Editorials

From ridiculous to real: how Star Trek portrays pregnancy

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For all Star Trek got right over the years in terms of representation and tackling important social issues, there are many areas where the franchise could have done better. One in particular is the portrayal of pregnancy.

Deanna Troi and the ‘mystical pregnancy’ trope

In ‘The Child’, the season two opener of The Next Generation (TNG), ship counsellor Deanna Troi is impregnated with an amorphous alien lifeform because it was curious. In order to understand humanity, it wanted to go through the entire lifecycle: to be born, grow and die. The lifeform, however, never asked permission or consent and the scene in which it flits up the bed sheets into her body is shot and scored like an assault. That she experiences no pain during labour and returns to her pre-partum body almost immediately seems small recompense. The only agency she’s given at all is in deciding to have the baby.

It’s curious that Troi, the most overtly sexualised character in TNG, would be forced into the Virgin Mary role with an immaculate conception. Upon finding out, First Officer William Riker, Troi’s sometimes lover, responds with jealousy, demanding to know who the father is. Security Officer Worf, meanwhile, wants to have the child aborted for the safety of the ship. He and Captain Picard even insist on having armed guards present during the labour itself in what has become an apt, if accidental, metaphor for how women’s bodies and reproductive rights are policed and controlled by men.

 

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Readying the birthing chair

It should come as no surprise that the episode itself was written by two men, a fact that’s clear in how much of the emphasis is on the male characters and how Troi deals – or rather isn’t allowed to deal with – the pregnancy, the birth and the fallout of losing the child. By the end of the episode, the focus has shifted to Wesley Crusher requesting to stay on board the Enterprise while Troi just sits there and smiles. Her pregnancy and child are never once mentioned again though, admittedly, that’s as much to do with the episodic nature of the show. It wouldn’t be until Deep Space Nine’s fourth season, eight years later, that Star Trek’s representation of pregnancy would progress.

From one womb to another

Kira Nerys, the Bajoran freedom fighter turned Commander in Deep Space Nine (DS9), spends half of season five pregnant. Except the baby isn’t hers. Following an accident, it was transferred from an injured Keiko O’Brien to her own womb to preserve its life. Okay, so there was a narrative need in this example. The plot line was added after the fact to accommodate Nana Visitor’s real-life pregnancy (fun fact: the father was co-star Alexander Siddig).

Visitor has expressed in interviews that she didn’t want to stand behind tables, wear baggy lab coats and suffer smaller screen time as Gates McFadden had in the fourth season of TNG and Roxann Dawson would go on to in the fourth season of Voyager (but more on B’Elanna later). Therefore, this plot was written into the show and, for once, it isn’t just used as an easy solution or cheap joke. In true Trek fashion, it uses science fiction to explore human issues and drama. What would it be like to have your unborn child transferred into another woman to save its life? It’s a shame that the episode, season four’s ‘Body Parts’, doesn’t spend more time on this with the pregnancy serving only the as the B plot, with many of those scenes framed around the male experience. We see what Miles O’Brien thinks about it all, but not enough of how Keiko and Kira are handling it. They do have one brief scene together and the fact Visitor is actually pregnant adds a reality and gravitas to their interaction.

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Kira during her pain-free Bajoran labour

As before, Kira’s labour in ‘The Begotten’ becomes a backdrop, this time to Odo’s elating experience with a baby shapeshifter. In this instance, however, both plots are thematically linked with a kind of mutual understanding reached at the end between Kira and Odo who, in a manner of speaking, has lost a child himself. Kira confesses that she never wanted a baby but after giving the child back to its biological parents, all she wanted to do was to hold him and never let him go. Although it’s revealed that Bajorans have somewhat different physiology to humans, this is a fundamentally human response which gives the episode a poignant ending. Sadly, this falls by the wayside rather than becoming a part of Kira’s ongoing character arc. Part of this undoubtedly lies with the fact that these key episodes were both written by men. In fact, only one episode of the entire run in which Kira is pregnant is written by a woman, and it’s a co-writing story credit at that. Things took a leap forward with Voyager, a show that had female representation coded into its DNA.

Authentic pregnancy and B’Elanna as Madonna

B’Elanna Torres’ pregnancy is something of a milestone in Star Trek for several reasons, being the first main character to conceive through sex. Though this was a progressive pregnancy by Star Trek standards, there were aspects which were still stuck in the past. Although B’Elanna and Tom’s child wasn’t planned, they were married before the baby was conceived – heaven forbid American audiences be exposed to a child, even one that’s part alien, born out of wedlock. And while the pregnancy wasn’t supernaturally induced or written to cover up real life, one episode’s problem-of-the-week ended up making the unborn child mystical anyway.

That episode, ‘Prophecy’, was one of only three during B’Elanna’s entire pregnancy which was written, if only in part, by a woman. In all cases, the teleplay was co-written by Phyllis Strong who would go on to serve as co-producer on Enterprise. In ‘Prophecy’, the Voyager crew come across more familiar faces in the Delta Quadrant after encountering a crew of Klingons. It turns out that their ancestors set out on a mission to find a child of prophecy one hundred years before. When they see B’Elanna and her brow ridges and the swell of her stomach, they immediately think they’ve discovered the so-called saviour of the Klingon race. In so doing, they deify her unborn child, but their belief also forces B’Elanna into a Madonna role, albeit an angry one – these are still Klingons, after all. As the episode progresses, it’s clear that it’s less about B’Elanna and her pregnancy and more about faith, with the pregnancy used to advance the story of the Klingons.

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B’Elanna and her beautiful quarter-Klingon baby, Miral

Across this run of episodes, B’Elanna’s pregnancy becomes part of the patchwork as she continues to fulfil her role as Chief Engineer, save for some food cravings and a larger appetite. In the series finale, she’s convinced that the baby is coming and rushes off with Tom to see the Doctor. But as so often occurs in real life, it’s a false alarm. They’re sent away and told to come back later. It might seem a small thing, but it’s moments like these that ring true to real women and their experiences of pregnancy and labour. Unlike Troi’s and Kira’s labours which were both pain free, the little we see of B’Elanna’s is much closer to reality. Yes, it’s used more for a punchline, but it’s certainly a step up. Unfortunately, the next major character that would fall pregnant chronologically was a real step backwards.

Trip and the misguided nature of male pregnancies

It wasn’t until the fifth iteration of Star Trek, 2001’s Enterprise, that an overt male pregnancy was put front and centre – at least for one episode before it was almost entirely forgotten. It’s by no means a terrible episode and there’s certainly potential in the idea, but the trouble is, it’s all played for laughs.

Trip Tucker, the Chief Engineer aboard Enterprise, is inadvertently impregnated during a seemingly innocuous game aboard an alien vessel. He soon develops a nipple on his wrist, although the episode never actually explains whether the alien young are milk fed. As his own nipples would have sufficed, this is instead played as body horror, and turns breastfeeding into something gross and abhorrent. Coupled with these physical changes are emotional and hormonal shifts that see Trip’s appetite increase and his sense of taste changing. In a rare nuanced moment, he comments that the scrambled egg almost tastes real. Other than that, he’s told he can probably expect to be nauseous in the morning, and he starts seeing the ship as a death trap for little ones in a display of clichéd maternal hysteria.

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That’ll need more than a trip to the doctor

We’re informed that this is the first recorded incident in Starfleet history of a male becoming pregnant and, hopefully, it’s the last. There’s still a lot of work to be done in the writer’s room about representing traditional pregnancy and labour before returning to this one.

To boldly go…

In its fifty-plus year history, Star Trek has showcased a myriad of pregnancies, from main characters right through to whales. Excluding The Original Series, a major character falls pregnant in every iteration, even in Discovery with the Klingon L’Rell. Despite that, the franchise still has a long way to go. Imagine a pregnancy that isn’t played for laughs, that doesn’t take a back seat to the main plot, and one which rings true to real life. Perhaps that’s one spectacle too many.

 

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