"Observer Effect"

Written by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens
Directed by Mike Vejar

In which Trip and Hoshi come down with a lethal infection, forcing Archer and Phlox to find a cure at any cost, all while under scrutiny of unknown beings interested in their choices...

Captain's Log - Final Analysis

Captain's Log

Like the previous episode, the scope of this episode is relatively small, telling a specific story without the encumbering influence of long-term plot arcs. Unlike the previous episode, however, this is a story very much in keeping with the “prequel” mantra that Manny Coto has been operating under since the beginning of the season. In essence, this ties the Organian presence in the original series episode “Errand of Mercy” to an earlier event.

The writers are careful not to go too far. After all, in the original series, the Organians were more or less content to observe the universe in a passive sense, and only became involved when the Federation/Klingon hostilities were becoming a nuisance. Even then, it’s hard to understand what the Organians were hoping to accomplish; the treaty they fostered lasted months, at best, and they never interfered in the progress of future galactic intrigue.

The Organians were essentially an expression of an oft-mentioned philosophy held by Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry felt that humans would evolve past the need for internal conflict in the future, acting as one voice, and that the influence of the Organians was a sign that humans would be spreading, one way or another, this philosophy to the stars. It’s a rather nice sentiment, but in terms of drama, it’s incredibly stifling. It’s not at all surprising that the Organians disappeared once their high-handed purpose was fulfilled.

So the obvious question would be: how does one incorporate the Organians into the “prequel” concept without repeating the same basic plot structure used for “Errand of Mercy”? The answer is relatively simple yet clever. The writers explore how the concept of observance changed within the Organian culture. Rather than leave them as benevolent passive observers, as they are in the original series, the writers show them as somewhat more ambivalent in the morality of their calling. In true Trek fashion, it’s interaction with Humans that prompts a more peaceful shift in Organian methods, in keeping with the ideals of the Roddenberry philosophy.

This being the Coto era of “Enterprise”, the thin plot is actually an excuse for some interesting character development. A lot of time is spent focusing on Trip and Hoshi, which in Hoshi’s case is probably about twice as much development as she’s received before this episode. The writers have a keen sense of Hoshi’s psychology, as far as it can be determined from earlier hints and allegations. Hoshi deserves this kind of attention, especially since her inner resolve was a highlight of the end of the third season. As it turns out, not surprisingly, this fierce streak has been present all along. It was only buried under the intensity of her discomfort in space.

In a nice twist, the Organians take over the bodies of crew members from the very beginning, and it gives the tone of the episode a sinister edge. One of the best aspects of the story is the fact that the audience is always aware of which characters are under Organian control. That makes the plot very easy to follow while giving added complexity to the various crew interactions. Not to mention, of course, the disturbing concept of “the stranger behind the eyes of a friend”, which is always creepy!

As such, the Organians get to observe the actions of Phlox and Archer as they struggle to save Trip and Hoshi. The Organians seem to be vaguely interested in how Trip and Hoshi respond to their fate, but far more intrigued by how the rest of the crew handles the situation. If this episode is any evidence, the Organians are shocked by the Human reaction. It seems hard to believe that no other species would go so far to find a cure, or that Archer’s decisions would somehow prompt one of the Organians to questions their methods.

After all, it’s never quite clear what it is that makes the current situation on “Enterprise” unique. It’s implied that there are typically two outcomes: the infected are killed or otherwise isolated until dead, or the entire crew gets infected and everyone dies. Whatever the case may be, it seems that even in cases where only the infected die, the survivors don’t give a damn about anyone else, since not one surviving ship left a warning beacon. (Either that, or the Organians conveniently drop kicked any beacons into the nearest black hole.)

The Organians seem shocked that the crew of Enterprise managed to take things as far as they did, and that Archer would willingly expose himself on the hopes of saving Hoshi. Again, why would no other species be willing to sacrifice themselves like that, and how is it really different than risking the lives of the entire crew? What made Humans so special to the Organians in this case?

There’s enough of an underlying impression of an answer, if not a definitive one, to make the episode work. This is an example of an episode with flaws that manages to rise above the errors. For instance, the entire Organian plan hinges on secrecy, and yet, they fail to recognize that they can be easily observed when they inhabit Trip and Hoshi. One could argue that they had no idea that Trip and Hoshi were supposed to be under sedation, but that doesn’t quite ring true.

That doesn’t change the fact that this is an example of a strong stand-alone episode, easily on par with some of the best episodes of the first and second seasons. Like many of those episodes, excellent or not, there’s not much else going for it. The hour itself is intriguing from the beginning and definitely worth the time, but it’s hard to pin down something that would be a selling point for those not already interested in the series. There’s nothing that a casual viewer hasn’t seen on other incarnations of Trek, at least in tone and overall concept, so this is ultimately an example of preaching to the choir.

If the entire episode is geared towards the long-term Trek fan, which it arguably is, then are the Organians the only connection that the writers were trying to convey? There’s the fairly obvious question of the Prime Directive, and how the Organians use their version of the concept to further their own goals. The Organians believe in complete non-interference, but in the name of gathering details on corporeal beings, they have fallen into the trap that the title suggests: as with quantum physics, the very act of observation has a profound effect on the object being observed.

The concept of the Prime Directive, however, is not the only thing that comes into play. The Organians in question are actually playing out a real-world version of the Kobiyashi Maru Test. Unlike the cadets in Starfleet Academy, however, the crew of Enterprise has no idea that it is being observed and evaluated. The Organians are using a real-world “no win scenario” to see how Humans react to the fact that someone, regardless of whatever action is taken, will not survive.

There are also some subtle nods to continuity. The plot might be standard Trek, but the characters are all consistent with the development they were given since the beginning of the third season. In particular, T’Pol seems more like a typical Vulcan than ever, especially when facing the possibility of Trip’s death. If the producers actually stepped in to make sure that Jolene Blalock actually reined in her emotional lapses, then that decision is beginning to pay off. The difference is noticeable, even without any cues in the script to remind the audience what happened in “Kir’Shara”.

In another interesting move, the writers take the thin plot and use some nice layering and structural flair to give it additional depth. Nearly every scene is structured so that someone is observing the action, either in person or through some kind of monitor. This adds to the paranoia created by the constant “jumping” of the Organians, placing the action into a more isolated space.

This episode ultimately begs the question: were the last two episodes a good idea? The series is obviously struggling, and in terms of gaining some sense of momentum, the “Vulcan Arc” was one of the best stories in the series’ run to date. Why derail that momentum by coming out of a long holiday hiatus with two fairly lackluster episodes? This episode is strong from a storytelling point of view, but it’s not very exciting, especially for those fans just coming back for the “prequel arcs” that dominated the fall.

Clearly, the producers wanted to keep the next couple of arcs to cover the February sweeps period, while also avoiding a massive hiatus, which would have occurred without new episodes in January. But was it necessary to have such simple, quiet episodes, when the series is in serious need? Why not write a two-episode arc for January, covering some of the character development necessary for the second half of the season? The same topics could have been melded together rather easily (given the trip into unusual space in “Daedalus”), and it would have given the more casual viewers a sense of forward motion, rather than stalling on the way to first gear.

It might seem unfair to attach so much importance to an episode that, after all, works on its own merits, but this is also a time of great worry for Trek and “Enterprise” fans. There have been many indications that the series will be cancelled at the end of the season, and as a result, the ratings are under great scrutiny. Any little bump helps, and every slight decrease is a major roadblock. The series needs to keep trying to find a wider audience, and sadly, this episode is not going to supply that. Had this episode aired in the second season, when the writers were resting on their laurels, the impression left by the episode might well have been different.

Final Analysis

Overall, this episode takes a rather simple idea and communicates it in a clever and intriguing manner. The constant theme of observation, in terms of both the alien presence and the crew, ties the entire concept together. Add to that some classic Trek commentary on non-interference and the “no win scenario”, and this is one of the best stand-alone episodes of the series.

Writing: 2/2
Acting: 2/2
Direction: 2/2
Style: 2/4

Final Rating: 8/10

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