Note: This review contains significant spoilers.
In brief: Fairly standard material elevated by lots of good acting and
directing, and an ending with a nod to the original series.
Plot description: Two non-corporeal aliens observe how the people on board
Enterprise react to a crisis when a deadly virus with no cure infects two
members of the crew.
Star Trek: Enterprise - "Observer Effect"
Airdate: 1/21/2005 (USA)
Written by Judith Reeves-Stevens & Garfield Reeves-Stevens
Directed by Mike Vejar
Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
Rating out of 4: ***
"Hold on. You ran a floating poker game at STC."
"The way the regulations were worded, gambling was an honor violation only
if it took place during duty hours. So I only ran the game on weekends."
-- Trip and Hoshi on why Hoshi got kicked out of Starfleet Training
Here's proof that old Trek standbys can be put to good use, in a story that
feels surprisingly unpredictable -- even though the end result, in
retrospect, was more or less inevitable, I guess. "Observer Effect" has in
its employ Powerful Non-Corporeal Aliens, a Deadly Virus, a Ticking Clock,
and a Human Message Denouement delivered Big Speech Style by the captain.
All are familiar elements, but the way they are assembled and performed here
ends up being more engaging than you might guess from a plot outline.
There's also a tie-in to the original series that is both subtle and
sublime. Subtle enough that many knowledgeable fans might not even catch it;
sublime in its prequel-that-sets-up-the-sequel kind of way.
As television, "Observer Effect" is the very definition of "bottle show."
Here's an episode that features no new sets, zero guest stars, minimal
visual effects. The end result: a pretty good hour of nuts-and-bolts Star
Trek, where the interest of the plot is in watching the crew trying to
straightforwardly work a difficult -- maybe unsolvable -- problem. No
slam-bang excitement; just a commitment to observation and plausible
Trip and Hoshi return from a planetary away mission in a shuttlepod and
realize during the return trip that they have become ill. They are
quarantined in the decontamination chamber while Phlox runs tests. It turns
out they are suffering from a silicon-based virus -- incurable, but Phlox is
certainly not prepared to give up. The race for the cure is on; Trip and
Hoshi only have five hours to live. (Archer: "If you mean how much time you
have, it's too early for that kind of talk." Excuse me? It's *five hours*.
I'm not sure what to make of Archer's statement. Either he's a delusional
optimist or he's trying to shield his officers from the cold, hard, very
imminent truth. Either way, I tend to think a Starfleet captain would owe it
to his officers to be a little more direct, bad news or not.)
Earlier in the episode the harbingers were already setting the story in
motion. The whole scenario is being observed by two non-corporeal aliens who
have taken the bodies of Reed and Mayweather as hosts. In the opening scene,
they're playing chess at high speeds, while discussing the events they know
are forthcoming. "Somebody always dies?" asks one alien. "Always," says the
What makes this episode more interesting than a straight-on crew-perspective
tackle of similar material is the fact that as audience members we're put in
the aliens' shoes. Since they already know what's going to happen, and
because we are privy to their conversations, we don't merely have to watch
an obvious plot unfold. Instead, it's also about the process of how these
aliens watch it happen. In addition, it's about the ominous foreboding by
those who have more knowledge than us: "This will likely be one of the times
where everyone dies," notes one of the aliens at one point.
The aliens are on an observational mission, the results of which will
determine whether they make first contact with their newest subjects. Their
mission is simply to watch how their human subjects react to the crisis of a
hopeless illness brought back from a survey mission. They are not permitted
to interfere. I was a little confused as to what kind of response to the
given crisis would warrant making first contact. Obviously not just
survival, which the Klingons managed by destroying the shuttle before its
infected crew members could return to the ship and infect anyone else.
These aliens must not initiate contact with very many species. Perhaps only
those who can spontaneously adapt to the virus and become non-corporeal
super-beings. You'd think that would leave them as a pretty lonely species.
(Maybe not on TOS, where there were all too many all-powerful non-corporeal
The two aliens are supplied two distinct voices. The one inhabiting Reed has
a drier persona, more rigid about protocols and the status quo. The one
inhabiting Mayweather is more inquisitive and empathetic; he's not looking
forward to passively sitting by and watching his subjects die when he could,
if it were permitted, step in and prevent it.
So Phlox searches for a treatment while Trip and Hoshi sit in quarantine and
deteriorate. There are some nice (and rare, these days) character scenes
where Hoshi talks about how she got kicked out of Starfleet Training Center.
The series usually doesn't have time for supporting characters to have this
kind of dialog; I suppose it's saved up for situations just like these,
where characters have nothing else to do but sit and wait and talk.
At one point, Trip and Hoshi are suddenly paid a visit by Archer and T'Pol
... except that it's not *really* Archer and T'Pol, but the aliens. There's
a creepy reveal shot that is musically cued just right, and for a moment the
decontamination chamber feels like a zoo.
Later, I liked Hoshi Goes Haywire. When she becomes delusional and
claustrophobic, she starts raving in whatever language comes to mind:
Spanish, Russian, Klingon. Although, I'm not so sure her code-breaking
methodology is possible. "Math is just another language," she says, before
overriding the computer codes and breaking the quarantine seal. The notion
of one person breaking crucial security with such ease defies common sense.
Because of this incident, Trip and Hoshi are subsequently sedated. This sets
up a scene where Phlox becomes aware of the alien presence and ends up in a
bizarre -- but informative -- conversation with them. What I like best about
it is the balance of perspectives. Phlox's response in this situation ("Your
behavior is appalling" -- great line delivery) fits into the story just as
well as the aliens' matter-of-fact explanations for their willful inaction.
It's all about point of view, not necessarily right and wrong. The scene
also clears up all the questions we have about what happens to the people
who are inhabited by these aliens and why they don't remember anything.
I mentioned that the episode doesn't feel as predictable as its synopsis
sounds. This is mostly because of the way Hoshi and Trip are allowed to die
at the end of the episode. You'd think the way the episode ends up reviving
them would be beyond obvious -- and, really, it is -- but I found myself
caught up in the moment, wondering how the crew was going to solve the
problem. The bottom line is that they can't, and they don't, because the
aliens solve it for them.
The more empathetic of the two makes contact with Archer through Trip's
corpse (and I think I'd be far more freaked out than Archer is, but then I
don't work in outer space), and then the other one takes control of Hoshi's
corpse and starts an ideological debate. The empathetic alien argues for
reviving Archer's dead crew members. The other one staunchly argues the
protocol of non-interference. I liked the quiet irony that this alien is
essentially arguing for his species' version of the Prime Directive. (And I
still wonder if that question will be definitively tackled in the course of
Archer makes an impassioned speech about compassion, empathy, and the things
about human beings that should trump logic and protocol. Will he convince
the alien skeptic to take a risk and try something different? (The answer is
the same as the answer to the question: Will Trip and Hoshi stay dead?) It's
old-hat Star Trek, but that's what this episode sets out to be, and it
mostly succeeds. Along the way it remains watchable as something that
believes in Trek as humanist science fiction rather than just an adventure
Of course, the underlying ironic joke here is that, at the end, we learn the
aliens are the Organians. Some (although probably not all) fans of TOS will
remember the Organians as the race of super-beings who prevented -- with
their limitless powers -- the Klingons and the Federation from going to war
in "Errand of Mercy." The clear implication is that the events of "Observer
Effect" represented the change in the Organians' policies from
non-interference to blatant interference in the interests of preserving
And what I like best about that irony is how at the end of "Errand of
Mercy," Kirk and Kor complain to the Organians that they have no right to
interfere and stop their war. I guess they should take it up with Archer.
Next week: Andorians, Tellarites, weird "interplanetary relations," and an
alien puppet master on a throne using two Nintendo Power Gloves.
Copyright 2005, Jamahl Epsicokhan. All rights reserved.
Unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this article is prohibited.
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