During my quarantine re-watch of Star Trek: Enterprise, it struck me how often Vulcans, especially women, challenge the sociopolitical status quo. These tensions come to a head during the three-part Kir’Shara story arc in season 4 (“The Forge,” “Awakening” and “Kir’Shara”) that ends in the Vulcan High Command being disbanded and Vulcan society beginning to become what other Star Trek viewers have been familiar with up until this prequal series. Reflecting on the roles of women revolutionaries in Star Trek, this Enterprise story arc in which a corrupt, authoritarian regime is toppled by a small group promoting peace and acceptance of diversity seems deserving of closer, feminist analysis.
To summarize, a small group of pacifist Vulcans called Syrrannites are blamed for bombing Earth’s embassy on Vulcan so that the corrupt Administrator V’Las of the Vulcan High Command can start a war with Andoria. Persecuted by the government for their alternative interpretation of Surak’s teachings, the Syrrannites are forced into hiding in the Forge, the Vulcan desert. It is not until Captain Archer and Commander T’Pol meet with the Syrrannites, T’Pol’s mother T’Less being one of them, that they discover V’Las’ plot and narrowly escape the High Command’s aerial assault on the Forge. The story arc ends with Archer, T’Pol and T’Pau working together to find Surak’s original writings, the Kir’Shara, and present them to the High Command, exposing V’Las’ corrupt regime.
The Syrranites explicitly oppose the authoritarian regime of the High Command. Moreover, Vulcan women not only play a significant role in bringing down the government, but also enact social reforms that endure into the future. Notably, all the Vulcan High Command members seen on screen are men. In contrast, the most vocal opponents of the Vulcan government are women, three of which play a significant role in the Kir’Shara story arc: T’Pol, T’Les and T’Pau.
T’Pol: The Rebel
Long before the Kir’Shara arc, T’Pol is openly skeptical of and regularly challenges the authority of the Vulcan High Command. In season 1’s “The Andorian Incident,” the first real seed of doubt is planted in Subcommander T’Pol’s mind when the Enterprise crew inadvertently exposes a secret Vulcan listening station in the P’Jem monastery. T’Pol directly challenges the status quo later in “Stigma,” when she refuses to participate in what she states is the wrongful criminalization of a mind-melding minority of Vulcans. Throughout the series, the High Command threatens to reassign or decommission T’Pol as she pulls back the Wizard’s curtain little by little, exposing corruption and state sanctioned violence against marginalized groups in Vulcan society.
Though reluctant to align herself with the Syrrannites initially, T’Pol risks her life to expose V’Las’ plan by helping find the Kir’Shara and then buying T’Pau and Archer the time necessary to deliver it to the High Command. Representative of her rebellious nature, T’Pol defies her government’s authority to expose social injustices even at great personal cost.
T’Les: The Advisor
Highly educated and eldest of the three women, T’Les makes crucial contributions using her academic training and greater life experience to mentor other revolutionaries. T’Les encourages the younger women to question the status quo and remain open-minded.
Upon losing her position at the Vulcan Science Academy, T’Les becomes disillusioned by Vulcan society and joins the Syrrannites to embrace a less hypocritical interpretation of Surak. Though they have few on screen interactions, T’Les and T’Pau clearly respect and trust one another. T’Les advises T’Pau and is not afraid to challenge her short-sighted decisions. Unfortunately, T’Les does not succeed in opening T’Pol’s mind to her new philosophy until she is killed. T’Les leads T’Pol and Archer to the Syrrannites’ refuge in the Forge, and she tries to open her daughter’s eyes to the shortcomings of Vulcan society. When the High Command later bombards the Forge, T’Les is injured searching for T’Pol in the rubble. As she lays dying, T’Les reveals she actually joined the Syrannittes to help her daughter’s struggles with emotion. Representing the story’s climax, T’Pol goes from being skeptical of the Syrrannites to aligning herself with them to bring down the High Command once and for all.
Though sadly sidelined for other character’s development, T’Les’ role demonstrates the importance of collaboration with individuals of diverse backgrounds, in this instance from different generations, for realizing social change.
T’Pau: The Reformer
Boldly leading the Syrrannites after their founder’s untimely demise, T’Pau is instrumental in disbanding the High Command then continues to head sociopolitical reform on Vulcan. In the third episode, T’Pau demonstrates her vast knowledge of Surak, current Vulcan politics and even the Forge’s landscape as she takes on militant thugs and electric minerals to get both Archer (with Surak’s katra) and the Kir’Shara safely to the High Command. Inside the High Command’s headquarters, T’Pau stares down V’Las with calm defiance as she brings his government down around him. Dressed in traditional Vulcan robes at the end of the episode, T’Pau promises Archer a great deal of social and political reform on Vulcan by normalizing previously stigmatized practices like mind melding and discontinuing Vulcan’s paternalistic relationship with Earth.
The benefit of using T’Pau’s character in this story arc is that she has already appeared in The Original Series (TOS) episode “Amok Time,” when Kirk admiringly relays T’Pau’s many political accomplishments and high social standing in Vulcan society. Evidently T’Pau plays a significant role in shaping the Vulcan society viewers have come to know and love. After the television series, T’Pau continues to be an important political figure on Vulcan in the Enterprise novel series, The Romulan Wars and Rise of the Federation, which detail how T’Pau accomplishes these reforms. Accordingly, T’Pau’s portrayal as an effective revolutionary and competent political reformer gives viewers a strong example of a woman leader who is also a nuanced character.
T’Pol, T’Less and T’Pau’s roles in the Kir’Shara arc represent a refreshing look at women leading political resistance and social reform. Previously in Enterprise, Vulcan men have predominantly been presented on screen as political actors. However, these women selflessly take on an authoritarian regime and actively engage in social reform, highlighting various ways in which women are vital political actors and revolutionaries in fiction and in reality.
I always enjoyed the Vulcan parts of Enterprise. I know a lot of people don’t because it makes the Vulcans “more human” or whatever, but seeing them overcome things and change instead of being like literal space elves who just look down on the more mortal, flawed beings is great. Vulcan society didn’t get to where it was by magic. They had to work for it, just like we do, just like every species in the trek universe has.
Plus, I love these ladies and watching them challenge the way things have always been.
Very apposite and well thought through article. I wrote a novel in Lockdown which dealt with the consequences of Season 4 and the Legacy of T’Les, the political position and wisdom of T”Pau and the answers that T’Pol was looking for and they combine in a Gambit.
Naturally the Romulan War Occured but the movement towards the enlightenment you reflect on was the trigger for the plot and plants “A Seed.” for the future.
I have never read the novels you refer to but it sounds like they took the generalities of the movement. It is instructive that nothing in Discovery deals with this movement.