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Rogue Planet

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at March 21, 2002 - 9:30 AM GMT

See Also: 'Rogue Planet' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: Enterprise passes by a planet that has broken out of its sun's orbit yet has Earth-like surface conditions due to its thermal features. When the crew detects a ship on the surface, Archer decides to take an away team down. On the surface the crewmembers are surprised by the Eskans, a group of aliens who attack Reed before discovering that they can communicate. Archer learns that the Eskans are hunters who travel to this rogue world in pursuit of challenging prey -- primarily a ferocious pig-like creature. The Eskans leave the higher primates alone.

Though Archer is somewhat offended at the concept of stalking live beings, he agrees to let Reed accompany the Eskans on a hunt to study their sensors. While the others sleep, the captain hears someone calling to him. Walking alone into the jungle, he sees a beautiful woman who flees from his approach. The Eskans laugh it off, saying that on a planet where it is always night, people's eyes play tricks on them. But when Archer goes with Tucker and T'Pol to investigate steam vents nearby, he sees the woman again, and she tells him that she needs his help. Her people are shapeshifters, and the Eskans hunt them.

One of the Eskans is brutally attacked, presumably by the pig-like animal he was hunting. Archer sends the alien to Enterprise, where Phlox discovers a strange mutagenic substance in proximity to the wound. Meanwhile Archer learns of the true prey of the Eskans, called wraiths -- beings that can take on any form, including phantasms from the minds of their hunters. The Eskans have learned to track the wraiths because they emit a chemical when they're afraid. Disgusted at the slaughter of sentient beings, Archer asks Phlox whether he can come up with a way to mask the chemical signature of the wraiths from the Eskans. Once her people have protected themselves with Phlox's compound, Archer's mysterious friend thanks him and lets him see her true serpentine form.

Analysis: Anyone who has seen Deep Space Nine's 'Captive Pursuit' or any of Voyager's Hirogen episodes can predict more than half of this episode, and the few surprises in the plot stretch credulity past the breaking point. 'Rogue Planet' manages to hold viewer attention with interesting camera work and strong performances -- the two biggest things Enterprise has going for it.

I'm no geologist, but I know that thermal features like Yellowstone are caused by roiling subterranean currents resulting in part from the pull of the sun and moon on Earth. How could a rogue planet have an active core -- not to mention a stable oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere, despite gases venting all over the surface? What are those enormous plants using for energy if not photosynthesis; didn't big leaves evolve to soak up sunlight? I'm sure someone will write in with a science fiction explanation of how all this might theoretically work, but viewers shouldn't be left with such questions -- we should get explanations within the episode. It looks like the writers wanted a haunted-house-type setting, a planet where the sun never rises, but surely they could have come up with a more plausible reason for the darkness...a planet with one side permanently facing away from its sun, or an atmospheric condition that makes the sky perpetually dark.

Since we're supposed to believe instead that this planet receives no sunlight, the visibility on the surface seems preposterously high. There are instances in the episode when viewers can see crewmembers without benefit of a visor or the light of a fire. We shouldn't be able to see a thing, and it should be pitch black within a few feet of the flames. For the purposes of television, though, we have to be able to see, and we need different eyepieces to distinguish the Enterprise crew from the Eskans in the dimness -- let's let that slide. But from Reed's questions to the aliens, it sounds as if Enterprise's Max Steel goggles aren't even as good as those currently used by the U.S. military -- they can't even detect infrared! To pull off a plot as derivative as that of 'Rogue Planet,' the details need to be startling and intriguing. Instead they're sloppy and demand a suspension of disbelief that takes the science out of science fiction.

If one can get past the details, the camera work in the dark jungle is quite good and creates an effectively creepy atmosphere...though that, too, evaporates for plot reasons. I think the writers wasted an opportunity by not placing any predators on the planet, or even a few benign but freaky beasts jumping out of the trees -- it might have come across as cheap scream tactics, but there's never any sense of menace to the Enterprise crew, and since it's obvious Archer will figure out that his mysterious girlfriend is one of the hunted pig-creatures, there's not really much fear factor even for the damsel in distress. Again, that's not a problem in itself -- I'd always rather watch good science fiction than mediocre horror. Still, with such a thin plot, anything to enhance audience involvement would be an improvement.

The most interesting development of all, the discovery of a shape-shifting, telepathic species, gets the shortest shrift. Previously the changelings we've met on Trek have been menacing -- Martia on Rura Penthe, the Dominion -- yet here we have a species of mind-readers capable of distinguishing between predatory solids and peaceful ones. Too bad Archer seems just as content to keep his mystery girl as just that. He's intrigued when he realizes she borrowed his interpretation of a Yeats poem to form her appearance, but when he encounters her at the end, he's apparently so tongue-tied that he doesn't ask any questions -- the process by which her species morphs, how it is that their minds are similar enough for her to understand his language and emotions.

The performers give their all. Bakula in particular comes off very well; he's believably confused and upset when Archer first encounters the woman, then he's forceful and angry when he learns that the Eska knew about the wraiths all along. T'Pol is the first to observe that the wraiths sound intelligent, and her muted advice to Archer makes her sound sympathetic rather than the narrow-minded Vulcan naysayer to which she's often reduced. Tucker serves primarily as a foil for Archer, but Trinneer gets some wonderful flip lines -- I particularly liked his teasing Archer about an unfortunate poker game on Jupiter Station, as well as his comment that he doesn't know much poetry beyond dirty limericks.

On the other hand, a lot of Tucker's comments only serve to reinforce the Enterprise boys' club. (Warning: those who cannot abide commentary on the sexual politics of Enterprise should skip this paragraph.) Of the three women in this episode, only one (T'Pol) is used for more than a token role -- though Sato goes on the away mission, she heads back to the ship before it's been established that there is other intelligent life on the planet, complaining all the way. Archer bonds with Reed over shared experiences as Boy Scouts, counts on Trip to understand his yearning for a fantasy woman, gets teased about visions of half-naked women. Despite the presence of a couple of women on the crew (both outsiders in this case -- T'Pol, the Vulcan, who doesn't think they should meddle, and Sato, who doesn't like sleeping among the creepy crawlies), 'Rogue Planet' re-emphasizes the sense from 'Shuttlepod One' that we're back in a men's world; even the all-male Eskan crowd make jokes about wet dreams and mourn their leader's fallen patriarch. The woman saved by Archer appeals not only to his erotic yearnings but to his image of himself as romantic idealist and protector; it's how she chooses her form.

T'Pol suggests that Archer might not be so interested in the alien if she had appeared to him as a scantily-clad man instead of a woman, and unfortunately it seems as though the Vulcan is right. As the alien woman admits, she had to pick a form that would please Archer just to get his attention, but then he doesn't seem to be able to pay any attention to her more bizarre attributes. Why, if she's trying to save her people, does she appear only to Archer, rather than taking different forms for each member of his crew who might be sympathetic to her plight? With all of T'Pol's bio-teams on the surface, couldn't the captain have asked his new friend to tell them just a bit about her species?

I'm glad Enterprise is exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilizations. But this world is too strange for credibility. And this new life-form, whose civilization remains obscure, spends more time looking pretty and talking like a helpless maiden fair than allowing us to ponder the wonders of the universe and the differences among beings. So what's the point?

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Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.

Michelle Erica Green reviews Enterprise episodes and Star Trek books for the Trek Nation, as well as Andromeda episodes for SlipstreamWeb. She has written for magazines and sites such as SFX, Cinescape and Another Universe. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.

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