Hello and, as always, welcome to ‘Final Frontier Friday’! This week, we’re kicking off 2019 with a look at one of the stand out episodes from the first season of ‘Star Trek: Enterprise’, ‘Dear Doctor’.
If you read our countdown to ‘Discovery’ back in the summer of 2017 (during which we reviewed every single ‘Star Trek’ pilot episode), you might remember that a big focus on the part of producers during the ‘Next Generation’ era was making each new show in some way distinct from ‘TNG’ and the original series. ‘Deep Space Nine’ was set on a space station instead of a starship. ‘Voyager’ stranded its titular ship on the other side of the galaxy, preventing them from relying on a lot of the familiar elements that we associate with ‘Trek’. And ‘Enterprise’, of course, had its prequel setting. That setting is what drove a lot of the show’s uniqueness, specifically because it meant that it predated a lot of franchise standbys, like the Federation, holodecks, and even the Prime Directive.
Falling as it does squarely in the middle of the first season, ‘Dear Doctor’ expands on a number of elements that had been established over the preceding twelve episodes. Among these, Phlox himself is front and center, as the doctor gets his very own episode for the first time. If you weren’t following this show as it aired, you might not get why this is a big deal (unless you just really like Phlox, I suppose), but at the time the show debuted, he was one of the least fleshed out characters. And this wasn’t just a case of a new show playing coy with details of a main cast member’s backstory. The ambiguity extended behind the scenes as well. When John Billingsley was interviewed for an August 2001 issue of TV Guide (by which time ‘Enterprise’ was several episodes into production), he said of his character, “They haven’t told me where my character comes from or even given his species a name.” This is the episode where that all began to change, as its focus on Phlox included the first mention (by name) of Denobula.
The episode also marked the most explicit time to date that the series saw the crew grapple with a situation that was complicated by the lack of the Prime Directive, which itself was rather specifically “foreshadowed.” This, of course, was one of the most significant ways in which ‘Enterprise’ sought to set itself apart from its predecessors. And while it wasn’t the first time the show had dealt with this, having dipped its toe into that particular pond in a handful of previous episodes (most notably ‘Civilization’), It was the first time it served as the focal point of a story.
Also of note is the episodes ending, which differs substantially from what was originally scripted. In the finished episode, Phlox is able to find a cure for the disease that threatens the Valakians, leaving Archer to struggle with the ethics of intervening, essentially playing god. The original ending, however, saw Phlox find a cure but after much agonizing decide to lie to Archer about it. The change was made at the behest of the network, which felt it important that it be clear that the crew was there to support the captain’s decisions, and that this obviously included trusting his judgment. For his part, Billingsley preferred the original ending, feeling that the final version “lost something interesting in this potential tension.”
But enough of that! Time for a clumsy segue!
As Phlox goes about his business in sickbay, Hoshi arrives to deliver a letter, which turns out to be from Dr. Lucas, a human colleague of his from the Interspecies Medical Exchange. Phlox listens to the message and, In voiceover, crafts his reply. In addition to giving Lucas some advice about life on Denobula, he relates some of his own experiences on Enterprise. This includes routine duties, tending to a crewman’s burns and the… after effects of Archer’s inability to refuse Porthos a piece of cheese. He also touches on the social side of his life among humanity, having noticed Crewman Cutler’s increasingly flirtatious behavior towards him. Amid all this, Enterprise comes across a Valakian ship in distress. The Valakians, a pre-warp society confronted with a devastating plague, have been sending expeditions into space in the hope of contacting more advanced civilizations who may have the technology and medical expertise to help. After consulting with T’Pol, who agrees that the risk of cultural contamination is minimal, Archer asks Phlox to do what he can to help.
Upon arriving at Valakis, Phlox tours a Valakian medical facility and learns of the existence of the Menk, a second, seemingly less advanced species that evolved alongside the Valakians and are not effected by the disease. After some study, Phlox reports to Archer that he has developed a palliative treatment, though he has rather troublingly discovered that the condition is not caused by some infection or environmental factor. Rather, it’s genetic. Due to the difficulty of remedying this level of genetic deterioration, he estimates the Valakians will be extinct within two centuries. Neither he nor Archer is ready to give up, however.