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Dear Doctor

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at January 24, 2002 - 9:51 AM GMT

See Also: 'Dear Doctor' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: Narrating a letter to a human friend and mentor, Dr. Phlox describes his fascination with human empathy. He is struck by the fact that Tucker cries over emotional movie scenes, and that Archer talks to his dog as if Porthos were a person. During a friendly meal with Sato, the doctor admits some confusion about whether Elizabeth Cutler's social overtures toward him might indicate romantic interest. Though Sato says that Phlox and Cutler make a cute couple, T'Pol warns the doctor that humans are immature and sometimes pursue extra-species relationships only to satisfy their own curiosity.

But Phlox also has larger concerns, for Enterprise encounters a small pre-warp vessel carrying two crewmembers with a deadly disease. They beg Phlox to help their people, which Archer permits. When the ship arrives at the alien planet, the doctor discovers that the dying Valakians have a genetic flaw triggering their extinction, while the Menk -- another humanoid race on the planet, currently subjugated to the Valakians -- show signs of intellectual and social evolution.

Archer believes that if Phlox can cure the alien disease, then he has an obligation as a healer to do so. But the doctor strongly resists interfering with the natural progression of life on the planet, asking Archer what would have happened had ancient aliens given Neanderthals an advantage over Homo Sapiens on Earth. Meanwhile the Valakians ask for warp drive in the hope of contacting other healers, but Archer agrees with T'Pol that the aliens are not ready for the dangers of warp technology. In the end, he reluctantly concludes that Phlox is right to resist playing god. Even though the doctor has developed a cure for the disease, Archer gives the Valakians only medicine to slow the symptoms and ease suffering along with hope that they will find a cure themselves.

Analysis: The first truly great episode of Enterprise offers the sort of ethical dilemma that made episodes like The Next Generation's 'Pen Pals' and Voyager's 'Tuvix' unforgettable. Rather than take the easy way out and provide a deus ex machina solution to the crisis, the writers force Archer to make a decision that is sure to upset many viewers -- as Phlox says, it goes against instinctive human compassion, and it's not even mandated by a Prime Directive as it would have been on later series. But that's the point. Where Kirk probably would have found some rule-breaking solution to save everyone and Janeway probably would have cited her unhappy obligation to uphold Starfleet values, Archer weighs his responsibilities and comes to a conclusion he knows he must implement even if he doesn't like it.

Yet the wrenching drama is only the first of many elements that make 'Dear Doctor' a triumph. Seamlessly interwoven subplots and moving character development, supplemented by unforced humor and strong narrative structure, combine to bring out all the show's assets. Sato, who had a thankless role in last week's 'Silent Enemy,' is used to great effect here both as a communications officer and a person -- I wish we'd gotten to see her sociable, gossipy side a bit more before, because now it makes sense that Archer would choose her to contact Reed's relatives about his birthday. She and Phlox have a marvelously textured relationship from their first scene together, when she delivers his messages and tries to find out whether he has a lover back home. Later we see them sharing a meal and chatting in Denobulan; at first it appears that the doctor has become a linguistic coach, but it quickly becomes apparent that the mentoring goes both ways as he asks her advice about reading Cutler's romantic signals.

Still, there's a lot about himself Phlox apparently hasn't told Sato or anyone else on board, as we discover when his fear of her prejudices prompts the doctor to tell Cutler about his three wives. Though Phlox resists T'Pol's suggestion that the human woman may only be interested in him sexually as a matter of curiosity -- his experiences with humans suggest that they have more compassion than the unemotional Vulcan may perceive -- he is troubled by how quickly the humans conclude that the Menk must feel oppressed by the Valakians, based on their own insular values. For someone as curious about other cultures as Phlox, I find it interesting that he hasn't satisfied human interest about Denobulans, which he must encounter regularly, given the relative lack of contact most of the crew has had with extraterrestrials. Evidently he has insecurities about acceptance, even while he tries to paint himself as an enthusiastic observer, an outsider.

Cutler remains enigmatic; we learned little about her in Strange New Worlds, so it's possible to share the doctor's concern that her attentions may stem from a desire to go where no human has gone before rather than growing passion for him as a person. After all, there's a lot she doesn't know about him, either. When we first see them together, they are mentoring one another in a manner much like Phlox's friendship with Sato, with Phlox teaching Cutler about medicine and her teaching him about Earth entertainment. We don't observe them exchanging much that's personal -- even his willingness to share physical contact with her is couched in terms of human and Denobulan customs.

Cutler laughs when Phlox asks whether she is married, as if it's silly that he might think so, but the cultural divide might run a lot deeper than she initially suggests. When the doctor comes out and asks the young crewmember about the nature of her feelings for him, she retreats to that safe (and often dreaded) term 'friend.' He doesn't seem disappointed. Obviously Phlox has an abiding friendship with another human, Jeremy, to whom he narrates his personal experiences over the course of the episode -- a very well-used device in this instance. Yet because we see Phlox's relationship with Cutler evolving in series-time, we don't really know how many intimate details of his life he shares with his correspondent. Nor do we know which human sensibilities and foibles Phlox's friend has shared in return.

Friends are what these people need, though. Archer and T'Pol have a wonderful scene in which he uses her as a sounding board and even admits he finally understands how the Vulcans must feel dealing with humans; there's no longer any resentment or defensiveness on either of their parts about the necessity of their collaboration. Tucker seems to be close with everyone on his crew and comfortable sharing his emotions, even if he doesn't want to admit to Phlox that he was crying at the movies. Reed still prefers his isolation, blowing off a request by the doctor to share a meal, and Mayweather is hardly in this episode, which is a shame; I'd be curious to know how a human not as firmly tied to Earth as Archer and the others might feel about expending resources and intervening in the development of a non-human culture, whether there would be any differences in his perceptions.

It's ironic and sad that Phlox's initial resistance to T'Pol's dispassionate outlook gives way to the necessity for a similar scientific approach to the suffering he witnesses more closely than anyone else on Enterprise. Although their perspective holds sway and wins over Archer, they are both clearly cast as outsiders, bearing the burden of their positions in private as well as in their jobs. I would like to see the doctor and the Vulcan working closely together in a situation where they both know more or have more experience than the humans and have to persuade the crew to see things from their vantage.

Structurally, I'm a little sorry we don't see the whole episode unfold from Phlox's point of view, though certain exposition scenes like the discovery of the alien ship might have been too complicated that way. All the rest of my frustrations with the episode are purely a matter of time -- we don't really get to see enough of Menk civilization, to get a visceral feel for whether they seem oppressed, and we see nothing of Valakian society outside their hospitals. The pace of the episode is excellent, with the witty segments integrated more smoothly than in previous installments. It's rare to see an episode where two characters get so much development yet many others make memorable appearances as well.

There are a number of topics for debate. Whether Archer or Phlox should have given the Valakians a hint about which avenues to pursue or at least show them the research suggesting that they had reached an evolutionary dead end, for instance. The broader issue of whether they should have given the aliens the benefit of their technology as Picard did willingly in 'Pen Pals,' reluctantly in 'Homeward' -- even if they refused to provide a cure or teach the aliens how to construct a warp engine, they could have taken a small craft further outside the system to seek help elsewhere, which might be bucking responsibility but might also expose the Valakians to options beyond Enterprise's scope or understanding of evolution. Yet in the end the story isn't so much about the decision, but how that decision was reached. In this early Trek version of the no-win scenario, Archer and Phlox both pass the Kobayashi Maru test.

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Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.

Michelle Erica Green reviews Enterprise episodes and Star Trek books for the Trek Nation, as well as Andromeda episodes for SlipstreamWeb. She has written for magazines and sites such as SFX, Cinescape and Another Universe. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.

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