Final Frontier Friday: 'The Communicator'

Welcome back to ‘Final Frontier Friday’! This week, I’m going to do something that I’ve been shockingly remiss at over the year and change I’ve been doing this column, something that I really only touched on tangentially during my countdown to ‘Discovery’ last summer. I’m going to show ‘Enterprise‘ some love. And I’m going to get that ball rolling with the second season episode ‘The Communicator’.

There’s always been a tendency in the ‘Star Trek’ spinoffs to look to the original series for inspiration. Sometimes that’s something as simple as bringing back a guest star or revisiting a planet. But sometimes it means something a little more outside the box. ‘The Communicator’ is firmly in the latter camp. While it doesn’t revisit a classic episode per se, it does draw its premise from the ending of ‘A Piece of the Action’. That’s the “gangster planet” episode, in which Kirk and company visit a world whose citizens patterned their society on early twentieth century Chicago mobs, the end result of an earlier Federation starship leaving behind a book on the subject. As was common in sixties television (not just ‘Star Trek’), the episode ends on a joke, as McCoy realizes that he accidentally left a communicator behind. With ‘The Communicator’, ‘Enterprise’ takes that scenario and runs with it. In doing so, they take the opportunity to explore the consequences of these sorts of slip ups can have, not just for the crew but for the culture they’re studying.

Archer, Reed and Sato return to Enterprise following a cultural survey of a pre-warp civilization. The three proceed through decon, removing their disguises. As they do so, Reed volunteers to write the report, this having been his first such mission (and his fascination with the planet’s tense geopolitical situation). As they stow their equipment, Reed suddenly realizes that he can’t find his communicator.

They begin tearing apart the shuttlepod, the decontamination chamber, and everything in between to no avail. Retracing his steps, Reeds glumly points out that the last time he can be sure he had his communicator was on the planet’s surface. Using the ship’s sensors, they’re able to narrow down the communicator’s location. With this information in hand (and a reminder from T’Pol of the importance of preventing cultural contamination) Archer and Reed return to the surface. The two men revisit a bar in the area of the communicator’s signal. When it fails to turn up in their booth, Reed manages to pinpoint the device using his  scanner. It’s in the building, but not in a room he’d visited. The two try to discretely follow the signal, but they’re spotted and arrested by a group of soldiers at the bar. The soldiers take the captives to their superior, Pell. Pell has the communicator and demands to know what it is. Archer claims not to know, but a search quickly turns up their scanners and a phase pistol. Just like that, things have gone from bad to worse.

Frustrated and impatient, Tucker insists something must’ve gone wrong. Vulcan reserve notwithstanding, T’Pol agrees and risks detection by hailing the landing party. No answer, but Sato is able to trace the signal. It’s too far from the shuttlepod for them to have traveled without at least updating Enterprise. On the surface, Archer and Reed are in a holding cell. Before long, Pell arrives. Believing the two to be agents of a faction known as the Alliance, Pell turns them over to a general, Gosis, for interrogation. It seems that Gosis was examining Archer’s communicator when T’Pol tried to contact him. Archer identifies himself as the captain and insists that they are not part of the Alliance military. But as he refuses to say anything else, Gosis isn’t exactly inclined to take the truth at face value. With Archer’s continued refusal to cooperate, the interrogation begins to turn violent. One of the blows causes the prosthetic on Archer’s forehead to come loose. Gosis peels their prosthetics off, and assumes they’ve been surgically altered. That is, until Pell notices Reed’s split lip. But more importantly, he notices Reed’s red blood. Meanwhile, Enterprise has located the two officers as Tucker and T’Pol debate the best course of action. Tucker wants to send a security team to the rescue, while T’Pol favors caution. The last thing they need, after all, is for one of these people to see a Starfleet security team jump out of a shuttlepod brandishing phase pistols. Tucker suggests using a captured Suliban cell ship. If they can get the cloaking device working, that’ll make a rescue that much easier. While working on the Suliban ship, an energy discharge renders Tucker’s arm invisible.

In sickbay, Phlox ascertains that Tucker’s arm was exposed to radiation from the cloaking device and hands him a glove so that he can get back to work. Below, Gosis tests out the phase pistol. After seeing what it can do, Gosis is stunned (figuratively) and more than a little worried at the prospect of Alliance troops carrying such weapons. A report from Archer and Reed’s medical examination concludes that they must be from another species, as their “deformities” and internal “abnormalities” are not the work of a surgeon. Gosis finds it difficult to believe, but given the evidence… Archer decided that it’s better that Gosis believe them to be Alliance spies (as he tells it, genetically engineered; prototype soldiers equipped with prototype equipment) than aliens. In order to verify this information, Gosis decides to have the prisoners executed to that their remains can be examined in more detail. Back on Enterprise, Tucker and Mayweather are still fighting with the cloak when T’Pol informs them of the pending execution and orders them to prepare for launch. In their cell, Archer and Reed commiserate over their looming execution, entertaining the idea of telling the truth and offering Gosis a tour of Enterprise. They decide that it would be the wrong choice, noting that for all the good First Contact did for humanity, the Vulcans waited until we were ready. These people, by contrast, are on the brink of war and haven’t even split the atom yet. Reed admits that he still expects a rescue team to come barging in.

With the cloak working well enough, T’Pol, Tucker, and Mayweather take the Suliban ship down to the planet as Archer and Reed are marched to the gallows. After dodging a group of military aircraft when the cloak malfunctions, the rescue arrives just time. A firefight ensues, and Archer manages to retrieve all of their equipment before the cell ship departs for the shuttlepod.

In Archer’s ready room, he thanks T’Pol for her “calculated risk” and the two reflect on the amount of damage they may have done to this culture, despite their best intentions. T’Pol, however, commends Archer’s willingness to lay down his life to minimize the damage done to this culture, a sign of her growing respect for her captain.

I mentioned earlier that ‘The Communicator’ takes its premise from the “everyone laughs, freeze frame, roll credits” ending of a classic episode (in this case, ‘A Piece of the Action’), building an entire episode around the consequences of something that was played as a joke. It’s something that I’m actually surprised it took forty years for the franchise to deal with. It’s also the sort of thing I wish ‘Star Trek’ (or really, any similarly long running genre property) would do more often – focus on the potentially grave consequences of something as seemingly small as dropping your communicator in a bar. But at the same time, I recognize that this is a well that would probably run dry sooner rather than later.

But we’re not talking about something the show does every week, so the important thing is not how cool that might be, but how it works here. And for my money, it works pretty well. I don’t know that I’d hold ‘The Communicator’ up as one of the series’ finest hours or anything like that, but it’s definitely a stand out from the second season.

In fact, it’s a particularly tense hour of television. The first act manages the “Oh shit!” urgency of realizing you’ve lost your car keys, while the rest is a race against the clock on the shipboard side, and the suspense of Archer and Reed’s interrogation on the other. How are they going to talk their way out of this? Will they just tell the bloody truth? Should they? Would Gosis even believe them if they did? All of this ties into a theme that ‘Enterprise’ touched on often throughout its run (particularly the first two seasons), namely the importance of the Prime Directive and why it was adopted in the first place.

Doing a ‘Star Trek’ in a world where the Prime Directive doesn’t exist yet could have made it all too easy to treat the subject glibly. How many episodes have you seen where Picard would have an easy way out of a situation if only it wasn’t for that pesky Prime Directive, after all? But it never really went there. Instead, the show remembered that the Prime Directive is as much a philosophy, a guiding principle of sorts, as it is a Starfleet regulation. Rather than its absence making the characters’ lives easier (and the writers lazier), they took the opposite tack, confronting Archer in particular with hard choices, situations in which the right choice isn’t necessarily the easiest one or even the one that might at first seem correct. And even when he does make the right call with the best of intentions, (as in ‘The Communicator’) that still might not be enough to keep things from getting out of hand. The closing scene with Archer and T’Pol really does sum that up. Even though he was willing to die to preserve this culture, just by being there they may have exacerbated tensions that could lead to a devastating war. But what was the alternative? Leave behind a piece of advanced technology that may very well have had the same effect once discovered?

What did you think of ‘The Communicator’? Are there other ‘Star Trek’ moments that could – like the end of ‘A Piece of the Action’ – provide a compelling jumping off point for future episodes? Let me know in the comments, and as always be sure to check back in two weeks for the next ‘Final Frontier Friday’!