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.