/ 27 November 2006

Don’t beam me up, Scotty!

To boldly go where no man has gone before, part of the mission statement of the starship Enterprise in the original Star Trek series, has become a science-fiction stock phrase as well as one of the most famous split infinitives.

Trekkies the world over are now donning their plastic Mr Spock ears and enjoying the latest addition to the Star Trek universe: a series simply called Enterprise, set about 100 years before the original series and an embodiment of that famous mission statement.

After developing a warp drive (a handy bit of engineering that enables spacecraft to travel at speeds far beyond that of light), humans were contacted by the pointy-eared Vulcans, who rolled out the welcome mat to the universe (as seen in the movie Star Trek: First Contact). In Enterprise, the first human exploration ship, the Enterprise NX-01, has been built and is ready for take-off — even if the Vulcans feel that the irrational, emotional and headstrong humans should just stay in their own galaxy.

It’s a new-look (and big-budget) series that at first seems quite different from the rest of the Star Trek franchise — it even has a theme song.

Scott Bakula from Quantum Leap takes the helm as Captain Jonathan Archer, the son of the scientist who perfected the warp drive. He and his crew are like children in a sweet shop — intensely curious and looking for aliens behind every meteorite that comes their way as they go where no man has gone before.

In the other Star Trek series — Deep Space Nine, Next Generation and Voyager — Starfleet (the organisation in charge of space travel and exploration) has evolved into a massive, multi-species collaboration with many rules and regulations. In Enterprise, Starfleet is still a humble effort, leaving it up to the crew of Enterprise to improvise in new situations.

Even the famous Star Trek technology is still being invented. Those nifty transporters haven’t even been properly tested on humans — in one episode, an emergency forces the ship to beam a crewman from the surface of a planet and the unfortunate individual arrives aboard the ship with bits of leaves and plant embedded in his skin. On the Enterprise‘s first mission they excitedly open a container with their new weapons — the first version of the phaser pistols that are standard issue in later series. They also have to rely on a human translator to adapt their computers to understand alien languages.

This, of course, allows for much more innovative storylines. Where the crews of later ships can just push a button or voice a command, the Enterprise crew has to come up with other ways of solving problems and dealing with emergencies.

The original Star Trek series has become infamous for its scenes of the crew visiting planets where scantily clad girls in sparkling costumes dash daintily across cardboard sets. Already in the pilot episode of Enterprise, the difference is remarkable. Here, the crew visit a planet in the Rigel star system. The girls are there — but they are multicoloured, have tails and eat butterflies with their chameleonic tongues. The set is very similar to something from Farscape or Star Wars: a wild swirl of aliens, buildings, colours, costumes, murky shadows and movements.

But as there are differences, so there are similarities. Once the series gets under way, there is a familiar feel to the storylines — very much akin to Voyager and early Next Generation, where exploration, first contact with aliens and space phenomena are the order of the day.

Another enjoyable aspect of the series is how humans are portrayed. In later years humans are the crafty Starfleet members who even defeat their deadly Borg enemies. In Enterprise, the humans are a likeable bunch, but when it comes to interspecies contact and protocol, they are terrible. They have a lot to learn about respecting the cultures and ways of other species — something that is shown repeatedly through the interaction of the human Enterprise crew and Subcommander T’Pol (played by Jolene Blalock), the sole Vulcan aboard.

They are also naive about their dealings with hostile aliens. After a showdown with the Suliban (the scaly aliens set to be the bad guys for this series) in the pilot episode, Archer remarks, ‘I hope that’s the last time someone takes a shot at us.”

It certainly won’t be the last time. The adventures of these space pioneers are set to captivate science-fiction fans for many seasons to come.

Enterprise can be seen on the Sci-Fi channel on DSTv on Tuesdays at 8pm