Saturday, April 29, 2023

Enterprise, Season 4: In a Mirror, Darkly

 Enterprise, Season 4
"In a Mirror, Darkly"
Airdate: April 22, 2005
93 of 97 produced
93 of 97 aired


Commander Jonathan Archer of the ISS Enterprise hatches a plot to steal a weapon of great power from a degenerate alien species, the Tholians.

"Don't take your eyes off that midriff, Sergeant."


Kevin: Short of DS9 "Trials and Tribbleations," I am hard pressed to recall an episode whose fan service was so elegant and so fun. I think this episode succeeds where so many others, particularly Enterprise offerings, stumble because it doesn't do anything to create continuity problems. By not having the prime characters come to the Mirror Universe or vice versa, there's no contamination and we are not left scratching our heads about why Kirk didn't know about this when a literal earlier captain of an Enterprise found the same thing. And we don't have to play Discovery Whack-a-Mole to come up with excuses for the gap, either. So freed from having to make it fit, I can just enjoy the story for itself.

Matthew: Yup. Yup yup yup. Here it is, folks. Fan service done right. I just learned the phrase "member berries" recently (it was in reference to Picard Season 3, which... yeah, I'll avoid going there for now). Apparently, there are two meanings: one is a right wing dog whistle mechanism, asking people to "remember the good times" in order to show what bad times we now live in because of [insert marginalized group here]. But it has been co-opted by fan culture to describe pointless insertions of prior characters, devices, locations, or whatever, which serve to "serve" fans who 'member stuff. But member berries aren't storytelling. Often, they're the laziest possible way to try and create goodwill among a fan base, and they only serve to take time away from doing hard things like building character and developing plot effectively. And they're often gotten wrong, because the people monetizing existing IP are rarely actual fans of said IP. Well, if these be member berries, please make them into a pie that I can eat forever. Because WOW did they get it right. Not only are the callbacks done with perfect respect for continuity, but they also actually serve the current plot instead of interrupting it. The presence of the Defiant is perfectly consistent with "The Tholian Web," but does not require having seen that episode to understand it. It provides clear motivation to the characters in this story, not just a "Hey, you 'member this?" to the fans.

Kevin: There's a playfulness to this episode that I think really serves it well. Using the end of First Contact and Zefram Cochrane to pivot to the Vulcan crew being murdered and their ship presumably cannibalized for parts and tech is a great way to quickly show, rather than tell, the audience where we are. And once that's done, the episode lets a lot of the differences just exist without constantly waggling their eyebrows to draw attention to them. The crew is in different but superficially similar positions, and we know that and we don't need to belabor the point. Finally, the lack of involvement of the prime universe crew lets the story be about these people, and by the end, I care about a fair number of them. Mirror T'Pol is suffering the injustice of being a second class citizen working for a real asshole, and I understand that, and when she takes steps to remedy it, I care. Even not-dead Forrest swanning around chewing the scenery and Gary Graham with a Beard help give some energy to story, rather than paper over the lack of one. Is it a simple, almost comic book story? Sure, but gosh is it fun, know...comic books used to be.

Matthew: The Mirror episodes of Discovery were fun for much the same reason this one is - without being completely tethered to the prime universe (of course, neither was the main show, but now I'm getting snarky), characters have free rein to grow, change, die, etc. Alternate universe/timeline shows like this frequently enjoy such freedom, which of course raises the question of why they just can't write the rest of the show like this.

Kevin: The fan service pairing the episode with the events of Tholian Web are great. Again, doing it in this isolated box lets us see Tholians and their webs without losing any sleep over continuity. It answers a question left unanswered in TOS and uses it to do some fun world building. This helps explain why an evil Earth empire was able to expand so far, so fast. It also doesn't do anything dumb to Tholian Web. Nothing was changed or added in a way that shifts the narrative gravity of the original story. This is probably the strongest of the Mirror Universe outings since the original since it doesn't get bogged down in either our main characters or tripping over itself to give too many elements a mirror. 

Matthew: Where this episode succeeds for me is in making the Mirror Universe make a bit of sense. Earth's position is tenuous. As an "empire" of awful people doing terrible things, they are actually backward and fractious, making them easily defeatable. They need to acquire and steal technology and resources from other people, places, and indeed times, in order to succeed. You know - just like a real expansionist military dictatorship. About the only aspect of the story I didn't totally grasp right away was Archer's seeming desire to hand back command to Forrest. I guess it's explained by not wanting to alienate Hoshi, but it reads more like some sort of lack of ambition or loyalty, both of which are contraindicated by the other events of the episode.


Kevin: This will be a bit of a back handed compliment, but here we are. This is the best this ensemble has ever done. In part because Park and Montgomery got any kind of lines or character development, but they managed to get a group of colleagues (who hate each other, sure) off the ground in 45 minutes in a way they just couldn't for like two seasons. Everyone is visibly having an absolute blast, chewing the scenery in the best possible ways. There's a version of this show where a bitter, isolated Trip in our universe comes to form a bond with, and eventually love for, T'Pol in a way that would have been really interesting without defaulting to lazy tropes and HR nightmares. But anyway, up and down the line, everyone is having the best time playing dress up and, boy, is that fun to watch. Bakula comes to the closest for me to outright scenery chewing in a bad way, but I think he keeps it inside the line, giving the grouchy Archer we normally don't like free reign. If I had to pick and MVP, it's Evil Phlox. Billingsley could go find Jeffery Combs and do a string of B-movie 80s gore fests about crazy doctors that I would a billion percent go see in the theater.

Matthew: Linda Park is my all-star in this episode, and no, not because she exposes copious amounts of skin. It's a real shame she wasn't given more episodes of the main series, because boy, does she tear into this material with abandon. This is, of course, the fault of the writers and show runners - Berman and Braga have never shown us much desire or ability to write women well. Trinneer and Blalock get to show us different shades of their characters (well, I suppose Trip is an entirely different color palette). I am very much agreed on Dark Phlox. The only sort of miss for me is Bakula - and it's not because he is bad here, in fact he is rather good. But it's not a big stretch from Angry Dad Archer in season 3.

Production Values

Kevin: Like "Trials and Tribbleations," this is a showcase for the design team, particularly because of the light, confident hand. The Defiant looks great, inside and out. I've banged this drum before, but the TOS sets look gorgeous in HD in a way that makes the constant need to reimagine them a little feeble. The updated Tholian Web also looked great and still looks pretty good, even with the gap in time. The Tholian reads a little video-gamey but I can't deny that kind of works for the actual alien in question and the scene of him being tortured was quite effectively done. I think the only bum note is Trip's burn scars, which felt very slapped on. And I know it was the early aughts, but that was still an unacceptable amount of gel in that man's hair. I do love that evil Trip is a brunette. That's so literal, I giggled.

Matthew: The Defiant sets look SO GOOD. And I will bang that drum with no apology whatsoever. The minor details of a set, or the number of blinky LEDs you cram into frame, are not the most important things. What is important are clean lines and lighting - something TOS had in abundance. Clean lines, easily identifiable rooms, and good lighting allow us to feel like we're in an actual place that humans inhabit. It makes the world feel real. NuTrek bridges and sets lack this feeling for me, because I can't shake the feeling that I would be constantly tripping in the dark, and squinting to read text on a transparent display. And with the additional budget and technical know-how to create things without seams or cheap looking finishes? MWAH! The Tholian looked like a perfect extrapolation of the puppet head we saw in TOS. Listening to the commentary, Trip's burn scars were designed to recall Pike's in The Menagerie. So I'll roll with it.

Kevin: The uniforms were a fun variant of our uniforms through the Mirror Universe that might better be described at the Midriff Universe. The bare midriffs would normally get a bit of a scold from me, but I can't deny they are of a piece with the earlier iteration, and the silly fun happening all around makes it seem more acceptable for some reason I feel very strongly about, but can't really articulate. I will also add that we had seen Vulcan women in the prime universe with long hair before, and there was no reason to force Blalock into the Beatles wig other than that Nimoy wore one. Let the woman have long hair. She looks fantastic. 

Matthew: On the one hand, watching sweaty Archer and Sato canoodling after vigorous coitus is not something I want to do with my kids. On the other hand, her nightie recalls Lt. Marlena Moreau's perfectly. Putting Reed in the MACO getup? Great touch. Devising a rank scheme and keeping it consistent throughout the Enterprise jumpers, complete with altered patches? Now you're just showing off, guys. They really went all out on the costumes here, and it is appreciated.

Kevin: Lastly, I have to heap specific love on the title sequence. Just a masterwork of self-parody. I think the one that clinched it for me was the shuttle doing a bombing run rather a triumphant arc over the lunar colony. They could have gotten away without it and relied WWII B-roll in lieu of majestic sailing ships, but the little touches really showed the audience we weren't in Kansas anyone, and it did it all with zero exposition.

Matthew: 100% agreed on the title sequence, especially the replacement of music. I could imagine some sort of "Dark Faith of the Heart" rendition, but it might veer into comedy, then.


Kevin: This is a highly enthusiastic 4 from me. It's a fun concept that rides the knife's edge of fan service quite skillfully. What holds this back from a 5 is the lack of some deeper story. It's a confection, and a good one, but the ambition of the story is not to be more than that, not that that is in any way a 'bad' thing. This is on par with Trials and Tribble-ations, and that had the added reach of being something of a shocking technical achievement at the time to boot. It feels like I'm being hard on the episode, but I don't mean to be. This episode was, above all, extremely fun and dazzlingly executed. The only bad thing I can say about the quality of fan service in this episode is that it would shine brighter against a darker background. Imagine if they had resisted the urge to introduce the Ferengi or whatever for four seasons before dropping this gem. The only real damning thing I can say is that this show and the characters it created were better realized in two episodes than our main cast was in two seasons. It's kind of the Shran effect. They did such a good job with him, it calls into question when we couldn't do it with our regular cast. But I'm getting away from myself. This episode is truly a gift for the long-time fan, and just a hoot to watch. Prior to this review, I really had not done a re-watch of Enterprise, and I'm honestly not likely to after, but I will certainly pop this one in for some good popcorn-focused fun again.

Matthew: I think this reaches the 5. The reasons are three: the stellar production values, including a note-perfect recreation of a TOS Constitution class ship; the balls-to-the-wall acting from all players, including the oft neglected Linda Park and Anthony Montgomery; and a clever, consistently engaging story. Does it propose a grand ethical dilemma, or provide an explanation for this bizarre world? Nope. But it cleverly integrates continuity, entertainingly riffs on Enterprise's characters and situations, and just keeps one's attention rapt on screen. THIS is how fan service is done - by telling a good story using the "member berries," not just spreading them around willy-nilly without regard for context or import. That makes our total a 9.

1 comment:

  1. It's a really nice breather. Is it silly? Yes. Is it putting characters and larger developments in neutral? Sure. Is it entertaining? Ab-so-lutely! And in the end, I can't complain about that.