Star Trek Enterprise: Strange New World

Archer: "Research isn't the only reason we're out here."

By nature I love brevity: Meh. This episode is like an essay that won't take a stand – there's nothing to distinguish it as either good or bad. It simply is.

'Strange New World' opens with a sequence that instantly reminds me of TNG's incredible episode 'Lower Decks'. It's similar in that the sequence takes place around a table, featuring minor characters not in the cast list. Except 'Lower Decks' was out of TNG's seventh season, after we've spent six whole seasons watching the same main characters week after week. And some of the spotlight characters in 'Decks' had appeared in the show before, so that audiences were familiar with them but not acquainted. 'Strange New World' is the third story in ENT's first season, which means it is less of a break in formula. I was settled in for an attempt to replicate the magic of 'Decks' way too early in the show.

Fortunately, I did not wind up getting a 'Lower Decks' rehash. The second scene focused on the show's main characters, and the whole rest of the episode did, too, mostly. It turns out the brief focus on minor characters is simply to establish them as recurring crewmen, which I can get behind. The basic setup of 'World' is that Enterprise has come across an M-Class planet (referred to here as Minshara-Class for the first time in Trek), and the crew is all eager to get down there and explore. We saw this with Trip in 'Fight or Flight', and we're seeing it now in everyone. They all signed on to explore the vast unknown of space, and the chance has arrived. T'Pol urges caution, as she's prone to do. She argues they should follow proper protocols and approach the situation gradually before sending down a team.

Archer blows her off and takes a group to the planet's surface. The team consists of himself, Trip, Travis, T'Pol, Crewman Cutler, and Crewman Novakovich. While I appreciate the sense of wonder the crew are experiencing – this is, after all, the first time most of them have ever been to an alien planet – I do find myself agreeing with T'Pol somewhat. While there's nothing wrong with a sense of awe and wonder, or even taking a picture for posterity, the team's behavior is completely unprofessional. I mean, Archer even brought his dog, for Pete's sake. Nothing wrong with dogs, it just strikes me as a poor decision to bring one on the away mission to a planet you're surveying to find out if it's habitable. They don't even know it's M-Class, as T'Pol makes clear. When you're on a mission to find out if you can breathe the air, maybe don't bring your pet. And maybe take a few close-up scans from inside the shuttle before opening the hatch and walking out. See what I mean? I get their urge to go out and explore, but you'd think an alien planet would require the tiniest bit of caution. And that's BEFORE the hallucinogenic poison spores. Oh yeah, did we mention those? Gee, maybe a probe would've detected that if you'd sent it down first. T'Pol may be a bit extreme, judging even the group photo, but she has a really good point.

When Archer leaves for the ship, the other four members of the team remain on the planet to spend the night. After a space ghost story from Travis, officially the most interesting thing he's done to date, they go to bed in their tents. But things escalate exponentially. First a storm rises up. Then Trip gets a scorpion in his sleeping bag, for which his perfectly rational solution is to try and shoot it with his phase pistol. And Crewman Novakovich hears someone walking around. T'Pol had found a cave a few kilometers away earlier in the day, and the group decides to relocate there. But they've left their food packs, and when Travis goes back to get them, he sees three figures walking around. Novakovich hears more in the cave, and before long, he's run out into the storm out of fear. Trip and the recently returned Travis grab phase pistols and go after him, and TPol explores the cave to try and find whoever might be there.

Trip sees a creature come out of the rock, and Cutler finds T'Pol talking to someone even though she insists she found no one. The three remaining humans on the team begin to suspect T'Pol is in league with the rock men they think they're fighting. Meanwhile, Enterprise finally decides to use the transporter to bring Novakovich back aboard. In the storm, the device is scrambled, and Phlox has a medical emergency on his hands. In this process the doctor discovers a hallucinogen in the crewman's bloodstream, which explains the things the away team has been seeing. But they refuse to listen to reason. Trip has a phase pistol leveled at T'Pol's head, and he isn't putting it down. It's of worth here to note the way Trip descends into his madness. It's a nice touch, but it's too subtle to be a particular boost to the episode.

Things are escalating, and even T'Pol is affected. Running out of time, the crew aboard Enterprise try a few solutions. But the shuttlepod can't land in the storm, and the away team is too stubborn by now to take the antidotes they beam down. Finally, Archer tries his last gambit. Something weird is in fact going on, he explains to Trip. Their real mission is to contact the rock men, and T'Pol is the only one with the clearance to know about it. She also is the only one who can talk with them. Then Archer has Hoshi give T'Pol instructions in Vulcan, telling her to play act until Trip drops his weapon, then stun him. This works, T'Pol gets the injections delivered, and everyone is saved.

So what did I find lacking? The main thing is that everything feels derivative. We've all seen many, many paranoia stories before, even in Trek (DS9's 'Dramatis Personae', for one). We've also seen stories where the crew is adversely affected by alien spores or such more times than we can count. The story and the concept are definitely not new or original, so that's part of it. But even clichéd stories can be executed well and come across as fresh and new, if done right. If you can include a new spin on the cliché, or provide something in the story that's different from the norm, you can make it feel like something nobody has seen before. But 'World' fails to offer any of this. Aside from the very minor aspect of the crew's inexperience, nothing here is new or interesting. And none of it distinguishes this episode from the other Trek shows, either. This same overall plot could be carried out in TOS or TNG or VOY (not DS9, but this is because that particular show is very different in format from the others) with no major changes. This is not what I want from Enterprise. I want to see stories that are new and different, stories that depend on the unique parts of the show's premise. I don't want to see stories I could find on any other Trek show.

Strange New Worlds (Heh):

We visited an unnamed planet, the first one the ship has visited that's really like Earth. Keep in mind it's not the first one they've been on, though. They went to two in the pilot, and one in 'Fight or Flight'.

New Life and New Civilizations:

The crew encountered plants with hallucinogenic spores, and Trip had an alien scorpion in his sleeping bag.

We saw the first Vulcan nerve pinch, and Cutler was having a Vulcan soup. Was it plomeek soup?

Pensees:

-I like the NX-01 baseball caps Archer, Travis, and Novakovich were wearing when they landed on the planet.

-Archer makes some references to water polo, and Reed brings him a ball from the same game.

-According to Travis at one point, the away team runs low on water. This would have been more believable if the audience had at any point seen one of them drinking it.

-Novakovich's unfortunate beam-out is the first transporter accident ever.

-Maybe they could have preserved the illusion that this was actually happening for a longer period of the episode if the aliens Cutler saw talking to T'Pol actually looked like rock creatures.

-Phlox's demeanor in the scene where he tells Archer what's happening to Novakovich is perfectly subdued. Very good performance by John Billingsley here - as usual, of course.

-We never saw the transporter effect of the antidote beaming down.

-Did they ever actually study those nocturnal marsupials T'Pol kept them on the planet to study?

Quotes:

Trip (about T'Pol): "You'd have better luck making friends with a housefly."

T'Pol: "We'll rendezvous here at 1900 hours... unless the Captain wants us to pose for more pictures."

T'Pol: "You're becoming irrational."
Trip: "You've never seen me irrational."

Not offensively bad, but not really good at all. 2.5 out of 6 hallucinogenic poison spores

4 comments:

Billie Doux said...

Again, your excellent review brought this episode back to me, CoramDeo. I remember how frustrating I found it to be. Going back to a time before the original series is a great idea, but in context, it just made every away team decision they made look stupid. Not to mention, how could anyone who loves their dog take it along to an alien planet? Hasn't anyone on Enterprise ever seen a science fiction horror movie?

Thomas Ijon Tichy said...

This episode served a major part of the motivation for the Death Count Zero thread I made on TrekBBS in the late 90s.

Yeah it's basically utter drivel. :)

Denes House said...

A good rule of thumb is, whatever T'Pol advises Archer to do, he will do the opposite - and she will have been right. I understand that the showrunners wanted to show humanity learning and growing, and that will of necessity mean they make mistakes. But you can set your watch by the fact that Archer is usually wrong. And that's a problem when he's your show's lead.

That's a writing problem, not an acting problem. I don't blame Scott Bakula for this in the least. He does what he can with the character. But the writers write Archer as always-wrong, and yet somehow heroic. And that's a circle you can't square.

Billie Doux said...

I agree, Denes House, that it's a writing problem, not an acting problem. I love Scott Bakula. It took awhile for Enterprise to get its writing act together, but I think it did.

Back when it aired, I tried posting reviews of Enterprise -- can't remember where, I was all over the place back then and didn't have my own site -- and a lot of the Star Trek fans were very, very negative. I eventually gave up. But I have some extensive notes and mini reviews somewhere for some of the episodes, and I'll definitely post them when CoramDeo gets to them.