T’Pol’s Book Club #4: A Christmas Carol

cover of A Christmas Carol by Charles DickensIs there any book less likely as a candidate for a Vulcan-run book club than A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens? I can just imagine T’Pol’s unimpressed poker face. She would find his work moralistic, emotionally overwrought, and problematic in the way it treats people with disabilities. As a vegan in a post-fossil-fuel economy, all the meat-eating and coal-burning would disgust her. Also, the plot involves time travel – and as we all know, the Vulcan Science Directorate has declared time travel to be impossible.

On the other hand, as Trip and Archer would undoubtedly point out (and Malcolm too, cringing all the while at how much he likes his compatriot’s sappy story), A Christmas Carol is a classic for good reasons. Published in 1843, it’s not only a specific indictment of social injustice in Victorian London, but also a timeless character study of a man whose survival methods are slowly killing him. To save himself and others, Ebenezer Scrooge must break the habits of a lifetime: share instead of hoarding, take responsibility for those depending on him, and allow himself to depend on others in return, as part of a community much wider than his business network. In that sense, you could even argue that this novel embodies the founding principles of the Federation.

So, whether you’re in more of a “Bless us, every one” or “Bah, humbug” mood this holiday season, here are some Star Trek episodes with similar themes as the novel.

TNG s02e15 “Pen Pals”

Data holds hands with his pen pal

How do you define a life worth saving? According to Scrooge at the beginning of the book, anyone who can’t work “had better [die] and decrease the surplus population.” When asked to donate to a food bank, he retorts: “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s.” The Federation’s non-interference policy, the Prime Directive, may sound less harsh in the abstract, as it is meant to prevent Starfleet from abusing its power over less technologically advanced cultures. In the episode “Pen Pals”, however, Captain Picard’s non-interference almost leads to letting a whole civilization die of preventable causes, simply because it’s pre-warp. Only when Data plays a transmission from the planet’s surface – a scared child calling for help – does Picard start to see their lives as worth interfering for. Scrooge, too, learns to find value in people socially beneath him by listening to a child: his clerk’s disabled son, “Tiny” Tim Cratchit. When he asks the Ghost of Christmas Present whether Tim will live to grow up, and the Ghost throws Scrooge’s line about surplus population back at him, I still cringe every time I read it.

DS9 s02e06 “Melora”

Melora in her new chair with Dax and Bashir

Tiny Tim is a classic example of an inspirationally disabled character, who exists for the able-bodied people to learn a lesson: “He hoped the people saw him in church (…) because it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.” Whether or not wheelchair-using Ensign Melora Pazlar has read Dickens, she clearly has no patience with people who make her limited mobility about them. When Commander Sisko gives her an order she finds overprotective, she asserts her autonomy: “I’m used to being shut out of the Melora problem. The truth is that there is no Melora problem until people create one.” She doesn’t want to inspire religious contemplation. She just wants to do her job, preferably with ramps installed. When offered a “cure”, she considers it, but ultimately turns it down, as she likes her body the way it is – no miracles necessary.

VOY s05e23 “11:59”

Voyager family photo in 11:59

In our imaginary book club discussion, T’Pol might ask why humans keep attempting to define “the spirit of Christmas” in so many works of fiction, including A Christmas Carol. Why does one date in the calendar matter so much? Well, Subcommander, Christmas and other holidays are not only meant for comfort in (literal and/or metaphorical) dark times, but also to stop and think about how your life is going. In “11:59”, Captain Janeway shares a story about how her ancestors used the New Year’s Eve tradition of counting down to midnight to help each other break out of unhealthy patterns they were stuck in. At the end of the episode, morale officer Neelix creates a new holiday, Ancestors’ Eve. For Janeway, who has been running on coffee, adrenaline and guilt since she gave the order that stranded her crew 70,000 lightyears from Earth, it’s a rare chance to appreciate the home they’ve made on Voyager instead of the one they lost.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What’s your favorite holiday tradition, and why?
  2. Do you agree or disagree with Starfleet framing the Prime Directive as an absolute? How would you rewrite it if you could?
  3. What can writers do to better represent people with disabilities in fiction?
  4. If you could invent a new holiday, what would it commemorate?


Data as Scrooge in Devil's Due

Further Watching:

TNG s01e01 “Encounter at Farpoint”, TNG s04,e15 “Devil’s Due”, TNG s05e16 “Ethics”, DS9 s01e01 “Emissary”, DS9 s04e16 “Bar Association”

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