I admit it. I’m a closet Trekkie, and have been for about thirty-five of my forty or so years here on planet Earth. I watched the reruns of the original Star Trek on WNEW and WPIX (New York area TV stations) from the time that I was five (at least when we had a TV and when I wasn’t a Hebrew-Israelite). I watched the Star Trek cartoon series for the few years that it was on. One of the first movies I ever watched on cable was Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. I’ve watched series as good at TNG, as interesting as Deep Space Nine, and as critically uneven as Voyager since then. Because I’m also an historian, I have the Star Trek time line in my head, memorized from roughly 1996 to 2380. I’m even willing to give this new-old Star Trek movie that came out earlier this year a chance, even though it’s reeking havoc with the time line once again.
But I feel that it’s time to do something different, something new, with the franchise and with its potential spin-offs (if there will ever be another one) in the future. I reached this assessment based on a experiment I decided to conduct between the end of May and last week. I decided four years after its demise to watch Star Trek: Enterprise from start to finish. I was in between semesters and consulting work in mid-May, flicked on SyFy, and saw back-to-back episodes of the series for the first time. Even though I always liked Scott Bakula, I couldn’t bring myself to watch after reading some horrible reviews, not to mention after my watching the ridiculous movie Star Trek: Nemesis in ’02. After seeing a scene of part of Florida being cut into pieces by some advanced weapon, and Bakula’s character negotiating with sentient reptilians, insectizoids, humanoids, arboreals and amphibians (all related and from the same planet), I decided to see how far down the rabbit hole would go.
Some ninety-eight episodes and 26 DVDs later — thanks to the power of Netflix — I’ve come to the realization that bad writing and limited imagination can really screw up a series, no matter the quality of the acting or the actors. It’s not like the original Star Trek, where there were lots of horrible actors, the scripts weren’t the greatest, but William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy and the others from the main cast could carry you through the worst of it. No, this was worse, because the show lacked a clear sense of direction right from the start. Every time it seemed the producers had found a theme, they decided to send us back in time to either alter or maintain the Star Trek time line. Bakula’s character was hit in the head so many times that it’s possible that he could have post-concussion syndrome.
Add to that the attempt to focus Star Trek: Enterprise on a single theme for an entire 24- episode season — the warding off of the Xindi threat to Earth in season three. This was the season it came to be known that a planet had spawn six beings of high intelligence, evolving together from birds, fish/amphibians, arboreals (in this case, sloths), primates/humanoids, insects, and reptiles. I’m convinced that this was when the show jumped the shark. Watching Bakula’s character attempt to have a conversation with a half-sea-lion, half-tuna with sonar language capability was about as idiotic as the show could get.
I stayed with it, though. I couldn’t believe that the show could continue to get worse. And I had the support of the reviewers, who almost unanimously agreed that the fourth and final season was easily the best one. Yeah, it was the best all right. The best of a very, very bad bunch. It was a series of two and three-parters, some a bit interesting, a few actually good and worthy of being compared to the work done by the writers and producers for TNG. All leading to the first interplanetary alliance, a precursor of the Federation. Then, I guess, they learned that the show was canceled, so the scripts became sludgy again, leaving actors to search for emotions they never should have had in the first place, and unnecessarily killing off a main character in the final episode. A last show so cheesy that they brought back TNG veterans Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis (and the voice of Data/Brent Spiner) as their more middle-aged selves to inappropriately close out Star Trek: Enterprise on a holodeck.
Still, I watched. It was so bad at times, that I continued to watch, expecting a twist or turn, a poignant episode, a story line worthy of being followed. Their best story line was the forming of a relationship between the Vulcan science officer T’Pol (played by Jolene Blalock) and Commander Tucker (Connor Trinneer) , the ship’s chief engineer. Even this was more uneven than the eight-year-long affair of Tony Danza and Judith Light on Who’s The Boss! Star Trek: Enterprise was bad, all right, but it was so bad that I had to keep watching.
I kept watching because I liked to be entertained by quality acting with scripts that are both good and forward-thinking, one that’s about imagination and inspiration, about the future and not just about adjusting the precious time line. Star Trek: Enterprise, despite the acting, crashed and burned because it lacked the quality of a dreamer, and I’m not just talking about the late Gene Roddenberry here. It lacked the ability to make me consistency optimistic about a future for humanity beyond our everyday squabbles over money, food and water, our idiotic strife over the social constructions of race, gender, religion and nationalism. I guess it was truly a product of its times, with its first episode coming within weeks of 9/11.
Now that it’s over, I long for a series that can present a vision that raises the level of popular culture discourse the way the original Star Trek did in the ’60s or TNG did in the ’80s and ’90s. Realism is fine, but optimism and forward-thinking embedded in that realism is better. Those are the qualities that keep a series from crashing and burning, even when it does.