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Star Trek Enterprise episode review – Cogenitor

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.

star trek enterprise cogenitorBut 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?

Star Trek Enterprise episode review – Dear Doctor

“Dear Doctor”

Summary: A promising look at the character of Phlox and daily life on the Enterprise is wrecked first by a diversion into a Voyageresque moral dilemma featuring the Forehead Aliens of the Week and finally by studio revisions that leave the episode with a weak and compromised ending.

star trek enterprise dear doctorWhen TNG featured Data’s Day, the prototype for an episode like Dear Doctor, it was a clever, humorous and in-depth look at Data and the way that Enterprise’s social life functioned even in deep space and at war. Dear Doctor attempts to duplicate this but fails because it fuses these things with a contrived moral dilemma which is then edited and tampered with by studio fiat to produce something that could have been a great episode, but wasn’t.

Doctor Phlox is clearly one of Enterprise’s breakout characters. One of only two aliens on board the Enterprise, he’s also one of the more human characters with more depth than most. It’s a good sign that after focusing on Reed, Enterprise’s other breakout character, in Silent Enemy, Enterprise went forward with a Phlox episode. The problem is that the show lacked the confidence to simply do what Data’s Day did and showcase a period of time on the Enterprise and show how the crew lives in deep space.

Early on, Dear Doctor made great strides in that regard from Dr. Phlox’s letter (Data’s Day also occurred in the context of a letter dictation\narration), the movie night which had already been previously mentioned is a nice touch of continuity, his relationship with Cutler, medical visits with Porthos and T’Pol’s toothache. This draws out Phlox’s personality, his interaction with human culture and his human crew mates and the mechanism of the Enterprise’s social environment itself. But unlike TNG, Enterprise is not operating in a sufficiently complex environment to provide a good mix of external stories and so Dear Doctor decides to rely on a contrived ethical drama with an alien race. This diverts the episode from the key material showcasing the social intimacies of Enterprise and an alien trying to fit himself into it all and dives headfirst into a Voyageresque cliched moral dilemma featuring Forehead of the Week Aliens.

The two alien species who are the focus of the ethical dilemma are themselves indistinct and lack any real identity or personality that one could sympathize with. They’re little more than weird forehead aliens of the week. Walking and talking cardboard props for the episode. This kind of characterization is of course always a convenient prelude to genocide. Even if in this case it’s genocide by benign neglect driven by a philosophy which says that it’s better to wipe out a species than interfere in their natural development. Phlox’s excuse for refusing treatment has no rational scientific basis whatsoever. It is one thing to accept that the secondary species is evolving as a scientific fact and quite another to speculate that the only possible way for them to evolve is for the primary race to be extinct. If they truly did evolve on their own, they would naturally break free of the primary species, without the need to exterminate the primary species through genocide by neglect.

That is guesswork and speculation based on a limited acquaintanceship with an entirely alien species and is not valid grounds on which to callously throw away billions of lives and the existence of an entire species and this kind of decision-making is ironically enough the exact definition of playing God. To decide that a species would be better off extinct is callous enough. But to implement such a decision whether through action as Section 31 did during the Dominion War or through inaction as Enterprise does in Dear Doctor is essentially genocide. And of course there was far more justification for taking such action against the Founders, than against the Velakians. Vague references to this being “Nature’s Way” or “Nature’s Will” only adds a shifting of responsibility to some nebulous force, rather than the people actually making the decisions.

The assumption that you can predict what a species needs best and what should be done with their lives, rather than letting them make their own decisions for themselves and provide what help you can, is exactly why in episodes like this and Voyager’s “Natural Law”, the Prime Directive can at times come to seem like a patronizing and brutal form of colonialism dressed up in ethical clothing. And when you come right down to it, the essence of the Prime Directive is to judge a species’ decision-making abilities based on their level of technological achievement and to cut off all species below warp capability from being part of the community of sentient beings towards which we have the same ethical obligations as we do towards our fellow man. This is a questionable ideology at best since the notion that there is an absolute correlation between ethical and social maturity and technological ability is mildly absurd, especially when applied to an infinite variety of alien lifeforms. But especially in such episodes as Dear Doctor or Homeward, when we are not talking about one death or a million deaths but the death of an entire species.

Nevertheless, had the episode followed its original ending which had Phlox abide and maintain his point of view, while Archer followed a distinctly different point of view guided by compassion and his core ethical values, it could have touched off a real ethical debate. The shadow of the Prime Directive here has only a limited relevance since It is, after all, one thing to deny a species warp drive and another thing to deny them a cure for the disease that is wiping out their species. Good Captains like Kirk and Picard knew when to toss such rules aside in favor of helping people. In the original draft so did Archer, but that moral certainty he manages to express so clearly in the mess hall evaporates by studio fiat in favor of avoiding shipboard conflict. And so the ending is transformed into a simplistic “Hammer over the Head” message monologue by Archer that dances around how cute it’s being by referencing the Prime Directive without actually doing so. This kind of in-joke was mildly amusing when it was done with Cochrane’s speech in the pilot’s incorporation of the Star Trek tagline, but it will become increasingly irritating if it’s repeatedly overused. As will episodes where Archer’s decision making continues to be driven by the Vulcan-Human species conflict.

The result leaves us with an episode that tries to merge Data’s Day with Tuvix and does both poorly. The ending has a tone that is distinctly different from the rest of the episode like an action movie that’s been dramatically reedited for television. It’s an episode about an ethical dilemma that doesn’t allow two viewpoints about that dilemma to persist in the final act in the name of avoiding shipboard conflict. And finally it’s an episode that tried to take an intimate look at the social life of Enterprise and got sidetracked into a lost Voyager episode featuring the Forehead Aliens of the Week. And it is a shame because Dear Doctor had a lot of promise and some good performances and direction. Hopefully they’ll do better next time.

Next week: T’Pol gets up close and personal with a Targ.

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