To Boldly Go Back Where We Were Before
Many people, whether they’ve watched the show or not, can recite the Star Trek preamble by heart: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” It’s burned into our collective memory, almost as much so as the Pledge of Allegiance or the Lord’s Prayer. And it’s a promise to which all series bearing the Star Trek label have remained true, even if they’ve been less daring than the original. The name of the Star Trek game has always been to head into unknown waters, fend off terrors of every kind, and make nice with the natives—or, at least, nice with the pretty girl in the gold miniskirt wearing green body paint. The series has also, most often, involved social breakthroughs, from Kirk and Uhura’s first televised interracial kiss to Captain Janeway’s groundbreaking role as a strong woman leader in a complex diplomatic and militaristic arena. While Star Trek: The Next Generation adhered to the basic formula, the more recent series have faltered a bit: the station-bound Star Trek: Deep Space Nine never went anywhere (in more ways than one), and Star Trek: Voyager was all about coming home (or all about Seven of Nine, depending on whom you’re asking).
Things are less clear for the crew of Enterprise. The latest series brings back the old directives: characters are exploring strange, new worlds, and, of course, trying to learn about other cultures and themselves. The series takes place 100 years before Kirk (and about 150 years from now), and the entirety of space beyond our solar system is unexplored, which provides a sense of possibility. However, while Enterprise appears on its surface to be a return to the original Star Trek ethos, don’t expect the Enterprise’s newest (or more precisely, oldest) captain, Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula, of Quantum Leap fame)—or any other characters, for that matter—to break any new ground sociologically. This is a two-fisted action-drama, complete with jailbreaks, gunfights, and narrow escapes. It’s fun, but the politics are candy-coated in dreary conventionality.
The show’s two-hour pilot, “Broken Bow,” introduces crewmembers and its “back to basics” (or, “back to what worked before”) premise. At this point, and unlike on the previous series, Starfleet (the scientific and diplomatic agency of exploration) has no established presence in the galaxy; the series will chronicle the emergence of the United Federation of Planets, of which Starfleet becomes a crucial member. Enterprise picks up some of the plotlines of the movie, Star Trek: First Contact, in which Zephram Cochran (James Cromwell) had begun production of the first warp engine and Vulcans first encountered humans, back in 2063. By the 22nd century, when this series is set, humanity’s progress toward deep space exploration has been guided (some might say controlled) by resident, and awfully paternalistic, Vulcans, who are now hesitant to send the ethnocentric and temperamental inhabitants of our blue-green planet into space. When a Klingon on the run from a deadly species known as the Suliban is found unconscious in a Midwestern farm, Starfleet breaks with the Vulcans and outfits the newly built Enterprise to take the stranger back home.
Everyone on board is understandably uneasy about the extraordinary things they’re bound to encounter, a tension conveyed in part through the smallness of the ship. With only 87 crewmembers and capable of achieving a warp speed of only 4.5 (a snail’s pace in the world of Star Trek), the ship does seem ancient: it has no shields, only a retractable hull plating, and the crew uses shuttlepods instead of the transporter beams (which are too unpredictable) for moving between orbits and planet surfaces. Such practices are quite like today’s space program. All of the neato gadgets that have become Star Trek mainstays—tricorders, phasers, communicators—are new to the characters. Since many of us in the 20th century are more familiar with them than the crew, the show provides us with multiple in-jokes.
This crew is conventionally Star Trek. Archer, like Kirk, is quick on the draw and bold, brash almost to the point of making Kirk seem sensitive. In that sense, the show’s a leap backwards; you’re often wondering whether the point of Enterprise is to validate Archer’s personal machismo (his motto is “Straight and steady”), rather than humanity’s readiness for exploration. He’s stereotypically masculine in his outspokenness and headstrong attitude, which the show endorses as a good thing. The resident “straight man” is rehashes Voyager‘s Seven of Nine: Sub Commander T’Pol (Jolene Blalock) lacks any of the philosophical weight carried by Spock or Data. She also fills the series’ requisite Vulcan role, but, most importantly, she looks pretty, demonstrated during one particularly gratuitous scene in which she and Charles Tucker (Connor Trinneer) rub each other down with glowing gel; it’s reminiscent of shampoo commercials or maybe softcore porn, and seems designed only to remind the audience who the hot chick is on board, as though her tighty-tight cat suit isn’t enough. The other crewmembers are also reiterations of former Trek stars, such as Ensign Hoshi Sato (Linda Park), the communications officer who blends the roles of Uhura and Deana Troi, and so far, is one of the more likeable characters, because she distrusts total reliance on technology, she demonstrates a very understandable hesitancy regarding much of her fellows’ acts of bravado. None of the characters, however, is an exercise in original characterization; the mostly white crew seems downright bland in comparison to former Trek teams.
It’s tough to make a 35-year-old franchise look new. Sure, it’s fun to see how things in the Star Trek universe got started, but this will eventually wear thin, and there seems to be scant substance in the show’s essentials—in concept or potential plot—to carry beyond two, or possibly three, seasons, if that. Remember, to maintain continuity, the plotlines are hampered. No Borg or Romulans , not much at all that might be too, too threatening to humanity, since we know they have to survive to produce Kirk and Picard, et. al. How Enterprise can resolve these limits for possible storylines, when characters and themes already seem two-dimensional, is a bigger mystery than any narrative threads could ever cast.
Still, co-creators Brannon Braga and Rick Berman are probably the right men for this difficult job. No one except Gene Roddenberry himself could pull off a successful Star Trek series better than these two, who both played crucial producing, creating, and writing roles in all three recent series. Their involvement surely helps Enterprise, in that the writing’s often witty, the plots rarely drag, and, in general, none of the characters really grate on your nerves. That, however, does not a great show make.
Just as Enterprise is premised on the notion of “looking back to when we were looking ahead,” it also does not look too far ahead of its predecessors in terms of breaking new thematic ground. The most daring move thus far has been changing the title theme to a bad rock anthem instead of maintaining the classic “Space, the final frontier…” theme. This is the first Star Trek series with a non-international crew and a noticeable lack of racial and ethnic variety. This may be the oddest aspect of the show, because Star Trek has always been about diversity. Now that we’re in the 21st century, Enterprise is taking a step backward socially. And social commentary, lest we forget, has long been the Star Trek franchise’s most attractive convention.