In brief: Reasonable and relevant — albeit not at all groundbreaking — social commentary.
You decide: "Detained" is either (1) a reasonable social commentary that sells out to superficial action by the end, or (2) an average action show elevated by an underlying foundation of social commentary. Is there a difference? Perhaps. It seems wrong to take relevant allegorical themes and wrap it all up with a safe and simplistic action conclusion — whereas it seems almost admirable to create an action show that actually tries to insert relevant social points. It's all in how you look at it.
I'm kind of torn. "Detained" goes to great lengths to make fairly obvious points and yet I don't feel it should be faulted for that. For the even remotely informed it will come as old news, revisited lessons. Of those people, how many will it make a real impression upon?
Consider: Mere weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, The West Wing aired a reactionary drama, much of which played like an hour in Talking Down to the Audience. Among the messages: generalizing of people and cultures is bad, not being familiar with how the world works is a potentially dangerous form of ignorance, and in difficult times we might be tempted away from better judgment in favor of quick, comforting would-be fixes. Well, intelligent people already presumably know these things and ignorant people are not likely to be educated by the likes of Aaron Sorkin, so who exactly is the benefactor?
Perhaps the point is simply to reinforce ideas that we should be thinking about in times when emotions are allowed to run rampant. I see no problem with such reinforcement. I also want to stress that "Detained" does little to break the mold. But it has Good Intentions and for the most part good execution, so that's probably all you need to know.
That said, the writers have done a fairly interesting thing by tying this all back into the Suliban, who aren't all simply "bad guys" but are a nomadic people with a subset of Cabal operatives waging the temporal cold war.
The never-veiled allegory is, of course, the current-day need to draw the distinction between Arabs and the much tinier subset of Arab terrorism. The issue of internment camps, of course, hearkens back to Japanese Americans being rounded up and held in the U.S. during World War II (a decidedly better choice for metaphor than the current-day situation of detainees in Camp X-Ray/Delta at Guatanamo Bay, Cuba — a situation far too new and uncertain for me to comfortably draw conclusions about).
Archer and Mayweather wake up in a holding cell in a detainee camp where Suliban prisoners are being held indefinitely by the Tandarans, with no charges pending. Right from the beginning the episode makes a point about assumptions when Archer makes an assumption and finds out he's quite wrong: These Suliban are not genetically engineered members of the Cabal and are not prisoners because they committed any crime. Their crime is that they happen to be Suliban.
In charge of the detainee facility is Tandaran Colonel Grat (Dean Stockwell), who explains to Archer why he and Mayweather are here — their shuttle wandered into Tandaran space and was captured as potentially hostile. Tandarans are not too forgiving toward trespassers, it would seem. Considering they are apparently on one of the fronts in the temporal cold war, perhaps their apprehension is justifiable.
Grat is not a bad or unreasonable man; he's simply a product of his situation. That itself may serve as a warning statement, since he has come to accept that the Suliban may never again have rights in any real sense, and that they may live the rest of their lives as innocent prisoners. The line of thought going on here is that they're Suliban and that's unfortunate for them, but nonetheless necessary for Tandaran society to lock them away in the interests of safety.
Interesting how Grat cites not just the safety of Tandarans but the safety of the Suliban. The Suliban no longer have a habitable homeworld (at least, not if one isn't genetically engineered to survive there), so they mostly live among other cultures. The Suliban who lived among the Tandarans were a part of their society until the temporal war broke out and they became automatic Cabal suspects. Tandaran citizens were quick to accuse the Suliban among them, leading to violence against the Suliban. The internment camps were seen as a temporary solution to curb this problem. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Or in this case, self-serving intentions have their own convenient built-in justifications.
We see the Suliban point of view through a character named Sajen (Christopher Shea) a man with a daughter who is also in this facility and a wife who is in another facility far away, and whom he hasn't seen in years. Shea brings just the right balance of bitterness and personal defeat to the character, creating a believable and sympathetic figure who speaks in raspy whispers that nonetheless reveal a great amount of textured emotion.
Grat, meanwhile, turns more sinister and self-serving every time Archer defies him, eventually believing Archer to be a resource as much as a troublemaker stirring up prison intrigue. Grat's intelligence reports reveal Archer's previous encounters with the Suliban. It's interesting and perhaps all too true how the question "What do you know?" becomes as much a grounds for being held as "What have you have done?" Especially frustrating and disturbing is the prospect of being held because you're a potential witness, not because you're suspected of having done anything wrong.
As a matter of plot, I enjoyed the continuity references ("Have you ever been to Oklahoma?" Grat asks Archer suspiciously) to the Enterprise's previous Suliban run-ins in "Broken Bow" and "Cold Front" (strange and also kind of fun, seeing Bakula and Stockwell exhibit increasing tension here after their easy rapport in their years on Quantum Leap).
What perhaps seems too simplistic for this story, then, is turning it into a jailbreak concept where Archer, with the help of the orbiting Enterprise, decides he's going to help some of the innocent Suliban escape. This seems a little on the cavalier and short-sighted side, especially considering the lesson Archer learned in "Dear Doctor" concerning non-interference. Yes, there is an injustice here. Yes, the episode addresses Archer's previous decision in favor of non-interference and calls this case an "exception." But such exceptions are exactly the sort of thing likely to get Archer and Starfleet burned, and the exception made here gets generous assistance from tunnel vision.
This leads to the typical action payoff, i.e., the phaser shootouts, a crew member in disguise (Reed as a Suliban), and even the episode resorting to use of the transporter, something that has been generally and thankfully avoided for most of the season save the first few episodes. The action seems to substitute for an ending that could've come to some sort of revelation or dramatic insight, but doesn't find it. It bothers me a bit. Fortunately, the episode seems to realize that it doesn't solve these Suliban individuals' problems so much as create further uncertainty for them, and for that I'm glad.
But still — this is the sort of ending that makes you mull the unconsidered consequences, like the kind of grilling Sajen's wife is likely going to be in for in the wake of her husband's escape from another detainee facility. What does she know? I can almost hear the Tandaran interrogators asking.
I cannot cheer for the story's oversimplified solution to a complicated situation so much larger than Archer, this one prison, or this one society. Archer presumes to know everything he needs to know to interfere in an alien society. Does he know enough? Would it have been better to do nothing instead of something? I'm not sure. But it might've been nice for the episode to point out the possible consequences of all this action. Imagine how the U.S. government would respond if a foreign country managed a prison break at Camp Delta.
Next week: First contact with a giant fungus?