On the 22nd-century Earth of Enterprise — UPN’s new Star Trek prequel — there is no hunger, no disease, no war, and so it is necessary to go into space, the final frontier, to find some; humanity having got its act together, badness has become strictly an extraterrestrial condition. Not surprisingly, the particular humanity retailed by the Star Trek franchise wears an American face; and notwithstanding the famous “prime directive” to stay out of alien affairs, the various series and films have always implicitly endorsed the export and universal triumph not only of American “values” (the good ones, like in the Constitution) but of American neurosis, American hubris, American cussedness — part and parcel, of course, of our essential, undeniable American goodness. Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Jean-Luc Picard, though nominally French and played by an Englishman, was in his “holodeck” fantasy life an American detective. Logical Spock’s cool reserve, while sometimes a necessary corrective to Kirk’s cowboy impulsiveness, was essentially foreign, un-American, inhuman, a fault.
Scott Bakula, who boasts sci-fi cred from Quantum Leap, has been elected to lead this latest, and chronologically first, mission to go where no one has gone before, and though less of a ham than William Shatner, he’s a captain in the Kirk mold in that he leads all the expeditions he should be delegating to expendable subordinates. I find him a little dry myself; but chicks, it is said, dig him. Bakula butts heads regularly with his Vulcan “sub-commander” (Jolene Blalock), a green-skinned hottie with the grand inelastic bust of a comic-book heroine and all the cuddly warmth of Leonard Nimoy (whom all subsequent Vulcans must in some sense imitate). In the first episode, she gets some sexy decontaminating shower time with chief engineer Connor Trinneer, in attitude and accent a sort of spacegoing Huell Howser — expect (slow-burning) fireworks between these two. Rounding out the rainbow cast — a Star Trek tradition, going back to the days of Uhura, Sulu, Chekov and Scotty — are an English “armory officer” (Dominic Keating), an Asian-American translator (Linda Park) who has some old love business with Bakula, an alien doctor of unspecified planetary origin (John Billingsley) and African-American helmsman Anthony Montgomery. There is also a dog.
Post Galaxy Quest, it’s a little hard to watch this stuff with a straight face, but after a two-hour opener that seemed conceptually sloppy and a bit dull, Enterprise has begun to find its groove, which is to say, it feels a lot like all those other Star Trek shows — striking a balance of cracker-barrel philosophy and Saturday-serial action, with a modicum of interpersonal friction and a habitual reliance on the deus ex machina, or rather the machina ex machina: With a crossed wire here and a reversed polarity there, they are forever jerry-rigging themselves out of tight spots. Although the first Enterprise is more funky-industrial than its groovy clean-lined predecessors from the future-past, and the theme is an awful Diane Warren power ballad (“I’ve got faith to believe I can do anything”), and the picture is letterboxed in anticipation of HDTV, and the special effects are better, and the photography marginally more atmospheric, and the writers “have fun” with the form (the artificial gravity goes out on the captain while he’s in the shower, for instance), for the most part Enterprise goes where its predecessors have gone before. Which is not such a bad thing. The changes are, so to speak, cosmetic, and not always even that: Those alien worlds all still look a lot like the Santa Monica Mountains.
Though science fiction often deals in apocalypse and Armageddon, it is an essentially comforting form: Someone is left to tell the tale. (It is certainly a sign of these troubled times that television, a medium whose message is overwhelmingly one of reassurance, whose basic effect is sedative, has been functioning instead as an instrument of anxiety.) And sometimes — and this is the fictional part — someone arrives to keep apocalypse at bay.
Superman’s oft-remarked-upon Christliness (he comes from the heavens to save mankind, grows up humbly among the humble) is made explicit in the first episode of the WB’s Smallville, in which a teenaged Clark Kent, whose otherworldly origin has not yet been revealed to him — he only knows he’s a kind of freak who can run fast, but like most adolescents experiencing a strange change, he’s been reluctant to discuss it with his parents) — is actually tied to a cross. By his mean jock classmates. In a cornfield. With an “S” painted on his chest. But he’s also Hercules, as well as Samson and Achilles (kryptonite being his hair, his heel). He’s all the slightly flawed hero you’ll ever need, is Superman, and he keeps coming back like a song.
This is the fourth live-action series to feature Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s six-decades-old creation — surely you haven’t forgotten Superboy — and like Hamlet, say, the subject’s long life is a function of its adaptability, its susceptibility to interpretation: Where Lois and Clark functioned as screwball action-comedy, a kind of Bringing Up Baby with supervillains, Smallville filters the story through Dawson’s Creek, and is a close cousin to Roswell and Buffy in the ever-expanding supernatural teen-show genre, though its mood is more X-Files than either. On early evidence, the series, like Buffy in its early years, will find its metaphorical meat in the high school food chain: The first two episodes each concerned a nerd’s revenge, the third had Clark (Tom Welling) going out for football, under a crazed coach who’ll do anything to win. (Like Buffy’s Sunnydale, Smallville is a preternaturally dangerous town where people nevertheless continue to live; the schools must be really good.) Allison Mack and Sam Jones III, as Clark’s snoopy pals Chloe and Pete, function as a Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen; and though Chloe has eyes for Clark, the big cluck’s hung up on deep, dark golden-girl Lana Lang (Kristin Kreuk). (Kryptonite is not his only weakness.) The most interesting twist, apart from dispensing with the tights and cape and the other common appurtenances of superherodom, is that Clark Kent and future archenemy Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum) are friends, after a fashion — bonded outsiders. There’s much to admire here: The show is intelligently written and handsomely made; the series’ first minutes, in which baby Superman arrives on Earth accompanied by the meteoric shards of ex-Krypton, were big-screen gripping. In a cast uniformly good, and restrained, I note with especial approval the presence of John Schneider (Dukes of Hazzard!) and Annette O’Toole (who played Lana Lang in the movie Superman III) as the elder Kents. “Ma and Pa” hardly apply.
“We are truly in a time where there is an unprecedented need for heroic figures right now,” Schneider recently observed to our local Times, adding that Smallville was “really about the raising and teaching of a true American fictional hero.” (Love that fictional.) Having passed the age when I expect to be rescued by anyone at all, I am more disposed to the sorts of superheroes presently arrayed on Cartoon Network’s twice-weekly, late-night “Adult Swim” programming block — not only have they feet of clay, but ankles, calves, knees, thighs, groins, butts, abs, pecs, arms, hands, fingers, necks, heads. They are petulant and self-involved, prone to pride, sloth, anger, envy, covetousness, lust and gluttony, and undoubtedly to additional sins available only to superheroes. They are like us, but more dangerous. The lineup, aimed at the grown-ups who constitute a third of the C.N. audience, also includes the very funny Home Movies and the anime serial Cowboy Bebop. But its revisionist heart comprises a couple of shows spun off from the animated talk show Space Ghost: Coast to Coast — The Brak Show, a ’50s-ish family sitcom with Space Ghost’s enslaved giant mantis bandleader Zorak in the Eddie Haskell position, and Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law — along with the similarly warped Sealab 2021 (the old Sealab 2020 infected with sexual innuendo and megalomania); new Space Ghost episodes; and the wholly original, though retro-themed Aqua Teen Hunger Force, in which a meatball, a shake and a bag of fries fight crime, when they get around to it. The message here is clear: You had better look out for yourself.