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[ENT] Jammer's Review: "The Expanse"

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  • Jamahl Epsicokhan
    Warning: This review contains significant spoilers. If you haven t seen the episode yet, beware. In brief: A rather extreme, out-of-left-field shake-up of the
    Message 1 of 1 , May 28, 2003
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      Warning: This review contains significant spoilers. If you haven't seen the
      episode yet, beware.


      In brief: A rather extreme, out-of-left-field shake-up of the series, but
      effective nonetheless.

      Plot description: After a devastating alien attack on Earth -- and
      information that suggests an even deadlier attack lies in the future --
      Starfleet sends the Enterprise on a new mission to investigate the threat in
      a mysterious area of space.

      -----
      Enterprise: "The Expanse"

      Airdate: 5/21/2003 (USA)
      Written by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga
      Directed by Allan Kroeker

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

      "I can't wait to get in there, captain -- find the people who did this. And
      tell me we won't be tiptoeing around -- none of that non-interference crap
      T'Pol's always shoving down our throats. Maybe it's a good thing she's
      leaving."

      "We'll do what we have to, Trip. Whatever it takes."

      -- Tucker and Archer
      -----

      "Enterprise has potential," I said to TV Guide magazine a few months ago,
      "but it doesn't take risks." I said a lot more, but that's what got
      printed -- which is fine, because it got to the crux of the matter.
      Enterprise was in the middle of a second season that was bland, boring, and
      safe.

      Well, with "The Expanse," Enterprise has taken a risk. Whether it's the
      right risk remains to be seen, but at least the series is committing itself
      to something resembling a direction (and if the press quotes are true
      indicators, this will become an ongoing storyline rather than something that
      will be instantly resolved at the beginning of next season -- which is good
      news).

      The optimist in me sees this as an opportunity for the writers to do some
      unpredictable things and give this series a much-needed purpose and story
      arc. The pessimist sees this as a writer's sudden act of desperation to move
      a frequently anemic series in a hopefully exciting direction. (Reportedly,
      the studio regards Enterprise with much skepticism, so one wonders if they
      demanded changes.) The pessimist also wonders if the show isn't veering off
      in the direction of a war series with overlarge stakes -- which seems to be
      an unlikely digression for what is allegedly the prequel to Star Trek.
      Enterprise doesn't seem like a series where such material would naturally
      fit, but maybe I should wait and see rather than speculate.

      The stakes here are nothing short of apocalyptic, beginning with a weapons
      test of unknown alien origin that slices a 4,000-kilometer-long swath from
      central Florida down through to Venezuela, killing 7 million people in the
      process.

      And this is a weapons *test*.

      So, yes, you could say they have my attention.

      Enterprise is immediately recalled to Earth. Before reaching Earth, however,
      the Enterprise is intercepted by the Suliban, who bring Archer aboard their
      ship to talk to the Shadow Man From The Future, who explains that the attack
      on Earth was carried out by a race called the Xindi -- and, furthermore,
      that the Xindi intend to destroy Earth with a doomsday weapon in a
      subsequent attack. Allegedly, the Xindi motivation is that humanity will be
      responsible for their own destruction in 400 years; such information about
      the future was never supposed to fall into their hands, but was apparently
      conveyed to them by an unauthorized source.

      The Shadow Man is giving Archer this information because the destruction of
      Earth would contaminate the timeline. Common sense suggests that 7 million
      deaths would also severely contaminate the timeline, but I guess the point
      here is that the temporal cold war doesn't make sense and never will. Common
      sense also suggests that the Xindi, if they intend to destroy Earth,
      could've waited until they were actually ready rather than tipping their
      hand with a surprise "test" attack that slaughters millions and demands
      reprisal. Couldn't they have tested their weapons anywhere?

      The actual attack presents a chilling image, with a beam slicing right
      through Florida and Cuba, leaving a canyon of decimated earth in ashes,
      perhaps a mile or more wide. The spherical design of the Xindi spacecraft
      seems curiously clunky, like something out of a 1950s sci-fi pulp magazine,
      but infinitely more crucial to the impact of this is the shock and dismay we
      see in our characters. The scene where Archer informs the crew of the attack
      reveals confusion and disbelief, and the shot of the crew on the bridge when
      they see Earth's damage from orbit for the first time is a potent scene;
      they stand in silence, and no words are necessary.

      For such reasons, "The Expanse" works as drama, and contains a lot of
      feelings and responses that are recognizable given the current national
      stage. The episode is obviously a futuristic metaphor for 9/11 and its
      aftermath: The way Earth is blindsided by this attack is not at all unlike
      the way most Americans felt blindsided on 9/11, and there are apt details
      that lend an air of realism, like the constant revision of the casualty
      figure. In a way, the sudden, forced change in direction of this series
      reflects the sudden change in the direction of American foreign policy after
      9/11. The idea that these Xindi would want to destroy us may be conjured
      from thin air (and the contrived way it ties into the temporal cold war
      brings up more questions than answers), but what happens from there is not,
      because an attack like this demands action.

      But what kind of action?

      Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of "The Expanse" is that there is no
      clear idea of what Starfleet or the people of Earth expect will happen from
      here. There's no concrete conclusion of whether or not This Means War. (And
      really, we can't even be positive that the Xindi are responsible.) With 7
      million dead and another attack allegedly on the way, presumably this does
      mean war or something close, and the Enterprise receives an immediate
      retrofit with upgraded weapons and defenses. The Xindi, Archer was told,
      reside somewhere within a strange area of space called the Delphic Expanse,
      and Starfleet gives the Enterprise a new mission -- after some convincing
      and consideration -- to venture into the expanse and investigate the Xindi
      threat.

      There's of course some frustration along the way to this decision. First of
      all, the Vulcans are constant skeptics of information that supposedly comes
      from the future, since they do not believe in time travel. (With time travel
      being so obviously prevalent in this century, you'd think the Vulcan Science
      Directorate would wise up.) This leads to a scene where Archer "proves"
      something in the wreckage from the alien vessel is from the future by
      scanning it with a "quantum-dating" device that reads "minus 420." Uh-huh.
      (I guess this means that it's not 420 years old but rather 420 years young.)
      Why would a piece of metal traveling through time have any impact on the
      measurable age of the metal? To me, this is like saying that if I traveled
      back in time 10 years, I would no longer look 27 years old, but instead 17.
      (Or at least I'd be quantum dated as 17.) Not that time travel is plausible
      in the first place, but you see how this seems contrary to accepted sci-fi
      conventions. Maybe I need to go to quantum-dating school.

      Then there's the concern over the mysterious and ominous Delphic Expanse.
      The Vulcans once explored it but no longer do, because of its strange and
      unexplainable properties and even its sometime non-adherence to the laws of
      physics. Ambassador Soval tells ghost stories of ships that entered and
      never emerged. In one case, he says, a Klingon ship emerged with its crew's
      bodies all turned inside out -- and yet STILL ALIVE. (Cue ominous music of
      doom.) I find myself wondering why Soval believes these stories when he's
      not willing to believe in time travel. As a final warning, he even shows
      Archer the last video footage of the last Vulcan crew to go into the
      expanse: They are all going insane and violently whaling on one other -- the
      last thing recorded before the ship was destroyed, apparently by the crew's
      own hands. This creepy B-movie idea reminded me of a similar scene in the
      movie "Event Horizon," where people who ventured into black holes went crazy
      and massacred themselves in bizarre and bloody video footage.

      Once Starfleet decides to investigate the Delphic Expanse, the Vulcan High
      Command recalls T'Pol to Vulcan, since standing policy forbids Vulcans from
      entering the expanse. Among the show's better character scenes is the one
      where she expresses to Archer her desire to stay aboard the Enterprise and
      resign her High Command commission. "You need me," she tells the captain
      straightforwardly. The scene represents a breakthrough of sorts, where T'Pol
      has become one of Us. Whether that's desirable is a matter of perspective:
      One hopes she will still remain an alternative voice, but it's nice to see
      that T'Pol has become more comfortable with her role among humans.

      The episode also gives the carnage on Earth a direct character connection by
      placing Trip's younger sister among the missing and presumed dead. There's a
      potent image of the destruction in Florida seen close up by Trip and
      Malcolm. We're naturally reminded of images of ground zero following the
      destruction of the World Trade Center. Some may wonder whether this is
      appropriate as entertainment, but I believe it works because the story takes
      its fictional concept seriously. The fact that something awful has happened
      is not simply a backdrop for an adventure (though it is that as well), but
      also given its due weight. The characters react believably, and handheld
      camera work in the early scenes sets the mood of emotional disarray. I could
      sense in these scenes the feeling of something genuinely wrong.

      Archer, particularly early in the episode, is understandably emotional and
      aggressive. And there's obviously a character arc in the making for Trip
      that could change him dramatically. He's bitter and wants to "blow the hell
      out of these bastards when we find them." In a scene where Archer and Trip
      pour themselves glasses of hard liquor, Trip says: "Tell me we won't be
      tiptoeing around -- none of that non-interference crap T'Pol's always
      shoving down our throats." There are some serious moral questions worth
      considering here (possibly including the non-interference issue, which made
      waves in "Cogenitor"), just as the Dominion War on DS9 brought new issues to
      the table. The question is whether they will be adequately addressed and
      whether they fit in the context of this series.

      Shoehorned in here is a weirdly structured subplot involving the Klingons,
      who dispatch the dishonored Duras (Daniel Riordan) on a mission of potential
      redemption: to track down Archer, who by now is an infamous enemy who has
      twice escaped the Klingon Empire's clutches ("Judgment," "Bounty"). This
      subplot has little to do with anything else, except peripherally. The
      Klingons show up at the beginning and the end, and serve as stand-ins for
      the sake of demonstration. At the beginning they invade Earth's solar system
      to try to capture Archer, only to be chased off by Starfleet defense vessels
      (this raises the question of what kind of defenses were in place prior to
      the Xindi attack, and if security has been beefed up since then). The
      Klingons appear again at the end, to chase the Enterprise as it enters the
      expanse and provide the crew a chance to test the new torpedoes.

      During the climactic battle with the Klingons, the bridge scenes are shot
      with the camera's shutter speed increased, resulting in a strobe effect -- a
      method made fashionable by "Saving Private Ryan's" war footage, and imitated
      ad nauseam since. I don't know about its use here; watching sparks explode
      on the bridge is not exactly war footage.

      The nature of the plot forces the episode to span months of time, with all
      the unimportant travel scenes left out. This allows the story to cover a lot
      of ground in one hour, perhaps too much. It doesn't feel like months of time
      are passing, and the Klingons apparently are staying with the Enterprise
      through this entire time, showing up on cue when it's time for action.

      One touch I appreciated, which exists basically apart from the plot, is a
      scene where we see the construction on the next warp-5 starship, the NX-02,
      which Admiral Forrest says will be ready for launch in 14 months. It's nice
      to see this seed finally planted.

      Still, I'm beginning to wonder now if Enterprise can ultimately emerge as a
      legitimate prequel series. Unlike season one, season two has granted itself
      fairly liberal latitude in playing fast-and-loose with the franchise
      history, and "The Expanse" is perhaps the most extreme example to date. The
      notion that 7 million people could be killed here and yet this attack, the
      Xindi, and the Delphic Expanse can all be unheard-of elements in the Trek
      canon is nothing short of ludicrous. (Of course, since there's a temporal
      cold war connection, timeline games can presumably write it off.) This is a
      strong season-ender with some promising elements and a notable dose of true
      feelings, but it also represents an extreme shift in the Trek universe that
      the writers will likely have to approach with a certain restraint and
      caution.

      Irony of ironies -- here I am recommending restraint and caution for
      Enterprise. That's a good thing, I suppose.

      -----
      Copyright 2003 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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