Stigma.

WARNING: If Enterprise spoilers (admittedly for a two-week-old episode) are an undesirable sub-section of your leisure reading, you might want to avoid this review of "Stigma."

In brief: A mixed bag ... but certainly more provocative than some.

"Stigma"
Enterprise Season 2, Episode 14
Written by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga
Directed by David Livingston

Brief summary: T'Pol becomes seriously ill with a disease condemned by most parts of Vulcan society.

"Stigma" is one of those episodes that needs to be looked at on several levels. There's the question of how it works as drama within "Enterprise", the question of how it fits into the broader Trek universe, and, since this was billed very explicitly as the "AIDS parable episode," how it works as a metaphor and as an analogy. Let's take them in order.

In and of itself, the A-plot of "Stigma" works reasonably well. With a season that seems to have spent all too much of its time sleepwalking its way through stories, the energy level here was way up. While I had concerns about T'Pol the Vulcan (more about that later), I had no problems with T'Pol the Victim of Intolerance, except for the convenient rewriting of history meant to put her into that mold.

For those who haven't seen the episode, T'Pol has apparently been suffering from Penarr's Syndrome for a little under a year, and Phlox's regular treatments have begun to lose their effectiveness. The Vulcans might have more research which could help her, but it turns out that they're reluctant to share it -- the syndrome, you see, can only be contracted via mind-meld, and those Vulcans who meld are considered deviant and abhorrent by the remainder of Vulcan society. If the High Command even knew T'Pol had the disease, it's entirely possible that she'd lose her commission and be recalled to Vulcan -- hence, she has no interest in asking for help from her own kind, and it falls to Phlox to attempt to get information on his own.

There was more than a bit of predictability about the plot, but within those constraints I was buying into much of the story pretty well. Much of that is overwhelmingly due to John Billingsley, who as usual gives Phlox a certain gravitas that's worth an extra look or two. When the doctors confront him on Enterprise, suspecting that his original request wasn't entirely honest, he stands by T'Pol with a calm fire one doesn't often see. (McCoy certainly had the fire, for instance, but not a calm one -- it always burned way too close to the surface for that. Bashir managed it on occasion in later years.) Later, when Archer hears the news and presses the pair for the truth, Billingsley again does a good job of showing Phlox caught with nowhere to go: he doesn't want to lie to Archer, but he also doesn't want to back down from his previous actions, seeing them as both right and proper. I'm impressed.

The predictability, however, was something of a problem -- enough so that many aspects of the story could be called almost beat for beat. With three doctors, it's perhaps a given that one of them will probably be more sympathetic than the others -- but did we have to have the Stodgy Elder Statesman, the Younger and Even Less Sympathetic One, and the Sympathetic One Who Harbors His Own Secret? The instant he paused after Archer's first meeting, Lisa said, "ah, so he's sympathetic because he can mind meld too." I've no problem with familiar, but it shouldn't be THAT predictable.

In terms of passion, I'd like to take the rare opportunity (rare for me, anyway) to praise Jolene Blalock. She had a lot of the heavy lifting for the episode, and basically pulled it off. You can question T'Pol's decision to keep silent about how she got the disease, but it's a decision that the character clearly felt strongly about and just as clearly had every right to make. I've still got a lot of serious concerns about how Vulcan T'Pol is or isn't, but this was one of the few times I've really bought into her portrayal in any way. Kudos to her.

This is where some revisionist history comes in, though -- and it's revisionist even within Enterprise, not just a diversion from the "normal" Trek universe. Everyone encourages T'Pol to get treatment for her condition, saying that the Vulcans will be more likely to help her if she explains the circumstances, because she was coerced and attacked, not entering into the mind-meld by choice.

Pardon me, but that's not correct, and T'Pol at least should know that. I agree that the *continuation* of the meld was both forcible and unwelcome, but back in "Fusion" she entered into the meld of her own free will. One could certainly argue that she was manipulated into it, but there was no coercion at the outset. When T'Pol told Archer that he wasn't correct (about her needing to come clean), I thought for a moment that that's where she was going to head with things. I've no real objection to her making the Noble Cause In Pursuit of Justice [TM], but it doesn't sit well when she's only in that state due to writer fiat. (Let's point out that a season ago, mind-melds were also *unknown*. Now apparently everyone knows about them -- it's just that most Vulcans can't initiate them, and everyone disapproves of those who can. Excuse me?)

The other objection I'd have dramatically is that the "oh, no -- T'Pol's been recalled!" tease as a way to manufacture drama is getting hugely, hugely old. More to the point, until and unless the powers that be actually *do* it for a while and shake things up a bit, it's an empty threat. You can't manufacture drama by suggesting something's going to happen unless the viewer's got at least a little bit of expectation that it could wind up happening. TNG pulled that sort of thing off on occasion (with the original "The Best of Both Worlds" cliffhanger being a case in point), and DS9 actually *did* move its characters around enough to make subsequent threats of moving them plausible. I've seen no evidence that the ENT powers that be are willing to take anyone off the ship for any length of time at all, except (as in "Shockwave") where the cliffhanger itself is how to get them back. I hasten to point out that it's not a problem per se to leave all the characters in place -- but it *is* a problem to leave them in place and then set up the "gasp! X might leave!" gambit every half-dozen episodes or so.

Acting-wise, things were fine apart from the continuing difficulty of getting guest stars who can do convincing Vulcans. In many ways I think that's due to a deliberate choice on the part of the writers, however, which leads me nicely to part two of this review.

In the broader context of the Trek universe, I think the portrayal of the Vulcans here has officially turned a corner into Who-The-Expletive- Deleted-Are-These-People Land. A year and a half ago, when the series premiered, the Vulcans were "villains" in that they were essentially overprotective parents who felt humanity was too impulsive and too irrational to be trusted in the larger galactic community without some serious chaperoning. That, to me, was an excellent way of making the Vulcans the bad guys -- as much as we like 'em, they do tend to be holier-than-thou and they do tend to be smug in their belief that their way is the most enlightened. Since then we've had evidence that Vulcans tend to run covert espionage operations ("The Andorian Incident"), don't mind it if innocent lives get caught in crossfires ("Shadows of P'Jem"), and topple governments they believe to be corrupt ("The Seventh"). The Earth- Vulcan tension that formed part of the show's basis has now been replaced with a willingness to use the Vulcans as fall guys for any particular unpleasant trait we want to give them. They're not characters any more -- for the most part, they're not even stereotypes. They're straw men.

"Stigma" takes this to an extreme. Now they're not only convinced that their way is right, but they're so convinced that emotion is evil that anyone who shares *any* innermost thoughts in an intimate way is someone so abhorrent that any self-respecting Vulcan should be willing and even eager to let them die. Great. The Vulcans are no longer somewhat paternalistic allies -- now they're a race of Bill Dannemeyers. If you don't place the name, Dannemeyer was a Congressman from California in the '80s and early '90s who suggested, among other things, that homosexuals should all be exiled to an island where they could die off naturally and not let decent God- fearin' folk be infected by their horrible morals and filthy practices. Sound familiar? Dr. Strom even borrowed a few of his core themes in one of his final speeches here about melders being "genetic aberrations" and T'Pol being willing to let them "spread their infection."

To the series' credit, I do get the impression that this is deliberately setting up for something. One thing about "Stigma," both in terms of its mind-meld use and its characterization of the Vulcans, is that it strongly suggests that we may be due for a substantial change in Vulcan culture before the series has run its course. I'll give credit where it's due for laying the groundwork for that change if it happens, but at this point I'm starting to feel as if they've gone so far afield that no change can be convincing. I mean, at this point we're only a little over a decade away from the birth of Vulcans we know (such as Sarek), and if there's that much upheaval on his world just as he was born I'm going to have difficulty believing he'd never mention it.

The other concern I have about Vulcans, perhaps not surprisingly, is the ongoing difficulty of portraying them. Even if this "they're every bad thing we can think of and a few we're working on" portrayal is a setup later for conscious change, it's been established time and time again on *this* series that all the Vulcans are supposed to completely reject and repress all emotion. Why, then, is it that three of the four most emotional portrayals we had in "Stigma" came from the Vulcans? T'Pol -- okay, fine, she's allegedly more emotional than many others and has lived with humans for a year and a half. The sympathetic doctor -- fine, he's different because he can meld. But the other young one, the one who's the most callous and the most uncaring? By the final speech, he's sounding about as unemotional as your average political demagogue. Contempt is as real an emotion as any other, and Jeffrey Hayenga did not exactly go out of his way to avoid it.

In sum, I'm starting to think that I need to watch Enterprise as, not a Trek prequel, but some sort of series that uses the same names and tropes as older Trek while playing in a completely different universe. It's fanfic, basically. I hope to be proven wrong.

On to part three -- "Stigma" as social commentary.

Longtime viewers may remember a TNG episode called "The Outcast," which was supposed to be Trek's big "gay episode" and plea for tolerance. Longtime readers of mine may recall that I didn't find the analogy convincing, as sexual stereotypes were in abundance, homosexuality was never mentioned, and the ending was so ambiguous as to give those who wanted an anti-gay message more than sufficient ammunition about how "curing" homosexuality would be fine and dandy.

"Stigma" certainly did better than that, by a long shot, but it ran into the problem many analogies like this tend to hit -- it's both too close and not close enough to the message it's trying to convey.

For starters, there's the statement that T'Pol's illness is "unique to a subculture [of Vulcan society] -- a small percentage of our population [whose] behavior is neither tolerated nor sanctioned." The intent, presumably, is to make "melders" stand in for gay people. All well and good, except that it's about half a decade too late to be even marginally outspoken. Perhaps living out my adult years in the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay areas has colored my perceptions, but so far as I can tell homosexual behavior is no longer something that most of America finds particularly horrific. We're not in the days when showing two men in bed together on "thirtysomething" could make advertisers yank ads from the show -- "Will and Grace" is one of the more successful sitcoms out there, and there are any number of shows, both popular and not, with regular gay characters who are quite sympathetic and not there simply to be the token gay character. It's old news.

This is not to say, mind you, that we don't have a lot of progress yet to be made -- the upcoming Supreme Court case involving sodomy laws being a case in point, not to mention the ongoing struggle to legalize gay marriage, which is something that certainly could lead to the makings of an interesting story if anyone on the Trek staff wanted to write it. It's just that the specific points "Stigma" seemed to be making were a bit tired.

(On the technical side, there's also the point that "melding" is a specific activity, while AIDS can be spread any number of ways, sexual contact only being one of them.)

Additionally, if this is the big message show about AIDS, what's the message? "AIDS is bad?" Thanks, folks -- I think we were clear on that. "More people should speak out?" AIDS is one of the most public diseases out there at this point. "Don't blame everyone who gets it?" Okay, anyone who needs *that* message probably isn't watching the show. I can't help feeling that this is episode is less something meant to talk about AIDS and much more about Trek patting itself on the back for being so gosh-darn tolerant and progressive. If this somehow has a positive effect, I'll be the first to stand up and cheer -- but while I give it credit for good intentions, I'm having trouble seeing why this episode's being made now. (Ten years ago, yes -- now, no.)

Astute readers will have noticed by now that after much space, I still haven't talked at all about the B-plot, starring dear old Trip and those wacky Denobulan sexual practices. That's because I tried to blot it out as much as I could. Even ignoring the fact that it had some of the most blatantly godawful dialogue this side of ... well, anything, really (the "insert the thick end into this opening" exchange about the neutron microscope being high atop the list), and that the technobabble-as-filler quotient was pretty unpleasant here, might I respectfully point out that your AIDS parable is a really bad place to put the subplot whose point is that it's only limited human morality that doesn't accept randomly promiscuous sex as a wonderful thing? Bad placement, folks.

After all that, I'm still leaning more positively about "Stigma" than I've been about a chunk of the season. Why? Because, flawed though it was and leading to big long-term concerns about the Vulcans, it is at least something that got me thinking and did at least have a point. That may not be grounds for Emmy material, but it's a step up from being simply an hour's worth of filler. ("Precious Cargo," anyone? "Marauders"? "A Night in Sickbay"?)

Other observations and comments:

-- The episode opened with a dedication: "In memory of the Columbia crew ... you will always be an inspiration." Amen to that.

-- Travis, Hoshi, and Malcolm all got token scenes. I did rather like Travis' injury -- seems the poor man's into rather extreme forms of sports. It's an interesting character trait for a boomer.

-- Hoshi's practice joke on Trip isn't bad, either. It is nice when the characters are allowed to be human.

That about does it, I think. Good thing, too, as this is one of the longer reviews I've written lately. "Stigma" is certainly a step up from a lot of this season's fluff pieces, but it's also flawed enough and forced enough that I'm not at all sure where things are headed. Let's hope for the best.

So, wrapping up:

OVERALL: Let's go for a 7 on this one, based in no small way on good intentions.

NEXT WEEK: February sweeps continue with the return of the Andorians.

Tim Lynch (Castilleja School, Science Department)
tlynch@alumni.caltech.edu	<*>
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-----

Hans-Wolfgang Loidl <hwloidl@dcs.glasgow.ac.uk>
Last modified: Fri May 2 00:46:54 2003 Stardate: [-29]0219.74