DeFlip Side #43: Demise of Enterprise

DS43.mp3

Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis, and this is DeFlip Side.

This is what I said, four years ago, when discussing the premiere of Star Trek Enterprise, and the potential changes it could bring to the established Star Trek universe. And I quote:

“Change itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It just remains to be seen whether the show will flourish in the more promising aspects of that change, or if it will degenerate into another formulaic, humdrum still-birth like Voyager. I hope it flourishes.”

Was I ever so young and naive? I mean, did I really have any right to expect that this show would be any different from Voyager? The same idiots were running the franchise. The same hacks were writing the new series. Who was I trying to kid?

Sure enough, Enterprise did degenerate into another formulaic, humdrum still-birth, like Voyager. In fact, it limped humdrum and formulaic right out of the gate, no degeneration necessary. And now it’s paying the price. UPN recently announced that it’s canceling Enterprise at the end of this, its fourth season, making it the first Trek series since the original to get the ax before it had run its intended course.

And despite the regrets voiced on all sides, from the network, from Paramount, from show producers Rick Berman and Brannon Braga, no one can say they didn’t see this coming. The show has been on the bubble seemingly since it debuted. But despite these clear and ever-present signs of impending doom, Enterprise continued blithely on with seeming disregard, utterly convinced of Star Trek’s invincibility as an entertainment property. Most of the shows in the first season played out like leftover Voyager scripts that had been slightly retooled. Cross out Janeway, insert Archer. Instant series.

But fans like me, beat down after years of disappointment with Voyager, had had it. It seemed to me that Voyager writers had never even seen an episode of any of the previous Trek series, much less the original. Voyager’s playing fast and loose with Trek continuity was one thing. But it was quite another for Enterprise to do the same.

Touted as a prequel series, it didn’t seem to give a damn about the established Trek history for which it was supposedly laying the groundwork. Stories were handled with the usual ham-fisted, hackish incompetence that the show’s so-called writers had displayed time and again over Voyager’s seven year run. If they’ve proven anything, it’s that they’re particularly adept at writing really bad time travel storylines that have no regard for their own internal consistency, much less consistency within the Trek universe as a whole. But I guess that doesn’t matter, since the climax of most of these episodes hinged on some ill-conceived plot device that essentially acted as a reset button, erasing all vestiges of the divergent timeline and returning things back to normal. Does anyone remember the Voyager two-parter “Year of Hell?”

Unfortunately, it’s this seeming disregard for a simple truth — that actions do have consequences — that did Enterprise in. Show producers realized too late that there is no reset button in real life. You can only hit the fans with unrelenting garbage for so long before they go away for good. And so we did.

This led to the first attempt to re-energize Enterprise, with the expansion of the temporal cold war storyline, and the hatching the Xindi plot arc that dominated season three. The Xindi conflict was supposed to imbue the series with a new sense of purpose, giving Archer and the rest of the crew a reason to be out boldly going where no man had gone before. I can just picture the writer’s meeting that went down:

Hey, we gotta give this show new legs. What’s hot right now? Terrorism. Yeah, terrorism sounds good. People are all jazzed up about terrorists, right? So Earth gets attacked see? Unprovoked. By this weapon of… mass destruction. Weapon of Mass Destruction! And then Archer has to take Enterprise into this unknown region of space, and track down this weapon from a race that no one’s ever heard of before. Hey, think of the mileage we can get out of all those old Voyager scripts we have lying around! But how do we end it? Time travel! I see shuttlecraft fighting WWII fighter planes! I see aliens dressed as Nazis! This is gonna be great!

I guess they didn’t realize that if you’re going to do a season-long story arc, one of the prerequisites is that it can’t suck, or viewers might not bother to stick with it. Go figure. The one bright spot of season three happened behind the scenes, when Manny Coto joined the show as a writer. Coto created the short-lived Showtime series Odyssey 5, and brought something to the table that the other writers didn’t seem to have: he was a huge fan of the Original Series.

Of course my comments about the other writers are entirely speculative. For all I know, most of them can quote the Original Series episodes scene for scene. But all the evidence suggests that none of them respected it very much. Or, if they did, they didn’t have the stones to stand up and make a case for it. Whatever dynamics were at work, the timing of Coto’s arrival was serendipitous. Faced with the prospect of reinventing the show yet again, Berman and Braga finally did something right and made Coto the show runner for the fourth season.

This meant that he had inherited the unenviable task of writing the series out of the temporal corner that Berman and Braga had backed it into. Season four opened with a two-parter that once again relied heavily on the reset button theory of time travel. But after that Coto seemed to get down to the business of writing an actual, honest to goodness prequel show.

I knew he was serious when he bought Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens on as writers. They have written some of the best novels in the Star Trek book series, including one of my personal favorites, Federation, which dealt with the life of Zefram Cochrane, and even made a pretty plausible attempt at explaining away a glitch in continuity between the movie First Contact and the Original Series. In the movie, Cochrane is human; but the Original Series says he was from Alpha Centauri. Obviously, if anybody knows their Trek, it’s these two.

And guess what? The show has finally started doing stories that tie into the larger Trek universe in pretty creative ways, with an eye toward continuity and canon. Ties to the Original Series are being played up to best effect, and you can finally see that long road, getting from there to here that Enterprise’s theme song has been warbling about from the outset.

Unfortunately, the long-time Trek fans to which this would have appealed are mostly long gone. It’s a pity, because based on the most recent episodes, I think the show may have flourished given another season. Coto is leading a great rally, but it’s proven to be too little, too late. Berman says the show won’t be shopped to other networks, so the party’s over.

This decision has to do with money, plain and simple, so I realize this is a moot consideration, but if I were running things, I would try shopping the show around, maybe even try to bring it back as a straight-to-syndication series like Next Gen and DS9. That has proven successful in the past, and would have the added bonus of freeing the show from UPN’s lowest common denominator shackles. Instead of worrying about appealing to fans of Monday Night RAW, writers could concentrate on restoring the show’s credibility, beefing up its two-dimensional characters and reconnecting with the fan base. The audience is still there and could easily be lured back with more dynamic writing and a crew they might actually care about.

But of course, Rick Berman doesn’t see it this way, citing instead viewer apathy and franchise fatigue due to the fact that there’s just too darn much Star Trek out there at this point. It just illustrates his George W. Bush-like ability to believe only what comes out of his own mouth, despite the facts that are crowding in on all sides. In a recent interview with Sci-Fi Wire, Berman said:

“I don’t think it has to do with the quality of the show. That just might be ego speaking, but I think we’ve done a great job. If you look at the performance of Nemesis, you see what I think was a terrific movie that did not perform anywhere near as expected. I think that’s been happening with Enterprise. I think you can just squeeze so many eggs out of the old golden goose.”

Well, it is ego speaking, Rick, and you’d do well to get this through your self-important skull: It does have to do with the quality of the show. Blame it on viewer apathy and franchise fatigue all you want, but those things have to come from somewhere. Nemesis and Enterprise tanked because they sucked, as did Voyager and Insurrection. You took those old golden eggs and scrambled them beyond recognition. And when you try to force feed this slop to fans, you have the audacity to scratch your head and wonder why they’re leaving the table? Fans don’t need a rest from Trek. Trek needs a rest from you.

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