutely shouldn’t be the model for Trek. As a departure from the norm, though, it’s not just a welcome change, but one that strengthens the franchise’s fundamental approach. After all, every time Starfleet faces unalloyed hostility it makes their continued commitment to mutual understanding and respect all the more impressive.

So it’s not the “dark and hostile universe” approach itself that vents my warp plasma. It’s the idea that this deviation from standard practice should alter the fundamentals of the show itself. That it should serve as proof that the Enterprise-NX was desperately in need of heavier ordnance.

It’s hard to overstate how badly it misreads Trek to think it’s a franchise in which you can argue no-one should head out into space if their cannons aren’t big enough. Starfleet is supposed to be staring through telescopes, not sniper scopes. It felt at first as though Enterprise understood this. One of the best ideas in the otherwise uninspiring “Fight Or Flight” was the suggestion that Enterprise had launched without any real ability to defend itself. First saving Klaang, and then their more general quest to explore space, were both judged too important to delay until they were even sure the ship could shoot straight. Yes, that episode also concludes with a space battle, but crucially, it wasn’t Reed’s work on the targeting scanners that saves the crew. It’s Hoshi’s ability to persuade another species of the need for cooperation. “Fight Or Flight” was about refusing to put your own safety over the lives of other people. “Silent Enemy” is about refusing to put your own safety over the ability to blow other people up more effectively.

(It’s also apparently about the idea that Tucker and Reed built such impressive weapons that they deserve to get drunk in the room from which those weapons are fired. Not necessarily the most responsible message from a TV show made in a country where people regularly get together to drink beer and accidentally shoot each other.)

Astonishingly, then, “Silent Enemy” manages to take one of least satisfying Enterprise episodes so far (I’d probably only put “Unexpected” beneath it) and rewrite it just nine episodes later to actually make it worse. Even the best character moment in the episode – Archer’s crisis of conscience over whether he’s risking everyone’s lives for the sake of his own ego – feels like an echo of an earlier conversation. I suppose at least this time the show isn’t using T’Pol as a straw Vulcan for the captain to get angry with, but given Trip’s casual racism here – “are your ears a little pointier than usual?” – that’s scant consolation.

Even beyond my queasiness over this story, the ship’s new phase cannons remove one way in which this show was able to distinguish itself from its predecessors, most especially The Next Generation. One of that show’s more interesting features was the frequency with which the Enterprise-D came across unfriendly alien species in ships she could effortlessly blast out of the sky. This meant that when Picard searched for diplomatic, reasonable solutions, it wasn’t because he couldn’t fight his way out of trouble. It was because he was morally and philosophically committed to finding a better way.

I loved that about TNG, and whatever my feelings on the Dominion War arc of Deep Space Nine, there was something lost when that show became about courage under fire rather than the courage to never open fire. There are other ways to explore a commitment to peaceful exploration and cultural exchange, however. It seemed, briefly, as though Enterprise was going to offer one of them. A Starfleet vessel with almost negligible offensive clout offered us the exact opposite to Picard’s ship – a ship boldly going on a nacelle and a prayer to meet as many new people as they can, despite knowing full well most of those new people could effortlessly detonate them at will. Jettisoning that so Archer can have some nice big guns to shoot at pesky aliens is doing the show a huge disservice. At least “Fight Or Flight” was only rubbish on its own terms. “Silent Enemy” manages to harm the entire, well, enterprise.

Which is really all there is to say this time. “Silent Enemy” could have been a brief sojourn into unfamiliar territory, but inexplicably, someone decided to bring back a souvenir. What could have worked very well as a fever-dream for the franchise is instead allowed to become an ongoing malady. A sense is building here that whatever else one can say about it, this is a Trek show that doesn’t understand what that actually means. I’ve always been something of an apologist for Enterprise, or at least this season (the only one I’ve seen in its entirety), but “Silent Enemy” provides the clearest evidence yet that Trek as a concept may have passed beyond the ability of its caretakers to replicate or even to understand. This was the slot in season one in which almost every show played around with other texts, with the Original Series even managing to take, rewrite and re-purpose its own textual history to make a point. “Silent Enemy”, in contrast, manages to totally fail to understand that history, mangling it beyond recognition due to some incomprehensible conviction that what science-fiction needed in 2002 was more spaceships exploding.

This is a franchise in danger of forgetting how to write and rewrite itself. Of drifting so far from its point of origin the landscape is becoming unrecognisable. What’s needed at this point is poof this show can meaningfully function as Trek.

And one obvious way to do that would be to return to one of the franchise’s most well-known touchstones, to offer a fresh perspective. Which seems to be the plan for “Dear Doctor”, in fairness. Because how could an episode about the Prime Directive possibly go wrong?


2. Vortex

6. Silent Enemy

Season 1 (so far) Show Rankings

1. Deep Space Nine

2. Voyager

3. The Next Generation

4. Enterprise

5. The Animated Series

6. The Original Series

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