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207[ENT] Jammer's Review: "Proving Ground"

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  • Jamahl Epsicokhan
    Jan 30, 2004
    • 0 Attachment
      Warning: This review contains significant spoilers. If you haven't seen the
      episode yet, beware.


      In brief: Now that's more like it.

      Plot description: Commander Shran of the Andorian Imperial Guard offers to
      help the Enterprise crew in a reconnaissance mission to learn more about the
      Xindi weapon.

      -----
      Star Trek: Enterprise - "Proving Ground"

      Airdate: 1/21/2004 (USA)
      Written by Chris Black
      Directed by David Livingston

      Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
      Rating out of 4: ***

      "The Andorian Mining Consortium runs from no one." -- Shran, in Weyoun-like
      form after doing his best Brunt impression
      -----

      Praise Jeffrey Combs.

      Shran may not be Weyoun, but Jeffrey Combs is Jeffrey Combs, and his
      appearance in "Proving Ground" is like a godsend from beyond the borders of
      the Delphic Expanse. Shran is a familiar face we respond to, because he has
      an actual personality, and personality is one thing that has been woefully
      lacking this season on Enterprise. It's the current key missing ingredient,
      as far as I'm concerned. I don't much care about the plot arc or the fate of
      Earth because I don't much care about the characters.

      The problem with the Delphic Expanse is simply this: The Xindi are total
      ciphers. (Far more interesting are the mysterious spheres, which I'd argue
      have been better developed as characters, which I guess is a problem since
      the spheres are inanimate objects and the Xindi are supposed to be people.)
      Consider the Xindi's presence here. What do we get? The same laughable -- if
      they weren't so lamentable -- scenes we've gotten all season: Xindi council
      guys grumbling about The Weapon and demanding answers for why it isn't ready
      to be deployed now, now, now!

      I say, enough, enough, enough!

      Also consider Xindi operative Degra (Randy Oglesby), who has been the guy
      overseeing the development of The Weapon in most if not all the Xindi
      episodes thus far. He might be the only Xindi bad guy so far to be given a
      name. And yet, unless you, like me, were checking press releases for the
      credits every week, it's unlikely you'd even notice he was the same guy. He
      could just as easily be an interchangeable Xindi placeholder, because he's
      as much a cipher as the ones sitting at the roundtable. (Come to think of
      it, he's often among those at the roundtable.)

      So it's probably about time the writers port in a character from outside the
      expanse who predates this season. Enter Shran ... and enter the most purely
      enjoyable episode of Enterprise since "Anomaly." (Yes, "Twilight" was
      better, but more weighty and therefore less fun.)

      The secret of "Proving Ground" is that it uses a character established in
      the first two seasons to lend credence to a story arc that has been hard to
      buy into because (1) the blandness of the Xindi and (2) the fact the Xindi
      are not accounted for in the Trek canon and thus don't feel like a
      legitimate end result of the timeline. The Andorians and the Vulcans (and
      the humans who have intervened in their previous affairs), however, *do*
      feel like Trek-canon elements, so there's something about this episode that
      seems more grounded in Trekkian reality. In short, it feels like there's
      something at stake here, because the Andorians and the Vulcans are players,
      whereas the Xindi are pawns.

      If it sounds like I'm arguing in favor of a return to more traditional Trek
      character interaction and a Federation-building backdrop rather than this
      ongoing race against a vague doomsday situation ... well, I'll just say the
      writers might be on to something here.

      Then again, they are able to play both aspects here pretty well (aside from
      the hopeless Xindi council meetings, which need to go away). We get Shran
      and the Andorians, and we get some worthwhile development along the Xindi
      front. Degra and his team are testing a prototype, smaller-yield version of
      The Weapon on the moons of an uninhabited world. (Being someone who must
      bring logic where it is not welcome, I must again ask why the Xindi needed
      to "test" an even earlier version of The Weapon on Earth in "The Expanse"
      only to do more tests here.)

      Archer wants to spy and learn as much as possible about what's going on.
      Shran offers his help in a "joint venture" that ultimately becomes Archer's
      scheme to steal the prototype from the Xindi for study.

      The central question is whether or not Archer can trust Shran. Is Shran's
      offer of help really what it seems to be, or does he have other motives,
      perhaps under the orders of the Andorian Imperial Guard? You can probably
      guess which, but the idea itself still proves interesting. Just what is
      Shran up to and why?

      I appreciated the exchanges between Archer and T'Pol regarding caution
      versus trust. From what the Vulcans have experienced, the Andorians tend to
      have self-serving agendas. Archer argues in favor of giving Shran the
      benefit of the doubt given their history, which has not been "friendly" per
      se, but has shown a certain level of honor and fairness. At the very least,
      Shran has a nagging need to repay old debts.

      The notion of working toward building a new trust is also demonstrated in
      some serviceable scenes between Reed and Andorian Lt. Talas (Molly Brink).
      It starts off a bit cliched, with Talas and Reed initially disliking each
      other, but the relationship evolves reasonably into that of two military
      professionals who reach a mutual respect. Also, it plays a piece in the plot
      that shows Archer was thinking ahead and not lulled into trusting Shran
      completely.

      The Xindi story takes some decent turns as the Enterprise crew witnesses a
      test of the weapon on a moon (playing like a smaller-scale version of the
      opening scene of "Twilight"), and then learn that the test was actually a
      failure -- apparently, the writers have decreed, because of sabotage by
      Gralik (see "The Shipment"). I call this a writer's decree because it seems
      to me like a big jump to conclusions on Archer's part given his limited
      information. The weapon didn't work right, so Gralik must have been
      responsible? Don't know if I buy that.

      Never mind, because Combs is what makes this episode work. Shran is under
      orders from the Imperial Guard to steal the weapon for the Andorians as a
      means to deter a possible Vulcan invasion (the paranoia!). Combs and the
      writers skillfully walk a line that allows us to empathize with Shran's
      situation even as he deceives Archer. I guess you could say that Shran is
      only as deceitful as he has to be under the circumstances, and that his
      deceit has no directly malicious intent. The character maintains a certain
      integrity behind the ruse. He does what he has to as a military officer
      serving his people; he's not serving Archer. The dynamic is tons more
      interesting than faceless Xindi plotting to destroy Earth for who-knows-why.

      There are a couple standout scenes involving Shran over the viewscreen. In
      one scene he wanders into the Xindi's test range, claiming to be a member of
      the "Andorian Mining Consortium" looking for a valuable substance called
      "Archerite." It's a rather amusing con job that makes for a funny sequence.

      The other one is between Shran and Archer, and takes place after Shran has
      stolen the weapon and fled in his ship. The Enterprise tracks the Andorians,
      and Archer and Shran face off over the viewscreen in a dramatically charged
      exchange where it is clear that no one intends to back down. This proves
      entertaining and satisfying thanks to the solid performances. Scott Bakula
      is convincing as Archer in no-nonsense badass mode, and Shran -- finding
      himself at a tactical disadvantage -- has to give in, disgusted. The icing
      on the cake is Shran's decision to willingly transmit his data on the Xindi
      weapon to Archer, even after a confrontation that has left Shran's ship
      crippled. It makes perfect sense using Shran's brand of logic, where he
      feels a certain loyalty to Archer so long as it doesn't conflict with his
      higher priorities. Shran, it must be said, is becoming a complicated and
      interesting guy.

      By the way, the reason this showdown works so well when scenes of this type
      can easily fall flat is because we have a stake in both the characters and
      we understand their behavior patterns. There is a context to the conflict,
      rooted in legitimate character interaction.

      Alas, this is the context that is missing with the Xindi, and it's the
      reason this story arc -- despite the nods to continuity, despite the upped
      action -- will remain ho-hum ... until the Xindi become figures we can
      respond to with something besides a blank stare.

      Until then, I'll take Commander Shran any day.

      -----
      Copyright 2004 Jamahl Epsicokhan. All rights reserved.
      Unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this article is prohibited.

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      Jamahl Epsicokhan - jammer@...