Watching “Civilization,” the eighth episode of Enterprise is a curiously frustrating experience, because even as it fails to excite, it crystalizes exactly what isn’t working about the series as a whole. Is this the benefit of hindsight…?
Not for the first time, “Civilization” has a much stronger idea at its core than the finished episode would suggest; the idea that the Enterprise crew visits a pre-industrial civilization in disguise, nervous about contaminating the planet with technology and ideas it’s not ready for yet, only to discover there are aliens already there, also in disguise, up to no good. And it’s not as if the episode doesn’t have nice little touches in amongst everything else – the apparent origin of Starship Captain As Intergalactic Casanova, for example, with Archer kissing an alien to disguise the fact that his translator has stopped working – but, despite all of that, this episode was yet another one that felt like it may have been partially responsible for the birth of the word “Meh” way back when; it’s not that this is a bad episode, but it’s not a good episode, either… It’s just kind of there, sitting around and saying “Don’t you wish they’d had time to do just one more pass on the script before they started shooting…?”
That said, I suspect that the problems with the episode, and Enterprise in general, are deeper than one script revision away; what “Civilization” accidentally makes all too clear is that Enterprise, instead of taking the show back to the attitude of the original series, pushes the blandness always present in Star Trek: The Next Generation further to the forefront and almost makes a feature out of just how dull its main characters are. We’re eight episodes into the series, but outside of Captain Archer, Trip and T’Pol, everyone else in the show has been left dangerously underdeveloped, and seemingly exists to nod and obey whenever one of those three characters says something to them; there’s no sense of the crew as a whole being staffed by the kind of individuals who’d be selected as the best of the best for this kind of mission – they come across instead as background extras with occasional lines, which reduces the reality of the show, and makes it that little bit less fun to watch.
Worse yet is that the show doesn’t have any real identity. What is Enterprise about, really…? It feels like it should be about exploration and seeking out new life, new civilizations, but everything about the show feels tired not just to the viewer, but to the crew as well. After the original series and Next Generation, the formula that Enterprise aims to use has been played out (for better or worse), and needs a new twist to give it some life, something that Enterprise seems unwilling or unable to provide. The problem that “Civilization” fails to soar isn’t just that it’s dull, it’s that it lacks whatever element would suggest that it’s a story that we haven’t already seen countless times before.
This, I fear, is what turned people off Enterprise way back when, and what’ll be the death of the series ultimately; for a show that really show feel new and dangerous and full of the unknown, it’s possibly the most safe Trek of all. Why should people continue to tune in when there’s no danger or tension about how things will turn out?