Disability in Star Trek Papers

Wednesday, 06 March 2013 13:58

In the next two months, I will be delivering two papers on disability in Star Trek. I am officially living the geek dream! I have wanted to present on Star Trek for many, many years now, but always felt like I should choose more literary or "high-culture" examples to discuss at academic conferences. Then I remembered: I'm an independent scholar! I can talk about whatever I want. Enter: Star Trek. Since a few people have expressed interest in my papers, I am posting the abstracts for them here. If I have the time and inclination, I also would like to post the completed full papers once I have delivered them.

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For ICFA

Blink Once for Yes: Remaking Disability in Star Trek

From reproduction technologies that seek to eradicate and limit the reproduction of disabled people, to prostheses that replace missing limbs and extend the function of the body, technology is an essential component of cure narratives in many science fiction scenarios. We can see an evolution of the representations of “cures” or “fixes” for disability on the SF screen, for instance, through the figure of Star Trek’s Captain Christopher Pike. In the Star Trek: The Original Series episode, “The Menagerie” (1966) Captain Pike (played by Jeffery Hunter) is severely injured during battle, leaving him confined and dependent on a wheel-chair unit (operated by his brain waves) that encases his body, leaving only his badly burn-scarred face visible. To communicate, Pike’s chair is equipped with one large light which blinks once for yes and twice for no. This Original Series Captain Pike is pitiable, and Captain Kirk – the very embodiment of masculine health and vitality as played by William Shatner – struggles to gaze upon his old mentor. Fast forward to 2009 when director J. J. Abram’s glinting reboot of the Star Trek franchise hit the screens and reimagines the iconic disabled figure of Pike (now played by Bruce Greenwood). While still injured in battle, Pike clearly earns his wounds as a hero, and is shown in the final scenes of the movie in a low-key wheel-chair, smiling, and fully functioning aside from his inability to walk. 2009’s Captain Pike is a far cry from 1966’s – the representation of his character’s disability demonstrates the change in cultural attitudes towards people with disabilities (i.e. less monstrous, more heroic), as well as highlighting the advancement of the technological “fixes” for disability. Despite the gains we see through the figure of Captain Pike, the desire to cure his injuries and return him to – or get him closest to – the idealized vision of the perfect/normal body remains. In a wheel-chair, he is a deviant body and portrayed as being no longer in a position to be the active leader of a starship (and therefore must pass off his role to the able-bodied Kirk).

In a utopian vision, like that played out in the Star Trek universe, when integrated into the able body, technology makes the human body better, an idealized version of itself. When technology is applied to the disabled body, however, all too often it is in an attempt to cure or normalize what is deemed “wrong” with the body. Take the technology away and the disabled body’s supposed lack remains. In this paper, I will analyze the ways that the two representations of Captain Pike speak to a shift in our (Western) cultural understanding and acceptance of the disabled body and its relationship to the technologies that attempt to cure and contain it.

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For Eaton/SFRA

Shadow of the Man: Reading Disability in the Star Trek Universe

From Star Trek: The Original Series to J.J. Abrams’ filmic reboot, Star Trek in 2009, the Star Trek universe is rich in its representations of disability. Throughout its forty-six year history, the space opera franchise has reflected the Western cultural attitude towards disability and people with disabilities, a vision that, while well-intentioned, is often contradictory and ableist. As Tobin Siebers argues, “the ideology of ability makes us fear disability, requiring that we imagine our bodies are of no consequence while dreaming at the same time that we might perfect them. It describes disability as what we flee in the past and hope to defeat in the future” (Disability Theory 9). While I will touch on examples from across the series, for the purposes of this paper, I will focus my main analysis on the last Star Trek: The Next Generation motion picture, Stuart Baird’s Nemesis (2002). This film is an excellent example of the two main disability narratives prominent in Star Trek: first, the positioning of disabled peoples as exploitable bodies, and second, the potential of disability to be a positive, transformative experience once it is eliminated or “cured.” I will draw on key Disability Studies theorists to frame my analysis, notably Siebers, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, and Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell.

In their foundational work, Cultural Locations of Disability, Snyder and Mitchell state: "In a culture that endlessly reassures itself that it is on the verge of conquering Nature once and for all, along with its own “primitive” instincts and the persistent domain of the have-nots, disability is referenced with respect to these idealized visions. As a vector of human variability, disabled bodies both represent a throwback to a human prehistory and serve as the barometer of a future without 'deviancy'” (32).
These two parallel disability narratives play out in Nemesis within the dominant storyline of Shinzon, Picard’s ailing clone, and the subplot of B-4, an early prototype of the sentient android (and as “good as human”) Data. Reading the film through the lens of disability studies, I am interested in examining the ways the audience reads both the fleshy Shinzon and the synthetic B-4 as inauthentic, primitive versions of the “real” Picard and Data. Each “copy” carries out different responses to living with their deviant bodies: the unevolved B-4 is unaware of his limitations and is therefore exploitable, while Shinzon, on the other hand, is fully aware of his status as other (he says, “I am the shadow of the man. The echo of the voice”) and chooses to enact his limited agency through violence and redirected repression. I am particularly interested in how the divergence between the two representations (B-4 is pitiable, yet expendable, while Shinzon is offensive and deserving of death) speak to our current cultural anxieties about expanding rights and visibility for people with disabilities. Star Trek explores not only what it means to be human, but who gets to be counted as human.

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