Star Trek: Enterprise: The Breach   Rewatch 
June 17, 2019 2:06 AM - Season 2, Episode 21 - Subscribe

Enterprise confronts racism and speleothems.

Memory Alpha touches lightly on the body of my own post:

Background information
> The style of backpack used by the Enterprise crew members in the caves was the Boblbee Megalopolis backpack.
> The containers carrying the Denobulans' rock samples were actually spacemaker pencil cases used by children for school.
> Phlox actor John Billingsley had mixed feelings about this episode. He noted that, while Phlox was created with a "Zen-like placidity", it was understandable that the writers would try to find some more conflict. However, he argued, "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." Nonetheless, Billingsley believed the episode enabled himself and guest star Henry Stram to "find some good stuff."
> John Billingsley additionally praised Director Robert Duncan McNeill, stating, "[He] did a terrific job in that episode keeping all from us getting overly mawkish."
> The first and only appearance of a tribble in Star Trek: Enterprise takes place during the teaser of this episode.

Memorable quotes
"All it's capable of doing, really, is eating and breeding. The problem is they breed quite prodigiously."
- Phlox on a tribble he shows to Hoshi Sato right before feeding it to one of his pets

"The last cave I was in had handrails... a gift shop, and a snack bar."
- Tucker

"All here."
"Ration packs?"
"A week's worth."
"Flex cable?"
"Hmm. Five hundred meters."
"Waste disposal units."
"What are these for?"
"We take out everything we bring in."
- Mayweather, Tucker and Reed before heading down to the caves on Xantoras

"What have you got?"
"Nothing but three Humans, one of which is not entirely convinced we're going in the right direction."
"Ah, make that two."
- Tucker, with Reed and Mayweather begin to enter the cave to find the Denobulans

"Isn't there a beginners' cliff we can start on?"
- Tucker

"We're already behind schedule, ensign. We can't have you slowing us down. Thanks for getting us this far."
"You'll be alright."
"Respectfully, sir, it's not me that I'm worried about!"
- Reed, then Tucker, to Mayweather

"I have tried to treat you with respect, but I refuse to listen to these insults. You're the reason we haven't been able to put the past behind us. You've kept this hatred alive. No Denobulan would want to be in the same room as you."
- a heated Phlox, to the Antaran Hudak

"If you don't start moving in five seconds, I'm gonna take my phase-pistol and shoot you in the ass!"
- Trip Tucker to Yolen

This Week In:
* Pointless STO Comparisons: Extensive
- The name ‘The Breach’ is also used for a recurring MMO event where a 5-person team assaults the interior of a Voth city ship.
- Tribbles are huge in the MMO. If you have any in your inventory, they will systematically eat food items and breed. There’s also a tribble breeding minigame to get rare tribbles. The Klingon government also offers tangible rewards for dead tribbles.
- Rappelling occurs in the MMO, but there’s no fail condition.
- It’s possible for Bridge Officers or Captains to sustain lasting injuries like broken legs the way Mayweather does here, causing persistent debuffs that require special medical consumables to heal.
* Vulcans Are Superior: Didn’t see any.
* Non-Catastrophic Equipment Failures: The piton coming loose either counts or is too catastrophic to count.
* Aliens Outclass Enterprise: Denobulans can climb like Spiderman.

Poster’s Log:
And we’re back to ENT pissing me off. Both the A-plot and the B-plot have significant problems that are worth discussing separately.

* The thread with Mayweather, Tucker and Reed is bad, and someone should feel bad.

So we have a bunch of scientists who failed to follow any sort of proper protocol and simply fell out of communication with their government, refused to leave when instructed and needed to be threatened with violence to keep on track.

The idea that scientists are less knowledgeable about practical matters is a core conceit of anti-intellectualism, and especially rancid in a show that is supposed to be about triumph through understanding.

The fact that the more experienced black guy is injured rescuing his less competent white superiors so that they can complete the mission without him is some additional icing on the whole thing, especially given the other side of this story.

* The thread with Phlox, Archer and Hudak is worse.

Previously, in the Star Trek: Enterprise review threads, I discussed how the latent racism the entire franchise is actually pretty dangerous, in particular because it is low grade and thus easy to gloss over.

I’m going to point back to that discussion for some of this, as I feel this discussion is long enough without the retread: I value what Star Trek is trying to do, but it can fail badly. The Breach is another example of a set of attitudes about race relations that are potentially harmful, even if I do not believe that they are specifically pro-genocide the way that Dear Doctor is. The Breach is, instead, simplistic wish fulfillment about the nature and resolution of racial conflicts that leads to environments that are oppressive for marginalized people.

The conflict they have set up includes the following parameters:

- The main event occurred 300 years ago

This is shorthand for ‘the bad things happened a long time ago,’ with an implicit assumption that we should just get over things that are in the distant past. After all, none of the parties involved did anything themselves - it was all their ancestors. Basically, the idea is that there should be a sort of statute of limitations on war crimes.

The truth is that when one society steals from another on a grand scale, the consequences are lasting. It’s trivial to find studies demonstrating that parental socioeconomic status has an enormous impact on the lives of their children, which means that the effects of unjust wealth echo over generations. Basically, if Phlox’s ancestors looted the cities of Hudak’s ancestors, any wealth they extracted would have trickled down to Phlox himself, whether he’s comfortable with that or not. (One of the reasons privilege is sticky is that we do not make any conscious effort to possess it where we do.)

So Phlox’s particular intent toward Antarans does matter. Him being open-minded and attempting to make peace is relevant to the situation, but it’s only a factor in interactions with Hudak, not the only factor. Further, the entire thing happening 300 years ago just means the Denobulans let this go a long time without trying to make it right.

We also know the Denobulans still wage war: as mentioned in the MA article, Phlox himself was in the military at some point in his career. If they haven’t been fighting Antarans, it just means Denobulans are fighting someone else too. So what little we do know about the situation is: they committed war crimes, they did not make amends, and they still use military force for something.

I am pleased that John Billingsley noticed at least some of this too - it’s a redeeming bit of understanding after Dear Doctor, where I was pretty unhappy with all involved.

- Neither side has directly interacted in 6 generations.

This is not how anything works, and the episode itself is a good example of why: without aggressively confining themselves to their own physical locales, neither Denobulans nor Antarans can guarantee they won’t meet out in the bigger world. There’s no way they have successfully avoided all contact for this long simply because their business will sometimes take them to the same places.

This allows the episode to present the fantasy that the grievances each side have are rooted in propaganda rather than actual events.

The reality of racial tension is that people from cultures with long standing grievances can and do run into each other. Most of the unpleasant opinions that oppressed groups have about their oppressors are rooted in firsthand experience: being dismissed, insulted, abused, etc.

The idea that they don’t is a fantasy, and one that favors the most egregious conceit in the episode:

- ‘All we need to do is talk.’

Talk in the absence of change is meaningless. Working things out is not about two sides listening to each other, it’s about actual concessions being made.

Phlox actually comes out okay here, IMO. He is willing to respect the wishes of his patient, and it’s pretty clear that this actually is about medical ethics to him, as far as I can tell. He has also taken what steps he can personally to improve relations between Denobulans and Antarans without asking for anything for himself in return, (there’s no request for a cookie in Phlox’s dialogue that I caught). Phlox comports himself about as well as he can under the circumstances.

However, the basic premise that Hudak just needs to get to know some Denobulans is a racist fantasy.

Finally, there’s a particularly nasty element here in the end:

- Archer is presented as right to force this confrontation.

There’s a recurring theme in ENT that people should apply peer pressure to those with dissenting opinions and force them to join in with the rest of the group. It turns up in a lot of ways, including but not limited to:

> Archer literally forcing Hoshi to run an investigation into Reed’s favorite food, which ignored Hoshi’s and Reed’s personal boundaries and was a definite HR complaint.
> Archer pressuring T’Pol to bond with other Vulcans against her wishes, placing her in an unwanted situation where she was subsequently assaulted.
> Archer basically forces T’Pol to movie night, insisting she be his date. This is regarded as cute rather than a gross violation of personal boundaries because he promises her he’ll ‘be a perfect gentleman.’

At the core, this is a bullying attitude: violating personal boundaries is a harmful act, Archer abuses his position as captain to do so repeatedly, and Archer is never called out on this tendency. More often than not, he’s praised for it in the text or presented as being correct by things working out in the end.

The Breach makes it out that Archer knows more about what’s healthy for Denobulan and Antaran relations than anybody who actually lives with the conflict, and that’s abhorrent.

(Also, I know this is a lot of editorializing. I hope nobody is uncomfortable with that.)
posted by mordax (5 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
(Also, I know this is a lot of editorializing. I hope nobody is uncomfortable with that.)

I'm not. This episode was uncomfortable on a lot of levels. I can see what they were trying for but it didn't hold.

First off, the parallel between the scientists in the cave and the situation on the ship doesn't work together the way it should - both involve people who withhold their consent for something that needs to happen; but in the cave the situation is resolved via the threat of violence. Now, they didn't leave themselves any time for anything else there, because we had to have Mayweather's Incredible Misadventure for no discernible reason.

On the ship, it's marginally better in that Archer is the one threatening the use of force on Phlox, while Phlox finds a more diplomatic method of engagement...but it is uncomfortable because it sidesteps so many of the systemic issues that are present while focusing on the personal. At a time when my country is grappling with things like the outcome of the Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry, where I think we are also struggling with both the personal and systemic responsibilities it raises, this just fell really flat for me personally...although I felt much better about how Phlox was characterized here than I did during Dear Doctor (though Archer remains a jerk). But the end of it all, with Phlox making another effort to reach his son, implies that the work and responsibility is all personal, which is only one piece.

At least when the episode dealing with the Vulcan revulsion to mind melds happened, there was acknowledgment that this was both a personal and societal issue...but then the Vulcans are a more developed people in the Trek universe, so you can maybe have more nuance. In reality, I think to do a story line about past war crimes and how racism is embedded in society, you need more than a 45 minute episode; it should be a storyline that gets revisited over the course of several episodes, showing us how Phlox changes and in turn tries to influence Denobulan society.
posted by nubs at 8:03 AM on June 17, 2019 [3 favorites]

I am absolutely comfortable with that, because again, we've got the same problems with the episode. The basic set-up isn't bad at all: the A story is about the crew threading their way through a dangerous, delicate physical situation to resolve a threat to the lives of others, and the B story is about the crew threading their way through a dangerous, delicate personal/cultural/historical situation to resolve a threat to someone else's life; it could have been a pretty good episode. But, in both cases, the situation was ultimately resolved by a white male human threatening aliens until they did what he wanted them to. I mean, what do you do with that? It's as if Berman & Braga's favorite TOS episodes were the ones in which Kirk & Co. simply wrecked Vaal or Landru or whatever basis they had for their society and then told the dumbfounded natives that they'd have to run their lives the right way from now on. (And, conveniently, never came back to see if it had worked.) There is an absolute metric shit-ton of literature on the ethics of patients refusing treatment, for whatever reason, and Archer just sort of steamrollers right through it because, by God and Zefram Cochrane, it doesn't make sense to him. The Denobulan cave explorers may be stubborn and willfully ignorant of just how bad the political situation is, which isn't too improbable--I have no problem believing that at least some otherwise very smart and capable people can be "less knowledgeable about practical matters", or at least too focused on their work to tend to them, as I've had to stand next to students in study carrels in my library and order them to leave when the fire alarm is going off--but Trip's ordering them to leave on the threat of dragging them out, when he and Reed barely made it in with Mayweather's help which is no longer available, is kind of dumb, and they may have just left because they knew that they wouldn't get any work done with these irritating aliens yelling at them.

And, as I said, the set-up isn't too terribly bad, and the ten percent rule applies here, as a few small changes could have improved the episode immensely. This isn't the first time that this showrunning team has tackled the issue of wartime ethics and lingering guilt, as we previously had "Jetrel" and "Nothing Human". Those episodes listed specific incidents--the metreon cascade being used on Rinax, the Cardassian death camps--and although the Denobulan-Antaran War is apparently out of living memory (although not by a lot; Phlox's grandmother lived through it), we still could have had a bit more detail about the conflict. (There are people in the South who still talk about Sherman's march to the sea as if it happened last Thursday.) As John Billingsley notes, it's pretty jarring to just sort of dump that information into the episode, and a small amount of effort could have been made to reconcile that with the friendly, inquisitive, and sociable people that the Denobulans (via Phlox and his wife) have previously been shown to be; for example, they could have said that Denobulans were the kind of people who tended to avoid war at all costs, but when they were roused to anger, their response was disproportionate--a sort of nukes-or-nothing approach to defense. That could have even been tied into the A story, with the Denobulan scientists being pretty diffident about the prospect of being captured by the new regime; they knew that they would probably be treated better than the average alien, because of their people's reputation.

As it was, I did like Phlox's discussion of his family's history with racism; the parts about his son reminded me of this recent discussion on the blue. And it was good to see Mayweather get some action scenes, instead of being stuck at the helm. (It even ties back to his part in "Two Days and Two Nights", as he was injured in a rock-climbing accident in that episode.) Although the women didn't have a lot to do; T'Pol might have figured into the episode a bit--I have to remind myself that, in the pilot, she was originally part of the embassy staff. Finally, I came really close to getting one of those backpacks once--they're kind of small for the money, but they look really cool.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:07 AM on June 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

Good write-up, mordax!

I want to turn away from the plot of this bad episode to talk about Phlox for a sec. Phlox is one of the better characters on this show, but all his spotlight episodes so far have been real bombs. He's compelling because he's so charismatic and likeable, but they haven't really given him enough depth to support anything more than fun background color. I appreciate the direction that they writers pushed in order to try to make him more three-dimensional, but despite their intentions, they bungled it at every turn.

I think they were trying to hint at Denobulan medical ethics being very different from human medical ethics, and that being a source of conflict in times of crisis on Enterprise. Dear Doctor originally ended with Archer and Phlox being at loggerheads about whether to treat that alien civilization's genetic disease. That got changed at the studio's behest to Archer reluctantly agreeing with Phlox. This one tries to set up a conflict about clinical intervention. Phlox's line "Hippocrates wasn't Denobulan" is my favorite thing about this episode. But it doesn't end up mattering much in the end. The writers just weren't very good at setting up or understanding bioethical dilemmas, and they were never really willing to buckle down on Phlox's ethics being very alien, so the theme always got lost.

The dilemma in Dear Doctor was too stupid to be taken seriously. It wasn't a dilemma at all. Still... imagine the writers of Dear Doctor weren't irredeemably stupid about evolution and they recognized that Phlox's refusal to treat the genetic disease made little sense. I can imagine them still wanting to write the original ending, with Phlox refusing treatment and Archer opposed to him, in order to show that Denobulans have a fucked-up view of evolutionary teleology: they think there's an end goal to evolution, and overt interference in species selection as opposed to individual treatment is ultimately harmful. Everyone on Enterprise would be all, "OMG, this guy's usually a good doctor, but can we really keep him on the ship if he's this sort of quasi-religious nutbar?" That obviously goes way too far, and makes Phlox much too stupid and monstrous, and they'd have to rewrite the show to be much more about the crew's wavering attitude toward him. But I think that central conflict in human vs. alien ethics is what the show was trying to explore in that original script, and I like that concept. Especially on a show about the early days of space exploration and encountering new civilizations. It's just that the show wasn't up to the task at all. They needed a bioethicist in the writer's room.

It's a missed opportunity because the Denobulans would be a pretty good species to explore that tension with. What do we know of the Denobulans? They're scientific and optimistic and cheerful, kind of like the TNG-era Federation. So it would be surprising for those apparent virtues to have vicious manifestations when taken to the extreme. The idea presented in this episode that past Denobulans have been mad scientists and criminal war doctors makes sense to me. The image of a Denobulan happily and blithely inflicting suffering on others (with those big creepy double-smiles) for the sake of scientific advancement rings true. We see some of this when mirror-Phlox hams it up; I kinda would have liked to see Phlox have a tiny bit of this attitude in the non-mirror realm. He's clearly a bit of a mad scientist: give him some Dr. Frankenstein hubris! And make him slowly have to recognize that there are problems with Denobulan ethics. (Come to think of it, this is similar to the characterization of Mordin Solus and the Salarians in the Mass Effect series.)

If anything, I think this episode would have made Phlox more interesting if the Phlox-Archer conflict were reversed: if Phlox was constantly dabbling on the crew in order to improve them and he struggled a little with the human notion of medical consent.

They drop the idea of Phlox's Alien Ethics after this episode. From now on, Phlox spotlight episodes just treat him as a fun and bouncy doctor, and the plots revolve around the situations he finds himself in rather than anything about his character or history. It's a bit of a shame. But he's so charismatic and fun to watch that he's still one of my favorites.
posted by painquale at 1:26 PM on June 17, 2019 [4 favorites]

The image of a Denobulan happily and blithely inflicting suffering on others (with those big creepy double-smiles) for the sake of scientific advancement rings true. We see some of this when mirror-Phlox hams it up; I kinda would have liked to see Phlox have a tiny bit of this attitude in the non-mirror realm. He's clearly a bit of a mad scientist: give him some Dr. Frankenstein hubris!

Well, he does feed a live tribble to... something.

Love the Mordin Solus comparison.
posted by Halloween Jack at 2:51 PM on June 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

The image of a Denobulan happily and blithely inflicting suffering on others was where Phlox was headed with Mayweather in Singularity.
posted by channaher at 6:48 PM on February 7, 2023

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