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133[ENT] Jammer's Review: "Dear Doctor"

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  • Jamahl Epsicokhan
    Feb 5, 2002
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      Warning: 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
      population.

      -----
      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
      commentary.

      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
      matters.

      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
      exist.

      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
      more.

      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
      convenient solutions.

      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@...