I really enjoyed Star Trek: Discovery‘s opening two-parter, which had its premiere date on CBS and Netflix this week. One of the things that really impressed me was how the story interacted with the pre-existing Star Trek mythos. Discovery didn’t just reference familiar terms, but engaged with the key themes of the franchise, and possibly connected itself to some relatively obscure characters and moments. You can consider this blog post as the Discovery equivalent to Game of Thrones writing that explores Jon Snow’s parentage and what it potentially means for the show, but I’m mainly writing to indulge my geekiness.
Firstly, a brief explanation of how everything in the Star Trek multiverse fits together. The Original Series – Kirk, Spock and McCoy on the Enterprise’s five year mission – was set during the 2260s, and ran for three series. The Animated Series continued this mission, but it’s unclear whether all aspects of TAS are considered canonical. The first six Star Trek films are set between the 2270s and 2290s. The Next Generation – Picard, Worf and Data – begins in the 2360s. The events of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and the four TNG films take place in a 17 year period between the 2360s and 2370s. Enterprise, although produced after TNG, DS9 and VOY, was set a century before Kirk, in the 2150s – in the years immediately before the formation of the United Federation of Planets in 2161.
The Romulan Nero later travels back in time from 2387 to 2233, destroying the USS Kelvin, and establishing the Kelvin-timeline, which is the basis for the trio of films starring Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto as Kirk and Spock, set in the 2250s and 2260s.
Discovery‘s first episodes take place in 2256, a few years before TOS. The style of Discovery‘s ships appears more similar to the Kelvin-timeline than the TOS ships of the same era, but it’s set in the Prime-timeline.
The novels are not considered canonical, though they are often mined for the most interesting bits, which later make their way into episodes and films. Hikaru Sulu’s first name originates in the 1981 novel The Entropy Effect, and some aspects of Andorian culture used in Enterprise were taken from novels.
Spirituality and Star Trek
Star Trek is associated as being the more materialistic and scientific franchise, as opposed to Star Wars‘ mysticism. But Star Trek does have its spiritual side. A major part of Deep Space Nine was Ben Sisko’s interaction with the Prophets – a race of aliens who exist outside of time and have been worshipped as gods by the Bajorans. As the first corporeal being to contact the Prophets and return to Bajor, Sisko has the religious position of ‘Emissary’ forced upon him, and the secular Sisko’s discomfort and eventual embrace of this position is a major theme of the series.
Deep Space Nine‘s villainous Dominion are ruled over by the Founders, who have indoctrinated other races within the Dominion to treating them as gods – a darker, less supernatural parallel to the spirituality of the Founders. There have been several standalone episodes based around ‘gods’ which turned out to be computers or aliens.
The best parts of infamously bad Star Trek V are Kirk, Spock and McCoy socialising in Yellowstone Park, a kind of humanist spirituality. This theme of embracing the natural world within the technological utopia is a constant theme of Star Trek, probably taken to its worst excesses in Insurrection.
When Captain Ben Sisko and Kassidy Yates are planning their marriage in DS9 they consider the option of having a minister conduct the ceremony. The most detailed dissection of the Prime Directive has Riker suggests the idea of a “cosmic plan”, suggesting that even in this atheist society, there are still hints of religion and spirituality being a part of mainstream Human culture in the 24th society. Spirituality is not something that a non-Trekkie is likely to associate with the franchise, but there is a strong tradition there.
Spirituality and Vulcans
The Vulcans are big on ceremony and mysticism for a people so strongly defined by their quest for logic. But given that Vulcans seem to naturally be a passionate and destructive race – on the verge of wiping themselves out before the scientist and philosopher Surak encouraged a philosophy of logical self-control – there’s a case to argue that their ceremonies form a kind of OCD which helps them maintain their discipline.
There is a definite supernatural side that goes beyond this. In The Wrath of Khan Spock is able to place his katra (essentially his soul) into Doctor McCoy’s mind before conducting an operation to save the ship which would irradiate Spock’s body. A similar process takes place in Enterprise, when Surak’s katra becomes attached to Captain Archer. In a TOS episode Spock senses the destruction of a Vulcan-crewed ship across a vast distance – similar to Obi-Wan Kenobi’s “I sense a great disturbance in the force” nine years later.
In a series of Enterprise episodes the Vulcan T’Pol and Human Tucker experience a long distance telepathy, similar to what Sarek and Burnham feel in Battle at the Binary Stars. This surprises T’Pol as much as Tucker, but it comes at a period when Surak’s teachings are being re-examined and Vulcan society is being re-shaped, so it’s easy to imagine that knowledge that T’Pol is struggling to understand will become more easily understood by Sarek’s time.
Klingons broadly seem to believe in an afterlife. Sto-Vo-Kor, the destination for honored warriors is mentioned in the opening two-parter. The Black Fleet – another interpretation of the afterlife, in which warriors take on roles dependent on the glory they achieved in life – had until Discovery been a part only of non-canonical novels. In Discovery it seems that Sto-Vo-Kor and The Black Fleet are two aspects of the same thing. An episode of Voyager has B’Elana Torres experience Gre’thor, the destination for dishonored Klingons. I think the episode left ambigious whether this was an hallucination, but it leaves open the possibility of the Klingon afterlife being a tangible reality in the Star Trek universe.
Spirituality and Discovery
It’s debatable how much of the above is intentional by the Discovery writers and how much is coincidental. With the material that the show introduces to the franchise the debate is much more clear-cut. The Kelpiens and Saru are introduced in Discovery, with Saru stating that his people were bred to sense death. It’s a quote which hints at both the supernatural and selective breeding, possibly some form of genetic engineering.
The long distance telepathy scene between Sarek and Burnham could in itself could easily have been justified as a dream, flashback or concussion-induced hallucination. Classifying it as telepathic real-time contact suggests that Discovery will build further on the supernatural ideas from previous series.
Dead bodies are also an important motif in Discovery‘s first two episodes. The Klingons ceremonially attach their comrades corpses to the outside of The Beacon of Kahless; a Klingon body is used by the Shenzhou as a delivery method for explosives; and Burnham tries in vain to retrieve Georgiou’s body before Saru beams her away, considering the matter unimportant.
There are numerous mentions in Discovery of Kahless the Unforgettable. A legendary 9th century leader, he seems to be a mix of Genghis Khan and King Arthur – a unifying warrior who is seen as the ideal Klingon, and who promised to return. (T’Kuvma refers to “Kahless reborn in me”.) In the 24th century a clone of Kahless has the role of ceremonial emperor, with a Chancellor running the Empire. T’Kuvma describes the Klingon Empire as being “warring houses” – by the 24th century there is a unified Empire ran by a High Council, with the ‘great houses’ represented on the High Council.
Attitudes appear very sexist – the idea of a Klingon house led by a Ferengi seems to be more easily accepted than one led by a woman, and during a brief civil war Toral, son of Duras is used as a figurehead by his aunts Lursa and B’Etor. L’Rell (of the same House as T’Kumva) is expected to play a prominent role in Discovery, while Dennas appears to lead the House of D’Ghor. It seems likely that they’ll face some degree of sexism. However Klingons glorify strong women despite the systemic barriers in their way – Lukara is seen as one of the great Klingon warriors, and Worf at least values strength in Klingon women, saying that in romance they roar, hurl heavy objects and claw at their partners.
Holographic transmissions are used in Discovery on the bridge of the Shenzhou, on the Klingon ship, and even in Burnham’s personal quarters. That is in spite of similar technology being introduced as new tech in 2373. There are plenty of ways around this apparent contradiction. Maybe it was later discovered that the different form of data transmission was less secure than viewscreen transmissions, or holo-communicators may simply have fallen out of fashion. In addition, the version seen in Discovery is clearly more primitive – being semi-transparent, spluttering and breaking up.
Another arguable inconsistency is the presence of a cloaking device, at what I think is the earliest point that Klingons are shown to be in possession of this technology. But cloaking technology has been a constant technological arms race throughout Star Trek. This has involved a ship that can fire while cloaked, ‘interphasic’ cloaking devices, and a grid that can detect any cloaked ships which pass through. It seems unlikely that the Romulan cloaking device Archer’s Enterprise encounter in the 22nd century is exactly the same as the cloaking devices of the 24th century. It’s plausible to argue that the Romulan cloaking device Kirk steals 12 years after the events of Discovery’s opening could simply be an important step forward, rather than a totally new concept – as Thomas Edison’s lightbulbs were, for example. Two different variations on the tech are referred to as a ‘scattering field’ and a ‘cloaking screen’ in the opening episodes, suggesting that Discovery will engage with this nuance.
I think this is the earliest point that Klingons have been shown to possess cloaking technology – which the Klingons, Romulans and Breen use to hide their ships from detection. Given that the Klingons seem to have gained cloaking technology from the Romulans, it may be that T’Kumva made some sort of deal with the Romulans for the technology. And given that the Romulans have a long history of interfering in Klingon, Vulcan and proto-Federation politics in order to turn factions against each other, this may be a subject Discovery returns to.
Another notable piece of technology is the ‘Beacon of Kahless’, used to summon representatives of all 24 major Great Houses at short notice. The signal it sends seems to overpower the Shenzhou’s sound and visual sensors – implying a gulf in technology which suggests that the Beacon may not have been built by the Klingons. There are episodes of TOS in which Humans use ancient alien technology to create robot clones, swap bodies, and build a society of robots – it’s certainly an idea that TOS had experience with. Given that Discovery is set in a similar region of space (the Federation-Klingon border) in the mid-23rd century, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see this trope returned to.
And the finale to the two-parter, with the captain and first officer beaming onto the back of a large enemy bridge and fighting their way to the front, is essentially the same climax as Star Trek XI. Burnham watching her mentor killed in front of her is also similar to Kirk experiencing the same with Pike in the twelfth Star Trek film.
One criticism I’ve read is that Discovery is merely a re-tread of stories that Star Trek has told before. I can see this criticism, but I’d argue that Discovery is laying down foundations to go deeper into the traditional Star Trek themes (logic vs instinct; materialism vs spirituality; home vs adventure; scientific advance vs nature; the crew as family) than the franchise has ever gone before. We’re only two episodes in, but there’s reason to think that Star Trek: Discovery could become something really special. Maybe I’m being overly optimistic – I am a Trekkie after all. We’ll find out a little more this weekend, when we finally say hello to Jason Isaacs and the Discovery.