Summary: A first contact goes awry when Trip teaches a slave to read
I’ve been saying for a while now that Rick Berman and Brannon Braga co-write far too many ENTERPRISE episodes and while that is still true, “Cogenitor” is nevertheless one of their better efforts, bringing to mind the classic NEXT GENERATION episode, “The Outcast.” LeVar Burton does a superb job directing the episode and while TNG and B5’s Andreas Katsulas has little to do in this episode beyond making small talk with Archer, he still puts across a strong on-screen presence. Despite some of the adolescent snickering that seems to be an inevitable part of any Braga-written episode that deals with sex, Dominic Keating keeps his dignity and manages to play Reed’s romance with a fellow weapons officer as an understated attraction rather than broad comic relief.
But neither Archer’s expedition or Reed’s romance are the main story, instead Trip is the center of attention yet again seemingly ending up with more episodes centered around him than either Archer or T’Pol. Like “Dear Doctor,” “Cogenitor” is centered around a moral dilemma and like “Dear Doctor,” it suffers from an attempt to narrow the range of viewpoints to one instead of keeping the debate open. And like a lot of Berman and Braga episodes it suffers from random characterization in that it has Archer adopt a viewpoint because it fits the plot rather than arising naturally from the character’s attitudes. When Trip claims that he did what Captain Archer would have done, he’s right on the nose and Archer’s outrage at the suggestion is comical.
Archer is certainly not Picard. He has had no trouble disrupting first contacts and interfering in alien societies. In “Detained” he sabotaged a first contact with potential allies against the Suliban in order to free the detained Suliban because he believed it was the right thing to do. In “A Night in Sickbay,” he nearly sabotages a first contact because he blames the aliens for making his dog sick. In “Marauders” he taught the miners to fight back against the Klingons and in “Judgement” he helped colonists escape from the Klingon Empire. He interfered in the Vulcan\Andorian conflict in “The Andorian Incident” and took sides in a hunting expedition in “Rogue Planet.” In “Stigma” he certainly didn’t take the attitude that it might be perfectly acceptable for a different culture to discriminate against their own society and treats the matter as being just as outrageous and unacceptable as if it was happening in human society. In “Marauders,” “Detained” and “Judgement,” he didn’t take the position that enslaved people should remain enslaved as he does in “Cogenitor” and that it’s the people who are trying to free them who are to blame. After all, by that logic it was the civil rights workers who were responsible for the lynchings. And if Archer were to take that position, then those Suliban who died trying to escape in “Detained” and any colonists who could have been killed in “Marauders” would have been the fault of Archer for teaching them to resist slavery.
In “A Night In Sickbay,” Captain Archer was outraged at the suggestion that he should have kept his dog on the ship to avoid damaging a first contact. Porthos has a right to fresh air, Archer insists. But apparently a sentient being who is treated as an object doesn’t have the right to freedom if it interfers a first contact. Either in Archer’s world, his dog is more important than the rights of a sentient being or “Cogenitor” misrepresents Archer’s character. In “Stigma” Archer self-righteously demanded a hearing for T’Pol from the Vulcan doctors but if the “Cogenitor” ever gets a similar hearing and a chance to defend her asylum request, we never see it. Instead, the Cogenitor asks Archer to be treated equally and he replies that he can’t impose his notion of rights on her. That’s a ridiculous response even by the standards of moral relativism. While the Cogenitor may not have asked to learn how to read, she did ask for asylum and she was clearly being mistreated. Archer gives no real grounds for denying her application except that he’s worried about ruining a first contact and yet he’s had no problem ruining first contacts in the past over a moral issue. Instead Archer uses her off-screen suicide to argue that Trip did the wrong thing though it could just as well prove that Archer did the wrong thing, especially since her suicide was a direct result of his denial of her request. Instead, in another out of character move, the episode has Trip suddenly admitting that he was wrong. It’s an ending that feels odd and abrupt as if material was missing and as with “Dear Doctor,” you have to wonder if the original ending wasn’t cut out and replaced by a new final scene at the last minute.
Archer argues that Trip should have foreseen the consequences of teaching the Cogenitor to read but that assumes the consequences were inevitable. But were they really? Other possibilities included the Cogenitor returning home to spread literacy and the idea of natural rights to other Cogenitors resulting in a gender rights movement or the entire species being forced to confront their prejudices and their society improving as a result. So if the consequences weren’t inevitable, then did Trip do the right thing? The enslaved status of the Cogenitor is part of the alien culture but that’s not a justification for it. After all, witch burning and slavery were part of our culture. Genital mutilation and stoning heretics is part of other cultures today yet that doesn’t stop us from granting their victims asylum because there are basic principles of natural rights that transcend cultural differences. Archer himself has stood up for those principles time and time again so he can’t credibly argue otherwise since Trip has as much right to apply natural rights to the alien society as Archer does to Vulcan society. With those arguments dismantled, all that’s left is Archer’s unstated desire to get his hands on the alien technology. It’s not a minor point since the human race is in danger from a variety of enemies and in this and numerous other episodes, Enterprise encounters superior ships for which it is no match. And it might have made for a credible argument, as Archer has to weigh the safety of his ship and the security of humanity against the freedom of one alien. But beyond T’Pol’s hints and Archer’s final scene in which he seems more tormented than angry, the issue is never openly broached.
Mike Resnick’s Hugo and Nebula Award nominated 1989 Science Fiction short story ‘For I Have Touched The Sky’, which also shares a name with an Original Series episode, addressed a similar situation. In a future society which attempts to simulate an authentic African culture, a girl named Kamari wants to learn how to read. In the Kikuyu culture, though, women are not allowed to read and in the resulting battle of wills between the shaman and the girl, the end result is the same as that of “Cogenitor,” but the reason why is not a mystery. Instead it’s in the title of the story. It’s also a far superior treatment of the subject than “Cogenitor” and anyone who found the issues in this episode intriguing should read it either in book or e-book form.
Next week: The Borg assimilate Enterprise or is it the other way around?