Analysis

Mythos in Star Trek Discovery 1.06: Lethe

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.

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Analysis

Mythos in Star Trek Discovery 1.05: Choose Your Pain

This blogpost is focused on looking at how Choose Your Pain, the fifth 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 fourth here.

Sometimes Down is Up

For the third time in five episodes we begin by viewing things from an unusual perspective, in this case a dream sequence in the halls of Discovery. (The Vulcan Hello begins by moving through a star cluster and through T’Kuvma’s eye; The Butcher’s Knife begins inside a replicator.) Approaching the familiar from odd angles and re-examining what we thought we knew appears to be a key theme for the show.

For example, Discovery draws on Lower Decks, the TNG episode which followed junior officers rather than the senior crew. After three episodes on Discovery we know very little about Airiam, (the android or cyborg who seems to be Discovery’s second officer) and Culber refers in this episode to “the CMO” implying that he is not the ship’s Chief Medical Officer. Normally all of the senior crew would be introduced in the opening episode, and be the focus of the show.

Similarly, it’s unusual to get the viewpoint of a non-Starfleet Human who’s expressedly against the actions of Starfleet. From across the whole franchise I can only think of Harry Mudd, Carol and David Marcus, Joseph Sisko, and you could arguably include Michael Eddington and Mortimer Harren on that list. Breakthroughs in science and diplomacy often require a shift in perspective, such as Stamets’ observation that (in Star Trek science) physics and biology are fundamentally the same. Discovery appears to be encouraging the viewer to look at the familiar from a fresh angle.

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Analysis

Mythos in Star Trek Discovery: The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry

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.

Replicators and plasma storms
/ Screencaps from Discovery S1E04 via Agony Booth and of the Badlands

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Film & Television Opinion

The Arrogant Stupidity of Rick Fanboys

Rick and Morty has a setup that’s an obvious play of the one in Back to the Future, with an elderly genius inventor supported by his teenage assistant. The style of humour is probably best explained by comparing it to Monty Python – mixing smart and dumb humour, the profound and the silly – with an added streak of nihilism.

Rick Sanchez is referred to several times as the smartest man in the universe, and he’s not shy about his brilliance. There’s a long-running pop culture association between intelligence and arrogance. Tony Stark, Gregory House, Gaius Baltar, Sherlock‘s Sherlock, Sheldon Cooper. There are public figures who play up to this idea by acting dismissively to ideas that clash with their own – Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Bill Maher, almost any of the main hosts on Fox News. I think it’s only in recent decades that this idea of arrogance and intelligence being intertwined has become so dominant, but celebrations of this personality type goes back as far as Winston Churchill and Oscar Wilde, possibly further. It’s been argued that the fact people associate arrogance and intelligence could be one of the reasons behind Donald Trump’s presidential victory, which makes sense. How else can you explain a candidate saying “I have the best words“, “my primary consultant is myself“, “I’m much more humble than you would understand” and still be taken seriously? Continue reading “The Arrogant Stupidity of Rick Fanboys”

Analysis

Mythos in Star Trek Discovery: Context is For Kings

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.

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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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