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Future Tense (Star Trek Enterprise)

01/06/2003. Contributed by Timothy W. Lynch

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The discovery of a wrecked ship, apparently from the future, thrusts Archer and the Enterprise right in the middle of the Temporal Cold War.

"Future Tense" Enterprise Season 2, Episode 16 Written by Mike Sussman & Phyllis Strong Directed by James Whitmore, Jr.

When "Enterprise" first began, I had decidedly mixed emotions about the Temporal Cold War.

It struck me as a potentially decent plot conceit, but with the potential to become a dreadful excuse to remake all of Trek in this new series' image if not dealt with carefully.

Interestingly, that doesn't seem to have been the case, at least so far. Most of the "alterations" to Trek history, pro or con, have been in ways that have nothing whatsoever to do with said war - they've simply been around as a matter of course.

Trek Future Tense Episode Review

Now, that's not necessarily a good thing for the series as a whole, since it potentially means big contradictions are being introduced for not much reason at all, but up until now the TCW has been more of a positive than a negative. "Cold Front" was one of the more intriguing shows of the first season, and "Shockwave," while substantially less deep, made for an entertaining story.

"Future Tense" is continuing that progression, but in ways that feel a bit more empty than intriguing. It's an entertaining enough hour, but it's so busy keeping a juggling act afloat that I'm not getting much sense of what lies beyond it, if anything.

In part, that's because we're back to characters who routinely commit actions which have me questioning their reasoning ability, if not their sanity. It may get the plot moving, but it's not getting me to root for them.

The plot hinges on a derelict spacecraft which Enterprise finds in the starting moments of the episode. There are no communications coming from it, it seems almost sensor-proof, and although it looks somewhat damaged it's hard to tell what might have caused that damage.

Curious, Archer decides to bring it into the launch bay. Right off the bat this doesn't strike me as an overly smart move - after all, if it's almost sensor-proof there could be anything hiding inside, from a weapon set to detonate as soon as the hull is breached to a herd of angry wildebeest with digestive problems. But let's just accept it for the moment.

Silly Action #2: Archer, Reed, and T'Pol all walk into the launch bay and start inspecting the ship with absolutely no sense that any of them is prepared for the unexpected. Reed - the ultra-paranoid tactical officer who feels it's his job to keep Archer out of harm's way - isn't even armed at first.

What's more, once Reed melts open the hatch, what's the first thing Archer does? Pry off the door and take in a good whiff of air. He's no idea at this point if the owners of that ship were humanoid, let alone oxygen-breathers. Apart from giving me a nice MSTing ("hey, does anyone else smell almonds?"), things weren't getting off to a good start.

Afterwards, however, things start moving along a bit more smoothly. There's one body on board the ship - long dead, and apparently human. There's initially a lot of speculation about who it could possibly be - including serious musings about it being Zefram Cochrane, which I thought was a great touch.

As that mystery deepens, however, so does another: when exploring, Trip and Reed find a junction on the derelict that seems to go on for an impossibly long way. "How could a ship be bigger on the inside than on the outside?" wonders Trip. (Anyone sufficiently well versed in older SFTV undoubtedly said something about it being "dimensionally transcendental" at this point.)

He and Reed descend, and find what might be the ship's black box.

Things can't be that simple, though. The Suliban show up (albeit in a single lightly-armed craft) and attempt to claim the derelict as their own. The Enterprise manages to fight them off, but it's something of a close call - and it's clear that this is something bigger than a simple Earth vessel.

Just what it is becomes clear fairly soon thereafter. Phlox finds out that the occupant wasn't really human - not fully, anyway. He has so much other genetic material in him - Vulcan, Tarellian, Rigellian, and others Phlox can't even identify - that Phlox is convinced the man's a result of "several generations of interspecies breeding."

Intrigued by a possibility, Archer takes T'Pol into the quarters of our old friend Daniels, where he digs through Daniels' database and eventually finds the specs for the derelict ship. It's a bit of an anachronism - it's not going to be commissioned for another 900 years or so.

Archer theorizes that one of the historians Daniels mentioned must have somehow gotten stranded in Archer's time, and that if the Suliban get their hands on this ship the technology involved could change the whole course of the Temporal Cold War.

It was hard at this point for me not to see the episode as picking and choosing elements from other SF I've seen or read. The "bigger on the inside than on the outside" phrase is perhaps obvious to anyone with even a passing interest in "Doctor Who," but the idea of "humans find a ship with a single corpse that gets lots of the galaxy up in arms" is very much at the heart of most of David Brin's Uplift novels, which are greatly entertaining space opera in their own right.

I'm not saying there's any wholesale lifting being done here - ideas that basic are hard to claim ownership of, for one thing, and they're also things it's easy enough to come up with independently. I'm more concerned that about all the episode was doing up to now was reminding me of other stories.

Well, okay, maybe not all. Phlox's revelation about this corpse's ancestry also spawns (if you'll pardon the pun) another sexually charged conversation between Archer and T'Pol. Archer seems to find it intriguing that humans and Vulcans may one day interbreed, but when T'Pol says that due to biological incompatibilities, "it's unlikely we'd be able to reproduce,"

Archer gives her a look which suggests he thinks she means him rather than the species as a whole. Yeah, Jon, you're that irresistible - and all viewers want to do is picture the leads getting it on. I think "ho-hum" sums up my reaction here.

My interest level rose quite a bit, however, when a second ship comes to claim the derelict. This one's not Suliban, however - it's Tholian. In retrospect, I shouldn't have been all that surprised the Tholians were involved somehow - after all, "Tholia" is one of the words Klaang muttered way back in "Broken Bow."

The Tholians are a great choice of race to use here, though - they've only shown up on screen once and been mentioned a few times since, and as such they're a fairly wide-open field.

For a one-shot race, moreover, the Tholians have sparked an awful lot of fan interest for decades, at least so far as I've seen ... and they were visually distinctive enough in 1968 to make one wonder what you could do with visually given today's technology.

Of course, we didn't really find out what can be done with the visuals here beyond the ship - perhaps wisely, the powers that be decided to make them an audio-only race for the time being. The ships look quite nice while being recognizably Tholian, though - kudos.

The Tholians, regardless, also want the ship, claiming that it's emitting temporal radiation that's a threat to Archer and company. Archer manages to bluff them off, but it's clear that at the moment the Enterprise is wearing a very large neon target on its saucer. There's a Vulcan combat cruiser not far away, but time could be growing tight.

There are a few interesting character moments here and there, interspersed among all of this jeopardy. T'Pol's skepticism about time travel is starting to wear a little thin (being more than a little reminiscent of Scully's eternal skepticism even in the face of overwhelming evidence), but Phlox's attitude is more interesting.

In a nice scene with T'Pol, he doesn't really say exactly what he thinks of Archer's theory, but says instead, "I believe in embracing surprises." Very Phlox, and not a bad sentiment in general, I think.

A second scene that's a little more thoughtful than the rest of the show is Trip's conversation with Reed about the future. Reed would jump at the chance to take a trip into the 31st century, but Trip wouldn't - he prefers to let the story unfold at its own pace, as it were.

He spins a scenario for Reed: Reed discovers the name of the woman he's fated to marry, meets her, romances her, marries her, and lives happily ever after. "Now - did you marry her for love, or because some book told you to?" he asks. While Reed's answer ("if it's all happily ever after, what's the difference?") says something about his character, I think the overall question's a good one worth gnawing on for a while.

Beyond the broad philosophical question, I think a specific one within fandom is whether all the spoiler information we're privy to these days is a help or a hindrance. I've certainly seen arguments that knowing what's going to happen ten episodes down the line makes the episodes in between seem like something you've got to "get through" in order to get there. I'm not at all sure that's a good thing.

After that, however, it's back to the jeopardy. We discover that the derelict actually is emitting some sort of temporal radiation, the effect of which is making people relive short periods in time. There's not much explanation given of this, but for some reason it makes T'Pol really nervous - and she urges Archer to destroy the derelict before matters get worse.

That scene felt very forced to me, as if someone felt that the jeopardy without had to be matched by conflict within just because it did. Sure, T'Pol's usually cautious, but this seemed downright paranoid. Wouldn't it be at least as prudent to simply call the Vulcan ship up and have them show up earlier rather than just sit there waiting?

From here, it's pretty much action the rest of the way. Trip discovers that the "black box" is actually an emergency beacon, just as the Suliban come back and attack. The Enterprise holds them off long enough to make it to the Vulcan ship, only to find that it's been disabled by the Tholians.

Suddenly the big E is caught in the middle, and Archer thinks that one of their only options is to activate that beacon, in the hope that the ship's owners might be able to help. At the same time, Reed and Archer also work on planting a photon torpedo warhead in the derelict, so that if they have to they can release the ship and then destroy it remotely.

The torpedo concept works well enough, but it also felt like a forced way to do things. Let's remember that in "Dead Stop" just half a season ago, Reed managed to set up an explosive in the repair station and detonate it remotely, seemingly without all of the fuss that was needed here. Why is a photon torpedo the only option?

That objection didn't stop the ending from being fairly exciting - it's nice to see a battle that actually feels a bit epic, as though events have spiraled out of control. (In fiction, anyway, he said while keeping a close eye on news reports...) It was certainly no surprise that everyone survived in the end, or that the derelict wound up "reclaimed" by its former owners, but it kept me engaged.

The last scene, however, almost put me right back where the first ones did, in the land of "has anyone thought this through?" During breakfast (I presume), Trip is amazed at how quickly the derelict's owners acted after he'd activated the beacon. Archer says that time is irrelevant to them - they had plenty of time on their end to set things up, then travel to whatever time they pleased to act.

All well and good - but it's a bad can of worms to open, because it begs an obvious question. Why not act before all this happens, then? Why not grab the derelict before Archer even finds it, or at least before the Suliban and Tholians get involved?

I'd be happy with the speculation that they had motives of their own, but when no one even raises the question it looks as though the writers forgot about it. (Actually, there's a semi-obvious reason - the owners didn't want to create a paradox - but even that would've been nice to point out.)

And, of course, we get Archer wondering again about humans and Vulcans "swapping chromosomes one day," and T'Pol responding that the High Command is "more likely to believe in time travel." You could almost hear the sitcom "wa-wa-wa-WAAAAAA" afterwards. Sigh.

Other thoughts:

- Science nitpick: during the chase to the Vulcan ship, at one point it's said to be 600,000 kilometers away. All well and good, but that's only two seconds away at light speed. At maximum warp, you'll be zipping past it in almost no time. Maybe 600 million would have been a better choice?

- A nice comment made almost on the fly is that the ship would have been more or less completely sensor-invisible were it not for the damage it had already taken. That implies, albeit subtly, that there could be bunches of those ships around all the time. I like it.

- Trip's comment about the future - "where's the fun in exploring if you know how it all turns out?" - is a good comment, but dangerous to make given the premise of the series. It's a statement that could be thrown back in the series' face far too easily.

I think that's about it. "Future Tense" is an odd mishmash: it's got some cute visual sequences, some mind-bending SF tropes (albeit ones that aren't all that new), a couple of good character moments and a good long-term use for the Tholians.

On the other hand, it also comes off as tissue-paper thin in a lot of ways, with lots of moments that aren't thought out and a sense that the Temporal Cold War might be all flash and little substance. As an hour goes, I've seen far worse from Enterprise - but I've also seen lots better.

So, to sum up:

Writing: Fun, but erratic.

Directing: I think more could have been done to make the time-loops seem stranger, but decent enough.

Acting: No real complaints, but not a lot of standout work either.

OVERALL: Let's go with a 7. Perfectly watchable once, but not necessarily something you'll want to come back to.

Tim Lynch

(c) Timothy W. Lynch. This article is explicitly prohibited from being used in any off-net compilation without due attribution and express written consent of the author. Walnut Creek and other CD-ROM distributors, take note.

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