From Captain Kirk to Katrina Cornwell: Star Trek and post-traumatic stress

My first exposure to Star Trek was watching the Original Series episode “Balance of Terror” live on stage. My father was a professor of Theater at Wesleyan University (notable Trek alumni include Alex Kurtzman and Akiva Goldsman) and one of his students adapted and directed the episode as his senior thesis. The show was presented to mimic television, behind a scrim with clever lighting and original music cues. It even included commercial breaks featuring actors shilling coffee. I was seven or eight years old and I didn’t fully understand everything that happened, but I was fascinated.

Flash forward thirty some years and I’m still at Wesleyan watching Star Trek – this Spring I’m completing my Masters of the Arts in Liberal Studies with a final project studying the portrayal of post-traumatic stress in all six live action series and the three film eras.

Ezri sees her reflection in the mirror

I’ve always been interested in the interactions between pop culture and sociology, and how art both impacts and reflects the society in which is it created. I’ve often heard from and about scientists and astronauts and engineers for whom Star Trek inspired their career choices. My Star Trek role models were Deanna Troi and Ezri Dax. I appreciate that Trek highlights mental health professionals, that there is no attempt to claim trauma doesn’t happen in the Federation’s utopian future. Rather there are multiple examples of Starfleet officers being driven to insanity by their experiences in deep space. There are stories about survivors of war, assault, possession. Stories about displaced populations, life threatening disease, and the death of loved ones. And within these portrayals characters exhibit a variety of symptoms indicative of post-traumatic stress including flashbacks, nightmares, mood swings, panic attacks, memory loss, angry outbursts, self-destructive behavior, and depression.

Post-traumatic stress is most often discussed in relation to the military and war zones, but can affect anyone exposed to a traumatic event, including abuse, assault, accident or attack. Star Trek acknowledges that trauma is a part of life and at least attempts to treat those who suffer with dignity, gravity, and hope.

My project proposal asks four questions:

  1. How does STAR TREK present post-traumatic stress?
  2. How has the portrayal changed over time?
  3. How has the portrayal affected the audience?
  4. How has the audience (and wider society) affected the portrayal?

To answer these questions I have identified eleven episodes and three films that span the first season of the Original Series (1966) to the first season of Star Trek: Discovery (2018). These are not the only episodes to address post-traumatic stress, nor are they the best or most representative episodes of the series, but they provide a focus across the timeline.)

Episode: Star Trek “The Conscience of the King” (1966)

The term “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)” was not coined until development of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual III in the late seventies, a decade after this episode aired. But Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Riley both exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress – tension, irritability, irrational thinking, and memory trouble – due to their encounter with Governor Kodos in childhood, and it affects their judgement and actions within the episode.

Episode: Star Trek: The Next Generation “The Hunted” (1990)

This episode deals directly with the hurdles of reintegrating military veterans into society. There is a measurable correlation between combat and post-traumatic stress and many of the studies of PTSD are done with soldiers.

Picard looks in the mirror in "Family"

Episode: Star Trek: The Next Generation “Family” (1990)

I’ve always considered this “Best of Both Worlds Part Three” as it depicts Jean-Luc Picard processing the trauma he suffered at the hands of the Borg. Notably, the B-stories with Worf and his parents and the Crushers are also about reactions to trauma, and how close familial connections boost mental health.

Film: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

The Undiscovered Country also depicts a Captain’s reaction to trauma. Kirk was conditioned to see the Klingons as enemies, he’s battled them for decades, and his son was murdered by one. There is a psychological basis underlying his reticence to the peace treaty, and he comes around by confronting it.

Episode: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine  “Emissary” (1993)

It’s no accident Deep Space Nine is the series that deals most directly with trauma, it is an integral part of the story from the pilot on. Both Sisko and Kira, the leaders of the station and the series, show signs of post-traumatic stress from introduction.

Episode: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine  “Hard Time” (1993)

This is an explicit depiction of post-traumatic stress, with Chief O’Brien exhibiting personality changes, irritability, depression, and suicidal ideation after what he experiences as long term incarceration.

Film: Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

The Borg return, triggering Picard’s post-traumatic stress, which causes him to act irrationally. This emphasizes that post-traumatic stress can be managed and its damage healed but recurrences are normal and never something to “just get over.”

B'Elanna looks at herself in the mirror healing her injured arm

Episode: Star Trek: Voyager “Extreme Risk” (1998)

It’s clear as early as the first season that B’Elanna suffers from anxiety, and she struggles with post-traumatic stress in a handful of pivotal episodes throughout the series. This is one of my favorites for its frank portrayal of non-suicidal self-injury and how her friends try different, and not necessarily appropriate, methods to reach her.

Episode: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine “It’s Only a Paper Moon” (1998)

Another explicit depiction of PTSD, as Nog deals with the loss of his leg and his role and experiences in the war. It also deals with his friends group attempting to help.

Episode: Star Trek: Voyager “Lineage” (2001)

This is an excellent example of recurring post-traumatic stress that can be triggered by even positive events such as B’Elanna’s pregnancy. It is also a strong depiction of childhood trauma and mixed-race relations (another oft-seen theme in Star Trek).

Episode: Star Trek: Enterprise “The Forgotten” (2004)
This episode is part of a larger story arc in Enterprise’s third season that concerns the crew’s, and the wider fleet’s, response to an alien attack on Earth. The Xindi arc was inspired by the events of 9/11 and Commander Tucker in particular is deeply affected by the trauma of the attack.

Film: Star Trek: Beyond (2016)

The third Kelvinverse film begins with Captain Kirk experiencing ennui (potentially depression) and ends with the reveal of an early Starfleet captain who could not acclimate to peacetime. Characterization for both have roots in TOS, as does Spock’s realization that a close knit group of friends is good for his health.

Episode: Star Trek: Discovery “Into the Forest I Go” (2017)

Admiral and counselor Katrina Cornwell namechecks PTSD in regards to Ash Tyler’s reaction to encountering L’Rell on the Klingon ship and she subsequently talks him through the episode. Cornwell, and especially Burnham, treat Tyler with dignity and determine to help him, not shame him. While the revelation of Klingon tampering ultimately clouds the issue in regards to Tyler/Voq, the scenes in this episode take care in the presentation of post-traumatic stress.

Episode: Star Trek: Discovery “The War Without, The War Within” (2018)

Discovery’s first season is basically centered on how various individuals and groups react to trauma. In this penultimate episode we witness the toll of the war on Cornwell, Sarek, and the Federation in general, as well as the trauma of more intimate losses on Stamets, Tyler, and Burnham.

**

I will be tweeting and blogging about this project throughout the Spring and welcome questions and comments. If you or another Star Trek fan you know has experienced post-traumatic stress I would love to speak about it, privately and confidentially. Please contact me at anika@manicpixiedust.com, or through social media.

 

  7 comments for “From Captain Kirk to Katrina Cornwell: Star Trek and post-traumatic stress

  1. January 28, 2019 at 7:53 am

    I’m more familiar with the PTSD and other mental illness presentation done in Voyager and Discovery and some in TOS. I have to say I’m so in awe with it because how they handle and present any mental illness. Janeway’s depression, B’Elanna’s self-harm tendancies and Tyler’s PTSD/trauma to name a few. And even that it is not stigmatized in any way. I always love the supporting characters who help their friends/subordinates in these episodes. Chakotay helping Janeway and B’Elanna, admiral Cornwell helping Tyler without any judgement and even it is handled by a professional at that point.

    • Anika
      January 29, 2019 at 10:37 am

      Yes, exactly, and that gives the audience something to relate to and to aspire towards. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. Bryan
    January 29, 2019 at 8:40 pm

    Watching Voyager “Memorial” and The Doc uses the term PTSD to describe what’s happening to the crew.

    • Anika
      January 30, 2019 at 8:39 am

      Thank you, I’ll make a note of that.

  3. Teresa
    January 29, 2019 at 8:45 pm

    I appreciate what you say about First Contact, because I’ve encountered criticism of that movie that says Picard shouldn’t react the way he does because he dealt with it and got over it in the series.

  4. Anika
    January 30, 2019 at 8:44 am

    Oh dear, I wish I was surprised. But that’s why it’s important to put these stories in our mainstream fiction. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Janet
    January 30, 2019 at 8:36 pm

    Primitive Culture did a two-parter on mental health, which I believe is the most comprehensive of all Trek podcasts on the topic. While not primarily about PTSD, they argue that Trek’s portrayal generally got better as it got more serialized. In one-offs, the character can experience trauma but we never hear about it again.

    Here’s part 1: http://www.trek.fm/primitive-culture/42

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.