How Well Does Star Trek: Discovery Reflect Real Humanity?
This piece takes the form of a conversation between Christ and Pop Culture staff writers E. Stephen Burnett and Geoffrey Reiter. Both writers have watched the initial episodes of Star Trek: Discovery available on CBS All Access and join together to discuss the show’s merits and distinctives. Please note that this conversation may contain mild spoilers.
E. Stephen Burnett: Star Trek: Discovery has finally launched. For Trek fans and curious viewers, the new series’ first story aired on the standard CBS network Sunday, September 24. That same night, folks who subscribed to the internet CBS All Access network could view the very next episode.
For my part, as a late-coming yet fairly involved Star Trek fan, I was cautiously optimistic about the new series. These first two stories encouraged my optimism, even for a prequel story (set before Star Trek’s original series) that’s set in this world’s prime continuity but clearly has some advanced soft-retcon technology and, of course, storytelling methods. I’m curious what you expected, Geoffrey, and whether the first two episodes fulfilled your expectations?
Geoffrey Reiter: I find that among devout Star Trek fans, broadly speaking, there are two categories: the purists who don’t want anything to spoil their early experiences of Trek and the devotees who can’t get enough, as long as the shows are well-made. I have friends in the former category, but I’m in the latter. I followed the show’s developments pretty closely and, despite the behind-the-scenes drama, the latest news and trailers had me cautiously optimistic. I found that optimism justified in the early episodes.
Some disliked the prequel status of the show, but that was a draw to me. I like well-realized “secondary worlds” (to use a Tolkienian term), and Trek’s future is a universe full of stories. Once the parameters have been set, though, I find jumping back and forth to explore that realm’s nooks and crannies delightful. Some mild technology retconning doesn’t bother me, because even the most well-developed secondary world is still fictional and thus will be contradictory on some level because its (sub)creators are fallen humans. But like its predecessor Star Trek: Enterprise, Discovery’s prequel status allows us a chance to look at Roddenberry’s utopian future as rough around the edges, a work in progress. As I discuss in my Christianity Today review, I think Discovery looks on track to accomplish that.
Of course, Star Trek: Discovery will be dominated early by the war with the Klingons. A lot of attention has been given to their “new look,” but I’d join many of the non-Trekkie critics in focusing on this new take on their culture. What did you make of Discovery’s Klingons? Are they faithful to the Trek Prime understanding of their society, and what do we make of the possible cultural, political, and even religious subtexts of the quasi-messianic T’Kuvma’s crusade?
ESB: So far, Discovery’s Klingons do align with the “prime” universe continuity — that is, the original story-world for Star Trek before the rebooted film series. Their appearance is jarring at first, though they look very cool at least as aliens (if not slightly immobile). As a fan who falls between purists and other devotees, I appreciate the diversity of Klingon appearances even while enjoying the fact that Star Trek actually has attempted to explain their divergent appearances in-universe.
What matters most is that these figures believe and act like Klingons. And so far, they do. In fact, the Klingons and other alien races, such as the Bajorans and the Founders of the Dominion, allow Trek to boldly go into exploring worlds Roddenberry would have just as soon ignored: the worlds of faith and religion past Starfleet humanism. This series appears poised to go the same way, and thereby asks the question: what are the limits of Starfleet’s optimistic humanism? How can you pursue peace when the people whom you greet in peace assume you’re there to upend their culture?
Though episode 3 shifts the series’ tone, the two-part prequel episode probably shows this theme best when an injured bridge officer says, “Why are we fighting? We’re Starfleet! We’re explorers, not soldiers!” I found this a tragic naïveté. Apparently he’s sincerely believed the Federation’s own well-intended propaganda. And it won’t be the last time, for even after Klingons make peace with the Federation, it’s threatened many more times. And of course Deep Space Nine, the show most like this one, pursues the Dominion War for much of its run. So what do you think of this apparent continuing emphasis for Star Trek — putting scientific exploration on hold for war stories, while openly recognizing the difference and exploring this contrast for the drama?
GR: This actually becomes an even more evident theme in episode 3, “Context Is for Kings.” Burnham walks into the tense dynamic between Captain Lorca, the calculating warrior, and Lieutenant Stamets, the scientifically minded (and now bitter) engineer/biologist. At this point we go beyond simply putting exploration on hold; the fruits of exploration may in fact potentially be used for the war effort.
Such questions are seldom complicated for Klingons. As predators, their technology is naturally marshaled toward military purposes. But it’s a dilemma in Star Trek that can be seen in every series. A fruitful future, a life well-lived, means more than just survival. Yet survival is a necessary precondition for flourishing. So do we sacrifice our ideals (even “temporarily”) so that on the broader level this great civilization may continue? But in sacrificing those ideals, how do we then justify ourselves as the “good guys” worth saving? Even The Original Series posed these questions in episodes like “A Private Little War” and “The Enterprise Incident.”
But Discovery sets these contrasting visions on a collision course, probably more so than even the later and darker Trek iterations. Lorca represents the survivor, mirroring the tribble he keeps in his office. After all, while cute, a tribble is also the perfect symbol of raw biological survival. It exists for no other purpose than to keep existing.
Ironically, Burnham’s betrayal of her own principles has caused her in episode 3 to adopt a similar mindset; she’s resigned to living a meaningless life of labor for the war effort. Yet in joining Discovery’s crew, despite its martial mission, she’s now afforded the opportunity to be in Starfleet again, and perhaps (I suspect) to end the war. Her invocation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland expresses the paradoxical nature of her quest (“down is up”) as well as a desire to return to a child-like naïveté in the mad “grown-up” world of warmongering, ostensibly in the name of Starfleet.
That paradox may even be evident in Lorca, who can in the same conversation show the wonder to “imagine the possibilities” of his ship’s organic drive, yet then declare, “Universal laws are for lackeys.” Do you see a particular version or vision of Starfleet’s future winning out for Discovery’s writers?
ESB: That’s what I enjoy about Discovery’s story so far. Like any good science fiction, it’s reflecting reality. And as you alluded, this story’s also reflecting a sort of struggle between the “classic” humanism of early science fiction (what we would hope to become) and modern humanism (what we actually are if we’re honest with ourselves).
If the creators are truly intending to help this series serve as a prequel for The Original Series, then Starfleet’s future will end up mixed-optimistic. They can eat their continuity cake even while shaking up the Trek recipe. After all, Roddenberry’s vision in The Original Series still mixed “Wagon Train to the stars” with early ideas of the United Federation of Planets and its classic humanist impulse drive. It wasn’t until Star Trek: The Next Generation, set a century later, that Roddenberry threw his story-craft into warp drive.
Now you had not only the Prime Directive concept of the Federation’s non-involvement with warp-incapable species further promoted (and supposedly adhered to). You also had studied diplomacy and art-pursuing, orchestra-playing Starfleet officers held as examples over, say, Kirk-style fisticuffs. At least for a time, we had an emphasis on the idea that good 24th-century humans don’t have interpersonal conflicts. This lasted until Roddenberry passed on in 1991, and then the writers and creators who inherited the Star Trek legacy chose — wisely, I think — to resist that rule.
So whether by real-world timing or in-universe timing, Discovery could end with the Federation at a cold war with the now-renewing Klingon Empire. Relations won’t be as bad as it could be but will still have nearly a century of work to do before we have Federation and Klingons at peace in time for the Next Generation era.
In the real world, I think the era of over-optimistic Trek humanism is over. Christians and modern humanists could agree on this: our society is still too flawed and there’s too much evil in the world to pretend humanity can simply “evolve” and put away hunger and war any time soon. For the Christian, those things will only be burned out of the universe after Jesus returns. For the modern humanist, it begins to sound like they expect moral revolutions and social justice to continue forever and ever. How in this framework could you conceive of a Federation that moves forward in true peace, with only a few galactic empires (the Borg, the Dominion) left to threaten our continuing evolution?
GR: Christian or humanist, the storyteller’s dilemma is similar: we want a better, more ideal cosmos, but how do we conceive of that in a way that’s pleasing on a narrative level, since all our stories assume conflict? How do we keep heaven from appearing boring, whether we’re talking about the real New Jerusalem of the biblical eschaton or just a more secular vision of a conflict-free galaxy?
For the Christian, it really is, I think, about exploration. That’s what C. S. Lewis recognized, when he ended The Last Battle in Aslan’s country with the prospect of infinite exploration and infinite (dare I say it?) discovery: “Further up and further in.” I assume that a materialist version of this eschaton would be Roddenberry’s ideal as well. Suffice it to say, I think it’s less satisfying than the Christian version; but either way, it would hardly be satisfying on a dramatic level.
But I don’t think we need to worry about that with Discovery. There seems to be the open possibility for further spinoffs at CBS if the show does well, and if so, I would expect one soon to be set later than all other shows. Then they wouldn’t have the excuse of a less “advanced” Federation. Like you, however, I hardly expect any Trek writers to settle comfortably down.
We may find full shalom in the New Heaven and New Earth, but explore as you might, in these heavens and this earth, exploration will always bring danger and potential hostility. Star Trek is strongest not when it denies this but when it looks for ways to help us acknowledge and overcome it. Let’s hope we get more of that, in Discovery and beyond.