Enterprise “A Night in Sickbay” (part 1 of 8)
Here we are, at long last. Examining in-depth the first Star Trek series in a generation to get its plug pulled: Enterprise. It’s been a long road, getting from TOS to here.
To be exact, it’s been a five-year mission for me. Because five years ago is when I originally indicated that “A Night in Sickbay” would be the first episode of Enterprise to appear in the Agony Booth’s Worst of Trek section, devoted to recaps of horrible Star Trek episodes.
So, with five years of buildup, it’s fair to say this is the most anticipated recap in the history of the site. Can it live up to the hype? Can anything live up to the hype? I’ll be honest: Given the extreme awfulness of “A Night in Sickbay”, I feel I may be in way over my head.
Simply put, this is the worst episode of one of the most cringe-worthy shows of the last ten years. Without a doubt, Enterprise is Star Trek’s most embarrassing chapter. It’s the Galactica 1980 of the Star Trek franchise.
Enterprise was the brainchild of two men: Rick Berman (co-creator and co-executive producer of Star Trek: Voyager, and the man who took the reins of Star Trek after the death of Gene Roddenberry) and Brannon Braga (who wrote “Threshold”, “Sub Rosa”, and over 100 other Star Trek episodes, and was also co-executive producer on Voyager).
On Berman and Braga’s watch, viewership for Voyager steadily declined. When it premiered, Voyager was the lynchpin of the newly launched UPN network, but by its seventh and final season, ratings were pretty much in the toilet. Berman and Braga knew they had one last shot to return the Trek franchise to former glories before their contracts with Paramount ran out.
They devised a bold scheme. Spurred on by the success of the Star Wars prequels, they decided that the next Star Trek series should not simply follow on from Voyager, but instead provide a new beginning to the entire Star Trek universe, with adventures taking place a century before the original series.
(In retrospect, this explains why the final couple of seasons of Voyager sucked so hard. Clearly, Berman and Braga adopted an attitude of “screw it, this won’t have anything to do with the next show anyway”, and weren’t even trying to produce quality shows.)
And so came Enterprise, premiering in the fall of 2001, a desperate attempt to recapture the spirit of TOS and the heyday of Star Trek.
Earlier that year, the casting sheet for Enterprise was sent out to talent agents, and promptly leaked to internet fan sites. A lot of fans immediately dismissed the cast breakdown as a hoax and pure fanwank, because the new crew matched the ethnic makeup of the TOS crew almost exactly, with just a few roles gender-swapped. I won’t go through the full comparison, because you can easily do that yourself, but it’s clear they were trying to imitate the Kirk-Spock-Bones triumvirate with (blecch) Archer-T’Pol-Trip.
With a lot of old-school Trekkies (understandably) seeing Enterprise as an attempt to “re-do” TOS, and with a lot of new-school Trekkies (understandably) pissed that the new show wasn’t going to build upon the TNG-DS9-Voyager continuity, the show went on to polarize fans like never before. If you feel indifferent towards Enterprise, chances are you’re not really that into Star Trek.
The show had, and continues to have, a very small fanbase—Enterprise was consistently near the bottom of the Nielsen ratings every week—but at the same time, that fanbase is very, very vocal. Which is why, if you had nothing to go on other than internet discussion, you might conclude that Enterprise wasn’t really that bad. I mean, the first season was good, right? The fourth season was amazing, wasn’t it?
It’s time to set the record straight: Enterprise sucked. It sucked from day one. It sucked until the bitter end. It’s a miracle it lasted four seasons—that’s three and a half more than it deserved. It’s easily one of the worst dramatic programs I’ve ever watched.
The crappiness of Enterprise really should be a given by this point, but for some reason, I feel like I still need to make the case. So here are just a few of the reasons commonly cited for why Enterprise sucked:
#1) Just like Voyager before it, Enterprise ignored its premise. The prequel setting had, and still has, limitless potential. A century before Kirk’s time, we should have seen mankind building alliances, making pacts, and encountering new enemies. Instead, the crew of the Enterprise was content to travel aimlessly around the galaxy week after week, stumbling upon various generic alien races, greeting them all with a big hidely-ho, neighbor!
#2) Everything on Enterprise was about playing it safe. Not one single character—human or alien, friend or foe—died until the third season. Compare this to the original series, which was wiping out Redshirts left and right. I point this out not because of some inner bloodlust, or because I want Star Trek to be a snuff film, but because it’s the most obvious example of how Enterprise was all about lowering the stakes. This show was only interested in making life as easy and comfortable for the main characters as possible.
#3) Enterprise completely changed the dynamic of human exploration in the Star Trek universe. The writers (unwisely) took their cues from what was established in Star Trek: First Contact: That humans were the new kid on the block, and Vulcans were our babysitters. TOS showed humans and alien races venturing into the unknown as equals, while Enterprise, on the other hand, was less about “where no man has gone before” and more about “where everybody besides mankind has gone before”. What’s the point of exploring strange new worlds when you can just pull up everything you need to know from a Vulcan database?
#4) Despite the prequel setting, Enterprise fell back on telling stories that could have just as easily been told on any of the modern Star Trek shows. Seriously. Take any episode, and swap T’Pol with Seven of Nine, Trip with Tom Paris, Phlox with Neelix, etc., etc., and you’ll end up with something completely indistinguishable from an episode of Voyager. The level of technology wasn’t noticeably older. The danger (or lack thereof) in space travel was no more serious. Despite taking place before TOS, there were no meaningful differences between this show and the three that came before it.
#5) Enterprise was a clone of Voyager, which is bad enough. But Voyager itself was already a clone of The Next Generation. So by the time you get to Enterprise, you’re watching a copy of a copy of a copy. And much like any Nth-generation VHS dub of a bootleg movie, when everything is said and done, all you’re left with is indistinct static.
#6) But there’s an even bigger problem with being a copy of a copy of a show that premiered in 1987: you end up completely disconnected from everything happening on primetime TV in the 2000s. I’m not saying Enterprise should have made misguided attempts at being “contemporary”, with shaky hand-held cameras, or multiple scenes unfolding in split screen, or plot threads lasting for years (though, when the show was circling the drain, they did experiment with a season-long arc). But the simple fact is, the medium constantly evolves, and viewers constantly want something fresh and original. And it’s getting harder and harder to do a TNG-style show with self-contained episodes that still feels fresh and original.
#7) And it’s especially hard to be fresh and original when the same people run the show for over a decade. Eventually, Enterprise became welfare for former Star Trek actors. I’m not saying LeVar Burton or Robert Duncan McNeill or Roxann Dawson are bad directors (though they all directed their fair share of bombs), but to turn around the ratings decline, Enterprise had to be new and different. By continuing to employ people who had spent their entire careers within the Star Trek bubble, Berman and Braga pretty much guaranteed that Enterprise was going to be more of the same. You can’t reinvigorate the franchise when 99% of the same people are still in charge.
I can tell you that all of these reasons are valid. I can tell you that they’re all true. But deep down, I know they’re all one big load of rationalization. Coming up with a laundry list like this is ignoring the giant elephant in the room.
The real reason Enterprise sucked is very basic. It’s because all of its characters—every single one—were little more than empty shells. By the time the series finale rolled around, I knew nothing more about the central characters than I knew in the pilot. No one exhibited even the slightest trace of an actual personality. None of them grew beyond the thumbnail descriptions seen on the leaked casting sheets.
Character development is critical to a TV series—it’s the main reason people come back week after week, because they care about the characters. In that regard, Enterprise actually makes Voyager look like a good show in retrospect. Because no matter how stupid and ridiculous the plots got, and no matter how much of it relied on pointless technobabble, I still cared on some level about the crew of Voyager. They were likeable, at least, and that’s what kept me coming back, long into the doldrums of season 6 and 7.
I have never cared about the crew of this Enterprise. I don’t like any of them. I don’t hate any of them, either. They’re half-finished sketches, completely interchangeable with each other. Truth is, if I had liked the characters, I probably would have forgiven the show’s glacial pacing, and all the musty old plots recycled from other Star Trek shows.
Of course, the writers are ultimately to blame for this lack of character development. But sometimes, if a show has a good cast, and they really gel, they can overcome the inherent weaknesses in the scripts. Bad news: Everybody was miscast. Nearly everybody looked awkward, and uncertain of how to talk, move, or react at any given moment.
Jolene Blalock was simply horrible. As the ship’s Vulcan science officer T’Pol, she seemed to confuse “emotionless” with “lifeless”. Sometimes her lines were delivered in a barely audible growl. And the decision to make her Seven of Nine Part II, complete with a skin tight catsuit, truly did her no favors.
But it’s Scott Bakula, in particular, who was hopelessly adrift. The writers never had a clue who Captain Jonathon Archer should be, so poor Scott fell back on what came naturally to him, what carried him through all five seasons of Quantum Leap: Being the likeable, affable everyman. At no point could he summon even a portion of the command presence of Captain Kirk or Captain Picard. Hell, I’d probably worry more about Captain Crunch busting my balls.
Everything Archer did gave off the vibe of a guy who had no clue what he was doing, and was only in his position because Daddy called in a favor. After two hopeless seasons of Happy Get-Along Archer, attempts were made to turn him into a darker, more driven character, but it never stuck. Scott Bakula will always be Scott Bakula: a super nice guy.
But those who couldn’t stand Archer from the get-go were in for a rude awakening. In “A Night in Sickbay”, an early second season episode, we got to see just how intolerable a character could get.
This episode completely destroys Archer, making him out to be an incompetent, childish moron. As such, it’s probably responsible in no small part for sending Enterprise into a ratings death spiral.
And the most ironic part of all of this? This episode, like many of Enterprise‘s worst, was scripted by Rick Berman and Brannon Braga. I could almost accept that some clueless hack writers, completely not understanding the character, had come in and bumbled their way through writing this piece of shit. But it’s the creators of the series who are doing this. The guys who came up with Jonathon Archer had no clue what to do with him. That should give you a pretty good idea of what we’re in for.