"Tuvix" and Feminist Ethics in the Delta Quadrant

by Jeffrey Boruszak

This essay was originally published in Exploring Star Trek Voyager, edited by Robert Lively. Published by McFarland Books, 2020.

Originally broadcast on May 6, 1996, the Star Trek: Voyager episode “Tuvix” (2.24) remains one of the most polarizing televised entries in the franchise's long history. Despite a favorable reception from producers and critics, with then-showrunner Michael Piller citing it as evidence that its writer, Ken Biller, had become “the poet laureate of Star Trek" (Kutzera 77), David McIntee describes “Tuvix” as “by far the most debated episode in fandom, especially on the internet” (120). The episode concerns a transporter accident that combines Lieutenant Commander Tuvok and “Chief Morale Officer” Neelix into a single merged humanoid—the eponymous Tuvix, portrayed by guest actor Tom Wright. Tuvix quickly becomes an accepted member of the ship's crew, serving aboard Voyager for two weeks before The Doctor discovers a method that will restore Tuvok and Neelix while killing Tuvix in the process. In the episode's climax, Captain Janeway chooses to restore her former crewmen, a decision that a non-consenting Tuvix calls “an execution.”

Fan debate centers on Captain Janeway's dramatic decision at the episode's end. By killing Tuvix, some viewers believe that she reneges on her duties as a Starfleet Officer by exterminating what is undoubtedly a form of “new life,” to adopt a phrase from the voiceover that opens the title sequence in both The Original Series and The Next Generation. But the reason for her decision—and its implications for the utopian values of the Federation and the Star Trek franchise more broadly—are not as cut-and-dry as they may initially appear. In this essay, I explore the unusual dramatic structure of “Tuvix” in order to describe the scope and impact of one of the most difficult choices ever faced by a Star Trek captain. By comparing her predicament to similar situations faced by other captains over the course of the franchise's history, I argue that Janeway faces an ethical, rather than a moral, dilemma in this episode. In shifting discussion from the rhetoric of morality and its focus on evaluating an action as objectively “right” or “wrong” to the space of ethics, where competing obligations force one to make seemingly impossible decisions between equally valid choices, I engage with the feminist dimensions of Voyager beyond the issues of gender representation typically associated with the first Trek series to seat a woman in the captain's chair. More specifically, I present Janeway's choice to restore Tuvok and Neelix as an example of what contemporary scholars refer to as an “ethics of care,” a philosophical system that by emphasizing mutual recognition and compassion as guiding principles in human social lives, interrogates the function of the United Federation of Planets beyond the Vulcan commitments to logic and reasoning that usually define its values.

Symbiogenesis, Sentient Life and Dramatic Structure

Transporter accidents occur frequently in Star Trek, with the holodeck being perhaps the only ship system more likely to produce unintended (but dramatically compelling) results on a regular basis. Dividing and/or merging humanoids during transport is not unusual for this futuristic technology: in The Original Series episode “The Enemy Within” (1.04), a transporter malfunction splits Captain Kirk into “good” and “evil” versions of himself, forcing Spock to use the transporter to recombine them at the episode's end; in The Next Generation episode “Second Chances” (6.24), the Enterprise-D crew discovers that Commander Will Riker's double (who eventually adopts the name Thomas Riker) was inadvertently abandoned on a planet for eight years after an energy distortion duplicated his transporter signal during an evacuation. Given that the TOS crew restored their captain without hesitation while theTNG crew offered Thomas the opportunity to pursue his own life as a sovereign individual, it is worth describing the transporter accident that created Tuvix in detail in order to highlight the degree to which he constitutes a lifeform endowed with inalienable rights under Federation law.

The merging of Tuvok and Neelix results from the introduction of an unknown flora sample to the transporter, which induces a reproductive process known as symbiogenesis. Also referred as endosymbiosis, it is a process that occurs on Earth, albeit at a much smaller scale than its high concept sci-fi presentation would otherwise suggest. During Terran symbiogenesis, two prokaryotes, or single-celled organisms without a nucleus, merge into an individual eukaryote, a multi-celled organism containing a nucleus. As an account for the emergence of multicellular organisms, scientists theorize that symbiogenesis may have played a crucial role in the early stage of life's evolution on our planet. Onboard the USS Voyager, this process indicates that the transporter did not malfunction as the crew initially suspects. Rather, the transporter signal functions as a catalyst that ignites an orchid's underlying endosymbiotic function. The subsequent symbiogenetic reaction produces Tuvix, a lifeform where “all biological material merged at a molecular level.” The practical result of this accident is that Tuvix must remain on the ship until The Doctor can find a method for isolating and extracting Tuvok's and Neelix's DNA in order to restore them.

Tuvix is an entirely new creature that, pardon the cliché, is more than the sum of his parts. His physical features include the Vulcans' trademark pointed ears and the Talaxian forehead markings. He shows remarkable memory recall, as Tuvix can remember experiences—and even conversations—from both of his forbears with intricate detail. In fact, there is no indication that any memory or knowledge failed to transfer during his creation. Most notably, Tuvix does not have split personalities like other symbiotic species, such as the Trill and the Borg.1 Instead, he possesses a unified consciousness expressed with a single voice, which he uses to articulate unique desires that are neither reducible to nor mediated by those of Tuvok and Neelix. As The Doctor notes, “he possesses Tuvok's irritating sense of intellectual superiority and Neelix's annoying ebullience.” As a result, Tuvix ends up being a vastly superior cook and a more effective tactical officer. He is, above all else, an autonomous lifeform who consistently presents his connection to Tuvok and Neelix through the language of sexual reproduction and familial inheritance. In other words, they are his parents.

“Tuvix” shares thematic similarities with the celebrated TNG episode “The Measure of a Man” (2.09), which similarly hinges on questions about the importance of sentient life and a Starfleet captain's role in defending the inherent value of that life. Yet the stark contrast in how these two episodes dramatically structure their central debates demonstrates the difficulty of evaluating Janeway's situation in strictly moral terms. In “The Measure of a Man,” a requisition order from Starfleet Command, under which Data would be disassembled for study, with no guarantee that he could be restored, leads Captain Jean-Luc Picard to defend Data's status as a sentient lifeform in a court of law. While the viewer likely agrees with Picard's position at the outset, the story's narrative structure develops the question of Data's sentience over the course of the entire episode in order to call on the viewer as an additional judge who will listen to arguments, weigh evidence, and make a ruling. And while this synoptic overview appears to suggest that Data is the episode's central character, it is fact Picard who navigates the story's dramatic stakes.

In the episode's opening scene, Picard encounters Captain Phillipa Louvois, a friend with whom he feels lingering unease after the earnestness with which she prosecuted his court-martial at an earlier point in his career. Their reunion introduces a thematic conflict between duty to the law—a necessity for Starfleet Officers operating in a hierarchized command structure—and truth as an objective criterion for evaluating the moral value of an action. That is, even with the prohibition on intrapersonal conflict that Star Trek writers refer to as “The Roddenberry Rule,”2 close friendships like that of Picard and Louvois face disruption when inviolable social duties and moral convictions come into opposition with one another. Given that Picard also attempts to persuade Data to accept the transfer as an officer, then accepts the resignation of his subordinates commission, then actively defends his friend's inherent rights before a judge, the episode's dramatic arc clearly centers on Picard as he attempts to “engage” the personal fallout from his court-martial alongside his obligations as both a Starfleet Captain and a citizen of the United Federation of Planets.

At the episode's climax, Picard delivers his closing argument in defense of Data with astounding gusto. As he declares:

The decision you reach here today will determine how we will regard this creation of our genius. It will reveal the kind of people we are; what he is destined to be. It will reach far beyond this courtroom and this one android. It could significantly redefine the boundaries of personal liberty and freedom: expanding them for some, savagely curtailing them for others. Are you prepared to condemn him, and all who will come after him, to servitude and slavery? Your honor. Starfleet was founded to seek out new life: well, there it sits! Waiting [“The Measure of a Man” 2.9].

According to Picard, the reasoning the court adopts in its decision will determine the outcome of similar controversies in the future. There is an objective truth, he claims, a “purer product” that unconditionally embraces life as inherently valuable at the individual scale. Starfleet (and by extension, the Federation) were founded on this principle, and if one were to imagine that all future cases would return the same verdict, then there is only one decision that could ever be true, moral, or just: preserving life.

While he does not explicitly acknowledge the influence, a well-read and classically educated Renaissance man such as Jean-Luc Picard likely intends his argument to draw force from a theoretical cornerstone in the tradition of moral philosophy: the categorical imperative. As its originator, Immanuel Kant, first articulated its central premise: “act only according to that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” (71). In other words, determining the morality of an action requires one to call upon the human capacity for reasoning in order to examine the myriad consequences of said action. Lying is an excellent example of an immoral action according to the premises of the categorical imperative; while a single lie may provide pleasure, relief, or safety for the person who tells it, if every person in the world were permitted to lie at will there would be no way to establish trust and build a functioning society. Picard presents his case in similar terms: if the Federation is to position itself to declare beings either sentient or not and afford basic rights accordingly, then there is a moral obligation to support and preserve that life regardless of mitigating circumstances.

While “The Measure of a Man” (2.9) revels in its examination of the Federation's utopian commitment to radical inclusion over the course of the episode, “Tuvix” takes a markedly different approach to questions of life and sentience, particularly in its dramatic structure. For starters, Tuvix explicitly confirms his sentience and his status as an autonomous individual when speaking to Kes during his initial medical diagnostics. But just as viewers might mistakenly place Data at the narrative center of his court case, so too might they consider Tuvix to be the focus of the episode's philosophical and emotional poignancy. In such an approach, Tuvix occupies the center of the story's action, and his fearful pleading with Voyager's crew for help before security escorts him off the bridge serves as the height of the plot's action and stakes. With an external decision imposed on him by a commanding officer, Tuvix marches to a quiet and tragic execution for which Captain Janeway is solely responsible. The audience would therefore be inclined to identify with Tuvix as the perspective through which they encounter the story's events, and the Captain's unjust decision becomes irredeemably immoral. However, Tuvix is not the focus of the episode that bears his name. Instead, the dramatic weight of this narrative falls to both Kes and Janeway, who share the spotlight due to an atypical shift in perspective between the third and fourth acts.

For readers who may not be familiar with dramatic conventions, it is helpful to rehearse some of the technical terms informing the structure of nearly every televised entry in the Star Trek franchise. Episodes usually begin with a cold open that briefly introduces the hour's plot and themes through an inciting action, or a problem to be faced, following which the show's title credits play. After a commercial break, five acts air in sequential order, with four additional commercial breaks punctuating the transitions between each act. Act breaks, or the final moments that conclude an act by presenting a situation of heightened conflict, usually focus on the episode's central character(s), who encounter new knowledge or obstacles that disrupt their current plans and which they must confront head-on in the subsequent act. These moments are intended to serve as miniature cliffhangers that encourage the viewer to stay tuned through the advertisements. The final act break tends to present the story's featured character with their greatest obstacle thus far, and they confront this difficult situation during the episode's climax, the point near the story's conclusion where protagonists encounter the issues and challenges they must finally resolve.

Tracking act breaks demonstrates the important ways in which this story's conflicts and character drama fall to Tuvix's interlocutors, rather than Tuvix himself. After Tuvix initially appears in the cold open (the episode's inciting action), the first act is mainly expository. Characters explain the circumstances to the viewer, including Tuvix's status as a merged but autonomous being. This exposition concludes when Tuvix gives himself his new name. But this brief moment of resolution falters after Tuvix then instinctively refers to Kes as “sweeting,” the pet name Neelix used when speaking to her. This linguistic slip of the tongue establishes conflict between the two characters, with Kes subjected to feelings of confusion and loss.

In the second act, Tuvix theorizes that symbiogenesis was the process that led to his creation. As the crew begins to search for a “cure,” Tuvix and Kes head to the mess hall and the former reclaims his galley. Tuvix proves himself to be a talented and organized chef, and he shares an emotionally intimate exchange with Kes. But in the act's final moments, Tuvix tells her: “if the situation were reversed, if he [Neelix] found himself without you in his life, he'd be absolutely lost.” A distraught Kes responds by announcing her departure. Note the asymmetry of their relationship, which informs the scene's emotional complexities. Tuvix may be new to the ship, but with the memories of both Tuvok and Neelix at his disposal, he knows Kes with the intimacy of both a lover and a mentor. While he may struggle with the strange situation he finds himself in, those around him are not complete aliens (pun intended). He knows whom to trust, as well as where and how to find support. Kes, on the hand, must interact with someone who is effectively a stranger, but who also knows her to arguably the fullest extent possible (given that Tuvok trains Kes in developing her psychic abilities, this familiarity likely includes a mental connection extending far beyond what we can even imagine as humans).

Kes grows increasingly isolated and disturbed during the third act, which sees The Doctor explain that his initial experiments in reversing symbiogenesis failed. While The Doctor says he will continue his research, he also explains that the crew must accept the possibility that Tuvok and Neelix will be lost forever. In responding to this new status quo, Kes grieves alone in her quarters until Tuvix interrupts her with a declaration of his love. A shocked Kes requests an explanation and time to think about her decision. Tuvix acquiesces, leaving her with a kiss on the cheek and the weight of a life-changing proposition.

The fourth act includes a major dramatic shift of massive import to the episode's resolution. Viewers will likely notice this uncanny disruption in storytelling, even if they cannot identify why it seems so strange. The act opens with Kes standing at the door to the Captain's Quarters immediately following her conversation with Tuvix. She seeks advice, and Janeway comforts her by telling her she is not alone, as the rest of the ship's crew faces similar feelings of despondent uncertainty about their loved ones back home. Janeway encourages her to take her time developing a relationship with Tuvix, and Kes agrees with this suggestion. Suddenly, a voiceover culled from the Captain's Log informs the audience that two weeks have passed, with Tuvix having ably served as both tactical officer and chef during this time and formed friendships amongst the ship's crew as a result. Time jumps of such magnitude typically do not occur within an act; because they rupture an act's internal unity, such leaps forward in time tend to happen off-screen during commercial breaks. After this jump in time, Kes tells Tuvix over a candlelit conversation in Chez Sandrine that she would like to begin their relationship as friends, but she remains open to developing it further. Just then, The Doctor convenes a meeting in Sick Bay to announce he has discovered a medical procedure that will restore Tuvok and Neelix. The crew grows excited—Kes especially—until Tuvix quashes the celebration by telling them: “I don't want to die.” Given the story's prior focus on Kes, we might reasonably expect her reaction to this statement to set the tone for the final act. But instead we are treated to a close-up shot of Captain Janeway as the camera zooms in on her worried expression.

Up until this moment, Janeway is surprisingly tangential to the episode's story. She is present for narrative exposition and directs the crew with her orders, but even in her late-night conversation with Kes, the plot largely mutes her ability to influence the situation's outcome. But the fifth act turns to her character with alacrity by bringing her role as Voyager's captain to the forefront of the action. The episode is no longer simply a story about Kes's grief. Instead the importance of a Starfleet captain's responsibility to—and for—their crew becomes central.

Morality and Ethics in Star Trek

There is a fine line dividing the fields of morality and ethics in the Western philosophical tradition, even though we use the two as largely interchangeable terms in everyday conversations. People tend to agree that ethical behavior (like returning a lost wallet to its owner without removing the cash inside) is undeniably moral, and unethical behavior (like an elected official who accepts bribes in exchange for favorable treatment) is clearly immoral. Despite this overlap, there are important distinctions between morality and ethics that become important when examining how Star Trek reflects utopian values during situations when democratic institutions, such as the United Federation of Planets, come into conflict with the strict adherence to duty demanded by Starfleet's military hierarchy.

In broad and largely non-technical terms, morality concerns proper behavior that conforms to socially prescribed expectations. For example, we tend to consider killing another human being to be an immoral act in the United States because of its clear prohibition in our government's laws and influential Judeo-Christian texts. Killing enemy soldiers during military service, however, can be considered a morally permissible act that we describe with patriotic (and Klingon) language such as “honorable” and “noble.” The difference between how the public perceives these two similar acts demonstrates the confusion that can attend the declaration of moral ideals as incontrovertible truths. What exactly makes an act moral or immoral—one's intent or the eventual outcome?

The short answer is that it is both and neither. Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative is an example of what is called a deontological approach to morals, which emphasizes the morality of the process instead of the results; one could lie to save a person's life, but the act is still immoral because one lied to achieve that outcome. Teleological or ends-based approaches to morality, on the other hand, consider the destination more important than the journey. Star Trek usually favors teleological approaches, particularly through its embrace of utilitarianism, a philosophical position aimed at maximizing the greatest amount happiness for the greatest number of people. As Spock famously presents this argument in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” In the logical culture of the Vulcans, morality is part of a mathematic calculus that gives particular weight to self-sacrifice in service of quantifiable results. If these positions seem complicated or contradictory, then rest assured that you are not alone in this feeling. Philosophers have been debating the merits and dangers of these positions for centuries without coming to clear conclusions about what constitutes objectively moral behavior.

The Prime Directive, Starfleet's paramount order that prohibits its members from making contact with pre-warp civilizations, highlights the difficulty that attends the assignation of clear-cut moral judgments to individual actions. Because it is a clearly articulated position that all officers swear an oath to uphold, violating the Prime Directive is considered categorically immoral within the confines of Starfleet. Yet crews repeatedly violate this order across the franchise's series and films, often to the audience's delight and adamant support. Typically, these violations invoke the Federation's commitment to the preservation of life—that is, a character defies their orders because they believe that allowing a death or multiple deaths to occur would be such a fragrantly immoral act that they eschew their obligations to Starfleet Command. While many fans (myself included) joke about the frequency with which characters invoke the Prime Directive only to subsequently disregard its proscriptions, stories that violate these orders often produce thought-provoking reflections on moral complexities and resonate with viewers.

Unlike morality, which attempts to determine whether an action should be considered right or wrong, ethics is the space where we confront moral duties and obligations when they come into conflict with one another. To phrase it another way: if morality determines the degree to which behavior conforms with a set standard, ethics examines the ways in which people weigh competing standards and subsequently choose one over the other. While my examples of the categorical imperative and utilitarianism present these concepts in moral terms, we could also describe each as an ethical position that argues how one ought to choose between options if they wish to behave morally. When a person “acts ethically,” then, they are not adhering to a socially prescribed standard of right and wrong. Instead, they are paying close and careful attention to the conflicts between their competing obligations as they choose one over the other.

In a series of lectures given just months before “Tuvix” originally aired, French philosopher Jacques Derrida uses “hospitality” as an analogy for the field of ethics and the issues that arise when one desires to act ethically. Derrida states:

absolute hospitality requires that I open up my home and that I give not only to the foreigner (provided with a family name, with the social status of being a foreigner, etc.), but to the absolute unknown and anonymous other, and that I give place to them, that I let them come, that I let them arrive, and take place in the place I offer them, without asking of them either reciprocity ... or even their names [25].

Derrida is a notoriously difficult writer, particularly because he intentionally uses words that in their original French either sound similar or share etymological roots that make them closer in meaning than one would otherwise think. For example, contemporary English speakers tend to use the word “foreigner” to describe a person who is not a legal citizen of a nation; Derrida, on the other hand, calls on the word's Latin root—fores, meaning “doors”—to describe any person who walks through the doors of your home as a kind of “foreigner.” In this passage, Derrida describes “absolute hospitality,” a theoretical extreme of hospitality in which every person is always obligated to invite any and all strangers inside their home without knowing their guests' names or origins, and without expecting to receive anything in return. While this description certainly varies with our real-life experiences of providing hospitality to guests, Derrida calls it “absolute” because it is the purer form after which we model our hospitable acts. The reason we do not practice “absolute hospitality” at all times, and instead ask names of our guests and exclude some who may want to enter is because how else, as Derrida asks, “can we distinguish between a guest and a parasite?” (59). That is, as much as we have an idealist obligation to offer our homes without condition, we also have other obligations to ourselves, to our families, to the upkeeping of our living conditions that require us to give careful consideration to who we ought to let in and keep out of our homes. Ethics resembles hospitality, then, because ethics is the place where our absolute duties and practical obligations come into direct conflict with one another, forcing us to make impossible choices between what otherwise appear to be equally valid options.

I describe these decisions as “impossible” and “equally valid” because if there were a case where a choice was easy, fast, or simple, then it would be more akin to an automatic or reflexive response instead of an ethical dilemma. Rather, the weight and importance of our competing duties forces us to prioritize one obligation over another as we come to a decision. What we are meant to contemplate, either within the scholarly tradition of ethical philosophy or in our daily lives as we attempt to act ethically, is not whether our actions are “right” or “wrong” in an objective sense. Instead, we are to pay close attention to how and why we prioritize some obligations over others before we act.

In “Tuvix,” Captain Janeway's climactic decision is a clear example of an ethical dilemma. On the one hand, she is a citizen of the United Federation of Planets who, having sworn herself and her crew to uphold Federation ideals while stranded in the Delta Quadrant (“The Caretaker,” 1.1), has an unyielding duty to seek out and uphold life at all cost. But on the other hand, she is a Starfleet captain who, travelling in dangerous and unknown circumstances, also has an infinite duty to her crew to keep them alive and bring them back home. When Voyager comes under attack by the Kazon, or the Borg, or the Hirogen, or Species 8472, Captain Janeway orders her crew to return fire because, except for cases involving genocide, her duty to those under her command becomes paramount to her general obligation to preserve alien life. Janeway's decision to “execute” Tuvix, however, breaks with this more common conflict because he is not a foe that poses an existential threat to the ship. There are no urgent circumstances that make one duty more important than the other, and Janeway is forced to choose between equally compelling options: should Tuvix live, or should Tuvok and Neelix live?

The Doctor's refusal to perform the separation procedure highlights the variety of available options for assessing conflicting obligations when engaged in ethical quagmires. Despite receiving an order from his Captain, The Doctor abstains on the grounds that he swore an oath to “do no harm.” He draws this phrase from the original Hippocratic Oath, which includes the statement: “I will do no harm or injustice to them [my patients]” (qtd. in North). While contemporary medical practitioners do not swear an oath upon the Hippocratic Oath as it was articulated in Ancient Greece, its principles continue to inform the central tenets of medical bioethics. As such, The Doctor's “ethical subroutines,” as they are later called in the Voyager episode “Equinox, Part II” (6.01), determined that his duties as the ship''s Chief Medical Officer outweigh his obligation to follow a command issued by his superior officer. As The Doctor's decision demonstrates, there are no standard criteria for navigating an ethical minefield. Ethical determinations are highly individual and contextual, and we could therefore describe both Janeway's and The Doctor's choices as ethical, even though they take opposite actions.

If we return to the categorical imperative and utilitarianism as representative (but by no means comprehensive) examples of mechanisms for deciding between competing options, we can begin to understand Janeway's difficulties in addressing her situation. According to the categorical imperative, she must choose to allow Tuvix to live because if we imagine that her action would become a “universal law,” then every conflict between the lives of new beings and Starfleet officers would side with the latter. Such a hypocritical rule would be so inconsistent with the Federation's stated ideals that the integrity of its entire value system would be put at risk. Yet the categorical imperative has clear limitations in its inflexibility—Derrida notes that Kant was once asked if one could lie to assassins looking for a friend who is staying with you in your home, to which Kant immediately responded, “Yes, one should never lie, even to assassins” (Derrida 67). A utilitarian framework, meanwhile, initially suggests the mathematical importance of saving the lives of two crewmen over one. But if Tuvix is superior as a chef and a tactical officer, and one being would consume significantly fewer resources over the course of what was at that point still a seventy-year journey, then perhaps Tuvix's life would promote the greatest amount of “happiness” for the ship's crew. I present these arguments not as a series of rhetorical straw men, but as an attempt to highlight the sheer difficulty posed by ethical dilemmas and the complex decisions they demand. There are so many different methods for weighing competing duties that what becomes most important in ethical questions is not the choice itself but why one makes that choice. So, then, why does Captain Janeway ultimately decide to execute Tuvix in order to save the lives of Tuvok and Neelix, and what does her reasoning indicate about her position as Voyager's Captain?

Feminism and Star Trek

Given the episode's acrobatic narrative transition from Kes to Janeway as its featured dramatic subject, it may not be surprising that Kes provides us with an answer to this question. During their late-night meeting, Captain Janeway begins the scene in a state of nostalgic reflection over Tuvok's “efficient” writing style before sitting adjacent to Kes. They hold their torsos facing each other, largely maintaining eye contact as Kes implores her captain for advice. While Janeway's initial responses seem confident and supportive, her vocal tone and body language change when Kes asks how she deals with her feelings of separation. “I struggle with it every day. Sometimes I'm full of hope and optimism,” Janeway begins. But as she considers her own situation, Janeway slumps down her head and avoids direct eye contact. She clears her throat, presumably to keep her voice from cracking before continuing: “I dream about being with Mark. And it's so real. Then, when I wake up and realize it's just a dream, I'm terribly discouraged. In those moments it's impossible to deny just how far away he really is.” Janeway then pauses, turning her head away from Kes. She begins rubbing her throat. Janeway refuses to tell Kes that she should give up hope, and at the scene's end Kes smiles at Janeway from the doorway before departing. Janeway's subtle body language in this scene is anything but tertiary to the story's trajectory. Even though Janeway refuses to tell Kes what to do about her despondency over losing Neelix, the two exit the scene in emotional and physical positions that are the exact opposite of the states in which they entered. While Kes finds counsel and practical advice, Janeway empathizes with Kes and their similar predicaments. In considering the depth of her own feelings of loss and separation, Janeway realizes what Kes feels because that is also how she herself feels.

As Janeway ponders whether to force Tuvix to submit to separation, Tuvix speaks to Kes in the Mess Hall. He implores her to intercede with the Captain on his behalf, reasoning that she could possibly sway Janeway and save his life. When Kes enters the Ready Room, however, she quickly begins sobbing as she tells the Captain: “I don't know how to say goodbye to Neelix and Tuvok. I know this sounds horrible, and I feel so guilty for saying it, and Tuvix doesn't deserve to die, but I want Neelix back.” Janeway comforts Kes with a hug, and the camera lingers on Janeway, who makes an expression that Kes cannot see. The Captain found a resolution to her dilemma; in the next scene, Janeway orders Tuvix to Sick Bay for separation.

Captain Janeway's decision is an example of a feminist ethics founded in recognition, identification, empathy, and compassion between two women. That is, she recognizes the similar situations in which both she and Kes find themselves; she identifies and empathizes with Kes's feelings of pain, loss, and guilt; and she acts to remedy the situation by compassionately accepting total responsibility for the decision to subject Tuvix to what effectively is an execution. In the episode's final shot, Janeway exits Sick Bay alone after restoring Tuvok and Neelix. As she walks away from the celebratory atmosphere, she lowers her head and furrows her brow. Janeway feels the weight of her actions, having taken an innocent life so that Kes does not have to feel pain or guilt. With a look of resolve, she regains her composure and resumes her stride—as Captain, she will suffer for her crew without letting them know the depth of her sorrow.

The feminist ethics Janeway displays through her decisions in “Tuvix” reflect a field of study that contemporary thinkers refer to as an ethics of care. As articulated by writers such as Carol Gilligan and Nel Noddings, who approach the topic from diverse perspectives including psychology, philosophy, and social policy, an ethics of care proceeds from two observations. First, care is a fundamental component of human life. We usually recognize care most readily when it occurs in the family—caring for children, the elderly, and the disabled. But care informs larger group formations as well. “In most nation-states, some form of primary healthcare is available” (Robinson 1), and myriad social services, from income and nutrition assistance, to public education, to emergency police and fire services, can be described through the state's role in providing, organizing, and disseminating care on behalf of its citizens. Second, the importance of care outside of the family unit is rarely recognized because historically it was devalued as a field of feminine labor and therefore the exclusive concern of women. To elaborate on this statement, which may be prone to misinterpretation: neither care itself nor an ethics of care excludes the participation of men. On the contrary, writers who advocate an ethics of care frequently argue that the feminization of care negatively impacts both men and women. Rather, care was widely accepted as women's private domain during the same period of time that male Enlightenment figures revolutionized thinking across a number of fields (and moral philosophies such as the categorical imperative and utilitarianism were first articulated), meaning that the role of care in philosophy, science, law, and politics remains underdeveloped and awaits further investigation.

It is for this reason that Captain Janeway's decision to save Kes by restoring Tuvok and Neelix stands out as one of Star Trek's mostly overtly feminist moments. There is no objectification of the female body in this episode, nor are there discussions grounded in heteronormative sexual desire. The narrative and emotional poignancy of the episode relies upon the interactions between women who recognize each other as autonomous and capable individuals engaged in mutual support and care. To reject Captain Janeway's decision outright as an immoral perversion of Star Trek's values is to repudiate the diverse and complex philosophical questions about how we ought to act as humans that make the franchise a science fiction titan. Captains may make different choices than one another by emphasizing specific values and duties to varying degrees—but it is in the multitude of efforts they undertake in upholding the values of life, knowledge, equality, and a better future that Star Trek can be said to boldly go where no one has gone before.


  1. The Trill were first introduced in “The Host” (TNG 4.23) as a larval-like species who symbiotically join with a humanoid host. A Trill takes on the personality of their host until their host body dies, following which they are transplanted into a new host body. This new Trill will have all of their previous memories, as well as a personality reflecting that of their new host. Deep Space Nine explores the specifics of Trill biology in more detail through the characters of Lt. Commander Jadzia Dax and Lt. Ezri Dax—including the fact that Trill have two brain wave patterns, and therefore two consciousnesses, functioning simultaneously (DS9 1.8). The infamous Borg, meanwhile, fuse humanoid species with cybernetic implants that turn them into hosts for a hive-mind consciousness. When individual drones are disconnected from the rest of the Borg, their previous personalities re-emerge and retain horrific memories of their actions as drones. See “Survival Instinct” (6.2) for more information on drone personalities during and after their connection to the Borg. [Back to essay]
  2. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry famously prohibited writers from including petty squabbles and personal conflicts between Starfleet officers in their scripts, reasoning that humanity would evolve beyond such needless dramatic behavior. This so-called “Roddenberry Rule” was not popular among writers, who nonetheless adhered to its demands until it was intentionally abandoned during the production of Star Trek: Discovery. For more on the Roddenberry Rule and its impact on the writing of The Next Generation, see the 2014 documentary film Chaos on the Bridge, directed by William Shatner. [Back to essay]

Works Cited

  • The Caretaker. Star Trek: Voyager, teleplay by Michael Piller and Jeri Taylor, directed by Winrich Kolbe, Season 1, episode 1, Paramount, 16 Jan. 1995.
  • Chaos on the Bridge. Directed by William Shatner, Ballinran Entertainment, 2014.
  • Dax. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, story by Peter Allan Fields, directed by David Carson, Season 1, episode 8, CBS, 14 February 1993.
  • Derrida, Jacques. Of Hospitality. Translated by Rachel Bowlby, Stanford UP, 2000.
  • The Enemy Within. Star Trek: The Original Series, written by Richard Matheson, Season 1, episode 4, NBC, 6 October 1966.
  • Equinox, Part II. Star Trek: Voyager, teleplay by Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky, Season 6, episode 1, Paramount, 22 September 1999.
  • The Host. Star Trek: The Next Generation, written by Michel Horvat, Season 4, episode 23, Paramount, 13 May 1991.
  • Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals: A German-English Edition. Edited and Translated by Mary Gregor and Jens Timmermann, Cambridge UP, 2011.
  • Kutzera, Dale. Star Trek: Voyager. Cinefantastique, November 1996, pp. 75-105.
  • Mclntee, David. Delta Quadrant: The Unofficial Guide to Voyager. Virgin Publishing, 2000.
  • The Measure of a Man. Star Trek: The Next Generation, written by Melinda M. Snodgrass, Season 2, episode 9, Paramount, 13 February 1989.
  • North, Michael, translator. The Hippocratic Oath. National Library of Medicine, 2002. www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/greek/greek_oath.html. 24 May 2018.
  • Robinson, Fiona. The Ethics of Care: A Feminist Approach to Human Security, Temple UP, 2011.
  • Second Chances. Star Trek: The Next Generation, story by Michael Medlock, teleplay by Rene Echevarria, Season 6, episode 24, Paramount, 24 May 1993.
  • Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Directed by Nicholas Meyer, Paramount Pictures, 1982.
  • Survival Instinct. Star Trek: Voyager, written by Ronald D. Moore, Season 6, episode 2, Paramount, 29 September 1999.
  • Tuvix. Star Trek: Voyager, teleplay by Ken Biller, directed by Cliff Bole, Season 2, episode 24, Paramount, 6 May 1996.