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Star Trek: Enterprise – Detained (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This January, we’re doing the first season. Check back daily for the latest review.

Detained is well-meaning, if a little clumsy and awkward.

It is a rather conscious effort to do a “message show” in the grand tradition of the Star Trek franchise, using the show’s science-fiction premise to offer a commentary on current events. Detained is very clearly structured as a response to the 9/11 attacks, even if Archer only explicitly references the internment of Japanese Americans at Manzanar. Detained is full of interesting ideas, and its heart is in the right place, but the execution feels decidedly rushed and haphazard. Detained works much better as a two-line moral than it does as a forty-five minute episode of television.

You can't call him Al...

You can’t call him Al…

To be fair, Detained might seem a little bit overblown in hindsight. Over a decade has passed since the events of 9/11. While those terrorise attacks still loom over American foreign policy and have a significant influence on domestic policy, we are relatively far removed from the aftermath. While there is no doubt that Middle Eastern and Asian Americans have faced increased prejudice from the wider public in the wake of the attacks, making a comparison to the internment of Japanese Americans seems a little excessive.

However, it’s very hard to convey just how tense the situation was in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The climate was incredibly charged, and there was a decidedly racial element to the anxiety. Urban legends spread like wildfire in the immediate aftermath of the atrocities about Middle Eastern and Asian Americans helped to stoke the fire. Comparisons to the internment of Japanese Americans were made almost immediately. Indeed, fringe elements of the Republican Party seemed to be suggesting it, despite the attempts of the George W. Bush White House to defuse these racist tensions in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.

Cleaning up their act...

Cleaning up their act…

So, Detained was dealing with some pretty heavy subject matter in April of 2002. A lot of the episode’s flaws can be forgiven on that basis. Star Trek: Enterprise is trying very hard in its first season, and Detained is very clearly constructed as a big “important” episode in the grand tradition of big “important” episodes of the franchise. It is an attempt to acknowledge that part of the franchise’s legacy and homage, and to exploit the possibility of science-fiction to frame an effective allegory.

It doesn’t quite work, though. There are lots of little reasons that Detained is unable to pull off an archetypal “Star Trek message story”, to the point where it’s possible to watch the episode and wonder if it ever might have worked. The problems are so vast and so large that they feel almost baked into the story. It’s impossible to imagine a version of Detained that isn’t so clumsy or so ham-fisted or so heavy-handed.

A ban on the Suliban?

A ban on the Suliban?

Writer Mike Sussman has been openly critical of the script that he and Phyllis Strong wrote for the episode:

“I’m just not a big fan of allegory episodes,” he admits. “People get on their soapboxes and talk about the original series and how it was always about something – they always bring up Let That Be Your last Battlefield and Plato’s Stepchildren and the Vietnam one, A Private Little War. They were just a little too obvious for me.”

Sussman has a point here. Those are all heavy-handed episodes that barely worked in the context of the sixties, and would not work on modern television.

Travis has to fight for his lines...

Travis has to fight for his lines…

However, Sussman ignores the fact that Star Trek also has a history of decidedly more low-key political commentary that isn’t as blatantly on-the-nose. The examples he cites from the original show are all big iconic “this is important!” episodes that are not necessary well-made television. However, he glosses over episodes that are effective allegories and good television. From the first season alone, episodes like Errand of Mercy, The Devil in the Dark and The City on the Edge of Forever are all classic episodes with heavy political subtext – subtext the sometimes conflicts and contrasts, but subtext nonetheless.

More than that, other Star Trek spin-offs have managed to weave political commentary into their stronger stories. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was often about the morality of warfare and a multicultural future. In the first season of that spin-off, episodes like Duet and In the Hands of the Prophets both dealt with highly-charged subjects like war guilt and creationism. Similarly, Star Trek: Voyager could occasionally churn out a thoughtful commentary like Distant Origin.

Phlox hits a bit of a red light...

Phlox hits a bit of a red light…

While Star Trek hasn’t always managed to hit it out of the park when it comes to “message shows” – with misses like The High Ground or The Outcast – it has produced stories that work better than Detained. Treating the Suliban as an oppressed minority herded into detention camps for the security of a powerful nation in the wake of a series of atrocities, Detained has an effective premise. However, there are just too many flaws.

The most obvious is the fact that the Suliban and the Tandarans are rather rote aliens of the week. This is only the third time that the audience has met the Suliban. This is the only time that the show explores the idea of Suliban outside “the Cabal”, despite touching on it briefly in Broken Bow. Both before and after this point, the Suliban are largely defined as villains on Enterprise, with Silik serving as the most developed and prolific Suliban character.

Putting their heads together...

Putting their heads together…

In a way, Detained could be read as a criticism of the species essentialism that comes baked into Star Trek – the idea that all members of a particular group conform to a stereotype. Indeed, one of the stronger episodes of the second season – Judgment – will explore and subvert the idea that all Klingons are warriors. (And Mike Sussman will return to that theme for Affliction.) As such, Detained could be read as an attempt to demonstrate that not all alien cultures on Star Trek are monolithic. Despite our attempts to profile the recurring aliens, not all Suliban are gene freak bad guys and not all Klingons are warriors.

That’s a nice idea, but it doesn’t really work here. Quite simply, we don’t know or care enough about the Suliban for Detained to play out as a subversion or criticism. We have met the Suliban twice so far in the season. In Broken Bow, Silik was an adversary, but Archer did receive aid from another Suliban, Sarin. In Cold Front, Silik saves the ship. In neither of these episodes does the audience get a sense of Suliban culture or values. They feel more like generic goons backing up the ambiguous “Future Guy.”

Mayweather and Archer don't want to be detained too long...

Mayweather and Archer don’t want to be detained too long…

So not only does it feel like we hardly know the Suliban, it feels like Archer hardly knows the Suliban either. In his preliminary meeting with Colonel Grat, the subject naturally works its way around to the interned Suliban. “You’re familiar with the Cabal?” Grat asks. “Unfortunately,” Archer replies. However, it feels like a bit of an over-statement. Enterprise has invented a fairly interesting new adversary, but it has done little to develop them.

Compare the development of the Suliban to the Cardassians or the Bajorans during the later years of Star Trek: The Next Generation, even before the launch of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. We have no idea how Suliban culture works, or what their history is like. We know that there are groups of them, and that one of those groups is working with a time-traveller. However, we know nothing of Suliban culture or philosophy or history. Are they religious? Are they artists? Are they wandering nomads?

"Ziggy says..."

“Ziggy says…”

Given how little we or Archer know about the Suliban, the character’s immediate reaction towards the captive Suliban here feels ridiculously heavy-handed, a clear attempt to set up the “Archer learns a lesson about prejudice” moral later in the episode. Coupled with his various outbursts about Vulcans earlier in the first season, Detained feels like another episode that paints Archer as something of a xenophobe.

Spotting a Suliban child taking clothes off a make-shift washing line, Archer decides the best thing to do is to loudly start throwing around accusations and insinuations. “She’s a little young to be a member of the Cabal,” he remarks. “I know that you’re given genetic tricks as payment. What are they giving her?” Leaving aside the issue of whether this is the first impression Archer would want to make in front of a child, it also feels a bit extreme.

The best laid plans...

The best laid plans…

After all, the last time he met Silik, the Suliban saved the lives of everybody on his ship. Sure, he knocked out Archer and Archer did try to detain him, but that seems like a lot of hate for a character who did prevent Enterprise from randomly exploding. It’s quite clear where Detained is going, and how it plans to get there. The episode is packed with awkward life lessons and morals. Asked what he is doing in the camp if he is not a member of the Cabal, Danik sarcastically replies, “Didn’t Colonel Grat tell you? We’re dangerous. All Suliban are dangerous.”

The episode beats that drum pretty hard, and it feels like a forty-five minute lecture delivered over mega-phone on how racism is wrong. It’s an important message, but the delivery feels too blunt. “Thank you for lunch,” Archer remarks after getting the full story from Danik. Danik responds, “Thank you for listening.” All that’s missing is the shot of a human and a Suliban holding hands. “We’re not criminals, Captain, and we’re not soldiers,” Danik informs Archer. “The only thing we’re guilty of is being Suliban.”

Easy to Reed, that one...

Easy to Reed, that one…

Detained seems unable to resist the sorts of clichés that come with a story like this. There is, inevitably, an adorable Suliban child. At the climax, during a heated firefight, it looks like she might end up separated from her father. “Father!” she yells. Gritting his teeth and keeping his cool, Danik responds, “I’ll be there soon, Narra. Go. Go!” It’s the most cliché moment imaginable in a story like this, and Detained pulls it off without a hint of irony or self-awareness.

The episode might have carried more weight if Enterprise had worked to develop the Suliban. To be fair to Detained, the episode does give us a bit of history and back story. “Our homeworld became uninhabitable three hundred years ago,” Danik explains to Archer. “Most Suliban are nomadic, but some of us have assimilated into other cultures.” Now that is an interesting glimpse at a Star Trek culture, one that avoids many of the clichés of Star Trek alien cultures, by suggesting not all cultures are centralised or monolithic.

The Tandarans really aren't very good at running an internment camp, are they?

The Tandarans really aren’t very good at running an internment camp, are they?

Unfortunately, it simply feels like set-up for the events of Detained rather than an insight into Suliban culture. It doesn’t do much to contextualise what we know about the Suliban. Silik never discusses the loss of his homeworld or the realities of leading a faction of a nomadic culture. Over the run of Enterprise, we never get a sense of whether anybody dreams of uniting the wandering Suliban into a single nation, or whether the Suliban are really are galactic refugees. This is the only episode featuring the Suliban without featuring the Cabal, which makes it seem like a contrived excuse for this story rather than something that makes sense organically.

There is a rather uncomfortable subtext to Detained. The episode tries to humanise the Suliban, and it does so by trying to downplay what makes them alien and unique. Rather than having Archer learn to respect a culture foreign and alien to him, Detained instead alters that culture to make them seem more familiar. Archer only really starts to accept that Danik might be a decent person when Danik reveals that he doesn’t have the ability to alter his DNA or warp his body. Locked in a form that conforms to humanoid expectations, Archer finds it a lot easier to accept the idea of “a good Suliban.”

Leaving the door open for future development...

Leaving the door open for future development…

This feels a little unfortunate. After all, the moral of Detained really should be that even members of foreign and alien cultures are not necessarily hostile. Instead, Detained undermines its own message of tolerance; it suggests that Grat’s policies might be justifiable if the Suliban were more alien. The problem with the Tandaran policies, Detained suggests, is not that they are racist and oppressive, but that they are targeting the wrong people. If Suliban outside the Cabal had genetic modifications and the ability to distort their bodies, would Grat be right to lock them up?

Then again, this an example of the franchise’s conservatism at play. For a science-fiction show about a utopian future, Star Trek seem absolutely terrified as transhumanism. It has been since Space Seed. In Broken Bow, the idea that the Cabal would tamper with their own genome is treated as abhorrent, an efficient way of underscoring how evil they must be. After all, Phlox has his first moment of hesitation in Dear Doctor when he discovers he would be curing a flaw in the Valakians’ genetic make-up.

Shedding some light on the matter...

Shedding some light on the matter…

This all feels a tad reactionary. It is not at all even-handed or considerate. It may have been more effective to underscore the idea that whatever the Suliban choose to do with their bodies should not be treated as justification for oppression or racism. The Cabal might be judged by their actions and their atrocities, but tolerance doesn’t extend solely to those who conform to our norms and expectations.

There is one more rather sizeable problem. Outside of a brief appearance in Two Days and Two Nights, we will never see the Tandarans again. We will never see any Suliban outside the Cabal again. As such, Detained feels a little too trite and simplistic. Archer and his crew can walk away from the events of Detained without having to worry about what this means for either culture. While Grat talks about the state of war that exists between the Tandarans and the Suliban, it has not been alluded to on the show before this episode and will never be explored or developed.

Still waters...

Still waters…

It makes Detained feel rather light and rather insubstantial. At the end of the episode, Archer and his crew get to warp away to their next adventure, despite Archer’s ominous closing line. In a way, this is another example of how the episodic structure was weakening Enterprise as a television show. Had the Tandarans and the Suliban been properly established and set-up ahead of time, Detained might have worked better. Had we got a glimpse of the aftermath of Archer’s actions here, Detained would be the stronger for it.

To be fair to the show, it does try to demonstrate that the events of Detained have consequences. In Desert Crossing, Archer finds himself in an awkward position due to his decisions in Detained. However, Desert Crossing focuses on the consequences for Archer. What about the Suliban or the Tandarans? Did Archer at least escort the Suliban out of Tandaran space? Dialogue suggests that there are at least twenty-five other camps, including one holding Danik’s wife. What happened at those camps following this jailbreak? Archer’s actions here undoubtedly had consequences, and they arguably more interesting than the episode itself.

The painting's on the wall...

The painting’s on the wall…

Outside of the “message show” set up, Detained is worthy of note for the guest appearance by Dean Stockwell. Along with the casting of Ethan Phillips and Rene Auberjonois over the past few episodes, it seems like Stockwell’s appearance is a rather calculated bid for geek credibility. After all, Stockwell and Bakula had starred together in Quantum Leap during the nineties, the hit breakout science-fiction show that ran from 1989 through to 1993, overlapping with Star Trek: The Next Generation.

One of the many interesting things about Quantum Leap is the fact at the show had a lot more artistic cache than The Next Generation. It managed to escape the science-fiction awards ghetto. No actor on The Next Generation ever received an Emmy nomination for their work on the show, but Scott Bakula was nominated for his work on all five seasons of Quantum Leap and Dean Stockwell was nominated for four of the five seasons. The Next Generation managed to get a nomination for its final of seven seasons, but Quantum Leap was nominated as Outstanding Drama Series for three of its five seasons.

Stockwell's still a little miffed about that year he didn't get his Emmy nomination...

Stockwell’s still a little miffed about that year he didn’t get his Emmy nomination…

There are a lot of possible reasons for this. Stockwell was a veteran performer with a slew of iconic rolls under his belt. The year that Quantum Leap went to series, he picked up an Oscar nomination for Married to the Mob. Quantum Leap was created by Donald P. Bellisario, the man responsible for mainstream hits like Airwolf or Magnum P.I. or N.C.I.S. or J.A.G. Airing on NBC, Quantum Leap had a level of prestige against which The Next Generation could not quite compete.

Whereas the casting of former Star Trek regulars like Ethan Phillips and Rene Auberjonois in the last two episodes seems like an attempt to appeal to Star Trek fans, the reunion of Emmy-nominated co-stars Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell in an issue-driven allegory story feels like an attempt to draw in a broader demographic. Unfortunately, despite Stockwell’s best efforts, Grat never feels like a fully-formed character. He seems like a rather generic foil for Archer rather than an intriguing opponent.

"The could be the start of a beautiful antagonistic relationship..."

“The could be the start of a beautiful antagonistic relationship…”

There are other interesting aspects of Detained. Star Trek has been anchored in American self-image since the end of the Second World War. That was the point where America emerged as world leader. In many ways, Star Trek was extrapolated from the American experience in the wake of the Second World War. The original Star Trek was produced, written and directed by many combat veterans. Indeed, The City on the Edge of Forever explicitly places the origins of Star Trek in the Second World War before the end of the franchise’s very first season. (Enterprise returns to that at the start of the franchise’s very last season.)

As such, it’s interesting to see Enterprise explicitly critiquing America for its conduct during the Second World War, undermining the grand historical narrative that has been cultivated about that conflict. To be fair, Voyager broached the topic during its own first season with Jetrel, but that was a somewhat clunky analogy. Here, Archer explicitly acknowledges the mistakes made by the United States government during the Second World War, citing Manzanar as motivation for his decision to free the Suliban interned by the Tandarans.

A new Arch(er)-foe?

A new Arch(er)-foe?

It’s worth noting that this fits quite comfortably with Mike Sussman and Phyllis Strong’s earlier scripts for the show. The duo are acknowledged fans of the original Star Trek show, but they are also quite aware of some of the franchise’s more troubling subtext. Their work on Enterprise plays with these ideas, suggesting that a prequel is the perfect place to explore these ideas. While building the foundations of this vision of the future, it’s worth analysing and exploring those foundations – and maybe even trying to fix some of them.

Shadows of P’Jem was very much an indictment of American foreign policy, presenting the future Federation members as colonial powers. The scripted suggested that the Federation has to be more than just an extrapolation of contemporary United States into the future, as it has been on previous shows. In Detained, Archer finds himself trying to atone for a historical injustice committed during an era that the franchise tends to romanticise and idealise. While not enough to redeem Detained, it does give the episode a bit more depth and nuance.

Not so green any more...

Not so green any more…

Detained has its heart in the right place, even if it makes a host of awkward mistakes and miscalculations. It’s another example of how Enterprise is trying to do something effective and meaningful, but isn’t quite able to get across that finish line.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of Star Trek: Enterprise:

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7 Responses

  1. I know Quantum Leap is technically a sci-fi show but in many ways its themes and ethos seemed far more fantasy – a mystical quest for atonement and much talk of destiny and fate. That isn’t a condemnation – in the 90’s and 00’s television fantasy was often every bit as entertaining, thought provoking and insightful as contemporary sci-fi and comparing Voyager and Enterprise with Whedon’s shows is not a comparasion that flatters captain’s Janeway and Archer.

    I suppose what I mean is that really the Next Generation and Quantum Leap are apples and oranges. Often quite straightlaced apples and amusing, humanist oranges.

    • Yep. I think that might expalin why Bakula seems such an awkward fit for Archer in much of the first and second seasons. Bakula is one of the most charming performers working, but Star Trek has a very firm and rigid idea of what a commanding character should be. The points where Archer comes closest to working as a character are the points where he seems least like a stereotypical Star Trek captain.

      (To pick a random example, Canamar is the second season’s most surprisingly endearing moment for Archer, where he poses as a blue collar smuggler and bonds with the hijacker to the point where he tries to save him, even as the ship disintegrates. Or Judgment, where Kolos mounts a surprisingly convincing defense of Archer that boils down to, “He’s a bumbling idiot, but his heart is in the right place.”)

  2. I assumed at the type (perhaps ) that the crew’s abhorrence of genetic tampering was a nod to the Eugenics War. Transhumanism was once considered the new frontier, you know — Khan and his ilk destroyed all that, so man had to turn to the stars to find a slower path toward evolution. I always liked the romance of that.

    But in hindsight, it reflected Europeans’ mistrust of science. Everyone knew the genome would be cracked, and there was some hullabaloo about handing it over the private power and companies “patenting” our genes. Stem cell research is still anathema to Americans, left, right and center (South Park is my personal barometer for the nation). Seven’s quest for humanity didn’t end until she had her robotic eye removed — apparently it’s all that was keeping her a rude, humorless a**hole. (Seven shilling transhumanism to anyone who’ll listen is my favorite gag on that show. She’s like the Ron Popeil of cybernetics. XD )

    • I think that might have been interesting to broach explicitly, but the first season of Enterprise is so wary of Star Trek continuity that they wouldn’t dare mention the Eugenics Wars. (After all, look at Future’s End in Voyager. “Eugenics Wars? What Eugenics Wars?”)

      That said, I do like that Soong does get to make some reasonably valid points about how genetic research might have saved Archer’s father. Of course, he’s still an idiot for going full on “raise an army of children from an experiment that almost destroyed humanity”, but at least the episode acknowledges that sometimes scientific research into the human body helps people. (Which seems like a very weird thing to type about Star Trek.)

  3. Aw, geeze. I like morality plays, but I like them subtle, along the lines of “The Devil in the Dark.” THIS episode, on the other hand, is so heavy handed that I think I may have a concussion!

    And in order to make its points, the script forces Archer to be an incredible idiot. That’s not NEW, sadly, but I keep hoping that Archer will start using his brain, in addition to his heart.

    *sigh*

    Thanks for pointing out the context for this episode, that it took place in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, when a reminder not to scapegoat all Muslims for the actions of a handful of people was necessary. Unfortunately, with Trump running for office, something this obvious and heavy-handed is probably needed again. Some days I wonder what my fellow Americans can possibly be thinking … a good reason to seek refuge in the 23rd century or in Mr. Spock’s cool and clear-headed logic (leavened with his particular dispassionate compassion).

    • Yep. I can understand why Detained was necessary, and I do like that they tried. But it is not a good script.

      And the Suliban… are not a great adversary.

      I am very interested in what Fuller has planned for 2016/2017 Star Trek.

  4. “artistic cachet”, not “cache”. Different words with different pronunciations, although both derived from the same French word. This seems to be a common mistake, and I must admit it drives me bonkers to see it wrong more often than not,

    https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/cache-and-cachet-whats-the-difference

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