The Good: Moments of concept and philosophy, Moments of character, Generally decent acting
The Bad: Completely drops the moral and scientific arguments, Derivative plot
The Basics: In the first Enterprise medical episode, Dr. Phlox proves himself to be competent as a doctor, but more complicated as a scientist than any of the other Star Trek doctors.
In creating something that wrestles with an original issue in the Star Trek franchise, writers Andre and Maria Jacquemetton create a huge continuity problem for themselves. The episode of Enterprise where they unwittingly create an issue is “Dear Doctor,” an episode that feels less fresh than it is because it bears a number of stylistic similarities to the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Data’s Day” (reviewed here!). While it continues to raise Prime Directive issues (this is set before the Prime Directive is created), much like “Civilization” (reviewed here!) before it, “Dear Doctor” plods along with a “character narrates a story to their ‘pen pal’” narrative technique like “Data’s Day” did.
The complex medical concept that Dr. Phlox ultimately raises makes sense for an Enterprise episode . . . save that it is never revisited or even hinted at in any subsequent Star Trek series. In addition to not having many planets that subsequent series’ visit where there are two dominant species, the Star Trek franchise never presents a moral dilemma where a physician is bound by a Medical Prime Directive that prevents them from curing a disease because it might influence a planet’s evolution. In fact, in several episodes of Star Trek (throughout the franchise), Chief Medical Officers actively eliminate diseases to save planets that evolution is otherwise dictating ought to wipe out the planet’s inhabitants . . . without any moral quandary.
Dr. Phlox arrives in Sickbay where he feeds his many animals and plants before he starts to dictate a letter to Jeremy Lucas. Lucas is his human counterpart in the alien medical exchange program and is serving on Denobula. When Enterprise encounters a derelict alien ship that has two weak lifeform readings. The ship is brought aboard and Dr. Phlox discovers the astronauts are suffering from a debilitating disease. The Enterprise journeys to Valakian homeworld where Dr. Phlox sets to trying to cure them of their debilitating disease.
As Phlox negotiates a burgeoning relationship with Crewman Cutler, Ensign Sato inadvertently reveals the presence of a second humanoid species on Valakia: the Menk. The Valakians are advanced, whereas the Menk are primitive, but Phlox believes that the Menk may be the key to curing the Valakians. As Phlox, Sato, and Cutler work to cure the Valakians, Phlox realizes the problem is genetic, not viral and he develops a moral quandary which puts him in conflict with Archer.
“Dear Doctor” has so much potential, but it drops almost all of it. So, for example, there is a huge lull in the episode as the Menk serve Phlox and his team some food. The lines seem to be loaded; explicitly they state that the Valakians provide them with all they need. I kept waiting for a “Solient Green is people” moment, but it never came. So, there is this crazy moment when the episode stops dead for a payoff that simply never comes.
In a similar fashion, the episode raises a moral quandary: the genetic disease is unique to the Valakians, but the Menk live on the planet as well. Phlox is convinced, for most of the episode, that the Menk are the key to curing the Valakians. The sensible direction for this concept to go is the revelation that the Valakians inbreeding over hundreds of generations have led to this and now they need genetic diversity . . . from the Menk. This would also fit smartly with the episode in that Dr. Phlox reveals to Cutler that he has three wives, all of whom have two other husbands. The implicit concept here is that Denobulans smartly value genetic diversity in their offspring and from their marital relationships. Yet, these concepts are entirely dropped and left utterly underdeveloped.
What is exchanged for this concept that is built into both the personal and plot-based elements of the episode is a moral dilemma that seems flimsy at best. Phlox does not want to cure the Valakians of their genetic disorder because he believes that it is evolution at work and that if the Valakians die off, the Menk might rise to the evolutionary challenge of becoming the dominant species on the planet. Given that neither race is ever seen again in the Star Trek franchise, it is very much hard to care about the moral dilemma or even the concept of medically influencing evolution to save one species over another.
What does work in “Dear Doctor” is the acting and the characterization of Dr. Phlox. Phlox is presented as a caring physician and a diligent scientist. He is also characterized here as having a sense of ethics that is unique to the Star Trek Universe. His chemistry with Crewman Cutler is good and John Billingsley presents Phlox as a subtle and complex character. At Phlox’s quiet moments, Billingsley portrays the character as if there is quite a bit going on behind his eyes.
What makes far less sense on the character front is T’Pol – who has a cavity in this episode – and Hoshi Sato. Sato learned Klingon in about five minutes in “Broken Bow” (reviewed here!) and has been characterized consistently as the antithesis of an explorer. And yet, here she is struggling with the Denobulan language, has no issues with walking into a plague zone, and is referred to by Phlox as having a real explorer’s spirit. As well, the initial encounter with the Valakians raises the question yet again of “Just what are the directives StarFleet has at this point?!” When the Enterprise encounters a ship adrift, not knowing anything about the people inside or their condition, they bring it aboard, potentially exposing the crew to a contagion instead of boarding the alien ship in environmental suits.
Ultimately, “Dear Doctor” is fair, but does not live up to its potential.
[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Star Trek: Enterprise - The Complete First Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the premiere season here!
For other Star Trek episode and movie reviews, please visit my Star Trek Review Index Page!
© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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