Not too long ago, I finished watching all four seasons of Star Trek: Enterprise. I missed almost all of it during its initial short run, but it’s available for streaming now on both Amazon and Netflix, so I thought I would finally check it out and see if it’s as bad as everyone, or at least most everyone, had suggested.
The show has a reputation, deserved or not, for having destroyed Star Trek as a TV franchise1. It ran for just four troubled years on UPN, and it was the first spin-off since the original Star Trek to be canceled due to low ratings. Even Scott Bakula, who starred in the show as Captain Jonathan Archer, candidly admits to the series’ failure in his recent talk with William Shatner in The Captains. The show has a few defenders, but few outright fans.
Which is, I have to say, kind of a shame.
Make no mistake, Star Trek: Enterprise is not a great show. All too often, it’s not even a particularly good show. I’ve recently been re-watching episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as well, and the quality of that series has helped to underline some of the flaws and missteps in the later spin-off. In four years of television, I don’t think Enterprise ever had a truly great episode. There are occasional moments, throughout the four years, but nothing that really stands out as truly singular or classic. My favorite episode from the first season, for instance (the cleverly winking Ferengi episode “Acquisition“) is fun but can’t hold a candle to what I think is DS9‘s first great episode, the first season’s “Duet.” DS9 had some early growing pains, but I think it was significantly — and much more swiftly — the better show, and moreover a show that through its quality justified its existence.
It’s tempting to blame some, or even most, of that on the acting. I do think DS9 was easily the best-cast of the Star Trek series, and, as an ensemble, they do leave Bakula and his team lagging far behind. But I don’t think it’s fair to lay the blame for all of Enterprise‘s problems at its actors’ feet. They’re talented and likable, and I think they do what they can with the material and the directions the show decided to take.
No, I think the blame rests squarely with that material and those directions. The show may very well have been doomed from the start.
Star Trek has never been terrific about maintaining its own continuity. For all the obsessiveness of its many fans, who study the ins and outs of the Klingon language or trace schematics of even the most briefly glimpsed star ships, Trek is often lousy with contradictions and plot holes. Some of this is unavoidable, in a franchise that’s existed in one form or another for almost fifty years — just ask Doctor Who about discontinuity. But the problem is, prequels are all about continuity. They rely on it and build themselves up from, and around, what’s gone before. And when your timeline is as jumbled as Star Trek‘s is, that can be a mighty shaky foundation.
It can also be, if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor, a double-edged sword.
It’s hard not to think, in watching Enterprise, especially in its better moments, that it would have been a much better series if it didn’t have to work so hard to be a Star Trek series. And yet being a Star Trek series, trying to fit into that messy continuity, is what it gives it some of those better moments. “Acquisition,” for instance, is much more fun if you’re familiar not only with the Ferengi, but also in how they’ve been treated as characters from the beginning. It really does bridge a gap between the lame characters we see first in The Next Generation episode “The Last Outpost” and tries to explain why those characters were different than what came after. (Beyond the obvious, “Oh, let’s try again with these characters and hope nobody notices.”) The show would do the same, in its last season, for the Klingons. (Want a somewhat more satisfactory answer to why early Klingons don’t have ridged foreheads than Worf’s “We don’t talk about it with outsiders”? Enterprise is offering.) There’s sometimes real pleasure to be had in seeing how the show knits together Star Trek history.
But how much fun would that be to a new viewer who’s completely unfamiliar with the history? That I don’t know.
Ultimately, I think the show is a failed experiment. It does some things rather well and yet others… I think that’s nowhere more apparent than in the series’ theme song. Oh dear lord the theme song. It really does all come down to that.
Go and have a listen. I’ll wait.
I don’t want to mince words here. This really is a terrible song, which only gets worse in season 3 when they try to rock it up with some guitar riffs. It started out as a song from Patch Adams, sung by Rod Stewart, and dear lord in heaven does it show. And yet I think I can see what they were going for here. The credit sequence itself is actually a thing of some beauty, uplifting and exciting, setting up a natural progression from man’s early sailing ships, to the Wright Brothers, to space exploration. It’s a short but masterful piece of editing and animation. And the song, for all its trite cheesiness, does some of that too; “I’ve got faith of the heart / I’m going where my heart will take me” is a dumb lyric done no real favors by the over-wrought vocals, but it’s hard to argue with the sentiment. It’s hard not to be a little swept away by the romance of exploration, the first steps out among the stars, which was obviously the intent.
And yet it’s a terrible song, and with each episode it underlines the good intentions but enormous missteps that Enterprise would take.
There’s not a whole lot to say about Enterprise‘s individual episodes, frankly. In its third season, the show clearly tried to re-invent itself, following a single story arc and trying — sometimes straining — for a darker tone. It’s sometimes good — this is probably the best science fiction the series, and arguably Trek as a whole, ever did — but like the rest of the show it just can’t stick the landing. Once it’s over, the storyline is almost totally abandoned, throwing the crew into a hopelessly muddled final season with too many two-parters to count. It’s not an encouraging sign, really, when your season starts with something as unoriginal as alien Nazis.
The last season really is a mess. Some of the episodes are the show at its finest, taking seriously the question of what happens in the hundred years or so that separate Archer from Kirk. But some of the episodes… Well, let’s just say that even by Trek mirror-universe standards, “In a Mirror, Darkly” is a ridiculous two hours of television. DS9‘s mirror universe episodes were no less ridiculous at heart — wait, everybody we know in the regular timeline was still born? — but they made up for it by being fun. Here, we get the ostensibly “fun” sight of Archer and crew aboard a Kirk-era space craft…and yet they’re all just murderous jerks we’ll never meet again. This isn’t our timeline or our characters. Unlike Trek‘s earlier mirror universe episodes, this one makes the mistake of not using one of the regular characters as a entryway, an audience surrogate. And so the episodes are just a lot of unpleasant people being unpleasant to one another with no real stakes for the show overall.
(It’s ironic, then, that these episodes would be the only ones to use a radically different theme song. Then again, what starts out as a semi-clever take on the forced uplift of the regular song turns a little tiresome. These credits were clearly a rush-job by comparison; the silly CGI at 0:48 is a testament to that.)
The only other episode that truly stands out from the pack is, unfortunately, the finale. And “These Are the Voyages” is a truly terrible episode. It’s framed as a holodeck re-creation by Will Riker, weirdly during TNG‘s seventh-season episode “The Pegasus,” and set several years after the events of Enterprise‘s penultimate episode2. So not only is the timeline all screwy — wait, when is this all taking place again? — it casts Enterprise‘s actors in what are essentially cameo roles in their own story. It’s not hard to see why the episode was so negatively received when it first aired. It’s a big screw-you to Enterprise‘s fans and a disservice to its actors. It makes no real sense in either that show’s continuity or in TNG‘s — I’d seriously love it if someone would edit together “Pegasus” and “Voyages” to show how poor a framing choice that was — and neither show comes out ahead in the equation. Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis give it their best shot, and I can appreciate what Brannon Braga thought they were doing with it, but it’s just a misguided effort all around.
Which, sadly, leaves you wondering if the same can’t be said for Enterprise as a whole.
Because it was a noble effort, with some likable characters and interesting stories. But some poor decisions and misguided attempts at being different — from that terrible song to that terrible last act — left it a failed effort all the same. I liked Enterprise, but I never loved it; I don’t think it’s a show that really could engender much love.
And that’s really just a shame.
1 I enjoyed J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, more or less, but I really do wish Paramount hadn’t put all of its eggs in the re-imagining basket. I’d still really like to see a good Star Trek TV show in the same universe as all the others, maybe the next next generation.
2 That penultimate arc isn’t perfect, and it’s obviously rushed, the kind of climactic storyline that probably would have worked better two or three seasons later. But it’s saved by being genuinely interesting and by having two really great actors, Peter Weller and Harry Groener, in supporting roles. It’s not the most satisfying of conclusions, but it’s where I wish Enterprise had ended instead.