Both this episode and its titular character are concepts that hail from the early days of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s pre-production. Melora Pazlar was originally going to be Deep Space 9‘s permanent science officer, but she was replaced by Jadzia Dax in part, ironically, for the very reason she has a tough time adjusting to the station in this story: The low-gravity environments she was adapted to proved too time-consuming and expensive to convey on a regular basis. The station, in a very real sense, could not accommodate her; a theme that underwrites this entire episode.
As an episode of television exploring the topical message it takes on, “Melora” is very good. It was put in the best possible hands: Writer Evan Carlos Somers, who served as a Guild intern during Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s first season before getting a shot at pitching his own stories in the second, was a wheelchair user himself and pushed for the chance to build a story around a the abandoned concept of a Starfleet officer from a low-gravity planet who had to use a wheelchair to navigate Earth-like environments. Somers also wrote “Melora” as a direct rebuttal of the appalling ableist issues of “Ethics” from the fifth season by showcasing a disabled person who is proud and accepting of who she is and the perspective she brings and doesn’t want to change to suit anyone else.
Understandably given his own perspective, Somers’ treatment is as laudable a depiction of mobility issues as we could expect. This episode always reminds me of a conversation that transpired during one of my seminars while I was still in the university system doing academic work in social studies of knowledge: One of my colleagues at the time was a disability advocate, and during a panel one day the question was posed to him whether “disability” was an appropriate term to use in his work. He felt that, from his experience, both “disabled” and “differently abled” were equally valid terms because while the people in question most certainly were not ashamed by their positionalities and in fact championed them, the infrastructure of modern society is not built with their needs in mind, and they are thus disenfranchised and excluded by it. So in a sense while they are merely “differently abled”, the material realities of modernity also leave them “disabled”. I think this a paradox that Somers captures incredibly elegantly in “Melora”.
Unfortunately, and by his own admission, Somers didn’t give himself enough time to groom his script with the level of care and attention that it really deserved, necessitating a successive series of rewrites by Steven Baum, James Crocker and Michael Piller. Though Melora herself is predictably handled well in Somers’ original draft, the other characters aren’t so lucky. From what I’ve seen of it, Melora actually comes across as a bit of a Mary Sue in it and ends up lecturing the rest of the crew, who seem to have collectively lapsed to a level of ignorance and thoughtlessness about her condition they really ought not to have. And while it’s become trendy in recent years for fandom to slag off the episode as aired, I want to stress that Baum, Crocker and Piller deserve a heck of a lot of credit for their repair job here, successfully managing to restore the voices and characterization of the regulars while preserving the important message Somers had hoped to convey.
(I will quickly add, while the vast majority of the writing staff’s edits improve the story, there is one that I think was a poor call. In the original draft, Melora didn’t struggle with her crutches in Ops: Instead, she stayed in her chair at the foot of the stairs in front of the office, Commander Sisko came down to greet her, and they would have held their meeting in a different location. I really liked that scene because it struck me as such a very welcoming and utopian thing for Commander Sisko to do: He knows the station isn’t built with her in mind, but he’s going to go the extra length himself to accommodate her as much as he can. Speaking of…)
So the script and episode work, but there are paratextual issues surrounding it that give me some pause for concern and they all surround Melora’s diegetic and extradiegetic disability. In the episode, there’s a plot reason for Melora having to use a wheelchair apart from her background as an Elaysian: The corridors of Deep Space 9 are not wide enough to fit her anti-grav chair. This is actually true behind the scenes as well: The team had originally wanted to use the hover chair that Admiral Mark Jameson uses in “Too Short a Season”, but the prop would not fit into the deliberately narrow and cramped sets of Deep Space 9. The chair was designed for the bridge of the Enterprise, a very open and spacious room that even features ramps on both sides which Andy Probert *deliberately* placed there to accommodate wheelchair users. Part of Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s utopianism lies in the fact the Enterprise was designed from the ground up to be a safe and welcoming space for people of all levels of mobility: Just take a look at the windows on the saucer section of the six foot model next time you watch the first season or stock footage from the first season if you want further evidence of that.
(Although that said, all you have to do is take a glance at poor Geordi La Forge if you want proof of how tone-deaf Star Trek is on accessibility issues across the board.)
But Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was envisioned as a show about conflict, and starbase Deep Space 9 was created to be the antithesis of a safe and accessible space. Instead, the conflict was built into the design of the station itself: It’s cramped. It’s claustrophobic. You have to step up, over and around things all the time. Had Melora transferred to the starship Enterprise, she would have had absolutely no trouble living and working there with all the same opportunities and privileges as everyone else onboard. It’s only on Deep Space 9 where the annoyances and aggravations of everyday life become so overwhelming she briefly considers abandoning a vital part of herself just to cope. And I really have to wonder if this is the right message to be sending. Yes, “Melora” is an excellent science fiction metaphor for how differently abled people are disabled by modern society every day. It’s a classic Star Trek morality play “Issues” story of the sort that’s made the franchise famous since the days of the Original Series, and one of the best.
But it’s not utopian.
You have to seriously ask yourself, is Star Trek: Deep Space Nine *really* served by having inaccessibility built into its very fabric like this? Is it really such a good idea for it to be constantly, overtly trying to contrast itself with absolutely *everything* Star Trek: The Next Generation does at every turn, especially the things that are actually good about Star Trek: The Next Generation and make it unique? This is a show that ostensibly wants to be about healing, rebirth and reconstruction, but its mesmerizing fetish for conflict is fundamentally incompatible with these stated goals. Sooner or later this show is going to have to pick one side or the other to definitely cast its allegiance with. Maybe it’s true that you can’t make utopian scripted drama. But utopian fiction *is* a valid form of storytelling, and an inability to commit to it says more about the writer than it does about the story.