Oh fuck, this episode, fuck, fuckity fuck. Also … FUCK THIS EPISODE!
So … premise/synopsis: Enterprise encounters a vessel of exploration from a new (forehead alien) species, the Vissians, technologically more advanced than Earth/StarFleet. Basic first contact dinner/mingling etc. Trip meets the Chief Engineer, his wife the Gravity Engineer (or something) and another person at their table, introduced as their “cogenitor” - a member of their species’ third sex/gender (treated identically throughout the episode because of course they are). This cogenitor gender comprises about 3% of their species and is necessary in the procreation process. Members of this gender are given no name and no education, their pronouns translate as “it,” (because they/them is plural dontchakno) and they are basically treated like a tool/object/non-person. In fact, they are chattel, assigned to family units who are ready for conception for the duration of the conception process and then moved to the next family. They are breeding stock. They have no rights to the children they help create and are not consulted in their own treatment. Trip finds the non-personhood of the cogenitor disturbing, so he inquires more about … it … how about … more about them. He seeks them out and befriends them, providing materials to teach them to read, media to consume and games of skill to play. He confirms that they are just as intelligent and capable as members of the other two genders … miraculously so, but the show only has 42 minutes, so … Anyway, the cogenitor quickly realizes that their sentience entitles them to humane treatment. This causes disruption, a call for asylum, refusal of asylum and the eventual suicide of the cogenitor, who had chosen the name “Charles” to honor Trip.
OK, so … sO MANY ProBLEMS!!@
Alright, so let’s just get the fact that the episode is either an attempt at allegory of “The Trans Narrative” or it clumsily stumbled into one out of pure chance. The fourth episode of the series, “Unexpected,” dealt with Trip getting impregnated by a species that reproduces by implantation/without intercourse, but didn’t exactly deal with gender dynamics outside of “hurr hurr a man is pregnant!” So this is one of ST’s awkward attempts at dissecting man/woman gender dynamics by introducing the concept of a third gender or agender or just the concept of non-binariness (See Also ST:TNG S05e17 “The Outcast”). It’s clear that, while probably well-intentioned, the writers don’t seem to actually know a trans person. Still, Trip’s implicit acceptance of Charles as a whole, yet oppressed, person feels pretty fucking revolutionary to a trans person who is used to seeing her people dehumanized in media. The rest of this post will operate on the assumption that the trans allegory is intentional and deliberate.
There are some problems with Trip’s perspective (especially as the viewpoint character), though. He almost immediately genders them as “she/her/hers” because “she looks more like a woman than a man.” He has a hard time stepping outside of a binary gender/sex framework. So … in the future, either all trans people transition to one of two binary genders or trans people simply don’t exist anymore. Good Job Janice Raymond… The problem is, in the year 2003, when this episode was written, produce and aired, trans people who did not transition to a binary gender already existed. We were already here, so were we forced to live in the closet, were we assimilated into the gender binary or were we exterminated? OK, maybe trans people don’t enter StarFleet. Maybe we’re still banned from the serving in the military. Maybe Trip just doesn’t know any trans people, or about any trans people or of the existence of trans people. Doesn’t speak well for our presence in media, government and society, does it?
Still and all, Trip immediately see Charles as a person and can’t understand why no one else in the Vissian society seems to. So that’s great, bare minimum, but great. Trip consults Dr. Phlox about the arrangement to better understand the situation, and gets the rough outline of Phlox’s supposition (the cogenitor sex provides a necessary enzyme to enable fertilization/conception), but he begs off when Phlox offers details of anatomy. How refreshing to have someone actually respect the privacy of a person’s genitals. Again, not something I’m accustomed to encountering when it comes to trans folk in media.
Trip begins to educate Charles and help them see that they are an actual person. When the Chief Engineer and Gravity Engineer find out, though, they’re pissed because now their cogenitor feels entitled to their own bodily autonomy and this jeopardizes their family planning. How dare they believe they are entitled to decide what happens to their own body… When the Engineer family makes it clear that they are not only not interested in helping Charles self-actualize, they intend to forbid and prevent it, Charles seeks asylum on Enterprise. Trip, of course, accepts the asylum request. Let’s just say that this causes some friction between the two ships.
When Captain Archer returns from his days-long away mission with the Vissian captain, he is in a moral quandary. Accepting the asylum request makes it clear that he sees Charles as an autonomous being and would greatly jeopardize first contact. Returning Charles respects the Vissian culture, while acknowledging that cogenitors are not people. Ultimately, since he and the other captain are super chummy pals now, he returns Charles to the Vissians.
Then … UGH!!! Then, Archer calls Trip to his quarters and calls him on the carpet for putting him in the position to make that choice, and reveals that Charles (who Archer only refers to as “the cogenitor”) has committed suicide rather than continue their previous existence as a non-entity. … And blames Trip for that happening. If Trip had simply ignored the slavery inherent in Vissian society, Archer wouldn’t have had to make a tough choice, and maybe make the wrong one…
In fact, Archer holds Trip responsible for not just Charles’ death, but also the non-existence of the CHILD that Charles would have helped conceive (paying no mind to the fact that Charles would also have no claim to this child). So … the death of the trans person analog is a tragedy for the CIS PEOPLE analogs, but otherwise not tragic. Archer gives no acknowledgement that Charles’ death is, in and of itself, a terrible thing, only that it creates terrible consequences for Charles’ temporary owners. And now they have to go acquire a new one… but that’s going to take sometime and isn’t that just awful? So that’s great. Trip clearly just wasted his time and caused all of this ruckus over someone whose actual life doesn’t matter except insofar as it inconveniences normal people. Wow, that sounds achingly familiar. Archer doesn’t seem to regret turning Charles over to the Vissians, or accepting Charles’ chattel status, or even that Charles is dead (and his role in it). Archer only regrets and is angry about Trip’s intervention on their behalf.
So, I guess it’s a much more accurate allegory than I initially thought, even if it isn’t the morality lesson I’d hope for: Trans people are weird and interesting. They have no rights to their own bodies. Their lives are unimportant. Their deaths are only tragic when they affect non-trans people. THEY ARE NOT ACTUALLY PEOPLE. So … ouch, fucking ouch.
Trip’s behavior and intervention isn’t even a violation of the nascent Prime Directive as the Vissians are warp-capable and have interacted with other non-Vissian species. Of course, there’s the whole human chauvinism inherent in a story where the Vissians have encountered other cultures who reproduce differently and yet no one called them out on their treatment of the cogenitors until the enlightened humans came along to show them the error of their ways, but then, it is a show made by humans for humans, and that’s really always been a feature of Star Trek (“Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most … [voice breaks] human.”).
My hope is that the writers’ intent was to play up Archer’s mistake of not protecting an oppressed and silenced person, but that’s certainly not explicit and Trip doesn’t get the chance to point it out, only the chance to grieve Charles’ death and his role in causing it. He doesn’t point out that suicide was a final act of self-determination by a real person and only highlights the terrible conditions the cogenitors live under. No, he can only feel sad and sorry. I can understand his “if only I hadn’t done this” grief, but I hope that his conclusion isn’t “I shouldn’t have spoken up and intervened on behalf of a person who was being abused and silenced. I shouldn’t have done anything at all,” instead of “I did the right thing and it had a terrible consequence. I only hope others will hear of and learn from Charles’ life and choices.”
So, yeah … this episode caused me some serious frustration and it could have been rescued by a better conclusion, but it wasn’t and only reinforced the dominant ciscentric and pro-oppression narratives of our culture. Someday, there will be a Star Trek story that genuinely and accurately examines and deconstructs gender identity and gender dynamics… but this is not that day. Honestly, I would have hoped for a more affirming and less oppressive ending from LeVar Burton as a director
P.S. Also, at one point the Vissian Chief Engineer calls humans “bigendered” as in they have two genders. One that’s inaccurate and two I am not a fan of that usage of the word bigender (which predates the episode by about 4 years, per Wikipedia). To be fair though, McCoy describes the Tribbles as “bisexual” instead of hermaphroditic (in the zoological sense) and bisexual existed before that episode too. Weird.