it was just about this time last year that I was bewailing
the NX-01's spineless, uncertain, indecisive top dog, holding
him up to his "predecessors" and finding him wanting.
A whole season's worth of adventures has passed. To paraphrase
former New York mayor Ed Koch, "How's he doin'?"
Well, it depends who's writing him this week.
That's not the copout it sounds like. ENT's
scripts aren't consistent from episode to episode, and more
often than not, the very poorest writing comes from the hands
of current Trek franchise lords Rick Berman and Brannon Braga.
So John Shiban produces character-focused pieces like "Minefield"
and "Canamar," and Archer is calm and capable. Husband-and-wife
team Mike Sussman and Phyllis Strong turn in winners like
"Dead Stop" and "The Catwalk," and Archer
is compassionate, commanding, and competent. Then "B&B,"
as they're called, churn out atrocities like "A Night
in Sickbay," and the captain of the Enterprise
comes off as a whining, immature, spoiled, obnoxious 12-year-old.
To paraphrase Q's
objection to Sisko, "You made Archer suck! You never
made Picard suck."
Let's consider Archer from "Acquisition,"
where we left off after "Rogue Planet" got me up
in arms, to "Canamar," the most recent new ep. Actually,
let's consider him twice: once in the Berman and Braga episodes,
and once in the other ones.
"Acquisition," "The Communicator," "Precious
Cargo," and "Canamar," Archer spends a whole
chunk of his air time pretending to be someone other than
who he is, or pretending that the situation aboard Enterprise
isn't what it actually is. He does so again to a lesser extent
in "Fallen Hero" and "Two Days and Two Nights."
With the single exception of "Canamar," all of those
episodes were credited "Story by" and/or "Written
by" Berman and Braga.
In each of those episodes, Scott Bakula does
a good job with the material. In fact, he does such a good
job, the audience is left wondering why Captain Archer seems
to be at his best when he's pretending to be someone else.
I don't mean to imply that the deception or playacting wasn't
germane to the story, since in all instances it was the logical
thing to do (if you'll pardon the phrase). But B&B are
at it again: Archer isn't allowed to be Archer in their
scripts and stories. He's got to be "Archer playing at
being someone else."
Could it be, perhaps, because B&B don't
have a good idea who their captain is? Or worse, is it that
their idea of "who Archer is" ranges from banal
and pedestrian to outright offensive, and he's just more interesting
when he's not being himself?
In "Detained," the captain's trajectory
from knee-jerk anti-Suliban bigotry to abolitionist freedom
fighter is ham-handed and predictable, and practically instantaneous.
His stereotypical sports-related rallying cry to the Snot
Collective in "Vox Sola" could have been lifted
from a bad Disney movie. Archer recites the "teach a
man to fish" parable to a man on a desert planet
in "Marauders." The Gazelle Speech from "Shockwave
part 2" -- I don't even want to go there. This is Dorky
"Fallen Hero" and "The Seventh," Archer
crosses paths with Vulcans keeping things from him. He sulks,
pouts, and complains. Both times T'Pol eventually asks him
for help. Specifically in "The Seventh," after bitching
that she's shutting him out of what is really a classified
Vulcan mission, she comes to his cabin to ask for him to join
her. He ignores her. T'Pol stands approximately between Archer
and the water polo game he's watching on TV. He leans over
to see it around her. She moves to intercept his path of vision.
Defeated, he turns off the recording -- as in, it's not like
it was a live transmission -- and gives her his full but grudging
attention. And then he turns her down before changing
his mind! In "Fallen Hero," Archer digs in his heels
and won't help the Vulcan ambassador V'Lar until she reveals
(again) classified secrets. This is not the behavior of a
captain, a diplomat, or even a friend. He's being an adolescent
brat -- Spoiled Teen Archer. This wretched facet of the character
dominates the horrendous "A Night in Sickbay," about
which I'll only say here that Bakula deserves a medal for
going through with it without throttling his bosses, and that
I didn't think any single episode of Trek could be worse than
VOY's "Good Shepherd" -- but I was wrong.
Actually, this self-centeredness pops up again
in the otherwise good episode "Stigma." Archer acts
petulant and personally insulted at first that T'Pol chose
not to share her medical condition with him, and that Phlox
was respecting doctor-patient confidentiality. It seems that
Archer is so cranked off at the Vulcan race that he already
believes every individual Vulcan he meets must be hiding something
from him, and has to be shaken into confessing. (Of course,
the way B&B have been portraying our pointy-eared friends,
Archer's usually not far from the mark. But that's a different
So when do B&B write Archer, as Archer,
so that he's not intolerably foolish or a walking cliché?
scene in "Precious Cargo" when Archer bows and scrapes
to a heavy-robed T'Pol was the funniest thing I'd seen in
weeks. "Marauders" showed a nice balance of leadership
and teamwork. In "The Communicator," outside his
playacting moments, he was still thoughtful and focused, considering
the consequences of his actions. He takes Hoshi's hand to
help her off the biobed at the end of "Vanishing Point,"
to help remind her that she's real and solid.
Berman and Braga also wrote "Shuttlepod
One," my first-season favorite. I enjoyed "Acquisition,"
"Desert Crossing," "Two Days and Two Nights,"
and "Stigma." (However, all those episodes featured
Trip, which probably colors my opinion entirely out of objectivity.)
"Shockwave part 1" had enormous potential, and Bakula's
anguish was very real. The moment in "Two Days and Two
Nights" when the captain pounces on a biosample and transmits
it to Enterprise for analysis so he can figure out
what species his mystery date is had a real Kirk or Riker
feel to it. His support of T'Pol in "Stigma," and
protection of Trip throughout their ordeal in "Desert
Crossing," are both clunky but heartfelt.
Now let's consider the episodes in which B&B
had no credited hand.
In "Minefield," "Dawn,"
and "Canamar," written by John Shiban, Archer is
calm and assured. He has a plan, and a backup plan. Sometimes
he needs to bluff, but we never get the feeling he's flying
totally blind. He knows when to push his opponent and when
to go along with what's presented to him, all in order to
serve the greater purpose of saving his crewman (Malcolm once,
Trip twice). He's generous without surrendering anything.
Sussman and Phyllis Strong brought us "Dead Stop,"
"The Catwalk," and "Future Tense." In
these shows, Archer is approachable and passionate, but never
scatterbrained. He can think on the run. When a problem appears,
he meets it squarely and doesn't try to pass the buck. The
bluffs are a little bigger, but the stakes are a little higher
-- the whole ship is threatened.
Chris Black's "Singularity" is one
of the high points of the season so far, while "Cease
Fire" has a TOS feel to it. In both, Archer appears as
a little too virtuous to be true, but that's still an improvement.
He's still believable.
Obviously, we have two different men commanding
Enterprise. One has a good heart, a clear head, and
a steady hand; sometimes his desire to do the right thing
and his eagerness to explore get the better of him, but he's
not malicious or ignorant. The other is a frustrated, impatient,
inexperienced, socially inept adolescent who isn't ready to
serve on a starship, let alone be her captain.
Poor Scott Bakula probably goes home and straps
on a neck brace every night just to cope with the whiplash.
Granted, some of this blame has to fall on his
plate; some goes to the sundry directors also. As an actor,
Bakula makes choices to play a scene this way or that. Directors
ask the actors to pitch their performances to the front row
or the back of the room. The lines on the page may be plain,
but it's up to the actor and director to inject them with
meaning. Look at Connor Trinneer in "Canamar:" twice
in a row his only line is "Cap'n?" The first time
it means hey, I'm trying to get your attention, there's
the guard you need to talk to, look over here! The second
time he's saying Are you all right? How badly did the bug
zapper hurt you? None of the leads on a prime-time series
should be incapable of that kind of subtlety. No one who directs
an episode of Star Trek should be such a newbie that they
can't grasp emotional nuances. Bakula is wonderful with the
right material. While I've seen very little of "Quantum
Leap," those who have rave about it consistently. Roxann
Dawson, Robbie McNeill, and LeVar Burton are both Trek actors
and directors, and know exactly what they're doing.
But for pity's sake, there's only so much you
can do with a story about the captain making his dog a higher
priority than his ship's engines.
B&B episodes are derivative, unoriginal,
lacking in imagination. I've mentioned before how for a while,
each ENT ep was sending me running to my Chronology and Nitpicker's
Guides to figure out which previous shows had been plagiarized.
(To be fair, "Dawn" was practically a scene-for-scene
lift from Enemy Mine.) The plots are predictable and
unsurprising, interchangeable with several of the other series.
Archer likes water polo. Archer likes water polo. Archer likes
water polo. We get it already! Come up with something
When B&B are not involved directly, the
plots are fresher, more interesting, unique to the NX-01's
situation. Captain Archer is worthy of his command. He's a
leader we're not afraid or embarrassed to follow. He feels,
and shows what he feels, but doesn't let his feelings override
sound rational judgment. He listens to his crew. Archer respects
T'Pol because she's earned it, and we get to see it instead
of hearing them talk about it.
Given Archer's apparent multiple personalities,
it's difficult as a watcher to analyze the character. Has
yes. He's grown a spine ("Dawn"), even if it appears
to be retractable. After a difficult season opener and understandable
hostility in "Stigma," he dealt with a Vulcan on
more even terms than suspicious cross-sniping ("Cease
Fire"). He stands up to various bullies, firmly and without
apology. He's finally thinking about what happens to the people
he leaves behind after he leaves them. These are all important
developments, and positive steps.
But they're just steps. There's no arc. There's
no clear path Archer is walking, no consistent development
from week to week. One could almost excuse inexplicable tantrums
like "A Night in Sickbay" if it were part of some
greater journey of character growth, of Archer being tested
in the crucible of the great Out There.
But it doesn't appear that Berman and Braga
have a plan. The other writers are doing their best to take
up the slack and either show Archer as already having proven
his mettle or as just in need of a little polishing, but there's
no master outline to follow. When "Singularity"
and "Minefield" are shuffled in with episodes like
"The Seventh," where Archer goes from petulant and
self-absorbed to loyal and objective in half an hour, getting
a single coherent picture simply for the sake of discussion
Sometimes Archer has past experience at his
fingertips, like his quip to his chief engineer in "Dead
Stop" about the hull scratch which happened in "Broken
Bow." Sometimes, as in "Stigma," he can barely
recall a violent attack against his first officer from last
season. (They've done this to Trip too, so it's not just Archer
who comes down with an intermittent case of Amnesia Cabbageheadica.)
Archer has repeatedly said Enterprise is "making
history with every light-year," but that history doesn't
always seem to have touched him. The B&B Archer is the
same man who left Spacedock with a "Klingot" in
Sickbay. The Archer on whom Shran calls in "Cease Fire"
has grown; he's realistic but confident in his expectations.
In the exquisite TNG episode "The
Inner Light," Picard "lives" another man's
life, and in it takes up the flute. We see him playing this
flute in later episodes. It's a tiny thing, almost a throwaway
detail, but it proves that things which happened previously
didn't happen in a vacuum. The characters remember past events,
and were changed by them, and are still reacting to them.
This is one of the things we need to see in Archer.
"Shockwave," he was flat-out devastated at the death
of the thirty-six hundred people in the colony. And well he
should have been! Here was a perfect opportunity to inject
some gravitas into Captain Lightweight, to give him an albatross
to carry for a few months. Instead, he gives The Gazelle Speech,
and next week God's
in his heaven and all's right with the world. It shouldn't
be. Archer made a point of reading through the biographies
of the people who died when he thought he and his crew were
responsible. Though it turned out they weren't, the colonists
aren't any less dead. This should haunt him. He should be
having nightmares about the next time the Suliban booby-trap
a shuttle, and there's no convenient deus ex tempora
to reveal it. Archer should occasionally mutter to his log,
"Remember the Paraagans."
In "The Communicator," Archer finally
gets to show us (rather than talk about) his understanding
that his actions have consequences, whether he intended them
or not, and that, if at all possible, he needs to minimize
the damage he does. Dandy. Now show us again. Do a
followup. Actually, there could have been a moment of followup
at nearly any introspective point, with Archer murmuring to
himself "Well, now they think their enemies have
supersoldiers, but at least they're still alive to
think." (At which point T'Pol could chime in "And
in a year? In three? When they've rushed new weaponry into
development to combat this force which they believe threatens
them?" And Archer could look pained again. Go on, hurt
him. If he can't take a little bloody
nose, he shouldn't be the Captain of the Enterprise.)
And what about Archer's personal past? We've
been told he and Trip have known each other for nearly a decade.
How did they meet? How did they become close? Did Archer have
romances? What's his relationship with his family like? What
family does he have? Malcolm obviously had a stilted and repressed
childhood and a domineering father. Trip's family sounds warm
and open. The Satos have a family recipe and reputation. The
Phlox Collective is, um, very friendly. We even know about
Silent Trav's family on the Horizon. All we know about
Henry Archer is that he's dead, and the Vulcans thwarted him
in trying to develop the Warp 5 engine. We have no sense of
background, no feeling for how other past events might have
shaped the captain.
If B&B are determined to hold tight the
reins of creative control on Trek, then they need to do their
jobs properly. They have to decide roughly where Archer, where
ENT, is going to go over the next five years. Better still,
gather the troops around and let other people with different
perspectives join in the decision-making. Send the two Archers
back through the transporter and fuse
them together again. Give us one complex captain who changes
and screws up and learns from it.
Just like I said last year: Boldly go.