Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Enterprise, Season 1: Dear Doctor

 Enterprise, Season 1
"Dear Doctor"

Airdate: January 23, 2002

12 of 97 produced

12 of 97 aired

Captain Archer must make a difficult decision when a less advanced civilization asks for his help in dealing with a planetwide illness.

Please note: No pet dogs were called upon to be sacrificed for the greater good in this episode.

Matthew: OK, I'm just going to state from the outset that this review is going to engage in several extended comparisons to Kurtzman Trek (including SNW), in which Kurtzman Trek comes out the poorer. I don't feel like I can proceed otherwise. Dear Doctor is a quintessential "Star Trek" episode, and it is very instructive with respect to how to (and how not to) write stories that engage us in this way. So, first off: this is an "alien of the week." There is no connection to any larger story line, except in conversation. This has the effect of allowing us to really get to know the Valakians and the Menk over 43 minutes or so. Yes, there are character stories and "Piller Filler," but all of it is carefully crafted towards enhancing the overall narrative of this story. So, for instance, when Phlox and Cutler watch a movie, and then have a conversation about Denobulan polygamy, this does further their "soap opera" story. But it also illuminates human sentimentality and questions of cultural relativism, which play a major role in the quandary of the alien of the week. In Strange New Worlds, which is (very) easily the best of the live action Kurtzman shows, this sort of connection is lacking to a greater degree. The most recent episode we reviewed is an example. The Gorn are (apparently) a vicious, monstrous race who will literally eat the face off of any sentient being they come across. How is Uhura's uncertainty over whether to remain in Starfleet related to this overall theme? It simply isn't. SNW episodes, which remember, constitute the best of the new shows, tend to spend upwards of 20 minutes per episode on character subplots that are unrelated to the main plot. This has the effect of rendering those main stories sorely undercooked (something like 8 of 9 episodes thus far have suffered from this).  Now, I am not claiming that Enterprise has been flawless in this regard, but this episode is a sterling example of doing it right.

Kevin: The basics of this story are, indeed, pure uncut Star Trek. And I agree that this episode is a pretty good example of working the character story into the broader philosophical one. For both, Phlox is exploring the clash of his own expectations versus those of his human companions, and that's a fun through line. I will push back slightly on your assessment of SNW. The show establishes that Uhura basically joined Starfleet while at loose ends after the life she expected to have was catastrophically altered, and having found some meaningful connections on the Enterprise, she has to decide whether to continue down that path, even in the face of the risk, and then reality, of losing those same connections. Now, I agree that SNW didn't make that arc the central focus of the episodes the way a TNG or TNG might, but I don't think it was unconnected, more that it was not focused on and developed to the extent I would have wanted. But even as much as I love bashing Kurtzman, and I do, I think its as much an artifact how stories are broken down in the streaming era versus the syndicated era, Star Trek or otherwise. To re-focus on this episode, the show can take its time in a way that entertainment in the Marvel era simply cannot. That's not even a criticism as much as it is an observation. Modern stories just expect chemistry between the actors to do the heavy lifting that dialogue once did. Coming back to Enterprise, independent of comparison to other series, the character story is spot on. I care about Phlox because he is charming and fun and nice, so I care about the things he cares about. On that front, the episode succeeds in spades.

Matthew: Now, as far as the ethical dilemma, we are given a doozy, and it is effectively dramatized both in direct scenes and in dialogue. The Menk village and people are quite primitive, and the actors have clearly been directed to portray the Menk as intellectually challenged, which brings up feelings the viewer might have about similarly challenged persons in their own lives. But the conversations around the issue of whether to help the more advanced species are also really on point. The crew feels the Menk are being exploited, while Phlox is able to maintain a cultural relativist distance. When Archer discusses with T'Pol whether to give the Valakians warp drive to help find a cure for their genetic disease, she compares humans intervening here to Vulcans intervening on Earth. "We're still there." As Archer argues with Phlox over whether to distribute the cure to them, both of them offer cogent, strong cases for their view. Don't they have a duty to offer aid and reduce suffering? But what if aliens had intervened on Earth and given Neanderthals a medical advantage? Creating competing intellectual positions that are each compelling is infinitely more engaging to me than creating a monster that is scary and disembowels people.

Kevin: I agree that the basic plot is juicy for its philosophical potential. If and how to interfere is a really fun one. And I agree that both sides get a full throated defense. I think the problem for me is that the problem is too neat. It's almost a TOS in how loudly it announces itself as an ethical dilemma. It's reverse engineered a little too forcefully to create this exact problem. It's almost the trolley problem in terms of how neatly it places moral values in conflict. I also think the problem is that the people suffering and dying are sentient beings asking for help, and that creates an immediacy that renders the other concerns a little less urgent. I think a better way to thread the needle and emphasize the 'playing god' elements would be something more like a fertility crisis. It would present the same evolutionary arguments without consigning a whole species to apparent pulmonary failure. Then they really would be picking a winner, separate from the dilemma of helping people who are both dying and asking for help.

Matthew: If I have some criticisms, they would be aimed at the portrayal of the Menk not doing enough to underscore the "exploitation" aspect of the crew's disdain. Maybe we could have seen Menk doing menial work, or going underpaid, or being patronized by the Valakians. I had a hankering for some good old "Cloud Minders" style Marxist alienation and exploitation. Oh, well.

Kevin: I think the Menk exploitation plot is underdeveloped and crowds out the main story, at least a little. If the Menk were simply another post-industrial/pre-warp society on the planet, it would let the ethics of the main story take center stage a little. I think there is an implicit argument Phlox is making that the Menk 'taking over' for the Valakians has a kind of 'fate' to it, and that bugs me as a secular humanist. The Valakians aren't 'first' and the Menk aren't 'next.' They just are, wherever they happen to be. Evolution is a descriptive, not a proscriptive process. If I wanted to be a lawyer about it, I would even say that if the Valakians can successfully elicit more sympathy for their plight from the Enterprise crew than the Menk can with theirs, then they have best adapted to their environment, and won the evolutionary argument. I think the stronger focus for this episode would be less that they are interfering in the "natural order" whatever that means, but more that involving themselves creates too many unknowns, kind of like Picard's argument in Symbiosis. Honestly, the more I think I about, I think the Menk are kind of superfluous, there only to create an alternate for the Valakians on this world. The basic ethical issues are the same whether the Menk exist or not. The Valakians are dying, and the Enterprise has to decide if intervening is truly ethical, separate from their first emotional response. Helping them now is basically signing Earth up to be their protector and savior for the foreseeable future, and that's a more complicated question than they might first like to admit.

I'm also going to add here that, so far, I really like how they are developing the Phlox/Cutler relationship. I like that she makes clear she is not looking for a marriage, but I didn't necessarily read her desire for 'friendship' as foreclosing the possibility of a physically and emotionally intimate relationship. I can see them both letting this relationship form to the contours of what they ultimately agree to, and I like that. I would love for Star Trek to portray a healthy, beneficial friends with benefits relationship.


Matthew: This is obviously a John Billingsley showcase, and he nails it. His voice over is excellent, his physical acting (a la Data's Day) really sells the voice over, and his intellectually circumspect attitude is evident in his line readings. He also does a great job with Kelly Waymire's Crewman Cutler. She is just adorable, and I totally bought her emotional response as someone who is romantically interested in someone but not totally confident in pursuing them.

Kevin: Agreed. I have quibbles about a few of the settings of the dials on the main story, but that largely falls before some charming acting and chemistry. Both Waymire and Billingsley are just slinging charm at the camera. 

Matthew: I think this was also a bit of a coming out party for Scott Bakula. He has graduated from petulantly shouting his disagreement with someone (generally T'Pol) and instead coming across as passionate but able to consider multiple concerns regarding an issue. Grace Park also did a great job dispensing advice as a non-romantic friend to Phlox.

Kevin: I wouldn't have thought it until you said it, but I agree. I especially liked his conversation with T'Pol. He did a good job displaying sympathy for the Vulcan position and how it informs the choices he is making now.

Production Values

Matthew: I quite liked the Valakian "futuropolis." Was it a bit generic? Sure. But it did the job of making them more advanced than us, but not as advanced as the Federation. Their ship was not a great digital model, however. The Menk setting was also well rendered.

Kevin: I think this was pretty adequate in terms of the special effects, but I don't think anything was bad certainly.


Matthew: I am wavering between a 4 and a 5 on this one. It engages so many of the intellectual and emotional muscles that the best Trek does for me, and it's hard not to be swept up in nostalgia for that after such a long drought with Kurtzman Trek (a franchise in which we have been told that racism is bad, xenophobia is bad, and violent solutions to problems are good - without any cogent arguments to the contrary). I think I'm at a "high" 4. I realize that this episode lacks a compelling character among the aliens - a Mirasta Yale, a Quarren, or a Nuria - to really crystallize the cultural weltanschauung of the aliens. But boy, did I ever enjoy it.  This episode crystallizes what Enterprise has been lacking to some degree in its first season - the focus on gadgets and conflicts has side-lined this sort of quintessential "ethical morality play" brand of Trek. It's so great to have it back.

Kevin: This is more dead center of a 4 for me, but I agree it's a very good episode. I think the ethical question could have been tightened up a little to really give a little more oopmh. And I agree it needed a character I cared about among the Valakian or the Menk to really give emotional dimension to the philosophical stakes. But I think it succeeds at its core goal, or showing that our first impulse to help is not the obvious solution we might want it to be. The episode is successfully thought provoking and entertaining, and that's worth an easy 4 from me, for a total of 8.


  1. This is another of those cases where I just wish the Trek writers would get it that there is no teleology in evolution by natural selection. Voyager had it bad.
    The misunderstanding does not change the course of the story in this case, or undermine the dilemma. All the more reason to just get it right.

    Oh well, this is still my favourite episode of the first season (unless... ah, we'll get there). No hostile aliens, no backstabbing, no running, and no explosions. Just excellent acting and competent writing. *happy sigh*

    John Billingsley is the man, by the way.

    1. I do of course agree completely with keeping Teleology out of discussions of evolution, and VOY "Threshold" probably is the worst offender in the franchise for this - but I don't think this episode was too bad on that score. There was a lot of "the Menk may become the dominant species" sort of talk, not "the Menk are evolving towards a more advanced state."

  2. This episode has always bugged me because I found Phlox's standpoint on interfering into the evolutionary process being framed by him as some sort of an unethical thing going against some grander bullsh!t plan infuriating. By saying "what if someone had interfered in the evolutionary process of humans and the Neanderthals had become the dominant species" he is basically implying fate and destiny, which, ironically enough, are actually deeply unscientific things. Because I mean so the hell what if Neanderthals had become the dominant species? Then they would be in charge. Who says life has to go one way only? Who says it would have to have been homo sapiens or else? So then Neanderthals would be the dominant species. Against whose law or will would it go? Some creator? How scientific is that!

    Plus, I mean with modern medicine, and as Archer says, everytime you treat someone or do gene therapy or whatever, you interfere in an evolutionary process. Maybe the grand plan is as many people as possible getting cancer and dying so that this way the cancer gene is rooted out or something. So one could then argue that treating cancer (or any illness) goes against evolution. See what a terrible argument that is? Not to mention that freakin' Phlox himself would never suggest withholding treatment for a sick patient based on some abstract idea of destiny cloaked in evolution.
    He would treat the patient. That he refused to do so now and was willing to watch an entire species die horribly because what might be hundreds or thousands of years from now, that was unforgivable to me and deeply unethical.

    That Archer went along with it and Phlox praised him made it even worse. You dont let those that live right now and for whom you have a cure and solution suffer and die for some potentiality, especially one thousands of years down the road. Maybe the Menk would still have found a way to make it? Maybe the two could have co-existed? There are so many factors that could be at play when it comes to something like that. Who knows. you can't control that but to withhold treatment and therefore something you can control? That was wrong and I gotta say I dont find the argument convincing and cogent at all.

    Yes evolution is a fundamental scientific principle. EVOLUTION. And Phlox does say evolution but the way he is talking and acting, it is like he is actually describing fate and creationism and intent, which he feels he is not allowed to touch or alter. Like there is this plan, by the mysterious evolution who has intent, to make sure the Menk make it and he cannot possibly interfere in this brilliant plan. That is not evolution though.

    1. I agree that the solution they arrived at sort of sidestepped the very real debate of what was the ethically correct thing to do. Doesn't the Valakian outreach for help in spaceships count as something noteworthy and valuable, evolution notwithstanding? It reminds me of Riker's statement in Pen Pals: "if there is some cosmic plan, aren't we a part of it?" Isn't the reduction of harm in the here and now important?

      But whatever the flaws in how the characters answered those questions, the episode asked them, and gets credit for them from me.

      Thanks for this great comment, and keep it up! It makes blogging worthwhile :-)