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Prequel Problems: Star Trek Enterprise and the Temporal Cold War

By Thomas Anderson

In 2001, a new Star Trek series was launched – though initially without the ‘Star Trek’ branding for the first time, being titled simply “Enterprise”. This was the fifth Star Trek live-action television production of the franchise, with the previous ones being the first Star Trek or retroactively ‘The Original Series’ (TOS, 1966-69), Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG, 1987-94), Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9, 1993-1999) and Star Trek: Voyager (VGR, 1995-2001).

What marked “Enterprise” apart from the rest is that, for the first time, Star Trek was no longer moving forward in time. TOS had been set in the 2260s (as it was belatedly decided after the fact) while TNG had moved the action forward 100 years to the 2360s (see my previous rants about too many writers overusing the neat round ‘100 years later’). From this time forward, as DS9 was launched to overlap with TNG and then VGR to overlap with DS9, the franchise would take place essentially in ‘realtime’ as a consistent setting, facilitating crossover. This 2360s-70s era setting was well established and defined, with DS9 in particular developing the civilian and alien angles as well as the Starfleet one, but there was also a fear it had grown too stale. VGR in particular, originally conceived as a bold return to frontier exploration set on a lost ship on the other side of the galaxy, had too often turned into too-cautious reheated TNG scripts that barely acknowledged the distant setting.

It was clear that the showrunners were running out of ideas for this 2360s setting, and DS9 had concluded with a major war that seemed a natural stopping point. A new Star Trek series had been authorised, though, as showrunners Rick Berman and Brannon Braga stated in an interview, Paramount had generically authorised a new science fiction show rather than specifically a Star Trek one. However, doing anything else would be unthinkable. Some other ideas were floated around, such as keeping the setting but shifting the action to Starfleet Academy, but in the end – for the first time in Star Trek TV history – it was decided to go back in time and create a prequel set in the 2150s.

I have already spent some time in two other articles critiquing aspects of “Enterprise”, but this context helps explain why many of the problems underlying the series relate to a sense of half-heartedness. The showrunners, one feels, made a prequel because they didn’t have any other ideas, not because they especially wanted to explore a past setting. Indeed, one argument they raised in its favour was that it was hard to keep Star Trek looking futuristic as they moved farther and farther into the future, as real life (in part inspired by the look of Star Trek, such as flip-top communicators and flatscreen tablets!) was catching up so fast. However, as I discussed in “Star Trek and the Sixties Aesthetic”, this resulted in an aesthetic design for “Enterprise” that felt like a cross between present-day NASA and the TNG-era setting, ignoring the 2260s-set TOS in between that many fans still felt an emotional connection to. Star Trek designers like Michael Okuda had long made the point that visual design and aesthetic are hugely important for establishing an impression for the viewer. There was a reason why so much in the way of resources had been poured into making the alien setting of DS9 look distinctly different from human aesthetics, for example. Unfortunately, the decisions made for “Enterprise” sent the message that “in this show exploring the backstory of Star Trek, we don’t care about the backstory of Star Trek”. This first impression meant that the show was always fighting an uphill battle to win the approval of fans.

Let me digress for a moment to discuss cast diversity. This topic has somehow become controversial in recent years among people who apparently never opened their eyes and ears when watching any previous episode of Star Trek. One background point subtly emphasised throughout the various Star Trek incarnations is a sense of moving forward in terms of progressive representation of different groups. TOS was conceived as representative of a united Earth having moved past the Cold War, meaning that while as an American show it had an American captain (Kirk), it also featured a black female communications officer (Uhura), an East Asian helmsman (Sulu), a Soviet Russian navigator (Chekov) and a Scottish engineer (Scotty), as well as attempts at similar diversity in many walk-on characters. Finally, of course, Spock as an alien Vulcan was the ultimate outsider (though in reality he, Kirk and Scotty were all played by Canadians!) While I don’t think it’s ever been explicitly stated, I have a feeling that Kirk and McCoy as a US white northerner and white southerner may also have been intended as a post-Civil War reconciliation between those groups, as the matter was highly present in the political discourse at the time and the centennial was not long past.

Importantly, Uhura and Sulu were meant to represent ‘races’ or continents in a global sense rather than specifically within the US; Uhura was from ‘the United States of Africa’ while Sulu was originally unspecified Asian – his name came from the Sulu Sea in the Philippines, which Gene Roddenberry knew of through his WW2 service. Later, the film Star Trek IV would give Sulu his actor George Takei’s own backstory, making him a Japanese-American born in San Francisco (despite Japanese not having names including the letter L). While it adds a certain resonance, I don’t like this change as it foretells an increasing shift from ‘representing the different races of Earth’ to just ‘representing the different races of America’, which would later lead to characters like Harry Kim in VGR. Regardless, this representation had a huge impact – Uhura’s actress Nichelle Nichols considered quitting (as her role was often a minor one) but Martin Luther King Jr himself persuaded her to stay on the show. Years later, Whoopi Goldberg would approach Gene Roddenberry to take the role of Guinan on TNG, and Roddenberry would be shocked when she told him that there had been no black people in television science fiction before Uhura – her character had inspired millions.

In TNG, there was a shift towards focusing on representing outsiders in an in-universe sense (such as the Klingon Worf and the android Data, though Worf’s actor Michael Dorn is black) though Roddenberry was keen to see a non-American captain. We forget how controversial Captain Picard, slightly inspired by Jacques Cousteau as a French explorer (though played by the very English Patrick Stewart) was in the early days. First officer William T. Riker was more reassuringly American, though quirkily from the state of Alaska. Originally Marina Sirtis, an Englishwoman born to Greek parents, was planned to play the tough Latina female security officer Macha Hernandez (inspired by Vasquez from “Alien”) while Denise Crosby would have played the empath Counselor Deanna Troi. Roddenberry decided to switch the two roles, which had the unfortunate side effect of depriving Star Trek of Latino representation (the closest it would come would be minor VGR recurring character Lt Ayala). Crosby’s take on the security role, Lt Tasha Yar, would be of vaguely unspecified Slavic background and born on a tough frontier colony world, making her emotionally defensive of the opportunities afforded by the utopian Federation she had escaped to.

Unfortunately, early TNG was highly cautious in what Roddenberry would allow, and Crosby ended up leaving the show in its first season. Her absence would, however, leave a gap for Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton) to become a more prominent character, becoming chief engineer. La Forge was a double whammy for representation, being both black (eventually stated to be born in Somalia to African-American parents) and blind, using a technological ‘VISOR’ to see in a different manner. Representation of disabled people in Star Trek has always been problematic, due to the obvious objection that surely the setting’s futuristic technology would be able to cure or minimise their disabilities. La Forge is probably the most successful execution of the concept, with other attempts – such as DS9’s attempt to put a character in a wheelchair – not becoming well established. Importantly, his character also represents a rejection of the idea that minority representation means boring, squeaky-clean characters without flaws out of fear of offending someone; La Forge was notably awkward around women to the point of creepiness, a problem which many real-life Star Trek fans stereotypically struggle with. The show generally did a reasonable job of portraying this as a negative and showing him eventually overcoming it, as it also did with the recurring character Reg Barclay.

Garrett Wang at FedCon 2013. Photo taken by Lieven L. Litaer and shared under the CC BY 3.0 licence.

DS9 and VGR were both defined by one big ‘first’ at the top of the cast, DS9 having the first black captain (Avery Brooks as Benjamin Sisko) and VGR having the first female captain (Kate Mulgrew as Kathryn Janeway). Importantly, while Star Trek had historically taken the attitude of leaving representation as a silent statement (with the logic that in the future we have moved past people actually commenting on someone’s ethnicity in-universe) Brooks would explore the historical treatment of African-Americans in episodes such as “Far Beyond the Stars”. However, the rest of the cast generally saw less thought put into representation in a mindful or informed sense, more a box-ticking exercise. For example, VGR saw an attempt at Native American representation with Robert Beltran as Chakotay, but in a way that often ended up rather clueless if not offensive. VGR actor Garrett Wang would later suggest to Berman and Braga that a Chinese regular appear in “Enterprise” as Star Trek had yet to have one; they responded with surprise, thinking that Wang had just been playing one for the past seven years. (Wang, who actually knew that Kim was a Korean not Chinese name, had been playing Harry Kim as Korean-American for all that time). This really reflects a broader sense of malaise with the franchise, of less thought and effort being put into background research. For example, the pilot episode of “Enterprise” would involve a scene set in the Rigel star system, with character dialogue implying this was an alien name no-one had heard of, rather than a well-known real-life star in the constellation of Orion.

That brings us neatly back to “Enterprise” and its casting. Bizarrely, the cast of “Enterprise” was (in terms of background) virtually identical to that of TOS, except with a few madlibs swapped around. Once again there was a northern American captain, Jonathan Archer (played by Scott Bakula of “Quantum Leap” fame) and a Vulcan first officer, this time the female T’Pol (who ended up in a catsuit like Seven of Nine of VGR and got rubbed with antiseptic gel in the first episode, because we have apparently gone backwards in terms of gender equality). Instead of a southern American doctor, a female black comms officer and a Japanese helmsman, there was a southern American engineer, a female Japanese comms officer and a black helmsman. A Scottish engineer was swapped out for an English security officer. And so on. It was so close it can only have been deliberate. This leaves one with the baffling conclusion that the one way in which “Enterprise”’s showrunners attempted to evoke TOS was the one way in which it made no sense to do so. Ignoring all the visual evocations of “Star Trek” that fans wanted in favour of one that would disappoint people (like Garrett Wang) who had wanted to see representation from different groups. It is not as if there was some internal timeline consistency factor that meant one couldn’t use different groups of humans yet!

A very similar conundrum concerns the name of the ship. “Enterprise” is a baffling choice considering how much of a continuity snarl it creates, and the fact that the last two series had gotten viewers used to following a ship that wasn’t called the Enterprise. As a historic and much-referenced ship name, many characters had described past incarnations of the Enterprise and even listed or numbered them, meaning casually inserting one into the list which had never been mentioned before – which had been Earth’s first warp 5 ship and itself historically important – was a bizarre decision. It even led to creepy 1984-style edits of past media like “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” to add the new-old ship in, and its retroactive addition to Captain Picard’s wall-mounted models of past Enterprises in the later TNG films. Fans, who disliked how Archer’s character was written, joked that he must have screwed up so badly that he and his ship had been written out of history.

This begs the question of why they used the name, and I think there are two reasons: firstly perhaps because they wanted a sense of ‘back to basics’, much like how VGR had originally been pitched as a ‘return to exploration’ after the static setting of DS9, and secondly because they strangely wanted to ditch the name “Star Trek”. Perhaps related to Paramount originally authorising the showrunners generically to produce a new science fiction show, Berman and Braga said that “Enterprise” didn’t need the “Star Trek” prefix because people already treated the names as synonymous. Because all such confident radical pronouncements are always inevitably gone back on (past articles passim) from season 3 onwards the title was changed to “Star Trek: Enterprise”. This annoys me no end because I grew up with people who didn’t know Star Trek well referring to “The Startrek Enterprise” when they meant “The Starship Enterprise” and it felt like the show itself was trolling me at this point! Anyway, for this silly idea to work then the ship needed to be named “Enterprise” even when it made no sense.

What makes this odder is that it felt like they had set themselves up for a much better choice of name. A couple of years before “Enterprise” was launched, there had been a VGR episode titled “Hope and Fear”, which had featured Starfleet supposedly sending a ship with a new advanced drive to rescue Voyager from its exile in the Delta Quadrant. It had eventually turned out that it was an alien trick (um, spoilers) but the fact that it was convincing shows that the ship and name was expected to the crew. The ship was called the USS Dauntless NX-01-A. That registry number had a resonance to longtime fans; the NX (rather than NCC) prefix signifies a new experimental prototype, the A indicates the second ship to bear the name, and the 01 suggests that the first Dauntless had been Starfleet’s first ship, or perhaps the first ship to have a certain kind of warp drive. This would then mirror how this Dauntless was presented as the first Starfleet ship with the new advanced drive. It would therefore have made about a million times more sense to title this prequel series Star Trek: Dauntless and feature a ship that had never explicitly been referenced before, but that the VGR episode had implied the existence of. I half wonder if this was planned and then changed, because the Enterprise in “Enterprise” indeed has the registry number NX-01. Also come on, Dauntless is a cool name, as Jack Campbell (see my earlier article on his Lost Fleet series) would agree. Anyway, it’s the same situation as with the casting – they go for the superficial link to past Star Trek series and ignore the more meaningful one.

Star Trek in general has always been slightly notorious for a tendency to make up new alien planets and races of the week and then never feature them again. This is OK when it’s the equivalent of the era of Columbus and Magellan IN SPACE exploring on the frontier, and it’s individual minor planets with less technologically advanced civilisations – but the same attitude is taken when it’s more like The West Wing IN SPACE making up an extra continent to have a geopolitical crisis of the week with. Unlike, say, Babylon 5 with its well-developed ‘geopolitical’ (galactopolitical?) setting, Star Trek can do things like (in the DS9 episode “The Adversary”) have a plot based on engineering a war between the Federation and the Tzenkethi, who have never been mentioned before, will be mentioned precisely once again, will never appear on screen, yet somehow are a significant enough power for this war to be of serious consequences. VGR had the get out of jail clause that the ship is on a long journey back to the Alpha Quadrant and can therefore run into a different race every week, but then had the opposite problem that the same aliens might reappear in-universe twenty thousand light-years down the line because the showrunners had forgotten the ship had moved so far.

John Billingsley as Dr. Phlox, a member of a race never seen before in Star Trek

Anyway, annoying though this tendency is in other incarnations, it became absolutely fatal in “Enterprise” and another factor that felt inimical to a prequel. We are not talking about the distant frontier here, but the first explorations of the area that will later become the core of the Federation. Fans wanted to see first contact with races that would later become allies (as the show did, to be fair, do with the Andorians). But too often it either made up new races we’ve never seen before (like the Denobulans, the race of the Enterprise’s doctor, Phlox) or featured ones where we’d already seen first contact with them centuries later (most infamously the Ferengi). For all the criticism of it, “Star Trek: Discovery” has generally done this better, developing existing TOS background races like the Saurians, and coming up with justified explanations for when it invents new races (e.g. Saru is the only one of his race to escape his pre-warp civilisation as a refugee, so it makes sense no others would have appeared on screen in-universe or been mentioned before). Again, the problem with “Enterprise” was not just that it was cavalier about continuity, but that it kept sending the message that the showrunners weren’t really interested in embracing its nature as a prequel – they’d rather fling reheated ideas they were familiar with from previous, later-set incarnations on the screen.

Ultimately this was the worst factor. Just as VGR had frequently only half-heartedly acknowledges its ‘distant lost ship’ premise in favour of reheated TNG scripts, so too the same would happen for “Enterprise” – except even worse. At least the crew of Voyager had come from the same era as TNG, but “Enterprise” would feature TNG filler scripts happening to what was meant to be Earth’s first groundbreaking crew on their first groundbreaking mission. This attitude was mirrored in the halfhearted attempt to show technology as more limited. While there was some effort put into emphasising a lack of tractor beams and shields (substituted with a physical grappling hook and ‘polarise the hull plating!’) too often any differences that’d make it harder to recycle a TNG script would be minimised. For example, transporters were treated as a fairly new technology in TOS, yet they already appear in “Enterprise”. While presented as dangerous (and an accident does afflict a crew member in an early episode) they are soon used routinely, and the pilot features the ridiculous scene of Archer being beamed away even as someone shoots him through the heart with a phaser – something that would have looked implausible even with TNG levels of technology.

And speaking of phasers – as lasers rather than phasers are mentioned in the original TOS pilot “The Cage”, fanon had decided that phasers were a recent invention in TOS and Starfleet had previously used lasers. Granted, this is one of those cases I’ve written about where fanon makes something up and then pouts when the show doesn’t do it the way they’ve imagined; yet without endorsing this attitude, I think it’s still fair to say that someone writing a distant prequel should try to be as different and distinct as possible. The “Enterprise” pilot initially features the crew and ship using unspecified weapons that look rather like Star Wars blasters, which intrigued me; but then at the climax Archer is handed a NEW EXPERIMENTAL WEAPON called a ‘phase pistol’ and the ship gets ‘phase cannons’ (it doesn’t count if we don’t put an R on the end, lads) and we’ve soon forgotten any attempt to portray it differently from TNG. There was a brief attempt to give the ship an earlier form of torpedo weapon (not helped by them just being vaguely described as ‘torpedoes’) but the end of the second season saw photon (sorry, photonic) torpedoes being reintroduced, just in case you were worried we weren’t going to put in everything you recognise from your favourite Star Trek shows set two hundred years later.

It is this attitude of deliberately avoiding difference to the setting that drives me up the wall. Often the show would attempt to do actually interesting and meaningful stories, playing on the idea that humans are new to space, the Vulcans having helped us recover from World War III but now suspicious of our intentions, yet as newcomers we can do things they cannot such as broker a peace between them and the rival Andorians (as seen in TOS, an actual good link). Yet when it came packaged in an aesthetic and attitude that so emphatically rejected presenting ‘this is an earlier period’, it was never convincing and was always fighting that uphill battle for fan acceptance. Not when you added holodecks and cloaking devices in the same episode and act as though mumbling the word ‘stealth’ over the latter makes it different. Not when said episode involves male engineer ‘Trip’ Tucker getting pregnant, a Red Dwarf joke sci-fi idea played absolutely straight.

So much for the big problems with “Enterprise”. Now let’s talk about its one big idea that should, in theory, have made it worthwhile as a programme: the Temporal Cold War. This was first hinted at in the pilot, in which the Suliban (yet another alien race we’ve never met before…) are being directed by a shadowy presence from the future, whose nature was never revealed. Critic Chuck Sonnenburg sarcastically described him as ‘Future Guy’, a term which eventually started being used by the show’s production itself. However, the Temporal Cold War became better explained with the debut of Daniels, a recurring character who seems to be just another junior officer on Enterprise, but turns out to actually be an undercover agent from the future with his own agenda.

Then and now, my impression is that fans absolutely hated this plotline idea; then and now, I’m not sure why as I always thought the concept (not necessarily the execution) was intriguing and potentially enough to save the show from its other disadvantages. I should say that while I sounded very negative in most of this article, at the time “Enterprise” was on, I was usually the one defending it against its critics and urging them to give it a chance, and the Temporal Cold War was a big part of the reason for this. I think what may have motivated the fan dislike is both a sense that VGR had already overused time travel as a plot device, and also that some fans interpreted it as part and parcel of the same ‘We would rather do literally anything except explore the backstory of Star Trek in this show about the backstory of Star Trek’. Indeed, when Manny Coto took over for season 4 and began remodelling the show to better appeal to fans, one of the earliest nods to this was Archer giving an author filibuster that he wanted the Temporal Cold War out of his affairs for ever now, reflecting fan dislike of it. But I don’t think this is fair, and here’s why.

I’ve already written many times in these articles that prequel writing is challenging. You are straitjacketed by what has previously been established and must pussy-foot around accidental contradictions, but if you do that perfectly, you run the risk of making a product that feels cautious and not a compelling story on its own. Conversely, if you make a time travel story about ensuring history runs on track – but it’s about something we already know about the history of – then that runs the risk of being boring and predictable. There is a risky compromise possible here, which Star Trek had already managed to pull off several times. “The City on the Edge of Forever”, often cited by critics as the best episode of TOS, involved time travel to the 1930s where a tiny intervention had led to a Nazi victory in WW2, but Kirk and Spock have to find out exactly what it was – and, tragically, it turns out that an idealistic campaigner whom Kirk had grown to love had to die in order for history to play out as it should. VGR’s “Future’s End” featured a 29th century timeship’s captain believing he had to destroy Voyager to stop a future catastrophe, but ended up crash-landing in the 20th century and accidentally leading to the founding of Microsof – sorry, Chronowerx – based on his ship’s advanced technology. More boldly, DS9’s “Past Tense” had the crew stuck in the 2020s, an era that still lay in the future, with Captain Sisko having to take the place of an influential campaigner who was accidentally killed before his time. The same boldness was used in “Star Trek: First Contact”, which I have already gushed – I mean wrote – about in a previous article. The writers took the 2060s, an era which we knew almost nothing about, and used that as the setting for our 24th century heroes to have to ensure history was put back on track. The viewer gets to learn about what the history ‘should’ be as it goes on, rather than this being boring and predictable because we already know.

I’ve already mentioned in that same previous article that “Enterprise” was heavily derived from “First Contact”, looking forward from it rather than back from TOS. It is not surprising that it also explored the same themes of this being an iconic and important age of which we previously knew little (the 22nd century had hardly ever been mentioned in Star Trek before) and both nefarious and benevolent time travellers are trying to warp the crucial events to their own ends. The Temporal Cold War idea had the potential to turn “Enterprise” from a halfhearted prequel into one which we were on tenterhooks to find out more about each important event. Unfortunately, this was not very compatible with the showrunners’ preference for episodic stories. Just as VGR was written so it could have reheated TNG scripts inserted at any time, the same would be true of “Enterprise”, as said above, which means the Temporal Cold War was only mentioned a few times each season and never became all-defining.

I think if I had been writing “Enterprise” I would have gone all-out on this and embraced the concept. A lot of fans joked that the final episode would involve Scott Bakula discovering he was still playing Sam Beckett from “Quantum Leap” and had leapt into Captain Archer to ensure history was kept on track (as was the gimmick of that show). Well, why not do that for real in spirit; have the real Archer killed in the first episode and a time agent has to take his place. Cut him off from his contacts in the future so he only has his memory, and then he desperately has to try to remember how certain events played out – before deciding to abandon such attempts and just trust his own judgement. If we saw the show through his eyes, then it would make much more sense to emphasise the TOS-like elements of “Enterprise” being more primitive than he was used to, and would allow natural continuity nods (e.g. he mentions an alien race or technology casually and everyone is confused because it’s not been discovered yet) without coming across as ‘As you know, Bob’. This could have kept things interesting while still allowing for some self-contained scripts of the ones the showrunners wanted.

Instead, what we got was the periodic interventions of Daniels (who is from the 31st century – Star Trek time travel writers have no sense of scale) and the third season plot arc which saw the Xindi (yet another alien race we’ve never heard of before) attacking Earth in what is totally not 9/11 IN SPACE for no reason that made sense. Then the Temporal Cold War arc ended in a WW2 opener to season 4 as said above, we never found out who Future Guy was or what his intentions were, and so on. Ultimately I find this all the more frustrating, because it was clear there was potential to this concept, but – like most things in “Enterprise” – it was always half-heartedly executed at best.

A tiny, but aggravating point that sums up the problem with “Enterprise” is a good place to finish. The TNG episode “A Matter of Time” is one of very few places where the 22nd century had previously been mentioned. It features a future historian named Berlinghoff Rasmussen from the 26th century visiting the 24th in a time pod, frustrating Captain Picard when he won’t tell him how a crisis requiring a key decision will play out. It turns out at the end that Rasmussen is actually a 22nd century inventor and con man who stole the pod from the real time traveller. Given that this episode involved both the 22nd century and time travel, it would be an absolute no-brainer to feature and reference Rasmussen in “Enterprise” tied into the Temporal Cold War. Yet he never appeared or was mentioned, with the showrunners claiming afterwards that they’d considered it, but hadn’t found anywhere he would fit in.

These, then, are the primary problems with “Enterprise” to my mind; a show that, like VGR before it, never lived up to the high concept of its potential. This is not to say it didn’t have good individual episodes or ideas, but it faced too many intrinsic disadvantages for them to shine through. The end result was that Star Trek vanished from the airwaves in 2005 for the first time since 1987, to re-emerge from subspace in 2009 as a J. J. Abrams film with no subtitle at all, just “Star Trek”. And that is a story for another time.



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