The Regressiveness of Star Trek: Discovery
May 11, 2019
There’s a great old Soviet Sci-Fi book series called the Noon Universe, by Arkady and Boris Sturgatsky. Like Star Trek the series takes place in a futuristic utopian world with Communistic, post-scarcity elements. The books usually deal with human explorers or anthropologists observing and interfering in the development of less advanced worlds. In one book, Hard to be a God, anthropologists wait to observe the development of the renaissance in a harsh medieval alien civilization, and when it doesn’t happen, are forced to reconsider their non-interventionist policies in the face of local regressive tyranny. Some of the best episodes of Trek hearken back to this kind of sci-fi, Who Watches the Watchers, First Contact, even Blink of an Eye from Voyager.
Though Star Trek is usually considered to be a ‘left-wing’ show, the politics of the universe are rarely discussed in any depth. Why is the case that utopian world is defacto leftist? Since the time of Rousseau, thinkers from across the ideological spectrum have honed in on critiques of the modern world, its atomization, its fragmentation, its sense of alienation. While traditionalist movements have taken up the middle ages as a symbolic model of a more integrated past, both fascism and communism have worked as futurist movements looking to a post-liberal future. Today that kind of futurism has become the exclusive province of the left. In Star Trek we see a post-liberal world though that transcends modern political distinctions, in the same way that many 19th century critics of modernity anticipated.
The premise of Star Trek is a truly post-liberal society which launches research universities into space, staffed with not only physical scientists, stellar cartographers, and exo-botanists, but also anthropologists, linguists and historians. The show, at its best, wasn’t just about exploring the stars, but also about personal and cultural exploration as well, and it was always to TNG’s great credit how the crew placed such a consistent emphasis on art and intellectualism in their search, not just for truth, but for personal growth and development. The crew of the Enterprise attended performances of Brahms, Bashir and Garack discussed the Cardassian novel, Dr. Crusher ran a theater workshop, Picard read Joyce and helped Data study Shakespeare, Worf was a connoisseur of Wagner-esque Klingon Opera. The crews attended interstellar academic conferences, wrote for scientific journals, and maintained strong professional decorum to one another predicated on mutual-respect for their colleagues’ academic and professional accomplishments.
Not every episode of Trek ever lived up to these standards, this is TV, after all, so these elements were not always as well developed as I would have liked them to be, but still, this, in my mind, is the most progressive and admirable part of the franchise, and it’s something Star Trek: Discovery, following the failures of Voyager and Enterprise, seems to have little interest in reviving. Gone are the concertos in Ten Forward, the crew of Discovery throws frat parties instead. Even between TNG and DS9 the intellectual inclinations of the characters were smoothed out a bit. Picard was a scholar and archaeologist, Sisko liked ball games. Bringing the crew a bit more down to Earth from the rarefied atmosphere of TNG was generally a good thing on that show that benefited the characterization on DS9, but later installments in the franchise have continued down this path at the expense of intellectual ideals that inspired the franchise’s best moments.
Enterprise is the show that was hurt most by this. This is a show about Humanity’s first deep space mission. There was a potential there to staff the ship with social theorists, historians, anthropologists, all representing different philosophical outlooks, which would, in turn, drive discussion between the characters and create space for exploration of contrasting real world intellectual perspectives. Consider what a missed opportunity Hoshi is. Here’s a character who should be drawing on Wittgenstein and Derrida to confront the seemingly insurmountable challenge of decoding alien languages. Instead she has no real theoretical outlook on problems of meaning, translation, and communication. The show should have been doing plotlines like we saw in the recent Denis Villeneuve movie Arrival, or in classic sci-fi novels like Stanisław Lem’s His Master’s Voice. Instead of all this characters like Travis, Malcolm, and Hoshi possessed no real ideological or philosophical outlook on anything.
The problem with Discovery is that the sci-fi is weak and the show hasn’t really learned from the successes and failures of past entries. One of the big lessons that should have been learned was from the large cast of DS9. Compared to the other shows, where the bridge crew makes up almost the entire cast, DS9 had a great range of characters, especially compared to Discovery, which has one of the smallest main casts of any Trek series. It allowed for a lot of variety in storylines and it also formed the basis for a sustained exploration of the contrasting ideologies of the participants of the Dominion war. The fascist Cardassians, the hyper-liberal Ferengi, the feudalistic, honor-bound Klingons. Even the Dominion was presented as being a dark mirror image of the Federation itself. Even a comical character like Quark developed over time into a persistent and shrewd critic of the Federation as a political project.
By contrast Discovery’s attempts at ideological exploration were underbaked and clunky. The Klingon redesign didn’t bother me, but the show’s incoherent ideological reimagining of them did. The Klingons were originally a stand-in for the Russians during the cold war, but what’s interesting is that they’re not communists and ideologically are not a reflection of Soviet Marxism. Instead the Klingons are mongoloid, Asiatic steppe warriors with a feudal political organization. The linkages between feudalism, fascism, liberalism and communism have been explored by so many political and historical theorists going back to Marx. Star Trek postulates a further historical development beyond modern day liberalism, where the soul of modernity is healed, and the alienation characteristic of modern society is reconciled. Matters of historical development and transformation are important philosophical questions, but Discovery bungles things badly. The creative team behind the show was eager to jump on the Anti-Trump bandwagon and recast the franchise’s most iconic villains as Trumpian nationalists, but the critique was totally hollow and substanceless. The new Klingons are depicted as terrorists, they look and sound Somali, the writers insist they’re populist nationalists, despite them being a house-based feudal aristocracy with an elective emperor. It’s a mess. The DS9 Cardassian storylines were a far superior exploration of Fascism.
The Original Series seems to fill a similar niche to me as the Twilight Zone. It was essentially a sci-fi anthology series where each episode was a weird, pulpy, old-school sci-fi novella. DS9 even pays tribute to this in Far Beyond the Stars. A lot is made of Khan as one of the classic Star Trek stories, but when JJ Abrams took it to make Into Darkness, the actually interesting part of the original idea for Space Seed was completely abandoned. The idea of that episode was ‘what if Napoleon came back.’ Here was the enlightened crew of the Enterprise meeting this bewitching strongman conqueror from Earth’s past. The focus of the episode was actual on a historian aboard the Enterprise who is seduced by this ideological ghost from Earth’s distant past, showing the allure of problematic historical modes Humanity believes itself to have grown past. Into Darkness ditched the ‘what if’ sci-fi premise of Khan’s original appearance, and in general, Trek more and more lacks the sci-fi punch you could find pretty consistently on TNG. Discovery is being written by veterans of Lost and Heroes when they should be approaching people like Neal Stephenson, China Miéville and Liu Cixin to develop story ideas.
The whole Klingon war plot of Discovery was a slog. There wasn’t anything like Ship in a Bottle, The Nth Degree, Measure of a Man, Who Watches the Watchers, Darmok, etc. Trek, moving forward, should be looking to elevate what those episodes got right. The show should be embracing contemporary currents in futurism and constructing a grand sci-fi universe like the Noon series or the Foundation series. Trek is a unique franchise in that it’s a tv series set across centuries of human history concerning the development of humanity on a grand time-scale. All that’s out the window with Discovery, which is just another attempt to milk the overplayed Spock/TOS nostalgia while ignoring the ways in which the franchise grew during TNG and DS9.
A lot of discussion turns on the darkness and grittiness of Discovery, and people defend the show because DS9 also revolved around a dark war storyline, but any comparison should stop right there. DS9 took a multi-faceted approach to the story. We saw the different powers mobilizing for war, we saw them carrying out secret-ops against one another, there was a logistical realism that dealt with issues of occupation, resources, supply lines and war planning. We saw front line battles and a conspiracy by Star Fleets security forces to implement martial law. There was a long build up to the war where the different sides maneuvered politically and contemplated the inevitability of war, and a sustained exploration of war crimes, POWs, war orphans and difficulties in demobilizing the Bajoran resistance. It all worked well because it was developed across so many different facets. On Discovery everything is very truncated, the crew don’t even come face to face with the Klingon’s very much. We see a few dirty faced extras for a few seconds when the Discovery races in to save a mining outpost, but get little other sense of the impact of the war beyond some maps of Klingon conquests shown in the final episode. There’s just no substance there.
I find it bizarre that Discovery is constantly toted as being a progressive show. It’s not. The conclusion to season 1, where Burnham gives a WMD to one the Klingon’s so that she can hold the Empire hostage is not a progressive conclusion, even though it’s framed as being a genius solution by Michael Burnham to the moral dilemma faced by the Federation leadership. The writers of the show are morally and intellectually lost, and have nothing to say. Episode 8, Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum, had a similar issue. The Federation wants to weaponize an alien planet by turning it into an antenna to track Klingon cloaking (or something like that), at the end Michael gives a speech to the nature spirit aliens who live there, convincing them to allow the Federation to do this in order to combat the Klingon evil and allow the Good guys to win. When I read initial reactions to the episode some were praising the speech for being very Star Trek-y and inspiring, but the message is twisted, bizarre and regressive. What concern does this non-corporeal race of spirits have in the ideological battle between the Federation and the Klingons. It’s gross exploitation and manipulation by Burnham, and cosmically, why is the Federation good and the Klingon’s bad? What right does the Federation have to say that? That’s a question Picard would have asked but nobody on Discovery did. When I first saw the episode I expected there to be a negative fallout over this, but I then realized the writers of the show wanted the audience to feel good about what Burnham said. Morally the show is a disaster.
There’s a lot of crap in Star Trek’s history, even the good episodes of TNG don’t go as far as I would have liked in terms of their intellectualism and philosophical exploration. I would hope with a new Trek series, in the age of intelligent prestige TV that the show would continue to develop in positive directions, building on the best aspects of previous shows, but Discovery shows the franchise in a state of arrested development, where stirring music cues replace moral insight. Again, it’s basically at the level of Enterprise season 3, and though that season worked well enough as a Sci-Fi channel original series, intellectually it was incredibly weak. Discovery may work for some, I don’t really care if it stays on the air or is canceled, it’s just not a good show. Despite a P.O.C. woman main character and a on-screen gay couple, the show itself is badly regressive intellectually and morally.