133[ENT] Jammer's Review: "Dear Doctor"
- Feb 5, 2002Warning: This review contains significant spoilers for Enterprise's "Dear
Doctor." If you haven't seen the episode yet, beware.
In brief: By miles the best episode so far. An excellent outing in its
quiet, pleasant, and startlingly observant way.
Plot description: Dr. Phlox faces an ethical dilemma when an alien society
asks Captain Archer to help them cure a disease that threatens their entire
Enterprise: "Dear Doctor"
Airdate: 1/23/2002 (USA)
Written by Marie Jacquemetton & Andre Jacquemetton
Directed by James A. Contner
Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
Rating out of 4: ****
"Someday my people are going to come up with some sort of a doctrine,
something that tells us what we can and can't do out here, should and
shouldn't do. But until somebody tells me that they've drafted that
directive, I'm going to have to remind myself every day that we didn't come
out here to play God." -- Archer
John Billingsley's performance of Dr. Phlox makes for a supporting character
of the highest order, and it's only because of trying to stay focused on the
main points (or perhaps simply because of an oversight on my part) that I
have yet to single him out for praise -- or any sort of analysis, for that
matter -- in my 11 Enterprise reviews preceding this one.
Billingsley's Phlox has been a supporting role that's incredibly pleasant to
watch; it's just been hard to mention as much without it coming across as an
aside. But in "Dear Doctor" he finally has the spotlight and I can turn my
attention in his direction, giving the character and the actor their due.
I think the key word for this episode is "perspective." This is a story
that's all about insights gained through perspective. Also through
listening, careful observation, patience, conscience, and understanding.
This is a remarkably quiet episode in its presentation. It's almost entirely
devoid of histrionics and completely lacking in action. The story simply
takes us in a direction and follows it through to its destination, while
Phlox carefully observes what goes on around him and serves as our running
The results are extremely effective. The narrative framing device comes in
the form of a letter Phlox is composing to his human counterpart in the
interspecies exchange program. Phlox, a Denobulan, is the only one of his
species serving with a Starfleet crew. His counterpart, Dr. Lucas, is the
only human serving among Denobulans. Of course, we never actually meet Dr.
Lucas, because he isn't really a person so much as the story's avenue for
Phlox's monologue. And in hearing what Phlox has to say we gain a very
unique perspective on what's happening on board the Enterprise -- ranging
from his take on how humans invest an emotional stake in fictional movie
characters to the major scientific ethics issue involving the natural
evolution of an entire world and whether we should interfere in such
The monologue voice-over approach is not an uncommon device in film, but it
has only occasionally been used on Trek to such an extent. Most memorably
and recently would be DS9's "In the Pale Moonlight," but TNG followers may
recognize elements of "Dear Doctor's" narration device being most similar to
"Data's Day" (1991) from TNG's fourth season. In that episode, Data
chronicled a day in his life aboard the USS Enterprise, also in the form of
a letter to a colleague. And in that story, as in this one, the overall
theme was witnessing human behavior from a unique outsider's perspective.
Here it's even more effective because through Phlox we see more compelling
events -- an outsider's view of humanity's early steps into a larger
universe, and the responsibilities that come with those steps.
Captain Archer finds himself in a situation where he might be able to help
an entire world when representatives from a people called the Valakians ask
for help in curing a deadly disease. Treating the disease is beyond their
society's medical abilities, so they've turned to off-worlders with better
medical technology for help. Unfortunately, it's taken them years just to
find anybody, because they don't have warp drive and basically have to wait
until other travelers find them. Archer announces his intention to help, and
the challenge of curing the disease falls on our good doctor, Phlox.
The alien world medical crisis storyline is hardly new to Trek, but here it
serves as the backdrop for (1) a great deal of wonderful observation and
insight, and (2) a dilemma that sets a wonderfully appropriate stage for a
Prime Directive dilemma, in an era where the Prime Directive does not yet
It starts off routinely enough, as Phlox begins his research by running
tests, analyzing DNA, etc. We meet the Valakians and some of their
representatives, and we also meet another humanoid species indigenous to
their planet, the Menk. It's of a certain peculiar interest that the
Valakians and the Menk, two separate and genetically incompatible groups,
have both survived as sentient humanoid species. As Phlox points out, in a
typical case of the evolutionary process with two distinct species, one
group would've likely wiped the other out long ago.
On this planet, both species have evolved alongside each other. The Menk,
however, are not as advanced in their intellectual capacities. They are much
more primitive, whereas the Valakians have technology and space travel and
have made contact with people from other worlds. Phlox believes the cure to
the Valakian epidemic may lie in the genetic cure of the Menk, who are not
suffering from the disease.
Phlox's challenging medical research provides the foreground. In the
background are the constantly compelling perspectives as we get a chance to
get into Phlox's head and take a look at human behavior, at *ourselves*,
through this perspective. Marie and Andre Jacquemetton deserve high praise
for their ability to write a story that manages to truly and insightfully
step just a little bit outside and provide a look at human behavior in a way
that feels absolutely genuine and unique. All the while it maintains a sort
of meta-humanistic attitude; we can relate to Phlox's point of view and
understand how we're observed from within it, while at the same time
noticing that it's not *really* all that different. It's just different
*enough* to serve as the story's avenue for examination. Very nice.
Consider this voice-over narration by Phlox: "Despite the Menk's insistence
that they're treated well, my human crewmates seem to see things
differently. They think the Menk are being exploited by the Valakians, so
their first instinct is to rise to their defense despite the fact that the
Menk don't appear to need or want a defender." This is great stuff, and so
very true. Indeed, the first thought that went through my mind as I watched
the Menk (who largely operate as primitive laborers), was that they were
capable of something more but that the Valakians were exploiting them and
keeping them in their place. I figured this would play into the storyline in
some way. But instead, Phlox's narration reveals the human attitude that
lurks beneath the situation and exposes an alternate viewpoint -- one that
says perhaps this is simply their way of coexisting. And indeed, he's more
or less right. The Menk are happy and well treated. It's our gut humanistic
values that believe they should be independent and capable of achieving
The cultural examination is further demonstrated through the very pleasantly
depicted subplot of Crewman Cutler's (Kellie Waymire, reprising her role
from "Strange New World") developing romantic interest in Phlox. Throughout
the episode Cutler gives Phlox signs of interest, which he's not entirely
comfortable in deciphering. He recognizes the cultural and behavioral
differences. Later, he explains to her how he has three wives (each of which
has two other husbands), which is quite normal in Denobulan culture. This
provides a nice point showing how not all cultures operate like human
culture, which ties back into the observations of the Menk.
I also very much liked the scene between Phlox and Hoshi where they're
talking with each other in Denobulan. (At last, a TV episode of Trek that
has subtitles, something long avoided, intentionally, I believe.) I
appreciate the supporting use of Hoshi, who continues to have an easy
friendship with Phlox, and I like her interest in his culture from the
viewpoint of a linguist.
We also see Phlox's take on T'Pol (who apparently doesn't like dental work
very much). T'Pol warns him about how humans are curious of new things, and
that could explain why Cutler is expressing interest in him. I like how this
provides us with T'Pol's own perspective, and I like even more how Phlox
explains that he is unsettled by T'Pol's pure logic, which seems to be
missing something that an emotional catalyst might add.
By the time the story's key issue comes around, the episode has already
accomplished more than most. The key issue, however, is perfectly suited to
what Enterprise as a series is about -- confronting new issues. Phlox
discovers a cure, along with the fact that the disease is genetic and not
caused by any sort of viral or bacterial infection. In short, the epidemic
is a natural genetic process of their evolution as people, and the Valakians
are likely to be extinct within two centuries. Furthermore, he has evidence
that the Menk, living independently, could realize an evolutionary awakening
and eventually dominate the planet.
The question no longer is whether Phlox can cure them (he can), but whether
he *should*, and as a scientist, Phlox realizes that he shouldn't interfere
with the natural development of an isolated society. When he explains his
reasoning to Archer, there's a new tension where Archer finds that his human
belief to help the Valakians must be weighed against the moral questions of
interfering in a natural process. Subsequently, Archer uses T'Pol as a
sounding board in a way that is quite admirable, and explains to her how for
the first time he understands why the Vulcans were so reluctant to let
humans venture out without a safety net. Archer gets his own new perspective
through these events, and decides, even though it goes against his beliefs
as a human, that he can't dictate the natural evolution of another world.
Through a series of considered opinions from different perspectives,
everyone learns a little bit of something. Phlox realizes that he might have
underestimated his captain -- that humans are capable of reacting
independent of their feelings and initial instincts.
The episode's closing scene featuring Archer's prophetic statements about
the Prime Directive is abundantly clear to the core Trek audience, but by
this point the episode has earned every word of Archer's speech. It's earned
by putting Phlox and Archer in tough positions with no easy answers and no
From an execution standpoint, all of this benefits from a careful,
consistently even-handed touch by director James A. Contner, who never,
ever, pushes for an unnecessary effect and instead maintains the position of
staying as invisible as possible. Also helpful is the understated score by
David Bell, which provides us with the pleasant emotional cues but without
ever coming close to getting in the way. The restraint is admiral and the
episode is all the better because of it; I must say that after sitting
through scenes of brain-dead action in just about every episode of
Andromeda, "Dear Doctor" is evidence that television absolutely does *not*
have to pander to the lowest common denominator or hit us over the head with
obvious dialog to get our attention. This episode earns our attention by
simply telling a good story.
"Dear Doctor" is, I fear, a rarer treasure than we might at first give it
credit for. This episode stops and listens. It hears. It observes. It has a
true understanding of human nature. It has perspectives of a kind that I
want to see more of. And it believes in an audience that is interested in
the true spirit of Star Trek and exploration rather than selling out in the
name of being the hip flavor of the week.
This is a real story.
Next week: Return of the Klingons ... and also that decontamination chamber.
(Return to reality, I suppose.)
Copyright 2002 Jamahl Epsicokhan. All rights reserved.
Unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this article is prohibited.
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Jamahl Epsicokhan - jammer@...