Summary – Archer earns frequently captured flyer miles, T’Pol demonstrates again why she belongs in command and the episode hammers home its message with all the subtlety and grace of a Rush Limbaugh broadcast in a predictable Andorian Incident Redux storyline.
It’s interesting to note that the bulk of Enterprise’s critical and fan favorite episodes take place in space. Episodes like Broken Bow, Cold Front, Breaking the Ice, Silent Enemy, Fight or Flight and Shuttlepod One manage to capture at least some of that thrill of exploration and bring a fresh sensibility to the usual Star Trek cliches. On the ground though, Enterprise tends to produce retreads featuring even more forgettable aliens of the week than Voyager and stories with as little or even less complexity. Detained is no different in that regard and follows the usual Enterprise formula of five minutes of story per forty minutes of episode. It also manages to repeat the same mistakes of crew characterization that have made Captain Archer a laughing stock and Mayweather the latest incarnation of Wesley Crusher.
In the course of an unfinished season, Captain Archer has been captured more than a few times. Unlike Captain Kirk though, Archer doesn’t tend to get captured by the Greek god Apollo, aliens from another galaxy or an omnipotent child; but by anyone who goes to the trouble of shooting down his shuttlecraft. This isn’t a great record for a starship Captain and it makes for fairly uninteresting viewing. Worse yet, Archer seems perpetually clueless, blundering from one mishap into another and justifying it with what he undoubtedly thinks is a charming smile and a paen to the virtues of curiosity. Though his ship has been attacked many times and he’s learned that there is a temporal war going on, Archer still seems to be strolling as casually around the universe as in Strange New World where he decides that an alien planet couldn’t possibly be dangerous because it looks so pretty.
Meanwhile the writers seem to have decided that competence is the exclusive purview of repressed Vulcans and repressed Englishmen, while celebrating the emotional incompetence of the humans as a testament to their virtue. Consider Trip’s behavior in this episode where he undermines his commanding officer’s authority by questioning her actions on the bridge and interrupting her negotiation with the Colonel. And this isn’t the first time. You have to assume that Trip is either an idiot or has so much contempt for T’Pol that he would actually treat her this way. After all, Archer called T’Pol on the carpet for much less.
Archer goes back to making his decisions based on a completely baseless confidence in his own ability to be able to grasp complex sociopolitical situations in 5 minutes or less and to make decisions that affect billions of lives based on his feelings, without actually following any kind of rules. A good deal of this probably happens because while the producers may have toured submarines to get ideas for how the Enterprise engine room should look, they didn’t bother brushing up on even the basics of military discipline. This makes Archer look like an incompetent egomaniac time and time again, or for those who have been following the reruns of the third Star Trek spin-off, a lot like Captain Janeway. Worse yet where Kirk, Picard and Sisko were larger than life figures whose decisions had larger than life moral grandeur, Archer is a weak character whose attitude comes off as pettiness, rather than principle.
Often it’s because Bakula is simply a weaker actor. Consider Detained, in which Dean Stockwell playing the villain not only turns in a much better performance with little material and an underplayed character, but in his character’s worst moments still manages to maintain more dignity and stature than Bakula manages to retain in his best. It’s one of the most memorable performances since Mark Alaimo’s subversion of the Gul Dukat character and almost as enjoyable because it involves acting, something Bakula seems increasingly incapable of. But it’s also because Bakula is being given no material to work with. His character’s motivations and behavior make no rational sense. All that’s left is to play him as a cartoonish Dudley Do-right that isn’t grounded in any kind of realistic expectations. Shatner could have played these scenes with the kind of outrageous scenery chewing that made even the worst TOS episodes fun. But all Bakula can do is turn in the same bland performance so that you can barely tell the difference between a scene in which Archer is eating toast and a scene in which Archer is protesting the oppression of an entire people.
Which of course makes the decision to pair Archer with Enterprise’s weakest character and weakest actor, a very big mistake. It’s the bland leading the bland as Archer and Mayweather spend three times as much time as is necessary to establish that the Suliban in the camp are innocent and oppressed and the guards are nasty and sadistic. For anyone who fails to grasp this point through the subtle cinematic device of having the guards repeatedly shock the prisoners for no legitimate reason whatsoever and shove small children and make them cry, the guards are further dressed up in militaristic uniforms with high black collars and straps around the chest, a favorite Star Trek design when emphasizing the Naziesque qualities of the Alien Villain of the week, last used in Voyager’s Counterpoint.
The characters of the Suliban themselves don’t come through very well mainly because of the poor quality of the Suliban makeup which renders the actor’s faces mostly immobile while depriving them of distinguishing features. The Suliban makeup seems to have been rather poor to begin with and its cakey quality would not have been out of place on TOS. On Enterprise it looks cheap and ugly. Even Andromeda manages to produce a Vedran complete with four feet, yet Enterprise can’t give its chief race of villains a more unique look than what TOS would have come up with on a bad day. The fact is, Voyager aliens that we’ve only seen for three minutes at a time have come with better makeup than this (and costuming!). Witness the enemy aliens in Voyager’s Homestead among many other examples of completely throwaway makeup designs that are more effective than what amounts to a covering of caked yellow mud.
It’s no surprise, then, that the actual story itself turns out to be as crude as the makeup with the basic message being reinforced by a ridiculous lecture from Archer referencing the American internment camp of WW2. You have to wonder if in the aftermath of WW3, Khan Noonien Singh, the banning of genetic enhancements on Earth and their persecution as we saw on DS9’s Bashir storyline, Archer can’t think of a more relevant example for a being race persecuted for the exact same reason. Of course this would assume some measure of familiarity with Star Trek canon on the part of Braga and co, which would force them to dip into the seedy world of continuity pornography, e.g. maintaining a concordance and doing their research and thus their jobs. It would also distract from the political message being hammered home here with all the grace and subtlety of a Rush Limbaugh broadcast.
It’s not simply a question of continuity or ideology; like most Enterprise episodes, Detained is simply devoid of elementary storytelling values. There’s no real suspense, no twists and turns. Braga in his interview bragged about writing a prison-break story, but all the fun of such a story is in the possibility of being caught and playing a cat and mouse game with the guards. The actual assault is rather straightforward and over in a matter of minutes. The bulk of the episode instead engages in a repetitive series of humanizing Suliban incidents, Bakula alternately looking deeply concerned and sneering at his former co-star and Mayweather trying to remember where he left his personality. Much of the action in this episode is a redux of “The Andorian Incident” right down to the planting of the charges and Reed’s British Invasion. The real winners here are Dean Stockwell and Jolene Blalock, who has some of her best action lines since “Civilization” (another forgettable and not altogether dissimilar episode.)
What is left of Detained when you distance it from its current time and place in history? Like much of Enterprise’s first season it’s a wasted opportunity consisting of recycled material, another snoozeworthy performance from Bakula, poor storytelling and a clarion call for repairing the characterization of Captain Jonathan Archer before he goes down in Star Trek history as Mr. Janeway.
Next week: Ectoplasm invades Enterprise. Can the Ghostbusters be far behind ?