Warning: spoilers for “The Menagerie,” “Requiem for Methuselah,” Star Trek (2009), Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
As anyone who’s watched at least a minute of the show has likely noticed, Star Trek: the Original Series (TOS) was shot on, let’s say, a limited budget. All sorts of money-saving measures were put in place. Remember Elaan, the monarch with magical tears? Her bodyguards’ armor was made out of place mats. Too obscure? Okay. The transporters were created to avoid filming expensive shots of the Enterprise landing on each planet the crew visited. Obviously, some of these cost-cutting measures were more successful than others. “The Menagerie” two-parter was one of the more successful efforts, at least according to the Hugo Awards who awarded it Best Dramatic Presentation.
For those of you who don’t know the story, “The Menagerie” was cobbled together at the last minute to prevent production from shutting down. Gene Roddenberry took the original pilot (“The Cage”), which had a completely different cast than the series with the exception of Mr. Spock, and incorporated it into a new story which framed “The Cage” footage. You really have to wonder what was going through Gene’s head when coming up with the frame at the eleventh hour. “I know! We’ll have Spock steal the Enterprise and kidnap a cripple!”
Yes, “The Menagerie” is one of those stories where Spock does pretty much whatever the hezmana he thinks is best, everyone else’s free will be damned. Spock’s Vulcan utilitarianism makes him willing to do anything for the greater (and most logical) good, including sacrificing himself. Spock’s assuredness that he (and, in most cases, only he) can see the path to the greatest, most logical good has a flip side. While Spock’s brother might think he’s been chosen by God, Spock sometimes thinks he is God. For someone who preaches the Prime Directive, Spock sure doesn’t mind meddling with people’s personal lives. In “Requiem for Methuselah,” Kirk is distraught when Rayna, his android girlfriend of the week, dies (which, given his track record of dead girlfriends and convincing machines to commit suicide, shouldn’t have surprised anyone). So what does Spock do the moment his best friend falls asleep? Erase Rayna from Kirk’s memory in a mind meld. Whether this was the action of one bro looking out for another or an adolescent Vulcan eliminating a romantic rival depends on what side of the fandom you’re on. In any case, Spock did it without Kirk’s consent because he knew that Kirk would never give it. Kirk, after all, needs his pain. In the reboot film released in 2009, Spock has aged over a century, but has apparently not outgrown his belief that he knows what’s best for Jim Kirk. Having gone through a black hole into a new timeline, Spock runs into a young Kirk in a cave. Being Spock, he initiates a mind meld and essentially tells young Kirk, “This is the person you have to be or everyone will die.”
I’m not trying to knock Spock. I love Spock. If he were real and I had a time machine, I would totally give him a visit every seven years if you know what I’m saying. I’m bringing up Spock’s hubris to put his truly WTF actions during “The Menagerie” in context. He doesn’t break a million Starfleet regulations just because he cares for Christopher Pike. He does it because he cares for Pike and knows what’s best for him. Which is damn problematic given that Pike is what some might call “severely disabled.” Pike got radiation poisoning when he rescued cadets during a ship accident. Now, as Commodore Mendez explains, “His mind is as active as yours and mine, but it’s trapped inside a useless vegetating body. He’s kept alive mechanically, a battery-driven heart.” Pike uses a bulky electric wheelchair controlled by brainwaves to move and communicate. Flashing a light on the wheelchair once means yes, twice means no.
And this is where the story starts to fall apart. For me, at least. In a fictional universe where matter can be converted into energy and transported across space, where whales can be brought into the future in a space ship, where whole planets can be created from scratch, they couldn’t come up with a better wheelchair than that? Come on! Granted, McCoy lampshades this: “We’ve learned to tie into every human organ in the body except one. The brain.” I’m not buying it, Bones. ‘Cause two years later, you’re moving Spock’s brainless body around with a remote control like you got him at Toys ‘R Us. If Pike’s brain waves can maneuver a wheelchair then they can click a few buttons on a remote control. There’d have to be a few adaptations, but you’re Bones. You can cure a rainy day.
The truth is Pike can’t have dope-ass 23rd century adaptive technology, because his quality of life has to be shit. For the story to work, Pike has to be so abject, so pathetic that kidnapping him and taking him to a forbidden planet to be cured is the logical thing to do. Pike has to be a
walking, talking rolling, beeping disability stereotype so Spock can swoop in, kidnap him, steal the Enterprise, and go to Talos IV.
Kirk and Mendez try to regain control of the Enterprise but Spock has reprogrammed the computer. It will only go to Talos IV, a planet Starfleet personnel are forbidden to visit on punishment of death. This is the only time Starfleet uses the death penalty, so you know some messed up shit is going down on that planet. During Spock’s mutiny trial, we see a Talosian home movie showing why you should not want to go to there. (This is brilliant part of this episode. “Hey, Gene. How are we gonna incorporate all this video from the original pilot into the episode?” “Why don’t we just have Kirk and Spock watch the video?” “…You’re a genius!” Ah, sixties television.) Thirteen years prior, the Enterprise under the command of Captain Pike is lured to Talos IV by a phony distress call. The Talosians kidnap Pike and place him in a reality of their own creation with Vina, a Human woman trapped before Pike’s arrival. The Talosians create all manner of romantic scenarios to encourage Pike and Vina to breed. Pike tries to escape, reasoning that Humans are not fit for captivity even if they can have whatever their hearts desire. The Talosians eventually come to agree and release Pike and Vina. Vina, however, does not return with Pike to the real world, because her beauty is an illusion maintained by the Talosians. When she crashed on Talos IV, the Talosians healed her but, having never seen a Human, put her back together rather sloppily. She has curvature of the spine and numerous scars. She would rather stay on Talos IV alone than be disabled in the real world.
If you haven’t guessed by now, Spock is taking Pike back to Talos IV so he can be able-bodied and pretty with Vina. The Enterprise drops off Pike, who gets his nice able-body back, and leaves. Spock, in true TOS fashion, gets off without punishment.
It seems to be the perfect happy ending until you get to thinking about it. Pike and Vina are stuck on Talos IV for the rest of their lives. No one Pike knows and loves can ever visit him because Talos IV is forbidden for Starfleet members and generally regarded as the most dangerous part of the galaxy this side of the Romulan Neutral Zone. Their entire lives are observed and administrated by their Talosian “carers.” Pike and Vina are left in the 23rd century equivalent of a nursing home. The only way Pike and Vina are allowed to have their happily ever after is if it is far away from the rest of the Terran and Federation communities. They’ll be happier amongst their own kind, as the argument goes. Out of sight, out of mind.
But it’s not all bad. After Spock goes along his
merry logical way, something subversive, something queer happens. And I’m not talking about what goes down on the Enterprise after hours. Pike and Vina might look like happily-heterosexual-ever-after as they walk off into the Talosian sunset, but let’s remember that their able-bodies are maintained through Talosian mental woowoo. Every step they take, every move they make, the Talosian will be watching them and moving them. So, when Pike and Vina, to use a Peacekeeper euphemism, “reduce fluid levels,” at least one Talosian is right along with them. Now, you might say the Talosians are just acting as 23rd century, interspecies personal assistants. After all, here on Terra in 2012 AD, some PAs help their employers have sex and masturbate as normal functions of adult life. This is a bit different. The Talosians can feel what Pike and Vina are feeling. Which makes all their attempts to make Pike and Vina breed earlier super creepy, but now that Pike and Vina consent, the heterosexual couple walking off into the sunset is really on its way to a telepathic orgy.
Also, we can’t forget why the Talosians brought Pike to their planet in the first place. They needed a Human pair to populate their menagerie. There’s a possibility that Pike and Vina are making more than telepathic love to aliens; they might be making babies. If you haven’t heard, the world at large right now isn’t too big on cripples having kids. Parents with disabilities spell drain on society for a lot of people whether that be from the parents being unable to take care of their kids or the kids coming out disabled. That mentality has given us forced sterilization, inadequate reproductive health care, and kids being taken from their families just because their parents are disabled. The reproductive potential of Pike and Vina flouts that thinking. Admittedly, Pike and Vina probably don’t go on to have kids, because Pike is so against creating a Human menagerie for the Talosians, but its remarkable that even the hint of two gimps getting in the family way was allowed on air.
By no means does “The Menagerie” present a radical, imaginative rendering of what disability could look like in the future. There’s a lot of the same-old same-old going on. Disabled people are still seen as pathetic, the assistive technology isn’t functional or quite frankly cool enough, and the Human species is segregated by ability. However, Christopher Pike and Vina are among the oldest and most enduring images of disabled people on American science fiction television. By viewing their story from a disability rights perspective, Pike and Vina can be reclaimed as subjects in resistance: space crips. By having the audacity to exist and fuck (with the option of reproduction), Pike and Vina resist the ableist world order that would see them rendered sexless and “taken out of their misery.” And that’s why Vina gets to be in the blog’s header.
This entry is adapted from my senior thesis, “In the Uncharted Territories, Everyone’s Disabled and No One’s as Straight as They Think.”