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Terra Nova

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at October 25, 2001 - 3:29 AM GMT

See Also: 'Terra Nova' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: Enterprise arrives at Terra Nova, a human colony that stopped communicating with Earth 70 years earlier. When Archer takes an away team to the irradiated surface of the planet, the crew find no signs of life in the colony, but Reed tracks a mysterious biped to a series of caverns. Archer follows him inside. There they find a group of humanoid beings with colorful skin, who assault them and injure Reed. As Archer, T'Pol and Mayweather retreat, the Vulcan reveals the results of her scans: the beings in the caves are not aliens but humans.

Tucker uses Enterprise's scanners to track Reed 90 meters below Terra Nova's surface, where T'Pol hypothesizes the colonists must have moved to escape radiation on the surface. She plots a path for Archer and Phlox through the unstable tunnels. The people living below call themselves Novans and despise humans, blaming them for the "poison rain" that irradiated the surface decades before. Phlox treats Reed's leg and cures the lung cancer of the eldest Novan, Nadet. But she and her son Jaymin still refuse to believe that they could be descended from people from Earth, nor that the Enterprise crew could possibly have their best interests at heart. So when T'Pol discovers that the meteor which irradiated the atmosphere is slowly poisoning their water supply, the Novans assume Archer wants them to move so he can take over their tunnels -- not for their own safety.

Archer tries to win Nadet's trust by showing her a photo from Enterprise's records of herself as a child living in the colony. But Jaymin refuses to trust a human and demands to be taken back to the surface. The shuttle crashes through the crust into the unstable tunnels, where a young Novan becomes trapped underneath a huge tree. In desperation Jaymin works with Archer to rescue the youth, saving Archer from falling into the pit, then letting the captain use his weapon to cut through the tree. After the cooperation ends successfully, Nadet tells her son to trust Archer's warning about their water supply and to consider his proposal to move the Novans to caves in the southern continent. After the rescue, Archer tells an exultant Mayweather to write a report for the news back home.

Analysis: Though it's not a great episode -- my eight-year-old son predicted that Archer and Jaymin would have to learn to cooperate before it ended, and sure enough that's what happened -- 'Terra Nova' nonetheless improves upon 'Unexpected.' It showcases the captain in a positive light and gives Scott Bakula a chance to show more range than he has thus far even in the pilot. Archer has two terrific arguments with crewmembers, first insisting that he has no business being in space if he can't make first contact with other humans, then accepting T'Pol's criticism when she points out that that bringing the Novans to Earth would destroy their culture and eradicate their identity. We get to see the captain lose his cool -- he sweats, he rants, he yells -- yet it makes him look strong rather than weak, a real person struggling with the real dilemmas of his position.

Both visually and plot-wise, 'Terra Nova' bears comparison to Voyager's "Friendship One," in which a probe from Earth irradiated a planet of beings who then moved underground, despising humans. In both cases the crew tries to demonstrate their good faith with medical treatment, and in both cases the leaders of the victimized societies have trouble trusting the starship crews. But in the case of 'Terra Nova,' humans are in fact innocent of the accused crime -- they were not responsible for the asteroid that hit the planet -- and the victims are their own flesh and blood, albeit several generations removed.

There are also some similarities with the original series episode 'Miri,' most notably a culture of children that survived the adults and had to reconstruct a language and culture in their absence -- it's surprising that they remained as civilized as they did, with a cache of weapons and scarce food. I loved the differences between Novan dialect and Terran English, for once a cultural phenomenon rather than a problem with the universal translator -- sort of like Voyager's 'Nemesis,' hearing other people's metaphors for caves, traveling, fighting can illuminate both similarities and differences among cultures.

Unfortunately we get to see very few Novans, and it's not completely explained whether this is because there are very few left -- if Enterprise could singlehandedly transplant their colony or transport them back to Earth, it must be a pretty small community, which should suggest a major problem to the crew before Phlox tracks down the cellular degradation caused by the water supply. The level of mutation seems very high for three generations; surely there are going to be other cancers, and birth defects, and problems that may end the society even on a new continent? It's not clear that Enterprise really has saved the colony, despite the good press they give themselves in the end.

It would be nice if a subsequent episode followed up on Archer's decision, and particularly poignant if he returned to find that the colony was not thriving. Would he second-guess his decision not to interfere more with the society? T'Pol is right that bringing the descendants back to Earth would wipe out what they had become, but if one finds a culture sliding into ruin without even the technology to trace their own decline, is it always an act of imperialistic arrogance to intervene more aggressively, particularly in the case of a former colony of children who can't even remember what they have lost? I'm not sure there are good answers to these dilemmas. It makes me draw one more Trek comparison, to Next Gen's dismal 'Homeward' -- in which Worf's brother decides the survival of a primitive race is more important than directives of non-interference. One can't help rooting for him to save the suffering people, even after we learn of his ulterior motives and Picard's opposition.

As it stands, 'Terra Nova' seems too pat -- mystery solved, people saved, score one for the good guys. There's little doubt that eventually the two groups of humans will mend their differences, and a little annoying that the backward-cousin Novans don't get to contribute more to the process -- but that might deprive Archer of the proto-Prime Directive speech T'Pol delivers about Archer's need to respect this culture's differences. It's hard to tell whether she is serious when she proposes using stun grenades to capture the colonists and bring them aboard the ship, or playing devil's advocate for the argument she's about to pick with Archer about the irresponsibility of bringing them back even by choice, but the mystery works to her advantage this time -- it sounds like that confounded Vulcan logic McCoy was always complaining to Spock about. Too bad Tucker wasn't in the room to contribute the emotional appeal.

The performances are uniformly fine this episode, but we still don't know anything about Mayweather except that he's an enthusiastic boomer -- nor about Reed except that he really knows his weapons. That's not a problem for me; I like Archer, Tucker and T'Pol enough in the serious episodes so far that if the supporting cast gets reduced to, well, supporting cast, like Uhura, Sulu and Chekov on Kirk's Enterprise, I can live with that. It's not completely clear yet what role Phlox will play in the dynamics -- as one of the few non-humans, one expects him to contribute more in the way of differing perspectives. Yet Archer conducts most of the scientific discussions with the Novans, even though they might be more likely to believe a non-human. I'd also like to have heard Phlox's perspective on the best course of action concerning the welfare of the colonists -- if I can think of a dozen potential medical concerns about transplanting them, surely he could, too.

I'm sure some fans of 'Unexpected' were sorry there wasn't more humor in 'Terra Nova,' but I'm of the philosophy that the humor has to grow out of the drama or at least not interfere with it. There weren't many appropriate moments for levity, and the somber tone made me take the story seriously. It's not a perfect episode, but it certainly made me think rather than roll my eyes.

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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 television reviews, interviews and other features for sites such as Cinescape and Another Universe, as well as a a number of other web sites and magazines. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.

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