01/03/2002. Contributed by Timothy W. Lynch
Timothy W. Lynch runs across a Star Trek Enterprise episode which is both marvelous, meaty and engrossing; as a dying race forces a terrible choice on Dr. Phlox.
Enterprise's premise has at its core two elements. The "temporal cold war" put to such entertaining use in "Cold Front" is the more flashy, "sci-fi" element -- but Trek has enough "future history" under its belt at this point that the historical viewpoint is much more interesting to me personally.
Setting this series in the days just prior to the Federation's founding doesn't just mean that space travel is more arduous and there are a lot more aliens out there we don't have a clue about -- it means that many of the rules we're used to don't yet apply, and that indeed we might see how some of them come about.
Executed badly, that premise can lead itself to very dry, almost didactic work -- but done well, it means we get to see sides of arguments that were never really allowed to exist before. "Dear Doctor" has just such an argument at its heart, and succeeds brilliantly.
You wouldn't know it to look at the first half of the episode, though. We begin with our esteemed physician getting yet another letter from home: he's keeping in touch with Dr. Jeremy Lucas, a human doctor living on Denobula, Phlox's homeworld, and is trying to help him adjust and settle in.
The remainder of the show is narrated, in part, by Phlox's return letter to Lucas. An old technique? Hell, yes -- "M*A*S*H," for example, tended to have at least one "Radar/Hawkeye/Sidney writes a letter to his family/father/idol Sigmund Freud" show a season, and voice-over narration in general is very old hat.
However, one of the reasons "M*A*S*H" did it so often is that, done well, it *works* -- we get to see the characters filtered so strongly through one character's perspective that we wind up getting a new perspective ourselves.
(Done badly, of course, you get narration that seems to needlessly explain everything and talk down to the viewer -- check the original cut of "Blade Runner" for an example.)
In this case, all the characters are somewhat new to us, and Phlox's perceptions of them even more so -- so there's a lot to be gained by this narration as long as it's not intrusive. And intrusive it's not.
The early parts of this episode are strongly reminiscent of TNG's "Data's Day," where Data summarizes a day in a note to Dr. Maddox -- but where Data's letter got partially wrapped up in the troubles of others (such as Miles and Keiko O'Brien's pre- wedding jitters), Phlox is very much at the heart of the episode's events rather than an outside observer.
Phlox takes special note of humans' unusual ability to form emotional bonds with others, be it colleagues, pets, or characters on a movie screen. (We get a very rare use of actual film footage at said movie, by the way -- "For Whom the Bell Tolls," if I'm not mistaken.)
After watching Archer talk to Porthos and the crew's emotional reaction to the movie, Phlox walks Crewman Cutler home -- and she lingers enough at her door that it's clear she's interested in him, even more so when she kisses him good-night on the cheek.
At this point, anyone steeped in modern-Trek lore might be thinking "oh, dear, this is 'In Theory' all over again," thinking of the TNG episode featuring Data's brief experiment with romance. However, "Dear Doctor" is far more interesting for several reasons.
The primary reason is Phlox himself. Although he's got the standard "outside observer of humanity" role that Spock, Data, Worf, Odo, and Seven of Nine all had in their series (possibly including others, but those are sufficient), Phlox is unlike many of them in that he's already a mature individual with his own life and his own culture.
Data, especially early, was the innocent child who wanted to be human -- Pinocchio, in other words. (He certainly rose above that at times, particularly in episodes like "The Measure of a Man," "The Most Toys," and the first half of "Birthright," but all too often he wasn't.)
Worf thought he had a culture, but when the series began he didn't know much about what it actually was to be Klingon -- his growing understanding of and conflict with "his people" was part of many shows.
Odo didn't even know who his people were when DS9 began, and Seven was a former Borg drone who'd just been ripped from the collective. None of them, other than Spock, was already someone with a firmly rooted identity.
Phlox is -- and that's already showing signs of being a great character choice. (I don't mean to imply that Data, Worf, etc. are intrinsically bad characters, by the way -- they're not. Each type simply lends itself to different stories, that's all.)
As a result, when Phlox realizes that Cutler is interested in him, he doesn't get concerned due to inexperience -- he's simply not sure how his culture and hers will mesh, if at all.
He does, in time-honored outsider tradition, ask a colleague or two for advice -- but also seems to understand much better which parts of the advice to listen to and which parts are more a reflection of the giver.
The other big reason why Phlox's proto-romance comes off so much better than Data's is that it's thematically linked to the rest of the show. During all of this, Phlox is also dealing with a medical crisis which explodes into a full-fledged ethical quandary -- and the culture clash he deals with there makes him keenly aware of potential clashes between himself and Cutler.
As a result, when he and Cutler talk about any possible relationship they might have it comes off as a conversation between adults -- if anything, Cutler comes off as the slightly more innocent one rather than Phlox. I find that most intriguing. (A third reason, of course, is that John Billingsley and Kellie Waymire seem to have pretty good chemistry together. That never hurts.)
Turning now to that medical crisis, one again gets the sense of something other Trek series might have done ... at first. The crew finds a pre-warp spacecraft with two faint life-signs. The astronauts are brought aboard and end up in sickbay ("through an act of human compassion," as Phlox puts it).
We discover that their people, the Valakians, are suffering from a plague which is killing millions, and that they left in the hope of finding a technologically advanced civilization that can and is willing to help them. Since they've contacted other civilizations before (no group our heroes know, though viewers will recognize the Ferengi), T'Pol and Archer decide that it's safe to try to help them.
So far, pretty routine.
Upon arrival at Valakia, Phlox starts gathering data about symptoms, infection rates, patient profiles, and so on. He and the crew also discover, however, that there are *two* distinct humanoid species on the planet, both sentient: the Valakians, whom they've already met, and the Menk, who seem somewhat less intelligent and certainly less technologically advanced, but friendly and helpful -- and who are also immune to the plague.
Phlox soon learns that the Valakians' illness is genetic, and that unless something is done the species will be extinct within two centuries. Archer urges Phlox to keep working until he finds a cure -- difficult, but not impossible. Phlox *also* discovers that the Menk are far more adaptable and versatile than they appear, and that in a few centuries or millennia they could well become the dominant species on the planet.
At this point, a typical TNG episode would have Picard developing Prime Directive qualms about letting nature take its course, and Dr. Crusher would be ardently in favor of helping the sick wherever and whenever possible. "Dear Doctor" didn't do that. The twist may be a somewhat simple one, but it's surprisingly effective.
That twist is simply this: since there *is* no Prime Directive, and since Archer, like most humans, is predisposed to be compassionate and helpful, it falls to Phlox, the physician, to, as he puts it, "consider the larger issues" and argue against helping the very people Archer has committed him to help. In the mess hall, he and Archer have a very quiet, but very fundamental clash of values: what if, Phlox argues, an alien race had interfered 35,000 years ago and given the Neanderthals a boost?
Archer's pretty glad *that* didn't happen, after all. Archer refuses to turn his back on the Valakians for the sake of "a theory," and Phlox passionately responds that evolution is "more than a theory," accusing Archer (respectfully) of letting his compassion cloud his judgment.
From a performance standpoint, the scene succeeds because both Scott Bakula and especially John Billingsley are in top form -- the entire scenario feels natural, not remotely staged or over-the-top. From a writing standpoint, however, the argument is one we never got to see taken to its full conclusion in the past.
Why? The Prime Directive. Like it or hate it, the PD has been a backdrop hanging over every scenario like this in the past. The arguments can begin, but they're always viewed through a Prime Directive prism -- people (Picard, say, or Janeway) say that the PD exists for a reason, but the ethical arguments are often truncated by simply invoking the PD and hiding behind regulations.
Internally, that might be a good thing -- like an honor code, it's something that helps encourage people who are wavering to "do the right thing." Externally, however, it can short- circuit the drama. This time, for *once*, the only thing Phlox could do was take the ethical argument to its conclusion -- and frankly, doing so was extremely powerful.
Both characters truly seemed to believe everything they were saying, both characters had the best of intentions -- they were just at odds due to fundamentally different worldviews. Meaty, meaty stuff.
In the end, nobody gets an easy out. Phlox already has a cure (and we discover that he almost withheld that information from Archer), and Archer decides after a sleepless night that Phlox is right -- and that until the folks back on Earth draft some sort of directive "telling us what we can and can't do out here. [...]
I'm going to have to remind myself every day that we didn't come out here to play God." Archer and Phlox give the Valakians as much medicine as they need to help with the symptoms, urge them to keep trying in the hopes of finding a cure on their own, and then depart -- uncomfortably.
No bad guys, no one-sided preaching, no hiding behind rules and regs, no magic-tech solutions. Just a nasty dilemma which puts no one in the absolute right or absolute wrong, and which gives us a hint about *why* the Prime Directive was eventually put in place.
This particular show is one that really couldn't have been done on another Trek series, and it's to the series' credit that it made an episode like this ... and just as importantly, did it right. (Archer's given another difficult choice at the same time, by the way.
Some time before Phlox's big revelation, the Valakians also ask Archer for warp drive, so that they can search for other races more easily. Archer knows enough about the technology to know that they're not ready, and wonders to T'Pol if they could hang around and help them build it.
She answers that "the Vulcans stayed to help Earth ninety years ago. We're still there." Archer muses, in what must come as a difficult admission, that he's beginning to understand how the Vulcans must have felt a century earlier. Ow.) More, please.
-- If you *really* want something to quibble about, the science is a candidate. Although the general thrust of the argument works really well, there are plenty of places where the specific points are a little weird (such as wondering how a non-adaptive genetic trait can suddenly become prevalent in a population, for instance).
Since the broad strokes of the argument work for me and set up a beautiful moral issue, though, I'm prepared to overlook it. (Evolutionary biologists may disagree; Lisa certainly does. :-) )
-- A second quibble that there's probably no way around: once the translator is working, suddenly Valakian *lip movements* even match English words. Not likely.
-- I imagine some folks might object that we didn't really get to see how Archer came to his final decision. I don't. This story wasn't his, though the implications for him down the line should be interesting. [There's a line in the preview for next week that really jars with this, though -- I wish it weren't there.]
-- Hoshi was put to extraordinarily good use here. We see her practicing Denobulan with Phlox, helping get the translator working with the Valakians, indirectly discovering the Menk, and so forth. Good job.
-- Trip, Mayweather, and Reed all had a line or two each, and all in places which pretty much made sense. Much better than the "let's give all the actors their residuals" scenes that sometimes seem forced.
-- Phlox gets a great line when asked about movies: his people had something similar once, but gave it up "when people discovered their real lives were more interesting." Of course, one could take that as an argument to shut off the set then and there, which probably isn't the intent. :-)
-- "Eggplant's not a vegetable, it's a nostril." Note to anyone who thought "Star Trek VI" had a funny "people try to translate" scene -- this is how you do it right.
-- I also liked the way the episode was bookended by the sickbay doors
-- we begin one morning with Phlox walking in and wishing everyone good morning, and end one night with Phlox wishing his pets sweet dreams on his way out. That should pretty much do it
-- anything else I could say would be overkill (if I'm not a few hundred words past that point already). "Dear Doctor" is playing very much to the strengths of Enterprise as a series, both on a writing and an acting level, and I'm quite impressed.
Some summary thoughts:
Writing: No easy answers and no real pulled punches. The slight science plausibility isn't enough to cause more than a hiccup.
Directing: Nicely done, particularly with the uses of shadow in the big Phlox/Archer scene.
Acting: Is it too early to suggest that John Billingsley is the Colm Meaney of this series? Regardless, no concerns at all.
OVERALL: The first 10 of the series. Exceptional work.
Tim Lynch (Castilleja School, Science Department)
Copyright 2002, Timothy W. Lynch. All rights reserved, but feel free to ask. This article is explicitly prohibited from being used in any off-net compilation without due attribution and express written consent of the author. Walnut Creek and other CD-ROM distributors, take note.
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