In brief: A nice hour of very traditional Star Trek.
The feeling best captured by the early moments of "The Breach" is the feeling of futility — the realization that no matter what you might feel or try to say, it won't be enough to communicate your good intentions to the other side that hates you. When feelings of long-held suspicion and a default position of hatred are stronger than a desire to judge a situation on the facts, it's gong to be a mountainous climb to reach the other side where understanding lies.
Perhaps the most crucial aspect about Star Trek is that it believes that mountainous climbs are (a) possible, and (b) worth doing. No matter how cynical the problems in our society may sometimes make us feel, an episode like "The Breach" is here to remind us that good things are possible and that a decades-held (over even centuries-held) attitude can be carefully peeled away to reveal understanding, albeit guarded understanding.
A nearby world has been taken over by an internal militant group that immediately expels all off-worlders from the planet. Enterprise is sent in to evacuate three Denobulans on a research mission. While in orbit of the planet, Enterprise comes to the aid of a damaged ship; among the ship's passengers is a man named Hudak who is in urgent need of treatment for radiation exposure. Phlox prepares for surgery.
Hudak turns out to be an Antaran, who immediately and adamantly refuses to be treated by Phlox on the basis that Phlox is a Denobulan. Phlox must respect the patient's wishes in accordance with Denobulan medical ethics. Without treatment, Hudak will die in a matter of days.
The bitterness here runs beyond deep. When Archer inquires about the situation, Phlox explains that the Antarans and the Denobulans were once, some three centuries ago, locked in a brutal war. The facts are left somewhat vague (Phlox is not particularly comfortable discussing it in detail), but it seems the Denobulans slaughtered millions of Antarans in the course of this war, using some especially ugly battle methods. "It wasn't our proudest moment," Phlox says quietly.
After the war ended, there began a bitter divide between the Denobulans and the Antarans. The societies no longer had any sort of relationship or dialog between them, but each society would pass down its history and hatred for the other side — from one generation to the next. Many of those feelings have survived to the present day, even though Denobulans and Antarans haven't encountered each other for six generations.
The story is about the possibility of the healing process and whether healing can overcome centuries of learned prejudice. Hudak, being the guest character, represents the side that initially does not want to budge. Phlox, being a permanent resident of this series, represents the more comforting side of the situation: a man with an open mind who does not wish to judge those on the basis of ancient history. Can an understanding be reached between these two? (Well, I've already answered that question. The answer is, this is traditional Star Trek.)
The early sense of frustration I mentioned is best shown in a scene where Phlox loses his self-control and uncorks his bottled feelings after Hudak persists in baselessly slandering his intentions. Phlox lets loose a brief tirade: "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 with you!" It's a potent moment; the suddenness of Phlox exploding into this angry outburst comes across almost like an involuntary result of pent-up frustration. It felt very real and also worked as an attention grabber. John Billingsley shows a credible ability to turn on a dime from his usual affable nature to sullen and then emotional.
After Phlox settles down, the story also settles down into a series of dialog scenes that gradually try to strike an understanding between these two characters. The story's (obvious) message is that prejudice is learned, and that it continues to survive because of those who are either unwilling or unable to challenge the assumptions that have been passed to them. This, of course, shows the dangers in passing along harmful ideas to your children when you have not taken the time to fully consider what those ideas stand for. (Hate is learned, people. The "default position" I mentioned earlier is made default only in lieu of being taught more tolerant points of view.)
In a scene in the mess hall, Phlox tells T'Pol the story of one of his grandmothers, who passed these negative ideas along. Phlox ultimately rejected the antiquated prejudices, but he recalls an instance when his grandmother labeled an entire planet "tainted" merely because Antarans had once lived on it, years earlier. That's some deep, deep resentment. It's the sort of resentment that Hudak has held for Denobulans his entire life.
Phlox also relates to Hudak (and us) the story of how he made every effort to teach his own children to accept others as individuals rather than viewing them in blanket terms. This material is all, of course, at the very heart of the most traditional Trekkian civics lessons. What also helps is that the storyline works as character development for Phlox, and as an interesting, if limited and nebulous, peek into Denobulan society, something we know very little about thus far.
This is not only about Phlox trying to reach an understanding with Hudak, but also about old wounds that Phlox himself is still carrying. Specifically, one of Phlox's sons, Mettus, rejected his father's attempts to raise him free of prejudice against the Antarans. Mettus unfortunately accepted the views of other influences in his life. He chose to embrace the prejudices, and this drove a rift between Phlox and Mettus; the two haven't spoken in years. This gives the story a crucial personal meaning for its principal character: Phlox has carried the guilt for what he sees as a failure in his role as a parent. This idea is carried through to the final scene where Phlox sits down to compose a letter to Mettus — the sort of detail that makes "The Breach" a character story as well as a message show.
The story's subplot, where Mayweather, Tucker, and Reed go into underground caves on the planet to find the Denobulan researchers, ups the action quotient in an otherwise dialog-based show. Mayweather is apparently the Enterprise's resident expert on caving, although I found myself wondering how he acquired this experience considering he spent basically his whole life aboard a cargo vessel. (Perhaps he took the opportunity during his Starfleet years?)
There's a literal cliffhanger sequence where the three officers almost plummet to their deaths in the brief moments before, during, and after a commercial break. Of this scene I have the following observations: (1) The setup effectively embodies the cliffhanger notion, by creating a seemingly impossible situation of jeopardy that makes you say to yourself, "Now how will they get out of THIS one?" (2) I have my doubts that Mayweather could hold the complete weight two men suspended from a rope, even if for only a brief time. (3) I almost hesitate to suggest this, but I'll do it anyway to continue my harping on the theme of the writers' apparent Conspiracy Against Mayweather: He's sidelined here with a broken ankle, requiring Tucker and Reed to continue without him, thereby reducing Travis' number of scenes in a storyline where he was allegedly the leader. (4) Director Robert Duncan McNeill effectively milks every inch out of what is undoubtedly a small cave set. From a technical standpoint, these cavern scenes are sold remarkably well and photographed in a way that makes them seem large and believable.
This week's Ticking Clock [TM] is in the form of the impatient militant government, which has set a strict deadline with harsh consequences and is not prepared to move it for any reason, no matter how much sense Archer's requests make. This is predictably forced plotting, but it and the cave scenes work reasonably well as action unrelated to the main thrust of the story.
As for that main thrust, it's ultimately cautiously optimistic about the possibilities of tolerance and abandoning long-held prejudices. It's certainly more optimistic than one might be about the real world we live in, where fierce tribalism, hatred, and notions of "ethnic cleansing" continue in parts of the world and do not seem likely to stop any time soon. I talked of this show's early scenes' ability to depict futility. I should probably also say that a cause for such feelings of futility is better found on any given installment of the evening news.
Next week: Sci-fi properties write a new definition to the term "three-way."