Enterprise, UPN’s fourth-generation Star Trek series entered its third season Wednesday night to much fan interest (not to mention a fair amount of media insider interest, if the news stories regarding the show’s troubles can be taken as any indication). The premiere episode, “Xindi” continues the plot arc established in last season’s finale, “The Expanse,” in which an unknown alien orb devastated large segments of the Earth, in particular, what would have been, pre-Star Trek, the United States.

For months last season, as ratings continued a slow decline, Enterprise‘s dynamic duo, co-executive producers Rick Berman and Brannon Bragga, made much noise about “fixing” the series. They planned to spice it up with more intrigue, sexier interpersonal character dynamics, and (not surprisingly) increased action (that is, lots more people running around with phasers and loads more cool CGI starship-against-starship battles). This talk continued well into the off-season, with Bragga asserting, “We kind of have a master plan — it’s the first time we’ve ever really known where a season was going… This is not just going to be a season of battling with these aliens trying to destroy Earth. There are going to be twists and turns and attempts at peace and all the kinds of things that we think Star Trek viewers expect” (“Producers: Expanse Mission May Last Entire Season,” http://www.startrek.com/startrek/view/news/article/1665.shtml). That’s right, Trek fans. Your suspicions were correct: there was no apparent direction in Enterprise‘s first two seasons.

Now there is “direction” (“kind of”) and a “new look” (a slightly longer hair-do for Jolene Blalock’s T’Pol, not to mention her new catsuit!), a different crew (including space Marines), and a big fat new storyline. Even the theme song has been tweaked a bit. Of course, with all this “newness” comes heightened expectations. Which brings us back to season premiere, the Trek version of self-defibrillation.

Here’s the plot: with the knowledge that the Xindi attacked Earth in a misguided effort at self-defense (having been informed by someone that Earth forces would destroy the Xindi homeworld in 400 years, a tangential subplot of the vaster “temporal cold war” story arc), the Enterprise crew has entered the dangerous Delphic Expanse in search of their misguided nemesis. This is a mission to set the record straight, so to speak, it being a tacit assumption of this story arc that “we” (the Earth, either in Enterprise time or 400 years later) could never possibly do such a thing.

The crew is suitably serious, Captain Archer (Scott Bakula) in particular. No more smiles for this guy. And certainly no more fun. This new ‘tude is driven home early in the episode, when Archer dresses down Lieutenant Malcolm Reed (Dominic Keating) in front of T’Pol. Reed has had the temerity to question the veracity of some recent intelligence, and it looks like there’s no more time for those kinds of doubts, just action. They’ve been in the Expanse for six weeks and they still haven’t found the Xindi and, well, who knows when the next Orb is going to descend on Earth? Yes, the mood is definitely less chipper than in previous seasons. It appears that, post-9/11, the show is serving an altered Trek constituency, one looking for decisive action, evidence be damned, not some intellectual reverence for namby-pamby abstractions like the Prime Directive.

The “Xindi” arc certainly fits this changed perspective. Characters appear to be suffering a mixture of post-shock disorder and apocalypse anxiety (particularly the Captain). A weirdly distilled typology appears to be realigning character relations and motivations: Commander Charles “Trip” Tucker (Connor Trinneer), mourning his sister’s death during the attack on Earth, recalls a bereaved Twin Towers survivor, and those Marines (the Military Assault Command Operations, or MACOs for short), with their uber-professional killing machine personas, are like a science fiction interpretation of the Delta Force (at one point in the episode, they descend from the sky by ropes to save the day, in that by-now standard image of special forces troop deployment). Does that make Archer, now lost in uncharted space trying to find something he knows not what, the Enterprise’s George W. Bush? Who will play Kofi Anan?

If “Xindi” is any indication, the Enterprise crew is in for its own version of the hunt for bin Laden. While action is the new strategy (do something, anything), hard information (the stuff you usually act on) is in short supply. They manage, through a suitably violence-packed firefight on a slave labor mining colony, to find the supposed coordinates of the Xindi homeworld. Here, however, they discover nothing more than a huge floating debris field, the remains of a long-dead planet. The only solution? Go deeper into the increasingly hazardous Delphic Expanse. After Afghanistan, Iraq. More action, less thought, please.

The question is, will this type of storyline bring the viewers back to the show? Part of the original intrigue for the series was that it was a prequel, a decided change in strategy from the previous series, each firmly situated in the “Federation” universe with all its assumed history and contexts. The prequel idea, especially for such a long-established franchise as Star Trek, offers a vast potential field of narrative space; think of all that assumed history, just waiting to be developed in script form (for examples: how did the Prime Directive come to be in the first place? how did the Earth and Vulcan become such close allies? etc.).

But the prequel also poses risks and challenges the earlier series never encountered. As each line of “history” is filled in and stabilized by Enterprise, its previous potentiality is reduced (the “Oh, so that’s how that happened” factor). With such a developed and deeply entrenched fan culture, the possibility for disappointment is immense. And, not surprisingly, there have been many expressions of disappointment, even outrage, on the online Trek fan-lists over Berman and Brannon’s handling of this prehistory. Sensitivities run high in the Trek universe.

It’s telling and perhaps appropriate that the rebirth of Enterprise coincides with a foray into a completely unknown (to Federation explorers) area of space. There’s no recognized post-history for this venture (the crew is unlikely to meet up with the usual alien suspects in the Delphic Expanse). This means that, to a relative degree, the new arc is unencumbered by much of the accumulated weight of Trek tradition. At the same time, as there remains an unresolved Klingon plotline to be picked up again (the Klingons want to imprison Archer for some first and second season troubles), it’s not Voyager, which ended up being too far out of the safe confines of Federation space and audience familiarity.

Will the “new” Enterprise manage to arrest the “old” Enterprise‘s declining ratings? It’s hard to say. The ratings for “Xindi” were about level with ratings for last season’s finale. And the current arc may be flying to close to “real-world” troubles to succeed long-term (like, for more than one season). Alternately, it may be just what the doctor ordered. One thing is for sure: Berman and Brannon have this one season to find out.


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