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Star Trek: Notes From an Enterprise Apologist

Disclaimer: This post is all about Star Trek.  You've been warned.

Trekkers almost universally dislike Enterprise, the prequel series that aired in the early 2000s after Deep Space 9 and Voyager  went off the air.  It was the Star Trek series that officially killed the franchise (although one could also argue that the abysmal movies that came out around the same time may have had something to do with it).  I recently watched the entire series and was totally surprised by how much I still liked it.

Enterprise was airing when 24 was one of the most popular and critically acclaimed shows on television.  Jack Bauer created and then came to define the American obsession with the anti-hero, giving rise to Dr. House, Christian Bale’s Batman, every character on The Shield, Walt from Breaking Bad, Robert Downey, Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes, Dexter. In a television culture obsessed with über-smart badasses who intentionally break all the rules to get things done, where was there space for Jonathan Archer and the dewy-eyed optimism that defines Star Trek?  The truth is, there wasn’t.  Attempts to make the crew of Enterprise more badass (They don’t follow the Prime Directive! They stole that warp coil from that helpless ship! They’re helping overthrow the Vulcan High Command!) made the Trekkers cry out with disgust that the show had departed from Star Trek’s original ideals (they cry that out a lot, just FYI), and attempts to adhere to the idealism of the franchise’s premise just made anti-hero-obsessed viewers retch uncomfortably.  The show was doomed to fail.

You can tell it's edgier because Archer is dirty and sweaty most of the time.

But here’s the thing, friends: Enterprise is good. And this is coming from a self-professed Trekker (No, I don’t attend conventions, and no, I don’t read the books.  But I’ve seen every episode of every series except DS9 and am very versed in the canon).  The premise, for those of you who have lives in the real world, is that this is the first warp 5 Star Fleet ship, the first that is fast and efficient enough to be able to actively explore the galaxy, and pre-dating the Original Series by about 50 years.  The series’ first two seasons are pretty standard Star Trek fare: exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilizations, boldly going where no person has gone before.  Space is a bit lawless without the Federation to back them up, so Enterprise gets into a bit more scrapes than its later incarnations, but they’re still making peace and doing the right thing.

Facing declining ratings in the first two seasons, Enterprise changed its name (now Star Trek: Enterprise), theme song, and episodic story-telling in its third year to create a season-long arc wherein Enterprise is forced to navigate The Expanse (aka the Bermuda Triangle of space) in search of a many-specied alien race hell bent on destroying Earth.  The overlying storyline—that Earth and these Xindis are manipulated pawns in an even larger temporal war—was HUGELY unpopular amongst Trekkers and normals, but it afforded this franchise a little much-needed badassery.  In the end, of course, its Archer’s idealism and dewy-eyed belief in diplomacy that ends up saving the day, but along the way, he’s faced with impossible dilemmas that Picard, Kirk, and Janeway never had to deal with and  he makes decisions very different than the ones those self-righteous captains would make.  The season speaks to current events in a classic Star Trek way, but sometimes throws in an unexpected bad decision that makes humanity seem more…human.

This is the most evil of the Xindi types.  He's downright coldblooded.

But, you guys, the fourth season is incredible!  Rather than trying to create a season-long story line to draw in viewers from shows like 24, newly-appointed executive producer Manny Coto started writing shorter multi-episode arcs that were more closely tied to the traditional Star Trek canon, that dismantled some of the tropes of the franchise (Earth’s post-Xindi xenophobia, for example, is a marked departure from the franchise’s utopian visions of civilization), while laying the groundwork for the future series and addressing, in typical Star Trek fashion, topical ideas.  The episodes where Archer and T’Pol basically overthrow the Romulan-influenced and corrupt High Command by unearthing the true teachings of Surak, the father of Vulcan logic was AMAZING, full of twists and turns and deus ex machina, tearing apart the infallibility of the Vulcans while still legitimizing the people that they would eventually become.  The three-parter with Brent Spiner that delved into Earth’s Eugenics Wars, when our quest to create genetically-enhanced super soldiers started a worldwide war that killed over 30 million people was equally great.  Or what about the two-part “Through the Mirror, Darkly” which opened and closed, unexpectedly, entirely in the evil Mirror Universe (including a reshot title sequence celebrating Earth’s military triumphs) which not only tied into the Mirror Universe episode in The Original Series, but ended on an epically campy (and thus epically Star-Trek) ending?

See the hair?  That's evil Mirror Universe hair.

The fourth season found exactly what the first two seasons were looking for: a way to demonstrate humanity’s failings while at the same time showing its desire to improve itself and legitimizing the utopian civilization that came later.  Star Trek: Enterprise performed the amazing feat of justifying the weirdness and campiness of The Original Series while still being interesting and cutting-edge.

I apologize that this post has been one big nerd fest, but if you understand only one thing, I hope it’s this: Star Trek: Enterprise is the most underrated of the franchise’s incarnations and I think we all need to give it a second chance.

Voyager is still the best, though.

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  1. Blogger Jeffery Blackwell | 6:19 PM |  

    The only ST series I ultimately couldn't really enjoy was Deep Space 9. Each series has its great moments and its silly ones, but I think that Enterprise fits well within the vision of Gene Rodenberry. I liked that it was somewhat erratic and seemed kind of improvised - not the script, but the story. Making it up as you go along is exactly what the Enterprise was doing.

    I remember when the series was first rolled out reading a quote by Scott Bakula - "I'd hate to be known as guy who killed the Star Trek franchise." I think history - and its prequel - will treat this series kindly. Can I borrow the DVDs?

  2. Blogger DoktorPeace | 6:30 PM |  

    I have years before I get to it (I'm going through every series in order and am just finishing TOS), but when I do, I will send you an e-mail mach 2 regarding my agreement or disagreement.

    Also interested to see whether this post can draw the elusive commenter Drax out of hiding...

  3. Blogger chris | 6:47 PM |  

    I already emailed him the link.

    I predict he will be assy in his response, regardless of whether or not he agrees with you, Sam. You have been warned.

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