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To Boldly Go All Kinds of Wrong

June 19, 2013

Imagine you have some metronomes. Let’s say five.

You line them all up on a board that’s resting flat on a table, and start them ticking back and forth. Because you don’t really care and because of the nature of human error, they’re all ticking at different speeds at first. Not the unified back and forth clock noise that’s more than familiar to anybody who had to take piano lessons, but a chaotic tumble of clicks and clacks that never quite match one another. I’m not up on the current slang, but I think kids today might call it a cacophony.

Next, you lift the board from the table and place it on top of a couple of empty soda cans. When you do this, the transfer of momentum results in the alignment of the metronomes. Basically, the new little makeshift table absorbs the ticking motion and starts to move imperceptibly. This movement in turn affects the metronomes, and gets them to all go at the same speed.

It doesn’t happen instantly. Some of your little metronomes are stubborn, and don’t line up with the rest of the group right away. The first three sync up pretty easily, and eventually the fourth one does as well. You start to hear a pleasant click clack click clack click clack as it all comes together.

But the fifth one doesn’t seem to be going along. It’s taking its sweet time, and so everybody keeps fiddling with it. Except that every time they touch it, they’re interfering with the table’s ability to influence the motion. So it never seems to work well with the others, and everybody gets fed up and pulls it away and it goes down in history as Seriously the Worst Metronome EVER.

The first four metronomes are TOS, TNG, DS9 and Voyager. The fifth metronome is Enterprise, and I’m pretty sure it broke my heart.

I vividly recall screaming with excitement when I learned that Scott Bakula was going to be a Star Trek captain. I was standing in the living room, half listening to Access Hollywood or one of those things, and somebody said it. They just casually mentioned it as news for Sci-Fi fans, and I went nuts. Picture the girl from Little Miss Sunshine when she was freaking out, and you have a pretty good mental image of what I looked like.

Because I love Quantum Leap. It’s one of the best shows ever. And I love Star Trek. Like, probably enough to murder somebody over. So I was pretty much ready for the greatest thing of all time to happen, and then I started coming across the word Prequel.

God. Prequels. I’ll never trust them as long as I live. On occasion, there have been good ones – even great ones, but the bad ones are so very, very bad. Like Phantom Menace and Prometheus.

A lot of times, I hear Enterprise fans (they’re a rare breed, but they exist) say that the hardcore trekkies and trekkers didn’t give the show a fair shake. People wanted it to fail because they were too caught up in the rules of the fictional universe, every little thing that veered from canon drove fans ridiculously crazy. Only that’s not what happened.

First of all, when you’re doing a prequel you have to be faithful to the canon. That’s why they’re so hard to pull off. You’re making a promise that the stories you tell in a time prior to the one the audience is familiar with won’t affect the stories they already know. It’s a confusing and kind of stupid promise to make, because now you can’t use characters they might recognize (like McCoy, Spock and Scotty appearing on TNG, or Harry Kim meeting Quark.) You have to use only the universe they know, and be nothing but faithful to it. The universe is now the only thing that will make your story a Star Trek story.

So not only are you tied to the conventional wisdom that in order for speculative fiction to be successful it has to be consistent in its science and magic, you’re obligated to make sure that the universe you use can feasibly morph into the setting seen elsewhere in the franchise. If you’re thinking that sounds difficult, remember that you’re obligated to create a sense of familiarity, but also make sure that your story does not retroactively insert behaviours or first contacts that came later in your timeline.

Like the goddamn Romulans. Who, according to basically everything we had learned in TOS and TNG, could NOT have made contact with Captain Archer.

But they do. In Season Freaking ONE.

Anyway, aside from the fact that it had totally set itself up for failure, people really wanted to watch Enterprise. They wanted it to be good.

Voyager had come to a close, and that was pretty sad because it took awhile to find its feet, but it had really defined itself over its final seasons. And then right at the end, Seven of Nine hooks up with Chakotay and suddenly it sucks again. Closing how it opened, I guess. The full circle of Voyager’s struggle to define its characters. (I love Voyager, I just get all cynical and mean-spirited when I’m talking about Enterprise.)

Trekkies needed someplace to go. We weren’t ready for the mean streets of a primetime television landscape dominated by cops and lab technicians and everybody being murdered all the time. Thirteen years of space diplomacy had made us all soft as summer peaches, and Enterprise was supposed to salve the wounds and keep us going. With Dr. Samuel Beckett in the captain’s chair! Hooray!

Tons of people tuned in at first, the audience from Voyager completely transferred, and there was a noticeable new audience as well. People who liked a little more grit in their sci-fi and were looking to see how, as a prequel series, Enterprise might be able to change their interpretation of Star Trek as the clean and happy future. But this massive initial audience slowly started to notice something:

Enterprise sucked.

Like, a lot.

For starters, it had a difficult time defining its core alien species and their values. This was a surprising and confusing problem for them to have, since their core alien species was Humanity. But none of the humans seemed like… humans. And none of the Vulcans seemed like Vulcans. They seemed like cartoons of Star Trek humans and Vulcans, caricatures instead of characters. There were some great actors in the cast, but doing a great job of reading shitty lines doesn’t magically make them un-shitty.

Then there was the metronome problem. Instead of letting it tick along until it settled, they were always trying to change its direction. The temporal cold war was dropped in favour of the Season Three Xindi arc which was, officially, the longest and stupidest story any Star Trek show ever tried to tell. A close second was the nauseating romance between T’Pol and Chief Engineer Man-Candy, who was apparently allergic to walking around fully dressed for an entire episode.

Heavy-handed metaphors for the U.S. involvement in Iraq abounded, with melodramatic subplots about Vulcan HIV cropping up in nonsensical ways. If you stayed in your seat for the whole ride, your heart ached as your mind rebelled against the Klingon augment storyline. And you often wondered how come the whole thing wasn’t about the dog, since he was the only character who was written consistently.

Obviously, when it became apparent that the show was just unrepentantly bad, people stopped watching it. Supporters sometimes say that the ratings were inaccurate because they didn’t take into account DVR usage, since it was a new technology. But I was there, man. I remember. People stopped watching the damn show. And, you know, Star Trek is pretty expensive to make. So it got cancelled.

But then…

Like a ballerina who can only really dance when she has no audience, Enterprise started to find its damn feet.

In Season Four, the Xindi shit parade was pushed aside, and even though some tremendously stupid things happened (augment virus), Enterprise began to feel less like a misguided mash-up of a Star Trek doujinshi and the lamest parts of BSG, and more like… an actual Star Trek series. There were good episodes. Not like episodes that were good compared to other episodes of Enterprise, but actually good episodes. By normal entertainment standards. The broken metronome finally started ticking in sync from its dusty place in the trash bin.

Sometimes, I could even get through the whole hour without feeling like somebody was poisoning my soul. It was great, but it was already over. The ink was dry on the cancellation. One last swan song, Commander Riker showing up and letting everybody know that it was just his stupid hologram so all letters of complaint should be addressed to him, and a key cast member dying too late for me to enjoy it. Over. The potential had officially been squandered.

The Scott Bakula Star Trek was the worst Star Trek.

Sometimes, it feels like we were all tricked into some kind of Faustian bargain. “Yes, we’ll get a great actor to play the next captain!” The devil said with a chuckle, leaning back in his chair at UPN, “The captains are always great actors!”

Fuck you, devil.

Fuck you.

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