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[ENT] Jammer's Review: "Doctor's Orders"

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  • Jamahl Epsicokhan
    Note: This review contains significant spoilers. In brief: A skeleton plot, but it supplies some pretty decent psychological-thriller atmosphere. Plot
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 26, 2004
      Note: This review contains significant spoilers.


      In brief: A skeleton plot, but it supplies some pretty decent
      psychological-thriller atmosphere.

      Plot description: Phlox must oversee the process of putting the crew into a
      controlled comatose state so they will be safe when the ship travels through
      a vast amomaly in space.

      -----
      Star Trek: Enterprise - "Doctor's Orders"

      Airdate: 2/18/2004 (USA)
      Written by Chris Black
      Directed by Roxann Dawson

      Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
      Rating out of 4: ***

      "As you might guess, Dr. Lucas, I had considered deleting this letter and
      starting over, since large sections of it are now, obviously, fictitious.
      However, I decided that my delusional account would probably prove
      entertaining." -- Phlox's letter
      -----

      The secret at the end of "The Sixth Sense" has to go down as one of the
      best-executed narrative twists in recent years. I didn't see the movie until
      it came out on DVD, and still I didn't see the ending coming, even though I
      had heard for months that there was a revelation at the end. The key, I
      think, is misdirection. The solution is sitting there in plain view, but you
      are not thinking about it, because you are not aware there is even a puzzle
      to be solved. You are too busy concentrating on the character drama.

      Or, in the case of "Scrubs," perhaps you are too busy laughing. A similar
      narrative twist -- with a reasonable level of underlying poignancy --
      appeared at the end of this week's episode. I wasn't expecting it at all,
      perhaps because "Scrubs" is not the sort of series where you expect a twist
      like that. But the clues were there.

      "Doctor's Orders" guards a similar secret (funny how the same twist aired
      six days apart on two different TV shows), although in this case I'm not so
      sure it guards it so well, since I had clearly figured it out ahead of time.
      (The only tiny remaining doubt: Maybe I was being *tricked* into thinking
      there was a twist, and there actually *wasn't* one and they were just using
      weird events to make me *think* there was. Talk about over-analysis. As Data
      once said, "Knowing that he knows that we know that he knows...") All the
      hints are clearly there in "Doctor's Orders." The second Phlox offers to
      walk T'Pol to her quarters, the jig is up.

      I admire the intentions here, and I admire most of the execution, which
      deals in psychological terror. But I wonder: Was anybody actually taken in
      by the trick ending? Had anyone actually *not* figured it out? (I ask in all
      seriousness, and would be interested in hearing from those who were.)

      The issues, then, are (1) whether the experience of the journey is worth our
      time in getting to this predictable destination, and (2) whether the twist
      holds up as dramatically sound given the underlying material. For me, the
      respective answers are yes, and just enough.

      As a rule, I like psychological thrillers, and I liked many aspects of this
      one. There's nothing in this episode that we haven't seen somewhere before
      (and, indeed, the basic premise is very similar to Voyager's fourth-season
      outing, "One"), but between John Billingsley's performance of an
      increasingly frantic Phlox and Roxann Dawson's skillful direction of a
      situation slowly but surely running off its rails, "Doctor's Orders" turns
      into a nice little pressure cooker. It starts calm and cold, turns
      mysterious and ominous, and then heats up with crisis and desperation.
      There's not a whole lot of actual substance here; it's more about mood,
      atmosphere, paranoia, and momentum, and on those counts it delivers.

      The premise is that the entire crew (less Phlox and -- sort of -- T'Pol)
      must be put into a comatose state so the ship can travel through a massive
      spatial anomaly (the same type as the one encountered in last week's
      "Harbinger") that would cause the humans fatal brain damage if they were
      awake. Phlox's Denobulan physiology makes him immune to the effects. Also
      immune to the effects are T'Pol (sort of) and the captain's beagle, Porthos.
      Passing through the anomaly will take four days at full impulse; Trip warns
      that to attempt going through at warp would be too risky.

      So the Enterprise becomes a vessel where everyone has gone to sleep, and
      where Phlox now finds that every routine bang and shimmy is magnified into
      dreadful sounds of forthcoming doom.

      It's not until near the end of act one where we even see that T'Pol is still
      walking around the ship. It's a nice little craftily hidden surprise that
      keeps us just a little off-balance -- and, of course, provides a major hint
      that telegraphs the twist at the end.

      The twist at the end, to get this out of the way, is that T'Pol isn't and
      never was awake during the time Phlox is tending to the sleeping ship. She's
      a figment of his imagination, apparently designed by his mind to keep him
      from becoming completely unhinged, which happens gradually as a result of
      unforeseen effects from the anomaly field.

      Obviously, the fact that T'Pol isn't real is hidden from the audience more
      for our benefit than for Phlox's, and the fact that it's T'Pol whom he
      imagines is for obvious script reasons: she's a Vulcan and could logically
      be immune to the anomaly's effects.

      This holds water to a point, since Phlox is no more aware that T'Pol is a
      hallucination than we (at first) are. On the other hand, the question "Why
      T'Pol?" is an interesting one, and it raises some issues that the story
      doesn't really address. If this hallucination is designed to help Phlox deal
      with his isolation (Denobulans do not like isolation, and there's dialog
      explaining how they choose to live in crowded cities on their homeworld),
      why would his mind pick T'Pol, who tends to keep to herself both in real
      life and in this hallucinated version? Why not pick someone he knows better,
      like one of his wives or a close friend? If he must imagine someone from the
      ship in order to fool himself into believing that he is not alone, would his
      mind really pick T'Pol? (I ask in sincere curiosity, not purely as a
      nitpick. Perhaps he identifies with T'Pol as the other non-human outsider.)

      It probably doesn't really matter, because the story is more concerned with
      structure and technique than deep psychology or character significance. On
      those chosen levels, the episode works pretty well, giving Phlox a series of
      hallucinations that he eventually recognizes as unreal and must cope with.
      One hallucination is his deranged hunt for the Xindi insectoid, which ends
      when he nearly phasers Porthos. (T'Pol: "You nearly shot the captain's
      dog!")

      T'Pol is in no better shape than Phlox, and is losing control of her
      emotions as a result of the anomaly's effects. In retrospect, I like the
      idea that T'Pol falls apart just as Phlox does; since they are both really
      just Phlox, it makes sense that they would both go insane at the same time.

      The crises stack up when it turns out the anomaly is growing at a faster
      rate than expected, and Phlox realizes it will take 10 weeks for the
      Enterprise to emerge on the other side. ("TEN WEEKS!" Phlox announces
      desperately, in a great line delivery that makes us fully identify with his
      desperation.)

      Ten weeks is obviously not an option, especially given Phlox's (and T'Pol's)
      mental state, so Phlox (and T'Pol) must figure out how to start the warp
      engines and pilot the ship out of here. The resulting scene shows exactly
      why starships need engineers, and why going to warp speed necessitates an
      engine room staff.

      Noteworthy is how useless T'Pol proves in these scenes -- how she never
      takes action or pushes buttons -- and it's a rather obvious hint that tips
      us off to the ending: She isn't doing anything because she isn't really
      there. I have mixed feelings on Jolene Blalock's performance, which
      eventually degenerates into a series of weird facial expressions amid
      T'Pol's increasing paralysis -- which may be the point, but comes across as
      a little off.

      Much better is Billingsley, who displays a range that begins at affable and
      ends up at frazzled, but all the while comes off as "Phlox." The thing about
      Phlox is that he has an overly expressive, cheerful style of speech. Most
      people typically only speak like that if they're on stage or in some other
      stylized medium (like, say, Star Trek). But with Phlox, it's his everyday
      style, and we accept it because he's a Denobulan -- but more importantly
      because Billingsley brings a credibility to it. This is a solid and
      versatile performance, delivered within the boundaries of Phlox-isms.

      Meanwhile, Dawson and director of photography Marvin V. Rush maintain a
      visual style that stays active and interesting, including one odd shot that
      looks straight down on Phlox and T'Pol, who stare up into a fisheye lens.
      This shot, and the performances, are perhaps a little too over-the-top in
      the way they draw attention to themselves, but I respect the attempt here to
      go for an effect to convey the desperation. Dennis McCarthy shares musical
      credit with Kevin Kiner; together they turn out an effective score.

      I'm sure some will argue that there isn't much story here. They would be
      correct. It's essentially a two-character show, the impetus of which is a
      silly spatial anomaly with arbitrary properties. And, no, the ending is
      hardly the surprise that it wants to be. But that's okay. This is an acting
      showpiece, and a technique showpiece, and a fairly entertaining one.

      Not to mention it has Phlox's letter narration, ending with him deciding to
      leave the hallucinated parts in.

      Gotta love that guy.

      --
      Next week: Mutiny aboard Voyager! I mean, Enterprise!

      -----
      Copyright 2004 Jamahl Epsicokhan. All rights reserved.
      Unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this article is prohibited.

      Star Trek: Hypertext - http://www.st-hypertext.com/
      Jamahl Epsicokhan - jammer@...
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