On September 26th 2001, Star Trek went where it had never been before. To a prequel, chronicling the voyages of the first starship Enterprise in the middle of the twenty-second century. A hundred years before Kirk, and two hundred before the trio of shows that had just finished their epic fourteen year journey. The show ran for four seasons, the first simply as Enterprise before adopting the Star Trek prefix for the second half of its run.
Enterprise is not my favourite Star Trek (by virtue of quantity, Voyager narrowly betas it to the top spot). But it is my Star Trek. Back when I was nine or ten, it aired on weekend mornings on S4C (because in those days Wales didn’t automatically get Channel 4). My first memory of Star Trek is Archer and his crew shooting blue lasers in a murky cave, a scene I think I’ve tracked down to Season 3’s opener ‘The Xindi.’ I remember seeing the controversial finale ‘These Are the Voyages…’ and wondering if this was Riker’s ship before he served under Picard. BBC2 at the time aired Next Generation, and the idea of linked shows thrilled me. My family soon moved onto Stargate, but when we looked for more box-sets to satisfy our science fiction craving, Enterprise was the first Star Trek we turned to. It was the first Trek show I watched one episode after another in order, start to finish without missing a single one. And I loved it. Everything else Star Trek in my life follows on from there.
What makes Enterprise so great? Well, pretty much everything. Generally speaking, I don’t like prequels. But Enterprise told a story that could only have been done as a prequel. The early days of human spaceflight, and the birth of the Federation. Things that Kirk, Picard, Sisko, and Janeway took for granted simply don’t exist in Archer’s day. The NX-01 Enterprise can only reach warp 5. It has no shields, no universal translators, no tractor beams. But it the best design of any Star Trek title ship. Others are a mix of warship and luxury hotel, but the NX-01 looks like a submarine. it’s all function, and that is exactly what makes it so majestic. Like it’s crew, it is here to a mission, and there’s no room for luxury. The quarters are cramped, the warp core primitive, and it feels like the sort of craft we may one day make in the real world. Artificial gravity notwithstanding.
The first two seasons of Enterprise follow a familiar pattern. The crew land on a planet, face a problem, and go home having discussed morality and science. But there’s a sense of enthusiasm that would be lost on the jaded crew of Voyager. Everything Archer sees, he is the first human to see. The wonder of space has never been more apparent than when he lands on a planet, takes pictures of his crew, and lets his dog go for a run. But with that enthusiasm comes a naivete. There are no established protocols for the situations in which Archer finds himself, and he must literally make the rules as he goes. Epsidoes such as ‘Cogenitor’ are a prime example of Archer judging aliens by standards that simply don’t apply. This goes for the whole crew. They don’t understand what they’re getting into. They have nothing but the best intentions, but they are prone to making mistakes. They are the most human crew (in more ways than one) that Star Trek has shown us. Picard is a role model, but Archer and his crew feel more real. We’ll probably never reach the golden days of Picard’s era, but Archer’s flawed optimism feels with reach.
In these first two seasons, Star Trek broke with the strictness of episodic formatting only occasionally. ‘Dead Stop’ occurs due to damage incurred in ‘Minefield,’ but you could easily watch one without knowledge of the other. This changed in season 3. For the first time, there was a set agenda for the entire season. One serialised story that took Enterprise down a dark path. The Xindi arc is notorious for the misery it inflicts on the crew. At one stage, Archer becomes a war criminal, and never faces the consequences. yet at the end of this foray in darkness, it’s by appealing to the better nature of others that humanity endures. Earth emerges from its darkest hour not by destroying its enemies, but by turning them into allies. Season 4 balances episodic and serialise storytelling better than any other show, breaking the season down into arcs of 2 or 3 episodes. Many relate to one another in ways not immediately obvious, and there are callbacks (or rather callforwards) to the rest of the franchise.
Any Star Trek show is made or broken by its crew, and Enterprise had a rougher time than some. Not because of casting, but because of the choice to have a central trio rather than a true ensemble as had happened before. This leads to some characters dominating, but when the rest of the regulars get a moment in the sun, they glow just as brightly.
Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula) embodies the spirit of the show just as a captain should. he begins as a man who despises Vulcans and is content to rampage through space to prove himself worthy of his father’s legacy. But over the course of the run, it is Archer who must become the best of what humanity has to offer, reaching out to other species for mutual support. Yes, he makes mistakes, but how else are we supposed to learn?
T’Pol (Jolene Blalock) is initially sent to supervise Archer by her fellow Vulcans, and at first the distrust is mutual. Again, time breaks down these barriers, and her growing respect for Archer is what paves the way for the Federation’s origins. T’Pol is often poorly served by sexist tropes (not to mention bizarre pyjama choice) by Blalock rises above it to create a compelling character.
Charles ‘Trip’ Tucker III (Connor Trinneer) is perhaps the most iconic character in the show. The living embodiment of the Florida Man mentality, he is a man who says yes to everything. The others may be curious, but Trip is downright enthusiastic about everything, right up until it gets him pregnant. In many ways, Trip is the warm heart of the show, a warmth that is not tempered by the tragedy of later seasons.
Malcolm Reed (Dominic Keating) is the stiff-lipped British security officer, who only seems to smile when he gets to blow something up. It’s his caution that holds back the recklessness of the rest of the crew, and though he may be reserved. Keating’s performance is my favourite in a crowded field of contenders, and his dry delivery brings a humorous counterpoint to the seriousness of his role.
Phlox (John Billingsley) is the second alien in the crew, a Denobulan and the ship’s doctor. His affable, happy-go-lucky nature is played to perfection. Imagine Neelix in a labcoat and you won’t be far wrong. Phlox is the compassionate core of the crew, all while being an outsider as endlessly fascinated by humanity as we are by the alien. Excellent prosthetics and the occasional use of CGI also make the Denobulan one of Star Trek‘s most recognisable species.
Travis Mayweather (Anthony Montgomery) is the least well-used member of the crew, but he has a unique place. The helmsman is the only human in the crew who has spent any length of time in space. Having grown up on merchant ships, he marks the transition from private exploration and trade to a more organised, and more importantly unified, approach to space travel. he may represent the past, but he’s also a key part of the future.
Hoshi Sato (Linda Park) also plays a key role. In a time before universal translators, the communications officer is more important than ever. As with Travis, Hoshi was often neglected by the writers, but she remains my favourite member of crew. There is often a sense that she is uncomfortable on the ship, perhaps even suffering from anxiety, but her passion for language proves invaluable time and time again. Hoshi is, for me, the soul of Star Trek. Not only meeting aliens, but trying to understand them.
Enterprise never had the popularity of the other shows, and was often unfairly maligned. yes it has flaws (the less said about the decontamination chamber the better) but what show doesn’t? Enterprise is perhaps the most realistic show in the franchise. It’s inspirational, it’s optimistic, it’s charming. It has the best theme tune of any Star Trek show. It may have been cancelled too soon, but the story continued in novel form, and two decades later, it’s finally earning the love and respect it rightly deserves.
If you’re a fan, there’s never been a better time to celebrate the fact. And if you’re not a fan yet, then you’ve got a long road ahead, but it will be worth every step . . .