You Talking Trek to Me? – “Cogenitor”

“Cogenitor” (Star Trek: Enterprise – Season 2, Episode 22)

***Trigger warning: Discussion of gender issues and suicide.***

For all its shining strengths and trails blazed, one of Star Trek‘s most glaring weaknesses is in tackling (or even presenting) gender and sexual identities. Though it is a franchise with lofty storytelling ambitions, it is a series of shows made by predominantly straight cis men, so it ends up being a series of shows aimed at straight cis men, whether it wants to be or not. Proving the Vulcan proverb of Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations, the lack of Trek’s backstage diversity results in shows with an occasional lack of scope and perspective.

To be clear, this is an episode featuring an alien race with a (gasp!) third gender, filmed about a century ago in 2003, and it’s about as clumsy and borderline/outright offensive as you’d expect for the time. There are the bones of a decent episode in here, but it’s sandwiched by some bad decisions, ranging from uncomfortable to shockingly awful.

“Oh, hello. Hey, y’all wouldn’t happen to have anything cuh-razzzzy like grape ice cream or a third gender, would you???? Our Chief Engineer’s fixin’ for some meddling.”

The episode begins with the crew of Enterprise encountering a hypergiant star, a rare and remarkable phenomenon. Also nearby is an alien ship with an even rarer and more remarkable phenomenon, a (clutches space pearls) third gender! Before getting to this reality-warping discovery, the crew meets the more technologically advanced Vissians, who seem almost suspiciously open and friendly (if a tad smarmy). They are captained by late, Star Trek veteran Andreas Katsulas, and he and Archer promptly fuck off to the surface of the hypergiant in their little star pod vessel, leaving Trip unsupervised and itching for hijinks.

This guy’s barely housebroken, after all. Did Archer think he wasn’t going to get all over the furniture and chew up his shoes? You have no one but yourself to blame here, Captain.

I will say that the two captains’ scenes are the highlights of the episode, and there is a dorky appeal to their bonding over exploration that seems very purely Trek (the alien captain read all of Shakespeare the night before and is already quoting it; be still my discontented winter heart). And the visuals of their jaunt around the star are pretty stunning and well done.

“I should have asked before we left, but is there a bathroom in here?”
I want to go to there.

There is also a third subplot about Malcolm wooing (or being wooed by) his tactical Vissian counterpart. There isn’t quite enough time to give it its due, but it’s also an inoffensive break from the main plot. It does traffic a bit in the trope of “Hey, wouldn’t it be crazy if a woman (interphasic monocle pops out) pursued a man???” The episode fortunately doesn’t put too fine a point on it, aside from Malcolm’s befuddled reaction – she straight out, matter-of-factly suggests they sleep together later, and he of course does the sitcom thing where he stands up and hits his head. Bonus points for not having him squeeze a ketchup bottle or accidentally fire a phaser, I guess. But he at least rolls with it and they presumably have a good time (they aren’t seen again after that),. There’s something sweet about him getting on her good side with some fragrant cheeses. Yeah, you heard me.

“We have a saying on Earth: I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours…”
“…GENITALS, that is. If you get my meaning, wink wink (SEX).”

Anyway, enough compliments.

The basic premise of the episode is nonsensical – nowadays, we (those that aren’t closeminded ignoramuses, at least) understand that gender is a fluid concept that exists on a spectrum, so Trip’s difficulty in understanding the concept of a third gender is silly and dumb at best. Without even leaving Earth, one can witness the awe-inspiring and breathtaking splendor of (head spins around literally like a top at warp 9) genders outside of male and female. Again, it’s a potent illustration of the creators’ limited perspective, as well as the time the episode was made in.

And even in a reproductive context, species with more than two sexes are known within the world of Enterprise at this point (Phlox names at least one of them), so the hubbub over “trigendered reproduction” doesn’t make sense. And of course when Phlox begins to excitedly explain (his nerdiness is always fun to watch) Trip does the sitcom thing where he’s like “Nevermind, I don’t want to know” like a stupid baby. Dude, you asked. Phlox has photos he wants to show you. Look at the photos, you stupid weak baby.

But beyond Trip’s forced awkwardness over the existence of the Vissians’ third gender (he even genders the Cogenitor in the feminine, because they “feel like a her,” which is… something), the episode doesn’t really focus on anything specifically gender-related. In fact, it becomes a somewhat by-the-numbers Trek story of a third-class citizen suffering their culture’s subjugation, and the hero’s attempts at saving them from it. It runs afoul of one of Star Trek’s most prevalent (and at times uncomfortable) themes – cultural relativism. AKA, “Nothing is good or bad, right or wrong, it’s simply a matter of what culture you belong to.”

“Oh, hello. I didn’t get your name. Oh, what’s that? You don’t have one, are referred to as ‘it’ by your owners and are basically a human pet used solely for breeding? How about that. I’m from Florida, by the way. We have gators.”

In these types of episodes, characters often give lip service to this philosophy, painting it as the over-arching mindset of the Federation/Starfleet. In the context of an interstellar nation, it makes sense to encourage tolerance for differing cultures and customs. But often, these episodes ultimately make the point that there are lines to be drawn as far as how people should be treated, live and let live be damned. Whether it’s Picard refusing to allow Wesley to be executed over a minor offense or O’Brien freeing Tosk from his captors, the franchise gives air to the idea respecting other species’ cultures while winkingly acknowledging that certain rights and morals are universal.

“We’re just your typical, All-Vissian family unit. Oh, we have a sentient being we keep as a pet, but who doesn’t in this fast-paced modern age? More vlornak casserole? Our pet made it.”

But not Enterprise. From its beginning, the show has gone out of its way to depict humanity as inexperienced, over their heads, and with a degree of unearned righteousness. The audaciousness of this approach is kind of impressive and perhaps unintentionally meta, as the show was produced during the U.S.’ disastrous and ill-conceived second Iraq War (indeed, the entire third season storyline was an extended 9/11 allegory). In the show’s first episode, T’Pol reprimands Trip for yelling at an alien woman who appears to be asphyxiating her child (she was in fact, weaning her child off an atmospheric gas as part of their normal child-rearing process). So it makes sense that Trip would be the busybody who is drawn to the Cogenitor’s situation. Of all the cast, he seems the most headstrong, impulsive, and with his southern twang, the most distinctly and stereotypically American.

“With this device you’ll be able to explore the greatest examples of humanity’s achievements. Just don’t tap on the Reddit app.”

The sin of this episode is that it tries to play both sides of moral relativism while ultimately coming down on the side of being in favor of it. The way the Cogenitor is treated is objectively awful and a human (but not human) rights violation (hilariously, Trip even complains to T’Pol with that exact phrase, to which she coolly replies that the Vissians aren’t human). They do not have a name, are referred to as “it,” and are basically owned by one couple hoping to have kids after another. They have no agency, no free will, and aren’t educated or allowed to read. They are clearly miserable with their existence, as the actor’s performance initially suggests. Trip is understandably fascinated and then horrified by this practice, but his complaints fall on the deaf ears of Phlox and T’Pol.

The reaction of these two characters are interesting, and not necessarily in good ways. As the resident aliens, they’ve no doubt had their cultures and customs continually questioned and criticized by humans, so it makes sense they wouldn’t be supportive of Trip’s judgment. T’Pol is at least concerned by Archer’s desire to establish friendly relations with the Vissians and doesn’t want any incidents. Phlox, on the other hand, seems unconcerned and even annoyed at Trip’s curiosity over the Cogenitor’s intellectual capacity (the same as everyone else’s, as it turns out), and the moral implications of it. It’s disappointing, to say the least.

Trip’s good-natured interloping involves teaching the Cogenitor how to read, showing them around the Enterprise, and even a movie (The Day the Earth Stood Still, and not the Keanu version, thankfully). The Cogenitor takes to reading especially quickly and begins to grow and express curiosity about what else there is to know. Predictably, the Vissian family they belong to finds out and the hammer gets brought down on Trip.

“Damn, Netflix makes it so hard to find anything good to watch. Fortunately, I have Malcolm’s Disney+ account, T’Pol’s SurakAllAccess, and Phlox’s DenobulanRed login, whatever the hell that is.”

The plucky and increasingly self-advocating Cogenitor (who has even named themselves Charles after Trip) pleads with Archer and requests asylum since they no longer feel safe with their captors, and this is where the episode irrevocably goes off the rails. To his minimal credit, Archer takes the request seriously and has a sit down with the Vissian family and captain. The couple are incensed and the wife goes full space Karen on Archer – she literally claims that they’re being treated unfairly because their human pet doesn’t want to be a pet anymore. There’s even their “what about our unborn baby” argument, which is singularly disgusting and repugnant. It’s nuts.

“Discriminating against people who want to own other people is the REAL slavery!”

But THEN? Archer folds like a fucking space chair and refuses the Cogenitor’s asylum request. Worst of all, he doesn’t even give a reason. Like, “Hmm, this slave doesn’t want to be a slave anymore, but their slave owners do, so.” There’s an unfortunate undertone of Archer doing it out of respect to his new Vissian captain buddy. The Vissians are depicted as an outwardly friendly, open, and civilized people. And yet they take part in the kind of barbarism humanity left behind hundreds of years prior to this episode. Who gives a shit how generous with your tech specs you are when you’re keeping people captive and not affording them any rights? That Archer, a white man at the top of the command chain makes this decision in accordance with the wishes of these other privileged people is sickening. And we haven’t even gotten to the worst part yet.

The two ships part ways, and of course Archer is chummy with his pro-slavery captain bro, because life is a nightmare. But then in the episode’s dramatic coda, we find out… the Cogenitor committed suicide. The way Bakula delivers the line is especially hilarious, and I literally LOL’d because it’s so over-the-top stupid, gruesome, and unnecessary. Like, the show literally Poochies the character. WTF. Archer proceeds to dress down Trip for like the third time in the episode for stepping out of line, and he places 100% of the blame for the Cogenitor’s death on the engineer’s shoulders.

“I guess you could say they died from… blunt force trauma to the feels. I hope you’re happy, mister.

Hey, Captain Johnny Quantum Butt-Leaping Dipshit – you had a part in this shit, too. You could say that if Trip never chose to get mixed up in the aliens’ business the Cogenitor would still be alive. Sure, yeah. But a more truthful and accurate thing to say would be that they would still be alive if you did your moral duty and honored their request for asylum, you dick. Trip broke the rules by causing this, but there was a clear existing diplomatic procedure for dealing with it that would have saved the Cogenitor’s life had you found some backbone and chosen to follow them. I’m pretty sure if someone asks for asylum you give it to them. You don’t go to their captors and ask if they need asylum. Of course they’re going to say no! Their captors’/abusers’ opinion is worthless. Fucking yikes on space bikes, you phased douche cannon.

This year has been rocked with mass protests in the U.S. over the inequities and systemic racism of police forces. The awful thing about systemic racism is that, as the name implies, it’s baked into the very environment and is thus very intractable. One person can’t change a system, and the good people that try are ousted or discouraged from trying again. With Archer reading Trip the riot act over stepping out of line in the face of a clear human rights crisis (and poor, decent Trip accepting the blame) we see a harrowing illustration of how systemic problems are reinforced. That the episode seems to agree with Archer is head-spinningly awful and one of the last things I would expect from Star Trek.

Seriously, this poor bastard.

Whereas the rakish, rule-breaking heroes of prior Trek routinely violated the Prime Directive and were morally absolved for doing so because it was the right thing, we see that in a post-9/11, Patriot Act world the rule breakers are punished, protestors are silenced, and the nails that stick out get the hammer. In light of the U.S.’ recent increasing march towards fascism, the authoritarian themes of this episode (filmed nearly 20 years ago) are particularly chilling and angering.

Stray Observations:

  • Andreas Katsulas played the Romulan Commander Tomalak on The Next Generation (and I always remember him as the one-armed man from The Fugitive). Similarly, the Vissian engineer is played by F.J. Rio, another Trek alum and most notable as Muniz on Deep Space Nine.
  • Another round of applause for the hypergiant sequences. Why couldn’t the entire episode have been this?
These photosphere chroma values don’t run.
  • One particularly odd thing about the debate in the episode is that the word “slave” is never used. How else could you describe the life of a Cogenitor but slavery? In the words of Guinan in one of TNG’s best episodes, the Cogenitors sure seem like “disposable people.”

  • Speaking of, this episode was directed by Levar Burton. Make of that what you will.

  • It’s interesting that the Vissian pod can basically fly into a star. Hundreds of years later, it will be a big deal when Ferengi Dr. Reyga invents it. Continuity!

  • No, seriously: where is the bathroom in that pod? Even if it does have a commode, it certainly doesn’t have a shower. Two guys sitting right next to each other for 3 days without bathing? Right. You can’t even stand up straight in it! My back is killing me just thinking of that.

  • Trip seems to spend an extraordinary amount of time with the Cogenitor. He of course gets found out eventually, but it seems like they spend a TON of time together before anyone finds out. These are not large ships, it seems really hard to just sneak around.

  • I didn’t mention TNG’s “The Outcast,” but that crew seems somewhat bewildered by the concept of an androgynous species. You Starfleet types not get out that much?

  • Bakula is an OK actor, but the way he stomps around like a gorilla when he’s yelling at Trip is silly. Dude, can you just stand still and yell at him like a homo sapien? I’m getting motion sickness over here.