Enterprise’s “Dear Doctor” in Review
In this review by Matt and Elaine Sweatman, Elaine’s comments are in italics.
In Star Trek: The Next Generation’s fourth season episode “Data’s Day”, the events of the story are narrated through a message Data records for Commander Bruce Maddox. Enterprise borrows that story structure — using a message Doctor Phlox is recording for a fellow exchange doctor — to provide our chief surgeon’s thoughts during the events of the episode. Ethical questions trouble our good doctor as he faces perhaps the greatest challenge he’s had to date. Archer is faced with his toughest dilemma yet in deciding how to help a pre-warp civilization without the help of a “directive” to guide him.
“Phlox shares his snacks with his pets!”
Short scenes present a slice-of-life of our crew and give us insight into their quirks and personalities: Doctor Phlox feeding some of the animals he keeps in sickbay, teaching Hoshi the finer points of the Denobulan language, and attending a classic film screening with fellow crewmembers.
Enterprise encounters a sub-warp vessel manned by a pair of humanoids we learn are called “Valakians”. They are ill with a disease that threatens to decimate their population. They’ve encountered two warp-capable species, including the Ferengi, and are on a mission trying to meet one with the technology to cure their plague. T’Pol advises Captain Archer that, as the Valakians already have knowledge of other societies, the risk in attempting to help them is minimal. Phlox’s narration hints that this “act of human compassion” will have unexpected repercussions, and as Hoshi tells Phlox, she’s noticed that Crewman Cutler might be attracted to him.
Doctor Phlox accompanies Archer, T’Pol, and Ensign Sato in the landing party to the Valakian homeworld. We soon learn that there’s a second sentient species, the Menk, who have immunity from the disease. This presents some ethical questions, as this other group is viewed strictly as a working class, subservient to the more advanced Valakian people.
“I don’t think it’s merely a classist system. The Valakians are racist.”
Being the only other non-Terran on board, Doctor Phlox seeks advice from T’Pol on entering a romantic relationship with a Human. She, not surprisingly, suggests caution as Cutler’s interests may be superficial and stem from a potentially fleeting attraction to the exotic.
“T’Pol’s not completely wrong about Cutler’s attraction to Phlox.”
Doctor Phlox has discovered that the Valakian disease stems from genetic changes. This threatens to make them extinct in as little as two centuries.
Cutler joins Phlox and Hoshi on a visit to a Menk settlement to study their immunity to the plague. While taking blood samples, Hoshi and Cutler seem troubled by the inequities of the Valakian/Menk relationship.
Privately, Doctor Phlox takes the opportunity to discuss with Cutler her apparent interest in him. He discusses his marriage to three wives back on Denobula and there being two other husbands involved. Cutler informs him that her intentions towards him do not include the desire to become wife number four.
The aliens are pressuring Archer for news on the progress for a cure. They push for a backup plan of Enterprise sharing with them warp technology so they can seek other races for help in developing the cure. Archer asks advice from T’Pol on whether acquiescing with the request is feasible. She mentions that it would require a commitment to stay and educate the Valakians, comparing it to the decades-long presence the Vulcans have had on Earth.
“The Valakians want something we can’t give. Archer is beginning to understand what Vulcans are experiencing with humans; that’s a good little turnabout.”
In the middle of the night, Doctor Phlox finds Captain Archer in the otherwise empty mess hall. It’s time to come to a decision, and Archer is mulling over the options. Phlox brings up the philosophical question of whether they should help the Valakians. He argues that, since it’s genetic, it may be their fate to die out, allowing the oppressed Menk to become the dominate race on the planet. Helping would be tantamount to playing God, as the fate of both species hangs in the balance. Archer emotionally argues that it’s their duty to help those in need. Phlox drops the bombshell that he has, in fact, discovered a cure.
The next morning, Archer visits sickbay. He tells Phlox he has made a decision that goes against his own principles. Archer speaks of his hope that future rules, or a “directive”, will help captains in similar situations.
In his message to Doctor Lucas, Phlox admits he has learned to trust Captain Archer’s judgement. The captain has decided not to provide the cure. While we have seen several philosophical debates between Archer and various members of the crew, this may be the first time anyone was successful in changing his mind. The only hope he can provide the Valakian scientists is his encouragement that they continue to shape their own destiny and continue to pursue a cure.
“Phlox is just lonely. Now he’s found a way not to be lonely!”
Phlox finishes his letter to Doctor Lucas. This experience has been trying for the doctor. He decides to reward himself by asking Cutler out for a meal. We are happy to see her accept his invitation.
We’ve seen situations in prior episodes skirting around the ethical issues that will go on to inform the creation of the Prime Directive. They’ve usually worked themselves out without too much controversy. Not here. There is no scientific finding which gives Archer a way to avoid the hard decision. This episode’s moral resolutions fall squarely on the side of non-interference even though people will suffer and die. It’s a bold decision and this episode is stronger for it.