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Memo to TPTB: Let Archer be Archer

Kirk and the Babe of the WeekSo I caught "The Gamesters of Triskellion" on the SciFi Channel last night. Kirk, Uhura, and Chekov are captured and enslaved by disembodied brains who make them and a bunch of other captives of random races fight each other so the brains can gamble on the outcome. Each slave, called a "thrall" (one wonders if the etymology is from "being held in thrall," insert rimshot here), is trained by a "drill thrall" to fight well. Kirk gets the typical TOS female love interest for a drill thrall; in this case, she looks like the offspring of Carol Channing and Carmen Miranda by way of Marge Simpson. At any rate, after being introduced to Shana, Kirk does what he usually does with a pretty lady: he starts flirting with her. Later on, Kirk is running laps, or whatever the excuse is for Shatner to have his shirt off, and during a break he starts questioning and then kisses his lovely companion. She responds with surprise and then delight, wanting more. Okay, nothing out of the ordinary.

Miles to Go Before I Sleep The night before, on ENT's "Rogue Planet," Jon Archer is alone in the woods on a dark planet, and a mysterious woman lures him away from the camp (to ask him for help). Archer is attracted to her, describes her to Trip as "beautiful" and "perfect," and nearly kisses her at the end of the show before she slithers off to resume her normal form (something like a cross between a six-foot flatworm and the subspace death dolphins from VOY's "Equinox"). A few weeks earlier, in "Civilization," Archer actually does get to kiss the local apothecary, a spunky dark-haired lady who helped him unmask the Villain of the Week.

Now, "Gamesters" is one of the clunkiest episodes of TOS, although perhaps not the absolute worst, due in large part to the characters of the drill thralls (not the actors' fault, but the casting and directing choices which were made). But watching Kirk pace the papier-mâché matte-painting ruins, posing questions about the nature of the thralls' existence and captivity and giving Shana a glimpse of life Out There -- and then seducing her with a gentle but fiery kiss -- was about five hundred times more convincing and natural than Archer on a carefully built and artfully lit streetcorner awkwardly mashing lips with Riann when his UT conks out.

Attention Berman and Braga: You can't tape a feather duster to a chicken and call it a peacock.

I have nothing against Scott Bakula. I've heard lots of praise for his work on "Quantum Leap," his coworkers speak highly of him and his professionalism, and he's clearly thrilled to be on Trek. But really, the man has NO presence. When he walks into a room, he doesn't even part the atmosphere.

Before I get too much farther, let me head off some of the brickbats by acknowledging that this IS the first season of ENT, so nearly by definition it's going to be pretty bad, and that I know Bakula is only doing what he can do with the script he's given.

However: when Geneviève Bujold first sat down on the bridge of Voyager, folded her hands in her lap, and whispered "Engage," it was obvious to all and sundry (including Bujold, to her credit) that she was not the right person to be speaking those lines. It was not enough to have good words to speak; the actress had to deliver them correctly. Enter Kate Mulgrew, and the rest is history.

The problem as I see it is not that Archer is the wrong guy for the job, but that TPTB are giving Bakula the wrong job to do.

Kirk is a swashbuckler. He's reckless and romantic, daring and dashing, brave and ballsy, confident and commanding. He yanks his ship back from commanders, commodores, admirals, his tripping first officer, even Death itself. He talks computers into self-destructing, saves entire planets from dictators and decay, defeats Klingons and Romulans and the no-win scenario, breaks records, breaks hearts, and (in the movies) even outfoxes "God."

His exploits with women are legendary -- even within the show. When "Living Color" parodied "The Wrath of Khan," the Sulu character shouted, "Captain, you get all the girls! Even the ugly ones!" In Trek VI, Kirk kisses Martia, and Bones mutters "Don't you ever stop?" (Later, when she takes Kirk's image, he grumbles "I can't believe I kissed you!" and she retorts, "It must have been the biggest thrill of your life.")

But Kirk is not the fatherly type, as Carol Marcus well knows. His two best friends address him by his rank as often as his name. He is not a "buddy" to his crew. He is a leader. He is a captain.

Picard glaringFast-forward to TNG. Picard is not precisely Kirk's opposite, but their styles are vastly different. Picard is much more reserved, and his babysitting XO won't let him go on too many away missions, so any inclinations he might have had about meeting pretty natives don't have much chance to be explored anyway. He does have a few discreet romances, and the whole love-hate-flirt-retreat thing going on with Q, and one sort of holographic marriage ("The Inner Light"), but Picard is hardly sowing the cosmos with his seed. He is cautious and conservative, somber and studious, determined and dignified -- and confident and commanding, albeit more quietly.

He treats everyone with respect, giving the most weight to peoples' competence. In "All Good Things," when he's back in the first-season timeline trying to convince his thoroughly bewildered crew to risk their lives and enter the anomaly to create a static warp shell, he tells them, "I know, without a doubt, that you are the finest crew in the fleet. And I would trust each and every one of you with my life." We believe him. Utterly, absolutely.

Conversely, for Picard to turn around and tell "Wil" or "Geordi" to do anything while on the bridge would feel strange and a little embarrassing, like someone had reported to duty and forgotten to put pants on. Picard is in fact uncomfortable with getting too chummy with many of his crew; he doesn't unbend enough to join the senior officers' poker game until the last five minutes of the series. That's okay; it suits Stewart's Shakespeare-and-Dickens mien. The actor has a great deal of gravitas, with which he has imbued the captain. People stand a little straighter when he steps out of the turbolift.

Sisko listeningSisko grows into a more paternal view of his crew over the seven years of DS9, some of which comes from his increasing acceptance of his role as The Emissary and some from actually having a son to rear. He falls early on for one "pretty native" who turns out not to be a real live girl, has a few semi-consensual flings in the mirror universe, and then marries Kasady Yates. He is hurt and healing, caring and committed, reluctantly religious -- and confident and commanding. He is even lower-key than Picard, but that lack of volume does not indicate lack of depth, or intelligence, or maturity.

Sisko organizes baby showers and ball games. He has intermittent visions from the Prophets, which sometimes prod him to get involved in Bajor's politics. As the Dominion War drags on, he feels a great personal stake in making sure his people get out alive -- and "his people" also include all of Bajor. But he addresses his closest friend Jadzia as "Dax" unless they're alone, and then he frequently calls her by the nickname of her previous incarnation. He guides his crew, not quite a shepherd, not quite a parent, but not an equal. Civilians, Bajorans, and Starfleet alike look to Sisko to lead them out of danger and trouble.

Janeway has a more immediate pull to care for her crew maternally, because she is so very responsible for where they are and what has happened to them. She takes a close proprietary interest in certain crew members (not just Seven, but Paris and Torres also) whom she feels need extra attention. She is strong and stubborn, crazy (caffeinated?) and compassionate, diplomatic and driven -- and confident and commanding. There is NO doubt who runs the place when she steps onto the bridge. I remember watching "Future's End" and being really struck by the image of Janeway staring down Henry Starling, who topped her by a least a foot. This is a woman who stopped fearing the Borg after a few fights.

You just crossed the wrong redhead.Janeway started the trip as formal, almost hyper-military, and mellowed as the journey progressed. Sometimes the familiarity did breed a few discipline problems, but the brig (or the holographic code) was always available. Her intermittent habit of addressing her bridge crew by their first names felt natural because it was the third or fourth season by the time it became regular, and Voyager's unique circumstances helped make everyone a little more intimate.

But not too much. After the first season in Sandrine's, Janeway is never shown playing with her crew. Relaxing, celebrating, interacting -- but not playing. She and Chakotay never "cross the line" into a romantic physical relationship. Actually, she gets the least action of any of the captains; she has exactly one liaison with a real person when she's in her right mind, and the episode ("Counterpoint") is deliberately ambiguous about whether she was really interested or just doing her duty. Her other involvements are holographic or when her memories were wiped.

Janeway is more aware than most captains of the consequences of her actions, and sometimes she deliberates a great deal. The decision she makes for the greater good in "Caretaker" never stops haunting her. She can't ever forget that her orders not only affect her 140-odd crewmembers, but possibly huge swaths of an entire quadrant. There are instances when the pursuit of what she perceives as the greater good -- stopping 8472, destroying the Borg, shaking off the out-of-phase scientists, bringing Rudy Ransom to justice -- leads her to risk herself and Voyager, but she usually gets good second opinions and will consider them in her final (if sometimes hasty) judgment. And when those decisions come around to bite her on the ass, as in "Flesh and Blood," she admits what she's done and deals with what has happened.

What I'm leading up to here, rather long-windedly, is that Archer is an uncertain man. He needs to be accepted. He'll take acceptance anywhere he can get it, and he's looking for it everywhere -- his father, his Vulcan officer, his engineer, the Klingons, the dog. He wants to be liked. This is not an attitude for any captain, much less the first captain of the first Starfleet vessel.

Archer calls everyone on the bridge by their first names -- it's to the point where I'm forgetting what the characters' last names are -- as though they were on a camping trip. He treats the Klingons with the same bubbly openness he has for the Terran schoolchildren who write to him. When he leans over Travis to look at a readout or tells Trip "the moment you give up, you've lost the game" I get unfortunate GalaxyQuest flashbacks. He goes out of his way to find Malcolm's favorite food to make him a birthday meal, just because. (Sisko would have had Worf over for Cajun, but not offered him a menu. Janeway has known Tuvok for years and years and gave him a cake in private. Kirk and Picard would have sent PADDs with "Best Wishes.") Archer is simply too cozy with people who report to him. When it will come time to enforce discipline, as Janeway discovered, it will hurt twice as much, because it will be not only the breaking of rules but the betrayal of a friend. And the officers will be obeying Archer's rank -- not Archer. He has no confidence, and he does not command.

Briefly in "Broken Bow" and again in "Shockwave," Archer collects his staff and starts dictating plans and orders. It's a little funny to watch the other characters act as though Archer actually has presence, as though they are being led, when there's just a desperately jaunty cheerleader in the Big Chair. When Archer tells Trip and T'Pol that Enterprise is being recalled to Terra after the mining colony disaster in "Shockwave," Trip complains, and Archer dismisses them in what is meant to be a sharp manner. Where another captain's dismissal would be barked, hissed, or rimmed with ice, Archer sounds... petulant. He doesn't even have enough charisma to throw people out properly.

Let's look at the dog issue. Janeway has Molly, an Irish setter. She adopted Molly "because she had spunk." A spunky dog is not looking to make you happy, a spunky dog expects you to BE happy and to play with her. Archer has Porthos, a big-eyed flatulent beagle puppy who doesn't even know enough to bite the Suliban who's phasering the snot out of his master. Janeway is Alpha Dog of her pack. Archer wants to be a littermate.

Back to the smooch-the-girl problem which got me started: Archer is too kind, too needy, too eager to be convincing as a Lothario, or even a Leisure Suit Larry. There's no passionate urgency to his cover-up-the-TECH-blunder buss. His explanations are tentative, as if he can't even sell himself on his ridiculous story. He has no faith in his own convictions. We don't even know if he has convictions, other than wanting to do something to avenge how Big Bad Vulcans hamstrung his father's career. He encounters a mysterious, vaguely familiar, scantily-clad woman in the dark woods, and doesn't even try to take her hand. And when he and poor T'Pol are tied together and they fall so his face is right between her breasts, he looks so humiliated it's as if he can hear the audience laughing.

Don't get me wrong; I don't want Archer to be a sexist, obnoxious, misogynist jerk who shouts at his crew and leaves a trail of little half-breed Jonnies and Joanies behind him. He is as embarrassed for T'Pol as he would be if he and Phlox were tied together naked and they had to squirm out of ropes. (ooh! that was an image I really didn't need to come up with) These are his friends and colleagues, not love interests. But the scripts keep throwing the babes into Archer's lap. The poor man stammers and fumbles, because deep down he's a gentleman, and a gentle man. Then he remembers he's supposed to be the designated Starfleet Stud, and gives the leering and groping the ol' college try. He's given orders to recite, and recite them he does.

What is happening is that Jon Archer is being told to act like Kirk. We knew Jim Kirk. Jim Kirk was a friend of ours. And you, Captain Archer, are no Jim Kirk.

But that's okay! Archer doesn't HAVE to be Kirk. Picard was no Kirk. He wasn't even a Kirk knockoff. Sisko could never have been Kirk; he had a son and a father (and later a wife) to answer to. Janeway would have gone drinking with Kirk, but they both would have gone home, separately, sober, at the end of the night.

This is the crux of the problem, and also its solution. TPTB got this great idea of setting the newest Trek series pre-TOS, so they figure all the PC niceties can go out the window. We can return to the good old days of cowboy exploration, when men were men and sheep were nervous. And they figure that on that kind of series, the captain has to be more Kirk than Kirk: more daring, more reckless, get more girls, beat up more aliens, talk more computers into FOOMing themselves, get more girls, straighten out more backwards societies, break more records, get more girls.

Maalox Moment #47Jeez, no wonder Archer always looks like he's working on his third ulcer. Who could perform under that kind of pressure?

The solution is to let Archer be Archer -- let him be his own kind of captain. Don't force him to liplock the cuties if he's really better suited to a handshake. Don't put him on every away team with T'Spock and BoneScotty. Don't give him big sweeping speeches and proclamations to recite if he's better with quiet discussion.

Seriously, if Archer the character is allowed to develop free of the baggage of other series, then both the character and the actor can relax and develop the attitude of competent command which a captain needs. Archer needs to be able to trust himself to make the right decision. He doesn't need the Vulcan to bail him out all the time.

One could argue that this is deliberate, that Archer, representing humanity, is supposed to be making a lot of mistakes the first time out. I don't object to the premise, but that doesn't explain why the captain is so timid all the time. The people who blaze the trail can't be afraid of going down the wrong path. Brannon Braga stated in a recent Star Trek: The Magazine interview that he enjoys seeing Archer being a little naive, needing the Vulcan's help. Guess what, Brannon: much like George Lucas found out with The Phantom Menace, just because you enjoy it doesn't mean the audience thinks it's cool. We can forgive Hoshi, drawn as she is as the ship's designated Ensign Screaming Meemie (in the grand tradition of Pavel Chekov, Sonia Gomez, Ezri Dax, and Harry Kim), because we know she's going to grow out of it. The captain should be well beyond this kind of behavior. He rants in "Broken Bow" that he wants to prove that humanity is ready for the stars and doesn't need the Vulcans to hold our species's hand, but all his behavior points towards a longing for approval from some authority who knows better than he does. Archer is shy, blustery, desperate for an Attaboy, uncomfortable in his uniform. Nobody's attracted to that. Trip's inadvertent fling with the Xyrillian engineer had more spark than Archer has had with any of the catsuited babes shoved his way. For that matter, there was more chemistry in "Shuttlepod One" than in all the rest of the first season.

I don't think Archer is a bad guy. I think he can be the captain this Enterprise needs. There have been a few moments when Archer, or Bakula, seemed to break out of puppy mode. Twice he's threatened someone he was going to "knock you on your ass" (T'Pol before she was working for him in "Broken Bow" and a dehydrated Trip in "Desert Crossing"). It was coarse, but it was clearly heartfelt, and without doubt. That clarity of purpose may have come from anger, but at least it was there. He has the potential. He is capable of making the hard decisions, as he did in "Dear Doctor" (whether we agree with him is a different issue). But he has to believe in himself, and he has to be allowed to be himself. He can't keep walking in the footsteps of a man who hasn't been born yet. B&B should take note: if we want Classic Trek, we'll pop in a tape or a DVD and watch the actual episodes. The theme of Star Trek is exploration, boldly going where we haven't been before -- so go there.


Photogenic, Schizophrenic You: Captain Archer, Season Two