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Star Trek | Enterprise Stumbled So Discovery Could Soar

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As Star Trek approached its 40th anniversary in 2006, the franchise was at something of a low ebb. Unlike Star Wars which had just seen the release of three smash-hit new films (mileage may vary as to your feelings about them) or Doctor Who which had just been spectacularly revived after a decade and a half in limbo, Star Trek seemed to be running out of steam.

On the big screen, 2002’s aptly named Star Trek: Nemesis had been a critical and commercial flop. Plans for a final concluding film in The Next Generation saga had been abandoned. After ten films and nearly a quarter-century, the Star Trek film franchise seemed to be at an end.

On TV, the picture was no better. In February 2005, the cancellation of Star Trek: Enterprise (originally just called Enterprise) had been announced during the show’s fourth season. Suddenly, for the first time in eighteen years, no new episodes of Star Trek were scheduled. With over 600 Star Trek episodes of various types produced since The Next Generation awoke the dormant franchise in 1987, it looked suspiciously like a case of franchise fatigue. With Enterprise over, some wondered if Star Trek itself had boldly gone for good.

With the outlook seemingly bleaker than any time, since the 1970s, many held Enterprise responsible for the debacle. With the poorly received final episode, ‘These Are The Voyages…’ (S4, Ep22) broadcast in May 2005 adding insult to injury, it was seen as the final nail in the coffin of the Rick Berman era.

Twenty years on from the ‘Broken Bow’, the first episode of Enterprise, however, it is now possible to see things very differently. For, in fact, by choosing to make it a prequel, the creators of Enterprise had not only stumbled across means to keep the franchise going but had discovered the means by which it would ultimately be revitalized.

Against all odds, Star Trek: Enterprise did not destroy Star Trek. It may actually have saved it.

Riker (Jonathan Frakes) aboard Enterprise for the finale ‘These Are The Voyages…’ (S4, Ep22). | Paramount, 2005.

[See also: Star Trek | How Roddenberry’s Future Failed Native Americans by Prof. Dr. Katja Kanzler]

Boldly Going Backward

“On this site, a powerful engine will be built. An engine that will someday help us to travel a hundred times faster than we can today. Imagine it – thousands of inhabited planets at our fingertips… and we’ll be able to explore those strange new worlds and seek out new life and new civilizations. This engine will let us go boldly… where no man has gone before.”

Zefram Cochrane, ‘Broken Bow’ – S1, Ep1.

Airing on 26th September 2001, Enterprise, starred former Quantum Leap lead, Scott Bakula as Jonathan Archer, the captain of Earth’s first-ever Warp 5 starship, Enterprise in the year 2151.

The first double-pilot episode, ‘Broken Bow’, saw Archer and the ship’s other crew members including Denobulan medical officer, Dr. Phlox (John Billingsley), linguist Hoshi Sato (Linda Park) and engineer, Charles ‘Trip’ Tucker III  (Connor Trinneer) embarking on a mission to transport a wounded Klingon – the first of his kind ever seen by anyone on Earth – back to his own world. They are forced into an uneasy alliance with Vulcan, T’Poi (Jolene Blacock) who is instructed against her own and the crew’s wishes to accompany them on their journey, by a Vulcan high command suspicious of human intentions. In time, this expedition transforms into a more open-ended exploratory journey into space with T’Poi becoming a permanent member of the crew.

The cast of Star Trek: Enterprise. | Paramount, 2001.

Enterprise’s 2151 setting was, in fact, crucial, placing it over a century chronologically before the adventures of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and The Original Series crew which are all set between the 2260s and a full 200 years before the more recent Star Trek series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager, all of which were set in the 2360s and 2370s. 

You could, of course, blame George Lucas for all this. The decision to set the second Star Wars trilogy released between 1999 and 2003 before the ‘original’ series of 1977 to 1983, thus exploring the rise of Darth Vader created a public appetite for prequels and origin stories. Sure, there had been early examples – notably Planet of the Apes, which spawned three prequel films in the 1970s – and horror sequels that caught to wring additional bloodletting from their dry lore. On the small screen, however, the closest thing to an attempt on this scale actually aired the same year – Smallville, which shot a ten-season jolt of new life into the convoluted mythology of Superman, directly inspiring Arrow, The Flash, Batwoman, and Legends of Tomorrow amongst so many others.

Star Trek might not have been burdened by quite so much canon as the Man of Steel, but it was still enough to scare away newcomers and infuriate older fans as successive seasons strayed ever further from Gene Roddenberry’s big-hearted mandate.

The idea of a prequel was definitely a good one, on paper at least.

Bridging the Gap?

With the original Star Trek set more than 250 years in the future from our own time – let alone Archer’s time – there was clearly a lot of groundwork to be done to take us into the highly advanced era of transporters, warp drives, and interplanetary relations with alien species. The opening title sequence of Enterprise indeed suggests it is going to do just that, with images of sailing ships, actual footage of early attempts at manned flight, the Moon landings to imagined examples of future developments suggesting a clear link between the past, present, and future.

In fact, once the show gets going, it’s disappointing to see just how far advanced, the world of Enterprise already is. Early scenes showing a young Jonathan Archer (Marty Davis) playing with his scientist father (Mark Moses) suggest an Earth which seems remarkably unaltered from the one we know today. But as we move to the main story, it becomes clear that this is already a very highly advanced era of warp drives and transporters, even if the crew still seem a bit uneasy about using the latter. The people of this time are already not only in contact with other alien races but fairly used to them. Archer already has someone born in the Denobula Traxa system on his crew and has had time to develop long-standing prejudices against the Vulcans over their treatment of his father. Far from bridging the gap between our time and that of Star Trek, despite the gunmetal grey drabness of the production design, this immediately feels much more like the era of Kirk or even Picard than it does our own.

It was a missed opportunity. Imagine the excitement of seeing the cast really going where no one had gone before. Of seeing the fear and exhilaration as they traveled using the warp drive for the very first time. As they really did seek out new life and civilizations, encounter strange new worlds, encountering the alien races we came to know as the Vulcans, for example, for the very first time. 

Instead, we join the journey after it has already traveled some way down the road and gathered up fistfuls of mythology that over time would become as impenetrable as that which went before. The situation was compounded by attempts to appease critical fans and stuttering ratings as they leaped from early encounters with TOS stalwarts like the Andorians to canon-battering first contact scenarios with the Borg and Ferengi.

Andorians in the episode ‘Ceasefire’ – S2, Ep15. | Paramount, 2003.

[See also: Star Trek | Archer and T’Pol – Enterprise’s Ultimate Ship by Tamra J. Matthews]

Despite this, the premise of Enterprise did sidestep many of the traditional weaknesses of prequels.

One is a basic loss of suspense. Whether the prequel in question is The Phantom Menace, Smallville, or Young Sherlock Holmes we already know none of the major characters are going to die simply because we have already seen them in action in the later stories. Even worse, in Star Wars: Episode I’s case, the very fact we already know that characters like Qui-Gon Jinn and Darth Maul don’t appear in the later films at all, to some extent makes it obvious they are going to die pretty soon. They might as well have targets on their heads.

This wasn’t a problem for Enterprise, however. All the characters were new. The story was set much earlier than the other ones. Any of the characters from Porthos the dog upwards still could be in jeopardy. A sense of suspense was retained.

Another issue relates particularly to prequels in sci-fi. Traditionally, one of the best things about science-fiction is that it pushes the boundaries by demonstrating the endless possibilities of what could be achieved in the future. But Enterprise is constrained by the fact it was supposed to be set earlier than all the other Star Treks. Nothing could really occur which could surpass the developments which we have seen achieved in the action set later. In short, Enterprise could be a bit futuristic but not too futuristic. Although produced in the 2000s, it should not really look more advanced than The Original Series, which itself was restricted by the real-life constraints of a 1960s production budget and special effects.

Yet in truth, this was never a problem for Enterprise which skirted the design language of the 23rd century by drawing more heavily on the 21st, giving us militaristic jumpsuits and a submarine-like interior for the ship itself. While never looking cheap or limited in scale, Enterprise made a good fist of providing a compelling futuristic setting that never seemed implausible despite the constraint of being set so much earlier than all the series set before it.

Another problem was cultural. We had already seen how far Picard’s Enterprise of Klingon crew members, string quartets, and ship’s counselors had moved on from the macho culture of Kirk’s mostly-human Enterprise. But now we were again supposedly going back in time before then. Once again, the premise required things to be both futuristic and old-fashioned at the same time.

Here, the character of the ship’s engineer, ‘Trip’ Tucker proved effective. With his Southern accent and folksy manner, his relationship with Archer, a man who himself admits harboring unfair ‘preconceptions’ about Vulcans recreated some of the dynamic between Kirk and McCoy. Less successful was the approach to Jolene Blalock’s highly sexualized Vulcan, T’Pol. Although some attempt is made to create an onscreen tension reminiscent of that between McCoy and Spock, Enterprise sometimes took a voyeuristic and juvenile approach to her character, badly letting itself down in the process. The show’s many decontamination gel scenes are particularly gratuitious.

[See also: Star Trek | To Boldly Woo: The Romantic Disasters of Jean-Luc Picard by Jen Williams]

Keeping the Faith

“… the quality starts to decrease pretty rapidly, plots from previous Trek incarnations are rehashed with less effectiveness, and by the cliffhanging and borderline absurd season finale, you get the feeling there isn’t too much creative steam left in this show and wonder what hope there can be for the future.”

DVD Talk review of Star Trek: Enterprise (2005)

It’s never easy to argue the case for a canceled TV series.

As with a political party defeated in an election, the cold, hard facts of its ultimate failure seem to vindicate all arguments against it. If Enterprise was so great, why didn’t more people watch it? It’s a valid question. 

The facts are these. As with the earlier Star Trek series, Enterprise had received a mixed critical reception on its initial release. Some foolish decisions such as dropping the prefix, ‘Star Trek’ from the title and the decision to use the Russell Watson power ballad, ‘Faith of the Heart’ (a song fine in the right context but totally unsuitable for Star Trek) as the theme music were never popular. By the end of the second season in 2003, ratings were falling and its future seemed in doubt.  Changes were made for the start of Season 3 including the restoration of Star Trek to the title, but ultimately the situation did not improve and its cancellation was announced during the fourth season in February 2005.

Had the series continued, maybe ratings would have recovered. Or maybe they would have continued declining forever into an endless downward spiral? We will never know. What we do know is that it was canceled for the same reason almost every TV series has been canceled: it had reached a point where it had ceased to be profitable. 

Back in 1969, another TV series had been canceled for much the same reason. What is now known as Star Trek: The Original Series had in fact lasted just 79 episodes rather than Enterprise’s 98. But like its predecessor, Star Trek: Enterprise would prove to have a legacy all of its own.

First Among Prequels

Twenty years on from the start of Enterprise, the idea that Star Trek prequels held the key to the series’ renewal has been vindicated.

In 2009, the franchise was totally revitalized by a new film directed by J.J. Abrams and featuring younger actors playing Kirk, Spock, and other members of the team from The Original Series starting in the 2250s and set in the years leading up to Kirk’s appointment as captain of Enterprise. The film even features the character of Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) who was once played by Jeffrey Hunter who with Leonard Nimoy’s Spock first appeared in the original Star Trek pilot episode, ‘The Cage’ (set in 2254) back in 1965.

Due to the clever inclusion of a time travel storyline actually involving the aging Nimoy who makes an appearance as Spock from the future, Star Trek and its two sequels, Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) and Star Trek Beyond (2016) actually exist in an alternative timeline and are thus strictly speaking reboots rather than prequels – although that is a distinction that troubled few viewers outside of the usual crop of Trek ultras. This device freed the films from many of the restrictions of the previous timeline enabling redesigns of the ship and crew’s costumes, for example. Prequels in all but name, these three films were to prove the most successful Star Trek films ever made.

What they reached for, was in part what Enterprise had lacked. Enterprise looked to the past and sought to answer questions that few outside fandom had ever asked. Enterprise – a product of the pipeline that began with The Next Generation – looked past that carefree, swashbuckling sense of adventure that ran through The Original Series, simply because it had played such a small part of ‘their’ era of Star Trek. J.J. Abrams, by his own admission not a Star Trek fan, looked at the series and saw the potential for a romp.

In 2017, Star Trek Discovery marked the franchise’s triumphant return to TV after an absence of almost a decade. Set a full ten years before The Original Series onboard USS Discovery, the show is thus also a prequel and spent its first couple of seasons showing us many of the things we loved about TOS, such as belligerent Klingons, inscrutable Vulcans, and the family drama of a young Spock.

Anson Mount as Captain Pike and Ethan Peck as Spock in Star Trek: Short Treks. | Paramount, 2019.

The series again features the character of Christopher Pike, this time played by Anson Mount. Pike briefly becomes captain of Discovery during the show’s second season, some years before he took that role aboard Enterprise. A spin-off series, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds set onboard Enterprise with Mount again playing Pike, Rebecca Romjin playing Number One, and with Ethan Peck as a young Spock.

Prequels have thus played an essential in spearheading Star Trek’s renaissance on both the big and small screen. Twenty years from its debut, its time Enterprise’s role was acknowledged. Rick Berman and Brannan Braga’s instincts were right, even if the execution left something to be desired. It was Enterprise that first dared to acknowledge the best way for Star Trek to keep boldly going forward was simply by going back.

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Chris Hallam is a published author and freelance writer based in Exeter. In the past, he has written for magazines such as DVD Monthly and Geeky Monkey. He provided all the written content for the Star Wars Clone Wars and Smurfs annuals for 2014, and the Transformers annual 2015. He continues to write for Yours Retro, Best of British and The History of Comics, 1930-2030.

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