The Expanse

From: tlynch@alumnae.caltech.edu (Timothy W. Lynch)
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Subject: [ENT] Lynch's Spoiler Review: "The Expanse"
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Date: Mon, 7 Jul 2003 23:01:22 +0000 (UTC)
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Keywords: ENT, Xindi, Suliban, Klingons, Trip, kitchen sink
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WARNING: Uncharted spoilers lie ahead for ENT's season finale, "The Expanse."

In brief: Lots of setup, not a lot of payoff.

"The Expanse"
Enterprise Season 2, Episode 26 [season finale]
Written by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga
Directed by Allan Kroeker

Brief summary: An attack on Earth by a new alien race brings a change of mission for the Enterprise.

Before I begin the review proper, an announcement is in order, albeit one which probably won't surprise people.

When I started reviewing _Enterprise_ two years ago, I said that I wasn't sure how long I'd be able to keep it up or to keep it timely. Most of this season has seen problems with the "timely" part, and as of this review I think I have to bring my regular reviewing to a close again, this time very likely for good. Simply put, there's just not enough time any more. Teaching is not a career which admits a great deal of free time anyway, and I've spent far too much of this year with my subconscious wondering when I'd find time to catch up on reviews, making any given review more a chore than a labor of love. I suspect that means this season's reviews haven't been as well written as past ones, and it's a given that they've been less useful when they come so late ... but the core of the whole thing is that I'm simply not getting enough out of doing them to make the time investment worthwhile.

(Would that change if I were routinely getting shows that reminded me of past glories, like DS9's second season or TNG's third? Probably, but that's not the case here.)

[Oh ... and if people are wondering whether a "Nemesis" review is still on the slate, despite being long overdue, the answer is a definite "maybe." Now that the DVD is out, I may have more of an excuse than I did in the spring, and I've certainly got a bit more time at this particular moment. If the review's not out by later this summer, however, it won't be out at all.]

That said, on to "The Expanse."

I imagine there are few regular _Enterprise_ viewers who didn't know in advance that "The Expanse" would represent a retooling of the series, a setup for "all-new, all-different" adventures in season 3.

I suspect that very few of those viewers, however, suspected in advance the extent to which "The Expanse" is nothing *but* a retooling. This isn't just a case of being able to hear the gears squeak: there was so much thrown in here that the episode's just too noisy for words. There's little to no signal here.

It's not as though _Enterprise_ was lacking in potential plot lines before this. There's been the gradual growth of tensions with the Klingons, the Vulcan-Andorian conflict, the gradual growth of Earth's deep-space capability (and its effect on human society, especially boomers), the looming threat of the Temporal Cold War, and of course the eventual rise of the Federation. I can't say the series has necessarily done these all justice, but it's set up plenty of long-term issues that could be fodder for a host of stories.

"The Expanse" didn't quite wave its hand and make all those stories
go away, but it seems to be doing its best to make most of them
irrelevant, at least for a while.  Instead, we get a mission into new
territory that seems to give all the established races the willies,
ensuring that the Klingon and Vulcan-Andorian stories are going
nowhere for a while, a cause for the mission that is going to slow
down Earth's progress quite a bit -- and while there's an attempt to
link this story to the broader Temporal Cold War plot, it's presented
much more as a handoff than anything else.

The catalyst for all of this is an attack on Earth, presented fairly brutally in the first forty seconds of the episode. A probe arrives (either cloaked or via some non-warp technology), and carves a swath from Florida to Venezuela, killing seven million people in the process. The initial scenes dealing with everyone learning about it are probably the best of the episode: we don't get to see much of people outside the big three outside of Archer's initial announcement, but some of the better nonverbal acting came up when they finally arrive at Earth and see the damage for themselves. Words would probably have gotten in the way during that scene, honestly.

Trip is particularly hard-hit, of course, because he's originally from Florida, and has a younger sister who still lives there. He spends the early part of the show trying to find out what part of the state was hit, and also wondering who could be responsible for the attack. There's a particularly wrenching moment when he and Reed stand on the edge of the canyon carved by the probe, when Trip's coming to terms with the fact that his sister's been killed. There's not a lot of emotion on the surface for these two (at least in this case), but Trip's clearly in agony and Connor Trinneer does a good job showing it.

I'm less thrilled by the revenge kick Trip gets on afterwards. I understand why the character would feel that way, but Trinneer doesn't snarl nearly as well as he does other reactions. More crucially, his insistence that this shouldn't be a case of holding back, that T'Pol's "noninterference crap" should no longer apply, strikes me as risky if it's really the new sense of the series. Like it or hate it, the idea of noninterference has been part of Trek for three decades, and having a series chuck it away in favor of just blasting a few "bad guys" (a term Archer explicitly uses) feels like it's taking away one of the few things that's keeping this series in the Trek universe rather than being a generic action-adventure show.

Before Enterprise gets back to Earth, however, they're briefly surrounded by Suliban, who take Archer to Silik. Silik had nothing to do with the attack, however: he's there to bring Archer before his mysterious contact from the future. Said shadowy figure tells Archer that the attack was carried out by a race called the Xindi, who've gotten their own future informant and know humanity is destined to destroy them in four centuries. They're working on a super-weapon to wipe Earth off the map before that, and the probe was just a start. Thus, Archer's new mission: he needs to track down these mysterious Xindi and stop them before Earth is destroyed.

First, though, he's got to convince Starfleet that this information is genuine. He does so in probably one of the worst "science" scenes I've seen in a while. First, it's not a great scene as drama, because the Archer/Forrest dialogue is so stuffed with exposition that it feels a lot more like a lecture than anything suspenseful. Second, the "quantum dating" scanner is really just a magical plot-advancement device. If the idea is to draw an analogy with carbon-dating, it's not a successful one: carbon-dating only works if you know (or have a good guess of) the original isotope ratios, for one thing, which is why we wouldn't be able to carbon-date stuff we find on, say, Europa. More crucially, though, the idea that this scanner can give an answer it was never designed to is completely stupid: it's like expecting an abacus to yield a complex-number answer or a computer to calculate, to the last digit, the value of pi. (Seems I've heard that last somewhere...) No -- it's just going to give some sort of error message, not a negative age.

Even given all that, Soval's still the only one making sense. When Archer challenges Soval to come up with another explanation, Soval says that "the lack of another explanation doesn't make your assumption correct." *Someone* on the show has a grasp of scientific principles -- alas, it's the one we're all supposed to chide as an oppressive old stick-in-the-mud. Sigh.

Getting back to the main story, however, once Archer manages to convince Starfleet that his voodoo-obtained information is genuine, they agree to his new mission: once his ship's refit is done, he's off to the Delphic Expanse. I've heard worse premises, though this doesn't strike me as one that's likely to do the series any more good than what the last two seasons have done.

Why? For one, there's the historical factor. One heretofore unknown race getting power from the future I could see as fitting into Fed history, if barely. A second one which kills seven million humans in one shot? And no human we've met over the entire history of filmed Trek has ever seen fit to mention that little detail? Sorry -- too huge for my book. That's akin to writing a history of the 21st-century U.S. and leaving out the September 11 attacks (which seemed consciously paralleled here). One might, *might* be able to swing this if there winds up being no change in the society after the attack, but that strikes me as unlikely. (Of course, there's always the option that the Temporal Cold War will hit the giant reset button in the sky, but I'm not suggesting that by any stretch.) There's also a second reason, but I'll save it for later in the review.

The other substantial part of the premise is that the coordinates Archer received put the Xindi in a region of space called the Delphic Expanse. That rather oracular name masks a region where strange things happen on a regular basis: most ships that enter never return, and those that two come back with crews who are insane, physically altered, or just dead. To paraphrase Ambassador Soval, there are stories of new and dangerous species, strange anomalies (as opposed to normal ones), and places where the laws of physics might not apply. In short, it's a wacky, high-concept place. I can see the spatial/temporal anomaly stories spilling out already.

The biggest problem "The Expanse" has to deal with is that's it's just way, way too busy. There's the attack on Earth, followed by Archer's meeting with the shadowy ambassador from planet Newplot. Archer then has to convince Starfleet that the information is genuine, get his ship refitted, and head out to this new and mysterious region of space.

That would be a more than sufficient story in and of itself: we could have spent a great deal more time on Earth than we did. Instead, the story gave us not one, but TWO more plotlines to deal with in this episode as well.

One of them is that the Vulcans don't want T'Pol to go on this new mission, and flat-out order her to go to Vulcan. T'Pol does some soul-searching (which puts Phlox to fairly good use, and a use to which he's been put before), and eventually decides that she's needed on the mission and that she wishes to remain aboard, even resigning her commission in the process.

The problem with that plotline is that it's patently obvious she's not going to leave, ever. She's not only a regular character, but the ship's resident sexpot, for heaven's sake -- if "Bounty" is any indication, half of next season can simply be entitled "Star Trek: Sweaty Heaving Breasts" and the ratings might tick up. I appreciate that she had to do something permanent like resign her commission in order to stay on board, but would it have really hurt to go to Vulcan and *see* her have a little standoff with the High Command? Having that resignation occur more or less behind the scenes makes it way too forgettable -- this could be like almost every other Trek resignation, where the party's reinstated as soon as the crisis is over.

The other plotline that's brought in is a continuation of the Klingon arc. After Archer's escape in "Bounty," the Klingons are furious and want Archer brought back Right Now Dammit. To that end, they set Duras on Archer's trail again, giving him one last chance to regain his honor. Thus, we have not one, not two, but three battles between Enterprise and Duras' Bird-of-Prey, culminating in the Bird-of-Prey's destruction at the edge of the Expanse.

This plot, with all due respect, was one that felt utterly unnecessary for the story everyone was trying to tell. In a show this busy and this dense, why have three battles that are essentially filler? It felt as though this was an attempt to wipe the Klingon slate clean, or at least leave it at a good stopping point while Enterprise gallops off to save Earth. I'm sorry, but I don't much see the point -- the Klingons weren't so looming a threat that things needed to be resolved this instant. If the idea here is that Archer's third escape will set the Klingons fuming ever more, there's no reason why a second one couldn't have done the same. This felt very much like an attempt to keep the action quotient high, and there are times that's just not a good idea. (Would "Dear Doctor" have been better with two fistfights and three phaser blasts?)

Having some action in as filler is potentially okay, even in a story this dense. Unfortunately, it's undercut this time by the fact that Duras is really not very bright. He attacks Enterprise when it's in full view and easy range of other Earth ships, and after his second attack when he realizes their weapons have been upgraded, what's his brilliant idea? Guard his front leaving his stern completely vulnerable. I suppose the advantage of seeing this plotline resolved here is that Duras can now be classified more permanently as too stupid to live. :-)

Basically, instead of having one or two stories that are given some room to breathe, we got something like four: the attack on Earth and its effect on both the mission and Trip, the Suliban handing the "villain" mantle over to the Xindi, Duras' pursuit, and T'Pol's crisis of allegiance. There's no way a single hour could have done all that justice: perhaps a two-hour story would have worked a bit better. (I could see an easy way to do it, too: spend most of part 1 in the dark about what really happened, dealing mostly with Trip's problems and how Starfleet might try to deal with the catastrophe. End part 1 with the Xindi revelation, and part 2 with the new mission and T'Pol's loyalty question. You might even have time to work in Duras if you really wanted to.)

Instead, we got several minutes of Klingons, a few minutes of Suliban, a couple of scenes with Archer trying to convince everyone he's telling the truth, and other scenes scattered hither and yon.

In the end, though, "The Expanse" really hasn't gotten me all that excited about _Enterprise's_ "bold new direction." I mentioned the nitpicky continuity-freak reason earlier, but the real reason is that I don't think it's actually going to change all that much. As I said before when I listed all the plotlines in existence currently, the series' main weakness is not its setting. The series' main weakness is in the stories it chooses to tell, and more importantly the way in which it's done. A lot of the best shows of this season -- "Dead Stop", "Cogenitor", "Cease Fire", "Judgment", etc. -- are not ones which would be made any more likely by this premise, and something like "Cease Fire" or "Judgment" is a lot less likely now. On the other hand, "A Night in Sickbay" and "Bounty" are just as easy to do, as is "Precious Cargo" in most ways.

What this new premise does make more likely is high-concept "sci-fi wackiness" shows. "Singularity", "Vanishing Point", and "The Crossing" come to mind as three prominent examples from this season, as do countless examples from _Voyager_. Those three episodes weren't terrible shows -- but they didn't do anything to make viewers want to come back, either. Even more importantly, in a lot of ways they're fluff pieces: everything's reset back to normal at the end (literally, in the case of "Vanishing Point"), and no one's really learned much or changed at all. An occasional episode like that can work, but a steady diet of them is like trying to survive on nothing but Twinkies.

Other observations:

-- Old-time Marvel Comics readers may have the same thought I did when the probe started carving into Earth: "check to see if it translates as 'Terminus.'" (Of course, fans of the animated Tick series may simply have been looking for a giant "CHA"...)

-- Similarly, when Archer tells T'Pol, "Trip's sister lives in Florida," was anyone else thinking of "Lex ... my mother lives in Hackensack" from the first Superman film? I kept expecting T'Pol to look at her watch and shake her head...

-- And yet again ... Admiral Forrest telling Archer that there were a lot of people depending on him was a vintage "Airplane!" moment from start to finish.

-- Please, please, *please* tell me Trip's sister isn't going to turn up later as a captive. (Of course, "The Prisoner of Xindi" is perhaps too obvious a title to pass up at *some* point down the road ...)

-- Part of Enterprise's upgrade is "photonic torpedoes." Right up there with the shieldic hull plating. Folks, if it's the same stuff please just say so: I'd have no problems with the torpedoes themselves, but the coy treatment about it all bothers me.

-- What with Archer using the term "bad guys," Trip's argument that we damn well better interfere everywhere, and the military coming on board the ship, however, I'm waiting for the inevitable Donald Rumsfeld cameo next season. I certainly won't be surprised to hear Trip say, "you're either with us or against us."

-- We do get a quick glimpse of NX-02, which is due to launch in fourteen months. Given that two months go by between that scene and the end of the episode, that makes it an even year. Season 3 finale, anyone?

-- T'Pol had a perfectly good reason for staying with Phlox: he's the one treating her illness, and no Vulcan doctor is likely to. She obviously couldn't tell that to the High Command, but it's something she could have mentioned to Archer or Phlox easily enough.

-- When Enterprise leaves Spacedock, it looked to me as though the footage used was exactly the same footage as seen in "Broken Bow." Anyone know for sure?

-- Speaking of footage, the film quality on the bridge during the last battle with Duras was decidedly odd. I think it was intentional, but it struck me as very distracting. What'd they do?

-- If we're really heading into a region of space where strange things happen, are Archer and T'Pol going to get a Mulder/Scully dynamic going? Brannon Braga did say many years ago that he wanted to write the "X-Files" of Trek -- and there's even a sister involved here, albeit Trip's.

-- Lastly, Archer's closing words are "Let's see what's in there." I don't know if that was a conscious echo of Picard's "Let's see what's out there" at the end of TNG's pilot, but I suspect so.

That about covers it. As an episode in itself, "The Expanse" had a fair number of good bits, but slammed together with no room to breathe or grow. As a setup for next season, I remain skeptical. I hope this new direction works well for the show -- I really do. The series hasn't driven me away the way "Voyager" did, as I expect to keep watching for a little while at least ... but it's not left me panting with anticipation for season 3.

Wrapping up:

OVERALL: 7, I think. A watchable hour, but not marvelous.

Thanks to readers one and all -- it's been fun. That's all for me.

Tim Lynch (Castilleja School, Science Department)
tlynch@alumni.caltech.edu	<*>
"Are you willing to risk a second attack?"
"Sure!  It's not my planet, monkey-boy."
			-- Archer, and honorary Lectroid John Soval
Copyright 2003, Timothy W. Lynch.  All rights reserved, but feel free to ask...
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Hans-Wolfgang Loidl <hwloidl@dcs.glasgow.ac.uk>
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