While Star Trek has long been seen as a bastion of utopian science fiction, thanks to Gene Roddenberry’s enduring white liberal vision of a post-scarcity and largely post-discrimination world, if the final episodes of the second season of Star Trek: Discovery are any indication, the future remains no country for disabled people.
However many representational barriers Discovery appears to have tried to nudge its way through in its casting of the franchise’s first woman of colour lead in Sonequa Martin-Green and its depiction of its first queer couple, played by Anthony Rapp and Wilson Cruz, in the lead-up to tonight’s season finale, the show has revealed itself as stubbornly regressive in its attitude toward disability.
Discovery’s second season has been a time of course correction for the sometimes creatively bumpy show. Responding to fans’ lingering season one anxieties about Discovery’s position in the canon – including the matter of where the show fits with respect to the Original Series, given Spock’s heretofore unmentioned sister, Michael Burnham (Martin-Green) — the writers and executive producer Alex Kurtzman have assured purists, in interviews as well as winking nods within the actual show, that the ship is on course to sync up with the canon as everyone knows it. Central to that promise has been the show’s nostalgic drafting of the the franchise’s first-seen captain, Christopher Pike, played in the initially unaired Original Series pilot “The Cage” by Jeffrey Hunter, and played again in his older age by Sean Kenney in “The Menagerie.” The latter episode picked up with him after an injury in the line of duty necessitates his use of a blinking wheelchair controlled by his mind, with which he summons his old science officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy) to help secure him a nicer retirement home than the dreary starbase on which he’s found himself stationed.
Discovery’s Pike, introduced in the premiere after an offscreen tease in last season’s finale, lands somewhere between those two incarnations. When we meet him, Pike is on temporary loan from his assignment on the Enterprise. As genially played by Anson Mount, Pike is a paragon of healthy masculine authority and uprightness – a man who for all his swagger is every bit as trustworthy as last season’s captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) was shady. From his first episode, where a fortune cookie left behind in Lorca’s old ready room gives him an ominous hint of bodily dangers to come, the show has hinted that Pike’s virility is not long for this world, tinging his every appearance with a whiff of future tragedy.
That inevitability comes to the fore in the season’s penultimate episode, “Through the Valley of Shadows,” where Pike travels to a sacred Klingon monastery on the planet Boreth to retrieve a time crystal – long story – in exchange for a foreboding sneak peek at his future. As he touches the crystal, Pike sees the life-changing event previously described in “The Menagerie” play out in Discovery’s frenetic house style. Thrusting himself into harm’s way to protect junior officers amidst a radiation leak, the future Pike is severely burned, an image that’s apparently so indelible that when we cut to the present Pike he can’t help but stroke his face to make sure everything’s in place.
Yet the present Pike turns out to be in for a vision of an even worse fate. As he turns to face the sound of a mechanical whir in the background, we switch to a low angle follow shot from the perspective of a glowing blue wheelchair seating the post-injury Pike. What follows is a shot-reverse-shot duet between the two Pikes, as Mount sinks to his feet and forlornly reaches out to touch his scarred, silent future self, who is seated in a minimalist revision to the chair from “The Menagerie.” The sequence ends with a final linked pair of nightmarish shots, a centred close-up of the older Pike’s face beginning to melt as he screams matched with the younger Pike’s own horrified scream as he falls backward into the present moment, where he composes himself and selflessly decides to accept his fate for the sake of both his current and future crew.
Discovery’s brush up against the uncanny aesthetics of body horror and the gothic are less surprising than they otherwise might be in an episode that has already traded the usual Trek technobabble for the more fantasy-inspired language of secret monasteries and time crystals. Still, it’s jarring to see the franchise’s much-lauded utopianism evaporate, its genre register turn on a dime, the moment it is tasked with imagining disability as part of its future. There is, to be sure, science fiction potential in the conceit of Pike being seized by a haunting vision of what is to become of him – infected by his own apparently unavoidable physical and psychic trauma before it has even happened. And there is a poignancy to Mount’s performance as well as to staff writers’ Bo Yeon Kim and Erika Lippoldt’s script, which, in spite of director Douglas Aarniokoski’s grotesque visuals – seemingly borrowed from David Cronenberg’s The Fly, but minus the poetry – make room for Pike to sheepishly welcome what he describes as “a future that contains an ending I hadn’t foreseen for myself.”
One cannot help but be struck, though, by the imaginative paucity of this imagery, and at how easily a science fiction franchise that has envisioned seemingly infinite alternative futures and alien civilizations over its more than fifty year history has been reduced to pronouncing the mere act of sitting in a wheelchair as a grim unforeseen ending rather than either a new beginning or a continuation in a different form. One does not have to be disabled – though perhaps it helps – to marvel at how the very idea of a character some day sitting in Pike’s chair seems to undo Roddenberry’s entire utopian project, trading its creator’s vision of boldly going where no one has gone before for a hackneyed image that obviously comes from places where plenty of horror filmmakers have gone before: the disabled body as a terminal point, something to scream about in terror, and the embodied sign of no liveable future at all.
This is not to say that Star Trek has previously been the most fruitful space for depictions of disability. Yet it has, in the tentative and often hopelessly quaint register of all its attempts at progressivism, acknowledged disability as the source of embodied experiences that might be complicated by future technologies and evolving social mores. Roddenberry’s original depiction of Pike’s future, painfully stilted as it might seem in the historical rearview, is earnestly invested in what it might mean to imaginatively recreate the paltry existing world to care for returning veterans, whether it’s engineering them a bespoke wheelchair or working to secure them a gratifying virtual reality simulation for them to play out in their retirement. Whatever their individual representational weaknesses about deafness and mental health crises, the Next Generation episodes “Loud as a Whisper” and “The Loss” both approach the subject of accommodating for their disabled and temporarily-impaired characters’ accessibility needs and feelings of loss with real tenderness and curiosity. The Deep Space Nine episode “Melora,” about a visiting science officer whose species’ physiology makes her incapable of experiencing the force of gravity in the average human way and necessitates her use of a wheelchair, asks difficult questions about the show’s own design language, critically examining the eugenicist implications of creating a space station where wheelchairs cannot travel. What kind of enlightened future are we really imagining, the show seems to be asking of itself, if the spaces in which we live and work do not reflect the bodily needs of the people who might use them?
Discovery, by contrast, does not seem interested in raising or attempting to answer such speculative questions when it comes to disability, despite having just made something redemptive out of the so-called Vulcan dyslexia of its younger Spock (Ethan Peck) in the previous episode, and despite a strangely pointed glorified cameo, in recent weeks, by the ship’s lone wheelchair-user (played by George Alevizos, a wheelchair-user himself) scooting down a hall. Whatever their intentions, the writers cannot seem to fathom disability as anything other than a narrative graveyard – an unforeseen ending for an otherwise healthy man to accept with bravery, so that others might live better lives in his place. That might be fine for Pike, but it’s a disturbing ideological corruption of Star Trek’s potential – and its mission – to imagine otherwise, as well as an all-too-familiar message to disabled people that their lives are not worth projecting into the future.
Angelo Muredda is a Toronto-based critic, teacher, and programmer. His writing has appeared in Cinema Scope, The Walrus, NOW Magazine, and Film Freak Central. He is a curator at the Royal Cinema, where he programs the screening series No Future. He is also one half of Highly Logical – A Star Trek Podcast right here on That Shelf.
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