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  • Ric Crossman

6.1.12 Primarily, Do No Harm

Dear Doctor

Phlox and two Valakian doctors frown at a screen.
"This screen just says "Hippocratic Oath, bitch"."

Things are going from bad to worse in the 22nd century. From bad to grotesquely appalling, actually. I can’t remember a single episode of any Trek show that inspires such fury in me as does this one. It’s not just that it’s morally reprehensible. It’s that it’s morally reprehensible because it thinks that’s what Trek should be. Stories like “Silent Enemy” fail through a fundamental misunderstanding of how this franchise works. It just didn’t want to be Trek.

“Dear Doctor” is something far worse. It wants to be Trek so badly that it (almost) explicitly references one of its central positions, but then constructs a scenario which forces a dedication to that position to lead to a horrific conclusion. Worse still, it then holds that result aloft and struts proudly around, insisting everyone be impressed with the nightmare it has created.

“Silent Enemy” thought you could do good Trek by making Starfleet into something it’s not. “Dear Doctor” thinks the good Trek requires Starfleet be monsters.

Make Bantz, Not War

This isn’t to say the episode is devoid of merit. Most disasters we’ve seen so far, like “Code Of Honor” or “Mudd’s Passion”, display their ugliness throughout, like a stick of Brighton Rock made by a foul-mouthed employee on their last day of confectionary-making. “Dear Doctor” only veers into problematic territory in its final act.

Before the fall, there’s some genuinely nice ideas here. Framing an episode around a non-human’s commentary on mankind is far from original, but it’s a nice way to give context to a character and a culture still fairly unfamiliar at this point. There’s also a warmth here that’s often missing from many of Trek’s outsider perspectives on humanity, which tend to come either from the unemotional (Data, Tuvok, even Worf in a lot of ways), or the antagonistic.

This warmth extends through much of the episode. As always, Billingsley has no problem radiating charm from under his Denoblian make-up. His interactions with Crewman Cutler and Lieutenant Commander Hoshi in particular work just fine. I’ll come back to Cutler, given her importance to the episode, but I want to linger a bit on our comms officer. Hoshi is easily one of my favourite characters in Enterprise, and accordingly I think Linda Park was unforgivably under-utilised across the series. There’s just something utterly delightful – and perfectly Trek – about a Starfleet officer who utterly hates space travel, but puts up with it because the need to meet and learn about new cultures. It’s a great shame that Park wasn’t given the room she needed to play around with her character to the extent both women deserved.

Here, though, Park is given ample opportunity to let Hoshi’s joy at learning new languages and thereby new ways of thinking shine through. Her day job this week requires her to learn at least the basics of two entirely new languages – if only to make sure the universal translator isn’t leading the away team astray – and she still chooses to spend her downtime polishing her Denoblian. Offered space to prove her worth to the series, Park makes the case effortlessly. Even the incredibly tired attempts at generating comedy through mistranslations don’t irritate, because it’s delivered with such friendly charm. In fact, I’d argue there was room here for Hoshi and Phlox to offer the best mixed-gender friendship the franchise had seen since Sisko and Dax.

This isn’t just a nice character beat, either. Compare Hoshi and Phlox sharing a meal and their cultures with the brief interaction between the Doctor and Reed, in which the armoury officer apologetically refuses to sit down and chat with an alien because he’s too busy preparing for the next time he needs to try kilingl one. By excluding Reed entirely from the rest of the episode (he shows up in at least one bridge scene, but he doesn’t have any more dialogue), “Dear Doctor” demonstrates its commitment to prioritising exploration and cultural exchange over the Boy’s Own model “Silent Enemy” pushed on us last episode.

The Doctor’s Wives

This doesn’t last, of course. By the last two seasons of the show nobody could move for macho chest-puffing and rampant neoliberalism, and the writers seemed far more interesting in finding ways of making Sato sexy and/or evil to explore anything as unimportant as her actual character.

That’s not this episode’s fault, though. What we get here on the subject is entirely positive. And there’s more praise we can heap on “Dear Doctor” before we arrive at the unavoidable kicking. Next on our list: Crewman Cutler.

As I said above, Billingsley works just as well with Waymire as he does with Park. And in neither case is he doing all the work. Waymire comfortably finds the balance between awkwardness and assurance, as Cutler by turns gently presses Phlox and gives him the space to decide how to respond. Just as Park deserved far more than she got on Enterprise, it’s a real shame the show didn’t feature Waymire more often, especially given her untimely death after Season Three was filmed.

Cutler’s playful advances then lead us to Phlox’s fumbling attempts to figure out the situation. As best as I can recall, this is slightly unusual in the franchise, which tents to frame its human/alien romances from the human perspective. The closest equivalent to Phlox and Cutler I can think of is Data and Jenna D’Sora from “In Theory”, and the romance in this episode is worlds away from the slow, horrible breakdown that spools out there.

That’s interesting enough in itself, but there’s more. Phlox’s attempts to figure things out fit in very well with the larger idea of exploring humanity, which again the franchise has tended to prefer doing from the perspective of the unemotional and/or artificial. In fact, a summary of this episode which amounted to ‘”In Theory” plus “Data’s Day” plus scads of charm’ would be difficult to find fault with. My particular favourite moment here involves Phlox asking T’Pol what to do about Cutler. It’s clear he’s sure he wants a dispassionate take on the subject, right up to the moment where said take clashes with what he wanted to hear, at which point he discards her opinion. Turns out humans and Denoblians aren’t that different after all.

This conversation has a knock-on effect later in the episode, with Phlox revealing that he’s a polygamist. Phlox wants to check whether it really is just his alien nature that Cutler is attracted to, and if so, how far that stretches. Does she actually understand what cultural hurdles would lurk along the path of a Denoblian-human relationship? After all, just because two people having wildly divergent – even contradictory – political, cultural or religious standpoints doesn’t make a relationship impossible, one shouldn’t blithely assume that it won’t prove a sticking point.

(One could bristle at the idea of a man deciding it’s up to him to school a woman in how to make relationships work, I realise. Given that Phlox is almost certainly vastly more familiar with humans than Cutler is with Denoblians, though, I’m inclined to give this a pass.)

Why specifically polygamy, though? With the entirety of the Denoblian species just eleven episodes old at this point, there was essentially no limit to the make-up of Phlox’s bombshell. Why write him as being one-third of the husbands of three different women? There’s certainly a major potential downside, in terms of the baggage polygamy carries with it. Or, to be more specific, the baggage dragged by polygyny, which is essentially synonymous with polygamy in Western discourse. If we suspected “Dear Doctor” is embracing – or even skipping over – any of the misogynistic aspects to polygyny as it has been historically practised, that would be of major concern. Especially in an episode in which a man with three wives gets to so casually tell a colleague he considers humanity a less-advanced species, something the episode leaves uncontested.

I can’t actually dismiss this as a reading, but it’s not one I subscribe to. It seems too significant that the Denoblian approach to polygamy, based on what little we hear about it, is genuinely equal, at least arithmetically. Three wives, each with three husbands? Each of Phlox’s spouses is a polyandrist to the exact same extent he’s a polgynist. This isn’t the kind of half-considered script-flipping you get in episodes like “Angel One”, which think they’re making a point but end up just reinforcing exactly the assumptions they’re ostensibly attacking. This is a genuine nod toward symmetry.

Symmetry, of course, is not a guarantee of equality, and insisting otherwise often leads to unpleasant outcomes. One could still argue the introduction of a character with multiple wives inevitably brings with it a regressive element, one that a simple mathematical equivalence can’t counter. Fine. I’d suggest a different take, though. Perhaps the very contemporary Western conception of polygamy as being irreducibly patriarchal means the Denoblians’ unisex approach to multiple marriages is distanced from our historical understanding of the practice. And maybe we can get somewhere by focusing not of what we’re moving from, but on what we’re moving toward.

What if the most obvious reading of Phlox isn’t as a polygynist, but as polyamorous?

Clearly, even the suggestion of a polyamorous main character in Trek is delightful, even if we have to look askance at Enterprise concluding giving someone three heterosexual partners was fine, but that no character could be gay. Let’s try to stay positive, though. Beyond the actual fact of Phlox’s reveal, there’s also something powerful in the manner in which Cutler receives the information. At no point does she criticise him either for his life choices, or for staying quiet until now. She does ask why he’s chosen this specific moment to fill her in, but that’s a question about process, not proclivity. The conversation then ends with Cutler being quite clear that, while she’s not interested in marrying Phlox, the revelation that he is polyamorous doesn’t constitute a deal-breaker as regards romance in general.

We shouldn’t skip over how powerful a statement this is, both in terms of the franchise and the world as it exists, then and now. It’s one thing for someone to say they support queerness in the abstract. It’s quite another to be faced with an invitation to participate in queerness and not lash out in panic. I’m not suggesting the latter is any more acceptable than the first, you understand; just that there’s plenty of self-labelled allies that would and do fall between those two fences.

Not Cutler, though. Whilst her initial surprise is obvious, she rallies with what I think is commendable speed. Whatever aspects of Phlox’s experience as a Denoblian might end up causing an issue, there’s reason to hope his queerness won’t be one of them. There’s a suggestion here that she might be looking to cool things off, but that’s fine. Being supportive of polyamory both in theory and in practice doesn’t require anyone to sign up themselves. If you’re not comfortable dating someone with three other partners, that’s fair enough. What’s important is that Cutler doesn’t even come close to objecting to how Phlox structures his private live, and that she makes it clear that his coming out to her hasn’t damaged their friendship or closed down the possibility of a romantic relationship.

All of which is terribly important, and long overdue. The Jacquemettons have form here, of course. Last time they wrote an Enterprise episode, they demanded the show remember to actually have fun. This time, their pitch is that the show needs to embrace queer lifestyles. Both of these are undeniably correct, and it certainly continues to be a real problem that the show’s creators are being so comprehensibly schooled on how to actually write their own damn show

At the time, one might even have wanted to call for the Jacquemettons to replace the two B’s. Except for the final act here, in which everything goes entirely to hell.

A Proscribed Prescription

Well. I couldn’t delay it forever. We’re finally going to have to talk about the final minutes of “Dear Doctor”. I’d rather not, obviously, because this is almost certainly the most rage-inducing, spittle-choking moral wasteland of a conclusion this project has led me to since “The Enemy Within”.

How do we even begin dissecting this collision between a leaking oil tanker and a burning garbage scow? How can we respond to this skunk corpse decomposing atop an overflowing compost bin on the hottest day of the year? I guess we could start with the idea that Archer’s actions here in some way predicts the Prime Directive. This, almost impressively, manages to simultaneously be overly cute, terrible clunky, and further evidence that the Prime Directive is one of the most ill-conceived (or at least badly applied) ideas the franchise ever spawned. Condemning millions – potentially billions – to death because it might knock another species a few steps up the tech-tree? That’s morally monstrous.

It’s also terrible science. Not that it matters, I guess, because even if Phlox was right about how evolution works – and he isn’t, he’s just employing a terrible teleological argument that says evolution automatically leads towards greater intelligence, which is completely ridiculous – he’d still be arguing potential cultural gains outweigh certain mass death. Still, though, I want to point out that the Menk are clearly at a level of intelligence, dexterity and tool use that far outstrips the point humanity was at when we stopped actually evolving in the biological sense of the term. They're not unevolved, and it's disgracefully racist to suggest otherwise. Not just because there's a world of difference between being less evolved and being less able to engage with a culture designed (whether intentionally or not) to exclude you. Because blaming that difficulty in engaging opon biology allows you to sidestep the actual problem the Menk face.

What’s holding them back isn’t the Valakians’ presence. It’s their policies.

What’s really odd is how close the episode comes to noting this, with Cutler objecting to the manner in which the Valakians use their racist assumptions about the Menk as an excuse to deny them access to the best land. Somewhere in here, just below the surface, there’s a story about whether a culture that would treat others the way the Valakians treat the Menk deserves to be saved. Or at least, where the ethical choice lies in determining whether to demand civil rights reform in another culture, when your only bargaining chip is access to a life-saving drug.

That might have had some legs – it’s essentially a rejigging of the Founder’s illness plot from the final season of Deep Space Nine, only without Starfleet being responsible for the disease in the first place, and without the argument for withholding the medicine being so obviously self-serving. Instead, though, Phlox explicitly rejects the treatment of the Menk as an issue. Demanding a species eliminates discrimination before it’s allowed to live is an obviously controversial position to take, but Phlox doesn’t even reach that level of debatable justification. He has no problem with the Valakians at all, save that the Menk exist.

So appalling is this application of a proto-Prime Directive, it might be tempting to view it as a deliberate shivving of the whole idea – an argument that the law central to the Federation’s moral smugness has been terrible from the very beginning. Indeed, in an episode which involves the idea that the Valakians’ own evolutionary process has generated the seed of their imminent extinction (which strikes me as a terrible way to understand evolution, but never mind), it seems more than coincidental that we learn here the Federation itself will always carry this terrible, destructive idea within itself. Maybe one day it will ultimately metastasise into a policy that ends up killing the Federation itself. It’s worth noting how close the Founders, for instance, came to doing just that, and that had Starfleet found the wormhole hundreds of years ago, the Prime Directive would have meant observing the persecution of Odo’s people by solids, and doing absolutely nothing about it, Sooner or later, according to this reading, someone is going to rock up to the Federation and knock its laissez-faire backside into oblivion.

It’s a tempting reading, especially given how accurately these writers skewered the show’s problems with their last script. Even if we assume this is a deliberate critique, though (and when the best you can say about something is “it’s terrible on purpose”, there are already some fairly major issues), that can’t function as a meaningful defence. Not when the episode is also arguing that genetic disorders are somehow qualitatively medically different from infections and viruses, because somehow they’re more “natural”.

This is an appalling argument to push forward. First and foremost it’s utterly ridiculous – there’s no sensible way to define “natural” which includes genes, but excludes microscopic organisms. That’s almost irrelevant, though, in the face of the hideous corollaries to suggesting a medic should view their moral responsibilities when treating genetic disorders as different to those they have when treating diseases or infections. It’s an argument that it might not be “natural” to help someone with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. It’s an argument that a painful bone condition a baby is born with is more “natural” than one inflicted upon them by illness. It’s an argument that when given the chance to cure someone, a doctor needs to stop to consider whether they’ll be offering a “natural” course of drugs, or surgery, or reaching for an “unnatural” gene therapy approach.

This is more than just bad science and bad medicine, It’s hugely and horribly ableist – far more so than anything the franchise pushed in “The Menagerie”, 25 years earlier. None of which changes if we assume these ideas are being employed to attack the Prime Directive. If you push appalling ideas in order to build a criticism of something, you remain responsible for deploying those ideas, especially when – as here – you offer no push-back.

Not that there was push-back. No-one here seems to have realised just how utterly appalling Phlox’s position is. Indeed, every effort goes into arguing his stance is superior to one in which a civilisation isn’t condemned to extinction on the off-chance their neighbours pick up a few IQ points, or learn to use a lawnmower. Even if this episode was intended as a criticism of the Prime Directive, it ends up committing far greater sins in the attempt. For all the nice moments in the episode’s first four acts, the final minutes are so morally reprehensible that nothing which preceded them survives untainted.

Whether or not that was the intention, “Dear Doctor” doesn’t end up as an argument that the Prime Directive needs to be knocked on the end. Instead, it becomes an argument that Enterprise itself needs to be. From now on, every episode of this series cannot succeed only by being good. It needs to justify the fact that after this story, the show was allowed to continue at all.


6. Dear Doctor

Show Ordering (so far)

1. Deep Space Nine

2. Voyager

3. The Next Generation

4. The Animated Series

5. Enterprise

6. The Original Series

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