In brief: A reasonable message show, but somehow still lacking, and a little too obvious on its limited-scope terms.
After "Stigma" fades to black, there's a brief insert that provides a toll-free number and explains how you can get more information about HIV and AIDS. Meanwhile, this week's episode of The Dead Zone ends with an informational card that urges people to donate blood to the American Red Cross. What is this, Message-Show Info-Card Week?
I tend to resent these informational tack-ons, because they snap me right out of the drama, as if to say: Look, dummy! This is the message! A good allegory or message show should stand on its own; when I see these informational cards I feel like the creators are assuming I'm too dense to realize that there was a message behind the storyline.
But that's just me.
As allegories go, "Stigma" is watchable, well-intended, and earnest — in a zero-subtlety kind of way. It's also a little too by-the-numbers and feels curiously dated in its message and technique. There was a lot of publicity prior to the airing of "Stigma," and I think that's a telling sign. This story has taken up a cause and the Paramount publicity machine seems to see this as the franchise's great return to social commentary. Actor John Billingsley was recently quoted as saying Enterprise should do more allegories and commentary. I am in agreement with him. But when the publicity department has to work overtime to tell people that Trek is going to be making social commentary in an upcoming episode, it's only demonstrating how the franchise has lost some of its relevance.
"Stigma" — which I'm scoring as a near-miss — takes the social commentary route to a point of obviousness that won't much challenge a forward-thinking audience. These days, the best-working message shows are ones that tackle current situations head-on without the need for an allegorical surface (generally because they are set in present time and circumstances). Law & Order: Special Victims Unit recently did a show about stem-cell research on human embryos that was so disturbing in its depiction of ethics while so even-handed in its thematic approach that I was literally amazed. I was not amazed by "Stigma." The message is never in doubt or demanding of much scrutiny; it essentially boils down to "prejudice is bad." Not exactly cutting-edge stuff, and in 2003 it's not like we have to hide behind sci-fi metaphors to deal with current issues like the original show did in 1967.
That said, "Stigma" is, after all, set in the Star Trek universe where we don't face these kinds of problems head-on because they no longer exist in human society. And to be fair, I'm not sure that Star Trek — even Enterprise — has the option to jettison the allegorical framing method to deal with a current-day issue like HIV/AIDS. The metaphor for the disease here is a stigmatized Vulcan condition called Pa'nar Syndrome, and the metaphor for (apparently) the homosexual minority is that of a Vulcan minority who engage in the forbidden practice of mind-melds. We learn that T'Pol contracted Pa'nar Syndrome when she mind-melded with Tolaris in last year's "Fusion."
Let's take a look at the central analogy.
The analogy, if you take it literally, seems to say this: You don't have to be part of a certain "minority" to contract HIV, but HIV is predominantly spread by this certain "minority," which is shunned by an intolerant society. Perhaps I'm taking an unwarranted leap of logic in believing the writers were drawing a connection between the Vulcan minority and the human minority of homosexuals. And perhaps I'm taking the allegorical intent here too literally. Then again, perhaps not.
One logical hang-up with this allegory (as I've interpreted it) is that it doesn't hold true enough to current events. In the United States, yes, HIV is more common among gay men. But that certainly isn't the case worldwide, particularly in countries like South Africa, where HIV is a sprawling epidemic infecting 20 percent of the adult population — primarily because of insufficient prevention programs and resources.
Or perhaps mind-melding Vulcans aren't a metaphor specifically for homosexuals; perhaps they're a metaphor for generally risky behavior like unprotected sex or drug use ... although I tend to doubt it, since the episode takes to task that of Vulcan bigotry — bigotry of a specifically defined minority. (In the story, only those who engage in the taboo are vulnerable to the disease, which is not the case with HIV if homosexuality is the taboo in question.) But then that's the problem with bigotry in the first place, isn't it? Gays are individuals, not a blanket group to be associated with HIV merely because of sexual orientation. The variable in HIV prevention is behavior that puts you at risk, not whether you sleep with the same or opposite sex.
If the Vulcans discover T'Pol's condition, they are certain to recall her just for having contracted Pa'nar Syndrome, even though she doesn't actually belong to the minority of mind-melders. T'Pol would likely lose her career and be shunned by Vulcan society for having engaged in taboo behavior. Furthermore, we find that the Vulcan medical community isn't working to find a cure for Pa'nar Syndrome because they don't approve of those who have it, on the account they're behaving against the norms of Vulcan society. This is a rather harsh policy. After all, it's not as if AIDS research has been halted because governments don't feel a need to cure those who were unlucky enough to contract it, or because they don't agree with the behavior of some who have it. The problem with AIDS is not that we don't care about a cure, but that we are not yet capable of providing one.
One thing that doesn't come across adequately in the episode is how the stigma of HIV/AIDS is not entirely an issue of either behavior or sexual orientation. The Vulcans are more adverse here to the behavior of mind-melds, whereas the stigma of HIV in the real world is about the disease itself — because of fear of death and concern for safety, and because of shame and ignorance, in addition to the other stigmatized issues revolving around gender bias, sexual morality, or homophobia.
Granted, an allegory doesn't have to perfectly mirror its true subject. (Much of this review is for the sake of discussion.) But by making so much of this show about the Vulcans' intolerance for mind-melders, it seems to me this episode somewhat misses a big point it really ought to be making, which is: On a worldwide scale, AIDS is indeed stigmatized, but there are larger issues, with the biggest current obstacle being the lack of adequate prevention programs and education, especially in developing countries. The somewhat tunnel-vision approach of "Stigma" seems to arise mostly from an Americanized civil rights standpoint.
Having said all that, "Stigma" enjoys a certain level of success and is certainly not a waste of time. By wearing its message on its sleeve, it at least can spark some renewed discussion and awareness of an important topic. That alone is worth something. And in terms of the surface storyline, there's a certain shock in seeing this level of intolerance in Vulcan society, which employs some almost police-state tactics in confronting T'Pol. I'm not so sure I like it (it pushes this series' humans closer to the moral benchmark, when humans should be learning rather than teaching), but I'm also intrigued by it, and particularly by a line by Vulcan Dr. Yuris (Jeffrey Hayenga), who says of Vulcan society, "There's more intolerance now than there was a thousand years ago. It has to stop." I'm also interested in learning how the mind-meld will eventually be embraced by the future Vulcan society we know will emerge.
And worth mention is Jolene Blalock turning in one of her best performances to date. T'Pol, facing a grueling situation and stumbling across more Vulcan intolerance than she has the stomach for, looks like she's been hit with a hammer. Blalock's performance is subtle, restrained, and internalized, carefully revealing evident emotion without stepping too far into the realm of the outright emotional. It's impressive work, and watching T'Pol stand her moral ground as the consequences come flying at her is somewhat inspiring.
There's also an amiable but largely irrelevant B-story, where one of Phlox's wives visits the ship to help install a sophisticated microscope in sickbay. Her name is Feezal, played by Melinda Page Hamilton, who has an absolutely irresistible smile that she wears in every single scene. Feezal constantly hits on Trip, which of course Our Southern Gentleman is hugely uncomfortable with. My one question about this subplot was why it wasn't obvious to Trip, as it was certainly obvious to me, that Phlox would encourage Trip to pursue Feezal's advances, seeing as it is common knowledge that Denobulans are polygamists. The subplot is pleasant but slight, and a distraction from the episode's more serious content.
I could've done completely without Mayweather's pointless dialog in sickbay about sports involving melon-throwing and wild animals, which comes dangerously close to insulting racial stereotyping. What exactly is the point of this ludicrous dialog? (The trivial mistreatment or non-treatment of this series' only black character is becoming a constant thorn in my side, I must say.)
The bottom line is, as message shows go, this one is pretty average, and might've benefited from some wider perspectives. Writing this review felt like time well spent, as did doing a little Web research to remind myself of the current global impact of AIDS. But I didn't really get those benefits from the episode itself, if you see what I mean. "Stigma" stakes out precious little new territory, especially compared to what else is on television today.
Maybe it's enough that the episode is a catalyst for thought rather than a deep or subtle analysis in its own right. Maybe I'm being too hard on a sincere allegory. I don't know. I just invariably find myself thinking back to that stem-cell episode of L&O:SVU. That was a show where moral positions were not so clear-cut and obvious, where problems were complex, controversial, difficult, and unsettling. It was a show that was daring and original as issue shows go — something that "Stigma" is not.
In that regard, it's sort of a shame that "prejudice is bad" is about the only message "Stigma" ends up with. The message isn't bad (and, indeed, the intentions are good), but it's too obvious and typical of Star Trek. AIDS in the real world is a social issue where the stigma is only part of the problem, and not even the most important part.
Footnote: In the spirit of sending non-subtle messages, I will end this review with my own informational tag, and encourage readers to visit www.avert.org for more information on the global impact of HIV and AIDS.
Next week: A new Vulcan/Andorian conflict, with Archer in the middle.
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