Thursday 5 October 2017

Star Trek: Discovery

Spoilers up to Episode 3: Context is for Kings.

One of the main complaints or commentaries on this new Star Trek show, the first since Enterprise which ended in 2005, is that it feels cynical. Cynical, in that case, is used to describe the attitude that the show takes towards the Federation and its military arm, Starfleet - one that is far removed from the very optimistic outlook that Gene Roddenberry had in his initial conception of the universe. I would argue that conceiving of the Federation, a multi-cultural (or multi-species) organisation that travels the universe with a prime directive of discovery rather than one of expansion, as something a bit more complex than a benigm do-gooder only benefits Star Trek. 

The thing that truly sets Discovery apart from any of its predeccessors is the perspective. It is hard to think of any of the previous iterations, including the occassionally very dark Deep Space Nine (which probably had the most sprawling cast of prot- and antagonists), as divorced from its intense focus on a crew of diverse people working together, occasionally working against each other, but always circling around the idea of differences contributing to a greater good. Discovery is absolutely nothing like that, at least not so far (the third episode, Context is for Kings). As much as the show is titled after the ship that picks up Michael Burnham en train to being transferred from one military prison to another after she commits mutiny, "Discovery" might as well refer to the act of discovering itself rather than that ship. We meet the crew of the ship in passing, and they may prove important in the future, particularly the very peculiar Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs, with an American accent), but they are not at the centre of the story. The sole focus point of Discovery is Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), orphaned by a Klingon attack, raised on Vulcan with all the struggles a human can face in the logic-only ideology of Vulcans. Burnham made her way through the ranks of Starfleet, eventually becoming First Officer under Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), managing a constant balancing act between logic and emotion (arguing, at a vital point in the pilot two-parter, that her feelings inform her logic). She is destined for great things, until the Shenzhou discovers an odd artefact near the Federation border and finds out in an unpleasant way that it is part of a complex plain by T'Kuvma, a Klingon cult leader, to change the fate of the Klingon empire. 

If this were the story of a crew rather than one crew member and her peculiar upbringing, the many steps that have contributed to the person that she is now, we would have seen the story of a ship, becoming part of history through a series of unfortunate events, and how that series affected each crew member. Instead, this is the story of how Michael comes to ultimately mutineer against her friend and mentor Georgiou, starting a new war with the Klingon Empire on the way. Instead of trusting her Starfleet training and the prime directive, she turns to the man who raised her for help once she realises that the Shonzhou has encountered Klingons. Sarek (father of Spock) provides councel, but it leads her to believe that the only way to start a diplomatic dialogue is by firing first, and establishing that the Federation can do more than its all-present greeting of "we come in peace", which is ineffectual against the Klingons, who so essentially believe that warfare shapes the fate of its empire and the warriors defending it. In short, Burnham is torn between her upbringing as a Vulcan, which guides her to trust that what worked before - firing first - is the way to go, and the Directive of her position as a Starfleet officer, which is to seek dialogue before engaging a potential enemy in warfare. She chooses the former, because - and this is the true difference between Discovery and anything that came before it - individual values and decisions guide this series, rather than the overbearing behemoth of the Federation, or the unity of a Starfleet crew. She chooses to act against her Captain, to commit mutiny, to disregard orders, because she genuinely believes that her way is the right way, in spite of the fact that it goes against her training as an officer. 

If this were any other Star Trek show, this would be about how Burnham's decision affects the fate of all the other officers in her crew - and we see what happens, after her decision, the war beginning, thousands of lives lost in the battle that ensues between a war-hungry Klingon fleet and an unprepared Starfleet one, a Captain dying in an attempt to capture the Klingon leader without turning him into a martyr - but this isn't really about that, it's about how it will turn Burnham's trajectory towards being a captain into one towards being a mutineer. We see the ships exploding, the lives lost, but in the end, it comes down to Burnham being sentenced to lose her rank and to serve life in prison. Instead of seeing the fallout of what she started - a new Klingon war, six months of attempting to find a way to win this against an Empire of blood - we follow Burnham to a prison transport, to a new ship. Discovery is not about crews, about the ways that the Federation brings together a diverse range of people (sometimes as diverse as Bajoran Freedom fighters and Starfleet officers, or Maquis militants and the Voyager crew). It's about Michael Burnham. 

And I am not sure if this is a deliberate decision, that the nationalistic, racist vigour of T'Kuvma meets the individualist decisions that Michael Burnham makes. It's a decision of its own, how this version of the Klingons is so decisively more Other than any previous one - to the point where this is the first time that we encounter the Klingons mostly in subtitles, and with a very concrete ideology of "Remain Klingon", which beyond racial purity (as T'Kuvma includes the oddballs, the outcasts, those with a lesser heritage than the leading houses) speaks to a purity in ideology, in which Klingons do not entertain the Federation's notion of "coming in peace" which is so detrement to the warrior ideology of Klingon. T'Kuvma is a populist, and we can very easily speculate on what movements this 2017 version of Star Trek is referencing here, but maybe there is a deeper reading here where the seemingly peaceful approach of the Federation and its far reach, its seemingly limitless resources, are already in inherent conflict with the idea of the prime directive, of non-interference. 

Which brings us back to the Discovery - the ship that picks up Burnham's prisoner transport after it is attacked by an organism that feeds on electricity. At this point, this is merely a (but well-informed) fan theory, but many of the things that she encounters onboard the ship, including black badges and the existence of a bio-weapon programme that might change the entire course of history (to the extent that the deus ex machina power of being able to transport anywhere almost requires an intervention not to become reality - because it isn't reality in any later iterations of Star Trek, and would have dire consequences), hints that Discovery isn't a regular Starfleet ship. In fact, the way that Captain Lorca conducts business and argues that Federation idealism has no place in warfare, the way that he is heading a bioweapons programme with relucant scientists who would rather not see their technology used this way, but have no other choice - hint that this is an early version of Section 31, the clandestine secret organisation that we first (in actual temporal terms, not in Star Trek timelines) encountered in DS9. It's the same organisation that created the virus which infected the Changelings, ultimately ending the war against the Dominion through bio warfare. It's the same organisation that seeks to recruit special individuals - and what is Burnham, if not special in every way - to conduct its secret missions. What better time than times of war to entrench powers - and the sheer biological horror of what Captain Lorca demonstrates to Burnham, attempting to fully recruit her into his ship, only feeds into the idea that we have gone far, far from normal Federation territory, and Star Trek idealism. As much as Deep Space Nine was complex in its portrayal of a space station built by slave labour, the fall-out of a Bajoran genocide committed by the fanatical Cardassians, and the way that Bashir and Sisko struggled to find a balance between the loss of life in the war and the kind of immoral decisions that Section 31 (and sections of Starfleet) proposed, this is on a whole different level, mainly because any kind of opposing voices are so far away. 

I wouldn't call it cynical, I think this is maybe the most eloquent way of dealing with the inherent conflict of conceiving of an idealised multi-cultural empire. Especially in war, nobody's hands are clean, but Discovery is taking that idea to a whole new climax. Lorca and his reluctant scientists are doing the dirty work while the Federation can still wave its prime directive (and the Geneva convention, from all the way back  in 1949 (although I am fairly sure that this date is misquoted in the episode, which could trail off into a whole different theory on temporal anomalies in  Discovery). It consciously poses a woman raised between the Vulcan idea of logic trumping everything else, who still believes fundamentally in the values of the Federation, against the pragmatic decisions made by a Captain who sees a future radically different from the present. I think it's valid to speculate that this show will spin its thread in many unexpected ways - temporally, historically, and in terms of how the Star Trek legacy is treated - but for now, I'm content to watch Sonequa Martin-Green shine brightly in this completely new Star Trek

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