Of course, there is much to learn from the masters. But there is also plenty to learn from mistakes. And the great thing is, there are so many out there, you don’t need to make them yourself. One thing I’ve made several analyses of is arc structure, specifically in the work I did to create my Twelve-Part Story Structure. Even the stuff that didn’t work.
Now, for these purposes, I want to talk about something that, as a story arc, was a great example of stepping up to the plate, pointing to the fences… and then hitting a double. Not terrible, but… not really what you were hoping to do, either.
I’m going to talk about the third season “Xindi Arc” of Star Trek: Enterprise.
I can imagine all the raised eyebrows.
But bear with me here. Like I said, I’m talking about flawed works.
So, some background: Star Trek: Enterprise was the fifth and final (to date) Star Trek series, and it came loaded with controversy. As a prequel, set a century and change before the classic Trek, and two centuries before the three other modern versions, it set some fan’s teeth on edge from the beginning, for a variety of reasons.*
I enjoyed the show, but where the flaws really stand out in the first two seasons, are when it comes to stakes and drama. Stakes were, frankly, consistently low, and from that, drama stayed low. The show barely took itself seriously, aiming more often for light comedy and cheap titillation** over any real human drama. When you come down to it, for much of the first two seasons, the “mission”, such as it was, involved tooling around and delivering fruit baskets to the neighbors. “Hi, we’re from Earth, nice to meet you!” Yeah, the mission was “explore!”, but it came off more as, “Eh, fly around and see what happens.”
Season Three was where they changed things up: both in terms of trying something new for Trek in general, and in raising the stakes for the characters themselves. The stakes were high for the show as well. In 2003, Firefly had come and gone, BSG had a fantastic beginning***, and Enterprise was almost quaint in comparison. The need to reinvent themselves was paramount.
So they tried a season-long arc, with a more reactive, aggressive mission. The underlying hook was pretty simple: Earth suffers a devastating surprise attack, and the Enterprise is the only ship capable of investigating– and possibly retaliating against– whoever was behind the attack. Woven into that was a crucial question: Can Trek maintain its relevance in modern television, while at the same time maintaining the core values of hope and peace that made Trek Trek?
The overall story-arc consumes the third season, which was a first for Trek, even though DS9 had done more than its share of long-arc plotting. But the third-season of Enterprise was far more focused towards it’s arc plot, dedicating almost every episode**** to the arc, as well as the second season finale as a prologue, and the third episode of the fourth season as epilogue.
So: we can’t fault the ambition behind it. You can definitely say they tried.
With that, next installment I’ll break down the arc into its sections, and how each one worked or didn’t work.
*- A lot of those reason boiled down to continuity complaints, or rather “continuity”, because more often than not, Enterprise didn’t contradict established continuity as much as it contradicted fandom presumptions. There are plenty of legitimate gripes with the series, but I found many hard to take seriously when they boiled down to, “This ruins my fanfic!”
**- Much has been made of the show sexing-up Jolene Blalock, which is totally true. But, to be fair, they were just as eager to strip absolutely every cast member down whenever they could remotely justify it.
***- The ending was another story…
****- Almost. Which is one of the problems I’ll get into.