Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Enterprise, Season 3: North Star

Enterprise, Season 3
"North Star"
Airdate: November 12, 2003
60 of 97 produced
60 of 97 aired


The Enterprise crew is surprised to find a colony of Old West human beings in the Delphic Expanse.

The Laughing Vulcan and Her Horse


Matthew: A Western episode has a few hurdles to clear for me. Firstly, is it different enough from prior Trek episodes? I think the obvious points of reference here are TOS "Spectre of the Gun" for milieu and VOY "The 37s" for story idea. I do think this is different enough, because of the theme of interspecies relations, which is absent from both of those episodes. Then, my question is - is this just gratuitous indulgence? I'm looking at you, TNG "A Fistful of Datas." Again, I think the story stands on its own well enough to make itself "not just for the actors to goof around." The third hurdle is tougher, which is internal logic. If you're going to put Trek characters in the Old West, you need some sort of rationale. Time travel, holodeck simulation, a vision from someone's mind... and alien abduction. That's where this one doesn't really work for me. Any race capable of interstellar travel seems like not the kind of people who need forced manual labor from hundreds of light years away. Do I think it sinks the episode? No. But I can never quite expunge it from my mind.

Kevin: I agree with the hurdles you identify, but am less sanguine about the ones they fail to clear. In addition to the question of why an interstellar species needs manual labor, I found the Western setting to be a little silly. Unless it was the literal first arrivals who revolted and established this world, this Western theme park was made by people who only heard stories. It shouldn't look like a Paramount backlot. It should look like an interpretation of one. The other Western outings, like TOS' Spectre worked because it was a stylized imagining and Fistful of Datas was the holodeck. This is just too neat. Also, even if they built this town perfectly, why is it the same three to four hundred years later? Why wouldn't the same cultural forces that changed the originals not change their copies? These are nitpicky questions, but the episode itself wasn't enough for me to distract from them while I was watching it.

Matthew: The anti-racism theme here is complex enough to not seem pat, preachy, or insulting. The humans have ample historical precedent for their prejudice, but they are of course taking it too far. The descendants of slavers 300 years gone don't bear the same degree of culpability that the original slavers did, yet they are being lynched and systematically oppressed. I think a really interesting angle would have been to get a bit deeper into the Skagaran society, to show the variety of opinions therein (up to an including those who might be fomenting rebellion). 

Kevin: I found the racism discussion to be a little shallow, personally. I think something like Voyager's Living Witness did a much better job of portraying the give and take of a formerly subjugated people oppressing the descendants of their oppressors. It wasn't outright slavery, it was questions about access to jobs and schools. The episode starts with a literal lynching, and honestly, that took me out pretty early. It's an unequivocal and horrific act of violence, and importantly for the narrative, disqualifies the aggressors from the kind of nuanced take that would give the story some teeth. Coupled with the nearly erotic arousal the deputy seemed to derive from taunting the Skagarans, it made a story I didn't care that much about. Even a legitimate fear of allowing Skagarans access to the levers of power would not justify the treatment we saw, and it deflated the dramatic potential for me.

Matthew: The nuts and bolts of the plot are very competent, setting up conflicts and resolving them in interesting ways. I liked it quite a bit that Archer beamed out in full view of the space cowboys, since he knew that they were not only human but also were familiar with interstellar life and technology. I also very much liked the resolution of the story, that their current mission and ship size precluded repatriation, but that it would happen eventually and that education and tolerance needed to be increased in the lead up to such an event.

Kevin: Once we dispensed with gratuitous violence and racism to the Skagarans, the shootout was fun, I agree. It's a Western, which means Chekov's gun is present even if Chekov was not. Some of the beats, like the bandit falling slowly off a roof into a horse trough are cliche, but the Western is a cliche heavy format. I enjoyed Reed stunning T'Pol knowing she wouldn't be harmed and the bad guy wouldn't support the dead weight. That's good writing.


Matthew: Scott Bakula and Connor Trinneer clearly have some facility for Western roles, and they nail them here. Of course, it helps a great deal when you're handed a natural guest star like Glen Morshower as Sherrif MacReady. Emily Bergl was also pretty good as Bethany. The only actor I didn't really like was James Parks as Dep. Bennings. He was a little too transparently villainous for me. But of course, he was written that way, so I can't stay very mad. I just think the actor could have tried to sell a charitable interpretation of his character's perspective a bit better.

Kevin: I don't know if it was Parks or the direction or the writing, but the sneering bully act was so extreme that it pulled me out of the story. The sheriff loses credibility for not seeing that this guy is a violent sadist. 

Production Values

Matthew: Star Trek was always intended to make use of back lots, and boy do they ever here. I think they made it work, with solid buildings, streets, and Western paraphernalia. I liked the costumes, and even the staged greenery sets looked pretty good. There were also some very nice visual effects, like the ship landing on main street, and the planet shot from the Mess Hall. The gunfight was well executed, with a lot of good practical effects, squibs, and such. Overall, this is a solidly above average episode from a visual interest standpoint.

Kevin: I agree here. I think it strains the story that the town still looks like this hundreds of years later, but that's not a design problem. They were told "Western backlot set" and they produced exactly that. 


Matthew: In the commentary, the writers of this episode indicate that Berman and Braga intentionally set out to have breaks from the Xindi arc - in the case that they weren't finding a way to make it work, or just to have a change of pace. I appreciate that level of humility deeply after suffering through six seasons of just positively wretched season-long stories from Kurtzman and Co. And the more I was able to quiet my inner nit-picker, and just experience what was on offer, the more I liked this episode. It's got TOS-style action and ambience, a Trek message of progress and tolerance, and actors having fun in a non-self indulgent way. Combine that with competent action that doesn't drown out story development, and solid production values, and I think this is at least a 3. In fact, I'm feeling pretty good about this episode and think it just squeaks into a 4.

Kevin: I'm honestly surprised by the 4. I was flirting with a 2 for what felt like a pretty flat story to me. The ethical standpoint "slavery is always bad" is pretty much a truism, and neither side got the character development to give the story any real ethical teeth, and the rest was a paint by numbers Western. Admittedly, that's a genre I'm not a huge fan of, so maybe if they found a planet of people stuck in Regency-era London fighting about who they'll dance with at the next ball, I would have been more charitable. That said, I doubt the Austen Planet story would have started with a lynching. Whatever its dramatic import, it was just unpleasant and upsetting to watch, and the story that followed wasn't deep enough to justify making me feel that bad in the teaser. I think a 3 is pretty fair score, even slightly generous. I was tempted to give this a 2, just to pull down the average to a 6, since 7 seems high, but that feels like cheating. This is a 3, for a surprising (to me, at least) total of 7.


  1. Yeah, I'd have gone with the 2. It makes me incredibly uncomfortable that the not-Native Americans abducted the not-European settlers back when. It sets a terrible ripple through the allegory that is as bad as Manifest Destiny.

    The morals are unarguable and therefore boring. Having a group of Earthlings taken by aliens and randomly stumbled into by our crew was a mediocre idea the first time, and it does not get better with reuse. And 'I can do it because I saw it in a movie' makes me facepalm.

    Once again, Firefly did this better.

    1. Come to think of it, why make these people humans? You could avoid making the not-European settlers the in-group and the not-native Americans the other-group. Also gets rid of the clunky backstory. We've already had renaissance and 30s Europe planets, why not second-half-of-19th-century-US?