Star Trek, A Celebration of Difference

The end of the university term means marking. In order to get through the endless papers, I will often run Star Trek in the background, something made easier at the moment by Netflicks, which currently carries the original series and all the spinoffs. Fifty years on, and the Star Trek universe still holds my attention.
I grew up in the late 60s, but I don’t remember anyone in my house watching Star Trek. I saw the show a few times at a friend’s house—the sight of Spock and his ears comes back to me vividly—and we even re-enacted a couple of episodes. But the summer before I turned eleven, I lost my sight in a car accident, and I didn’t fully rediscover the show until my twenties.
Much of my teenage years I spent reading. I discovered fantasy, and authors such as J. R. R. Tolkien opened me to worlds I had never imagined. I also began reading science fiction—Asimov, Le Guin, Clarke, and Heinlein. And at the end of my teens, I started watching reruns of Star Trek.
At this point, I was maybe developing something of an obsession. At twenty-one, I remember climbing through my parents kitchen window one evening in June while they were out. They hadn’t left a spare key, and I wanted to watch Star trek on their TV. My wife and I were living across the alley, but we didn’t have cable.
Seeing The Wrath of Khan in theatres, then watching Next Generation on television, got me thinking differently about the show. I always thought of it as a series that pushed boundaries—it was, after all, the final frontier. But for some reason, I remember feeling disconcerted by the character of Geordi La Forge, the blind chief engineer on Next Generation. At the time, I never asked myself why the character of Geordi bothered me—perhaps if I had, I would have learned something more about myself as a blind person.
There were, however, things about Geordi that just drove me crazy. Early in Season 2, for example, Dr. Pulaski offers to give Geordi back his normal range of vision with ocular implants. And he refuses. Geordi’s blindness and his visor both define his character—I get it—but I remember thinking a number of times as I rewatched the episode, “Just take the goddam implants!”
I’ve always found the scene poignant for another reason. Diana Muldaur (Dr. Kate Pulaski) had two roles in the original series. In Season 3, Muldaur plays Dr. Miranda Jones in “Is There in Truth No Beauty?,” a young blind woman who is assistant to a Medusan ambassador. No one, of course, knows Dr. Jones is blind until near the end, and the outcome of the episode suggests she has to come to terms with the limits of her disability. Interestingly, in this episode, Spock must wear a visor whenever he interacts with Kollos, the Medusan ambassador, the sight of whom causes humanoids to go insane. Spock’s visor here seems a rough precursor to Geordi’s visor in Next Generation.
Introducing characters with disabilities is only one thing that has characterized the franchise. Difference of all kinds was central to the show from the beginning: Spock, with his Vulcan control of emotion, is the alien who comments endlessly on human behavior. The show also provided a range of both racial and ethnic perspectives through characters such as Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov. More than this, the show has dealt with the foreign, the alien, and the marginalized in every incarnation since the original series.
It’s the relentless attention to difference I’ve always appreciated about the show. Apart from Geordi, differently abled characters appear variously throughout the franchise: Riva, the deaf mute diplomat who speaks through his chorus; and Melora, the gravity challenged ensign on Deep Space Nine. Even Worf is temporarily disabled after an accident in engineering that crushes his spine. The franchise also raises same-sex issues, most poignantly in the Next Generation episode that introduces the Trill, and the episode in which the Enterprise crew work with a genderless race to recover one of their shuttlecraft.
As campy as the Original series was, it spoke to Jean Roddenberry’s vision of a future in which humanity confronts itself by encountering difference. That same vision persists through Next Generation, Voyager, Deep Space Nine, and Enterprise. It’s what science fiction does best. It gives us a mirror for all that is good and noble, ugly and evil; it looks straight back and shows us what we don’t want to see. Like Armus from “The Skin of Evil” in Next Generation, science fiction is a genre that shows us ourselves—what we fear, what we hate, and what we don’t want to confront.
Because I’m a blind person living and working in a sighted world, I think I found a way to connect with the show in a way Roddenberry might have intended—a show about difference, about the alien, about the demons inside. I understand what it means to encounter the unknown—I do it every time I leave my front door. If Roddenberry wanted us to encounter the unknown, both out there and within ourselves, then he’s succeeded. Exploration, non-interference, truthfulness, and tolerance are qualities that Starfleet strives to represent in all things, and even if many of the series read like a simplistic utopia, if every one of us incorporated a modicum of those qualities into our lives—just a little more than we already do—then we would find ourselves living in a better world.

Into the Woods: Disney in Name Only


Disney has made enough money from its filmic versions of fairy tales in the last seventy-five years to make Smoug’s treasure look like a piggy-bank. Since the 1937 release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney has been feeding us feature-length versions of fairy tales—and they’re still doing it.
I went to see Into the Woods, and I was a little surprised Disney decided to put its name to this project. Not that it isn’t a film worth seeing. Disney’s Into the Woods is a live-action musical, based on the musical of the same name by Stephen Sondheim. If you like musicals, and if you like folktales, you will probably like this film. My favourite characters were the Witch, played by Meryl Streep, and Cinderella, played by Anna Kendrick. The film has some fabulous moments, including Cinderella stuck to the palace steps as she sings out her indecision, and Agony, the duets sung by the two insufferable princes, played by Chris Pine (Yes, indeed, the latest Captain Kirk.)And Billy Magnussen. However, you will have to see the film and judge for yourself.
What surprised me was some of the darker elements from the Grimms’ folktales that find their way into the film. One note. Jack and the Beanstalk is not a Grimms’ tale; it’s English. The film makes use of Grimms’ versions of Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Red riding Hood in order to tell the story of Mr. and Mrs. Baker who attempt to break a curse on the male line of the family.
Anyone familiar with Disney is aware of how the corporation tends to sexualize its princesses—all you need do is rewatch The Little Mermaid. But this film takes things to a different level—namely, when Red Riding Hood makes her way to Granny’s house. Little Red, played here by Lilla Crawford, meets the wolf, played slaveringly by Johnny Depp. Red offers the wolf a self-possessed, “Hello Mr. Wolf,” and then endures his fawning and slavering before carrying on to Granny’s. The scene is disturbing in its overtones, and the sexual nature of the wolf’s interest smacks more of Charles Perrault’s Little Red Riding Hood than it does Grimms’ Little Red Cap.
The Grimm Brothers show Red Cap as a child, and she’s clearly a child in the film, which makes the wolf’s appetite that much more disturbing. Red learns her lesson, as she is saved from the wolf’s belly by the woodcutter, but her song about being “excited and scared” puts a different spin on Red’s experience.
I was also struck by the use of the Grimms’ Cinderella in the film. This is not the version of Cinderella with which most people are familiar. In Grimm, the stepsisters cut off first a toe and then a heel in order to fit a foot in the slipper. In the film, the stepmother obliges each of her daughters by thwacking off first a toe and then a heel in the hopes one might marry the prince. Cinderella’s helper birds arrive not long after to blind the stepsisters for their cruelty. These details are one thing to read in Grimm, but they are something else to see on the screen. The stepsisters later show up wearing dark glasses and carrying canes, which suggests some black humour that’s a far cry from the folktale.
Remember, I liked this film. Parts of it were a little hard to take, but the music carries the two hours, despite the weird restart of the plot once the giant’s wife shows up to find and kill Jack, who is, of course, responsible for her husband’s death. Disney’s retellings of such fairy tales are often dark, sometimes sexual, and always follow a formula. Into the Woods is not a Disney production, but it does carry Disney’s name, which says something about the corporation and where it’s prepared to put its money.