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Star Trek: Enterprise Rewatch: “North Star”

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Rereads and Rewatches Star Trek: Enterprise

Star Trek: Enterprise Rewatch: “North Star”

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Published on March 20, 2023

Screenshot: CBS
Screenshot: CBS

“North Star”
Written by David A. Goodman
Directed by David Straiton
Season 3, Episode 9
Production episode 061
Original air date: November 12, 2003
Date: unknown

Captain’s star log. We open in what looks like a stereotypical Western town from the late nineteenth century on Earth. A bunch of guys on horseback lynch someone whom they identify as a “Skag.” Only after the opening credits do we see anything familiar: Archer, T’Pol (wearing a head-scarf), and Tucker in appropriate outfits, noting the figure in the coffin, who apparently has weird things on his neck that weren’t clear in the night-time scene earlier. Scans have confirmed that these people are all humans, the horses are horses from Earth, and they somehow wound up in the Delphic Expanse.

Reed and Sato are scanning the planet from orbit, and they’ve found the wreckage of a spacecraft of some sort. Tucker and T’Pol barter for a horse, Tucker trading his harmonica for it, and also leaving his gun as collateral for when he’ll bring the horse back, as they only want to rent it. (Why there was a six-shooter on Enterprise for him to have is left as an exercise for the viewer.) T’Pol expresses dubiousness as to whether or not Tucker knows how to ride the thing, but Tucker insists that his many years of watching John Ford movies makes him qualified. A dubious T’Pol mounts the horse behind him, after which Tucker struggles to get the horse to move, but we cut away before we see any more.

Sheriff MacReady apologizes to the town teacher, Bethany, who seems to be the only one mourning the Skag who was lynched.

Archer goes to the saloon, because of course he does, claiming that he’s heading south to rustle cattle. He chats with the bartender, who claims to be descended from Cooper Smith, who is the one who liberated the humans from the Skags.

Screenshot: CBS

The guys who lynched the Skag enter the saloon—it turns out that they’re all deputy sheriffs. One of them, the alpha of the group, Bennings, starts tormenting the Skag who serves as a waiter. He even puts his gun down and gives the waiter a chance to shoot him. Archer interrupts and asks for a refill of his coffee. MacReady comes in and calms everyone down. He tells Archer to keep moving south and then tells Bennings to keep an eye on Archer.

Archer goes to talk to Bethany, and soon learns the truth, under the pretense of being from the north where there are no Skags—which, he learns, is short for Skagaran. The humans were kidnapped from Earth three centuries previous by the Skagarans as slave labor. But the aforementioned Smith led a revolt that overthrew the Skagarans, killing most of them, and leaving the rest to be second-class citizens. This is confirmed by Tucker and T’Pol, who investigate the wreckage and find some data chips. They bring the chips back to Enterprise, where Sato translates the data and confirms the history.

Bethany sneaks away at night to teach Skagaran children, which is illegal. Bethany brings Archer to one of these sessions. Unfortunately, Bennings was following MacReady’s orders and keeping an eye on Archer, so he’s discovered Bethany illegal school, and he arrests her.

Archer, ignoring the multiple instructions he’s been given to get out of town, breaks Bethany out of jail, socking Bennings in the jaw and locking him in the cell in her stead. Their escape is cut short by gunfire from the deputies that badly wounds Bethany, and Archer has no choice but to ask for an emergency transport to Enterprise.

Bennings is now convinced that Archer is a Skagaran spy and that he’s using their advanced technology. MacReady thinks that Bennings had too much to drink and is seeing things. Meanwhile, on Enterprise, Phlox is able to fix Bethany up, and he also reveals that she’s one-quarter Skagaran.

Screenshot: CBS

Archer comes down in a shuttlepod, alongside T’Pol, Reed, and two MACOs, everyone in their proper contemporary clothes. The locals are completely gobsmacked, and Archer speaks to MacReady privately. The sheriff had convinced himself that Earth was a myth, a story people told to ameliorate how miserable life was on this planet.

Bennings, however, refuses to accept this, still convinced that Archer is leading a new Skagaran rebellion, and he starts shooting. This leads to (sigh) a good old-fashioned shootout. Since it’s handguns against phase pistols and rifles, it’s pretty inevitable that our heroes will win. At one point, a deputy grabs T’Pol as a hostage, but Reed just shoots her (on the stun setting, obviously), and then the bad guy.

Enterprise couldn’t take all six thousand humans back to Earth even if they weren’t on a critical mission to save humanity, but they promise to send ships to do. Meantime, they share human history for the past three hundred years, which we see Bethany teaching to her students, human and Skagaran alike.

The gazelle speech. Scott Bakula looks really good in cowboy regalia. The long coat and hat suit him something fierce.

I’ve been trained to tolerate offensive situations. When T’Pol and Tucker are trying to obtain a horse, the stablemaster immediately asks them what happened to theirs—since they were obviously from out of town (the town is small enough that the stablemaster would know all the locals by sight), how’d they get there if not on horseback? While Tucker is stunned into silence because he didn’t think of that, T’Pol weaves a bullshit story about how their horses died in the heat. She does in that halting and hesitating manner that actors always use when they’re faking their way through a conversation. It’s never even remotely convincing, yet the person they’re talking to is almost always convinced by it.

I shouldn’t blame this scene for a trope that is a near-universal constant in performative fiction, but it has always annoyed me. Over-emphasizing the hesitating nature of it makes it blindingly obvious that the speaker is pulling the answer directly out of their asses, yet this rhetorical method rarely fails in the fictional setting. It works when played for laughs (to give one Trek example, the mechanical rice-picker bit from the original series’ “The City on the Edge of Forever”), but not in a serious situation. I much prefer it when the characters actually bluff their way through these conversations properly (to give another Trek example, when Dax was stuck in twenty-first-century San Francisco in DS9’s “Past Tense, Part I,” she referred to her combadge as a brooch and her Trill spots as tattoos without missing a beat).

Screenshot: CBS

Florida Man. Florida Man Thinks He Can Ride A Horse Due To Watching Westerns, Results Unclear.

Optimism, Captain! Phlox delivers the revelation that Bethany is one-quarter Skagaran, a revelation that proves to be completely irrelevant to the story. 

Better get MACO. Two MACOs (played by two of the regular extras who played MACOs throughout the season) join the landing party and get into the firefight. It’s quite possibly the most useful the MACOs have been all season…

More on this later… One of Picard’s favorite maneuvers (ahem) in TNG was to bring a woman from a less technologically advanced culture to the Enterprise and let her look out a window. He did it with Rivan in “Justice,” with Nuria in “Who Watches the Watchers?” with Mirasta Yale in the episode “First Contact,” and with Lily Sloane in the movie First Contact, and now we get to see Archer do the same with Bethany two hundred years earlier.

I’ve got faith…

“Maybe you oughtta get your eyes checked, Bennings—Archer’s a human.”

“He’s working with them.”

“You don’t know that.”

“What was he doing out in Skagtown? Why’d he stick up for Draysik in the saloon yesterday?”

“’Cause you were being a horse’s ass.”

–Bennings failing to convince MacReady of his Skag conspiracy theory and MacReady reminding him that he was being a schmuck.

Welcome aboard. Trek veteran Glenn Morshower—in the midst of arguably his most well-known role as Secret Service Agent Pierce on 24—is back to play MacReady, having previously appeared in TNG’s “Peak Performance” and “Starship Down,” Generations, and Voyager’s “Resistance.”

James Parks, having previously played Vel in Voyager’s “The Chute,” plays Bennings, while the ever-delightful Emily Bergl plays Bethany.

Screenshot: CBS

Trivial matters: According to an interview in Star Trek Communicator in 2004, writer David A. Goodman was inspired by the episodes of the original series that took place in replicas of old Earth. His original notion was to have it be medieval times, but executive producer Brannon Braga (who wrote TNG’s “A Fistful of Datas”) suggested a Western instead.

Archer’s insistence to Bethany that humanity has outgrown racism and prejudice will be proven to be something of a lie in future episodes “Home” and the “Demons”/”Terra Prime” two-parter.

This is the only time the Skagarans are seen onscreen, and it’s never established one way or the other whether or not Archer made good on his promise to send a ship to bring any humans home who wanted to go.

Regular rewatch commenter Christopher L. Bennett established in his Lost Era novel The Buried Age that Guinan was involved with a group of anthropologists who discovered what the Skagarans were doing on Earth in the nineteenth century, and James Swallow had a Skagaran as part of the U.S.S. Titan’s crew in the novel Sight Unseen.

It’s been a long road… “Do you think I could get some more coffee before you shoot him?” From one of Enterprise’s best episodes last week, we modulate into one of its absolute worst.

One of the things I loved about “Twilight” was that it had a proper teaser that actually teased the episode. To go from that to this week’s disaster is disheartening, especially since it comes from the usually-more-reliable brain meats of scripter David A. Goodman (among other things, the writer of “Judgment,” another of Enterprise’s best). Seriously, it opens with guys on horseback, dressed in cowboy hats and long coats, riding through Standard Hollywood Western Set #17, lynching some other guy in a cowboy hat and a long coat.

And then Russell Watson starts crooning about long roads, and what the hell? There’s no sign of any of our familiar main characters, no sign of Enterprise or a shuttlepod, no sign of any familiar technology, nothing. I can imagine people watching this in November of 2003 and thinking that Enterprise had been preempted for some manner of Western show or other, and changed the channel…

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Those theoretical people were better off. Archer, T’Pol, and Tucker showing up in period dress wandering around Standard Hollywood Western Set #17 does nothing to make the episode any better. It’s a bog-standard Western story, with “Skags” filling in for “Injuns” to refer to Indigenous folks. But the episode doesn’t embrace any of the clichés for fun, it just dolefully checks them off as it meanders through the plot. Opportunities for fish-out-of-water humor are either ignored or instantly abandoned. I was really really really looking forward to watching Tucker and T’Pol utterly fail to ride a horse, but that they abandoned that right before it could get interesting was just one of a series of disappointments in this insipid storyline.

Oh, and this Western town was apparently populated only by white people, which made it unique for a town on the so-called frontier. And we’re supposed to believe that they were trapped in cultural and technological amber for three hundred years, keeping the same fashions, the same attitudes, the same currency, the same technology level that whole time? Especially given MacReady’s comment about how hard living was on this world, you expect me to believe that nobody thought to try to salvage and/or repurpose the Skagaran technology?

I will give the episode credit for two reliably good guest stars: Emily Bergl is never not charming (she apparently so impressed the producers that they tried to think of ways to make her a regular), and Glenn Morshower is perfectly cast as the laconic sheriff.

Goodman was inspired by the original series’ forays into this sort of thing (the Western planet! the ancient Rome planet! the Nazi planet!), but that was done for budgetary reasons, to save money by using existing costumes and sets. Of course, the opposite applied here. While a plurality of TV shows on the air and movies in the theatres in the late 1960s were Westerns, that percentage was significantly smaller at the turn of the millennium, so doing this dopey episode was probably more expensive than usual because of the need to create the costumes and sets.

And man, was it not worth it. It was especially not worth taking an inexplicable break from the ship’s time-sensitive mission to find the Xindi in order to play dress-up on an alien planet.

Warp factor rating: 1

Keith R.A. DeCandido is one of the guests of honor at Zenkaikon 2023 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania this coming weekend. He’ll have a table in the exhibit hall and will also be doing lots of programming. Check out his schedule here.

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Keith R.A. DeCandido

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Keith R.A. DeCandido has been writing about popular culture for this site since 2011, primarily but not exclusively writing about Star Trek and screen adaptations of superhero comics. He is also the author of more than 60 novels, more than 100 short stories, and around 50 comic books, both in a variety of licensed universes from Alien to Zorro, as well as in worlds of his own creation. Read his blog, follow him on Facebook, The Site Formerly Known As Twitter, Instagram, Threads, and Blue Sky, and follow him on YouTube and Patreon.
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