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Posts Tagged ‘Dear Doctor’

The cold open has become part of the standard structure of episodic TV drama: this is the name for the bit of the story that runs before the opening credits. The idea is to hit the viewer with a hook so arresting and engrossing they feel compelled to stick around regardless of the lack of stimulation provided by the title sequence. You do sometimes get the sense that some programme-makers have forgotten that this is its purpose. Dear Doctor, an episode of Enterprise from early 2002, has as its cold open Phlox, the ship’s doctor, pottering mildly around sickbay feeding his collection of pet animals. The effect is sort of gently agreeable rather than arresting or engrossing, which is a reasonable capsule description of the episode as a whole.

The writers responsible are Maria and Andre Jaquemetton. Phlox is our central character for this episode, played with customary warmth by John Billingsley, and the story is framed by his voice-over, which is a letter to a human doctor posted on Phlox’s home planet of Denobula. Phlox comments on his dealings with the rest of the crew, the possibility of a romantic liaison with one of the ship’s biologists (Kellie Waymire), his relationship with the captain, and so on.

It looks like the whole episode could turn out to be slice-of-life stuff until Enterprise comes across a spacecraft from a pre-warp civilisation, the Valakians. It turns out that the Valakian civilisation is in the grip of a terrible plague or similar disease (good job this is science fiction) and they are desperately looking for help from off-worlders (they have already been visited by other aliens, including the Ferengi). Big-hearted Archer decides to render whatever assistance they can to the Valakians; T’Pol looks disapproving as usual but agrees the risk of cultural contamination for the Valakians is small.

Medical investigations get underway and Phlox makes a number of curious discoveries: firstly, the Valakians share their planet with another humanoid species, the Menk, who are treated well but essentially subject to a sort of benign oppression by the more advanced race. However, the Menk are completely immune to the affliction threatening the Valakians’ future – and this is because it is not caused by a virus or bacteria, but flaws in the Valakian genome which are making the species non-viable.

Enterprise has a decent bash at the how-many-people-can-we-fit-into-one-frame challenge.

Meanwhile, the Valakians have asked Archer if he can give them the information they need to develop their own warp engines, as this will increase their chances of finding another race who can assist them. Suddenly Captain Keen-to-Help is having second thoughts, as the reality of long-term involvement in the Valakians’ affairs sinks in on him. T’Pol observes that Vulcan agreed to help Earth in roughly similar circumstances: nearly a century later, the Vulcans are still there. What are the limits of getting involved?

The question becomes a pressing one for Phlox and Archer both, as the doctor discovers the Menk have developmental potential currently being held in check by the fact they are dominated by the Valakians. Giving them the cure he has developed will mean consigning the Menk to their subordinate role in perpetuity – but he’s a doctor, tasked by his captain to give whatever medical aid he can. What should he do?

You can’t beat a moral dilemma as the driver for a great episode of Star Trek, and the premise here is a good one. However, despite the fact that this is very well-regarded as Enterprise episodes go, I think the realisation lets it down a bit in a couple of ways. This is still a strong and watchable episode, but it doesn’t quite sing as it might.

Much of it is shaped by the fact it’s framed by Phlox’s voiceover, as he writes about the reality of living as an alien amongst humans. You can see what they’re trying to do here, but the problem is that Phlox isn’t a terribly alien alien – there’s not a single strong characteristic you can grab onto to define the Denobulans, in the way you can with the most successful alien cultures in Trek. The Vulcans are brainy and logical. The Klingons are violent and honourable. The Denobulans, on the other hand, are polygamous and genial: I always find Phlox himself comes across as being rather like Frasier Crane under prosthetic make-up. As a result, you don’t really get that sense of seeing humans from a genuinely new and alien perspective, and the voice over just becomes a slightly unusual framing device.

The meat of the episode, however, concerns the moral dilemma of the situation involving the Valakians and the Menk. We shall, as usual, pass over the plausibility of the problem afflicting the Valakians (a species seemingly just spontaneously dying off due to something going wrong with their genome) as the plot is predicated on this, and just consider how the episode handles the dilemma faced by Phlox and Archer.

I say ‘Phlox and Archer’ because the episode was rewritten at the network’s request – in the original version, Phlox lies to Archer and says he hasn’t been able to develop a cure, effectively deciding the issue for himself. Billingsley apparently wasn’t a fan of the change, but I think it works well, giving both characters more depth (even if you can, if you really want to, construe the ending as Archer committing genocide). The episode is making good use of the Enterprise premise, anyway, as the absence of the Prime Directive forces the characters to think the problem through for themselves and genuinely make a decision about it.

The issue is that the problem and their cogitations are not well-presented, dramatically. There aren’t big scenes where dramatic revelations are made, nor do we get the kind of moment where Patrick Stewart used to shine so well, where the captain is forced to accept his humane instincts may not be entirely correct. Archer just leaves one scene thinking one thing, then comes back in in the next announcing he’s thought it over and changed his mind. The sweet spot of really effective drama and character development has been missed.

That’s basically the problem with this episode, the thing that keeps it from truly being a classic: all the elements and structure are here, but it doesn’t find ways to dramatise its ideas effectively. As a result it is intellectually involving, and the change of pace is agreeable, but it never quite grabs the emotions in the way it needs to.

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