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  • Ric Crossman

6.1.23 "...Our Feathers In The Wings Of The Final Songs"

Desert Crossing

A topless Archer lifts an opponent off the ground during a geskana match.
One last dance-off.

So here’s a fun little paradox. A story that’s fascinating in the ways by which it fails to be interesting.

Trade Secrets

"Desert Crossing" functions as a test case for the IDFC approach. If you're the kind of critic who bases your criticism in the political - and that's definitely me, and likely to become more me now we’re entering the essays that I’ve never shown to an editor [1] - you eventually have to grapple with the question of how much anything other than a story's politics actually matters to you.

I've been toying with this idea for a little while now. That's why my essay on “Detained” came close to ignoring the episode entirely. It’s useful to explore the limits of what your approach can do, and what happens when those limits are reached.

By their nature, though, the boundaries are barriers you only want to find yourself coming up against on occasion. Most of the time, I want to avoid giving the impression that the politics of a given story are all that I care about. There’s always so much going on, after all. That’s why my essay on (to take the most recent example) “A Taste For Armageddon” tries to avoid getting into its heavy political subtext for as long as possible.

"Desert Crossing" doesn’t so much allow for the opposite approach as absolutely demand it. This isn’t because the politics are so vital that we simply have to start with them – though as I’ll argue, they’re actually unusually good, and not just in the “good for Enterprise” sense. It’s because, despite what I said above, once you strip the politics from this story, you’re basically left with nothing of consequence at all.

On That Day

I've mentioned this before, but this is a good opportunity for repetition. It is impossible to adequately consider Enterprise without considering its first season was still being filmed when 9/11 happened.

It took the show a while to offer a coherent response to the event we were told over and over had changed the world. When that response came, it was pretty uniformly awful, so it was almost certainly for the best that season one finished its run without really getting mixed up in the whirlwind of reactionary bloodlust.

Even so, though, when you say nothing you're not really saying nothing. Not when the elephant in the room is so large, and when it's clearly eyeing up how many people in the room it can gore/trample. There is no such thing as apolitical. This is part of why I wrote up "Detained" the way I did. It might not have attempted to be apolitical, but it tried so hard to seem political while saying nothing of any consequence that the only option was to approach it from an exclusively political angle to reveal how completely devoid of content it was.

To briefly recap, the problem with “Detained” was that it wanted to say something about the US response to 9/11 but couldn’t bring itself to suggest anything braver than “internment camps are bad”. Which is clearly true, but then that's the issue. If all you can do is point out what's obviously correct, you're not really saying anything useful. Yes, the very worst Americans were busy insisting that internment camp were good, actually. That doesn’t excuse the timidity of the statement. Particularly when it was accompanied by some pretty disgusting conflation between the oppressor and the oppressed.

“Desert Crossing” also wants to hold a séance to summon the zeitgeist. Its choice of target is far broader, though, and therefore far braver. Rather than criticise an extreme reaction from a small subset of people (however appalling) while ignoring the bigger problem, "Desert Crossing" isn't afraid to get itself dirty in a much more important scrap. In the context of a resurgent global war against terror, terrorism, and terrorists, declared by the single most powerful politician in the single most powerful country in the world, this episode politely points out that it'd be useful to know what the hell any of that is actually supposed to mean.


The Memory Alpha page for "Desert Crossing" quotes Beyond The Final Frontier (Jones and Parkin) on the approach the episode is taking:

An interesting episode, because unlike a lot of Star Trek, it doesn't judge Zobral – at the end of the episode, he may be a terrorist, he may not be.

This is a fascinating quote. It gets so close to being correct, but still completely misses the point. Firstly, the episode does judge Zobral, at least broadly. Archer is cautious in his opinion that Zobral had a cause worth fighting for, but T'Pol is clearly not inclined to disagree. In a show defined by the culture clash between humans and Vulcans, any moment where T'Pol chooses not to contradict her crewmates carries weight.

Much more importantly, though, Zobral is a terrorist. This is indisputable. By his own admission, he is using violence against his own government in order to bring about his preferred political ends. That is, by definition, terrorism.

"Desert Crossing" isn't trying to argue the definition of terrorism is a tricky one, then. It's arguing that there are circumstances in which terrorists - or at least their cause - may deserve our moral support.

This is a flatly astonishing tack to take mere months after 9/11. I have no idea where it comes from, either. Berman and Braga certainly don't have a history of nuanced political takes, and the last time Bormanis contributed to the show, it was to ask the almost offensively uninteresting question "What if Enterprise, but with bigger guns?".

Whatever its origins, though, it's a decision worthy of respect. It's true that the franchise has offered thoughtful commentary on terrorism in the past; Major Kira being just the most immediately obvious example. With Nerys, though, Trek was operating in the context of a horrifyingly brutal occupation by a foreign power, where the indigenous population were treated as nothing more than chattel. A judgment that armed resistance to such a situation cannot be countenanced is itself an extremist position - one can argue over tactics, of course, but the fundamental right of the Bajoran Resistance to fight the Cardassian military was (as it should be) never in doubt.

In contrast, Zobral's situation is more complicated. Rather than suffering under occupation by an external force, he is a member of a marginalised minority within his own society, one who has found the equality they are granted under the law means essentially nothing in practice. Attempts to petition his government have proved fruitless, and as a result, he has chosen to turn to violence.

Zobral and his warriors can't be considered as analogous to say, the French Resistance, then; groups forced into employing violence to combat foreign invaders who abuse their people with impunity and glee, and where the “peace” is kept through wave after wave of executions. Instead, Zobral’s fighters find themselves somewhere between the Black Panthers and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, groups fighting oppression from a government the world considers to have legitimate power over them.

Neither of those quite work as an analogy, but then that's fine. The similarities are enough. In fact, this is a smart way to go. By not perfectly paralleling either group, the episode not only avoids tediously literal metaphors, it nods at struggles within both America itself and arguably its staunchest international ally.

And we can go further still. The decision to avoid a specific analogy (and in particular a detailed account of what Zobral has faced) means these fictional freedom fighters are arguably less sympathetic as an oppressed group than either black America or Palestine. The difference in access to technology and desert setting (along with Clancy Brown's doubtless well-meaning but ultimately problematic Middle Eastern melange of an accent) imply a comment on the Israel/Palestine conflict, yes, but there's too much missing here to make the comparison stick. There's oppression, but not dispossession. There is suppression, but not supplantation.

On the home front, meanwhile, Zobral's aggressive tactics outstrip those of the Black Panthers. It's not quite true to say the Panthers never went on the offensive against the US government, but as its original name of Black Panther Party of Self-Defence suggests, their focus was more on protecting black people from the authorities than organising strikes against them. I suppose we could reach for the Black Liberation Army as an analogy instead. The BLA was a splinter group of the Panthers, established in 1970, with the explicit aim of achieving liberation for the black population through armed resistance. Even then, though, the brief summary of Zobral's experiences don't come within a mile of a trace of a shadow of an impression of the centuries of hurt and horror that have pushed Black Americans to where they are today.

"Just Listen To What I Can Keep Silent"

“Desert Crossing” doesn’t just reflect contemporary struggles for recognition, then. It’s careful not to blunt the hook, and thereby help people slide off of it. “Oh sure, those guys I would support, but sadly in the real world, things are more complicated”. By refusing to give Zobral either a uniquely tragic backstory or an impossibly pure approach to armed engagement, there's no alibi to that allows one to declare Zobral deserves support while withholding it from those in the deserts of the real. It says something by what it refuses to comment on.

We can go further. The approach I've described so far in itself isn't uncommon in fiction. Writers often set up vague analogies to various oppressed groups, as a way of signalling support for the struggle, if only in the abstract. In doing so, they tell themselves they are saying something worthwhile, and relevant, and sympathetic.

But then they say something else. The narrative moves on to the consequences of a commitment to meeting state violence with a violence of one's own. The story shifts from people with good intentions whose cause is worthy, into one about people with good intentions who sadly insisted on taking things too far. Calls for solidarity evaporate, becoming smug, airy, more-in-sorrow-than-anger lecture about how of course there is real injustice that needs to be fought, but that violence is never the way. Once you take up arms against your oppressors, the argument goes, you become no better than they are. You must keep your fight civil. You must trust the system that has let you down over and over and over and over again to eventually correct itself.

And that's bullshit. It's bullshit. You don't get to tell a marginalised group that has been oppressed for decades or even centuries that what matters most is them fighting back in a way you feel comfortable with. That they need to prove to you, the person with precisely no skin in the game, that they are sufficiently pure and noble for you to generously offer your support.

"Desert Crossing" avoids the cliché entirely. It does so through another refusal to offer specifics, this time on the casualties - both deliberate and accidental - of Zobral's war. And this isn't because our heroes never find out he's crossed the line into actual violence. It's because they don't see that as relevant to whether Zobral deserves support. At no point does any of our protagonists take him to task for taking up arms against his government. Even the fact he misled Archer and Tucker to get them to his camp is barely commented on. The conclusion of the episode is that Enterprise isn't in a position to help, not that Zobral's tactics make helping him unjustifiable. Archer in particular hasn't the slightest interest in discussing the validity of Zobral's tactics. All he cares about is whether the cause is something to support. Because the cause is what matters.

This isn't to say tactics are completely irrelevant, obviously. The deliberate targeting of civilians remains completely unacceptable, irrespective of the cause. I wouldn't find it harder to condemn 9/11 as an action had I any actual sympathy for Bin Laden's cause. When Jones and Parkin claim the episode does not specify whether Zobral is a terrorist, this is likely what they mean - that it's not clear if Zobral is the kind of man who totally abandons all claims to the moral high ground by murdering children [2].

As with the others, this elision too is deliberate. Not because the question is irrelevant but because it is impertinent. You don't precede your agreement to support a cause by asking "Just to check, you don't deliberately kill the innocent, right?". Again, this is a story about how recognising the worthiness of a cause happens independently of rating the tactics used by any given people fighting for that cause operate. Put another way, this is about how you can support a cause without supporting every group associated with that cause, or action taken in the name of that cause. Insisting a script close off the worse-case scenario is to imply that scenario is a lurking threat amid all struggles for liberty. It's one more way of viewing all attempts to change things for the better as inherently suspect.

Which, alas, is how almost all television in general, and far too much Trek in particular, seems determined to view struggles for liberation. "Desert Crossing" deserves kudos for refusing to follow that pattern. It also very pointedly refuses to give the oppressors opportunity to justify the unjustifiable. The Torothans are portrayed as paranoid racists, convinced nobody could even go to dinner with Zobral without being either a victim or a collaborator. They respond to Archer and Tucker being in the camp by starting their nightly(!) bombing runs early, and then try to blame T'Pol for the fact this has endangered the lives of two non-combatants. Trellit himself more or less explicitly tells T'Pol any rescue missions to extract her people will be shot down.

It's ugly stuff. It is also distinctly familiar. "You must be totally against them, or you are totally against us". Just the simple action of raising humanitarian concerns is considered suspicious, if the people you express concern for could theoretically include terrorists. The same vile treatment that radicalises individuals into taking up arms are justified as being necessary to fight those individuals - if collective punishment is the only reliable way to hurt them, then it'll absolutely do. Why do you want terrorists to have clean water, huh? Why do you want hospitals where terrorists could get treated to have power?

To reiterate, "Desert Crossing" doesn't avoid details about Zobral's tactics in order to preserve ambiguity. It does so because the relevant issue here isn't what Zobral is doing, but why he feels he has to. It's shining a spotlight on the ways in which the powerful combat those who won't accept their oppression meekly enough render are themselves illegitimate. It is, in short, a direct challenge to both the American and allied governments about their failure to maintain baseline levels of respect for human life.

Again, this would be unusual and remarkable at any time. Just after 9/11, though? Just after an unquestionable terrorist atrocity carried out in the name of an unquestionably morally bankrupt cause had led the US government to conclude actually checking people were enemy combatants before locking them up was a luxury of the past? There's not just wisdom here. There's bravery.

Bollocks & Body Oil

So why doesn't it actually work? Why is "Desert Crossing" still the episode in this cycle I think the least of? Well, there's the whitewashing issue I've already mentioned, with (the admittedly brilliant) Clancy Brown being hired to play someone clearly meant to be a Middle East analogue. That's still focussing on the politics, though, and that's really not where the problem lies at all.

The issue, rather, is structural. The episode's title is revealing here. We're halfway through before the actual desert crossing begins. As a result, there isn't enough screen-time to sell the endurance trial of Archer and Trip's trip. The episode does its best with what it has, sure. Memory Alpha points out the scene where Archer tries to keep Tucker conscious includes the longest single shot of the entire series, which is a good way to make it seem like we're lingering longer than we are. Still, it's hard to watch our heroes struggle to survive in a hostile environment and wonder why this had to be truncated for a Top Gun homage to shirtless sand-games. Like, give us Kenny Loggins, or die in a desert. [3]

Even less necessary is the moment where our heroes are a served teracaq testicles, a joke that falls flatter than the Danakil desert. There's a lack of discipline here, an inability to figure out what the story is about and how to make sure that lands. A sandstorm of ideas that buries the foundations. I've talked about how the last few episodes of Enterprise have deliberately scaled back the ambition to make sure they get the basics right. "Desert Crossing" represents an attempt to do something a bit more complicated, attempting both to offer political commentary and to tie together the ways deserts can both present danger and (at least partially) shield you from it. And almost immediately, the show trips over itself once again.

This is a serious problem. Over it's first season, and with only two episodes left to go, Enterprise has proved it can be competent, entertaining, and deep. It just doesn't seem capable of doing all three at once. Even when it has something to say, it can't quite get the words out. Which turns out to not be good enough, even if (like me) teasing out subtexts to breaking point is practically second nature.

As a result, while the show is by no means the colossal failure it is commonly dismissed as (and let's remember it took a final-quarter surge from TNG to avoid the franchises most successful ever show from having its worst ever first season), there's a sense that Enterprise has been built with a distressingly low ceiling. Like the ship itself, the show seems cramped and unreliable compared to its predecessors.

That doesn't mean it can't take us to wondrous places, obviously. But it does mean you can't fully focus on those wonders. You've always got one eye on the superstructure, hoping it will hold long enough for you to get the most out of your trip.

Speaking of wondrous trips, though, the next cycle offers us some pretty choice locations. The false paradise of Omicron Ceti iII, the periodically perilous paradise of Risa, and the corrupted paradise of Earth itself.

Head for the transporters, everyone.


1. (The Storyteller)

4. (Ex Post Facto)

5. Desert Crossing

6. (The Infinite Vulcan)

Series Ordering

1. Deep Space Nine

2. The Original Series

3. Voyager

4. The Next Generation

5. The Animated Series

6. Enterprise

[1] To be clear, all restrictions to my political stances during the Geek Syndicate stage of IDFC were totally self-imposed. You behave differently when you're at someone else's house.

[2] Though I can't let that point pass without noting how nation states are perfectly fine with doing just that, so long as they don't state that such was explicitly the aim. Personally, I think bombing weddings is beyond the bounds of acceptability no matter who's been invited.

[3] I guess we could see this as a commentary on western tourists heading to environments that would kill them in hours if they couldn't rely on the locals to keep them alive. Which is a fair point, and one strengthened by comparison between the ostentatious water-loss involved in a game of geskana, compared to Archer employing a word game to keep Tucker from passing out. Mainly this all makes me wonder how the Sherpa feel when another white guy shows up to point at Everest and yell "Up, yes?".

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