WARNING: If my reviews represent a "Strange New World" to you, be aware that the article below contains spoilers for the episode by that name.
In brief: Definitely a mixed bag -- some good ideas, but also some questionable execution.
"Fight or Flight" Enterprise Season 1, Episode 3 Teleplay by Mike Sussman & Phyllis Strong Story by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga Directed by David Livingston Brief summary: The first Earthlike world the Enterprise crew encounters looks too good to be true ... and T'Pol nearly winds up paying the price.
More than anything, "Strange New World" strikes me as an episode that isn't entirely sure what it wants to be. Is it trying to be an eerie ghost story? A cautionary "there are things man was not meant to know" tale? An examination of a crew under pressure? A break from previous Trek traditions, or an embrace of them? I think one could plausibly argue "yes" to any of the above statements, and that's not an unmixed blessing.
Just for starters, a piece of the conclusion seemed clear from the outset. T'Pol has been cast as the antagonistic voice of caution so much already that right after the teaser, I thought, "Okay, so this is the occasion when T'Pol's cautions are justified." (Admittedly, the preview from the previous week probably biased me in that regard.) Sure enough, the beautiful planet does wind up as a less than safe place for our heroes to camp, and T'Pol stands vindicated -- for this occasion, anyway.
That may be a little obvious, but I've certainly no objection to it -- one of my favorite moments in early TNG is Q's "If you can't take a little bloody nose" speech from "Q Who." Space is big, space is dangerous, and explorers need to hold on to that realization lest they become additional evidence supporting it. All well and good, particularly since Archer really overreached here by sending down nearly the entire command crew at once. Dumb move on his part, and he had to deal with it. Fine with me.
Except ... well, the episode fell prey to the "two-minute wrap-up" syndrome that much modern Trek has had trouble with from time to time. The immediate crisis was resolved, but I think we as viewers got virtually *no* sense of whether Archer and company have learned anything from the experience. Do they recognize that T'Pol may have had a point, and that they were overeager to the point of foolhardy this time around? Is T'Pol going to point their mistake out next time? (Why do I suddenly hear a small green voice saying, "The cave ... remember your failure at the cave!"?) Do some characters still feel that T'Pol might have had a hand in arranging the whole situation?
I don't know -- and while the last thing I want is for everything to be completely tied up in a neat bow, I think leaving it *this* open is a mistake. If some allusions are made over the next few weeks, fine -- but that's something that Trek (of any era) has had an erratic track record on.
The concept was fine so far as it went, and actually had a decent bit of misdirection attached to it. When Trek heroes have found a planet that's too good to be true, it almost always is -- but that's frequently because there's some menace deliberately lying in wait. It's rare that a paradise turns out dangerous just because of the nature of the planet. (There are counterexamples, of course -- the Genesis planet and DS9's "Meridian" come to mind as two of them.) Trip and company wind up facing off against their own paranoia rather than against an actual enemy, and for an extended deep-space mission I think the odds of the former happening are relatively high.
However, another example of the episode not quite having a firm sense of itself came with our handy-dandy cannon fodder. Hmm, let's see ... the crew staying overnight on the planet consists of three main-credits characters, plus two random crewmembers we've never seen before. Gee, think something bad's going to happen to one or both of them? Sure enough, Novakovich winds up affected by the tropolysine (hereafter referred to as the Paranoia Pollen) first and most extremely, and looks as though he's done for. In the end, however, with no real explanation we're told "he's going to be fine."
Is that a deliberate attempt to break the mold of "let's kill the redshirts?" If so, great -- but I think putting him in so much jeopardy and then saving him almost as an afterthought undercuts the point of the episode. Other than a few bumps and bruises and one heck of a lousy night, there don't seem to be any actual consequences to Archer's foolhardiness here, and that concerns me somewhat.
"Strange New World" also crystallized for me the realization that Jolene Blalock simply does not seem to be fitting into her role very well so far. There are lines of dialogue here, like "unless the captain wants us to pose for more pictures," which as written should come off as biting (in that high-class, seemingly well-considered Vulcan way), but which as spoken are coming out as a bit dull. The one line meant to show that she was losing her grip ("All I see is a delusional engineer!") sounded dreadful, frankly -- not only did it fail to give Nimoy or Lenard a run for his money, but I'm not even sure it stood up to Kim Cattrall's breakdown in ST6. I find the *idea* of T'Pol very plausible, and sometimes I think Blalock does a fine job (witness her final scene this week with Trip or her delivery of "And I have a phase pistol pointed at my head," both of which felt utterly right), but her performance so far seems erratic at best. I'm hoping she improves over the course of the season, particularly since her character is not one that is likely to be shunted off to the production sidelines.
On the other hand, I think John Billingsley deserves special mention for a good performance this time around. Dr. Phlox didn't show up that much here, but the scene where he has to admit he's overlooked something that could potentially kill a crewman is one of the best in the episode. (At least, barring the dreadful technobabble ... but I'll cover that later.) You can tell that Phlox is utterly torn up inside about the situation, but there's no breast-beating, no histrionics ... just internalized pain. Kudos to Billingsley, especially for pulling off said feat under no small amount of latex. (Bakula was no slouch either in that scene, by the way; I liked Archer's closing line quite a bit, both in concept and in delivery.)
I'm a bit more on the fence about Connor Trinneer this time around. Trip's suspicions were completely understandable given Earth-Vulcan history and given his own personality, and Trip's utter refusal to listen to reason once convinced of his own point makes sense. At times, though, I think Trinneer went just little bit over the line; it certainly wasn't unwatchable or laughable, but it felt just a little off.
Fundamentally, then, I think the story behind "Strange New World" is sound, but it felt buffeted from side to side every bit as much as Archer's shuttlepod. The final face-off between Trip and T'Pol was terrific, with Archer bluffing his way through a story just long enough to make Trip disarm ... but a lot of the work done to get there felt forced, like the unwise concentration of high-ranking officers on the planet and the fact that apparently no one on board Enterprise was watching the weather in advance of the storm.
Various other short points:
-- Apparently the transporter is not entirely functional yet, and I definitely liked the way we were shown that.
-- For a brief moment when Dr. Phlox was outlining what was killing Ethan, I almost thought we were going to get convincing medical terminology. He said that each tropolysine atom has "a stray neutron," which to me meant the possibility that it was radioactively unstable. Alas, no; instead that meant it apparently broke down and "released an undetectable toxin." Certainly not as bad as TNG's "subatomic bacteria" or anything that's been mentioned about evolution in the past ten years, but pretty laughable.
-- Speaking of laughable, something about the dialogue this time around invited a fair bit of MSTing. The most obvious example: "Put that thing away!" "I'm afraid that's impossible, Captain; this uniform has no pockets."
-- Another MST came when T'Pol analyzed the atmosphere. "17 percent oxygen, 81 percent nitrogen." ["And 2% butterscotch ripple!"]
-- Other amusing bits: take a look at T'Pol's hair. It's blown all about during the actual scenes of the storm, yet not a hair is out of place once their in the caves. Apparently vanity is *not* one of the emotions Vulcans master. :-)
-- A couple of very nice little character touches showed up. Trip's story about his Vulcan science teacher felt right, as did that teacher's dictum: "challenge your preconceptions, or they'll challenge you." Sato was thoroughly professional, and Mayweather fared pretty well this time around: his mindset as a "boomer" is just different enough to be noticeable without being off-putting.
-- For continuity buffs: I assume "Minshara-class" is where the term "M-class" came from that we've been hearing for 35 years. Additionally, this is of course the first time chronologically that we've seen a Vulcan neck pinch. (Alas, it looked pretty dreadfully done.)
I think that pretty much covers it. "Strange New World" certainly wasn't horrible, but felt like it was moving in too many directions at once to really work properly. I can allow a series a few growing pains, though, and this is a pretty mild bump.
So, to wrap up:
Writing: Getting the situation established was pretty forced, but once it was set up it worked fine. Directing: Some nice outdoor shots, but establishing everyone's skewed perceptions felt a little overdone. Acting: Blalock is now a serious concern; everyone else is basically fine, and Billingsley is probably a serious asset.
OVERALL: a 6. Pretty watchable, but you're unlikely to be glued to your seat.
Trip goes where no man (except for Dave Lister) has gone before.
Tim Lynch (Castilleja School, Science Department) tly...@alumni.caltech.edu <*> "I've got four people down on the surface, Doctor. I need to know if they're going to be dead when we get there in the morning." -- Archer -- Copyright 2001, Timothy W. Lynch. All rights reserved, but feel free to ask... This article is explicitly prohibited from being used in any off-net compilation without due attribution and *express written consent of the author*. Walnut Creek and other CD-ROM distributors, take note.