Star Trek, despite having the best of intentions, has often been somewhat tone-deaf about disability.
It’s no surprise that a TV show set in a utopian-leaning future where we can travel to the stars would want to believe that we’ll have access to highly advanced medicine and technology, and be able to heal and cure that which we are currently unable to.
But it is perhaps a surprise that a show which celebrates diversity, and whose premise is based on embracing difference, would often intentionally erase people with disabilities from its purview, simply by telling them that they won’t exist in such a future.
Whilst, if it became an option, there certainly are some disabled people who would choose to have their particular impairment healed or cured, there are also many who see their impairment as a part of who they are, and would not want to change such an integral part of their own identity. To suggest that the Star Trek universe would or should erase such people and their identity is a dangerous precedent to set, and runs contrary to Gene Roddenberry’s inclusive vision for the show.
As the Star Trek story continues to push back the final frontier we should expect that every new life and new civilization encountered will bring with it new diseases and unforeseen ways of creating injuries and impairment, some of which will remain incurable and beyond the known ability to heal. Disabled people would certainly exist in the Star Trek universe, but what we should expect to be different is society’s attitude towards them, with the restrictive barriers that currently exist removed in favour of more equitable treatment.
With this in mind, it was incredibly pleasing to see a character who is a wheelchair user in the background of Star Trek: Discovery‘s season two opener, ‘Brother‘. The currently unnamed character, played by George Alevizos, is an Engineering crewmember aboard Discovery. He has already made a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance in the party scene of season one’s ‘Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad‘, but it was hugely refreshing to see him going about his duties on the ship, completely unremarked upon by his colleagues.
But not, however, unremarked upon by viewers – many of whom could not help shouting with joy at this unexpected and unfortunately rare sighting, of someone with a disability just getting on with their day. Representation matters. We all need to see accurate and fair portrayals of ourselves in fiction, but all too commonly a character with an impairment is used as a piece of inspiration porn, or to send the message that having a disability is awful and burdensome.
Showing members of stigmatised or marginalised communities engaging in mundane, everyday activities – a same-sex couple brushing their teeth together, a crewmember rolling to duty in a wheelchair – normalises them, and helps to further understanding, acceptance, and equality.
Alevizos is playing a Starfleet engineer who just happens to be disabled. No fuss, no drama. But as great as it is to have a background character with a disability, there are many who suggest – convincingly – that this doesn’t go anywhere near far enough in terms of positive representation. It’s not too much of a stretch to ask for a recurring named character with a disability, and interestingly enough in 2018 Discovery appeared to be casting for a character who uses a wheelchair, although whether or not this came to fruition is currently unknown.
Star Trek has, over the years, often tried to examine disability from different angles, with mixed results. In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ‘Ethics’, Worf (Michael Dorn) is involved in an accident, and would rather kill himself, or risk a dangerous and untested medical procedure, than live life as a paraplegic. Conversely, TNG‘s ‘The Masterpiece Society’ has Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton) using his VISOR technology to save a community that has used eugenics to remove ‘imperfections’ such as blindness, and where Geordi himself would not exist. And of course there is Captain Christopher Pike (Jeffrey Hunter/Sean Kenney), who is shown as severely disabled in the original series episode ‘The Menagerie’ (which uses content from the first rejected pilot ‘The Cage’).
There are many other examples that are worth examining, if you care to look for them. For now though, we’ll be celebrating the refreshing ‘just getting on with it’ quality of Alevizos’ background crewmember. With Discovery on increasingly solid ground with fans, and several potential new Trek series in the works, we can only hope to see more of this sort of thing in the future.