clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Tuvix will never die

How an ethical debate and endless memes keep Star Trek’s most infamous one-shot character in the conversation

Illustration featuring Neelix and Tuvok from Star Trek: Voyager who merge to become Tuvix Illustration: Richard A Chance for Polygon

If you buy something from a Polygon link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

One day in the Delta Quadrant, Captain Janeway and the crew of the USS Voyager find themselves on a planet so unremarkable we never even learn its name. Lost 70,000 light-years from home, the team is there to retrieve some flowers that might be a “valuable nutritional substitute,” as the captain’s log puts it. Tuvok, the steely Vulcan head of security, and Neelix, the gregarious Talaxian morale officer and chef, go down to take some samples.

But as the familiar whir of the transporter beams the away team back, it’s not Tuvok or Neelix who emerge back onto the pad, but a single life-form. And when we cut back from commercials, just as a phaser-holding Harry Kim barks, “Identify yourself!” we read the episode’s title, and everything becomes clear. It isn’t an intruder. It’s “Tuvix.”

As vice president of franchise planning & Star Trek brand development at ViacomCBS, John Van Citters spends a lot of time talking to creatives and fans about the Trek franchise. And those conversations often turn toward the accidental hybrid who appeared on a single hour of Star Trek: Voyager in 1996. “Tuvix,” he tells me, “is definitely over-indexed for a character that’s only made one appearance.”

When “Tuvix” first aired in the back half of season 2, it was just another hour of television during a period of tremendous franchise activity. Now, decades later, it is a flashpoint for the fandom. There are entire subreddits dedicated to the character and the conundrum faced by Captain Janeway of what to do with her two melded co-workers. Even Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently joined in on Tuvix fever (though in a rare case of her acting like a typical politician, she dodged the main question). As Star Trek: Lower Decks showrunner Mike McMahan tells me, “Tuvix is now a big part of the experience of being a Deep Lore Trekkie.”

That’s because Tuvok, Neelix, and those pesky flowers didn’t emerge from the transporter as a doomed, disgusting Brundlefly. They became Tuvix, a functional fusion of both crew members, played with precision and warmth by renowned character actor Tom Wright. Tuvix was healthy, strong, and capable, and a being who very much wanted to live on in his new identity. Janeway’s solution to the Tuvix problem spawned, by internet standards, one of science fiction’s greatest in-jokes.

a Clueless Padme meme with Captain Janeway from Star Trek: Voyager about Tuvix Image: CBS, Lucasfilm/20th Century Fox via startrekmemes/Reddit

In 1995, with the Star Trek: The Next Generation cast making the jump to feature films and the station-based Star Trek: Deep Space Nine dipping a toe into the Great Link of serialized storytelling, Voyager was meant as a throwback. Franchise overseer Rick Berman, along with co-creators Michael Piller and Jeri Taylor, hoped to get a crew back zooming across space on a starship, and sell a new, highly visible show to the fledgling network UPN. This was a bragging point, but also a detriment, as the new channel wasn’t available in all markets. Early, muted ratings, mixed with some gender-based anxiety, begat an awful lot of post-launch tinkering. Just Google “Kate Mulgrew hair changes.”

Led by Mulgrew’s Captain Janeway, Voyager took place on the fringes of the known Trek universe with a blended crew of Starfleet personnel and Federation dissidents looking to make their way home. Helping them navigate unknown space was jolly junk trader Neelix, played by Ethan Phillips, who Captain Janeway appoints as morale officer and chef. Also in the crew was a Vulcan named Tuvok, played by Tim Russ. For comparison, the famously stern and calculating Spock was a half-Vulcan. Tuvok was all Vulcan. Serious business.

Trapping frenemies in tight quarters is a classic Trek trope. In The Original Series, Spock and Bones were cornered together in a shuttlecraft facing down savage giants in the episode “The Galileo Seven.” Decades later, Deep Space Nine echoed the relationship with stern police chief Odo and shifty, not-quite-honest Quark, who found themselves wounded, cut off from communication, and climbing a mountain on a freezing Class L planet in The Ascent.” Even The Next Generation’s Captain Picard got stuck in a turbolift with his least favorite people — children — in “Disaster.” For Voyager’s spin on the trope, Tuvok and Neelix wouldn’t just be stuck in some treacherous location, but the same consciousness.

When Tuvok and Neelix actors Tim Russ and Ethan Phillips emerge from the transporter as actor Tom Wright, even their uniform is stitched together. Early in the episode, the tone is intentionally goofy, according to Kenneth Biller, the writer of the episode, who eventually became the series’ showrunner in its seventh and final season. He admits that the members of the Voyager brain trust were basically making fun of Tuvix as they were breaking the story.

“We were thinking it would be wacky, like Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin in All of Me. [Trek producer] Brannon Braga and I were cracking ourselves up with a sitcom theme song,” Biller says. He sings a bar with the appropriate amount of jazz hands: “It’s Tuvok, it’s Neelix! It’s two guys, in-a-fix! It’s Tuuuuvix!”

Images: CBS

Though Biller wrote “Tuvix,” two additional writers, Andrew Shepard Price and Mark Gaberman, earned a “story by” credit on the episode. Their involvement was part of a great Star Trek tradition: During Star Trek: The Next Generation, the late showrunner Michael Piller “realized how difficult it was to find enough great, high-concept ideas to fill out a season,” recalls Biller. “A brilliant idea could come from anywhere.” As such, he and Rick Berman did the unheard of, and threw the door wide open to freelance scripts from hardcore fans, even from people without any sort of Hollywood representation.

Naturally, this mostly led to garbage, but occasional gold. Television veterans Jane Espenson (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Bryan Fuller (Hannibal), as well as sci-fi luminaries Robert Hewitt Wolfe and René Echaverria, all kickstarted their careers through the submission process. But the rare people who got a meeting at all sold an idea, got a check, and were told thanks. The flyby was Price and Gaberman’s specialty.

“They came to pitch for us a bunch of times,” Biller remembers. (Indeed, they have five “story by” credits from throughout the series.) “What’s best is they had the weirdest day job: They wrote for Jeopardy!

Price and Gaberman’s idea for “Tuvix’’ was simple, and riffed on previous successes. A transporter malfunction tore Captain Kirk into his “good” and “evil” halves in the season 1 Original Series episode “The Enemy Within,” while The Next Generation character Thomas Riker was an accidental transporter-created clone of Commander William Riker. (“When it’s a ‘transporter episode,’ it is very basic to what makes something Star Trek,” McMahan summarizes. “The transporter causing problems is essentially saying Starfleet is causing problems.”) Since Biller had written the Voyager season 1 episode “Faces,” in which B’Elanna Torres is split into her human and Klingon halves (by non-transporter means), showrunner Michael Piller assigned him to bring Price and Gaberman’s story to life.

“Price and Gaberman got their $7,000 and a story credit, and I took it from there. Originally we called it ‘Symbiogenesis,’” — the evolutionary concept of a new life-form emerging from two or more distinct life-forms” — “but it was Michael Piller who called it ‘Tuvix.’ So that just inspired me to lean fully into the comedy.”

Janeway as Kurt Cobain singing “Come as you are ... unless you’re Tuvix” Image: CBS, MTV via startrekmemes/Reddit

The first half of “Tuvix” is good fun, mostly due to Tom Wright, a prolific actor who’s played just about every type of character. “How I get recognized a lot of times depends on ethnic makeup,” Wright says. “White people spot me and ask, ‘Seinfeld?’ Black people come up and ask, ‘Barbershop?’ But quite a few pick me off as Tuvix.”

Even though he wasn’t well-versed in Voyager, Wright thinks he had an edge during the audition because he knew Russ and Phillips. “They really are two different types of people,” Wright says. “Tim is very reserved, and Ethan has that big personality.” Walking the line between the two sounds like an exacting science. In some scenes, when he had to be attentive to Neelix’s kinda-sorta girlfriend Kes or work in the kitchen, Wright had to “favor the Neelix side, but I would shade in a Tuvok reference, like a glance.”

Robert Picardo, who played The Doctor on Voyager for seven seasons, recalls Wright stepping up to the challenge. “The fans already knew how Neelix and Tuvok behaved,” Picardo says of the tall order. “Neelix is so busy and high-paced, and Tuvok has the emotional range of A to B. How the heck do you combine those two? One character won’t stop moving; the other barely raises an eyebrow. Somehow, he did it.”

Picardo’s praise elucidates part of why the episode is talked about so fervently today. Wright, as Tuvix, emerges as an exemplary replacement both at Tuvok’s tactical station and in Neelix’s galley. He’s forthright and strong in the presence of Captain Janeway, he’s fun hanging out with Tom Paris over billiards, and he connects with Kes on his own terms. “He was a boon to the ship,” Picardo says. “So I remember being surprised when I read the script. I knew, given the nature of television, that everything had to be fixed in 43 minutes. But I was not expecting to read Tuvix saying, ‘I don’t want to die.’”

As the Voyager crew presses on for weeks with Tuvix filling in for both crewmen, The Doctor and Harry Kim (played by Garrett Wang) keep plugging away at a cure. They want their friends back, and eventually, they figure out how to split the hybrid. But Tuvix isn’t particularly keen on being zapped out of existence.

“[Michael Piller] was always looking for the moral angle, the emotional journey, the dilemma,” Biller says. “My original draft ended with them splitting Tuvix, him saying something very Starfleet about sacrifice, and Janeway was off the hook. Michael’s note was, ‘Make him fight for his life.’”

So Biller rewrote the script with the mandate that Tuvix was a new person, an individual. Janeway would decide whether to execute him. She settles on returning Neelix and Tuvok to their original selves, and in the final minutes of the episode, after begging for his future, Tuvix is suddenly gone.

“Much like the episode itself,” Biller says, “the making of the episode had an arc. It began silly [...] then turned into something dark and even profound. I mean, what could Janeway do? What would you do?”

Janeaway and Tuvix parody of Making of a Murderer Image: Netflix, CBS via startrekmemes/Reddit

Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard writer-producer Kirsten Beyer made her bones as an author of Voyager novels. As the writer of 10 of the 14 post-finale books, she knows more about the inside of Janeway’s head than most. And she’s ready to stand behind the captain.

“If they weren’t lost in the Delta Quadrant, they might have found an option that didn’t include killing a new life-form for the sake of saving two officers,” Beyer says. “Starfleet medical might have been able to help. We would feel better at the end with a third option. But we are denied that precisely because we are alone, far from home, and Captain Janeway is only given a choice between two terrible alternatives.”

Even though Beyer is, wisely, not on Twitter, she is aware of the memes. There was always chatter about “Tuvix,” but the riffs kicked into overdrive in the last five years, according to Ken Reilly, the editor of fan site TrekCore. Most of them are jokes, though many like to tag our beloved Captain Janeway with the epithet “murderer.”

“I notice those who disagree strongly with her choice are quick to add it to a list of failings ascribed to her character, and most often these failings are ones that might be seen as virtues in our male captains,” Beyer observes. “That’s always troubling. But in her shoes, I don’t know that any of them would have made a different choice. Sometimes, that’s what leadership requires.”

Jarrah Hodge, co-host of the Women at Warp podcast, concurs, telling me that this episode is frequently used as a “gotcha” to take Janeway down a peg when compared to the ethical standards found in other captains, like Picard. “I think we see a gendered double standard,” she says, while “questionable decisions from other captains fly under the radar.” She cites the time Picard forced two societies into breeding relationships in the episode “Up the Long Ladder.”

Claire Little, who works at NASA and boasts a remarkable “Live Long and Prosper” tattoo in Vulcan down her arm, adds that the increase in Tuvix-talk has its pros — like seeing a Punk Janeway cosplayer with “FUCK TUVIX” on the back of her vest at a recent convention — but concludes that “the topic is too polarizing.” This wasn’t always the case. Jim Moorhouse, a Trek podcaster and longtime convention attendee whose philanthropic zeal won him an auction to fire the phasers of the NX-01, recalls that, early on, the episode with the silly name didn’t become an ethical flashpoint. “The narrative when it aired was that people didn’t really like the episode,” he tells me. “And I think that was because of the unsettling performance from Tom Wright, who was just so good.”

TrekCore writer Alex Perry thinks today’s fans get so worked up over the episode because, at the end of the day, there’s no uncomplicated right answer. “She probably did the right thing for Voyager, but she murdered poor Tuvix with her choice.”

Janeway performing a Mortal Kombat fatality on Tuvix Image: Midway Games, CBS via startrekmemes/Reddit

And it is very much her choice. Once Tuvix says he’s not interested in reverting to the Tuvok-Neelix split, Captain Janeway spends some time gazing out at the galaxy from her briefing room, talking things over with her first officer, Chakotay. “If we’d had the ability to separate Tuvok and Neelix the moment Tuvix came aboard, I wouldn’t have hesitated,” Janeway says, later wondering, “At what point did he become an individual and not a transporter accident?”

“It became inherently political,” Biller recalls. “Personally, I do not believe in capital punishment, and we see later [in the season 7 episode “Repentance”] that Janeway does not either. But then there were shades of the pro-life argument. Of course, so many people who are pro-life are also pro-capital punishment, which is a very weird irony, in my opinion.”

After a scene of Tuvix trying to coerce Kes to convince Janeway to spare him, the drama cuts to the bridge, and the darkest moment in the entire Star Trek franchise. Tuvix is at his post, and Janeway orders him to step away, so she can speak to him alone. Tuvix knows his leola root stew is cooked. He looks to his crewmates, the people he was just playing pool with at Sandrine’s, and they all turn their backs. Tom Paris can’t even look him in the eye.

“No!” Tuvix shouts, and finally, most devastatingly, utters some truly chilling words. “Each of you is going to have to live with this, and I’m sorry for that. For you are all good, good people. My colleagues, my friends, I forgive you.”

“Those final scenes couldn’t be done half-assed,” Wright says. “I think for a few takes I tried to finesse it with ‘actor stuff.’ We got it to a place where I knew what I had to do.”

In sickbay, Janeway presents Tuvix to The Doctor, who had discovered a way to dehybridize flowers. But The Doctor will not perform the actual act that will end Tuvix’s life. Though a hologram, he’s been programmed to follow the Hippocratic oath, and, as they say, he can do no harm.

“It was the first time I disobeyed a direct order,” Robert Picardo remembers. “And Janeway takes it in stride. She doesn’t repeat herself, doesn’t accuse me of insubordination, doesn’t deactivate my program.” Though Picardo admits that many specifics of shooting Voyager have blurred a bit these decades later, he remembers “that moment when Janeway marches in. It was so out of the ordinary.”

After Janeway pulls the switch, Tuvok and Neelix return, and seem eerily fine. Janeway storms out of sickbay, with the weight of many worlds on her shoulders. Author Robb Pearlman, whose fandom-saturated, officially licensed work includes the bestselling Fun With Kirk and Spock and Redshirt’s Little Book of Doom, thinks Janeway is actually relieved The Doctor cites his oath. “She doesn’t want to put any of that on anyone from her crew, to make them live with that for the rest of her lives.”

Tuvix and Janeway as the radio star and video Image: CBS via Imgur

While “Tuvix” concludes with an act many would classify as murder, there are certainly extenuating circumstances. McMahan asks, “Does the good of the many [argument from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan] also mean the good of the two?” The text does not really support the theory that Janeway needs Tuvok and Neelix back to get the ship home. Things are running smoothly with just Tuvix.

“It’s a decision with which I disagree,” Mohamed Noor, a science adviser for the Star Trek franchise, says, “but it wasn’t irrational. I can’t say it is completely immoral.”

Along with his role in the current iterations of Trek, Noor is a professor of biology and dean of natural sciences at Duke University, and his work on fruit flies is weirdly relevant to the symbiogenesis scene in “Tuvix.” Not only do extra-chromosome organisms like Tuvix (called polyploids) exist, but Noor’s experiments with forced interbreeding have actually resulted in inherited behaviors from both parent species. It isn’t too common in mammals, but it does sound very Star Trek.

Though it was on a much larger scale, Noor compares Janeway’s action to Kodos from The Original Series’ “The Conscience of the King,” in which Governor Kodos, facing a food crisis on the colony of Tarsus IV, divided the colony of 8,000 in half and put 4,000 to death. “He wanted to guarantee the survival of the Tarsus colony by sacrificing ‘the many’,” Noor says, “and Janeway wanted to guarantee the survival of Neelix and Tuvok by sacrificing Tuvix.” Of course, Kodos is remembered as one of the galaxy’s most heinous executioners, while Janeway is the hero who brought Voyager home from the Delta Quadrant.

The proliferation of Tuvix jokes is likely born from years of distance. “I’d forgotten how dark the episode was!” was the refrain from nearly everyone who rewatched it before speaking to me. “Citing it as a comedy episode is like people who choose ‘I Will Always Love You’ as a wedding song,” Pearlman says with a sigh. “They don’t realize it’s about a breakup.”

And Voyager didn’t dwell on the magnitude of Janeway’s decision. Another wish most people had was for there to have been some further reference to Tuvix later in the series. He is never spoken of again. At no point in subsequent seasons was there even an acknowledgment between Tuvok and Neelix that they had once shared the same consciousness. Kirsten Beyer says she “filed that episode away” for when she needed to explore “how Janeway would act when there are no good options” while writing the many Voyager books, but as far as on-screen consideration, there’s zip. The silence sits in contrast to Picard’s noteworthy mind meld with Sarek, which was referenced in later Next Generation episodes, even though that show was similarly episodic. “It’s like Tuvok and Neelix were friends that hooked up at a bar late one night, then never wanted to acknowledge it again,” says Pearlman.

Tuvix as the younglings in the Star Wars prequels and Janeway as Anakin Image: Lucasfilm/20th Century Fox, CBS, Source

Despite a lack of aftershocks, “Tuvix” still brings the goods years later. “The way they designed everything was really smart,” McMahan says. “The audience knows, from the minute we see him on the transporter pad, that this guy is out of here at the end of the episode. No one is going to think Tim Russ and Ethan Phillips have both been killed off the show. But it still works.”

Every “will they survive?” beat in Star Trek automatically had more oomph than on a typical show because of The Next Generation’s first season. When Tasha Yar, a main character, got whacked by the big blob of tar known as Armus in “Skin of Evil,” it seeded paranoia with fans that anyone could go at any time. (Or maybe that’s just me, a fan who never quite got over that childhood TV trauma from 1988.) Even though I and many other fans — CBS’s John Van Citters tells me the second most joked-about single-appearance character after Tuvix is the interstellar Hefty bag that killed Lt. Yar — knew that the chances of two series regulars vanishing were next to none, disbelief was suspended in subspace.

McMahan says the Lower Decks staff has spent its fair share of time thinking about Tuvix, and that maybe there was a way to save the hybrid crew member. “Manipulate the transporter to create a clone, make a Thomas Riker of Tuvix, but don’t let him ever gain consciousness. You don’t let him become aware. You take that Tuvix and split him in two. Now you’ve got Neelix and Tuvok back, plus Tuvix is still alive. Everyone is happy. Dammit, it’s sci-fi! You can do whatever you want!”

But in the same breath, McMahan lands on a possible real reason we all keep making jokes about the cursed half-Vulcan half-Talaxian, about why “Tuvix” is one of the essential episodes of Star Trek.

“Finding a solution isn’t what this episode is for,” he says. “This episode wants you to feel bad.”

And so we try to work through the pain. Tuvix will never die, so long as we remember him. And so long as we’re bored at work, and texting dumb pictures to our Star Trek friends, we always will.