In the twenty-second episode of the second season of Enterprise, GOOD FUCKING GOD. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
Trigger Warning: For extended talk of cissexism, slavery, suicide, and consent (specifically forced reproduction).
Throughout “Cogenitor,” we are shown (repeatedly, even!) that the Vissians are superior to the humans. They have better technology. They are scientifically advanced. They are happy. Everything about them is part of a portrayal of “perfection,” at least in the sense that this episode invokes a practical utopia as a means to create this contrast. We need to see the Vissians as “advanced” so that the tragedy of Charles hits just a little harder. We need to see Charles’s journey of discovery so that the end of this episode is as bleak as possible. This is all a set-up for that endgame.
And I’m stating that because I sat on this episode, on the sheer cruelty of that ending, and I realized that the writers of this show want me to believe in the wrong character. They want me to blame Tucker and his impulsive decisions, they want me to see this as some sort of precursor to the Prime Directive, they want me to place the blood on Tucker’s hand.
You know who killed Charles? Archer and the Vissians.
There is a value in exploring cultural contamination and the entitled behavior of cis straight white men who believe they know better than all others. In a sense, “Cogneitor” skirts around this theme, but actually never really commits to it, especially since the focus moves away from entitlement to the horror show that is that ending. It’s fair to analyze Tucker’s behavior through a critical lens! I wouldn’t suggest otherwise. But there are two key things this episode establishes and then completely ignores, which undermines the conclusion it comes to.
- The Vissians are wrong. Actually, plenty of people are wrong about a lot of things here, from the claim that humans are bi-gendered (we’re clearly not and haven’t been for a long, long time) to the confusing use of pronouns throughout (how can you have a character say that Charles is not a woman and yet consistently use “she/her” the whole time WHAT KIND OF COGNITIVE DISSONANCE IS GOING ON THERE). But there’s one glaring mistake that the Vissians repeat over and over, and for an advanced society, it is utterly horrifying that they ignore it. They claim that the cogenitors in their society have no need or desire for anything other than eating, sleeping, and assisting during the mating process. (Which isn’t even explained, for the record!!! That seems like such a huge deal to ignore!!!) Yet Tucker’s scan prove otherwise. But let’s assume that the Vissians haven’t ever scanned a cogenitor, which… that’s suspect, but okay. Cogenitors can speak. THEY CAN COMMUNICATE. Charles has no problem conversing with Tucker, which outright confirms that they are not unintelligent objects. How? How can the Vissians truly believe that the cogenitors have no other purpose outside procreation when they had to interact with them enough for them to develop complex speech abilities in the first place? If Charles had been unable to talk, you might have been able to understand why the Vissians believed the cogenitors lacked desire or intelligence. That wouldn’t have justified their treatment of them, mind you, but it would have explain their reasoning better.
- Everyone knows they are wrong. If we assume the Vissians really didn’t know what the cogenitors were capable of, and if we assume that Tucker did a horrible, awful thing that is deserving of the scorn that’s heaped on him, there’s still a massive problem: Charles’s development over the course of “Cogenitor” proves that the Vissians have been wrong about these people and their gender. Like, 100% wrong! It’s not even ambiguous; this episode gives us confirmation of congenitor intelligence in explicit detail! There’s nothing to argue or dispute here! So when the Chief Engineer and Calla deny Charles the opportunity to do anything besides eat, sleep, and procreate, Charles begs for Tucker and Enterprise to save them. In that moment, this stopped being an issue of blame for Tucker. It stopped being his moral and ethical issue. And once Archer took it upon himself to hear Charles’s declaration for asylum, all responsibility landed solely on him. Only Archer was now responsible for Charles’s freedom or their suffering. Archer chose to send Charles back. It is highly suggested that Archer valued the relationship he fostered with Drennik (and the Vissians as a whole) so much that he was willing to doom Charles to a life of sadness and pain.
Thus, the final scene – in which Archer viciously criticizes Tucker and places all blame on him for Charles’s suicide – doesn’t feel like an uncomfortable exploration of the complicated ethics of this situation. To me, it felt like projection. It felt like that anger should have been directed inward. It felt like the writers had completely dodged the greater ethical conundrum by having Archer deny Charles’s request for freedom, and my god, it’s so cruel. This is not just one of the bleakest episodes in Trek‘s run; it is downright mean. Again, I don’t think Tucker should escape scot-free or that he shouldn’t be criticized for pursuing all this with Charles while openly lying to the Vissians. But why didn’t anyone criticize the Vissians for denying Charles something that certainly would have affected them less than Charles dying? Charles never once said that they didn’t ever want to help those people procreate; they just wanted to read. To listen to music. To climb a mountain. And those Vissians panicked because they’d been so use to the compulsory access to these people that all they could think of was themselves and literally no one else. They were so threatened by the mere idea of freedom for someone else – something they’ve had their entire lives – that they wanted to crush that hope in Charles.
They’re not criticized by anyone but Tucker. As impulsive and misguided as he may be as a character, he had enough empathy within him to point out the highly disgusting dynamic that had been unfolding here. In the end, only Tucker is criticized; the script offers no scorn to anyone else. You could assume that we were supposed to see the Vissians as antagonistic, but does anyone say that? No. It’s left to the imagination of the audience, and sometimes, that’s not good enough.
The video for “Cogenitor” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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