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Photogenic, Schizophrenic You: Captain Archer, Season Two

Waiting for the judgesSo 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.

Poor Scott's hands are really tiedIn "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 Archer.

You're out of your Vulcan mind!In "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 rant.)

So when do B&B write Archer, as Archer, so that he's not intolerably foolish or a walking cliché?

The Magnificent FourThe 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.

The Big ThreeMike 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 else!

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 he improved?

Steady as she goesOverall, 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 becomes difficult.

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.

Lest we forgetIn "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.

Photos: StarTrek.com. "Photogenic, Schizophrenic You" by Jim Lehrer, sung by Napoleon XIV.

Memo to TPTB: Let Archer be Archer