Enterprise was forever torn between our future and Star Trek’s past

Enterprise was forever torn between our future and Star Trek’s past

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with recent shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. They might not be the 10 best episodes, but they’re the 10 episodes that’ll help you understand what the show’s all about—without having to watch the whole thing.

Star Trek’s fundamental promise has always been to boldly go where no one has gone before, but, by 2001, there really wasn’t anywhere left to go. The overlapping runs of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager meant that the franchise had crammed 21 seasons into just 14 years, leaving precious little of the 24th century unexplored. Deep Space Nine’s Dominion War had brought the complex political and interpersonal dynamics between Star Trek’s various alien cultures to a rousing crescendo, while Voyager’s particular fondness for dizzyingly high-concept plots had blurred the line between 24th century technology and outright magic. In retrospect, given the creative exhaustion of its production team and the increasingly toxic nature of its fandom, the smart decision probably would have been to just let Star Trek rest for a few years, to give everyone involved a chance to miss it and to remember why they loved it in the first place.

But since the realities of television production don’t really allow for such self-imposed hiatuses, longtime producers Rick Berman and Brannon Braga attempted to take Star Trek back to basics by returning to the tried-and-true format of an intrepid starship captain leading his crew into deep space on a multi-year mission of exploration. More than that, Enterprise would feature the first Starfleet vessel to bear that legendary name. Over a century before Captain Kirk and his crew journeyed through the galaxy in their Enterprise, the Constitution-class NCC-1701, this new show would chart the exploits of Captain Jonathan Archer and the Enterprise NX-01, the first human vessel capable of warp five travel—far slower than any of the later Star Trek ships, but fast enough for these early days of exploration. The show would be set in 2151, placing it in Star Trek’s distant past… but also the audience’s far future.

Indeed, that was the overriding tension that Enterprise would spend its entire four-year run struggling to resolve. Was the show primarily a look at what went on more than a century before the arrival of Captain Kirk—not to mention 200 years before the Next Generation-era crews—or was it instead an extrapolation of current trends into the distant future? After all, the original series’ aesthetic was an attempt by designers in the ’60s to imagine a universe 300 years from then; by 2001, simply incorporating four decades’ worth of intervening advances would mean that Enterprise, set only 150 years in the future, would look more advanced than Kirk’s ship.



To solve this problem, Captain Jonathan Archer’s Enterprise is very consciously designed as a more cramped, utilitarian forerunner of Captain Kirk’s deep-space explorer or Captain Picard’s diplomatic flagship. The NX-01 has no talking computer, no holodeck, and only a relatively rudimentary transporter system, with shuttles instead being deployed in most situations. The day-to-day experience more closely resembles 21st century leisure activities than what was seen in any of the other shows: The crew members have a regular movie night, use the treadmills and exercise bikes in the onboard gym, and even have a pet in Archer’s beloved beagle Porthos. Even so, any side-by-side comparison of Archer’s Enterprise NX-01 with Kirk’s Enterprise NCC-1701 would be tempted to conclude that the former ship is the more advanced model, if only because it’s more in keeping with what is currently considered futuristic; it lacks the original series’ now retro look, something that the recent J.J. Abrams movies were able to make convincing, because they had a blockbuster film’s budget available to pull it off.

Still, while the design of NX-01 is a surprisingly effective compromise between the seemingly irreconcilable points of Kirk’s past and our future, the show would struggle to find its footing in almost all other areas. In its storytelling, Enterprise’s four-year run can be divided into three distinct eras, each owing significant inspiration to previous Star Trek shows. The first two seasons follow much the same formula as Voyager, with both largely content to repeat the episodic explorations of The Next Generation, albeit without the kind of earnest philosophical inquiry that elevated that program. The third season, which examines the aftermath of a devastating attack on Earth and follows the Enterprise crew as they search for and confront its perpetrators, plays like a reheated version of Deep Space Nine’s Dominion War. The fourth and final season benefits from a far more engaged creative team, as a new writing staff embraced Enterprise’s potential as a more direct prequel to the original Star Trek series. The latter two versions of the show are generally more successful than the first two years, which are little more than competently made Star Trek comfort food, but the show doesn’t really assert its own unique, vital identity until its final season, by which time Paramount and UPN had long since lost interest in continuing the show.

Enterprise, particularly in its first two seasons, is dragged down by many of the same creative problems that plagued Voyager, as both suffered from Berman and Braga’s fundamentally milquetoast creative instincts. Enterprise is, after all, the Star Trek show that takes as its theme music a cover version of a Rod Stewart song originally written for the Patch Adams soundtrack. In particular, the show suffers from characters who are vaguely likable at best, blandly dull at worst. All three of the Next Generation-era shows included multiple characters struggling with big, existential questions of identity: Data and his quest to be human, Worf and his attempt to understand his Klingon heritage, Odo and his destiny as a shapeshifter, the Doctor and his efforts to transcend his programming, Seven Of Nine and her quest to regain her humanity, and so on. Enterprise is much closer to the original series, in that both present a team of professional colleagues getting on and doing a job, beyond the occasional crises for its Vulcan first officer. But the original Star Trek cast triumphed there because of the particular alchemy found in the actors’ performances; each member of the ensemble complemented and brought out the best in one another in a way that would have been impossible individually, helping to make relatively one-note characters like Uhura or Chekov into part of the broader sci-fi iconography.



Enterprise could not pull off the same feat with its ensemble, though most of its actors can flourish when given the right scripts. The casting of Quantum Leap star Scott Bakula as Captain Archer was yet another source of endless fan controversy, and he takes a long time to truly convince as a starship captain. To some extent, Enterprise makes the uncertainty of his performance part of the character, as Archer repeatedly admits he’s just making up the rules as he goes along—the same rules that would later offer such vital guidance to Kirk, Picard, and the rest. Bakula’s more grounded, laid-back acting style ultimately does prove a good fit for Enterprise’s relatively near-future setting; he isn’t capable of the operatic emotions or the rousing monologues favored by the other four captains, but then Archer is very specifically just the rough blueprint for those more evolved men and women of Starfleet. Plus, Bakula proves surprisingly adept at the darker dimensions Archer takes on throughout season three’s conflict with the Xindi.

Jolene Blalock brings more emotion to T’Pol than audiences had come to expect from Vulcans, but Enterprise hints that this is both a side effect of the character’s prolonged exposure to humans and a sign of deep-seated trouble in Vulcan society. Connor Trinneer plays Commander Trip Tucker, the ship’s chief engineer, as an even more brash and idealistic version of Archer, always trying to do the right thing without always considering the burdens of command. Dr. Phlox, the ship’s Denobulan physician, is played with a wonderfully epicurean joie de vivre by John Billingsley, while Dominic Keating does some nice work on the margins of the show as the emotionally withdrawn armory officer Malcolm Reed. These are all workable characters, but the scripts struggle to develop them much beyond general affability. Enterprise puts the most work into Archer, T’Pol, and Trip, and it does a quietly impressive job of sustaining their characterizations and occasionally confronting them with the consequences of their mistakes, but too often their arcs play like echoes of stories already told about previous Star Trek crews.

But the bigger question was always what larger narrative arc Enterprise was going to tell with its prequel format. In theory, the show’s mid-22nd century setting gives Captain Jonathan Archer and his crew plenty of space to operate without brushing up against the continuity of the earlier—or later, depending on one’s perspective—Star Trek series. They could encounter previously unknown alien races and engage in preciously unchronicled conflicts, and the century-long gap between their time and that of the original series still left plenty of time for galactic affairs to transform into the status quo of Kirk’s era. To lend its chosen era particular importance, Enterprise revealed the 2150s were a flashpoint in the Temporal Cold War, a conflict fought between time travel-capable races in the far future. Reportedly included at the insistence of Paramount executives, the Temporal Cold War proved a convoluting, unsatisfying mess of a plot arc, but it did provide Enterprise’s creative team with a way to imply that the future is at least somewhat in flux, that the other four Star Trek series might never come into existence if Archer and his crew don’t make the right decisions in the here and now. It plays as a rough draft of the even more drastic time-travel convolutions the J.J. Abrams movies used to separate its continuity from that of the TV series.



The difference, though, is that Enterprise could not make the same kind of clean break from its prescribed future that the recent movies have managed. As much as the show’s 2150s setting was devised to give it room to operate, any big steps the show took in its ongoing story necessarily had to bring the show another step closer to its predetermined future of Jim Kirk, the Enterprise NCC-1701, and the United Federation Of Planets; otherwise, what was the point of watching this particular set of characters in the first place, if none of their actions were ever going to affect history still to come? These questions might not have mattered so much if the writing on the show had been stronger, if the creative teams could offer consistently compelling adventures revealing what deep-space exploration would be like at a time before the Federation, when any starship leaving Earth was genuinely on its own for months at a time, and the characters themselves often wondered whether humans had made the leap to interstellar species before they were truly ready to do so.

It would be going much too far to claim Enterprise as some misunderstood classic; the original critical assessment of this as a deeply flawed, frustratingly underwhelming show is more or less accurate, even if some of the contemporary vitriol was a bit much. Still, there’s a more obvious place for the show now than there was when it originally aired. The original Star Trek and The Next Generation had pushed the fundamentally optimistic conception of space opera as far as it could go. Deep Space Nine had already begun to deconstruct the Star Trek mythos from the inside, and Enterprise’s run coincided with those of three superior sci-fi shows—Farscape, Firefly, and Battlestar Galactica—all of which offered strong revisionist takes on the genre. Compared to such shows, Enterprise’s vague optimism had little to offer, and its attempts to retool into something darker and edgier in its third season felt like a pale imitation of what more assured series were doing elsewhere. But now, nearly a decade after its cancellation, with Star Trek living on only as a Kirk-centric, not especially intelligent movie series, there’s more of a need for the story that Enterprise tries to tell. This show was all wrong for an era of deconstruction, but here are 10 episodes that reveal how the show, for all its weakness and for all its missteps, attempted to construct a better future, and why that isn’t worth completely ignoring.

“Broken Bow” (season one, episodes one and two): This double-length series premiere features most of the key ideas that would drive Enterprise—often in several different directions—over the course of its run. From the start, Jonathan Archer is depicted as a man more at home in our time than that of Jean-Luc Picard; he wears a baseball cap while inspecting his new starship, and he shows his rough edges when T’Pol suggests humans are too volatile to make their own decisions. Archer offers a distinctly modern-sounding rejoinder: “Volatile? You have no idea how much I’m restraining myself from knocking you on your ass.” Everything else, however, feels like Star Trek by the numbers, as Enterprise suggests a more compelling backstory but then begins at what is essentially the absolute earliest point where the future is recognizably Star Trek. The humans make first contact with the Klingons, use the transporter to beam up a person for the first time, and even get embroiled in their very first vast interstellar conspiracy. This particular one is the Temporal Cold War, to be fought against the Suliban Cabal and their mysterious benefactor, a character so poorly explained that even the production team adopted the derisive fan nickname “Future Guy.” It’s a faltering beginning, but it hints at the potential Enterprise would spend seasons trying to realize.

“Dear Doctor” (season one, episode 13): Depending on who is asked, “Dear Doctor” is either the very best or the very worst thing Enterprise did in its first season. One of the show’s more confident early entries, the episode focuses on the ship’s physician, the Denobulan Dr. Phlox, benefitting immensely from John Billingsley’s nuanced performance. The episode presents a profound ethical dilemma, as both Phlox and Archer wrestle with whether they have the right to use their superior technology to save a less advanced civilization from extinction at the hands of a deadly genetic mutation. The episode has been lambasted for its admittedly appalling understanding of evolutionary biology, which proves a bizarre hodgepodge of genetic determinism and social Darwinism. But the bigger issue lies in how the show resolves the core dilemma; this is the kind of issue past Star Trek captains have faced many times, generally electing to violate the Prime Directive and interfere in the name of doing the right thing. But here, Captain Archer can only engage in some rather on-the-nose musings about the need for a “directive” that would guide his actions. “Dear Doctor” ultimately reveals itself as more interested in cheekily foreshadowing a core element of the Star Trek mythos than in figuring out that this scenario offers a spectacularly poor case for the necessity of the Prime Directive.

“Acquisition” (season one, episode 19): Several early episodes of Enterprise would not feel especially out of place on The Next Generation or Voyager; taking away two centuries’ worth of knowledge and technology allows Enterprise to more readily place its characters in jeopardy than its predecessors could, but the mechanics of the storytelling remain much the same. The most blatant example of this is “Acquisition,” which tries like mad to justify the profit-obsessed Ferengi storming the Enterprise when earlier series made it clear that humans had no real knowledge of them before the 23rd century. The solution is almost ingenious in its stupidity: The Ferengi simply never identify themselves, not even to each other, and they leave in ignominious defeat, assuring the humans they will never be seen again. While the episode’s crimes against franchise continuity are perhaps overblown, “Acquisition” suggests a show unable to carve out its own identity, content to rehash old stories when the show’s very premise demands new storytelling. Even so, what the episode loses in originality it does somewhat regain in execution, as the Enterprise officers prove themselves surprisingly adept at out-swindling the swindlers. In particular, Scott Bakula gets a long overdue opportunity to show off his comedy chops, as Captain Archer proves shockingly adept at passing himself off as an interstellar pirate. There’s nothing terribly vital about any of this, but it’s fun for the watcher in the right mood. This is Enterprise as Star Trek comfort food.

“The Catwalk” (season two, episode 12): Previous Star Trek shows had famously conceptualized space as the final frontier in fundamentally philosophical terms—space may be in the process of being civilized, but there are always new wonders to test the limits of comprehension—yet Enterprise’s premise reimagines the nature of this final frontier as a more concrete, physical phenomenon. On Enterprise,
deep space is dangerous not just because of alien antagonists, but also because Archer and his crew are operating at the very edge of their knowledge and their technology. The opening of “The Catwalk” hammers home this point, as aliens hail the Enterprise, informing them a deadly neutronic storm is approaching and the ship must go to warp seven immediately… but Enterprise can only reach warp five. The storm’s deadly radiation means the crew must hide themselves inside the most heavily shielded part of the ship—the catwalk of one of the warp nacelles—for the next several days. It’s a fascinating premise, and Enterprise does some fine if rather basic character work exploring how the crew deals with days of unbearably close quarters. This kind of vulnerability in the face of cosmic phenomena is what could set Enterprise apart and justify its prequel format; unfortunately, this generally strong episode decides to pursue a more traditional Star Trek plot, as the crew end up having to fight marauding, radiation-resistant aliens.

“Stigma” (season two, episode 14): To help explain why humans were only now venturing out into the stars, nearly 90 years after the invention of warp drive—an event chronicled in the Next Generation film First Contact—the show cast the Vulcans in an unfamiliar role as antagonists. The show posits that the Vulcans, fearful of human ambition, purposefully held back Earth’s advancement, creating lingering prejudices in Captain Archer and others; the Vulcans of Enterprise illustrate the old notion that, to quote another long-running sci-fi franchise, logic merely allows one to be wrong with authority. But the corruption of 22nd century Vulcan society does not only look outward; they also ostracize all Vulcans who participate in one of the hallmarks of the other Star Trek series: the mind meld. T’Pol, having been forced into a meld in the first season, contracts a neurological disorder causing the loss of her vaunted emotional control, and Phlox’s attempt to discreetly obtain aid from a Vulcan medical delegation brings her shameful secret into the open. The episode draws allegorical parallels with the stigma attached to the HIV/AIDS crisis, although the story overcomplicates its metaphor by simultaneously analogizing T’Pol’s psychic violation to sexual assault. It’s tricky material that doesn’t always quite land the way it should, but this is Star Trek at its most well-meaning, with Archer and T’Pol at their most idealistic. Plus, there’s a rather silly alien-sex subplot with Trip and one of Phlox’s three wives, and it just wouldn’t be Star Trek without the occasional silly alien-sex subplot.

“Cogenitor” (season two, episode 22): After two seasons’ worth of diplomatic misunderstandings, belligerent aliens, temporal shenanigans, and various other maladies, the Enterprise crew finally makes contact with a friendly race; Archer’s shock is palpable when the Vissian Captain Drennik reveals that his people are also primarily interested in exploration and peaceable cultural exchange. For quite possibly the first time in Star Trek history, this isn’t some sort of trick, as Drennik and his people happily share their advanced technology while marveling at the beauty of the works of Shakespeare and Sophocles. This is the single most positive depiction of Enterprise as a show about exploration—Archer and Drennik spend three whole days in a tiny ship exploring a star, and they still come back best friends—but the good times can’t last. Trip discovers the Vissians have three genders, with the oppressed cogenitor gender used to catalyze the reproductive process between males and females. Trip’s efforts to educate a cogenitor represent just the kind of cowboy morality Star Trek has long championed, but his efforts result first in diplomatic tension, then a more personal tragedy. Probably the best episode of Enterprise’s first two years, “Cogenitor” takes a frequent criticism leveled against the show and makes it the central point of the episode: The Enterprise crew may not yet be ready to make contact with other peoples, if they are not yet ready to accept that not all species conform to human morality.

“Twilight” (season three, episode eight): After the tepid response to the first two seasons, Enterprise was drastically retooled for its third year. A devastating attack on Earth leaves 7 million dead, and a haunted, driven Captain Archer leads the Enterprise crew into the Delphic Expanse—a region of the cosmos crawling with dangerous spatial anomalies—in search of the culprits: the mysterious Xindi. While this was theoretically a metaphor for the War On Terror, the Xindi conflict doesn’t manage the kind of cultural immediacy of Battlestar Galactica; instead, the moral dilemmas play more like cover versions of better-executed Deep Space Nine plotlines. Still, Enterprise’s one great advantage was that the lack of a Federation meant that its heroes had to operate without any support network; any damage suffered could be devastating, and their failure could leave Earth defenseless against a still fiercer attack. “Twilight” takes that to its logical conclusion as an amnesiac Captain Archer reaches the bridge just in time to watch Earth be completely annihilated. The episode picks up several years later, as a now gray-haired Archer learns of the accident that left him unable to form new memories and of the terrible fate that has befallen humanity. A reset button is rather obviously coming—to its credit, “Twilight” comes up with a highly satisfying one—but the episode serves as a crucial illustration of just how much Star Trek’s entire future hinges on the Enterprise’s success in its mission, and, even more importantly, how the friendships forged among the crew endure even in the face of Armageddon.

“Similitude” (season three, episode ten): Considering Enterprise comes from a franchise notorious for killing anyone foolish enough to put on a red shirt, it’s remarkable just how low its death toll was; throughout its first two, exploration-focused seasons, not a single crew member died. That changed in a big way during the Xindi arc, as over two dozen men and women were lost in defending Earth. “Similitude,” a definite contender for Enterprise’s best episode, begins with what appears to be the most shocking death of all, as the crew gathers for Commander Tucker’s funeral. In flashback, the episode reveals that an explosion left the commander in a coma. Archer cannot afford to lose his chief engineer, and he allows Phlox to proceed with a grossly unethical procedure in which a short-lived clone of Tucker is created as an organ donor. As the clone becomes more and more like Tucker—he shares all the original’s memories, not to mention his feelings for T’Pol—Archer is forced to decide whether he can actually kill a sentient being for the sake of his mission. Multiple episodes this season emphasize how hard Archer has become in order to fight the Xindi, but the captain—once the very image of the goodhearted, inquisitive explorer—never appears quite so terrible and so desperate as when he seriously considers killing a man who looks, sounds, and acts just like his best friend.

“United” (season four, episode 13): Though the third season represents a definite improvement, it isn’t until season four that Enterprise really finds its best self. Under the guidance of new showrunner Manny Coto, the series completely embraced its status as a prequel to the original Star Trek, telling a succession of multi-part stories that hinted at Kirk and company’s adventures in the century ahead. The season featured genetic augments like the infamous Khan Noonien Singh, explained why the Klingons of the 23rd century looked more human than those before or after, and reformed Vulcan society into something more closely resembling the later shows. But the most pivotal moment comes when the Federation’s four founding members—humans, Vulcans, Andorians, and Tellarites—first ally themselves to repel covert Romulan attacks. Among this storyline’s many virtues, it has a featured role for Commander Shran, an honor-bound Andorian who becomes one of Captain Archer’s closest friends over the course of the show’s run. Played with tremendous panache by Star Trek veteran Jeffrey Combs, Shran is Enterprise’s most consistently compelling guest character. As a blue-skinned, antennae-equipped Andorian, Shran represents science fiction at its absolute pulpiest—indeed, “United” prominently features a duel to the death between Shran and Archer—but this is just the kind of larger-than-life presence the often staid Enterprise most benefits from.

“Terra Prime” (season four, episode 21): After four seasons spent searching for its own identity, Enterprise went out on one hell of a high note with this series finale. (Technically speaking, the show officially ended with “These Are The Voyages…,” a glorified Next Generation episode that is one of the most profoundly miscalculated hours of television ever made, but it’s best just to skip that one entirely, as it ruins all the goodwill season four builds for itself.) Along with the preceding episode, “Demons,” this story finds the Enterprise crew confronting the xenophobic, isolationist terrorist organization Terra Prime, whose views have become all too mainstream after the devastating Xindi attack. Eight years before he would menace another Enterprise crew in Star Trek Into Darkness, Peter Weller shows up as one of the series’ most unnerving villains, a calculating zealot who is willing to violate Trip and T’Pol in the most monstrous of ways to accomplish his goals. And, after four years of adventuring through deep space, it’s fitting that this first Enterprise crew concludes its onscreen journey by turning its attention to the home solar system, helping to prove once and for all that humanity is truly ready to join the interstellar community that will one day become the Federation. As Captain Archer observes at the episode’s close to a group of alien dignitaries:

“We are all explorers driven to know what’s over the horizon, what’s beyond our own shores. And yet the more I’ve experienced, the more I’ve learned that no matter how far we travel, or how fast we get there, the most profound discoveries are not necessarily beyond that next star. They’re within us, woven into the threads that bind us, all of us, to each other. A final frontier begins in this hall. Let’s explore it together.”

That’s a worthy sentiment. And, perhaps not as often as it should have, but far more often than it’s given credit for, Enterprise lived up to those ideals.

And if you like those 10, here’s 10 more: “Shuttlepod One” (season one, episode 16), “Detained” (season one, episode 21), “Carbon Creek” (season two, episode two), “Judgment” (season two, episode 19), “Regeneration” (season two, episode 23), “Damage” (season three, episode 19), “The Forgotten” (season three, episode 20), “Home” (season four, episode three), “Observer Effect” (season four, episode 11), “A Mirror Darkly Parts I & II” (season four, episodes 18 & 19)


Availability: All four seasons are available on DVD and Blu-ray. The show is also available on iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Instant Video.

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