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Star Trek: Enterprise – The Breach (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 April, we’re doing the second season. Check back daily for the latest review.

One of the more interesting aspects of a heightened franchise like Star Trek is the way that invites particular members of staff to define their own voices. On most of the Star Trek shows, it is easy to distinguish the work of particular writers from one another. Ronald D. Moore likes militarism and world-building; Brannon Braga likes time travel and classic science-fiction. There are clear voices that can be distinguished from the choir on each of the shows, for better or for worse.

Although it enjoyed a considerably shorter run than the other Star Trek spin-offs, Star Trek: Enterprise is no exception.  The Breach is a script credited to writers Chris Black and John Shiban. The two had collaborated unofficially on Canamar, a script credited to Shiban alone. The two would work together again on First Flight towards the end of the season. It is certainly a partnership that had considerable potential, if not for Shiban’s departure at the end of the season.

What's up, Doc?

What’s up, Doc?

In many respects, The Breach feels like the product of those two voices. Xenophobia is a major theme of The Breach – as it was in Shiban’s other scripts for the season like Minefield, Dawn or Canamar. Like their last collaboration on Canamar and their future collaboration on First Flight, it seems The Breach presents a more balanced version of Archer than episodes like The Crossing or Horizon. This is a version of Archer who feels compelled to do the right thing, but without the same oppressive self-righteousness that drives his more awkward moments.

However, it seems like Chris Black provides The Breach with its very traditional and old-fashioned Star Trek aesthetic. A veteran of genre television with an understanding of the narrative conventions associated with the franchise, Black understands how Star Trek storytelling is supposed to work. The Breach is perhaps a little too formulaic and traditional in its storytelling, but it does demonstrate that – despite its best efforts – The Crossing had not completely buried a certain optimistic strain of Star Trek ethics.

Into darkness...

Into darkness…

To be fair, The Breach is subject to a lot of the same stock criticisms that haunt the second season of Enterprise. In some ways, The Breach is covering well-worn ground. The episode plays like an update to Jetrel from the first season of Star Trek: Voyager – another exploration of war guilt and medical ethics. There no direct connection between Phlox and Hudak as there is between Jetrel and Neelix. Still, there are similarities; The Breach even makes the healer’s culture seem more vicious. The Breach uses a familiar enough set-up to tell a familiar enough story.

Even aside from the familiarity of the set-up, The Breach is ridiculously episodic in nature and structure; this is the first and last time that the audience hears about the epic generational wars between the Denobulans and the Antarans. Indeed, The Breach is the only time that the Antarans appear or are even mentioned. As with Mayweather’s career dilemma in Horizon, there is a sense that The Breach is not an organic development of Phlox’s character as conceived, but an expedient plot point.

Physician, heal thyself...

Physician, heal thyself…

Actor John Billingsley conceded as much in contemporary interviews, accepting the appeal of constructing a story like The Breach, but arguing that it seemed to come out of nowhere:

“I had mixed feelings about it,” he admits. “It’s a tough bind, because what they’d created with Phlox was somebody who had a certain kind of Zen-like placidity, who sees the world and the universe in very grand terms who doesn’t get too upset or phased, he has an unflappable quality. They have to figure out a way to write for me that bows to the direction that the character goes in, but the same time bring some conflict to the table. That’s awfully tough.

“So I think coming up with an episode where Denobulans were once war criminals, there was still this credible anger that had not been resolved, it seemed to me at least—and maybe some of the fans too—a little too jarring, a little too difficult to jive with what we knew about Phlox. A little bit had been alluded to in the first seasons, hearing in one episode that he’d been a medic in the Denobulan infantry. But there were aspects of that script that didn’t quite work for me. Having said that, [director] Robbie Duncan McNeill did a terrific job in that episode keeping all from us getting overly mawkish. And I think the actor that played Hudak [Henry Stram] was terrific, and I think it allowed us to find some good stuff. I was pleased how it came out.”

Again, there is a sense that Enterprise is a relic of a fading era; a heavily episodic show witnessing the dawn of the era of serialisation. The Breach would flow a lot better if it had been planned and foreshadowed, rather than sprung.

Archer entreated him to consider his options...

Archer entreated him to consider his options…

The Breach also suffers a little bit from an awkward secondary plot that seems to exist so that the episode might have some action to go with its moral debate. To be fair, the secondary plot fits reasonably well with the episode’s larger themes, and director Robert Duncan McNeill does great work. The stunts are impressive, and it is nice to hang around with Trip, Reed and Mayweather on their spelunking adventure. On the other hand, it does mean that The Breach does not get enough time to develop either Phlox or Hudak as it really needs.

However, in spite of these minor problems, The Breach works very well. There is an endearing and earnest optimism to the simple story. Phlox tries to treat a wounded patient who is still nursing generational scars. As Phlox tries to convince the patient to accept treatment, he discovers that he is also affected by tragedies that unfolded long before he was born. As with Chris Black’s script for Cease Fire, The Breach is a story about cycles of violence and recrimination that feel particularly pointed in the era of the War on Terror.

Just (cave) dive right on in there...

Just (cave) dive right on in there…

John Billingsley is the breakout cast member on Enterprise. Phlox might not be as developed as Archer or Trip – and may not receive as much attention as T’Pol – but Billingsley plays the character in such a way that he seems well-realised and fully-formed. Phlox is an alien who feels genuinely alien. Billingsley seems to constantly (and carefully) nudge his performance into the uncanny valley. Despite his human skin tone and the (relatively) low key make-up, the audience never forgets that Phlox is quite different from the rest of the crew.

With T’Pol occupying the traditional Star Trek niche of “alien exploring humanity”, that leaves Phlox free to revel in his alien nature. The Breach features a wonderful cold open that features Phlox feeding an adorable tribble to another of his pets; it is a sequence that clearly unsettles Hoshi and helps to remind the viewer that Phlox is not simply a human with some extra bumps and a CGI smile. His standards of morality are markedly different. Indeed, The Breach arguably builds off Dear Doctor by suggesting that Phlox’s morality is built on neutrality

Soon, it'll be no Tribble at all...

Soon, it’ll be no Tribble at all…

In Dear Doctor, Phlox was confronted by a moral dilemma asking him to choose between two different species; Phlox responded to that dilemma by essentially doing nothing, asking what would happen if he did not interfere. It is an interesting and challenging moral position – one that stands at odds with the more humanist and sympathetic “let me help” philosophy that Kirk had identified as essential to the Star Trek mythos in The City on the Edge of Forever. Archer seems to agree with Kirk, as scripts like Canamar or Judgment demonstrate.

The ending to Dear Doctor was controversial; it was somewhat undercut by the network’s insistence that Archer ultimately agree with Phlox, but it was powerful and challenging television. This glimpse of Phlox’s morality offers an interesting character hook, one that makes Phlox morally alien in the same way that Odo or Quark (or even Worf) are morally alien. Phlox proposed a system of morality that runs counter to some of the core Star Trek ideals. Interestingly, Phlox’s philosophy also runs quite close to some other core Star Trek ideals.

"This'd make a pretty intense cliffhanger, eh?"

“This’d make a pretty intense cliffhanger, eh?”

After all, Phlox has a system of ethics that seems to agree with the Prime Directive in all those questionable Prime Directive episodes from the various Star Trek shows. However, assigning that morality to an alien member of the crew is much more interesting than assuming that mankind signed on to that idea as the founding principle of space exploration. While the Prime Directive makes great sense in theory, it is generally used a storytelling crutch in situations where its application would lead to morally unsettling results.

In practise, the Prime Directive often seems to exist contrary to the “let me help” humanism at the heart of the Star Trek franchise. It arguably makes more sense as the general moral position of an alien doctor; of a creature with a different set of moral priorities than most Star Trek leads. It is interesting to imagine that the Denobulans helped to draft the Prime Directive for the Federation – it is certainly consistent with how Phlox approaches ethical dilemmas. Phlox is quite willing to stand back and let nature take its course, even when that course is horrifying.

Healing rifts...

Healing rifts…

Of course, it is an interesting morality to apply to a doctor. The issue of morality in medicine will always be controversial and subject to debate. “First do no harm” is a great principle, but it is one subject to much interpretation. The horrors of the twentieth century and the political debate over medical procedures like abortion and euthanasia serve to make medical ethics something of a minefield. Can a physician ever be a neutral observer of their patient’s wishes? Even if they could, should they?

By providing a distinctly alien value system, Phlox challenges a lot of the assumptions. The Breach flat out accepts that Phlox would be willing to let a patient die if that is their wish; one assumes that Phlox would have no qualms with euthanasia, a moral and medical issue the franchise has rarely explored. The Breach beautifully sums up the differences between Archer and Phlox in one short exchange in the corridor outside of sickbay, as the two argue about Hudak’s refusal to accept treatment.

A dangling plot element...

A dangling plot element…

“The will of the patient is the cornerstone of Denobulan medical ethics,” Phlox states – a reasonable position on the surface, but one that immediately conflicts with human values. Archer responds with a statement of his own values, “Don’t you believe if you can help someone your ethically bound to do so?” It is a question that fits quite comfortably with Archer as a character; an authority figure who cares less about neutrality and distance than doing the right thing. Phlox simply replies, “Hippocrates wasn’t Denobulan.”

The Breach handles the characters of Archer and Phlox quite well; arguably better than Dear Doctor. Although their moral philosophies do not align perfectly, they work together to reach a compromise; Phlox convinces Hudak to accept the treatment that will save his life. Archer is less pushy and self-righteous here than he has been in the past. He accepts Phlox’s moral position with a bit more maturity than he handled T’Pol’s refusal to attend movie night in Horizon. Archer never explicitly orders Phlox to violate his moral code, even though he disagrees with it.

"You make me sick."

“You make me sick.”

“All I’m asking is that you try,” Archer instructs Phlox. “Your ethics might keep you from treating him against his will, but nothing’s stopping you from talking to him. You’re a doctor. He’s your patient. Find a way to help him.” It might not be as elegant as the line that Picard walks with Worf in The Enemy, but it is an interesting attempt by Archer to balance his own morality with that of Phlox. It also establishes The Breach as a fundamentally optimistic piece of Star Trek; a story more interested in the resolution than the conflict.

It would be ease to mine the conflict between Phlox and Archer for easy drama. Instead, The Breach makes it clear that the two professionals doing their jobs. Towards the end of the episode, both characters share a grim joke. “I’m glad you didn’t defy my orders,” Archer quips. In case Phlox takes him too literally, he adds, “I wasn’t looking forward to throwing you in irons.” When Archer asks how Phlox convinced Hudak, Phlox replies, “You must be familiar with the principle of doctor patient confidentiality. Of course, you could always order me to tell you.”

"You know, once you get past the natives, it's not that bad down here."

“You know, once you get past the natives, it’s not that bad down here.”

(That said, there are points where it feels like The Breach over-sells the harmony between Archer and Phlox. Trying to convince Hudak to accept treatment from Phlox, Archer insists, “I’ve never questioned his skill or his integrity.” It seems that Archer has already glossed over the events of Dear Doctor. While the network insisted that the two characters reach an agreement at the end of the episode, it sure seemed like Archer was questioning Phlox’s integrity. Perhaps Archer simply feels comfortable lying to Hudak in order to secure his desired outcome.)

The core themes of The Breach touch on issues that were quite relevant to the United States in early 2003. If Jetrel was a vehicle to explore the legacy of the attacks on Hiroshima and Negasaki, The Breach is decidedly more abstract. This is not a story about one single atrocity; this is not a story about one single war. “Our two species have a complicated history,” Phlox tells Archer. “We’ve gone to war with the Antarans on several occasions.” This is about a cycle of violence that tends to repeat itself.

State of Phlox.

State of Phlox.

As with a lot of Enterprise, this plays as a response to 9/11. After all, those terrorist attacks did not happen in a vacuum; they were the result of long chains of cause and effect that began long before anybody who died on that die were born. In turn, those events were consequences of even earlier events. As with Chris Black’s script for Cease FireThe Breach stresses the need to break out of self-perpetuating cycles of violence. It is, in essence, the most traditionally Star Trek response to the 9/11 attacks.

In dealing with Hudak, Phlox finds himself confronting a deeply-engrained and generational fear of “the other.” Discussing the situation with T’Pol, Phlox recalls how his grandmother once warned him not to visit a planet that had been “tainted” by the Antarans. When T’Pol asks if Phlox went, he replies, “No, but when I had children of my own I took them there. I was determined not to raise them as I was raised.” Phlox made a conscious effort to break out of the pattern of hatred and fear that had defined Denobulan attitudes towards their enemies.

Keeping them on edge...

Keeping them on edge…

In fact, the whole situation allows Phlox to reflect on that quintessential Star Trek optimism. Hudak asks about how Phlox raised his children to see the Antarans, and Phlox explains, “When they asked me about the Antarans, I told them the truth, as best as I knew it. I told them about our military campaigns against your people. About how we had demonised you, turned you into a faceless enemy. I wanted them to learn to judge people for what they really are, not what the propaganda tells them.” As with Judgment, there is perhaps a trace of social commentary to this.

It is a bit disappointing that Hudak never gets a chance to fully develop as a character; we never get a sense of who Hudak is outside of being of an Antaran. Star Trek has a history of doing these two-hander episodes about mistrust and hatred, but Hudak feels much shallower than Marritza in Duet or Jetrel in Jetrel. It feels like Phlox only has a handful of interactions with the character, and so we never get to see Hudak as a person rather than part of a metaphor about generational hatred and anxiety.

"When I said 'break a leg', Travis, I didn't mean it."

“Boy, Travis, between this and Risa, you really suck at rock climbing, doncha?”

The Breach makes room for a subplot about Trip leading a team to rescue a bunch of Denobulans from the surface of  Xantoras. (The “x” is for xenophobic.) It turns out that – like so many aliens featured in John Shiban scripts – the people of Xantoras have decided that they don’t like aliens. They have given all aliens three days to evacuate the planet or face the consequences. Given that it deal with racial hatred, the subplot feels a lot more thematic harmony with The Breach than “T’Pol enjoys movie night” did with Horizon, but it still feels inessential.

It seems like the subplot exists primarily so that The Breach can have some impressive cave sequences to juxtapose against the “medical debate in sickbay” scenes. The stunts are certainly impressive, and the atmosphere is palpable. Director Robert Duncan McNeill does good work, and it is fun to watch Trip, Reed and Mayweather have a low-stakes adventure together. However, it does feel a little bit superfluous when considered in the context of the rest of the episode around it.

Hang on in there...

Hang on in there…

Interestingly, the initial edit of The Breach came up quite short. Robert Duncan McNeill had to shoot two additional days of footage at the last minute to reach the desired runtime:

I’m curious to see the final cut of the episode. The show ended up eight minutes short, which is about a day’s work. Actually it was more than a day’s work, since I ended up shooting two extra days. I did Enterprise, went away to do Dawson’s Creek, and while I was gone they called and said we have to shoot another two days on this show. So I came back and shot two days. It was so close to the air date – it was only a couple of weeks ago – that there was no time for me to look at the dailies or edit a director’s cut. So I just shot the film and gave it to them. I haven’t seen the final cut of the episode.

It would be interesting to know which scenes were added. It seems likely that some smaller scenes were editted into the cave plot, adding a few nice character moments. If so, it feels like the wrong focus was applied.

Into the void...

Into the void…

The Breach is a solid old-fashioned Star Trek parable. There is an earnestness and sincerity to The Breach that works well – there is no cynicism undercutting the fairly simple and optimistic moral. Episodes like Stigma and The Crossing suggest that perhaps this classic approach to Star Trek storytelling has passed its sell-by date. The Breach proves that there is still some life in yet. Sure enough, Cogenitor picks up that baton and runs with it, offering perhaps the most effective allegory of Enterprise‘s four-season run.

One of the more interesting (and perhaps ironic) aspects of the last stretch of the second season is the sense that the show has figured out how to embrace classic Star Trek storytelling, just as it runs out of time to tell those sorts of stories. There were already rumours that the show would soon feature “epic challenges … that better exploit the sense of awe and danger.” Only a week before The Breach was broadcast, Rick Berman and Brannon Braga announced a bold new direction for the third season.

Laugh it up, fur ball...

Laugh it up, fuzzball…

As such, The Breach is part of a “lame duck” stretch of episodes at the tale end of the second season of Enterprise. These are the last instalments of this particular version of Star Trek, a version of Star Trek that arguably dates back to The Bonding or Evolution. As such, it feels appropriate that these last few episodes should bid a reasonably fond farewell to a somewhat outdated form of Star Trek, quietly tidying away all these classic storytelling devices so that the franchise might try something new and bold in the year ahead.

The Breach is a fairly standard Star Trek morality play, but it is delivered with a charming sincerity that excuses its more serious flaws.

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

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2 Responses

  1. I can’t believe I didn’t notice it at the time, but John Billingsley NEVER leaves the ship! Maybe that one episode on the automated tune-up shop, but only because there was a luncheon provided. But otherwise, nada! He’s even less mobile than the EHM. 😦

    • Good spot, actually.

      (Although he does get out a bit more in the fourth season. No wonder the Klingon’s abducted him on his trip to the Chinese; they would have been waiting for years otherwise!)

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