Star Trek has rarely been a backward-looking show. From The Original Series on, it has espoused creator Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the best of humanity – a humanity that had done away with war, famine and poverty, and come together for a higher purpose, the peaceful exploration of the galaxy. Of course, the United Federation of Planets was about more than humanity, and it ran frequently into new enemies and situations for which it needed constantly to prove its readiness. The Original Series found the Federation running foul of Klingons, Romulans and Andorians especially. The Next Generation evolved the Federation to the point where a Klingon served on the Enterprise, but introduced us to Ferengi, Cardassians, the Borg, and the godlike species, the Q. Deep Space Nine, the grittiest and grimiest of the franchises, saw the Federation involved in the politics between Cardassia and the previously oppressed Bajorans, as well as the Dominion and the Maquis. Voyager gave us a whole other quadrant of mostly disappointing creatures, plus Species 8472, a race of fluidic space—based aliens who could even hand the Borg their upgraded ass in a hat. With every series, the timeline advanced, the action got further into the future and perhaps after Voyager there was a feeling that forward motion had ground if not to a halt in the Trek universe, then at least to manoeuvring thrusters only.
Whatever the reason, the decision was taken that for the fifth live action TV version of Star Trek, the show would go back to pre-basics. To a grittier, grimier, oilier time before the widespread use or safety of transporters, before holodecks and holodoctors and universal translators, before even stardates, when the galaxy was a much smaller place. Scott Bakula already had plenty of previous geektastic form when he stepped on board the Enterprise NX-01, having anchored five seasons of time-travel comedy-drama Quantum Leap. But as Captain Jonathan Archer, he would lead the crew of the first Starfleet vessel to travel at Warp 5.
The show opens with shots of the young Jonathan and his father Henry, talking about Zefram Cochrane’s first warp-capable ship, and his inauguration of a project run by Henry to develop the Warp 5 engine.
Spool forward thirty years, and the show gives us a treat – the first encounter between human beings and a Klingon. The premise for the pilot episode of Enterprise is simple: the Vulcans have been holding humanity’s hand, or holding them back depending on your point of view, for a hundred years. Now, in the Warp 5-capable Enterprise, Archer and his crew will return the Klingon to Kronos as a test mission to see whether humanity is ready for a place in the wider universe. Essentially, it’s Encounter At Farpoint, only with Klingons.
So far, so good. There are worrying signs almost immediately though, with the soft rock ballad theme sung by Russell Watson against a background of both real and invented footage of pioneers in human exploration up to and including the Enterprise NX-01. Instantly, it feels a little disjointed from the Trek universe we know, its tone of sopping-wet sentiment a little at odds with the supposed back-to-basics feel of the show.
As origin stories go, the episode begins in a linear and formulaic fashion too – Archer has a chip on his shoulder about Vulcans (just as, for instance, Kirk would go on to have about Klingons), feeling they prevented his father from seeing the culmination of his life’s work on the Warp 5 engine, yet he’s saddled with a Vulcan ‘liaison’ as second in command, evidently the first time such a thing has happened. Sub-Commander T’Pol doesn’t want to be there either, especially as she’s treated like many of the bridge crew, particularly Archer and Trip Tucker, as a Vulcan spy. We see Archer assemble his team, Communications Officer Hoshi Sato being hand-picked for the mission due to her remarkable linguistic skills in the pre-translator days, others like the ship’s doctor, Phlox, picked up simply because they’re there at the time – Phlox is the first alien doctor we’ve seen on a main Starfleet vessel, and he’s temperamentally new too, an active enthusiast, looking forward to meeting all kinds of people and species. He’s been working on the Klingon, Klaang, after his run-in with an Oklahoma farmer and a couple of new aliens known as the Suliban. Other crew introductions go on for longer – Chief Engineer Trip Tucker is a longstanding friend of Archer’s, born in Florida but with a good ol’ boy twang and strut, Malcolm Reed (Tactical & Security), is more or less the token Brit, fastidious, worried, clipped and taciturn. Helmsman Travis Mayweather grew up on cargo ships and is the first of his family to go ‘formal’ on a Starfleet ship. It all seems to take quite a chunk of episode-length before Enterprise properly gets underway, with a nod to the Original Series movies as the ship manoeuvres out of space dock.
Once it does get going though, Broken Bow begins to look and feel like it might be the start of something that can run and run, standing alongside the seven season lifespans of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager. The crew begins to interact and gel or not-gel, developing tensions and alliances among themselves as the mission gets more complicated when Klaang is kidnapped and they have to retrieve him from his Suliban kidnappers.
If a storyline is aiming to take us back to the beginnings of Starfleet and humanity’s first big steps into the wider galaxy, there’s an unspoken promise to bring us stories that are perhaps less temporally complex than those set several hundred years in Starfleet’s future, less dependent on a break away from the established Trek universe. That unspoken promise is really just a statement of the logic of development – in The Original Series, Klingons are the enemy, but by The Next Generation, Worf is on the bridge of the Enterprise. In The Next Generation, Ferengi are an enemy, but by Deep Space Nine, they’re both a fact of life and Nog ends up on a Federation vessel. Likewise, while no-one’s averse to a little time-travelling fun now and then, if you take us back to days before The Original Series, we inherently expect more on the carving out of the Federation, and less in the way of temporal knicker-twisting.
So when it emerges in Episode 1 that the Suliban are working on orders from the far future as part of a temporal cold war, it feels like it breaks that unbroken promise. No, we won’t be sticking to a universe of early Klingon and Romulan encounters – there are temporal shenanigans going on as an inherent part of Enterprise’s remit. The temporal cold war would go on to be a running theme in the show, so even though the Enterprise crew deal with the essentials of their Episode 1 predicament well, everyone getting their moment to shine, (while adding an early slice of fairly gratuitous mutual lubing by Tripp and T’Pol to sex up the Trek), the inevitable OK granted the Enterprise NX-01 to carry on exploring comes with a shadow. Yes, it’s new Trek from Rick Berman and Brannon Braga, and yes, it’s the first real step back into the timeline of the Federation’s pre-development, but it’s also very similar to other recent Trek franchises, dipping away from the core of the action to deliver temporal toing and froing and potential Bootstrap Paradoxes, where Archer and his crew do, or don’t do things because of information they gain about the future we as viewers already know.
While Enterprise starts slowly in Broken Bow, it has some solid potential by the end of the episode. But it also carries a shadow of exhausting similarity to previous far-future versions of the Trek universe, a sense of Federation fauxstalgia sitting awkwardly with temporal twisting. A sense that perhaps, both in terms of its backward-looking premise and its similarity to other Treks in recent times, Enterprise was destined to be the straw that broke the Federation’s back, the franchise that proved the Star Trek universe was in need of a break to relocate its joie de vivre.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk