This blogpost is focused on looking at how Lethe, the sixth episode of Star Trek: Discovery fits into the events and themes of the previously established universe. I’ve written similar blogposts looking at each previous episode (you can read the first here, and the fifth here).
Science, Magic and Spirituality
Arthur C. Clarke famously claimed that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. The genres of science fiction and fantasy overlap a great deal in practice, with the ‘science’ in scifi being so advanced and unexplained that it may as well be magic. Star Trek has generally been more solidly scientific than Star Wars or Doctor Who, but there are beings like Q and the Squire of Gothos who are so highly evolved that they effectively play the same role the gods did in Greek mythology. On a smaller scale, an important part of series 6 of DS9 is the concept of ‘self-replicating mines’, which realistically would need to draw an enormous amount of energy from the vacuum of space in order to replace themselves. The scientific accuracy in any work of science fiction will be limited by the writers’ scientific knowledge and imagination, and the audience’s ability to understand. The story is more important than getting the jargon right, and that will mean some compromise.
Probably the most magical aspect of Star Trek mythos is the katra – the Vulcan idea of the soul. In The Wrath of Khan Spock incapacitates McCoy and instructs him to “remember” before entering Engineering to perform an operation which he knows will irradiate his body. After Spock ‘dies’ and his body is jettisoned, Kirk and crew learn that Spock’s katra is inside McCoy, prompting them to steal a ship to search for Spock’s body, and reunite it with his soul.
This potentially raises some interesting questions – what happens if Spock had survived the process, but had become separated from McCoy? Does this mean what’s probably the most iconic speech in the franchise (“The needs of the many” and “I have been and always shall be, your friend”) was delivered not by Spock, but by an empty husk, an echo of who he is? The location of Spock’s katra is either a plotpoint that we shouldn’t think about too much (like the self-replicating mines) or an interesting philosophical question.
Battle at the Binary Stars offers what I think is the most satisfying answer to this question. Sarek tells Michael Burnham that a ‘fragment’ of his katra remains with her after melding years earlier. This would seem to mean that all the people who Spock mind-melded with – Dr Van Gelder; the Horta mother; the artificial lifeform V’Ger; all retain an aspect of Spock years or decades after their encounter. It’s an idea which would seem to fit with continuity. Tuvok will mind-meld with Lon Suder in order to try and understand his motiveless murder, and takes on board part of Suder’s psychosis. Similarly, Jean-Luc Picard will mind-meld with Sarek shortly before his death, and Spock shortly after that, in order to communicate to Spock how strongly his father loved him. It also suggests that after placing his katra inside of McCoy, a fragment remained inside of Spock’s body, able to offer a heartfelt expression of friendship to Kirk.
At this point in Star Trek history, Sarek and Spock are 8 years into an 18-year feud caused by Spock’s decision to join Starfleet rather than the Vulcan Expeditionary Group. If Sarek prevented Burnham taking a place in order to clear the way for Spock, then Spock’s decision means that Sarek’s shameful choice was for nothing. Last week’s encounter with Mudd added pathos and grounding to a TOS character, this week’s revelation has done the same for Spock and Sarek.
I said last week that the decision to have only one of the seven command-level officers we’ve seen so far be non-Human hints at a ‘soft segregation’ between races within the Federation. This goes further in Lethe, in which Sarek’s assistant refers to the Federation as a “failed experiment” and we learn that in 2249 there has been no non-Vulcans in the Vulcan Expeditionary Group, 88 years after the formation of the Federation. While there are Vulcans such as Spock and Admiral Terral in Starfleet, it suggests that both the VEG and Starfleet roughly retain the character they had a century earlier.
To take the European Union as a real world parallel to the Federation, the United Kingdom is currently in the process of seeking independence, while there are strong movements to break Catalonia and Scotland away from Spain and the UK respectively. The reasons for these movements are varied and complex, but they show that a decision by the majority to come together is not the endpoint of integration. The practicalities of finding common ground while retaining cultural uniqueness is a major challenge. Think how much greater the challenge will be when the nations are made up of biologically and culturally distinct races.
Shame and Superiority
But Spock, serving on a ship where he is the only Vulcan, tells no-one of the problems this will present. Not even the captain and ship’s doctor, despite them being his two closest friends, and it being thoroughly logical to give them a chance to prepare in advance. Not only will Spock not tell his colleagues, but Human doctors don’t have a working knowledge of pon farr, despite two centuries of contact between the races. This suggests an intense sense of pride at having done so much to control their wilder impulses, and shame at their wilder side.
Sigmund Freud suggested the idea of ‘narcissism of small differences’ – that the things we hate most in others are the things we hate in ourselves. The Vulcans are surrounded by races who are more emotional and impulsive than they are. As well as Humans and Klingons there are the Andorians, a warrior race who Vulcan was at war with in the 2150s, and Tellarites, a passionate people who routinely open diplomacy with insults. In the context of all these indulgently emotional races, it makes sense for sections of Vulcan society to feel a sense of superiority in having done so much to restrain what virtually no other race has done.
In Lethe we see two strands of racism in Vulcan society – the violent racism of the suicide bomber and the institutional racism of the VEG Director. As the highest scoring student in her class Burnham was qualified to join Vulcan Expeditionary Group, and Amanda initially assumes Sarek is joking when he delivers the bad news. The director’s decision to allow one of Sarek’s children to join suggests a sense of cruelty on his part (and perhaps a desire to compromise the man who would challenge their traditions). If one of hundreds or thousands can be non-Vulcan, why not two? The Vulcans present themselves as logical, but going back to the franchise’s first visit to the planet they have always been a race with deep shame and pride. The violent racism of the ‘logic extremists’ is a natural outgrowth of that social trend. Whether directly inspired or acting in parallel, a Vulcan Isolationist Movement will survive into 2370.
All Of This Has Happened Before
The plot of Lethe brought to mind two previous Star Trek episodes. In Flashback Tuvok takes Janeway into his memories, going back in time and reliving his experience of serving under Captain Sulu, in order to make sense of a traumatic suppressed memory which was beginning to have a debilitating impact on him. And in Dark Page Deanna Troi has to go into her mother’s mind, in order to make sense of a suppressed memory from Deanna’s childhood.
Booze is medicine
Admiral Cornwell stops by to visit Lorca, with a formal discussion quickly turning into a drinking session. Despite the presence of ship’s counsellors as main cast members in two of the first five incarnations of Star Trek, there’s a long tradition of alcohol being used as an informal counselling tool. McCoy used a cocktail called ‘Finnegan’s Folly’ to get Kirk to open up about his neuroses, and he kept Saurian brandy in sickbay. Bashir and O’Brien have had drinking sessions to help them open up, as have Scotty and Picard. Guinan, bartender on the Enterprise-D, often acted as a confidant for crewmembers. Cornwell and Lorca’s drinking is part of a tradition of the duties as a fellow officer melting into concern for a friend.
I wrote last week that I hoped Discovery would show the effects of trauma after prolonged interrogation, in a way the more episodic forerunners didn’t do with Picard, O’Brien and Bashir, thinking more of Ash Tyler. Now we’ve learned that Lorca sleeps with a phaser under his pillow – probably more for the comfort it brings than a rational fear of Klingons breaking into the ship and his room faster than he can reach into a drawer. We also see, in the final shot of the episode, that he walks with a phaser tucked into his waistband even when on the ship.
In a sense he is consciously pushing himself beyond his ideal limits, in the same way he does with Stamets. But he’s doing so in a way that’s reckless and irresponsible. A Vice article has argued that Discovery “seems to be telling a story of redemption set during a time of war. These are characters that must claw their way back from the brink to prove they’re worthy of the ideals of the society they’re trying to protect.”
Tom Paris considers himself a failure in his father’s eyes, and in the Kelvin timeline it’s Pike’s tough love that encourages Kirk to get his life back on track. Ben and Jake Sisko’s is probably the healthiest father-son relationship in Star Trek, but there’s still an episode dealing with Jake’s reluctance to tell his father that he doesn’t want to join Starfleet, out of fear of disappointing him.
Pretending to seek peace in order to capture an important prisoner seems to contrast with the idea that Klingons are honorable warriors, but it depends on how the ideas of honourable and dishonourable behaviour are socially constructed. In 2366 Chancellor Gowron and Duras will conspire to hide the evidence of Duras’ father collaborating with Romulans, in order to prevent a fractious civil war, and in 2375Ezri Dax will comment that the Klingon Empire is in “deep denial about itself” and have failed to live up to the standards of honour that they profess for centuries. It may be that Kol and his allies see this behaviour as no more dishonourable than setting a trap for an opponent during a game of Risk or Chess.