Star Trek: Enterprise is currently poised to be remembered as the underdog of the Trek franchise.
Star Trek: Enterprise is currently poised to be remembered as the underdog of the Trek franchise. Cancelled after only four years (the shortest run of any of the Trek spin-offs, if a year longer than the original series' run), Enterprise had seemingly infinite potential. Set in the era after Zefram Cochrane invented the warp drive (as seen in the feature film, Star Trek: First Contact), but before the founding of the United Federation of Planets, the series was to show the early days of Starfleet Command, many decades before a young upstart named James T. Kirk took command of the starship known to many simply by its registry number (NCC-1701) and regularly bent the Prime Directive.
Whoops. Did that last paragraph slip into full-on Trek geekdom? Let's put things in context for the "normal" folks out there. First, Star Trek (Kirk, Spock) took place in the 23rd century. And second, Star Trek: The Next Generation (Picard, Data) took place in the 24th century, as did Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (Sisko, Odo) and Star Trek: Voyager (Janeway, Seven of Nine).
Enterprise took place back in the 22nd century. The premise provided an opportunity to explore the mythos of the Trek universe, including Earth's entry into the universe outside its own solar system, the evolution of Starfleet Command (imagine NASA expanding into a branch of the Armed Forces and you're heading in the right direction), and the events that led to the creation of the aforementioned United Federation of Planets (essentially the United Nations, except for planets instead of countries).
The first season of Enterprise showed a very wobbly Starfleet, still attempting to build a rapport with denizens of other worlds without stepping on too many toes, and unquestionably still under the thumb of the Vulcans, then serving as nursemaids to Earth. Captain Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula) was all wide-eyed innocence, ready to interact with new cultures but unfailingly surprised when they failed to be as nice to him as he was to them. There was even a recurring subplot involving a so-called "temporal cold war," with different factions of time travelers trying to change the future. The season ended with a cliffhanger, where events during Archer's era had been changed sufficiently as to leave Earth a smoldering wasteland in the 31st century. Most viewers had high hopes for Season Two, figuring, okay, we've spent a season setting the stage, Archer's toughened up, and now it's time to get into the real meat of the series.
Unfortunately, that didn't happen. Not with any consistency, anyway. The season began with the resolution of the cliffhanger -- the future is saved -- but the next episode stepped back farther in time... to the 20th century, exploring a possibly apocryphal tale of Vulcans crash-landing on Earth and living among us in the mining town of Carbon Creek, PA. Quaint though it may have been, the story did little to build viewers' confidence that the show had found its direction.
Many episodes of the season were one-off throwaways. "A Night in Sickbay" may well be the silliest episode produced during the series. When Archer stays in sickbay overnight to keep overly close tabs on his sick beagle Porthos' condition, the ship's physician, Dr. Phlox (John Billingsley), tries to convince him that he was repressing sexual feelings toward his Vulcan first officer, T'pol (Jolene Blalock). As the makers had a universe full of Star Trek lore with which to work, these standalone plots seemed almost a waste of time, even if they were intended as thinly veiled references to AIDS ("Stigma"), post-WWII relations between Germans and Jews ("The Breach"), and slavery ("Congenitor"). Similarly, recycling Enemy Mine in "Dawn" and the hoary plot device where royalty meets commoner but the two learn to love each other ("Precious Cargo") stretched audience patience.
There were, admittedly, sparks of brilliance throughout the season, just enough to keep us tuning in. "The Communicator" dealt with the moral repercussions of breaking the Prime Directive -- Starfleet's golden rule, by which representatives can't interfere with the development of other civilizations by handing them technology -- and "Vanishing Point" reminds viewers why the transporter is so rarely used on the series (it's still new technology, and most of the crew is scared of having their molecules broken apart and reconstructed again). Visits from familiar Trek races like the Andorians, the Klingons, and even the Tholians are highly enjoyable, and the linked episodes "Minefield" and "Dead Stop" are a solid two-fer. The best hour of the season is "First Flight," where Archer regales T'Pol with the story of how he battled with one of his peers (guest Keith Carradine) to be the first human to break the Warp 2 barrier. There's more than a little bit of The Right Stuff between the lines, but it's still a great episode.
The pair of commentaries on the Season Two set are a worthy inclusion for fans, as are the documentary special features, spotlighting Jolene Blalock and director LeVar Burton (remembered by Next Generation fans for his role as engineer Geordi LaForge). It's a real bummer that the episode singled out for a making-of feature is the awful "A Night in Sickbay."
The special features are especially lacking -- don't tell me they couldn't get the stars to record a few commentary tracks -- when the price of the set is considered. In a market overflowing with television series being released on DVD, absolutely no other franchise goes out of its way to gouge its fans the way Trek does. The pricing - $100+ per season! -- is in no way comparable to other shows. To be fair, even if it was cheaper, only the most diehard fans would find Enterprise: Season Two a must-buy. But if the producers dropped the ball for the bulk of the season, it should be noted that in the last episode, "The Expanse," they picked it up again, setting the stage for a season-long arc clearly inspired by the 9/11 attacks. It was, however, too little and far, far too late.