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  • Ric Crossman

6.1 "Good Try, We Don't Like It"

Star Trek Enterprise Season 1 Retrospective

Enterprise season one cast photo.

I hold in my hands a lede. Fetch me not a shovel, but a spotlight.

This is not a season of television that works. It can still be defended as underrated, perhaps, and those who cry "franchise fatigue!" will still find no hoe here. Fundamentally, though, my hazy intent to rehabilitate these twenty-five episodes after a twenty-year kicking has failed.

As with Enterprise itself though, I don’t accept the failure has been total. Like Voyager before it, the show was neither bereft of potential, nor was that potential totally squandered. Not that everyone agrees. Or rather, since there’s more or less literally nothing on which absolutely everybody agrees, let’s say instead that enough people take the contrary position that it’s worth spending a few of our lower cases and capitals filling out the argument. We’ll start once more at the most obvious place – it was never a problem that Enterprise was a prequel.

Professor Crossman's Intro To Smart Writing-Doings

There are two common objections to the idea of boldly going backwards. To consider the first one, we're going to push out the canon. Helpfully, that wil make it easier for us to haul it overboard.

The thing about canon is that it can be both crutch and chain. It can provide you with ready starting points for your stories, but it can also limit the spaces you can inhabit by episode's end. Of the two, it’s the former that presents the bigger problem. Or potential problem at least, once you mistake references for set-up (something we know Enterprise was periodically guilty of). For some reason, though, it’s the latter that seems to eat at a certain faction of fandom. Their argument, at the risk of being accused of misrepresenting them, seems at base to be this: committing to colour inside a specific set of lines results in intolerable restrictions to the artwork you create.

This is horseshit. The idea that knowing the future restricts stories set in the past is effortlessly refuted by literally every historical - as opposed to alternate-historical - story ever written. And all those stories take place on a single piffling little planet (note: may not apply to Harry Turtledove). What seems to be commonly meant here is writers are restricted in the sense that certain story forms become difficult. Specifically in this case, the kind of status quo-shattering upending of canon some people insist on mistaking for drama. Which I guess is true (not that Enterprise cared all that much, as the season two finale ably proved [1]). The thing is, though, demanding that be a mode of storytelling which Trek continually returns to is fairly obviously a restricting factor in itself. "I demand Trek must do this, and if it doesn't, it's limiting what it can be!". You're holding up a specific mode of storytelling as so fundamental, the entire structure of every show has to be built in a way that allows that mode to be deployed.

(And you can't even get out of that by insisting you want the door to be unlocked, whether or not anyone actually goes through. It would be ludicrous to argue a prequel Trek series closes off the possibility of another "A Call To Arms" any more than it does, say, a rags-to-riches musical delivered entirely in Spanish. I don't remember anyone at the time or now bitching about how Enterprise's set-up prevented it from being able to recreate Esa Voz Es Una Mina.)

Besides, constraints on storytelling can often be terribly useful. Just ask the neo-futurists. I remember being amazed at the number of people in Who fandom who spent the late noughties insisting the show should just forget the idea each Time Lord had only thirteen lives, because we were coming up on the cut-off. This was astonishing to me, not because I particularly cared about the maintaining of canon (this was Who, after all), but because I couldn't grok how anyone could not want to see a story about the Doctor facing their final end, only to find a way to continue saving the universe.

Working within fixed rules can offer a focus you can't get from a blank piece of paper. Some writers work better with full freedom, others thrive in exploring the corners and corridors of a structure already in place. Plenty enjoy both at different times and in different circumstances. Ain't no wrong way to write good, and canon can be crutch, chain, and catalyst.

There's nothing in the idea of a prequel that is inherently limiting, in any meaningful way. The question of what the choice of era said about the show's possibilities be was never a particularly interesting one.

That just leaves us with what the choice suggested about the show's intentions.

"...Getting From There To Here"

Here, the naysayers say their nays on firmer ground. Briefly stated, this second criticism goes that, since Trek is fundamentally about imagining a better future for humanity, focussing on the past of the franchise itself is inherently counter-productive.

And to some extent, I agree. It formed no small part of my hit against "Caretaker", in fact. The specifics matter, though. What sunk early Voyager was the degree to which it was structured around yearning for the characters' own pasts, and how the writers' own nostalgia was allowed to bleed into that. The result was a show that, despite having the latest start point of any Trek show until 2020's Picard, was staring entirely backwards.

Enterprise, in contrast, started at more or less the earliest viable point, precisely to make the struggle to find a view to the future as interesting as possible. For all its many faults, this first season is almost unremitting in its commitment to face front [2]. Yes, what these characters are looking toward is something we're already familiar with, but imagine how ridiculous a critic would have sounded in, say, 1992, arguing that what made TNG worth watching was the difficulty in predicting what was coming next.

Not that Enterprise is particularly interested about being in conversation with TNG. This is another reason to not mistake this show's approach as being similar to Voyager. The franchise's third 24th century installment was very clearly an attempt to tap into whatever geothermic vent TNG had stumbled across. Clumsily stiching this desire to reverse the clocks to a barely-understood approximation of DS9's best ideas, Voyager ended up not so much trying to bottle lightning, as use it to awaken a Frankenstein's monster of a spin-off. You know, if someone else had already resurrected a corpse to international acclaim, and Frankenstein was just desperately trying to make bank.

In contrast, Enterprise was always using The Original Series, as its inspiration, from the focus on action adventure through attempting to reverse engineer the Kirk/Spock/McCoy dynamic. Rather than trying to recreate the formula of a few years previous, Enterprise sought to radically update a formula almost four decades old. Paradoxically, though, this very decision to avoid paralleling TNG resulted in a show closer to the TNG ethos. The first live-action Trek spin-off couldn't really be a reaction to itself, after all. In any case, while Voyager looked at TNG and tied to twist it into something counter to its outlook, Enterprise looked at TNG and decided to try a different way to update the source material.

Some of the ways in which that updating is attempted are rather savvy, too. The NX-01 is committed to exploration in a way the original Enterprise never really was, to the point Archer's superiors are apologetic on the occasions they require him to do something other than head in a straight line away from Earth. There's a sense of wonder here that TOS so often ignored, wanting instead to highlight the remoteness and hostility of the final frontier.

It’s not that the danger has been removed. Indeed, Enterprise goes further than any other Trek show in exploring the inherent lethality of space itself. As I've argued before, though, there's a genuine and important difference between the idea that space is filled with hostile life, and that space in itself in inimical to humanity. It’s not just the former being a pessimistic and ultimately reactionary position ("Everyone not like us will be inscrutable at best and murderous at worst!"), while the former is simply an indisputable physical reality. It's that the square-jawed refusal to retreat in the face of alien unpleasantness is just so much less fun than the "we have no idea what we're doing and also everything is on fire" mode Enterprise gets so much value out of.

In short, then, Enterprise was far from doomed at conception, and early indications was that it had both the potential and the intent to do something interesting. Perhaps not original - though I don't know what else you'd call the focus on Enterprise always being sixty seconds away from breaking in half, exploding, or just running out of air because Trip soldered the wrong wire to the wrong circuit board - but definitely of value.

So where did it all go wrong?

A Few Good Things

Actually, let's not go there just yet. I've already walked into the topic of what the show did right so let's take stroll down that path a little further. Whatever its failures and limitations, Enterprise both looks and sounds great. Over a decade's experience in bringing this particular fictional universe to life led to some of the best sets, costumes, and - in particular - make-up and prosthetics of the franchise to date. The CGI, so often the aspect of sci-fi that ages the quickest and least gracefully, still basically holds up after twenty years. I will confess I was one of those people who never warmed to "Faith Of The Heart", but I've got to respect the bravery of the choice [3]. The score is strong in general actually, a smart mix of old themes, new territory, and the occasional cheeky riff, whether it's the aping of X-Files composer Mark Snow in "Cold Front", or the echoes of Lawrence of Arabia in "Desert Crossing".

The cast are solid too, ranging from entirely competent to genuinely impressive. Linda Park is a particular stand-out as Hoshi, channelling vibes instantly recognisable to anyone who loves 80% of their job and is scared witless by the remainder. John Billingsley gives Dr Phlox a mixture of charisma and distance that can’t have been easy to pull off. And Jolene Blalock does absolute wonders with a role that sucks in at least seven different ways (this would be a tip as to where this essay was going, were it anything but obvious in any case). It’s actually pretty hard to play someone completely without emotion, and a thankless task too, because everyone wrongly assumes it must be easy. Add in the wrinkle of T’Pol clearly not being as good at repressing her emotions as she herself believes, and you’ve got an exceptionally difficult brief, which Blalock excels with.

Even on the political side of things - an arena in which I've delivered more than a few Gorn-style haymakers to this particular series - there's some strong and laudable choices. I’ve discussed this already, but the fact Enterprise does two episodes in the wake of 9/11 on the subject of terrorism, radicalisation, and intra-cultural conflict, and uses both of them to slap at the jingoism of America and its allies, remains absolutely astonishing. That’s a feat not even the tawdry reactionism of the Xindi plotline could erase.

Even when moving into the structural issues that I’ll eventually argue doomed the season, there is plenty that works, or at least could have worked. Take the conflict within the command staff between the western liberal and Surakian philosopies. I’ve spoken multiple times already about my issues with the Vulcan approach, and the idea of deconstructing it over the course of a year or more was basically a good one – indeed it took fourteen episodes before it started to feel like the disassembly was complete, and we’d moved onto breaking the individual pieces in half and laughing at the sounds that made.

Plus, one way in which Enterprise clearly did take its cues from the 24th century was the recognition that bouncing Starfleet’s ethos off characters with very different perspectives was the perfect course to steer between Roddenberry’s Scylla – “No-one in the future will argue about what we currently argue about” – and literally everybody else’s Carybdis – “This needs to be actually watchable”.

On paper, Enterprise took the boldest and most complex approach to lively staff meetings the franchise had managed up to that point. With Sisko and (particularly) Janeway, it was almost always implicit that they had the right of it in their clashes with the Bajoran Militia and the Maquis crew contingent, respectively. Stumbles were rare, and generally framed as stemming from simple case of having the best of intentions, but not quite recognising Starfleet had restricted their viewpoints a little more than they’d realised. Even there, the times in which our commanders learned there were other ways to be right were outweighed by the times in which they learned it was important to let other people be wrong.

Compounding this was the extent to which these clashes often boiled down to disagreements over how best to deal with a common antagonist. The central question was the extent to which your enemy’s enemy really is your friend. Which is a perfectly sensible and interesting idea to explore [4], even if Voyager's lack of a regular Cardassian supply led to them taking a disappointingly obvious route when it came to Seska [5].

While the two previous shows give us captains who disagree with their Bajoran/Maquis first officers about how to deal with Cardassians, Enterprise gives us a captain who disagrees with his Vulcan first officer about how to deal with Vulcans. Archer is very specifically soured against T'Pol's government, and even her species, to the point of prejudice, if not full-blown bigotry. What's more, within the limits of her rank, her philosophy, and her experiences, his first officer reciprocates, repeatedly exhibiting her low opinion of humanity.

The dysfunction in the command staff stemmed from the problems that lay directly between them, then, rather than their different approaches to some third group. The relationship between Archer and T’Pol is less reminiscent of Kira and Sisko, and more of, say, Kira and Damar. That analogy can only be pushed so far, of course, given the Vulcans are are offering too little help at too high a price, rather than invading and enslaving Earth. But the comparatively low-grade beef being consumed here is part of the point - watching Archer and T'Pol learn to rely on each other is free from the problems of watching an unrepentant Nazi joining up with their former victims to fight a common foe.

The result is something genuinely new for the franchise, characters with crappy opinions about another group of people that the audience isn't necessarily supposed to share. Arguably DS9 got closest to this, by making Sisko actively unpleasant to Picard, but again, the circumstances there were so extreme it was easier to understand Sisko's position, a position he'd essentially dropped by the end of the pilot in any case. In contrast, while Archer concludes in "Broken Bow" that he might have to leave the chip on his shoulder to freeze in deep space, his assumptions about and prejudices against Vulcans surface repeatedly over the course of the season. Because personal growth is rarely swift, and still more rarely linear.

It's an experiment in making these characters unsympathetic, even unlikeable, at least in certain ways, in a way the franchise could really pull off at this point, because it's commitment to intercultural cooperation was so well-established that the audience could trust things would get better. That the idea was to show how we can leave behind our prejudices, rather than to claim those prejudices are reasonable.

The broad season arc of Archer and T'Pol coming to see each other as allies rather than barriers can hardly be considered original, but it's certainly a solid choice, building on everything the franchise learned over the thirteen years previous. It was a risk, sure, but so was creating a Star Trek spin-off show almost twenty years after the original, in which almost nothing was recognisable from what had gone before. And whether it was wise or not, it certainly wasn't a choice born of the desire to play it safe, or rely on past glories.

So speaks the defence. We all know what's coming next.

T' Problem Wi' T'Pol

I signposted this. Jolene Blalock did exceedingly well with her character, considering. There's a surprising amount of positive things to be said about how T'Pol interacts with Archer and Tucker, considering. We still run aground on the inconvenient truth that T’Pol ends up holing Enterprise when the ship is barely out of space dock.

To repeat myself, because I want to be very clear here, none of this is the fault of Jolene Blalock. Hell, it's not even T'Pol's fault, in the same way you can't blame Helen for the fall of Troy, or Yoko Ono for the Beatles decided they'd just about had enough, thank you. T'Pol is just the locus, the point at which the cracks shear into chams.

As we might expect, these collapses tend to happen at points of intersection. We'll start with the undeniable fact that T'Pol is intended to make heterosexual men very happy. This in itself I find hard to get worked up about. This is how film and television works, after all, for a long time before or since. The fact the heterosexual male gaze is almost always the one most catered for is a problem, but its one of those problems that, unless you're writing a piece specifically about it, isn't really one there's all that much to say about in most specific cases. The fact the patriarchy exists is appalling. What that fact isn't, at least here, is interesting.

This isn't to let Rick Berman off the hook here, given by all accounts he was unusually - though sadly not uniquely - unpleasant and predatory by the standards of het dudes in the industry who'd risen to positions of power. His treatment of Blalock in particular, as with Jeri Ryan before her, seems to have been completely unprofessional and also pretty gross. That said, having brought up Seven of Nine, we should note the second half of Voyager demonstrates there’s a difference between a female actor being poorly treated, and that actor’s character actually damaging the show they’re in [6]. Whatever the backstage drama that developed over Seven getting so much screentime, her arrival on the show genuinely did let it go to some pretty interesting places (even if we can only deploy “interesting” comparatively here). I think we can be honest about how appalling a situation Ryan was in (and rage at how Jennifer Lien was treated, too) while also recognising her character genuinely improved the show in a lot of ways.

The same just isn't true of T’Pol. Yes, Blalock did about as well as anyone could with the character. In this season at least, though, the Subcommander doesn’t work, and that failure hits the show hard. Not because the show wants to objectify her, but because it wants her to be a sexual object and the lonely alien who the humans don’t get and the source of friction within a command staff who don’t want her there. We’ve already covered why the first of those isn’t disqualifying, and why the latter two are actually quite promising, albeit unoriginal, ideas to explore. In combination, though, we get the collapse I mentioned earlier. The sexism and the racism overlap and reinforce each other. This is most efficiently expressed in “Shuttlepod One”, when Reed starts talking about how he likes T’Pol’s backside, and Tucker is appalled by the idea he might think the same. Because T’Pol’s a Vulcan. Not a superior officer, not someone he works alongside and (in theory) takes orders from. He can’t imagine objectifying her because of how much he dislikes her species. Wow.

Meanwhile, all of Archer’s bile about what the Vulcans in general did to his Daddy, just like all of Tucker’s confusion about what this Vulcan in particular does to his libido, is expected to just wash off T’Pol like so much decontaminant gel. She’s a Vulcan, and therefore she’s not supposed to admit that anything she experiences bothers her. Which, you know, just so happens to describe every other woman trying to do their job while surrounded by men who refuse to see her as worth respecting.

Add in the fact that her primary role on the show is to alternate between arguing Archer shouldn’t be acting like what the audience understands a Trek captain is supposed to be, and that the logical course of action is to just let people die when it’s convenient, you have an almost perfect storm. T’Pol is somehow able to embody the nag, the ice queen, the exoticised other, the pin-up, and the woman who should know her place, all at the same time.

The race metaphor is scarcely any better. Once the show moves past its useful consideration of Vulcan limitations, the constant framing of them as antagonists reduces T’Pol’s growing bond with the human crew to a question as to whether she will prove to be “one of the good ones”. It hardly helps that, rather than use the Vulcans more generally to explore T’Pol’s sense of isolation, they treat her atrociously at almost every turn – the only real exception being “Fallen Hero”, which is explicitly about a Vulcan acting surprisingly human. I mean, this is a season which does an episode about how the Vulcan approach might seem bizarre from a human perspective, but it’s actually quite sensible when you remember that they’re genetically predisposed to all be rapists, and then thinks that’s a message about cultural understanding.

But at this point we're passed discussing how ideas which are good - or at least not unusually bad - in isolation can cause problems in combination. We're now just into pointing out shitty writing. There's all sorts of specific issues with how Berman and Braga presented the NX-01s maiden voyage, and I've discussed many of them over the course of this blog. Really, though, the problem isn't so much the frequent failures as how rarely even the successes feel total. Like the ship itself, Enterprise had too low a ceiling, not because of its conception, but because building a starship and piloting it are two totally different skills.

Since I've already mentioned Doctor Who, I'll conclude by noting that rewatching the first season of Enterprise to write this essay brought to mind nothing so much as Jodie Whitaker's final year in the role. Literally everyone in the production team, and the vast majority of the cast, were absolutely nailing their roles, every single time. And it just didn't matter, because the scripts simply weren’t there.

So it was with Enterprise fated to be the final instalment in a franchise that had been running continually for fourteen years at the point she launched. It took three more years to happen, but for the want of writers who could nail it, the empire fell. The long Romulan road had finally run out.

For a little while, anyway.

[1] For its part, Discovery eventually decided it couldn't keep up its galaxy-wide arc plots given its setting, and responded by jettisoning that setting entirely. You know, instead of recognising the distant possibility that a constant focus on interstellar crises wasn't actually the best mode for the show.

[2] This is not always to its credit, as "Dear Doctor" showed us, though the smug nod toward the Prime Directive is some distance from being the biggest problem with that particular episode.

[3] There was always a bleak irony in the number of fans at the time who complained a sequel shouw couldn't be different or daring enough, and also that a Trek show having someone singing over the opening credits was borderline heretical.

[4] Or it was for Deep Space Nine, anyway. Setting up this as the central disagreement between Starfleet and the Maquis left Voyager with the unenviable task of choosing between relitigating issues that were clearly no longer relevant, and reframing the two crews' philosophical conflict as being over far less urgent or interesting ground. In the end, of course, they managed to do both.

[5] I wish so much that "State Of Flux" had taken the route it realised it could have, and had Seska be an undercover Cardassian, but Carey be the one selling replicators to the Kazon. Imagine a show in which Seska had remained on Voyager, surrounded by a crew who mistrusted her at best and hated her at worst, because ultimately she wanted the same thing as they did. Maybe they worried that'd be too close to Garak, but a) Seska's active status as a Cardassian agent makes a big difference, b) it's not like the franchise hadn't done plenty of Cardassian villains before, and c) given the ways in which Voyager was very deliberately redressing the past, deciding to not do that with regard to one of the greatest characters the franchise ever came up with seems wilfully perverse.

I'm supposed to be talking about Enterprise, aren't I?

[6] Though in later seasons the casual way in which both Blalock and Park were forced into as little clothing as possible, on as many occasions as possible, did make it increasingly hard to watch the show without feeling uncomfortable.

Episode Rankings

21. Oasis

24. Fusion

Rewatch List

(Underlined episode are particularly good, the others are rather less indispensable. Episodes in italics are important to the ongoing story, but not recommended on their own terms.)

Broken Bow

Fight Or Flight Strange New World

Terra Nova The Andorian Incident

Breaking The Ice


Fortunate Son

Cold Front

Sleeping Dogs

Shadows Of P'Jem

Shuttlepod One Rogue Planet Acquisition

Vox Sola Detained

Fallen Hero Desert Crossing

Two Days And Two Nights

Shockwave, Part One

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