Star Trek’s world raises a lot of ethical questions — but its transporter technology has always been one that strikes at some of the most existential. Are we the same people if all our molecules are mapped, broken down, and copied into a different location? What happens if that process is disrupted? And what happens if multiple people go onto a transporter pad, but only one entity gets beamed out? That last one was given an answer in “Tuvix,” the season two episode of Star Trek: Voyager that aired 25 years ago today.
That answer has had fans talking ever since. To surmise “Tuvix” is almost akin to opening with a weird sitcom that transitions into existentialist horror within the space of about five minutes. Vulcan Lieutenant Tuvok (Tim Russ) doesn’t like Voyager chef/Deta Quadrant travel guide Neelix (Ethan Phillips)! One’s taciturn and reserved, the other is gregarious and social! Oh no, they’re going on an away mission together, how will they ever get along? Then, actual oh no: the duo are beamed back from their mission, except only a singular humanoid is standing in front of the dazzled Voyager crew.
Neither Tuvok nor Neelix, yet also both, merged by accident through plant samples they had picked up in their mission to form a new lifeform. The being settles on Tuvix (Tom Wright) for their name.
Throughout “Tuvix,” the ethical implications of the titular character’s existence are constantly put forward to the viewer. We’re shown that by embracing and accepting the strengths of the beings that created Tuvix, he can perform their prior duties admirably, and is eager and happy to do so. We’re also shown that Tuvok and Neelix’s friends and colleagues all begin to wrestle with the idea of permanently losing those individuals and that Tuvix’s presence in their lives is an uncomfortable reminder of that loss.
But Voyager is a Starfleet crew, and life goes on the way you’d expect it to. Tuvix becomes accepted and respected as a member of the crew over a matter of weeks, while Neelix and Tuvok’s closest colleagues mourn them privately, and Tuvix himself is respectful enough to keep a distance from them in that process. Then suddenly, the episode turns.
Voyager’s doctor (Robert Picardo) has found a way to reverse the transporter accident, and everyone is on board with getting their crewmates back… except, you know, the sentient being created by said transporter accident. Tuvix, of course, does not want to die and is horrified by how quickly and how willing the people who had come to treat him as a colleague were ready to support what tantamounted to execution. It is perhaps a deeply human feeling — the desire to remove what is perceived as the abnormal, for the selfish pleasure of having someone who you knew and loved returned to you. But what perhaps feels so alien to Star Trek is that the response in favour of killing Tuvix is overwhelmingly supported.
This is far from the first time a Star Trek story has dealt with the moral complexity of sacrifice — the age-old wisdom of the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few. But it’s a peculiar maxim to invoke on the intimate, microscale of Voyager’s unique setting. This is just one ship, smaller than most crews we’d followed at this point, and cut off from the rest of Starfleet.
It’s fair to cast them as more of a family than a crew, and those personal feelings may play more of a factor despite Captain Janeway’s (Kate Mulgrew) intent to run a Starfleet vessel, no matter how far from home they are. Janeway’s ultimate decision to bring two crewmates back to life by killing a new one is, in the broadest sense, saying the needs of a plurality outweigh the needs of one. Yet the decision still feels gutwrenching to watch unfold, especially when “Tuvix” uses characters like Kes (played by Jennifer Lien and Neelix’s partner and fellow refugee aboard the ship, embraced as part of the crew as he was) to display Tuvix’s own desire to exist as a sentient being as selfish and unfair — that it is his fault that they are distressed because they now have to, want to, sacrifice his life.
Only one being aboard Voyager, outside of Tuvix, protests Janeway’s choice — the ship’s Doctor, an Emergency Medical Hologram. Janeway overrides him by just simply doing the procedure herself, taking Tuvix to the transporter pads (almost by force, at first, until he finally relents that his last act will be to make the crew feel guilty for their role in his demise) and beginning the process to separate him back into Tuvok and Neelix. What’s wild about “Tuvix” above all however, is that it really just… isn’t addressed again.
Voyager’s nature as a largely episodic show, moving from one plot of the week to the next, never really allows its characters a moment to reflect on some of the decisions along the way in their journey. There are no moment years down the line where Janeway turns to her closest friend and advisor and goes “I can’t forget the fact that I killed a man to bring you back to this ship safely.” So the fact that she is left to face the consequences of her actions at the end of the episode, only to never really do that, renders its conclusion perhaps much darker than it was ever intended.
It’s that unambiguity that perhaps makes “Tuvix” still so hotly contested two and a half decades later. It was far from the first time, and will not be the last, that we’ve seen Starfleet captains do deeply questionable things in the line of duty — and how Star Trek’s penchant for episodic structure over serialization can sometimes backfire. And yet, perhaps for reasons unintended at the time, “Tuvix” remains as one of the most hotly-debated morality plays the franchise will likely ever do.