In brief: Some well-established further momentum on tack for the Prime Directive, but with too many disposable scenes.
A man named Zobral (Clancy Brown) invites Archer and Trip to his camp for what appears to be simple hospitality. While in orbit, the Enterprise is contacted by a government official who wants to know why the Enterprise sent a shuttle down to that region of the planet's surface, known lands of a terrorist organization. When false pretenses are revealed, Zobral says his people are forced to commit terrorist activities as their only avenue to wage a war against a nation with far superior military options. Hmmm, sound familiar?
The episode's subjects are obviously supposed to be abstractions of Israelis and Palestinians. Meanwhile, the message is that we're more likely to sympathize with people when we're more familiar with them. This is, admittedly, not a stunning revelation. If Trip and Archer had been invited as guests by the other side of the conflict on this world, no doubt we would've seen suffering on their end that would've presented arguments justifying their military action.
The rest of the show's message centers on another pre-Prime Directive issue, in what seems to be a major season theme that I'm intrigued by. Between "Dear Doctor," "Detained," and now "Desert Crossing," we're seeing exactly why the Prime Directive is going to become a necessity. I appreciated the direct reference to "Detained": Zobral sought out Archer specifically because he got an exaggerated account of how the Enterprise helped free the Suliban imprisoned there. It's very respectable use of a previous story thread to enhance this one.
Unfortunately, where "Desert Crossing" goes wrong is in taking a misguided detour from this storyline in favor of a plot where Archer and Trip find themselves stranded in the desert. The episode gives us interminable scenes of desert-survival-movie cliches. Filmed on location in the desert regions of the U.S. Southwest, the episode seemingly falls into the trap of trying to justify the expense of having shot there. There's simply too much unnecessary desert footage. Scenes where Archer and Trip walk through the desert — exhibiting the usual signs of exhaustion and dehydration, with Trip on the verge of collapse and Archer looking after him — stop the story dead in its tracks. This has all been done before, and "Desert Crossing" finds no new angle for the material. Even the scenes of Trip's suffering fail to be engaging because they come across as generic instead of specific to the character. "Shuttlepod One," another survival story, was far better than this because the characters were allowed to interact with each other and had the benefit of useful dialog.
Meanwhile, T'Pol and the Enterprise crew attempt to track down the captain, eventually coming in contact with Zobral to figure out what went wrong. I greatly appreciated that the writers let Zobral maintain his sincere personality rather than turning him into a single-minded villain. A lesser story might've used Zobral to set the plot in motion and then after that made him an unnecessary obstacle to our characters' progress. "Desert Crossing" plays fair by keeping his personality fairly consistent throughout. Clancy Brown delivers an effective performance with a faux accent, playing the character just broadly enough to give him the charisma he needs to lure us in before revealing his more serious side.
The early scenes are fairly pleasant. I laughed at a dinner moment where Archer and Trip reluctantly eat something Zobral calls "the essence of the male," to which Archer can only respond with "Nice tapestry" after a long silence. The sport-playing sequence — something that resembles sci-fi lacrosse — struck me as appropriate but at the same time redundant, especially considering that the subsequent issues of social conflict don't seem to get as much attention as they deserve.
What does get some good attention is Archer questioning himself in regard to interfering in the affairs of other worlds. Once again, he's faced with someone asking for his help. He is, in fact, faced with this latest request because he helped the Suliban a few weeks earlier.
What I especially like about this aspect of the story is how it reveals the cumulative effect that these requests and their consequences are having on Archer as Starfleet's first captain in the wilderness. With good reason, he doesn't make the choice here that he made in "Detained." And with each case, Archer is realizing more and more that decisions like these are too big for captains to be making on the spot and on their own; guidelines will become necessary. It's good to know that when the Prime Directive eventually is drafted, we'll be able to see how we got there, via a road that includes episodes like this one.
Ultimately, however, the problem with "Desert Crossing" is its level of unevenness. For as obvious as the story draws some of its subject matter from Israel/Palestine, it doesn't focus much on this world's internal conflicts or quandary-inducing political subtleties. That may be a good thing since it keeps the emphasis on the matter of the Enterprise's interference, but it seems to me that if you're going to make indirect references to the tensions in the Middle East, you owe it more than the lip service paid here. Then, of course, there's the whole matter of the desert-survival story, which seems like it belongs in an entirely different episode.
I'm also uncertain about the ending, where Archer appropriately cites the importance of non-interference ... but then says, "The irony is that I get the sense their cause is worth fighting for." Well, perhaps it is — from Zobral's people's point of view. But Archer's statement ignores the whole other side of the conflict, one Archer never got a chance to experience or even really hear from. The entire reason the Enterprise has no place taking sides here is because they are in fact a neutral party that doesn't even understand the conflict they've wandered into. Archer's final line of dialog is predictably sympathetic, but without more information about the workings of this world, it seems somewhat inappropriate to end the episode on such a note. I would've preferred something more neutral.
I dunno — in the real world is there such thing as a "neutral" party? The U.S. certainly isn't perceived as one when it comes to the Middle East situation, probably for good reason. It's perhaps worth noting that the spirit of the Prime Directive doesn't really work in a world you're a part of.
Next week: The crew finally gets to Risa. And it only took three tries.