Summary: A promising look at the character of Phlox and daily life on the Enterprise is wrecked first by a diversion into a Voyageresque moral dilemma featuring the Forehead Aliens of the Week and finally by studio revisions that leave the episode with a weak and compromised ending.
When TNG featured Data’s Day, the prototype for an episode like Dear Doctor, it was a clever, humorous and in-depth look at Data and the way that Enterprise’s social life functioned even in deep space and at war. Dear Doctor attempts to duplicate this but fails because it fuses these things with a contrived moral dilemma which is then edited and tampered with by studio fiat to produce something that could have been a great episode, but wasn’t.
Doctor Phlox is clearly one of Enterprise’s breakout characters. One of only two aliens on board the Enterprise, he’s also one of the more human characters with more depth than most. It’s a good sign that after focusing on Reed, Enterprise’s other breakout character, in Silent Enemy, Enterprise went forward with a Phlox episode. The problem is that the show lacked the confidence to simply do what Data’s Day did and showcase a period of time on the Enterprise and show how the crew lives in deep space.
Early on, Dear Doctor made great strides in that regard from Dr. Phlox’s letter (Data’s Day also occurred in the context of a letter dictation\narration), the movie night which had already been previously mentioned is a nice touch of continuity, his relationship with Cutler, medical visits with Porthos and T’Pol’s toothache. This draws out Phlox’s personality, his interaction with human culture and his human crew mates and the mechanism of the Enterprise’s social environment itself. But unlike TNG, Enterprise is not operating in a sufficiently complex environment to provide a good mix of external stories and so Dear Doctor decides to rely on a contrived ethical drama with an alien race. This diverts the episode from the key material showcasing the social intimacies of Enterprise and an alien trying to fit himself into it all and dives headfirst into a Voyageresque cliched moral dilemma featuring Forehead of the Week Aliens.
The two alien species who are the focus of the ethical dilemma are themselves indistinct and lack any real identity or personality that one could sympathize with. They’re little more than weird forehead aliens of the week. Walking and talking cardboard props for the episode. This kind of characterization is of course always a convenient prelude to genocide. Even if in this case it’s genocide by benign neglect driven by a philosophy which says that it’s better to wipe out a species than interfere in their natural development. Phlox’s excuse for refusing treatment has no rational scientific basis whatsoever. It is one thing to accept that the secondary species is evolving as a scientific fact and quite another to speculate that the only possible way for them to evolve is for the primary race to be extinct. If they truly did evolve on their own, they would naturally break free of the primary species, without the need to exterminate the primary species through genocide by neglect.
That is guesswork and speculation based on a limited acquaintanceship with an entirely alien species and is not valid grounds on which to callously throw away billions of lives and the existence of an entire species and this kind of decision-making is ironically enough the exact definition of playing God. To decide that a species would be better off extinct is callous enough. But to implement such a decision whether through action as Section 31 did during the Dominion War or through inaction as Enterprise does in Dear Doctor is essentially genocide. And of course there was far more justification for taking such action against the Founders, than against the Velakians. Vague references to this being “Nature’s Way” or “Nature’s Will” only adds a shifting of responsibility to some nebulous force, rather than the people actually making the decisions.
The assumption that you can predict what a species needs best and what should be done with their lives, rather than letting them make their own decisions for themselves and provide what help you can, is exactly why in episodes like this and Voyager’s “Natural Law”, the Prime Directive can at times come to seem like a patronizing and brutal form of colonialism dressed up in ethical clothing. And when you come right down to it, the essence of the Prime Directive is to judge a species’ decision-making abilities based on their level of technological achievement and to cut off all species below warp capability from being part of the community of sentient beings towards which we have the same ethical obligations as we do towards our fellow man. This is a questionable ideology at best since the notion that there is an absolute correlation between ethical and social maturity and technological ability is mildly absurd, especially when applied to an infinite variety of alien lifeforms. But especially in such episodes as Dear Doctor or Homeward, when we are not talking about one death or a million deaths but the death of an entire species.
Nevertheless, had the episode followed its original ending which had Phlox abide and maintain his point of view, while Archer followed a distinctly different point of view guided by compassion and his core ethical values, it could have touched off a real ethical debate. The shadow of the Prime Directive here has only a limited relevance since It is, after all, one thing to deny a species warp drive and another thing to deny them a cure for the disease that is wiping out their species. Good Captains like Kirk and Picard knew when to toss such rules aside in favor of helping people. In the original draft so did Archer, but that moral certainty he manages to express so clearly in the mess hall evaporates by studio fiat in favor of avoiding shipboard conflict. And so the ending is transformed into a simplistic “Hammer over the Head” message monologue by Archer that dances around how cute it’s being by referencing the Prime Directive without actually doing so. This kind of in-joke was mildly amusing when it was done with Cochrane’s speech in the pilot’s incorporation of the Star Trek tagline, but it will become increasingly irritating if it’s repeatedly overused. As will episodes where Archer’s decision making continues to be driven by the Vulcan-Human species conflict.
The result leaves us with an episode that tries to merge Data’s Day with Tuvix and does both poorly. The ending has a tone that is distinctly different from the rest of the episode like an action movie that’s been dramatically reedited for television. It’s an episode about an ethical dilemma that doesn’t allow two viewpoints about that dilemma to persist in the final act in the name of avoiding shipboard conflict. And finally it’s an episode that tried to take an intimate look at the social life of Enterprise and got sidetracked into a lost Voyager episode featuring the Forehead Aliens of the Week. And it is a shame because Dear Doctor had a lot of promise and some good performances and direction. Hopefully they’ll do better next time.
Next week: T’Pol gets up close and personal with a Targ.