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What Star Trek says about the march of science

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The doctors in Star Trek embody some deep worries about future medicine and healthcare, says media sociologist, Dr Lesley Henderson.

Fifty years since the beginnings of both the cult TV and film series and Brunel University, Dr Henderson dissects what this futuristic show says about people’s attitudes to science and technology.

Calling himself a ‘simple country doctor,’ Leonard “Bones” McCoy from Star Trek: The Original Series is both traditional and progressive. He’s comfortable with 23rd century medical technology but has some pretty old fashioned beliefs on natural medicine, Dr Henderson tells doctors on bmjblogs.

Bones’s futuristic clinic is packed with gadgets, including the medical tricorder, a non-invasive medical scanner. Using this to start his diagnosis, he also uses palpation – the traditional way of assessing patients by feeling with his fingers and hands.

Dr Bones McCoy came on screen at a pivotal moment in medicine. After the second world war, constant questions surfaced about funding medicine. Medicine at the same time turned to new technologies and diagnostic procedures.

“McCoy represents the doctor that we would all love to have at our bedside,” Dr Henderson explains. “But he is saved from awkward questions about funding because he operates in a future “utopia” where money no longer exists. He never needs to answer tricky questions about rationing or who is eligible for treatment. He reassures us future medicine’s future still has space for the simple country doctor.”

Star Trek also reflected worries about equality. Dr Beverley Crusher, chief medical officer in Star Trek: The Next Generation, inspired late eighties and early nineties medical students. Single mother, Dr Crusher was senior management on Enterprise, sometimes commanding the ship.

The alien Doctor Phlox from Star Trek: Enterprise uses complementary therapies he grows on board. Phlox, in the early 2000s reflects growing dislike of impersonal technologies and care.

Despite considerable medical advances, the role of doctors in Star Trek remains the community’s trusted family GP, says Dr Henderson. “Bones McCoy and the doctors after him speak to patients’ nostalgia for this fantasy doctor, at ease with advancing technology but capable of understanding the human condition and the psychosocial fallout we all experience when facing ill health.”

Image by JD Hancock