The power of humility and apologizing
On this episode, Jeff Akin reviews Star Trek Enterprise, A Night in Sickbay (Season 2 Episode 5). He will examine the leadership approaches of Captain Archer.
Captain Archer decides he is too good to apologize. In doing this, he insults his crew and jeopardizes his ship. Jeff examines his actions and how he finally decides to do the right thing.
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Welcome! Thanks for joining me today. Humility, accountability, responsibility. These are all hallmarks of a great leader and we learn about all of them from Captain Jonathan Archer in this one as we beam into episode 5 of the second season of Enterprise, A Night in Sickbay.
We’re in the decon chamber. A cool thing about Enterprise is that they rarely use the transporter, and when they do, it’s still a super undeveloped technology. So whenever they visit a planet, they have to decontaminate. Later in Star Trek chronology, the transporter handles that; a few episodes get into the science of it. But that wasn’t the case in Enterprise. So we see this chamber used a few times.
We’ve got Hoshi, T’Pol, Archer and Porthos in there. Hoshi Sato is the communications officer, T’Pol is the Science Officer, First Officer and a Sub-Commander for the Vulcan High Command, Archer is, of course the Captain, and Porthos? Well, Porthos is Archer’s dog. Because, of course Captain Archer has a pet on board when absolutely no one else does.
So they’re in there, doing the decon thing, which basically means they’re all in a black light, wearing underwear and rubbing glitter gel all over each other. And Archer is complaining. They’ve been in orbit of the Kreetasan planet, trying to establish a relationshop so they can trade for plasma injectors. But, they offended the Kreetassans by eating in front of them and Archer is taking it as a huge affront that they’re offended. “How long were we in orbit, groveling?” Good for you, Hoshi! Call him on his stuff!
He just keeps going on and on, though. Dr Phlox finally gives a little reprieve. He says the three officers can leave decon, but Porthos has picked up a pathogen that they chamber isn’t taking care of. So Phlox is going to run some tests.
In Engineering, Archer is trying to convince Trip, the Chief Engineer, that they don’t need the plasma injector. “I’m not comfortable with 4, Captain, we need 5.” Archer just wants to leave the situation, not have to deal with the customs and culture of the people on the planet but Trip is holding hard and fast to the bare minimum of any process: have a backup. And, if any of you have served in the US military, you know that even that isn’t good enough. Gotta have a backup for the backup. So, they need 4 plasma injectors to run safely, Trip wants at least 5 but I don’t think he should be satisfied with less than 6. But, I guess I’m not a Chief Engineer of a starship, so, there’s that.
He encourages Archer to do what he has to do to apologize and make nice. Apparently, they’ve offended them again, so he’s going to ask T’Pol to find out what they did and how they can make it right.
Archer checks in with Dr Phlox. Before setting down on the planet, we learn they sent their genomes to the scientists to be sure things we safe. Despite that, Porthos is not doing well. His immune system is falling apart and Phlox can’t figure out why.
Archer dives into some role shifting. He’s offended the Kreetassans, twice now, but instead of having the humility to find out why and to make it right, he’s looking for a way to blame them. “I offended them twice, but if their carelessness hurt Porthos, they’re going to find out what being offended is all about.” Wow.
I’ll talk about this more in the red alert and command codes sections, because, yeah, there’s a lot to unpack, even more as the episode continues. But I want to try and understand where he’s coming from here. His best friend is possibly dying and he’s scared. I get it. What I don’t get, though, is this macho response. But I’m going to try and temper this with the fear and anxiety that come when a loved one is suffering.
Ok, he heads back to the bridge. T’Pol asks to talk to Archer in private. The newest offense is that Porthos peed on an ancient tree that is sacred to them. She attempted to apologize, and they agreed to discuss possible acts of contrition. And he just doesn’t stop, “Where in the hell do you get off conveying my apologies?” and keeps trying to shift blame onto them. T’Pol, much more directly than Hoshi earlier, calls him on it, “There some things more important than plasma injectors. Are you referring to your pride?” Given the tone of this conversation, you can likely imagine how professionally he responded to that.
After pouting in his quarters for awhile. I’m sorry, I said I was going to try and see this from his point of view. So, after sitting restlessly in his quarters, he grabs his bedding and heads to sickbay. He’s going to stay the night so he can stay close to Porthos. Which, honestly, is pretty cool. Phlox is working hard to figure out what is going on with him. Archer questions his qualifications working on a beagle, “I hold six degrees in interspecies veterinary medicine.” Geez. I’m sorry, seriously. This is the second season of the show and he’s questioning the ship’s doctor on his qualifications. Ugh.
After that shining example of how to instill trust in your crew, Phlox shares that he’s eliminated the pathogen, but he still needs to repair the damage done to Porthos’ immune system. Without a healthy system, normal bacteria can be lethal. He’s administering a treatment and will be monitoring for the next few hours. He encourages Archer to get some sleep. Archer lays down in a sickbay bed that I can 100% guarantee I would fall right out of. The thing is barely as wide as his body!
We get a long sequence of events where Phlox is working around sickbay and the noise keeps Archer awake. “I’m sorry, Captain, did I wake you again?” This whole thing really frustrated me. Archer has been serving in Starfleet for like 10 or more years. Sleeping in awkward situations should be just another day at the office for him. I remember sleeping soundly on the submarine I served on, in the torpedo room. I could actually stretch out all the way, I’m taller than the racks were long, and I didn’t have to hot-rack. If you’ve never heard of hot-racking, look it up; it’s super great… In addition to those two, huge plusses, I also got to sleep on top of ordinance in a room with all the lights on and shipmates hard at work. Getting sleep in weird situations is a life skill I learned in a fraction of the time that Archer has been in similar situations.
He finally stops trying to sleep and heads into the gym. T’Pol is in there on a treadmill. She asks about Porthos and then this weird thing starts to happen. She bumps up the speed on her treadmill, as people do. He side-eyes her, looks threatened and then bumps his speed up too. This keeps happening through the whole scene until T’Pol finally gives it up, “I obviously can’t keep up with you.”
He’s trying to find out more about what the Kreetassans are going to require from him and she’s trying to explain that they’re just looking for an apology that is appropriate for their culture. “I’m sorry. I’m just practicing.” He’s not taking this seriously at all. T’Pol continues to press the point, not accepting him blaming anyone else. “You shouldn’t have brought your dog on a diplomatic mission.” But he keeps defending his choices. Says they knew Porthos was coming along, so, again, this is all their fault. “You’re once again ignoring the consequences of your actions.”
Saved by the bell. Hoshi calls down and lets them know the demands have been sent. Archer reads them and makes jokes. He tosses the list to T’Pol and heads back to sickbay.
He gets some sleep and then alarms go off as Porthos goes into anaphylactic shock. The treatment didn’t work. Phlox is quick to respond and stabilizes him. He tries a new treatment approach and says it’ll take a few more hours.
Then the episode takes a turn. Archer starts complaining about T’Pol and Phlox questions why her opinion matters so much to him. And then he asks, “How long has it been since you were intimate with a woman?” Archer gets mad, brushes him off and lays back down.
A loose bat wakes Archer up; Phlox keeps a lot of different animals on hand in sickbay for their medicinal uses. While they try and catch the bat, Phlox gently brings up the, um, tensions that he believes Archer is experiencing. Says he’s been observing behaviors informing his opinion for months now and Archer responds with another top-notch leadership line, “with all due respect to your training, you’re wrong.”
This scene goes on and on. Hoshi comes in and easily snatches the bat out of the air. She’s letting Archer know the Kreetassans are getting impatient for his response. He brushes her off and goes back to sleep as Phlox continues work on Porthos. He has a dream that all but confirms Phlox’s observations. Much of the dream takes place in the decon chamber while phrases Phlox has said replay in the background.
He wakes from the dream and Phlox shares that the treatment isn’t working well. Archer tells the story about how he came by his dog, “I’ve had Porthos since he was 6 weeks old.” T’Pol brings some food in for them and asks if he has responded to the Kreetassans yet. He, of course, makes some snide comments about them. And then Star Trek makes a pretty juvenile, but not too far off the mark attempt at humor. “I haven’t slept very much, but I’m doing the breast I, best I can. Hmm.” Another follows; pretty Freudian, or as Phlox calls them, F’larian slips.
Phlox’s treatment has been effective, but the pituitary gland has been damaged. He does a transplant with one of the animals from his menagerie.
During the procedure, they discuss his feelings towards T’Pol. Phlox suggests he can’t ignore it and shouldn’t do anything about it, given their professional relationship, so he should be aware of it. Archer, with real curiosity, asks if his wisdom around relationships comes from training or experience. He says both. We also learn a lot about Denobulan relationships. He has three wives and each of them have three husbands. 720 total relationships. That is about 721 more than I think I can handle…
Archer starts to understand how he’s treated Phlox. “I want to apologize.” He accepts, and then uses what he knows of Archer to help him realize what he should have realized way back when the episode started, “And to think, T’Pol told me you were incapable of apologizing.”
The next scene is Archer, on the surface, performing the apology ceremony for the Kreetassans. He’s chain sawing wood, wearing some early 2000’s beads in his hair and speaking their language. The apology is accepted! And they’re on their way. The Kreetassans even gave them 2 spare plasma injectors. Hmm. Seems an apology can get you a lot farther than being all self-righteous.
T’Pol joins Archer in his ready room. “Since I have so much practice apologizing, I’d like to offer you one.” He addresses the tensions that Phlox brought up; calls it friction between them. He says he wants to minimize it. She agrees but says friction is normal when people are left in close quarters for an extended period of time. He adds that it’s even more of an impact when people are of opposite sexes. She responds in a brilliantly professional manner, “Then it’s a good thing you’re my superior officer.” Like, it’s not even a part of the equation given their professional relationship.
He heads back to sickbay. He thanks Phlox for his help and guidance. Also, Porthos is healthy! Clean bill of health! “We’re going home.”
This is a tough one for me. I have to separate my feelings on Archer in this episode from the episode itself. When I first watched through this one, I thought it was a pile of steaming garbage. But that’s really what I think of, oh, spoiler alert here, I guess, but that’s really more about what I feel about Archer. On my second watch through, I kind of enjoyed this one. John Billingsley, the actor that portrays Phlox, is firing on all cylinders here. He carries himself as a professional, but he’s fun and believable. There’s even some fun, Star Trek medical science problem solving that goes on here.
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They did this weird thing where they kept showing what time it was at the beginning of most of the scenes. I think this was supposed to give us the feeling that the night was long and super drawn out. But really, it just made me think this wasn’t a super big deal. It also made me lose all belief in what was happening. Like, within 12 hours or so, they go through all the Porthos stuff, Archer’s sexual tension and he learns a super complex apology ceremony that includes choreography and a different language. Kinda cool idea, super poor execution.
I mentioned before this episode was nominated for a Hugo Award. Apparently Star Trek kind of dominates the Hugo Awards! It’s won 4 of them and has been nominated like 27 times for almost every series between TOS and Discovery. This Award is about excellence in science fiction and fantasy so it’s no wonder Star Trek is all over them! This episode was nominated in 2003 and lost out to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Conversations with Dead People. Other nominees included an episode of Angel, Firefly and Enterprise’s Carbon Creek. A pretty great year for sci fi TV.
I think what really made this episode work for me, though, was John Billingsley. This guy IS Phlox. He carries himself so well, and makes Phlox into such a sympathetic character. He was fun, funny but also serious. In the scene when they were chasing the bat, he was awesome! He made this origami bird thing and started with mating calls! It was great!
In an episode that really exemplifies some of the absolute worst in leadership, Billingsley and Phlox made this a fun and entertaining one.
Seriously, where to even start? There’s the outright refusal to do his job as Captain of the ship and diplomatic liaison for Starfleet. Then there’s his outright, juvenile refusal to take responsibility for his actions. Oh, and don’t forget the schoolboy competitive attitude he takes with his crew. Yeah, this is another in a long line of stinkers for Archer. Is it all bad, though? Surprisingly, no, not, it’s not all bad.
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There was one, little line, early in this episode, that really set the tone for me. Like, I can try and think of excuses for why Archer wouldn’t want to apologize to the Kreetassans, and wouldn’t take their culture seriously. But, when he’s in Engineering, Trip says this one thing: “You’re a trained diplomat.” Where was he trained? DeVry?? I mean, there is not a single thing he does that even suggests he knows what the word diplomacy even means. Like, why does he bring his dog?? It’s super cool to bring your kid or a loved one to work, when it’s safe! I can’t imagine what would have made an experienced Starfleet Captain and a trained diplomat even consider this!!
There are really two things happening here. The first is his blatant disrespect of the Kreetassan culture, and the second his refusal to apologize and take accountability for his actions.
At the beginning of the episode, they offended them by eating in front of them. Not an unexpected taboo. Like, if I was in a culture I didn’t know too well, I probably wouldn’t just make myself at home and eat in front of them. Even just here on Earth, I can think of a thousand things that could go wrong if I did that. What if the culture is vegan, or doesn’t eat pork, or something like that? Just by downing a sandwich, I could totally offend them. I would think, that as a diplomat, this would have been a given. And then Porthos peeing on a tree?? I don’t think anything can defend the choices Archer made, but he’s personally offended that they are offended. If he had taken a minute, literally one minute, and either played it safe and not eaten in front of them, or learned even the surface level aspects of their culture, all of this could have been avoided. But, nope. Archer’s gonna do what Archer wants to do!
When you work with, or interact with people, like we all do, there is just about a 100% chance you’ll end up offending someone at some point. Probably not intentionally, but you’ll say something or do something that rubs someone the wrong way or is outright offensive to them. And, here’s the thing. That’s ok. It’s not reasonable to think or expect that you’ll never offend anyone. The difference, the difference is what you do once you’ve offended them.
We see two possibilities play out in this episode. There’s what happens through most of it, where he thinks it’s dumb that they’re offended and chooses to be offended that they’re offended. This is what someone that is very insecure would do; someone with low self-esteem or low self-confidence.
The other possibility is what we see at the end, when he apologizes. He takes accountability for his choices and actions. He honors their culture, apologizes and they actually give them more than what they needed.
So let me ask you; which approach is better? Which possibility plays about the best for everyone involved? Sure would have been cool if the face of Starfleet, out in the galaxy, would have known this from the get go. But, hey, his folly is our gain!
Here’s the thing, though. Stuff happens, right? Things don’t go according to plan a lot of the time. So depending on just one person, on their own can be unreasonable. I get that. Now, if only Archer had a team of highly trained professionals to help him make the best possible choices. If only… “You’re once again ignoring the consequences of your actions.”
When you have a team, and they are trying to help you…let them help you! Archer had T’Pol, Hoshi, Trip and Phlox all telling him the same things, trying to get him to do the right thing. Despite all that, he charges ahead, bull headed. One of the signs of a good leader is the ability and the humility to listen to advice and counsel of others. Especially, when they are all telling you the same thing – the same thing that lines up with the training you have, apparently, gotten on the subject.
So, what did we learn from Archer here? First, be aware of and honor the culture, traditions and laws of the places and people you are around. Second, when you offend someone, apologize and take responsibility; that means you need to do better next time. And, finally, here, listen to and trust your team. Fantastic lessons!
Oh, but the learning doesn’t stop there! Oh no it doesn’t. I can’t get through this section without looking at Archer’s just embarrassing display in the gym.
Now, you might not realize this by looking at me now, but when I was younger, I spent a ridiculous amount of time in the gym. Most of that time was spent picking heavy things up and putting them back down again. And, you get a group of people together, throwing some heavy iron, and some people can get pretty stupid. Throwing extra plates on the bar, trying to out-do the other person. Now, most of the time, this was in good fun and was pretty motivating. I remember the first time I benched 275 pounds was after a buddy of mine did it. I mean, I couldn’t hit my 225 and let him show me up with 275. So I threw some 25s on each side, and – this is the key part that kept it fun and motivating – asked my buddy to spot me. With a little help, I got it done! Next time we hit chest, I started at 225 and ended at 275, totally helped me improve.
But then there’s what we see from Archer. T’Pol is doing her thing and bumping up the speed on her treadmill. Every time she does, Archer gets this threatened look on his face that turns kinda hostile really quickly. Kudos to Scott Bakula here for really nailing this! She gets wise to what he’s doing and finally, “I obviously can’t keep up with you.” She just walks away.
This happens in the workplace too. In fact, it happens a lot, at least in my experience. People jockeying to look good and to outdo their colleagues and peers. Now sometimes, this is great, like my bench press example. People can compete and drive each other to do great things, but that’s when that is the motivation.
All too often, we see Archer at work. Someone that feels threatened by someone else doing a good job. Instead of recognizing them for their great work or trying to learn from them, these people interject themselves into meetings and situations. They’ll always have something they feel they need to add when someone says something. In fact, I spot these people quickly when the describe the water in a meeting.
People have said what needs to be said, but, like Greg Kinnear in this scene, someone has to pipe up just to re-explain what has already been said, to repeat someone’s point or just to explain the situation in a slightly different way. There’s no reason for them to be saying anything here, they’re not adding value or even actually participating in the discussion. They’re just saying words so they are part of the meeting too. This is them looking threatened, and then bumping their treadmill speed up.
The weird, and honestly cool thing about people that are doing stuff that is better than you, is that you can benefit from their performance as well. You don’t benefit by trying to outdo them. No, you benefit by sharing their success with others. By recognizing their great work and giving them all the credit. When you do that, people see you in a favorable light as well. And, maybe, that person will be motivated to help you improve too. You can directly benefit from them, just like I did when my buddy was outlifting me.
Now, it’s not all bad, though! Archer does learn! In the final 5 minutes of the episode, he gets it. He apologizes to Phlox. This leads him to apologize to the Kreetassans. Then he apologizes to T’Pol. Before he apologized, everyone was at least a little frustrated with him if not outright mad, he was miserable and felt slighted, and the ship wasn’t getting the supplies it needed. He stepped up and apologized which led to a warm reception from Phlox “You’re welcome anytime.” A renewed understanding with T’Pol and more plasma injectors than they thought they needed.
Dude, this is the lesson of this episode. It’s so simple and so, very powerful. Just apologize. Don’t get offended that others are offended, just own your role, take responsibility and apologize. Great things happen when you do.
I am really looking forward to getting to some of the later episodes of Enterprise. I honestly remember Archer being a much better Captain and leader than he has been in the 6 episodes of the show we’ve watched so far. There are just about 100 episodes of Enterprise, like 97, so we by no means have a full picture of him yet.
I want to thank you for all of your support. 2021 was a great year for the Starfleet Leadership Academy, and I’m looking forward to spending 2022 with you. For now, let’s connect! I’m on Twitter: @ SFLA podcast and you can follow me on all the social media, @jefftakin Jeff, t as in, um, Tension, a k i n. And I’d like to invite you to join the Starfleet Leadership Academy podcast group on Facebook.
Computer, what are we going to watch next time….
Sticking in the world second seasons. It’s the 14th episode from Deep Space 9’s, Whispers. It’s an O’Brien Must Suffer episode! DS9 has a bunch of episodes where O’Brien goes through absolute nightmarish and horrible situations. I think this was the first one, actually. I can’t wait to watch it with you.
Until then, Ex Astris Scientia!