Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 6.1.10: “Remember A Trashcan”

Cold Front

Star Trek Cold Front

“And this node represents the date in 2764 on which people finally stop complaining about the Enterprise finale.”

One of the earliest conclusions we came to regarding our fifth generation was that it could not follow on directly from its predecessors. We were victims of our own success; too thorough at making full use of every possibility our creations had allowed us. There was simply no plausible way for us to go forward. Which, naturally, left us with only one direction. We would have to go retro.

This too came with its dangers. The problem with revealing the past is that any issues thereby uncovered risk infecting the present. Rotten roots mean rotten branches. We needed some kind of firewall, some method of plausible deniability via which what we were producing now could not harm the revenue streams already secured.

How could this be done? The answer, when it came, seemed like genius. If we could master the DNA chain, perhaps others could master the clock-face. We could invent the ultimate scapegoat, simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, utterly destructive whilst totally undetectable. 

We would blame it all on time-travellers.

————————————————————————————————–

The Temporal Cold War is flaring up again, and it’s nowhere near as bad as you might be remembering. Well, sort of.

Pros and Retcons
The general consensus seems to be that the Temporal Cold War (henceforth TCW) was a terrible development. Personally, I’ve never understood the amount of loathing the idea seemed to generate. What’s so ridiculous about the concept of a cold war stretching through the entirety of history? Compared to every other ridiculous concept Trek has embraced, I mean.
I’m not, to be clear, objecting to criticisms of how the idea was executed. That’s a perfectly defensible position. In fact, “Cold War” itself doesn’t ultimately work, as I’ll get to. The basic story seed of the TCW has much to recommend it, however, and this seems a good time to outline the case for the defense.
First off, we can make a strong case for the TCW purely in terms of its utility. Enterprise came with some obvious potential problems scrawled across its DNA. Trying to write a prequel that doesn’t end up clashing with the very source material you’re attempting to honour is difficult at the best of times. Enterprise had to try matching up with two of the most wildly successful sci-fi shows of all time – shows which often failed to line up even between themselves – and two more recent, less well-loved but still long-running series. There was never any question that this was an impossible task.
Neither, of course, was it actually that important. There were far more worthwhile goals to pursue, like actually producing a decent TV show. That was bound sooner or later to mean needing to bend or break rules in place for almost forty years. And that’s fine. A precedent that stops you telling great stories is a bad precedent. Canon is like a cannon; keeping it maintained is only worthwhile if the result is something you can make some noise with. But not everyone was going to agree with that obviously correct assessment. So how do you make sure those fans with eagle eyes and goose throats can’t hiss and honk about how accuracy needs to trump all other considerations, including actually making the show any damn good? You introduce meddling time-travellers whose explicit goal is to change the past so as to change the future. Teams of continuity-killers running through the franchise upending everything that was once allegedly “true”.
As a solution, this is straight-up brilliance. It’s the sci-fi equivalent of “a wizard did it“, embedded into the text itself, and I adore it for its chutzpah. I mean, it didn’t work. It obviously didn’t work. But you can’t say they didn’t try.

(It’s also rather fun to realise Silik and Daniels both represent factions who are rewriting the past, just as the show’s own creators are doing. That’s a nice nugget of tasty meta. Visitors from the future aren’t an odd choice when writing a prequel show. They’re fundamental to the exercise.)

“Best Of Seven?” “DAMN RIGHT!”

The second great strength of the TCW is the metaphor it brings along with it. One of the worst criticisms of this plot arc is the suggestion that a war between time-travelers doesn’t make any sense. According to this line of thinking, the whole endeavour is utterly pointless, because every time one faction altered history in a certain way, another faction could go back in time and put everything back the way that it was.

And sure, I guess that’s not wrong. The whole situation could descend any moment into the intentionally ludicrous final battle between Chuck De Nomolos and the Wyld Stallions (spirited_air-guitar.gif). That’s a fun end to a ridiculous comedy, but the argument goes that it’s not something a dramatic series should use as a lynchpin in its development.

In fact, I think this theory is terribly wrong, and only seems otherwise when sat alongside some common but problematic assumptions. The history of warfare in the Trek universe has generally been one of existential threat.  The Borg, the Dominion, the Discovery-era Klingons. Whilst I’ve put those three conflicts in increasing order of political complexity, they were all fundamentally about self-defense in the face of an implacable alien aggressor. It was war or total destruction.

People like stories about that sort of war, because it makes everything simple. When the alternative is extinction, armed conflict cannot possibly be considered immoral or unnecessary. And there really have been wars like that in the real world. It would be hard to find any other definition for the Native American struggle for survival against the European invaders, for example, which makes fiction’s near-total failure to tackle it in such a light rather painfully ironic. Plenty of wars aren’t about survival, however. Many, even most, are about a small bunch of people who’ll happily sign off on the deaths of hundreds of thousands of others in exchange for a little extra power, power they only get to enjoy until some other gang of thugs decides to waste another ocean of someone else’s blood in order to snatch it back. Most wars aren’t noble struggles against implacable enemies. Most wars are entirely and appallingly pointless.

A war story that highlights the sheer stupidity of the entire endeavour seems to me a perfectly sensible approach. The gains made in the Temporal Cold War are no more temporary than those in almost any other. The only difference is how obvious this is to the observer. The fact society has become so adept at teaching us that war is an unfortunate necessity that must not be shirked from is not Enterprise’s fault.

There’s also the fact that, assuming Daniels is telling the truth, this isn’t actually a war at all. It’s a police action made to sound more vital by labelling it as something else. It’s the War on Terror gone cross-temporal; a struggle no more unwinnable than the one declared by the Bush administration. The sheer stupidity of the TCW isn’t a strike against it as a concept. It’s central to it.

“We Have Always Been At War With Eastasia”

And I’m still not done listing the potential virtues of the TCW. The third advantage lies in how it works off the fact that almost every war is prepared for and fought, at least in part, in the theatre of history. This is a direct corollary from the observation that most wars aren’t actually of any value to the people who actually have to fight them. If you want to persuade tens of thousands of young men that they need to leave their homes and their families so that people they never met can try to kill them, you need to come up with a much better justification than the actual truth. “The rich people two countries over are threatening the profits of the rich people here at home” is unlikely to pack out the recruitment centres.

So instead you lie. You lie about who the enemy is, and about why they’re the enemy, and about why someone who’s never set foot south of Hastings should have a pressing need to help get people in the Middle East killed as quickly as possible. And it won’t suffice to only tell those lies about the present. A recent problem is harder to sell as requiring a military response than a long-festering issue. Foreign troops dispassionately responding to the orders of a newly-unfriendly government doesn’t fire the blood like the barbaric thugs of an ancient enemy once more itching to spill our blood. Two of the most powerful rhetorical weapons a warmonger has access to are the related ideas that a declaration of war is merely a recognition of a war that already exists, and that declaring war today is a necessary compromise with those who are convinced it should have been declared yesterday. There’s a reason the famous scene in 1984 doesn’t involve the Hate Week speaker announcing war with Eastasia had only that day broken out.

Every war, hot, cold, or even cultural, involves one or both sides rewriting history. They’re all fought with one foot in the past. The only difference for Daniels and for Silik’s masters is they get the chance to be much more effective on that particular battlefield.

Sums For The Sun God!

What this all adds up to is an episode primed to tear apart various commonplace assumptions about warfare. The actual problem with the episode, then, isn’t in what its concept allows it to do, it’s in the fact it doesn’t actually land the blow it’s wound itself up for. In truth, it doesn’t even feel like it tries to take a swing. It sets up an idea and then seems to consider that job done. Everything I’ve written so far is about how the TCW wasn’t a bad idea. It’s still perfectly possible for it to be an idea wasted, and that’s where the episode really falls down. Even the unruly mess of “State Of Flux” manages to offer an engaging story. “Cold Front” doesn’t really get beyond offering a central mystery and a pair of unreliable expositors.

Well, that’s not entirely true. There’s the worshippers of the Great Plume of Agasoria, who along with their ill-tempered chartered captain are easily the best element of the episode. In particular, given the angry ghosts of the war-dead that haunt the edges of this episode, the use of these characters to expose the human tendency towards parochialism and self-superiority takes on additional weight. Prah Mantoos and Captain Fraddock act as warnings against the dangers of believing yourself better than those from another culture.

First off in this effort is the initial exchange between Archer and Fraddock. Our captain introduces himself as just that, but then attempts to get a name out of his opposite number by asking “Mister?”. I’ll leave aside the problems in assuming you can determine the gender of an alien being from their face and voice alone. There are far more egregious examples of transphobia in the franchise that we can pick at. What interests me here is Archer’s assumption of a civilian title, something which clearly annoys Fraddock. It’s an unforced diplomatic error, stemming at best from a failure to consider the importance of self-identification, and at worst from an assumption that someone in charge of a cargo ship can’t be considered to be on the same level as a Starfleet captain. I realise Fraddock was brusque even before Archer’s faux pas, but from that moment forward every scrap of shade he casts onto our captain is entirely deserved.

Similarly worthy of side-eye here is Trip, who’s the butt of one of my favourite moments in the episode when it turns out he’s been giving an FTL 101 lecture to a warp field theorist. Fraddock’s passengers aren’t bumpkins, just because they’re on a pilgrimage. Theism is not incompatible with scientific excellence. And while it’s possible Trip is as condescending to every visitor he gets in his engine room, I think we can read more into what’s going on here: a man of science assuming men of faith must be idiots. Which is something of a cliché, but certainly not one without any truth to it. I’ve certainly met academics convinced there exists a healthy correlation between faith and foolishness, so it’s worth pushing back against the idea from time to time (I’m particularly tickled they’re making this point with reference to literal sun-worshippers). Taking this line here also does what the TCW plot itself never really concerns itself with, and underlines the dangers of making assumptions about other cultures based on extremely limited perceptions of their culture.

Compare the attitudes of the human command staff with that of Doctor Phlox, who simply can’t wait to learn as much as he can about this new faith. This is exactly the kind of breathless wonder at encountering the new that this franchise is supposed to be about. Using alien encounters as a metaphor for human presumption is a fine idea, but the central concept of wide-eyed wonder at the galaxy’s variety shouldn’t be lost, and this episode knows that.

The Truth Is Wherever, I Guess, IDK

As nice as all that is, though, it’s too low in the mix to really resonate. “Cold Front” is too convinced that it’s best feature is the mystery it’s presenting and then doing nothing with.  The episode ends not with our heroes finding common ground with new friends through a joyous spiritual ritual, but the ominous blinking door-seal Reed places on Daniels’ quarters.

Given the television landscape of the time, this probably made plenty of sense. This was the final season of the franchise to overlap with the original run of The X-Files. Christ Carter’s greatest success was no longer the all-conquering scourge of pop culture it once was, but it was still the go-to demonstration of how to keep people hooked on an ongoing story-line without alienating casual viewers. For a while, at least. Besides, just because The X-Files ultimately strangled itself with its pointless convoluted, self-negating and creaking, pompous “mythology”, that didn’t mean Enterprise would be doomed to failure if it took a broadly similar approach.

And indeed, the Enterprise iteration failed in a completely different manner. The problems with the TCW’s execution seem entirely obvious in hindsight: there’s no reason for the Enterprise crew themselves to care about it. In The X-Files, Mulder’s obsession with the supernatural in general and alien life in particular stemmed from the abduction of his sister. He has a driving need to uncover the truth for personal reasons. To Archer, in contrast, Silik and Daniels are simply an annoying intrusion. They both attempt to recruit Archer as an agent in their war, but that’s not something our captain actually wants. He wants to explore 22nd century space.

Right off the bat, then, the arrival of these competing forces is presented not as part of our crew’s mission, but an explicit disruption of it. No-one on the ship has reason to care what the TCW is or who is involved in it, and so neither have we. This isn’t helped by the show wanting both factions to seem fairly unpleasant. There’s actually an argument Silik is actually one of the good guys, if you take the view that the Klingon Empire is better off collapsing (and that’s almost certainly the case), except of course that this is the second time he’s met Archer and the second time he’s tried to kill him. Daniels, meanwhile, has been ordered to take advantage of Silik’s mission to save hundreds of lives so he can arrest him. Neither side comes out of this looking good, with the result that any questions as to what their goals are become secondary to why we should care about them in the first place. Fundamentally, this is a story about two berks who want Archer to drop everything and adjudicate a fight he has nothing to do with, and they have no intention of even explaining. It’s like Sam leaping into the body of Judge Judy after both sides of a dispute have taken the Fifth. That would have been an awesome episode of Quantum Leap, but it isn’t really doing the job here.

In short, this episode sets up a fascinating opportunity for an inquest, but then asks all the wrong questions and refuses to even allow anyone to answer. Which might actually be how a lot of inquests into pointless wars are run, actually, but it doesn’t make for great television.  What “Cold Front” reminds me of most are the kind of episodes you get late into genre shows that have reached the “wag the dog” stage of their lifetimes, with individual episodes so totally in hock to the wider mythos that they no longer satisfy as individual installments. For Enterprise to have reached this point so early, without even having fully set up the arc they might later end up coasting on, is more than a little concerning.

All that said, the youth of the series works both ways. If it’s too early for this kind of unstructured sprawl, it’s certainly too soon to write this plot off as irredeemable. There’s plenty of time to get a handle on what the show has here. And for sure, there’s a lot to love about the idea that we should strive to rewrite the past so as to make a better present.

Speaking of which, it’s time that we stop in on Fleet Captain Christopher Pike.

Ordering

1. Haven

2. The Corbomite Maneuver

3. The Nagus

4. State Of Flux

5. Cold Front

6. Mudd’s Passion


Season 1 (so far) Show Rankings

1. Deep Space Nine

2. Voyager

3. Enterprise

4. The Next Generation

5. The Animated Series

6. The Original Series


GS Blogger
: Ric Crossman

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