If professional STAR WARS booster Steve Sansweet were writing this, chances are he'd be saying, "STAR TREK is back...and in a big way." In this case, however, it wouldn't just be hyperbole; it'd be an accurate assessment of "Broken Bow's" potential to re-energize the floundering STAR TREK franchise. In the wake of DS9's less than stellar ratings and the widespread apathy towards VOYAGER, ENTERPRISE may be the best hope for revitalizing the moribund STAR TREK universe in a very, very long time.
This is not to say that "Broken Bow" is without its flaws. It lacks the cerebral, philosophical underpinnings that characterized "Emissary," DEEP SPACE NINE's surprisingly effective pilot; the spooky, mysterious allegory of classic TREK's "The Cage" and the scope and intrigue of VOYAGER's pilot, "Caretaker." However, what it does have is an ample abundance of humor, conflict and great character interplay, which is at the heart of any good STAR TREK series.
In ENTERPRISE, Rick Berman and Brannon Braga have created a superb ensemble of TREK characters, which bodes extremely well for the sustainability of the show. Not only that, they have received an able assist from all of their creative departments making this series the best looking and least lethargic show since the original. The uniforms look sharp and the casual wear featured early in the pilot based on contemporary fashion is a welcome and grounding addition. The sets, evocative of a submarine-like vessel, may not read immediately as a precursor to the original, but definitely feel as though they pre-date contemporary TREK and look great. From the cramped confines of the engine room to the captain's private dining room, this ENTERPRISE is both claustrophobic and functional, finally breaking with the design aesthetic of the previous decade and a half of TREK adventures that have basically been recycling the look of 1979's STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE for far too long.
Director Jim Conway is largely effective and his sweeping camera moves give the show a more kinetic and less static feel. Although some of the later action and fisticuffs aren't quite as effective, Conway evokes a moody atmosphere and look that defines the show from its opening moments.
However, the greatest asset of this new Enterprise is unquestionably its cast. From Scott Bakula on down, the ensemble is full of life and fun. Gone are the straight-laced, ciphers of previous series. Instead the ship is populated with a spirited, sexy and opinionated cast of characters that embrace boldly going where no man has gone before. Bakula is clearly having fun and taking the material seriously. He's large and in charge and is cut from the same cloth as Shatner's James T. Kirk, playing Archer with a little less of the militaristic bravado and more of a sense of awe and uncertainty. Engineer Charlie "Trip" Tucker is Bones with an attitude, a little less crusty than De Forest Kelley's McCoy, but just as fiery. Word of mouth on Jolene Blalock was not good in previous months, but she acquits herself admirably. She may not be Meryl Streep, but she gets the job done and it doesn't hurt that she's one of the most stunning actresses to grace the small screen since, well, Jeri Ryan.
And the rest of the ensemble is filled out nicely, although John Billingsley's Dr. Phlox falls dangerously into Neelix-like territory. Having an alien onboard the Enterprise, other than a Vulcan, for humanity's first flight to the stars almost seems superfluous and may be one of the few missteps in staffing this starship (the classic TREK was great without anyone in rubber masks, unless you count Walter Koenig's hairdo). Communication's Officer Hoshi is also a welcome addition, but I would be wary of falling into Asian stereotypes with this character given the fact that she is established as demure and cowering, terrified of the strange new worlds they are encountering, in the premiere. Hopefully, she'll prove a little more assertive in future episodes.
Clearly, Berman and Braga are sending the message that this is not your father's STAR TREK and for the most part they succeed marvelously. The only place they may try a little too hard is in the case of the opening credits. The title sequence itself is phenomenal, a terrific pastiche of mankind's history of exploration. Unfortunately, it is accompanied by one of the worst renditions of one of the most inane songs I've ever heard and will date this show worse than any other element of the series. In fact, it already feels like a relic of the late 70's as it airs in the earliest days of the 21st century. It's bad, bad, bad!!! Where's Jerry Goldsmith when you need him? (Clearly he's not providing the show's score as Dennis McCarthy phones in another score lacking the brashness and bravado of the best of Fred Steiner and Gerald Fried's work on the original.) Also, it was a mistake not to end the episode with the original Alexander Courage STAR TREK theme as the ship set out on its journey into space. Did I mention the opening song is atrocious?
Despite this, the first hour of the show is a sensational set-up introducing audiences to the characters and establishing the 22nd century universe of this new TREK. The conceit of having the Vulcans trying to holdback humanities next giant leap to the stars is an inspired addition to the mythology and lays the groundwork for a fascinating political tapestry and a continuing source of tension which will hopefully not evaporate in the way that the Maquis/Federation conflict on VOYAGER did. The political machinations on Earth are extremely compelling and there are some creepy moments involving the alien Suliban's attempts to retrieve a Klingon courier who has learned of their secret plans to destabilize the Empire as part of a "temporal cold war" being commanded from some enigmatic figure from the future.
On paper, the idea of this series being both a prequel and sequel must have seemed an irresistibly tempting idea, but in practice it does prove a little confusion with a little too much exposition being crammed into the premiere's two hour running time. Archer too readily accepts the idea of time travel (remember, this is before the umpteen thousand time travel episodes of later TREK) and you think he would be more astonished that time travel can even exist. The actual use of the word "temporal cold war" lacks the subtlety of what could be an interesting plot thread of the series and, ultimately, leads to a third act that is slightly muddled where so much is going on, you're not quite sure what is actually happening. See for yourself: the Enterprise attempts to elude the Suliban while Archer investigates the alien's secret temporal chamber and confronts one of their soldiers who is trying to keep Starfleet (or the United Earth Space Probe Agency, as it probably should have been called) from learning the truth about their sinister machinations. Phew!
Another aspect of the show that is a welcome addition to the conflict and confrontation between characters is its healthy degree of sexuality. Sure, there's some sophomoric banter about a planet in which the alien women have three breasts and shots of dancing girls, straight out of BUCK ROGERS, whose tongues dart out to capture flying butterflies, but there's an amped up level of sexual tension as well. In one scene that could have easily descended into camp, Tucker and T'Pol share a decontamination chamber. Overall, the scene works as the two talk about their mission while a sexual undercurrent simmers between them. Unfortunately, the scene doesn't go far enough given the fact that both actors remained clothed as they lather up, contributing some unintentional laughs as they reach under each other's clothing to apply the gel. Obviously, both should have been naked (of course, this isn't NYPD BLUE and they wouldn't be shown nude, but rather have it implied). The scene would have been better served with the camera skillfully avoiding any real skin, and thus pushing the envelope in a way that would truly differentiate the series from previous TREKs. Given the STAR TREK franchise's importance to Viacom, however, there often is a tendency to play it safe. Yet, the less conservative the new TREK can be in taking risks, both stylistically and with its content, the better off it will be.
One other element that clearly delighted fans at the screenings I attended was the introduction of familiar TREK technology for the first time, whether it be the transporter or phasers. In the weeks to come, it'll be important to explore such TREK-ian staples as the origin of the Prime Directive, photon torpedoes and, of course, the Romulans, while remaining true to established continuity.
The biggest danger as I see is that ENTERPRISE eschews the sense of awe and wonder to play too many horror beats. Upcoming episodes feature the crew finding a ship in which aliens are experimenting on the crew and a terrible transporter accident occurs onboard. There's nothing wrong with showing the dangers of space exploration, but now, more than ever, it's imperative to depict a sense of optimism and hope about the future and humanity's place in it. There's a great moment where Archer confronts T'Pol talking about how much the human race has grown in the last 100 years; wiping out hunger, war and poverty. We can only hope it's this philosophy which infuses the show with its energy in the future. If we're very lucky, let us hope STAR TREK, which has been so prescient in showing us the future in year's past, will also once again show us that the real future of the human race is made in a world united by peace and not war. Clearly, ENTERPRISE is a show that has all the ingredients to live long and prosper.
MARK A. ALTMAN is the writer/producer of FREE ENTERPRISE, starring William Shatner and Eric McCormack, and writes a regular movie column for CINESCAPE. The LOS ANGELES TIMES has called him "the world's foremost Trekspert."
Reviewed Format: TV Show Series Premiere
Original Airdate: September 26, 2001; 8:00 p.m. EST
Cast: Scott Bakula, Connor Trinneer, Jolene Blalock, Dominic Keating, Anthony Montgomery, Linda Park, John Billingsley
Creators: Rick Berman & Brannon Braga
Writers: Rick Berman & Brannon Braga
Director: James L. Conway