Tuesday, December 14, 2004

TrekCheck/ ENTERPRISE: the first 9 of Season 4, a commentary

The opening 9 episodes of the fourth season may turn out to be crucial for the Enterprise series. With a new producer, new writers and a new night, fans had new hope that it will live to see a fifth season, and perhaps more. So far, those hopes have not been dashed. These were intriguing episodes, and provide every reason to keep watching.

I'm not going to speculate on the future, except to say that I'm looking forward to the rest of the season. For now, I'd just like to add to the dialogue with my own reactions and thoughts on these first 9 stories.

Perspective on the Way I Watch

It's a Star Trek tradition, to state your franchise experience---kind of the way some Native peoples begin councils by reciting the names of their ancestors.

Well, I've seen every TOS and TNG episode and feature film multiple times in multiple media, plus many episodes of DS9 and Voyager at least once. I've seen all of the first three years of Enterprise, maybe lacking an ep or two. There's no UPN affiliate on the cable system where I live, but the local Fox station runs Enterprise, at midnight on Wednesday (now Friday) and again at 6p. Saturday. So I tape the episodes and watch them later, fast-forwarding through commercials (and the opening theme.)

It's common knowledge that the original Star Trek series didn't really catch on until it was syndicated in the 70s. A big factor in Star Trek's success then, I believe, was not only that it became available again, but that it ran every day. (I go into this a little more in my essay on Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which you can find below in the Trekalog, beginning at the June 30, 2004 post.) Seeing an episode every day gets you into the world of the series, and you begin to know the characters as they start to live in your subconscious and eventually your consciousness in your daily, so-called real life.

So in addition to seeing each of the first 9 episodes of the fourth season as they ran weekly, I've gone back to the videotape and watched them all again, at least one a day for several days in a row.

Which reminds me of something else important to Star Trek's success: multiple viewings. Subtleties in the stories, nuances in the performances, even entire arcs and subtexts within a story or relating to other stories, don't always reveal themselves the first time. Star Trek fans, like fervent fans of any show, might wind up seeing more than there actually is in a given story. But there is often quite a lot in Star Trek episodes that rewards repeated viewings. That includes these 9 episodes of Enterprise.

I'll take the opportunity that writing for nothing provides in this blog, to look at these shows as a writer as well as a viewer or a cultural historian, which describes much of what I do in my published nonfiction. My dramatic (and comic) writing has mostly been as an amateur, with some theatrical productions, but my opinion is sometimes sought because I'm pretty good at analyzing what works and what doesn't on stage, and of course that's part of writing about TV and movies, which I've done professionally. So that's how I watch.


This new creative team was also doing something new for Star Trek: telling stories in three-episode "mini-arcs." The season started with two episodes that directly continued the semi-cliffhanger that ended the season-long Xindi arc of last year ("Storm Front" I & II) and a coda ("Home") that wraps up the Xindi saga with its aftermath and effects back on earth.

Then came the Arik Soong/Brent Spiner arc, three episodes about the ancestor of Data's creator who rescued 19 genetically engineered embryos kept in cold storage from the Eugenics Wars (referenced in TOS), "birthed" them through some unspecified process, and raised them on a remote planet for their first ten years. Now ten years after that, he is enlisted from his prison cell to help Archer and the Enterprise find the "Augments," who have commandeered a Klingon ship.

Then came the Vulcan arc: three episodes concerning a conflict on Vulcan between the High Command and a dissident group that believes the Vulcans have strayed from the true path of Surak, who rescued them from planetary violence with the gospel of logic centuries before.

"Storm Front" wasn't a true three episode arc: more like two fast-paced episodes and a coda in a different key. (Sort of like TNG's Borg two-parter, "Best of Both Worlds," followed by the quieter "Family" on earth.) The two true arcs showed promise that this could be a good format for Star Trek. But there are inherent problems. I imagine it's difficult enough to time out and pace a story in one 40 or so minute episode, but there are experienced hands who have done this for many years. To my knowledge, nobody has tried telling stories over three to five episodes as a regular procedure since the first run of Doctor Who. But that was a unique show, with different audience expectations (and production values) from Star Trek. So this team was really breaking new ground.

The results were a bit uneven, which is about the best you could expect. They might have been unnecessarily frenetic, but basically they all hold up, and they certainly kept moving. The pace of the Soong arc was quite good, but a little too much happened, and the second episode cliffhanger (Archer on his way up a ladder to prevent deadly toxins from killing everybody on Cold Station 12) was pretty weak. A different problem arose in the Vulcan arc. Though some thought the final episode was rushed, my feeling about the arc overall was that it was a bit padded, even if with extraneous action. On the other hand, the last few minutes of the first and second episodes of this arc had great pace and interest, so you really wanted to see the next episode. The team got that element of the mini-arc to work pretty quickly.

Some of these episodes leaned on the tried-and-true illusion of action that characterized Doctor Who episodes: getting caught and escaping. It's a relatively inexpensive kind of action sequence, and it does keep the actors in motion. But it's really a nervous substitute for action. It's serviceable when it advances the story at least a little.

The mini-arcs may be necessary to compensate for the steadily reduced portion of the hour that isn't comprised of commercials, but reserved for story-telling. This is something I asked Manny Coto about, and he acknowledged the difficulty of telling stories as fulsomely as TOS could, which had more minutes to work with. The mini-arc might help to counteract that limitation.

But it can't address what I regard as a chief reason people aren't watching dramatic storytelling on TV as much anymore. I don't think it's all because of the fad for so-called reality TV, which owes more to sensationalism than "reality." I believe it's mostly because blocks of so many commercials for so long interrupt the story so completely that dramatic tension is very hard to maintain, and it's too hard for viewers to pick up the threads of excellent, complex stories. The commercials slaughter mood (Norman Mailer once described totalitarianism as "the interruption of mood") and change emotions---you can wind up feeling distracted, frustrated, bored, assaulted and angry, just by the endless commercials. When the story starts again finally, your suspension of disbelief is suspended. (Which is another reason I prefer to watch TV drama on videotape. Maybe I'll get a TVo for Christmas.)
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