Airing its final episode this week, Star Trek: Enterprise is the latest variation of Gene Roddenberry’s utopian universe. Though not as long-lived as the other incarnations (The Next Generation, Voyager, and Deep Space Nine all lasted seven seasons), the four-season Enterprise is certainly the most interesting. Set around 2150, nearly 100 years before the adventures of Kirk and Spock, Enterprise showcases the origins of human interstellar space travels. While most of the episodes follow a repetitive “alien of the week” structure, this series encodes a more liberal political ideology than the original.
One cannot obviate the cultural importance of Star Trek, but the franchise’s many DVD presentations have yet to address it. Case in point, none of the extras on Paramount’s handsomely packaged DVD set of Enterprise discusses the series’ impact. “Creating Enterprise” is a short documentary about the production design and “Cast Impressions: Season One,” presents brief interviews with actors; the DVD also features insightful commentary by producers Brannon Braga and Rick Berman on the pilot episode “Broken Bow,” concerning their interest in characters over effects and the controversial retro look of the show. Star Trek experts and Enterprise crew members, Michael Okuda and his wife Denise, offer text commentary for three episodes, highlighting arcane details of the creative process of the episodes and series mythology.
This mythology includes an “origin story,” in that Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula) is commanding Star Fleet’s first super fast starship, the NX-01 Enterprise. For all his authority and charm, Archer resembles Dr. Sam Becket, the awkward time-traveling scientist Bakula played in Quantum Leap. His apprehension is showcased in the episode “Silent Enemy,” as he confronts an aggressive alien vessel. After a debilitating attack on his ship, Archer opts to retreat to Earth to acquire more firepower. When his Senior Engineer Trip (Connor Trinneer) and weapons expert Reed (Dominic Keating) create the first ship-mounted phaser cannon, he counterattacks.
While Kirk was confident with his command (here he might have used his notorious Corbomite maneuver to overcome his opponent), Archer more often appears uncomfortable. This difference between Archer and Kirk hints at a shift in the franchise’s politics. According to Berman and Braga, Enterprise was conceived to focus on the “right stuff” that characterizes the early deep space explorers. To make the point, the series’ title sequence includes footage from the Mercury and Apollo programs, as well as old maps, and vintage airplanes, and ships.
To enhance thematic connections to current technology, the ship has a “retro” look; though this ship’s exterior has the distinctive nacelles and main disc configuration of Kirk’s ship, its interior brings to mind the dark and confined interiors of a German U-boat. As explained by Braga, Berman, and production designer Herrmann Zimmerman in “Creating Enterprise,” these visuals resulted from efforts to avoid the sterile, ultramodern look of the previous spaceships. Indeed, the NX-01 looks technologically challenged: an emergency evacuation of a “red shirt” via a primitive teletransportation device gruesomely merges him with grass and other debris in “Strange New World.”
This underdeveloped space technology has political effects. Franchise connoisseurs will remember the many instances when previous captains found a justification to circumvent the Prime Directive, or preached 20th-century U.S. morality across the universe, using superior firepower to enforce it when necessary. But, as revealed in “Broken Bow,” circumstances in Enterprise are reversed: the Vulcans are pretty much the galaxy’s major power, with the fastest ships and most lethal weapons. According to the Vulcans, humans need to embrace logic before venturing into outer space.
Diplomatic relations between Earth and Vulcan are fragile to say the least, as Vulcans judge mankind unfit to travel across the galaxy. Every member of Starfleet resents the Vulcan intervention into human affairs and the Enterprise‘s very existence challenges Vulcan’s wishes. And, unlike Spock, the Vulcans in Enterprise are secretive, even treacherous. In “The Andorian Incident,” Archer discovers that a remote Vulcan monastery is actually a listening station used to spy on the Andorians, in clear violation of a peace agreement both parties had signed.
All these complexities are embodied in the Vulcan T’Pol (Jolene Blalock), the NX-01 science officer, faced with conflicts among the politics of her home planet, her duty on board the Enterprise, and her friendship with Captain Archer. Her internal conflicts are made evident in “Fallen Hero,” where T’Pol has to convince a prominent Vulcan Ambassador to trust Captain Archer. Still, her alliances are easy to predict. After all, Enterprise presents the Vulcans as oppressive, at times even morally wrong.
On the other hand, Archer and his crew are tolerant of other species and cultural differences, eager to discover new civilizations. Arguably, in the Star Trek universe, military technology is intimately linked to political ideology. And at least during the time frame of the first season of Enterprise, Starfleet appears more interested in exploration than colonization.
One could argue that such liberal ideology is a reflection of the Clinton years. In this light, it’s worth considering how the politics of the first season mutated during the subsequent three years. Throughout most of its third and fourth seasons, Enterprise featured a story arc about a fearsome alien race that conducted a devastating attack on Earth. In these episodes, Enterprise exploited post-9/11 fears of terrorism and mass destruction, embracing the paranoia and militarism that characterize the Bush Jr. years.