Matthew Kresal makes the case...
Oh, Enterprise! That much maligned and often overlooked Star Trek prequel series. With the shortest run of any of the Trek spin-off shows, Enterprise has never exactly had the stellar reputation of its predecessors. In fact, it's more often seen as the show that killed off Trek on TV for more than a decade. Does it deserve that reputation though? Is there possibly more to Enterprise than just being 'that stupid prequel with the guy from Quantum Leap'?
At its heart, Enterprise had an intriguing idea. After three spin-off shows set in the 24th century, it was clear that if Star Trek was to keep going it needed to find new ground to cover. So in a way the idea of exploring what came before the Original Series seemed like natural territory, even more so considering that the age of the prequel was dawning. Plus the idea had been featured in Trek's pagebound tales with novels like First Frontier (which established the Enterprise as the first starship just a couple of decades before Kirk's time), Strangers From The Sky and Starfleet: Year One. Yet it was only with 1996's Star Trek: First Contact that the moment when humanity first came onto the galactic stage was finally portrayed. Inspired by that and what came next, Rick Berman and Brannon Braga decided that Enterprise would move a few decades into the future and show the early years of Starfleet.
Or so the idea went. What started out by Berman and Braga as a prequel series that would see humanity reaching for the stars instead became something else entirely, in part due to interference from the studio as the two discuss on various DVD and Blu-Ray extras that took the show away from what was initially intended. Instead of getting “The Right Stuff in space”, the two compromised with studio bosses that seemed less than interested in the show and instead saw the series start with the launch and subsequent first mission of the first starship.
What Enterprise evolved into during its first two seasons was something quite different from its original premise. Indeed, for all intents and purposes, it became something that felt like just another Star Trek series. The technology was less advanced and humanity was having its first encounters with numerous iconic alien races from the franchises history but Enterprise felt less like a prequel with every passing episode. Even when it explored potentially interesting prequel territory, such as the lost first human colony Terra Nova, the series found itself mired in cliches that were already out of date. With the Enterprise being away from Earth and on its own, episodes could almost as easily have come from Voyager at times. For the most part, Enterprise lacked its own voice in its first two years.
Even then, Enterprise had its moments. The pilot episode, Broken Bow, might well be the strongest of the various Trek pilots and it does a solid job of establishing the world in which the series would take place, including the Temporal Cold War storyline. Indeed the most memorable episodes of the first two years often dealt with that storyline, including Cold Front, the two-parter Shockwave, and Future Tense. First Flight, recounting Starfleet's attempts to break the Warp Two barrier, harkened back to the show's original premise of being “The Right Stuff in space” while Carbon Creek told the story of the arrival of three crashed Vulcan's on Earth in the late 1950s with some interesting echoes of the aforementioned Strangers From The Sky. Elsewhere episodes such as Stigma and Cogenitor called back to the more socially conscious stories that had been highlights of the show's past. Episodes such as these were exceptions to the rule and Enterprise was in need of change.
Where that began to change was in the show's third season. Following on an attack on Earth by the Xindi in the second season finale, the show's third season moved away from the episodic storytelling of the first two seasons and into a larger story arc. While the season still had its duds, including Rajiin and Exile, the focus on telling a larger story led to an improvement over the previous seasons. While some of its best episodes including Twilight arguably still harkened back to ideas used before in the series, season three found the show focusing on issues of morality in wartime, ranging from torture to what makes someone an “innocent” which still makes this season topical more than a dozen years after it finished airing. While still controversial, season three marked a significant improvement in the series.
Where the show found its feet was in its fourth and final season. With Manny Cotto taking over showrunning duties, the series finally became the prequel it was always pitched as being. With the resolution of the Temporal Cold War storyline in the two-part season opener Storm Front, the series moved on to elements familiar to Trek fans. These included the return of the Augments of which legendary villain Khan was a member of, a storyline of Vulcan that began to move them from their obstructiveness earlier in the series towards their portrayals in previous Trek shows, an answer to one of Trek greatest riddles in the form of the Klingon's changing appearance, as well as a return to the Mirror universe. Series four seemed set to end with the groundwork laid for the founding of what would become the Federation and with Enterprise having had a last hurrah.
Then came the finale. These Are The Voyages... was written by series creators Berman and Braga with the intention of being a love letter to both the fans of Star Trek and to nearly two straight decades of continuing voyages for the franchise. Instead it turned into a 45 minute mess as the episode focused on Riker and Troi from The Next Generation by tying into the events of that show's episode The Pegasus and Riker trying to make a decision about revealing information to Picard by reliving the events of the original Enterprise's final mission. What might have been a cool idea done in a slightly different context instead led to the most underwhelming ending in Star Trek's TV history as it offered neither closer to the series itself nor to those nearly two decades of continuous TV Trek that it was meant to do.
So much of Enterprise can be summed up by a simple phrase: good ideas badly executed. Even now it's easy to look at the series, the basic ideas behind it and see the potential there. For that matter the idea of a prequel series to Star Trek: The Original Series is still a strong one and the fact that the recent reboot films (despite being set in their own universe) are effectively that speaks to that. The idea of the very first starship with the very first crew of humans going out to explore “strange new worlds” is a solid one and under different leadership might have evolved into a compelling series straight out of the bat. Somewhere in some parallel universe maybe Enterprise's first season would have ended not with a story involving the Temporal Cold War but Enterprise finally getting to set sail.
So what went wrong? The dilution of the prequel idea was likely where the trouble started. By beginning the show quite literally with the launch of the starship, the show was destined to be about the ongoing voyages of the first starship Enterprise. While that could have been fascinating in its own way, it instead became bogged down in rehashing so many of the ideas and plots that previous shows had used. Just as bad arguably was that when it tried to do something new, such as the Temporal Cold War, it felt shoehorned in with a large story-arc having never been thought out well enough for it to be as effective as it ought to have been.
Then of course there's the theme song. Just as controversial as the series is its opening title theme, a previously existing song called Where The Heart Will Take Me. Listening to the song and its lyrics, it's easy to see why it was picked. It's an upbeat piece which speaks to the themes at the original heart of Star Trek as humanity reached for the stars at last, and when shown over images from throughout the history of human exploration can be effective. Unfortunately, and I say this as someone who keeps the song on their iPod, it was certainly not the best way to start off a Star Trek series. An instrumental adaptation of it called Archer's Theme was a far more effective choice but it was decided to go with the song at the end in a move that likely cost the show some much needed credibility.
Yet Enterprise also got things right. It had a dynamic cast of often underused performers, including Scott Bakula as Jonathan Archer who actually was a good choice for the role of the first starship captain, Connor Trinneer as the ship's engineer and Jolene Blalock as the Vulcan T'Pol. The three of them harkened back to the original series' trinity of Kirk, Spock and McCoy but also found something new to do with it, though Blalock was at times reduced to attempts at being the show's sex symbol which undermined her character. Other characters with potentially intriguing advances such as Linda Park's communications expert Hoshi Sato never really went anywhere which was a shame.
As mentioned earlier, Enterprise finally found its feet in its final season. It became the prequel series it had always been pitched as, exploring elements of the Trek universe that allowed Enterprise both to tie into what had come before while also finding its own voice. Episodes such as the three part Vulcan arc early in the season and the penultimate storyline of the series are prime examples of that, with the latter especially showing part of humanity's evolution from where we are today to the civilization seen throughout Trek. Perhaps if the show had been this from the beginning, or even just a little sooner, we might not be talking about the series as a failure. Sadly though the season was too little, too late to save the series but it would seem that it helped to salvage Enterprise's reputation.
At the end of the day, defending Enterprise might be easier said than done. Even as a fan of the series, it's hard not to admit that it was seriously flawed and struggled in its first two seasons. Yet in the back half of its run, and in its final season especially, it took flight at last. The show promised great things but took a long time to start delivering, and when it did it came too late to keep the show on the air. Yet time might well be kind to the series as it continues to be referenced by the reboot films and an ongoing series of novels has not only rewritten its finale but taken it into new territory. Enterprise remains a bold, if not always successful, experiment, but one that nonetheless helped to make the Star Trek universe richer by filling in some of its early history. For that it deserves not our scorn but our attention, and perhaps even a reexamination.
Matthew lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't
have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the
Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.