When it comes to Science Fiction, my two starter drugs were Captain Future – the animated TV show – and Star Trek.
I first saw part of an episode of Star Trek when I was a kid. I think my father was watching it, and I caught a glimpse when I came downstairs after my bed-time. Many years later, my mother bought me the novelization books of the TV show, one book at a time. I think I got the first one when I was sick, and I am guessing maybe 12 years old or so. I read all of the TOS episodes as books before I watched them – and I always liked the books better.
Even though I got started on Star Trek early, I never became a real Star Trek fan. I think that’s mostly because I read so many other, better, SF stories before I ever watched Star Trek. And of course there was Star Wars, too.
Still, I always liked certain aspects of the show. The ship design for example. So iconic! – and let’s face it, for a teenage geek, Star Trek offers good escapism.
I never really got into TNG or DS9 either. I never watched a single episode of Voyger – I think. But one show that caught my eye was Star Trek: Enterprise. I liked its “back to the basics” approach.
I recently re-watched the entire 4 Seasons show, due to a cold that “grounded” me for two days. Since I am currently working on my own Science Fiction setting, I tried to watch Enterprise with a critical eye.
So, what’s my take-away from watching Star Trek: Enterprise over five days?
The setup: Enterprise was obviously designed as a modern version of TOS. It reminds me of the Battlestar Galactica remake, and is certainly better than the latest Star Trek movies. It’s about exploration, sense of wonder, with a good deal of intrigue and interstellar politics thrown in.
Worldbuilding: Yeah, Enterprise expands on established Star Trek canon a lot. It’s basically a historic setting, and the show did a good job handling some of the topics it had to tackle. Much of it is good, filling in a lot of interesting detail on pre-Federation politics. However, it also deviated greatly from established history – the Xindi problem is entirely new. I am guessing that’s why they came up with the time travel angle. It probably would have been a better idea to stick to less earth-shattering topics (no pun intended) – strengthen the franchise’s design rather than mess it up.
Lesson learned: Be self-consistent. Refining your existing lore is okay, some retconning is tolerable, but do not resort to earth-shattering changes that require wacky explanations. “A wizard did it” is usually not a good explanation.
Technology: Enterprise is an experimental star ship, it’s underpowered by Star Trek standards, and most other races can outgun it. There are more limitations in the technology – sensors are described as limited, for example. The transporter is (at least initially) not used for human transport – meaning that landing parties need to use shuttlecraft and thus have no deus ex machina escape route.
Lesson learned: Give your protagonists a lot to do and limited capabilities to achieve their goals. Magic technology is a hindrance when it comes to good stories, unless the stories are about the magic technology. Limitations and problems fuel drama and plot arcs.
Characters/Crew: Most of the characters are okay, but not great. Jonathan Archer is probably the biggest problem here, he’s just pretty nondescript. There are better and worse episodes though, and overall he is not terrible. Still, for a franchise that has always defined itself, in no small part, by its starship captains, Archer is just not charismatic enough. Communications officer Sato is too nondescript and never really shines. The actress of the obligatory Vulcan did a good job filling the role and her uniform. Good eye candy – but way too obvious as eye-candy – The Seven of Nine of Enterprise.
Enterprise does get a complement of space marines in Season 3, and really should have started out with them – I never understood why ships that end up in hostile action so much, be it planet- or shipside would not have marines on board. I guess it is one of the lessons that “peaceful” Star Fleet had to learn the hard way.
And this brings us to what I perceive as one of the biggest weaknesses of the show. Competence, or lack thereof. In the early episodes, the human characters behave like undisciplined schoolchildren. I understand that they are supposed to be excited about their exploration, but they are also supposed to be the best of the best Star Fleet has to offer. In one episode they miss their scheduled rendezvous because they “lost track of time”, for example. It’s an embarrassment and I think this is a big part of what turned people off of the show.
Lesson learned: Make sure your story includes all required characters, even if they are side characters that do not play any important roles. Characters need to fit the role they fill out, and when they don’t, it should be part of the story to determine why they’re there anyway and how they grow to meet their challenges. Not that this is any news, and I am guessing it’s harder to do than it appears if Star Trek gets it wrong – they have, after all, enough money to throw at good writers.
Aliens: Many of the iconic Star Trek alien races make an appearance in the show. Mostly, this is well done, and the writers did a fairly good job of integrating some of the more… eccentric TOS aliens (Green Orion Slave Women for example) but why the Borg had to show up – I will probably never understand. Another problem is that aliens are often depicted as stubborn, single-minded, and downright stupid. They are never willing to look at the facts that are in plain sight in front of them, until Archer forces them to. I understand that humanity’s strength is supposed to be versatility, but I just do not buy it – if these aliens were so singleminded, one wonders how they could have built a stable civilization and maintained it long enough to develop warp drives. And as a consequence almost none of the aliens are compelling – perhaps with the exception of the Vulcans and even more perhaps the Andorians.
Lesson learned: Don’t throw everything and the kitchen sink into your story just because you can. Aliens are different, not automatically more stupid than humans.
Plots: Another big problem of the series. There are some episodes that work well, and I enjoyed that Enterprise tried to have a more consistent overarching plot. The show would have been much better off without time travel, though, and the Xindi plot (entire season 3) was very mixed – it started off with a great exploration theme (strange Delphic Expanse, strange, ancient artifacts and so on) and ended in a mad action-packed race to save Earth with the writers running out of time and out of ideas at the same time.
Season 4 returned to better plots – but ended in some “clip shows”, presumably the producers knew the show wouldn’t be renewed and filled in the gaps somehow. The two episodes set in the Mirror Universe were pretty cool, though. And while the last episode, with Mr Riker, was lost on me I guess at least they did manage to bring the show to some sort of conclusion that way.
Lesson learned: Figure out what your core concepts and world conflict are, and derive your main story arcs from them. Stick to them, and do not deviate too wildly. In this specific case, the introduction of the needless timetravel arc completely destroyed Enterprise; had they stuck to exploration, the Andorian-Vulcan war, interstellar politics, and the founding of the Federation, they would have been much better off.