Gimme That Star Trek Ep.53: The Tuvix Dilemma

Siskoid and guest philosophy professor Ryan Blake discuss ethics as they related to the controversial Voyager episode "Tuvix". How does Captain Janeway's decision hold up according to various modes of thought?

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"Star Trek Theme" by Alexander Courage, with the Irredeemable Shagg on vocals. End theme: "Deep Space Nine Theme" by Dennis McCarthy.

Bonus clips from: Star Trek Voyager's "Tuvix", starring Kate Mulgrew and Tom Wright.

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27 responses to “Gimme That Star Trek Ep.53: The Tuvix Dilemma

  1. Fantastic episode and great host! Have been waiting to hear this topic since the Siskoid announced this series!

    My take: Tuvix was murdered.

    Curious what other interesting combos could have come of this? Janewix? Kimkotay? Beles? The mind reels!

    1. Personally, I’d love to see Chris F and Siskoid in a transporter accident. Its creation: The Frankloid!!!

  2. Great discussion! Yeah, it’s hard to argue in favor of Janeway at all on this one. Just imagine Picard in her place, and you’d have a totally new crew member on the Enterprise D. Or maybe Data and Geordi would have figured out how to somehow recreate Tuvok and Neelix from the transporter buffer, AND keep Tuvix around, or some goobildy gook. Probably involving the deflector shield, since this is TNG. But Picard would have never murdered Tuvix.

    I don’t think Kirk would either. He went right along with the V’ger probe in Ilia’s form, and didn’t bang on about trying to get her back. He also let Decker merge with the probe, and didn’t try to pull Decker out of the new life form, cuz…yeah, it’s right there in the opening credits.

    Going back to TOS, in “Metamorphosis” Kirk also let The Companion merge with Nancy Hedford. He didn’t try to separate the two to get a healthy Hedford back.

    So, boo to Janeway.


    1. The Trill are another example of a combined life form. The host and symbiont live in a symbiotic relationship, but how does that actually work. Do they exist as two separate beings living in an incredibly intimate relationship, or do the two actually combine to form a single unique being?

      1. Great question, Brian! I think it’s a little of column a (host) and a little of column (b) symbiont. They create (c) a third being that merges experiences.

          1. Thanks. I figured there was probably an episode out there that at least touched on this topic.

  3. That was fun, but it’s a pity you couldn’t find an advocate for the Opposition to join.

    Anyhow, I’m going to play writers room and consider how to fix this without using too big of a cop-out. First, If they did just have a part two follow-up, it might have been something very like season 5s Latent Image, just have the Doctor erase his memory of helping to create the procedure rather than the business with Kim. (I almost think Latent Image was originally pitched this way as an early season 3 episode. It would make more sense in the Doctor’s arc that early.)

    But I have a more interesting rewrite idea than that. It may be too much to fit in a single episode, so maybe a two parter. We know that there are other Vulcans in the crew, so we bring one of those into the story early to do a mind-meld with Tuvix, and they find Tuvok’s katra in there, and say that it is fading away.
    Then we have the big discussions and Janeway comes down the other way, as a materialist, Starfleet cannot make decisions based on Vulcan religion. Our Vulcan takes the villain part and does the procedure, and we Epilogue with Tuvok condemning the person who saved him but Neelix being upset with Janeway her position.

      1. I’m a fan of ST: Voyager, and in particular, the episode ‘Tuvix’. I applaud how the show embraces contemporary social issues using the safe distance of the sci-fi genre, and how it touches on medical ethical issues.
        I’ve always viewed the episode as referencing the debate around abortion – ie. how should one make decisions around the termination of the potential life of a foetus who clearly does not have a voice in the decision making? Many medical decisions have complex and nuanced ethical dimensions that can be ambiguous and debated from a multitude of angles. I agree with Jeff R. that this episode of ‘Gimme That Star Trek’ would have been fairer and richer for the inclusion of some different perspectives.

        For example – I was pleased that Siskoid brought up the logistical practicalities of merging two characters into one on the show – it would have meant two series regular actors losing their jobs, and short of some major employment/contractual issues, that seems highly unlikely to happen.

        That real world need defines the end point of this particular plot – the ship has to return to the status quo, journeying on with two actors playing two entirely separate characters.
        If we agree that the end point of the plot is going to be defined by the non-fictional necessities of television production, a whole domino chain of events is then obligated to happen:

        1] Who has the authority to make the decision? Only two characters are possible; the Doctor or the ship’s commanding officer. The Doctor could be overruled – either by seniority or by the uncertainty in the show’s lore regarding a hologram making this kind of decision, so… no, this has to be a flesh-and-blood ruling. It’s going to be the Captain (and – yes – that does fit with the showrunners’ clear desire to make her look just as tough as any of her male Starfleet Captain forebears).

        2] For the necessity of the show, her decision has to be to split out Tuvok & Neelix. If that’s a requirement, for there to be any sort of dramatic tension, Janeway coming to that final decision has to be a struggle. And for that to happen, the Captain has to be placed in an impossible conundrum.

        3] So… How to make that conundrum difficult for her?

        A] Isolating her from her crew would be one way
        B] Creating a merged character that is utterly charming would be another – for an agonising decision, dis-integrating Tuvix has to be like slaughtering the world’s cutest puppy. Just imagine if a merged Tuvix had inherited Neelix’s irritatingly folksy logic and Tuvok’s non-existant sense of humour; the fanboys would be just itching to hit the kill switch on that poor bastard! Or what if Tuvix was just one body on life-support with no discernible brain function? When does ending that “no quality of life” life become a kindness?
        For the record, I think Tom Wright’s Tuvix is a stellar piece of acting, subtly incorporating nuanced physicality & language from both the Vulcan and the Telaxian. He completely wins the crew (and the audience) over in a single episode. Furthermore, the entire plot hinges on that brilliant performance, because if he didn’t come over as completely adorable, nobody watching would care what Janeway ultimately decides.
        C] Finally we have to have Tuvix deny his consent to the separation process, because then it forces Janeway into the role of the one who has to pass judgement… a judgement she really does not want to make. Interesting that the Vulcan logic in Tuvix’s merged persona does not reach the same conclusion as Spock does; “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” and all that… interesting, but given the real world requirements, not surprising.

        These are the parameters that the story has to have:
        * If the show could continue with Tuvix for another five seasons, there’s no reason for this story to exist, other than to introduce him.
        * If the crew concur with the captain’s decision, there’s no drama.
        * If Tuvix gladly sacrifices himself for his constituent parts, there’s equally no drama.
        * If the audience doesn’t give two hoots about Tuvix, then they won’t emotionally engage with a “tricky decision” as the denouement.

        In short… in order for this to be an entertaining TV show, Janeway’s decision was pre-ordained by the real world needs of the production. She was set up, long before Tuvok and Neelix ever set foot on that fateful transporter pad. Janeway’s so-called unethical, philosophically impure decision is manufactured solely in the interest of engaging the viewer.
        So we – the audience – are the murderer; like later-day Caesars presiding over a gladiatorial arena, Tuvix dies for our entertainment… and because he’s entirely fictional, I suggest that that that is OK, because the circumstances around his death are the only reason for him to ever have been created in the first place.

        In fact, I’d argue Janeway’s decision is completely consistent with her characterisation.
        Question: What motivates this Captain above all else?
        Answer: Getting her crew home. Tuvok & Neelix are her crew, and Tuvix – for all his admirable qualities – isn’t.

        We see Janeway go to extraordinary lengths to rescue lost or imprisoned members of her Voyager family. Hell, she does it to retrieve a stolen replicator!
        In the interests of our entertainment, we the audience expect and demand this kind of behaviour from our Starfleet Captains, even (especially?) if it means bending or breaking some inconvenient Starfleet rules. We would be frankly disappointed if they just shrugged and moved on, leaving a man/woman/other-gendered being behind. I daresay that in an alternate universe episode that had retained Tuvix, Ryan would still be sharpening his well-thumbed Janeway Knife, just itching to stick it in her for not living up to the heroic ideal and casually abandoning her bestest of friends.

        Janeway would (and does) blast a dozen Kazon ships (and their crews) out of the sky if it would rescue a single crew member or bio-neural gelpack. So why do we as the audience get squeamish about the decision to end the life of Tuvix to save two of her bridge crew?
        Is it because he reminds us of those original crew members? Because he seems to encapsulate only the very best of the characters we’re already familiar with? Or is it because it’s personal – Janeway has to look Tuvix in the eye and announce that she’s going to attempt to extract Tuvok & Neelix, ending his existence as it has been? It would be interesting to debate why this decision seems so problematic, when killing dozens more enemies in starships doesn’t even cross our minds as an issue.

        I’d say it was a flawed premise of the podcast to assume that the only definition of acceptable decision-making is a process which comes up with outcomes that are ethically pure and philosophically consistent.
        In fiction we have plenty of examples of heroic characters breaking or bending the ethical rules and some (but fewer) examples of villains demonstrating surprising flashes of nobility… and thank goodness for that, because these moments of unexpected inconsistency frequently provide both cracking plot twists and memorable character moments. As viewers, we collectively love it when Kirk, Picard or Sisko nobly defy Starfleet rules (laws which have – presumably – been parsed through an entire squadron of space-ethicists!) Why then is Janeway – marooned in the Delta Quadrant without access to any of that backroom support – held to such an unyieldingly higher standard? I agree that we could have seen more of her wrestling with her conscience, but there’s enough in the show for me to see that she’s not finding the process easy, nor does she take any pleasure from the outcome.

        Finally, I’m saddened that on the “Find Your Joy” network, it wasn’t possible to find people who actively enjoy this strand of the franchise to discuss one of it’s most challenging and debate-worthy storylines. The fact that “Tuvix” is being discussed and directed 25 years after it aired suggests that perhaps it was better written that this podcast would have you believe.

        1. Except that unlike a fetus, Tuvix DID have a voice AND access to the two “parents” as part of his mind. So I’m not sure that analogy holds. Nor can we equate the Tuvix dilemma with fighting aggressive enemies like the Kazon. I think you nail it on the head when you bring production requirements into it (i.e. that it must follow TV rules), but to me, that line of questioning only confirms such a story should not have been attempted within the parameters of a weekly television series like this because the outcome could not have been satisfying. And obviously, this episode of GTST would have been short indeed if we just waved away actual ethics and just said “hey, it’s TV so everything’s excusable”. I don’t think the premise was flawed, it’s just the angle chosen (or else why even do it, this isn’t a “discuss an episode” show”).

          Find Your Joy or not – and I know there are always adverse reactions whenever a show goes negative (please stop listening to Zero Hour Strikes right this minute) – you can’t possibly know how difficult it is to find proper guests who like anything made after TNG. Everyone I approach generally wants to talk about TOS or TNG. In this case, what I wanted was not a fan of any given iteration of Trek, but an expert on ethics (just like my friend Chalif was an expert on epidemiology but not a Trek fan on the Babel episode). It just so happens that Ryan was particularly displeased with Voyager. So MY job was to say “well, what about THIS argument in Janeway’s favor?”, but I also couldn’t find good reason (except meta reasons) for her decision, and you’ll not that I was a lot softer on her, mentioning how it seemed to weigh on her in private and how the writing, in my opinion, is what let her down. I think that’s fair and balanced given how I don’t believe in “both-sidesing” issues. It’s not true that there are two valid points of view on everything, and I believe I made more than enough allowances for Janeway’s behavior even if Ryan did not. Let’s also not assume that I knew exactly what Ryan would say to the point where I would have thought I’d need a second guest (if one could even be found) to balance his opinion. These things aren’t scripted. So I’m sorry if it didn’t work for you, but with the variety I try to inject in this show, there are bound to be episodes that don’t.

          1. Thanks for replying. I agree that there are clear differences between the Tuvix Conundrum and a decision about a termination. I struggle to think of a direct comparison within our normal humdrum experiences, but I guess that’s what makes it science fiction!
            To do it justice, I agree that the storyline needs more space to breathe; it would have been a visionary executive producer who would have opted to rest Tim Russ and Ethan Phillips for several episodes and given Tuvix even longer to establish himself in the crew… and allow the dilemmas to unspool over a longer period. I certainly wouldn’t have minded seeing Tom Wright get more airtime.
            Perhaps this tale would work better as prose, where the reader could really get into the the inner monologues of all the principle characters.
            I still think this is a story that is brave to attempt to mine the complexities of medical ethics in primetime. For that reason, I continue to applaud the ambition, even if the constraints of the format forced some compromises… possibly too many compromises.

            PS For the record, I love Zero Hour Strikes!

          2. It happens on Trek, that for whatever reason, a script is overcooked or undercooked and because you gotta pump out 24 stories a year, things go out that could have used more thought or less compromise. A lot of my commentary was in fact how it COULD have been done, but it’s easy to say with hindsight.

            Thanks for supporting ZHS, but for me, it’s been a bit of a balloon-burster. Invasion confirmed my nostalgia for the late 80s, Zero Hour has in many (but not all) cases done the opposite for the mid-90s. Bass and I make the best of it.

  4. I agree with all the arguments you made that Tuvix was murdered. I’ll just add that your discussion started me thinking about the nature of self. What is the self? Is it a singular quantity, or a gestalt, made up of multiple components. Is it something that is permanent, or is it in constant flux? Tuvix carries the memories and experiences of both Tuvok and Neelix, as well as possessing aspects of both their personalities. Yet, Tuvix perceives himself to be separate and unique from Tuvok and Neelix, which suggests that (in the Star Trek universe) self is something different from, or more than, memory and personality. Anyway, this will give me something to chew on, while I wait for the next episode.

    Thanks for another thought provoking episode.

  5. Oh, and I’m not sure strong arguments based on continuity of consciousness can survive the normal experience of sleep, let alone the transporter and the experiences of Thomas Riker and Montgomery Scott.

  6. Janeway is kinda hard to take seriously
    I’LL Team up with the borg! I’LL Destroy a timeline!
    “uh would you bang q?
    i’ll destroy the timeline!
    TOS was a litte more honest with itself about being a tv show rather than ethics 101. If spock and checkOV became the same being “Jim we have to serperate them in 72 hours”

  7. One thing I was wondering about with Tuvix, and this is if we accept that the reformed Tuvok and Neelix are the same people as they were before the accident that created a perfectly functional individual, is, wouldn’t they be able to create Tuvix again?

    If they know what happened, if they have access to the same resources, can’t they go from Tuvok+Neelix to Tuvix and back again at will? Possibly combine any two members of the crew, except the Doctor.

    With teleportation technology, there’s always the question of are they the same person after they’ve been reassembled? Is every neuron, every particle of the brain in the same position before and after, and so on. Maybe Janeway’s worldview is formed by living in a world of daily death and genesis, and not really being herself.

  8. So keeping Tuvix and killing Tuvok and Neelix is ethical? Tuvix existence ended the lives of Neelix and Tuvok so the logical answer is to split him back up. After all, there are two lives at stake instead of one, so the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, right?. It’s the trolley problem! The ethical dilemma is clear, saving one or two; there is no other option or last minute Hail Mary or technobabble to avoid making a very difficult decision to prevent leaving the captain in a bad light (as was done with other captains before). Do you really think Kirk would not have sacrificed a Spocoy to save Spock and McCoy? Of course, he would; he just was lucky not to be put in that position. Anyone would choose his two loved ones over an amalgamation of them that we do not really know. And more to the point, when it comes to a captain’s duty, she did what she had to do: save two of her essential crewmembers (or one if Neelix is not that essential to your liking) to ensure the success of the voyage and the return home.

    Why don’t you have a Voyager or Janeway advocate when you do a show about them, it’s not cool. At least try to mention the good aspects of them, be the Devil’s advocate, if you will. It’ all so negative always when it comes to Voyager, so bias.

    1. First, I think it’s clear that the dilemma is that Tuvix is born and the other two are already “dead”. You would not be killing Tuvok and Neelix because they already “died” in an accident. We address this on the show.

      And as for a Janeway advocate, I think I addressed this higher up in the comments. We do what we can with what we have, and I didn’t set out to have a one-sided show as I didn’t know what Ryan would say. The focus was on ethics, not the character per se (but Ryan ground his axe anyway). It didn’t work for you, that’s fine. They can’t all be winners. I don’t like it when the show goes negative either. The reaction to this episode has, in fact, contributed to GTST going on hiatus.

      1. But the fact they could split Tuvix into Tuvok and Neelix proves they weren’t really dead. Didn’t Tuvix had access to both of their conscious, or I’m confused? And don’t get me wrong, I would have preferred they keep the three of them, but that wasn’t the premise of the episode, it was a very binary decision. The situations in Voyager were more extreme in general, due to the extreme situation of the Voyager; in that context, the writers could write stories where solving some problems left a bad aftertaste. I guess that was part of the idea: they couldn’t solve their problems exactly the same way, even trying, mainly because they were completely alone in an “alien” environment, they couldn’t even be consistent in the way they solve the problems, either (no one is, in fact).

        I always thought that Voyager was meant to be edgier than other Star Trek iterations, but it fell short (maybe because the studio wouldn’t let them, or they feared to alienate the fans that believe the Federation is an immaculate entity).

        I remember the episode where the little robots repairing Enterprise gain consciousness, They were the only capable of solving the problem, risking their existence in the process. When they decided to sacrifice themselves, that take a very difficult decision out of Picard hands. Here, I believe, the writers took the easy way out. (Sorry, I don’t remember the name of the episode)

        Well, it’s a pity GTST is going on hiatus. I think as long as there is respect in a debate and knowledge of the topic at hand, reactions should be passionate but cordial. Hope it’s a short hiatus.

        1. Watch it again, he doesn’t have “access to” any consciousness, he is an amalgam of both, feeling like a different being and thinking not with 2 voices, but with one. There’s a way to write this to make the final decision make sense, and though I felt Mulgrew put the guilt in the acting, it wasn’t in the script, nor could it be because Voyager always more or less “reset” after each episode. So I stand by my statement that this story should not have been attempted as is.

          If you’re about an episode behind, I do talk about the hiatus lasting 6 months while I work on other projects, plan out the next season, etc.

          And I’m sorry for sounding so sore, but while I can take criticism and fully accept the episode has its weaknesses as a final product. I also don’t think people have given me enough credit for defending what was good about it. End of the day, the premise was to ask an ethics professor about the ethics presented in the episode. You can argue that Ryan disliked the show etc., but you can’t argue that he didn’t know his stuff. If every study of ethics finds “Tuvix” is unethical, then that’s that. It’s about liking Voyager or not, it’s about matching the script against the philosophy. People have criticized the podcast for not showing both sides, but as far as the ethics go, we looked at different schools of thought (“sides”) and there was no defending it on those grounds. Someone liking Voyager or wanting Tuvok and Neelix back (like Janeway) or reasoning that you can’t lose cast members (which I pointed out) is not ethical grounds. So like “Tuvix” itself, perhaps we chalk it up to an episode that shouldn’t have been attempted on my part.

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