"Star Trek" fans will have a new reason to sigh in relief on Wednesday night as "Enterprise" returns for its third season, ready to prove all over again that it is not "Star Trek: Voyager." The fourth Trek series, which ended in 2001, was a tired debacle in my eyes, and those of most "Star Trek" fans. Its creators seemed to think they could re-create the magic of "Next Generation" or the mood of "Deep Space Nine" by reusing their stories and adding gimmickry and Big Bangs.
"Enterprise" doesn't have a gimmick. It has a premise, an interesting question to answer: How did humanity go from the bottom to the top of the galactic totem pole? What happened between the era of "Enterprise," in the 22nd century, and the time of the original 1960s "Star Trek" series, featuring Kirk and Spock, some 115 years later? Why and how did humans rise to equal status with other spacefaring species?
"Enterprise" follows the best Trek tradition in making the era seem fresh and undetermined and arresting, even though we know how things will turn out. Or do we? The uncertainty of these eager and fragile characters matches the uncertainty of our times here on 21st-century Earth, and the writers play with time to enhance that uncertainty. "Enterprise's" setting both in the "Star Trek" chronology and in our real time forces it to meditate on what might be, and on the dirty tricks people of all species will play to affect that future.
To recap: The Vulcans, a frowning and logical race (think Spock, only more tight-assed), made the first alien contact with Earth in 2063. Ever since, they've been holding Earth's hand and keeping the training wheels on humanity's ventures into deep space. Capt. Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula) and his crew explore, are nearly destroyed by forces they don't understand, meet new races, and generally try to prove the Vulcans wrong. As in other "Star Trek" series, the ideas are the meat of the thing, with a salad of special effects ... and a dessert of cheesecake.
Yes, I would be remiss in not mentioning the babe factor in "Enterprise." The creators seem to believe that the flesh of Jolene Blalock (who plays Vulcan science officer T'Pol) is as hot as the stars that the Enterprise passes, and should show up as often. In every other episode she bares various parts of her body in plot twists that would hardly please the logical Vulcan mind. In the T&A tradition of modern Trek, she is the skin equivalent of Jeri Ryan from "Voyager" and Marina Sirtis on "Next Generation." The season premiere goes so far as to show her in a cleavage-revealing uniform. Linguist Hoshi Sato (Linda Park) has only removed her shirt once that I can recall, and that was by accident. Yes, they are the only females on the bridge of the Enterprise. To be fair, we see some of the males partially disrobed as well, but they don't make it into the trailers.
The other structural flaw: the theme music. Against all Trek tradition, the theme music to "Enterprise" contains lyrics. Lyrics about the unbreakability of the singer's soul, and about faith of the heart. I would prefer "I'll Be There for You" from "Friends" to this. Welcome rumors are afloat that the third season will see a change in the opening score, and my screener copy of the season premiere strengthened those rumors by omitting audio over the lovely opening montage of naval and aeronautical history.
My other complaints are of the "This episode wasn't as great as it could have been" variety. The first two seasons of "Enterprise" have seen fewer ghastly missteps than we saw in the first two seasons of "Next Generation" or "Deep Space Nine." Sure, the captain and doctor withheld a cure from a disease-ravaged race and committed passive genocide for wholly spurious reasons, and T'Pol embarrassed herself and us while in pon farr, the Vulcan mating cycle. But these isolated low points can't mar this show's accomplishment: After hundreds of hours of Trek movies and TV episodes, "Enterprise" is making the franchise new again, creating fresh stories and possibilities.
The young crew of "Enterprise" is trying to make sense of when and how to intervene in other societies. There is no pat-and-easy Prime Directive of noninterference yet; these episodes will form the basis cases for later policies. Like a relatively young United States, the human race sticks its collective nose into forces and peoples it doesn't understand, while the Vulcans are the cautioning mentors who have been around the block a few times, calling to mind Old Europe. Several episodes have developed this theme in different directions, and only some episodes feature direct references to the present day. But almost all of them tacitly reference 21st-century political problems.
The Cabal, a faction of the Suliban race, is attacking humans (among others) because its future-seeing master tells them to. Among other ramifications, we see peaceful Suliban citizens rounded up and placed in internment camps, oppressing and radicalizing them, yet perhaps protecting them from the bigoted populace. The Enterprise liberates one such camp, but it can't liberate them all, and we end the episode musing over the escapees' fate.
The Xindi, another mysterious alien race, has sent a weapon to Earth and massacred millions of humans, because they have heard (from the same future-seeing master, or someone like him) that humans will destroy the Xindi home world in 400 years. We are shocked, we are heartbroken, we want revenge. But we don't even know where the Xindi live, much less how powerful they are.
This latter episode, the second season finale, strongly referred to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. "Enterprise" premiered just a few weeks after those attacks, and the story acknowledged, and responded to, that involuntary setting. The Trek framework is well adapted to telling this story of an allegorical war on terror; one episode can cover a day or many months, as developments hasten and slow.
Like "Deep Space Nine," "Enterprise" entices us into caring about its characters, then forces you to watch them doing the dirty work of the state-security apparatus. In the season premiere, we see Archer bribing a sleazy mining official for an interview with his Xindi employee. Far from home and out of its depth, the crew is bound to experience some blowback, as it indeed does here. I want to see more of this. I want to see "Enterprise" compensate for drawing the analogy between 9/11 and this ahistorical, unpreventable alien massacre. "Enterprise" can redeem itself by emphasizing that our incidents and relationships with other races have ramifications, that there are other fish in the pond.
When chief engineer Tucker finds out that his sister has been killed in the Xindi attack, he refuses to hold a special service for her, arguing that the size of the slaughter takes precedence over one person's memory. And then he begs the captain for the chance to take revenge on the mass murderers: "And tell me we won't be tiptoeing around -- none of that noninterference crap T'Pol's always shoving down our throats."
This is why the moral dilemmas of "Enterprise," from now forward, will feel real and messy and moving: Earth has an interest. Capt. Picard of "Next Generation" sometimes struggled over playing God, sure, but usually human lives weren't at stake. Are torture scenarios next, as in Fox's contemporary terrorism drama "24"? How far will Archer go to avenge and protect human lives? "Enterprise's" new, darker and denser story arc holds a promise even more alluring than Jolene Blalock's bum.