RSS iconTwitter iconFacebook icon

TrekToday title image

The Trek Nation - Cogenitor

Cogenitor

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at May 1, 2003 - 3:47 AM GMT

See Also: 'Cogenitor' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: When Enterprise approaches a hypergiant star to study its early death throes, the crew discovers another ship already in orbit. The Vissian captain greets Archer enthusiastically and offers to help improve Enterprise's sensors so humans can study the star more closely. Tucker meets the Vissian chief engineer, his wife, and their cogenitor -- a third sex necessary for Vissians to reproduce. The cogenitor has no name, is referred to as "it" and apparently has no social purpose other than to facilitate childbearing.

With T'Pol in command, Archer and the Vissian captain take one of the Vissian stratopods to study the star up close, and the captain lets Archer pilot the vessel. He has read many plays by Shakespeare and Sophocles recommended by Sato, and asks Archer for advice about movies. Meanwhile, Tucker goes over to the Vissian ship for a tour of their engines, but he's more interested in asking about the cogenitor. The engineer invites Tucker to dinner, where he discovers that cogenitors, which make up only a tiny percentage of Vissian society, have no rights, receive no education and are essentially prisoners in the homes of the couple with whom they are trying to conceive. As soon as pregnancy is accomplished they are sent to another couple, never to see the child.

After taking scans that prove the cogenitor's intelligence, Tucker sneaks away from his duties in engineering to visit it — though he refers to the cogenitor as "her" — bringing a padd with a reading program. The cogenitor learns to read as quickly as the Vissian captain memorised Shakespeare. While Reed explores what he considers to be the advantages of Vissian sexuality — the women prefer sex first, dating afterwards — Tucker becomes appalled at the maltreatment of cogenitors. He sneaks the one he has met onto Enterprise for a tour, and the grateful cogenitor decides to be known as Charles in honor of Tucker's given name.

But the Vissian engineer and his wife refuse to let their cogenitor continue to read or to explore outside their quarters, so Charles sneaks onto Enterprise and asks to stay there. When Archer returns from his mission of exploration, he is furious with Tucker for interfering with Vissian culture, yet tells the Vissian captain that he must seriously consider this request for asylum. The Vissians argue that Archer does not really understand Vissian culture and is in no position to judge the fairness of treatment of cogenitors. Archer chooses to send Charles back with the Vissians, which T'Pol assures him is the right choice, but the cogenitor commits suicide and Archer furiously tells Tucker that he hopes the engineer has learned his lesson about interfering.


Analysis: I'm rather emotional, so I'm not thinking too clearly, but I believe this may be the best episode of Star Trek since "What You Leave Behind", the Deep Space Nine finale. It takes the central dilemma of the franchise — the noninterference directive — and holds it up against a situation tailored to resemble gender-based oppression on Earth, putting the same excuses in the aliens' mouths for their maltreatment of cogenitors that human men used for centuries to rationalise why women needed to stay at home. Berman and Braga co-wrote this? I take back all the times I called them sexist jerks. Well, most of them, anyway. Even this episode has its moments in the token Malcolm Reed "Look! He's still a playboy!" sequence, but ironically the shallow lusts of his new lady friend only serve to reinforce the dichotomy between male and female Vissians and their third-gender counterparts.

"Cogenitor" combines two of my favorite Star Trek themes: a serious look at how reproduction shapes society, and a crisis about whether or not to meddle in a cultural practice that seems by human ethical standards to be abhorrent. There are echoes of the feminist dystopian classic The Handmaid's Tale, in that much-needed cogenitors are not permitted to read or to go outside without permission from their families (ostensibly for their own protection) and they can be passed around among otherwise infertile couples without any participation in the rearing of their own children. There are also parallels with The Next Generation's "The Outcast" — another of the finest Trek episodes ever made — in which members of a sexless society are brainwashed if they reveal that they have a gender preference, and an Enterprise (1701-D) crewmember's involvement puts one such person in danger.

Yet the scenario mostly makes me think of Octavia Butler's phenomenal Xenogenesis trilogy, in which humans are forced into reproduction with a third sex from another species. It's creepy and titillating and upsetting all at once to realise how much coercion can be involved even in "normal" compulsive heterosexuality. We're not led to doubt the desperation of Vissian couples for cogenitors, nor the deeply held belief that cogenitors cannot be educated. The prejudices obviously date back a long time. These are people who understand Shakespeare and Sophocles, though it takes a member of the oppressed minority to grok The Day The Earth Stood Still.

And of course it has to be Tucker who discovers the situation, not only because Connor Trinneer's a superb actor who can make viewers believe in the depth of Trip's involvement, but also because Tucker's fundamentally incapable of letting people suffer if he thinks he can prevent it. He sees a person — not a gender, not a species — even when he's checking out T'Pol's cat-suited figure or her Vulcan physiology. This is a big difference between Tucker and Reed, who is shockingly irresponsible about allowing an alien into his armory and doesn't even seem interested in hearing about photonics once he hears that he can get her naked without any effort. Tucker, on the other hand, is old-fashioned enough to get uneasy when Phlox offers to show him pictures of three-way alien sex. He doesn't want to think about the differences, he wants points of common reference, the same way he looks for commonalities while making engine comparisons with the Vissian engineer.

T'Pol is right that this is a mistake, for Tucker genuinely doesn't see how devastating his interference might be, not only for the cogenitor, but for everyone else on the Vissian ship or conceivably the entire society, were the cogenitor to come into contact with others. Yet Tucker is also right that by the standards of the vast majority of humans — certainly in his era, but hopefully in our own as well — the cogenitors are treated appallingly. They're essentially sex slaves, kept in home prisons, fed only one meal a day except on special occasions, denied privacy, freedom of movement, free speech, every right imaginable. We're led to believe that the Vissian engineer and the scientist to whom he's married are fundamentally decent people; it simply doesn't occur to them that a cogenitor could or should be treated otherwise. Tucker's shock almost seems too little, and T'Pol's icy refusal even to listen to his concerns is absolutely infuriating.

Archer, who has in essence been on vacation, flying a sophisticated alien ship in and out of particle waves, returns home with a new friend only to discover the magnitude of the crisis affecting both ships. He's frustrated on a personal level, for he's just had a fantastic first contact experience and met an alien captain who treats him with respect despite the inferiority of human technology; he's also annoyed that his good friend and trusted officer has so badly misjudged what Archer would have done in the situation. The scene in which Trip tells his captain confidently that he tried to emulate Archer is heartbreaking, because one wants Tucker to be right, and on one level he is right — and Archer knows it, for he refuses to send the cogenitor back without at least making inquiries.

But even without a Prime Directive, even without any threats from the much stronger Vissians, he knows that he cannot rewrite centuries of Vissian history and tradition based on his ethical beliefs. This is no knee-jerk decision; we see him agonise over it, and when he learns that his actions have led to the death of the cogenitor, it brings tears to his eyes, though he claims he's upset about his failure to be a proper role model. For Tucker this may have been a test of non-interference, but by the time Archer arrives on the scene, it's a Kobayashi Maru, a no-win scenario; it's absolutely no surprise to discover that the cogenitor is dead and the Vissians are upset, and even less of a surprise to see that Archer is more shaken than Tucker, who despite his apologies seems never really to doubt that he made his choices for the right reasons.

Archer tellingly says that he might agree if they were in Florida or Singapore. Why Singapore, a city unfortunately associated for many years with child labor and traffic in underage sex, regularly condemned by various human rights organisations? I don't believe the suggestion is that Americans have no right to judge that situation; far from it. But if Archer believes that humans can and should interfere with sexual oppression wherever it occurs on their own world, isn't it awfully hard to rationalise completely ignoring it elsewhere, among people whom he hopes will become allies?

The writers strongly indicate that regardless of necessity of non-interference, it's extremely difficult and painful to make such choices. As Braga and Berman's names came up at the close of "Cogenitor", I sat on the couch with tears rolling down my face and tried to remember the last time Star Trek made me cry over a moral dilemma as opposed to tragic deaths like Damar's in "What You Leave Behind". DS9's "Duet" did that to me, and "The Ship", and long ago the original series' "City on the Edge of Forever" and "The Empath", but episodes with this much substance to them are few and far between. (And whichever UPN executive signed off on the fluffy sex promo for "Cogenitor" should be fired.)

But none of this would work were this not also an excellent character story. I already said that Trinneer is superb, but I don't want to neglect mentioning how good Scott Bakula is as well. For most of this episode, Archer isn't captain-like; he's goofy and enthusiastic on the Vissian stratopod, and he's on the verge of losing it with Tucker from the moment he gets back. It's amazing how powerful it is to see that change, particularly at the end, when he doesn't know how to cope with his own grief and guilt except by ranting, and he has to dismiss Tucker before the engineer can see it. He doesn't even bother to discipline Trip properly, he just wants him out of the room. T'Pol, by contrast, is so stiff and unfeeling that one wants to shake her; one of the problems with having Jolene Blalock play a more emotional Vulcan than we've usually seen is that when she doesn't show emotion, she seems far too icy.

The special effects in this episode are, well, stellar, especially the little ship dodging solar flares. It's an absolute thrill to see Andreas Katsulas, who played G'Kar on Babylon 5 and the Romulan Tomalak on The Next Generation, on this show; he's a bit under-used, however, and I would love to see the Vissian captain return. In fact I would love to see the Vissians return, because I imagine that this situation will continue to haunt Archer and Tucker for a long time, and I wonder whether it will affect anyone on the alien ship as well. I can't imagine a follow-up that wouldn't be something of a letdown after the emotional twists of "Cogenitor", so nothing would thrill me more than to be surprised.


Discuss this reviews at Trek BBS!
XML Add TrekToday RSS feed to your news reader or My Yahoo!
Also a Desperate Housewives fan? Then visit GetDesperate.com!

Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.


Michelle Erica Green reviews 'Enterprise' episodes for the Trek Nation, for which she is also a news writer. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.