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  • Ric Crossman

6.1.15 Trapped In A Leaky Boat

Shuttlepod One

Reed and Tucker, deep in their near-frozen cups.
I'd embrace death with nothing to drink but bourbon, too.

“Shuttlepod One” is an episode that gets a reasonable amount of love – comparatively speaking, at least, given season and show. Broadly, I’m not inclined to disagree. It might not be the most inspired of stories – not only is it reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, it’s not even the first time that film has received a sci-fi makeover. That said, it’s a series of smart answers to difficult questions thrown up by production realities. Need to save money with a bottle episode? Locking two characters in a room and document them unravelling is a pretty good solution.

Bottle Rocket

That’s only the first stage, though. Next comes deciding which characters will be trapped, and what room to trap them in. Taking these in reverse order, the decision to use a shuttlepod is rather cunning. It means the set is already built, of course, but it also traps its participants inside the sandpit Enterprise is uniquely placed to play with. Setting the majority of the episode within a barely-mobile space-box reminds us of two of the most fundamental properties of life in space – claustrophobia within, a horrifying death without.

This isn’t the first time Trek has put characters in first a shuttlepod, and then in serious peril. Already IDFC has dealt with characters risking death chasing a starship, and having to choose which of two seemingly identical ships is actually real. My very next post - after the Voyager S1 retrospective, I mean – will discuss the archetypal example of a shuttle crew in danger. But hose episodes involve, in no particular order, causality-breaking spatial anomalies, gigantic homicidal aliens, and a captain perturbed to learn his boyfriend has run off with an ex-lover, and also his ship. None of them are directly about the sheer dangers of space itself, as “Shuttlepod One” is. Watching two Starfleet officers continue to improvise solutions to each new way the interstellar void finds to kill them is rather fun. The idea that they both might had died if Tucker had been slightly hungrier, in particular, is a subtle and lovely commentary about how precarious life is out there, even absent Klingons, Suliban, or Nausicaans. One too many mouthful of mashed potatoes, and everyone dies.

It’s true that the danger to our protagonists is still ultimately sci-fi in nature – microscopic black holes have been theorised, but large numbers of them floating around an asteroid field seems pretty unlikely. That said, the effects of their passage are sufficiently similar to actual real-world spaceflight issues that the distinction matters less than it does in, say, “Parallax”. [1]

Shuttlepod Glum

With the stage settled on, let's turn our attention to the players. Who’s going to end up locked in together? With seven main characters, the production team had 21 possible pairings, so it’s worth thinking about how successful this particular match-up is.

There are both advantages and disadvantages to choosing Tucker and Reed as the odd couple in this airtight apartment. The biggest problem is the framing of their interaction as a conflict between a fatalistic Brit and an irrepressible American hope-fountain, which wanders too far into the realms of cliché. This being an American production, Tucker has the home advantage in this – note the small detail of Trip choosing a quintessentially American dish from the available choice of ration packs, whereas Malcolm eats Chilean sea-bass (four episodes after it’s suggested he hates eating fish). It’s more than possible that the episode would not have been improved by giving Malcolm whatever Americans think we British eat, but the imbalance remains.

It’s then strengthened further by having Tucker be the one convinced they will somehow be rescued against the odds. I want to be able to see this episode as generating a meta-conflict between its characters – a fight over what a fight is even about, fatalism vs hope or pragmatism vs denial. The problem with this reading is that Tucker is always going to be proved right. The rules of television are completely on his side. We can’t criticise Tucker as being in denial in the same way we can criticise Reed for immediately assuming the worst. Even if the audience hasn’t seen that Enterprise remains intact, there was never any question of that not being the case.

I don’t mean to criticise either having both characters believe Enterprise has been destroyed, or almost immediately revealing their belief is incorrect. By structuring the episode this way, the two stranded crewmen have their most obvious source of hope removed from the start.

Meanwhile, while no-one will have been fooled into thinking the Enterprise has exploded offscreen never to be seen again, an early sighting saves us from having to spend time wondering whether there’s been some mistake, or if we have to brace ourselves for cross-time nonsense or parallel universe bollockosity.

As true as all that is, though, the result is Tucker’s position gaining an unassailable lead over Reed’s. There is precisely zero chance two main characters are going to die of asphyxiation 60% of the way through the show’s first season.

A lot then rides on whether the two are going to be able to reach common ground – whether Trip will move in Malcolm’s direction. The episode in its early stages seems primed for this. Fundamentally, this story is about two people going through the Kubler-Ross model of grief at different speeds, and resenting the other for wanting to set a different pace. To place them within the model, Reed thinks he’s jumped immediately to acceptance, but hasn’t actually fully cleared depression, and Tucker is mainly in denial, but has stuck his nose over the line into anger.

Sooner or later, then, Trip is indeed going to end up where Malcolm is, at least according to one reading. That’s a longer-term prospect, though. What ends up happening in the short term is where the tension lies. Rather than actually getting closer together, the two men start figuring out methods by which they can reach out to each other across the gap. This is primarily achieved through gallows humour, which subtly reveals that it isn’t actually Malcolm’s fatalism that’s bothering Trip, so much as his refusal to deliver it with a punchline. But Reed only tends to get funny when he’s annoyed, forcing Trip to poke at him constantly. This then becomes its own issue, because Reed will only respond when he’s exhausted his truly amazing reserves of passive-aggression. Watch, for instance, how he pointedly rewinds his log entry every time Trip interrupts, refusing to engage until his annoyance finally becomes too much to pretend isn’t there.

Factor in the realisation that those logs themselves (and the letters that follow them) are far more weighted towards being desperate cries for help aimed at Tucker than actual missives to people he admits he’s not even very close to, and you have a rather nice character study. Two men locked in a room, each of them only capable of getting what they want from each other through exasperated confrontation.

What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailors?

Already then we’re some distance from the stuffy-Brit-vs-gobby-American cliché that was our starting point. The episode is raised still further in quality by Connor Trineer and Dominic Keating both doing some of their best work on the show so far. Keating, in particular, does very well with one of his too-rare chance to really show off his acting chops. It would have been easy to simply dial up the frustrated bitchiness as the story progresses, but instead we get multiple minor breakthroughs and set-backs, moments both of bonding and breaking. They’re like a couple who can still get on, but who have some central irreconcilable argument hovering like a cloud over their heads, ready to cast down lighting at any moment.

Then we get to the drunk acting. I guess it doesn’t help an argument that this is about more than British vs American stereotypes to have the Texan needing to get the Brit bladdered so that he’ll finally stop being miserable. I’m prepared to forgive that, though, because it’s just so much fun. Trineer acquits himself perfectly well in the drunk acting stakes, but it’s Keating who really shines, reaching some kind of perfect midpoint between bathos, camaraderie, and Jim “Carry On” Dale. It’s especially fun watching Reed try to switch from “to heck with it, might as well go out scrambled” to “something’s happening and I need to concentrate”. I’m guessing anyone who’s spent much time tanked up will recognise the sheer ludicrousness of trying to reach the state of mullered-but-businesslike Reed reaches for, and so inevitably and hilarously misses.

(There’s also the glorious sight of him drunkenly extolling the virtues of Subcommander T’Pol. Yes, it’s somewhere short of optimal to be watching two men discussing whether they find a female coworker attractive, but I’d argue this is a comparatively minor problem in this case because a) Malcolm thinks he’s about to die, and b) he’s lusting after a senior officer, which takes some edge off the gender policy, Plus, at least he doesn’t openly state he couldn't into her because of her species, like Trip does, ick.

Besides, just try not to be amused by the way Keating says “bum!” here. Try it! YOU WILL FAIL.)

We”ll end, appropriately enough, where our heroes’ private odyssey does [1], with Tucker deciding the only decent thing to do is punch his legs until they’ll let him walk himself to his death. I guess the cold made him think of Captain Oates?

The best thing about this moment isn’t Trip’s decision itself. That’s trivial. A hero preparing to sacrifice his life for someone else? Every twenty minutes round here, mate. As with whether to go with hope or, you know, basic probability, Tucker’s status as a main character on a fictional TV show renders his choice unremarkable.

Instead, what we see here is that while Malcolm is clearly willing to risk disciplinary action to stop Trip from committing suicide, he clearly has no intention of taking the commander’s place. He won’t let Trip kill himself, but he’s not about to volunteer for the job either. Because that’s not how his mind works. He’ll accept that the universe is going to kill him, sure, but he’ll be damned if he’ll do the job for it.

I actually find that more heroic than Trip’s attempt to sacrifice himself, precisely because it’s not the standard cheap way to establish heroism in someone who was never actually at risk. It also means that after the episode has set up a structure where we might expect Trip to gradually approach Reed’s position, we almost see the opposite happen. I say “almost”, because we’re not actually watching Reed regain hope, we’re seeing the precise circumstances under which his hope is maintained. It has to come from him doing something. When all they could do was drift in the black, he was willing to accept it was game over. Now they’ve made and executed a plan, he’s not going anywhere until he knows whether it worked, and neither is Trip.

For Malcolm, hope can only be generated through action. Which seems like a valid position for an armory officer to hold. No wonder he’s so frustrated by a radio that’s stuck on receive.

That’s pretty much it for this one. It’s been a struggle to say an awful lot here. That isn’t because it’s bad, it’s because a lot of its competence is quiet and understated. It just does its job well, and then moves along. Despite it being born of production constraints, “Shuttlepod One” manages to produce some strong character work and engaging performances, and it demonstrates there are dimensions to Enterprise that we might not yet have encountered. While I’d never dream of claiming parity between the two, there are actually echoes of Deep Space Nine’s peerless “Duet” here, in how the show has turned production limitations into one of the best episodes of the show’s first season.

In short, Tucker and Reed have earned a few drinks. The trouble with intoxication, though, is that the next thing to hit is the hangover. And the one that’s coming for us during our next visit to the NX-01 is an absolute horror.


3. Shuttlepod One

Show Ranking (So Far)

1. Deep Space Nine

=2. The Original Series

=2. Voyager

4. The Next Generation

5. Enterprise

6. The Animated Series

[1] In fact, given that the only real reason to make use of micro-singularities is so that Archer can once again be smugly awful and low-key racist, we’re better off ignoring his angle completely.

[2] Is the Ulysses reference at the top of the episode a reference to that journey, I wonder, or just to how sozzled our lads get, and how Trip tries to turn the whole thing into a wake? I can’t say. Probably I’d have to read the book to get an answer, and life’s too short even when you’re not down to ten hours of breathable air.

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