This blogpost is focused on looking at how the Star Trek Discovery episode Context is for Kings fits into the events and themes of the previously established universe. I’ve written a similar blogpost looking at the first two episodes, and one specifically looking at how The Vulcan Hello explores how phrases can have different layers of meaning to different groups.
The Future is an Undiscovered Country
In a throwaway line, Captain Gabriel Lorca seems to regret that “the future happened”, which affected his family’s restaurant. This kind of thing is, to me, one of the best arguments for continuing the Star Trek franchise. We’ve seen Star Trek‘s utopian vision before, but contextualised against the Cold War and the ‘end of history’ period of the 1990s, never contextualised against the real world of the 2010s.
In the real world we’re currently going through a period of ‘digital disruption’ with new technologies throwing old business models into chaos. Think of taxi firms facing the challenge of Uber; newspapers facing the challenge of free-to-access websites. Since TOS, it’s seemed that the 23rd century Federation relies on a combination of ‘food synthesizers’ and real food, suggesting that this is a period of disruptive innovation. In England of the 1810s innovations in weaving technology allowed owners to increase their profit margins and put many workers on the scrapheap – resulting in the Luddite movement.
If Lorca is to be considered reliable, then among the victims of the disruptive innovation in the 23rd century are restaurant owners. Perhaps fewer people are eating out, preferring to eat at home, as is the case with cinemas in real life? Perhaps the end of food scarcity has made sales of food less profitable? I love the action-adventure side of Star Trek, but I hope the details of how Federation society functions, the winners and losers of change, are explored regularly. One of the great joys of Star Trek is the opportunity to explore what a near-utopian society would look like, and who would lose out by moving to that system.
Sometimes Down is Up
In a sense this is Discovery‘s real pilot, as the best taste of what the series overall will look like. It’s familiar but unfamiliar, with many common Trek tropes – crawling through Jeffries tubes; technobabble exposition which is only half-legible at best; an expedition to another Starfleet vessel where something went wrong, a ship of the same class to maximise the tension between the familiar and unfamiliar (and save money on sets).
The angle of storytelling in Context calls to mind the TNG episode Lower Decks, in which a fairly typical TNG plot is seen from the perspective of junior officers, who understandably have classified information withheld from them.
Despite the familiarity of Burnham walking the halls of a spacious, well-lit starship, she is unwelcome and looked down upon. Seeing Saru behaving coldly towards Burnham has more impact after seeing their friendly rivalry on the Shenzhou. Familiar, but upside down. Saru still seems to feel a hidden warmth and hope for Burnham, recommending her for the away team. Their interactions fit a Trek trope of emotional tenderness hidden behind emotionally distant language. Saru’s line to Burnham that he is sad that Starfleet lost a good officer calls to mind Spock trying to hide his glee at finding out that Kirk was still alive with the excuse that it was “merely my quite logical relief that Starfleet had not lost a highly proficient captain”.
Stamets seems particularly unsuited for war. The DS9 episodes Siege of AR-558 and Empok Nor – both set during the Dominion War of the 2370s – focus on Starfleet officers pushed right to the edge of a nervous breakdown. In both of those cases it’s the guest characters who are overwhelmed. It’s only the early stages, but as the war drags on, Stamets may struggle.
Lorca and his security chief Ellen Landry are undoubtedly reckless in beaming over the monster created by the Glenn’s experiments – we’ve already seen hulls breached and forcefields fail a few times in this series – a sneak Klingon attack which knocks out power for even a few moments could be massively dangerous to Discovery. It’s easy to see the link to an argument that this change is ruining the idealism of Star Trek. But by my quick count TOS had 4 episodes where a Starfleet officer is the main villain; 8 where it’s another Federation civilian; and a two-parter and a standalone where Spock can be classed as the main antagonist.
I think that the idea of the Federation being an utterly utopian society has been flanderised, whereas the original 79 episodes gave plenty of examples of Federation citizens being corruptable and capable of making awful choices. The Federation has always been a morally flawed institution, but generally it’s been on other people’s ships and colonies, with the audience viewpoint being alongside the ship who arrive to clean up the mess. So it’s only the perspective that’s changed – in TOS we could be confident that Kirk, Spock and McCoy would hold our hands and guide us through the danger. There is no such reassurance here.
Conscience of the King
Lorca tells Burnham that “Universal laws are for lackeys. Context is for kings.” In a previous blog I argued that semiotics – the study of how we use context to construct meaning – played an important part in the first episode. The title and associated speech of this episode implies that putting events and actions into context, and feeling empathy for the perspective of others will be an important part of Discovery.
The title also draws a parallel to the TOS episode Conscience of the King. The metaphorical king of that episode is Kodos the Executioner, an infamous governor who oversaw a massacre in order to save scarce resources during a famine, only for supplies to arrive, making his decision unnecessary. So rather than the captain being the moral centre of the show, a parallel is drawn to an infamous monster who made a morally questionable and practically foolish decision during a crisis, ordering the death of thousands for no benefit.
The speech is also unusual within Star Trek for the contrast between “lackeys” and “kings”, praising the elites over the masses. I get the impression that in doing this Discovery is engaging with and challenging the Trek ideology as DS9 did, rather than being ignorant of the positive, co-operative vision as the Kelvin-timeline films often seemed. The focus that trailers have put on Harry Mudd, possibly the most individualistic character we’ve seen within the co-operative Federation, suggests that we’ll see clashing ideologies of what citizens want the Federation to be.
What’s Past is Prologue
Burnham’s backstory is essentially a combination of Ben Sisko’s and Tom Paris’. On DS9 Ben Sisko lost his wife and many friends on the Saratoga in the pilot episode, an incident that would haunt him for a long part of the series. On VOY Paris’ backstory is that a piloting error caused three deaths, which he covered up, resulting in him being kicked out of Starfleet. He was later imprisoned for treason after working for the freedom-fighter/terrorist Maquis.
Paris is treated with similar hostility to Burnham in Voyager‘s pilot, with the unnamed doctor, unnamed first officer and Chakotay all disliking him. However the first two are among three senior officers to die in that episode, and Chakotay’s dislike seems to be put behind him when Paris saves his life. This was seemingly a result of a long-held Star Trek rule against conflict between main characters, which Discovery’s staff have confirmed won’t be used so heavily. The Wire, The Sopranos, Deadwood, and House MD have all came and gone since Voyager‘s premiere. Star Trek is learning, and Paris is Burnham, written at a time when morally ambigious protagonists were a risk too far for such a mainstream American television show.
Not that we can expect Michael Burnham to have the morality of a mobster, but we should expect her and possibly others to be morally flawed and confronted with their mistakes in a way Paris and Janeway should have been. Despite the widespread blame placed on Burnham’s shoulders for the war, I think it’s arguable that her call might have been the right one, that hitting the Klingons quickly could cause them to back down, and their alliance to fall apart. Georgiou was the higher ranking officer, so Burnham’s mutiny was absolutely wrong, but her advice may have been correct.
Technology is Value Neutral
In The Wrath of Khan Carol Marcus, the lead scientist of Project Genesis, is reluctant to hand her technology over to Starfleet. We see a less defiant, less assured version of the conflict between Marcus and Kirk with Stamets and Lorca – as mentioned above, Stamets’ nerves are already frayed. One of the interesting arguments made by The Wrath of Khan is that technology itself is value neutral. The film centres around Project Genesis, which has the ability to quickly create life where there is none, or destroy life that is already there. In The Search for Spock a group of Klingons try to gain access to the technology for their own purposes.
Similarly, atomic energy has the ability to bring incredible destruction and incredible power; Twitter is a medium which can be used for building empathy and understanding across distance lands, but which is often used to send anonymous death and rape threats. Technological progress allows for social progress, but it doesn’t make it inevitable, and disruptive technology can make things worse. At Gizmodo Katherine Trendacosta makes the case that the conflict between Starfleet’s scientific and soldier sides has been simmering below the surface for a long time. Lorca and Stamets’ dislike of each other gives us a great way to explore this.
All Existing Things are Really One
Stamets tells Burnham that physics and biology are the same at quantum level. I don’t know how true this is, but there are enough parallels in real science to make this plausible. Until Faraday’s experiments in 1831 we thought electromagnetism was two distinct things, and in 2011 experiments confirmed that space, time and gravity are interlinked, which was the basis of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. This overlaps with the Shenzhou’s ship motto – ‘all existing things are really one’.
The main project that Stamets and Lorca are driving forward is a ‘spore drive’, which they hope will have the ability to transport both individuals and ships across vast distances instantly. This seems similar to transwarp – a technology which will be tested on the Excelsior in the 2280s and Voyager in the 2370s, but fail both times. However the Borg appear to have a working version by the 2370s, if not earlier. We can say with confidence that the fact this technology doesn’t take hold means that it will be a failure in some way. We just don’t know how yet, or how disastrous the failure will be.
Michael uses the spores to view what’s happening on other worlds, which is similar to the use of Iconian gateways seen in an episode each of TNG and DS9. In both of these episodes the crew race against an adversary to be the first to control ancient technology which would be impossible to protect against, and the same theme seems set to be central to Discovery.
Stamets and Straal’s work seems to rest on discovering a pre-existing ‘mycelial network’ – if Surak was able to tap into it in some way, just enough that Vulcans are able to connect with each other using it. In TOS Spock traveled back in time five times, one of them to a period before Surak’s lifetime. On that occasion Spock ‘reverts’ to how his people behaved at the time, losing his sense of self-restraint, getting angry at McCoy and even…eating meat! If Surak discovered a way to link Vulcan minds and katras across vast distances, this may explain the more supernatural elements of the Vulcan people in a scientifically plausible way. As Spock would say, the situation is fascinating.
Badges of Starfleet
In TOS every starship has it’s own badge, sewn onto the breast of each crewmember’s shirt. By TNG this had been replaced by a communications badge, with the chevron that was unique to the Enterprise being standardised across Starfleet. I think that the Kelvin timeline has the standardisation of design occur earlier, and I think Discovery is asking the audience for suspension of disbelief, to pretend that this had always been the case.
But in Context, dialogue draws attention towards the dark variation of the badge worn by some of Discovery’s crew. This part of the crew may be a secretive group, permitted to exist by the secretive Section 31 of the Federation Charter (which as far as the public knows, only had 30 sections). This group is influential enough that during the Dominion War of the 2370s, the Federation fleet commander Admiral Ross is willing to turn a blind eye to Section 31’s actions.
It’s also worth pointing out that the chief scientist behind Project Genesis when it’s implemented in 2285 is Doctor Carol Marcus. Her father, Admiral Alexander Marcus, is, in the Kelvin timeline, in charge of Section 31.
On Twitter Darren Mooney has been looking at the first three episodes in similar ways to myself, and he doesn’t seem a fan of the Section 31 concept.I’d argue that DS9 handled Section 31 well, as did ENT, other than the silliness of having them wear the same uniforms before the Federation existed. However in Into Darkness they feel excessively grimdark, which also sounds like it is the case for some of the Section 31 novels. I’m wary of where Discovery may go with this. I think Mooney may have a point that paradoxically, by creating such a dark secret at the heart of the Federation DS9 might actually have took the easy way out, allowing for the implication that every morally dubious decision made by Starfleet over the centuries is the responsibility of a single organisation, rather than a series of individuals making their own, often repugnant, moral decisions.
Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations
Atheism can be bleak, often defined as the absence of a belief in a god rather than anything positive. Richard Dawkins’ and Carl Sagan’s worldviews can both be described as atheist, but are tonally very different. Part of what made Cosmos such a success is Sagan’s celebration of the universe as a wondrous, incredible and awe-inspiring, such as his description of cosmic history as the journey of “starstuff, the ash of stellar alchemy…into consciousness”.
TOS captured perhaps better than any other work of fiction ever has the feeling that there are amazing things out there in space, waiting for us to discover them. I think subsequent series have turned away from this in favour of a version of atheism where things can be understood and comprehended on a material level. By placing the science of Discovery on the quantum level, it’s the kind of abstract science that’s closer to modern ideas of spirituality than of science as offering solid certainty.
When under pressure Burnham has a weird, idiosyncratic trait of repeating words from Alice in Wonderland, seemingly to calm herself during her escape from the Glenn Monster. Lorca eats fortune cookies and recounts his family history; Burnham, like TOS‘ Sam Cogley, is an eccentric who likes books. I got a similar weird but believable feel from the Klingon shushing the Starfleet officers so as not to alert the Glenn Monster. The presence of these odd touches suggests that we don’t have to lose what makes us different and unique as we come together. As in real life, in Discovery the future we have will be the future we choose.
* The most common criticism I’ve seen of Discovery is that there’s been too much action and not much scifi. I disagree, but I would like for the show to occasionally slow down and have some more character moments, even an explanation that the pilot from the shuttlepod was rescued safely. Hopefully in future episodes we’ll see more of how the war and new scientific discoveries impact on how characters approach their lives (rather than, for instance, Burnham breaking into the lab or having random fights) but those things are there in the opening episodes.
* I think Discovery is well written in terms of story, but the dialogue can occasionally be clunky. Jason Isaacs just about makes the line “I like to think it makes me look mysterious” work, but it’s not something that should be literally stated in dialogue.
* It seems standard for Starfleet officers to spend four years at Starfleet Academy. Burnham is unusual in that she becomes an officer after studying at the Vulcan Science Academy, but it makes sense for there to be a limited number of other institutions which are trusted to give an equivalent education. During the Dominion War of the 2370s Cadet Nog is promoted onto the frontlines due to the lack of experienced officers, so Cadet Tilly’s promotion onto the Discovery may be for the same reason.
* I initially read Tilly as autistic, and others have reached the same conclusion, but Mary Wiseman has said that this wasn’t her intent, or specified in the script. She does seem to follow in a long line of Star Trek characters whose intelligence is matched by social awkwardness – obviously Spock and Data, but also Wesley Crusher, Harry Kim and Geordi la Forge. Maybe it’s a sign to take anything I suggest with a pinch of salt.
* That reminds me – on first viewing I thought Saru was pouring milk into his tea. Apparently not.
* A few times through the franchise the Federation, and Earth in particular, are described as a secular heaven, and the Wrath of Khan positions Kirk and Khan as rival angels (“from hell’s heart I stab at thee”). In that context it’s worth considering Burnham and Lorca’s first names. The angel Michael leads one side of a war in heaven, and Gabriel brings news of a miracle, a new form of life.
* Discovery’s ‘black alert’ seems silly. Hopefully it’ll make sense soon, but it feels like a melodramatic attempt to be dark and mysterious – it could have done with an explanation as it was introduced.
* Lorca has a Tribble on his desk. One of the main things we know about them is that they reproduce quickly, consuming huge amounts of food to an extent that the Klingons eventually come to see them as a biological weapon. The presence of a non-reproducing Tribble on the Discovery years before they almost overwhelm the Enterprise hints that Discovery may be using them for genetic experiments. (Or it may simply have been neutered).