A philosophical science fiction review of Star Trek Voyager: Tuvix.
Why Star Trek Voyager is one of the best philosophical science fiction series to watch.
About six months ago, planets aligned, a neutron star pulsed just right, and Mrs. Werbeloff and I decided to watch the entire seven seasons of Star Trek Voyager. (By the way, Mrs. Werbeloff is neither married to me, nor is he a woman. And he probably wouldn’t like being called Mrs. And I imagine he’d object to adopting my surname.)
Anyway, Mrs. Werbeloff and I embarked on this historic voyage with nothing but barely concealed skepticism, medium-cooked steaks, and all-too-frequently, chocolate. I can’t tell you exactly what we expected at first. Maybe a little entertainment. Lots of nerdy giggles. We approached it with a healthy portion of derisive, subtly-superior, oh-that’s-shit-but-we’ll-tolerate it gusto.
Well fuck, were we wrong.
Star Trek Voyager, it turns out, is damned good television.
So much so that Mrs. Werbeloff, who was new to the Star Trek universe when we started this expedition, has been in mourning since we completed the final episode. I find him at 1 am, fingers quivering, ploughing through Netflix with heroin-level withdrawal. He looks up at me with lost, baleful eyes. “There’s nothing else like it,” he says, his bottom lip so low it could mop the floor.
Yeah, I hear you. Star Trek. Hmmph. Something for pimply teenage boys whose most successful sexual adventure has been with the (now malfunctioning) family vacuum cleaner. I hear you, but I’m telling you, you’re wrong.
I knew there was something more to the Star Trek franchise when we encountered an episode which put the philosopher in me into previously unknown orgasmic confusion. (In another life I lecture ethics, philosophy of religion, and social ontology to pernicious philosophy undergrads). The episode is called Tuvix, and by the end of this blog post, I think you’ll agree that the top of your priority list should list a Star Trek binge.
Here’s the premise of Tuvix – and no, you don’t need any Star Trek knowledge to understand what comes next. Neelix and Tuvok are teleported down to a planet to collect plant specimens (more about the teleporter [they call it the ‘transporter’] shortly). Neelix is loud. Gregarious. He’s the chef, and the ship’s morale officer. He’s also particularly ugly (ignoring what might amount to interstellar bigotry, Mrs. Werbeloff calls him the “space cockroach”).
Tuvok, on the other hand, is a Vulcan. Reserved, logical, considered. He’s the ship’s ultra-serious security chief. At the spritely age of at least a century (his real age is a closely guarded secret), Tuvok might be considered the opposite personality pole of Neelix. This is what makes the events that ensue particularly interesting.
So, Tuvok and Neelix have been teleported down to an alien planet to collect plant samples. After plenty of bickering – the two don’t like each other – they achieve their mission, and are teleported back to the ship. BUT, little do they know, the plant they just harvested has the property of muddling DNA. The result is that instead of the expected result of there being two individuals on the teleportation pad on the ship, when they beam them up there is only one person. The alien plant messed with the teleporter, and caused it to combine the two officers together, resulting in … Tuvix.
The ship’s crew panics. We need to separate Tuvix into his component persons ASAP, declares Captain Janeway. The Doctor (who’s one of the best characters in any TV series I’ve encountered – more on that in a future blog post) sets to work finding a solution. But the problem is that the plant enzymes have scrambled their DNA so badly, he says there’s no quick way to separate out Tuvix.
Tuvix is happy and healthy, however. He has the culinary and social skills of Neelix, and the logical and rational capacity of Tuvok. As a combination of the two, he’s an extraordinary crew member, capable of more than either of his ‘parents’, as he lovingly calls Neelix and Tuvok. (He’s also slightly less ugly than Neelix, which is a plus).
Months pass, during which Tuvix develops relationships that neither of his parents had before him. He forms new bonds, develops new skills, and becomes a valued, contributing member of the crew.
And, here lies the dilemma. Eventually, the Doctor finds a way to separate out Tuvix into his component ‘parents’. Initially when Tuvix appeared on the teleporter pad, he was happy to be separated out. But now, months later, he’s far more reluctant. He appeals to the Doctor and Captain Janeway. I’m more than the sum of my original parts, he says. I’m neither Neelix nor Tuvok. They’re dead. I’m Tuvix – a distinct individual with my own rights. And if you separate me out, I’ll die. You’ll be murdering me.
Captain Janeway is faced with an awful dilemma. On the one hand, if she leaves Tuvix as he is, she’s consigning Neelix and Tuvok to oblivion. Tuvok has a wife and children. They’ll never see him again. And Neelix has a particularly gorgeous Ocampan girlfriend on board (why she chose Neelix is bizarre), who misses him dreadfully. She doesn’t bond with Tuvix the way she’d loved Neelix.
On the other hand, if Janeway separates out Tuvix into his component parents, she’s committing murder, and denying the individuality of a man who is clearly an individual. She’s undermining the value of the relationships and skills that Tuvix has developed since his inception months earlier.
So, what should Captain Janeway do? Separate Tuvix or not?
Before I give you some philosophical arguments for a solution to this question, I’d like to know what you think. What’s your intuition?
If you voted like Captain Janeway did, you decided that Tuvix should be separated out into Neelix and Tuvok. She does this, despite him kicking and screaming all the way to the medical bed. Why should we think Captain Janeway made the right choice? Here are two arguments.
Tuvok and Neelix had no choice when they became one person. They didn’t know it was going to happen, and if they had, presumably they would not have chosen to join into a single person. Tuvok and Neelix don’t particularly like each other – the last thing they would want is to become one. By separating out Tuvix into his component parents, Captain Janeway is respecting their choice.
Captain Janeway might also argue that by separating out Tuvix, she’s ending the life of one person, but she’s also saving the lives of two. By keeping Tuvix as is, she’s losing two lives and only preserving one.
I think Captain Janeway made a horrible error, and here’s why …
Neither of the two arguments above works. Why? Consider the parallel case of two parents who have a child, and then die at the time the child is born. To make the case truly parallel, assume that the parents didn’t choose to have the child. Like so many, this pregnancy was both a mistake, and not exactly welcomed by the parents. But the child is born, and although her parents died, her adoptive parents love her dearly. They form a strong bond with the child.
Now, imagine that a few months after the child is born, the pediatric doctor responsible for her welfare discovers a new technology that would allow the parents to be resurrected from the child’s DNA. He can bring them back to life! The only catch is that he’ll need all of the child’s biological material. Cut a long story short, the only way to bring the parents back is to kill the child.
Question: should the doctor chop up the child to bring back its parents?
But notice that the same arguments cited above apply in this case. By not chopping up the child, the doctor is undermining the decisions of the individual parents, as well as their relationships with their respective families and friends. They didn’t choose to die, and they didn’t choose to have the child. And by chopping up the child, the doctor will be saving two lives but only losing one.
Even with these considerations in mind, I assume your answer to the question of whether the doctor should chop up the child is: no! You can’t go chopping up children. It’s unfortunate that her parents died, but so be it. Don’t harm the child.
If that’s the case, then your answer should be similar in the Tuvix case. Tuvix has to be killed to bring back his ‘parents’ too. So, I take it that if you think we shouldn’t chop up the child, we shouldn’t chop up Tuvix either.
Now what do you think? Have you changed your mind? Should we chop up Tuvix?
About the Author
Human. Male. From an obscure planet in the Milky Way Galaxy. Sci-fi novelist with a PhD in philosophy. Likes chocolates, Labradors, and zombies (not necessarily in that order). Werbeloff spends his days constructing thought experiments, while trying to muster enough guilt to go to the gym.
He’s the author of the sci-fi thriller trilogy, Defragmenting Daniel, two novels, Hedon and The Solace Pill, and the short story anthology, Obsidian Worlds. His books will make your brain hurt. And you’ll come back for more.
Subscribe to his newsletter to receive a free book, and a lifetime of free and discounted stories.