This blogpost is focused on looking at how the Star Trek: Discovery episode The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry fits into the events and themes of the previously established universe. I’ve written a similar blogposts looking at previous episodes and one specifically looking at how The Vulcan Hello explores how phrases can have different layers of meaning to different groups.
Inside the Replicator
The episode opens with bursts of energy shooting up and down from the top and bottom of an undefined area, in a way that reminded me of the Badlands, a Maquis stronghold featured frequently in DS9 and in the opening of Voyager. My instinct was that this was going to be either the Badlands itself or a similar region of space that Discovery was moving through. (In Star Trek science, I think these are known as plasma storms.) But we zoom out to reveal that this is the process of Michael Burnham’s uniform being replicated – I assume this is the first time we’ve seen the process on such a microscopic level. It’s a similar trick to how the series began, with T’kuvma monologuing as the viewpoint moved through the stars, before transitioning into his eye and moving out to a room of Klingons. Given that the mycelial network that the Discovery navigates has been described as a microscopic web, and that the show has drawn attention to the importance of context to understand different mindsets, the opening is a quick reminder of the show’s themes – that sometimes up is down, and nothing should be taken for granted.
The Devil in the Dark
The main plot centres on Burnham trying to understand ‘Ripper’, the tardigrade-like creature recovered from the Glenn. Although originally seen as a dangerous monster, we learn over the course of the episode that, from its perspective it was behaving defensively. This is a similar plot to the TOS episode The Devil in the Dark, in which an alien is moving around an alien colony, killing miners. The climax reveals that the creature, a Horta, is protecting a nest of eggs, some of which were accidentally killed by the miners. The Horta was unlike anything Starfleet had experience with – life that was silicon-based was, in McCoy’s view, “physiologically impossible”. A recurrent Star Trek theme over the years has been the need for the protagonists to occasionally shift their preconceptions of how things work (a paradigm shift) in order to understand new information. Given that the colony where the Horta would be encountered, Janus VI appears to be one of the worlds Burnham viewed during Lorca’s demonstration of the spore drive, so the episode was probably in the writers mind as Butcher’s Knife was being written.
Understanding is struck with the Horta when Spock mind-melds, allowing for direct communication past the limits of language, but there’s more ambiguity here given the understandable difficulty in communicating without telepathy. This is one of the benefits of serialised, as opposed to episodic, television. Expectations of the day required that TOS episodes wrap up the plot inside an hour, which requires a level of tidiness in the storytelling. While each episode of Discovery has told an individual story, they blend into each other fairly organically. We still can’t be sure if Ripper is an intelligent creature, or an animal. Though it is incorporated into Discovery’s spore drive, we can’t be sure if it is a willing participant, or if this is the equivalent to animal cruelty, or even torture. I’m not sure if we even know if Ripper is normally this large, or usually has a microscopic size, but has been enlarged by Starfleet’s experiments with the “microscopic web” of the mycelial network.
Given that the technology seems to work but the spore drive isn’t common in the 24th century we can be fairly confident that the research will end in failure. it seems that there is some kind of either disaster or moral dilemma slowly unfolding.
The Scientific Method
Although I found it vaguely convincing, the science which underpins Discovery’s spore drive is apparently, in the real world, total nonsense. But this is fine – Star Trek has always been an adventure series rather than a series of scientific lectures.
Where Star Trek has always been stronger is in looking at the scientific process, rather than scientific fact, and Butcher’s Knife follows this trend. When Landry and Burnham work together, Landry is focused on the specific task she was given, reverse engineering the limbs and the hide of Ripper into a weapon. Burnham puts her focus on understanding how its mind works. These are two different approaches to science – focused research vs open research. Whereas the former may seem a more direct route to knowledge, the latter can yield more innovative results. That was the case here with Burnham succeeding far beyond her orders, not just developing a weapon but stabilising the ‘probabilistic’ spore drive.
Given that Ripper is an extremophile that’s developed in vastly different conditions to those that Starfleet are used to, breaking assumptions down to their fundamentals will probably be necessary. We already know that Ripper both feeds on the spores and communicates with them, suggesting a stranger relationship between intelligence and food than we’re used to.
Eating the Dead
It’s only a passing mention, but Voq ate flesh from the body of Captain Georgiou. I’m pretty sure that this is the first hint we’ve seen that Klingons eat the flesh of sentient enemies, but I think it fits. Bloodwine is the archetypal Klingon drink, and I think it’s probably more likely to be made with actual blood than for it to be a Halloween-style pretence. (Of course, it may easily be animal blood.) We have very strong evidence that Celts in ancient Britain engaged in pre-battle ceremonies including cannibalism, as a ceremonial offering before battle. It’s plausible that a warrior culture like the Klingons may participate in a similar ceremony after the battle, possibly viewing it as a sign of respect to a brave enemy.
Although I think it fits, it is disturbing to outright state this kind of thing, particularly about a race who will eventually become our ‘friends’. But I think it’s an important part of looking at the process of ‘othering’. The sociological theory of ‘othering’ is that we create an idea of outsiders which we use to position them as having the undesirable qualities that our group dislike. Women are over-sensitive, foreigners are barbaric, conservatives are heartless. Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida are key proponents of what is probably one of the key ideas in sociology. In my view The Undiscovered Country is the best of the Star Trek films rather than the oft-cited The Wrath of Khan, in large part because it ties together how the Klingons are seen in the TOS and TNG eras, and has the TOS crew break back preconceptions which are essentially racial prejudice.
There are honorable Klingons, such as Gorkon, Worf and Martok, and there are devious Klingons, like Kruge, Chang and Duras, in both eras. Given that the dominant idea of Klingons is as a fierce but honorable allies, it’s probably necessary for Discovery to build up this idea of them as a barbaric other, before deconstructing it again.
Patriarchal and Matriarchal Klingons
Judging by events in an episode when Riker serves on board a Klingon ship, challenging a superior’s authority seems to be common, with Riker both challenged to a fight by his second officer and later doing the same to his captain. Kol’s betrayal of the House of T’Kuvma is successful because of a shortage of food but may have been made possible because of their leadership – Voq, a social outcast, and L’Rell, a woman. As noted previously, female leadership seems uncommon among Klingons, who in 2371 are initially more willing to accept a house being led by a Ferengi than a female Klingon.
L’Rell advises that Voq should go to the planet used by the House of Mo’Kai and meet with their matriarchy. It’ll be interesting to see how this matriarchy fits in with the prejudices against women in the Klingon Empire, especially L’Rell’s ominous offer that they “will expose you to things you never knew possible…at a cost”.
I mentioned previously how the prejudice against Voq might have it’s roots in the Klingons’ 22nd century genetic engineering, which would also explain their radically different appearance. There’s a really interesting fan theory about what happens to Voq next, which ties into this.
Religion and Zealotry
In Butcher’s Knife we see the process of T’kuvma being elevated into a religious figure. This has precedent among the Klingons with Kahless, but also in the real world. Haile Selassie in rastafarianism and the Chinese general Guan Yu were both historical figures regarded by some as deities. It’s a problematic way to approach historical figures, of course, because then the actions of an obviously imperfect person can’t be criticised without accusations of blasphemy.
We see Voq treating T’kuvma’s words as dogma and Kol referring to T’Kuvma as “our messiah” before turning against the House of T’Kuvma. Kol openly talks about his desire to end the alliance between the Great Houses once the war is over, and taking soldiers away from the House of T’kuvma in the meantime. It’s a shame to see T’kuvma die so quickly given that he was a charismatic presence, but it could be interesting how the alliance holds together without this “great unifier”, and to see how others use his reputation in his absence.
There’s a creepiness to Voq’s zealotry, but Landry behaves in a similar way with Lorca’s orders. She opens Ripper’s cage against Burnham’s advice because of Lorca’s orders, resulting in her needless death. Similarly, Lorca needlessly plays audio from the civilian distress call over the intercom, which seems to raise tensions rather than produce better work. Similarly, Lorca demands Stamets return to work after an injury, showing no concern for his engineer’s well-being. I can’t imagine Kirk behaving in this way unless under extreme stress, and even then he would have Spock or McCoy to rein him in. I’m finding Lorca’s flaws interesting for the way they highlight Kirk’s strengths.
The Dialogue Needs a
Kwik Reright Quick Rewrite
The hail played over the Discovery includes a child’s cries (“Mummy, mummy, wake up!”) that was melodramatic enough to make me laugh rather than feel their pain. Similarly Discovery arriving at the colony at the precise last moment, and a surviving child looking up at sky and asking who their saviour was were all details that were a bit too heavyhanded. Given how well the series is structured and ties into Star Trek themes and lore, it’s frustrating to have these melodramatic touches surviving into the filmed script.
Similarly, the idea that the war would be effectively lost if this colony fell raises the stakes too high. The lives of the colonists are important enough to make the audience care about the mission, but there was never any real possibility that the war would be irretrevably lost this early.
* In his opening monologue in the first episode T’Kuvma expresses his belief that the Federation plan to “coil around us and take all that we are” and repeatedly used the motto “remain Klingon”. Here Voq says that he will resist “assimilation” by the Federation, a word which brings to mind a great speech from Michael Eddington in DS9, comparing the Federation to the Borg.
* In this episode we see Voq and L’Rell discussing who will take over as leader of the House of T’Kuvma. This kind of leadership flux after a death has precedent – the House of Mogh seems to have been effectively leaderless for many years, with Mogh’s sons, Worf and Kurn, eventually sharing leadership.
* After two episodes, Landry dies without the series really humanising her. It makes sense for a security chief to put on a tough front – particularly when dealing with Burnham – but we never got to see who she was as a person. It’s a shame for her to be a one note character, it’d be nice to at least get a mention of a personal detail from Lorca, to posthumously deepen her.
* After coming on strong in her first appearance, Tilly is a fair bit calmer now that she’s gotten to know Burnham.
* Several background characters on the Discovery appear to have some form of metallic implants. It’d be interesting to find out if like Geordi la Forge, these are all a compensation for disability, or if they’ve chosen to be post-human. It’s likely that Detmer’s facial implant, which she has on Discovery but not on the Shenzhou, is a response to an injury, but this doesn’t necessarily need to be the case for everyone.
* I didn’t mention the Gorn skeleton which appeared at the end of Context as, despite it being fairly widely covered online, I’d assumed it was an easter egg with no plot significance. I hadn’t realised that their appearance on TOS was the Federation’s first official encounter with the Gorn – a theory has spread that Lorca may have gotten the skeleton on some kind of black market. Given Lorca’s interest in turning Ripper’s limbs into a weapon, he may previously have tried the same with the Gorn, perhaps not realising that it was an intelligent species – another Horta parallel.
* The Gorn Captain on Twitter made the Kodos the Executioner call before I did. Please don’t smite me for my lack of credit, captain.
* After Admiral Cornwell’s appearance, we know have two female command officers out of four. Given that a TOS episode centres on a Human woman thinking she was overlooked for command because she’s a woman, it’s good to have confirmation of women in positions of power within Starfleet.
* Kol says that only T’Kuvma’s ships (now under Kol’s command) are the only Klingon ships to have cloaking devices. This opens up three main possibilities, all with plot implications. Either T’kuvma had access to very skilled and innovative engineers; made a technology trade with the Romulans; or reverse-engineered ancient technology (which may also include the Beacon of Kahless).
* The ghost of Georgiou is likely to be a recurring motif, even if Michelle Yeoh doesn’t reappear. Burnham, Saru and Detmer all served under her, while Tilly admires her. Given the prominence that mentors have played the character dynamics so far (Burnham has had Sarek, Georgiou and Lorca) there is likely to be a theme of characters trying to live up to Georgiou’s intellectual and moral legacy.