Monday, January 23, 2023

Enterprise, Season 4: Borderland

 Enterprise, Season 4
"Borderland"
Airdate: October 29, 2004
79 of 97 produced
79 of 97 aired

Introduction

A group of genetically enhanced miscreants necessitates the Enterprise crew recruiting an unsavory ally.



So do you bumpy-headed dweebs have a Hot Topic in this mall, or what?
 

Writing

Kevin: So we are embarking on a new mode of storytelling in the Manny Coto era: the mini-trilogy. Several threads this season get three episodes of treatment, an apparent compromise between serialized and episodic storytelling. It was, primarily, a mode of cost cutting. Knowing the same sets could be used for three episodes and multiple episodes of material filmed at a time, saves a bundle on production. It's an interesting middle line, but I appreciate it. It lets the stories have some consequences, and they largely manage to avoid the trap of the 'letdown' of the conclusion of a standard two parter. The story doesn't have to tie itself in a bow, just continue in an interesting way. And if you don't like the story, you aren't stuck with it for 13-26 episodes, depending on the series. This Augment arc is definitely one I would not want to spend more than 10 episodes on. So let's dive in. I don't think this is the strongest entry in season 4. The first hurdle is that getting Brent Spiner back as a different Soong AND pulling in the Eugenics Wars is just hardcore fan service. It certainly doesn't destroy anything, like when we do it with Khan in Star Trek Beyond, but I don't quite feel it justifies its existence either. We've done better explorations about the risks of genetic alteration, so this just feels like an excuse to get Spiner back on the show.

Matthew: I see this as sort of an ambitious swing and miss.  Manny Coto has clearly watched all of TOS several times, and is brimming with ideas for explaining things and filling in gaps while still respecting continuity. Putting these "augments" as preserved embryos is a clever way of sidestepping any retconning of the Botany Bay exiles, as well as obviating the need for these kids to keep mentioning that time they were in charge of India or whatever. Bringing in another Soong... yeah, it feels too "small universe" for me. To be fair, it's going to get waaaay worse as they keep bringing Spiner back to play yet another oddly named Soong (not once but twice in the positively vomitous Star Trek Picard). But here it almost works. It's just dumb that every one of these Soongs is a megalomaniacal twat that sciences stuff and looks like a progressively older Brent Spiner. How does he keep finding women to mate with, and why do all of his kids look exactly like him regardless of whom the DNA infusion comes from?

Kevin: The main problem in letting this be a story for itself is that the Augments are pretty terrible. Far from being the apex of human achievement, they all seem like petulant psychopaths. There really wasn't even an attempt to thread the needle of making them seem like a functional people who might be reasonably left to their own devices. The internal machinations were painful and read like bad soap opera. It's nice to know that √úbermenschen still get butthurt over who daddy loved more. They are an unambiguous threat to everyone in everything they do, to the point that it makes the apparently genius Soong incredibly dumb that he keeps being shocked that people are mad at them. There's blind spots about your pet projects, and then there's...this. Even his flippant response to the thought of precipitating a war with the Klingons pre-demolishes any narrative interest in the Augment plight. If he were a little more reasonable, I could care that he cares about his kids. But he and his kids are real jerks at every possible opportunity.

Matthew: I think a much better angle on this story would have been if the Augments were not in fact violent. How does a society that prides itself on having overcome prejudice and bias reckon with an embarrassing relic of their past sins - especially when said relics are living, breathing, feeling people? Maybe they felt this would be a retread of DS9's Bashir story line or something. My biggest problem from a writing perspective was the competition between the two head Augment Bros. Why do they both want Persis? Why doesn't she have her own ambitions? Why hasn't she (or anyone else) gotten pregnant yet? And when's the last time either of them took a shower?

Kevin: The field trip to the Orion slavers was...there. I'm not trying to be snide here, but scenes like this always read as Star Wars to me. The hodgepodge of vaguely unkempt aliens is just always going to take it straight to 'Mos Eisley cantina.' That's not a dig on Star Wars, just that it never reads like part of the Trek universe. It was a fun enough outing for what it was, and I can almost find the visual of the enormous Orion (played by then WWE star Big Show) picking up T'Pol like a rag doll funny, but it really only serves to be Soong's too complicated by half escape plot. How could he know the Orions wouldn't abduct him, even accidentally? I bet a supervillain goes for a high price.

Matthew: This was really the meat of the episode in terms of "stuff happening" plot. It was not thematically tied to the augments, which made it feel weak and out of left field. Why does Soong know so much about the Orion slave market, anyway? Personally, the whole "Big Show manhandles tiny T'Pol" thing made me feel kind of oogy. I was also kind of mystified when they didn't Redshirt the freaked out ensign. Not that I want them to, but they spent a lot of time on him not to.

Kevin: As a stand alone episode, this is a lot of setup. Both the Augment descent into violence and Soong's escape are telegraphed a parsec away. I'll save this for the last episode of the arc, but this could have been collapsed into a two-parter and trimmed a lot, particularly in the Orion scenes.

Matthew: The Augments don't really descend into violence, do they? They're just violent. Is that because they lacked parents, or because being "superior" naturally results in such behavior? If you've got three episodes to work with you really should ask and answer this question.

Acting

Kevin: Whatever my writing problems, I can't deny that Spiner still has an intensity that really sings on screen. He is a very good actor. Full stop. He demands your attention when he is on screen. His character is leaning in to being a puckish asshole way too much, but that's what was on the page, and the man delivered. The Augment actors were atrocious. I normally hesitate to slam the work of people making an effort, but they were just bad. It all read as cheap teen soap opera, and not in a fun way. They read like they wandered in from a music video. Superior ability does not lead to superior subtlety, apparently.

Matthew: I agree on the Augment performers overacting. Especially with Alec Newman's Malik, there was just something off about his accent. Where did this way of speaking come from? Did he think affecting a 25% English accent would make him sound superior? Looking up the actor, it turns out he was from Scotland... so this may be the best "America" accent he can manage. The hair, makeup, and ripped tights did not do much service to the already iffy acting. Joel West's Raakin (that doesn't sound like a human name...) was rather bad, and Abby Brammel's Persis was very difficult to get a read on in terms of motivation. Now, I do think much of this can be laid on the writing - but the actors didn't surmount it, which does happen on occasion.

And now, the Spiner of it all. I have always found Spiner to be a bit much, which is why Data is the best character for him, forcing him to strip away so much of his natural affectation. I will say that his Soong here is easily the best of his post-TNG Trek acting (tallest dwarf contest, I know). I believed he cared for his "children," at least intellectually (something every single future Spiner-Soong will also include by the way). I also believed that he thought he was in the right and that he would be vindicated by history. But I was still rather annoyed by his snark, and not in the "love to hate" sort of way.

Kevin: Outside of the guest cast, the main cast was fine, to the point I was hard pressed to remember anything in particular they did. 

Matthew: I would say the biggest moments were Trip and T'Pol stuff - and the did a great job of continuing their thread with looks and pauses in their brief scenes. I believe their pain, and I'm rooting or them. Everyone else got vaguely unsatisfying "I find Soong disgusting" beats, none of which were really supported by the script.

Production Values

Kevin: The Bird of Prey was some nice CGI work. And as much as I don't like an alien slave bazaar, the size and color and chaos were solidly achieved, all the more impressive given the budget constraints. The only thing I will really slam here is the wigs and costumes of the Augments. The carefully tattered clothes read like cheap Matrix knock off, and those wigs clearly came from a popup Halloween store. 

Matthew: I was really impressed by all the ship shots in this episode. The BOP looked great, the Orion ships looked great, and the Enterprise looked great. It seems like they freed up some bidget for CGI instead of re-using approach shots over and over, and it really shows here. And yes, the Augment costumes were very much... not good. I get what they were going for - "these kids have worn the same clothes for ten years." But frankly, one would think a troupe of such highly developed aesthetes and philosophers would have come up with something else before they all started looking like rejects from an "A Flock of Seagulls" music video. The mullet wigs were also greasy and off-putting.

Conclusion

Kevin: So I've done almost nothing but complain, but this still just squeaks into a 3 for me. Nothing that happens is technically that interesting on paper, and the Augments themselves were terribly realized, but I can't deny by sheer force of will, Spiner is still electric on screen. The result is an episode that brisk enough to watch to hold my interest for where they are going next. 

Matthew: I got to a 3 on the strength of the interesting Trek Universe scaffolding for the story, as opposed to anything that happened within it. Whatever else it was, it was brisk and never boring. I agree that Spiner contributed to that lack of boredom in a way he will not be able to in future Superfluous Soongings. That makes for a total of 6.

3 comments:

  1. I am not a major fan of the three-arc structure. It seems to me it ends up dragging a little. But again, I'm glad the writers are trying something new, and IIRC they get better at pacing them.

    The Orion detour at least puts another building block on the table for a future episode, and gives us a little exposition on how Soong is so at home in space. He's not Starfleet, but he's been out there.

    His escape attempt seems quite in character to me. He seems to take things one problem at a time, and not think too far ahead. Relying on his natural brilliance to get him out of trouble all his life has left him lacking the foresight he would be capable of.

    I liked seeing a somewhat rattled T'Pol help the surprisingly surviving ensign to stay calm. There's nothing to soothe nerves like soothing someone else's. I'm guessing this was supposed to be the beginning flicker of T'Pol's final arc, really kicking off when she gets to read Surak's actual writings. But that way sadness lies.

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    Replies
    1. Ooh, I'm looking forward to your heterodox hot take on the Vulcan arc!

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    2. I hope I'll have one! But I just meant that thinking of what might have been is perhaps the saddest joy of ENT.

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