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Fall '01: "Enterprise"

There's really no right way to review Enterprise, the latest in what's becoming a long line of "Star Trek" TV series. "Star Trek" partisans will form two solid camps: the first will brook no criticism of anything even remotely related to the great Gene Roddenberry's creation; the second will proclaim, in Comic Book Guy fashion, that it's the Worst Series Ever, and then proceed to fill up their TiVos with every single episode.

The rest of the world will see Enterprise for what it is -- a slickly produced, well-cast sci-fi adventure series that drops enough of the "Star Trek" trappings to make it much more friendly, accessible, and altogether less embarrassing to watch than previous "Trek" series.

Make no mistake about it: Enterprise's producers are on a mission to change just enough about "Star Trek" to make this series appeal to more than the Vulcan-ears-and-Klingon-foreheads contingent. For starters, the words "Star Trek" appear nowhere in the title. The opening titles feature a montage of exploration including present-day NASA spacefrafts, backed by a cheesy (yet inspirational and appropriate) Diane Warren-penned power ballad.

The show's setting also lends a hand at wiping the slate of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager clean: it's a pre-Captain Kirk universe that resembles the present day more than it resembles the typical "Star Trek" far future in which there's no money, no human frailty, and no need to wear any clothing except pajamas.

It also helps that Enterprise's lead -- Scott Bakula as Jonathan Archer -- is a well-known actor who's appeared both in a successful sci-fi series with mainstream appeal (Quantum Leap) and in mainstream sitcoms and movies (Murphy Brown, for example). A clever bit of casting, that. And it pays off: with Bakula at the center of Enterprise, the show feels palpably different from all the "Trek" series that came before it. He's clearly confident and in charge, both as the captain of the ship and as the star of a network TV series. In addition to his instant legitimacy in the role, his confidence allows him to share the spotlight with his cast of supporting characters. Sure, there are a few too many of them, and some are still pretty generic (without the accents, I don't think I could tell the weapons officer and the chief engineer apart). But it's a good cast with lots of potential, and Bakula has the weight to bring it out in them.

The whole package of non-Trekness is good news for UPN's aspirations of a broader reach... and you'd think it would be bad news for all the hard-core "Trek" fans out there. But the series' near-future setting does allow for some clever tips of the cap to "Trek" lore that will undoubtedly please the faithful.

However, the series' biggest liability is the fact that it's not really a first-year show, at least not in the same way that most shows are. There's an unbroken line of succession in "Trek" production teams that can take you back all the way to the premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987. That means that Enterprise can be seen just as much as a series that's wheezing into its fifteenth season than as a newborn babe.

But with the new cast and new setting comes an apparent attempt to change the kind of stories Enterprise tells. The producers have slashed the amount of nonsensical techno-speak and the deus ex machina of our characters inventing previously undiscovered scientific solutions to problems appears to have receded for now. That's good news for those of us who began to sour on "Star Trek" the twelfth time Geordi invented a new shield technology that would revolutionize starships forever in less time than it would take MacGyver to bend his first paper clip.

Sometimes it works, and Enterprise feels like it's going to be just what UPN hopes it is: a new, fun adventure series that can be enjoyed by "Trek" fan and non-"Trek" fan alike. Other times, it fails and you get a clunker of an episode that's just one step away from "Battlestar Galactica." But at least series creators Rick Berman and Brannon Braga are trying something different, and risking the occasional failure in order to re-invent a tired, dying "Trek" franchise.

Whether they'll succeed or not is still open to question. But Enterprise gives "Star Trek" its best chance of being relevant in almost ten years.


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