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Doctor's Orders

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at February 19, 2004 - 3:44 AM GMT

See Also: 'Doctor's Orders' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: Phlox composes a letter to his friend Dr. Lucas to pass the time while he waits for the ship to pass through a dangerous region of the Expanse. He explains that on the way to Azati Prime, the ship encountered another trans-dimensional disturbance and he put all the humans in comas to protect their neocortexes because it would have taken weeks to go around the region otherwise. Because he is Denobulan, he is immune to the madness and death that would have afflicted the humans, so he is responsible for keeping the ship running for four days, following a nervous crash course by Tucker and others in keeping everything running in case the computer has a problem.

Phlox plays with Porthos, feeds his plants in the nude and has his own private movie night, but he becomes nervous when he hears sounds and thinks he's seeing things. He admits to T'Pol, the only other crewmember moving about the ship, that he is having slight headaches and offers to cook for her, admitting his loneliness. Later, while alone, the doctor thinks he sees something outside the ship and summons her, but T'Pol can find no evidence of anything on the sensors and suggests that perhaps his solitude is causing Phlox to see things. Shortly afterward he spots two Xindi-Insectoids, but again T'Pol can find no evidence of their existence on the sensors and a search of the ship proves fruitless. In his panic, Phlox nearly shoots Porthos.

Ignoring the science officer's recommendation that he rest, Phlox continues to make his rounds, imagining first that he sees a horribly deformed Sato blaming him for her suffering, then a wakened Archer saying that T'Pol warned him of Phlox's hallucinations. Phlox knows that they are not real, but he is distressed to discover that he cannot tell reality from illusion. He suggests turning the ship over to her and sedating himself, but T'Pol admits that she is on the verge of losing control of her emotions and says the crew is better off in Phlox's hands. They should be only a few hours away from leaving the disturbance, but it appears that the disturbance has expanded and Phlox decides that they must risk turning on the warp engines to escape.

T'Pol is helpless to assist, claiming that she cannot focus, so Phlox reads the manual and after some initial trouble figures out how to close the plasma relays and generate a warp field. He believes that he sees Tucker coming to berate him, but manages to get the ship into warp, bolstering the hull plating as Reed taught him to do. Once clear of the disturbance, Phlox wakes Archer, who thanks him. Then he walks T'Pol to her quarters to sleep, only to discover that T'Pol is already in her quarters, in a coma; the T'Pol with whom he has been conversing all this time has also been a delusion. Phlox wonders aloud to Dr. Lucas whether he should delete his entire letter but decides to keep it for entertainment purposes, and invites the real T'Pol to eat with him, telling her that the ship didn't feel nearly as empty as he expected.

Analysis: I expected a rehash of Star Trek: Voyager's strained haunted house episode "One", so imagine my delight at getting instead a cross between A Beautiful Mind and The Sixth Sense, headlined by the two actors who seem never to make a wrong move on Enterprise no matter what sort of material they're given. In this case, the material is derivative and it didn't take long for my kids, let alone for me, to figure out that T'Pol wasn't really there; but that discovery makes "Doctor's Orders" a more interesting character study rather than a weak thriller, giving us insight into Phlox's psyche with sympathy and wit.

Like "Dear Doctor", one of Enterprise's best episodes, "Doctor's Orders" is structured as a letter narrated to a human friend familiar with Denobulan culture. Because of the format, the audience is able to see that Phlox may not be entirely stable long before he suspects. In two amusing scenes, he eats a leech and walks around sickbay stark naked to water his plants with various props blocking body parts unsuitable for family television viewing; there's a particularly funny angle on a watering can, suggesting Denobulans may be phenomenally well-endowed.

By the time T'Pol turns up, we have reason to believe she may not be the genuine article. In fact, it's a relief to have that confirmed after her display of utter incompetence in engineering during the episode's climax. But just as John Nash's imaginary roommate from A Beautiful Mind - a literature student - only ever lectures on Lady Chatterley's Lover because it's apparently the only English novel Nash can recall, T'Pol can only know as much as Phlox knows about any given system of the ship. When she orders Phlox to check the long-range sensors, it's a pretty obvious giveaway that this isn't the real science officer; the genuine T'Pol could read sensors no matter how emotional she got, even while having a fling with Tucker or something.

It's delightful to see Phlox's personal impressions of the ship's only other non-human, and to realize that unlike nearly everyone else, he doesn't treat her as particularly exotic whether she's utterly Vulcan in her repression of emotion or more like the humans around her. In fact, seeing T'Pol through Phlox's eyes is quite enlightening: even unbalanced and terrified of Xindi, he takes her expertise for granted and allows her to question his competence with basic equipment, though later when he visualizes Archer and Tucker, they're more intimidating figures - the one condescending, the other very nearly threatening. Phlox's depth of esteem for T'Pol is obviously quite deep, and for once when he dances around the subject of romance, making oblique reference to the irrationality of Commander Tucker, he seems not voyeuristic but like a potential confidant.

It's also obvious that Archer's trust means a great deal to Phlox and he is determined not to let him down, nor to risk anyone's life by prematurely ending the coma state even though he desperately needs help in engineering. It's endearing to watch him bond with the captain's dog in a way we've never seen him bond with the captain. It's also curious to see how little he changes when left entirely alone; unlike the Starfleet officers, who act very differently on duty and in their off-hours, Phlox's personality hardly alters beyond quirks that might be caused by the spatial distortion.

The haunted house atmosphere, dim corridors and empty rooms, gets mitigated by the understanding that most of the threats are inside Phlox's mind - if there were really Xindi running around the ship, as T'Pol logically points out, they'd have to have boarded somehow or beamed on, there would be evidence. Thus it all feels rather domestic, even when we're looking at Phlox and T'Pol through an overhead fisheye lens (one of several lovely shots by director Roxann Dawson). The threat to the crew comes from the same source as their salvation, for Phlox's real fear is that he'll go insane and somehow get everyone killed, but like Archer, we know him enough to trust that that won't happen.

Some fun background ghost-story bits, like a subtle reference to William Shatner's Twilight Zone episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" with the "creature" outside the ship and references to Tucker having shown The Exorcist, don't really distract from the fact that we're watching The Sixth Sense with the same dead giveaways: T'Pol can't operate the machinery, Tucker doesn't acknowledge her presence in the last scene. I'm not quite sure about his own personal movie night choice, which I'm fairly certain is the 1949 production of A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court, other than the fact that he has to take on many different roles and feels out of place among humans, but that seems to have changed somewhat by the end, anyway. (Addendum: I've been told that it's Danny Kaye's The Court Jester. Same comment applies.)

In short, there's very little to praise in terms of the sci-fi of "Doctor's Orders" but as bottle shows go, it's a beautifully done, satisfying episode, and a nice break from the Xindi action storyline while still moving the ship forward on its quest. And unlike "One" which allowed the character who always saved the ship to save it once more, this time we got to see an unlikely hero do the job. If I have a complaint, it's that once again we're not seeing Sato or Mayweather being given anything to do. But I'm not sorry that this job goes to Billingsley and Blalock: they take it and run with it with great style.

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Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.

Michelle Erica Green reviews 'Enterprise' episodes for the Trek Nation, for which she is also a news writer. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.

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