Published Dec 1, 2021
When Enterprise Took on the AIDS Crisis
In 'Stigma' Vulcans take on a deeply human issue.
Star Trek has never been a franchise to shy away from political and social commentary, albeit in its own unique way. As opposed to explicitly making statements, Trek has a long history of using science fiction as an allegory for real-life current events: The Next Generation famously used many an episode to dive into hot-button issues both past and present: “The Hunted” tackled PTSD and the treatment of veterans, while “The Outcast” addressed homophobia and gender nonconformity, and “The Drumhead” commented on McCarthyism, just to name a few.
Although The Original Series and The Next Generation are perhaps most well known for their use of allegory and metaphor, that doesn’t mean the other Trek shows were devoid of this trait as well. While Star Trek: Enterprise may be most commonly remembered for its emphasis on action, sex appeal, and unique setting, it also delved into sociopolitical issues when it wanted to, and at times, provided the Trek franchise with some of the most moving episodes the series had ever seen. Season two’s “Stigma” is an excellent example; an episode which focuses on T’Pol’s contraction of a sickness called Pa’nar syndrome, which stands as a thinly-veiled commentary and critique on the United State’s handling of the AIDS crisis.
With a few single-episode exceptions, Star Trek on the whole didn’t incorporate LGBTQ+ characters into its central stories until the introduction of Paul Stamets in Star Trek: Discovery. However, decades earlier, Enterprise’s “Stigma” was released, and made clear the franchise’s allyship and sympathy towards the queer community. Although “Stigma” aired as a bottle episode as part of a network-wide promotion to raise awareness for HIV/AIDS, the episode actually has its roots much further back. The concept was originally commissioned for an un-produced episode of The Next Generation called “Blood and Fire.”
This original idea saw the crew of the Enterprise-D encounter a ship whose crew had been killed by Regulan bloodworms, which were intended to serve as a metaphor for AIDS — the episode would reflect the fear and stigma of the disease still massively prevalent in American society at the time. However, due to conflicts from producers and studio heads, the episode was scrapped, and the concept of an episode addressing HIV/AIDS sat dormant until it was later reimagined for Enterprise.
As opposed to Regulan bloodworms, “Stigma”’s AIDS stand-in is Pa’nar syndrome, a potentially fatal illness contracted and transmitted by Vulcans who engage in mind-melds. While modern Trek fans are more than familiar with mind-melds as a common practice among Vulcans (made famous, of course, by Spock in The Original Series), we learn in the earlier Enterprise episode “Fusion” that in the 2150s and prior, the act of mind-melding is considered extremely taboo on Vulcan.
Mind-melding is so taboo, in fact, that the contraction of Pa’nar syndrome is enough to make a Vulcan an outcast among their own people. Catching it is deemed so repulsive that the Vulcan Medical Council neglects to attempt to find a cure for the disease, because in the minds of Vulcans, mind-melders (and victims of Pa’nar syndrome) are “undesirables” unworthy of being saved.
We learn this at the beginning of the episode as Dr. Phlox is attempting to retrieve any information from the Vulcans through the Interspecies Medical Exchange, as a way to help find a cure for T’Pol, who has contracted the syndrome. However, instead of merely asking the Vulcans upfront for their research because one of their own is sick, Phlox is forced to lie to the council and claim that he needs the research for a Denobulan colleague. He does so because T’Pol (correctly) assumes that if it were to be revealed that she has contracted Pa’nar syndrome, she would lose her commission and be ostracized by her people.
This ostracization and refusal on the part of the Vulcan Medical Council to provide potentially life-saving research is the key concept at the center of the episode - and a mirror to the harsh reality that many LGBTQ+ Americans faced during the AIDS crisis. When Phlox goes to the council to ask for their research, the Vulcan Dr. Oratt explains that: “This illness is unique to a subculture, a small percentage of our population. Their behavior is neither tolerated nor sanctioned.” While he doesn’t outright say it (yet) the implication is that because the only way Pa’nar syndrome can be contracted is through mind-melding, and mind-melding is seen as an “intolerable” act, the so-called “subculture” of Vulcans who practice it aren’t worth saving.
It’s an incredible heartless and intolerant outlook — to deem one’s own species unworthy of help because the way they chose to live their lives — but it’s one that’s far too familiar for those that lived through the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 1990s. As documented in seminal works like The Normal Heart, the LGBTQ+ community and its allies faced virtually insurmountable difficulty raising national awareness and garnering sympathy from the public when it came to the AIDS crisis — even moreso when it came to attempts to get the United States government to take an active role in hunting for a cure.
Just as the Vulcan Medical Council declines to research rigorously because of how they look down on mind-melds, the United States Government delayed potentially life-saving research for years because of the titular “stigma” surrounding HIV/AIDS — which was strongly associated to the queer community. Because of widespread homophobia, it took years for activists to finally convince the government to take the AIDS crisis seriously, and by then, numerous lives had been lost.
The rest of “Stigma” follows just as the real-life crisis did, albeit with the classic Star Trek flare. Phlox and T’Pol are eventually found out by the Council, and just as she predicted, they prepare to remove her from serving on Enterprise. In the episode’s climax, T’Pol attends a hearing to decide the fate of her future with Starfleet, where she and a member of the Medical Council named Yuris (who, unbeknownst to his peers, is also a mind-melder) call out the Council’s hypocrisy and intolerance, in an exchange that still rings true today.
T’Pol tells the council, “I'm being recalled because you're afraid of anything that doesn't conform to your idea of acceptable behavior.” And when Dr. Oratt calls mind-melders “abhorrent”, Yuris finally speaks up: “There is nothing abhorrent about the way we lead our lives… There is no simple definition of intimacy. Those of us capable of mind-melds are no different than you are. We share our thoughts differently. We shouldn't be punished for that.”
Although this AIDS-centric episode may have aired years later than originally intended, “Stigma” still stands as one of Enterprise’s strongest one-off stories, and a powerful message about intolerance and ethical irresponsibility. It’s a reminder of the imperfections of our society (and government), and proof that Gene Roddenberry’s dream of a Utopian world is still one worth pursuing — even if we’re not quite there yet.
Lauren Coates (she/her) is a Chicago-based student with a weakness for junk food, a passion for film & television, and a constant yearning to be at Disney World. Follow her on Twitter @laurenjcoates.