2019-May-25: Enterprise

I know I usually ramble about games here; haven't been able to do a ton of that in the past month due to some rough stuff in my life and the unfortunate choice of playing a game I sunk a ton of time into before realizing I wasn't having fun and would never complete it. Instead I've been binge watching Star Trek: Enterprise.

I never considered myself a Trekie. With the completion of Enterprise, I've seen every television and movie version of the franchise with the exception of Discovery, and I'm fascinated by design and writing hoops the writers and producers have had to jump through to keep 200 years of fiction spanning 60 years of real time coherent. Still, I'm hardly an alpha fan. If anything I'd wish Babylon 5 got the mindshare and accolades that Star Trek has, but maybe that's why I took to Enterprise the way I did.

Enterprise pulled me in in a way TNG, Voyager, and DS9 couldn't. Don't get me wrong; TNG and Voyager are some of my favorite television ever, but they didn't feel real. Those felt like space magic to me: humans in a decidedly alien environment set apart from us by hundreds of years of technical advancements. Our inability to understand the technology involved allowed writers to just fiat up magic to make their plots work; you could never know for sure if your understanding of any situation was accurate or if new tech sat in the wings ready to change the game. Enterprise didn't have that feeling; it felt real, as if we'd just really started exploring space and did it by fitting naval ships with thrusters and warp engines. It felt like we could apply real reason and today's science to the situations. That's a feel I'm sure they put a lot of effort into capturing.

I think, however, what really struck me was that this was very much an experiment, a trial, and a lot of mistakes were made. Archer is far from the paragon of virtue that other Starfleet captains are; he screws up, a lot, in big ways, and has to face the consequences for it. He has to wrestle with huge moral debates because Starfleet hasn't put forth a clean set of rules writers can hide behind (or be constrained by) to gloss over complicated moral quandaries-- rules like the Prime Directive. The stress of his mission in certain arcs begins to get to him, he begins to come unwound. He even performs atrocities that a Federation of 200 years in the future may consider barbaric and unforgivable. He's probably the most "human" captain of the franchise. Not the best, but the most human.

The series is four seasons and I largely consider it to be divided into four major arcs:

  1. Optimistic exploration, learning the ins and outs of being a new player in the interstellar arena
  2. Consequences of actions, major antagonists, learning being "out there" can have major consequences
  3. The Xindi war, Archer's limits as a captain and a man, the slow descent of his morality
  4. An urgent struggle for unity, a return to optimism in a fashion, but with looming threats

Seasons 1 and 2 were a bunch of standalone stories exploring moral debates as Archer learns the consequences of his and his crew's actions regarding new races, less advanced civilizations, and the like. Season 3 however is a single plot arc in which Enterprise is forced to search a remote region of space for a super-weapon aimed at Earth. They're alone, in dangerous territory, performing a mission to save their entire planet from destruction. As Enterprise gets more and more battered, its crew more desperate, Archer starts making larger and larger concessions in his moral structure to continue his mission. Eventually he resorts to torture, live humanoid experimentation, organ harvesting, and piracy to get it done. Each of these concessions is accompanied by a very obviously strained Archer struggling to justify his actions, then dealing with the moral consequences after. You can really see him start to unravel as the season progresses. Even in the beginning of season 4 he's still dealing with the effects of the Xindi arc.

As for season 4; it's largely a return to the compartmentalized arc format, but with multi-episode arcs. A good half or two thirds of the season is multi-episode stories, all separate but pointing toward the conclusion of signing a treaty to begin the founding of the Federation. I'd kind of describe the season as forgettable if not for the major impact it has on the history of the franchise. The finale sucks though.

I think the series hits its apex in season 3. You see the limits of Enterprise, and its crew. I'd liken it to a cold war submarine movie, where you have a crew in radio silence, alone, in the depths, fighting some unseen and very dangerous enemy. How Archer handles it is somewhere between morally ambiguous and outright barbaric. Yet, you'd be hard pressed to find any better option if you were placed in the same situations.

All and all, Enterprise doesn't topple TNG or Voyager from my favorite list, but I at least now don't consider it completely apocrypha? That's progress.