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The Trek Nation - Stigma

Stigma

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at February 6, 2003 - 5:05 AM GMT

See Also: 'Stigma' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: As Enterprise orbits a planet hosting an interspecies medical exchange, Phlox tells T'Pol that he wants to ask the Vulcan doctors whether they have made any progress in treating Pa'an Syndrome. T'Pol tells him that it's too risky, but Phlox says that she could die without assistance and promises to make inquiries without revealing her infection. Before he goes planetside, he welcomes aboard one of his wives, Feezal, who has arrived to help set up a new neutron microscope. On the surface, he explains to the team of Vulcan doctors that Denobulans suffer from a disease similar to Pa'an Syndrome and requests data from them. The scientists promise to consider his request.

After Phlox's return, a Vulcan ship docks unexpectedly, requesting a meeting with T'Pol and Phlox. The Vulcan doctors ask T'Pol whether she knows of Pa'an Syndrome, which degrades synaptic pathways and endocrine system functions and is transmitted via mind-meld from a small number of Vulcans who carry a mutation. They demand to know whether T'Pol had anything to do with Phlox's request for assistance and hand her a list of 'melders,' asking if she knows any of them. T'Pol refuses to answer questions about whether or not she condones the behavior of Vulcans who mind-meld. When they return to the surface, the doctors scan the residue from when T'Pol touched the list of names and discover that she has Pa'an Syndrome.

Initially, Archer is furious that neither T'Pol nor Phlox informed him of her condition -- he learns of it from the Vulcans -- but when he discovers that she could lose her commission because of the disease, he wants to help. T'Pol explains that the touching of minds is considered unnatural, and seen as threat, for only a small minority of Vulcans are capable of initiating such contact, and in her case the contact was not voluntary. Determined to help her, Archer visits the doctors and witnesses their obduracy for himself. When he returns to the ship, he learns that T'Pol has received a secret message from one of the doctors offering to help. At a secret meeting, Dr. Yuris hands over his research and admits that he is part of the hidden group of melders, while she in turn tells him how she became infected.

Dr. Oratt, one of the senior Vulcan doctors, wants to take T'Pol back to Vulcan immediately to turn her over to the High Command, but Archer reads their own protocols and insists that she is entitled to a hearing. He and Phlox both believe that she should explain that her infection is the result of coercion, but she believes that to do so would be to condone their prejudices against all others with the disease. Archer accedes to her wish for silence at the hearing, even though he finds the Vulcans intolerant and prejudiced. But Dr. Yuris does not; he tells the others that she was infected via a forced meld and admits that he is one of the melders capable of spreading Pa'an Syndrome.

Meanwhile, Feezal teaches Tucker to use the neutron microscope and becomes increasingly sexually aggressive with him, to the point that he feels compelled to confess to Phlox. To his astonishment, Phlox recommends that Tucker let Feezal give him a rose petal bath and is highly amused that Tucker can't overcome his inhibitions about fooling around with another man's wife, even when that other man has two other wives and comes from a culture with entirely different morals.

Archer learns that Dr. Yuris has been suspended, but they believed his testimony that T'Pol was forced to meld and chose not to recall her to Vulcan. She says that she will contact the High Command anyway, for Yuris should not be dismissed without a fight. She hopes the incident will encourage others to speak out.


Analysis: Enterprise enters sweeps month during a week when space fantasy has been overshadowed by a real tragedy, memorializing the crew of the shuttle Columbia with an opening message, 'You'll always be an inspiration.' I'm sure many of us were in the mood for a hopeful, powerful Star Trek episode this evening, and 'Stigma' did not disappoint. Surprisingly restrained and very well-scripted, it offers a broad critique of the issues that continue to plague AIDS victims and a more subtle look at the way cultural practices and prejudices shape interactions between individuals.

Any last shred of respect I might have had for Vulcan culture (and that wasn't much) has disappeared by the end of 'Stigma.' I guess it shouldn't be surprising that they find it logical to allow an unpopular minority to die one by one, but their blindness to the implications for their society as a whole is staggering. For once Archer's pro-human speech, flipping back the Vulcan charges of irrationality and narrow-mindedness upon them, doesn't go far enough in its condemnation. I can't help wondering where ill melders are kept -- institutions? prisons? -- and whether there's a secret society within the upper echelons of Vulcan government, protecting those whose value in other areas outweighs the stigma of their condition.

By focusing on one individual, a character we already care about, the episode gains stronger emotional impact but sacrifices the opportunity for such scope. Jolene Blalock gives another very fine performance, treading the line between stoicism and the angry, frustrated, sad reactions just below the surface. T'Pol is under great pressure and the worst of it comes from her friends; it's bad enough that she's contracted a deadly disease, but the ongoing suggestions that she paint herself as a victim and the man who infected her as despicable seem to trouble her even more. It reminds me a lot of the spate of HIV-positive celebrity 'but I'm not gay' outings in the 1980s, when the stigma of AIDS was considered tolerable only if one was considered an 'innocent' victim who had contracted the disease through a blood transfusion or by being raped. I have tremendous respect for her character for insisting on seeing the larger issues, despite the violence done to her in the mind-meld.

Nevertheless, the plot hinged on a curious point: the repeated insistence that T'Pol was forced by Tolaris to meld against her will. I have not rewatched 'Fusion' since it initially aired, but both my memory and my notes tell me that T'Pol agreed to the initial meld. It was only when Tolaris tried to force her to relive specific emotional experiences within the meld that she resisted him. A moot point? Perhaps, but it seems relevant given T'Pol's insistence on ethical silence in solidarity with other victims of Pa'an Syndrome. I'm not questioning her honesty within 'Stigma' -- I believe that when she tells Archer that her meld was not by choice, she believes it, and there's no question that Tolaris assaulted her. Perhaps she had never heard of Pa'an Syndrome at that time, nor did she know the connection between the disease and the forbidden mind-touch.

Under any circumstances, it seems that the episode could have done more to highlight the fact that suppression of information about the condition might cause as much damage as the actions of aggressive melders. From the doctors' questions to T'Pol, it would seem that not all Vulcans know about the disease; like sex ed, teaching about the syndrome and how it is contracted would seem to be a vital element in stopping its spread. Certainly one would expect that T'Pol would have fought Tolaris much more aggressively to begin with had she realized that in addition to luring her to experiment with forbidden emotions, he might give her a deadly medical condition.

Alongside this plot, a witty parallel story explores a clash of moral values between two different species. Even though there's a bit of embarrassment for the more prudish -- Tucker, to my amusement, here as the goshdarnit Southern boy rather than the ladies' man -- there's also every indication that tolerance and refusal to judge others can lead to better understanding and stronger bonds between people. We already knew that Denobulans were polygamous; now we know that they're polyamorous as well, and some of them are not terribly shy about expressing their desires. Since many of us have been warned that such behavior is the root of all evil, not to mention the root of most deadly infectious disease, it's gutsy of the producers to pair this storyline with the very serious demand for tolerance in the other plot thread. I had thought the two stories might come together with Tucker and Feezal making a breakthrough in treating the disease on the new microscope, but I like the fact that they don't -- that the analogies remain subtle, that we never get a Kirk-type 'Back in the Twentieth Century there was a disease called AIDS...' speech.

There were some nice little character bits and some dreadful ones: Sato and Tucker bantering about movie night, broken up when Feezal embarrasses Hoshi into leaving by suggesting that she has a crush on the engineer, is one of the better ones, while Travis 'Token Black Guy With Great Abs' Mayweather spends his allotted two lines explaining that he plays melon-ball with animals. As my friend Shaolin wrote right after the episode, 'Mayweather is working his way through every black stereotype in a season and a half. Uncle Tom, Coon, Buck. Either use him or don't.' Reed doesn't get much more to do but at least he's in character as Trip's best buddy and guy responsible for making the obvious comment about an attractive woman.

Archer had a fairly strong episode making outraged speeches -- first to T'Pol and Phlox for not letting him in on her secret, then to the Vulcan doctors for their intolerance and intransigence. But his best moment comes when he keeps T'Pol's trust, even though he thinks he knows better than her how best to deal with the situation and even though he knows his silence may cost him his science officer. I still have some ethical issues about that silence, because I felt strongly after 'Fusion' that Archer should have reported Tolaris to the Vulcan authorities as a dangerous man, and now we know he's even more dangerous -- the equivalent of a known rapist with HIV. As much as I understand T'Pol not wanting to paint herself as a victim in a different category from every other sufferer of Pa'an Syndrome, her circumstances are unique and she may be able to spare others a similar fate by naming this one criminal. If she won't do it, I wish Archer would.


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Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.


Michelle Erica Green reviews Enterprise episodes for the Trek Nation, as well as Andromeda episodes for SlipstreamWeb. She is also a staff writer at Green Man Review. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.