Guest Blogger: In addition to being a Star Trek fan, RoAnna Sylver is the author of the hopeful-dystopian Chameleon Moon series, and is working on a vampire series Stake Sauce and Death Masquerade. You can follower them on Twitter, or check out their blog.
Spend time in a sci-fi fandom, and you’ll notice something, especially if you’re disabled. Even in universes where warp drive is everyday, disabled and physically/mentally ill people are conspicuously scarce, often absent. We’re told our presence would be “unrealistic,” but I think the reverse is true. It’s unrealistic, and very telling, for us to be missing.
Seminal SFF franchise Star Trek isn’t perfect, but it does better than most. Even non-Trek fans know Geordi LaForge from The Next Generation, the visually disabled engineer whose adaptive equipment lets him do anything able-bodied people can, and then some. But there are a lot more disabled (and disability-coded) characters throughout the series, including the new Discovery. No media is perfect, and often, Trek’s complex stories are simultaneously excellent and disappointing. But, fittingly for the forward-looking franchise, there’s a lot of reason to hope.
I’m most familiar with/fond of Deep Space Nine for its ongoing storylines, deep character development, and varied representation. It hits on mental illness the most, but it did have one episode dedicated to physical disability, at least allegorically.
Melora is a Little Mermaid retelling, in space. Cool, right? In some ways, yes. In others…I have questions. Her disability is relative: Melora’s species’ planet has very light gravity, so on the station, she requires a wheelchair and braces. The crew has a hell of a time adapting the station, so much that it bordered on…unrealistic.
Disabled people existing? Yes, please. A super-advanced future finding it just too difficult to accommodate them? That’s a stretch. Ramps don’t exist in the 24th century, really? Or are mobility-disabled people so rare we don’t need them anymore? The in-universe explanation is that it’s a Cardassian station, not Federation, which presumably would be more accessible. Still, the implications—basic access only entering anyone’s minds when an extremely rare disabled person requires—always gave me the willies.
Melora herself is pretty awesome, though, refusing to be anyone’s inspiration porn, and rejecting a possible “cure” that would have meant she could never return to her home planet. She would have lost something precious and uniquely hers. I and many other disabled people treasure our identities and selves the same way. It’s a good ending, and a good character, but the whole premise…yeah, willies.
DS9 gives us an even more complex case in the form of the genetically-enhanced Dr. Julian Bashir, and a bunch of other super-smart, super-fast people fandom-known as the Jack Pack—about whom I have more mixed feelings, enough for their own essay. (Powerful love for them, ‘It’s Complicated’ on their portrayal.) Genetic tampering is illegal after the Khan disaster, leading to the rightly-named Eugenics Wars, but still happen on the black market—and there’s the creepy reasoning behind ‘there are no disabled people in the future.’ We’ve been genetically weeded out.
Enhanced people aren’t blamed for being themselves, overtly, but they are almost always separated from everyone else in an institution—except for Julian, who’s able to hide his condition and contribute brilliantly to Starfleet medicine, and Sarina, once she ‘recovers’ enough to speak and pass for ‘normal.’ The episodes in which we learn about Julian’s past and Sarina’s future are incredibly powerful and hit home very hard. But they still make me yearn for better treatment and inclusion for non-neurotypical people, in-show and in real life.
DS9 does shine in other areas, particularly PTSD. More than any other series, this is a war story. The characters suffer, and thanks to the linear, continuing story format, we get to see them grow, recover, and navigate trauma.
There are so many characters who get amazing development here (Captain Sisko and his son Jake, Kira, Garak, Ezri Dax), but Nog in particular gets an incredible arc, going from punk Ferengi kid with no future he can see, to promising Starfleet cadet, to disillusioned combat survivor. He loses a leg to the Dominion war and spends around a month living in a hologram program; it’s a safe place that helps him recover, but he ultimately leaves it to face the real aftermath and people who care about him.
Leeta: Are you okay?
Nog: No. But I will be.
Halfway through Discovery’s first season, we’ve met Tilly, who has fabric allergies and seems to display signs of some ambiguous disorder (really seems like she’s on the autism spectrum), and Captain Lorca lives with damage to his eyes, and he and Lt. Ash both have clear PTSD. I hope we get more on these characters and their experiences, and that Discovery continues to include disabled/mentally ill people and write them respectfully, boldly going forward and getting better all the time.
If you’ve watched Discovery, what do you think of its representation of disability? Let us know in the comments!