Star Trek: Enterprise
Air date: 11/19/2003
Written by Manny Coto
Directed by LeVar Burton
Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
"This is a screwed-up situation." — Sim, understatement of the year
In brief: Provocative enough to make me think, but far too mired in its frustrating hypotheticals and manipulations.
I have little doubt there are people out there who will love "Similitude" and think it's a standout hour of Star Trek. I will respect their viewpoint but not agree with it.
This is an episode that, yes, deserves credit for trying something audacious. But ultimately, it just doesn't work. In order to get where it's going, "Similitude" resorts to the most blatant audience manipulation of the year, turning the screws of plot in ways that don't quite seem fair. It does not simply depict a can of worms unleashed, but reveals a script where the sci-fi can of worms has been allowed to explode. Manny Coto, who has written a complex and at times thoughtful script, ventures out on a limb, which snaps. There are more questions than the script is able to deal with in a meaningful way. Certainly the characters don't deal with the issues adequately.
Granted, I'd rather see this than a "Carpenter Street" exercise in mediocrity. I like tough questions. But I do not buy this story. The entire show is built on a foundation of unbelievable science, and then it stacks one extreme (and unconvincing) situation upon another. If the episode's theme is about the dangers of using science irresponsibly, then the episode itself is an example of using science fiction irresponsibly. Part of me admires Coto's willingness to plunge the characters into this moral quagmire. Part of me hates that each new situation is based on what seems like an absurd comedy of science errors. The episode is its own quagmire.
Here is the story. Trip is critically injured in a catastrophic accident in engineering. He is left lying in a coma. The only way he can possibly recover is if he has neural tissue transplanted to his brain from a matching donor. There is no matching donor.
However, Phlox has in his medical inventory — which I'm tempted to now call Phlox's Convenient and Magical Chamber of Horrors — a strange "mimetic symbiont" that has the ability to exactly clone whatever organism's DNA is injected into it. The clone lives out the full lifespan of whatever it copies in the course of 15 days, and then dies. Phlox hesitantly proposes that a clone be grown to Trip's age such that the transplant can be performed and Trip can recover. Of course, this means the clone will be dead within 15 days of being born.
Archer cautiously (although not cautiously enough) approves the plan despite the ethical questions, citing the fact that Trip is a vital part of the crew who is necessary to complete the mission. "Earth needs Enterprise. Enterprise needs Trip," Archer reasons. Simple as that.
Well, I'm not a fan of this reasoning. The Enterprise had better be able to function properly without the loss of one man — even the chief engineer — or there should be hell to pay. After all, this is a dangerous mission where any or all of the crew could presumably be killed at any moment. If Trip's function is so crucial, Archer should have competent personnel backups ready to take his place. To have Archer quickly sidestep his ethical questions by way of the increasingly catch-all excuse of We Must Save Earth At All Costs is something that strikes me as slightly fraudulent as presented by the story. The plot manipulates us into this spot where Archer's logic seems to hold water in the interests of humanity's survival. I don't think so; if that's the case, Trip should never be allowed to go on an away mission again, because he's too valuable.
So Phlox clones Trip. Before you know it, the symbiont has grown into a fetus, a baby, and an eight-year-old boy. Phlox names the child "Sim," which is just a little bit disturbing. (Might as well name him "Clone" or "Copy" or "Quad: Charles Tucker IV.")
The next revelation is that the child's memories are passed along genetically. The older he gets, the more he remembers. He gradually remembers everything from Trip's life, as well as everything from his own. I'm honestly not sure what to make of this. It's weird and bizarre and strikes me as, well, unlikely. Unless Sim's brain can process information like a computer, this kid should be going insane from memory overload. He gains new memories at, what, the rate of five years' worth every 24 hours? I don't even want to question the biological aspects of this accelerated growth, so I won't.
I have to admit that I didn't get much from any of the scenes of Sim as a child. The drama exists in another universe, because in my universe I want to comprehend this miracle of biology, while fighting every urge in my mind to reject it outright. (I kept telling myself: This is sci-fi; it's about accepting the impossible.)
But under the surface there's something about all this that somehow feels phony. I could never accept Sim as a character because he was such a bizarre sci-fi specimen and was obviously the object of a plot destined to kill him. The story's science facts upstage the characters and all their choices, and the script throws so many curveballs that some decisions come across as arbitrary.
There's the revelation that Phlox was wrong and he realizes Sim will die if the neural tissue is extracted. This creates a new moral dilemma (while hinting at gross negligence on Phlox's part), but on top of that there's Sim's discovery that an experimental procedure could slow his accelerated aging to that of a normal human. This experimental procedure is almost certain to fail, Phlox says. But try explaining that to someone who wants to live for more than a few more days. Basically, either Sim lives, or Trip lives. But the catch is that even if Sim lives, Sim dies — whereas if Trip lives, Trip actually lives. Are we balancing scales here? Archer might be.
I didn't much care for the extreme swings in Archer's behavior. In one scene, Archer is telling Sim, "We don't see it that way," when Sim believes that he must sacrifice himself to save Trip. But then, a scene later, after Sim expresses a desire to live, Archer pulls a 180 and confronts Sim, basically telling him that he has no rights. Which is it? I would call Archer a hypocrite, but the plot is so murky that even that may not apply.
The confrontation scene, by the way, is about as well acted as anything I've seen this season on Enterprise, with Scott Bakula simultaneously conveying about 10 different emotions in a situation that warrants nothing less than that. Archer tells Sim that he intends to bring back Trip at all costs. "Even if it means killing you." The delivery of that line is spectacular and chilling, but the thing is, I didn't believe it as anything more than a written line. It's so extreme as to be implausible, and opens ethical issues the show doesn't begin to address.
What also bothers me about this scene is its lack of accountability. Archer knowingly gave the order to allow Phlox to open the can of worms, and then Archer shows a willingness to play God when the worms get away from him. Is that the point? I'm not sure, because the writers let him off the hook by having Sim make the sacrifice willingly — a sacrifice that I guess makes logical sense but also seems like an overly neat and simplistic resolution to this mess.
I respect the ambition here, but I can't endorse the end result. Ultimately, I think what bothers me most about "Similitude" is that I had no emotional investment in it because of the endless sci-fi machinations. Intellectually involved? Yes. Emotionally involved? No. And that's a problem. I didn't feel like I was watching Sim make a sacrifice. I felt like I was watching a superficially pithy solution to the ultimate hypothetical situation — a situation that had been compounded by every possible hypothetical complication along the way.
I want to take that leap of logic and explore the underlying issues. But there are no underlying issues here. The fact of the matter is that on a fundamental level I simply refuse to believe Sim can be grown from something off Phlox's shelf. The story obviously wants to draw parallels between its hypothetical situation and real-life issues surrounding cloning or stem-cell research. But the paralells are too far apart. They exist in separate universes.
As for Sim, I find that I can't identify with his plight. His emerging feelings for T'Pol pose a question to us: Is Sim feeling it, or do the feelings really belong to Trip? To my amazement, I realized that I didn't care. The show had worn me down with too many conditions, filling me with too much resistance.
There's so much to ponder here that you might just call it ponderous. You might also say that "Similitude" has too little verisimilitude.
And I don't even want to know what else Phlox has sitting on his shelf. The cure to death, perhaps.
Next week: The Xindi go to Detroit to put a preemptive strike on Eminem's next album.