Phlox’s continuing study leads him to focus on the Menk, believing that their immunity may hold the key to a cure. With a team that includes Cutler and Hoshi, Phlox ventures to a Menk settlement to conduct scans and collect samples. While Phlox is fascinated by the relationship between the two species, the human crewmembers are unsettled by their apparently subservient position in Valakian society. This perception is exacerbated by the fact that the Menk display an unexpected degree of intelligence, leading Phlox to remark that they’ve been underestimated. Later, the doctor confronts Cutler about her presumed feelings for him, bluntly informing her of the polyamory that is typical in Denobulan culture. She takes this in stride, telling him that while he hasn’t misinterpreted, she’s not interested in “becoming wife number four.” When asked what she does want, she replies simply, “Let’s see where it goes.”
Archer, meanwhile, visits the Valakian astronaut they rescued in the hospital. He asks Archer to give his people warp technology so that they might search farther and faster for the help they need. Conflicted, he discusses the matter with T’Pol. Her views on the matter go without saying, but she points out that even if they give the Valakians their reactor schematics, they wouldn’t have the technical know-how to make much use of them. Archer agrees, remarking that they may not even realize how dangerous antimatter is and suggesting that humans could stay to help them. T’Pol pointedly counters that the Vulcans have been “staying to help” humanity for ninety years and counting.
In the middle of the night, Phlox finds Archer in the mess hall. Asked if he’s found a cure, Phlox is evasive, telling Archer that even if he could do so, he’s not sure it would be ethical to interfere with the natural course of evolution on Valakis. Even as the Valakians succumb to their own genetic dysfunction, the Menk appear to be in the midst of what he terms an evolutionary awakening. To cure the Valakians, he says, would be tantamount to choosing one species over the other. As they argue the point, Archer bluntly asks if Phlox can find a cure. After a moment’s hesitation, the doctor replies that he already has. The next day, Archer visits Phlox in sickbay. After spending “the whole night reconsidering, Archer has decided to withhold both the cure and warp drive. In his reply to Dr. Lucas, Phlox reflects on his decision, noting that if he hadn’t trusted Archer to make the right choice, he’d have been no better than the Vulcan diplomats who’ve spent the last century delaying human progress. Taking Hoshi’s advice to “get out of sickbay” after the events of the last few days, he calls Cutler, who agrees to meet him in the mess hall.
‘Dear Doctor’ is one of the standout episodes of the first season, and much of the credit for that can be laid squarely at the feet of John Billingsley. There was some fear early on that Phlox would become a redux of Neelix – a character who too often was relegated to the role of kooky, comedy alien guy. And to be sure, Phlox does have that lighter side. But episodes like this make clear that those concerns are utterly unfounded. In this episode alone, Billingsley ably demonstrates his ability to handle the comedic aspect of the character without ever undermining our ability to take him seriously, which is of no small importance when he quite literally holds the fate of two species in his hands.
And what of the changed ending? Well, it’s a bit of a tossup as far as I’m concerned, in that the ending you prefer really depends on what you’re looking for. I tend to agree with Billingsley inasmuch as the original ending would have introduced a measure of ideological tension and conflict between two members of the show’s core cast. Even if that tension remained unspoken, it would have been an unusual dynamic for a ‘Star Trek’ show, to say the least. But having said that, revised ending marks an important turning point for Archer’s character. He says it himself in that ready room conversation with T’Pol: “I’m beginning to understand how the Vulcans must have felt.” This is someone who, a mere twelve episodes earlier, rushed his ship out of drydock in no small part because of how eager he was to get out from under the Vulcans’ thumb. He’s blamed them – and rightly so – for holding humanity back for nearly a century, but now the shoe is on the other foot. He’s forced to deal with the realities of contact with a less technologically advanced species in a way that he’s never really had to before. While his human compassion may urge him to give the Valakians warp drive, he is also more keenly aware of the responsibilities that would come with such a decision.
But it also gets a little ham-fisted toward the end. Specifically, Archer’s dialogue about how someday people will draft a “directive” to tell captains what they can do out there is a bit on the nose. The sentiment is right, but I can’t help roll my eyes because it just comes a bit too close to winking at the audience. “Hey, a directive. He’s talking about a directive. One that might even be somehow… prime. Get it?” It’s also a bit disappointing that nothing ever came of Phlox’s budding friendship/relationship/whatever with Cutler, but that’s hardly this episode’s fault. The character would ultimately only appear once more – late in the first season – before the actress who played her died suddenly in November 2003.
What did you think of ‘Dear Doctor’? Let me know in the comments, and as always, make sure to check back in two weeks for the next ‘Final Frontier Friday’!