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164[ENT] Jammer's Review: "Carbon Creek"

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  • Jamahl Epsicokhan
    Sep 28, 2002
      Warning: This review contains significant spoilers. If you haven't seen the
      episode yet, beware.

      In brief: An acting-dependent outing that simply doesn't have the acting it

      Plot description: T'Pol tells the story of her great-grandmother's mission
      of observation gone awry, resulting in unintended contact between the
      Vulcans and humanity in 1957.

      Enterprise: "Carbon Creek"

      Airdate: 9/25/2002 (USA)
      Teleplay by Chris Black
      Story by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga & Dan O'Shannon
      Directed by James Conter

      Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
      Rating out of 4: **

      "I've been filling out your annual crew evaluation. Just a formality."
      "I understand. The High Command has requested my evaluation of you. Just a
      -- Archer and T'Pol

      "Carbon Creek" is one of the quietest episodes in a very long time, which
      makes for a good change of pace after the action-laden "Shockwave, Part II."
      It's unfortunate, then, that the episode is such a quietly unfolding road to
      nowhere. Here's an episode so muted it seems dead.

      Episodes like this should be affecting. This one feels more like a
      meditation upon episodes that are affecting. It's a pretender, an
      imitation -- good intentions not supported by adequate content or
      performances. The problem is not that it's bad. The problem is that it
      doesn't have enough in it that's actually good.

      The episode is perhaps the series' biggest test yet for Jolene Blalock, and
      I'm sorry to say that it fully reveals her limitations. She is simply not
      engaging here -- as either of the two characters she plays -- and the
      episode suffers as a result. My most fundamental reaction to "Carbon Creek"
      is to wonder why Blalock constantly comes across as a bland vessel of
      robotic Vulcan dialog. There's something wrong when you want to reach into
      the TV, shake the actress, and shout, "Just speak UP, for crying out loud!"
      If Blalock spoke any softer, and with any less variation in expression, her
      dialog would be completely inaudible.

      The writers on Voyager would avoid putting Tuvok and Seven of Nine in dialog
      scenes together because, the writers said, their similar dispassionate style
      of speech made scenes stall dramatically. There were so few Tuvok/Seven
      scenes that I would say this was a theory (albeit a rational one) more than
      an actual fact supported by evidence. Imagine that theory as a truth here,
      with many scenes comprised solely of two, and sometimes three, Vulcan
      characters locked in dialog scenes, betraying as close to no emotion as
      possible. Just cool detachment and prefab opinions. My own theory is that
      you can watch only so much cool detachment before you start squirming with
      impatience -- and beating yourself over the skull with frying pans to be
      sure you are still alive -- but that's just me.

      Blalock plays her part so relentlessly one-note that I longed for anything
      that would break through the cool detachment. I don't have a problem with
      Vulcan dispassion per se (though I still maintain that complete dispassion
      in performance is an unnecessary approach to Vulcans); what I have a problem
      with is dispassion portrayed in a way that allows for no audience reaction.

      Underneath the performances is a story whose main goal is to be a
      lightweight, pleasant diversion about events long since passed into the
      realm of legend. The story concept reminded me a lot of Voyager's "11:59,"
      in which Janeway told her crew a story about the turning point for one of
      her ancestors in the final days of the year 2000. In the case of "Carbon
      Creek," T'Pol tells Archer and Trip a story about the "real" unintended
      first contact between the Vulcans and humanity, in 1957 in the Podunk mining
      town of Carbon Creek, Pennsylvania.

      T'Pol's great-grandmother T'Mir (Blalock) was part of a crew of four on a
      small ship observing the launch of Soviet satellite Sputnik. There was an
      accident, and the ship crashed in the woods a few kilometers from Carbon
      Creek. The captain was killed, leaving T'Mir in command of crewmates Mestral
      (J. Paul Boehmer, who was very good as the title character in Voyager's
      "Drone") and Stron (Michael Krawic). The story says these characters are
      forced to go to Carbon Creek so they don't starve to death, but the actors
      don't play it as if they're the least bit affected by having gone days
      without food. There's also not an iota of concern that some human out hiking
      or hunting might happen to come across, say, a crashed alien spaceship in
      the woods. (Was the ship salvaged at the end of the episode? Destroyed? The
      story is unconcerned.)

      T'Mir is a T'Pol clone that for all purposes might as well *be* T'Pol, which
      perhaps hints at Blalock's limits; in Voyager's "Life Line" Robert Picardo
      played two distinct roles that were believable as two different characters,
      despite their similarities.

      The show is slow to move ahead and instead opts for the slice-of-life
      approach, including a scene where the script apparently said, "Vulcan plays
      a game of pool," and was intent on actually seeing this scene drawn out into
      a highlight montage, as if we cared who won the game. If I wanted to see
      billiards, I'd watch Jeanette Lee compete on ESPN2. Jeanette Lee is a
      billiards player of extreme, impressive skill. Plus, she's freaking hot.

      Anyway. The problem here is that the episode does nothing at all new or
      fascinating and is content to fall back on cliche, most especially with the
      whole "Vulcans are fish out of water trying to blend in" (a scene where
      T'Mir puts a dress on backwards is just plain dumb) and the "Vulcans among
      humans begin to learn what humans are about." The latter theme -- admittedly
      palatable despite the lack of depth -- is largely filtered through Mestral,
      who finds he really wants to learn about human society, although I might
      point out that Podunk Creek, Pennsylvania, is probably not representative of
      the world.

      There's a subplot involving a single mom (Ann Cusack) and her son (Hank
      Harris), who is smart but might not have enough money to go to college.
      There are even hints of romance between Mom and Mestral. But this subplot is
      half-baked at best and we really don't get a feel for these characters as
      individuals. They're more like obvious local flavor based on archetypes.

      There's a big decision the Vulcans must make when there's a cave-in down at
      the mine. Several local miners will perish if a way can't be found to move
      tons of rock. Mestral wants to use a phaser to vaporize the rock, but
      T'Pol -- I'm sorry -- *T'Mir* recognizes that as blatantly interfering in
      human society. And what happens if the humans see the technology and the
      Vulcans are discovered? It's a legitimate dilemma but, let's face it, hardly
      given any weight. The story's point is ultimately about Mestral and his
      obsession to study humanity to the point of wanting to live among us. He
      even stays behind when the Vulcan rescue ship arrives, leaving his fate up
      to us to ponder. Vulcans Among Us is, no doubt, how special TV programs like
      "Alien Autopsy" became possible in the mid-1990s on the Fox network.

      The episode contains a line of dialog that made me laugh out loud ("It might
      be tolerable if her son didn't insist on calling me 'Moe.'"). It also
      contains an awful line that made me cringe ("I need to go now; 'I Love Lucy'
      is on tonight."). The story's big quirky comic notion is that the Vulcans
      helped us invent ... Velcro. How cute. (Note: "How cute" should be read with
      the inflection of mildly snide venom along with the image of rolling eyes,
      and concurrent commentary consisting of "Oh, geez.") The Velcro thing comes
      across exactly as one of those Bright Ideas that the writers were certainly
      convinced would be Fun. It seems just a little too calculated to me.

      I also wonder -- just a little bit -- if this all tracks with what we know
      of T'Pol. One would think that if T'Pol had this great-grandmother who
      passed down this tale of contact with humans, T'Pol might've been more
      interested in human culture from the outset. Come to think of it, maybe this
      *does* track with T'Pol's recent support for Archer and the Enterprise's
      mission, but it's an odd detail that seems like it would be more defining
      for the character than it actually is.

      But I'm rambling. "Carbon Creek" is the sort of lightweight story that
      wouldn't be "riveting" even in the best-case scenario. It could've come
      across as quietly engaging, however, had it contained engaging performances.
      Unfortunately, it does not, so it's a bit of a bore and I find myself
      reduced to taking potshots at it for entertainment value. I didn't find this
      episode the least bit offensive, but when I spend an hour watching Trek and
      the only emotion I feel is indifference (is indifference an emotion, and
      perhaps the only emotion Vulcans express?), that's not what I call an
      episode getting the job done.

      Next week: The Enterprise gets blowed up real good!

      Copyright 2002 Jamahl Epsicokhan. All rights reserved.
      Unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this article is prohibited.

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      Jamahl Epsicokhan - jammer@...