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The Xindi Arc: A Season Reviewed

Category: Reaction/Review

Published June 21, 2004

It’s been nearly a month now since the action-packed Enterprise season finale, “Zero Hour”, aired. Now that the dust has settled (metaphorically speaking), and I’ve had some time to reflect back on this season that was so crucial for both the series and for the Star Trek franchise, I think it’s only right to try to write a review that covers the entire season.

First off, I can barely express how immensely pleased I am that Berman and Braga finally decided to develop an arc-based story for Enterprise. Since I first fell in love with the arc format when it was used on Deep Space Nine and, to a much greater extent, on Babylon 5, I’ve been convinced that Trek would do well to develop more story arcs, and thus develop more complex stories. Regardless of any other considerations, I consider the season at least a minimal success based on that move— because it is a more complex and difficult format to write in, requiring greater coordination and cooperation among the writers. (I know this from experience, having worked on both individual and arc episodes for Renaissance.)

Fortunately, the season didn’t stop with just any arc. They actually took the time to shake things up in the Enterprise universe. Although I’ve previously complained that they didn’t shake things up enough, I must admit that they certainly did make at least some small changes that had a great effect as the season went on.

Take, for example, the simple fact of sending the NX-01, an exploratory starship, on a mission of war. For the fans, who are used to the “hero” starships of the 24th century being jacks-of-all-trades, it was easy to assume that the same would apply in the 22nd century, and that the NX-01 would easily assume its new role following the much-touted refit at Earth in the second season finale. Yet instead, we see the ship and its crew constantly encountering limitations and restrictions on their capabilities, proving that they were ultimately unprepared for their mission. As a result, the burden was placed on the crew— on the people— rather than on the technology. And by the end, the ship is barely holding together thanks to sheer determination.

Phase One: Getting to Know the Expanse

“The Xindi” to “Similitude"

Five-Minute Enterprise’s description of “The Xindi”, the season premiere and arc opener, strikes me as one of the most funny and apt descriptions I’ve ever seen: “Archer begins his bold, daring mission in the Expanse by getting captured and needing some big strong men to save him. Sissy.” Suffice to say, I wasn’t too enthused by the opening episode, and neither were many other fans.

Overall, the first part of the arc was definitely the weakest, but not simply because it spent the most time establishing the background for the story. The context is always important, and I don’t begrudge the writers the necessary time spent building that context. Instead, what bothered me were the stand-alone episodes: “Extinction” and “North Star”, especially. These would have made extraordinarily weak episodes even under normal circumstances, but in the midst of a world-shattering arc, the premise of a “Wild West” culture somewhere in the Delta Quadr-- I mean, the Delphic Expanse (ahem) seemed quite silly. And another round of Trek’s “fun with DNA” shenanigans? Forget it.

What I did like, however, was the fact that the Delphic Expanse was portrayed as a truly alien region of space that caused unusual or unique problems for the crew to face. From “Anomaly” onward, it was clear that something sinister was going on, but even better were the steps the crew took to adapt. (And whether those steps were the right steps, of course, just added to the drama quite well.)

No summary of the season would be complete, though, without at least briefly mentioning the near-classic episode “Twilight”. Though it was dismissed by some as being derivative of previous classics like “Yesterday’s Enterprise”, I loved it for precisely that reason— because we got to see an alternate future and see how the various characters reacted and developed because of those changes. Time travel, when done right, is always a guarantee of a good hour of television.

Phase Two: Putting the Pieces Together

“Carpenter Street” to “Azati Prime"

Once again, the show got off to a very rocky start with the mediocre (at best) “Carpenter Street”. Although it turns out later that this episode is very crucial to the plot (in that it convinces Degra and his unnamed colleagues that the Reptilians are up to something), I felt that this story was particularly weak because of its poor justification. Why the heck couldn’t Daniels himself go take care of the Xindi, anyway? Was it just a plot contrivance so that Archer would have the Xindi equipment on hand as proof of the Sphere-Builders’ shenanigans later on?

Aside from the fact that the arc was starting to pick up steam, this phase of the season also improved in that it had hardly any stand-alone episodes— or at least, no episodes that could be considered stand-alones in retrospect. Although installments such as “Chosen Realm” seemed relatively irrelevant and even annoying (religious fanaticism really annoys me, and the alien whackos here proved no exception), you always got the definite feeling of a gradual build-up, as the various pieces of the puzzle were dropped into place. The only problem was, you had no idea what the puzzle was going to look like when it finished! (This, of course, was a good thing, because it kept us guessing and kept us interested.)

The concluding episode of this phase, “Azati Prime”, particularly stands out, and not just because of its excellent cliffhanger. Here was an action-packed episode that actually didn’t need to have a justification for its action, and it had lots of intrigue to boot. Even Daniels showed up again to annoyingly pluck Archer out of his time to tell him something that was supposedly “important”. (Well, actually, this time his assistance did prove to be of great use.) Although Archer’s decision to personally fly the suicide mission seems completely irrational, I wonder if he was, in a way, hoping to get caught so that he could try to make contact and do things Daniels’ way. But that’s just speculation.

Phase Three: The Big Showdown

“Damage” to “Zero Hour"

As with the previous two phases, the final series of episodes got off to a very rocky start, based on what I still feel was a very contrived means of prolonging the story. In retrospect, it’s obvious what direction the story was heading, but Degra’s sudden decision to trust one puny Human still seems very abrupt.

What I liked the most about this last batch of episodes, though, was how the crew were forced to face up to the amount of damage their ship had taken in the expanse. After seven years of watching Voyager emerge from each gigantic battle miraculously unscathed, each sight of the NX-01 sporting its deep battle scars was extraordinarily refreshing. I feel it was well worth the extra effort of the special effects that were needed to convey those scenes.

Once again, Trip shines through as the best character. From the very beginning of the arc in “The Expanse,” Trip has been the bastion of excellent acting and good drama. No matter if he’s been saddled with the puerile interactions with T’Pol— I’ve despised their relationship from the very beginning, and the developments in “Harbinger” certainly ticked me off to no end— Trip still manages to make the story interesting and at least partially believable. From his agonizing over his sister’s death in the initial Xindi attack to his intense bitterness directed at Degra, I always made sure to pay attention when he was on screen.

I’ll be honest— I was never expecting any truly revolutionary developments from the conclusion of the season arc. Ultimately, the resolution proved to be pretty standard fare— your typical confrontation with the bad guys, followed by the action-packed fistfight between the two leaders, and then the ultimate victory and classic Trek “moment of understanding.” But I wasn’t really disappointed by the by-the-book conclusion, either. Archer’s resolve to see his mission through, Hoshi’s heroic bravery against Dolim’s torture, and Trip’s gradual realization that the Xindi really aren’t all bad after all— all of these provided excellent characterization that more than made up for the standard fare plotting.

(Yeah yeah, I’ll admit it... I was especially happy to see Dolim blasted to pieces, too. Satisfied?)

Conclusion

Overall, I would definitely consider this season’s arc to be a success. Although individual episodes may have left much to be desired, I think that Enterprise has improved its storytelling greatly by spending the entire season developing the Xindi plotline and the main characters reactions to those developments. Although the arc may not have generated quite as large an audience as the producers probably were hoping for, I would blame the ratings problems more on UPN’s failure to promote the series properly and on the unfortunate fact that more popular shows like American Idol air in opposing timeslots.

This time last year, I was incredibly dubious about Enterprise’s future prospects. Though I was generally pleased with the finale, the two generally lackluster seasons had dimmed my hopes for the coming season. Now, I think, Enterprise is finally finding its own identity. The Xindi arc took a moribund series trapped in the past of previous series and transformed it into a reasonably potent and interesting story. It’s renewed my confidence in Trek’s future. And I suppose that’s all that can be hoped for, isn’t it?

(For those left wondering, I have specifically avoided commenting on the cliffhanger from “Zero Hour”, mainly because it was so frikkin’ bizarre that I have absolutely no idea what to make of it. I’ll be happy to comment more in a few months’ time, when we have some decent context.)

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