Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This January, we’re doing the first season. Check back daily for the latest review.
Dear Doctor is certainly the most ambitious episode from the first season of Star Trek: Enterprise, and also the most controversial.
The show’s first true “Prime Directive” episode, the show wrestles with the moral implications of “playing god”, attempting to justify the inevitable development of “Starfleet General Order Number One”, the rule prohibiting interference in the development of “less advanced” species. As such, there is almost an impossible amount of weight bearing down on Dear Doctor, as the show tries to explore the moral conundrums that result from contact with a less technologically advanced species.
Dear Doctor is an episode that is deeply problematic. Indeed, it was a show that was so controversial and so divisive that UPN itself insisted on a change to the episode’s ending. It’s an episode that tends to provoke strong reactions, from both defenders and detractors. It inspires passion. It is not uncommon to find people who will rank the episode among the very best of Enterprise and the very worst of Enterprise.
While the show’s internal logic and conclusions are quite unsettling, Dear Doctor is a provocative and challenging hour of television. It is decidedly more ambitious than any of the episodes surrounding it, even other experimental shows like Breaking the Ice or Shuttlepod One. While it might not be the best episode of the first season, it is certainly the most breathakingly ambitious and engaging. And that must count for something.
The meat of Dear Doctor lies in the “pre-Prime Directive” plotline. That is the story thread that provokes the most discussion and debate. It’s tempting to jump right into a discussion of that. However, to do so would ignore many of the unequivocal strengths of Dear Doctor in favour of embracing the most controversial and divisive aspect. Brushing over the moral dilemma at the heart of the story, Dear Doctor is a very well-constructed episode.
Compared to the other Star Trek spin-offs, the cast of Enterprise has relatively few outsiders. Of the entire crew, only Phlox and T’Pol are not human. As such, the ensemble can occasionally feel a little generic or bland when compared to the more diverse composition of shows like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or Star Trek: Voyager. As such, it’s to the credit of Dear Doctor that the episode is able to develop the character of Phlox so skilfully, firmly establishing him as an outsider looking in.
John Billingsley is probably the strongest member of the Enterprise ensemble. Like Robert Picardo or Jeri Ryan on Star Trek: Voyager, or like Patrick Stewart or Brent Spiner or Michael Dorn on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Billingsley is able to do a phenomenal amount with relatively little screentime. His comic timing is superb, and he is very adept at pushing Phlox into the uncanny valley – using body language or facial expression to make Phlox seem distinctly (and occasionally unnervingly) alien.
So basing an entire episode around Phlox is a great idea, particularly an episode designed to emphasise the character’s rather alien perspective. Sure, the script occasionally gets a little heavy-handed in Phlox’s fascination with human sentimentality, but it does cleverly distinguish his outlook from those of his peers. Perhaps taking a note from Billingsley’s performance, Dear Doctor suggests that Phlox’s alien qualities are less because of his biology and more to do with his philosophy and psychology.
The script conveys this in a number of ways. It reminds us that interpersonal contact must obviously come with different thresholds of comfort for different species – the casual touching that humans take for granted must be a decidedly unnerving experience for Phlox. (“I’m trying to shed some of my cultural inhibitions,” he assures Ensign Cutler.) Similarly, his inability to comprehend the human fascination with the heart – remarking that “physiologically, it is nothing more than a very efficient pump” – hints at how easy it is to take certain human ideas for granted.
Much more interestingly, Phlox comes from a rather unique place as an alien character on Star Trek. Many of the aliens on the show define themselves in relation to humanity or their own culture. Spock, Worf, Garak, Odo and Quark all find themselves torn between the traditions and morality of their own cultures and a more humanist philosophy. In contrast, characters like Data, the Doctor and Seven of Nine all seem to aspire to embrace humanity. They seek to become fully-formed people, using humanity as a template for that journey.
In contrast, Phlox is something of a “tourist” to humanity. He is perfectly happy as a Denobulan. With an exception of The Breach, the show never really has Phlox approach a particular issue from a Denobulan standpoint, and his cultural traditions rarely clash with the crew around him. Phlox has a family waiting for him back on Denobula, but it’s never a source of drama or crisis. He never finds himself drawn too heavily into Denobulan politics or culture clashes, he never feels so insecure he has to assert his Denobulan-ness.
Phlox isn’t an exile or an orphan or somebody stranded among humanity by circumstance or choice. Phlox can always go home. He is simply on an extended sabbatical among mankind, immersing himself in the culture. He eats Chinese food, he attends movie screenings, he considers romance with a human woman. He is a tourist happily wading into a different cultural stew, savouring the experience, sampling new perspectives. He doesn’t want to become human or anything as absurd as that. He just thinks it might be nice to explore the culture, while remaining comfortable in his own skin.
It’s a very twenty-first century approach to cultural identity and multi-culturalism. It’s one of the more progressive and engaging aspects of Enterprise. Deep Space Nine can claim to be the first truly multi-cultural version of Star Trek, but even that spin-off seemed to suggest that it was difficult to retain one’s own cultural identity in a truly multi-cultural environment. In contrast, Phlox never has to choose between human and Denobulan values or life-styles. The universe is big enough that he can get by without having to choose.
Dear Doctor has a notably relaxed pace. In many ways, it recalls the last script from André and Marie Jacquemetton, Breaking the Ice. There’s a lot of space for character interaction and development. It’s quite a while before the episode’s actual substantive plot starts, instead offering a glimpse at what a day in the life of Doctor Phlox must look like. It’s a very sedate style of storytelling, but it’s one that works very well for this purpose. Much like Breaking the Ice allowed for character to shine through in the space left by a fairly simple plot, Dear Doctor is relaxed enough to afford us a glimpse at day-to-day life on Enterprise.
This relaxed structure works well for episodes like Breaking the Ice, Cold Front and Dear Doctor. It’s an approach to Star Trek that treats plot as secondary to character development, which is a bit of a new departure for the franchise. Even the more character-driven episodes of Deep Space Nine were typically governed by plot; something would happen to spur the episode on, and various characters would define themselves in response to it.
In contrast, the events in these episodes of Enterprise seem quite removed from the character drama. Sure, Phlox’s inability to understand the human capacity for empathy ties into the heavy “Prime Directive” plot, but his flirtation with Cutler exists almost entirely coincidentally. Similarly, the tiny character moments for cast members like Reed or Trip are completely divorced from anything involving the Valakians. (Much like nothing material actually happens until the last ten minutes of Breaking the Ice, or the Temporal Cold War stuff is quite separate from the character moments in Cold Front.)
It’s a shame that Enterprise would seem to move away from this storytelling style in the second half of the first season and into the second. After this point, Enterprise becomes a lot more plot-driven, which causes problems when trying to distinguish it from the other Star Trek spin-offs. Still, Dear Doctor is a welcome example of Enterprise trying to push characters to the forefront of a narrative, allowing for development and contrast.
Of course, all of this is seldom discussed when Dear Doctor comes up in conversation. Dear Doctor is very much an example of Enterprise working as a prequel to the Star Trek franchise – explaining how certain parts of the mythos came to be. In this case, the first contact with the Valakians seems to foreshadow the Prime Directive, something the episode rather clumsily hammers home in Archer’s big speech.
“Someday,” he offers, “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.” He hits on just about all the big ideas – and even gets the word “directive” in there. Dear Doctor doesn’t get many points for subtlety.
Then again, Star Trek has never been subtle about the Prime Directive. The Prime Directive is an interesting story concept. It’s been a part of the franchise since the first season of the classic Star Trek show, even if it is generally only mentioned before the crew decide to violate. Spock would typically bring up the concept, and Kirk would then flagrantly defy it, finding some loophole or justification to excuse his meddling.
In many respects, this is the defining attribute of the Prime Directive on the classic Star Trek show. On a purely pragmatic level, it was a great source of conflict; it instantly raised the stakes in any situation, adding a moral element to the crisis at hand. It was, in theory, a great idea; one designed to prevent imperialism or colonialism. However, it didn’t always work in practice. Sometimes interference was justified or necessary, because the universe did not operate in absolutes.
This in many ways reflected contemporary politics. Star Trek could never decide whether America was morally justified in engaging in the Vietnam War. Episodes like The City on the Edge of Forever and The Return of the Archons seemed to advance an argument for American engagement on the global stage, while shows like A Taste of Armageddon and Errand of Mercy were brutal in their criticisms of American intervention in the region. So this was reflected in the attitude to the Prime Directive. Sometimes it was a worthy ideal, but sometimes it had to be broken.
However, things got a bit more awkward when Star Trek returned to television with The Next Generation in the late eighties. The Prime Directive was absolute. It was presented as an absolute ban on interference. Far from a block on imperialism, the Prime Directive became a ban on any intervention. It became justification for the Federation to sit back and watch entire worlds die and civilisations collapse because… well, that’s what nature wanted.
Even in episodes where the crew breached the Prime Directive (as in Pen Pals or Homeward), the show stopped just short of condemning the directive itself. In many respects, this reflected a shift in American foreign policy since the broadcast of the original Star Trek show. There was a palpable reluctance on the part of America to entangle itself in foreign conflicts following Vietnam; for example, America’s refusal to commit to unilateral action during the First Gulf War.
The United States has grappled with questions about the morality of intervention in recent years. While the Clinton administration tried to avoid direct entanglements in foreign theatres, it is worth noting that Clinton considers the government’s reluctance to intervene in the Rwandan Genocide as one of his greatest regrets. Of course, that reluctance to intervene was rooted in the failure of early attempts to engage with Somalian issues. It remains a controversial issue; there is debate about the morality of possible intervention in Syria.
However, this somewhat dogmatic position assumes that all intervention is military or colonial. It discounts the idea that aid can provided on strictly humanitarian terms. Picard’s willingness to allow entire worlds die invites questions about how the Prime Directive would apply to contemporary politics. Would providing food to a starving nation be considered a violation? What about aid in the aftermath of a natural disaster? Is there some threshold of technological advancement that a society must reach before they merit assistance?
Star Trek critic Michelle Erica Green suggests that the Prime Directive is counter-productive as an attempt to limit the damage caused by imperialism:
It isn’t a law that prevents colonialism but encourages it – stopping the trade of technology for ideas or talents or supplies that could be mutually beneficial to everyone, but especially the so-called developing cultures, keeping them in a position where they can’t contribute and so can’t benefit. It’s patronizing – it creates a Starfleet-centered view of what’s valuable and important in the universe, then refuses to share with those who don’t have. I’ve always been a bit clueless on why Janeway thought it would be such a big deal to swap technology with the Kazon – they might not have had replicators, but they clearly had warp capability, and the mere fact of Voyager’s presence in their quadrant had already altered the balance of power among their sects, so why not open dialogue to everyone’s mutual benefit?
This says nothing of the arbitrary limitations on intervention.
The problem with Dear Doctor‘s moral position is that it starts from a position where the Prime Directive is unquestionably correct and right. It refuses to even consider the idea that the Prime Directive might be a flawed and problematic rule that causes as much harm as it prevents. As such, the episode is so fixated with justifying the Prime Direction that it never pauses to offer a thorough examination of the philosophy underpinning the argument.
The first time that Archer has second thoughts about engaging with Valakian affairs is when the scale of that interference becomes apparent to him. “We could stay and help them,” he tells T’Pol. She replies, “The Vulcans stayed to help Earth ninety years ago. We’re still there.” It’s treated as a terrible burden – having to stay here and help these primitive people. It’s a very self-centred moral perspective, and one that doesn’t make much practical sense.
After all, humanity could send a humanitarian first aid mission to help in the long term. It doesn’t have to be led by Archer and the crew of the Enterprise. More than that, Archer seems to react as if his wondrous deep space adventure has been ruined by the fact that he may have to pause to help all these sick people. It’s not a conversation that paints Archer or Starfleet in a very flattering light – particularly when, as pointed out, the Vulcans did stay with humanity and did try to help.
The episode struggles to try to justify Phlox’s reluctance to help these people, explaining why this case is any different than any other illness he might cure. “This epidemic isn’t being caused by a virus or bacteria,” he explains at one point. “Their illness is genetic.” Does that mean that Phlox would be reluctant to heal a patient with a congenital defect or a genetic problem? Or would he simply treat them, rather than cure them?
Phlox ultimately justifies this by arguing that it is “evolution.” However, as Geraldine Harris points out in Beyond Representation, this is a somewhat thorny issue:
Doctor Phlox states, ‘evolution is more than a theory, it is a fundamental scientific principle.’ Even accepting this, the particular narrative of evolution favoured in this episode (as elsewhere in the mega-text), with its ‘scientific’ appeal to nature from a position within a culture that is assumed to be the model for advanced societies, is one that since the enlightenment has been used to provide a pseudoscientific basis for racism and colonialism. Taken as part of a story of progress towards a utopian global future, Dear Doctor could be read as an argument on one hand for ‘natural selection’ that denies the responsibility of so-called ‘developed’ nations of the world for providing aid to ‘less developed states’, and on the other, for colonisation to ensure they develop according to the ‘proper’ cultural model.
After all, Phlox’s argument assumes that “evolution” exists as a force with a single defined end point rather than as a process that is continually in progress. Would vaccinating against smallpox be a violation of the Prime Directive?
The issue is compounded by the issue of the Menk, the second species living on the planet. Phlox tries to argue that evolution is killing off the Valakians to make room for the Menk. “If the Menk are to flourish, they need an opportunity to survive on their own,” Phlox argues. Would Phlox be happy to save the Valakians if the Menk didn’t exist? If so, he is clearly making his own value judgement. He can’t just pretend that he hasn’t found something that will save millions and millions of lives.
And that ignores the rather uncomfortable undertones of Phlox’s argument. He seems to suggest that peaceful coexistence is impossible between two evolved species on one planet. That’s a very pessimistic way of looking at the universe. The Menk are clearly evolving, and they won’t simply stop evolving because the Valakians haven’t had the good grace to die off yet. There may be unintended consequences, but those consequences are purely theoretical when measured against the certainty of extinction.
As it stands, the ending of Dear Doctor closes on something of a compromise. Archer decides not to order Phlox to cure the Valakians, but does provide some medical care that helps with the treatment of the disease. “Phlox tells me this medicine will help ease the symptoms for a decade, maybe more,” he offers. “A lot can happen in that time. I wouldn’t be surprised if you developed a cure on your own.” It’s a very patronising sentiment.
Unless Archer offered a placebo – which would be an incredibly dark twist at the end of the tale – surely this is just another form of “playing God”? After all, if the additional ten years afforded by the medicine give the Valakians the chance to cure the illness, won’t that represent just as much an act of interference as curing the disease themselves? Having Phlox provide a treatment – while refusing to provide the cure – represents a false compromise.
This compromise weakens the episode a great deal, reducing the complexity of the issue. As the Jacquemettons explain to Science Fiction Television Series, 1990-2004:
“The script’s original ending had Dr. Phlox disobeying Captain Archer’s orders to administer a cure to the Valakian race, whose species was facing extinction,” the Jacquemettons recall. “Archer believed that if humans could help an alien race from dying, we had an obligation to do so. Phlox, on the other hand, although appreciative of human compassion, felt it was wrong to interfere with nature and was willing to go against his captain if necessary, to protect this belief. This ending didn’t go down well with the powers-that-be. They felt the captain’s authority was undermined by a crew member. Thus, the ending was changed.”
It’s a shame, because Archer makes some very good points in his discussion with Phlox. He’s correct to argue that Phlox is arguing based on conjecture and abstracts.
Apparently, the change came directly from UPN itself. As John Billingsley explained:
“The ending that had initially been created I was fairly comfortable with. But the head of the studio suggested some revisions on the ending. What do you do? I wasn’t as happy with the revisions, but it’s not my show, you have to sort of adjust, even if sometimes it does seem a bit of a contradiction in terms for what your character is supposed to be about.”
So how did the ending change? “[In the original version,] in this crisis of conscience, the Doctor essentially does something that violates the standard issue hierarchical obligations of a crewmember to his captain,” he explains. “In effect, he makes a decision that’s rooted in ‘I’ve got bigger fish to fry,’ rather than honoring his captain’s wishes. The network essentially felt that no, it was important to essentially make sure that everyone was here to support the captain’s decisions. Personally I thought, ‘Well, I think you’ve kind of lost something interesting in this potential tension.’ But, that’s not my call.”
It’s an approach that grossly over-simplifies a very thorny and very difficult issue. Reducing it to a consensus – however hard it might be to reach – loses a bit of the edge.
As such, Dear Doctor goes from what might have been a thoughtful clash of cultures and viewpoints to an episode effectively justifying the Prime Directive. It would have been more effective to leave the issue stewing with the audience. (Indeed, Billingsley himself has admitted that he’s not sure he agrees with the episode’s rather neat moral.) Leaving a note of ambiguity – and accepting that hard-and-fast rules may not be the best fit for a situation like this – would enhance the episode a great deal.
Indeed, for all that Archer might not agree with Phlox’s decision to withhold medical treatment, he faces his own dilemmas related to what would become the Prime Directive. While his reluctance to get involved with the Valakians because it would require a long-term commitment is hard to accept, his unwillingness to provide warp power to a young and desperate civilisation is a lot easier to understand. After all, it is quite comparable to issues with nuclear proliferation – it’s a great source of energy, but one that come with massive risks.
Still, while Dear Doctor stumbles in its attempts to have everybody agree, at least it isn’t afraid to deal with big weighty questions. This is good old-fashioned issue-driven Star Trek, and while the outcome may not be ideal, at least Dear Doctor is willing to engage with questions that may not have easy answers. Ultimately, the biggest problem with Dear Doctor is that it tries to provide an easy answer to such a question.
Dear Doctor isn’t the best episode of the season. It’s far too problematic for that. However, it is ambitious and it is engaging, and it focuses on an interesting character in an interesting way. It’s significantly flawed, but that’s okay for a first season episode. There is time for improvement, after all.
- Broken Bow
- Fight or Flight
- Strange New World
- Terra Nova
- The Andorian Incident
- Breaking the Ice
- Fortunate Son
- Cold Front
- Silent Enemy
- Dear Doctor
- Sleeping Dogs
- Shadows of P’Jem
- Shuttlepod One
- Rogue Planet
- Vox Sola
- Fallen Hero
- Desert Crossing
- Two Days and Two Nights
- Shockwave, Part I
Filed under: Enterprise | Tagged: andre jacquemetton, dear doctor, enterprise, foreign policy, interference, John Billingsley, marie jacquemetton, morality, Phlox, Prime Directive, star trek, star trek: enterprise |