Lessons of Cruel and Unusual Punishment with Agony Booths

When Star Trek Discovery Became Star Trek

The Mirror Universe in Star Trek is known for awesome uniforms and goatees. It is also known for punishing transporter chiefs with Agonizers and throwing people in Agony Booths for torture. Star Trek Discovery’s adventure in the Mirror Universe is where the show embraced the best values of Star Trek, plus legal lessons in corporal punishment.

Enter the Agony Booth

According to Memory Alpha, Agony Booths could stimulate pain centers of the different species, where the inflicted pain was shifted from one nerve cluster to another, in order to keep the victim in a constant state of agony. Think of this like constant flogging, except the victim does not become overrun with pain.

Captain Gabriel Lorca’s revolutionaries were tortured in Agony Booths for over a year as retribution for their attempted overthrow of the Emperor. On the I.S.S. Shenzhou, crewmembers were placed in Agony Booths as punishment for unstated infractions.

In a Hornbook, Darkly

There is an ugly maritime history where crewmembers were flogged for discipline. The practice was done on both Naval warships and merchant ships. The practice was outlawed in the 19th Century. The prohibition on the Cruelty to Seaman states:

Whoever, being the master or officer of a vessel of the United States, on the high seas, or on any other waters within the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction of the United States, flogs, beats, wounds, or without justifiable cause, imprisons any of the crew of such vessel, or withholds from them suitable food and nourishment, or inflicts upon them any corporal or other cruel and unusual punishment, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.

18 U.S.C.S. § 2191.

The use of flogging was classified and banned under Federal law as cruel and unusual punishment:

Punishment by flogging, or by branding, marking, or tattooing on the body, or any other cruel or unusual punishment, may not be adjudged by any court-martial or inflicted upon any person subject to this chapter [10 USCS §§ 801 et seq.]. The use of irons, single or double, except for the purpose of safe custody, is prohibited.

10 U.S.C.S. § 855.

In one case from a whaling ship in 1855, a merchant sailor fell asleep while serving as a lookout for whales. The whaler was flogged as punishment. The Court stated that the flogging violated the law, in addition to other “creative” punishments that included forcing the sailor to “stand on his hands and feet, with his head to leeward; kneeling on the top of the house with his head in the funnel of the galley; and standing on deck, with a rope about his neck.” Payne v. Allen, 19 F. Cas. 11, 11-12 (D. Mass. 1855). The shipping company claimed the punishments were justified for the sailor disobeying orders, personal negligence, and general incompetence in performing his duties. While there could have been ways to reduce compensation for the sailor breaching his contract, there was no justification for the corporal punishment the sailor endured. The court awarded the sailor damages of $125, which today would be $49,555.40. Given how modern jurors would react to someone being flogged for job performance, that number would higher and someone would go to jail.

The Agony Booth is a Most Effective Means of Discipline…

Agony Booths are a rejection to the values of the fictional United Federation of Planets, in addition to the 19th Century prohibition of flogging sailors for discipline. The Terran Empire despised the weak, rejected the concept of mercy, and embraced corporal punishment to ensure efficiency. “Agony Booths” are everything that goes against the values of Star Trek, a show with a bright future where challenges can be overcome.

The USS Discovery in the Mirror Universe is where Star Trek Discovery became great. The initial theme was how being in a system that rejected everything the crew believed could change them for the worse. It was in this toxic environment that the crew demonstrated the value of life by refusing to leave others to die; it was in the Mirror Universe that the crew rejected they were in a no-win scenario; and it was in the Mirror Universe the crew worked as a team to solve multiple complex problems. This was when Star Trek Discovery became Star Trek. And it was damn awesome.

Just keep Saru in the Captain’s Chair, because it is where he belongs.

I just wish the Klingons looked consistent as they did in Enterprise, The Original Series, Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and original movies. The gold tunics with sashes from Day of the Dove, Errand of Mercy, and The Trouble with Tribbles were a ton of fun.