“Plato’s Stepchildren” is about many things. In fact, there might be too many messages packed into this episode of Trek. If forced boil down this episode’s message into one sentence, I’d say it’s, “Power corrupts.”
However, the episode does have some disability-related ideas as well, mostly involving Alexander, a little person or "dwarf" as he is called on the show.
Here’s the setup:
The Starship Enterprise is lured to a planet by a distress signal, and finds a small colony of people living out a sort of simulation of an idealized ancient Greek republic, guided by the philosophy of Plato. They called for help because their leader has a life-threatening leg wound. Through “mass eugenics", they have evolved into incredibly long-lived people, but a side effect is that they have zero immunity, so a scratch can kill them. The Enterprises away team soon finds out that the Platonians (as they call themselves) also have psycho-kinetic powers. They can move objects and physically control people with their minds.
Except for Alexander, who is one of the Platonians, but is a “dwarf” and also lacks the psycho-kinetic power. He’s basically the Platonians' slave, servant, court jester, and general whipping-boy. On top of their unique biology and mental power, the Platonians have become lazy, arrogant, and cruel. They have convinced themselves that they are superior in every way … that they have attained a state of purity and perfection that makes them inherently better than everyone else, especially Alexander. They believe that their power justifies their behavior. In fact, they have convinced themselves that they are being democratic ... that anyone in their little republic can achieve power if they have the mental strength. Ability, in their view, both signifies and justifies power.
The rest of the episode is a bit of a mess, though full of scenes that Star Trek fans adore. The Platonians try to force Dr. McCoy to say with them and become their physician. To that end, they torture Captain Kirk, Spock, Uhura, and Nurse Chapel by making them dance and sing, smack themselves around, and act out weird scenes … all through their mind control.
Meanwhile, Alexander pretty quickly finds himself liking the Enterprise visitors, especially since they treat him with respect right away, and tell him that in their society, size doesn’t matter, and nobody has psycho-kinetic powers. When Dr. McCoy discovers a very specific, un-mysterious cause for the Platonians' mind control power, it not only helps resolve the standoff, but also undermines the whole idea that physical and moral qualities go together. Physical abilities are mostly arbitrary, a matter of luck and happenstance, not a signal of favor or superiority. And physical prowess certainly doesn’t guarantee morality. Alexander is twice the person the other Platonians are, even without physical perfection or amazing mental powers.
What I like about Alexander here is that he’s complex. He’s certainly not a villain(*), nor is he a goody-goody. He is morally superior to the Platonians, but he's no angel. He gets angry. He contemplates revenge. But, when offered the opportunity to gain the Platonians’ powers, he refuses, realizing that he could very well become just as corrupted as they are. And Alexander shows great tenderness and compassion towards the Enterprise crew … people he’s barely just met … when he sees them suffering at the Platonians’ hands as he has for so long.
There are no massive disability insights here, but it’s a nice, generally satisfying depiction of disability.
(*) Alexander is played by Michael Dunn, who had a recurring role on the TV show, “The Wild Wild West”, as Dr. Miguelito Loveless … frequent evil adversary to the hero, James West. I haven’t watched that show in decades, but I’m pretty sure that Dr. Loveless being a little person isn’t an accident, but rather is a classic example of physical deformity or abnormality being equated with evil.
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