Aug. 11, 2020

007: ENT: Strange New World

What will psychotropic compounds do in a leadership crisis?

On this episode, Jeff Akin reviews Star Trek Enterprise, Strange New World. He will examine the leadership approaches of Captain Archer along with T'Pol and Commander Tucker.

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Welcome, everyone! Thank you for joining me. Today, we revisit Captain Archer and the crew of Starfleet’s first Warp 5 vessel, on Enterprise, season 1, Strange New World. 

We’re in the mess hall with Crewman Elizabeth Cutler, an entomologist, and Crewman Ethan Novakovich. She’s enjoying some plomeek soup, a Vulcan dish, and studying the termites of Loracus Prime. One of the themes of Enterprise is the awe of discovery, and this plays out beautifully in this opening. They approach a planet that looks very Earth-like. The entire mess hall crowds the windows to look and speculate about it! 

On the bridge, all the crew become more and more impressed as T’Pol confirms it can support life. It’s a “Minshara” class, or “M-Class” planet. Archer executes a few protocols to be sure there is no claim to the planet or other immediate reasons to not land. T’Pol reminds him of the many required and recommended surveys and scans that should be completed prior to landing. She explains these are in place to keep everyone safe. Archer dismisses her and the need for the surveys. He gets a survey team together and they head to the shuttle.

Barely 3 minutes into the episode and, again, Archer is showing us how NOT to effectively lead. Everyone is understandably excited; this is the first planet they get to visit on their mission. But Archer feeds into that excitement and blindly shrugs off protocol. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m usually the first person to try and dance around useless, bureaucratic, non-value added requirements, but there’s a difference when they save lives. These are educated, trained professionals. They are aware of some of the limitations of their technology. And they should immediately know that just jumping onto the surface of the planet could be catastrophic to them! And if the crew doesn’t know it, Archer should remind them. Now, am I saying they need to do every last survey, scan and study that T’Pol references? Of course not! But they should take basic precautions. When my daughter makes a baking soda volcano, she wears goggles. Does she do that because of all the kid’s volcano vision tragedies we hear about all the time? No! She does it because it is a basic precaution. Archer should know better. Now, in all fairness, there’s a version of this where they visit the planet and everything is super cool; but if that were the case, there probably wouldn’t be an episode about it… <<Cut together a new end to the episode>>

As they’re loading the shuttle craft, Cutler attempts to bond with T’Pol, but she’s having none of it. This is before they have any confidence in the transporters - TOTALLY understandable! So, they head down in a shuttle. Archer’s beagle, Porthos, leaps out of the shuttle, and thank goodness everything is cool on the planet! Like, he didn’t immediately react to the vegetation and melt into the ground, or have his lungs burnt out by something in the air. Seems you’ve dodged a bullet, Captain Archer….. T’Pol immediately begins scanning the area, this is, after all, the 37th M Class planet she’s been on, and Archer shuts her down. “Enjoy yourself,” he says. Trip grabs his point-and-shoot camera from his local Best Buy in 2009 to memorialize the occasion! They head off in teams to survey the planet as Archer playfully pokes fun at T’Pol.

I say playfully, because I don’t believe he has any ill intent. The problem is, any leader’s actions speak louder than words…or intent. T’Pol comes from a government that has uneasy relations with Earth at this time. Her official role is “observer” on this mission. While this doesn’t mean Archer, or any of the crew, need to like her or follow her, but, at the very least, as a Captain in United Earth’s Starfleet, he should at least be respectful. At the very least. In reality, he should also, at least be friendly and welcoming. Instead, he demonstrates to his crew that it is acceptable to disrespect her; to show that someone who is “not as they are” that they are not welcome. That’s just messed up. As if to drive that point home, Archer’s team completely ignores the scheduled rendezvous time and T’Pol has to check in with them to which Archer snidely responds that they “lost track of time.” 

When they all meet up, T’Pol asks for Cutler and Novakovich to stay on the planet with her, overnight. Trip and Mayweather, well, Trip, also volunteer to stay overnight turning this into a CAMPING TRIP! We get a campfire scene with Mayweather telling a 22nd century ghost story. They head into their tents and they start hearing seeing things. Novakovich is convinced someone is sneaking around the campsite. Trip feels and sees a scorpion type creature in his sleeping bag; leading to a rare Star Trek cussing moment, “Oh Son of a bitch!” Between this and a horrifying weather system, they head into a cave they found earlier. Hmm, already seems like some stuff they may have learned with additional scans and following some protocols…oh well, probably not a big deal… 

Up on the ship, Reed drops by Archer’s quarters to update him on the survey team and the weather system. Archer greets him by remarking on Reed’s water polo potential. Hey…you know what?? Archer’s a bro. A total bro. You have probably worked with, or maybe even for, a bro at some point. They go to the gym, or play softball, or are really into fantasy football - none of these are bad are on their own, it’s this next part - and of you ALSO do those things, you’re in! You’re in on the jokes, you sit at the same lunch table, you get the interesting jobs….hmmm. We’ll test this theory on future episodes, but I think I may have just cracked the Archer code…

So, Reed updates him. They put a shuttle pod on standby to extract them if needed. To Archer’s credit, he checks in with the survey team. He doesn’t just take Reed’s update and goes from there, he validates the situation. It’s important to have as much information as possible before pulling the plug on an operation. Had he just taken the data points from Reed - bad weather system, shuttle pod ready to go - and pulled them out from there, they could miss out on valuable data. If you’re ever leading a project, or are in a pilot phase, this is a valuable lesson. Don’t just go off of a few data points. Get context; check in with the people doing the work. We talked about this on the 4th episode of the Starfleet Leadership Academy when Sisko was doing a gemba walk on the Promenade of DS9. Go to where the work is happening. Talk to the people doing the work. This isn’t circumventing project leads or other managers, in fact, take them with you! The best way to get the information, data and context necessary to move forward is to check in with the people doing the thing. Check in with them, consider all the data presented to you, and proceed from there.

Back on the planet’s surface, Mayweather heads back to the campsite to pick up some supplies that were left there. He sees a small group of people shuffling back into the trees and assumes Trip and Novakovich came following. When he learns no one left the cave, the paranoia starts bubbling up. T’Pol confirms that scans show no humanoid life. While Travis is questioning her assessment, Novakovich hears noises further back in the cave. He gets right into T’Pol’s face and he also challenges her interpretation of the readings. In an example of one of my biggest complaints with Star Trek, Novakovich immediately panics and runs out of the cave. Starfleet is not a military organization, they say that frequently through the franchise. They are clearly paramilitary, though, and go through rigorous training before serving on a starship. This is called out later in the episode, but they run drills on these exact situations. In what is likely one of Crewman Novakovich’s first experiences in the field, it’s understandable he’d get nervous and even make some mistakes. What isn’t reasonable, at least to me, is that he would forget all his training in an instant and behave like a civilian that had never been prepared for a situation like this.

Anyway Travis and Trip head out after him and T’Pol goes deeper into the cave to confront whatever, or whoever, Novakovich heard back there. Cutler follows and sees her talking with someone; T’Pol claims no one was there. While outside the cave, Trip sees a humanoid creature appear from a rock. Travis guesses that rock-based life forms wouldn’t have shown up on their scanners. They decide it’s too dangerous out there and return to the cave. They report the new info to Archer who decides to send the shuttle for them. T’Pol disagrees with Trip; claims the rocks are rocks. Paranoia starts kicking in as Cutler claims she’s lying; Trip jumps right on it and starts laying into T’Pol. <<Paranoid>> 

Archer’s piloting the shuttle down with Reed. There really are two schools of thought on this. In Star Trek it’s the Kirk vs Picard away team approach. In leadership, I call it the do-er vs the empower-er. Not sure those are actually words….Anyway, in the Kirk school of thought, the do-er approach, the leader is hands on. Takes on the tough assignments. This provides teachable moments; if you’re really good at a thing, others can learn through observation. It can even serve as a motivator to staff; it’s great to see your boss doing your job! That is, unless you’re always better than they are which can prove to be demotivating…I say it can, it may not, but it sure can. The Picard approach, or the empower-er school of thought leans on the strengths of others. Allow them to take on the tough assignments. Will they do as well as you would, maybe, maybe not. But, they will learn from it. It can also demonstrate trust which is invaluable. To be clear here, while I personally have an empower-er bias, neither of these are right or wrong; they are just different schools of thoughts and approaches to leading. 

Archer and Reed try to get the shuttle down, but the weather system is just too much for them. Reed warns Archer they can’t land with the weather or with the damage to the thrusters. Archer considers this and decides to listen to Reed. They abort the landing attempt and head back to the Enterprise. His advice to the survey team: “manage as best you can.” Gee, thanks, Cap!

Trip immediately starts interrogating T’Pol. He is becoming more and more convinced that T’Pol is not only aware of the rock people, but that she’s collaborating with them. Cutler eggs him on, “could be a trap, Commander.” 

On the Enterprise, they’ve located Novakovich on the surface. They beam him up. Again, these are the early days of transporters; he comes up with vegetation and debris infused with his skin. He’s rushed to sickbay. Phlox detects a psychotropic compound <<Hippy song from last ep>> in his blood as he deals with the transporter damage. Reed guesses it wouldn’t have been detected by sensors until the wind had picked up. Hmmm, something they would have caught had they followed T’Pol’s advice earlier… Phlox says the compound should flush out of Novakovich in a few hours. 

Trip is beginning to carry himself like he’s getting drunk. The paranoia and conspiracy theories are growing. Even Mayweather is starting to question him. He’s beginning to believe the planet, the survey team and the overnight stay are all part of a Vulcan plot to sabotage the Enterprise’s mission. He works himself into a frenzy and starts shooting his phase pistol at the cave walls.

Archer contacts the survey team to update them, but he interrupts a hostage situation. Trip has her at “phase pistol point” and quickly starts rattling off his accusations to Archer. Archer, with full knowledge at this point, mind you, attempts to explain they have been exposed to the psychotropic compound. This has about the same effect as telling a 4-year old to calm down. Archer gets firm and reminds them they went through simulations dealing with this at Starfleet training. Trip isn’t hearing any of it, but he does lower the weapon. T’Pol states she’s been affected as well, but not as much. 

I said it earlier, but it bears saying again. Charles Tucker the Third is a Commander in Starfleet and his training just flies out the window. Now, the compound is intense, but this theme in Star Trek is bothersome to me. 

Starts heating up in the cave. T’Pol is only speaking in Vulcan now and Trip is talking to a Mr Velik - assuming that’s someone from his past he has a lot of respect for. 

Reed has determined the next available window they can land the shuttle in will be in 9 hours. Phlox calls Archer into sickbay. Novakovich is dying. The psychotropic compound (that’s a fun word to say - psychotropic) released an undetectable toxin that is fatal. Phlox is devastated. He has a hard time talking, he’s so upset. He questions his choices, “a sub-molecular scan would have detect…but there was no reason to.” Beautiful compassion from the ship’s doctor. Archer lets a leadership moment pass as he immediately asks about the others. He doesn’t acknowledge Phlox’s feelings, his honesty, or his self-doubt. 

Man, Archer’s really upsetting me here! Yes, he must know what this means for the rest of the survey team, but at least acknowledge the crushed person in front of you! “Phlox, you did what needed to be done,” or, “I know this hurts; Novakovich is a good man,” and then ask about the others, but he just marches past the soul of a person that is watching someone under their care die. Phlox tries to answer him but Archer just rips him up! “I’ve got 4 people down on the surface!!” He even pauses and looks back at him before leaving sickbay…HE KNEW HE SCREWED UP!! He knew it and refused to act on it!! The scene closes with a close up on Phlox basically questioning every decision he made in his life. Unbelievable. Archer: 1, Emotional Intelligence: Zero.

Archer calls the survey team. T’Pol tells him that Trip is irrational and that Cutler and Mayweather are unconscious. Archer ignores this key piece of information and talks about the toxin Phlox discovered. He also says Phlox and Reed have put together an inoculation that they will be beaming down to them. Trip says injections won’t change anything as T’Pol speaks in Vulcan. Hoshi, who is fluent in Vulcan, passes the message to Archer that T’Pol believes Trip is going to kill her. Archer tries to reason with Trip - yeah, because that’s been super effective so far. Then, he uses a great tactic. He tells a story of a time, in the past, when they were in a dangerous situation. Archer ordered him to do a thing he didn’t want to; he did it and survived. He’s using past experiences, past shared experiences, to effectively shortcut his was to trust. He needs Trip to listen to him, trust him, and do the thing he’s telling him to do; his life depends on it. Using a past experience to prove a current experience, especially in a crisis like this, can be effective. This is not a tool to be abused, though. It does not build long-term or sustainable trust, but sometimes, you just need it for that moment. Flashes of brilliance. 

In this case, though, it doesn’t work. Trip begins seeing more and more rock people and is overwhelmed. Archer commands the inoculations beamed down while he tells a story to Trip. He flips the script and says HE needs to trust Trip. He leans into Trip’s delusion and validates a lot of his paranoia. He explains that T’Pol was supposed to be there alone. And then bakes up a scenario where he needs to drop the phase pistol and trust T’Pol. He uses a ‘needs of the many outweighs the needs of the few’ scenario as assurance that he has everything under control and will destroy the rock people before allowing harm to come to the Enterprise. He then has Hoshi communicate something to T’Pol in Vulcan. She says she’s not an actor, but she’ll try. It works; and T’Pol stuns Trip with her phase pistol as planned. 

I really don’t know how I feel about this. I really like the first part, where he says that he has to trust Trip instead of trying to convince Trip to trust him. From there, though, I don’t know. To be honest, I’ve never been in orbit around a planet when 2 of my most senior officers are stuck in a standoff as hallucinogenic psychotropic compounds build up in their bloodstream. I know, that’s probably pretty surprising to most of you! But, I guess an analogy I can think of would be a high stakes negotiation. But even in that scenario, I really don’t like the idea of leaning into psychosis, or a lie. Ok, maybe this. If you have ever had to perform an investigation on employee behavior, you know that many stories get told. There are times you are interviewing someone and it is clear they are not being honest, in fact you have a mountain of evidence that disproves most everything they are saying. Now, you can cut them off right away, tell them you know they are lying and demand honesty. That is a straightforward way of dealing with that; in fact, it quite honest. I don’t think it’s very effective, though. At least not in my experience. In fact, this will often lead to the person just shutting down completely or it backs them into a corner. Now you’re not just questioning their work behavior or performance, now you’re questioning their integrity and honesty. No, instead, maybe you lean into their version of the story a little bit. You ask clarifying questions; you take a socratic approach and seek the kernel of truth. After you’ve effectively questioned them you will either have the information you need to proceed with your investigation, validating their untruths and potentially adding that to the list of grievances, or, ideally, they realize you know more than they thought and they come clean with you. 

Ok, that was tough and maybe not the best analogy. What do you think about this? Is it ever ok to buy into someone’s delusion? Is it more ok if it achieves a greater good? Hmm, maybe this is one for the Starfleet Philosophy Academy….

With Trip stunned, T’Pol grabs the inoculations and administers them, even hitting Mayweather with a Vulcan Nerve Pinch as he impotently resists. This keeps them calm enough to sleep through the night. They wake up and T’Pol reminds them of the hallucinations <<Hippy Song>>. She even spills the beans about Archer’s story he cooked up. Trip accepts it and apologizes to T’Pol. He then quotes Mr Velik, from earlier - “Challenge your preconceptions or they will challenge you.” Great advice from a 10th grade biology teacher! In fact, it is incredible advice!

What preconceptions do you have? Today we often call these biases and they come in all kinds of flavors! Implicit bias, unconscious bias, institutional bias, systemic bias, the list goes on. Our preconceptions, our biases, color everything we do. From the food we eat to the shows we watch to how we treat people. Anytime you act, the decision to act was likely influenced or fueled by a bias. What separates a leader from others, or, to quote the Bene Gesserit, a human from an animal, is the ability to pause, and identify the bias; the preconception. And then, as Mr. Velik taught his high school biology students: challenge your bias or it will challenge you!

Trip talks through his journey of identifying a bias that clearly still affects him. Mr. Velik was a Vulcan, the first Vulcan he had ever seen up close. Trip says he was scared of him. He doesn’t say it out loud, but I am assuming he is running that thought against his experiences with T’Pol, specifically his outbursts at her when he was under the influence. Over time, if he continues to challenge this bias, he can change it. Our minds are amazing, and they CAN learn new tricks! 

The shuttle pod arrives to pick them up; turns out Novakovich is going to be fine and they head back to the Enterprise for another adventure. Hopefully next time, they listen to T’Pol and run a few tests before leaping out of a shuttle and onto a planet!! <<Enterprise closing credits song>>

And that’s the 3rd episode of Enterprise, well, 4th, really, but Broken Bow was kind of one episode that counts as two….I digress. 

Part of my process in preparing for this podcast is to watch the episode at least twice. Once, just to watch it, and the second time to take notes. I didn’t immediately remember this episode when I first watched it and as it progressed, I was like, oohhh, please don’t be a drugged and paranoid episode. And, well, that’s what it was. And it was okay for what it was. 

What I liked about it was the character development. I have a growing fondness for Phlox; what a great and personifying moment for him in this episode. Through all of television, but specifically Star Trek, we are kind of numb to the lesser known characters dying off. I mean, there are two entire sections of popular culture dedicated to that; not just Trek culture but pop culture! Everyone knows what a redshirt is (in fact Pages even autocorrected the spelling for me!) and, of course, “He’s Dead Jim.” But Phlox, Phlox was visibly devastated by the possibility of losing a patient. That was refreshing.

We meet Crewman Cutler, we learn there’s more to Malcolm Reed than shooting stuff, we get some history on Trip and we really uncover more of the friction and hostility between human and Vulcans. A good character and world building episode. 

<<Command Codes>>

Oof, ok. Let’s get some good stuff out of the way first. And, we’re going to look at both T’Pol and Trip in addition to Archer here on the good stuff!

First, T’Pol. Not necessarily sitting in a leadership role at this point. Playing more of your business or policy analyst. “Um, captain, the rulebook says…” kind of stuff. Yes, that can be annoying, but it is necessary! We just watched an entire episode that wouldn’t even exist if Archer had listened to her and run the tests and sensor sweeps she reminded him that protocol called for. I mean, people almost died, and all of that could have been avoided if the leader would have listened to the wonk.

Trip teaches a subtle but valuable lesson at the end of the episode. And his lesson is a hallmark of strong leadership. Apologize sincerely. Accept feedback. Know you can do better.

Even Archer had some good stuff in here. Hmm, going to have to sift through my notes to find it……oh, here we go. He consults with his team before making decisions. We talked about this with Kirk in Where No Man Has Gone Before. In this case, Archer consults with the team on the scene. I mentioned this being similar to a gemba walk, a tool used in lean-six sigma. You cannot rely on reports and data points alone to make decisions and there is very little out there more valuable than actually watching the work being done. 

He also really leans on relationships. He makes attempts to connect with Reed by sharing his love of water polo. And he uses his relationship with Trip to save the day. Had anyone else been in charge at that point, it’s doubtful Trip would have listened long enough to let them pull off the plan they had come up with. 

And then…so much bad. In Broken Bow I established that Archer is a micromanager, he gets aggressive with his crew and he thrusts himself into the hero role. In Strange New World, there isn’t the micromanagement, but the need to be the hero is still present and the aggression is off the charts. I mean, why not let Reed pilot the shuttle? Or, in a question that applies to Kirk as much as anyone, why even go on the mission? I won’t really hold it against him in this case, in fact, he responds immediately to the Reed’s advice to head back to the ship. 

But his aggression. When Phlox was thinking Novakovich was about to die, Archer’s behavior was inexcusable. Yes, there were 4 people, 4 crew members on the planet’s surface and time was critical, but it literally would have taken 5 seconds to acknowledge Phlox’s feelings. An effective leader uses empathy when interacting with their teams. Archer utterly failed to do this. And what kills me, absolutely kills me is that Archer KNOWS he screwed up. Phlox is melting into the floor as Archer leaves; he pauses, looks back, says nothing and then leaves. I would desperately hope that someone leading humanity into the great unknown of the galaxy would at least have the emotional intelligence to own his mistake. He was understandably emotional, I would have expected him to do, well, something! But he did nothing. 

And the bottom line to the entire episode: Had Archer simply listened to T’Pol at the beginning of the episode, no one would have been put in harm’s way. His biases, preconceived notions and personal feelings towards one person put 5 individuals at extreme risk. 

This is our second outing with Captain Archer, both in the first season of Enterprise. So far, I am wildly unimpressed with him. He has proven himself, thus far, someone I would not put in a leadership position. We can hope that, over time, he develops as a leader. At this point in his growth as a leader I can only hope Earth doesn’t find itself the target of a vastly advanced race from an unexplored region of the galaxy…

I cannot wait to hear what you thought. Am I overreacting to Archer’s behavior? Or do you agree with me? What do you think of my assumption of his “bro” mentality? You can reach me across all the social media @jefftakin Jeff, t as in tinker, a k i n. Use the hashtag SFLA for Starfleet Leadership Academy to keep the conversation going! If you have enjoyed the Starfleet Leadership Academy, please share it with a friend or some you think could benefit from it. 

Now, let’s see what we’re watching next time…

Meridian from the 3rd season of Deep Space 9! Oh, this is an emotional one! Looking forward to it!

Until then, Ex Astris Scientia!