Warning: This review contains significant spoilers. If you haven't seen the
episode yet, beware.
In brief: A shallow Trek adventure by the numbers.
Plot description: On a Delphic Expanse planet, the crew discovers a colony
of humans living like people from the 19th-century American West.
Star Trek: Enterprise - "North Star"
Airdate: 11/12/2003 (USA)
Written by David A. Goodman
Directed by David Straiton
Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
Rating out of 4: **
"All the things humanity has accomplished -- building ships like this,
traveling to other worlds -- and we're still down there shooting each
other." -- Bethany
"North Star" takes a high-concept situation and filters it through the most
obvious and worn of Star Trek formulas. The result is an episode that's all
about setting and rarely about substance. What little substance we have here
is awfully tired, and reveals a dearth when it comes to depth.
The trailers make this look like a fun send-up of the Western genre. It's
not. I'd have gladly taken the send-up over what we get here, which is an
all-too-simplistic alien abduction premise that becomes an earnest but
barely-scratching-the-surface meditation on prejudice. It then limps to its
insipid action climax involving the cliched shootout on Main Street and
obligatory fistfight in the horse's stall. If you want a sci-fi Western
that's actually fun, then go watch "Back to the Future Part III," because
"North Star" is a bore.
The episode's assumption is that we'll go along with the story merely
because it's Trek ported into a Western. That's Level One thinking. Level
Two thinking would've come up with a story to make the Western setting
necessary or interesting. At the very least, the writers could've exploited
the setting for some good gags. (There is a gag involving an anachronistic
shootout between gunslingers and phaser, um, slingers, but it's not a very
funny gag.) There is one scene-changing wipe in the episode, which I found
amusing in an in-joke kind of way. But it's not representative of the
episode's tone, which for the most part is painfully straight. This is not a
satiric homage in the vein of, say, Voyager's "Bride of Chaotica!" but
merely a mediocre outing in Western clothing.
The idea is that some aliens called the Skagarans kidnapped a bunch of
humans from America's Old West some 300 years ago and brought them to this
planet in the Delphic Expanse to use as a colony of slave labor. Would space
travelers with advanced technology really need to resort to bringing
primitive slave labor all the way here from Earth? I tend to doubt it, but
we must press on.
Since that time 300 years ago, the humans have overcome the Skagarans. The
onetime oppressors are now the oppressed -- second-class citizens that the
humans subjugate in order to keep them in check (they are commonly referred
to pejoratively as "Skags," and the opening scene shows a Skag lynching).
The Message is that these humans are in arrested development in their
prejudices as well as their clothing. But I wonder if a human colony that
has learned of space travel and come to accept Earth as a long-ago myth
would still look like they just stepped off the set of a Western. Maybe,
maybe not; the episode doesn't much care.
The story takes its time getting off the ground. The first act establishes
the villain with the standard cliche (I hesitate to say "homage") of a
run-in between him and Archer at the town saloon. Meanwhile, T'Pol and Trip
strike a deal to borrow a horse and ride out to the town's outskirts to
investigate. The scene where T'Pol reluctantly rides with Trip on the horse
is an example of an idea that wants to be funny but simply has no inherent
humor; the fact alone does not equate a funny situation, and the writers
don't build it into anything.
The episode essentially has three guest characters, all Western cliches.
There's the sheriff (Glenn Morshower), who lays down the law, but not
harshly; the crooked, wrong-headed deputy (James Parks), who's the villain
of the piece; and schoolteacher Bethany (Emily Bergl), the noble sympathizer
who ventures into the woods late at night to teach the Skagaran children how
to read and write and 'rithmetic. Schooling the Skagarans, by the way, is
against the law.
Archer joins Bethany for the night's lesson, which is interrupted by the
deputy, who gets to invoke Enterprise's #1 cliche by ensuring that Archer
Goes to Jail [TM]. The next day the sheriff releases him with a warning, but
the message is clear: Archer cannot allow these humans to continue
oppressing the Skagarans.
One thing I liked about the episode was Archer's swift decisiveness. Because
these people are human and have an awareness of their history, he sees no
problem in intervening. He lands a shuttlepod right in the middle of Main
Street, which is an amusingly anachronistic image. He strikes a reasonable
dialog with the sheriff and explains how humanity has evolved and left old
prejudices behind. He convinces the sheriff to put aside the past and
ill-will toward the Skagarans so this colony might eventually rejoin the
Also anachronistic (but less amusing) is when the Evil Deputy and his
underlings force a shootout, resulting in bullets being answered with
phaser-fire from the Enterprise's faceless MACOs. This action climax is
obvious, tired, and blatantly obligatory, and involves the expected Western
standbys, including a guy being shot and rolling off a sloped roof in slow
motion and other guys ducking behind troughs of water. In the tradition of
modern action heroes, Captain Archer can be shot through the shoulder and
naturally still go mano a mano with the villain and win. T'Pol is taken
hostage with a gun to her temple; I liked Reed's solution -- he takes a tip
from Jeff Daniels and shoots the hostage.
The problem here is that the Evil Deputy is not a character representing the
troubling or subtle nuances of prejudice, but simply a cardboard source of
conflict to initiate the fighting at the end. This guts any possibility of
drama, because we are not watching a fight for ideas, but simply a fight for
the sake of staged television action. It's so obviously going through the
motions that we abandon any hope the deputy will stand for any ideas, even
The one thing Enterprise needs to be wary of this season is its
cookie-cutter use of gratuitous fourth-act action. They say television
writing is all about structure, and the structure that this season has
settled into is one that mandates a predictable shootout in the final act.
Sometimes it works when the story supports it, as in "Twilight," but this
mechanical pattern has also played into "The Xindi," "Rajiin," "Impulse,"
and now here. It's going to play itself out if the writers aren't careful.
(Let's not devolve this show into a slicker version of Andromeda.)
And enough with the gratuitous staccato film exposure. Just because it's an
action sequence doesn't mean it justifies staccato effect. In "Saving
Private Ryan," yes. In the Old West, no. Visually speaking, I have no
objection to staccato effect, but it shouldn't be used constantly and for no
The closing passage makes an attempt to put this all in perspective. Bethany
and Archer have a pithy discussion about how far humanity has evolved in 300
years while this lost colony hasn't evolved a day. Why *are* these colonists
still stuck in the Old West, anyway? It's an interesting question, but
that's all it is -- a question dropped in our laps. The episode brings no
insights, answers, or reasoned thoughts to the whys and workings of this
colony. The writers' interest strikes me as perfunctory, as if they were
simply more interested in showing the Old West than in figuring out why it
might still exist.
Who knows: Sealed off from the rest of humanity, an isolated culture with so
few people might not have the capacity for much growth. Unfortunately, this
is a point the episode doesn't bring up, because it doesn't bring up any
points. We can see here that prejudice and stagnation are bad things, but we
don't see how or why they came to be or what anybody in this colony really
thinks about them.
Next week: One of the regular characters dies ... and it's not Mayweather!
Copyright 2003 Jamahl Epsicokhan. All rights reserved.
Unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this article is prohibited.
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