Analysis

Mythos in Star Trek Discovery: The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars

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.

 

Burnham’s Backstory

Probably the most obvious shout-out in the opening two-parter is the presence of Sarek, father of Spock. The parents of the central character,  Michael Burnham, were killed by a Klingon attack on Doctari Alpha, after which she was raised on Vulcan, into a Vulcan way of life. She is described as Sarek’s ‘ward’ – I wasn’t totally clear if this means that Burnham was raised as part of Sarek’s family or if he was merely a mentor, but the pair are certainly close. Sarek married twice, both times to Human women, so his interest in raising an orphaned Human is consistent with what we already know about him.
Sarek in TOS and DIS
Sarek, then and now. / Screencaps from TOS S2E15 Journey to Babel and Star Trek DIS S1E02 Battle at the Binary Stars.
Burnham has a similar backstory to Worf, whose parents were killed by a Romulan attack on Khitomer. Thinking all of Worf’s family to be dead, he was raised by the Human Rozhenko family. I can also see parallels between Burnham and Kirk. Kirk’s son was killed by Klingons, leading to years of bitterness towards them – as someone who had known personal loss at Klingon hands, Spock later reasoned that this made Kirk an ideal representative to work for peace with the Klingons, as “only Nixon could go to China”. It’s a theme I’d expect to see revisited at some point, possibly with Burnham taking on Kirk’s role as reluctant peacemaker.To a lesser extent Burnham’s situation is similar to the characters Spock, Odo, B’Elana Torres and Seven of Nine, all of whom are caught between two cultures to some extent or another. (Spock and Torres are half-Humans; Odo was raised by ‘solids’ as the only ‘changeling’ he knew of, and Seven is a Human who spent most of her life as a member of the Borg Collective.) There has already been talk of young Spock making an appearance in Discovery, and given the overlapping ‘outsider’ perspectives of Spock and Burnham, it would make sense to mine this comparison for drama at some point. It’s become a fan complaint that Spock doesn’t mention Burnham on-screen, but given that in Star Trek V Kirk and McCoy – his closest friends – are surprised to discover that he has a half-brother, it’s certainly believable that he may have a sister who isn’t mentioned on-screen. Uhura’s first name isn’t mentioned until 2009’s Star Trek XI, and I don’t think anyone doubted that she had one.

 

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.

 

Star Trek TOS S2E01 Amok Time screencap
The ceremonial throne, ceremonial staff, and ceremonial face mask are all perfectly logical. / Screencap from TOS S2E01, Amok Time

 

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.

TPol and Trip collide - youtube
Tucker and T’Pol communicate telepathically across the stars. Picture quality is better in the actual episode. / Screencap from ENT S4E?? via T’Pol and Trip Collide by TheToyGuy7 on Youtube

 

Spirituality and Klingons

 

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.

Contradictory stories have been expressed about the Klingon attitudes to the bodies of their dead. It’s been stated that they see it as a “worthless shell” but Worf references a Klingon tradition of warriors keeping watch over the bodies of the recently deceased. And, although Discovery is the first appearance of a Klingon sarcophagus, a ‘Klingon mummification glyph‘ is referenced in Star Trek IV.
Klingon Appearances
In TOS the Klingons were, in appearance, essentially Humans with goatees and brownface. This changed when budgets rose – The Motion Picture introduces the now iconic Klingon ridges. This went uncommented on for years, with the implication being that audiences were being asked to suspend their disbelief and pretend that Klingons had always looked like that. In the DS9 episode Blood Oath Kor, Koloth and Kang – three adversaries of Kirk – appeared, all now with ridges.
Star Trek TOS S3E10 Day of the Dove Screencap
I’m sympathetic with the budget limitations TOS had to work with, but it’s surprising that they didn’t get more stick for the brownface. / Screencap from TOS S3E10 Day of the Dove
The discrepancy was first addressed with a joke on DS9 (“We do not discuss it with outsiders”) then revealed in Enterprise to be the result of Klingons trying to tailor Human genetic engineering for themselves, accidentally unleashing a plague that killed millions before the condition was stabilised. While it’s certainly possible that the Klingons’ new appearance could be handwaved away, there’s also the possibility of genetic engineering being explored as a theme of the series.
The Klingon leader T’Kuvma says to the pale Klingon Voq that “some may see the color of your skin as nature’s mistake” and Kol refers to Voq’s type as “outcasts and vermin”. This seems to be building up to a conflict based in racism within the Klingon people. If the ‘augment virus’ has left a psychological impact on Klingon culture, then it’d make sense for them to have a cultural neurosis around racial purity.
When Kor, Koloth and Kang appeared in DS9 they were pursuing a blood oath against The Albino, an otherwise unnamed Klingon who engineered a virus to kill all three of their sons. Given that the main Klingon character of Discovery, Kol, will be from the House of Kor, Discovery may well tell the story of the origins of this feud. Linking Voq and The Albino might seem a fanciful supposition, but for the presence of Nicholas Meyer on the production team. Meyer was the director and co-writer of the second and sixth Star Trek films. On taking the job for Star Trek II he looked back over TOS episodes for villains and themes to explore…and elevated the one-shot villain Khan Noonien Singh to his now iconic role.

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.

Star Trek DIS S1E01 The Vulcan Hello screencap
Lieutenant Saru, the first Kelpien that we’ve met. / Screencap from DIS The Vulcan Hello

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.
Klingon Society

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.

 

L'Rell and Dennas
L’Rell and Dennas, the Klingon women of Star Trek Discovery.

Technology

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.

Small References
There are a number of other small, probably inconsequential references to previous incarnations of Star Trek. On the alien planet at the beginning Georgiou refers to General Order One  (better known as the Prime Directive) which advises against interference in less-developed cultures. Georgiou refers to Burnham as Number One – a nickname Picard used for Riker, and which Pike used for his otherwise unnamed first officer in the original pilot. The ship’s weapons are referred to as phase cannons rather than phasers – a phrase which I think originates with Enterprise. Georgiou’s order to inform Starfleet Command that “we have engaged the Klingons” has a hint of Picard delivering a similar line – “we have engaged the Borg”.
Star Trek TNG S3E26 The Best of Both Worlds
It feels a little ironic that Picard is giving the order to Worf. / Screencap from TNG S3E26 The Best of Both Worlds
The second episode has Burnham out-thinking the computer so that it releases her from the brig – a trope that Kirk put into practice several times in TOS. After doing this, Burnham shoots across a small vacuum from her cell to the corridor. This is a repeat of a similar tactic employed by Kirk and Khan in Into Darkness, and Data in Nemesis.
The battle features a “voluntary antimatter containment failure” on the Europa, which is the cause of the  destruction of the original Enterprise in Star Trek III, and is the method when self-destruct is considered at various other points throughout the franchise.

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.

All existing things are really one
Unity and division are key themes in the opening episode, with T’Kuvma drawing together the warring Klingon houses, and being afraid that the multicultural Federation “come to destroy our individuality”. This is reflected in the Shenzhou’s ship motto – “all existing things are really one.” By drawing together so many disparate and obscure elements of the previous 729 episodes of the franchise, Discovery seems to be performing a similar role to T’Kuvma among Trekkies. DS9, ENT and TOS are tonally very different, but engage with similar themes, and all have value.

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.

2017-10-01 Mythos 1.01

7 thoughts on “Mythos in Star Trek Discovery: The Vulcan Hello and Battle at the Binary Stars”

  1. Some of what you said about Klingon cultures previously only being in novels was also covered in DS 9, but may have started in the novels.

    I have my quibbles with how Discovery has started, but so far it’s better than the first season of Next Generation.

    Maybe Discovery is supposed to be in one of the regular time lines, but there are sufficient differences that I’m going to pretend it’s a new parallel universe. There’s plenty of them in the Trekverse and it’s the simplest explanation.

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    1. I think it was only the phrase ‘black fleet’ that I meant came from the novels. I’m not familiar with all the wider novel-verse, but from what I’ve read it looks like the TV series developed Sto-vo-kor and the novels developed Black Fleet alongside each other?

      Definitely in terms of visual style its very different to the prime timeline, but I’d class it in the same way as the Klingon and Romulan foreheads – I’m willing to suspend my disbelief to let the makers tell the best story that they can.

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