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.

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Film & Television Opinion

Semiotics of the Vulcan Hello

Semiotics, in brief, is the study of how we construct meaning. For example the phrase ‘green light’ has a meaning beyond a literal green light – it can be used metaphorically as giving permission to go ahead. Even if you’re not familiar with them, you won’t be surprised to learn that the Lorde song Green Light and the Ting Tings song Traffic Light are not about literal lights.

Ferdinand de Saussure wrote about the relationship between a ‘signifier’ and ‘signified’ – the sign and the thing it represents. So a nuclear waste sign is not dangerous itself, but signifies that radioactive material is inside a container, or nearby. Similarly a lit green light is associated with the abstract concept of going, and a red light with the abstract concept of stopping.

Semiotics can be confusing – I’ve studied it at university level and still find a lot of de Saussure and Roland Barthes mind-bending – but it’s a process that almost all of us have a basic understanding of on a subconscious level. We make sense of these signifiers on a daily basis without really thinking about it.

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Film & Television Opinion

Initial (spoiler-free) reaction to Star Trek: Discovery’s two-part pilot

It’s been delayed several times from a planned debut early in 2017, but the first episodes of Star Trek: Discovery are now on Netflix. I’m planning to write another post going into detail on the first two episodes in the next few days, but these are my initial impressions, with very little detail of the contents of the episodes.
  • Michael Burnham – a human woman raised by Vulcans – follows in a tradition of Star Trek characters caught between two cultures. It’s a path previously tred by Spock, Worf, Odo, B’Elana Torres and Seven of Nine. This is a good choice for the sake of drama, as it allows for a conflicted main character, and debates around what it is to be Human. By making Burnham a genetic Human raised in a Vulcan culture, Discovery manages to sidestep the dodgy racial essentialism (for example that Torres’ anger comes from her Klingon side) that often accompanies this trope in Star Trek.
  • There are apparent ‘historical’ contradictions in Discovery. For instance the design of the Shenzou bridge is much darker than on Kirk’s Enterprise, despite them being set in roughly the same era. And there are numerous uses of holograms to communicate over long distances, despite this being introduced as a new technology in Deep Space Nine, set roughly 120 years later. But I wouldn’t want a new show to stick to inferior design and creative choices for the sake of consistency, I’m willing to suspend my disbelief and let the writers tell the best possible story they can this time around.

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Storytelling Geekery

What’s In a Name?

Lately I’ve been putting a bit of thought into the role names serve in fiction, about how they give a first impression of a character, place or culture.

One of the Star Trek franchise’s major alien races are the Ferengi, who began as accidentally comical characters in The Next Generation, developing into overtly comic characters who played a major part in Deep Space Nine. I was surprised to encounter a variation of the word ‘feringhee’ several years after first hearing it in Star Trek, in George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman, set in 19th century India. The alien species’ name came from a derogatory word used by Indians for foreigners, apparently particularly directed at white foreigners.
Production staff on the show have confirmed that this was the genesis of the word, with producer Robert Hewitt Wolfe stating that “Ferengi is, after all, the Persian word for foreigner, particularly for European.”
It’s difficult to work out the reasoning behind making this choice (particularly as not many of the target audience, in 1980s America, probably would have been aware of the meaning of the word) but it was a conscious choice to reference this meaning.

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