“Impulse” (Star Trek: Enterprise – Season 3, Episode 5)
A large part of the fun of doing these Halloween Star Trek recaps is in the selection of the episodes. Star Trek is of course not a horror franchise, but as we’ve seen, it has dipped its toes into that genre a surprising number of times across its various shows. This episode, however, is probably the biggest no-brainer (heh) choice of them all for Spooky Trek. It is a heavily-themed (and styled) horror installment featuring Vulcan zombies, and its original airing was in October of 2003. Neat!
The third season of Enterprise featured a serialized storyline of Archer and crew attempting to track down the mysterious Xindi following their barely metaphorical 9/11-style attack on Earth. This mission has taken them into the Delphic Expanse to find these ne’er do wells, where all sorts of crazy shit happens. There’s lots of spatial anomalies, and ships apparently need their hulls to be plastered with Trellium-D in order to protect against them.
Following a Vulcan distress signal, Enterprise locates the damaged Seleya (which T’Pol previously served on) adrift in an asteroid belt full of that sweet, sweet Trellium-D. They board the ship to see what’s what, and hilarity ensues. By which I mean… yeah, murder and mayhem, obviously.
The filming and production of the episode was lovingly done with clear horror sensibilities. The teaser (apparently the shortest in Trek history) is a quick burst of terror filmed at a reduced frame rate to give it that modern horror movie feel; it takes place at the end of the story as Archer takes a mad T’Pol to sickbay. The damaged interiors of the Seleya are strewn with hanging debris and lots of flashing, flickering lights (this episode is definitely not for those with epilepsy). Several jump scares are littered throughout to keep the wits active and blood pressure at appropriately high levels as the away team fights off hordes of blistered, shambling Vulcans.
The episode doesn’t quite fulfill its potential as either a proper horror feature or a great Star Trek outing. Like much of Enterprise, it’s technically competent, but a little too procedural and lacking in substance or flair. The episode shares a lot of surface-level similarities to “Empok Nor,” in that the crew is trapped in deadly, foreboding environment that turns one of their own against them. As it so happens, the Trellium-D substance is a powerful neurotoxin for Vulcans, and in attempting to apply it to their own hull, the crew of the Seleya poisoned themselves with it. Their brains of deteriorated in a way that their neural… yeah, they’re just zombies.
They’re not trying to eat our heroes or anything, but they’re violent and mindless beings that pop out of every corner to aggressively attack. They apparently possess some intelligence, since at various points they use the ship’s systems against Archer and the away team, but none of them utter a single word the entire episode. When they trap one in the ship’s sickbay, T’Pol attempts to communicate with her former comrade, but he proves to be nothing more than a snarling beast.
In “Empok Nor,” Garak theorizes that the psychotropic compound administered to the Cardassian soldiers was meant to enhance his people’s naturally xenophobic and aggressive tendencies (essentially making them more Cardassian than Cardassian, which is the name of my Trek-themed White Zombie cover band). It’s a little thin there, but there’s some basic story attempt at justifying the horror premise.
In this episode, T’Pol mentions how violent and emotional her people used to be, but that doesn’t really have anything to do with what’s going on here. Their brains are messed up, period. As characters, the Vulcans are zero-dimensional here; they’re just monsters that jump out and attack. The idea of Vulcan zombies is cool and scary in a dumb, lizard-brain kind of way, but something about the action in the episode feels pretty bloodless. Our heroes are greatly outmatched (4 against well over 100), and T’Pol is gradually losing her mind as she succumbs to the effects of Trellium poisoning, but the tension doesn’t ever really rise above a medium boil. The heroes have weapons, and although the Vulcans are tough, they still go down when you give ’em a double-tap with a phaser, so I dunno. Zombies can be incredibly fearsome monsters, so it’s odd to see the idea almost totally drained of its inherent terror.
There’s also a good deal of wheel-spinning with the plot, with the away team getting trapped in one room after another, deciding to head to this room for this reason, and then that room for that reason. Additionally, there’s a bit of a subplot of Trip and Travis trying to score some Trellium in the asteroid belt themselves, but it doesn’t amount to much and only serves to diffuse any tension that could have built up on the Seleya. On the Vulcan ship, there aren’t any great or memorable setpieces, except for maybe a rote “crossing a chasm” sequence at the very end, which seemed more unintentionally funny than anything to me. By the midpoint, all the plot points have been revealed, and the rest of the episode is just hitting them over and over with slightly increasing intensity.
There’s not much material as far as character work either, unfortunately. T’Pol is slowly losing her mind the more time they spend on the Vulcan ship, and it manifests as extreme paranoia and suspicion towards her fellow away team members. Like a lot of “under the influence” plot lines in Trek, there’s not a lot of dramatic weight behind it, because we know she doesn’t really mean any of it and she’ll be cured by the episode’s end. Likewise, the fact that she served on this ship and is fighting off her former crewmates doesn’t amount to any significant dramatic material, either. I think making the Vulcans mindless monsters works against the story’s (and Trek’s) interests. Some great creepy potential could have been utilized if their minds were still partially there. Star Trek rarely traffics in the idea of mindless monsters; it’s normally a more thoughtful show than that, so maybe that’s why the episode has problems using them effectively.
With its crew beyond medical salvation (as determined by Phlox), the Seleya is destroyed, the crew escapes, and T’Pol is cured of her madness. The episode isn’t quite done scaring us, and it throws in a peculiar coda where T’Pol finds herself besieged by more Vulcan zombies aboard Enterprise, only to wake up in sickbay where she is still recovering. It feels tacked-on, attempting to squeeze some more cheap thrills out of the horror concept. It does contain a couple of nice jump scares, I’ll give it that. But overall, I’ve always been annoyed at these types of fake-out endings: everything is fine now… no wait, it’s not!!! OK, it actually is now. Never mind.
So yeah. Like Enterprise as a whole, the episode has a decent concept but doesn’t quite know what to do with it. The over-arching continuity tends to weigh it down rather than elevate it, and what should be a fun, dumb episode ends up being kind of a stale, by-the-numbers slog. Zombies are one of the most contextually-rich types of monsters and have provided all sorts of biting (heh) social commentary over the years. So it’s surprising and disappointing that they don’t mesh very well with a franchise that often does the same. Like the Vulcan crew tried doing with the Trellium-D, the creators attempted to plaster zombies over the existing framework, but the results are less than ideal.
- Holy shit, the red shirt survives! That’s gotta be a first! I kept waiting for him to eat it, and there are several fake-outs throughout the episode. It almost starts to feel like a Hot Tub Time Machine gag where you keep waiting for him to die in increasingly ludicrous perils, only to be disappointed when he doesn’t.
- I love this shot of the ship approaching the asteroid field. The normal shot composition of Trek shows always places the ship filling up the screen. Rarely are the hero ships depicted so tiny in the exterior shots. The Enterprise is a very small and inexperienced ship, and the shot visually emphasizes how alone and outmatched it is for what lies ahead.
- Fuckin’ gangsta shot right here:
- I love how the Vulcans were just shmearing this substance all over the inside of the ship. Hindsight is always 20/20, but it seems… ill-advised.
Well, I don’t know about you, my space-FEARing cadets, but I’m certainly beat! All this looking at the viewSCREAM has given me quite the headache. As much as I’ve enjoyed this month long trek-or-treat, I think I’ll head down to sickbay and see if Bones can do anything for my Guts. Until next time, Live as Long as you can and Prosper! Ahehehehehehehehe!