God, Nitrogen Sulfide, and Sweaty Vulcan Butt

30 Jan 2006

So, we had a bit of a TV party this weekend with a family friend. None of us had ever seen the last Star Trek series, called Enterprise, so we got it from Netflix.

Enterprise was jarring. The pilot has a promising start, and the casting seems all right, but the writing was sub-par. Although we see the beginnings of Star Fleet and hear about the extensive crew training, the crew seems incredibly untrained. There are references to training missions in hostile environments, but at the first sign of stress, the crew members begin to crack up and point weapons at each other. There’s almost a complete lack of professionalism of any kind. The Vulcans seem to think that humankind is not ready for space travel. The humans seem to counter them by working as hard as possible to prove them right!

I’m not talking about off-duty banter and camaraderie; I’m talking about landing on a newly discovered planet, or first contact with a new alien race. That’s baffling. The theme song has electric guitars and drums over scenes of twentieth-century explorers, where every other Star Trek theme has featured classical instrumentation. That’s jarring. The series seems to have an undercurrent of American cowboy-exceptionalism mythology that Grace found particularly objectionable, not because it isn’t entertaining, but because the way it is presented it doesn’t ring true.

The captain keeps a dog on the ship. When the crew visits a newly discovered Class M planet, the first thing the captain does is let the dog off the leash to go crap. He’s been holding it all the way from Earth. After all, alien planets are really just big doggie parks, right? The unfolding story then doesn’t even follow internal Star Trek rules, as the dog is not immediately eaten/captured/taken over by an alien life form, just as the newly introduced junior crew member (aka red shirt) is not killed horribly, even though he is stupid enough to deserve to die.

The technobabble is even worse than usual in this series. At one point the ship considers investigating a planet with a Nitrogen Sulfide atmosphere. Nitrogen and sulfur are in adjacent columns on the periodic table. Please. You can have all the gravimetric anomalies, cosmic string fragments, nanotechnology, and unknown forms of radiation you want, but leave the periodic table alone, OK? (N.B.: apparently NS has been detected in comets and in interstellar gas clouds, but I still don’t think a planetary atmosphere of NS makes any sense.)

You can’t have a quasi-military organization with no effective discipline. You can’t have crises in a spaceship in which the crew falls apart at the first sign of something interesting. I will just mention in passing three recent films that passed through our DVD player, all of which feature heroic characters with a great combination of competence, humor, and human frailty. Any of these storylines feels ten times more real than Enterprise. They are: Apollo 13, Mississippi Burning, and Catch Me if You Can.

It’s a shame, because the cast is quite good. Where did the writers for Enterpise learn screenwriting, truck driving school? On the other hand, after seeing Enterprise, it seems plausible that Joss Whedon’s Firefly may have been influenced by what worked and what didn’t in Enterprise, so maybe some good came of this failed experiment.

There’s a sequence in which a sweaty, half-naked Vulcan with bulging breasts and erect nipples rubs down a sweaty, half-naked male. The two of them are actually arguing at the time. It is almost impossible to pay attention to what they are arguing about, as the camera lingers on her glistening butt-cleavage and his hairy upper thighs. This scene comes out of nowhere.

While I’m all in favor of sweaty female Vulcan butts, and a genuine softcore Star Trek could be fun to watch, I don’t know if I should laugh or cry at this scene. This kind of thing would work better in Firefly, but Whedon would have leavened it with a bit of humor. Here it is purely gratuitous tease. This is Star Trek, but it looks like a piece of fan slash fiction. I can understand why it failed to engage the fan base. It must have also failed to engage new fans. Apparently the viewing audience dropped off rapidly. It’s a shame. I don’t claim to know what the next successful Star Trek series should look like, but it is clear this wasn’t it.

We also continued with the second disc of Joan of Arcadia, Season One. Joan is a show about a teenage girl from a wealthy family living in a privileged enclave. Her all-star athlete brother has recently been paralyzed in a serious car accident and is now confined to a wheelchair. Her father is chief of police, and her mother works in the administrative office at her high school. One day God begins speaking to her.

With that setup, it could be awful. In fact, it is done very well. God speaks through the voices of an array of other characters and takes on their personalities while retaining an exalted message. What Joan learns, essentially, is the inter-causality of all things. It feels Buddhist. It has an array of great supporting characters. It is, on occasion, quite moving. It’s very well-written, and that’s rare!

Apparently, like Firefly, Joan only made it about one season before cancellation — but it seems to me a far better fate to be too good for TV than to be too poor by by comparison to other TV shows.

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