Star Trek: Discovery is reminding me of everything I loved about Enterprise
Star Trek: Discovery is the sixth live-action series of television’s most beloved, and enduring, cult franchise – and it is fun, oh my. We’re not even a full season into its story of an experimental spaceship in an interstellar war and yet, already: Mutinies! Drunken sex! Space rhinos! Alien face surgery! Mushrooms! And Michelle Yeoh turning up – twice, and in two guises – to smack the crap out of some bad guys!
Critics are nicknaming the series “Disco”, and it’s not hard to see why. So many lights; so many frantic steps. And with the ship under the present command of a talking, bald, bipedal horse, there’s more than a little disco-biscuit aesthetic to the whole shebang.
The bright colours of madness have always been inherent to Star Trek’s appeal, certainly since its original 1960s series shot a spaceship commanded by Kirk, Spock and the rest into the far corners of the universe, with a lot of fetching velour but nary a thought for a seatbelt.
The series was created and first went into syndication during the instabilities and tensions of the old Cold War, which perhaps contextualises the obsessive love invested in it by a fanbase so loyal it has marched in the street to keep it on air. To my mind, it’s not the escapism of dashing heroics or snazzy space guns that’s made Star Trek so popular. It’s the gentle moral premise it shares with its British cult counterpart, Doctor Who; no matter how grave the danger or lurid the monster suit, once you clarify the human ethics of a situation, reason and science can solve any problem in the universe – and usually in under an hour.
This thread runs through each series of Star Trek, guiding a chronology in which humanity and its galactic neighbours form a federation to fight against common enemies, and for mutual prosperity. The different series have navigated permutations of the challenges therein. Star Trek: The Next Generation busies itself shoring up alliances and resolving diplomatic conflicts close to home, while Star Trek: Voyager abandons a Federation ship into a region of space where there are no allies, no maps and a confronting ethical polarity between retaining collective values and surviving dangerous isolation. (That’s why Voyager’s Captain Janeway is the best captain. Don’t even argue.)
But amid the happy hoo-ha that’s surrounded the small-screen return of Star Trek after 13 years, my recommendation is old fans and new make time between its episodes to revisit the franchise’s most recent televised outing: the maligned, uneven and surprisingly touching Enterprise series.
Broadcast in 2001-2005, the show is set at the time of Earth’s first interstellar voyages, before the Federation is even a notion, and before key items of Star Trek’s signature space-tech are invented. Enterprise made departures from the established formula that rankled fans, such as ditching the orchestral sweeps of previous theme tunes for a “hipper” Rod Stewart cover, and experimenting with something like a serial narrative instead of traditionally more self-contained episodes. And so the Enterprise made its maiden voyage much like the overarching storyline: not entirely sure where its was going.
Made in the days before Netflix, perhaps it was an inability to fast-forward the theme song, or to more easily binge on its episodes, but after a decent viewership for its initial season, the audience for Enterprise fell away. The show was never a hit with critics, the franchise was declared tired and it was cancelled just before the end of its fourth season. It ended with a hurriedly – badly – scripted final episode that one of its stars deemed, quite publicly, as “appalling”.
Revisiting the show now, its possible to see that more than the song, or the unsure storyline, it may have been its premise that alienated potential fans. The alien Vulcans – made beloved in the franchise by the friendly Spock – are, in Enterprise, far more cautious toward the earthlings, with whom inter-species contact is still new. The Vulcans withhold their technological insight from Earth’s space pioneers, very aware humanity has not long emerged from a nuclear war, and they insist on attaching an observer to Enterprise’s initial explorations. This is how secretive Vulcan science officer T’Pol finds herself in a command team with a Kirk-style captain, Jonathan Archer, and his twangy Southerner sidekick, Trip Tucker, the ship’s engineer – both of whom resent the Vulcan supervision and are openly racist towards her.
Progressive, intersectional race politics have always been central to Star Trek, and overt since the unprecedented inclusion of black Uhura and Asian-American Mr Sulu in the original series. The unique contribution of Enterprise to the franchise is the complication it offers to the utopian, uncomplicated assumptions of the previous series. Here, Earth may have outgrown domestic racism but prejudice and hostilities dog and undermine encounters with new species, leading the earthlings into ongoing, avoidable catastrophe.
When the characters’ experiences expand their own moral understanding, they’re attuned – with very painful consequences – to the effects of the prejudice around them, and there’s something very refreshing in the series’ sly critique of the cultural arrogance of its careless space cowboys. When Archer’s deference to his own principle over realpolitik results in the destruction of a sacred site, the repercussions he engenders far down the line affect his own crew in devastating, personal ways. One memorable episode sees Tucker’s idealistic intervention in the dynamics of an alien family result in a horrific suicide.
As a show that took much design inspiration from American military services to bring the series closer to the reality of the audience, it may have brought other resonances with that military far too close. In the third season, Enterprise’s mission to avenge a 9/11-style attack on the Earth becomes complicated when, amid the horrific moral compromises Archer finds himself making, the Captain grows more aware of the humanity inherent in his perceived enemies, even those who look unlike him. In the wake of America’s contemporaneous incursions in Afghanistan and Iraq, it was perhaps a realisation the viewership as a whole was unready to make.
But Enterprise’s most delicate arc is a clever metaphor it makes of tension between the unalike, expressed in a love story that, in another act of misjudgment, perhaps came just a shade too late to save the series’ popularity. In this, T’Pol and a crewmate fight a mutual attraction that makes no logical sense to her and no emotional sense to the him – and, to the all-too-human surprise of both lovers, not even sex is able to resolve it.
It’s the casual, loveless conclusion to this story in particular that condemns the hated last episode – one that I’m sure I’m not the only fan who wishes to see stricken from its episode lists, erased from its box sets, banished to exist only in YouTube’s darkest fanbase corners. Enterprise fans once crowdsourced $32m to fund a continuation of the series but the producers did not take up the offer.
As Discovery sails through fresh territories of the franchise with apparently no limits on time, space, characterisation or material possibility, the opportunity to in some way complete Enterprise’s history – to remind both its own universe and ours of the painful lessons learnt when cultural cavaliers explore – is certainly there.
At very least, Discovery might repair the trajectory of Enterprise’s long-lost lovers – I mean, the new ship has a captive space rhino, so anything is possible. And if Star Trek’s taught me anything, it’s that it if the ethics are right and the science thought out, there’s no problem in the universe that humanity can’t solve. It should, realistically, only take just under an hour.
Star Trek Discovery is on CBS All Access in the US and Netflix in the UK and Australia.