Thursday, August 25, 2022

Enterprise, Season 2: Precious Cargo

Enterprise, Season 2
"Precious Cargo"
Airdate: December 11, 2002
36 of 97 produced
36 of 97 aired


Enterprise renders aid to a transport that is carrying humanoid cargo. Trip, upon discovering that this cargo is a beautiful woman, proceeds to bed her down.

No! Don't wake me up until the script is done!




Matthew: I remember quite disliking this one upon its initial airing. I have softened on it over the last 20 years. It has problems which I will get to, but at its core it is a story that basically works. Is it a cliche story of two people disliking each other intensely and then having romance spark between them over shared hardship? Sure. But cliches are that way for a reason. We enjoy them, and there is enough here to make it a functional version of that cliche. Of course Kaitaama was going to find Trip's folksy charm and ignorance of her social station disarming after a while. Don't we all like Trip? Sure we do. And the basics of them fleeing capture and camping out create a totally workable setting for this style of romance.

Kevin: I remember also disliking this episode and, whoo boy, did the rewatch not dislodge not that sensation. You are correct, that this basic story is a cliche for a reason. Katharine Hepburn did it with Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen and then again with John Wayne a quarter century later in Rooster Cogburn. The first of those is a classic of the Golden Age of Hollywood. The second is regarded as a tepid, obvious retread. Where does this one land? Let's find out...

Matthew: OK, with the aforementioned established, there are distinct criticisms to be made. As a cliche story, very little of any surprise occurs. You can basically predict the entire course of this one from the moment she steps out of the stasis addition to this predictability, there is a lack of intellectual or science fiction ambition. The two episodes this borrows most heavily from, TOS "Elaan of Troyius" and TNG "The Perfect Mate," both had more going on than this one. The lesser of the two, Elaan, at least had the angle of mind-controlling tears and whether or not Kirk could resist them. "Perfect Mate" of course had the notion of empathic metamorphosis, as well as the ethical quandary of arranging the exchange of desirable females for diplomatic purposes. Precious Cargo has basically nothing. It is entirely a fugitive camping story with a love-hate relationship. Is that enough? I think not, at least at this level of quality and lack of insight. I think Kaitaama lacked a back story, and giving her one could have elevated this. Does she want to be a member of this aristocracy? Does this life suit her? We get no examination of such questions. Heck, they even could have turned this into a cultural relativism "We mated, you have to marry me now" sort of story. Nope. 

Kevin: To go back to my Katharine Hepburn reference, the reason the first one worked and the second one didn't is that in The African Queen, the leads had genuine chemistry and played off well defined characters. The second didn't because it was basically running on fumes of audience affection for the first one. Even setting aside the philosophical or moral dimensions of Perfect Mate, the chemistry is there and on a basic level, we just watched two people feel attraction to each other and deal with the consequences of not being able to act on that attraction. Storytelling 101. Give characters something to want and then put an obstacle in the way. Perfect Mate also succeeds where Elaan and this episode do not because it directly engaged with the shitty gender politics of the damsel in distress story. Kamala was born into a deeply unfair situation, but on the basis of the writing and the performance, I could believe she made a conscious, informed choice to not rebel because she cared about preventing a war for her people. And her choice to imprint on Picard but go through with the marriage underlies her agency. This is a long way of saying that there was nothing under the hood of this story to battle its horribly dated gender roles. 

It would have been so, so easy to shade Kaitaama as even slightly competent, and the episode clearly devalues the things she is apparently good at. They even could have played up she's good at being under constant threat of being kidnapped and knows when to escape and when not to. It's basically premium unleaded misogyny to assume that the pageantry side of politics is the feminine and, therefore, lesser part of it. As many wars have been stopped and started at a well-timed dinner party, and accounting for the egos of the men involved is a skill, one many women in history have wielded to their personal or national advantage. Given that House of the Dragon just dropped, I'm recalling the way the world loved Arya, but hated Sansa, especially in the early seasons. I think that show actually did a good job of showing that Sansa's ability to play the doting woman was how she survived. She may not have survived the world Arya was in, but neither would Arya have survived Sansa's. Arya would have made a glorious and futile attempt to stab Ramsey and the show would be over. The short version of this is that even if you want to make Kaitaama a traditionally girly girl, that doesn't mean reducing her to a ignorant shrew. 

And I think why I am getting so worked up about this is that I am viewing this episode in light of the show thus far. The staff of TNG don't get passes for Code of Honor or Angel One, but you can't say that either represents a pattern or apparent core position of the show. The show's gender politics, from the decon chamber to Two Days and Two Nights to Phlox almost literally prescribing Archer "Take two of T'Pol's big boobies" are enough data points to create a pattern. And Hoshi falling out her shirt in Shockwave. That annoyed me, too. This episode is another data point. Either someone on this staff does not like women and views them only as objects of sexual desire, or the writing staff collectively cannot see that that is how it's coming off. One is a more  a venal sin than the other's mortal sin, but either are leading to a lengthening list of episodes that are full on needle scratches for my enjoyment of Enterprise.

Matthew: I just want to reply that Kaitaama is, in my view, portrayed as relatively competent. She does not freak out or get hysterical over her kidnapping, she views it as another 'par for the course' portion of her career path, and sort of rolls her eyes when Trip gets all macho man about it. Anyway, We got a minor B story scenelet of Archer and T'Pol playing Good Cop/Bad Cop (another cliche). It didn't really illuminate their characters - and T'Pol didn't even seem reticent to prevaricate in such a way.

Kevin: Maybe I was just feeling uncharitable, but this whole arc really, actively annoyed me. Not only is T'Pol just straight up lying, ostensibly something she wouldn't do, this is literally a sentient rights violation. Threatening murder or torture is only very slightly less morally reprehensible than actually doing it. Even if the Federation hasn't been chartered yet, the idea that you aren't allowed to use illegal means, even in exigent circumstances, to coerce information is a pretty well established one in our world, let alone theirs. It's played for laughs, and maybe that is supposed to defuse it. I'm not saying every Starfleet officer is a saint, but for comparison, when Riker threatens to turn the Yridian in Gambit over to the Klingons, however lawful that might be, it's supposed to portray how unspooled Riker had become over Picard's apparent death. I know I'm over reading the scene, since again, I get it was played for laughs, and maybe I'm looking at through a 2022 lens on police actions, but there's also just not enough actual humor there to make the scene work anyway. They literally threatened to kill a man to get what they wanted, relying on the fact that he didn't know they wouldn't so he would talk. That is kind of cavalier use of violence for which we would otherwise shred Kurtzman Trek.


Matthew: Padma Lakshmi is a beautiful woman, this is beyond serious debate. Is she a great actress? Well.... she delivered her lines. If she was supposed to modulate them in a charming direction, she was only intermittently successful. I didn't get much sense of her character's history. I did buy that she found Trip sexy and challenging. 

Kevin: I can't recall seeing her act in anything else, so I don't really have the data to compare, but I don't think Katharine Hepburn could have made this one work. I have seen Padma Lakshmi many times in Top Chef, and she is miles better there. She's even a better version of this character. Her role as host/judge on Top Chef is to be a staggeringly beautiful woman whose presence is intimidating to the point that you are thrilled to watch her coolly tell someone to 'pack their knives...and go.' Honestly, had the aliens just kidnapped TV's Padma Lakshmi, host of Top Chef, and she looked Tucker dead in the eye and told him the scallops he made over a campfire were overcooked and under-seasoned, this would be a much better, and much more credible, episode.

Matthew: Connor Trinneer has been the MVP of this series so far, being able to charm his way through some pretty lackluster episodes (I'm looking in your direction, "Unexpected"). He achieves the equivalent of turning a dropped third strike on the part of the script into a throwing error by the catcher and taking first base.

Kevin: I found the 'aww, shucks, ma'am' routine a little grating this time, but again, I think that's the story not the acting. I would actually love to see him do a Hepburn/Tracy love-hate comedy with someone and a much better script. I think he has the chops, they just weren't really on display here.

Production Values

Matthew: The three new sets we got were the cargo vessel, which was extremely bland, the escape pod, which looked pretty good, and the planet, which looked exactly like a sound stage with so-so vegetation props. As far as costumes, we got Padma Lakshmi in various states of slinky dress. So, not a total failure?

Kevin: The escape pod was good at feeling like a place meant for one person, and not designed to be comfortable in any way, and I will credit both the acting and framing as doing a decent job with the physical comedy. 


Matthew: This is not awful, but neither is it good. I was at least mildly entertained simply by virtue of the functional cliche at work. I can't really bring myself to place this in the bottom decile of all Trek. It doesn't break continuity, it isn't offensive, it's just kind of trite and unambitious. It's a 2 for me.

Kevin: As I think my TED Talk above demonstrates, I disagree that this episode is not offensive. If you poke even a little at the presumptions underlying this story, it feels like one written in a different century, at best. The writers literally stopped crafting a character after deciding she was "pretty but annoying." And again, maybe had the show built up some goodwill, it could simply cash in that chip, but it hasn't. It's female characters have been either underutilized or oversexualized or both. I will accept an argument that this episode is on par with Elaan of Troyius, which we gave a 4. But that was made 34 years before this one. It is worse to have written this episode in 2002 rather than 1968. Branon Braga apparently called this "one of the worst episodes of Star Trek" and he is correct. It's only the more shocking he didn't immediately clock that at the draft stage and prevent this disaster from making it to the screen. This is a one, for a total of 3.

Matthew: While I accept your rating and your thesis for it, I just don't find this to be particularly sexist. I think you're filling in underbaked plot ideas with sexism, as opposed to it being there explicitly. We just don't know a whole hell of a lot about Kaitaama or Krios Prime, really.

Kevin: I think if this episode had been in early Season 1, I would agree with that, but to the extent I am making inferences, the objective facts I am using to build those inferences are a chain of episodes of the last season and a half. This show doesn't know how to write for women. Whether that's malice or ignorance is an open question, but the results are the same.

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