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Cogenitor

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WARNING:  Spoilers lurk ahead for ENT's "Cogenitor".�

In brief:  A few plot conveniences, but fairly meaty stuff.�

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"Cogenitor" Enterprise Season 2, Episode 22 Written by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga Directed by LeVar Burton Brief summary:  A first contact leads Trip to get overly involved with the life and rights of a new species' "cogenitor."

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Marketing is evil.

"Cogenitor" is a case in point.  It's an interesting episode dealing with the rights of an individual vs. society, questioning how well you can understand a situation without knowing the culture, and addressing some decidedly unsettling issues in the era before the Prime Directive's come into being.

So what does the preview show?

"These guys need three to mate!  Slaverslaverslaver.  Phlox has pictures!"

Christ on a pogo stick.  If anyone thinks that approach is going to *attract* viewers, I'd be more than happy to sell them some beachfront property in Nebraska.

Having been predisposed to expect the worst based on the preview, I actually found myself pleasantly surprised by "Cogenitor."  The leering, adolescent approach I've seen this show exhibit when it comes to almost anything sexual was absent ... or at least toned way down. Instead, we mostly got a character piece questioning when and in what fashion interference is okay.

Things begin pleasantly enough.  While exploring a hypergiant star, our heroes run into a species that calls itself the Vissians.  They're technologically well ahead of humans, but willing to share, very open about life, and extremely friendly:  all they want in return for helping with some sensor modifications is to be invited over for a visit.  Trip observes puckishly that "it'll be nice to have a first contact where nobody's thinkin' about charging weapons."

The meeting (in the mess hall, of course) has lots of small talk, but the real story starts when Trip wanders over to say hello to the Vissians' chief engineer.  He does in fact meet the engineer, along with his wife, and a third person who's all but silent.  The Vissians, it turns out, are tri-gender, needing a third sex in order to conceive a child.  This "cogenitor" is the only one on the Vissian ship, and is on Enterprise as something of a special occasion.

Trip is initially taken aback by this, wondering aloud to Phlox how such a thing could possibly work.  Phlox isn't especially surprised, though, and is more amused than anything else by Trip's reaction, urging him to "keep an open mind."

As Archer befriends the Vissian captain and heads off with him to explore the outer edge of the hypergiant in their "strato-pod," Trip continues his work with the engineer, but also continues to ask about the cogenitor, wondering what it does most of the time.  When he discovers that it isn't sent to school and doesn't do much beyond eat and sleep, he begins to wonder about the cogenitor's rights.  Despite Phlox's urgings that he not get involved, he surreptitiously takes brain scans of the cogenitor, along with the engineer and his wife.  When he discovers that the cogenitor is just as mentally capable as the other two genders, he can't stay on the sidelines any more.  He surreptitiously meets with the cogenitor and begins teaching it to read.

If there's any real negative to this story, it's just a plausibility question or two about Vissian society.  We see evidence (both in this plotline and in others) that Vissians are extremely capable intellectually, retaining almost all of what they read in no time at all -- which makes one wonder why the Vissians would be so quick to keep their cogenitors ... well, "barefoot and pregnant" isn't the right term, really, but it's an apt enough analogy.  It's strongly implied that they're not the ones who actually carry the child to term, so there's no "for the child's sake" argument preventing them from being independent. Why, then?

I'm also a bit unclear about exactly why Trip takes this big an interest, but as Archer points out later, Trip is one who tends to be impulsive, so it's not a big deal.

Regardless, once Trip starts his crusade there's really no going back. There's a lovely scene where he more or less browbeats the cogenitor into accepting that it might have abilities and rights no one had ever told her about -- actress Becky Wahlstrom does a marvelous job capturing the cogenitor's uncertainty, showing it as both curious and deeply unsettled.  The single line "why are you doing this?  It's not right for me to read" speaks volumes.

Trip convinces it, however, and in less than a day the cogenitor is reading quite well.  Trip tells it there's a lot more than geography textbooks to read, and that more than reading, there's also lots of things out there to *experience*.  He mentions the mountain range it just read about, for instance:  "readin' about 'em is one thing ... climbin' is another."  The cogenitor agrees, and as Trip leaves it says that it wants to be named Trip, just like him.

Shortly thereafter (probably the next day, though it's not very clear), Trip continues his quest and shows off the Enterprise to the cogenitor.  It gets to see the transporter, main engineering, and Trip's quarters, where he shows it a movie.  It's eager to see and experience more, but Trip gets it back to the Vissian ship before they're discovered.

Here's the other bit that seemed awfully artificial to me.  I know that the Vissians are friendly, but the idea that someone can come and go between ships with absolutely no one noticing strains credibility a lot. Even more odd is the idea that Trip can usher the cogenitor into engineering with a quiet "the coast is clear," implying that the place is empty.  Engineering?  Empty?  I'm thinking not.  Again, it's a fairly minor point, as the emotional core of the story is pretty much rock- solid, but it did tend to snap me out of the story from time to time.

After this visit, of course, everything hits the fan.  The Vissians discover (albeit very late) that Trip has been lying about his whereabouts -- it's not clear whether they know what he's really been up to, but T'Pol is informed that Trip's no longer welcome.  After Trip gets a bit of a dressing-down (I almost wrote "tongue-lashing," but given many of the show's tendencies I think it'd be taken the wrong way), he returns to work ... only to see the cogenitor enter shortly thereafter and tell him that the Vissians are angry with him.  "They don't want me to climb mountains," it says, and insists that only he can help.  "I want to stay here, please."  The Vissians, on the other hand, want it back immediately, and there's quite a problem waiting for Archer as soon as he returns.

The occasional plausibility concerns aside, this becomes a fairly juicy moral dilemma.  Do you help the cogenitor, knowing nothing about the broader society in which it functions and possibly damaging relations with the Vissians for a long time to come?  Or do you stay on friendly terms with the Vissians, returning the cogenitor to its "rightful" home, knowing that in the process you've likely raised hopes only to dash them and leave it far worse off than it originally was?

Plausible arguments can be made on either side, and much to its credit "Cogenitor" tries to keep the process somewhat even-handed.  The Vissians are shown to be kind, warm people -- and the engineer rather pointedly makes it clear to Archer that judgments in absence of a cultural context can be prone to some heavy-duty mistakes. Cogenitors are also rare enough that granting this one asylum may keep the engineer and his wife from having a child for a long time to come, depending on how long this mission is.  Archer is clearly torn.

Now, for what it's worth, I don't think I would have decided the issue the same way.  My own viewpoint tends to be that anyone or anything sentient enough to want freedom (or asylum, which is sort of the equivalent in this case) with a full understanding of what it entails should be granted it.  (I remember back in TNG's "The Measure of a Man," the question was raised about whether you'd allow the Enterprise computer to refuse a refit.  As far as I'm concerned, the answer was "yes, if it understood the concept sufficiently to reject it." I still think that.)  I might have tried to split the difference, saying that the cogenitor should stay with its "assigned" couple long enough to let them conceive a child, *then* come back to Enterprise -- I've no idea whether that could have worked logistically, but I'd probably have considered it.  The more I think about it, the more I think I disagree with Archer's choice -- but I do understand it.  The issue isn't his fault -- he just got caught in the middle, and the show does an admirable job showing that.

Archer, however, lets Trip have it with both barrels, especially when Trip protests that "I did exactly what you'd do, Cap'n."  Archer vehemently denies that, saying that the issue is so complicated that "don't tell me you know what I would've done when *I* don't even know what I would've done!"  Archer's reaction is the first time in a while that Scott Bakula's performance has really impressed me, and it's some of the most honest emotion we've seen from Archer in the series' history.

I read some of it a bit differently, though, as I think Trip had a serious point there.  Archer goes on and on about how he always tries to balance his own belief in what's right with the need to respect other cultures -- but so far as I can tell, if he's trying that he's not doing a great job.  He dictates to the Vulcans.  He tells Phlox just an episode earlier to override his own medical ethics.  He never takes T'Pol's advice, even when she's right.  Archer says a lot about respecting other cultures, but his actions tend not to back that up.  Personally, then, I think Trip called it beautifully -- and while that doesn't make Archer's anger and upset any less honest, it motivates it differently.  I think Trip struck home, and subconsciously Archer knows it.  That's why he's so upset -- most of us are never so prone to jump on flaws as when they're ones we see mirrored in ourselves.

It doesn't help matters when Archer's choice winds up leading to tragic consequences.  Shortly after the Vissians and the Enterprise part company, Archer gets a message from the Vissian captain:  the cogenitor has committed suicide.  Archer tells Trip this, who's utterly shocked.  He says, almost to himself, "It's my fault.  I'm responsible," and Archer wheels on him with a "you're damned right you are!"  It's clear from Archer's further dialogue, though, that he's at least partially blaming himself.  He tells Trip that "it's time you learned to weigh the possible repercussions of your actions," and blames himself for not getting that through to Trip very successfully.  (Again, I suspect here that he's realizing he's been a truly terrible role model in that regard, but the scene works well either way.)  Trip tries to tell Archer that he's not responsible, but Archer simply dismisses him and turns his face back to the window.

Agree or disagree with the decisions all you like, but the show was not shy about facing some of the possible repercussions of Trip's actions.  This could easily have been a show where Archer (or Trip, or someone) makes a big overblown speech about freedom and shames everyone into doing what he wants.  He's done it before.  Pretty much every captain has, and much of the time I've agreed with him or her.  I might even have agreed with it here -- but it doesn't change the fact that the situation really shouldn't have occurred in the first place, and a happy ending would have undercut that point tremendously.

This was a great example of a "why the Prime Directive will show up someday" show.  That, combined with especially solid acting from Scott Bakula (during the crunch scenes, anyway),  Connor Trinneer, and especially Becky Wahlstrom as the cogenitor, made the core of the show one that's worth occasionally going back to.

I have to hope, though, that we see some real consequences to this in Archer's behavior, or at least Trip's.  Trip *should* be a bit less rash now as a result, and personally I'd be interested to see him a lot more likely to side with T'Pol and call Archer on things when he's acting like his beliefs are all that matters.  If that doesn't happen, I'll be very disappointed.

Oh, the subplots?  Yeah, I should mention those.  There were two: Archer and the Vissian captain exploring the star, and Reed winding up in a one-night stand with a Vissian woman.  The former was mostly an excuse to get Archer off-ship and to give Bakula something to do, but having the ever-watchable Andreas Katsulas trading dialogue with him helped.  (It also made a few points about the Vissians' intellectual capacities that were useful later.)  The Reed stuff was pretty much a waste of time.

Other thoughts:

-- Science nit:  Captain Danik says that the stratopod's navigation system is based on "five spatial axes."  Hard to see how that works -- there are only three spatial dimensions through which a macroscopic object can move and remain in normal space, even in the Trek universe.  (Sure, string theory proposes quite a few more, but folded up into microscopic size.  Not a big deal, but a slight comment.

-- As long as we're on the science, tri-gender reproduction is a tad dicey.  It's certainly not impossible -- it's just hard to imagine how that would have evolved as a successful reproduction strategy.  When you move from asexual reproduction to sexual, the advantages of mixing two partners' traits tend to outweigh the various complications involved, so it's persisted for quite a long time now.  (I doubt anyone here is complaining too much about that.  :-)  Moving from two genders to three, however, seems to be something that'll complicate the logistics intensely without adding much more to the offspring's fitness.  It's not impossible to see how such a situation might have come about, but it strikes me as something that'd be a lot less common than Phlox implies.  (Again, this is not a complaint, just a comment.)

-- It looked to me as though Trip and the cogenitor were playing go for a while after the movie, but I'm not at all sure, not having played it. (I don't think go involves taking pieces off the board, but I could be utterly mistaken there.)  If so, it's an interesting choice, as go is a fairly complicated game with a history at least as long as chess -- and we know chess is still around, after all.

-- For those wondering "hey, I've seen that engineer before," F.J. Rio also played the ill-fated Muniz in DS9 seasons 4-5.  He was an engineer then, too -- but showed a bit more range here than he had much chance to there, I think.

That's about it.  If you can get past some of the initial plausibility problems and a slightly artificial setup, the core story of "Cogenitor" is one well worth the viewing.  I'd be intrigued to see the Vissians again a year or two down the line.

Wrapping up:

Writing:  The core problem and characterization:  excellent.  The         subplots:  one fair, one dreadful.  The setup:  mixed. Directing:  Apart from dragging a bit here and there in the subplots,         no worries. Acting:  High marks for all three of the principals:  Trinneer, Bakula,         and Wahlstrom.

OVERALL:  Call it an 8.5:  I'm feeling generous.

NEXT:�

Must be sweeps time, as the Borg come a'calling. Tim Lynch (Castilleja School, Science Department)
tly...@alumni.caltech.edu        <*>
"I might have expected this from a first-year recruit, but not you.  You
did exactly what I'd do?  If that's true, then I've done a pretty lousy job
setting an example around here."
                        -- Archer
--
Copyright 2003, Timothy W. Lynch.  All rights reserved, but feel free to ask...
This article is explicitly prohibited from being used in any off-net
compilation without due attribution and *express written consent of the
author*.  Walnut Creek and other CD-ROM distributors, take note.

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