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Star Trek: Enterprise – Doctor’s Orders (Review)

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 August, we’re doing the third season. Check back daily for the latest review.

If Harbinger was a surprisingly experimental piece of Star Trek, then Doctor’s Orders is something far more conventional. If Harbinger was an attempt to do something relatively novel within the framework of Star Trek: Enterprise, then Doctor’s Orders offers the viewer something they’ve seen before.

This applies in a very literal sense. There are quite a few similarities between the plot of Doctor’s Orders and One. Both are effectively one-hander bottle shows focusing on a popular member of the cast, working from the premise that an anomaly of the week requires the rest of the crew to go into stasis. From that starting point, both episodes become studies of isolation and loneliness. Both character find themselves confronting hallucinations while dealing with a perceived threat to the ship.

Yes. Doctor's Orders was a very strange choice for Sweeps.

Yes. Doctor’s Orders was a very strange choice for Sweeps.

To be fair, this is neither the first nor the last time that the Star Trek franchise will feature a plot largely recycled from existing elements. With over seven hundred episodes in the can, there will inevitably be some overlap and similarities. However, Doctor’s Orders feels familiar in another more primal sort of way. One of the big tensions of third season is a need to balance the demands of a larger story arc with a twenty-odd episode season. There is a very odd equilibrium to be struck between the long-form story and episodic standalone adventures.

Doctor’s Orders is very much an old-school episodic Star Trek adventure that could exist quite apart from the demands of the third season as a whole. It is an example of the sorts of internal tensions at work on the show.

The sleep of the just...

The sleep of the just…

One of the more interesting aspects of the shift towards arc-based storytelling in television is the sense that it devalues standalone episodic adventures. It seems, more and more, that episodes are measured by what they contribute to the overall arc rather than what they offer on their own terms. This attitude manifests itself in a number of different ways. Most obviously, there is the tendency to describe isolated episodic stories as “filler”, implying that they are simply eating up space between the important stuff.

This is a perfectly understandable attitude to adopt, but it is somewhat short-sighted. It acts on the assumption that arc-based storytelling is the logical and organic evolution of television; that television is in the process of continuously improving, and that the drift away from standalone stories represents a natural progression. There is a very clear bias at work here, one that assumes that the modern incarnation of televised drama must be superior to its predecessors; it is not enough that it is different, it must be better.

A (pop) corny premise...

A (pop) corny premise…

There is a somewhat elitist quality to this argument, an attitude that insists upon imposing hierarchies of legitimacy upon the medium:

We’re living through a renaissance of ambitious television, although almost no one would describe Melrose Place, the definition of a guilty pleasure, as a harbinger of that phenomenon. Instead, we praise the great modern cable dramas, from The Sopranos to Breaking Bad. As viewers, we rely on hierarchies to govern our notion of television ambition: cable trumps network, drama is better than sitcom, adult is worthier than teen, realistic is more grownup than sci-fi, grim beats sunny, PBS documentary tops Bravo reality show, and “as good as Dickens” is superior to anything resembling a soap opera.

It is also, perhaps, a very short-sighted and narrow vision of what television is and what television could be. In light of the success of all of these heavily serialised dramas, it is easy to lose sight of how great the individual episode is.

"Boo!"

“Boo!”

For all that many commentators will herald the ascent of serialised storytelling and arc-based drama, there is no denying that the single forty-five-minute block of television still has a lot to recommend it. The freedom to tell a standalone story in a set amount of space can encourage and inspire creativity and inventiveness. The Wire might be a novel for television, but that does not invalidate all those short story collections that happen to feature the same cast week-in and week-out. The Measure of a Man is not diminished by the fact it exists in relative isolation.

So there is, in theory, nothing wrong with a standalone episode of television. In particular, standalone episodes like Doctor’s Orders or Hatchery are less bothersome than the standalone stories in the middle of the season because it is clear that they exist to give some space to the season’s larger arc. While stories like Carpenter Street and Chosen Realm felt frustrating because the larger arc had stalled around them, Doctor’s Orders and Hatchery exist while the show has a very clear direction in mind. The show knows where it’s going, so the detours are less distracting.

"I said, boo!"

“I said, boo!”

It helps that Doctor’s Orders is at least candid about what it is. When the crew first detect the distortion, it is suggested that the ship could sacrifice two weeks and divert around it. “Another detour,” Reed sarcastically observes. He might as well be speaking for the audience at home; to some viewers, Doctor’s Orders is just another stalling tactic designed to stretch out the season and bide time before the writers have to begin resolving all the dangling threads.

While Enterprise might take a shortcut that shaves two weeks off their trip, Doctor’s Orders and Hatchery add another two weeks to the trip from the audience’s perspective. Would the third season lose anything if those two episodes were dropped and the show progressed directly from Harbinger to Azati Prime? It is a fair observation to make, and the fact that Doctor’s Orders seems to be aware of this issue goes a long way. It doesn’t feel like stalling, because it’s no longer a question of if the show will figure out where it’s going, but when it will arrive.

His neck on the line...

His neck on the line…

There are limitations of a long-form story arc told across a whole season of television. While the arc can work very well for the characters at the centre of the story, it also means marginalising certain cast members for an extended period of time. Archer, T’Pol, Trip and Reed all have interesting character beats baked into the heart of the Xindi arc; the execution might not always be perfect, but the show at least has some idea what it wants to do with them. In contrast, Phlox, Hoshi and Mayweather are pushed into the background.

This is particularly frustrating when it come to Phlox. John Billingsley might just be the best actor in the cast, and he is playing one of the most interesting characters. The fact that Phlox has no particular thread running through the third season means that he is effectively relegated to delivering exposition or facilitating the arcs of more important characters. It is a criminal waste of Billingsley’s talents. As such, making room for standalone episodic adventures allows the possibility of giving Billingsley something into which he might sink his teeth.

Scaring is caring...

Scaring is caring…

That said, the actor has confessed that he was never too fond of this particular episode:

“So the good news is that I didn’t have too many lines to learn, the bad news is that it’s working about 16 hours a day when you factor in the makeup time.”

But just having more airtime isn’t necessarily enough for John, so the episode left him with mixed feelings. “For my tastes—and for what I think I’m best utilised to do—the episodes that are more reflective, philosophical and meditative—that deal with issues such as cultural conflict—I think those are the things that I am probably best equipped to do.”

It is a very fair point, even if Billingsley is great in just about any circumstance.

All by myself...

All by myself…

Doctor’s Orders does not utilise Billingsley as well as Dear Doctor or The Breach, but it is still nice to have just a little spotlight focused on one of the cast’s strongest links in a season that has largely relegated him to spouting technobabble. Doctor’s Orders is a fairly mediocre piece of television with a familiar plot and number of predictable twists, but it is elevated by some effective direction from Roxanne Dawson and two great central performances from John Billingsley and Jolene Blalock.

Billingsley is reliably fantastic as Phlox, a social weirdo who struggles with isolation and anxiety. His delivery is wonderful, and his timing is impeccable. Billingsley plays Phlox as a fundamentally decent soul; an untrained individual charged with the safety of his colleagues, who is utterly unaccustomed to the sensation of isolation or loneliness. Billingsley even proves to be a good sport, filming some nude sequences that play as affectionate parodies of the show’s more salacious tendencies. (“I walk around naked — sweeps week, baby!” Billingsley quipped.)

"Wakey, wakey..."

“Wakey, wakey…”

Indeed, Billingsley seems quite game about the nude sequences, even cracking jokes about his own suggestions for the character:

“I have a spiny ridge glued onto my back,” the actor said. “There are some striations painted down my front to match my face and hands. Of course, I was hoping there would be other appendages and protuberances, so that people would be walking around in slack-jawed admiration for the rest of the run of the show. After all, I have three wives. What does that suggest? What does that imply?”

It is reassuring to know that the show has come far enough from the sleaziness of the decon chamber that John Billingsley gets a nude scene. However, perhaps we should not be so excited; Bound still lies ahead.

Dogged determination...

Dogged determination…

However, while John Billingsley does predictably good work, it is Jolene Blalock who is the revelation here. The character of T’Pol has been quite troublesome; it is hard to get a proper read on the character at any given point in the run. While it is clear that the writers have no idea what to do with T’Pol, it also feels like the character might have been slightly miscast. Blalock has a lot of charm and charisma, which really comes out here. Blalock has a great deal of fun playing hallucination!T’Pol, particularly towards the climax of the episode.

As the ship threatens to tear itself apart, hallucination!T’Pol gives up any pretense of being the real Commander T’Pol. Instead, she just shrugs and ducks and cowers in response to the unfolding chaos; she becomes a representation of Phlox’s anxieties, rather than a relief mechanism for them. Blalock’s performance at the climax is beautiful. It is almost an impersonation of Billingsley, appropriately enough; it is not too difficult to imagine Billingsley himself reacting to the crisis in a similar manner.

A Denobulan and his dog...

A Denobulan and his dog…

To be fair to writer Chris Black, the script for Doctor’s Orders is at least efficient. It feels very safe and very familiar, but it does what it sets out to do in a relatively clean manner. Black’s script is populated with lots of nice little continuity nods that suggest that it is possible for a standalone story to tie into the show around it with needing to exist as part of a larger long-form arc. The episode features a return to the storytelling device from Dear Doctor, while also including a reference to conversation between Phlox and Hoshi in Exile.

The script also feels organic and logical in the way that it treats Phlox. The character has always been outgoing and social; it is easy to take his status on the ship for granted, but he is one of only two aliens on board. The show has consistently suggested that the Denobulans are a very extroverted and outgoing people, so it makes sense that they should respond negatively to isolation. “Two people aren’t even enough for a Denobulan marriage,” Phlox explains, in a very clever piece of psychological world-building.

"See, you don't need Mayweather!"

“See, you don’t need Mayweather!”

Enterprise was never as interested in developing its alien species as Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had been. The show never really invites the audience to get to know the Denobulans. In fact, the most in-depth study of Andorian culture comes in the final season. So it is interesting to have Phlox paint a picture of life on his home planet. “You’ve never been to Denobula, have you?” he asks his hallucinatory companion. “The cities are quite crowded, by choice, not by necessity. The atmosphere is vibrant, communal.”

The script plays entire fair with the audience when it comes to T’Pol’s status as a hallucination. It is a very predictable and very safe twist, one that fits logically with the story being told. It is a fairly cliché story point, but at least the episode never tries to conceal it. In fact, the script encourages the audience to treat T’Pol as a hallucination long before that final reveal; it is hallucination!T’Pol who points out that Denobulans consider hallucinations to be a healthy mechanism of coping with stress, and her behaviour at the climax makes it clear that this is not the real T’Pol.

"This is Phlox's time to shine..."

“This is Phlox’s time to shine…”

There are some other choices that also feel a little rote and familiar. Most obviously, there is the decision to open the episode with a rather striking teaser, only to pull back and reveal how the show reached that point. This is not the first episode of Star Trek to open in media res, but it does feel a little redundant to flash back to the story of how this situation unfolded. The script could relay the information in a number of more creative or intriguing ways. Instead, the flashbacks feel a little too convenient and easy.

Doctor’s Orders is not one of the stronger or more complex episodes of the third season. It is very safe and very familiar. However, it does exist to give John Billingsley something to do in a season that has largely sidelined the actor. As such, it is hard to hate the episode.

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2 Responses

  1. I applaud your defense of the standalone episode. But where exactly did you see this elitism on the part of viewers? Do you have examples?

    The only example I can think of, myself, was the USA series Burn Notice. I was a fan of the show for two years, but I dropped out after the third. It seemed like half of every needed to be devoted to a rushed, not-very-interesting advancement of the myth arc. It was inelegant and awkward, and ultimately cost the show much of its novelty. For the most part, though, American dramas do a good job of keeping episodes solitary while sprinkling in some continuity which newcomers can enjoy without feeling alienated.

    P.S. I still don’t entirely buy Phlox as a character. On his off time he acts like a sun-kissed flower child, wandering out sick bay in the buff (how hygienic). I can only assume he’s a throwback character from TOS, much like the Ferengi were. But Phlox is also defined by his pragmatism and flouting of Starfleet dogmas…? Never made sense to me, and shrugging it off as “alien morality” (Or “Blue and Orange”, according to TvTropers) doesn’t ring true either.

    I remember reading somewhere that everyone on ENT got their casting sheets mixed up, with the wrong characters exhibiting the stock Star Trek personalities. I find that hard to disagree with.

    • Fair point.

      I think that it’s hard to prove something so vague, but I think that you can see it in general cultural trends. The higher prestige afforded to the series (or season) as a whole, the deference afforded to the “televisual novel” in terms of column inches and awards praise. Somewhere in these reviews, I link to an A.V. Club article that makes a more compelling and structured case, though. I’ll see if I can dig it up.

      Even in his recent Vulture review, Tarantino seemed to dismiss the idea of television reviews based on individual episodes: “Who the fuck reads TV reviews? Jesus fucking Christ. TV critics review the pilot. Pilots of shows suck.” At the same time, he argued that the form to which television should aspire is a miniseries written and directed by the same auteur:

      However, no writer-directors have taken that mini-series format and really done what could be done. You don’t have any writer-directors that write all six episodes, and then direct all six episodes. You have a guy like Soderbergh or Fukunaga who directs everything, or you have somebody like Aaron Sorkin who writes everything, but you don’t have the guy who does everything. If ever there’s been a chance for somebody to truly do a filmed novel, it’s in this area. I always write these movies that are far too big for any paying customer to sit down and watch from beginning to end, and so I always have this big novel that I have to adapt into a movie as I go. So to actually be able to take one of my stories and just do it as long as it is, the completely unfiltered manuscript, that sounds really, really exciting.

      But, I mean, that’s just an example off the top of my head, and it’s a more subtle thing than “television episodes are irrelevant and pointless.”

      The biggest rated dramas on television are shows like “Empire” and “Scandal” (both conscious throwbacks to the height of eighties prime-time soap, and not necessarily in a bad way). Even “How To Get Away With Murder” is a straight procedural with a serialised element grafted on so as to avoid being purely episodic. (Ditto for “The Blacklist.”) I think “Criminal Minds” is probably the most successful “classic episodic model” drama on contemporary American television.

      The same is true of the Emmy awards nominations. “Friday Night Lights” and “The Good Wife” are probably the most episodic of the “Outstanding Prime-time Drama” nominees since 2010, and they are still structured with clear on-going stories rather than a static status quo that provides a back drop for episodic storytelling. (Although I’ll allow that “Homeland” became a little less serialised after its first season.)

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