Sunday, March 23, 2014

So Much Retcon! “Observer Effect”

The Good: Good acting, Moments of plot, Moments of retcon character
The Bad: Some continuity issues, Generally light on character development
The Basics: Cleverly reinserting the Organians back into the Star Trek narrative; Star Trek: Enterprise’s “Observer Effect” makes the Enterprise into an alien laboratory for a decent story!

For a science fiction geek such as myself, it is actually pretty surprising that – though I had heard the term retcon many, many times – it was not until last year that I learned what “retcon” meant. “Retcon” means “retroactive continuity:” the basic idea that ideas told to viewers or readers later in a narrative that allude to prior events have actually existed all along. A prequel series like Star Trek: Enterprise is all about retcon. In the fourth season, the show more actively attempted to lay the seeds for Star Trek (The Original Series). One of the big episodes for retcon was “Observer Effect.”

“Observer Effect” illustrates how difficult it can be to retcon well. Two masters of Star Trek history (Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens) work in the episode to retcon a story that has a virus brought to the Enterprise and while it has some problematic aspects in tying into the original Star Trek, it actually has pretty decent retcon work for the character of Hoshi Sato. After more than three years, we learn why she was not in StarFleet when Archer found her in “Broken Bow” (reviewed here!).

Opening with Reed and Mayweather, clearly possessed, playing chess and talking about an experiment in progress on the planet below in detached terms, the Enterprise crew is observed by two aliens under circumstances that always resolve with at least one death. The planet that the ship is in orbit of is described by Sato as a “Klingon garbage dump.” As she and Trip return from the planet, Trip collapses, coughing. In decon, Sato begins coughing as well. As Phlox studies their blood samples, he discovers a silicon-based life virus.

As the aliens inhabiting Reed and Mayweather become frustrated at their lack of ability to get critical information about how the crew is reacting to the virus, organisms take control of Phlox and T’Pol. After Sato leaves Quarantine, Phlox has Tucker and Sato knock themselves out. When he sees them speaking to one another, he realizes there are entities jumping between crewmembers. After his memories are erased by the entities, Phlox develops a dangerous treatment to kill the silicon-based virus.

“Observer Effect” is fun for fans of the original Star Trek when the identity of the “invaders” is revealed. Despite references to the Organian Peace Treaty even into late Star Trek, before “Observer Effect,” the Organians (before this episode) were only seen in “Errand Of Mercy” (reviewed here!). To the credit of Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, “Observer Effect” is a clever way to bring the Organians into the prequel without ruining Star Trek continuity. In fact, the Reeves-Stevens’s are smart to make multiple references to the Klingons, which puts the planet in the episode along a reasonable path for the Organians to be found farther down the line along the same vector.

Because most of the episode deals with reactions by invaders, there is very little actual character development in “Observer Effect.” The Doctor fights like hell to save Sato and Tucker, Archer does the heroic thing while trying to save their lives; these are long-established character traits. Instead, the episode’s real character development comes more from a retcon of Hoshi Sato. Sato is re-characterized as a former troublemaker, gambler, and aikido blackbelt. Given how Sato has never illustrated any combat ability before now, that aspect is an unfortunate retcon. The rest is actually gratifying to hear; why Archer handpicked a non-StarFleet officer for his communication’s officer in “Broken Bow” has been one of the show’s enduring mysteries (never actively focused upon).

The acting in “Observer Effect” is quite good. Dominic Keating and Anthony Montgomery open the episode remarkably well; their acting informs the viewers just as much as the lines they speak. Throughout the episode, all of the performers give wonderful performances. All of the primary cast is given the chance to show off a different way of presenting their “possessed” characters and they make the distinctions well, without ever going over-the-top.

Despite the continuity issues, “Observer Effect” is a worthwhile story that plays with Star Trek continuity fairly well.

The three biggest gaffes in “Observer Effect:”
3. The Federation did not encounter a silicon-based lifeform until “The Devil In The Dark” (reviewed here!), almost a hundred years after this episode. Given how close the planet with the silicon-based lifeform is to the central planets of the Federation, it is unrealistic that it would take a hundred years to encounter another one,
2. Phlox has Tucker set his hypospray to a specific drug. Even in the 24th Century, hypospray technology utilized another device to fill it with the medicine it injected. McCoy and Dr. Crusher both are seen frequently pressing the hypospray into a desk-based device to get the medicine they need to inject. Better technology should not have existed a hundred years prior,
1. The Cardassians are referenced by the Organians. Given how far out this planet would have to be, there is no logical reason they would have made it to the Organian test planet.

[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Star Trek: Enterprise - The Complete Fourth Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the final season here!


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© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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