In the sixth episode of the second season of Deep Space Nine, the crew of DS9 welcome a new ensign aboard who was born on a low-gravity planet. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
Trigger Warning: Discussion of ableism.
You know, I honestly did not expect this episode to go as well as it did. As best as I can, I’m going to avoid trying to speak for the disabled community because it’s not my job to do so, but I think there are some elements here that surprised me because I’m so used to shows using disabled people in their stories to make us able-bodied folks feel better about our lives.
As I said in the video for “Melora,” I’m shocked that it’s taken this long for Star Trek to finally introduce us to a species from a world that doesn’t have the same gravity as… well, everywhere. Literally everywhere. I know that this episode didn’t intend to do this, but now it seems utterly unrealistic to me that out of the countless species introduced by this show, none of them have ever come from a lower or higher gravity planet. But hey, let’s just appreciate the fact that it’s here. Now, it’s clear that Melora’s character is a direct metaphor for disability, even though she’s not technically disabled herself. We see DS9’s version of a wheelchair, and Melora uses both a cane and supports on her clothing.
However, it’s the subtle things that “Melora” makes me think about that are far more intriguing to me. For the first time in the history of Star Trek, I had to ask myself how accessible all the ships and stations were. I got the sense that Federation ships and stations are normally far more accessible, given that DS9 required so many modifications just for basic travel about the ship. The Cardassians do not seem like the kind of culture to accommodate anyone, and thus, DS9 is a disaster. And yet, even when Julian does what he thinks is ideal for Melora’s visit to the station, he falls short of her needs. Why? Because he thinks he knows what is best. That’s the fundamental problem in the early scenes, and I’m glad that the show allowed Melora the space to angrily point out how flawed everyone’s perception was of her. In one second, she was someone who existed to be pitied, and then she was someone who existed so that others could pat themselves on the back because of how well they treated her. In both scenarios, she’s not really treated as a person but a prop, and thus, she defends her personhood and determination loudly.
I think that the script edged a bit too close to tone policing her for my liking, though. Melora had every right to resent her treatment because… lord, this is how everyone treats her! Just because it made people uncomfortable doesn’t mean she’s being rude and uncaring. Clearly, she’s a very caring person, you know? Thankfully, the show didn’t stick on this point very long, and I appreciated that this was one of the more realistic romances we’ve gotten on a Star Trek show before. It helped that there weren’t these epic declarations of love on the first day (COUGH COUGH captain kirk COUGH COUGH), and that meant that it felt more natural when Julian and Melora didn’t pursue a further relationship at the end of the episode.
My main worry, though, was that this would turn into inspiration porn or one of those annoying stories where the disabled person is magically healed and then everything is great! All problems are solved! Now, there’s nothing wrong with a person who is disabled wanting to be healed or to be healthy. I mean, I can speak to this as someone with mental disabilities. I don’t want my PTSD or my depression or the anxiety disorders I have and I would gladly do pretty much anything to get rid of them. That doesn’t mean I am a huge fan of stories where this happens because, more often than not, they’re written by people who have never had these disabilities, and it doesn’t help us at all. So, when Julian brought up the technique to acclimate her muscles to a higher-gravity environment, I was worried that this was precisely where this episode was headed.
So you can imagine my surprise when this episode directly addressed the conflicting emotions that Melora felt as she was being “healed.” Even that concept was shown to be relative. Sure, she would eventually be able to walk around in our gravity without any help, but what would she lose? She’d lose her connection with her culture. Now, I didn’t read this as Deep Space Nine saying that disabled folks identify so heavily with their disability that they don’t ever want to change. To me, there’s a clear subtext here: we should learn to accept people as they are instead of changing them to fit within our understanding of the world. I wish some of the earlier parts fit that narrative, namely the fact that the show tries to make Melora out to be combative when she’s being entirely reasonable about her concerns over herself. It’s a flawed episode, but I see so much promise in it. A lot of that is due to the ending, too! The fact that Melora chooses to remain as she is was a very powerful choice, and it makes “Melora” a stand-out episode because of it.
I do wish that Quark’s story was more interesting because I like the idea of his history coming back to him in such a brutal way. I mean, he truly fucked over Fallit Kot! He never once denies it, so I’m gonna assume that he really let him take the fall for that smuggling operation. I think there was a chance here to really address Quark’s complicated, ethically-challenging past, and “Melora” dropped the ball on that. For what it’s worth, I am glad so much time was spent on Melora’s story, but the trade-off is that Fallit ends up being one of the least imposing or intimidating villains of all time. Seriously, he threatens Quark with death, and then just… sits there for half an hour? He doesn’t even do anything to frighten Quark.
Well, at least he existed so that Melora could understand why her low-gravity upbringing was a positive factor in her life. That was great!
The video for “Melora” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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