Star Trek Enterprise: Dear Doctor

Archer: "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."

By nature I love brevity (not really, as evidenced by the length of this review): Enterprise's first truly great episode. An unprecedented hit, and the first episode to focus on Dr. Phlox. This episode sits among the great morality plays of Star Trek, with the likes of 'I, Borg' and 'Progress,' 'The First Duty' and 'Children of Time.' Of course, the difference is that I disagree principally with the conclusion it comes to.

This episode starts out fairly innocuously, with the start of Dr. Phlox's day. He begins narrating a letter to his colleague Dr. Lucas, who's serving on Denobula with the interspecies medical exchange. This instantly reminds me of the TNG episode 'Data's Day,' an episode which, while inoffensive and generally enjoyable, wasn't anything particularly outstanding. I prepared myself for such an episode, focusing on Phlox.

Luckily, as with the earlier 'Strange New World,' the similarities to a classic TNG episode turn out to be insignificant. What follows is a well-conceived and very challenging moral dilemma, alongside the navigation of complex interpersonal relationships, and some medical drama to boot. Also thrown in are some musings about the need for something like the Prime Directive and a few key details about the Denobulan culture. Yet somehow, all these elements work together to create an incredible episode of television. I will examine each element separately.

Let's look at the core dilemma first, as it brings most of the other elements into the story. It begins simply enough - Enterprise comes across a pre-warp spaceship with two very faint life signs aboard. The ship isn't responding to hails, so they bring the crew aboard. After Phlox revives one of them, the alien explains that their species has contracted a deadly disease that they have completely failed to cure. These two aliens were sent out to find someone to help them, but they couldn't move very fast without warp drive. It takes Enterprise only a day to get back to their planet, when it took the aliens a year at sub-light. (If that doesn't make sense to you, remember that warp speeds are exponential rather than linear. Warp Two is exponentially faster than Warp One, and it builds from there.)

As Phlox narrates to Dr. Lucas, this is one of the most difficult challenges he has ever faced. He has now been tasked with saving a whole race of people. But Phlox being Phlox, he takes it in stride with his usual affability and cheer. As he continues to work with the Valakians on the problem, Phlox encounters another humanoid species living on the same planet as the Valakians - the Menk. The Menk are genetically immune to the disease, and Phlox believes this may be the key. After taking and studying samples of Valakian DNA, he moves on to the Menk. The Menk are more than happy to help, and it provides Phlox, Crewman Cutler, and Hoshi a good look at life among them. According to the lead Valakian at the hospital, the Menk are less evolved than the Valakians, and they seem to be that way at first.

But as the team continues to interact with the Menk, it becomes clear that the species is on the verge of an awakening. The Menk have a lot of potential, and it seems like that potential is being stifled by the dominant Valakians. This unsettles the humans, but Phlox sees it merely as a cultural and societal difference. But it does complicate matters considerably as the humans grow more uneasy with allowing what seems to them almost like slavery to continue.

It's about this time that the Valakians ask Archer to give them warp technology so they can search for other even more advanced species to help them more quickly. Archer is hesitant, as it's clear the species is not yet ready for such a dangerous and difficult to control technology. In a rare moment of clarity for the Captain, he realizes that he is sympathizing with the way the Vulcans feel about humans. This is merely another complex piece of the larger puzzle.

Finally, Phlox makes a startling discovery. The illness is genetic, and not only that, it will kill off the Valakians in practically no time, evolutionarily speaking. Phlox now faces a moral dilemma - he believes that the Menk are poised to have an evolutionary awakening, and that can't happen as long as the Valakians remain the dominant species. If Enterprise hadn't shown up and nature ran its course, in a few thousand years, the Menk would be the only species on the planet.

Phlox believes it is ethically necessary, as a scientist, to let nature run its course on the planet. But he has already developed a cure. He brings it to Archer reluctantly, believing that the human tendency towards compassion will influence the Captain's decision. But he argues strongly that the cure should not be given to the Valakians.

I've talked before about my distaste for the Prime Directive, but this goes to a whole new level. The idea of allowing nature to take its course is a good one, but my biggest issue is this: Who are we to say that this is the natural development of a species? Who are we to say that it's interference to suddenly give a less-developed species a technology that would give them a leap forward in development? Or in this case, the chance to develop further? Because the truth is, once you have a cure to give and you are wondering whether or not to give it to them, you are already playing God.

But the interesting thing is this: that's not the decision the crew makes. And the episode seems to agree with them. I disagree completely with the decision, and therefore with the point of the episode. So why do I love it? Because it's good. The message is wrong, but it's well-thought out, well-planned, and well-written. The character work makes sense and is superb. The episode feels like a constructed whole. In short, I completely disagree, and I love this episode anyway.

Phew.

/rant

Now on to lighter fare - Phlox's relationship with Crewman Cutler (Kellie Waymire). I love this portion of the episode, and it fits well with the rest of it beautifully. This is unlike the previous episode 'Silent Enemy,' which had two plotlines that were entirely unrelated. Cutler and Phlox's interaction is a wonderful example of the cultural exchange and interaction we've come to expect from material that focuses on Phlox. We learn through it that Denobulans have several spouses each, and it's interesting that Cutler doesn't even flinch at this news.

On the other side of the same coin, Phlox is perplexed by human emotion, particularly compassion. Humans have the ability to feel compassion even for fictional characters, he observes. And yet, with all his observation of human emotion, he expects Cutler to be shocked and disgusted at the revelation that Denobulans have multiple mates, and he's completely wrong. In the end, Phlox and Cutler come to the conclusion that the best thing for them to do is explore a friendship that will exchange their cultures with each other. This is a very nice conclusion, and it's extremely Phlox.

Strange New Worlds:

The alien planet was called Valakis. It's the first planet in a while. Not a whole lot new here, though.

New Life and New Civilizations:

Both the Valakians and the Menk felt like fairly realistic cultures. Their reactions to their situations were exactly as you'd expect them to be. No complaints here.

Pensees:

-I really loved the scene where Phlox and Hoshi practice speaking Denobulan. Hoshi and Phlox are my favorite pair of friends on this show.

-This is the first mention of the Ferengi on Enterprise. It is not the first chronological mention, however, due to the events of DS9's 'Little Green Men.'

-Precious little of Trip in this one. It was fun to see him bawling his eyes out at For Whom the Bell Tolls.

-Likewise, I don't think Travis or Malcolm even had any lines. It helped keep the focus, though, and that focus was Phlox, so I'll let it slide.

-I like that the Crewmen aboard Enterprise are recurring. It helps the ship feel like a contained whole, and it avoids the 'random important crew member we've never seen before' issue from TNG. Plus, I like Cutler.

-This is the second episode in Enterprise's first season to wrestle with the problem of the Prime Directive. I smell a series theme.

Quotes:

Cutler: "They don't have movies where you come from, do they?"
Phlox: "We had something similar a few hundred years ago, but they lost their appeal when people discovered their real lives were more interesting."

Phlox: "It's remarkable, Doctor. Even fictional characters seem to elicit human compassion. My shipmates have calmly faced any number of dangers, and yet even a simple movie can bring tears to their eyes."

Hoshi, in Denobulan: "Eggplant's not a vegetable, it's a nostril."

Hoshi, in Denobulan: "I think you make a very cute washboard."

Phlox: "You need to know that my culture is different."
Cutler: "That doesn't matter."
Phlox: "It doesn't? This culture's different. That seems to matter to you a great deal."

Archer: "We could... stay and help them."
T'Pol: "The Vulcans stayed to help Earth 90 years ago. We're still there."
Archer: "I never thought I'd say this, but... I'm beginning to understand how the Vulcans must have felt."

Archer: "To hell with nature. You're a doctor. You have a moral obligation to help people who are suffering."

Phlox: "Forgive me for saying so, but I believe your compassion for these people is clouding your judgment."
Archer: "My compassion guides my judgment."

5.5 out of 6 Prime Directive arguments. While it doesn't make this a bad episode, I can't justify six stars because of the unethical conclusion.

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CoramDeo does not feel ready to tackle gerunds.

1 comment:

Billie Doux said...

I so agree that this is the first really outstanding episode of this show. When I first saw it, I was wildly impressed with its moral complexity and disturbing conclusion. I picked up on the Neanderthal/Menk thing fairly early and could see where the plot was going, but I was still surprised by the ending, and by the choice Archer had to make.

Phlox didn't seem to have much difficulty in deciding what to do with his cure; his difficulty was in deciding whether or not Archer was worthy of his trust. Archer had an even more difficult decision, though; he just got a huge wake-up call.

Terrific review, CoramDeo, of a complicated episode.