Part 1 of 5: Introduction
How many TV series can you name that have been so successful that they've had a prequel series made?
Okay. And now, how many TV series can you name that have been so successful that they've had a prequel series made featuring none of the same characters?
I'm really not sure that I can name any…
Oh, apart from Star Trek of course.
Amazing. Just what were Paramount thinking? I mean spin-off fiction, like books, is usually all over this sort of idea, because spin-offs are bought by fans, who see the whole thing in much greater detail, including its holes, which they quite rightly want to see filled in and completed. But the general public? What's their interest in tidying up the history of a series that they don't know so deeply? Well, I guess that Star Trek really must be just that popular a series...
In Enterprise Paramount produced a full-length mainstream TV series, set in Star Trek's past, with all the restrictions that come with that. No established character or race could be killed off. No new advanced technology could be introduced that had not also been present in any of the later-set series. Crossover appearances would be right out, or at least highly contrived.
I mean I love the idea. I just never thought that US TV would actually go through with actually making it. Wow.
That said, today the show about the adventures of Earth's very first starship is broadly remembered as a flop. You see, it only ran for four seasons. Yes, only four. Just 98 episodes. I know, what an embarrassing non-starter.
Trouble was, when Enterprise launched, all three of Star Trek's other recent spin-off series (Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager) had each run for seven years. So clearly the pressure was on for Enterprise to perform similarly well.
In the event, it arguably ended up making three quite distinctive series over the course of its four-year run.
Part 2 of 5: Seasons 1 & 2
The first two seasons pretty much rested on the name's laurels, and were bog-standard standalone episodes visiting various planets each week, as you'd expect. As the crew of explorers were literally going where no man had gone before at that point, they were somewhat more excitable than their counterparts on those other shows, but broadly speaking their's was the same brief. Shallow human interest stories thinly dressed up as science fiction, with the ongoing background joke of setting up the way that things would one day become.
Eg. In Singularity, Malcolm Reed comes up with what will one day be the familiar 'red alert' klaxon, which Trip suggests they name "Reed Alert". Groan…
There's also a vague recurring plot about a 'temporal cold war', but after seven years of watching Voyager I came with no expectations of this amounting to anything, let alone making much sense.
Detained is worthy of note for reuniting lead actor Scott Bakula with his Quantum Leap co-star Dean Stockwell, in a script packed to bursting with in-jokes about that series. Apart from the rewritten opening scene - Mayweather's role should clearly have been Archer coming to, taking in his surroundings, and muttering to himself "Oh boy!"
On the whole though, more modern-style Star Trek wasn't something that appealed to me. I always thought the worst thing about the original 1960s series of Star Trek was its emotional content. I always liked it for its stories about space, planets, time and ideas, which modern versions always kept to a minimum to focus on feelings, exactly like every single other programme on TV that night.
Consequently the first two seasons of Enterprise just didn't do it for me, although it was better than The Next Generation and Voyager, for which I was grateful. Downer about that constrictive widescreen though - I could make out what was happening, but never with much ease. No wonder the rest of the world was flipping channels.
The end of season two would retrospectively turn out to be the show's halfway mark. There's no avoiding that Enterprise was getting freaked. The final episode of that second season jumped off of the show's regular episodic format with a shameless 9/11 analogy, which would mark a point of no return for the series. In the event, Enterprise would get two further shots at survival.
Part 3 of 5: Season 3
Drawing on the world's real-life bewilderment at the initial total lack of suspects for the September 11th destruction, an unknown and unmanned alien ship materialises without any warning, and silently fires upon Earth, instantly murdering over seven million humans.
The repercussions are inexpressible. Trip's sister is dead, and he wants revenge. Publicly, the USS Enterprise is blamed for attracting attention to our fair planet. Upon being tipped off that the mysterious 'Xindi' are to blame, the Enterprise then spends the whole of season three away in the Delphic Expanse, slowly smoking them out.
And what a series that turned out to be! On some level it was probably an attempt to break away from the restrictions of the Star Trek universe's continuity, forcing the crew to encounter life and civilisations that were as new to the viewers as to the characters. Unfortunately, it also looked like an attempt to emulate the remote setting of Star Trek: Voyager. (eurghhh…) And yet, this time Star Trek really went for it!
Conceding to add the 'Star Trek' prefix to its title, Star Trek: Enterprise now successfully became a distinctive original series in its own right. With only a few standalone episodes (eg. Exile… more eurghhh), the whole series became one long serial, with a mystery to be unlocked, and a whole new menagerie of aliens on a fresh spacescape.
If any word sums up the tone of this season, then I think it would be 'claustrophobic'.
Our heroes spend most of their time banged up in a metal box in space, which due to battles can be a mess of metal wreckage, while in some other dark quarter a race of unknown beings debate the progression of their plans to annihilate the Earth. (that first strike had been a test) Sure, long-term Trek-viewers knew full well that this was going to depend upon help from a string of alien fifth-columnists who would each get murdered in turn requiring the next one to step in and take over, but that didn't matter. The journey that year was well worth it, especially since the serial format now allowed the characters to remember what had happened to them the preceding week.
Perhaps best of all is the gradual descent over to the dark side that Captain Archer goes through. In Anomaly, he tortures an Osaarian for information by throwing him in an airlock and starting to depressurise it. In Damage he needs a warp coil to make an important rendezvous, and upon having his offer of trade for one politely declined, takes it by force, stranding his shocked new friends in space. (he never goes back) In Azati Prime, he orders the destruction of an inhabited moonbase in case they are intending to report Enterprise's position to the enemy. Yes, he murders a group of innocent beings in cold blood. He has to. There are billions of people on Earth depending upon Enterprise's mission to succeed.
What other Star Trek captain could do that?
Archer: "I thought we were here to try and stop a war, not start one."
- The Shipment
I have to admit that developments like these caused that rarest of reactions in me after the episodes: I found myself examining and questioning my own morality. Usually Star Trek's straw arguments are a crowd-pleasing case of preaching to the converted, but some of Archer's dilemmas, and choices, got to me. Now that's engaging television.
Degra: "Aquatics respect boldness and confidence - they view hushed tones with suspicion."
Archer: "I'll make sure I project."
Degra: "Not too loudly - the insectoids interpret raised voices as a sign of hostility."
Hoshi: "When aquatics use the past tense, they switch to sonar."
- The Council
A fantastic season. Well, if I'm honest, actually not that fantastic, but enjoyable. I'm just so well-disposed to it because of the enormous effort I could see them making.
Part 4 of 5: Season 4
Come season four, the show gets yet another facelift.
In one sense, this is a disaster. The CGI takes an absolute nosedive.
In another sense, it's a triumph. Returning from completing last season's creative mission, the Star Trek universe gets firmly re-embraced again, by trading mainly in multi-part stories about different aspects of it.
For example, one three-parter features Brent Spiner as an ancestor of Dr Noonien Soong, and arguably other future roles that he has played. The following trilogy is about politics on Vulcan, featuring a young T'Pau. Still another two-parter shows the Klingon race becoming afflicted with genetic mutations that will make some of them look more like humans for a few generations...
In A Mirror, Darkly is set entirely in the mirror universe. It opens by cribbing footage from the movie Star Trek: First Contact and augmenting it with new shots to change Earth's history. The opening credits are rerealised to portray mankind's warlike conquest of the stars. The alternate ISS Enterprise crew then go on to encounter and board the derelict USS Defiant from just after Star Trek: The Tholian Web, complete with computer voiced by Majel Barrett, and dead redshirts. At one point Captain Archer - wearing a classic 'Kirk' uniform - gets into a bare-knuckle fistfight with a Gorn. The whole story never features 'our' crew, which is likewise impressive.
While on an aesthetic level I loved all these enthralling elements, I found the story uninvolving and the end a disaster. Part two concludes with the various plotlines still in full swing, which left me in no doubt that the following week would bring the concluding episode three. Well, no, that was it apparently.
The final instalment of the whole run These Are The Voyages… is likewise a round disaster, but with the best of intentions. It's always been a part of Star Trek: Enterprise's MO to foreshadow the rest of the Star Trek canon, and be watchable in advance of it. Might have been better cancelled after season three then, so as not to make the original three-year 1960s series look so curtailed! :)
In this episode, people from the future review a holographic simulation of the original starship Enterprise's decommission, establishing its pivotal place in Federation history, and its legacy of further spacefaring vessels bearing the same name. You can see that they really wanted William Shatner to play Admiral Kirk in this role, but obviously they couldn't get him, so they've used their standard fallback… Riker. And Troi. Eurghhh.
I'll admit that the opportunity to feel as though I'm watching authentic brand new Star Trek: The Next Generation scenes again, complete with sets, sound effects and establishing shots, carries something of a nostalgia kick. They've even managed to get Brent Spiner back to reprise Data's voice over the intercom, which belongs since his aforementioned appearance as Dr Soong earlier in the season.
However so much emphasis is placed upon these characters that the finale forgets both the broader Star Trek universe and, much more importantly, the series which I had turned on the telly to bid farewell to. None of the regular Star Trek: Enterprise characters appear in this closing episode. Rather we get computer simulations of them, which cannot possibly represent actual events with any accuracy. Compare this with the final episode of Babylon 5's fourth (and penultimate) season, which trod a similar line, but showed history aloofly rerealising our heroes as bad boys.
The biggest insult must surely be Archer's having to raise a glass in one scene with the words "To the next generation!" Rather, this line really should have been "To Enterprise."
The closing montage of the classic "Space the final frontier" voice-over clips being delivered by Picard, Kirk and Archer was a good ending, surely those were Archer's own inspiring words being embraced down the generations. However I really wanted to see this speech to the Federation. Captain Archer's good at those, and it would have represented the one scene that the future would have retained an accurate recording of.
In short, I never dreamt the series' swansong could turn out to be this unsatisfying.
Part 5 of 5: In Summary
All the same, thanks to the second half of its run, I will always look back upon this fun series with special fondness. It was no classic, but its makers sure deserve an Enterprise 'A' for effort.
I'm still holding out for a series of Trek TV reunion movies within the next decade. The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager were all big enough successes to warrant it. Enterprise on the other hand, well, they'll probably get one too, so as to not appear conspicuous by their absence.
Hopefully then this crew, and story, will get a proper send off.
Ships are traditionally launched with a great deal of pomp and celebration. They should go out that way too.