Oh Captain: Jonathan Archer

Posted by CB Droege

Ship’s captains have been an important part of genre fiction for a long time. Thusly, in our first genre feature series, we’re looking at ship’s captains. Today’s captain is Jonathan Archer of the Enterprise.

Archer was the first Enterprise captain chronologically, and the most recent in the production timeline. It was his actions that established the reputation of the Enterprise as one of the most important ships in the quadrant, and created the legacy after which all of the USS Enterprises to come were named.

As prequels often are, his story was filled with lots of details that the audience can relate to the other Star Trek stories and point to as the origins of actions and traditions which were otherwise unexplained.

Archer’s enterprise was already the flagship of the fleet, and was set to explore and make first contact. The story opens with Earth suffering what look like minor terror attacks by the Klingons, a previously incommunicative race.

Archer is assigned to the Enterprise, and sent to investigate, which leads the ship on a long sequence of important missions and witness to significant events. In his four year journey he meets new races, and explores interesting new places, much like past Star Trek series. Part-way through the series though, the story gains focus in an unexpected and unpleasant way. 

In the third season, Earth is attacked by an alien people, who feel they are striking first against a potentially dangerous future opponent. The first strike of the interplanetary weapon from Florida top Venezuela, and millions of people are killed.

Archer sets out to stop these aliens from initiating a full-scale demonstration of the weapon’s power. The Enterprise becomes an instrument of salvation in his hands, as its successors will have to do many times again in the future, but it also becomes a tool of anger and assault.

Enterprise was the only Star Trek show to be cancelled, other than the original series. Part of the lack of success this show suffered was due to its lack of dynamic or interesting characters.

Archer himself seems like a compelling guy at first, and we get lots of development for him over the first three years, but most of the other characters are relatively flat and underused compared to the captain.

Archer’s relationship with the crew loses some of its magic due to the nature of the characters, and the writers are pushed to draw something else into the plot.

The attack on earth changes many of the characters into something angrier and harder, especially Archer, but it becomes too pat, and the entire crew become angry shadows of themselves; a stupor from which the show never recovers. 

It’s most unfortunate that the show came so soon after the September 11th attacks, as the writers chose to turn the third season into an allegory for the War on Terror. Archer’s anger is symbolic of the public anger expressed by those representative of the United States at that time, and his fight became the fight of the American people, including retrofitting the Enterprise as a warship.

While Star Trek has always explored politics as allegory, it had never done so so blatantly, nor focused so completely on one issue.

None of this tracked well with the audience who were used to Star Trek stories about peace and diplomacy, where stoic men do what is best for humanity. Archer becomes the emo friend at the Star Trek party, who no one really wants to hang-out with, and this aversion to the character eventually kills the show’s ratings.

When the show is moved to a new, and typically unsuccessful, time-slot, the ratings suffer further, and the show ends after its fourth season, with many plot points unresolved.

Come back tomorrow when we will feature Captain LeChuck. If there is a Ship’s captain which you would like to see featured in this series, let us know in the comments.