When I reviewed “The Loss” from Next Generation, I wrote about my general disappointment with the show. At that point, I’d only seen up to season four, and I felt it was bogged down by too many crew meetings and negotiations. Well, now that I’ve seen the series in its entirety, I have to say that I ended up loving it. Season five was an overall masterpiece, especially the episode “The Inner Light” – it changed my attitude toward the show, and the episodes continued to impress until the end of the series. The episode I’m reviewing now, “Ethics,” is the 16th installment from season five. I decided to review it because it’s sort of the opposite of “The Loss”; while there are a few misfires regarding disability, “Ethics” tends to get it right. I expected lots of cringe-worthy moments based on the synopsis and ableist trailer, but was pleasantly surprised by the points raised in the script. So let’s take a look at the episode, and see if you agree.
We open with Worf and La Forge investigating some chemical leak in cargo bay three. As they scan the area, they discuss a recent poker game. Thanks to his VISOR, Geordi can see through the cards, but he only admits to peeking after the hand is over. I liked this little banter between the two because it connects the reality of disability with everyday life. Some suggest that Geordi’s disability/VISOR are only used to make him “special” or “superhuman,” thus falling into a disability trope, but I disagree. His VISOR helps him navigate the world, just like my wheelchair helps me navigate the world. The fact that his VISOR can sometimes be helpful in a mission or, in this case, give him an advantage in a poker game, doesn’t take away from his fully-developed character; he has a backstory, love interests, hobbies, a personality, etc. TNG doesn’t focus on his disability – it is treated as part of who he is, but does not define who he is. What his VISOR can do is just a reality of the adaptive technology of that time period. My wheelchair can do some pretty nifty things as well, but that doesn’t make me “superhuman.”
Anyway, as they continue to investigate, a container falls on Worf and he’s knocked out. In sick bay, Dr. Crusher tells him his spinal cord was damaged, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down – there’s no way they can repair that kind of injury. Worf’s gives a look of confusion and shock . . . roll the opening credits!
A Captain’s log informs us that the neurospecialist Dr. Russell from the Potemkin has arrived to assist in Worf’s care. Crusher meets her in the transporter room, and the two discuss Klingon neurological medicine, which is primitive at best. Crusher says it’s because Klingons usually let a patient die in a case like this, so there is no need for any research on such trauma. She then begins to tell Russell about Worf’s difficult time in dealing with his injuries, and how his personality might affect his care. Russell stops her, stating that she wants to keep a discreet distance to give her unbiased medical opinion. Fair enough, I guess, though it doesn’t hurt to get to know your patient a little bit. I mean, you are treating people that have emotions and personalities that might affect how they receive your care.
Riker stops by to see Worf in his private room. He tries to be jovial, but Worf is having none of that – he asks him to sit down. The following conversation ensues:
WORF: Thank you for agreeing to see me in this condition.
RIKER: I’m not a Klingon. I don’t think there’s any shame in someone being injured.
WORF: I’m not merely injured, Commander. Doctor Crusher believes my paralysis to be permanent.
RIKER: I’m sorry.
WORF: I have a personal favor to ask.
RIKER: Name it.
WORF: I want you to assist me in performing the Hegh’bat ceremony. I want you to help me die.
WORF: When a Klingon can no longer stand and face his enemies as a warrior, when he becomes a burden to his friends and family, it is time for the Hegh’bat. Time for him to die.
RIKER: There must be other options.
WORF: No, there are not. I will not live as an object of pity or shame. My life as a Klingon is over.
RIKER: Mister Worf, I will not help a friend commit suicide.
WORF: You and I have served together for many years. Fought side by side. I know you to be a brave and honorable man. If you truly consider me a friend, help me now. Help me end my life as I have lived it, with dignity and honor. Please.
There’s a common belief in society that it is better to die than to be disabled, especially if that disability is pervasive. There’s also a belief that disability is something that should be hidden from public view, something to be ashamed of; this is one reason why we put people with disabilities in institutions. Words like “dignity” and “honor” are frequently related to Klingons, and often used in arguments about doctor-assisted suicide, so their use here is doubly appropriate. I like how these ableist attitudes are addressed here through Klingon ritual philosophy. In Star Trek, humans are seen as enlightened, having moved beyond bigotry into a world of tolerance and acceptance. Since this show was written in the late 80s/90s, we don’t always see that portrayed effectively on screen, but the message is still there. In the above scene, we see how Klingons, who value physical health and strength above almost everything else, view disability in comparison to humans. For me, Worf’s attitude (and thus, the general Klingon attitude) reflects how society treats/reacts to disability in today’s world, whereas Riker’s attitude reflects where we should and could be. So I thought this scene was really well done. It tackled these ideas while remaining realistic. When someone becomes paralyzed, it is difficult, and that can’t/shouldn’t be denied – your life is going to change in various ways, which can be hard to adjust to. Just like if I suddenly became able-bodied, I’m sure it would be a challenge to get used to. This doesn’t mean that one’s life is over, though, or that they should give up. When Worf tells Riker his condition may be permanent, there is a flash of shock across Riker’s face before he says “I’m sorry.” Great acting by Frakes, as he doesn’t overplay the shock and his apologetic words come across as “sorry you’re going through this” rather than “sorry you’re now disabled.”
Back in the medical lab, Crusher and Dr. Russell discuss how various treatments aren’t working. Russell mentions all the redundant organs in the Klingon body, then brings up her experimental treatment that replicates body parts. The success rate is 37%, and has only been performed on Holodeck simulations – never on a living being. Russell wants to try it on Worf, but Crusher won’t allow it. Before they can argue, Picard summons Crusher to the bridge.
On the bridge, we learn that the transport ship Denver struck a mine left over from the Cardassian war, and they’re about to crash land on a planet. Picard orders his crew to prepare for the injured; Crusher wants to set up triage in the empty cargo bays, and anyone with medical training to report for duty. Riker asks to speak to Picard in his ready room. The two discuss Worf’s accident and his request for Riker to end his life. They go back and forth as such:
PICARD: I understand from Doctor Crusher that Worf will never regain the use of his legs.
RIKER: That doesn’t mean his life is over.
PICARD: That’s a very human perspective, Will. For a Klingon in Worf’s position, his life is over.
RIKER: I can’t accept that.
PICARD: Will, if you were dying, if you were terminally ill with an incurable disease and facing the remaining few days of your life in pain, wouldn’t you come to look on death as a release?
RIKER: Worf isn’t dying and he is not in pain. He could live a long life.
PICARD: You or I could learn to live with that disability, but not Worf. His life ended when those containers fell on him. We don’t have to agree with it, we don’t have to understand it, but we do have to respect his beliefs.
RIKER: I can respect his beliefs, but he is asking me to take an active role in his committing suicide.
PICARD: He’s asking for your help because you’re his friend. That means that you’re going to have to make your decision based on that friendship.
I go back and forth with myself about this part of the episode. I’m on Riker’s side completely here, and Picard comes across as simultaneously dismissive and trying too hard to be a Good Starfleet Officer. It’s like his attitude toward the Prime Directive that annoys me sometimes. Oh, all of these people on this planet might die, but WE MUST NOT INTERFERE BY SAVING THEM! Picard is doing that here, but on an individual level. Worf wants to commit suicide, and Picard seems okay with this because respecting his beliefs trumps saving the life of his friend. What I go back and forth on is – what is the show trying to say here? Are we supposed to think Picard is making sense? Or is it just giving us an opposing viewpoint to think about? Regardless of the intentions of the writers, this made me uncomfortable. That’s probably because I’m a fan of Picard and his statements here were disappointing to me.
In Troi’s quarters, Alex (Worf’s son) wants to know why he isn’t allowed to see his father. Troi explains that he’s embarrassed from his injury, and Alex says, “My mother always said that Klingons had a lot of dumb ideas about honor.” Troi tells him that the Klingon stuff is important to Worf, and Alex states it isn’t important to him and he just wants to see his dad. Seriously, let the kid see his father. How can you keep him away?
Back in Worf’s hospital room, Troi tells him to stop worrying about honor and think about his son. Crusher and Russell enter the room, and Worf is introduced to Russell. She says they discussed various surgeries but none of them would repair his spinal cord. They did find a way to regain 60% of his mobility: a “series of neural transducers in [his] lower torso and legs . . . [that are] designed to pick up the electrical impulses from [his] brain and stimulate the corresponding muscles.” Russell attaches a motor assist to his leg, and instructs him to move it. Worf makes his leg jerk, and Crusher says it is good for a first try. Ripping off the device in disgust, he says: “I will not be seen lurching through corridors like some half-Klingon machine, the object of ridicule and disgust!” Crusher implores him to think about it before making a decision. Russell mentions the other option, her experimental genetronic replication that will return his mobility completely “without the need for artificial implants.”
This scene is a good exploration of how society/disabled people/doctors view adaptive devices. Worf’s discomfort in using them, his embarrassment in being seen with them, is true in both disabled people and society. I am not saying disabled people should be embarrassed by using various devices (we absolutely should not – I want to stress that), but internalized ableism often leads to that feeling. Society tends to stare and feel uncomfortable when they see someone with adaptive equipment. Media tells us that crutches, wheelchairs, canes, artificial limbs, and other devices are not attractive. All of this is internalized by the person with a disability. That’s why disability pride is so important, because we need to counteract this nonsense. I liked Dr. Crusher’s approach to Worf. She was aware that he’d be reluctant to try this method, but she still left it up to him on whether or not he should use the device. There was no pressure whatsoever. Russell, on the other hand, is a jerk. She automatically dismissed the implant, going right for the super risky surgery that would “cure” him. To her, artificial implants/adaptive devices aren’t optimal, and the patient must be “fixed”. There are actual doctors like this, so I thought the episode did a good job showing two sides of the coin.
Back in sickbay, Crusher essentially reprimands Russell for recommending the experimental treatment to Worf, saying: “He’s grasping for straws and you’re giving him one. Now, instead of dealing with his paralysis, he’s going to be thinking about this miracle cure of yours.” Russell says there’s a real chance it could work, and it will be a major breakthrough if it does. Crusher reminds her that Starfleet Medical turned down her request to test on humanoids three times, and Russell asks Crusher if she’s going to “hide behind the rules of some bureaucracy” if her patient’s “life is at stake.” Before our dear Crusher can retaliate, Picard calls her from the bridge, saying they located the survivors from the Denver – they will be transporting them on board. Russell offers her assistance, to which Crusher accepts. God, I hate Russell. I wanted to throw things at my screen whenever she was on.
Alex and Troi go to see Worf; he says there is a lot to discuss, and hard times are ahead, but he “must be strong.” Attempting to stand and walk with his implants, he falls on the floor. Worf yells at Troi to take Alex away, embarrassed by his situation. Again, Worf pretty much embodies internalized ableism and society. In the shuttle bay triage, Crusher is talking to Russell about one of the patients from the Denver who died. Russell admits to using an experimental treatment to help him instead of another treatment that would have saved his life. What the fuck? She says she “[makes] no excuses for [her] approach to medicine,” and believes her experiments will help save thousands of lives in the future. Crusher relieves her of all medical duties because Russell is clearly an asshole. And also a dangerous, unethical doctor.
In Crusher’s office, Picard arrives on his way to look in on Worf. She says not to expect much conversation because “he’s in full Klingon mode: honorable, strong, and closed minded.” Picard heard she relieved Russell of duty, and suggests she should let her perform her experimental procedure on Worf. He says, “if he can’t make a full recovery, Worf will kill himself.” Crusher states she will never let him kill himself, even if that means keeping him restrained in sick bay for months, or even years.
CRUSHER: Suicide is not an option. Putting aside for a moment the fact that a paraplegic can live a very full life, there is also a conventional therapy that could restore much of his mobility.
PICARD: But not all of it.
CRUSHER: No, not all of it! There are some things I can’t fix. Klingon or not, he is going to have to accept his condition.
PICARD: Beverly, he can’t make the journey you’re asking of him. You want him to go from contemplating suicide to accepting his condition and living with the disability, but it’s too far. The road between covers a lifetime of values, beliefs. He can’t do it, Beverly. But perhaps he can come part of the way. Maybe he can be persuaded to forgo the ritual in order to take the chance at regaining the kind of life he needs. A Klingon may not be good at accepting defeat, but he knows about taking risks.
CRUSHER: The first tenet of good medicine is never make the patient any worse. Right now, Worf is alive and functioning. If he goes into that operation, he could come out a corpse.
PICARD: This may not be good medicine, but for Worf, it may be his only choice.
Picard, really? This is the ultimate facepalm moment for me. I mean, hooray for Crusher, saying that a paraplegic can live a very full life (YES, THANK YOU), and I’m glad the show has put that notion front and center in this episode. But Picard just comes across like he doesn’t give a fuck. He’s trusting this doctor who obviously has ulterior movies. He also puts far too little faith in Worf, assuming he’s completely set in his beliefs, forgetting he was raised by humans. And he’s asking Crusher to go against her best medical knowledge as well as her ETHICS (shout-out to the episode title!) just to maybe give Worf the use of his legs back. As Crusher says, he could very well die on the table – the odds are not in his favor. Despite what Picard thinks, this is not Worf’s only choice.
We return to Worf’s room, and Riker enters, carrying a knife and robe. He says he’s been studying the Klingon suicide ritual, and he finds it “despicable. . . . The casual disregard for life, the way it tries to cloak suicide in some glorious notion of honor.” Riker tells him that, according to Klingon law, the oldest son must perform the ritual. Later on, Alexander walks in the room. Worf says: “I have taught you about Klingon customs, the beliefs which we value. According to tradition, I must take my life after suffering this kind of injury. But I have decided to break with tradition. I have decided to live.” Cue a tear streaming down my face. He goes on to explain the dangerous surgery he will undergo, stating he might still die, but not at his own hand. Okay, guess he’s going through with the surgery. He gives the knife to Alexander, instructing him to take it back to their quarters. Later, Troi enters and Worf asks her to raise Alexander if something happens to him – she says she’d be honored. That poor child.
I get why the show had Worf go through with the surgery. It adds drama to the episode (will he or won’t he die?), and we know they weren’t going to have him remain paralyzed. I’m not saying that would be a bad thing, because it would be awesome to have two disabled characters represented on Star Trek, but realistically I knew they wouldn’t do it. And that’s a sad thing, but I can’t really be mad at this episode for it. I understand that some people might think the show is suggesting it is better to risk your life than to be paralyzed, but I believe Crusher’s opposition throughout the episode suggests otherwise.
Crusher, Russell, and Ogawa perform the surgery on Worf, but he dies on the table – or so they think. This is a TV show, after all! Worf’s is registering synaptic functions on the monitors. Crusher does some medical-y things to revive him, and he’s aliiiive. Despite the ultimate success of the operation, Crusher still tells off Russell, stating: “You put your research ahead of your patient’s lives, and as far as I’m concerned that’s a violation of our most sacred trust. I’m sure your work will be hailed as a stunning breakthrough. Enjoy your laurels, Doctor. I’m not sure I could.” YES. I love you, Crusher. If I could give you standing ovation, I totally would.
In the final scene, we see Worf walking with the aid of parallel bars, and he slips. Alexander goes to help him, but Troi holds him back, telling him his father wants to do it by himself. Worf says: “It’s all right, Counsellor. I would appreciate some help from my son. We will work together.” Loved the ending! It shows how Worf learned that needing help isn’t a dishonorable thing, and he can trust his son to give him that help. I doubt he would have been so open-minded right away if he didn’t go through with the surgery and remained paralyzed, but it does give me hope that he would have come around eventually.
As always, let me know what you thought of this episode in the comments. I hope you enjoyed my review, and please support the blog by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or via smoke signals, carrier pigeon, singing telegram, or word of mouth. Thank you!