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[ENT] Jammer's Review: "North Star"

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  • Jamahl Epsicokhan
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 14, 2003
      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
      human race.

      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
      bad ones.

      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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      Jamahl Epsicokhan - jammer@...
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