Monday, September 5, 2022

Enterprise, Season 2: Stigma

 Enteprise, Season 2
Airdate: February 5, 2003
39 of 97 produced
39 of 97 aired


T'Pol finds herself being refused medical treatment for a disease she contracted during her forced mind meld with Tolaris the previous year. The reason? A widely held cultural distaste for any Vulcan who engages in mind melds.


Trip wonders whether the word "throuple" has been coined yet.




Kevin: So our usual modus operandi here is to trade off talking about different points in turn, but for this episode, I'm just dumping this Medium article in one go, because I have a lot to say about this one and my main point kind of needs all the subpoints in one place.

So, my recollection of this episode was that it was part of a planned set of episodes across Viacom properties on HIV awareness to the point that the episode's genesis was basically a top down request/order. Doing some research for my review, it turns out that Berman and Braga went to a corporate meeting about the broader push by Viacom on the issue and that inspired them to write the episode. I bring this up because I'm going to apologize to the show for assuming they had to be ordered to write it, but in the same sentence criticize the show for needing a meeting in 2002 about an HIV awareness campaign to think about addressing it in an allegorical Star Trek episode.

Star Trek has a... complicated... relationship with queer issues and HIV/AIDS specifically. TOS and TNG writer David Gerrold wrote a script called "Blood and Fire" where a lethal infestation of 'Regulan blood worms' stood in as the HIV metaphor and would have featured the show's first gay couple. The episode was never made and Gerrold left TNG as a result. That was in 1987. So it's fifteen years between that script and this one. I am stressing this point at the top because I think an episode whose main point is that people with HIV or AIDS should not be demonized is not exactly a new or groundbreaking one. Between Gerrold's script and this one, I recall the episode when The Golden Girls tackled HIV stigma and Blanche Devereaux said out loud "AIDS is not a bad person's disease." That was in 1990. I'm stressing the lapse of time because of an important component of the science fiction allegory. A well crafted allegory can convince people whose positions are reactive, unexamined, and based on fear to reexamine them, but not those who hold them from a conscious choice to act on a deeply held bigotry. In 1987 or in 1990, I believe there are many such people who could and did benefit from stories that humanize the face of HIV/AIDS. I don't think there are that many, any if I'm being honest, in 2003. Anyone in the 21st century who thinks AIDS is God's Punishment for Sin wants to believe that because they hate queer people, not because they are innocently unaware of queer people's humanity. So the first sour note this episode strikes for me is that it is ten, verging on twenty years, too late. It would have been truly laudatory in season two of TNG. Fifteen years later, it's just recapitulating a point no one not an irredeemable monster doesn't already believe. "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" can only peel off so many casual racists before you are left with a knot of unswayable Klan members, and by 2003, we were in a similar place on this issue as well. 

Setting that aside, let's look at the episode itself. I think the way they tried to graft the AIDS parable onto the mind meld creates several problems. First, it's a retcon, and a stupid one. The mind meld gets used pretty casually in every other prior series with no hint that it used to be literally the worst thing ever or that only a small portion of the population is even capable of them. By making Pa'nar Syndrome something only practitioners of mind meld can contract, it seems to cede the other side's talking point, that only the 'bad' people can contract this illness. The fact that T'Pol contracted the disease by being the victim of an assault only amplifies why this leaves a weird taste in my mouth. I understand we use the 'normal' person contracting the illness as the window into empathy, but the way they built this metaphor, AIDS is a disease that only queer people can get and the only threat to straight people is if they are assaulted by those queer people. Like I said, I did some research while drafting this, and I found another review site with a lot to say on this episode, so in the interest of not being a plagiarist, here's the link. Something this review pointed out that really crystallized my feelings on this episode was citing the story of Ryan White, the boy who contracted HIV through a blood transfusion. In particular, was a quote from his mother about resisting the urge to deem her son an 'innocent' victim while others were 'guilty' and acknowledging the way the queer community helped them while her son was alive. I remembered hearing about Ryan White at the time, and that was a solid ten years before this episode. It just underscored the sense that society had largely already gotten here, and the retroactive grafting of the AIDS parable onto T'Pol's assault last season just amplifies the way it feels somewhat creaky as a metaphor for the queer community and AIDS.

The closest the episode comes to really working for me is when T'Pol refuses to reveal how she contracted the disease to save her reputation, refusing to benefit from the discrimination the melders face. That's great character work and speaks well of T'Pol's values, but the episode cheats and has the gay-coded Vulcan doctor sacrifice himself and disappear from the story. T'Pol gets to be a good ally, but the episode doesn't have to deal with the natural consequences of her principled position. Spoiler alert, T'Pol will stand up to the High Command and get fired and rehired by Starfleet at the start of season 3, and if they had pulled that trigger now, I would actually respect this episode a lot more. I think my last main problem, in crafting mind melders as some subculture, they did not do a good job of portraying that culture in any way. Pulling the prior story of the emotional Vulcans and T'Pol's assault, whether they meant to or not, they made their stand-in for queer people a bunch of violent weirdos. For a story about the problems and discrimination faced by a discreet minority in Vulcan society, we only see it through the lens of someone pointedly not a member of the minority. The only member of the minority we get on screen this episode exists to only nobly sacrifice himself for the well-being of the 'normal' character. Maybe I'm being picky here, but I'm the product of watching a century of media where the only queer characters are Tragic Queer Characters who only exist to impact the lives of straight people, so if I'm salty, too bad.

And I think I could forgive most of these sins if we were talking about 'Stigma, the season two episode of TNG' rather than the season two episode of Enterprise. In the 1980s, this episode, exactly as written, is shockingly brave. It would really be leading the conversation. The unartful metaphors could be excused in the name of highlighting an important conversation, one the mainstream was studiously avoiding. In 2003, it's offering an insight anyone not a willful bigot already holds. Exacerbating my ire at the delay is the Gerrold identifies Berman as the producer who nixed his episode back in 1987. [[Matthew's note: Speaking of Berman, Kate Mulgrew relates that he was the one who seemingly put the brakes on including a gay character in Voyager, as well.]] It's not that there aren't stories about AIDS in the 21st century that aren't ripe for allegorical insight. The inequitable access to care, both between the queer community and larger society and disparities inside the queer community itself, are ripe for a good sci-fi allegory ending with Ben Sisko looking you dead in the eye and asking you how we got here. This episode just isn't it. I'll say this for the writers. I believe their intentions were good and that they were trying. I just think they stopped at their own knowledge and viewpoints on the AIDS crisis. "Queer people shouldn't be demonized for having AIDS" is a pretty solid position, and one with which I heartily agree. It's just neither an interesting nor insightful basis alone for an episode in 2003.

Essentially, this episode is too little too late. As an AIDS metaphor, it muddles the history of a key Trek society to ponder the question "What if a straight woman got raped by a queer person and got AIDS?" As an exploration of a marginalized minority, we see only one member of that minority, and they exist only to sacrifice themselves for the straight person. And as for holding up a mirror to society to provoke a needed conversation, it's a decade, at least, behind the times. It's chasing broader society on a point that all the people who can be convinced have already been so convinced. When I was writing about the Ryan White story above, I remembered a Mr. Belvedere episode that basically copy and pasted the story into A Very Special Episode in (checks notes) 1986. Getting lapped by the Golden Girls is understandable. It's rightfully hailed as groundbreaking on several fronts. Getting lapped on a critically important social issue by Mr. Belvedere feels like allegorical malpractice.

Matthew: Hmm. Kevin clearly has strong personal feelings about the socio-historical context of this episode. I do not. I will stipulate to that representing privilege on my part. As a straight white male, I have only experienced the distress of the way the gay community was stigmatized and mistreated in the 80s and 90s (i.e. during my lifetime) in an intellectual way, not as a deeply felt part of my identity. So, without that context, I tend to look at Star Trek from two perspectives - how did it challenge its audience at the time; and how well does it challenge an audience regardless of when it is watched?

As far as its context, 2003 is a time I remember as a transitional one for public consciousness of the gay community. I recall debating a socially conservative coworker (back when one could do such things) about gay marriage at around this time, and telling her that "50 years from now, people will be looking back at those who opposed gay marriage in the same way that we look back on people like Sheriff Bull Connor of Birmingham Alabama in the 1950s." I feel pretty good about that bit of prognosticating, and I wonder if Kylie remembers that conversation. Anyway, I have always been tolerant of homosexuality and have never viewed it as dangerous or weird or wrong. And so when I watch a movie like "Police Academy" and see the homophobic "humor" running through it, I can't help but wince. This episode most definitely is not that. I see what Kevin is saying, that by having T'Pol being an unwitting victim, it might serve to implicate the whole "subculture" as dangerous or wrong. But I do think the Vulcan doctor mediates that somewhat - he is clearly a good person who is repulsed by violations of consent, and who wants to help T'Pol. And so the overall effect of the story is to make the viewer care about the problems of someone they already like, and to have those problems map roughly onto a contemporary social issue. I think a straight viewer in 2003 would not be able to help examining the sorts of prejudices they might possess or have witnessed with new eyes.

Now, I think this is clearly a case of straight white men trying to address a "big issue" that affects a minority with whom they are unfamiliar, by creating a Trek-style sci-fi allegory. Because they don't feel and live these issues in the same way people who are actually affected by them do, it would be pretty astonishing if they got all the nuances right, and they clearly did not here. So looking at it from a non-time-located perspective, I can see this as a basically functional Star Trek story that puts a main character into a dire position, fleshes out her position in a way that loosely maps on to something from our world, gets us to empathize with her suffering, and stakes out an ethical position (namely: stopping people from consensual lifestyles that they are born with the ability to pursue is wrong; penalizing people for association with such lifestyles is also wrong). I agree that the story copped out by having Yuris reveal that she was infected by way of assault, but this is ameliorated somewhat by her (and Archer's) refusal to confirm this in the hearing.

So, from a more academic "timeless" perspective, comparing it to other "message" episodes relating to sexual identity, the ones that spring to mind are TNG "The Outcast," DS9 "Rejoined," and (ugh) DSC "The Sanctuary" (Oddly, though Voyager had many episode dealing with tolerance towards oppressed minorities, I couldn't really find one with a sexual dimension). In my review of "The Sanctuary," I chastised the episode for spending so little time on the nonbinary "coming out" of Adira because: 

"I want them to show us the pain of someone in the social "out group," to show us how that status is unjust, and to humanize them in such a way that you simply can no longer reject them as beneath our moral concern." 

And that's really my standard for quality in an allegorical Trek episode focusing on toleration and bigotry. "The Outcast," for all its faults, succeeded in fleshing out Soren and her quandary, and her culture's intolerance. "Rejoined" also humanized its characters and did a great job of portraying a love that could see beyond gender presentation. I viewed "The Sanctuary" as a failure because of Discovery's "cut and paste scenelets giving characters one or two "development minutes" that don't really cohere into a larger tale." So where does "Stigma" rate by this standard? I think it did a very good job of getting me to empathize with T'Pol, and by extension anyone who suffers from retribution and discrimination due to their membership in an "out group." This sort of mistreatment transcends the AIDS crisis of the 80s and 90s, and can be applied to most any suffering group. Whatever the problems are (and Kevin has expertly catalogued them), the emotional core of the tale is there for me, and for me (acknowledging my embodied perspective) that's something like 80% of the battle to get someone to empathize. The story would be much stronger if it had been about T'Pol refusing to justify the victimhood as excuse angle and suffering consequences for it. But she does at least express that idea.

When it comes to the retcon of making mind melds taboo, I think it basically works as a story choice. The last season and a half have shown us that these Vulcans are clearly different than the Vulcans of 100 years later, and their disapproval of something we come to think of as common during TOS is a concrete instantiation of that difference. But even in TOS, the mind meld is considered deeply personal and private (regardless of how often TOS used it to extricate its characters from a sticky situation). As far as mapping the disease onto it, I can easily believe that it is cured by the time of TOS due precisely because of the consciousness raising that people like T'Pol and Yuris work to bring about.

Kevin: The B-plot is better, and inside its four walls, certainly pretty charming. I think some of the dials needed to be better calibrated. Trip jumped right to "comical discomfort" and I'm actually left a little unclear if he was really that attracted to Feezal. I also think in pitching his concerns through his southern charm, it felt like his objection was something like infringing on Phlox's property rights. They focused the episode so much on "sleeping with another man's wife" that the wife herself faded a little into the background of her own story. It verges on the lesser Lwaxana episodes that she didn't detect and address Trip's obvious discomfort. Wouldn't she be aware of human mores on this point and explain that it would not occur to Phlox to have a problem? There's a fun culture clash episode here, but I kind of wish it were its own story and not the apparent comic relief to another, heavier A story. I also feel a little bit of dissonance in the A story lecturing Vulcans on not letting go of an outdated cultural prejudice and then show humans not doing that. I appreciate that may just be my reading, but it reinforces my general sense that the two stories don't actually go together. In the plus column, Phlox and Feezal themselves were painted quite successfully as having a stable, loving relationship, and I will say Trip's discomfort came off as non-judgy as it could, so the writers actually managed to walk the walk on cultural diversity there.

Matthew: I think the B-plot is weaker than the A plot. It could have been improved for me if one of Trip's human coworkers (presumably Malcolm, who has been firmly established as super-horny) had basically said "Dude, you should nail her. It's perfectly OK in their culture." Then, the story could be more about Trip's reservations towards polyamory than it is about our reservations. I will also admit to finding Feezal's continual pursuit of Trip when he is clearly uncomfortable with it to be a bit cringe-inducing. Ha ha! Look how uncomfortable that person is in response to my sexual advances! Let's do it again!


Kevin: Here, I have no complaints. This is a barn burner of an episode for Blalock. I bought her reserve as having a ton of layers underneath. Her refusal to play on the other Vulcans' bigotry was really extremely well done, and it only exacerbated my annoyance that the episode did it for her. I am a little more lukewarm on Archer. He was shouty for a good cause, but I think his shouty still comes off as "Dad at Home Depot who can't find something."

Matthew: I think all of the Vulcan characters were well cast and brought it on the acting front. I felt Yuris' decency radiating from actor Jeffrey Hayenga. And good gravy, has Michael Ensign (who also played Minister Krola in the classic TNG "First Contact") ever not nailed the "officious dickhead motivated by fear and prejudice" role? But Blalock really put on a clinic in "repressing clearly present emotions." She stayed within the Vulcan character brief, and still gave us a rich, empathy-inspiring performance.

Kevin: Billingsley and Trinneer did good work in the B-plot. Billingsley's line reading of the rose petal bath thing stayed on just this side of funny without verging into creepy "I want to watch then kill you like an 80s steamy Cinemax thriller" territory. Melinda Page Hamilton was great, and my only issue was not seeing the obvious terror on Trip's face, but other than that, she did good work. The brief was to be fun and attractive and she nailed it in a way that didn't feel cheap, a few juvenile double entendres while setting up the telescope aside.

Matthew: Yeah, whatever issues I have with her character's behavior, the actress was manifestly charming. I wanted Trip to say yes, even though the persistent come-ons were off-putting. The humor worked, and it was a credit to Page Hamilton and Trinneer. Billingsley was alien. It really added to the culture clash angle to feel that coming from him, a congenital lack of jealousy owing to an entirely different cultural context.

Production Values

Kevin: This is solidly a bottle episode, so I don't have much to add. I think the Vulcan offices and the attempt at the alley were a little too small and darkly lit, but they weren't bad, just...there.

Matthew: There was one major effect here, and it was the conference center on the planet. It was fine in terms of design, but we yet again had awkward Gumby CGI people walking the halls. Eew.


Kevin: So, after my diatribe, I am stuck between a 2 and a 3. I think the episode has significant issues that seriously dilute whatever value it has as an AIDS metaphor and whatever sense Star Trek still has about daringly portraying hot button social issues, and the end result is an episode I don't enjoy watching. I spent the whole time feeling vaguely uncomfortable at the metaphor, and if I turn off analyzing the metaphor, there's not much left of the main plot of the story. As allegory, it's a pretty hamfisted and not very insightful one, and I don't think even the most charitable reading would find it 'groundbreaking.' That said, the acting is good, particularly from Blalock, and the B plot, while far from perfect, does have some charm, again on the back of the acting. I am ultimately going with the 2. It's too little too late, and if my sense of annoyance verging on betrayal by Star Trek's previous history with portraying queer issues is affecting the coin toss, I'm going to say to that's more their failing than mine.

Matthew: I think this works as Star Trek. How well?  Hmm. For me it is an exercise in not awarding too many extra points owing to how pervasively crappy and idea-free Kurtzman Trek has been (and yes, this includes Strange New Worlds). "Stigma" creates a narrative and explores it over the course of a full episode. So, point there. It also creates a strong sense of empathy for the members of the out group depicted. Point there. It gives us a courtroom scene, which is a classic Trek forum for ideas to be speechified about. The speeches we get are pretty good, at least on par with TNG "The Outcast." so, point there. But then, the B story was kind of a dud, and the A story did not go far enough as elucidated above. By my math that makes this a 3, for a 5 overall. Honestly, if the B story had been excised entirely, I'd probably be at a 4. It was probably within sniffing distance of a 5 given a rewrite or some notes by someone who has actually experienced pervasive social ostracism.

1 comment:

  1. I remember groaning at Dr. Yuris sacrificing himself. I', not sure I could have articulated at the time why. I think it reminded me of 'black dude dies first'.

    Anyway, I come away from this episode with this feeling of "Yeah, but..." Much like The Hunted (which you also gave a 5), there is no revelation here. Of course this is the right position. Is that all you have for us?

    And yeah, Blalock is acting her heart out, which is all the more impressive with the Vulcan restraint.

    I'd have liked to see what happened to Yuris later. We'll be revisiting pa'nar syndrome; it seems we could have revisited him. It might have been nice to get confirmation that T'Pol were in contact with him, e.g., and he could've gotten restoration after the Kir'Shara (I think I'm spelling that right) resurfaced.