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  • Ric Crossman

6.1.20 All Hail West Texas

Detained

The Tandaran's detention complex.
Past, present, future

This is the episode in which Enterprise does the inevitable, and references Quantum Leap. It does so in three ways.

  1. It casts Dean Stockwell, Scott Bakula’s co-star on the show.

  2. It has Stockwell play around with a chunky hand-held computer, just like he did on Quantum Leap.

  3. It presents time as not a straight line, but as a closed loop. An inescapable cycle from which we cannot break out, the same tragedies repeating themselves again and again in slightly different iterations. There are those who fight back, of course, but they’re only allowed to do so for so long, before they’re forced to move on under a cloud of amnesia.

Welcome to America. I hope you didn’t come here illegally?


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It makes sense that the episode chooses Manzanar as its reference to the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. While not the largest such camp, it is the best-preserved, and the closest to where the episode was actually filmed. It’s also in California, the state which saw by far the greatest number of internment facilities (the camps weren’t the only places where people were held), and where the rules over who had to suffer in the collective punishment were the most extreme. In The Golden State, it took just one Japanese great-great grandparent to be considered sufficiently untrustworthy to need rounding up. There are US anti-miscegenation laws that use less extreme fractions. If you want to prompt people to remember your country’s shameful history RE locking up ethnic minorities under the excuse of national security, conjuring the ghost of Manzanar is a solid plan.


Not every American of Japanese heritage lived on the west coast, though, and so not every internment facility was located in a state bordering the Pacific. The DOJ ran three camps in Texas, with a fourth run by the Army at Fort Sam Houston. There, Japanese-Americans, along with various German- and Italian-Americans judged security risks, waited for the country many of them were born in to end its war with countries many of them had never stepped foot in.


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“If a man’s from Texas, he’ll tell you. If he’s not, why embarrass him by asking?” – John Gunther, The Best of Texas

Trip Tucker is what one might be tempted to call a typical Texan. Congenial, polite and welcoming on his own terms, the instant he learns other people might do things differently he tries to trample their approach into the ground like an enraged steer. There’s their way, or there’s no way.


This has been an issue with Trip throughout this first season, with him regularly butting heads with T’Pol over the latter’s ludicrous insistence that other people might dare to think differently to him. We see it again here. When Trip learns the Captain and Mayweather have gotten caught up in the legal system of a society he didn’t knew existed twenty seconds earlier, he demands the Tandarans’ explicit wishes and the basic rules of diplomacy be ignored. How dare his friends not receive special treatment from every single person they meet, or whose land they stumble onto?


The fact we’re watching a forty-five minute episode of sci-fi drama means we know how this is likely to shake out. The rules of television strongly suggest Trip will eventually turn out to have been correct to mistrust the Tandarans. But that’s just how fiction works. You can write your stories so that a stopped clock can be right as often as you want it to be. The shiftiness of Colonel Grat shouldn’t detract us from the fact that T’Pol is completely in the right here. “Your laws have inconvenienced us” isn’t actually a valid reason to insist those laws don’t exist.


I mean, this ain’t the US Supreme Court, is it?


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“Anybody who wanders around the world saying, “Hell yes, I’m from Texas,” deserves whatever happens to him.” – Hunter S Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales From A Strange Time
“They were like, ‘Oh, this guy is so weird, this guy Koresh is so weird.’ And I was thinking, ‘Well, wait a minute. Frustrated rock musician, with a messianic complex, armed to the teeth and trying to f*** everything that moves.’ I don’t know how to tell you this. Sounds like every one of my friends in Austin.” – Bill Hicks
“You know the good thing about all those executions in Texas? Fewer Texans.” – George Carlin
“Everything’s bigger in Texas, even the stupid… Hell, especially the stupid.” – Thomas Levenson, The Inverse Square Blog
“Hey Patrick, what am I now?” “Uh… stupid?” “No, I’m Texas!” “What’s the difference?” – Spongebob and Patrick, Spongebob Squarepants

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I have a former colleague who is Texan. She’s been back there for a couple of years now, but before that she spent several years living in the UK. Literally none of the qualities I describe above as being “typical” of Texans apply to her.


I remember how horrified and devastated she was in the aftermath of Trump’s elections. I remember how a British colleague gave her a pompous lecture about tone when she announced she couldn’t see any hope for the future of her country, unless someone found a way to assassinate the quasi-fascist who had taken the Oval. The US is a country in which four of its presidents were killed while in office. She couldn’t see how her country could survive without that total being upped to five.


I thought about her often during the 2021 election, that agonising week in which Joe Biden gradually emerged from the swirling chaos of the American system as its increasingly undeniable winner. I thought about how relieved she must be, that the worst had been averted, and how exhausted she must be that the worst had been so close to happening. I thought mixed feelings that must accompany a statistician watching their government return to the position that epidemiology exists. Such a relief for science to be back, but how horrifying that it was ever allowed to be pushed aside.


And I thought about how, even with Trump still in office, she had wanted to live in the US more than she did the UK.


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In the spring of 2018, stories began to emerge of the consequences of President Donald Trump’s decision to supercharge immigrant enforcement at the Mexican border. Tales of children being forcibly separated from their parents and then lost within the system caused a wave of outrage, and demands that something be done. As the country’s focus turned to its southern border, the scale of the human catastrophe only grew. Pictures were released of the treatment of inmates in Texas’ Ursula Facility – largest of the facilities under scrutiny. These were official photos, too, which meant while what they showed was bad enough, the truth was even worse. One visitor described Ursula as “nothing short of a prison”. Mass overcrowding. Children kept in cages. Laura Bush herself, wife to George W Bush, likened Ursula to the Japanese internment camps of the Second World War. And this was following a visit arranged weeks in advance – those inspecting the facility heard tales about bus-loads of children having been removed from Ursula in the days leading up to the tour.


Even by the standards Trump had set in his two years in office at that point, a return to the practice of building concentration camps on American soil struck a nerve as being uniquely unpleasant. The final, indisputable proof that Trump couldn’t be allowed to retain the White House. I mean, children literally held in cages? Their parents in the same facility, but being held in different cages? It was almost too much to process as real.


Later revelations about the camps, even more horrifying, would drip into the news cycle over the next two years. A doctor comparing the children’s accommodations at Ursula to torture facilities. The discovery of practices so vile I won’t even reference them here. But it was in that spring of 2018 when it finally became inescapably clear that Trump wasn’t just pretending to consider Mexicans as less than human to keep the far right happy. He really was goose-stepping the goose-step. Removing from office was no longer a political preference. It was a moral imperative.


In November 2020, 5,890,347 Texans – 52.1% of those who went to the ballot boxes – voted to give Trump a second term.


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“George Bush doesn’t care about black people!” – Kanye West

George Walker Bush is what one might be tempted to call a typical Texan. True, he was actually born in Connecticut, but he was certainly raised in the Lone Star State. Brash, arrogant, and seemingly not particularly bright, Bush served as a walking, drawling vindication of pretty much every dismissive joke told by American liberals and more or less the entirety of Europe about the state.


Bush embraced Texas – and was embraced in turn – so fully that in 1995 he became its governor. During his time in that role, Bush oversaw more executions than any other governor in US history, despite serving for only a single term before launching his presidential campaign. Of the 154 prisoners executed during his time in office – which included Karla Faye Tucker, the first woman to be executed by the State of Texas since 1863 – over one third were black. The actual black population of Texas is a little north of three million, which while admittedly larger than the total population of Iowa, is still only 11% of people in the state. Bush was executing three times as many black people as we would expect, were the Texas legal system truly as colour-blind as it insists that it is.


There were suggestions that so bloodthirsty a back story would make it difficult for Bush to win the White House (though for some reason the outrageous ethnicity stats went mainly unreported). Ultimately, this was a forlorn hope, though perhaps this was one of the contributing factors to Bush coming so close to losing that it was only decades of deliberate voter disenfranchisement in Florida (also disproportionately affecting black people) which ultimately allowed the Supreme Court to steal the election for him.


(West himself, of course, would go on to support Trump, a man who responded to the US Department of Justice suing his corporation for refusing to rent properties to black people by saying the government was trying to force him to rent to “welfare recipients”. Trump refused to admit to racial prejudice, despite his corporation having been caught lying to black people about which of their properties were available to rent.


West chose to throw his lot in with Trump despite this. Nine percent of Texas’ black population did the same.)


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“These people were interned for their safety. Now that is not a good thing. The death rate was exactly the same as Glasgow… I’m not advocating people being taken off their farms and put into camps but there was a war going on and people were being taken there to be fed because the farmers were away fighting the Boer War.” – Jacob Rees-Mogg, 2019, on the topic of British-run concentration camps during the Boer War

Not everyone in the 21st century agrees that “internment camps” (many historians insist that the phrase be retired, as it’s simply a way to avoid using the more accurate term “concentration camp”) are indefensible. In 2004, three years after 9/11, and two after “Detained” aired, conservative commentator Michelle Malkin released In Defense Of Internment. Less a book than a commitment to turn trees into racial harassment, …Internment argues people misunderstand the degree to which internment was necessary, and as a result also misunderstand the degree to which contemporary racial profiling of Arab-Americans following 9/11 was necessary as well.


I won’t repeat any of her arguments here. They’ve been eviscerated elsewhere as the fact-free inversions of history and logic they are. Not that it matters. They were never intended to be right. They were intended to offer arguments people could pretend might be right, focal points they could pour enough faith into that they became a talisman against the immortal foe. Kind of like crucifixes, if the enemy wasn’t vampires, but rather basic empathy.


This is how Colonel Grat, and Rees-Mogg, can take an essentially indisputable position – certain groups of people may require special effort to keep safe during a war, for whatever reason – and twist it into something horrifying. You reduce a threat to people’s lives to a problem to be solved as quickly as possible, dream up something which could theoretically reduce the scale of that problem, and call yourself done. The actual desires or experiences of the people rounded up and locked away don’t factor into it. They’re being kept away from those who want them dead, aren’t they? They’re being fed and housed, aren’t they? Surely, that’s the job done. If we introduce a curfew, it’s only to prevent a tiny minority of malcontents from ruining it for everyone. Solitary confinement is simply so the curfew has meaning. And if someone tries to escape? They clearly didn’t want safety, which must mean they wanted trouble. Terribly sad to have to shoot them, of course, but what option did they leave us?


There’s a reason Dr Phlox uses his cosmetic surgery skills to turn Reed into a Suliban here. A Tandaran would clearly be a much easier job. But a new Tandaran in the facility would be noticeable. The guards would want to know who he was, when he’d transferred, why they hadn’t seen him in the rec room while they were getting drunk, trading jokes about the ungrateful yellow-eyes.


But who’s going to notice one more Suliban, so long as they keep their head down?

It’s a small detail in the context of the episode, but equally it’s a critical point “Detained” risks forgetting elsewhere. The face of the oppressor is not a mirror of the face of the oppressed.


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Thirteen years after the Supreme Court used a counting crisis bought on by racist voter disenfranchisement efforts as an excuse to disregard an actual election result, they gutted the Voting Rights act. The rationale of the Chief Justice was that in the 21st century, the only remaining obstacle to ending racism was that people were still talking about it as though it still existed. No other way to finally slay the racist dragon existed, then, other than to remove the legal checks certain states were required to operate under when announcing laws related to voting, on account of how historically racist legislatures from those states had been.


One of those states was Texas. Within 24 hours of the Supreme Court carving the heart out of what had been called “the most effective piece of civil rights legislation in American history”, The Texas AG announced a voter ID law ostensibly aimed at targeting the (essentially non-existent) problem of voter fraud, but which would disproportionately affect people who found it harder to gain access to the photo IDs required by the law. The law had already been mooted by Texas, and thrown out because of how transparently unfair it was (a similar law passed by North Carolina – again after the VRA was hobbled – was described as targeting “African Americans with almost surgical precision”). With the VRA no longer enforceable, though, there was nothing to stop Texas from enacting the law, other than the fact it had already been found to be entirely unnecessary, and functionally racist as well.


So enact it they did.


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Watching “Detained” makes me think about Tucker, and Texas, and the forty-third and forty-fifth US President. It was an episode made in a country gone mad. For decades, America’s essentially undisputed role as the impregnable bastion of the Western world had allowed its people to channel their nationalism into reservoirs of smug superiority. It wasn’t that that wasn’t a problem, but at least you get into fewer fights with someone who believes they’ve already won anyway. 9/11 breached the dams, letting loose cascading waves of racial hostility to crash over everyone and everything.


Perhaps these four writers realised what was happening, saw where it could be headed, and wrote “Detained” as a warning. The kind of warning that Michelle Malkin was so desperate to sabotage. I guess she and those like her succeeded, too, given Trump so completely proved the warning had been completely accurate and gone completely unheeded by far too many.


Perhaps they delayed what was coming, though? When I think about the man so arrogantly described as “the leader of the free world” at the time, reading a book to children while the first tower burned because no-one else had told him to do any different, it’s hard to imagine he resisted calls to round up Arab-Americans out of some deep-seated respect for people of colour. Not after Katrina. Not after the Iraq War, which killed so many Iraqi civilians that we can’t even be sure of the order of magnitude of the butcher’s bill. Dead because a Texan wanted more oil. Dead because a Texan wanted to form a posse to ride out against the guy who tried to shoot his paw. But I think too about my Texan friend, and how the idea every Texan is an idiot, and a cowboy-wannabe, and just waiting for you to step foot on their land so that they can shoot you down, and perhaps above all that every Texan is white, is its own prejudice, and its own problem. I think about how maybe, sneering at Bush for being a Texan is one more way to excuse the dozens of people he had executed, the thousands of troops he got killed, and the hundreds of thousands of civilians he let die in Iraq and back home. The interlocking, venomous webs of arrogance and prejudice and paranoia and realpolitik and ambition that brought about Bush’s election, the failure to prevent 9/11, and the launching of a wholly unnecessary and catastrophically damaging war may never be fully unpicked. For sure you can’t wish it away by wondering whether none of this would ever have happened if Dubya had stayed in Connecticut. Doing so lets too many people off the hook, which is bad enough even when you’re doing it for a better reason that just being mean about twenty-nine million people.


Not all prejudices are equivalent, though. No scene in “Detained” hits me as hard as the one where Ensign Mayweather learns an important lesson about the perils of pre-judgement. On one level, this is clearly an important point. Our heroes’ beef is with the Suliban government, not with them as a race. In some contexts the Suliban are oppressors. In others, like in Detention Complex 26, they are clearly the oppressed. The manner in which the inmates resent the Tandarans for their treatment of them is qualitatively different to whatever prejudices the soldiers of the Cabal need to hold against the Tandarans to justify obliterating their colonies. But why, of all the people on this show, does that lesson get handed to Mayweather to learn? Outside of the country’s indigenous population, who in America could possibly less need to learn about the complex ways in which power and prejudice interact to create individual and structural racism than a black person? The script even goes so far as to have Mayweather compare his attitude directly to Sajen’s. “I’ll admit, when I first came here it wasn’t easy to see past my preconceptions about the Suliban, but I did. Why can’t you?”. At this point, the episode collapses, struck down by the same problem that laid low “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” decades earlier. There exists no line of reflection through which the feelings of the oppressor about the oppressed can be mapped onto the feelings of the oppressed about the oppressor. In a country where a governor climbed to the top of the power pyramid over the body of executed black people, in order to find himself able to steal an election due to black disenfranchisement, and preside over a country where one in every thousand black men die by being shot by the cops, how is the lesson here allowed to be that Sajen should recognise it wasn’t Mayweather personally who shot a bunch of his friends during a breakout attempt?


Yes, technically, since Mayweather isn’t a Tandaran, he can’t be directly linked to the abuse Sajen has suffered. That feels like a dodge, though. Worse, it feels like a common dodge – ” I know I look like the people who have done you wrong for so long, but technically I can’t be held responsible for that”.


The fundamental problem “Detained” struggles with – and eventually loses to – stands revealed. It wants to warn the US against letting foreign conflicts push it into domestic oppression, but it doesn’t want to grapple with the fact that domestic oppression has always been America’s default mode. Yes, it wants to condemn a specific stripe of American conservatism. But it also wants to assuage white liberal guilt.


The latter completely undermines the former, just like it always does. It could never do anything else. You can’t point at the route to go down, or even the route to avoid, when you refuse to accept where you’re currently standing. You don’t need to be as right-wing as Malkin to compromise your ability to predict the future by misunderstanding the past, and by making excuses for the present. If you view prejudice as something kick-started by crisis events, it blinds you to the role prejudice plays in precipitating those crises. You end up fighting for a return to the most recent status quo, ignoring that those were precisely the conditions that gave birth to what you’re struggling to defeat, and can just as easily do so again. You ignore that the status quo you want back was already untenable for hundreds of thousands of people outside your narrow field of vision. You judge your success by how many times you stop things getting worse, rather than whether you’re working to make things better.


Texas was never an aberration in the context of America. Nor was Manzanar. Nor was Bush. Even 9/11 had a precedent, as Enterprise and Malkin both demonstrate by their references to America’s reaction to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Trump himself could prove an aberration, but the chances of that seem slimmer every day, with the Republicans more reckless than ever, and the Biden Adminstration seemingly outraged by the idea they should have to do anything more for the average American than simply not be Trump.


“Detained” gets so close to realising all this. It knows all too well how the American myth will throttle itself before it risks the slightest chance it could be choked. But it can only grasp this as it applies to responses to external stimulae. The concern expressed here is that those inside the country are being mistaken for an international enemy. The idea that the millions of Americans see other Americans as being their enemy is ignored, or worse, dismissed as something we shouldn’t have to worry about anymore. The fear that the mistakes of the past might be revisisted masks the fact that those mistakes were never consigned to the past in the first place. The calls were always coming from inside the house.


So are the pressure dials warning of the next eruption of bigotry ignored by those who insist the readings must be wrong. So is the cycle allowed to repeat itself once more.


This is what I think about when I think about “Detained”, then. I think about how what it did say was ignored. But I also think about what it could have said, but chose not to.


I and keep thinking about how maybe there’s a connection.

Ordering


2. (The Storyteller)

4. (Ex Post Facto)

5. Detained

6. (The Infinite Vulcan)


(As with VOY and TAS, rankings from this point will include comparisons with the median episode of DS9, which has been scientifically proved to be “Storytelling”.)


Current Show Rankings


1. Deep Space Nine

2. The Original Series

3. Voyager

4. The Next Generation

5. The Animated Series

6. Enterprise



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