North StarBy Michelle Erica Green
Posted at November 13, 2003 - 6:57 PM GMT
See Also: 'North Star' Episode Guide
Plot Summary: Archer, T'Pol and Tucker arrive in a human settlement on a Delphic Expanse planet that resembles the American frontier of the 19th century. They have no idea how 6000 humans came to live on a planet so far from Earth, but they are horrified by the way the humans treat the Skagarans, another humanoid species, who are subject to abuse and hanging at the whim of human law enforcement officials. While in the local saloon, Archer overhears Deputy Bennings tormenting a Skagaran waiter and interrupts the scene, drawing the attention of Sheriff MacReady, who does not approve of his deputy's maltreatment of the boy but who wants Archer out of town nonetheless before there's trouble.
While T'Pol and Tucker study the Skagaran settlement, finding the ruins of a spacecraft, Archer gets to know the schoolteacher, Bethany, whom he overheard defending a Skagaran earlier that day. Bethany tells him that it is illegal to teach Skagaran children but she sneaks him out to watch her with a class of them. He and Bethany are both caught by Bennings and arrested, but not before Archer discovers that the humans on the planet were brought there by the Skagarans to serve as laborers, then overthrew their captors and have kept them oppressed ever since.
The sheriff frees Archer and agrees that his men's treatment of the Skagarans may be excessively cruel, but he reminds Archer that their ancestors were abducted from their homes and treated as slaves. Archer points out that the current generation of Skagaran children are not responsible for that. The sheriff advises him to leave town immediately, but Archer first frees Bethany from prison, earning the enmity of Bennings, who fires at them as they flee and wounds the teacher. Archer calls to Enterprise to beam them up, despite the fact that they can be seen by many townsfolk.
While Phlox treats Bethany, Archer takes a shuttlepod with T'Pol, Reed and a group of MACOs in uniform. Landing in the center of town, he informs MacReady that they are humans, that Earth has made progress beyond that of the Skagarans and that as soon as they can, they'll come back with bigger ships to retrieve the humans on the planet. But Bennings, convinced that Archer must be working with the Skagarans, rounds up a posse to shoot at them, requiring a firefight to subdue the angry local humans. MacReady agrees that it may be time to change the laws concerning the Skagarans but Bethany, who is part Skagaran, tells Archer that she doesn't think her people are ready to return to a prejudice-free Earth. Still, in the end, she gets permission to teach Skagaran children.
Analysis: I was expecting "Spectre of the Gun", the original series episode in which Kirk and Spock met Wyatt Earp's gang, so imagine my delight instead to get something more akin to "The 37s", the marvelous Voyager episode in which humans kidnapped from Earth centuries before were discovered by Janeway's crew. This episode is classic Trek in every sense: it has the feel of original series installments like "Bread and Circuses" and "Patterns of Force", in which humans seemed destined to recreate the same mistakes on other planets until the Enterprise crew helped them break old patterns, and it has a story that parallels a crisis in our own world, like so many great original series and Next Gen episodes.
Despite the American historical setting and some obvious parallels with racial anger and prejudice that continues to this day, there are global issues in "North Star" (a title which itself has deep significance for the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad, which helped African-American slaves escape to freedom). None of the children growing up in the countries that formerly comprised Yugoslavia have any memory of the ethnic conflicts that have caused so much strife in that region, nor do children in Israel and the West Bank understand the centuries of conflict over the land in question. Children know only what they are taught, and in the case of the Human-Skagaran conflict in this episode, the Skagarans are being treated as though they have a racial propensity for oppressing humans which many humans use as an excuse for ongoing maltreatment.
The picture is rather one-sided, for we never actually see a Skagaran leader or rebel, and it's difficult to believe that there are none anywhere. The closest we come is a woman who's passing for human despite being part-Skagaran, and she's not working for insurrection, just basic education. We get no telling details about Skagaran life -- what sorts of jobs they are allowed to hold, who raises the children since marriage is illegal -- just a few glimpses and the little we're told. And we also never learn what things are like in any of the other settlements, whether the perceived threat of a new takeover by their Skagaran captors seems any more real.
So the struggle seems pretty one-dimensional, and the villain, Bennings, reminded me uncannily of the slightly insane, selfish would-be insurrectionist from Deep Space Nine's "Past Tense" (was B.C. his name? I can't remember). At any rate, it was impossible to believe that anything about the humans' behavior on the planet was at all rational or understandable, yet people on our own planet have proven time and again that 300 years is very little time to have forgotten an atrocity like slavery, even without the added horror of having been taken not only from one's home but from one's very planet by being who must have seemed omnipotent at the time. Bethany says that Cooper Smith, the human who led the rebellion against the Skagarans, is remembered by them as a butcher because he killed entire Skagaran families, but when one thinks about having one's own family kidnapped onto a spaceship and taken light years from Earth to serve as slaves, well, it's somewhat understandable that the safety of the families of the abductors might not have been a big concern.
Because the episode is stylish and beautifully paced, the morality play doesn't get too heavy-handed or silly. The production makes use of a full backlot with horses, a prison, a saloon, close-ups of guns, a harmonica...all the tropes one would expect in a Western, not to mention the damsels in distress, Bethany and later T'Pol, mitigated by a female MACO who takes out a number of presumed sharpshooters. (Gratuitous-use-of-female-body note for the week, since I know you all are waiting for it, and please keep those letters coming so I know I'm getting through: we all know at this point that Phlox is a voyeur, but he's really got to keep his patients covered up better while they're on examining tables; forgetting germs, they might get chilly.)
It's a lot of fun to see Archer striding around in a big hat and T'Pol in a bandana. The character clichés among the guest cast are relatively easy to forgive in a storyline like this, and there's some decent acting from Emily Bergl as Bethany and Glenn Morshower as MacReady, even though they're playing very familiar types. It's also always fun to see the transporter and phase pistols while in a rural setting, all that tech amidst an old-fashioned shootout.
And since there's no Prime Directive yet and these people are human, there doesn't have to be the sort of sneaking around that Kirk et al had to engage in. It might have made for an interesting conundrum if Archer had discovered before revealing himself that the sheriff and others believed Earth to be a myth, and the Delphic Expanse to be their true home; I'm not sure under later Federation law how the non-interference directive applies to humans who left Earth before warp drive, whether they would be expected to develop on their own or reclaimed as citizens of Earth even if they lived in an entirely different environment, and individual captains have had to make their own calls on similar issues. Archer handles this situation quite effectively, if impulsively, when he calls for the transporter and returns in a shuttlepod. As with the first contact on Earth when the Vulcans landed following Cochran's successful flight, one gets the impression that merely the knowledge that there are others out there might change the status quo between humans and Skagarans.
On the other hand, if this planet was meant to be a colony, there is presumably a Skagaran homeworld. And we have no idea if or when they might come looking for this lost ship. This seems to me a giant loose end, though I'm not sure what Archer could have done about it, as he doesn't have the resources to get these people back to Earth and anyway the Xindi situation makes it imperative that he save the homeworld first anyway. Bottom line: the episode's a throw-away, but a fun one.
Next week's preview: Ooh, Trip's dead. Think it'll last as long as it did with Scotty in "The Changeling"?
Michelle Erica Green reviews 'Enterprise' episodes for the Trek Nation, for which she is also a news writer. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.