Remember Death by Matthew McCullough, Free for CAPC Members
Matthew McCullough suggests that death awareness allows us to find joy in the problems of this world.
***SPOILER ALERT: This article contains references to particular episodes and the overall arc of Star Trek: Discovery’s second season but should be spoiler-free relating to major twists and developments.***
In 2017, CBS used the launch of Star Trek: Discovery to gain subscribers to its fledgling streaming service CBS All Access. Because Discovery was the first series in over a decade to occur in the “Prime” Star Trek universe (not the Kelvin timeline of the most recent films), many fans agreed to suck it up and pay for the subscription, a subscription that will soon include a third season of Star Trek: Discovery and the much-touted Star Trek: Picard, with numerous other such projects slated to come in subsequent years.
Critical and fan reaction to Discovery’s first season was mixed, if generally positive. There was praise for its cinematic quality of special effects, its diverse and intriguing cast of characters, and its potent action. Some, however, were concerned that it was too dark and too reliant on the artistic “freedom” of its streaming home to be a gritty TV-MA show. Many fans found its dark overtones inconsistent with the tone of optimistic humanism advocated by Star Trek’s creator, the late Gene Roddenberry; while, on a less philosophical note, some hardcore Trekkies believed that the plots violated continuity with the “canonical” Trek universe.Whether the subject was genetic manipulation or cybernetic alterations, the Trek world has always stood by an understanding that technology was a set of tools to aid humankind’s pursuits that should never be used to alter the human person.
A longtime fan myself, I have already gone on the record with the opinion that Discovery isn’t intrinsically too dark, that, indeed, Star Trek probably isn’t really dark enough. Still, I was hardly upset to learn that showrunners had promised a somewhat lighter and more optimistic second season, especially when it was announced that Anson Mount would appear in a regular role as Christopher Pike, an early captain of the USS Enterprise and a character both beloved and neglected in Trek lore.
The second season of Star Trek: Discovery proved indeed to be a change of pace from its inaugural season. Its writers deliberately took steps to close up many of the ostensible plot and continuity holes from its early episodes, which, coupled with the overall arc of the sophomore season, do anchor the show on a humanistic ground more in keeping with Roddenberry’s formative vision. This means that in the 2019 episodes of Star Trek: Discovery, both the virtues and the flaws of classic Trek’s philosophy are thoroughly and starkly on display.
Season two of Star Trek: Discovery begins shortly after the first season left off, with a now-captainless Discovery making a rendezvous with pre-Captain-Kirk Enterprise. Captain Pike has been given authority to take command of Discovery temporarily, using the ship to locate and analyze a series of mysterious energy impulses cropping up around known space. These bursts bear some connection to a mysterious entity the crew refer to as the Red Angel. Moreover, both the energy bursts and the Angel are connected to Spock (Ethan Peck), Pike’s science officer and the adoptive brother of Discovery’s Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green). Possibly driven mad by this connection, Spock is now a fugitive from Starfleet, especially its nefarious cloak-and-dagger wing Section 31. The arc of season two traces Discovery’s attempts track Spock and discover the natures of the Red Angel and the energy bursts.
Following some rather infamous reports suggesting that religious references of any kind were off limits during the first season, showrunners were quick to insist that Star Trek: Discovery would be more forthcoming in addressing faith questions this time around. Indeed, the second episode, “New Eden,” seemingly did so head-on, when Discovery’s crew encountered a largely low-tech human colony populated by people of faith. But the show’s exploration of the topic during the season was always inextricably tied to the mystery of the Red Angel: Is it natural, supernatural, or technological? Good or evil? Savior or satan?
The Star Trek universe has always been conflicted when addressing religious questions. Gene Roddenberry had a generic respect for Christianity and could make favorable references to the Bible or even Jesus. Yet he held little fealty to any doctrinal religious position and seemed dismissive of any divine presence at all, let alone a personal Trinitarian God. In the first two Star Trek series—the ones he created directly—godlike figures are always aliens, and they are usually either vaguely beneficent (waiting for humans to evolve) or downright petty and puerile. Only Star Trek: Deep Space Nine ever truly took seriously questions of faith as seen through the eyes of a true believer, Major Kira, and her conflicted but deeply religious people, the Bajorans.
Without revealing too much, I think I can safely say that Discovery season two ultimately lands in the Roddenberry camp once all its twists have finally passed. That should be encouraging for the Star Trek purist skeptical of the series’s commitment to the original show’s vision, though it cannot help but be a little disappointing to one like me who was hoping for a more robust and evenhanded treatment of religion. Because in the end, Roddenberry’s take on humanity’s evolutionary apotheosis must appear facile in the light of a truly Christian anthropology.
But there were also some aspects of humanity that Roddenberry got right, and fortunately Discovery gets those aspects right too. Since its inception, the genre of science fiction has always had a tendency to lean toward a kind of technological transhumanism—what science fiction writer Vernor Vinge calls the singularity—by which human and machine become so thoroughly intertwined that our identities fundamentally change. And to his credit, Gene Roddenberry in Star Trek pushed back against this brand of transcendence. Notwithstanding the odd outlier (e.g. Star Trek: The Motion Picture) every show in the Star Trek universe always fought against the notion that technology could improve or hasten the evolution of the human spirit. Whether the subject was genetic manipulation or cybernetic alterations, the Trek world has always stood by an understanding that technology was a set of tools to aid humankind’s pursuits that should never be used to alter the human person.
And in any number of delightful ways, Star Trek: Discovery season two manifests this approach. One example occurs in a simple scene that both reinforces the thematic content of the season and helps retcon a longstanding canon problem. Since its premiere episode, Discovery had allowed its ships to communicate via holographic technology, despite the fact that even series set a century later were relying on viewscreens. In the season’s fourth episode, a conversation between Captain Pike and his first officer, Number One (Rebecca Romijn) reveals that these holographic systems have unintentionally crashed the Enterprise’s computer systems. Pike orders a restoration of “good old-fashioned viewscreens,” and he “never liked the holograms…looked too much like ghosts.”
The human body may parallel a machine in some ways but that we are more than devices or raw material.
That scene occurs in “An Obol for Charon,” an episode that helps set the pace for the pushback on facile reliance on technology, my favorite of the season (and perhaps the series). Soon after Pike’s conversation, an encounter with an alien object scrambles Discovery’s universal translator, causing a babel of confusion on the bridge, which they are only able to escape because Lieutenant Saru (Doug Jones) has actually taken the time to learn multiple languages. The danger of the episode also traps Discovery’s engineer Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) with rival engineer Jet Reno (Tig Notaro). Stamets sings the praises of Discovery’s high-tech spore propulsion drive, while the Reno the “grease monkey” dismisses his optimism, opting for duct tape and asserting that “antimatter and dilithium might be old-school, but they don’t let you down.”
Even the central MacGuffin of the episode, a giant alien sphere that connects to Discovery in surprising ways, teases out the second-season emphasis on approaching tech with a grain of salt. Playing a role well beyond “An Obol for Charon,” the long-term consequence of the sphere’s interaction with Discovery, while not as outright hostile as it initially seems, does demonstrate that even benevolently-intentioned technology can have harmful effects. That same idea is even more intimately developed in the second-season arc of Lieutenant Commander Airiam (Hannah Cheesman), who owes her life to technological enhancements, yet (in “Project Daedalus” especially) must face a reckoning for those enhancements.
This is the humanism of Star Trek that Christians can know and love, an assertion that the core elements of our nature are complex, biological but also more, that the human body may parallel a machine in some ways but that we are more than devices or raw material. These are the threats C. S. Lewis noted about our culture back when he warned in The Abolition of Man that Nature would have the last laugh if humans tried to conquer it. Star Trek rejected such notions of conquest in forbidding genetic engineering. And as I have observed elsewhere, it warned of those dangers even more frighteningly in its presentation of the Borg (who may or may not be alluded to in Discovery season two).
So, as we might well expect, Star Trek: Discovery is, philosophically speaking, a mixed bag in its second season. Insofar as it suggests a godlike destiny of self-salvation for humanity, it is falling back on the tired progressive tropes of its universe’s bloodlines. And there is probably a limit to what any Christian viewer can hope for from what will ultimately remain an agnostic show at best. But by rejecting technologies that fundamentally alter humanity’s being, by acknowledging that there are limits to the means by which we ought to pursue that progress, Discovery falls in the best Trek tradition. The season finale cliffhanger leaves the door wide open for any number of possible future developments—but, at least on some levels, it seems that the show’s producers have heeded Gene Roddenberry’s best instincts.
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