Strange New World
This is a nice episode.
That might sound like I’m damning with faint praise. Not a bit of it. Niceness is a badly undervalued quality. Almost all the strongest episodes we’ve encountered in this project so far have been the most pleasant and optimistic ones, with “A Man Alone” being the honourable exception. As I argued all the way back in my post on “The Man Trap”, Trek is generally at its best when it presents the galaxy as a source of wonder that makes its dangers worth facing.
Queens Of The Wild Frontier
“Strange New World” demonstrates this point well. It also does it whilst showing how Enterprise can distinguish itself from its predecessors, by reminding us of the excitement offered by the entirely new. Every Star Trek show considers the wonders of exploration, obviously, but not to the extent we see here. TNG is in large part a show about the moral quandaries that arise from being the dominant civilisation in an entire quarter of the galaxy. Space still holds its mysteries, in isolated corners and near the borders, but the Alpha Quadrant star charts display more colonies than they do dragons. DS9 and Voyager are discussions of what happens when that dominance is removed, one way or another. And Kirk’s galaxy was so horrifying in its hostility it can feel like Roddenberry and his writers were inspired by Lovecraft as much as they were Forbidden Planet and Wagon Train.
Enterprise provides us the chance to re-frame our initial expansion into space as a journey of awe instead of terror. The first third of this episode makes the absolute most of this. I adore seeing the utter joy on every human’s face as they finally step from the shuttle-pod, onto the first Minshara-class planet beyond Earth most of them have ever walked on. For Kirk this planet would be a potential source of lethal danger. For Riker it would be another day at the office. For Archer it’s a fun place to walk his dog.
I love those opening fifteen minutes. Watching our new crew wander around the great outdoors, staring with open delight at each new plant, fish and meadow they come across, gently chiding T’Pol not because she’s Vulcan, but because she’s displaying the attitude of someone whose experience with other worlds has made them jaded. The earlier spiky annoyance that T’Pol inspired is replaced here with a kind of bemused sympathy over her inability to enjoy herself the way everyone else is. It’s also nice that Cutler and Novakovich get in on the act. I’ve read people suggest it was unwise to focus on two new characters, especially to the point of beginning the episode with them. We’re only just beginning to get to know the main cast, after all.
I disagree, however. Quite aside from it badly underestimating the audience’s intelligence to assume they can’t handle regular and recurring characters appearing at the same time, the unusual opening of the episode serves to make an important point. The crewmen you’ve never met before who are suddenly heading down to the planet with the show’s stars aren’t cannon fodder any more. They’re more people to share in the fun.
(Apparently an earlier draft of the episode had Novakovich dying of his wounds. Bakula argued against the idea, though, saying there wasn’t time in the episode to adequately explore the principle characters’ reaction to a comrade’s death. A near-miss, then, because Bakula was clearly in the right. Bringing Novakovich to the point of death is a fine idea. It winds up a ticking clock which gives the plot some extra drive, and allows Billingsley to sell the absolute crap out of Phlox’s mortification – his face as Archer leaves in disgust is heartbreaking. But all that can be achieved without actually pulling the trigger, and I’m glad that was figured out.)
So everything is terrific up to and including Mayweather’s ghost story. Which I adore, by the way. I’m a massive sucker for what storytelling will look like in the future. As such, this is right up my alley, even if it has some problematic elements, as we’ll talk about later. Honestly, it’s all so nice it’s kind of a shame when the hallucinogenic pollen shows up and spoils everything for our budding Davey Crocketts.
Lazy Stereotype Deployment
The degree to which the A plot works here is debatable. Clearly the idea of having your main cast go on a bad trip and yell at each other is an awfully big genre cliche. We could though try to argue Enterprise squeezes out fresh blood by turning this into another round of the show’s central sparring match of humans versus Vulcans. That certainly has at least potential merit. Indeed, with the humans so delirious and paranoid it’s them that confirm Vulcan prejudices, rather than the other way round. That’s a nice and necessary inversion of the past two episodes. Inside those caves humans really are the irrational and mercurial creatures the Vulcans see us as. Cutler demonstrates this in particular, starting the episode trying to bond with T’Pol over her love of Vulcan culture, only to sell her out the very instant she gets the chance. The humans in the caves are unquestionably unpredictable to the point of being dangerous. Stereotype confirmed, right?
Well, no, not necessarily, and this is where the argument runs into problems. Enterprise regularly shows us Vulcans that are just as arrogant, unhelpful and secretive as the human stereotype suggests. In contrast, it takes an atmosphere crammed with hallucinogens for humans to become the savages Vulcans suspect we are in general. In other words, the exceptional nature of the circumstances it takes to reduce us to what the Vulcans insist is our general level might well undercut the stereotype, rather than reinforce it. But is that really true?
There may be a clue in the episode’s title. It’s clear the main inspiration for this is Kirk’s opening narration during the original series, but whilst I was watching this Brave New World kept coming to mind too. There’s an awful lot going on in that book, but a central ideas is that an entire populace can be kept quiet by, among other things, handing out regular doses of drugs to keep everyone too blissed out to make a fuss.
The question this raises is obvious: does contentment mean anything if it’s chemically induced? “Strange New World” alters this slightly, moving from human happiness to human bigotry. It seems to be arguing that the answer in this case is ‘yes’, too. Racism brought on by a bad trip is still racism. After all, the fact that Trip is hallucinating alien lifeforms doesn’t really explain the ridiculousness of his conclusions about what’s “really” going on. He’s worried T’Pol plans to lure the entire crew into the caves and have them killed? All eighty or so of them? He’s afraid she hopes to lure them all down to the planet, leaving the ship completely abandoned, as successive away teams search for all the previous away teams who all went missing in the same cave? There is tripping, and there is tripping.
The Truth Is Not Really All That Out There
So what specifically is behind Trip’s meltdown? There are couple of potentially overlapping possible answers to this. The standard human mistrust of Vulcans is by far the most obvious, and therefore by far the least interesting. Let’s move onto something we can do more with. One possibility, given where the series ends up headed, is that Trip’s attraction for T’Pol is complicating his drug-addled thinking. “I’ll split you in two!” is ultimately pretty close to what various other men have been known shout at those they find attractive, often in similarly unpleasant and aggressive tones. You’d hope Trip wouldn’t yell that kind of thing at women when not horribly compromised by alien plant life – unless they ask him to, of course – but clearly there are men who do.
That’s a surface observation too, though. Perhaps a deeper thought is that Trip’s fantasy might well have grown out of Mayweather’s ghost story from earlier in the episode. The idea of an alien intelligence lurking nearby that unless stopped will destroy the ship certainly strongly echoes the campfire tale. And that’s a really nice touch, because it helps underline how problematic Travis’ tale would actually be in a post-first contact society. Within the Trek universe aliens aren’t a metaphor for the unknown anymore. They’re our stellar neighbours. That in turn means a story summed up as “a spooky alien did it!” isn’t an update of folk stories about the supernatural. What it is, is poorly-cloaked xenophobia.
This is, I think, a critical realisation. And by linking it to a situation in which T’Pol is almost killed because Trip’s so sure he must protect his ship from outsiders, the show implies there are certain kinds of science fiction stories that aren’t actually worth the telling. That’s an important stance, and one absolutely worth taking. It also fits in well with the general idea here that the galaxy is packed with wonder rather than horror.
And the episode isn’t done with this idea yet. The possibility that Mayweather’s anti-alien story may have helped kick all this off is only part of the problem with Trip’s narrative. The real issue is that having written a profoundly ugly story, Tucker insists he and everyone else has to inhabit it. It’s the only tale allowed. What this does, brilliantly, is force Archer into the role of editor, trying to help Trip rewrite his narrative into something less destructive. The thing is, though, there are only certain types of story note Trip is willing to accept. An attempt to rewrite the story to be about an entirely innocent Vulcan brought low by hallucinating humans is rejected out of hand. Tucker isn’t interested in that sort of tale. The story Tucker wants to hear has to involve conspiracy and deception. There must be wheels within wheels. There must be something growing in the shadows.
But stories like this eventually become unsatisfying, even poisonous. A tale told this way becomes nothing more than a drip, feeding secrets into the bloodstream. There ends up no difference between experiencing the tale and reading a list of the fictional facts it revealed. Characters don’t grow, they just become informed, often whilst accusing each other of knowing more than they do, because that’s all that matters now.
In other words, you end up with the kind of endless digging for impenetrable lock-boxes filled with unpleasant secrets that ruined so much of TV sci-fi output between the arrival of Deep Space Nine and the end of Voyager. And Tucker’s obsessive need for that kind of story is likened to the juddering paranoia of a bad trip.
This episode of Enterprise aired on the 1st of October, 2001, just 640 days after we escaped the ’90s and its swirl of conspiracy theories and callous grimdark. That makes it no small thing that it suggests that a desire for nothing but darkness and secrecy is evidence there’s a problem with your worldview. Suspicion and secrecy had had their day. Wasn’t it time for something new? Wasn’t it time to clear the air?
In short, this strange new world is simply one in which optimism is given room to breathe. It would have been nice to spend more time there, really. But we know now that history would conspire to make sure we wouldn’t get to stay for long. 9/11 arrived fifteen days before “Broken Bow” did. The week this episode was broadcast was the same week Operation Enduring Freedom kicked off the invasion of Afghanistan. The hope that the 21st century could be a fresh start hit jagged rocks and sank fast.
Just for a little while, though, it appeared as though things might finally work out. It felt like we might be allowed to stand in a meadow, stare at the distant mountains, and think to ourselves: “Yeah. Yeah, this is going to be fine.”
1. A Man Alone
2. Strange New World
3. Where No Man Has Gone Before
4. One Of Our Planets Is Missing
5. Time And Again
6. Code Of Honor
Seasons 1 Orderings (so far)
1. Deep Space Nine
3. The Animated Series
=5. The Original Series
=5. The Next Generation
GS Blogger: Ric Crossman