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Why Star Trek: Enterprise Failed And How It Nearly Worked

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When Enterprise debuted on UPN in 2001 it was with a self-assured sense of success. Sure Star Trek was in a bit of a decline after all the misfires of Voyager, but Enterprise promised to remedy all of that by taking Gene Roddenberry’s vision in a fresh direction, rewinding the clock back to where the Federation began to rediscover the spirit of adventure and exploration that used to be the hallmarks of an aging franchise now drowning in overwrought techno-babble. They were so certain this would work that, at least not until it became clear in the third season that it wouldn’t, Enterprise didn’t even bother to put the words “Star Trek” in its title. Their audience would find it, support it, and love it no matter what they called it.

They weren’t wrong. Had Enterprise turned out to be any of the things it was supposed to be, all of those things would have come true. We know that because five years after its cancellation director JJ Abrams pulled off all the things Enterprise originally promised, and more, in his 2009 movie. The 2009 Star Trek was, basically, everything Enterprise was meant to become but didn’t.

What happened? Where did they go wrong? I’ve spent the last few months re-watching every episode of the show and, seven years after its cancellation, I have answers. This is why Star Trek: Enterprise went wrong and how it so nearly didn’t.

Enterprise NX-01

A Fresh Start

There’s no denying in the wake of the 2009 movie’s success that they had the right idea. Enterprise was supposed to take us back to the beginning of the Federation, before the time of Captain Kirk to the first starship to bear that famous name, in a tumultuous galaxy humans were only beginning to understand. More than that, Enterprise was supposed to be different in style and tone. They wanted a stripped down approach, one that emphasized the strength of human determination instead of the excessive, over-reliance on technology previous Trek series’ had become lost in.

Unfortunately, instead of really embracing that fresh premise Enterprise quickly became a television series at war with itself. The show’s pilot, “Broken Bow” immediately went to the by then, played out time travel well and set in motion a series of events that would waste what should have been an interesting premise on a half-hearted temporal plot that went nowhere. Worse by focusing on time travel as the show’s primary plot device, they ignored the time period they’d worked so hard to set it in, telling stories that could have been told in any place at any time. Rather than exploring the possibilities of storytelling in the earliest, wild west days of human space exploration Enterprise all too often focused on the same meaningless technobabble that hamstrung Voyager, only it felt even more out of place here in a show that seemed so clearly designed not to be that kind of series at all.

Nothing embodied the show’s dual nature better than its much maligned theme song. Like the series itself, the Enterprise opening credits were meant to signify something fresh, to embody the spirit of excitement and adventure they hoped to recapture. Casting off the traditional, ship-flyby open used by all previous Star Trek incarnations, Enterprise created a visual history lesson which rocketed through the history of human exploration. Then it ruined that otherwise exciting visual feast by setting it to an awkward song about faith sung by a Rod Stewart knockoff, presumably because nothing says exploration and adventure like elevator rock. Later when they realized everyone hated it, they tried to fix it by speeding up the tempo. Like setting a Michael Bolton song to a Bossanova beat cranked out of a Casio, this made something bad even worse.

Yet even in amongst the mess the show’s producers made of it, the remnants of a few good ideas found a way to shine through… while Enterprise’s writers did everything they could to ignore them. Some of those overlooked remnants were minor, the crew’s fear of using the transporter for instance, was a nice little subplot which never really got properly explored. Some of them were major.

Jonathan Archer and Porthos

Captain Archer

None of those missed opportunities were a bigger problem than the show’s captain who started out as something interesting and, thanks to the series’ insistence on ignoring anything that might be worth watching, turned into a bore. Archer was played by Scott Bakula, an actor best known for his “aw shucks” persona, and the character he played reflected that . The thing about Captain Archer is that he’s not very good at his job. He’s the first Star Trek captain who seems to have absolutely no idea what he’s doing. It makes sense, he’s the first to be out there doing it. Starfleet had no way to know what kind of man they’d need sitting in their first Warp 5 ship’s captain’s chair. In Jonathan Archer, they picked wrong.

The Archer Enterprise introduced us to initially was careless and sloppy. He fraternizes with the crew and treats his mission like he’s on some sort of galactic pleasure cruise. He’s not a bad guy or even a bad officer, he’s just not very well suited to being a starship commander. When things start to go wrong, he pouts. When things don’t go as planned, he complains that aliens are mean. As the missions get tougher he gets increasingly unhappy, miserable, even morose. He starts to scowl, yells at his crew, begins holding grudges, shooting first and asking questions later. Enterprise responds by glossing over his mistakes and telling us how great he is.

As the show’s writers became increasingly out of touch with the character, Archer turned into nothing more than a placeholder for an already determined future success. His attitude didn’t matter, his mistakes didn’t really amount to anything, and his decisions were rendered irrelevant as Enterprise charted a course which forced him to go right when he should have gone left. They could have made an entire series out of watching Archer struggle with his failures but instead they kept pushing the character into Captain Kirk’s cookie-cutter mold. Archer isn’t Captain Kirk. He likes water polo. He spends his off-duty hours hugging a Beagle. He’s more comfortable talking about warp theory than negotiating with hostile aliens or making sweet love to green women. Enterprise ignored this and kept crafting Archer as something he never was and that Scott Bakula was never capable of playing.

T'Pol shows Trip her best assets.

Vulcan Fury

It wasn’t a bad idea to have a Vulcan on Enterprise. After all this is a Star Trek set in the very earliest days of the humanity’s journey out into the stars. Vulcans were the first aliens encountered by humanity and would, logically, be one of the few races they’d be well acquainted with during this period. It was, however, a bad idea to make that Vulcan Archer’s first officer. Enterprise is supposed to be, after all, a show about humanity’s first leap out into the stars. Instead it’s a show about humans reaching out into the stars whenever Archer’s on the bridge. When he’s not, it turns into a show about how a Vulcan named T’Pol told humans what to do on their first attempt to reach out and connect with other species.

That’s particularly ridiculous in light of Archer’s own resentment towards Vulcans. He sets out on his journey determined to have humanity start doing things on its own. And for his first act as Captain of Earth’s first warp 5 ship, he makes a Vulcan his first officer. Nothing about this makes any sense.

It makes even less sense when you consider what Enterprise made out of the Vulcans. Missing were the logical, peace-loving aliens we’ve grown to know and love as part of the Trek universe. In their place were a bunch of angry, pointy-eared, close-minded racists with an addiction to spray-tan and a penchant for murder and threats. In the show’s final season there was a last-minute, half-hearted attempt to reconcile all of this and turn the Vulcans back into creatures best known for their inability to lie… but by then it was too little, too late.

Maybe they could have sold the idea of Vulcan fury better if they’d cast an actual actress to play T’Pol, the aforementioned Enterprise first officer. Instead they cast glorified nookie girl Jolene Blalock. She’s useful whenever you want to photograph a Vulcan female in her underwear (something the show, wisely, did a lot of) but Blalock’s not much good for anything else. I’d like to think that no one ever actually got around to telling her that Vulcans don’t have emotions, but the truth is probably that she just can’t act. At all.

Jeffrey Combs as Shran

Character Matters

Luckily Blalock’s lack of talent wasn’t something shared by all of the Enterprise crew.

Charles “Trip” Tucker III (played by Connor Trinneer) the catfish lovin’ Southern engineer is a delight, like Han Solo with a monkey wrench. Trip’s the kind of guy who gets away with a wink and a nod and woos women with his southern drawl. His excitement over the possibilities of their mission are infectious, his sense of humor a welcome relief from his Captain’s increasingly dour demeanor.

Phlox, the ship’s Denobulan doctor is equally successful. Performed with an effervescent verve for life by the great John Billingsly, he’s one of the most truly alien crew members ever to show up on a Trek series. His freakishly wide smile is the sort of subtle special effect that deserves Emmys. Dozens of episodes could have been written about his complex marital arrangements (Denobulans have three wives, who also have three husbands) alone, but of course, they weren’t.

Enterprise managed to score great guest stars too. Some of them it wasted. A guest appearance by Scott Bakula’s Quantum Leap companion Dean Stockwell was blown on a generic character unworthy of his talents. Others the show took advantage of, but maybe not enough. Jeffrey Combs’ brilliant performance as the Andorian Commander Shran demanded he be used as a recurring character, but probably should have also prompted them to go a step further and find a way to make him part of the regular cast. Still others they shoehorned into the show over and over again, against all common sense. Temporal Agent Crewman Daniels was the ultimate deus ex machina, a useless character shoved down our throats repeatedly, whenever the series’ needed an excuse to engage in yet another useless, gimmicky, time travel plot.

As it was with almost everything that mattered Enterprise never truly took advantage of its better characters. Trip remained generally relegated to the engine room and Phlox was kept locked away in his sickbay chasing the occasional escaped Tyberian bat. Though none of the show’s better characters, like its phobic genius communications officer Hoshi, or the single-minded military man Malcolm, ever really got their due… their presence frequently resulted in genuine moments which succeeded in spite of the lukewarm episodes being written around them. Trip and Malcolm’s drunken shuttle pod discussion about the perfection of T’Pol’s “bum” remains one of the series’ best. Trip’s heart-wrenching, weepy, hand-holding finale to a limp episode which resulted in the death of his daughter was like an emotional punch in the gut that lingered long after the credits were over. A few perfect scenes with the great characters it wasted was the best Enterprise gave us.

The Enterprise crew at the birth of the Federation.

The Show That Almost Was

With the clock running down and cancellation imminent, in the latter half of its fourth season Enterprise tried to become the show it should have been all along. A sudden interest in exploring the universe it was supposed to be discovering resulted in a flurry of episodes involving the alien races Archer and his crew were meant to befriend in order to pave the way to the Federation we knew from Kirk’s Trek-era. The stories they should have been telling for the past four seasons were condensed into a few short episodes and shoved out the door at warp speed, a last ditch effort to win departed fans back.

It was too late. Nothing they did would matter. After four seasons of low ratings Enterprise, by then retitled Star Trek: Enterprise, was cancelled in 2005.

Enterprise was supposed to be a grand television series about exploration, about the spirit of adventure, about the triumph of the human spirit. Instead it kept getting bogged down in gimmicks, gimmicks which it never needed and gimmicks which its audience had long since grown weary of. The show’s producers, Rick Berman and Brannon Braga, were locked into a formula which told them that they had to have a reason to fire phasers every episode or their audience would stop being interested. Enterprise’s producers never had any faith in Star Trek fans and so it wasn’t long before Star Trek fans lost faith in them. In the process Hollywood lost faith in the entire franchise, sending longtime steward Rick Berman to the unemployment line and Star Trek into the high-octane, style over substance hands of JJ Abrams. Thanks to Enterprise, Rodenberry’s vision will never be the same again.

Comments

  1. robinnj says:

    I just don’t understand the dislike of this series? Having binge watched this just now, 2015, I found the show to be excellent. I wasn’t looking forward to anything special either. I had watched or attempted to watch the first episode of Next Gen, Voyager and I think DS9, but I couldn’t get through the first 10 minutes because the acting just didn’t hold up, seemed dated, corny. The villain also seemed much and a bit ridiculous. Voyager seemed the same, and I fast forwarded to seven of 9 triple episode to see if an improvement had occurred and was sadly disappointed as well. It seemed dated and the acting was stale, perhaps the effects were just not nicely done? With that said, I started the first episode of Enterprise, and YES, that opening song was horrible and I almost stopped there, but for the magic of Netflix, I leapt forward. While some things seemed awkwardly done, I appreciated the premise and continued. By the end of the episode I realized it was enjoyable and decided to continue. I know some people complained about “villain” of the week episodes with STE, but aren’t all shows nearly like that? Come on! Anyway I do agree the time travel stuff was a bit much and to me, made it more superhero-ey if that makes sense? What I mean is, this show should somewhat match up with Star Trek the ’66 series in tone, but better quality. I thoroughly enjoyed Shran and grew to like this show without being over critical like most. When the 3rd season began, left off from the xindi attack, I noticed a more intense direction, a change in the way Archer did things and a better focus. I like how it was all leading up to the Federation and I thought they did a great job of relating it and dropping that mystery man in the tube bit. I felt it wrapped up nicely but I will say, I did not like the last episode at all. Some think Chef was actually #2 all along, and that’s not true, he just supplanted himself in the historical tapes to immerse himself fully with the crew to make his ultimate choice of telling Picard about something he felt guilty about. Basically the last episode was the Terra Prime episodes. All in all, I enjoyed it. I just don’t get the hatred?

  2. Matt Conlon says:

    Having just started season 4, I find that I have to agree with this ascessment, although I am looking forward to the rest of this season, as I think you made mention, sews the seeds for the classic Trek timeline…

    Some grievances I have thus far (a few echo your own) – The Vulcans, as you say, are perpetually perturbed. It’s annoying, and contradictory. Logic above all else, except when it pisses us off, and we’d be better off lying.

    Maybe they were underscoring the fact that the Vulcans weren’t yet as proficient with suppressing their emotions, were a lot closer to their barbaric past-selves.

    I’m also surprised there wasn’t a single mention (at least as of Season 4, Episode 3) that Vulcans are physically much stronger than humans. There were several times when I would have thought T’Pol shouldn’t have been over powered. Even in Voyager, they mentioned it a half dozen times or so.

    Another thing (which I hope they explain in the rest of this season) is the fact that mind-melds are forbidden. A whole season could have been written on why that is, and developing some story on how that changes. I got sick of how often Tuvak did mind melds in Voyager. Few hundred years and it’s as common as humans holding hands? There’s definitely a story in there.

    I never cared for Scott Bakula as the captain… Struck me as a little too goofy, but as you say, maybe that was the idea… Still though… Water polo?

    I have to wonder if I would have liked this series all the more, had I not already known some of the things it was supposed to address… The writing of the Prime Directive and so on… If it weren’t a Star Trek series, I wonder if I would have liked it more.

    That said, I’m glad I watched it and won’t pretend I didn’t enjoy it at all, but I feel like I know more about Porthos’ lactose intolerance than I do about how the history we know as gospel came to be so.

  3. Reinhart says:

    For the next Star Trek series, give it a “Picard” Captain (preferably female), what i mean with that is that the Captain must command respect and be very intelligent and professional; and bring back the feeling of professionalism to the crew as well.
    Also give us a new ship we can be proud of. A big, shiny and powerful Enterprise.

    Ask scientists about what they think the world will look like and build from there.

  4. Jonathan Reich says:

    I’m glad Berman and Braga have nothing else to do with Trek and I hope they never do again. Anything Trek they did was horrible!! The design of the “futuristic” Akiraprise ship was the first sign things were going to be bad. The ship should have looked more like the Daedalus than the Akira.

  5. DCarela says:

    I dont believe entirely with this story. Yes it had mistake but not at the level the writer expresses. I believe the writers of the show, did a great developing the characters. I enjoyed how TPol acted she was noy bad at all..

  6. Adam says:

    They succeeded in creating a different atmosphere to the other Treks. The technology of the NX-01 lagged miles behind Voyager or the Enterprise-D. But I agree that this show simply went straight into the familiar territory of having a ship having a crisis against random aliens every week. We didn’t even see another Starfleet ship until the end of the second season! And why did it take 4 years to launch the second NX-01? What happened to the others NX class ships? If NX-01 was supposed to be decommissioned in the early 2160s, that means they’d be launching the others right before they were also presumably due to be scrapped. Therefore, the NX class lasts in service roughly twice as long as it took to build it. There were so, so many missed opportunities. Enterprise is nowhere near as terrible as it’s made out to be, and they really couldn’t win, given the sheer hostility of everyone who ever talks about it – I honestly think Enterprise had so many people against it that it would have failed no matter what the creators did. Season 4 is regularly derided as “too little, too late” – I agree the stories in S4 should have been shown in S1 – but the criticism implies S4 also sucked, therefore whether those stories had been shown at the beginning or the end, people would have been whining about SOMETHING.

  7. Kenneth Mac Donald says:

    Hay Josh! “You think you know why Enterprise failed” But your WRONG! Ive just found your Web Site, and I can tell you since you absolutely wont believe me! But I was the one that stopped the Show, And for only one reason! And that is because, I can give the public what they want and I can take it away(The Public LOVE my shows)! What does that mean you say! Well, when I said to Paramount to make Enterprise “As a Tribute to the late great Gene Roddenberry!” It was only meant to go four five years and you know it went for a little bit longer! And here is a hint maybe they might bring the Enterprise team back!!!! “Theres still a lot off stories from the beginning to go!!!”

  8. colin says:

    enterprise was great, trouble is people are never satisfied the review above, was just ludicrous, I liked t’pol it worked, thing is, people expect so much from these shows, just watch them enjoy them stop over anlayzing everything, archer was gritty and confused, he was the first, for goodness sake
    it ran for 4 seasons which is more than a lot of shows do.