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  • Ric Crossman

6.1.25 "...All Your Desperate Displays"

Updated: Jun 13, 2022

Shockwave, Part 1

Archer and Daniel stare through a shattered window.
"Okay, two questions. One, who does your windows? Two, who does your hair?"

Our creation had strode out into the world. Which is to say both that it had legs, and that it lived.


But much can live that will not long survive. Our focus had been not just upon genesis, but longevity. What could give our creature the edge it needed to graze in an ever-more crowded field?


Once more, we looked to the past. Our second generation had been robust from its earliest days - surprisingly so, we would sometimes admit to each other in private. The point at which its survival became assured, though, was three years into its life, when it exhibited an entirely new behaviour. Rather than entering aestivation simply as a matter of course, it chose instead to mark the occasion, putting on the most vibrant, energetic display it had offered so far. Most astonishingly, it left the display unfinished, diving into its burrow in mid-twirl. It felt, ludicrously, almost like a promise made. "You want more; you know where to find me come Autumn".


It was behaviour we had never seen before. And somehow, it worked. The creature repeated this rite at the beginning of each summer. Perhaps it was never so successful as it had been the first time, but it certainly continued to work.


Amazed but encouraged, we encoded this behaviour into the genetic code of the second and third generations. Each one, once it had lived for at least two years, would echo their predecessor's behaviour. Again, full success proved unrepeatable, but the advantages of the approach remained clear.


Upon designing the fourth generation, we attempted to return to this patten with fresh eyes. Why wait until subsequent dormancy periods to begin the display? Why wouldn't the trick work after just one year? Why delay what so clearly worked to our creation's benefit?


Our decision made, we bent ourselves to the task.


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So, you want to go out in style, do you? You should probably choose the style in question, then.


The Planned Finale


This is another occasion when the structure of IDFC throws up an unusual situation, In this case, it's reaching "Shockwave" before "The Best Of Both Worlds". By my count (there are some judgement calls to be made regarding DS9), this episode was the eleventh time since Picard's assimilation that the franchise offered a cliffhanger at season's end. The fact we encounter the phenomenon for the first time here underlines what I'm sure was already obvious - this is the earliest in any Trek show's history that a finale of this type was attempted.


It's worth thinking a little about why this is. Obviously, TNG couldn't go back to their first two season finales before "The Best Of Both Worlds" (though they attempted to repeat that episode's success every subsequent year). But why do Deep Space Nine and Voyager both end their first years [1] with optimistic messages of teamwork of mutual understanding, rather than flinging them into an existential crisis?


Doubtless there are multiple reasons, but let’s focus on the fact every Trek show since TOS has focussed on a newly-assembled crew. The details change - sometimes it's a new ship/posting, sometimes it’s newcomers joining an established crew, Picard is about chartering a vessel - but the fundamental model is always putting people who don't know each other into close proximity to see if they can get done what needs doing. Both "In The Hands Of The Prophets" and "The '37s" end their respective show's first years with a message that the new crew is functional; fit for purpose. They're not always going to agree on everything, but the shared mission takes precedence over those differences.


Both those episodes do this by introducing a situation which, rather than threatening our protagonists physically, threatens to split them up. On Deep Space Nine, it's a theological dispute that runs right down the Federation/Bajor fault-line. Aboard USS Voyager, it's the possibility of people choosing to remain on a human colony in the Delta Quadrant, rather than continuing to risk their lives on a quixotic quest for a home seventy years distant. In neither case is it ever going to happen, of course, but then none of the physical threats to our crews are going to be born out either (with the rarest of exceptions). What matters is the manner in which our protagonists choose to stay together.


For the first one and a half acts, "Shockwave" seems like it's aiming for this too. The catastrophe on the Paragaan colony and the Vulcan response represent the standard threat to the show's very structure – our crew face a crisis that could split them up, ending the show itself. In response, the crew bands together, long-running differences set aside while their very future is in jeopardy. This is expressed here via T'Pol's decision to support her captain over her own superiors, which represents the cumulation of her season arc of recognising the value of what Archer and the Enterprise are up to in deep space. Archer then reciprocates, albeit by continuing to display his anti-Vulcan bigotry has progressed from antagonistic to well-intentioned. [2]


The structure of what's coming seems clear - Archer and T'Pol will need to work together to prove the Enterprise wasn't responsible for the tragedy at the mining colony, and in doing so prove they both consider the ship's mission more important than any cultural tension between them. The season can end on a mission that is no longer being constantly questioned from within, and, depending on how the conclusion comes together, might even see Vulcan High Command moving away from the antagonistic role that "Shadows Of P'Jem" proved had played itself out in any case.


It all seems like it’s clicking into place. Equally importantly, it looks like it’s going to work. Broadly, at least. It's a little off-putting to use so large a bodycount in setting up the central crisis, even if the episode very sensibly makes it clear from the start that something doesn't add up. Whether Enterprise is directly to blame, or only indirectly responsible, Archer's decision to visit the colony led to 3,600 deaths. It’s true that combining that with his fear that the mission will be cancelled, with consequences for tens of thousands of Starfleet personnel, is an entirely plausible way to push both Archer and the show's format itself to the point of breaking. That said, it’s hard to shake the feeling that killing all those people off-screen to make Archer feel bad is both cheap and in poor taste.


The Year They Wounded New York


Indeed, this is a large part of what ends up stopping "Shockwave" from hitting as hard as it wants to. It’s the old paradox: if you ratchet the damage up too high you can actually push the viewer toward disengagement, because it becomes too clear that the script is manipulating you (Doctor Who viewers might understand why I call this “the RTD Effect”).


This is compounded by the episode’s structure. Progress toward the expected upbeat ending about the crew pulling together and proving themselves is derailed entirely in the second act, as we learn the story we’re watching is actually a very different one. It’s an ambitious move, switching the tracks away from the standard model of a first-year finale, and toward a cliffhanger ending instead. You can see what’s being aimed for; a story which both cements the future of this crew, and which ends the season of a cliffhanger that will hopefully generate the maximum excitement for the start of the following year. The best of both worlds, as it were.


The problem is that trying to do both at once is extremely difficult, and Enterprise has form for screwing up every ambitious idea they've tried for. Alas, this record is not broken here. The central problem with the shift in act two is that the episode we end up in is much less interesting than the one we’ve been ejected from. This, really, is the problem with the Temporal Cold War writ large. The intrusions from the future aren't just disrupting the narrative, they're disrupting our enjoyment of the narrative.


Sticking with this episode specifically, though, an exploration of guilt mixed with the exhaustion that comes with constantly being questioned, undermined, and thought the worst of, is just so much more interesting than the sci-fi/action mode the episode lurches into. The action scenes themselves aren't badly done, or anything. In fact, using the Enterprise as a mobile artillery platform to support a boarding action is probably one of the smartest ways the Trek setup has been used to imagine what close-quarter space-combat might actually be like. The accusation that this just isn't a mode for the franchise that works for me could land like a Suliban particle weapon here.


Except for all those poor miners, suddenly forgotten as inconvenient. Once we learn that the Suliban sabotaged the shuttlepod, the tragic loss of life is almost completely pushed aside. Archer tells Trip "It wasn't us", and from that point on, the colony is only mentioned in the context of understanding how the Suliban almost sunk the mission, and how to pay them back for that.


The result is to frame this catastrophic loss of life entirely in terms of how it allows our heroes to get into another scrape. This seems hasty at the very least, if not rather tasteless. I realise, obviously, that this is fiction. No Paragaan miners were harmed in the making of this episode. I realise also that there are modes of criticism that suggest its actively ridiculous to care how many minor characters get bumped off over the course of an episode. At the best of times, I find this position unconvincing, though I might struggle to articulate precisely why. I don't have to here, though, because there's a much bigger issue. According to Memory Alpha, the Mark Jones & Lance Parkin book Beyond The Final Frontier states that the ruined city in the episode's final scene was "deliberately evocative" of the aftermath of September 11.

Having not read the book, I can't speak to the accuracy of either Memory Alpha's quotation, nor identify the original source, but it's impossible to believe the infamous attack on the production team's own country, just seven months before production wrapped, wasn't at least on people's minds when the CGI was put together. Especially since the number of people on the mining colony is set at 3,600, almost exactly matching the number of people killed or injured on 9/11.


Given the evocation of so recent and horrifying an event, the haste with which the consequences of Enterprise's visit is pushed aside once it’s time for the phaser blasts becomes a bigger issue than my personal aesthetics.


Indeed, if we consider “Shockwave” in the context of 9/11, it strikes me as a fairly foundational problem that the aftermath of what amounts to a terrorist attack is considered entirely in terms of its effects on the people whose inability to predict the attack - however understandable - allowed the attack to happen in the first place. Worse, the focus is on exonerating those people of responsibility, so that we can then move on to their retaliatory strike. If this is meant to remind the viewer of 9/11, the message is that we shouldn't ask questions about failures in America's own systems and approaches that meant the attack wasn't prevented, and should just revel in some payback. It's hard to see how the ball could have dropped much harder, or how much more damage it could have done on the way down.


Embrace The Bit


In truth, though, there's little point using any of that as a stick to beat "Shockwave" with. The link to 9/11 is careless, but careless in the way you often see when dozens of people are working on the same project to a tight deadline. That said, the risk of this kind of problem gets rather larger when you try to collide two distinct finale templates into a single episode. My running theory for the last quarter of this season is that at least some among the production team had realised the show wasn't nailing the basics, and that it needed to curb its ambition while it focussed on establishing a sufficiently competent baseline. "Shockwave" is the exact opposite of that approach, and the results are entirely unsurprising. Another crash, another burn.


It isn't just the issue of the colony that causes problems here, either. There's something fundamentally unsatisfying about watching Archer solving his problems by just repeating Daniels' instructions. It adds fuel to the criticism that the Temporal Cold War (TCW) was used to avoid fully committing to the prequel series concept in the first place. More than that, though, it reduces Archer to a willing puppet of the forces he had previously been leery of. Yes, it was always odd to have Archer's reaction to the TCW to be one of annoyance that it kept intruding - say what you want about the X-Files mythos which so briefly made long-running sci-fi mystery plots fashionable, at least Mulder didn't spend the arc episodes complaining he was sick of all those aliens running around. It doesn't follow though that the "Shockwave" approach is any more successful. Somehow the episode manages the perversely impressive trick of simultaneously being too insular in its focus on its protagonists, and allowing those protagonists to be subsumed within a different story we barely see the dimensions of. The miners’ story is more tragic, and Silik’s story more interesting. Perhaps not for the first time, we’re left asking why we’re watching Enterprise at all.


That said, the decision to push the crew into a position where they are dependent on Crewman Daniels' input does help the last few minutes of the episode land. Daniels is taken off the board at the exact moment his opponents make their move, leaving the ship helpless against a swarm of future-tech boasting Suliban spheres. The crew has poked a hornet's nest only to find their supply of beekeeping suits has gone missing. This is then smartly compounded by removing Archer from the 2100s as well. It further deepens the crisis for everyone else, and it opens up a second cliff-face for the episode to hang someone from.


It also allows the show to draw a parallel between Daniels and Archer, which is a nice touch. They're both in the business of reshaping the 22nd century through their actions, after all. In Archer’s case, that’s more or less the point of the whole show. We can question whether that’s a good approach, naturally. We can glance askance at the idea of another cis-het white lad being a fulcrum of history. It was clear from the very beginning that this was the model for the show, though. Give that fact, mirroring Daniel's manipulation of history with Archer's forging of it makes a lot of sense. [3]


So where does that leave us? A conclusion that, like the opening and middle sections, almost works. The first twenty minutes could do with a brief rewrite, but its fundamentally sound. The action aboard the Suliban stealth cruiser is perfectly cromulent, for what it is. The cliffhanger is certainly fit for purpose. There's still the sense that the show almost knows what it's doing.


But we still find ourselves back here. A whole once more less than the sum of its parts. Ultimately, even the most fascinating mess is still a mess, and "fascinating" would be a rather generous summary of "Shockwave" to begin with. It's almost too perfect a summary of Enterprise's first season that, in trying to employ both the approaches by which the audience can be persuaded to return to a Trek show in its following year, Berman and Braga fail to make either work.


One more missed opportunity in a year defined by them. We leave Enterprise no more sure of where it will boldly go than we were when we arrived.


Ordering


1. (The Storyteller)

3. (Ex Post Facto)

4. Shockwave, Part 1

5. (The Infinite Vulcan)


Series Ordering


1. Deep Space Nine

2. The Original Series

3. The Next Generation

4. The Animated Series

5. Voyager

6. Enterprise


[1] Or planned to, in Voyager's case.


[2] No, Jonathan, this almost certainly isn't the first time a Vulcan has tried to cheer a human up, because the two races have been friends for almost ninety years, and there's doubtless thousands of Vulcans who wouldn't see trying to help someone in pain as a retreat in the race war you've convinced yourself is being fought.


[3] This would have had additional benefits if the plan to reveal Future Guy as being an older Archer had ever been put into effect.

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