One of the first posts on this blog was about Star Trek: Discovery. The new series — a weird, templexed adventure set prior to The Original Series (TOS) whilst at the same time being the most technologically advanced we’ve so far seen — introduced a new kind of engine, vastly superior to the warp drive, that was to unpin all of the series’ plot twists and turns. I referred to it as “a tardigrade-powered rhizomatic nomad engine” and, having just finished the series earlier this week, I stand by that descriptor.
Unfortunately, what happened (of course) was that the crew were incapable of properly harnessing it.
The second half of the series — spoiler warning — dealt with some of the more complex issues of using such a system, particularly when the Discovery ended up having to use an ill-fitting human pilot after inadvertently killing off their original giant space tardigrade.
The main result of this experiment was that the crew of the Discovery, adjusting to their new tech, slipped through into a parallel (or, rather “Mirror”) universe where the United Federation of Planets (UFP) did not exist and human civilisation had rather colonised outer space as a “Terran” intergalactic empire, characterised by a penchant for bloody-thirsty backstabbing, human supremacy, the enslavement of “lesser” species and adhering to a neo-Roman fascist ideology. (Kind of like the Klingons in the primary universe.)
The heavy caricaturing of either side sounds fairly dull here and could, in less capable hands, feel like prog sci-fi getting high on its own supply — it wouldn’t be the first time Star Trek pushed the “our universe is so wholesome and ethical, our opposite is obviously the worst space Nazi, fascist regime imaginable” line — but there were just enough dollops of moral ambiguity on all sides to make for a somewhat consistently compelling journey.
It wasn’t really a surprise that the show went this way and, for all its faults, it did ask questions that felt prescient to our present moment — even if just by capturing our present political paranoia.
“How far is the UFP from the Terran empire, really?”
Both had fought a war with the Klingons but the Terrans had won their war already. In their universe, the UFP were only delaying defeat… Should the UFP, on their return, adopt some Terran tactics to avoid extinction? Should the Terrans take notes from the UFP, when they tumble into vicious post-victory in-fighting?…
Intergalactic horseshoe politics.
Star Trek has, throughout its various versions, set itself up as a “progressive” show, by the measures of the time it was made in. This is, to my mind, the “Star Trek spirit”. I am not a TOS loyalist. I knew that what was wrong with the most recent run of films was that, although they were good fun, they lost their “Star Trek” sheen by simply updating TOS aesthetically whilst retaining outdated displays of chivalry and machismo.
He writes how most of the series following TOS have tried to “distance themselves from some of the unsavory aspects of TOS itself, like the sexism, the tokenism, the imperialistic politics, the weird Orientalism of the portrayal of the Klingons, etc.” He continues:
By contrast, TNG was very self-consciously progressive — it was at this point that [series creator] Gene Roddenberry started to think more and more of Star Trek as a serious utopian vision rather than a frame for Twilight Zone-style thought experiments — and by passing off TOS as a nostalgic joke, they were saying that they had outgrown all those silly costumes and the silly attitudes that went with them.
He goes on to note, however, that Discovery has returned to much of TOS‘s tensions. The Klingons are, again,
a racialized/Orientalized Other, with whom the Federation is involved in an intense struggle for influence that always threatens to break out into war. So Discovery says: okay, let’s make them look like intensely racialized Others, and let’s lean into the Orientalism by making them religious fanatics parallel to Islamic jihadists — and then let’s still humanize them.
All this, Kotsko says, makes for an even more compelling and affecting series
because something like the Original Series — which loudly proclaimed its progressive bona fides while nursing a reactionary underside — might be the perfect vehicle to capture the strange dynamics of our moment, where eight years of self-satisfied progressivism have been swept aside by a tidal wave of reactionary resentment, where we all feel like we have been transported to the Mirror Universe (but then, maybe our former captain was from there all along). … By returning, in our own era of intense conflict, to the only Star Trek show that was produced during an era of serious domestic political ferment, Discovery reminds us that our future is never guaranteed.
I definitely agree with Kotsko but it is this dynamic, in previous series, that has always been the most compelling for me.
The best conflicts with the Borg, for instance, also felt like the UFP doing battle with itself. (“Soviets vs Maoists, or something.“)
There’s a further dynamic to excavate here, however. One I’m reminded of following the recent death of Stephen Hawking and the anticipation in the science community for his final paper, “A Smooth Exit from Eternal Inflation“, which — it has been suggested — will explore the possibility of multiple big bangs giving birth to a much-theorised multiverse.
The title of the paper is the most intriguing and I can’t help but read it, in light of recent discussions, as being suggestive of some sort of exit from our universe’s Bataillean general economy.
(I can’t even imagine a universe not fitting with Bataille’s theory of energetic expenditure, which would surely be entirely other to our physics model and therefore incompatible with present multiverse theories…)
In light of this, I’m left feeling that Star Trek’s insistence on its Mirror Universe being the political antithesis to the series’ own righteous progressivism is, ultimately, unfortunate.
This is a general hang-up of the show, of course. (Even within their own universe, in prior series, when the UFP discovers a world that is even more utopian than their own, there is always a sinister underbelly waiting to be unearthed so as to discredit it.)
Whilst Discovery does to a good job of tapping into our present crisis of Leftist progressivism, considering the potential content of Hawking’s paper, I’m wondering: what does a smooth exit from Star Trek’s eternally inflating progressivism look like?
That might offer us a vision that genuinely speaks to our near-future rather than just our confused present.