6 min read

Psychotherapy in science fiction

Psychotherapy in science fiction
Photo by Jeremy Thomas / Unsplash

Today I took it upon myself to work out roughly how much of my life I've spent in a therapy or counselling session of one form or another, and I came up with approximately 250 hours, between the ages of 11 and today.

Pilots measure their practical flying experience in 'flight hours', and they need at least 250 flight hours to get a commercial piloting certificate. So now I'm wondering if I can get a certificate of some kind for my therapy hours. Or a coloured belt, or at least a pin badge!

I'm not sure who to write to in order to request these items though, so I guess I'll have to content myself with all the other stuff that I've gained.

Which, honestly, is kind of everything.

I know how fortunate I am to have had the opportunity to access therapy at all. I believe high quality psychotherapy should be available to everyone, for free, along with all other forms of health care. I'm lucky too, that it has been such an overwhelmingly positive experience. Not pleasant, but positive.

Sadly, for many people therapy has mostly negative associations. These may stem from a lack of choice over who they work with and what kind of therapy they can access - which can be very harmful in itself - to awful experiences of ignorance, hateful attitudes, or abuse. Some of these problems have roots in the individual therapist, and some are systemic.

One of my favourite episodes of the excellent Our Opinions Are Correct podcast by science fiction authors Charlie Jane Anders and Annalee Newitz explores representations of therapy and therapists in speculative fiction (listen here or read the transcript here).

They're joined by actor and writer Theo Germaine who talks about their love of Star Trek (which will be featuring heavily in this article) and their experiences working on the film They/Them, set in an LGBTQ+ conversion camp, especially their chilling scenes with therapist Dr Cora Whistler, played by Carrie Preston.

One aspect of the OOAC episode that I appreciated is that it explores both positive and negative examples of therapy in science fiction, and acknowledges that while psychotherapy may be a profound transformational tool, it must first of all be safe.

Do listen to the episode, but in the meantime I wanted to share some of my own favourite space therapists, good and bad.

The Good

On the positive side, Star Trek is well represented, with Counselor Troi, Guinan, and Dr Culber, making good use of their empathic listening skills at various points. (There are a host of other characters that fulfil this role in part throughout the various series, from Ezri Dax to Q, I'm not going to list them all.)

I'm especially fond of the scenes in Star Trek: The Next Generation where we get to see Troi working with Data, who often experiences insecurity around his identity and challenges understanding emotions, his own and others.

One of my favourite SciFi therapists is Ruth Brenner from time travel TV series Russian Doll, who in season one is shown working with a client using EMDR therapy to help them process their past trauma, a major theme of the show.

When Nadia is lost in shame and fear, believing that she doesn't deserve to be alive, Ruth gently asks her “Where is that gorgeous piece of you pushing to be a part of this world?” It's a beautiful moment, which prompts a breakthrough for Nadia.

GIF of Ruth speaking with a caption reading "We need other people"

The Bad

One of the most interesting bad therapists for me is Ursula K. Le Guin's Dr William Haber in The Lathe of Heaven. He doesn't set out to harm, but through his arrogance and ambition causes immense destruction:

"That geniality was not faked, but it was exaggerated. There was a warmth to the man, an outgoingness, which was real; but it had got plasticoated with professional mannerisms, distorted by the doctor’s unspontaneous use of himself. Orr felt in him a wish to be liked and a desire to be helpful; the doctor was not, he thought, really sure that anyone else existed, and wanted to prove they did by helping them."

The Evil Hypnotherapist is a long-standing cliché (remember this Big Train sketch? Featuring tiny baby Simon Pegg!) but Jordan Peele's Get Out gave us a deeply horrible new spin on it in the character of Missy Armitage.

A clip from the film Get Out in which Missy manipulates Chris using hypnosis

The Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Dagger of the Mind", written by Shimon Wincelberg, features not one but - arguably - four therapists.

Dr Helen Noel may be the first example of a Starfleet shipboard psychological professional, who though not exactly evil does mess about with Kirk's memories in a pretty unethical way. We also meet former psychiatric patient Lethe, who we're told has become a therapist herself but sadly we don't get to see her in action.

The worst therapist here is Dr Tristan Adams, inventor of the neural neutralizer. The machine is intended to erase patients' traumatic memories and offer relief, but in reality becomes a mind control device. The episode offers clear parallels with contemporary critiques of harmful psychiatric prodedures, most famously Ken Kesey's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.

The lobotomy-like neural neutralizer is contrasted with the Vulcan mind meld (first appearance in this episode!) which is presented in a more positive light, and emphasises connection and understanding over control and manipulation. In this episode, Spock is the good therapist.

Even so, I doubt his practice would meet UKCP accreditation standards.

Kirk screaming while two men in blue uniforms look on.

Therapy and storytelling

These are just a handful of examples that came to mind but there are many, many more, including several podcasts - like The Bright Sessions, Homecoming, and Mirrors - which make clever use of therapy sessions as a storytelling device.

In my science fantasy story "Down In The Wreck Of The Promise" (which you can read in the Spirit Machine anthology from Air and Nothingness Press) the two protagonists, Alise and Kerfan, aren't quite therapists, but psychotherapy is a major part of the role of "tendant" that I imagined for them. I was reaching for the idea of a kind of community therapist, who also takes on some aspects of a faith leader, but in a secular capacity.

I'm revisiting that world and those characters in a new story which includes what is essentially a therapy session and trying to write it I have a new appreciation for writers that have already tackled that challenge.

In my experience at least, the kinds of conversations you have in the therapy room are looping and layered, and flow through many different moods and subjects creating whorls and eddies, the meaning of which won't become clear until much, much later.

As a writer I'm finding it very tricky trying to keep that sense of fluidity and fragmentation but also deliver information for the reader and move the story forward. It's an enjoyable challenge though, and I'm endlessly curious about the complex relationship between storytelling, listening, and healing.

A few links