In brief: By miles the best episode so far. An excellent outing in its quiet, pleasant, and startlingly observant way.
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 code 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 admirable 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.)
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