In most entertainment - television shows, books, and movies - there's something satisfying about seeing the primary characters get together romantically. It's the essence of great storytelling.
Joseph Campbell, a Jungian psychologist, understands the art of storytelling; he’s been cataloging story similarities between cultures and mythos. Among good storytelling, Campbell also addresses romance. He describes three types of love. One is a love for humanity, an impersonal, general love. Base desire – such as pornography – is eros. Amor is more idealistic – it’s romantic love. Amor, he urges, is the most personal type of love because it includes the mind and heart.
In television, movies, and books the most exciting love is when those loves align – there is eros, but more importantly, there’s amor – true love.
That’s why one of the most compelling pairings in Star Trek is that of Star Trek: Enterprise’s Captain Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula) and his first officer, Sub-Commander T’Pol (Jolene Blalock).
Looking for Amor in Kirk/Spock
I’ve always loved Star Trek: The Original Series. I started watching in syndication back when I was about four years old. I had the entire Star Trek bridge toy set, Star Trek Color forms, View Masters from episodes, etc. At an early age, I was a nerd. When I was around ten, I picked up a fanzine at a bookstore that discussed the possibility of a Star Trek movie, before Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) became reality.
As I leafed through the zine, I saw a story about Kirk (William Shatner) and Spock (Leonard Nimoy) being a couple … a romantic couple.
Despite being heterosexual, I understand why those stories exist. Kirk and Spock risked their lives and reputations for each other regularly, defying orders. That kind of devotion is certainly love (amor), and it’s not a leap to call it romantic love.
Before there were Kirk and Spock, there was Captain Christopher Pike (Jeffrey Hunter) and his first officer, Number One (Majel Barrett). Pike relied on her but didn’t notice her romantically until the Talosians offered her as a potential mate for him in the unbroadcast Star Trek: The Original Series pilot episode ‘The Cage’ (S1, Ep?). Maybe they had insight into her and Pike’s desires? When offered, though, Pike thought the idea was tempting.
To take a more recent (relatively) example, in Star Trek: Voyager there’s chemistry between Chakotay (Robert Beltran) and Janeway (Kate Mulgrew). He’s her sounding board and confidant, willing to risk his life and reputation for her. She’s willing to do just about anything for him. Again, it’s not a stretch there’s amor.
Star-Crossed Lovers Outside of Star Trekl
Forget Star Trek for a second. Science fiction is filled with examples of potential couples. In just about every incarnation of Doctor Who, the Doctor has a companion he/she relies on. Nine (Christopher Eccleston) and Ten (David Tennant) had Rose Tyler (Billie Piper). Eleven (Matt Smith) had Amelia Pond (Karen Gillan), Twelve (Peter Capaldi) had Clara (Jenna Coleman), and Thirteen (Jodie Whittaker) had Yaz (Mandip Gill).
The chemistry – often romantic, sometimes quasi-romantic – between leads is why people tune in.
There’s Farscape – where John (Ben Browder) and Aeryn (Claudia Black) – start as enemies and learn to trust each other, becoming a couple. And John Crichton’s only competition is … well John Crichton. In The X-Files, Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Mulder (David Duchovny) are equals with opposing viewpoints. He wants to believe in UFOs and the paranormal, but she’s a physician devoted to science. Along the way, they’re both changed to meet in the middle. It’s the same with Flash Gordon, Babylon 5, Buck Rogers, Space 1999, Blake’s 7 – they all have male and female leads that cause viewers to keep coming back.
More than Cheers or Moonlight’s “will they, won’t they” – there’s caring and support in life and death situations.
Shakespeare pairs couples together based on meeting some specific criteria – they’re attracted to each other and they have similarities. For example, in Much Ado About Nothing (1598/9), Beatrice and Benedict may spar and spark at each other, but they are both quick-witted, funny, and underneath it all kind. In the Taming of the Shrew (1590/2), Petruchio and Katherina may initially lash out at each other, but they are well-matched. They’re both head-strong and both smart.
In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy are equals who immediately have a strong negative reaction to each other. The book demonstrates how once Elizabeth gets to know Darcy that he’s really her equal.
Again, these examples outside of science fiction show amor and eros working together.
Shipping Archer and T’Pol
Shippers aren’t people who like Constitution-class vessels. In fandoms, shippers are known as someone who cares about relationships (usually romantic).
Although I liked Spock’s attachment to the Romulan Commander (Joanne Linville) in the Star Trek: The Original Series episode ‘The Enterprise Incident’ (S3, EP2), I don’t really care about romance. I never knew what a shipper was until Star Trek: Enterprise. I was in it for the Trek.
I cringed when I saw Commander Trip Tucker (Connor Trinneer) and Sub-Commander T’Pol in the decontamination chamber together, rubbing gel on each other under faint blue light. It seemed silly. It seemed cliché. In fact, I was ready to stop watching. Eros.
But when the episode was over, I noticed a friendship blooming between two different characters: Captain Jonathan Archer and his first officer, T’Pol. Nearly every week, Star Trek: Enterprise had an episode where two characters cared a lot about each other. He sacrificed his life. She gave up her career. It was true in episode after episode. Amor. Archer and T’Pol grew on me.
What I loved most about it is what I missed from Star Trek: The Original Series – character-driven plots that explored Vulcans, Andorians, Tellarites, and character relationships.
I also loved that Archer and T’Pol had the classic elements of romance building – not getting along, becoming equals, admitting attraction, standing up for each other, and saving each other’s lives.
Archer and T’Pol’s Initial Conflict
There’s conflict between the two leads immediately. Jonathan Archer’s father was personally held back by the Vulcans, never getting to see his engine completed. T’Pol believed humans were inferior to Vulcans. When T’Pol was assigned to Enterprise, sparks flew. Neither she nor Captain Archer trusted each other until he risked his life defending her in the Star Trek: Enterprise pilot ‘Broken Bow’ (S1, Ep1-2). From there, a friendship slowly emerged.
Although the issue of him not trusting Vulcans comes up after the first season – such as in the Star Trek: Enterprise episode ‘Impulse’ (S3, Ep5) – viewers know they do indeed trust each other. In fact, they’ve given their lives for each other.
After Surak (Bruce Gray)’s katra inhabits Archer in ‘Awakening’ (S4, Ep8), the captain understands even more about what being Vulcan is about. In one episode, he’s even able to help T’Pol conduct a Mind Meld. By understanding more about her race, he’s bridged the divide completely between them.
Archer and T’Pol Discover Mutual Respect
It’s important in every type of romance that the two leads are equal not necessarily in rank (although there are arguably issues of consent), but in other aspects, such as intelligence, wisdom, and emotional stability. Because T’Pol is a more emotional Vulcan, she needs a less emotional human – which is the exact opposite of what Sarek (Spock’s father) needs. It’s why his relationship with Amanda (Spock’s mother – a human) sort of works.
T’Pol leans on Archer’s emotional stability several times, such as in the Star Trek: Enterprise episode ‘The Seventh’ (S2, Ep7) when she’s capturing Menos (Bruce Davison). She doesn’t need just someone she trusts; she needs someone who’s grounded. It’s that support that also helped her in ‘Impulse’ (S3, Ep5).
There are a variety of episodes that show Archer and T’Pol are equals, including the Star Trek: Enterprise episode ‘Shockwave, Part II’ (S2, Ep1), where T’Pol stands up for Archer and the humans. Her telling Ambassador Soval (Gary Graham) the humans are ready to explore space puts Vulcans and humans on equal footing. She even joins Archer at the viewscreen.
Friction Turns to Attraction
In the Star Trek: Enterprise episode ‘A Night in Sickbay’ (S2, Ep5), the audience sees into Archer’s mind. It’s clear by the end of the episode, Archer is attracted to T’Pol. But he’s not alone; T’Pol says she’s also attracted to him.
Archer: Whatever friction there's been between us. I’d like to try to minimize it.
T’Pol: Friction is to be expected when people work in close quarters for extended periods of time.
Archer: I guess that's always been true... especially when these people are of the opposite sex.
T’Pol: Then it’s good you’re my superior officer. That we're not in a position to allow ourselves to be attracted to one another. Hypothetically, if we were, the friction that you speak of could be much more problematic.
It’s not just ‘A Night in Sickbay,’ Archer shows his attraction to T’Pol in ‘Extinction’ (S3, Ep3). Archer considers T’Pol his mate as Reed (Dominic Keating) and Hoshi (Linda Park) pair off. In the Star Trek: Enterprise episode ‘Bound’ (S4, Ep14), Orions have Archer under their control. As Archer is about to let the Orions out of the brig, T’Pol calls out to him, stopping him. The lead Orion, Navaar (Cyia Batten), chastizes Archer.
“I'm obviously not the only woman with power over you.”
Archer and T’Pol Have Each Other’s Backs
The episodes where Archer and T’Pol risk their lives or reputation for the other are enumerable. Instead of attempting to go through each one – which is literally every other episode – I’ll cover the highlights.
In ‘Strange New World’ (S1, Ep3) Archer believes T’Pol over his long-time friend Charles ‘Trip’ Tucker III, even as the humans are under the influence of spores. Archer stands up to an Andorian needling T’Pol in ‘Andorian Incident’ (S1, Ep7). In ‘Shadows of P’Jem’ (S1, Ep14), T’Pol and Archer are held captive and must lean on each other, literally, to escape kidnappers. In ‘Fallen Hero’ (S1, Ep22), Archer listens to T’Pol to help her childhood hero – V’Lar (Fionnula Flanagan) – instead of protecting his ship.
The Star Trek: Enterprise episode ‘The Expanse’ (S2, Ep25) helps us understand T’Pol’s commitment to Archer – she resigns her commission to help him in the Delphic Expanse, stopping the Xindi from destroying his planet. When they go to Vulcan in ‘The Forge’ (S4, Ep7), ‘Awakening’ (S4, Ep8), and ‘Kir’Shara’ (S4, Ep9), Archer and T’Pol help each other, rushing to the other’s side when danger approaches. In ‘Impulse’ (S3, Ep5), Archer sees what could happen if T’Pol is exposed to Trellium-D. Despite knowing that it could lead to Enterprise’s doom, he decides to keep from lining the ship with the substance. T’Pol is saved; Enterprise is now at risk.
We even see that doomed scenario play out – in the Star Trek: Enterprise episode ‘Twilight’ (S3, Ep8). Enterprise is hit with anomalies (that could’ve been prevented). Archer saves T’Pol , but in the process of saving her, he suffers from parasitic anomalies that impact his memory, causing him to forget everything that happens in a 24-hour period. Who comes to be his caretaker? T’Pol.
Although some fans say she’s doing so out of guilt, there’s another deeper meaning. Phlox (John Billingsley) tells her it’s obvious that she loves him. But that’s not the clincher to the audience – it’s when Ambassador Soval (Gary Graham), T’Pol’s previous mentor, offers to help Archer. She’s intrigued by the possibility, considering it. But instead of agreeing to be on Vulcan where she would be more comfortable, she agrees to go to a human outpost – Ceti Alpha V. In that move, she shows more than guilt. Deeper emotions are at work; she’s putting his needs above her own. Now that’s love.
Love Trumps T’Pol’s Vulcan Logic
T’Pol may be a more emotional Vulcan, but she only cries twice in the series – when her mother was killed and when Archer agreed to face certain death to save Earth in the Star Trek: Enterprise episode ‘Azati Prime’ (S3, Ep18).
We even see T’Pol decide to stop taking Trellium because Archer needs her in ‘Damage’ (S3, Ep19). In his Ready Room, he holds her shoulders, asking for her help. She doesn’t hesitate, and immediately goes to Dr. Phlox to get treatment for her addiction – something she didn’t do even after dreaming she choked Trip! After she seeks help, she’s keen to ask Phlox whether he’s going to tell Archer. She’s not a member of Starfleet, so she can’t be court-martialed. She wants his care and respect.
In ‘United’ (S4, Ep13), she even tells Archer not to fight Shran (Jeffrey Combs), attempting to use logic first. When that doesn’t work, she reaches out to touch him, saying:
“If anything were to happen to you ….”
In the show’s controversial finale, ‘These Are the Voyages…’ (S4, Ep22), she even fusses over him as a wife might.
Archer a few times throughout the episodes admits he doesn’t want to lose her, such as in ‘Stigma’ (S2, Ep14) and ‘Shadows of P’Jem’ (S1, Ep14). In ‘The Expanse’ (S2, Ep26) he has difficulty considering a replacement for her, troubled she’ll be leaving. But it’s his reaction when she says she’s resigning her commission in that episode that demonstrates how deeply he cares for her. He’s overcome with emotion and leaves his Ready Room.
Even the Cast Disliked the Trip/T’Pol Pairing
Something else to consider – though Connor Trinneer and Jolene Blalock were friends and enjoyed acting together, they never liked their characters’ ‘romantic’ relationship. Trinneer said he personally didn’t see it and thought it made Trip seem spineless. Blalock said Trip wasn’t well-suited for T’Pol. Her comment to Trek Today, stings:
“I think it’s absolutely ridiculous that some catfish-eating honky-tonk guy would be appealing to this serene character….”
Nor did John Billingsley – Dr. Phlox – think the pairing worked. In fact, Billingsley seems to indicate their relationship was one of the reasons Star Trek: Enterprise ended after only four seasons.
What seemed like a rating ploy – a half-dressed Vulcan trying to woo the cute ‘everyman’ – fizzled. Despite vain attempts at showing them both half-clothed, their romance didn’t ring true to the actors or the audience. Ratings plummeted. Why? Audiences are dissatisfied with just eros.
Trip/T’Pol Show the Dangers of Contrived Romance
Great romances aren’t written in a few paragraphs. They occur over the course of an entire show, book, or movie. Shoddy romances occur quickly with little provocation where characters merely have sexual desire.
Blalock summed it up in an interview in SFX magazine, via Trek Today:
“You can’t substitute tits and ass for good storytelling. You can have both, but you can’t substitute one for the other, because the audience is not stupid. You can’t just throw in frivolous, uncharacteristic … well, bull and think it’s gonna help the ratings!”
Instead, Star Trek: Enterprise failed at what would’ve been epic – to pave the way for Sarek and Amanda, Spock and Kirk, etc. Audiences wanted to see the basis of Vulcan and human relationships become reality in a real and meaningful way, minus the blue Decon light, silly plotlines, and nearly naked Vulcans. They could’ve put eros and amor together, satisfying audiences, with Archer and T’Pol. Instead, we’re left with the last scenes of Star Trek: Enterprise suggesting something more between them as she fusses over him and he invites her to stay with him in his green room before the speech that sparks the Federation.
What audiences love, including with Star Trek: The Original Series, is people caring about each other. The possibility of friendship with something more is why there are Kirk/Spock shippers, Janeway/Chakotay shippers, etc. Strong friendships, where the two lean on each other is why audiences will make determinations themselves about what works. It’s why there’s fan fiction that pairs Trip and Reed together, Archer and Trip together, Reed and T’Pol together, etc.
In the meantime, I’ll keep reading about Archer and T’Pol.
This article was first published on March 30th, 2021, on the original Companion website.
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