AIDS allegory raises awareness on `Enterprise'

February 05, 2003|By John Coffren | John Coffren,SUN STAFF

When writer/producer Brannon Braga set out to write Enterprise's contribution to Viacom's HIV/AIDS awareness campaign, he knew what he didn't want to do.

He didn't want to go for cheap sympathy or sound too preachy or have the treatment fall apart in the development process like David Gerrold's AIDS-themed Star Trek: The Next Generation script did nearly 16 years ago.

He wanted to tell a subtle tale that raised more questions than gave answers. And, by deftly weaving allegory and metaphor throughout, he delivers what was promised in "Stigma," airing tonight at 8 p.m. on UPN.

The main plot revolves around Sub-commander T'Pol (Jolene Blalock), who suffers from Pa'nar's syndrome - a deadly telepathic disease that she contracted during a "mind meld" - the sharing of thoughts and memories through touch with another Vulcan - in last season's episode "Fusion."

"The mind meld in Vulcan culture at this point in Star Trek history is only performed by a small population on Vulcan who are born with the ability," Braga said. "Mind melds are a form of unacceptable intimacy that many [Vulcans] find to be abhorrent behavior. They do not accept the people who do it and those people are ostracized by Vulcan society.

"Normally you consider the Vulcans very enlightened, but in this century [22nd] on this TV show they still have a lot of paradoxes and problems."

The "melders" and those infected like T'Pol must struggle against intolerance for acceptance and for a cure. The parallels to the struggles of the gay community are unmistakable.

"It's more about the prejudice surrounding the disease than the disease itself," Braga said. "It's about the stigmatization of a group of people because of the way they choose to live their lives."

Braga took part in the seminars offered by Viacom and the Kaiser Family Foundation to prepare the script. He called the experience "illuminating," but he was well aware of the risks and rewards of handling such a sensitive topic.

"If we can open a mind or two, stimulate discussion in the school room or wherever, there's your hope," he said. "The danger is no matter how you approach the subject matter you sometimes still offend people in the most unexpected ways."

After completing work on "Stigma," Braga talked to producer Rick Berman about Gerrold's failed attempt at an AIDS-themed episode.

"Rick said that it was a very different kind of show. I heard that they shelved it and there was a certain mystique surrounding it," Braga said. "I never read the script. I should pick it up and read it."

Science fiction writer Gerrold had mixed feelings about tonight's Enterprise episode.

"While I'm delighted that Star Trek is finally doing a show about AIDS, they should have done it in 1987, when it could have had a much greater impact," he said. "In 1987, there were no reliable treatments for AIDS. It was a fatal disease. And there was an enormous stigma attached to it. People who were infected with the virus were considered `walking dead' and were treated like lepers."

Gerrold speculated on the social impact of his unproduced work during a time of great need. "I think if the episode had been made, and if a plea for blood donors had been attached to the end of it as I had hoped, we could have ended the Red Cross' chronic blood shortages.

"My experience with Star Trek fans is that they want to be visionaries, they want to make a difference, they want to be involved. Give them a worthwhile cause and then jump back out of the way as quickly as you can so you won't be killed in the stampede to make it happen."

Gerrold wrote the first and third drafts of the series bible, the writers/directors guide, for Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) in addition to his unaired script.

"The original conception of [the unaired] `Blood and Fire' was that there was a plague so horrible that Starfleet had issued standing orders not to attempt rescue of any infected ship, but to destroy it immediately," Gerrold said. "The story was a parable about the irrational fear of AIDS. The key line in the script, for me, came when [Capt. Jean-Luc] Picard said, `We are not going to sacrifice half the human race because the other half is scared.'"

Gerrold, famous at age 19 for penning "The Trouble with Tribbles" (1967) for the original Star Trek, not only tackled the deadly disease but the segment of society most closely associated with it.

"The first draft of the script included two gay crew members," he said. "This was because, in answer to a question by a gay fan, Gene [Roddenberry, series creator/producer] had publicly promised to include gay crew members on the new Enterprise, and he had repeated that promise to the staff. So it seemed appropriate to keep that promise in a script about the fear of AIDS. I was ordered to take the gay characters out."

The script was praised by other writers on the show and was set to air as the third or fourth episode of the first season before it was killed.

Gerrold admits that he was not in the room when the decision to shelve the script was made, but the controversy over it didn't end there.

"The historical revisionists started spreading the rumor that the script wasn't very good and I had been fired, etc.," he said. "I decided the only way to defend myself would be to make copies of the script available [auctioned off at eBay] so that people could judge for themselves. Apparently, it worked. The script spoke for itself."

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