Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Enterprise Season 3 Recap


Star Trek's 9/11 analogue comes to an end with a literal bang. How good was it, and does it represent an improvement over an uneven first two seasons?


Enterprise gives up, puts "Star Trek" in the title, and adds a bossa nova beat. Will it all work?



Matthew's Thoughts

It seems obvious to compare this season long story-telling experiment to DS9's earlier forays into this territory. I don't think it's unreasonable to opine that this was not quite as successful as that was. So why not?

I am imagining the initial story breaking meetings for the season in DS9. I imagine Ira Steven Behr giving his writing staff a very clear outline of the big plot points of the season, assigning various chunks of it to individual writers to address with particular episodes, and maybe having a white board in the room upon which he has written 3 or 4 major themes of the Dominion War arc. I have this impression because of how cohesive and organic the storytelling of those seasons of DS9 felt (Kira/Odo notwithstanding). Do I imagine the same for Brannon Braga's writing room? Given the result, the answer seem to obviously be "no."

 What were the major themes of the Xindi arc? It seems clear that one of them is meant to be "testing Archer's ethics." How well did that play out? We got many, many scenes of Archer interrogating suspects roughly. Which, honestly, was a pretty good and prescient storytelling tack to take, given how the real 9/11 situation played out. "Damage" had Archer playing space pirate in order to continue the mission, in what was probably the most egregious violation of Trek ethics in the season. "Strategem" was a pretty interesting "lying" episode in which the crew concocts a fantasy scenario to trick Degra into revealing information about the weapon's development. "Azati Prime" has the Enterprise bombing manned bases in order to keep their mission a secret. And then in the finale we have Archer pushing Hoshi to the breaking point in service of the mission's conclusion. All told, then, this theme was pretty well explored. Not that there weren't missteps... remember when Archer low-key prostituted out Hoshi to get information from a creepy psychic stalker? Yeah.

What was left unexplored to my satisfaction was how such a situation could change the ethos of a culture - to bring up DS9 again, the masterpiece of that arc for me was "Homefront/Paradise Lost," because it spent a full two episodes on how the mindset of Earth changed, and on how a free society can be eroded by fear. Obviously, since they chose to focus nearly entirely on Enterprise in a faraway place, that was tougher to do. But I think there was some way to do it, and they really didn't.

The MACO element of the season seemed like it was set to be a major juxtaposition between Starfleet procedures and a more militaristic approach to missions. Alas, it mainly boiled down to characters changing underwear in a locker room and Reed and Major Hayes butting heads (literally and figuratively) over command.

The rest of the major elements of the Xindi arc seem to be less themes than sci-fi plot elements. "Sphere builders altering space" is clearly one of them. "Division between Xindi races" seems like it almost reached the level of theme, but it wasn't given more than two or three extended scenes to breathe. And then we have "Temporal Cold War stuff." Do these sound nebulous to you? Because yeah, they felt pretty nebulous while watching. I like these ideas for stories, don't get me wrong. The nuts and bolts for good solid Star Trek are there. But it feels like the "this is an action show" brief got in their way. Take the Sphere Builders. Who are they? Why are they doing what they're doing? When we were introduced to Species 8472, for instance, they started out as "we need someone scarier than the Borg," but Voyager did a great job with "In the Flesh" of making them a Cold War analogue, an antagonist who was acting as much out of fear as the Federation side of things was. The Sphere Builders were never humanized in that way. Surely we could have swapped one of Archer's torture episodes out for a story that really delved into the Sphere Buildres - or into the history of the Xindi factions, for that matter.

The other major project of the season was clearly "Get Trip and T'Pol together." The actors have unfailing chemistry, but.... yeah, they sort of backed into this romance with skeevy massage scenes and T'Pol planting a big wet one on Trip's clone double. This was just as unsatisfying from a storytelling standpoint as Kira/Odo.... but the actors have about a billion times more chemistry than Nana Visitor and Rene Auberjonois.

So it was a mixed bag, is what I'm saying. I do think it was more entertaining than the previous two seasons, which felt kind of aimless. This season may have been a bit too much like Homer's Makeup Shotgun in terms of storytelling, but some of the mascara and lipstick landed in the right spots.

Kevin's Thoughts

The comparison to DS9's war arc is a good one. I think DS9 was also retooling in various ways through its early seasons, and found its feet in a war arc. The key reason that DS9's works so well is that motivations of all the players are drawn so clearly so early. The component parts (Jem'Hadar, Vorta, Founder) all had clear positions and goals from jump, and even something like the swerve into war with the Klingons still fit into that arc. In the real world, one larger conflict doesn't negate the smaller ones, they influence each other. So having lots of players with clear positions just creates a lot of intersections for stories to happen. Beyond that, as you say Matt, I think Behr and Moore just had a clearer idea of that this story was 'about,' not just what happened.

The Achilles Heel of this arc is the length. We spent the front half of the season just looking for the Xindi. Not to belabor the point, but DS9's The Search lasted two episodes. The story itself is good, if a little predictable, but by the time we get there, we have just been wandering through it for so long.

I also think the beats of DS9s moral quandaries hit better. In the Pale Moonlight is the gold standard for a Starfleet officer deciding if the ends justify the means, and we never quite get there in this season. Even smaller moments like the crew questioning the ethics of conspiring with a Vorta to ambush the Jem'Hadar felt more textured. And this is the last thing I'll say in terms of directly comparing, but the cast was more broadly and thoroughly defined by the same point. Sato, Reed, and Travis basically barely got an episode of development this season, and it's becoming really obvious the writers can only write for the main three and occasionally Phlox. Having characters like Quark and Garak so fully developed gave a lot of room to tell lots of kinds of stories.

I'm critiquing a lot, so I'll end on a higher note. This is a better season by a fair margin. The story is not a revolution in the craft, but it is good. Full stop. Especially by the end, the story moves with a solid momentum. It's popcorn fare, but who doesn't like popcorn?


Matthew: "Twilight" was the "Timeless" of this season, owing to its time shifting storytelling device and the emotional toll that failure took on the crew. It was pretty good. 

"North Star" was a goofy change of pace that I kind of liked from a "referencing TOS" standpoint, as well as from a "racism = bad" standpoint. 

I also appreciate "Carpenter Street" as a slice of early-21st century life with a serial killer detective story vibe. And the finale had Space Nazis, which I have never failed to enjoy in my Star Trek.

Kevin: I would say that Stratagem was a definite highlight for me in that it was a clever idea executed really nicely. It was also some great fleshing out for Degra, which added a lot of depth to the Xindi side of the story.

Proving Ground is basically the turning point in terms of giving the Xindi arc some depth, both for the Xindi threat but also the Xindi as a people. More like that, please.


Matthew: "Extinction" was like a cross between TNG "Identity Crisis"  and VOY "Memorial" - two episodes that, despite solid nuggets of sci-fi in their conception, were manifestly flawed in execution. "Extinction" also failed to surmount its irritating alien patois and to cohere into an exciting hour of TV.

"Harbinger" advances Trip/T'Pol in some really squicky ways - such as T'Pol massage stalking the woman Trip is hooking up with. It also has a pointless, meandering addition to the Sphere Builder plot. An aimless bore, all told. 

Kevin: Extinction is definitely a lowlight. It was poorly plotted and really boring. 

I also hated Similitude for its inept plotting and punting on basic ethical issues. I know Matt liked it, but boy howdy, I did not.


Kevin: So the improvement here is clear. There are just more 7s and 8s this time. There are also more runs of solid episode. Something that I think really tanked season 2 is that every time they did a solid episode or two, there was a clunker right there. They are definitely finding the fairway more consistently. We still haven't given Enterprise a single 5, though.

Matthew: Maybe Season 4 will get us there! It definitely feels like a "this is being limited by the overarching story line" situation, where episodes are not allowed to fully flower in service of a larger plot. Boy, will that ever become familiar post-2009...


Whenever I watch a Brannon Braga interview about Enterprise, he always seems defeated and confused. While I do think he is a bit too hard on himself, I do see where he's coming from. He has been a part of enough truly great Star Trek to know when things aren't quite gelling. And this season doesn't quite gel. But it gets closer than the last two! The Xindi arc provided a good focusing element to the season, whether or not it was explored to the fullest (it was not).

A last random note - the bossa nova beat on the theme song is ABSURD. Who thought that would fix things? It both ruins the song for those who kinda like it (myself included) and fails to fix the problem the song represents to those who dislike it. What a bizarre, useless decision.

Kevin: If this were the show's first season, I would be way more impressed. The scaffolding is there. The story is fun, if not terribly deep. There is at least an attempt at an actual story, something lacking in a lot of season 2. There are the basics of putting the characters' values in conflict with the needs of the situation. This season is fine, a solid, medium 'fine.' After Season 2, I was a little concerned if the show could even do fine, so that it itself is an improvement. Now, they need to let Manny Coto come in and tighten all the bolts on this ship, and we may really have something.


  1. It's very interesting to me that I can agree with just about everything in your analyses, and yet my final conclusion is pretty much the opposite.

    Maybe it's because this show, and especially this season, was written for (North) Americans, not Europeans. It takes up a huge, cultural trauma, and treats it with drama that is ultimately meant to soothe. But viewed from the outside, without quite the shock that 9/11 was, the cracks in the allegory are far more glaring. I get annoyed at them, and sometimes a little offended. Add in all the lapses you two also are affected by, and it doesn't add up to viewing pleasure for me.

    That said, I can appreciate that the writers are trying to do things differently from the previous seasons, and that they will retool things once again and get it much closer to my tastes.

    1. I also think tackling 9/11 so close to the event is, while certainly not something I would you say you can't or shouldn't do, certainly setting a high degree of difficulty. I remember that reading that part of the reason season 1 was so uneven was that the Suliban being 'terrorists' had to be majorly retooled given that the show premiered in late September 2001. If I recall, the premier got pushed back a week because it was still wall to wall news coverage before then.

      The Xindi are the better swing, certainly, but I'm not sure any writer's room could really stick the dismount on a 9/11 metaphor because we were still actively living the fallout. The thing we need to refer to by metaphor hadn't set yet.

  2. My highlights:

    "Azati Prime"
    "The Council"

    I actually like the 3rd/4th season theme for Enterprise a little better than the original.

    You should definitely track down a copy of the Deep Space Nine Companion book. The authors had access to the staff, cast, and crew throughout the series, and you find out that most of the writing was still seat of the pants. The difference is that they would try to build off of what was established previously most of the time in logical ways, so things came off as being well planned.

    1. I own it, so I'll have to go back and have a look. Thanks for commenting!

      I also find it amazing that someone likes the altered theme - but it takes all kinds to make the world go 'round :-)