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[ENT] Jammer's Review: "Vanishing Point"

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  • Jamahl Epsicokhan
    Warning: This review contains significant spoilers. If you haven t seen the episode yet, beware. In brief: Creepy and psychologically compelling, with enough
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 3, 2002
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      Warning: This review contains significant spoilers. If you haven't seen the
      episode yet, beware.


      In brief: Creepy and psychologically compelling, with enough carefully
      navigated plot manipulations to keep you guessing.

      Plot description: After an emergency use of the transporter to escape the
      surface of a planet, Hoshi becomes convinced her molecules have not been
      correctly reassembled.

      -----
      Enterprise: "Vanishing Point"

      Airdate: 11/27/2002 (USA)
      Written by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga
      Directed by David Straiton

      Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
      Rating out of 4: ***1/2

      "I can see why you might imagine the universe unraveling. If you're afraid
      you haven't been put back together right, why assume anything else makes
      sense?"
      -- Trip
      -----

      No way you'd get me to go through one of those things and have my molecules
      scrambled. Not a chance.

      "Vanishing Point" is the sort of episode that taps right into the dormant
      fears that lie deep in the recesses of my mind -- the fear that I'm a
      potential hostage of my own physical body, with a mind that insists on
      believing its function transcends my physical existence even though it knows
      otherwise. Given how "Vanishing Point" eventually plays out, there's a sort
      of brilliance here; this is an episode *about* the ways our fears can take
      us hostage.

      Transporter terror is certainly not an unheard-of concept in Star Trek (some
      may, or may not, remember TNG's "Realm of Fear," about Barclay's transporter
      phobia, and of course Bones was never a huge fan of the transporter, never
      mind that he used it every week), but here we get transporter phobia in a
      way that is perfectly appropriate and even necessary. Given that at this
      point in time the transporter is a fairly new technology that even many in
      Starfleet have not experienced -- coupled with the fact that the crew of the
      Enterprise has avoided using it except in emergencies (and even then still
      has avoided it, e.g. "Minefield" or "The Communicator") -- it stands to
      reason that some will not be so quick to embrace it, despite all of
      Starfleet's assurances that it's safe.

      Enter into this premise our young Hoshi Sato -- the perfect candidate for
      this story, with her understandably human, previously established deep-space
      phobias and reluctance -- and you've got a pretty good starting point for a
      story. Trip and Hoshi are beamed up from the planet surface during a survey
      mission, in order to avoid a deadly, fast-approaching storm headed straight
      at them. The transport seems successful, but Hoshi soon finds herself
      unsettled. Things are not quite right. She doesn't feel as if her molecules
      have been reassembled correctly. A birthmark on her face has moved by a
      centimeter. Phlox assures her she is fine. She's not so sure. "I just don't
      feel like myself," she notes.

      Then strange things start happening. People don't seem to hear her the first
      time. Later they don't hear her the second time, either. The turbolift doors
      don't open for her. She oversleeps. Her performance suffers inexplicably
      when she can't handle a basic translation using the universal translator.
      What's going on here?

      What I found particularly clever about "Vanishing Point" was its careful, if
      calculated, manipulation of reality. On several occasions, it seems pretty
      obvious that the world is askew and the events of the story do not represent
      reality so much as some kind of fragmented nightmare. Indeed, almost from
      the beginning we're wondering how much of the episode is some sort of
      paranoid delusion; when will the other shoe drop? Where "Vanishing Point" is
      ingenious is in its narrative sleight of hand. The story is adept at not
      revealing all its cards. Just when we think everything is a nightmare, the
      episode backs off its surreal overtones and moves forward, accepting weird
      events at face value. It hopes we won't balk. And it gets away with it.

      In particular, there's a point where Hoshi goes to bed, oversleeps, and
      misses at least three hours of her shift. She arrives on the bridge to find
      herself basically useless. A bizarre hostage crisis has materialized out of
      nowhere, and she absolutely cannot translate the alien's angry snarls. The
      way this scene is played is so odd that I instantly pegged it a dream or
      some other weird mental state. But the story ventures forward, goes to
      commercial break, and settles down until we accept this reality on its
      terms.

      Psychologically, this is maybe Enterprise's best outing to date. It contains
      just enough details and ominous signs to be terrifying in an understated
      way. Hoshi's experience -- ever since going through the transporter -- might
      best be described as a quiet, paranoid nightmare. She joins the guys for a
      meal in the mess hall, and the conversation ends with them casually blowing
      her off. In a weird way, the scene plays almost like a bunch of guys too
      self-absorbed to notice the woman colleague in their midst. They get up and
      seem just slightly too busy to say goodbye; accidental and incidental, not
      their intent. The tone is one of subtle psychological menace. (I was
      reminded of "The Sixth Sense.")

      Adding to the show's sometime ghost-story sensibility is a conversation here
      about the famous Cyrus Ramsey, purportedly the first human test subject for
      a long-distance transport (100 meters). Something went wrong during this
      test, the tale goes, and poor Cyrus never materialized. In a fate maybe
      worse than death, he simply vanished, molecules scattered into oblivion --
      transporter limbo, perhaps. This of course begs the question at the center
      of the transporter fantasy, which is how one can survive the very process of
      having their molecules taken apart and put back together in the first place.

      The general idea is that Hoshi's molecules were not put back together quite
      right and are therefore losing their cohesion until she literally begins
      fading away. But the terror here isn't only physical but also psychological.
      The "vanishing point" in the story is both literal and emotional. As people
      seem more and more unable to see and hear Hoshi, the story makes a subtle,
      if certain, link between her literal fading (she looks in a mirror and sees
      her reflection going transparent), and other forms of invisibility,
      including: (1) Obsolescence: She cannot translate during the hostage crisis
      and is relieved of duty, at which point some no-name crewman comes in and
      easily does her job and saves the day. (2) Casual dismissal: In addition to
      the aforementioned example of being abandoned in the mess hall, Phlox sighs
      and tells her she is worrying needlessly over nothing. It's the ultimate
      frustration -- being utterly convinced there is something wrong with you but
      without having the evidence to convince someone else.

      At a certain point, Hoshi goes completely invisible to everyone else, and
      finally the molecular and technological answers are discovered. Problem is,
      it's too late, and Hoshi is presumed dead. Like in a ghost story, Hoshi
      watches over scenes of people discussing what has apparently happened to
      her. I liked one shot in sickbay where Phlox explains to Archer and T'Pol
      how Hoshi's molecular structure has broken down, and the camera tracks
      slowly to reveal Hoshi behind Phlox, invisibly eavesdropping on the whole
      conversation -- a creepy gesture.

      The show seemingly takes a left turn into the dramatically unworkable when
      Hoshi goes below decks and sees aliens rigging charges to blow up the ship.
      Suddenly the episode looks to be turning into a silly story about how the
      Incredible Invisible Hoshi must thwart the evil plans of the alien bad guys.
      She tries to warn Archer by sending an SOS with Morse code by reaching into
      a ceiling panel and shorting out an LED. This happens, by the way, as Archer
      is contacting Hoshi's father on Earth and ever-so-gradually explaining that
      Hoshi has been ... "lost." The way the dialog between Archer and the elder
      Sato builds is so oddly written and unlikely that the whole sentiment rings
      positively false. It's utterly bizarre.

      And yet ... this all manages to work, because it fits into a reality that's
      spinning out of control and that we finally see is indeed *not* real except
      in Hoshi's mind. The aliens below decks are her mind's own devices that
      allow her to confront her own fears of the transporter: As she tries to
      thwart them, they set up a portable transporter pad and escape, and she
      tries to follow, willingly stepping on their transporter pad. She beams away
      and suddenly materializes on the Enterprise, revealing the entire episode to
      have been an imagined experience that took place in eight seconds while she
      was being assembled on the transporter pad.

      And, wow -- it actually works.

      "It was all a dream" stories can be infuriating and cause for resentment.
      Not here. While not a completely unexpected destination (indeed, I sort of
      *hoped* this would be the destination), the whole episode is like Hoshi's
      self-contained meditation on her fear. (I liked that even Cyrus Ramsey was
      an invention of her mind.) It's something that I find very believable on the
      story's terms as a paranoid psychological thriller. It reveals some
      character depth and I found the whole charade quite absorbing -- and on some
      levels, chilling. Linda Park carries the show well as a character who is
      frightened and vulnerable concerning a truly disturbing condition but who
      manages to hold things together and be heroic nonetheless. And as I said
      before, this is the sort of sci-fi concept that has you stopping to consider
      questions about how your brain and intellect interact with an unforgiving
      physical world that doesn't much care that you have a brain or intellect.

      Forget about being assembled incorrectly. Eight seconds of that sort of
      extended mental torment is reason enough not to step onto a transporter pad.

      --
      Next week: A rerun of "Carbon Creek." See you the week after.

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

      Star Trek: Hypertext - http://www.st-hypertext.com/
      Jamahl Epsicokhan - jammer@...
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