Star Trek Enterprise: Season 3

It’s been a long haul for the Star Trek series.

The crew returns for another season of outer space escapades.

The crew returns for another season of outer space escapades.

The first incarnation of Star Trek, though its opening credits had a voiceover with William Shatner extolling the “five-year mission” of the ship, only lasted three seasons.  The first Star Trek movie barely made it off the ground, so to speak, but was popular enough to spawn a multitude of sequels (some of questionable quality).  Star Trek: The Next Generation revitalized the ailing franchise, though, and became the most popular syndicated television show of its time.  Its spinoffs, devoid of the imagination and human insight of Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, foundered in concepts as well as ratings.  Deep Space Nine and Voyager were interesting, the former being much better in its twilight years than many people give it credit for, but too often relied on tired clichés and political wranglings set in motion by Jean-Luc Picard and company.

Enterprise aimed to reboot the series in the minds of fans as well as the general public, and spent its first two seasons adrift in a sea of high-minded but poorly-executed storylines that tried to capture the outrageously science fiction, yet uniquely human, essence of the original show.  Mediocre conflicts with Souliban, Vulcan, Klingon, and numerous other alien species, a smattering of half-baked character backstories, and a few ship-in-peril episodes thrown in for good measure, weren’t enough to raise the show to more than a mere curiosity for most Trek fans, and a last-resort DVR viewing for everyone else.

With season 3 of Enterprise, the creators must have smelled a bit of lemon on their hands, as they threw everything from the first two seasons to the wind and launched the ship, and the series, in a whole new direction (literally and figuratively) while setting up an Earth-in-peril plotline of epic proportions that spanned the entire season.  And while I applaud the minds behind the show for trying something new and different (effectively going for a fouth-down conversion on Enterprise’s own 10-yard line), the end result is another just-beyond-mediocre chapter of a show that once carried so much promise.

Xindi come in five flavors, two of which are named Insectoid and Aquatic. Can you guess which is which?

Xindi come in five flavors, two of which are named "Insectoid" and "Aquatic." Can you guess which is which?

The season begins with earth being attacked by an entirely heretofore unknown race called the Xindi.  A small probe burns a wide channel in Earth’s crust from Florida down to Argentina, killing 7 million people in the process.  Enterprise, having arrived back on Earth at the end of Season 2, is sent into the also heretofore unknown region of space called the Delphic Expanse–a stellar Bermuda Triangle of sorts from which no Vulcan ship has ever come back intact–to investigate the probe’s origins and stop any further destruction.

We soon find out that the probe was sent by the Xindi because they believe earth is going to be responsible for destroying their planet at some point in the future.  As such, all five species of Xindi band together to plan a pre-emptive strike against the humans, and ultimately ensure their own survival by constructing a giant circular weapon to blow up our planet.  The probe, you see, was merely a foretaste of the Xindi feast to come.

It’s clear that Rick Berman and Brannon Braga, the minds behind this as well as much of the other Trek spinoffs, had lofty goals in mind here.  And I appreciate the epic nature of what they are trying to do:  send Enterprise on a thousand-to-one-odds mission, into an uncharted region of space, to stop the planet from being annihilated.  But that sort of paper-thin cocktail napkin premise requires a massive amount of story in order to span an entire season, and too often the result is a plot that is mired in strange twists and deus-ex-machina resolutions that stretch the limits of credibility.  Even the basic idea seems like something out of an Austin Powers movie:  an megalomaniac wants to blow up the planet, and it’s up to one man ship to stop it.  Pardon me while I yawn.

Death Star? Borg ship from First Contact? No, this is WAY different. Its a Xindi Superweapon. Guess what it does? It destroys planets!

Death Star? Borg ship from First Contact? No, this is WAY different. It's a "Xindi Superweapon." Guess what it does? It destroys planets!

Still, the season does have its high points, and I must give credit where credit is due.  “Twilight” hearkens to one of the best episodes of any TV show ever, “The Inner Light,” and does a good job of showcasing the type of alternate-reality future that often goes over well in Trek mythology.  I appreciate the character development given to T’pol, as she struggles with a loss of emotional control through an addiction to a psychoactive chemical, but her romantic relationship with Trip is about as forced and unbelievable as they come.  “Similitude” and “Hatchery” delve into some moral choices that are the hallmark of good science fiction,  and E2 reminds me of one of the best TNG episodes, “Yesterday’s Enterprise” in both concept and execution.

What’s missing throughout this season, though, is the same thing that’s been missing since the inception of Enterprise: characterization.  After more than 70 episodes of the show, I still don’t have much of an idea of who these spacefaring crew members really are.  Hoshi continues to brandish her superpower of language translation whenever it’s required.  Mayweather dutifully embodies the straight-faced version of his Galaxy Quest counterpart Tommy Webber, but nobody told Mayweather that his counterpart was meant to be a caricature.  The list continues, and few characters are ever lifted beyond the base level of cardboard cutout.  One 20-minute episode of Arrested Development has more personality than the entire Season 3 of Enterprise, largely because these individuals exist as jobs that need individuals (“Weapons Officer,” “Engineer“) as opposed to individuals (“Smart but socially akward guy“, “Charismatic womanizer,” “Brilliant, overworked widow“) who hold given positions on the ship.

Tpol does get some decent character development too, but it feels a bit too contrived.

T'Pol also gets some decent character development, but it feels a bit too contrived.

Some attempts to flesh out these people are made, the most notable being Trip as he deals with his sister’s death at the hand of the Xindi when the probe attacked earth, and later, in an inexplicable breach of established characterization, falls in love with T’pol, as if to fulfil a “Show needs more romance” checkbox on a focus group feedback form. But most of the series is riddled with one-off attempts at characterization that exist in isolated episodes rather than being woven into the fabric of the show as a whole.

The ideas that show up throught Season 3 are impressive:  giant spheres constructed milennia ago that cause gravometric distortions throughout the Delphic Expanse, the various political wranglings of the five distinct Xindi species, and the moral choices that must be made by Captain Archer get into some pretty heavy territory. But too often the show sacrifices the essence of Science Fiction on the altar of fanciful CGI effects.

Here’s hoping the best for Season 4.

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Heroes: Season 2

Penning a worthy second act to a fantastic story, whether in print, film, TV, theatre, or other storytelling medium, is always a tricky business.  When writers strike paydirt and resonate with their audiences on such a fundamental level as the first season of Heroes, the question so eloquently put by Nigel Tufnel is obvious:  where can you go from there? After the mind-bending, high-concept first season of Heroes ended, viewers were left with several questions to ponder and a few cliffhangers to mull over during the summer months.  The writing team, in crafting the storylines that would show up in Heroes: Season 2, were faced with not only the dilemma of answering those questions but creating new threads to follow, crafting more intricate conflicts, developing more interesting characters, and generally ratcheting things up a notch or two in order to follow in the footsteps of the mostly brilliant Season 1.

Unfortunately, like Neo on his first jump off a building, Season 2 mostly falls flat on its face.

I suspect the underlying problem comes not from trying to create characters and conflicts that are inherently interesting and compelling, but pulling a “24” and trying to knock everyone’s socks off just for the sake of outdoing the first season.  What we are left with is a slew of new characters that feel hollow, special abilities that are contrived as all get out, and to top things off, a writer’s strike in the middle of the season that effectively stopped the show in its heroic little tracks.

Things start off on a bit of an interesting note as we see what amounts to the aftermath of the events at the end of Season 1.  Mohinder is lecturing on super powers and human DNA, but is brought to work for Primatech by a shady guy named Bob (note to screenwriters:  never use Ned Reyerson as your main villain.  He’s just not that evil.) who apparently runs things over at the company.  Parkman broke up with his cheater wife and is helping Mohinder raise the telepathic girl Molly from Season 1.  Two new characters, Maya and her twin brother Alejandro, are fleeing South America because Maya accidentally kills people when she gets stressed about stuff.  Old favorites like Nikki, Micah, Noah, Nathan, as well as various supporting characters, are all back to join in the fun, whether they have a purpose in the Season 2 storyline or not.  Worse yet, Peter was apparently not killed and (can you guess the cliché?) wakes up with amnesia (I knew you could!) far away from home.

Note to ABC: Noah Bennett is not Jack Bauer.  Dont use him to pander to the 24 audience.

Note to ABC: Noah Bennett is not Jack Bauer. Don't use him to pander to the 24 audience.

All these characters had a purpose in Season 1, as there was a story arc that was brilliantly and carefully laid out for almost the entire show.  But now with Season 2, the cast is all dressed up with nowhere to go, and apocalyptic scenarios seem passé by this time:  instead of a city-destroying explosion, there’s a world-destroying virus (like we haven’t seen that before). Abilities go from inventive and horrifying to silly and absurd:  characters in Season 2 can learn any skill demonstrated on TV, shoot lightning from their fingertips, and create portable black holes that suck stuff in really fast.  Subplot upon subplot is thrust upon the viewers, some with connections to earlier events, some that foreshadow future happenings, and some that have no point whatsoever.

At the end of Season 1 we knew that two key characters, Sylar and Hiro, had both survived.  One of the highlights of Season 2 is seeing Sylar repair himself from a severe case of PTSD, come to develop his powers all over again, and watch his character become much more fleshed out than in Season 1.  However, without question the worst part of Season 2 is the protracted subplot involving Hiro, who is stuck in medieval Japan, and the childhood hero of his dreams who turns out to be more of a crackpot than an actual hero.  What seemed like a good idea at the cliffhanger ending of Season 1 ended up being a boring mess that took some fantastic leaps in logic to become even remotely connected to the rest of the Heroes storyline.

Perhaps the biggest sin of Season 2 is when it falls back on brief moments that worked in Season 1 to try and redeem itself.  Hiro shouts “Great-o Scott-o” at one point, and while this worked as an awesome sci-fi in-joke when he said it in an episode of Season 1, but here it feels like a desperate attempt to recycle once-solid material.  Same goes for the out-of-nowhere guest appearance by Nichelle Nichols, whose character is entirely extraneous.  It was cool when Star Trek alum George Takei appeared in Season 1, but throwing another Trek veteran in a show doesn’t automatically make the show cool.

I don’t mean to be so harsh on the show, and in a way I feel kind of bad writing so many negative things in this review.  The season wasn’t all bad, and there was enough to keep me at least interested until the premature end, which came about as a direct result of the writer’s strike.  But it felt like the show was getting too big for its britches.  It had become a Bryan Singer show suddenly trying to appeal to a Michael Bay audience.

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Heroes: Season 1

Here’s the story…

For a long time, people have been telling me and my wife about this show called Heroes.  “It’s kind of like X-men,” they would say.  Friends would tell us how good it was, how new and different and interesting it was, and how much we, being fans of Star Trek, Firefly, and sci-fi in general, would really enjoy it.  But we were always caught up in DS9, Enterprise, 30 Rock, or some other such show that found its way to our door or computer screen courtesy of Netflix.  Heroes sounded interesting to us, but never a whole lot more, despite the glowing reviews from so many people we knew.  Nevertheless, we dutifully placed Season 1 in our Queue and let it sit for months on end…

Ah, how things can change…

After moving to a new town, without any Netflix discs on our kitchen counter, my wife and I decided to take a stroll through our Instant Queue and see what might strike our fancy.  Sure enough, Heroes popped up, and we decided to give it a shot.  “After all,” we thought.  “What’s the worst that could happen?”

And oh, what a ride it has been.  Heroes has gone from odd curiosity to one of the best shows I can recall watching in recent memory, even though the end of Season 1 had several failed attempts to reach the bar that was set so high early on.  It’s an extremely compelling mix of sci-fi and personal drama, set against the modern, post-9/11 backdrop of New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and a few other towns as well.  The plot of Season 1, revolves around a half-dozen or so main characters, each with his or her own struggles, trials, and backstory, who are slowly realizing they have powers and abilities that are, well, super.

Sylar, a brilliantly-conceived villain played impeccably by Zachary Quinto.

Sylar, a brilliantly-conceived villain played impeccably by Zachary Quinto.

What gets me about Heroes so far is how well everything is executed and realized.  Each character is intertwined in an epic storyline about saving New York from being exploded by a shadowy figure known only as Sylar.  After several episodes these individuals start to realize that they have powers and abilities such as flight, regeneration, time-control, and others, but don’t necessarily know how to control them or, more significantly, what to do with them.  As viewers, we know that each of these individuals will play a key role in saving New York, but we are unsure exactly how.  And neither are they.  In fact, each character has his or her own storyline that is, in most cases, entirely separate from the others.  It’s as if we are watching several entirely different stories slowly unfold, but it’s actually one story woven from a myriad of threads, of which we are only seeing bits and pieces at a time.  What I find remarkable about this type of multi-threaded storyline is that it rarely feels contrived.  The way in which characters do eventually cross paths seems entirely organic and believable–entirely the opposite of so many shows and movies wherein a cheap plot device is invented solely for the purpose of bringing characters and events together (worst offender of all time:  The Little Mermaid II.  The villain had been killed off in the first movie, but out of nowhere “Ursula’s crazy sister,” as Sebastian the crab shouts when she first shows up, comes to wreak havoc on the seadwellers).

The cast of Heroes includes a slew of veteran TV and film actors, the most surprising of which is Ali Larter, playing a role that is one of the most difficult in the entire show.  Milo Ventimiglia, well known for his role as Jesse on “Gilmore Girls,” turns in a very

Claire Bennett, a cheerleader who has no worries about being accidentally dropped.

Claire Bennett, a cheerleader who has no worries about being accidentally dropped.

strong performance as Peter Petrelli, the gifted but troubled central character around whom much of the storyline revolves.  A Japanese comic-book-loving man named Hiro (get it!), played by Masi Oka, lends some much-needed lighthearted relief to a show that is often very dark and dripping with blood-soaked themes of betrayal, revenge, and murder.  There’s even an extended appearance by none other than George Takei near the end.  The villain Sylar, though, is a triumph of writing and good storytelling:  for the first third of the season he is a being, a presence, shrouded in mystery and darkness–much like the Xenomorph in Ridley Scott’s sci-fi masterpiece Alien.  His motives, his backstory, and his raison d’etre are slowly and carefully revealed throughout the course of the show so that by the end his sinister plans are even more horrifying than when he was only a shadow.

Near the end of Season 1 it becomes apparent that things will not wrap up neatly, as I had hoped earlier on, and several holes are deliberately left open for follow-up storylines in Season 2.  While I understand the desire to grow and nurture the seeds of a franchise, I actually felt a little cheated at the end of the season–expectations

Noah Bennett.  Hmm...I wonder if his first name carries any symbolism...

Noah Bennett. Hmm...I wonder if his first name carries any symbolism...

had been set, endgames had been established, and things were thrown into the mix that had no bearing on earlier, well-established plotlines.  Superfluous characters started showing up, most namely a shapeshifter who also has the entirely gratuitous and never-utilized ability of (I kid you not) engaging in online AIM chats using only her brain.

Still, Season 1 of Heroes does a good job of establishing a very compelling set of characters all woven into one brilliant, if at times poorly-realized, plot of epic proportions.  With loads of homages and out-and-out references to comic books, science fiction movies (my favorite being when Hiro, in utter disbelief of the weight of what lies before him, borrows a quintessential exclamation from “Back to the Future”), and classic hero/villain tales, it is a far deeper and more mysterious show than it has any right to be.  Morpheus once offered Neo the chance to see how deep the rabbit hole goes, and in Heroes we have a rabbit hole that is far deeper and more complex than anything I have seen on TV in a long time.  A very long time.

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Man vs. Food (S01E1-5)

Believe me, I was not planning on making this show part of my daily routine.

When I eat breakfast I usually watch 20 minutes or so of a movie, and lately they have been documentaries.  After tackling some pretty heavy stuff recently, I stumbled across this odd little gem of a show on the ol’ Netflix queue.  So far it’s pretty entertaining, kind of interesting, and best of all, each episode is almost exactly 20 minutes long–just enough time for me to chow down my Cheerios and OJ while, ironically, watching a guy chow down on lots and lots of food.

Adam Richman, about to take on one of the many food challenges in the show.

Adam Richman, about to take on one of the many food challenges on the show.

And really that’s the gist of the show:  Adam Richman, a low-profile actor and self-proclaimed food enthusiast, goes around the country (possibly the world, but not so much as of the time I’m writing this) looking for the best eating establishments, often with crazy food challenges, in whatever town or city he happens to be in.  It’s kind of an odd show for the Travel Channel, but I think they get away with it because the concept is based around Richman, well, traveling.  Each episode shows him visiting three restaurants in a given location (Amarillo, Texas; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; etc.) and chatting it up with the owners, cooks, and waiters about the dishes and specialties they serve.  The places are hole-in-the-wall joints that might not look like much on the outside, but cook up the stuff of local legend.

The climax of each episode has Richman tackling a legendary local food challenge like eating a 7-pound hamburger, 4.5-pound steak, six of the spiciest hot wings in town, and so on.  Sometimes he wins, sometimes he fails, but it’s always enjoyable to watch as he interacts with the wait staff and restaurant patrons on his way to winning the challenge and collecting that location’s ultimate trophy (usually a T-shirt, photo on the wall, or bumper sticker).  He will often talk with the manager or head cook of whatever restaurant he happens to be taking the challenge about what goes in to the preparation of the meal, and sometimes try his hand at cooking it up himself.

One of Richmans many food challenges.

No way would I ever try this.

I appreciate that the show isn’t just about one man’s journey of gluttony, but a real exploration of the culture and customs of a particular area of the country.  A visit to Columbus Ohio had Richman taking part in some pregame OSU football tailgating and visiting a generations-old sausage joint, not only for the food but to get a feel for the local community.  But for a show like this, with such a bare-bones concept, to work it must have one key ingredient:  a likable host.  And Richman fills that duty in spades.

In fact, one of the most compelling reasons for me to keep coming back to this show is to watch Richman interact with the other people around him.  His indelible charm is infectious, and he is clearly having a good time as he jokes around with the cooks and waiters.  Anton Ego he is most certainly not – he is just out to chow down on some grub, meet lots of interesting people, and hopefully get his name or photo on the wall after conquering a ginormous sandwich or beef brisket.  And while some have criticized the show for its positive portrayal of American overindulgence, I see it as harmless escapism.  Richman is eating the foods and taking the challenges so we don’t have to.  Though he sure does make it fun to watch.

Edit 1/19/10: Having finished watching Season 1 I have nothing substantive to add to this review, but wanted to reiterate how much I continued to enjoy the show.  Richman’s everyday-dude schtick never gets old, and I appreciate how complimentary and thoroughly positive he is to everyone around him:  the chefs, the waiters, the patrons, and even the viewers.  Even during the final episode of Season 1, when he was comparing Juicy Lucy hamburgers at competing restaurants, he had good things to say about both and managed to find a clever way of praising both without actually declaring a winner.  It’s vignettes like this that make the show as classy as it is greasy.

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Enterprise: The Expanse (S02E26)

One thing I appreciate about Enterprise is its level of ambition:  some episodes really reach for the stars (no pun intended), and while most of them don’t end up being all they strive to be, I give them credit for at least trying.  The Star Trek universe is a rich canvas on which an incredible variety of stories may be painted, and I like it when Berman and Braga just go for it and throw caution to the wind.

The Expanse is one of those episodes.  I can’t say that it’s entirely successful at what it sets out to do, but it’s certainly an interesting and entertaining ride along the way.  The show starts out with an attack on earth by an alien probe, reminiscent of Star Trek IV, The Voyage Home.  Except instead of churning the oceans, this probe cuts a swath right out of the planet roughly 300 yards across and 4,000 miles long.  It starts in Florida and goes clear to Venezuela, after which the probe self-destructs and bits of it crash-land on Earth.  Blackout.  Cue opening credits (and, of course, the mute button.  *shudder*  that opening ballad is still terrible.)  This, my friends, is how to open a season finale.

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Enterprise: Bounty (S02E25)

This was a mixed bag if ever one existed.  One one hand there is a strikingly well-written and well-executed plot regarding Archer’s abduction at the hands of a bounty hunter.  It is suspenseful, engaging, and ties into some threads established clear back at the beginning of the series.  Archer  pulls some Picard-style psychological tricks on his captor, busts out with some old-fashioned Kirk-style fisticuffs on some Klingons, and even helps a rather shady character redeem himself.  In short, it was the kind of plot that made Star Trek: TNG so likable in the 1990s.

On the other hand, though, was one of the lamest sub-plots I have seen this season.  Doctor and T’Pol are stuck in the medical quarantine room after contracting some strange microbe on a planet they recently visited (I am weary of this story mechanic.  would that it would change!) and, sure enough, they have to smear that goopy disinfectant gel all over themselves!  Remember that awkward scene in the first episode?  Remember how you nearly ran screaming from the TV?  Yeah, it’s like that…only worse.  As luck would have it, the microbe triggers (what else?) the pon farr.  *sigh*

The rest of the Doctor/T’Pol subplot is a hamfisted attempt at what I can only assume is Berman and Braga’s idea of comedy, as Jolene Blalock makes an idiot out of herself and the Doctor (and all other crew members) try to knock some sense (and a cure) into her.

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Enterprise: First Flight (S02E24)

One thing I have grown to appreciate about Enterprise (in and of itself an origin story of sorts) is the way it also explores the origins and backgrounds of its characters.  This episode, despite being ranked rather obviously in the pantheon of  “save the budget” episodes, did a good job of exploring more of Archer’s background and gave us some additional insight into his longstanding friendship with Trip.  It was a nice counterpoint to Regeneration’s relentless and frentic action, and I rather enjoyed it–probably in no small part due to the superb direction of series veteral LeVar Burton.

Things got started, as they so often do, with a mission that led to much more than the crew was ready to handle.  Turns out the ship might be headed into a nebula full of dark matter, but they aren’t exactly sure just what is out there.  Everyone is pretty stoked at the possibility of exploring this in a shuttlepod when Archer gets some bad news that someone named “A.G.” has died.  Turns out that A.G. is a longtime friend of both Archer and Trip, and the news of his death immediatly sends the Cap’n into one of his emo moods, which left me holding my breath for another embarrassingly bad show (Hugo Award nominations be darned!).

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Enterprise: Regeneration (S02E23)

Here’s the long and short of it: this episode was really, really good.  It’s the kind of episode this show has needed for a while, following a string of technically impressive but overall unremarkable stories.  And while the fudging of canonical issues like phaser output and Borg nanotechnology was present, all is forgiven in the face of such a cool episode.

Things begin back on earth where a team of scientists unearths the remnants of a Borg vessel–the same spheroid, we soon discover, that came back in time during First Contact to prevent Zephram Cochran from making his initial warp-drive test.  Soon the crew of the Enterprise is battling it out with some nasty Borg deep in space, and it’s not long before crewmen are assimilated, shields are adapting, and ensigns expendable get killed off in the most classic of Trek fashions.  This episode was thrilling and engaging, and I was honest-to-goodness cheering out loud when Archer jettisoned two Borg out into deep space–the kind of thing I was hoping a starship captain would have done years ago in the face of such ruthless enemies.  In fact, I have to say that the Jonathan Archer as of late who is more aggressive, decisive, and, well, commanding, is a welcome change from the wishy-washy Captain who once spent the night in sickbay with his puppy.

However, despite the sheer entertainment factor of this episode, it’s important to note that a somewhat disconcerting trend is beginning to take shape.

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