Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.
As I sat down to watch the sixth and final Star Trek series from the filmic-pre-reboot era, I fully expected the show to end up at the bottom of the list and after the mediocre first two seasons, my opinion became fairly certain. Then something changed in the third season. It wasn’t the studio’s forced push to bring more action to the show that finally made it get good, it’s that it shifted writing wise as well. At first, going from the entirely episodic first two seasons to the season-long storyline of the third made for a jolting experience and I was initially hesitant to accept it.
While I ended the third season frustrated with a lot of the showrunners’ decisions, I ultimately felt the show had turned a corner, but the finale of the third season and the first two episodes of the fourth, and final, season gave me pause. It tackled Nazism in more straight-forward terms than any of the prior series. Yet, the episodes felt entirely derivative, which wasn’t a good sign for the show. The first two episodes ended well enough, but again they weren’t as good as I would have wanted. Yet, after that, the series took a much grander, bolder, and more compelling turn, one that helped point towards the ultimate founding of the United Federation of Planets and with numerous multi-part episodes to cap off the series, the end result was decidedly more enticing.
When I first started working on this project, I decided to rate all of the episodes on a four-star scale. No series started off so poorly on an average of these ratings than Enterprise, which didn’t have its first four-star episode until the final episode of season 1. After that, the number of exceptional episodes continued meagerly until Season 4, where just under 50% of the series’ four-star episodes were released. Ultimately, the averages of all of the episodes puts Voyager at the bottom with Enterprise just barely past it in fourth place. That said, in my gut, Voyager was more consistently good than Enterprise was and I would probably swap those places were it based on overall impressions rather than ratings.
In the end, because the final season was shorter than its predecessors and was more jam-packed with well written and compelling narratives, the fourth season of Star Trek: Enterprise averaged out to be the second best season in Trek history, just behind the final season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. That might seem surprising, but as we learned with Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager, the fourth season is always the season in which the shows finally hit their stride. That Enterprise ended on its fourth season is disappointing, but expected. It was never going to reach the heights that the prior series did, even with the far more well known Scott Bakula (Quantum Leap) in the lead.
Bakula played Capt. Jonathan Archer, the son of a noted ship designer, who is taking the prototype Warp 5 NX-01, named Enterprise, on its maiden voyage. Having been cautiously watched by the Vulcans who let the Humans make all their own mistakes, they assigned a Vulcan science officer, T’Pol (Jolene Blalock) to the ship, who acts as second-in-command to Archer. Other crew members include Archer’s best friend Charles “Trip” Tucker III (Connor Trinneer) as chief engineer, Malcolm Reed (Dominic Keating) as tactical officer, Hoshi Sato (Linda Park) as linguist and communications officer, Travis Mayweather (Anthony Montgomery) as helmsman, and Dr. Phlox (John Billingsley) as the Denobulan chief medical officer who, alongside T’Pol, was the only other non-human onboard.
The series initially focused on the Temporal Cold War, an attempt by time traveling aliens to derail history, specifically by trying to ensure the United Federation of Planets is never founded. This led into the third season story arc that began with the annihilation of a swath of Florida, killing millions of humans, and leading the Enterprise into the Expanse, a strange span of space where large planet-sized structures were adapting that area of space into an inhospitable wasteland for Enterprise and many other species. The Temporal Cold War was poorly handled and was a weak part of the first three seasons. Beyond that, the fourth season involves several events that ultimately lead towards a treaty between two factions the Vulcans and the Andorians, who were perpetually on the brink of war.
With all that out of the way, let’s get into my list. I have once again combined multi-part episodes into one whole. There were a total of nine of these types of episodes across the series’ four seasons, with three of them being three-part episodes and the rest two-part. Strangely, there were no multi-part episodes in the whole of season 3 even though most of the story was continued from one episode to the next. Out of 98 episodes, only 12 earned four stars from me. When combined, there were only nine episodes that would have even qualified for this list. Rather than shoe-horning a tenth episode into this list from the very large number of three-and-a-half-star episodes, I will leave the list as it stands with only nine entries, which will continue after the break.
Shockwave, Parts 1 & 2
In the first two-part episode of the series, a shuttle accident in the atmosphere of a colony incinerates 3,600 colonists and creates a political storm. As Archer turns tail and heads home, T’Pol sets out to prove that the incident wasn’t the Enterprise crew’s fault, but was, in fact, an immense plot by the Suliban in their quest to destroy Archer and his potential influence on future timelines.
This was the first time the Temporal Cold War felt like an actual threat. The maneuvering and plotting it takes to set up such an incident is a conniving masterstroke and it put morality at the center of the series in ways that would be explored too seldom over the coming three seasons. The episode reset the stakes for three seasons of machinations that never really felt like a cohesive plotline, but it was nevertheless a solid attempt to build on something that the writers couldn’t ultimately deliver on.
Having fun in Star Trek can sometimes be the result of a fascinating and original plot that unwinds in a compelling fashion. “Dead Stop” was one such episode that followed up on the events of a prior episode, but wasn’t at all connected. The Enterprise is severely damaged and with a tip from the Tellarites, they make anchor at an automated space station that demands an easily acceptable price for full repairs to their ship.
The price turns out to be too good to be true when they discover one of their crewmen disappears and the mystery surrounding the disappearance deepens in a most unique and fascinating way. When looking at this episode, one must realize first that the technological advancements of the Humans was minimal, meaning a device like this was bound to seem otherworldly enough to create suspicion, but Human belief in the indefatigable idea of universal compassion is put to the test most brilliantly.
In an episode that actively tackles discrimination, T’Pol is discovered to have a degenerative disease that can only be contracted by someone who has engaged in a mind meld with an untrained Vulcan. While the mind meld became ubiquitous with the original series and Leonard Nimoy’s Spock, the episode looks into the titular stigma faced one hundred years earlier when such teachings were considered undesirable.
Although T’Pol is not a mind-melder, she is treated like she was by the Vulcan science ministry who refuse to provide any of their research into the disease. This idea would be explored a handful of times throughout the series, but here was the most striking example of bigotry in a species that has ostensibly suppressed its emotions and should be looking at everything logically, rather than emotionally or, worse, dogmatically. It was proof that the Vulcans, however righteous they were, were still fallible.
Not unlike the Next Generation episode “The Measure of a Man,” this episode asks audiences to question whether a clone of one man is a separate living being in need of universal protection or if it’s a tool to be used and discarded. After Trip Tucker goes into a coma following an engineering accident. Phlox comes up with a novel treatment for the condition by creating a mimetic duplicate of Trip. As the duplicate grows, it exhibits Trip’s memories, giving rise to the question of whether or not it was a distinct individual or not.
This episode doesn’t end in a trial, but it does maneuver around difficult questions about individuality, humanity, and sentience with aplomb. Trek was always at its best when it tackled such questions and this third season episode more than lives up to our expectations.
Enterprise‘s first season-long story arc came to an end with this third season finale. Having finally convinced the Xindi that the Sphere Builders have lied to them about the threat Capt. Archer and the Humans pose to their continued existence, Archer’s crew splits off on two different missions to destroy the spheres that are slowly adapting the Delphic Expanse into a hospitable environment that the Sphere Builders can invade and to stop the Xindi-Reptilians from using a world-destroying weapon against Earth.
This action-heavy season-capper brings to a conclusion a storyline that ultimately ended up far better than it had initially begun. It was a narrative that was unevenly handled across the season, but which slowly built into a provocative experience that in the final analysis lived up to the franchise’s name.
Returning to Earth victorious over the Xindi threat, Archer and his crew discover that xenophobia is on the rise, putting the long peace between Humans, Vulcans, and other species at risk. We learn through an encounter at a local bar between Dr. Phlox, Lt. Reed, and Ens. Mayweather that tensions have grown increasingly fractious. Meanwhile, Capt. Archer must come to terms with his newfound celebrity and the emotional impact his recent adventures have brought while Sub-Commander T’Pol brings paramour Trip home to meet her mother who insists she consider the arranged marriage she had previously skipped out on.
This episode does tremendous work explaining how xenophobia can easily gain a foothold in a culture with a history of such rhetoric. Not as far removed from World War III and the intolerance of the 20th and 21st Centuries as they had thought, the narrative effectively and evocatively exposes the inherent lack of trust that can build between species when one sees Humans as a threat and works to undermine and annihilate them. It also lays the foundation for the fragile peace of the Alpha Quadrant that would form the basis for the series’ final season narrative.
The Forge, Awakening & Kir’Shara
This three-part episode begins with “The Forge,” when the crew investigates the bombing of the Earth embassy on Vulcan, which lays the blame at the feet of the peaceful Syrrannite movement. These Vulcan rebels have been in hiding as they search for proof that the teachings of Sarek are not what the current Vulcan government believes.
In part 2, “Awakening,” Enterprise leaves orbit at the request of the Vulcan government as they plan to launch an offensive against the Andorians while Archer and T’Pol locate the Syrrannite compound in a vast desert on Vulcan where T’Pol’s mother has sought refuge and where Archer ends up learning the location of the Kir’Shara texts.
In part 3, “Kir’Shara,” all of these threads come together as Archer brings the Kir’Shara to the Vulcan High Command in an effort to enlighten the Vulcan people to the true teachings of Sarek while Enterprise leads an Andorian fleet against the Vulcans in an attempt to head-off a dangerous and deadly war.
The weakest part of this three-part series of episodes is the middle chapter, which suffers as most mid-narrative productions often do. This exploration of what it means to be Vulcan helps establish a lot of the mythos that was made famous by Mr. Spock on the original series and subsequent episodes. It’s a riveting bit of storytelling that ties well into the future of the Star Trek universe and lays the groundwork for what would eventually become the United Federation of Planets. It also introduces the Romulans as a secretive force who are attempting to destabilize the Alpha Quadrant.
Babel One, United & The Aenar
Another three-part episode continues to solidify the fragile peace between Vulcans and Andorians while the Romulans make moves to destroy the uneasy truce between the Andorians and the Tellarites.
In Part 1, “Babel One,” Enterprise is escorting a Tellarite delegation to Andoria in hopes of establishing a treaty between the two species. After longtime Archer ally Capt. Shran’s (Jeffrey Combs) ship is attacked by a Tellarite vessel, Archer rescues the remains of Shran’s crew who do not find the prospect of Tellarites being on the ship a welcome development.
In Part 2, “United,” the crew begins to unravel the Romulan plot that uses a ship with the ability to mask its appearance and to change to look like another species’ vessel as a catalyst to foment war between the Andorians and Tellarites and it’s up to the Enterprise to expose the deception and solidify peace between the two species.
In Part 3, “The Aenar,” it’s revealed that the remote-controlled self-repairing starship is controlled by a white-skinned Andorian known as an Aenar, which leads Archer and his crew with Shran to visit the Andorian homeworld and seek the assistance of the Aenar in stopping the Romulan stealth craft from causing more problems. The missing Aenar’s sister wants to help.
Apart from the revelation of the blind, but exceptionally telepathic Aenar as a white-colored variant of the blue-skinned Andorians and the engaging clash that brings an end to this three-part arc, the third episode is a bit weaker than the first two, which could have (and should have) ended with “United” rather than “The Aenar.”
Demons & Terra Prime
This two-part episode brought the fourth season storyline to a close with the Enterprise facing a dangerous threat from within Human civilization. The terrorist organization Terra Prime has hatched a scheme to return Earth to its Human-centric roots and drive out all alien species by threatening to blow up Starfleet Command if these foreign entities do not leave.
This action-heavy double episode begins with the tension building episode “Demons,” which was wasn’t quite as solid as the second part, “Terra Prime.” Peter Weller guest stars as the leader of Terra Prime whose xenophobic beliefs threaten to undo all of the diplomatic work Enterprise and her crew have been focused on. This episode does a tremendous job wrapping up most of the series’ character storylines and establishing a setting not-so-far removed from our own.
Looking back on the episode, the similarities between modern politics and the Enterprise series are startlingly prescient, though the series has always recognized the Orwellian direction our world has been headed towards and done its absolute best to foreshadow and advise on how to overcome those differences, which is precisely what the Star Trek universe in specific, and science fiction in general, were envisioned to forecast.
With that, I bring to a close my five-part look at the best episodes in Star Trek history. It was a blast getting to know these series from a fresh perspective and with many years between my first viewings and these re-watches. There’s some great Star Trek out there and when it was good, it was great. When it was bad, it was still better than a lot of what’s out there in sci-fi features and television. I say goodbye to the history of Star Trek, but not to the fond memories I know possess in even stronger quantity.