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[ENT] Jammer's Review: "Cogenitor"

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  • Jamahl Epsicokhan
    Warning: This review contains significant spoilers. If you haven t seen the episode yet, beware. In brief: Yes. This is what I want to see. Plot description:
    Message 1 of 1 , May 7, 2003
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      Warning: This review contains significant spoilers. If you haven't seen the
      episode yet, beware.


      In brief: Yes. This is what I want to see.

      Plot description: The crew meets an alien race that requires three sexes to
      reproduce, and Tucker takes matters into his own hands when he learns the
      third sex is a repressed silent minority in the alien culture.

      -----
      Enterprise: "Cogenitor"

      Airdate: 4/30/2003 (USA)
      Written by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga
      Directed by LeVar Burton

      Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
      Rating out of 4: ****

      "You knew you had no business interfering with those people, but you just
      couldn't let it alone. You thought you were doing the right thing. I might
      agree if this was Florida or Singapore, but it's not, is it? We're in deep
      space, and a person is dead -- a person who would still be alive if we
      hadn't made first contact." -- Archer to Trip
      -----

      Now *here's* the sort of episode that suggests the true potential of
      Enterprise as a series -- an episode that takes every correct turn where it
      could've compromised itself by taking the safer road where human values
      automatically trump all else. It does not take the safer roads, for which I
      am grateful. By the end, it emerges as the best and most probing episode of
      the season. This is what is possible when a story takes a risk; that risk
      can pay off.

      The grossly inaccurate trailer, which is played on an inappropriate note of
      ha-ha levity, makes this show out to be some sort of sci-fi sex comedy. It
      certainly is not. What was advertised is not even close to what they are
      selling. This story is no lightweight. By the end, it is dead serious.

      What "Cogenitor" offers is some tough questions, tough answers, and
      surprisingly tough consequences. The last act is nothing short of a
      revelation (for this series, anyway), as we see exactly how badly good
      intentions can go wrong.

      The episode begins on a refreshing note: first contact with a friendly race
      of explorers called the Vissians, who for once seem like real space
      travelers rather than artificial constructs for the sake of conflict. "It'll
      be nice to have a first contact where no one's thinking about charging
      weapons," Trip notes tellingly. The thing about aliens on Star Trek is that
      they're so often used as a shortcut source for shallow conflict. But
      conflict in real drama should be about situations and circumstances, not
      about "us" versus "them." Here is an episode that knows this. It also knows
      that the conflict is not just about two opposing groups of people, but about
      the multiple approaches to questions, opinions, and actions.

      The Enterprise crew and the Vissians team up to study a star in the early
      stages of supernova. Archer quickly develops a pleasant rapport with Vissian
      Captain Drennik (Andreas Katsulas, who will be familiar to many genre fans)
      and the two take a specially shielded Vissian pod on a three-day survey of
      the star up close. T'Pol takes command of the Enterprise. The human crew and
      the Vissian crew socially interact and begin learning about each another.

      Tucker befriends the Vissian engineer (F.J. Rio) and his wife (Larissa
      Laskin), and meets a mysterious individual called a "cogenitor" (Becky
      Wahlstrom). The cogenitor lives with the couple in their quarters on the
      Vissian ship. The cogenitor is actually a third sex that is required for
      Vissians to conceive children, providing, as Phlox explains, a crucial
      enzyme to enable conception from the male and female. In Vissian society,
      the cogenitors make up a very small percentage of the population (there is
      only one cogenitor on this ship), and have little standing in society,
      serving only the purpose of aiding in conception.

      Phlox and T'Pol are familiar with three-sexed species, but this is a new one
      for Trip and, for that matter, for the Star Trek audience in general. The
      cogenitor here is a quiet individual. The other Vissians refer to this
      nameless person only as "it," which quickly arouses our suspicion in regard
      to the status of these people in Vissian society. "They treat her like a
      pet," Trip notes unhappily.

      One of the pleasures I had during this episode was seeing how the show and I
      were constantly on the same wavelength. As the story established its
      elements and planted its seeds, I found myself thinking about how things
      would play out given what I knew about the situation and the characters. On
      more than one instance, as I was thinking something, the show's progress
      would follow in the direction of my own feelings. This should not be
      mistaken for predictability, but rather a show that lays out a logical story
      arc and prompts our intuition, and then moves in the direction that properly
      follows the story's logic.

      Consider, for example, the way the story sets up Trip's concern for the
      rights of this individual. The treatment of the cogenitor is depicted as a
      questionable and possibly troubling issue, but in a subtle way. The Vissians
      treat the cogenitor with casual indifference -- neither friendly nor
      unfriendly, but simply regarded neutrally as an object. Trip becomes the
      voice for our own developing troubled feelings regarding the cogenitor.

      Then, in its slick and subtle way, the story turns the tables on us and we
      begin to see the potential disaster of Trip taking matters of this situation
      into his own hands. He starts telling the Vissians lies about where he is
      going and what he is doing. He spends time with the cogenitor without the
      Vissians' permission. He teaches the cogenitor to read and puts human ideas
      of independence and growth in her head. He tells her that she has the same
      mental capacity as the other Vissians, and he even proves it with a neural
      scan that hints at the cogenitor's true potential.

      We understand Trip's feelings and why he is doing what he is doing, but we
      gradually see that it's the wrong thing to do and the wrong way to go about
      it. We see that this could blow up in his face. I like how the story hints
      at consequences for Trip's poor choices and then delivers on them, plausibly
      and forcefully. Given the nature of the dilemma and the central question of
      the cogenitor's "human" rights, the story could've let Trip off the hook for
      his actions. Much to my satisfaction, it does not. In the end, the show
      comes to the sober realization that this is *not* a story about human rights
      for a Vissian cogenitor. It's about the issue of human interference in alien
      cultures.

      When Trip teaches the cogenitor to read, she's able to learn in a single
      day. Is this plausible? I don't think so, but I'm not too concerned about
      it. That the cogenitor can learn to read so quickly is simply a matter of
      narrative shorthand. The point here is that Trip's actions open an
      individual's eyes to completely new possibilities -- possibilities that are
      wonderful and awesome and quite likely to change this individual's life ...
      before then being taken away as quickly as they were given. It's like
      "Flowers for Algernon," but with a central figure that's painfully aware of
      exactly what it's being forced to give up.

      There's another question here, one that I'm struggling with. How could the
      cogenitors in Vissian society *really* not know what they're missing? If
      they have the same intellectual potential as the rest of the Vissians, how
      is it they haven't realized this potential before, even in small numbers?
      Surely what Trip unleashes here has previously happened internal to their
      society with their own cogenitor sympathizers. How couldn't it? And
      logically, a subjugated subset of a population with this sort of
      intelligence would *know* they are being subjugated and would in some way
      revolt, but that doesn't seem to be the case here. The Vissian cogenitors
      don't seem to be aware of their subjugation, and the Vissian males and
      females don't seem to be aware that what they are doing is subjugation. It's
      simply an internal cultural fact, one that perhaps is impossible to
      understand in human terms. (Are we a product of only what we're permitted to
      experience? If so, Vissian cogenitors apparently are not permitted to
      experience much of anything, short of brainwashing and built-in repression.)
      But given how "Cogenitor" plays out -- with the cogentior's eyes being
      opened and her desire to keep them open -- this accepted belief by all the
      Vissians seems impossible. Not that this hurts the story; it simply makes me
      even more curious to explore the story points.

      It also brings up that difficult issue of cultural moral relativism. The
      Vissians are right when they explain that we know nothing of their culture.
      But are they right to treat the cogenitors as they do? On human terms, of
      course not, but as the Captain Drennik points out, "We're not on your
      world." It's not a particularly satisfying answer, but it is 100 percent
      true.

      Putting all the moral questions aside, the real point here is that Trip
      interferes where he has no business interfering. The story strikes a
      fascinating balance between Trip's intentions to right what he believes is a
      wrong (in human terms), with the fact that he is so *calculating* in his
      efforts to do so without anybody else finding out. Just watch the way Trip
      carefully drops hints to the Vissian engineer to invite him to a meal in
      their quarters, so Trip can meet the cogenitor and take medical readings.
      Look at how he ignores T'Pol and walks away when she suggests he not get
      involved. Deep down, Trip *knows* he shouldn't be doing what he's doing
      (sneaking around, hiding things from the Vissians, etc.), and yet he forges
      ahead anyway, damn the consequences -- and there *are* severe
      consequences -- because he thinks he is doing the right thing. When the
      Vissians discover what has happened, they're not happy, and they demand the
      return of their cogenitor, which Archer grants despite her request for
      asylum. The cogenitor later commits suicide, apparently knowing her
      existence in society will henceforth be an empty one.

      So because of Trip's meddling, a person is dead and a couple will not be
      able to conceive their child. I guess that's what they call a cautionary
      tale.

      Like last season's wonderful "Dear Doctor" (among other episodes),
      "Cogenitor" is yet another episode that shows why the Prime Directive will
      be necessary. When you have a situation like this that's full of gray areas
      and potentially disastrous consequences, you begin to realize why dealing
      with such situations will require something more absolute than a judgment
      call.

      The final act of "Cogenitor" is a potent one, well acted and directed, where
      Archer calls Trip on the mat to answer for his actions, and the news of the
      suicide is revealed. The strength of the language here surprised me: Archer
      has two tirades that do not go easy on Trip, with some potent lines
      including:

      -- "We're out here to meet new species, not to tell them what to do."

      -- "You did exactly what I'd do? If that's true, I've done a pretty lousy
      job setting an example around here." And, "Don't tell me you know what I
      would've done when I don't even know what I would've done."

      -- Trip: "I'm responsible [for the cogenitor's death]." Archer: "You're
      damned right, you're responsible."

      -- "You knew you had no business interfering with those people, but you just
      couldn't let it alone. You thought you were doing the right thing. I might
      agree if this was Florida or Singapore, but it's not, is it? We're in deep
      space, and a person is dead -- a person who would still be alive if we
      hadn't made first contact."

      It's also notable that, throughout all this, the Vissians, particularly
      Captain Drennik, are endlessly reasonable. Indeed, the Vissians are novel
      because they come across as real explorers trying to make friends. The
      genuine chemistry between Archer and Drennik during the survey mission in
      the Vissian pod (featuring some good FX sequences, by the way) is
      reassuring, particularly because of Katsulas' affable persona.

      "Cogenitor," while excellent, isn't perfect. I'll briefly mention the
      subplot between Lt. Reed and the Vissian woman who invites Reed to sleep
      with her. Her rationale is that Vissian customs say a woman will choose to
      have dinner with a man only after he has proven his worthiness in bed. No
      pressure. (I'm now imagining the resulting sitcom where sex is shown as the
      precursor and the drudgery, while talking over a candlelit dinner is the
      long-sought payoff.) Odd, how this story thread is created and then hastily
      dropped as if it had been an afterthought. (It also features at least one
      groaner of a line when Reed says, "I'll show you mine if you show me yours."
      Notable is that Reed himself can barely bring himself to say this without
      pausing in doubt.)

      On the whole, "Cogenitor" is an Enterprise-specific episode of Trek that
      takes advantage of this series' premise. It's brave enough to show something
      that we need to see in this first Starfleet mission: humans screwing up and
      creating messy problems that are their own fault. The crew isn't perfect and
      human morality is not absolute. We don't have all the answers. It's to this
      story's credit that it takes a strong position on the interference issue
      while offering up other questions that are tough to come to terms with. This
      show has meat on its bones.

      The last shot of a disappointed and remorseful Archer is, to me, of
      particular interest. I think it shows Archer's realization that, in a way,
      the failure is his own and he blames himself. He hasn't set a solid or
      consistent enough example on the interference issue, and he hasn't gotten
      through to Trip or his crew. There is work to be done. Starfleet has a lot
      to learn about dealing with other societies. That is what "Cogenitor" is all
      about. And that's where Enterprise has an opportunity to say something new.

      --
      Next week: Helmet! So, at last, we meet the Borg for the first time for the
      last time!

      -----
      Copyright 2003 Jamahl Epsicokhan. All rights reserved.
      Unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this article is prohibited.

      Star Trek: Hypertext - http://www.st-hypertext.com/
      Jamahl Epsicokhan - jammer@...
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