Captain Archer is delighted to make friends with the Vissians, an alien race whose superior technology lets them chat a nearby star far more closely than Enterprise can. But Trip becomes troubled when he learns that the Vissians reproduce with the help of Cogenitors – a third sex who are treated as second-class citizens.
At last, an intriguing episode of Enterprise. I think that takes us up to about three or four episodes this season which have genuinely grabbed me. Unlike The Breach, Cogenitor is a Star Trek morality play done right, raising some interesting questions for debate.
Of course, the writers of this episode fail to appreciate the difference between sex and gender, but I’ll aim to keep things more accurate here. The Cogenitors are a third sex, and they are absolutely essential for the Vissian reproductive process. Unlike men and women, however, they are not treated as individuals – they don’t even names, let alone property, education, or a life of their own. It seems pretty barbaric to us, and of course to Trip, but at the same time, that’s just Vissian culture, so who are we to interfere?
Even with the Prime Directive to guide them, Starfleet captains and their crews have struggled with this issue for a long time. In this case, it seems as if the Cogenitors’ “humanoid rights” are being violated, and that we absolutely must step in. After all, here on Earth we have a Universal Declaration of Human Rights and various related legislation that sets out the kind of quality of life a person can expect. When particular cultural issues clash with that, our inclination is to step in rather than leave things as they are. Most people, for example, would agree that trying to stop female genital mutilation is a better pursuit than letting it happen because we cannot interfere in other cultures.
The Federation has similar humanoid rights laws, but of course that institution doesn’t exist yet. And even when it does, does either Starfleet or the Federation have the right to try to make every sentient species they meet adhere to those rules? It’s a difficult one. It feels like absolutely the right thing to do to liberate an underclass who gets routinely raped and beaten, for example, even if it doesn’t occur to them to ask for help. In humanity’s case, should the Vulcans have stepped in earlier to put an end to slavery? How should they have gone about it? There is value in letting a civilisation make its own mistakes, but at what price to the individuals who have to suffer for it?
Of course, in this instance, Archer is insistent that Trip did the wrong thing. By helping the Cogenitor, he is ultimately responsible for her death, as he lacks the power to grant her sanctuary, or to change her position in society. What he did felt like the right thing to do, but ultimately it made the situation worse than before.
Congenitors and procreation
There are various ways in which in a third sex might be needed for reproduction. I’m going to listen some suggestions here, even the ones which were ruled out in this episode.
- The third sex provides some genetic material which must be combined with the gametes of the other two sexes for successful fertilisation. This was not the case in this episode, as Cogenitors do not pass on any genetic material to ‘their’ offspring.
- The third sex gestates the young (again, not the case here, as the female still carries the child).
- The third sex provides some environmental factor that is essential for conception. Phlox suggests that this may be an enzyme – perhaps to break down the outside of the ovum to allow sperm in, or to change the pH somehow to enhance sperm survival. Of course, here my limited human brain is just imagining human gametes – Vissian gametes may well be very different.
- What happens when a Cogenitor is born? Are they taken away from their parents and raised separately? Are all parents just fine with that? One would assume not.
- Humans have two sexes (plus intersex) but not two genders. Even if we don’t consider people who identify with multiple or no genders, there are cultures on Earth that have a recognised third gender. The Enterprise writers might not have known the first fact in 2003, but they could have easily checked the second.
Summary – Cogenitor: Enterprise can be good when it tries. Shame it doesn’t try that often.