“The Loss” (Season 4, Episode 10) is one of the most poignant, overlooked, and emotionally touching episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In this episode, Counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) undergoes the loss of her ability to sense emotions. As a disabled woman, I’ve had mixed feelings about “The Loss” over the years, as well as the way Troi is always prompted to process traumatic instances in a more truncated timespan than her peers.
This episode reaction comes after years of thought and reflection, as well as changes in my own health status. This is a blog rather than a research piece, and my opinions do not reflect the opinion of all disabled people, nor even the language (some prefer people-first language, for example). Additionally, there are complete spoilers for “The Loss,” so if you’d rather see it first, check it out and then come back to this blog post.
I am deliberately focusing on ways in which my experiences are like Troi’s, and focusing on real experiences I have had in comparison to a fictional disability (losing a sense that people do not have in real life). While the show compares losing this ability to losing sight, I’m not focusing on that comparison because it is not my specific disability. For detailed perspectives regarding blindness and low-level vision, please educate yourself by reading or hiring an expert on the topic.
Content warnings: This post contains examples of microaggressions towards disabled people, mentions of auto accidents, sexism, and a brief mention of infertility and loss of child and parent.
What Is Life Without Empathy? Two Dimensional
This episode isn’t simply about Troi’s loss. The theme is layered throughout, and begins in the first scene. As we begin the episode, Troi is counseling a crew member about the loss of her husband. Proficient in her role, Troi makes progress with her patient. While the scene doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, the focus is on the two characters in the scene and their development moving forward.
The other impactful parallel of loss unravels as LaForge (LeVar Burton) and Data (Brent Spiner) discover that the phenomenon towing the Enterprise is a current of two-dimensional beings. Because they’re two-dimensional, they may be at a loss to understand the full universe around them, including the third dimsion in which the ship and its crew exist. The point about dimensions, loss, and being unable to experience the fullness of the universe isn’t unique to this episode, as Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton) and The Traveler (Eric Menyuk) explore dimensions and experiences beyond what most humans recognize in their time.
The Emotional Expectations of Women: As Written By Us
“The Loss” is one of the few episodes that encapsulates Troi’s true emotional range: that is, we see her as a complex character with inner conflict and tension. Additionally, we see her confidence in her abilities, and we see that confidence shaken. We also see the depth of her connection with Commander Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes), and how two people can have an enduring bond that persists beyond conflict.
One reason we see this complexity is potentially due to the gender episode’s writer, Hilary J. Bader, a woman. Unlike Troi’s presentation in the majority of the episodes, Bader’s Troi contains emotional multitudes as a strong characteristic.
Socialized and expected to be masters of communication and mediation, myself and other women give a fair amount of time and (often unpaid) labor to the emotional management of communication. In Troi’s case, she’s not only paid to do this work–she’s the ship’s counselor, responsible for overseeing the mental health needs of over a thousand people at a given time.
Troi, in many regards, is an extreme (just the type of character I like to play when I’m larping or TTRPGing). She’s exceptional in one area of focus. Because she’s half-Betazoid, half-human, Troi has a deep emotional sense from most others around her. She isn’t simply a professional with a passion for psychology, she has an innate sense that provides her with an advantage over humans in diplomatic and social situations.
While there isn’t much information to indicate what Bader knew about loss, the writing demonstrates a significant understanding of repeated, multi-layered loss that comes with unfortunate experiences and age. I was sad to discover that Bader herself died of breast cancer at age 50. She also tackled challenging subject matter with emotional depth in a variety of comics, graphic novels, and television shows.
While the characters don’t mention it, Troi has also experienced other loss in her life: the death of her father and the loss of a child (“The Child,” Season 2, Episode 1). Like in “The Child,” Troi experiences an immense loss in a condensed time period. As someone who went through the process of accepting fertility issues, it was important to me to understand that infertility or loss of child may coexist (painfully) with other types of losses, including the loss of an ability.
Disabilities Caused By Physical Trauma
When the Enterprise experiences an anomaly, Deanna’s first instinct (perhaps for professional reasons) is to deny feeling unwell; however, the feeling increases. We later learn that people all over the ship are reporting headaches and pain.
When I experienced my most severe car accident (as a passenger in a car hitting a wall at 60 mph after my ex-husband swerved to avoid a deer), I remember a moment of disbelief. Even as I was involuntarily screaming, careening towards the wall, barely aware that I was making noise, my waking mind was still thinking: this isn’t happening.
Disability and Permanence or the Unknown
It’s hard knowing whether or not there is a relief to chronic pain or disability. I should know. For years, I didn’t know or understand how much of my pain was caused by incurable conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, and how much of it was the result of my car accident injuries. Fortunately for me, most of it was the latter and there is a solution to blocking that pain.
Not knowing, and the period of not having diagnoses–that was the worst.
Troi experiences this when Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) tells the truth: she’s not sure if or when the loss of empathic sense is permanent. Despite advanced technologies, Crusher also needs to take time to research the Betazoid brain before making further determinations, leaving Troi in limbo about the status of her loss.
I was married when the car accident caused my most life-affecting disability. The marriage didn’t last for a variety of reasons, including a former Marine’s mental health, but having a disability on top of other stressors didn’t help. Since then, I’ve faced many romantic relationships and even friendships in which the inability to walk fast, or my need to go to the doctor often is a dealbreaker. Or, on the extreme, the partner wants to be a caretaker and treat me like a child when most of the time I can care for myself and might just need the other person to occasionally open a jar or order takeout instead of going out on a high-pain day.
That said, I have been in a functional romantic relationship with someone who treated me as I wanted, inclusive of my disability. They listened to my needs and responded, and never assumed my needs. As a result, I was very comfortable and able to speak up when I needed that back massage, or a slower pace while walking. I wanted it to be kind of Imzadi and it wasn’t, but it did have that very healthy and respectful aspect.
I recognize that it isn’t easy to be a partner of someone with a disability. Additionally, Troi and Riker have an “Imzadi” (a “beloved” type of relationship that transcends any one type of love) throughout the show; while always friends, their real talk game is on point, and they support each other like partners through various medical crises.
When Troi experiences the loss of her empathic ability, it’s no surprise that Riker is at her side, asking the doctor supportive questions, advocating for Troi while ensuring she speaks for herself, and checking in every step of the way. He calls her out when she’s getting in her own way–disabled people are not beyond making the same mistakes that able-bodied people are when there are changes in life. I found it to be a very realistic depiction of how a partner could choose to support someone adjusting to a new disability. While it would be dangerous to compare every man to the dashing Will Riker, it might have been nice if I’d had a partner like that in my life for more than the short time I got with one who knew what to do.
When Will first comes by and asks Deanna to confide in him, she says that the worst part of this experience is “the way other people change,” immediately treating her differently. While she is resentful, and tossing some of her shade in Will’s direction, her honesty is refreshing and her anger about that situation entirely justified and reflective of my real-world experiences. Once I chose to identify as disabled, or once I reveal that I have an illness you can’t see, people never know how to react and they often won’t let me voice my own needs or limitations when they arise, always assuming what I can or cannot do. For me, that has always been the worst–as what I’m able to do changes wildly with the day and literally with the weather (rain makes rheumatoid arthritis flare).
When Deanna finally cries to Will, and admits, “I don’t know what to do” and her inability to cope with her present situation, he presents himself as the emotionally strong person in their partnership. The power dynamic in their relationship shifts; they get upset and they explore how this change affects their relationship. Really, this is something that occurs in relationships through life whether there’s a disability or not (changes happen), but the way the show presents it is quite realistic in my experience. It’s easy to see why a shaky relationship couldn’t tolerate one partner’s doubt in themselves.
Labeling It Disability
The first time I was included in the “disabled” category, I was on a panel about accessibility in larp. At the time, I had some mystery illnesses (autoimmune disease, later identified as rheumatoid arthritis) and multiple car accident injuries, which caused chronic pain. The other panelists were well-known in the community and outspoken advocates regarding accessibility; I was newer to the scene. By the end of the panel, they included me publicly in the disability label…and I didn’t know how to feel.
While I was fighting for my invisible pain to be taken seriously, I was also panicked: If I’m like you, then people will further disrespect me, I thought. It was scary, icky, internalized ableism. I quickly recognized that my colleagues were including me, and it was validating that leading femme presenting game designers with visible disabilities and mobility aids were accepting me as part of their community even though I wasn’t using a cane. They believed me.
It’s so complex, it took me all this time to even figure out how to describe it, but I can say Troi’s journey in The Loss mirrors my own. After she doesn’t want to be included with “those people” who have lost a sense such as sight, she comes to accept her loss as a disability and label it as such.
Disability and Work Accommodation
While no one suggests Troi is unable to do her job, it’s clear that she will have to function differently in her role as counselor. After losing her empathic abilities, she has to adjust to counseling in a new way. Crusher suggests at the onset of this issue that Troi see a counselor. Like any good medical doctor, Crusher is aware that a new disability, whether temporary or permanent, can impact a patient’s life while they adjust.
Troi goes through her own doubts and explorations of whether she can be a ship’s counselor without her empathic abilities, and the captain reminds her that most ship’s counselors in Starfleet are fully human and do not have this ability. His confidence in her ability to do her job does not seem shaken.
In my experience, conversations about disabilities and accommodations with various employers have been challenging. Even in the best of circumstances, it’s uncomfortable. I feel like I’m:
- Admitting a weakness
- Requesting special treatment and using more company resources (money) when I need accommodation or flexibility
- Blending personal and professional by disclosing health issues to human resources
- Taking a risk by admitting I need accommodations to perform my job correctly
And ultimately, all of this is true. All of these things are happening, and it stinks. While we like to think of Troi’s world as more progressive and Troi doesn’t have to worry about losing healthcare or housing if she can’t do her job (as I would have to worry), the emotional challenges are still there. She values her job (noted especially in the amazing episode Second Chances, when she isn’t interested in giving up her job posting for a second shot at love with a Riker), and because her innate abilities and education are tied to her role both functionally and diplomatically, her job is part of who he is.
Additionally, her father was a human Starfleet officer and her mother serves in a visible ambassadorial role for Betazed, so her role as counselor on a Starfleet vessel is possibly essential to her personal and cultural identity.
After her initial examination in sickbay, Troi says, “Right now, I just want to go back to work…if there are no medical objections.” I’ve felt the same way, even when in emotional turmoil and pain due to my disabilities. It’s routine, it’s something I’m competent in, and I’m scared that if I don’t work twice as hard as everyone else, I’ll lose my job because I need accommodations.
Unlike Troi, I also have significant medical expenses, and no work means no medical treatment. Like many others living with health issues in the United States, I need to work more jobs than an able-bodied person to afford medical treatment.
For all these reasons, there’s often no other option if a disabled person is capable of working–the determination is that much stronger. It’s not always the healthiest thing, but it’s a reaction that strikes me as deeply familiar every time I hear Troi speak to her doctor that way.
Lastly, Troi discloses to her patient that she is operating without her empathic abilities, then misses out on a true emotion her patient is feeling. While she did the ethical thing, it obviously undermined Troi’s confidence in her own abilities. In short, she failed to do something she could normally do. This is one of the worst feelings on the job, and I have countless instances of feeling very much the same, whether it’s running up the stairs instead of being the “lazy fat person” at work, getting to my desk later than the others, or simply being unable to stay up and work that sixth job due to the medications that make me tired.
Ultimately, Picard assures Deanna that she is the most qualified crew member to consider the psychology of the two-dimensional creatures. While he makes some missteps, his own leadership abilities intervene in a positive way to include Deanna in the very brainstorming suggestion that results in a solution concerning the larger problem.
Microaggressions Towards a Disabled Counselor
LaForge’s own blindness is a complex issue tackled in depth in other episodes, as his VISOR grants him some sensory capabilities that sighted humans do not have. It’s interesting that he’s the one who says, “it’s a shame we can’t tell whether [the two-dimensional beings] are sentient.”
Not only is it reflective of how Geordi doesn’t exactly see his different-sightedness as a disability, but it also goes to show that those within the disabled community can present microagressions unknowingly. In this case, Troi perceived it as a slight because under prior circumstances, her empathic abilities may have enabled her to detect sentient life nearby.
Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) dismisses that LaForge’s remark was insensitive, leading to Troi walking straight to sickbay declaring, “I can’t do my job.”
Progress and Healing With a Disability
Over the last 11 years, many doctors and friends have reminded me that “progress isn’t linear” when it comes to everything from physical healing to career growth. After seeing dozens of doctors for multiple medical issues and ultimately fighting my insurance company to get a set of MRIs, something rare happened: over 70 percent of my pain disappeared with a single nerve blocker pain shot.
I am not cured.
I will never be cured.
My chronic injuries will not go away, but I did find a treatment that works.
In a similar turn, Troi experiences the return of her empathic abilities. I used to feel a great deal of resentment for her when this happened, because disabilities rarely get treated to such a significant degree, let alone healed. I worried that the story feeds into the narrative of positive thinking being all someone needs to heal, or that disabilities are temporary or not real.
Now that most of my pain is blocked, I have a new appreciation for Deanna’s recovery. It’s one of few examples of how to move on after you’ve spent time labeling yourself disabled…only to have that significant incapability lessened.
Anger, Blame, and “Negativity”
“Don’t be so negative.” How many times have I heard that from able-bodied people who had no way to understand how much pain I was in, especially when the causes of my pain are and were invisible? I constantly remind people that my blood tests show things like increased inflammation and that my back is hot to the touch.
Like Troi, I’ve been angry at my doctors. Some, like Crusher, did all that they could to help, including the pain management specialist who gave me my life-changing pain injection recently. Some treated me like a number, and never ordered the necessary tests or didn’t want to deal with insurance. I live in a country with a broken “healthcare” system.
Doctors also need to provide realistic expectations, which Crusher constantly does.
Troi’s anger may result from fear, but her straightforwardness in showing her feelings is a personality trait that endures, and I admire Troi throughout the series for it regardless of what she experiences. Deanna lives authentically with her emotions in a way that allows people to see who she really is; part of the reason this character is so underrated is that so few writers took the chance to explore that complexity.
I’ve probably watched “The Loss” at least 20 times since my car accident. Like any person, the episode and its characters don’t handle things flawlessly. Being able to articulate my own feelings on the episode does make me feel a sense of closure, and allows me to continue to identify with Counselor Troi–including her weaknesses and well-roundedness.