Where Few Have Gone Before: “Dear Doctor”
Watching “Dear Doctor,” the twelfth episode of Enterprise, I realized two things about the series in general. Firstly, that Doctor Phlox is another incarnation of the “jolly alien crew member” archetype as ably demonstrated by the chef on Voyager. And secondly, that the series would be almost infinitely better if the Captain was a different character altogether.
“Dear Doctor” is the latest in a run of good Enterprise episodes that, in large part, gain from the decision to focus on developing the cast outside of the core trio. In particular, the choice of using a letter – Oh, science fiction written by people still with a pre-email mentality! – written by Phlox to another Doctor, allowing us an insight into both the Doctor’s mind, but also a more clinical, detached view of life on the station in general, was inspired; we get to learn about aspects of the characters that we’re not usually seeing on the show – I loved seeing Hoshi practice her languages over dinner with the Doctor; it’s a connection I wouldn’t naturally have made, but one that makes a lot of sense, considering that he’s an alien and all. And that’s not saying anything about watching Trip cry at movie night, the big softy – and, perhaps most importantly for this episode, we also get to have a story told by a distinctly alien perspective.
Here’s the thing about the core moral dilemma in “Dear Doctor”: Phlox was in the right, at least in Trek logic, but the show needed someone other than a human to push that point home. In the past, Trek has always had the Prime Directive as an excuse to let its heroes essentially walk away from terrible situations without seeming too callous, but in Enterprise, the Prime Directive doesn’t exist yet (This episode, in fact, may be the start of a storyline that’ll result in the writing of said directive, although I hope that’s not the case), and so we’re left with T’Pol or Phlox being the only two characters who can be “inhuman” without losing audience sympathy. It’s only through these characters that unpopular ideas or viewpoints can be pushed forward, and we’ve had far, far too many episodes where T’Pol has been the one to do that, making her already seem dubious and untrustworthy as a result. We needed to see both Phlox step up in this episode and his anxiety and difficulty in doing so, something that the “letter” framing device/narration provided ably.
And yet, watching the episode, I found myself getting annoyed at how passive Captain Archer came across. At first, he seemed determined to give the Valakians the cure because it was the humane thing to do, but we were robbed of seeing his conflict before he’d changed his mind at the end of the episode, making him seem oddly uncaring and disconnected from the weight of the decision (Sure, he said he was troubled, but you couldn’t really tell that from Scott Bakula’s performance). It made me wonder what Enterprise would’ve been like if we’d had a more flawed, more excitable Captain on the ship, instead of a character who’s slow to anger and apparently comfortable with the types of situations he finds himself in on a regular basis. Yes, that character makes sense from an in-story perspective – You want a stable, sensible presence in charge, after all – but from an entertainment or dramatic point of view…? He’s just a little… well, dull, really.
Perhaps that’s what I’ve enjoyed so much about the last few episodes; that the non-core characters are allowed to have faults (Malcolm is terrible at interpersonal relations, the Doctor is curious to a fault, Hoshi is nervous, and so on), and that makes them more fun to watch as much as it makes them easier to relate to. For all of its faults so far, Enterprise has been guilty of being boring more than it has being bad… perhaps that feeling comes from its bland Captain?