“This episode is a gift to the fans” is the line creators always use when hyping up a series’ finale. Sometimes, it’s true. Recently, Fringe ended with a thrilling, poignant episode, full of elegant (and sometimes disgusting) ties to past installments. But what do you do if you’re trying to give a gift to fans who, until recently, hated your show?
If you’re the producers of Star Trek: Enterprise, you abandon everything that made people like your show, and make one of the worst series finales ever.
Star Trek: Enterprise is not the worst series in the franchise but it is the dullest. Enterprise was nominally a prequel to the original 60s Star Trek, set in a rough time defined by conflict with Klingons and Romulans. In practice, however, Enterprise was Next Gen lite. The Klingons and Romulans were bit players in the convoluted time travel antics of the Suliban and their shadowy benefactor from the future – creatively dubbed “Future Guy”. Species first introduced in Next Gen made appearances – but to make sure continuity wasn’t disrupted, villains such as the Borg or Ferengi would refrain from mentioning their name. All the technology from the more recent series was there, but with a different name and a silver coat of paint. The series was still a procedural about weekly encounters with generic aliens you’d never see again, despite the heavy serialization of the then-recent (and best) Star Trek, Deep Space Nine. Enterprise was Next Gen with worse writing and a painfully generic cast headed by Scott Bakula as the bland Captain Archer, whose arguments with Vulcan second-in-command T’Pol were meant to call to mind the relationship between McCoy and Spock, and instead seemed more like childish tantrums.
With the third season, Enterprise embraced serialization, giving a single horrible story room to grow over twenty episodes. The third season’s arc was a metaphor for the War on Terror, abandoning the Suliban in favor of the Xindi, an alliance of species who attack Earth. The Enterprise goes after the Xindi like – metaphor alert! – the US hunted Bin Laden. Of course, the Xindi spent their time in evil councils straight out of a Saturday morning cartoon. The producers of Enterprise looked at al-Qaeda and thought of giant bugs hatching evil plots to destroy Earth. Compare this plotline to how Enterprise’s contemporary Battlestar Galactica handled the same theme, and you have a good sense of why no one cared about Enterprise circa 2003.
But then Enterprise turned itself around in its unique fourth season – a season that not coincidentally was in the hands of a new showrunner, Manny Coto. While the cast remained dull, the storytelling gained new energy out of an unusual format – the season consisted near-exclusively of two or three-part stories. These stories also began to set up long-term story arcs and address key elements of the show’s original premise. The Romulans returned, the Suliban and Xindi vanished, and the series was finally going somewhere…
Then came cancellation. The show’s finale was written not by Coto, but by the show’s creators, Rick Berman and Brannon Braga.
The last episode of Enterprise was sold on the “gift to the fans” line, and when it begins it seems like it could deliver. It’s several years after the penultimate episode, and the Enterprise is returning to Earth for decommissioning. The Federation’s founding is imminent. Long time viewers are about to see the payoff that would make sticking with the show worth it. The crew discuss what will happen when they return home, and Bakula’s Captain Archer worries about a speech he’s writing for the occasion…and then we pan over to see Jonathan Frakes. He pauses the hologram and walks away.
Enterprise’s finale is not told from the perspective of the show’s cast. Instead, it follows characters from another show entirely: the Next Generation’s Riker and Troi, who witness the original Enterprise’s final days on the holodeck. This would be akin to Frasier’s final episode revolving around Cliff Clavin. The motivation is clear: remind viewers of better days for the franchise. Bizarrely, Enterprise’s finale is set during a specific episode of the Next Generation – “The Pegasus”, a forgettable entry from that show’s weak final season. Riker is revisiting the adventures of Archer to gain perspective. There are two long scenes discussing the events of an episode of another show, scenes with no relevance to Enterprise. According to “These Are the Voyages”, the entire series exists to spur a character to make a decision we saw the outcome of in 1994.
The Enterprise is heading home when it is hailed by Shran, a recurring character played by Jeffrey Combs. Shran was an alien military officer. Here, he’s inexplicably faked his own death. To support his family, he supplanted the notoriously paltry pay of a general by taking up petty crime – and now criminals have kidnapped his daughter. So the Enterprise diverts course to save her, a mission that takes the life of one of the cast, Southern engineer Trip Tucker (Connor Trinneer).
What, think that’s a spoiler? It’s not. Riker tells you he’s going to die right after the opening credits. It could have lended the episode a tragic air of inevitability. But the death is so pathetically staged, and so little happens, the early spoiler just renders the show more dramatically inert. When you know someone is going to die, you start to have expectations. Trip’s death comes when the gangsters board the Enterprise and ask him and the Captain where Shran is.
Let’s tell the story in images (primarily because I couldn’t find a video):
Everything about this sequence is rushed (it takes less than a minute) and inexplicable. Of course, killing off a main character attracts buzz to your finale, even if the character’s death doesn’t make sense or serve any narrative purpose.
There is one final misstep in “These Are The Voyages”:
Archer’s speech, which we’ve been hearing about all episode? It goes unseen. As it begins, Riker and Troi end the program. Instead of ending the series on a stirring note with the main character’s triumphant speech…we end with Riker saying he’ll go speak to Picard. Just like in the episode from 1994.
As he leaves the holodeck, we get another ending, one that better fits the line of pleasing fans. We see the Enterprise of Next Gen flying through space; Patrick Stewart narrates ‘Space, the final frontier…”. Cut to Kirk’s Enterprise: Shatner’s recitation of “Explore strange new worlds…”. And then…the eponymous Enterprise gliding off into a nebula, with Bakula concluding the famous words: “…to boldly go where no man has gone before”. Fade to black.
Enterprise’s finale was not the gift to the fans the producers wanted; critics despised it, and fans who remained loyal through the show’s troubled run were understandably angry over the finale tossing aside the show’s cast in favor of a pair of guest stars from another show. With this episode, the history of Star Trek on television ended; it would lay dormant until JJ Abrams’ reboot, which kills off Archer’s dog in a throwaway line.
I watched “These are the Voyages” when it first aired on UPN (a moment of silence, please, for the network that brought us Veronica Mars, Everybody Hates Chris, and…uh, the final seasons of Buffy?), long after I stopped caring about Enterprise, and I hated it. When I watched it again today, it’s somehow worse. Great series finales can give fans one last outing with their favorite characters, or they can seek to redefine everything that came before. Enterprise’s producers wanted to make fans happy, and throw in some big twists. “These are the Voyages” fails on both fronts: its tribute to past series is distracting and pointless. Its biggest twist is not only awkward, but spoiled early on for no apparent reason. None of the stories set up throughout the fourth season are even mentioned. An episode meant to please everyone, “These are the Voyages” pleases no one.
- Tomorrow: Two of the most popular sitcoms of all time conclude with entries that are pleasant, but not much else.
- Thursday: Let’s preemptively sob over 30 Rock.