Five Body-Swap Episodes
Body-swapping is a common fictional-media trope – a “Freaky Friday” phenomenon where one’s essence, “spirit,” or personality has been exchanged with another’s. A switch is flipped, a wand is waved, and for the length of an episode, two characters live each other’s lives for comedic, dramatic, or character-developing effect. Although the most recent example of this is in the Strange New Worlds episode “Spock Amok”, Star Trek has used body-swapping in some other interesting ways too.
1 – “The Lights of Zetar”
The Star Trek: The Original Series episode “The Lights of Zetar” is an example of aliens inhabiting a body for survival purposes while sending the owner’s consciousness to sights and places unknown.
On the way to escort Lieutenant Romaine to the Federation library Memory Alpha, the Enterprise is approached by a strange cloud at warp speed. Spock quickly determines that something is amiss; this is no inert spatial distortion and, indeed, the cloud is a sentient and non-corporeal alien race from Zetar, a destroyed planet. Before the Enterprise can establish any communication, the cloud attacks the ship, which incapacitates Lieutenant Romaine. The Zetarians also lay waste to Memory Alpha, which is without shields or defenses, leaving only one survivor.
While inhabiting Romaine, the Zetarians imbue her with the powers of foreknowledge, since she reports being able to “see through their mind” and correctly predicts a Zetarian attack on Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott, which is thankfully unsuccessful. Finally, Romaine is placed in a pressure chamber which drives out the alien entities from her body and reports a peaceful interlude, with no memory of the horrors wrought by the cloud.
This episode shows that the drive to survive may cause one’s focus to become desperately myopic and utterly blind to the harm it can cause others.
2 – “Turnabout Intruder”
In the TOS series finale “Turnabout Intruder”, Janice Lester – a former classmate of Captain Kirk’s – is bedridden and near death. However, she’s given a life-altering opportunity to switch bodies with him.
The episode starts with Janice furiously lamenting to Captain Kirk because, as a woman, she was never afforded the opportunity to captain a starship of her own (this disparity has clearly been retconned since). Using what looks like her last bit of strength, Janice forces a body switch with Kirk.
The new “Captain Kirk” spitefully continues her screed, “Now you know the indignity of being a woman,” and attempts to finish what nature started by murdering the helpless new “Janice”. In this new body, the barriers to Janice being a starship captain instantly vanish.
This exchange was striking to me, as there is often a large gulf of understanding between myself and cis-gendered men. “Turnabout Intruder” is a bit of a wish-fulfilling episode for me – I wish I could communicate that experience, but words fall short of that. Existing as a target of unprovoked malevolence while surrounded by systemic barriers is not sufficiently explained through words.
3 – “Vis à Vis”
In a Star Trek: Voyager episode called “Vis à Vis”, an alien entity inhabits a body for its own selfish purposes. Tom Paris is taken over by a genome thief named “Steth“, whose ship was in desperate need of repairs.
The straightforward premise of identity theft mirrors The Next Generation’s episode “Datalore” in that Steth is determined to ruin Tom’s reputation on Voyager, much like how Lore held some degree of spite towards Data and assumed that his identity gave him an opportunity to taint his reputation. Steth-as-Tom-Paris is a belligerent drunk who is terrible at his job and treats his girlfriend, Chief Engineer B’Elanna Torres, quite horribly.
This specific swap puts Paris inside the body of an alien onboard another ship. Not only have the two beings shifted genders, but they have also shifted species and locations.
This episode is more complicated and action-packed than other examples. Tom Paris ultimately collaborates with another victim of Steth to retrieve both of their identities.
4 – “The Crossing”
Trip Tucker, on Star Trek: Enterprise, switches places with an alien in a manner close to “Vis à Vis” in an episode called “The Crossing”. Enterprise NX-01’s voyage signifies humanity’s first taste of deep-space travel and with it come encounters with unfathomable creatures, one of whom is a non-corporeal entity that switches places with Trip.
Like Lieutenant Romaine at the end of “The Lights of Zetar”, the moments when Trip is non-corporeal are pleasant, according to him; he was simply reliving a memory of swimming with his girlfriend back in Florida, well before his life on board Enterprise. While this body-swap still frightens and confuses the crew, once Trip is returned to his own body, he recommends the “experience” to his fellow crewmembers shortly before the body-swapping “wisps” launch a full-scale invasion.
Malcolm Reed attempts to escape a swap, but he soon finds himself not only swapped with an alien, but also approaching the women crewmembers inappropriately. Aliens on Star Trek are often curious about human sexuality, so forcing Reed’s body to misbehave in such a way aligns with that practice. Thankfully, Captain Archer manages to lock Reed in his quarters.
Once Doctor Phlox (whose Denobulan biology prevents him from being swapped) determines that elevated levels of a certain chemical are a tell-tale sign of swap, he discovers that most of the crew are invaded, including Hoshi Sato, who is unsuccessful at trying to establish communication. More crewmembers are locked in their quarters as a safety measure. Determined to bring his crew back, Captain Archer boldly floods the ship’s quarters with CO2, which suffocates the crew. Because the wisps cannot live in a dead body, the invasion is thwarted, and Doctor Phlox is just in time to revive them all.
This was a unique encounter with a dying group of aliens whose only chance of survival was to take possession of the bodies of the crew.
5 – “Spock Amok”
It’s a solid assumption that the trope of body-swapping is born from a deeply human desire to finally be understood. And this is shown once again in the hilarious Star Trek: Strange New Worlds episode “Spock Amok”.
Spock seizes a lull as an opportunity to reunite with his wife T’Pring, who expresses (in her own Vulcan way) sadness at Spock’s constant absence and wants them to prioritize their relationship. Since a relationship is about connection and presence, this is a relatable problem.
To enrich their connection, Spock proposes a Vulcan soul-joining. They can thereby know each other’s innermost thoughts and understand each other entirely in a way that transcends conversational limitations. Instead of a momentary joining, their identities accidentally switch.
T’Pring and Spock have to reckon with doing each other’s jobs. Since it was Spock’s job that took him away from her shortly after their nuptials, T’Pring-as-Spock uses a high-stakes diplomatic meeting to voice her disapproval and nearly sabotage Spock’s position by having “Spock” talk about how he’d rather be on Vulcan than in Starfleet. Noticing that good relations may not come of this meeting, Captain Pike steps in and shares his deep gratitude for Spock sharing his talents, time, and sacrifice, knowing that T’Pring is listening. Spock-as-T’Pring takes on her duties as a criminal rehabilitation coordinator.
The episode started with Spock’s Vulcanness being criticized by T’Pring and continues in a scene with a fugitive where he too insults “T’Pring” for marrying a half-human. Spock is reminded of the hardship of prejudice while living with his own people. His mixed background has consistently made him a target, and now that target is painted on his wife, which stirs up guilt in him – another sadly relatable issue. Spock and T’Pring come out of those “hijinks” with a deeper appreciation for each other.
Establishing understanding – whether for Machevellian, practical, or loving reasons – is what attracts people to body-swapping. Likewise, Star Trek is, at its heart, about achieving understanding.