In “Stigma,” Enterprise addresses HIV/AIDS, homophobia, and (to a lesser extent) sexual assault. “Stigma” follows up on a season one episode, “Fusion,” in which T’Pol is assaulted by another Vulcan during a mind meld. Let’s see how it does.
We learn at the beginning of “Stigma” that T’Pol has contracted Pa’nar Syndrome, a deadly neurological condition that can only be acquired through melding.
Phlox is determined to get information to manage T’Pol’s illness, but she’s afraid of being found out because her people consider mind-melding immoral and people who practice it to be part of a small, deviant subculture.
As much as Phlox tries to avoid suspicion, he underestimates the strength of the Vulcans’ stigma against Pa’nar syndrome and “melders”. They are highly suspicious and determined to investigate T’Pol. If Pa’nar Syndrome is HIV/AIDS, they are the WestVulcan Baptist Church.
Stromm: I’ll ask you again. Do you condone their behaviour?…We find their behaviour unacceptable, and since Pa’nar Syndrome is transmitted by these people, its cure is not a priority.
Phlox: Are you saying there is no additional research?
Oratt: None that we’d care to disseminate. I’m sorry.
T’Pol: You travelled up from the surface to tell Doctor Phlox you wouldn’t help him?
Oratt: If you’ll please show us to the airlock.
There is nothing we would like to do more than show you to the airlock, Oratt.
It’s not long before the Vulcan doctors, and Archer find out about T’Pol’s diagnosis.
So of course, Archer is concerned about T’Pol, and wants to know the whole story and how he can help, right?
Oh wait, that would be someone else. Archer’s really more concerned about himself being “embarrassed by a Vulcan dignitary.”
Archer (demanding): How long have you known about this?
Phlox: Nearly a year.
Archer: And you never thought that maybe you should come to me and let me know that one of my officers has a potentially fatal disease?
On the plus side, T’Pol and Phlox are the perfect foils for Archer in this scene, standing there calmly and rationally disputing his conclusions until he calms down and actually listens.
Phlox: I believe your culture embraces the concept of doctor-patient confidentiality.
T’Pol: The disease is not contagious. If we had told you there’s nothing you could have done.
T’Pol then reminds Archer that it wasn’t her choice to meld and the lightbulb clicks on in Archer’s head finally.
Archer: You were attacked. I remember. I’m sure the High Command will understand.
Ok, well half a lightbulb. He finally realizes T’Pol’s health is a bigger priority than his pride, although he can’t get why she won’t just tell the High Command she was assaulted. In his mind, she should do anything she can to keep serving on Enterprise, even if it means throwing all the other melders under the bus and baring secrets she may not want everyone in High Command to know.
So he goes down to the planet and tries to convince the Vulcans not to share her diagnosis with High Command. He fails to convince them by pointing out how ridiculous and illogical their stigma is.
Luckily, a backchannel opens up for T’Pol as a young doctor, Yuris, contacts her and asks her to meet him in secret.
He passes her research, saying he’s not infected with Pa’nar syndrome but he’s part of the minority. He also urges T’Pol to tell the doctors she was “coerced,” but it seems like meeting him strengthens her resolve not to position herself as a victim and play into the stigma against the minority to continue.
ARCHER: You’ve got to tell them, T’Pol. Tell them what happened. They won’t do a thing to you once they know it wasn’t voluntary, that he did it against your will.
T’Pol: I won’t do that.
Archer: Why the hell not?
T’Pol: I have Pa’nar Syndrome. It doesn’t make a difference how I contracted it.
Archer: It makes a lot of difference. You’re not a member of this minority. He forced himself on you. You said it yourself.
Phlox: He’s right, T’Pol. You should tell them.
T’Pol: He is not right. If I use that as a defence as a way to keep from being taken off Enterprise, I’d be condoning their prejudice, and in the process, indicting every member of the minority. I won’t do that.
I love T’Pol (and Jolene Blalock) hard in this episode, and can allow Archer being so willing to sell out an entire minority of the Vulcan population because it lets her stand up to him in this awesome way. And while Phlox says Archer’s right, the audience knows (hopefully) that really, T’Pol is.
Archer realizes he can’t force T’Pol to talk about how she was assaulted, but he can demand a hearing for her. When he tells T’Pol, she says she won’t challenge their decision to recall her. He gets a little snarky, saying, “If you’re not going to defend yourself, the least you can do is speak for this minority you’re so eager to protect. You said you didn’t want to condone the attitude of these doctors. Your silence would do just that.”
But it works. And when things seem to be going south at the hearing, Yuris speaks up. He outs himself, and then tells them T’Pol was assaulted, which is pretty awful.
Yuris: She’s not guilty of anything. She was violated.
T’Pol: You gave me your word.
Yuris: The mind-meld was performed against her will.
Oratt: Can you verify this?
T’Pol: Why? So you can perpetuate your double standard? Condemn the infected when they meld by choice and sympathise with them when they don’t?
The Vulcan doctors turn to Archer but he also refuses to confirm or deny it, saying if T’Pol doesn’t want to talk about it, “That’s good enough for me.” Score one for Archer.
Oh wait, subtract one from Archer. At the end, Yuris gets suspended but the doctors believe him about T’Pol, so she gets to stay on Enterprise. And Archer’s just like, “Yay! This is horribly unjust and everyone knows about T’Pol’s assault, even though she didn’t want them to, but I get to keep T’Pol!”
“I know you must be very disappointed that he broke his promise to you, but on a selfish note, I’m glad he did. I didn’t want to lose you.”
Overall I think “Stigma” does a good job as a message show about HIV/AIDS, even if (as other reviewers have said) the message wasn’t really much of a risk to address in 2003. The allegory doesn’t always work. Grant at “The Angriest” says in his review, that “Enterprise perpetuates the myth – via thinly veiled allegory – that HIV/AIDS remains a ‘gay man’s disease'” by only having one way it can be transmitted – and, I would argue, by saying the “minority” can be identified by their genetic makeup.
But it’s an earnest show and having T’Pol at the centre, standing up the “minority” even though it might go against her own self-interest, gets us emotionally involved and hopefully helps us build empathy.
Unfortunately “Stigma” is far less impressive than “Fusion” in how it deals with sexual assault, given how much it involves men pressuring a woman to report, and even sharing the information with her superiors against her express and repeated wishes.
I can’t finish this without touching on the episode’s comedic sub-plot about one of Phlox’s wives, Feezal, visiting Enterprise and hitting on Tucker, who is super awkward about it.
We learn in this episode that the Denobulans aren’t just a polygamous society where a man has several wives; they’re actually polyamorous – so everyone has several partners.
Trip can’t seem to wrap his head around this, and is really worried that Phlox will be upset.
Trip: What if Phlox finds out?
Reed: You haven’t done anything to make her think that you
Trip Of course not. Maybe I should tell the Doc.
Reed: Tell him what? That his wife is trying to seduce you? Not a good idea.
But Phlox doesn’t get their “human morality”:
Phlox: Oh, any man would be a fool to ignore the romantic overtures of a healthy Denobulan woman. Don’t you find her attractive?
Tucker: Sure. I mean, no! She’s your wife.
Phlox: What does that have to do with it?
Tucker: She’s your wife?
Phlox: Oh, nonsense. Nonsense. You’re too concerned with human morality. I thought you wanted to learn about new cultures. Isn’t that why you joined Starfleet?
Tucker: Why, of course it is. But I was brought up believing you don’t play around with another man’s wife. I don’t think I’m ever going to change my mind about that.
I honestly enjoyed watching the subplot, and found myself laughing when I was supposed to. In hindsight, there are definitely problematic elements, like the fact that this is an issue that is discussed among men (Trip and Reed) acting like having an up-front conversation with Feezal was not an option. Feezal equals “another man’s wife” rather than “an individual with desires.”
In addition, by having Trip and Reed understand the situation similarly and Phlox to attribute that to their being humans, it leaves the audience able to believe polyamory is something alien. The comedic tone adds to us not feeling like we have to seriously challenge our beliefs.
But because the storyline is paired with a much more serious, overt message of tolerance, I think overall it works.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: Pass. Hoshi and Feezal talk about the Denobulan language.