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Star Trek: Enterprise – Desert Crossing (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.

Desert Crossing is an intriguing episode.

It’s a very thoughtful and insightful teleplay from André Bormanis, brought to life by director David Straiton. This is Straiton’s first credit on Star Trek: Enterprise, and he does a good job bringing the script to screen. Although the second half of the episode struggles to engage with any of the intriguing issues broached in the first half, and while nobody seems able to keep the scenery out of guest star Clancy Brown’s mouth, Desert Crossing is a very ambitious late-season episode.

Oh, Archer. What have you Dune now?

Oh, Archer. What have you Dune now?

In many respects, Desert Crossing continues to develop a theme that has been broached throughout the first season of Enterprise. While Star Trek has featured planets that are host to diverse politics and cultures before, the first season of Enterprise has really emphasised that most alien species do not exist as convenient monolithic cultures. The idea of a single defining attribute assigned to an entire species is one of the more common tropes associated with Star Trek.

However, the second half of the first season of Enterprise has been chipping away at that cliché. In Shadows of P’Jem, Archer and T’Pol wander blindly into a civil war when accepting an invitation from the local government. In Detained, Archer discovers not all Suliban are part of the Cabal. In Fallen Hero, a hostile ship shows up claiming to belong to the planetary government. Here, Archer and Trip discover that merely setting foot on an alien planet could spark a major diplomatic incident.

Keep your shirt on!

Keep your shirt on!

This feels like part of a delayed reaction to the events of 9/11. On the commentary to Shadows of P’Jem, writers Mike Sussman and Phyllis Strong explained that Shadows of P’Jem had been one of the first teleplays written in the wake of the terrorist attacks. It is also the episode that really shifted the portrayal of the alien cultures that Archer would encounter. Enterprise became a lot more mindful of our heroes meddling in local or planetary affairs.

Indeed, like Shadows of P’Jem or Detained before it, Desert Crossing seems like an episode that is wryly aware of the American-centric history of Star Trek. Both Shadows of P’Jem and Detained offered meditations on some of the more unsavoury aspects of American history. In Detained, Archer explicitly mentioned the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War, a conflict exists at the very root of the Star Trek franchise. In Shadows of P’Jem, the Vulcan and Andorian foreign policies reflected certain unpleasant aspects of American foreign policy during (and even after) the Cold War.

"Don't worry, I've watched Armageddon Game. I know how to handle this."

“Don’t worry, I’ve watched Armageddon Game. I know how to handle this.”

Desert Crossing has Hoshi draw explicit attention to how American-centric that Star Trek franchise tends to be. “Why Montana?” Hoshi asks T’Pol at one point. “Of all the places the Vulcans could have landed they chose Bozeman, Montana.” T’Pol, ever logical, responds with the in-story reason. “Humanity’s first warp drive was developed there,” she assures Hoshi. “It seemed a logical place to begin.” Hoshi sees right through that. “Well, how did they know it wouldn’t alarm other nations?” she demands. “An alien species makes contact with the United States. It could have made a lot of other countries nervous.”

Desert Crossing asks some pretty heavy questions about the decisions that Archer has made while in command of the Enterprise. It is, like Dear Doctor before it, a “proto Prime Directive” story. It’s an episode about how the crew of the Enterprise are still inexperienced when it comes to matters of interstellar politics. It is a defence of the Prime Directive, the franchise’s document of non-interference. However, while Dear Doctor grounded itself in abstract philosophy, Desert Crossing raises much more practical concerns.

Peace in a (shuttle) pod...

Peace in a (shuttle) pod…

Accepting the invitation of a rescued alien named Zobral, Archer and Trip pay a visit to his home planet. As the title of the episode implies, it is a gigantic desert. It appears to be almost nothing but desert. “From orbit, you’d think the entire planet’s nothing but sand,” Archer remarks. The choice of a desert planet seems unlikely to be a coincidence. The portrayal of the planet works on a number of different levels.

On the most contemporary level, the desert surroundings can’t help but evoke the American invasion of Afghanistan that had begun half a year before Desert Crossing first aired. In fact, Desert Crossing features a cameo appearance from the three “sailors of the year” on from the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, which was deployed in the Indian Ocean at the time. It began a tradition that would continue with First Flight in the second season.

"There can be only one... answer to my invitation."

“There can be only one… answer to my invitation.”

The choice of a desert planet also evokes a particular approach to science-fiction storytelling. As Sha La Bare notes in Chronicling Martians, it is also an effective way of simplifying alien worlds in science-fiction:

Of course, world reduction as a technique in SF worlding dates back at least to Golden Age depictions of Venus and Mars as jungle and desert planets. Replete with such reduced worlds – with jungle, desert and ice planets – the SF genre has generally ignored the facts of planetary ecology, foregrounding anthropomorph behaviour and, as often as not, metamorphising human affairs through recourse to a planetwide pathetic fallacy. It is as if the Occam’s Razor of the imagination had been at work, making way for the simplest worlds possible.

While the idea of a homogeneous planetary ecosystem may have some basis in reality, it is also a hallmark of a particular school of science-fiction.

Drinking it in...

Drinking it in…

The expansive desert portrayed in Desert Crossing conjures up images of Barsoom from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars or Arrakis from Frank Herbert’s Dune. In Postcolonial Science Fiction, Gerard Gaylard contends that such portrayals of alien worlds frequently come with colonial implications:

Moreover, the ocean on Tiamat is equivalent to Arrakis’ desert; both ecoscapes, along with a similarly impenetrable jungle, recur in postcolonial SF as a signifier of incommensurable alterity that can only be subjugated, not integrated, by an imperial mission.

With its sandy dunes and clear skies – along with the inclusion of world-building elements like dinner recipes and local sports – Desert Crossing does seem like Enterprise is consciously playing into the tropes associated with planetary romance.

Local delicacies...

Local delicacies…

As with Shadows of P’Jem, there’s a sense that Enterprise is dealing with issues of imperialism and colonialism here. After all, many have identified those attitudes in the planetary romance genre. Writing about Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars stories, Brian Attebery note in The Conquest of Gernsback:

Behind Burroughs there is a whole tradition of similar romances set in exotic locales on earth, going back at least to John Smith’s famous anecdote (invented or deliberately exaggerated) about his rescue of Pocahontas, the Indian princess. The best-known novelistic treatment of the theme was H. Rider Haggard’s She. Such adventure stories can be read as defences of European colonial exploits. They portray profit-seeking white men as heroic figures bringing civilisation to the savages of Africa or South America.

In many respects, Desert Crossing seems to be setting up these familiar tropes. It might be missing a princess, but it’s a story about our protagonist’s trip to a desert planet inhabited by an exotic culture that feels inspired by various foreign cultures on Earth.

That's all he can sands 'til he can't sands no more!

That’s all he can sands ’til he can’t sands no more!

Archer is even welcomed by the natives as a hero or a messiah. Zobral presents him with a gift to help him remember his trip. Even when Zobral’s motivations become clear, he remains respectful of Archer. When Zobral is asked what he wants, he replies, “You have an arsenal of powerful weapons, but more importantly, I need your wisdom. Our current strategy isn’t working, but I am confident that together we can find one that does. I would be honoured to fight alongside you, as would all of my men.”

The weapons make a great deal of sense for any group fighting a war, but Zobral plays up the importance of Archer himself. Archer is welcomed to the planet as a saviour. Although there’s no religious element to the hero worship, Zobral is so convinced of Archer’s worth that he ventures into space to help bring the captain back to his home planet. The importance attached to Archer may not quite match that attached to Paul Atreides in Dune or John Carter in John Carter of Mars, but it feels like another element nodding towards planetary romance as a genre.

It's all uphill...

It’s all uphill…

However, it’s only after setting up all these familiar tropes that Desert Crossing rather effectively subverts them. It turns out that the planet is more than just a gigantic desert, and is inhabited by more than just nomadic tribes. Desert Crossing is not simply a planetary romance waiting to happening. T’Pol receives a communication from the surface informing her that Zobral is a terrorist, and that the arrival of the Starfleet crew members on the planet has caused some considerable upset among local authorities.

All of a sudden, the planet seems a lot less romantic. While Zobral had boasted about local delicacies and fine art, encouraging Archer and Trip to join him in recreation, things suddenly become a lot more grounded after that revelation. Zobral explains that he and his people are caught in the midst of a bloody conflict based on oppression and subjugation. Archer’s trip to the desert is no longer a charming getaway, instead becomes a horrific struggle for survival.

With his communicator, Archer is never deserted...

With his communicator, Archer is never deserted…

What’s interesting is that this revelation isn’t treated as a simple reversal. This isn’t a twist that suddenly makes Zobral the bad guy. The episode does seem to point that way, at least initially. Archer immediately begins to suspect that Zobral will attempt to kidnap and hold him. “I get the feeling he’s not going to take no for an answer,” Archer remarks to Trip as the assault takes place around them. When everything falls apart, Archer doesn’t try to escape with Zobral or his people; instead, Archer and Trip decide to run into the desert alone. However, Desert Crossing cleverly subverts those expectations.

Zobral isn’t a one-dimensional villain trying to lure Archer into a trap. He is a man seeking an ally in a war that he is losing. Once the truth of the situation is made clear to him, he responds reasonably. He actively assists Reed in his attempts to recover Archer and Trip. He parts on civil terms with Archer, despite the fact that Archer cannot offer assistance. As the show closes, even Archer concedes that Zobral isn’t a gloriously evil maniac. “The irony is, I have the feeling his cause is worth fighting for,” Archer admits to T’Pol.

Toast of the galaxy...

Toast of the galaxy…

It’s a much more nuanced story than the initial twist about Zobral would suggest, and one that makes Desert Crossing a much stronger episode. Desert Crossing is an episode that thrives on ambiguity and complexity. Even though the show doesn’t get too much time to delve into the particulars of the conflict on the planet, André Bormanis’ script is careful to make sure that the conflict isn’t black-and-white.

In fact, Zobral isn’t leading his people in a fight to have their rights acknowledged. He is leading his people in a fight to claim the rights that have already been acknowledged. “I remember the celebrations. Yrotts being burned in the streets. People saying that we had finally been granted our rights. The Torothan Clan signed the accord, but they never abided by it. They still control the government, the lands, the resources, everything. We spent ten years staging protests, appealing to the courts, until finally we realised there was only one way to get their attention.”

Lying down on the job...

Lying down on the job…

It’s a much more practical understanding of power and right than usually exists on Star Trek, acknowledging that rights can exist without being honoured. It isn’t merely enough to put ideals into words; those words must be honoured with deeds. Power can be abused, even in systems that acknowledge individual rights. Systemic oppression does not immediately end with the signing of a document, no matter how beautiful the language; equality cannot be assured with the drafting of a law, no matter how strong the promise. These ideals must be put in practice.

It accepts that political realities can be complex and misleading, and that not everything can be solved with the right promise or vow. It’s a much more pragmatic approach to politics than the franchise usual takes, acknowledging that even a treaty or agreement is not necessarily enough to end years of abuse and oppression. It’s a rather cynical perspective, and a demonstration of how Enterprise seems to be adapting in the aftermath of 9/11.

"No, I'm tellin' ya, I saw a Hilton THIS way!"

“No, I’m tellin’ ya, I saw a Hilton THIS way!”

Desert Crossing is most interesting as a Prime Directive story, explaining why Starfleet can’t go around involving itself in the affairs of other cultures. Perhaps demonstrating that V’Lar’s concerns about mankind’s readiness to join the interstellar community in Fallen Hero have some merit. Archer’s actions have a ripple effect – the events of Desert Crossing serve to add a sense of ambiguity to his decision at the end of Detained.

To be fair to Bormanis, the script to Desert Crossing concedes that the ethics of such intervention are complicated. The show never condemns Archer’s decision to intervene in Detained, and it remains quite sympathetic to Zobral through to the closing credits. When Trip is asked his opinion on the matter, his answer isn’t a broad philosophical principle about interference. “Want your Chief Engineer’s advice?” he asks. “Walk away. They lured us down here under false pretences, and now they’re asking us to help them fight a war? That’s a lot different than breaking a few innocent people out of prison.”

Archer's really going to regret not letting Trip bring the air conditioner...

Archer’s really going to regret not letting Trip bring the air conditioner…

It’s an answer that doesn’t try to cover the situations presented in Detained and Desert Crossing with one single easy-to-follow rule, accepting that the circumstances in each case are different. There’s nothing quite as heavy-handed here as Archer’s “directive” speech from Dear Doctor. The closest the show comes to explicitly mentioning the need for such a directive comes from T’Pol, “The High Command has very specific protocols regarding planetary conflicts. Eventually, Captain Archer will have to create some directives of his own.” It’s still a little on the nose, but at least the show doesn’t treat it as “big important speech” moment.

All this set-up is great, but it is undermined by the second half of the episode. During a siege of Zobral’s encampment, Archer and Trip wander out into the desert and find themselves struggling to survive in a hostile climate. Eventually finding shelter, the two try to stay alive as the crew of the Enterprise (and Zobral) help to plan a rescue mission. This is something of a stock Star Trek plot, with the scenes between Archer and Trip in the bunker recalling the scenes between Bashir and O’Brien in Armageddon Game.

Bunker-loads of trouble...

Bunker-loads of trouble…

To be fair, there’s nothing wrong with this. Putting two characters in danger together is a nice way of establishing and developing character – look at Shuttlepod One, for example. The desert sequences of Desert Crossing look absolutely beautiful – the scenes of Archer and Trip wandering around in the desert heat look really great, conveying a sense of heat and desperation. The are captured beautifully by David Straiton. Taken on its own merits, the second half of the episode works quite well.

The problem is that this feels like a bit of a cheat, a way for the show to avoid the rather heavy questions raised in the first half of the story. How will Archer deal with the reputation that he has created for himself? Did the arrival of the Enterprise crew lead to an escalation to the planetary conflict that will lead to more losses of life? Is Archer’s trip responsible for spurring the authorities to shell that encampment?

Work hard, play hard...

Work hard, play hard…

The shift in focus during the second half also means that Zobral’s character arc feels somewhat truncated. We never get a good meaty discussion about Archer’s decision to aid the Suliban but to refuse to help Zobral, which feels like it should be the heart of the show. Zobral simply accepts that Archer is not the great warrior he is seeking and the crew moves on – with no absolutely no acknowledgement of the fact that Zobral also had his eyes on some of that fancy weaponry.

“The Torothans have ten times as many soldiers as we do,” Zobral told Archer during his pitch. “We won’t last much longer without your help.” This suggests that Archer’s decision to leave the planet is, in effect, a death sentence to Zobral and his people. However, while the episode suggests that Archer feels a little guilty about leaving, Desert Crossing never acknowledges this. That’s not to suggest that Archer makes the wrong call, merely that Desert Crossing glosses over the consequences of that decision.

Perhaps Zobral has the moral high ground, making him something of a highlander...?

Perhaps Zobral has the moral high ground, making him something of a highlander…?

Indeed, the end of Desert Crossing undermines Zobral as a character. Walking the corridors of the Enterprise with Archer and T’Pol, he seems to exist to help Archer feel less guilty about his decision. Zobral is polite and courteous in these final discussions, giving no sense of a man who knows that his people have been doomed by this decision. “I should be going,” he remarks. “I hope Commander Tucker is going to be all right.” He seems less concerned about his own people.

Clancy Brown seems to struggle in the role. Brown is a wonderful guest star to have on the show, a veteran performer with a wide range and a commanding presence. However, he seems to struggle to strike the right notes as Zobral. He is larger than life and over-the-top, but we never get a sense of Zobral as a fully-formed three-dimensional character. Instead, Brown seems to be having a wonderful time chewing the scenery – which would be a valid approach in any number of other circumstances, but which makes Zobral feel like a cartoon rather than a character.

Look at it this way, it could be worse. We could be stranded on Waterworld.

“Look at it this way, it could be worse. We could be stranded on Waterworld.”

Perhaps Desert Crossing would have played better with a second half more engaged with the questions of intervention and morality broached in the opening twenty-five minutes of the story. As it stands, it seems like the segments about Archer and Trip surviving in the desert simplify the story somewhat, allowing the show to avoid concentrating on the larger philosophical questions that hover over Archer’s decisions.

Desert Crossing is an intriguing episode, even if it’s not a completely successful one.

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

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