In the Fall of 2000 the world was introduced to the fifth incarnation of the "Star Trek" television franchise. Dubbed "Enterprise," taking its name from the ship of record, the series was intended to take viewers back to a time when deep space exploration was still novel rather than a matter of routine. In truth, one of the biggest problems I've always had with the "Star Trek" universe is just how easy everything comes. Translators work instantaneously, there are a plethora of weapons at every officer's disposal, and most races from "The Next Generation" on are either completely peaceful or bent on the destruction of the universe. There is no ambiguity, no middle ground, and ultimately no interest for me.
So does "Enterprise" do anything differently? Yes and no. The program seems to walk a precarious line between the lighthearted nature of the original program in the sixties that, admittedly, had a lot of silly aliens and plots, and the dark, war-torn universe at the end of Deep Space Nine. While it was interesting watching this crew of the Enterprise discover technology that would become routine in later years, like Phase Pistols, the Transporter, and Photon Torpedoes, I kept feeling like all the dialogue was tongue-in-cheek, like the writers were forcing new "familiar" inventions to keep fans interested. But I would have preferred to see what came before? What came between bullets and laser weapons? How was this technology discovered? Were there any problems with it? These sorts of moments were what I wanted to experience with this program.
Furthermore the program drops us into the same sort of nonsense that plagued, in my opinion, the middle years of "Deep Space Nine," and caused me to cease watching that program; a clandestine threat working toward war. In this case it was a being from the future who was attempting to initialize conflict with the Klingons for their own purpose. I'm sorry to say that I honestly didn't care much for the concept of a temporal cold war and felt it superfluous to the overarching narrative. It's as if the writers weren't confident they could put together interesting stand alone stories and needed a reason to draw people back.
As you can tell, there are things I appreciated in the program and others that rubbed me the wrong way. Let's start with the former. The simple feel of the crew and structure of Enterprise has a naval tradition that's closer to "Master and Commander" than "The Next Generation." Captain Jonathon Archer (Scott Bakula) is a gunslinger who takes point and runs headlong into situations he may not understand in the name of exploration. While he may be inordinately qualified for his position, he still seems insecure about all of his actions, not knowing the ultimate ramifications. It's a solid characterization as Archer is, in fact, doing things that have never been done by Humans.
Archer is given guidance, or overseen if you prefer, by the Vulcans. One thing "Enterprise" does right is give a very different take on that species. They have always been seen as a benevolent helper of humanity, a best friend from Spock on, "Enterprise" rounds them out. They are an ancient group who hide their true motives along with their emotions. While they won't actively sabotage the Human's efforts in space, they are a hindrance for their lack of assistance. I love how this is done.
Beyond Archer, the crew is fairly stereotypical and feels very familiar to anyone who has experienced "Star Trek" before. Fortunately there is a good dynamic in the crew so it overcomes its stock limitations. The way the crew works on a ship that hasn't been field-tested as thoroughly as it should have is neat, though they seem to overcome those handicaps rather simply. It takes a single episode's breadth to encounter a problem with a system or weapon, it is struggled with and overcome, then never mentioned again. I would have liked to see more talk about uncertainty with systems and their capabilities. In the first episode everyone is worried about using the transporter… but by the third they are ready to use it in an emergency situation like it's no big deal.
There are a couple episodes where the gap in technology is discussed at length, including the pilot where people talk about the time it takes to get from Jupiter to Earth and another which focuses on the advance of Star Fleet and what it will mean to independent space freighters, but they are entirely too few and far between. Speaking of technology, and I figure this is as good a place to mention it as any, the effects work in this show are excellent. Set design and dressing are magnificent and the properties look like actual weapons and tools, more than any other Trek program I've ever seen. The show looks like it could actually occur.
The one standout theme, however, comes from the character of Comm. Officer Hoshi (Linda Park). Her job is to work at translating alien dialects in the line of fire and under intense pressure and her struggling with the job, expressing frustration at failure and inability to completely comprehend is exactly what I was looking for in this show.
On the other side… the show just doesn't seem to be having fun. While there are childlike glimpse of awe that sneak from Scott Bakula's eyes when Captain Archer sees something neat or new, the program is too rigid in military protocols to be an adventure, which is what I want from "Star Trek." I know I'm broadcasting my expectations onto a program that has no requirement to fulfill them, but I would have liked to see people get excited about their work. Hoshi was inspired when she first heard Klingon and wanted to find out more in the pilot, but walking on an alien world is cool and it was taken for granted by the very people who should appreciate it.
In addition to the show feeling heavy there is a manufactured conflict that doesn't seem germane to the natural flow of the show. I've always hated time travel stories because it's a cop out and that doesn't change in "Enterprise." Instead of a clear and present danger we need to create an abstract concept that can't resonate through the rest of the program in a "temporal cold war." The very concept sounds silly and in execution it's even worse. Instead of an organic conflict that takes time to develop, we're thrown into the middle of something we absolutely don't care about. Make us care about the ship first, the war second. You'd find much better reactions that way.
On the character front, we are forced to accept another 7 of 9 clone, this one a Vulcan called T'Pol. Played ably by Jolene Blalock, the character never quite worked for me because it has been done so many times before. It doesn't help that the creators of the show were hell bent on portraying her as a sex symbol when I, personally, didn't find her all that attractive.
I do recall watching a few of these programs during their initial broadcast run. I had a roommate at the time who was an undeniable "Star Trek" fanatic and do remember disliking them rather intensely. My revulsion has subsided, perhaps with age, but were I not required to view the complete season I don't know that I would have. It's interesting, yes, but there isn't a sense of cohesion that draws the universe together and nothing to pull me from week to week. It's a good show, but not exactly my cup of tea.
The Fourth (And Final) Season
What in the blazes happened between the third and fourth seasons? Although I had noted a steady improvement in the program's quality, it seems like the show finally found its legs and the producers understood where "Enterprise" fit in the world of television and the Star Trek universe. The dialogue is more lively, the productions seem to have a new life and the program overall just plays more like "Star Trek" than generic science fiction.
And that is a big distinction to make. As great as the new "Battlestar Gallactica" may be, the fact is that it isn't Star Trek and could never be. Trek is its own brand of SciFi, much the same as "Star Wars."
This season finally begins to bridge the gap between our world and that of the Federation Starship Enterprise (NCC-1701). Pulling in familiar elements (plus the classic mirror universe episodes!) from the '66 show, "Enterprise" leaves fans in a good place.
I will be sad to see "Enterprise" go. While I didn't watch it (at least of my own volition) during its broadcast run, I did develop quite an affinity for it on DVD. I can easily recommend newcomers to pick up the third and fourth seasons because they are, in essence, what this show was intended to be. There are a few spots where it may drag, but by-and-large it's got some color.
I would be remiss if I didn't talk about the series finale in this review… but I've honestly got little to add to the debate. The second-to-last episode is the finale for this program, the final episode a farewell to "Trek." If you view it that way, I think you'll find satisfaction (and not the frustration bushwacked fans felt).
The 16:9 Anamorphic video transfer looks very nice, no artifacting from compression or the original stock. It's not razor sharp, in fact some scenes look very soft, but overall the video is good. There is grain and video noise that becomes noticeable during darker scenes, but the steady improvement in video quality continues through the fourth season.
I limited my listening primarily to the default Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix on each episode and found it very pleasing. Clean and loud, there is a good dynamic balance on the track. The sound on the third season is a lot more discreet than the previous two, using the rear tracks to great advantage for both music and effects.
Any discussion of extras on a "Star Trek" television program should rightly start with the packaging. This handsome container is a solid piece of plastic with the Enterprise logo sketched in, and the program snuggly packaged within. There is a booklet that brings the viewer up to speed with the "Star Trek" universe at the time of Captain Archer and the nature of the Prime Directive. It's also got a list of episodes and the corresponding extra features.
As per usual, this set is pretty packed with extra features. Three episodes have deleted scenes and are presented in the familiar fashion, with a contextual wrapper from the episode. The quality is good, but they are unfinished.
There are commentaries out the wazoo on the last two discs. Writer Mike Sussman and Tim Gaskill, the editorial director for StarTrek.com sit down to talk details on the two-part "In a Mirror, Darkly" episodes, two of my favorites on this excellent season. Writers Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens chat with Gaskill during "Terra Prime" on disc 6. The audio quality is mediocre and sounds like it was recorded over an Internet or ISDN connection. The discussions are lively and hits major points like in-universe continuity, shooting schedules, character motivations and everything you'd really like to hear.
The amazing text-based commentaries by Michael and Denise Okuda return on three episodes, including the finale, "These Are The Voyages."
The bulk of the extras are housed on disc six. "Enterprise Moments: Season Four" is a fifteen minute retrospective of the season, revisiting their intentions. Everyone seems quite candorous about this season and how it ended, something I was surprised to hear.
"Inside the Mirror Episodes" is another fifteen minute exploration of the mirror universe and why even explore it. A lot of information is duplicated from the commentaries on this episode, but it's nice to hear some other voices talk about it.
"Enterprise Secrets" runs six minutes and shows a lot of behind-the-scenes material, including focusing on cameos during the last day of shooting. The bittersweet sadness of the cast and crew is fairly obvious.
"Visual Effects Magic" looks at the creation of the crazy 1940's New York sky battle, one that has to be seen to be believed. The amount of work that went into it, too, was surprising.
"That's a Wrap" details, appropriately, the "Enterprise" wrap party. Those emotions I discussed earlier are even more painful to watch here. It's obvious that, though everyone knew this end was coming, they are still broken up about it.
"Links to the Legacy" talks about connecting the "Lore of Star Trek" to the "Enterprise," including the Klingon ridges and Section 31. It's a geek's dream.
The set rounds out with a couple of minutes of outtakes, a photo gallery filled with behind-the-scenes shots and a trailer for the "Borg Invasion."
It's been a hell of a ride these four long (and early on, tedious) years. It's too bad that UPN decided to go a different direction with the network at a time when "Enterprise" was finally finding its range, but that's the way business decisions happen. I still love what is recorded on these DVDs, and think they are a worthy (if pricey) addition to any Trek fan's library.