In the world of Star Trek, the Trill are an alien race. Humanoid Trills “join” with Trill symbionts. Or is it symbiotes? A casual fan can be forgiven for being confused about which term is correct, especially when so many fans use the two terms interchangeably. If you’re doing a DS9 re-watch and wondering what, exactly, the Trill should be called, we are here to help. Here’s what you need to know about the whole symbiote versus symbiont debate, in both Star Trek, and in other sci-fi media.
Which Is It? ’Symbiote’ or ’Symbiont’?
— Star Trek (@StarTrek) December 13, 2020
People often use the two words symbiote and symbiont interchangeably, particularly if they are fans of multiple sci-fi properties. Kyle Hill of the YouTube channel Because Science used both terms in an article teasing an episode on Venom’s alien origins, and SyFy also used both terms to describe Venom in an article about the science behind the character.
When it comes to the Trills of Star Trek, however, there is only one correct term. When you’re talking about Trills, you’re always talking about symbionts, something made very clear in Jadzia Dax’s dialogue throughout DS9, but notably in the episode Invasive Procedures, which features repeated use of the term “symbiont”.
Interestingly, both “symbiote” and “symbiont” are considered real words. Merriam-Webster lists both terms in its dictionary, noting that the word symbiote actually predates the use of the word symbiont by a full decade. Both words came into the English language in the late 1800s, and both words are defined by Merriam-Webster as meaning, simply, “an organism living in symbiosis”.
Is a Symbiote (or Symbiont) the Same Thing as a Parasite?
A symbiote (or symbiont) is generally considered to be slightly different from a parasite. A parasite generally causes more harm than benefit to its host, whereas the term symbiote indicates a mutually beneficial relationship between host and organism. In other words, if you have a parasite, but it provides a true benefit to you as the host, what you actually have isn’t a parasite at all: it’s a symbiote or symbiont. An example of a symbiotic relationship in the real world is the relationship between the clownfish and the sea anemone. However, in that example, the clownfish isn’t permanently attached within the anemone, as a Trill symbiont would be.
As for how the Trill people first came to introduce symbionts into their bodies, there’s no official explanation that’s been seen on-screen, though the topic has sparked some interesting fan theories on Reddit. But if another fan theory about the Trill on Discovery pans out, maybe answers will be forthcoming in the show’s fourth season.
The TNG episode The Host introduced the Trill species, and also introduced the idea that a human would have a difficult time being an appropriate host for a symbiont. However, that seems to have changed over the years, with Star Trek: Discovery featuring a human who has become a Trill host, something that has sparked a lot of fan discussion. In general practice, the Trills carefully select pairings of humanoids and symbionts, though exceptions to these more peaceful transitions have been featured on Star Trek, from time to time. For example, the DS9 episode Invasive Procedures established that a symbiont could be successfully implanted in a new Trill host that wasn’t approved by Trill officials.
Similar Alien Parasites Also Feature in ‘Venom’ and ‘Stargate’
— Warden Lady (@WardenLady) March 3, 2019
Two other sci-fi properties feature similar symbiont/symbiote creatures that are somewhat similar to the Trill of Star Trek. One is the Goa’uld, an alien race that rules the known galaxy in the Stargate franchise. Much like the Trill, the Goa’uld are sentient parasites that live inside the host’s body. Unlike the Trill, however, the Goa’uld have a tendency to completely sublimate the host’s personality.
A similar concept can be seen in the comic book and film Venom, where human Eddie Brock joins with an alien and gets superpowers in exchange. However, unlike in Star Trek, the alien parasite Venom is referred to as a “symbiote” and not a “symbiont”. Marvel even keeps a list of all the characters, both living and dead, that have played host to the Venom symbiote over the years. Both Venom and the Goa’uld tend to be referred to as “symbiotes” and not “symbionts”.
The word “symbiote” even started to trend on Google after being featured in the Venom trailer, in part because fans were amused at how the cast pronounced the word in the film trailer. In fact, The Wrap reported Sony actually changed the pronunciation that amused fans in the trailer, for the final cut of the film. That same report from The Wrap notes that the word “symbiote” is an invention of Marvel comics. However, Merriam-Webster lists the first appearance of the word symbiote in print in 1877, many years before Timely Comics (which would become Marvel Comics) was established in 1939.