In Enterprise, Scott Bakula quantum-leaps into the future, but it’s 100 years earlier than William Shatner and the original ”Star Trek” series. ”Enterprise” gives the ”Trek” franchise a good, much-needed jolt. Its space-exploration technology is presented as both advanced and a work-in-progress; the tone of the series is set neither by sci-fi pie-in-the-sky fantasy nor by slavish adherence to ”Star Trek” mythology, but by Bakula’s fine, easygoing yet tough demeanor as Capt. Jonathan Archer.
Archer is a space cowboy who, more in the spirit of John Wayne or Gary Cooper than Shatner or Patrick Stewart, rankles at being reined in: In the year 2151, he’s burned that the United States long ago decided to defer to the apparently superior knowledge and self-control of Vulcan ”ambassadors.” One of them is played by Jolene Blalock as a slinky but chilly Vulcan subcommander named T’Pol, a ”science officer” who is this series’ designated sex symbol — its Seven of Nine, with a look of ”X-Men” superhero-sleekness to her body-hugging uniform. Unlike some performers who’ve applied the Vulcan makeup, Blalock doesn’t just let her pointy ears do the acting: She has a slyness running beneath her Vulcan glare that will probably stand her in good stead aboard the ”Enterprise NX-01.”
On the other hand, I predict that the most polarizing character will be John Billingsley’s anthropologist, Dr. Phlox, who occupies the same fussy-fellow crew position that Robert Picardo’s Doc did in Star Trek: Voyager. I can see where Phlox’s clipped diction and imperiously sunny attitude (his chirpy envoi, ”Optimism, Captain!” already sounds like a catchphrase in the making) may get on some fans’ nerves. Me, I think the guy’s a clever little devil.
James Cromwell, part of the ”Trek” cosmos from his appearance in one of the franchise’s movies, 1996’s ”First Contact,” has a cameo in the two-hour pilot as Bakula’s scientist dad, and gets to say that they’ll ”go boldly where no man has gone before.” In his few seconds on screen, Cromwell transmits more energy than he does in an hour’s worth of his new CBS series, ”Citizen Baines.”
In general, it’s fun to see these 22nd-century earthlings’ first encounter with a Klingon — or, as a haughty American military officer pronounces it so sniffily, a ”cling-ON.” And the rest of Bakula’s crew, which includes fresh-faced Connor Trinneer as chief engineer and Dominic Keating as a snappy British lieutenant, seem like dandy adventure-buddies.
The gang has an engagingly gruesome new enemy race, the Suliban, to contend with. In the pilot, the Suliban — shape-shifting humanoids with mottled skin that looks like worn basketball rubber — send one of their number, Sarin (Melinda Clarke), to rub up against Captain Archer, but when he resists her charms, she announces her true mission: to take back Klaang the Klingon (he’s played by the fetchingly named Tommy ”Tiny” Lister Jr.), whom the ”Enterprise” crew has captured. Because the entire ”Trek” mythos is essentially an adolescent fantasy world, sex has tended to be re- or suppressed — which in turn makes it all the more tantalizing. But ”Enterprise” may break through that barrier because it deals with a future time when humans are still, as T’Pol puts it, ”impulsive.”
It’s also intriguing the way, just by making ”Enterprise” a prequel to the original ”Star Trek,” the show’s veteran producer-writers, Rick Berman and Brannon Braga, have reawakened in themselves the spirit of ”Trek” inventor Gene Roddenberry, who strove to make his tales something more than space operas. As the erudite science-fiction writer and critic Thomas M. Disch has pointed out, all the various incarnations of ”Star Trek” present the future as a utopia — a place where there is no war or hunger. In the case of ”Enterprise,” the series has much to say, in its alien-encoded way, about race and fear of the unknown, about the ambivalence one should have regarding faith in technology.
Of course, this being a ”Trek” enterprise, the show also has its share of portentous, silly dialogue, whether it’s T’Pol stating the obvious — ”Space is very big, Captain” — or Bakula blowing a good old-fashioned gasket over T’Pol’s attitude: ”Take your Vulcan cynicism and bury it with your repressed emotions!”
Dialogue notwithstanding, this is the first ”Trek” spin-off I can imagine appealing to both Trekkies and nonfans of this pop-cultural institution. I won’t say ”Beam me up” because, thankfully, the ”Enterprise” folks don’t utter that cliché themselves; instead, I say ”Count me in.”