Saturday, February 09, 2008

To Boldly Limp Where No One Has Limped Before

Incited to embrace my geek self by Emma (so blame her), I'm going to write a bit more about Star Trek and disability. I brought it up earlier, talking about "Is There in Truth No Beauty?" (ITITNB) in reference the the blind acupuncturist story.

Emma mentions Geordi, the blind engineer in Next Gen, asking how his situation compares with that of Miranda Jones. I'm not all that hep on TNG, so be ready to flame me with the hot coals of Trek wrath for my faulty knowledge on that score. But as to Miranda Jones in ITITNB, I will dare to speak.

Jones is introduced as an anomaly, a telepathic human who went to Vulcan to learn how to shut out the voices and emotions, both hers and others', that invaded her consciousness, as well as getting a respite there by being around people who knew how to keep their thoughts to themselves. She went on to become a psychologist, a profession in which being able to read other's thoughts might be an advantage. She's on board the Enterprise to assume a post as ambassador among a species that only communicates telepathically. That species, the so-called Medusans, are said to be so ugly that looking at them induces insanity. This is pretty unbelievable, since when Kollos, the Medusan ambassador to the Federation, is shown (to the extent that it is), it appears to an energy creature that can hide in a box. Maybe there's some sort of optical trigger that gets set off in corporeal minds, that is understood by those dealing with the unfortunates who had been exposed as "ugly." That I could buy, coming as I do from a personal background of migraines and seeing MD's seizure troubles; there's nothing like a bad flicker to make life unpleasant and painful.

OK, where was I? Oh, yes. Miranda Jones. Seems she was second choice for the job, which was originally offered to Spock. And seems she is feeling that others think she must be inadequate to the task if she was second choice, so one of her fashion accoutrements is a giant chip on her shoulder. The other is a fantastic web-like lacey affair that she wears over all her other clothes. It's quite lovely. I want one. And it is what makes Miranda Jones like Geordi LaForge. With it, she can sense the physical world around her, even being able to read heart rates and body temperatures. Seriously, why isn't everyone wearing one of those things? Looks great and beats the heck out of LaForge's plastic hair accessory. The other fashion accessory introduced is the IDIC, a piece of jewelry that Spock describes as representing Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. Jones thinks he's wearing it rub in her face that he's a better telepath than she is. Whatever his reasons, the idea of IDIC plays throughout this episode.

Back to our story. The sensory features of Jones's fashion statement are not revealed to the command crew until well into the episode. Before then, she gets the opportunity to jilt a lover, who decides that he can change Jones's mind if he shortcircuits the mission through murdering Kollos. Bad Decision Dinosaur would approve, for the obvious result is bwahahahahaha madness (not your garden variety mental illness, but the kind common only in Gotham City). In his agitation, loverboy Larry overcomes the entire engineering crew, navigates the ship to some unknown place outside the galaxy, and conveniently dies. The Big Three decide that their only option to finding their way home is for Spock to mindmeld with Kollos, since the Medusans have mad skillz in interstellar navigation. Jones would try to stop Spock, so Kirk decides to try his own loverboy routine on Jones in order to distract her.

With Jones and Kirk alone in the ship greenhouse, we learn that Jones went to Vulcan not just to get telepathic training, but to get away from human emotion, of which the worst, she says, is pity. Totally convinced of his own irresistable charm, Kirk yammers on about how she's going to miss being with her own kind, seeing and touching other humans. He moves in to close the deal he's making, inadvertantly exposing his thoughts to Jones. Too late, she races to stop Spock. Kollos has agreed to the plan (Spock having worn some sort of red filter that makes chatting with Medusans no problem whatsoever for Vulcans). Jones protests that she could learn all about navigation intantly and that it would be less dangerous for everyone if they let her do it instead. It's at this point that McCoy spills the beans about her blindness, telling her that piloting a starship is not among the things that her accessability device allows her to do. Spock and Kirk marvel at her overdress, Spock obviously geeking out on the tech. Seriously, if circumstances were different, Spock and Jones could completely hang together. They're both aloof, intelligent, annoyed by emotional display and willing to take chances. Spock asks why she thought it was necessary to conceal her blindness, what with it being so handy in dealing with the Medusans. Kirk, who previously had been baffled by her comment about pity being the worst of all human emotion, now buys a clue into the social model of disability, completely seeing her point that there were people who not let her succeed on her own merits if they knew she was blind.

Kollos, in its box, is brought to the bridge and placed behind a temporary divider. The meld goes smoothly, the ship gets safely home, and Spock/Kollos forget to put the red filter glasses back on. Thus the unmelding results in a dangerously agitated Spock, who gets put down with a phaser and dragged off to Sick Bay. Kirk and McCoy implore Jones to mindmeld with Spock, in hopes that she can bring him around. She reluctantly agrees but after several hours, there is no improvement. McCoy is resigned to Spock dying, but Kirk wonders if Jones is actually trying, what with her being professionally jealous of Spock. He barges into Sick Bay, where he finds that Jones has removed her webbing thing. He doesn't mention it, but picks it up, looking at her as she keeps asking who has entered. He glowers in fury, taking her relative state of undress for indifference. He then launches into her, saying that he thinks she's a cold-blooded jealous bitch who doesn't care about anyone but herself, and that if Spock died, it would be her fault for not giving a rat's ass. He storms out, leaving Jones standing like someone just hit her in the face with a particularly smelly mackerel. Kirk tells McCoy that he wasn't sure he did the right thing, seems confused and troubled by her being actually blind: "She was blind. Really blind. Really in the dark." Or is he referring to her not understanding her own feelings? But Jones shows that she can take criticism, deciding that she really wasn't trying very hard. And how does she show this? She puts on the lacey overdress, right? Nope. She leaves it where it was, and turns around to put her heart into getting Spock back to his usual self.

With Spock restored, Jones and Kollos prepare to leave the ship. Before departing, Jones thanks Kirk for the chewing out, saying that it enabled her to understand herself. After all, she had made it a point to block out her own feelings, so she really had become unaware of the scope of her motivations.

What did this episode really have to say about disability? Blindness was never presented as a hindrance to Jones in anyway. It was, in fact, a useful characteristic because it allowed her to deal with the Medusans directly. The disabilities she faced were societal (pity, and a lack of accessibility) and the usual individual ones that cut across the whole of humanity (jealousy, lack of personal insight).

Now, how does that one episode compare to the many in which Geordi figured? Well, Geordi doesn't feel a need to hide his blindness, so there's obviously been some progress. And for both, there is never a question among the humans about their right to existence as people with disabilities. I guess that's one of the lessons learned from the terrible Eugenics War of the 1990s. But I like that, for Jones, blindness is a trait that can be good, part of the entire package which makes her ideal for her job, and is otherwise no more important than the color of her hair. I don't remember Geordi ever being in a situation where being blind was an actual good, though I do remember a couple of episodes where it made him the weak link in the chain. I don't include having tech as part of the actual good. Jones being blind was good whether or not she wore the lacy thing. Geordi being blind was good only when being able to hack the banana clip was useful.

TOS took a similar approach to disability in "Plato's Stepchildren." There it turns out that Alexander's dwarfism is actually a good thing, because it has saved him from the fate of being an Insufferable Prick. He's the one that, as a viewer, you are expected to identify with: The little guy (both figuratively and physically) being pushed around by powerful interests mostly concerned with increasing their own standing. Kirk assures Alexander that, when he leaves the planet with them, that there will be plenty of other people of short stature and that being a dwarf wouldn't be any barrier to him. Even though showing rather than telling would be more effective, we are supposed to assume it is true. Probably that Eugenics War legacy, again. What I really like in "Plato's Stepchildren" is that Alexander--when given the choice--makes a conscious choice to identify as disabled in a society in which the only disability that matters is lack of telekinesis.

They were treating you the same way they treat me, just like me only you fight them. All the time, I thought it was me, my mind that couldn't move a pebble. They even told I was lucky they bothered keep me around, and I believed them. The arms and legs of everybody's whim. Look down. Don't meet their eyes. Smile. Smile. Those great people... they were gods to me. But you showed me what they really are. Now I know. Don't you see? It's not me or my size. It's them! It's them! It's them!

When offered the drug that would counteract his "biochemical deficiency" also responsible for his dwarfism:

You think that's what I want? Become one of them, become my own enemy?

Look at that. By himself, Alexander had adopted his society's disablism. But when he had the chance to bond with other non-telekinetics, he came to respect himself and understand the social model of disability. Isn't disability culture a beautiful thing?

Of course, not all is sweetness and light for folks with disabilities in the TOS generation. Despite all the progress made on other fronts, medical care for veterans injured in the line of duty remains grossly inadequate. Just ask Capt. Pike.


Emma said...

Oooooh Trek geek and disability all in one. I LOVE IT! Must take a hand at this at some point soon. And hey, Capt. Pike would get better medical care now than he did then - if he was real. Shows how wrong our visions of the future can be

yanub said...

I like to think of Star Trek as existing in a parallel dimension to our own. They have a Eugenics War in the 1990s and begin interstellar travel in the 21st century. We have different wars, and develop nanobots in the 21st century. But prior to that, we had the same histories. It's probably all Edith Keeler's fault.

Penny L. Richards said...


yanub said...

Hi, Penny! Everything about TOS is fabulous, in the original sense of the word. A good fable inspires further thought on issues it addresses and has relevance beyond its own time and origin culture.