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Tuvix is a controversial piece of Star Trek.
The episode tends to polarise fandom. In particular, the climax of the episode seems to divide fans firmly down the middle. When the fan site Trek Today marked the end of Star Trek: Voyager by staging a mock “Court Martial of Captain Kathryn Janeway”, it was argued that the events of Tuvix should have been included as evidence against her. It is no surprise that the episode generated such a strong response. Discussing the production of the episode, Tom Wright reflected, “The truth is that the higher ups of Star Trek knew that this would cause some controversy.”
Of course it generates some controversy. This is the episode where Janeway elects to murder one crew member in order to resurrect two lost crew members. This is a story about how the title character is convenient for about forty-five minutes of screentime, only for the crew to quickly dispose of him as soon as the end credits beacon. Tuvix never really makes a convincing moral case for why the eponymous character has to die, beyond the fact that it conveniently resets the status quo.
Then again, perhaps that is reason enough.
Tuvix is a fairly conventional “transporter malfunction” story. These stories have been part of the bread and butter of the franchise since the earliest days of the original show. Episodes like The Enemy Within and Second Chances (not to mention the spiritual successor Faces) used magical technology to literally divide characters. In The Enemy Within, Kirk became good!Kirk and evil!Kirk. In Second Chances, Riker was effectively photocopied, with one character left trapped for years. In Faces, Torres became human!Torres and klingon!Torres.
Tuvix hews quite close to that particular template, albeit with one very clever innovation. Rather than using the transporter to divide a single character into two copies, the transporter is used to amalgamate a two different individuals into one unique individual. When beaming up from a routine sample-gathering mission, Tuvok and Neelix find their patterns thrown together. The result is to create a third distinct lifeform, the character who eventually takes the portmanteau title “Tuvix.”
Tuxix has a decidedly goofy premise. The tail end of Voyager‘s late second season features a number of delightfully weird high-concept episodes, from the “reverse ageing” in Innocence through to the anthropomorphisation of fear in The Thaw. These episodes would not seem out of place on the original Star Trek, a fact that is somewhat fitting given that the franchise was entering its thirtieth anniversary year at this point. Certainly, the episodes work much better than attempts to thread an arc through stories like Alliances and Investigations.
It helps that the episode has a memorable and distinctive guest star. The second season of Voyager has benefited from some spectacular casting. While Tom Wright is not quite as impressive as Brad Dourif in Meld or Michael McKean in The Thaw, he is still a fantastic guest star. His performance is pitched half way between that of Tim Russ and Ethan Phillips, adopting Russ’ underplayed delivery and Phillips’ physical energy. He really feels like a combination of the two characters.
For his part, Tom Wright greatly enjoyed working on the show, arguing that the production on Star Trek was relatively old-fashioned; it felt more rooted in theatre than television:
You probably know all about it but for the sake of clarity, Gene Roddenberry complied a set of Star Trek guidelines and principles that governed the Star Trek universe. One of the major tenets was that not only should actors know their lines but if they were to make a mistake, there would be no continuing the scene. Normally if you flub a line you can stop, take a breath, and then restart from where you made a mistake. But Gene was old school and held his actors to a higher standard. We were not allowed to simply stop and pick up, We had to go back to the beginning of the scene and do it properly. Me, having been trained in the theater, loved that. He made us more responsible to the writing.
It should be noted that Wright is not the first actor to note that Star Trek tends to favour theatrical performers. Others have acknowledged that theatrical actors tend to bring greater dramatic weight to the heightened material.
Wright does great work, and a lot of the more successful aspect of Tuvix come down to his performance. The character is very obviously a ridiculous contrivance who could not possibly survive to the end credits, but Wright imbues him with an integrity and personality. When Tuvix protests his death sentence at the end of the episode, Wright projects a dignity that feels earned rather than forced. It would be easy to go over the top with lines like “doesn’t anyone see that this is wrong?”, but Wright keeps it grounded.
Tuvix is the first of five episodes of Voyager developed from stories sold by Andrew Shepard Price and Mark Gaberman. The duo worked as researchers on the quiz show Jeopardy! and proved to be quite reliable when it came to generating story ideas for Voyager. At the same time, it should be noted that neither Price nor Gaberman were ever charged with developing scripts from their ideas. That task always fell to members of the writing staff, tasked with fleshing out strong ideas into fully-formed episodes.
Discussing the episode with Cinefantastique, writer and producer Kenneth Biller talked about the difficulty of adapting the story for the show:
Their story leaned a bit too heavily on the slapstick elements, however, and I ended up taking it over and completely rewriting it. We wanted to do something a little more serious and philosophical and it began to emerge as we talked about it that there was something interesting there once you got past the hokiness of the set up. It started out as a joke. What do you call the guy? Neelok? Tuvix? It almost felt like a ’60s sit-com. Brannon and I even came up with a little theme song. So the trick was to see if we could actually make something compelling out of it. What if the sum of the parts were greater than the whole?
To be fair, it is very difficult to figure out where the tension lies in a high concept like Tuvix. There is admittedly some tension in the question of whether Tuvok and Neelix might be separated, but that leans on technobabble.
Such technobabble is a solid starting point for an episode of Star Trek, but it is not enough to anchor an episode alone. There needs to be a more engaging and universal theme running through the episode. For example, both The Enemy Within and Faces use the transporter malfunction to make bigger dramatic points about human nature. The Enemy Within meditates on the idea that good and evil are intrinsic parts of human nature, while Faces offers a somewhat clumsy meditation on racial identity.
Tuvix lacks that immediate hook. The story’s big dramatic centrepiece arguably comes at the climax, in response to Janeway’s decision to “divide” Tuvix against his will. For its first thirty-odd minutes, the episode wanders around in search of a compelling angle through which this story might be approached. It broaches a couple of these ideas, but never manages to make any of them stick. Whereas the central metaphors of Innocence and The Thaw were accessible and relatable, Tuvix feels a little too abstract.
At a couple of points, Tuvix brushes against the idea of loss and separation; of the idea that gaps and emptiness can exist even when space is filled. As a result of the transporter accident, Kes loses both a mentor in Tuvok and a boyfriend in Neelix. While Tuvix is perfectly capable of fulfilling all of the duties and responsibilities that Tuvok and Neelix held on the ship, even surpassing them, he cannot possibly replace his progenitors. The gaps left by Tuvok and Neelix within the ship’s operational framework might be filled, but their absence still remains.
This topic is broached in Kes’ conversations with Janeway about the matter. Janeway even articulates how Tuvix himself might serve as a metaphor for the plight of the ship as a whole. “You’re experiencing what people on this crew have been going through since we first got stranded in this quadrant,” Janeway reflects. “Do we accept that we’re separated from our loved ones forever, or do we hold onto the hope that someday we’ll be with them again?” That single line adds a lot of poetry to the story, but that poetry is never completely explored.
It is possible to build an emotional character-driven story around a science-fiction trope. This is something that Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine did quite regularly. Indeed, Second Chances found The Next Generation turning a stock transporter malfunction story into character-driven drama. In that episode, the production team took a classic Star Trek cliché and shifted the emphasis from the wacky pseudo-science to the emotional consequences.
The transporter malfunction in Second Chances created two different William T. Rikers, much like The Enemy Within created two James T. Kirks or Faces created two B’Elanna Torreses. However, the accident in Second Chances did not divide those two versions of Rikers into broad archetypes. (bearded!Riker and not!bearded!Riker, perhaps?) Instead, the episode used the contrivance of a transporter malfunction so that Riker might confront the man that he used to be.
On Deep Space Nine, the infamous “O’Brien must suffer!” episodes like Whispers, Visionary, Hard Time and Time’s Orphan had a habit of using science-fiction high-concepts in order to torture the franchise’s first working class protagonist. Not every example of “O’Brien must suffer!” relied on a science-fiction high-concept – Honour Among Thieves, for example – but the focus tended to be put on the impact of the science-fiction plot elements upon the protagonist rather than more abstract meditations.
Generally speaking, Voyager is not interested in using high-concept science-fiction stories to tell character-driven narratives. There are exceptions, of course; Gravity comes to mind. Nevertheless, Voyager generally seems less interested in how strange phenomena affect its cast than it does in the strange phenomena itself. As such, it makes sense that Voyager‘s “transporter malfunction” stories should emphasise hypothetical and abstract points above character drama.
Quite frankly, there is a sense that Tuvix never would have been able to tell a character-driven story focused on the idea of loss and separation. After all, Voyager had struggled (and failed) to tell that kind of story over the previous two seasons. Voyager had completely failed to sell its central premises; whether through the convenient resolution of any outstanding tension between the Starfleet crew and the Maquis in the show’s second episode Parallax or in the failure to sell any sense of isolation or desperation.
If Voyager has had such trouble selling the idea that characters like Janeway and Chakotay are haunted by the lives they left behind, then what chance does Tuvix have at crafting a similar parallel narrative for Kes? Ultimately, the parallel works a little bit too well. Much like the crew’s separation with their friends and families in the Alpha Quadrant, Kes’ sense of loss feels trivial and underdeveloped. It is an interesting angle for the story to explore, but one that is largely brushed aside.
However, Tuvix is most notable for its climax. Tuvok and Neelix are united in the teaser, with Janeway making the controversial decision to separate them towards the end of the episode. Biller’s script makes a point to emphasise the moral ambiguity of Janeway’s decision. When she marches Tuvix to Sickbay, the EMH makes a principled refusal to take part in the procedure. “I’m sorry, Captain, but I cannot perform the surgical separation,” he states. “I am a physician, and a physician must do no harm. I will not take Mister Tuvix’s life against his will.”
The idea of the sequence is clearly to paint Janeway as a character who will make tough decisions with which her crew might disagree. It is a very conscious effort to add ambiguity and nuance to her character, to make Janeway seem more complex and the moral framework of Voyager seem less concrete. Kenneth Biller is well aware of what it is doing as it has Janeway effectively murder Tuvix in order to separate Tuvok and Neelix, reveling in the sort of controversy that it will generate.
Janeway’s decision has been greatly debated among fandom. Indeed, quite a lot of thought has been put into the events and the ethics of Tuvix. In fact, even the internal logic of the episode’s technobabble solution has been subject to scrutiny, as Theodore Schick argues in Life, Death, and Immortality:
To restore Tuvok and Neelix, the transporter had to recruit new matter because Tuvix’s body didn’t contain enough for both. So just as in the case of Riker’s double, the transporter had to function as a replicator, imposing a person’s pattern on matter that wasn’t part of the original person. But, given that the transporter can function as a replicator, there was no need to destroy Tuvix. Janeway should have been able to spare him and recreate Tuvok and Neelix out of new matter.
To be fair, the logic of the transporter has always been arbitrary, so it seems pointless to argue about the particular workings of that fictitious technology. The transporter works like the transporter works because the plot of Tuvix requires it to work in this way. It is all arbitrary.
This has the effect of muting any real debate over the ethics of what Janeway does. There is no comparable process to which the audience might compare these events. There is no central metaphor against which this story might apply. Those comparisons that might apply fit awkwardly and have all manner of unfortunate subtext and implications. Could Tuvix play as a reactionary screed against gay marriage, with Janeway declaring the union of two men to be improper and damaging to the social fabric of the community before separating them? Such a reading seems absurd.
Alternatively, could Tuvix be read as an awkward abortion metaphor? Is Janeway’s decision ultimately about about how the life of the parent must always be considered paramount to the life of the child? If so, it doesn’t work for any number of reasons. Tuvix is a sentient and self-aware organism with his own agency in a way that makes any such comparison seem tasteless and ill-judged, akin the use of clones as a similar metaphor in Up the Long Ladder back during the second season of The Next Generation.
If there is a morality to be applied to Janeway’s decisions, that morality must derive from first principles. It is theoretical in abstract in a way that stretches even beyond evil fear-mongering clowns and old age pensioners wearing the bodies of children. The question is boils down to whether or not the community has the right to sacrifice one life for another, without the consent of the life being offered. Considered in that light, Tuvix would seem to run quite contrary to the morality of the larger Star Trek franchise.
Of course, it is worth debating whether the sacrifice at the end of Tuvix can be justified at all. The ship is in no immediate danger. Tuvok and Neelix are not so essential that the ship needs them in order to survive. In fact, from a purely utilitarian perspective, it is suggested that Tuvix has surpassed his progenitors. “There’s an old axiom: the whole is never greater than the sum of its parts,” Chakotay reflects at one point. “I think Tuvix might be disproving that notion.” Tuvix has a stronger instinct than Tuvok and more refined taste than Neelix.
As such, there is no necessity argument akin to the one that drives Sisko to become party to murder in In the Pale Moonlight and which drives Jonathan Archer to piracy in Damage. Janeway’s decision is not driven by larger events. There are no other lives in the balance beyond the three that tie the episode together: Tuvok, Neelix, Tuvix. Janeway cannot argue that her hand was forced by events outside of her control. As such, Janeway’s decision is largely abstract and theoretical, confined to the facts of the case in question.
The quandary is simple. Janeway has to decide between resurrecting Tuvok and Neelix or allowing Tuvix to continue to exist. It is worth noting that Tuvix was created in a freak accident, rather than as a direct result of a conscious decision by any party. There are no moral questions hanging over the creation of Tuvix, because there was no morality involved. Instead, Janeway has to make an active choice to end Tuvix’s life. In order to resurrect Tuvok and Neelix, Janeway has to consciously end Tuvix’s life. To allow Tuvix to continue, she does not have to do anything.
Star Trek has long celebrated the importance of individual choice and self-determination. This was the thread that linked Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. In The Wrath of Khan, Spock asserted that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few… or the one.” In The Search for Spock, Kirk countered that “the needs of the one… outweigh the needs of the many.” These are diametrically opposed arguments, but they hinge on a simple idea; the people making the sacrifice are the people who get to choose.
This idea was most succinctly summarised in The Measure of a Man, an episode in which Starfleet decided that Data would have so much more to offer as a guinea pig than as an officer. The central legal and moral debate of the episode hinged around Data’s right to choose his own course of action. If Data were to volunteer for scientific experimentation, he could save hundreds of lives. However, Data must have the freedom to make that choice himself. Any society that can make that choice for its citizens would be truly monstrous.
Indeed, Janeway even evokes that idea of noble sacrifice in justifying her own decision. “You know Tuvok was a man who would gladly give his life to save another,” she states. “And I believe the same was true of Neelix.” If that is the case, then why is this such a big deal? By Janeway’s internal logic, Tuvok and Neelix already sacrificed themselves in order to save a life, to bring Tuvix into existence. They did not make the choice consciously, but that is clearly not an issue to Janeway; she opts to use their implied votes to veto Tuvix’s actual articulated vote.
Tuvix makes it clear that the eponymous character has no interest in sacrificing himself to save Tuvok and Neelix. More than that, the script allows him to acknowledge the fascistic subtext of Janeway’s decision-making process. “Are you suggesting that this is your decision to make?” Tuvix asks, quite reasonably. “I am the captain of this ship,” Janeway simply responds. Tuvix counters, “Begging your pardon, Captain, it’s my life. Isn’t it my decision?” The episode never allows Janeway to make a compelling counter-argument.
As such, Tuvix essentially becomes an episode about how Janeway gets to decide the yardstick by which lives are measured. Justifying her decision to bring back Tuvok and Neelix at the cost of Tuvix’s life, Janeway contends, “They have families, friends, people who love them and miss them and want them back, just as I do.” The obvious implication is that Tuvix is somehow less valuable or less worthy because he doesn’t have family or friends or “people who love [him].” The implication that this somehow makes him less “worthy” than Tuvok or Neelix is unsettling.
On paper, this decision should serve to position Janeway as a character who makes very tough calls. It is hard imagine Picard opting to kill one innocent character to save two others, even if he did deeply love those other two characters. Tuvix seems to prefigure the ambiguity afforded to Sisko and Archer in the later seasons of their shows, suggesting that it is possible for a commanding officer to make a moral decision with which the audience might not agree. (Of course, the controversy is softened by that decision being inapplicable to any real world controversy.)
However, Tuvix merely demonstrates the inconsistency and volatility of Janeway’s characterisation. She makes an incredibly tough decision in Tuvix, without any visible hesitation or remorse. It is difficult to reconcile this decision with some of her earlier calls. Janeway is willing to effectively murder a member of her crew, but is unwilling to punish Tuvok and Torres for mutiny in Prime Factors and will not rebuke Chakotay for insubordination in Manoeuvres. Janeway is willing to kill Tuvix, but would not keep the Vidiians in the brig in Phage.
The logic behind Janeway’s decision is clear. It has nothing to do with ethics or morality. It has nothing to do with characterisation or development. Janeway does not make the decision in Tuvix because it is the right thing to do; she does not make the decision in Tuvix because it is the right thing for her character to do. Instead, Janeway’s decision-making process is governed by the same logic that drives her throughout the show’s seven-year run. Janeway is motivated the decision that will preserve the status quo going forward.
Tuvix has to die, while Neelix and Tuvok need to be restored. The reasons for this have nothing to do with the needs of the many. The simple fact is that Tom Wright is a guest star, while Ethan Phillips and Tim Russ signed extended contracts. Tuvok and Neelix have to be back on the show for the start of Resolutions because those are the rules by which nineties television must operate. More than that, Voyager has made a conscious decision to retreat from anything involving long-term storytelling, following the trauma inflicted by Investigations.
Janeway has made (and will continue to make) decisions that are not justified by any point of morality or character. Janeway will make decisions that put the toys back in the box at the end of the hour. This is the common thread that ties together her inconsistent characterisation. She cannot punish the Vidiians in Phage because the show won’t acknowledge them next week. She cannot punish Tuvok or Torres in Prime Factors or Chakotay in Manoeuvres because they’ll just be back at their posts the following week. She must restore Tuvok and Neelix for the same reason.
Of course, Janeway cannot possibly be aware of this fact. Janeway cannot peer behind the curtain to see the cogs turning in the machinery. Janeway cannot explain the narrative logic that drives her, because she is a character trapped in a narrative. As a result, Janeway is a ship caught in storm. She may blow any direction at any given moment, but at the behest of forces beyond her own control. While Picard and Sisko are defined by their own characterisation, Janeway (and later Archer) are largely defined by the needs of the script at hand.
It is this fact that cripples Janeway from this point forward. The explicit contrast that Tuvix generates with her earlier characterisation exposes Janeway as a sham; she it not a character so much as a convenient plot device. While Janeway’s reluctance to punish her crew (or alien criminals) hardly distinguished her as a compelling or engaging character, the immediate and sudden shift into a remorseless killer reveals her as little more than a mechanical element in a much larger machine. If Janeway was a troubled character before, she is a broken character now.
However, Tuvix also affirms the priorities for Voyager going forward, the ideals outlined by Deadlock. Following the disastrous attempts to build an arc featuring the Kazon across the first two seasons of the show, Voyager is heading in a very different direction. The final stretch of the second season plays as a response to that spectacular failure and an attempt to set an agenda going forwards. Although the show’s mishandling of the Maquis during the first season was an early indication of its narrative conservatism, the late second season solidifies that conservatism.
Deadlock demonstrated that the writers could blow up Voyager itself and still have everything back in place for the episode airing the following week. Tuvix takes that idea just a little bit further. Not only will the narrative framework of the show bend towards maintaining and restoring the status quo, the characters appearing the series are just agents of that particular approach. Janeway is not so much a character with her own agency, she is part of that larger mechanical process to put everything back in place by the start of the next episode.
Less than two seasons in, it seems like Voyager has already journeyed about as far as it is willing to go.
- The 37’s
- Non Sequitur
- Persistence of Vision
- Cold Fire
- Death Wish
- The Thaw
- Basics, Part I
Episodes produced during the second season, but carried over to the third: