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Ableism in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is one of the most memorable sci-fi shows of the 90s and more than 20 years after it first aired it’s still being discussed. Despite its flaws, DS9 is engaging with its deep setting and characters that still merit discussion. One of these flaws is the show’s ableism, or what would be generally described as the show’s disabled erasure.  Now granted, most shows have this problem; what makes DS9 stand out is that it is a part of the Star Trek franchise and Star Trek is socially progressive utopian scifi so this ableism and disabled erasure is far more important.

So if there are no disabled characters in the main cast, then this naturally raises the question of what is this post going to talk about? While there is a disabled character with Gen. Martok, a single supporting character with a purely cosmetic disability presumably as the result of combat isn’t terribly supportive. Also the fact that Geordi, a single character, existed on a show in the same franchise aired at the same time doesn’t count for anything in this discussion. Instead, it would be far more helpful to look at specific episodes: 2×06 -“Melora”, 5×16 “Dr. Bashir, I Presume?”, 6×09 “Statistical Possibilities” and 7×05 “Chrysalis”. So if you haven’t seen the show, or are in the process of watching the show, these are the big spoiler points and you have been warned. At the same time I’m going to assume some familiarity with the characters for the sake of brevity. I’ll cover the first two episodes this week and the second half next week.  Let’s jump into it.

Melora

Doctor Bashir ends up falling in love with a new officer when he develops a way for her to function in a high gravity environment. Meanwhile, Quark receives a death threat from one of his former associates. Memory Alpha summary

Plot Summary: This episode is a Very Special Episode about the disabled and wastes no time in establishing that as Dr. Bashir’s voice over talks about how Melora is the first of her species to join Starfleet and requires special accommodations due to her growing up on a low gravity planet, as we then cut to Bashir and Dax tinkering with a wheelchair. As they go to meet her they encounter O’Brien as the three of them discuss the difficulties that Melora will have in navigating the station. O’Brien asks why they can’t just transport her everywhere, and we are informed that Melora didn’t use anything other than the basic accommodations and that this is extraordinary. Bashir, being Bashir is clearly smitten with the idea of Melora that he has gained from reading records.

Our first shot of Melora is her struggling to make it out of the landing pad and is greeted by Bashir and Dax. They exchange greetings and Melora doesn’t put up with infantilizing crap as she takes the wheelchair, heads to her quarters and we get the opening credits.

The next scene is rehashing much of the previous scene, only with Sisko in the loop until Melora appears. And the conversation continues, which can mostly be summarized as Melora not taking any of their crap and Dax being assigned to go with Melora.

Bashir, still being Bashir, decides to check in on Melora off the clock. Melora apologizes for her speech and Bashir responds by being a patronizing ass, claiming that “all of these broad shots you fire. They’re your way of keeping the rest of the universe on the defensive, has to be.” This somehow has an effect on Melora and they go out for dinner. Melora again shows her assertiveness by getting into argument, in Klingon, over the quality of the food after Julian had ordered.

The next morning, Dax goes to Melora’s quarters and no one is there. It turns out  that Melora had fallen while retrieving additional supplies. Melora is taken to the infirmary where we get another conversation between her and Julian about Melora’s drive to independent and how “we all have to depend on one another in space” as it’s important that being able to count on one another is a two-way street. They leave the infirmary and we see where most of the effects budget for this episode went as they float in Melora’s chambers and become closer.

What follows is a sequence of Bashir figuring out a way for Melora to be able to function in normal gravity in a fine example of Star Trek’s technobabble, that eventually has Melora be stricken by second doubts about the procedure as it radically change her life and make her an outcast from home.

I’ve been neglecting to mention the B Plot with Quark as it isn’t terribly relevant to the discussion at hand and it’s fairly generic. Fallit ends up taking Quark, Dax and Melora hostage with the situation being resolved by Melora turning off the gravity and using it to her advantage. The episode ends with Melora and Bashi having a heart to heart as she decides to not take the treatment while Klingon opera in the background.

Analysis:  This episode is about disability and the way in which it is set up has to be addressed before anything else. While using an alien species to convey the isolation that the disabled feel from society has a certain logical appeal to it, this approach is also offensive. Using a fake disability instead of a real one just furthers the Othering of the disabled and reduces any sort of meaningful commentary that this could have to be toothless and abstract. In the future, disabled people aren’t an accepted part of the human experience, they’re relegated to an alien analogy. The ultimately meaningless nature of this allegory is reinforced by the circumstances of Melora’s ‘disability’ being the product of her species means that the entire plot of ‘curing’ her is packed with ramifications that a real disabled person wouldn’t face in a similar situation. While the premise is flawed and problematic, it’s not the only noteworthy thing in the episode.

Melora as a character is compelling; she’s as competent as any member of Starfleet and doesn’t take any of the patronizing nonsense that the other characters say with every other line. While this is acknowledged on some level, Melora points out “the truth is there is no ‘Melora’ problem until people create one”. Yet, this callout is not registered by the other characters as they keep engaging in that behavior. In fact, Melora’s outspoken behavior, despite the perfectly logical reasoning “sometimes they make me feel like a carnival attraction, so usually I prefer to keep everyone out” is completely ignored. Bashir getting through that exterior and having her warm up is supposed to show what? Bashir is a nice guy? Melora should just accept the everyday infantilization that she experiences as no big deal? That said behavior from others is fine because they mean well? There’s no good answer to this as the premise itself is bad.

A lot of the dialogue that the regulars are given is patronizing, and it’s not really worth really worth recounting as it is little more than mundane microaggressions. Bashir’s line about how extraordinary it is that Melora eschews anything but the basic accommodations required.  There’s nothing extraordinary or inspirational, it’s called living your life. The only way in which such a lifestyle is extraordinary is if you assume that people, especially the disabled, are lazy leeches who choose to live with their handicaps. This is brought up in response to O’Brien asking why she doesn’t just use the transporter to move around, which raises the perfectly reasonable counterpoint of why doesn’t the Chief use the transporter to move around the station? The question is ridiculous.

All in all, this episode is not good. It starts from bad but well-meaning assumptions and doesn’t question them. Melora is convincing as a disabled character to a large degree but that seems to be by virtue of Melora being given all the words that a disabled person would say, but zero understanding of those words. Any virtue it has in spite of itself and at the end of the day doesn’t do anything more than make the abled feel better about themselves. The nicest thing I can say is that it not a complete blueprint of what not to do. While this is the only episode about the disabled in such an explicit manner; it is not the only episode that touches upon the disabled and ableism.

Dr. Bashir, I Presume

Doctor Lewis Zimmerman arrives on Deep Space Nine to use Bashir as the model for his new Long-term Medical Hologram, but his past could unveil a dark secret which Bashir has carried since childhood.-Memory Alpha summary

Plot Highlights:  Bashir and O’Brien are playing darts when they are approached by Dr. Zimmerman, who wants to use Bashir as the model for the next generation of the EMH. In order to develop an accurate model, Dr. Zimmerman seeks to conduct a series of in-depth interviews with the people in Bashir’s life. Bashir makes a point of asking Zimmerman to not interview his parents, which is ignored in the name of the project.  Julian is unhappy bbut civil about the violation in front of the rest of the crew.

Once they are alone however, it is clear that there is an issue about a ‘little secret’ that has caused this gulf of resentment.  A secret that is conveniently stated to the Bashir hologram while O’Brien and Zimmerman are off to the side, Bashir is genetically enhanced. Bashir and O’Brien have a heart to heart over this revelation. O’Brien concerned about the violation of trust and the official repercussions while Bashir reveals a part of his self-loathing as well the circumstances surrounding his augmentation.   Bashir was severely developmentally challenged, “unable to tell a dog from a cat or a house from a tree” as well as physical problems prompted his parents to have “accelerated critical neuropathway formation” as a new Bashir was made. His issues aren’t just the stigma of being an Augment but also how he’s a new person. Julian is convinced that he’ll be removed from Starfleet.

Bashir’s father is insistent upon coming up with a proactive plan of dealing with this while Julian is resigned to his fate. He’s convinced that’s a fraud and that his parents replaced him, without giving him a chance. His parents, on the other hand, did it out of love and frustration that they couldn’t do anything to help their struggling son.

An agreement is reached, Bashir’s father is sent to prison in exchange for Julian being able to stay in Starfleet. The justification for genetic augmentation being illegal is given as,

200 years ago we tried to improve the human species through DNA resquencing. And what did we get for our troubles? The Eugenics Wars. For every Julian Bashir that can be created there’s a Khan Singh waiting in the wings, whose ambition and thirst for power along with this intellect. the law against genetic engineering provides a firewall against such men

The last scene is a reconciliation of sorts between Julian and his parents while the episode ends with O’Brien and Julian playing darts.

            Analysis:  Bashir secretly being an Augment is a good example of allegorical scifi. The show never tries to map being an Augment to anything in particular. Instead, it’s about being closeted, an idea that isn’t just limited to sexuality but also invisible disabilities.  This idea gives the episode some emotional weight, just enough resonance so that Alexander Siddig’s performance in this episode hits all the right notes.

I often describe Star Trek as the product of Gene Roddenberry being a strange hippy and the bioconservatism is one of the things that come to mind. This episode tries to deal with the idea of genetic augmentation, an idea introduced in the original series, and play around with it. Transhumanism, bioconservatism and disability is a complicated issue and this episode does the best given the context. The fact that Bashir was only augmented because of his unspecified developmental issues makes it instantly sympathetic. The vagueness of Julian’s condition avoids any real world discussion of eugenics but also makes it hard to create an understanding of what is allowed. The fact that genetic enhancement is permitted in the case of serious birth defects, raises the following questions of what constitutes a serious birth defect and if Julian didn’t have a birth defect, what was his condition?  If it is a birth defect, then what is serious enough? If it isn’t a birth defect, then it’s some other problem and who cares? A disability being a birth defect compared to something else shouldn’t make a difference. Instead, there’s an arbitrary line drawn in the sand and if your disability is on the wrong side, then you get some tech and are told to deal with it. This answer is less than satisfactory.

In context, this is justified by the fear of another Khan Singh, a man worse than Hitler, In order to understand Star Trek, it’s important to understand that a lot of Federation culture, or at least human culture, is a result of cultural posturing and collective cultural trauma from humanity’s history of Khan and the Eugenics War/WWIII. It’s somewhat strange, and the bioconservatism is patronizing, but it is part of the setting. This episode could have been better, but those ways would have been ultimately minor. ‘Dr. Bashir, I Presume’ works on a fundamental level that ‘Melora’ did not, the basic story and character interactions hold up.

Next week, I’ll keep talking about ableism, and Augments, in Deep Space Nine with the episodes ‘Statistical Possibilities’ and ‘Chrysalis’. Till next time.

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3 responses to “Ableism in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

  1. Pingback: Ableism and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Part 2 | Another Gamer Guy

  2. Pingback: And the Future Looks So Bleak: the Lack of Optimistic Scifi on TV | Another Gamer Guy

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