Film & Television Opinion

Semiotics of the Vulcan Hello

Semiotics, in brief, is the study of how we construct meaning. For example the phrase ‘green light’ has a meaning beyond a literal green light – it can be used metaphorically as giving permission to go ahead. Even if you’re not familiar with them, you won’t be surprised to learn that the Lorde song Green Light and the Ting Tings song Traffic Light are not about literal lights.

Ferdinand de Saussure wrote about the relationship between a ‘signifier’ and ‘signified’ – the sign and the thing it represents. So a nuclear waste sign is not dangerous itself, but signifies that radioactive material is inside a container, or nearby. Similarly a lit green light is associated with the abstract concept of going, and a red light with the abstract concept of stopping.

Semiotics can be confusing – I’ve studied it at university level and still find a lot of de Saussure and Roland Barthes mind-bending – but it’s a process that almost all of us have a basic understanding of on a subconscious level. We make sense of these signifiers on a daily basis without really thinking about it.

Several times the opening episode of Star Trek: Discovery plays with the idea of different levels of meaning. This begins with the episode title – The Vulcan Hello. I don’t think it’s a phrase that has previously been used within the Star Trek franchise, but the assumption I made was that this would refer to the iconic hand gesture. The one where the index and middle finger pull in one direction, and the fourth and fifth finger in the other.

Mosaic in Synagogue of Enschede by Kleuske 2012-08-01
The gesture comes from an Orthodox Jewish blessing. / Mosaic in Synagogue of Enschede by Kleuske, Wikimedia Commons

Instagram has ten images tagged with #vulcanhello at the time of writing, three relate directly to the episode title, while six of the others feature the iconic gesture. I don’t think that there’s a guidebook anywhere that outlines the relationship between the gesture and the phrase ‘Vulcan hello’, but it seems to be a common association. (The gesture is referred to on Wikipedia and Memory Alpha as a ‘Vulcan salute’.)

This process is known in semiotics as decoding – using the information we have as viewers, listeners or readers to construct meaning. The Vulcan salute is used as a greeting by Vulcans, often accompanied by the phrase ‘live long and prosper’, so thinking of the gesture when hearing the phrase ‘Vulcan hello’ is perfectly logical. It’s the association I made when trying to construct a meaning for the signifier, and at least six other Instagrammers chose ‘Vulcan hello’ as a signifier to go alongside the gesture.

 

But it’s a faulty association, and one which I think was caused by a deliberate misdirect. The plot of The Vulcan Hello centres on the USS Shenzhou encountering a Klingon ship. This is the first Federation – Klingon contact in almost a century, and possibly the first contact since before the formation of the Federation. Much of the plot centres on the Shenzhou bridge crew debating how to act towards the Klingons, given that the Klingons seem to be ignoring messages. A Klingon has been accidentally killed, but as the Shenzhou is unable to issue an apology, their choice is to engage the Klingons or retreat. The discussions around how the Klingons would interpret an attack (possibly as a sign of strength) and retreat (possibly as a sign of weakness) reminded me of The Next Generation episode Darmok. In that episode an alien race’s extensive use of metaphors make it difficult for Picard’s Enterprise to establish common understanding.

Patrick Stewart by Urbantog Wiki 2009-09-22
Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra? / Urbantog, Wikimedia Commons

Shenzhou’s first officer contacts her Vulcan mentor, who reveals that for a long time the Vulcan approach to encountering Klingons was to open with a show of force, or a Vulcan hello. (The phrase ‘Vulcan hello’ is used in dialogue after this, for what I’d assume is the first time in the franchise.) This is how semiotics works – the viewer assumes that a phrase has one meaning, but when additional information is provided, the phrase takes on another meaning. So a ‘Vulcan hello’ is a euphemism for violence, similar to the real world ‘Glasgow smile’. If you’re not familiar with that phrase, you may assume that it means a happy Scotsman, but…well it doesn’t mean that.

 

The phrase “we come in peace” has a prominent place in The Vulcan Hello, and like the titular phrase, has several layers of meaning.

Firstly there’s the literal words. ‘We come in peace’ means that our group travels towards you, but we don’t wish violence or conquest. It means ‘we acknowledge that we are strange and different from you, but we want to be friends’. I don’t think “we come in peace” has been used in Star Trek before, but it is an archetypal science fiction trope, which seems to originate with 1951’s The Day The Earth Stood Still.

To Georgiou (and, we would assume, the rest of the Federation) the phrase means what it means on the surface. It’s a friendly greeting. But the Klingons don’t interpret the phrase in the same way. To them it is what the Federation say to encourage enemies to let down their guard, before attacking. Perhaps the phrase has become associated with violence and perceived Federation aggression in some way. I get the feeling that there’s some as yet unrevealed backstory which will explain why, but we know that to the Klingons “we come in peace” is a lie the Federation often tell to encourage complacency before attacking. In fact the series opens with a monologue by the Klingon antagonist, and the first words spoken in a Human language are his sarcastic delivery of “we come in peace”, which he describes as the Federation’s “fatal greeting”.  There’s a trope of aliens in science fiction films using “we come in peace” as a prelude to an attack. This is seemingly what the Federation has done in the past…from the Klingon point of view, at least.

 

I’ve looked for previous mentions of the phrase “we come in peace” in Star Trek canon. The closest I can find is the comedy song Star Trekkin, which includes the lyrics “We come in peace, shoot to kill”.

Though it’s a silly joke, it works because of the perceived hypocrisy of Kirk and crew so often engaging in violence – albeit with phasers usually set to stun rather than kill in the series. It seems that Discovery intends to seriously engage with a criticism originating as part of a broad micky-take.

These multiple interpretations of the same simple phrase show how the different layers of meaning that different groups bring to a situation can lead to division, distrust, violence and death. Getting past these misunderstandings will probably form a major part of Discovery, given the key Star Trek themes of trust, cooperation and empathy.

 

Gort_(The_Day_the_Earth_Stood_Still) by 20th Century Fox Wikimedia Commons
Gort, the first alien robot to come in peace. / Twentieth Century Fox, via Wikimedia Commons

Science fiction and fantasy have a long history of using their stories as allegories to encourage empathy for a different point of view in the real world. If done well, a moral dilemma can be explored from a new angle, with the viewer or reader able to return to the real world with more empathy for a different point of view. When introduced in The Original Series, Klingons are widely believed to have been an allegorical stand-in for the Russians. (Like America and Russia, the Federation and Klingons were locked in a Cold War at this time.) One of the great things about science fiction is that races who begin as simple allegories can take on lives of their own, interpretted in multiple ways. As the Klingons became allies in the TNG era, their fratboy-style drinking culture became emphasised and celebrated.

They’ve taken on a role as ‘space Vikings‘ over the years, with raiding parties similar to those the Vikings carried out in northern Britain, and a mythology with influences of Norse and Greco-Roman mythology. In recent weeks articles have claimed both that the Klingons are allegories for Trump supporters and that they aren’t.

 

The strongest allegorical parallel that I see in the opening episodes of Discovery are between Klingons and Islam.

A Klingon attack which killed the main character’s parents is described as a “terrorist” attack. This attack happened roughly fifteen to twenty years before the series begins, and seems to shape how some in the Federation sees Klingons, as inherently violent. A Starfleet officer advises that if the Klingon leader is killed, he could become a martyr. The Klingons believe in an afterlife, in which the most successful warriors get the prominent positions. The Klingon race, at the beginning of Discovery, are divided into 24 houses – a new development in Star Trek mythos. This hints at the possibility of one group becoming more violent and blackening the name of all Klingons in Federation eyes.

I can definitely imagine the type of politically right-wing viewer who sees themselves as protecting western civilisation from Sharia Lawseeing a parallel to themselves and Islam in the Federation and Klingons, with the Klingons representing the ‘barbarian’ threat to ‘civilisation’. Once constructed, this analogy can be challenged and deconstructed, hopefully leading back to a real world equivalent. Similarly, there has always been an element of the hard-drinking, uber macho Klingons that this type of person is likely to have sympathy for, particularly when up against a multicultural, liberal adversary. (Dialogue in the penultimate episode of Enterprise drew an overt comparison between the EU and the organisation which would become the Federation, which I think is a fair comparison.) Given the way that the first episode is semiotically constructed, I think there’s reason to believe that the show will display both sides of the Federation – Klingon conflict as honorable and flawed, encouraging a broader sense of empathy.

 

I might be making a strange leap here, but I can see parallels between the layers of meaning placed on “we come in peace” and those which various groups bring to the real world phrase “Allahu akbar”.

Allahu akbar, in its most literal sense, means ‘god is the greatest’ – it’s a peaceful, joyful, positive phrase. However the association with terrorism has become the dominant meaning for many people. This has become so ingrained that when a mosque in Quebec was attacked earlier this year, I saw people arguing that it must have been carried out by a Muslim shooter because the phrase “Allahu akbar” was overheard by witnesses. For these people, the association between the phrase and Islamic terrorism was so dominant as to exclude the more innocent association with peaceful Islam. Similarly, for the Klingons the association between “we come in peace” and violent attacks is so strong as to overwhelm the possibility that it may be meant sincerely.

Viewed superficially, as an action-adventure and television drama, Discovery is off to a strong start. But the more I think about how cleverly the opening episode is semiotically coded, the more excited I feel about the series. Besides the high-minded stuff, Star Trek has always been a fun action-adventure at its best. But I’m hopeful that it’ll also be a journey of developing empathy, exploring how we take on the understandings and preconceptions which we do, and learning to set aside false preconceptions.
2017-09-28 Semiotics of the Vulcan Hello.png

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