Star Trek: Enterprise
Air date: 4/30/2003
Written by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga
Directed by LeVar Burton
Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
"You knew you had no business interfering with those people, but you just couldn't let it alone. You thought you were doing the right thing. I might agree if this was Florida or Singapore, but it's not, is it? We're in deep space, and a person is dead — a person who would still be alive if we hadn't made first contact." — Archer to Trip
In brief: Yes. This is what I want to see.
Now here's the sort of episode that suggests the true potential of Enterprise as a series — an episode that takes every correct turn where it could've compromised itself by taking the safer road where human values automatically trump all else. It does not take the safer roads, for which I am grateful. By the end, it emerges as the best and most probing episode of the season. This is what is possible when a story takes a risk; that risk can pay off.
The grossly inaccurate trailer, which is played on an inappropriate note of ha-ha levity, makes this show out to be some sort of sci-fi sex comedy. It certainly is not. What was advertised is not even close to what they are selling. This story is no lightweight. By the end, it is dead serious.
What "Cogenitor" offers is some tough questions, tough answers, and surprisingly tough consequences. The last act is nothing short of a revelation (for this series, anyway), as we see exactly how badly good intentions can go wrong.
The episode begins on a refreshing note: first contact with a friendly race of explorers called the Vissians, who for once seem like real space travelers rather than artificial constructs for the sake of conflict. "It'll be nice to have a first contact where no one's thinking about charging weapons," Trip notes tellingly. The thing about aliens on Star Trek is that they're so often used as a shortcut source for shallow conflict. But conflict in real drama should be about situations and circumstances, not about "us" versus "them." Here is an episode that knows this. It also knows that the conflict is not just about two opposing groups of people, but about the multiple approaches to questions, opinions, and actions.
The Enterprise crew and the Vissians team up to study a star in the early stages of supernova. Archer quickly develops a pleasant rapport with Vissian Captain Drennik (Andreas Katsulas, who will be familiar to many genre fans) and the two take a specially shielded Vissian pod on a three-day survey of the star up close. T'Pol takes command of the Enterprise. The human crew and the Vissian crew socially interact and begin learning about each another.
Tucker befriends the Vissian engineer (F.J. Rio) and his wife (Larissa Laskin), and meets a mysterious individual called a "cogenitor" (Becky Wahlstrom). The cogenitor lives with the couple in their quarters on the Vissian ship. The cogenitor is actually a third sex that is required for Vissians to conceive children, providing, as Phlox explains, a crucial enzyme to enable conception from the male and female. In Vissian society, the cogenitors make up a very small percentage of the population (there is only one cogenitor on this ship), and have little standing in society, serving only the purpose of aiding in conception.
Phlox and T'Pol are familiar with three-sexed species, but this is a new one for Trip and, for that matter, for the Star Trek audience in general. The cogenitor here is a quiet individual. The other Vissians refer to this nameless person only as "it," which quickly arouses our suspicion in regard to the status of these people in Vissian society. "They treat her like a pet," Trip notes unhappily.
One of the pleasures I had during this episode was seeing how the show and I were constantly on the same wavelength. As the story established its elements and planted its seeds, I found myself thinking about how things would play out given what I knew about the situation and the characters. On more than one instance, as I was thinking something, the show's progress would follow in the direction of my own feelings. This should not be mistaken for predictability, but rather a show that lays out a logical story arc and prompts our intuition, and then moves in the direction that properly follows the story's logic.
Consider, for example, the way the story sets up Trip's concern for the rights of this individual. The treatment of the cogenitor is depicted as a questionable and possibly troubling issue, but in a subtle way. The Vissians treat the cogenitor with casual indifference — neither friendly nor unfriendly, but simply regarded neutrally as an object. Trip becomes the voice for our own developing troubled feelings regarding the cogenitor.
Then, in its slick and subtle way, the story turns the tables on us and we begin to see the potential disaster of Trip taking matters of this situation into his own hands. He starts telling the Vissians lies about where he is going and what he is doing. He spends time with the cogenitor without the Vissians' permission. He teaches the cogenitor to read and puts human ideas of independence and growth in her head. He tells her that she has the same mental capacity as the other Vissians, and he even proves it with a neural scan that hints at the cogenitor's true potential.
We understand Trip's feelings and why he is doing what he is doing, but we gradually see that it's the wrong thing to do and the wrong way to go about it. We see that this could blow up in his face. I like how the story hints at consequences for Trip's poor choices and then delivers on them, plausibly and forcefully. Given the nature of the dilemma and the central question of the cogenitor's "human" rights, the story could've let Trip off the hook for his actions. Much to my satisfaction, it does not. In the end, the show comes to the sober realization that this is not a story about human rights for a Vissian cogenitor. It's about the issue of human interference in alien cultures.
When Trip teaches the cogenitor to read, she's able to learn in a single day. Is this plausible? I don't think so, but I'm not too concerned about it. That the cogenitor can learn to read so quickly is simply a matter of narrative shorthand. The point here is that Trip's actions open an individual's eyes to completely new possibilities — possibilities that are wonderful and awesome and quite likely to change this individual's life ... before then being taken away as quickly as they were given. It's like "Flowers for Algernon," but with a central figure that's painfully aware of exactly what it's being forced to give up.
There's another question here, one that I'm struggling with. How could the cogenitors in Vissian society really not know what they're missing? If they have the same intellectual potential as the rest of the Vissians, how is it they haven't realized this potential before, even in small numbers? Surely what Trip unleashes here has previously happened internal to their society with their own cogenitor sympathizers. How couldn't it? And logically, a subjugated subset of a population with this sort of intelligence would know they are being subjugated and would in some way revolt, but that doesn't seem to be the case here. The Vissian cogenitors don't seem to be aware of their subjugation, and the Vissian males and females don't seem to be aware that what they are doing is subjugation. It's simply an internal cultural fact, one that perhaps is impossible to understand in human terms. (Are we a product of only what we're permitted to experience? If so, Vissian cogenitors apparently are not permitted to experience much of anything, short of brainwashing and built-in repression.) But given how "Cogenitor" plays out — with the cogentior's eyes being opened and her desire to keep them open — this accepted belief by all the Vissians seems impossible. Not that this hurts the story; it simply makes me even more curious to explore the story points.
It also brings up that difficult issue of cultural moral relativism. The Vissians are right when they explain that we know nothing of their culture. But are they right to treat the cogenitors as they do? On human terms, of course not, but as Captain Drennik points out, "We're not on your world." It's not a particularly satisfying answer, but it is 100 percent true.
Putting all the moral questions aside, the real point here is that Trip interferes where he has no business interfering. The story strikes a fascinating balance between Trip's intentions to right what he believes is a wrong (in human terms), with the fact that he is so calculating in his efforts to do so without anybody else finding out. Just watch the way Trip carefully drops hints to the Vissian engineer to invite him to a meal in their quarters, so Trip can meet the cogenitor and take medical readings. Look at how he ignores T'Pol and walks away when she suggests he not get involved. Deep down, Trip knows he shouldn't be doing what he's doing (sneaking around, hiding things from the Vissians, etc.), and yet he forges ahead anyway, damn the consequences — and there are severe consequences — because he thinks he is doing the right thing. When the Vissians discover what has happened, they're not happy, and they demand the return of their cogenitor, which Archer grants despite her request for asylum. The cogenitor later commits suicide, apparently knowing her existence in society will henceforth be an empty one.
So because of Trip's meddling, a person is dead and a couple will not be able to conceive their child. I guess that's what they call a cautionary tale.
Like last season's wonderful "Dear Doctor" (among other episodes), "Cogenitor" is yet another episode that shows why the Prime Directive will be necessary. When you have a situation like this that's full of gray areas and potentially disastrous consequences, you begin to realize why dealing with such situations will require something more absolute than a judgment call.
The final act of "Cogenitor" is a potent one, well acted and directed, where Archer calls Trip on the mat to answer for his actions, and the news of the suicide is revealed. The strength of the language here surprised me: Archer has two tirades that do not go easy on Trip, with some potent lines including:
- "We're out here to meet new species, not to tell them what to do."
- "You did exactly what I'd do? If that's true, I've done a pretty lousy job setting an example around here." And, "Don't tell me you know what I would've done when I don't even know what I would've done."
- Trip: "I'm responsible [for the cogenitor's death]." Archer: "You're damned right, you're responsible."
- "You knew you had no business interfering with those people, but you just couldn't let it alone. You thought you were doing the right thing. I might agree if this was Florida or Singapore, but it's not, is it? We're in deep space, and a person is dead — a person who would still be alive if we hadn't made first contact."
It's also notable that, throughout all this, the Vissians, particularly Captain Drennik, are endlessly reasonable. Indeed, the Vissians are novel because they come across as real explorers trying to make friends. The genuine chemistry between Archer and Drennik during the survey mission in the Vissian pod (featuring some good FX sequences, by the way) is reassuring, particularly because of Katsulas' affable persona.
"Cogenitor," while excellent, isn't perfect. I'll briefly mention the subplot between Lt. Reed and the Vissian woman who invites Reed to sleep with her. Her rationale is that Vissian customs say a woman will choose to have dinner with a man only after he has proven his worthiness in bed. No pressure. (I'm now imagining the resulting sitcom where sex is shown as the precursor and the drudgery, while talking over a candlelit dinner is the long-sought payoff.) Odd, how this story thread is created and then hastily dropped as if it had been an afterthought. (It also features at least one groaner of a line when Reed says, "I'll show you mine if you show me yours." Notable is that Reed himself can barely bring himself to say this without pausing in doubt.)
On the whole, "Cogenitor" is an Enterprise-specific episode of Trek that takes advantage of this series' premise. It's brave enough to show something that we need to see in this first Starfleet mission: humans screwing up and creating messy problems that are their own fault. The crew isn't perfect and human morality is not absolute. We don't have all the answers. It's to this story's credit that it takes a strong position on the interference issue while offering up other questions that are tough to come to terms with. This show has meat on its bones.
The last shot of a disappointed and remorseful Archer is, to me, of particular interest. I think it shows Archer's realization that, in a way, the failure is his own and he blames himself. He hasn't set a solid or consistent enough example on the interference issue, and he hasn't gotten through to Trip or his crew. There is work to be done. Starfleet has a lot to learn about dealing with other societies. That is what "Cogenitor" is all about. And that's where Enterprise has an opportunity to say something new.
Next week: Helmet! So, at last, we meet the Borg for the first time for the last time!