August 27, 2014

Star Trek: Enterprise: "Azati Prime"

The Enterprise finally reaches Azati Prime. While Archer heads off on a one-way mission to destroy the Xindi weapon, the Enterprise - under T'Pol's increasingly erratic command - is attacked by a group of Xindi starships.

Wow. It's taken Enterprise an interminable number of episodes to reach Azati Prime, the home of the planet-killing Xindi weapon that's about to destroy Earth, but once they reach the Azati system it's a non-stop explosive drama every step of the way. This is season finale-level drama and peril, and it's only two-thirds of the way through the season. To say I was enormously impressed with this episode would be to understate my response. This is a stunning hour of SF television.
Archer's mission to destroy the Xindi super-weapon is interrupted by the unexpected return to the time-travelling crewman Daniels, and a quick segue forward 400 years to the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-J. Sadly all we get to see of the ship is a corridor: the hardcore nerd in me was desperate to see more. It's a timely intervention, not just to convince Archer to pursue a diplomatic solution but also to remind us that there's still a vague "temporal cold war" going on. The episode also does a great job pulling together all of the various faction within the Xindi, and showing that cracks are already running deep within their alliance. Going into this episode it felt like it should be the climax of the entire "Expanse" story arc, but by the end it's clear that the situation is becoming much messier than previously known.

T'Pol's gradual loss of emotional control is also exceptionally presented. The stakes are as high as they could be, her leadership once Archer is gone is critical, and at precisely the worst possible time she has started an emotional breakdown. It's gutsy writing, and helps Jolene Blalock deliver a great performance. By the episode's end Archer is a prisoner of the Xindi, the reptilian Xindi faction are clearly breaking off from their alliance, T'Pol has become unfit for command and the Enterprise is under attack by not one but four Xindi attack ships.

And here's the thing: when the starships begin shooting at one another, you generally expect the Enterprise to take some hits. You might see it shake around, maybe a few explosions on its surface, smoke and sparks bouncing around inside, crew members getting through from their chairs, and so on. That's pretty much what decades of Star Trek television episodes and feature films have trained us to expect. On the other end of the spectrum there are the episodes where the ship might explode altogether, giving the audience the very clear signal that this will be a time-travel story, and everything will be magically righted by the episode's end.

"Azati Prime" is not that episode. The Enterprise doesn't just take a few shots, it is actively pummelled to near-destruction. If it was destroyed, I would have paradoxically been less tense, since I knew it would be okay later on. Here the ship is actively crippled: it's trailing smoke out of one warp nacelle, it's pocked with visible holes on its hull that don't just expose pipes and wiring but actual rooms people might have been in. In one particularly effective shot we see three people fly soundlessly out of a gaping hole and to their deaths. Obviously we've seen plenty of starships destroyed before in Star Trek, but I swear this is the most beaten-up we've ever seen a Starfleet vessel that has gone on flying. It's a jaw-dropping way to finish the episode.

This marks the 9th good episode out of 18, leaving this uneven season with a quality ratio of 50%. It's been a bit of a struggle for the series to get to Azati Prime, but now that they're here? By God it's good.

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