The Wonderful Xindi: Aliens Overdone or Underdone?
In the third year of its run Enterprise proposed one of the most fantastic and intriguing ideas of the StarTrek universe or any other -- the Xindi. Here was an alien civilization composed of not just one species (Klingons, Andorians, etc.) or two (Romulans and Remans) but no fewer than six! Each was based on a group of creatures more or less familiar to Earthlings, for there were primates, sloth-like arborials, lizardy reptilians, insectoids, and aquatics that seemed to be a cross between fishes and amphibians, plus an avian species that had already become extinct and was represented only by a skull (actually a giraffe's). Neither the animatronic insects nor the swimming aquatics were on screen very often. In fact, none of the xindi are really revealed until well into the season, as the Enterprise crew searches for the perpetrators of a surprise terror attack on Florida. For technical and budget reasons, the pentad is mostly represented by the more humanoid components, the primates, arborials, and reptilians. Still, even with three out of the original six types of creatures in the lens, there was plenty of room for Enterprise to leave a dominant legacy in the realm of sci fi exobiology.
Yet, the xindi story arc of season three did not elicit a rousing critical reception or a badly needed turnaround in shrinking audience share. The reasons for this disappointment provide many interesting insights into the problems of representing aliens both in visual media and in writing. This is especially true in that the species are underwritten as well as overwritten. The visual concentrationon the three creatures most similar to humans certainly tilted the showing field from the very beginning, though some effort was made to compensate for this by giving the aquatics some very cool space vehicles that are featured towards the end of the season. The fact that the insectoids play second banana to the more aggressive reptilians and the aquatics have a somewhat similar role in regard to the primates and arborials gives a pretext for their underwriting. So does the detail that these two minor races are not to express themselves in anything like normal words, whereas the others can be scripted with a little help from accents and dialogue coaches. Nevertheless, the audience has a natural curiosity about these exotic beings that is never truly satisfied. Surprisingly, the ponderous back story necessary to support the verisimilitude of the xindi is not very well elaborated or regularly sustained, with information confined mainly to two episodes and little morsels of revelation distributed unevenly, and with no obvious strategic plan, throughout the remainder of the season.
There is another, even more glaring reason for the underwriting of the xindi, namely that they are not (as they are set up to be through at least five episodes) the principal villains responsible for the devastation of Earth. It turns out that they are merely the dupes of another even less clearly described race, the Sphere Beings. Thus the motivation for the xindi, except perhaps for the reptilians, is eventually reduced to a mistake. Indeed, the primates, arborials and aquatics eventually join the humans in trying to thwart the villains' plot for a second and more deadly attack on Earth. Even the insectoids assume a more or less neutral stance towards the end. The big mystery becomes not what makes the xindi tick, but why the Sphere Beings are behind the mischief. By this time in the arc, most of the audience had begun to lose interest in this gratuitous bifurcation. The error is emphasized by the diversion away from the xindi's own back story involving a civil war between the six races and the annihilation of their home planet. It is aggravated by a huge continuity problem concerning the xindi council chamber. This set is explained as a former stronghold of the avians before their extinction. Yet, if the extinction occurred at the time of the home world destruction, which the un-spaceworthy avians could not escape, how could they have constructed a complex on another planet?
The burgeoning problem of continuity errors and ambiguity leads to late-season script details that try to resolve the incongruities. Thus, the xindi wind up being overwritten (badly) as well as initially underwritten. The original lack of concord among the xindi species, presented as a fait accompli when their delayed development belatedly takes place on camera, could have been a singular opportunity to deepen the treatment of all six life forms. And that was clearly called for, since the simultaneous evolution of six different and to some degree rival types of advanced organisms on one planet challenges scientific common sense. What a complex social situation, fraught with emotions that could captivate the spectator! Instead, the complex production and writing staff simply introduced the pretext of a civil war that posed more questions than it provided answers. We are asked to simply accept the premise that "there were these six different guys and naturally they didn't get along." This sort of "Chinese box" approach to composition is a poor one, since it progressively deflects and diminishes the attention of the audience.
As the StarTrek universe expanded, one phenomenon that unfortunately manifested itself was that costumes and makeup, superb as they were, sometimes tended to push more important issues to the back burners. I am reminded of the experienced actor who had been hired to be a Klingon in an STNG episode, only to be unceremoniously dumped because his huge frame could not fit into the snug outfit Christopher Lloyd had worn in StarTrek III. It was he who had to remind the management that in the grown-up world directors and producers have to make the crucial decisions, not the Costume Department. (To their credit, the poobahs realized their error and reinstated him). In the case of the xindi, the admittedly breath-taking achievement of filming the plethora of alien beings was vitiated by the failure to develop them -- individually or collectively -- as characters. Ultimately, any sci fi extraterrestrial, from the mute xenomorph in Alien to the linguistically talented Drak in Enemy Mine, must succeed as a fully acceptable character with a coherent system of motivation, rather than as a disembodied image, no matter how stunning.