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“Star Trek: Enterprise” (2001-2005) is like preserved wine

In September of 2001 (that month that lives in infamy) a new Star Trek series debuted called “Enterprise”. It was also released minus the Star Trek brand name (at first…it was reinstated by Season 2). Produced by longtime Star Trek writer/producers Rick Berman and Brannon Braga, the series was a prequel to TOS Star Trek, taking place in the mid-22nd century (a little over 100 years before the time of Kirk and Spock). One of the show’s recurring ideas was a “temporal cold war” (involving rogue time travelers), but it seems that “Enterprise” (ENT) has fought its own war against time… and won.

The series’ production design (by longtime ST production designer Herman Zimmerman) attempted to walk a line between looking less sophisticated than TOS Star Trek (cramped interiors, clunky technology, etc), yet convincingly futuristic enough as to not be laughable to modern audiences. It partly succeeded, though some detractors argue (not without merit) that the show’s overall aesthetic is far more futuristic than the pioneering 1960s parent series. In fact, the series’ ongoing “temporal cold war” (TCW) was perhaps initially conceived as a means to explain away certain visual discontinuities between the new series and later Star Trek incarnations. The TCW became the series’ “a wizard did it” card… a way of explaining why certain events didn’t seem to track with later Trek.

Core Characters.

At first, Captain Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula) comes off as a blustery “ugly American in Space”, but he definitely mellows over the by the end of the series, becoming less proto-Kirk and a bit more proto-Picard.

Archer’s initial bluster eventually smooths into compassion and open-mindedness. Archer has a beagle named Porthos and enjoys water polo.

The Captain’s new science officer is the Angelina Jolie-esque Vulcan T’Pol (Jolene Blalock), who is initially sent by the Vulcan High Command to keep on eye on the semi-savage human crew, but grows closer to them over time… particularly the chief engineer,

Commander Charles “Trip” Tucker III (Connor Trinneer) is the captain’s best friend. Engineer Trip is a likable cross between TOS Star Trek’s Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy and chief engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott. Trip and T’Pol’s initial friction with each other masks a latent attraction that manifests itself later on.

Other bridge crew members include linguistic genius/comm officer (and nervous flyer) Ensign Hoshi Sato (Linda Park), underused “space boomer” helmsman Ensign Travis Mayweather (Anthony Montgomery) and somewhat uptight tactical officer Lt. Malcom Reed (Brit actor Dominic Keating, who couldn’t be less like his character in real life).

The crew are joined on their maiden voyage by non-commissioned chief medical officer Dr. Phlox (John Billingsley). Denobulan Phlox was practicing medicine on Earth as part of an alien-exchange program. Phlox is characterized by his jovial manner and open mind. He quickly became one of my early favorites.

Stumbling Into An Eventual Sprint.

ENT left spacedock with a few hard knocks; the prime of which was debuting the same month as the worst terrorist attack on US shores, 9/11. The show’s production team was hard-pressed to suddenly try to incorporate those horrific events into its storylines for relevance. The pilot episode, “Broken Bow”, was filmed months before 9/11 happened, yet its new series’ villains were already called the “Suliban” (a name meant to evoke the US’ own radical terrorist adversary in Afghanistan, the Taliban).

It was at this point that ENT kinda lost me. There was already a heavy sci-fi metaphor series dealing with post-9/11 anxieties called “Battlestar Galactica” (former ST writer/producer Ron Moore’s bold reimagination of the 1970s family show) and frankly, BSG was doing it much better. BSG dealt with the topics by turning them on their heads; getting audiences to see all sides of the conflict with the now jihadist Cylons, rather than relaxing into tired jingoism and chest-thumping. ENT seemed less empathetic with its Suliban and Xindi adversaries, with only perfunctory olive branches offered now and then. However, it got better. Much better, in fact. The 4th and final season of ENT became not only a best for the series, but arguably one of the best seasons in all of Star Trek.

ENT’s 4th season, under new showrunner Manny Coto (“Dexter”) ended the TCW in a two-part season opener and then rededicated itself to the show’s original mission statement… being a prequel to TOS Star Trek. 4th season ENT began connecting the dots between the seeming disparities of ENT’s 22nd century to the more benign, smooth-running universe we later see in ST’s 23rd and 24th centuries.

Innovations.

ENT ushered in a lot of firsts for the Star Trek franchise. It was the first prequel series to TOS (“Star Trek: Discovery” came 12 years later). It was the first new ST series of the 21st century. It was the first Star Trek series shot (and broadcast) in 16:9 widescreen format, which is the industry standard today. With the first few seasons’ principal photography shot on 35mm film, the final 4th season was shot entirely on digital video, making previous time-consumptive digital compositing of the special effects unnecessary (the transition is seamless, thanks to director of photography Marvin Rush’s brilliant work). ENT was also the first ST series to not have a miniature built of its lead spaceship, since all the visual effects (including the ships) were shot entirely as computer-generated elements. The sets were also littered with working computer flat-screen monitors (no more bulky, cathode-ray tubes on set). ENT opened a lot of doors for future Star Trek productions.

Another first for ST is the use of a pop song (Diane Warren’s “Faith of the Heart”; a song written for the 1998 Robin Williams’ comedy “Patch Adams”, and originally performed by Rod Stewart). ENT’s cover version of “Faith…” was sung by Russell Watson, and to be honest, it’s one of my least favorite elements of the series. While the lyrics have a certain “Star Trek” vibe to them (“I can reach any star…”), the song sounds a bit like a Michael Bolton coffee commercial. Personally I prefer the orchestral music from longtime ST composer Dennis McCarthy which is played over the show’s end credits. It has the kind of aspirational feel to it that has been long associated with ST scores. It’s also punctuated with a few contemporary guitar licks here and there to give it a slightly closer-to-our-time feel. It could’ve easily served as ENT’s main title theme, but Rick Berman and company wanted a pop song. Oh well…

Reevaluation.

While quite a few episodes of the series felt like tired retreads of “Voyager” or TNG scripts (especially among its standalone episodes), there were also some innovations as well; an entire season was spent on a single mission. This was another ST ‘first.’ Yes, “Deep Space Nine” began serializing of ST storylines back in the 1990s (it also had a two-season Dominion War arc), but the NX-01’s mission into the expanse to destroy the Xindi super weapon was unique for its single-mindedness. It was also the first and last time we saw the Federation equivalent of Marines aboard, with the Starfleet MACOs (Military Assault Command Operations). One assumes their branch was later absorbed into Starfleet tactical/security (the future redshirts of TOS and goldshirts of TNG). I may not be the biggest fan of ENT’s third season, but I have to give credit where its due.

One of the biggest shames of Star Trek was that ENT (and the since-failed UPN network that hosted it) folded just as it was gathering creative steam, and never got a chance for a fifth season. In the book, “The Fifty-Year Mission: The Next 25 Years” by Ed Gross and Mark Altman, we learn that Jeffrey Combs’ Andorian ally “Shran” would’ve become a series regular. ENT’s 4th season saw the show getting its second wind, freed of the shackles of Iraq invasion metaphors and some of the post-9/11 angst that BSG was covering. ENT was creatively finding itself. Imagine if “Star Trek: The Next Generation” were cancelled after its third season, and you get the idea.

With a hit-and-miss first two seasons, a divisive third and a spectacularly successful fourth, ENT was truly on the verge of great things when it was cancelled. One can only imagine where ENT could’ve gone if the sturdy NX-01 hadn’t been prematurely recalled to port. I have little doubt that those never-seen 5th, 6th and 7th seasons of ENT could’ve easily yielded new classic episodes on a par with the very best of Star Trek.

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David

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