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[ENT] Jammer's Review: "Observer Effect"

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  • Jamahl Epsicokhan
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 28, 2005
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      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
      the season.)

      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.

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