Star Trek: Voyager – “Tuvix” (season 2, episode 24)
Teleplay by Kenneth Biller; story by Andrew Shepard Price & Mark Gaberman; directed by Cliff Bole; first aired in 1996
After collecting plant specimens from an unexplored planet, a bickering Tuvok and Neelix beam back up to Voyager. But thanks to a transporter malfunction, they materialize as one person, an amalgamation of the two (wearing an amalgamation of Tuvok’s Starfleet uniform and Neelix’s flashy threads, for some reason). The crew are unable to reverse the accident and restore Tuvok and Neelix to their individual selves, but they find that this new, combined life form, while sharing their memories and personality traits, is a functioning, self-aware individual in his own right. Naming himself “Tuvix,” he gradually finds his own place among a crew mourning the two men who “died” in the accident that created him. He whips Neelix’s kitchen into shape while also serving on the bridge and attending senior staff briefings, and forms genuine friendships while navigating an awkward, but developing, relationship, of some kind, with Kes. But when the Emergency Medical Hologram finally discovers a way to restore Tuvix to his former selves, Captain Janeway is left with a dilemma. As much as she, and the rest of the crew, may want Tuvok and Neelix back, Tuvix doesn’t want to die, and he argues quite convincingly for his own life: the loss of Tuvok and Neelix is sad, but they’re gone, while he’s here, as a living, breathing life form with a right to go on living. A tortured, conflicted Kes admits that she wants Neelix back, whether it’s right or not, while the EMH refuses to perform the procedure on Tuvix against his will. But for better or for worse, the decision ultimately falls to the Captain, who performs the procedure herself in spite of Tuvix’s pleading for his life. In the end, Tuvix disappears in the same transporter beam that restores Tuvok and Neelix, and a return to the status quo has never felt so uncomfortable.
Star Trek: Enterprise – “Similitude” (season 3, episode 10)
Written by Manny Coto; directed by LeVar Burton; first aired in 2003
We open on a funeral, seemingly for Trip Tucker, before flashing back to two weeks earlier. As the Enterprise navigates the dangerous Delphic Expanse, an accident leaves Trip in a coma. The Enterprise is now stranded while magnetic particles build up on its hull, and Captain Archer needs his chief engineer back to help get the ship moving before the build-up destroys it. Doctor Phlox proposes to use the unusual properties of an alien larva to create a rapidly-maturing, short-lived clone of Tucker, from which he can transplant the brain tissue that Tucker needs to recover. Archer reluctantly agrees, and Phlox successfully clones an infant, who grows up quick. As he does, it becomes clear that “Sim” isn’t just a physical clone of Trip; he shares Trip’s accumulated knowledge and memories. Archer explains the situation to Sim, who is willing to help Trip, and becomes a part of the crew as he ages into adulthood, helping to repair the ship and expressing feelings for T’Pol in the process. When it becomes clear that the transplant will be fatal for Sim, ending his life a few days earlier than expected, he takes this in stride … but becomes a lot less cooperative when it’s revealed that Phlox knew of, but didn’t share, experimental research suggesting that it might be possible for Sim to live much longer than just a few more days. Archer is upset by this news, but remains determined to save Trip and, by extension, their mission, while Sim insists that his own life is as valuable as Trip’s. He prepares to steal a shuttle and escape the Enterprise, but finally agrees to the procedure, wanting Enterprise to continue its mission in memory of Trip’s sister, whom he never met but remembers, regardless. The procedure is a success, and we end where we began, as a recovering Trip attends Sim’s funeral.
I kind of hate the trolley problem.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s a worthwhile thought experiment. I’ve seen this dilemma phrased differently by different people: if you’re not familiar with it, you can read a breakdown of its different variations here, or watch it played out a little more, um, graphically in this clip from season 2 of The Good Place. But essentially, the problem boils down to this: if several people faced imminent death, and you could press a button which would save those people by causing the death of a different person instead – but only one person – would you press that button? Our answer is meant to make us think consciously, explicitly, about how we go about distinguishing right from wrong. Do we believe that an otherwise wrong action – in this case, deliberately taking a life – can be justified by the right outcome? Do we believe that an otherwise right action – refusing to do deliberate harm – can be unethical, if it’s going to allow more harm than it prevents?
These are deeply important questions to ask, even if we can’t definitively answer them. But the trolley problem might misleadingly suggest that there can be a definitive answer, by promising us certain outcomes: either we act, and one person dies, or we don’t, and several people die, with no variables unaccounted for. The real world rarely has certain outcomes, rarely are all variables accounted for, and taking these uncertainties into account is a very real part of behaving ethically, as opposed to simply making abstract ethical arguments. In the real world, the button might not work when we press it, or either the group or the individual might simply walk off the train tracks before the train arrives, or someone else might blunder out onto either set of tracks, oblivious …or a million other things could happen. In the real world, we choose to act, or not, but we don’t choose the outcome, and we don’t choose how our actions will feel, regardless of either the ethics or the outcome of those actions. This is why I, personally, tend to prefer fiction to philosophy. Fiction is no realer than philosophy, but it isn’t abstract; when it’s done right, fiction feels real. It can be messy, and it can matter to us, emotionally, in a way that an abstract ethical problem can’t.
I don’t think Star Trek has ever fictionalized the trolley problem more directly than Voyager does in “Tuvix.” The episode starts out as yet another transporter accident, a clever inversion of the “transporter clone” scenario previously seen in The Original Series’ “The Enemy Within” and The Next Generation’s “Second Chances.” Where those episodes gave us two James T. Kirks and two William T. Rikers, respectively, “Tuvix” combines two existing characters, Tuvok and Neelix, into one new character, played not by the familiar Tim Russ or Ethan Phillips, but by guest actor Tom Wright, who does excellent work with a character who could easily have come off as silly (which would have badly undercut the emotional impact of the episode’s devastating final act). “Tuvix” begins by reminding us how different the two original characters are, and how badly Neelix gets on “Mr. Vulcan’s” nerves; based on this opening, we might expect the episode to deal with the need to reconcile different sides of ourselves in order to function as complete, balanced people (especially if we remember “The Enemy Within” using its own transporter accident to do some extremely on-the-nose philosophizing on that subject). But the episode takes a quick turn off of that well-traveled thematic path, by portraying Tuvix, right from the beginning, as a highly-functioning, well-balanced integration of Tuvok’s and Neelix’s personalities and skill-sets. Almost no narrative tension is derived from the question of whether Tuvix is an autonomous individual capable of coexisting with, and contributing to, the rest of society; the episode very quickly tells us, and shows us, that he is. Instead, a great deal of tension is derived from what that fact means, given that Captain Janeway eventually insists (and the contracts of Tim Russ and Ethan Phillips require) that Tuvok and Neelix be restored to their original, separate selves. Tuvix is, essentially, the individual on one trolley track, while Tuvok and Neelix are the group on the other, with Captain Janeway’s finger on the button. She answers the trolley problem the way many of us probably think we would … and it’s horrifying, just as it would be in real life.
As a result, “Tuvix” is deeply (and understandably) controversial among Trek fans … and is, to my mind, one of Voyager’s most impressively ambitious episodes. Voyager sometimes seems to have a fear of commitment: as a series, it has a hard time committing to bold ideas and new directions for Star Trek (even when those bold ideas and new directions are baked right into the series’ premise, like its quickly-abandoned Maquis-Starfleet crew conflict); and even individual episodes often struggle to commit to a single story, suddenly veering off-course in a way that makes me feel like I’ve fallen asleep halfway through one episode, woken up halfway through the next without realizing it, and just kept watching (with “Coda” being maybe the most obvious example of this, and “Threshold” probably the most egregious). But say what you will about “Tuvix,” this episode commits. From the moment Tuvix, the character, appears on screen, “Tuvix,” the episode, is admirably consistent in treating him as a full-fledged individual, separate from his “parents,” Tuvok and Neelix. We, the audience, might debate whether he can truly be called a single, new life-form in his own right, but the episode simply grants that he is, so that it can focus on setting up its tragic final act. And the episode is, again, fully committed to that tragedy. Tuvix could easily have met his end in a way that was sad, but inevitable, for techno-babble reasons; some convenient instability in his combined genetics, say, would have allowed the episode to hit the famous Voyager reset button, while absolving the other characters of any responsibility for it. That reset button does have to be hit, of course – we all knew that coming in – but this episode commits to making the reset hurt (in sharp contrast with, say, “Deadlock,” which kills off Harry Kim and a baby, and replaces them with their alternate selves from a different reality, only to end with a shrug and a joke).
This episode’s final scenes – in which Tuvix is forcibly detained, marched to sickbay, and essentially euthanized against his own will – might be the most unsettling moments in any episode of Star Trek, and the episode is utterly unflinching in the way it plays these moments out. We’ve been trained, as viewers, to expect certain things from TV good guys in general, and from Starfleet officers in particular, and “Tuvix” brutally subverts those expectations, not just by having Janeway choose to sacrifice Tuvix, but by having no one on the crew rush heroically to Tuvix’s defence. Yes, the EMH conscientiously objects to performing the procedure, but even he is resigned to the fact that Janeway’s order will be carried out; his programming, or perhaps his own code of ethics by this point, simply won’t allow him to be the one to do it. Before that, when Tuvix pleads with the bridge crew to intervene after learning of the Captain’s decision, the uncomfortable silence from his crewmates – from his new friends – is pretty shocking. However guilty Kes feels about wanting Neelix back in place of Tuvix, it’s completely understandable that she’d feel that way, and her complex emotional reaction to this unprecedented situation is handled very well here, I think, reminding me of “Before and After,” another episode in which both the writing and Jennifer Lien’s performance brought some poignant realism to its high-concept sci-fi premise. But as conflicted as the rest of the crew must be about Tuvix’s fate – as we can see, on their faces, that they are – they don’t express those conflicted feelings out loud, as Kes does to Janeway; they say nothing, and do nothing, as Tuvix begs them for help. And Tuvix’s own reaction to the Captain’s decision is another bold choice, in an episode full of them. Again, what we’re probably expecting, as viewers of TV in general and Star Trek specifically, is for Tuvix to finally, heroically accept his own fate as being necessary to save two other people. What we get, instead, is a raw, ugly, and probably much more realistic reaction from someone who is scared, and desperate, and angry over both his agency and his life being taken from him.
The most controversial element of “Tuvix,” of course, is Captain Janeway’s decision, and her unwillingness to hear any counter-arguments against it, aside from Tuvix’s own (which feels, to me, more like a courtesy than an honest hearing). Again, Trek has trained us to expect that when a Starfleet captain faces a situation as crazy-pants bananas as this one, she will hash out the ethics of it with her senior staff before making her final decision. And again, “Tuvix” subverts that expectation; as far as we’re shown, Janeway spends almost no time discussing her decision with anyone other than Kes and Tuvix himself, the two people least capable of making an objective judgement in this particular situation. And yet again, I’m impressed by the boldness of that narrative choice. For better and for worse, Janeway’s decision here is one of the ultimate “captain moments” in all of Star Trek, a relatively rare instance of a Starfleet captain taking the prerogative, as an authority figure in a strictly hierarchical, essentially military organization, to make life-and-death decisions on others’ behalf based solely on her own judgement, and to summarily dismiss any objections to that judgement. As such, it serves as an illustration of how horrific a “press-the-button” solution to the trolley problem would actually feel in real life; no matter how moral pressing that button might be in the abstract, deliberately taking the life of someone who would live otherwise – who wants to live – is inevitably an ugly, awful thing to do. What’s more, it’s a moment of Voyager fully capitalizing on its premise of a ship voyaging home from the final frontier. As is made explicit in one of her conversations with Kes, the choice Janeway faces regarding Tuvix is a microcosm for the one she faces, every day, to either continue the dangerous and unlikely trip home, or simply accept the situation and settle in the Delta Quadrant. However we might feel about her refusal to let Tuvok and Neelix go and accept that they simply are Tuvix now, it’s consistent with her refusal to let Earth go, and accept the Delta Quadrant as her crew’s new home.
In “Similitude,” Enterprise isn’t exactly playing out the trolley problem, but like “Tuvix,” it deals with the tragedy of being forced to weigh one life against another, and prompts us to ask whether it’s ever okay to deliberately take one life so that other lives can continue. And like “Tuvix,” “Similitude” is less interested in exploring every angle of its dilemma than it is in forcing Captain Archer to pick one side of that dilemma and make a command decision, so that we can watch how this decision plays out in the (fictional) real world. And while “Similitude” never gets quite as dark as “Tuvix,” it doesn’t shy away from the potential dark side of a starship captain’s prerogative, either. When T”Pol learns that Archer has approved Dr. Phlox’s proposal to create a short-lived “simbiont” (clone, essentially) of Trip Tucker, she objects to “growing a sentient being for the sole purpose of harvesting tissue,” and points out that the creation of these simbionts has been banned by the alien government that first discovered the process, the Lyssarrian Prime Conclave. Archer’s response – “We don’t answer to the Lyssarrian Prime Conclave” – is more than a little reminiscent of Janeway, who, when asked by Tuvix what gives her the right to decide his fate against his will, answers simply, “I am the captain of this ship.” Archer is a bit more openly reflective than Janeway, though: “I’m aware of the ethical implications. If we weren’t in the Expanse, maybe my decision would be different. But we’ve got to complete this mission. Earth needs Enterprise, Enterprise needs Trip – it’s as simple as that.” And of course, since Enterprise is a pre-Federation prequel, set in the earliest time period of any series of Star Trek (so far), Archer benefits from a lower bar than Janeway, whose heavy-handedness in “Tuvix” might beg some awkward questions about how utopian – how different from us – the 24th-century Federation really is.
It’s also worth noting that “Similitude” takes place not just in the less-utopian 22nd century, but during the Xindi arc, a long-running storyline which dominated Enterprise’s third season, and commented much more explicitly on contemporary current events than Voyager tended to do. Clearly inspired by the attacks of September 11th, 2001, mere weeks before Enterprise aired its first episode, the Xindi arc begins with a sudden, devastating attack on Earth, and follows Captain Archer and his crew on their journey into the mysterious Delphic Expanse, where their quest for vengeance lands them in a much more complicated situation than they expected, or were prepared for. Over the course of this season-long arc, Archer’s moral high ground becomes less and less certain, until he reaches a point, late in the season, where he has absolutely, unambiguously crossed a line we wouldn’t expect a Starfleet captain to cross.
Are his actions, in that later episode, as unsettling as what Captain Janeway does to Tuvix? Well, without explicitly spoiling any more of the Xindi arc (which I’d rather not do here, given that “Similitude” comes much earlier in the arc, and is relatively self-contained), I’d say yes, arguably, they are. The difference, of course, is that Janeway’s decision in “Tuvix,” while not entirely inconsistent with her actions in some other episodes of Voyager, isn’t effectively placed in a wider context. We don’t really know why she’s willing to sacrifice an innocent life form for the sake of her own crew – something she was vehemently opposed to doing earlier in their journey through the Delta Quadrant – and Tuvix’s death has no lasting consequences that we ever see, given that it’s scarcely even mentioned after the episode ends. In contrast, Archer’s increasingly questionable actions throughout the Xindi arc are part of a long-running storyline, which both builds to those actions and shows their consequences, and we will see Archer struggle with what he’s done through the end of Enterprise’s third season and into its fourth. All of which is to say that “Similitude” is part of a larger story very much about asking whether dire circumstances can excuse the otherwise inexcusable; Enterprise is prompting us, I think, to question Archer’s decisions (and perhaps Dr. Phlox’s as well) in “Similitude,” and will pay those questions off later in the season. What ruins “Tuvix” for some viewers, I think (and I know there are those who say the episode even ruined Janeway as a character for them) is its lack of such context. Because “Tuvix” ends so abruptly, and because the episode is positioned as just another one-and-done, reset-to-zero-at-the-end, self-contained story, Voyager puts its audience, intentionally or not, in the position of having to impose our own judgement on Janeway, because it’s hard to tell how the show judges her. By the time “Similitude” comes along, though, Enterprise has already warned us that Archer’s mission into the Expanse will be a moral test for him; we’ve probably figured out, by this point, that we’re supposed to be uncomfortable with some of his actions, and that he will eventually have to reckon with them.
Another big difference between “Tuvix” and “Similitude” is that Sim, the first time we see him – at his own funeral – is treated as a comrade to be remembered, not a mistake to be corrected. Granted, we don’t yet know the funeral is for Sim, and not Trip, in that first flash-forward scene, which is meant to establish the stakes for the rest of the episode. But by the end of the episode, rather than feeling like a cheap way to build tension, that funeral flash-forward, and the scene which reprises it at the end of the episode, have become an important statement on Sim’s personhood. While Archer has deemed it necessary that Sim should be sacrificed to save Trip in order to save the mission, he makes it clear in his eulogy that he hasn’t judged Sim to be anything less than an individual in his own right, something Janeway leaves ambiguous at the end of “Tuvix.” (Did the crew of Voyager hold a funeral for Tuvix, with a eulogy from the captain? I, uh, doubt it.) And it’s significant that Sim, unlike Tuvix, only exists because Archer and Phlox made him exist. Archer feels, and is, responsible for Sim’s existence in a way that Janeway doesn’t, and isn’t, for Tuvix; Archer is moving forward from a difficult decision he has already made and can’t unmake, where Janeway sees herself as responsible for making a choice no one asked for, or could have predicted.
We could, perhaps, accuse “Similitude” of taking the easy way out – relative to “Tuvix,” at least – in that Sim’s fate is, ultimately, decided by Sim himself. He hijacks a shuttle, intending to escape and preserve his own short life, and could presumably have done exactly that, given the engineering knowledge and skill he shares with Trip. Archer doesn’t catch Sim in the act, but instead finds him having given up on his escape, out of respect for a sister he remembers but never really had. This conveniently absolves Archer of at least some of the responsibility for Sim’s fate, in a way that “Tuvix” absolutely refuses to do for Janeway, instead having Tuvix himself (understandably) resist and protest his own fate, right to the bitter end. “Similitude” doesn’t let itself off the hook entirely, though. After all, the episode deliberately sets up a situation in which Sim, through some convenient technobabble, could have simply replaced Trip on the crew, taking his name and essentially assuming his identity going forward (something which, as I’ve already mentioned, Voyager once did with an alternate-reality Harry Kim, no questions asked). Sim’s shared memories with Trip don’t make much scientific sense, of course, but they do create this added tension; where we know Tuvix will eventually be split into Tuvok and Neelix again, one way or another, we can’t know for certain, until the end of “Similitude”, whether it will be Sim or Trip getting that funeral. And by having Sim’s acceptance of his fate be motivated by his memories of Trip’s sister – who died in the very Xindi attack which sent the Enterprise into the Expanse in the first place – rather than a sacrifice for Trip himself, the episode insists to the end that Sim is an individual with agency, and not just a source of spare parts for Trip. This should keep us uncomfortable with what Archer and Phlox have done, and is pretty well summed up by Sim’s last line of the episode, in which he tells a still-comatose Trip, “You owe me one” … something Tuvix never gets the chance to tell Tuvok and Neelix.