Hasslein Blog: BLU-RAY REVIEW: Star Trek: Enterprise Season One


Hasslein Blog

Thursday, April 18, 2013

BLU-RAY REVIEW: Star Trek: Enterprise Season One

By Rich Handley

When Enterprise debuted in September 2001 (my god, Bones, has it really been that long?), I admittedly wasn't hooked. And although I kept watching for a couple years, my enthusiasm level never really rose. Despite being someone who'd watched and recorded every single episode of the five previous TV series (including the cartoons), I just couldn't connect with Enterprise. I wanted to, having been a lifelong Trek fan and an admirer of Scott Bakula's work on Quantum Leap. The concept of a The Right Stuff approach to Starfleet's origins was an intriguing and novel departure from 21 seasons set in the 24th century, and I was fascinated by the potential that Enterprise offered for featuring stories setting up what we saw during James T. Kirk's day.

The pilot episode, "Broken Bow," had a strong story, opening with a very logical starting point for Star Trek—first contact with the Klingons—and a solid framework upon which to build a new show. The characters of Archer (Bakula), T'Pol (Jolene Blalock), Tucker (Connor Trinneer), Phlox (John Billingsley) and Reed (Dominic Keating) were the clear standouts, and I was curious to know more about them. Plus, the pilot featured strong performances by Gary Graham as Ambassador Soval and Vaughn Armstrong as Admiral Forrest, as well as the unexpected return of James Cromwell as First Contact's Zephram Cochrane. It seemed like a recipe for success.

But I wasn't hooked. In fact, I walked away feeling vaguely dissatisfied, like one might feel after a Thanksgiving feast that looked mouth-wateringly delicious, filling the house with savory smells for days leading up to the joyous feast, but ultimately consisting of turkey slightly overcooked, mashed potatoes a bit too cold and gravy a tad lumpy, with stale biscuits on the side. (Don't worry, despite how it may seem, this is not a negative review.)

It may have been the ship's technology, which looked too advanced compared to that of The Original Series, set a century later. It may have been the introduction of holodecks, viewscreens and phasers, as well as the Borg and the Ferengi, far too soon in the timeline. It may have been the characterization of Vulcans in early seasons as deceptive, warlike, snobbish and easily angered. It may have been the existence of an Enterprise a century before Kirk's ship. It may have been the uneven acting from some of the supporting cast members. It may have been the ridiculous decontamination scene (Blalock is jaw-droppingly attractive, and I'm sure there are those who feel the same way about Trinneer—but the brazenly gratuitous sexuality of that scene, in my opinion, is just embarrassing).

Or maybe it was the lousy theme song.

Whatever the cause, the series and I failed to gel during its original airing. In fact, I ended up losing steam before the show did, and actually stopped watching it sometime during season three.

Course Revision
And yet, when Enterprise was released on DVD, I found myself drawn to it, despite my earlier disappointment. Sometimes, shows that don't flow well episodically from week to week on television work much better when watched consecutively over a short span of time. Babylon 5's fifth season and Stargate Universe come to mind, as does Voyager.

Plus, it never sat well with me that I'd actually given up on a Star Trek series. It just seemed... wrong. Star Trek was my thing, man. My shelves hold DVDs containing "Spock's Brain," "The Alternative Factor," "And the Children Shall Lead," "The Infinite Vulcan," "Code of Honor," "Shades of Gray," "Up the Long Ladder," "Angel One," "Move Along Home," "The Fight," "Threshold" and Nemesis—and I even re-watch them time and again. Surely NOTHING on Enterprise had ever been that bad. So what was my problem?

As it turns out, I was right: Watching Enterprise consecutively really was an entirely different experience from viewing it weekly. Sure, the same problems arose, but now they didn't bother me much at all. In fact, I found myself able to rationalize them away, just as I'd always been able to with the previous shows' problems. Holodeck technology? Well, it's not like it was being used on a Starfleet vessel, so no problem. The Borg? Well, no one ever called them by that name, so Starfleet simply didn't know who they were. Vulcans as arrogant, warlike jerks? Well, Spock was condescending toward humans, there was violence beneath the surface and the fourth season fixed that problem anyway, so it was no longer an issue.

The uneven acting from the supporting cast? Well… OK, that was still there. But, hey, let's face it: Star Trek has always been plagued by uneven acting. It's kind of a Trek hallmark, part of its charm. For every sterling performance by Leonard Nimoy, Patrick Stewart, René Auberjonois and Robert Picardo, there have been just as many over the years from other thespians that have been far less convincing.

Ultimately, the DVD viewing experience completely changed my mind about this series. It flowed better. It held my attention. It had some moments of genuine brilliance, mixed in with the eye-rolling elements. And by season four, it was producing some truly wonderful Star Trek marked by expert writing and finely honed acting. I now consider that final year to be one of the best of any Star Trek series, period. (Well, except for the space Nazis and the finale.)

So when news of Enterprise's Blu-ray release was announced, I was curious at how well it could be improved upon from the DVD presentation. Unlike The Original Series and The Next Generation, which benefited hugely from their Blu-ray remasterings, Enterprise was a fairly recent show featuring state-of-the-art effects, lighting, model work and so forth. What's more, it was created for high-definition and widescreen from the onset. Would there be an appreciable difference from DVD to Blu-ray? And would Star Trek fans, many of whom turned away from Enterprise years ago, citing it as the franchise's downfall, find reason to buy it, particularly given the rather high list price ($120, though Amazon has marked it down to under $80)?

For the most part, I'd say yes.

The Blu-rays sound fantastic. The audio is presented in DTS-HD MA 5.1, which allows a bit-to-bit representation of the original master soundtrack. The result is sound superior to what the DVDs provided, and is basically on par with what the remastered Original Series and Next Generation Blu-rays offered.

Played over a good surround-sound system, the show's soundtrack provides a feeling of actually traveling through space and engaging in pitched battles.

Although the transfer is not quite as brilliantly vibrant as that of The Next Generation's Blu-ray set, and although the CGI has some graininess, the show is otherwise noticeably sharper than the DVD version—which, having re-watched it in its entirety just a few months ago, I can reliably compare against. The level of detail now visible on uniforms, sets, cityscapes and props is extraordinary, giving someone who has already seen (and owns) the entire series, but who values a quality viewing experience, a reason to double-dip despite the hefty price tag.

As I understand it, the transfer problem stems from the original special effects having been created at the 720p progressive HDTV signal format, and then unconverted for the Blu-rays, which are presented in 1080p mode, rather than CBS re-rendering the shots at full 1080p. No doubt, the studio saw Enterprise as having a smaller audience, thus making that option cost-prohibitive in its eyes. The upconverting process to a higher resolution sometimes results in artifact, particularly on moving vessels, as well as a distracting blurring of some effects.

Special Features
As with the TNG Blu-rays, Enterprise's new release offers no shortage of extras, which is a large part of why I recommend picking up the Blu-rays even if you already have the DVDs. In addition to the features included on DVD, this set also offers a variety of new segments exclusive to the Blu-ray releases.

I particularly enjoyed "On the Set," a documentary that went behind the making of "Vox Sola," in which Hoshi Sato (Linda Park) deciphered an alien invader's complex language in order to save her captured crewmates. Although this was admittedly not one of my favorite episodes, it was nonetheless fascinating to find out what went on behind the camera, and to hear input from director Roxann Dawson (Voyager's B'Elanna Torres) regarding the obstacles inherent to "directing alien linguine." As with the Reading Rainbow segment filmed on the TNG soundstage, this special provides an excellent look at how the TV series was filmed. Those interested in behind-the-scenes accounts will no doubt find it worth watching.

What impressed me about the bonus materials is that they included many candid comments from producers Rick Berman and Brannon Braga regarding the series' flaws, in a segment titled "Countdown." I wasn't expecting that, as I've mostly seen those involved with Enterprise defending it over the past decade whenever faced with negativity (which, I guess, is actually understandable... it's not easy for any of us to say, "Yeah, I messed up").

Braga, for instance, discussed how exhausted and overwhelmed he felt during the first season, and how he agreed with many fans' mocking of the theme song as "embarrassingly bad." Berman, meanwhile, admitted to begging Paramount to wait a while before launching a new TV series after Voyager's conclusion. With one of the producers not convinced the show should have even been made at that point, it's a wonder Enterprise turned out as good as it did!

Additional specials, "First Flight" and "In Conversation," continued this trend, with Braga openly acknowledging and justifying viewers' criticisms, particularly with regard to the Ferengi's appearance on the show, as well as some vocal fans' view that he and Berman "killed the franchise." Hearing such frank and honest commentary was a refreshing change from Hollywood's frequent white-washing of criticisms and failings.

The Episodes Themselves
Of course, it's difficult, and perhaps unfair, to judge the quality of a TV series' Blu-ray release based on its episodic quality, as that's something constant from one iteration to the next—any plot and acting flaws on VHS will still be there on DVD, Blu-ray and other formats, no matter how good an episode may look or sound. Still, the Blu-ray treatment undeniably enhances already high-quality material, by making colors more vibrant, details more crisply noticeable and so forth.

In addition to "Broken Bow" (which I've since come to consider the most consistently well-written and -acted pilot of the five live-action series, not to mention the least filled with eye-rolling, dated moments), I'd cite the following as the first season's best entries:

• "The Andorian Incident"—Enterprise's first use of Star Trek's blue-skinned antenna-heads remains among its best. From Jeffrey Combs' mesmerizing and grin-inducing portrayal of Commander Shran to the exploration of Vulcan religion and militarism, the episode is gripping, and it's no wonder that Shran became an immediate fan favorite, nor why the stalled fifth season was intended to feature him as a main cast member. On a side note, Vulcans waging war with another species and being downright deceitful about it seemed apocryphal during my broadcast viewing of this episode, but having already seen how season four explained such aberrations, I'm now able to watch and enjoy "The Andorian Incident" for the sheer fun that it provides.

• "Cold Front"—I was (and remain slightly) lukewarm to the overuse of time travel on Enterprise. The drastic alterations to the Trek timeline in this series make it almost impossible to view it as a prequel to Kirk's day, in which, for example, time travel had not yet been proven possible. But despite that fact, Matt Winston's casting as the 31st century's Temporal Agent Daniels was spot-on. Even when I found myself biting my lip at all the time-traveling, I immensely enjoyed Daniels' character right from the start, and always silently cheered whenever he returned. Plus, it's hard not to enjoy T'Pol's stubborn insistence, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the Vulcan Science Directorate was correct in deeming time travel impossible.

• "Dear Doctor"—This episode, providing the basis of Starfleet's Prime Directive, has polarized a lot of fans over Phlox's Social Darwinist advocating of committing genocide against those with weaker genes. But for my money, "Dear Doctor" remains the character's best episode, with Billingsley turning in an Emmy-worthy performance, in a tale un-afraid of asking controversial questions (as Trek's best entries should), or of having a main cast member take a view that, by many people's standards, would seem horrifying or offensive.

• "Shadows of P'Jem"—This follow-up to "The Andorian Incident" featured another confrontation between the Vulcans and the Andorians, Shran's return and references to Coridan (from TOS episode "Journey to Babel"). It also set up T'Pol's tumultuous relationship with the Vulcan government, giving Blalock much more to do than merely stripping in the decon unit, with Trip sensually rubbing her down with lotion as the camera slowly panned across her curvature. Ahem.

• "Shuttlepod One"—Every Trek series has its share of episodes that successfully combine humor and drama. This is one of them. Fans know, whenever characters are trapped somewhere and in danger of dying (in this case, due to space's lack of air), that they'll be just fine by episode's end. And yet, "Shuttlepod One" manages to take a tired cliché and make it refreshingly fun and genuinely tense. It's all due to the chemistry between Trinneer and Keating, and the wonderful exchanges the writers gave them. It's a shame the two didn't have more solo episodes together.

• "Shockwave, Part 1"—Enterprise's first season had strong book ends, opening with "Broken Bow" and ending with a cliffhanger in which the ship's mission nearly came to a premature halt when a shuttle accident caused the deaths of almost 4,000 colonists. It's a powerful episode, and one of the few times I greatly enjoyed the Suliban. As a race, the Suliban are cool-looking and allow for some impressive special effects as they slither up walls, under doors and out of restraints. But as a concept, they leave me a bit unimpressed, despite John Fleck's skilled performances as Silik. "Shockwave," however, ups the Suliban ante, as Silik's operatives sabotage Earth's foray into space, in order to... er... well, we're never really sure why, actually, since the series was canceled without explaining who the mysterious "Future Guy" was, or what his goals were. C'est la vie; that's what the novels are for. It doesn't make this episode any less enjoyable.

Re-watching the episodes I highlighted above has made me wonder why I ever lost interest in Enterprise in the first place. Season one is a strong, if uneven, introduction to a television series I now consider undeserving of the maligning it receives. It has its share of problems, sure, and it's certainly the weakest of the four seasons. But it never approaches the face-palming low-quality bar set by the twin Lazaruses, giant Spock clones, "no vacciiiiine and no Lieutenant Yaaaaaaar," Wadi board games, giant space salamanders and dune-buggy firefights.

I'm still amazed to be saying that, though. Had you asked me a few years ago what I thought of Enterprise, I'd have likely said, "Meh... not really a fan. Great effects. Shran was cool. T'Pol was hot." But I was being unfair with that dismissive appraisal of the show's strongpoints, and seeing it on Blu-ray makes that even more obvious. It's been a long road, getting from there to here... but when it comes to accepting Enterprise as solid Star Trek, I've got faith of the heart.

OK, I completely apologize for that last sentence. I had to give it a shot. Clearly, it didn't work. I blame the giant space salamanders.

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