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I consider the Season 4 Star Trek: Enterprise episode “Observer Effect” my favorite episode of the most underrated series in the Star Trek franchise. Enterprise‘s fourth season is full of ambitious story arcs, retcons, high stakes situations, and the birth of the Federation. In contrast, “Observer Effect” is a quiet “bottle episode” in which the dreaded “reset button” is pressed. But while the human participants in the story retain no memory of those events, the observing race has been changed forever by their encounter with the humans.

“Someone Always Dies”

During a chess game, not everything is as it seems (CBS-Paramount)

When the story opens, Malcolm Reed and Travis Mayweather are facing each other across a chess board, discussing the game. But these familiar faces are not who they appear to be. From the conversation, it is evident that Malcolm and Travis are hosts for two non-corporeal beings, who have come to observe, to follow their own species’ protocols and rules, and above all, to observe their own prime directive of non-interference… and absolutely no emotional involvement is permitted. Their emotional detachment is chilling as they discuss their mission, concluding, “Someone always dies.

The two beings watch from their vantage point as the crisis unfolds, and two of the crew, in isolation, fall desperately ill. Trip Tucker and Hoshi Sato have been on a landing party and have contracted an illness that Dr. Phlox identifies as a silicon-based virus. Carbon-based lifeforms such as humans have no defense against it, and Phox has no cure.

Surprised by Caring

While Prime, in command of the mission, believes in following the protocol to the letter, and approaches the mission with the attitude that they have nothing to learn from the humans, Second believes that it may be time to reconsider the protocols they have followed for thousands of years, and expects to be surprised by the humans.

They are.

The humans respond differently to their seriously ill crewmates than the other species they studied. Second notes that they don’t abandon their infected crew members; evidently, the captain feels it is more important to stand by them. They watch as the uninfected crew members demonstrate a care and concern for Trip and Hoshi. They observe Trip and Hoshi caring for each other in their isolation in the Decon chamber.

Travis, inhabited by Second, watches Trip and Hoshi (CBS-Paramount)

Unlike earlier, more physically intimate Decon scenes in the show, these scenes show Trip and Hoshi medicating each other for the pain and nausea, bonding as they reflect on their lives, and expressing mutual admiration for each other’s unique and incredible employability skills. They observe as Phlox works tirelessly to find a cure, and as possible cure after possible cure fails, he refuses to give up hope.

Second Thoughts

The non-corporeal beings have seen it all before, and they know how it will end for Enterprise‘s crew. “Someone always dies.” But Second is having second thoughts. “We came to observe their response to the unexpected, not to watch them suffer,” he protests. In order to better understand the humans’ motivations, they choose to inhabit the bodies of the seriously ill crew members.

Puzzled, Second, in the host body of Trip, remarks dispassionately, “I’m feeling… physical pain!” He and Prime reflect that the experience of pain and weakness will spur the humans to transcend it, to aspire to a higher state of existence, just as their own species did, many hundreds of thousands of years ago. But in losing their pain, what else have they lost?

The Good Shepherd

Time is running out for Hoshi. Shaking their heads over the irrational intelligence at work before them, the non-corporeals observe Phox and Archer’s frantic efforts to give her a few more moments of life so that they can continue to look for a cure. Archer chooses to intentionally expose himself to the deadly virus in order to save Hoshi.

The non-corporeals watch as Archer and Phlox desperately attempt to save Hoshi’s life (CBS-Paramount)

In eight hundred years, the non-corporeals have never seen a living being sacrifice their life for another. They know now that humans are unlike the other ships’ commanders, who chose to destroy or abandon their crew members.

It is not until the virus has claimed the lives of both Trip and Hoshi that the non-corporeals, inhabiting the pair of corpses, reveal themselves, their mission, and their protocols. They are Organians, the same species we saw in the Star Trek: The Original Series episode “Errand of Mercy. They explain that they are, in every way, far more advanced than humans. Spoken language is a primitive form of communication to them. They have transcended the need for physical bodies. They have the power to erase memories and to cure the virus. But what kind of beings has this advancement made them?

You’ve paid a hell of a price,” Archer confronts them. “You’ve lost compassion and empathy, things that give life meaning.

What Is Compassion?

Archer speaks to the Organians (CBS-Paramount)

Captain Archer challenges the Organians to experience compassion for themselves. And the only way they can do that is to stop observing and start participating in the human experience.

What does compassion look like, though? Is it simply a saccharine, sentimental, maudlin, emotional response? Or is it deeper than that? True compassion, like true love, is not passive. It requires action. It requires the person who has compassion to act on those feelings. Compassion in action may look differently in every situation, but it is essential.

The Organians take their first step in practicing compassion. They use their powers to cure the virus and to remove all traces of memory of their involvement from the minds of their hosts. All Archer, Trip, Hoshi, and Phlox know is that they have been desperately fighting a disease that has mysteriously cleared up. However, the Organians are setting forth to prepare for formal first contact.

The Organians had transcended all forms of pain, and in so doing, they had lost the ability to experience compassion. Perhaps suffering is, after all, not a problem to be solved or an experience to be avoided. Perhaps it’s like a crucible that refines gold in the fire, burning away the dross, and leaving only pure fine gold. In other words, perhaps suffering can soften our hearts so that, in good faith, we may experience and act upon compassion for other people who are suffering, so goodness may result.

3 thoughts on “Faith of the Heart: What Enterprise‘s “Observer Effect” Taught Me About Compassion

  1. Very well wwritten piece here. I have never had a strong opinion of Enterprise, had only watched about 12-15 episodes when it first came out and then gave up, I only knew about this episode but never watched it. I’ll be watching it now, and maybe a few more.

  2. Beautifully written article. I love this stand alone episode.
    There was like an old episode from the Outer Limits named “Controlled Experiment ” where two Martians watch a murder happen to learn about nature.

  3. It’s probably my favourite ST episode of any of the ST series.
    Its just a fantastic character piece.

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