Star Trek: Enterprise: Dear Doctor
October 28, 2018 11:04 PM - Season 1, Episode 13 - Subscribe

Captain Archer could've used a second opinion.

Memory Alpha surprised me quite a bit, here. This episode was the topic of some network interference at a script level, and is remembered fondly by a number of people.

Background information

Story, script, and cast
> The writers' first draft script of this episode (dated 12 October 2001) was significantly different from how the installment turned out. For example, none of the voice-overs were spoken by Dr. Lucas, with Phlox instead speaking all of them.
> This episode originally ended with Phlox disobeying Archer's orders. ("To Boldly Go: Launching Enterprise, Part III: First Flight", ENT Season 1 Blu-ray special features) Phlox actor John Billingsley offered, "In the original ending in this crisis of conscience, the Doctor essentially does something that violates the standard issue hierarchical obligations of a crewmember to his captain. In effect, he makes a decision that's rooted in 'I've got bigger fish to fry', rather than honoring his captain's wishes." [1]
> The final draft script of this installment was submitted on 22 October 2001. In that version, Phlox discovers a cure for the Valakian plague but keeps it secret from Captain Archer. He firstly tells the captain he will "do [his] best" to find a cure for the virus but then, in a subsequent scene with Archer and T'Pol, Phlox lies to them that the Valakians' genetic structuring is "too fragile" to be tampered with. Though Archer considers the Vulcans thereafter searching for a cure, T'Pol comments that the Vulcans' medical techniques are no more advanced than Phlox's. Urged by T'Pol to depart from the planet since it seems they can do no more to help the Valakians, the three officers meet with Esaak in the hospital and Archer gives him a case full of medical ampules, telling the Valakian doctor they will "keep your species healthy for another three generations." On a shuttlepod journey back to Enterprise, Phlox admits the truth to Dr. Lucas, in voiceover dialogue, stating, "I couldn't bring myself to alter the evolutionary process on this planet. I consider myself a man who values Human compassion… but I find myself, in this case, a slave to Vulcan logic. Have I made the right decision? I suspect I'll be asking myself that question for many years to come." A more minor change from the final version of the episode is that, after Phlox has a discussion with Hoshi and exits sickbay, a final view of Enterprise at warp was to be shown, though this doesn't appear in the episode's final edit.
> The network UPN wanted the ending of this episode changed. Billingsley related, "The head of the studio [Paramount Pictures] suggested some revisions on the ending […] The network essentially felt that […] it was important to essentially make sure that everyone was here to support the captain's decisions." [2] The episode was subsequently altered. Clarified Brannon Braga, "The studio made us change the ending." ("To Boldly Go: Launching Enterprise, Part III: First Flight", ENT Season 1 Blu-ray special features)
> John Billingsley was not fond of how this episode's conclusion was modified. "The ending that had initially been created (for the episode) I was fairly comfortable with […] What do you do? I wasn't as happy with the revisions, but it's not my show," he reflected, "you have to sort of adjust, even if sometimes it does seem a bit of a contradiction in terms for what your character is supposed to be about […] Personally, I thought [about the network's decision], 'Well, I think you've kind of lost something interesting in this potential tension.' But, that's not my call." [3]
> Looking back on the series in 2006, John Billingsley nominated this episode as one of his favorites, and a turning point in the development of Phlox. "I would say that I still have the fondest feelings for the episode 'Dear Doctor' in the first season because that was the first opportunity I had to actually begin to figure out how to three dimensionalize that character. It was the first episode I really had a lot to do and we began to see there was more to this guy than 'Hey fellow well met' which was the concern I'd had up to that point, that Phlox was going to essentially be the cheery fellow who has always got a little alien quirk to make us laugh." [4]
> In an interview conducted shortly before the filming of first season finale "Shockwave", Mayweather actor Anthony Montgomery cited this as one of his personal highlights from Season 1, remarking, "I absolutely loved 'Dear Doctor'; I thought that was fantastic." (Star Trek: The Magazine Volume 3, Issue 3, p. 14)
> Christopher Rydell, who played the unnamed alien astronaut, is the son of Joanne Linville, who played the Romulan commander in TOS: "The Enterprise Incident".
> At one point during the production of this installment, John Billingsley used the episode's voiceover aspect to play a prank on Archer actor Scott Bakula. "The way we managed to make sure that the image, the picture, lasted long enough to match the dialogue is we pre-recorded the dialogue and played it over the scene as we acted it," explained Billingsley. "So, I asked them if they would allow me just to record some fake dialogue. So, the scene with me standing on the bridge, I was supposed to say something of the effect of, 'Isn't it marvelous the way these Humans are so kind and considerate, stopping to help people in need here in the middle of space?' Instead I said, 'Doesn't the captain look nice in that tight suit? Mmm. I wonder if he's wearing any underwear. My, how I'd like to get him somewhere off to myse–' Anyway, I went on in this vein, and everybody broke up." ("O Captain! My Captain! A Profile of Scott Bakula", ENT Season 1 DVD & Blu-ray special features)
> The idea that the Valakians are "supposed" to die out and the Menk are "supposed" to supplant them is based on a deeply flawed understanding of evolution. Evolution does not lay out a course that species are destined to follow, and curing a genetic disease is not substantially different from curing, say, a viral one.

Continuity
> This episode foreshadows more directly the concept of the Prime Directive, expanding upon brief mentions from "Civilization" and other episodes.
> Doctor Jeremy Lucas is later seen in the flesh in the season 4 episodes "Cold Station 12" and "The Augments", played by Richard Riehle.
> This episode contains the second mention and first appearance of movie night. The movie being shown is the 1943 version of For Whom the Bell Tolls.
> This episode follows a similar narrative structure to the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Data's Day", in which a character provides narration in the form of correspondence to a colleague. It also bears a resemblance to DS9: "In the Pale Moonlight"; however, that episode features a personal log being recorded, instead of a letter to a colleague.

Reception
> In a 2011 interview, Brannon Braga characterized this episode as an early Enterprise installment "that I really loved, that I thought was a classic." He went on to say, "It was just a great episode of Star Trek. That's one I look at fondly." [5] Braga further commented, "For a Star Trek episode to work, like 'Dear Doctor', it's gotta have a conceptual hook that's fresh, it's gotta have some sort of moral spine, and something that engages all the characters, most of the characters, in some interesting way. And if you look at that one, everyone's got a moment […] I thought 'Dear Doctor' was by far the best episode of the season. And it was very specific to Enterprise […] It dealt with a real issue. It had it all. It was charming, it was funny, it was well-paced, it had a good framing device, and it ended up […] dealing with a really good issue you'd never seen dealt with before. That's Star Trek at its best […] I wish they'd all been 'Dear Doctor's that first season." ("To Boldly Go: Launching Enterprise, Part III: First Flight", ENT Season 1 Blu-ray special features)
> Star Trek Magazine's "Ultimate Guide" rated this episode 4 out of 5 arrowhead insignias and named it the fifth best episode of Enterprise's first season. (Star Trek Magazine issue 164, p. 78)
> The unofficial reference book Beyond the Final Frontier (p. 364) regards this episode as having helped set the character of Phlox apart from that of Neelix, commenting, "This episode shows that [John Billingsley's] […] a talented and versatile actor, and his character has hidden depths and secrets (but thankfully not sinister ones). The plot – a population affected by a terrible plague that's afflicted them for generations which a single Starfleet medical officer can cure in a day or two – isn't original, but it isn't really the point of a genuinely character-driven episode."

Memorable quotes
"It's mating season, so you know how that goes. I thought Human reproduction was complicated – you Denobulans make us look like single-celled organisms!"
- Dr. Jeremy Lucas, in a message to Phlox

"They don't have movies where you come from, do they?"
"We had something similar a few hundred years ago, but they lost their appeal when people discovered their real lives were more interesting."
- Crewman Elizabeth Cutler and Phlox

"The captain has committed all our resources to helping people he didn't even know existed two days ago. Once again, I'm struck by your species' desire to help others."
- Phlox, in his letter to Jeremy Lucas

"Your experience with lesser civilizations is limited, captain. You might be surprised what a temptation our technology can be."
- T'Pol, to Archer

"We could stay and help them."
"The Vulcans stayed to help Earth 90 years ago. We're still there."
"I never thought I'd say this, but… I'm beginning to understand how the Vulcans must have felt."
- Archer and T'Pol

"What do you suggest? We choose? One species over the other?"
"All I'm saying is we let nature make the choice."
"To hell with nature. You're a doctor, you have a moral obligation to help people who are suffering."
- Archer and Phlox

"My compassion guides my judgement."
- Archer to Phlox

"Evolution is more than a theory. It is a fundamental scientific principle."
- Phlox, to Archer

"Someday my people are going to come up with some sort of a doctrine: something that tells us what we can and can't do out here – should and shouldn't do. But until somebody tells me that they've drafted that directive, I'm going to have to remind myself every day that we didn't come out here to play God."
- Captain Archer

"I'd like to think, Dr. Lucas, that if I'd had the chance to talk to you face to face you'd have never let me even consider withholding my findings from the captain, but I'm ashamed to say that I almost did just that. […] If I hadn't trusted him to make the right choice, I'd have been no better than the Vulcan diplomats who held your species back because they felt you couldn't make proper decisions on your own. I came very close to misjudging Jonathan Archer, but this incident has helped me gain a new respect for him."
- Phlox, as he finishes his reply to Dr. Lucas

This Week In:
Skipping headers this week. This whole thing is just too much of a downer.

Poster’s Log:

This was a tough episode to sit through on repeat viewing, knowing what was coming. This post is also quite difficult to write. I briefly considered skipping the week and directing everyone to The Good Place instead, where the writers actually know about ethics and morality.

But the thing is, Dear Doctor is a natural extension of problematic thought that exists in all of Star Trek. In a very real way, this story is what happens when the seemingly harmless racism latent in the franchise is allowed to go unchallenged, and so I feel obligated to discuss this at least a little. I’m deeply disturbed by the people behind the scenes liking anything about this plot. (I could see them enjoying the clever narrative framing with the letters, or the Phlox/Cutler interactions, but the rest is completely abhorrent.)

Not talking about little stuff leads to much worse things later. With that in mind, I present you ENT’s pro-eugenics story, wherein our crew learn a valuable lesson about how different races of people deserve to live or die based on their inherent capabilities, and that rendering humanitarian aid to the suffering and dying is an unconscionable violation of medical ethics if they’re undesirable.

Unlike many instances of deeply racist storylines on this show, (Tattoo, Code of Honor, etc.), this wasn’t subtext or implication: Phlox offers an impassioned argument in favor of letting one group of people die off so that a more worthy race can supplant them because of execrable pseudoscience.

Backing up a sec:

Trek means well. I have always believed that. When I was a kid, I liked seeing a diverse crew. I liked that Kirk kissed Uhura on air because even at a young age, I got that was a big deal. I liked that they wanted to solve their problems by talking more than through superior firepower. (That's a big part of my nostalgia for Doctor Who, too.)

This is why I always come back to the franchise, despite my bitter complaints. Trek wants us to be better than we are, and so I give them chances I would not offer to a franchise that only existed to offer meaningless popcorn entertainment.

On the other hand… they screw up about some very important things, badly and repeatedly. This is inevitable, of course. When we create fictional spaces and characters, we’re building constructs based on our own assumptions about how people work. We can’t make anything that’s more enlightened than we ourselves are, nobody can. I have to believe that mindfulness and discussion helps with that though.

Underlying all of Trek is the whole Planet of the Hats thing, where a person’s race has a huge impact on their personality, abilities and even rights. Basically, instead of understanding aliens as individuals, the stories themselves encourage the audience to stereotype. Vulcans fly like this, Klingons fly like that. It's possible to handwave that a little with 'but they're aliens,' but the franchise really leans into it because humans are depicted this way too. In most action SF I'm familiar with, humans are the most individualistic species simply because that's what writers know, but Trek flattens us out to a huge degree too. As discussed in Terra Nova and elsewhere, humans who leave the Federation are depicted in some unfortunate ways. Colonists are doomed, Maquis are thugs, the Hansens were the worst parents ever, etc. - humans have one way they should be too. (Archer references that in Fortunate Son, for that matter.)

Anyway, this is a racist strain of thought, of course. I mean, that’s the whole point of this style of thinking: boxing people into categories based on their race. In Dear Doctor, we see that the Menk embody one set of desirable and virtuous traits, which the Valakians lack entirely due to genetics. (This is also horribly ableist - as I think about this an extra unhappy minute, I have to wonder how it would feel for a kid who is feeling down about their own abilities to watch their TV heroes advocate for the extinction of people who just aren’t as smart or capable.)

Though the examples are fictional, perceiving people that way is a framework that extends beyond stories. It’s pernicious, because as I see it, the chain of reasoning that follows is simple:

- Group A has a set of immutable common traits.
- Group B has a different set of similarly predictable traits.
- It is possible to rank these traits from good to bad.
- It is therefore possible to rank these *groups* from good to bad, or at least most to least important.
- Resources are finite, (even given replicators, land or time are still limited).
- 'Bad' groups are wasting these finite resources, holding 'good' groups back.
- We would be better off without the bad groups, action or inaction to follow depending on taste.

It’s important never to get to that first step, even in our daydreams, because the rest simply follows.

The second thing going on here is this notion that various races have naturally ordained paths that they belong on, and that anything that diverts that path is morally wrong. TOS hit this both with Khan, and with numerous false paradises that held humanity back. Later Trek continues the notion that genetic engineering is inherently corrupt with examples like the Suliban, Augments, Dominion client races and the Jack Pack (who are only redeemable because they are broken). The Borg are also an example of enhancement run amok, turned into monsters in their search for 'perfection.'

Everybody is supposed to stay where nature put them and advance at a ‘natural’ pace, period. This is an authoritarian, hierarchical mindset. It’s also the sort of thinking that leads to the idea that the Valakians are in the wrong to help the Menk because it ‘holds them back’ - that’s uncomfortably close to the racist ideology that welfare is the real slavery for POC in the US, and felt very dog whistle-y to me.

Anyway. This is entire hour is just… repugnant. All of it. It is only useful as an illustration of why ‘harmless’ racist thought isn’t. And I realize I'm editorializing even more than usual, so I suppose I'd better cede the floor now.
posted by mordax (20 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'll just say that this is one Star Trek episode that I never rewatch.
posted by Servo5678 at 4:50 AM on October 29, 2018 [3 favorites]


After I watched this episode, I went to Ex Astris Scientia, even though I don't agree with Bernd on a lot of episodes. In fact, I don't agree with him on this one, which he gave a 3/10, even though he's given a whole bunch of ENT episodes a zero. But he makes some good points, such as that, even if you think that the Prime Directive is a good idea (and we've discussed here why it isn't), it doesn't apply here. The Valakians have already met two warp-capable species; the Prime Directive only really applies to civilizations that aren't aware of such. (It's a little amusing to consider that, if the Valakians re-establish contact with Ferengi, the Ferengi may be known to future generations of Valakians as the ones who saved their race--although the Valakians may end up paying for it indefinitely--as opposed to those asshole Terrans who just left their race to die.) Part of the problem, as I've said before, is that the actual Prime Directive has never been spelled out in any iteration of the franchise, so someone might think that it applies to all pre-warp civilizations regardless of whether they've contacted aliens or not, even if, as with the Valakians, they know of warp drive and would like it so that they don't all die. So, framing this episode as one in which the need for the Prime Directive is stated doesn't work, because what it does is that it makes the case for the PD in literally just about the worst way possible.

And, as already said, the science is bogus. Again, there's something in the canon (the general prohibition against genetic engineering, because Khan) that might be used as an argument against a genetically-engineered cure, but again, that doesn't apply here (even if you buy it, which, again, is highly-questionable--the idea that artificial genetic improvements inevitably lead to megalomania smacks of technophobia, an odd tack for Trek to take); in DS9's "Doctor Bashir, I Presume", it's stated that genetic therapy is allowed to correct cases of harmful congenital defects, which a species-destroying mutation would qualify for, I think. One of the most pernicious things about this episode is that they imply that the Valakians deserve to die, because they're oppressing the Menk. And they absolutely are (forcing the Menk to live on land that's worthless for agriculture smacks of the American government relocating Native Americans to the desert), but, you know, there are solutions to that besides genocide. Besides which, again as already stated, they're wrong about how evolution works, they're wrong about how long it would likely take the Menk to get to the Valakians' level, and they're wrong about the Menk never having the same problem as the Valakians, given the possibility of genes crossing species.

The utter wrongness of all of the above kind of ruins what modest good points that the episode might have (the character development for Phlox and his dance of potential intimacy with Cutler). I can only speculate that the self-back-patting going on here is mostly because they bothered to address these issues, not that they succeeded; Braga, in particular, seems absurdly self-satisfied, given all the problems that VOY had that are being repeated here. The ten-percent problem seems more like ninety percent with this one.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:08 AM on October 29, 2018 [4 favorites]


I'll just say that this is one Star Trek episode that I never rewatch.

Having missed this when it aired, I was watching this for the first time. And, likewise, the last time.

This is entire hour is just… repugnant.

Basically that. We were due for a Phlox-centric episode and looking solely through that lens -- which we should not -- I can see why people do like this, in that perspective, and if you stop watching at around the ten minute mark or so (at which point my notes are mostly variations on 'woo finally a Phlox episode') you can see what the show was going for: Phlox having to navigate the strictures of his personal ethics, his professional code of behavior, his role within the ship's chain of command, and his cultural differences from humanity's. Which all happens, but.

And I realize I'm editorializing even more than usual, so I suppose I'd better cede the floor now.

I appreciate your editorializing here, and it's quite, quite warranted. Unlike, say, Strange New World, which is bad because of production and writing, this is bad despite being an overall well-written and well-produced episode...aside from the glaring errors that undermine everything it sets out to do. You've said why this is bad much better than I could, so: thank you. This is a Bad Episode.

The episode comparison I'd make for what I think they were trying to do is to The Enemy (TNG S03E07), in which Worf is the only blood donor capable of saving a Romulan's life; he (in short summary) considers but declines to do so, but admits he would do so if ordered to do so, and Picard then must consider whether or not he could ethically give that order. And then, in classic Star Trek fashion, the Romulan dies before they need to resolve the question, letting the showrunners off the hook for answering and leaving the episode mainly as a character piece, but with some thoughts left for the viewers to consider.

Having Star Trek for once actually answer an ethics question and do so terribly wrongly while also mangling fundamental, basic science issues -- in the guise of 'defending science' -- is several orders of magnitude more frustrating than the normal Star Trek trope of raising but not answering questions. It's hard to come away with this without thinking that Phlox and Archer are both monsters, except that, really, it's the writers (slash producers slash UPN, since it's not exactly clear where all the script changes from) who are driving this: it's an episode that's hard to treat as canon (in re: 'letting millions die for no real reason' -- Phlox's wives & such are obviously fine canon-wise) because to do so would warp the rest of the show in ways that definitely weren't intended at any level.
posted by cjelli at 7:20 AM on October 29, 2018 [3 favorites]


It would be nice if we could let the writers off the hook by assuming that Archer's ultimate decision is rooted in some residual post-Eugenics-Wars distaste for genetic engineering, which seems to be what saving the Valakians would entail.

But we can't do that, because
1- it seems out of character for Phlox's reasoning to also be "Eugenics Wars"-- in fact, in the original draft (thanks for the detailed post BTW, mordax), Phlox cites Vulcan-style logic for his reasoning, which, um, wut?;
2- even bringing up the Eugenics Wars is retconning nearly to the point of fanon, since the show has not (yet) demonstrated its willingness to touch that topic.

It seems to me that what we ended up here was the end result of a lot of shitty and unexamined assumptions made by a creative team that didn't think through the implications of their story enough, and/or treated their own creations not as real persons/peoples, but solely as instruments. I'm positive I made this same basic point about at least one VOY episode, but sometimes they just wanna do an "Issues Episode" and it doesn't occur to them to actually examine their draft for anything beyond story beats, character beats (e.g. the demand that Phlox obey Archer, a demand I'm certain was solely motivated by the natural compulsion to hurry up and establish stuff like that in the first season), and franchise continuity. It's very obvious, thanks to Archer's way too on-the-nose line about "some 'Directive' of some sort, if you will," that a story foreshadowing the Prime Directive was this episode's raison d'etre; but the story they landed on in which to do that foreshadowing also happens to expose the ugliest aspects of the PD (or, to quote Halloween Jack on preview, "what it does is that it makes the case for the PD in literally just about the worst way possible"), yet never acknowledges this. And the fact that that omission didn't cross their minds in turn exposes ugly aspects of the creators' own thought processes about race and hierarchy, though let us hope that they were unconscious processes at least.

As to why so many of the folks involved are fond of the episode:
- it's well-acted,
- it's got the sort of narrative device that writers love (the letters to Lucas),
- it's a profound-seeming Issues Episode with some franchise continuity (even if, to paraphrase Jack, all they actually did was bother to attempt to wave a hand at actually addressing said issues).
That they loved it just seems to further demonstrate their blindness to the actual Issues.

On a personal note, I definitely recall having a reaction similar to cjelli's when I first saw the episode: initial excitement during the first act, followed by disgust that ENT was seeming to continue to make some of VOY's worst mistakes.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 8:43 AM on October 29, 2018 [2 favorites]


We were due for a Phlox-centric episode and looking solely through that lens -- which we should not -- I can see why people do like this, in that perspective, and if you stop watching at around the ten minute mark or so (at which point my notes are mostly variations on 'woo finally a Phlox episode') you can see what the show was going for: Phlox having to navigate the strictures of his personal ethics, his professional code of behavior, his role within the ship's chain of command, and his cultural differences from humanity's

Would that this was all the episode did! I was very much enjoying the first ten minutes or so, and thought having an episode from Phlox's perspective could have been great. In fact it would've been great if they'd kept the focus on the routine of the ship, with a little bit of a curve ball - some exotic disease or something - without the whole "genetic determination" thing. Once Phlox started musing about "primitives" I was incredibly turned off, but stayed through to the end in the hopes it would somehow get better. Instead they make a very difficult episode with uncomfortable implications about genetics and superiority and destiny.

There's a parallel here with the questions Picard faced in "I' Borg" in which Picard had the option to infect the Borg with a potentially genocidal program, while Archer grapples with here the decision to withhold a potential treatment that could prevent an extinction (and does Archer's decision move it from being an extinction to being a genocide?) The differences in how these situations are handled speaks a lot (at least to me) about how the different writers rooms saw and understood Trek.
posted by nubs at 9:19 AM on October 29, 2018 [4 favorites]


Anyways, I was starting to move ahead with watching Enterprise, because I felt it was starting to find its feet. I haven't watched an episode since I finished this one because it was such a sour taste.
posted by nubs at 9:34 AM on October 29, 2018 [1 favorite]


I'd say that "I, Borg" is more like Trek's supersized version of the Trolley Problem, with the added complication of whether or not it would be better for the drones to die or to remain assimilated, assimilation being often considered worse than death, not to mention considering the fates of all the sentient beings yet to be assimilated by the Borg. (This also came up with Icheb in VOY.) TNG's "Dear Doctor" episode was probably "Homeward", which Bernd mentioned, and is likewise not a fan of.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:52 AM on October 29, 2018 [2 favorites]


I actually really enjoy "Homeward" but it is definitely not one of Picard's better moments, and it is definitely another example of the Prime Directive being kind of shitty. You wonder if Roddenberry would have hated "Homeward."

Really, between that and "Dear Doctor," I feel like somebody here with a better grasp of ethics/philosophy than I have needs to… really Chidi this shit up. What exactly is, or might conjecturally be, the PD's justification for the notion that a culture is better off extinct than non-non-interventioned?
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 5:00 AM on October 30, 2018 [2 favorites]


Thanks for the support, folks. I appreciate it a lot. This is the one story I was dreading when I volunteered. (IIRC, this was the worst of the lot.)

DS9's "Doctor Bashir, I Presume", it's stated that genetic therapy is allowed to correct cases of harmful congenital defects, which a species-destroying mutation would qualify for, I think.

Yeah. Also, pretty sure that during the Augments arc, Phlox mentions Denobulans use genetic engineering and never had a Eugenics War.

I appreciate your editorializing here, and it's quite, quite warranted.

Thanks. :)

As to why so many of the folks involved are fond of the episode:
- it's well-acted,
- it's got the sort of narrative device that writers love (the letters to Lucas),
- it's a profound-seeming Issues Episode with some franchise continuity (even if, to paraphrase Jack, all they actually did was bother to attempt to wave a hand at actually addressing said issues).
That they loved it just seems to further demonstrate their blindness to the actual Issues.


... that makes an unfortunate amount of sense, thank you.

Really, between that and "Dear Doctor," I feel like somebody here with a better grasp of ethics/philosophy than I have needs to… really Chidi this shit up. What exactly is, or might conjecturally be, the PD's justification for the notion that a culture is better off extinct than non-non-interventioned?

I'll take a shot at that. I don't think they've ever said it aloud, so I would be stuck with conjecture here.

That said, I believe the original TOS Non-Interference Directive was about colonialism/imperialism. If you take a look at TOS, they were far less restricted by it - for instance, compare Kirk's choices in A Private Little War to anything in TNG.

On the surface of it, I actually think this is a decent rule of thumb: cultures of extremely different resources probably can't interact directly without some kind of massive power asymmetry. We see it on ENT, actually: the Vulcans have outsize influence on Earth politics due to their greatly superior resources, leading to strained relations even though humans meet their minimum bar for first contact. The humans certainly feel like their culture is being artificially constrained.

So I think the whole principle comes from a good basic assumption of 'don't muddy shit up for people who cannot possibly say no.' TNG refocuses this into the Prime Directive, possibly out of embarrassment with all the shenanigans that happened in TOS.

Unfortunately, Trek has two problems that later pervert a basically well meaning notion into something pretty awful:

1) Trek mostly operates on a rules-based ethical framework. (Mostly deontological, I think.)

I discussed this briefly back in Tuvix: there are different ethical frameworks. Star Trek is a big place and some stories are more nuanced than others, but on the balance, the franchise/verse take the tack that morality is best accomplished by a strict adherence to rules. Moral principles are both knowable and immutable, and cannot be denied due to extenuating circumstances.

Phlox's horrid talk about evolution here definitely offers that as an idea: there's a principle of 'evolution' that simply must not be denied. Adherence to the rule is more important than the suffering or death than said adherence would cause.

For a real world example of this: this is the school where it would be wrong to lie to the 'murderer at the door.' If an action is against the rules, it is wrong regardless of external context - these things are not negotiable. Evolution is the murderer at the door, here.

Per my discussion in Tuvix, I personally find this unsatisfactory. However, it's a long running school of thought in morality overall, and there are some societal benefits to it. (On the balance, and like I said last time, I think there's a strong network externality present in sharing a formal set of rules in a society, even though I think they're negotiable or breakable depending on the situation). Trek has mined this for drama sometimes, but never really pushed on it hard that I can recall. (I guess maybe in Justice, but I don't feel like anybody learned anything from that.)

2) Trek holds the latent racist worldview I described above.

As I mentioned in my post, Trek holds to an authoritarian hierarchical notion of 'the natural order' which it typically couches in terms of 'evolution.' All creatures have a path ordained for them by a higher power, and any attempt to step off that path is, at its core, sinful. This is why genetic engineering generally leaves its recipients corrupted in some way: too aggressive (Augments), enslaved (Suliban/Dominion) or crazy (Jack Pack). It's because the act of messing with Nature as some kind of embodied will is morally wrong.

I blame Roddenberry's upbringing for the seeds of this, followed by a lot of clueless white folk of a particular socioeconomic background writing the bulk of Trek after him. This is an unexamined assumption across a lot of that whole bracket: people have roles they belong in, which is easy for people to believe when the status quo favors them.

Those two ideas are behind this story:
- Morality is best found in following the rules.
- Altering the 'natural fate' of a people violates an immutable law of the universe, whether it be to help the Valakians or 'hold back' the Menk.

Given those things, letting a people go extinct rather than help them makes an unfortunate kind of sense. It's tragic, sure, but the alternative is worse: cats and dogs living together! I guess in this case sorta literally! :(

Anyway, hope that makes more sense.
posted by mordax at 9:40 AM on October 30, 2018 [3 favorites]


Now I'm fantasizing that Patrick Stewart has likewise come around to the opinion that the PD is a buncha garbage, and that he uses his influence to make "revising or repealing the PD" a major plot thread in The New Adventures of Jean-Luc and Friends.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 11:16 AM on October 30, 2018 [4 favorites]


I would *totally* be there for Jean Luc Picard: Champion of Humanitarian Aid.
posted by mordax at 11:43 AM on October 30, 2018 [3 favorites]


As far as the PD goes, in addition to all that, I always thought there was a strong 'give a man a fish' element to it. If they stop and try and fix all the problems of every society they come across, they will swamp themselves, and if they start fixing the problems of much more primitive species, there's a strong chance those species will come to rely on that aid. There's a gross comparison to real world welfare arguments, but in this case star fleet truly is a complete outsider to these cultures, and truly a dramatically more advanced society.

Just like, imagine if a star fleet type organization came around during the Black Plague, cured that, and then looked around and saw EVERYTHING else that was 'wrong' from a star fleet perspective. If they want to provide as much aid as possible, they're going to have to completely rebuild everything, possibly with resistance, and honestly, at that point you are describing exactly the way the Borg see themselves.

I absolutely think the PD was a response to early star fleet mistakes, both of Archer's sort (getting involved but not actually doing anything besides moralizing incorrectly) and Kirk's (just dramatic interference based purely on his own gut feeling), so that by the time Picard was around, the individual massive failings of a captain won't damage relations with a society or just generally destroy it, on the idea that it's better to be completely hands off rather than leave international first contact politics up to random circumstances.
posted by neonrev at 1:31 PM on October 30, 2018 [4 favorites]


So I think the whole principle comes from a good basic assumption of 'don't muddy shit up for people who cannot possibly say no.' TNG refocuses this into the Prime Directive, possibly out of embarrassment with all the shenanigans that happened in TOS.

This is an interesting take; I've taken TNG's depiction of the Prime Directive as restraint arising out of the knowledge of unforeseen consequences, and not as being particularly consent-based: the Federation will not take action because it cannot truly judge the outcome of its actions, not because it has an issue with taking action against a given society's stated intentions. I'd note, here, that the Enterprise doesn't actually tell anyone what's up: they make a decision for the society. That's hardly a model that privileges informed consent.

Under the logic of avoiding unforeseen outcomes, pre-warp civilizations are left alone because gaining warp flight is so transformative that the Federation feels unequipped to accurately predict the outcome of that change; the Federation also stops short of intervening in the internal affairs and external affairs of warp-capable civilizations on plenty of occasions (the Klingon Civil War, for example), and generally seems to operate from -- at an institutional level -- a bias towards restraint and inaction. Memory Alpha has a good rundown of Prime Directive citations, and a surprising number of them are 'don't interfere, period, in other civilizations and societies' -- surprising since that's what the various Enterprises have spent a lot of time doing.

That intersects weirdly with:
Trek holds to an authoritarian hierarchical notion of 'the natural order' which it typically couches in terms of 'evolution.' All creatures have a path ordained for them by a higher power, and any attempt to step off that path is, at its core, sinful.
Which, yeah. That idea crops up a lot. And a lot of the Prime Directive is 'don't interfere, because interference might accidentally push people off the correct path,' in practice -- and so, again, the tendency for Starfleet to not save people who could live, and to not aid those whose could be helped. There's a lot of moralizing in there which is never quite spelled out, and isn't consistent between shows, or even episodes; I'm thinking here of Hide & Q, where there's a strong theme of things needing to be 'earned' to be real: Riker, empowered by Q, offers to turn Data into a human -
"But it's what you've always wanted Data, to become Human."
"Yes, sir. That is true. But I never wanted to compound one... illusion with another. It might be real to Q... perhaps even you, sir. But it would never be so to me. Was it not one of the captain's favorite authors who wrote, "This above all: to thine own self be true?" Sorry, commander, I must decline."

- Riker and Data
Which is total nonsense: the offer is that he would literally be human. There's a lot you could say there in rejection of the idea, in terms of 'what is human anyway?,' but that's not what Data says (and both Geordi and Wesley make similar points): he says a benefit isn't a benefit if you don't work for it yourself. What's the difference between becoming human through hard work and divine fiat? The only difference is the path, and Star Trek often argues that this matters more than the destination. I find that kind of depressing whenever I re-watch TNG, to be honest.

From an authorial point of view, I think a lot of how the Prime Directive gets deployed is down to American writers' discomfort over American foreign military intervention in the Cold War and the years following (for example, Too Short A Season isn't not an Iran-Contra story.) By the time we get into DS9, the cultural background to the show has shifted and we get Quark and Garak's metaphorical root beer talk about the Federation's cultural imperialism; by the time we're here, with Enterprise, we've almost shifted, I think, to a presumption that Starfleet should take action - that Stafleet shouldn't defer to the Vulcans, that humanity should take risks and leap into the unknown. Whether that's a conscious shift to depict the pre-TOS days or just a unconsidered bias I don't know, but either way I think it informs, say, Archer aiding the Andorians in The Andorian Incident; or the Enterprise interceding in Fortunate Son; or totally ignoring the wishes of the Terra Novans back in Shale! Shale! Terra Nova.
posted by cjelli at 1:52 PM on October 30, 2018 [3 favorites]


1) Trek mostly operates on a rules-based ethical framework. (Mostly deontological, I think.)

Yes, and they seem to keep changing the rules between shows and episodes. Particularly within TOS, but trying to draw out a clear ethical framework from Star Trek writ large is a mug's game that I can't stop playing.
posted by cjelli at 1:54 PM on October 30, 2018 [4 favorites]


This is an interesting take; I've taken TNG's depiction of the Prime Directive as restraint arising out of the knowledge of unforeseen consequences, and not as being particularly consent-based

... Ugh. Your argument is flatly better than mine there. I concede I'm wrong. That said: I think you accidentally hit something even more fundamental and gross in a later part of your post that also plays into this.

Under the logic of avoiding unforeseen outcomes, pre-warp civilizations are left alone because gaining warp flight is so transformative that the Federation feels unequipped to accurately predict the outcome of that change

I think that's more a case of 'once a species has warp flight, first contact is more or less inevitable so why not break out the diplomats?' Like, once Zefram Cochrane had the flight of the Phoenix, the Vulcans could not realistically ignore Earth because Earth could come to them. I think the Federation's later bar is on the same basis, especially given that intervention is still kept minimal.

What's the difference between becoming human through hard work and divine fiat? The only difference is the path, and Star Trek often argues that this matters more than the destination. I find that kind of depressing whenever I re-watch TNG, to be honest.

So beyond unintended consequences, I think maybe the PD is rooted in the notion that helping is kinda wrong on the face of it, because then the recipients will have been denied their rightful journey.

And thinking about this is depressing me too. Gah.

Whether that's a conscious shift to depict the pre-TOS days or just a unconsidered bias I don't know

I assume this stuff is unconsidered bias anywhere but DS9, because looking at the body of work reminds me of talking to a lot of very clueless but broadly progressive people.

Particularly within TOS, but trying to draw out a clear ethical framework from Star Trek writ large is a mug's game that I can't stop playing.

Hah. Right?

*sigh*
posted by mordax at 9:16 PM on October 30, 2018 [1 favorite]


trying to draw out a clear ethical framework from Star Trek writ large is a mug's game that I can't stop playing.

Yeah, it is interesting that for a show that has so often concerned itself with larger ethical questions, how hard it is to articulate Star Trek's ethical framework. The principles are there, but they so often get ignored or avoided or what-have-you to suit the needs of that week's story, that it becomes muddled and unclear.

Thinking back on the episodes where they have handled it the best, it has been those when they have shown the personal costs and consequences of grappling with the ethical situations they find themselves in; the cost of living up to the principles they espouse. Which is also where this episode falls flat; there's examination of the question for both Phlox and Archer, but no fallout - they just warp away to next week's problem.
posted by nubs at 9:05 AM on October 31, 2018 [4 favorites]


I think that's more a case of 'once a species has warp flight, first contact is more or less inevitable so why not break out the diplomats?' Like, once Zefram Cochrane had the flight of the Phoenix, the Vulcans could not realistically ignore Earth because Earth could come to them.

Oh, yes, that makes so much more sense to me as a rationale than what I was thinking: it's no longer a choice if the other party is going to force the issue anyway, so why not just contact them first?

I think maybe the PD is rooted in the notion that helping is kinda wrong on the face of it, because then the recipients will have been denied their rightful journey.

I'm still thinking through how broadly that applies, but it definitely applies some of the time: that was basically the crux of TNG's Homeward, right?
"...They deserve the chance to survive. And isn't that what the Prime Directive was truly intended to do? To allow cultures to survive and grow naturally?"
"Not exactly. The Prime Directive was designed to ensure non-interference."
"But aren't we interfering either way? If we take no action, it's a conscious decision to let the Boraalans die."
"Exactly. We have the power to save some of them. All we have to do is exercise it."
- Nikolai Rozhenko, Deanna Troi, and Beverly Crusher during a staff meeting
And Star Trek sometimes leans into not-action as a conscious choice over action, as the default moral stance, which is also where Archer and Phlox land here (pre-Prime Directive): they don't know exactly what impact helping would have, but they do know they could help a lot of people and choose not to for sake of non-interference. Which isn't really something that Dear Doctor grapples with, but.

Thinking back on the episodes where they have handled it the best, it has been those when they have shown the personal costs and consequences of grappling with the ethical situations they find themselves in; the cost of living up to the principles they espouse.

Hearty agreement with that: the stronger episodes that are centered on ethical issues (in my opinion, anyway) have often been the ones that deal with ethics adjacent issues -- not 'what is the right choice?' or 'what is the right moral framework?' but 'how do we, as people, come to make choices, and how do we live with having made them?'
posted by cjelli at 9:41 AM on October 31, 2018 [2 favorites]


Oh, a further Fridge Logic deal here:

I think they might not be using the Vulcan database because on some level, it feels like cheating. Sort of a reverse of... some kind of 'directive.'

(Also, I'd argue that Archer's little speech there is the single dumbest line in Star Trek. Hell, it beats out anything in Spock's Brain, which was funny enough to be made into a musical. Brain and brain, what is brain?)

I liked the comparison to Riker getting the power of the Q because that was a total miss for similar reasons. (Given the power of a god, I'd... well, take a personal day, cross off everything on my bucket list in a giant party of chocolate, sex and pointless violence. But the day after? I would be taking some notes to help everybody: transwarp, better power, defense against the Borg, etc.)

Which is also where this episode falls flat; there's examination of the question for both Phlox and Archer, but no fallout - they just warp away to next week's problem.

This is also a good point. As a thought experiment, let's assume that they'd made the correct choice instead and helped the Valakians: is this an interesting episode?

And I'd argue 'no.' It'd be a fun slice of life episode rather than anything I'd seriously remember. I'd be in here talking about how nice it is to have a breather or something, but it wouldn't make any lists of memorable work.

So... good catch.

Hearty agreement with that: the stronger episodes that are centered on ethical issues (in my opinion, anyway) have often been the ones that deal with ethics adjacent issues -- not 'what is the right choice?' or 'what is the right moral framework?' but 'how do we, as people, come to make choices, and how do we live with having made them?'

Yes, very much so. I think this is why Star Trek can be so murky about particulars and still be well-regarded in retrospect.
posted by mordax at 10:04 AM on October 31, 2018 [2 favorites]


Thinking back on the episodes where they have handled it the best, it has been those when they have shown the personal costs and consequences of grappling with the ethical situations they find themselves in; the cost of living up to the principles they espouse.

This is maybe best shown in "The City on the Edge of Forever", which is almost literally a Trolley Problem.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:07 AM on October 31, 2018 [3 favorites]


This is also a good point. As a thought experiment, let's assume that they'd made the correct choice instead and helped the Valakians: is this an interesting episode?

And I'd argue 'no.' It'd be a fun slice of life episode rather than anything I'd seriously remember.


And I agree; in order to raise the personal stakes to the point needed to make this a great "ethics" episode, they would have to fundamental alter this episode to the point that it wouldn't be...this. What they tried to do was a "slice of life" episode with Phlox, and then grafted a Prime Directive debate onto it. The more I think about it, the more I think that the mistake was to try to be both - a Phlox slice of life episode could have been solid on its own, and a good episode about the development of the PD should be solid on its own too, with a focus on actually giving us characters inside the affected group that we care about and/or forge relationships with a crew member.

This is maybe best shown in "The City on the Edge of Forever", which is almost literally a Trolley Problem.

Which is the episode that was on my mind when commenting.
posted by nubs at 12:38 PM on October 31, 2018 [2 favorites]


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