What happens to those who boldly go where no one has gone before and then end up permanently changed because of it? We're not talking about mind-expanding philosophical change to be clear, but instead, those moments in Star Trek when a science fiction event leaves someone physically altered to the point where they are basically disabled. In other words, what happens to the Redshirts who survive? Arguably, in its long history, the Trek franchise has only dipped its toe into this kind of thing, but now, in the latest episode of Star Trek: Lower Decks, it addresses this sci-fi thought experiment head-on, and does so with a touch of humanism and hope you don't see coming.
**Spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 1, Episode 7, "Much Ado About Boimler."**
When people's bodies are subjected to sci-fi plot devices, philosophically, things can get tricky pretty quickly. In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Identity Crisis," an alien parasite attempts to rewrite people's DNA, which results in turning them into an incandescent space lizard. In the infamous Star Trek: Voyager episode "Threshold," Captain Janeway and Tom Paris are turned into space slugs because they breached the warp barrier. And, perhaps in a somewhat dated and ableist example, Captain Pike is disabled by "delta rays," with his body and consciousness permanently separated sometime before the events of the TOS episode "The Menagerie."
In nearly all of these episodes and countless other ones like them, some kind of last-minute science fiction plot inversion occurs, and everyone either goes "back to normal," or lives out their life with their new status in such a way that the audience is encouraged not to think about it. In the new Lower Decks episode "Much Ado About Boimler," though, the story challenges this assumption by having Boimler meeting several members of Starfleet who have had "space accidents" that have not actually been treated. Reductively, these cast-off members of the Federation refer to themselves as "Freaks United," which scans as kind of offensive, until it becomes brilliant.
Although Lower Decks plays most of this for comedy, the message throughout most of the episode is clear: In real life, disabled people are discriminated against in a variety of ways because we live in a world that favors an ableist viewpoint. This is obviously true, and obviously terrible, but what Lower Decks does is cleverly make you believe that this same level of discrimination exists in the rosy Trek future, too. After Boimler suffers from a transporter accident, he's slightly out of "phase" with regular spacetime, which mostly means he's transparent and kind of blue. (This is similar to what happens to Ro and Geordi in the TNG episode "The Next Phase.") And after Boimler is diagnosed as untreatable, he's shipped off to a secret Federation colony called "The Farm," where he'll supposedly be cared for.
The problem is, Division 14 — which is tasked with Space Accidents — seems authoritarian and cruel. The ship they operate is darkly lit, and the officer in charge has an evil laugh. Although it's funny, the episode does a good job of making you uncomfortable. Is Division 14 really just going to lock up all these poor folks in a space prison?
Turns out, the answer is no. The three-armed Edosian officer in charge of transporting the patients in Division 14 isn't evil. He just has a menacing laugh. Turns out "the Farm" is actually a nice place, and that all the victims of these space accidents are going to be taken care of in a reasonable, humane, and uplifting way. Being a freak, for them, is a good thing.
What you thought was going to be an ugly story about people getting swept under the rug is in fact an uplifting story about people ending up OK. This is both in keeping with good Star Trek episodes like "The Devil In the Dark" and "Is There In Beauty, No Truth?" in which an assumption that people make about "ugliness" is shown in a new light as simply a bias or learned prejudice. The essential difference in this episode of Lower Decks is it speculates on the lives of characters who are often not main characters of other Star Treks. Or, it imagines if certain processes hadn't been reversed. In the TNG episode "Rascals," Picard's body is turned into that of a 12-year-old boy, but his mind is the same. What if they hadn't been able to switch him back?
For a lot of Star Trek, this kind of body transformation trope lacks a punch because you always know things will get reversed. But what Lower Decks asks is: What if that didn't happen? It's a fairly serious question that Star Trek has never really asked before, and it's telling that it took a comedy version of the franchise to tackle this idea, boldly.
Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 1 has three episodes left. Those air over the next three weeks on CBS All Access.