On Sunday I wrote a long post about the ethical debate in “Dear Doctor” and what I think of the decision Phlox and Archer ended up making (short answer: it’s terrible).
But I wanted to spend some time looking at the other parts of the episode because it provides an interesting and unique look at three Enterprise women: Hoshi, T’Pol and Cutler.
Because the episode is told from Phlox’s point-of-view, as he voices over a letter he’s writing to a human colleague, we get to learn exactly how he thinks and feels about his female coworkers. It’s a unique opportunity and especially interesting because Phlox is supposed to be coming from an alien, outsider perspective, which means the writers don’t have a reason to base his interpretations on human gender norms.
The first person Phlox interacts with in the episode is Hoshi, who comes in to deliver his letter from his colleague and spends some time chatting about her childhood Australian pen-pal. As I’ve noted before, Hoshi has been treated pretty poorly in Enterprise until this point, so it’s really nice to see her full of confidence and having fun in this episode. When she owns her grammar nerd side, saying she can hardly wait to practice Denobulan gerunds with him later, I am so down with that.
That practice happens later, in the mess hall, and it’s a very cute, funny scene.
By showing Hoshi able to competently do her job (she is quick and effective at translating the Velakian and Menk languages, and she’s the first person to discover the existence of the Menk) and navigate social situations with confidence and humour, “Dear Doctor” helps make it clear she’s a valid part of the crew. And given the lack of women characters, that’s super important.
T’Pol also has a memorable scene with Phlox as he repairs some decay on her tooth. Phlox decides to use the opportunity to discuss Cutler’s romantic interest in him (more on this in a second), noting in his letter:
The affection Crewman Cutler is showing has left me a bit perplexed, so I’ve decided to discuss it with the one person on board who might understand the complexities of the situation.
To me, this says he trusts her judgment and understands what they have in common as aliens living among humans. Again, it’s a welcome change to see a man on the ship who’s interested in T’Pol’s advice, rather than dismissing her concerns, questioning her loyalty, or invalidating her perspective and choices because she’s a Vulcan (something Phlox himself has done in the past).
T’Pol’s reply to Phlox’s inquiry about Cutler is awesomely horribly cynical. She says:
In my experience, humans lack the emotional maturity for interspecies relationships. They tend to be easily infatuated with things they find new. This crewman may simply be satisfying her curiosity at your expense.
This is obviously a prejudiced generalization about humans, but it reminds me of something Spock would say, it’s funny, and it’s somewhat good to hear T’Pol snarking back, given all the comments we’ve heard her human crewmates make about Vulcans.
Phlox’s voice-over notes that he “admire[s] her logic although she lacks the instinctiveness that a more emotional response can provide. Somehow, I find this unsettling.”
So not a total win for T’Pol but overall it’s nice to see someone asking her a question and actually listening to what she has to say. And we actually get to see this happen twice in this episode, miracle of miracles!
But first I have to mention another blanket statement T’Pol makes about an alien species, but one I think reflects much more negatively on her character.
In the hospital where they are studying the sick Valakians, T’Pol cautions Archer that they should have officers assigned to protect Phlox and his equipment.
Archer: I don’t think these people are about to steal anything.
T’Pol: Your experience with lesser civilizations is limited, Captain. You might be surprised what a temptation our technology can be.
The line and the word “lesser” ascribes lower value to the Valakians, implying they are not to be trusted and cannot be held to similar ethical standards, purely based on the fact that they haven’t developed warp drive. This doesn’t feel like a logical assumption, or one that fits into the IDIC philosophy to me.
The final T’Pol scene is the other time someone asks her for advice and – I swear on my Guinan action figure – it’s Archer this time! Yes, I know he’s the guy who usually goes on the defensive any time T’Pol opens her mouth, but I am serious.
He wants to know what she thinks about the Valakians’ request for warp technology and she helps him think it through. He suggests they could give them the technology and them stay to help them use it.
T’Pol: The Vulcans stayed to help Earth ninety years ago. We’re still there. Archer: I never thought I’d say this, but I’m beginning to understand how the Vulcans must have felt.
I just need to pause for a moment because this is a rare, rare moment of Archer empathy. Let’s just all take a second or two to appreciate how difficult it must’ve been for him to walk even a quarter of a mile in a Vulcan’s shoes. I mean, a Vulcan was once mean to his dad.
Okay, has that sunk in? Good. I can only hope the trend is going to continue.
On to Crewman Cutler, whom we first see attending a classic movie night with a very bored Dr. Phlox.
Cutler and the rest of the humans are really into For Whom the Bell Tolls, and she tells Phlox excitedly that they’re showing Sunset Boulevard next week, because of one of the following possible reasons:
a) Future copyright law will mean only movies made before 1955 are in the public domain and therefore available to Starfleet for free shipboard showings.
b) Starfleet decided showing movies was something that was successfully used to boost morale of troops in ancient conflicts like the Korean War. In order to replicate the results, they decided to show their recruits the exact same movies.
c) No one actually thought to bring movies to show on Enterprise except Cutler, and she is a huge ancient-movie nerd. When she says “they’re showing Sunset Boulevard” this is because it is next on the list she has made and there are no other options. But the crew feels it’s better than no movies. The engineers even have a game where they take a drink every time a character lights a cigarette.
But regardless of why the old Earth movies every week, Phlox is not interested. Cutler walks with him out of the movie and takes the opportunity to have him help her learn 11th grade anatomy. She kisses him on the cheek before saying goodnight.
Cutler is more than hinting, but Phlox isn’t sure what to make of it. He asks Hoshi for advice and she says they make a “cute couple”, but doesn’t elaborate. And we saw earlier T’Pol’s advice.
Phlox eventually decides to just be open about it, later, down on the planet where he, Cutler and Hoshi have gone to investigate the disease and the Menks’ immunity.
He tells her he is married to three wives who each have two other husbands, and that that is normal for Denobulans. She asks why he’s telling her.
Phlox: I’ve been getting certain signals from you that suggest you may be interested in a romantic relationship with me.
Phlox: Unless I misinterpreted those signals.
Cutler: You didn’t. But I still don’t know why you’re telling me this.
Phlox: You need to know that my culture is different
Cutler: Phlox, as far as your extended family goes I’m not interested in becoming wife number four. I just want to be your friend.
Phlox: What do you mean by friend?
Cutler: Let’s just see where it goes.
So it’s an awkward situation but how functional was that conversation? The O’Briens could learn a lot from these two.
Overall on the Cutler/Phlox thing, I actually thought it was handled okay. We learn more about her than that she’s interested in Phlox; we learn that she’s confident enough to show her interest in him and later to be able to easily handle the fact that Phlox doesn’t return her feelings.
We do learn quite a lot about the Enterprise women characters in “Dear Doctor”, but I need to stress that I wish these scenes had happened in a totally different episode.
As I stated in the first part of my review, the bigger issue in this episode is Phlox and Archer’s absolutely appalling, unscientific, unethical decision not to treat the Valakians’ illness. Having the scenes like Phlox and Hoshi practicing Denobulan and Phlox treating T’Pol’s teeth makes Phlox’s recommendation to Archer look even worse and more callous because the seriousness of the issue means it should’ve been consuming his every waking moment.
Hoshi, Cutler and T’Pol might come out of this episode better than they had been portrayed, but Phlox sure doesn’t: the positives in his interactions with them are totally overshadowed by how he conducts himself on the bigger issue.