This article is riddled with spoilers about the first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery.
Take a moment to imagine what it must have been like to watch the original Star Trek when it first aired in the 1960s.
Only a few years earlier, the United States had barely avoided nuclear war after a tense standoff over Soviet missiles in Cuba. And yet, there on the bridge of the Enterprise was Ensign Pavel Chekov, a Russian man trusted with guiding its crew through the stars.
Even more recently, Americans had witnessed the savagery of white supremacist police officers in Selma, Alabama. The ink on the Voting Rights Act was still wet. The South trembled with the death throes of apartheid. And yet, there sat Lt. Nyota Uhura, a black officer whose race stood as no obstacle to her advancement.
“You cannot do that,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. told Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played Uhura, after she said to him that she was thinking of leaving the show. “For the first time, [black men and women] are being seen the world over as we should be seen.”
Darker and much more conflicted. Unsure of its own moral vision. Star Trek: Discovery is Star Trek for the Trump era. It is a Star Trek universe in which the Klingons are still a vicious, evil foe — and in which they very well could win.
And there, amidst it all, stood Spock. Spock, the hyper-rational first officer who, in many ways, represented the liberal ideal. Spock, with his creed that the “needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Spock, a literal alien at the right-hand of the captain, who ultimately sacrifices himself to save a mostly human crew.
The core of Star Trek has always been its optimism: its deep, unyielding belief that humanity shall, in President Obama’s words, “choose our better history.” Its audacity is its hopefulness.
Star Trek: Discovery, the latest chapter in the venerable franchise, arrives at a very different time than the original series. It arrives at a time when many are wondering if the arc of the moral universe really does bend towards justice. It arrives when the forces of prejudice and hate that retreated in the 1960s have staged a powerful counterattack. It arrives while those forces control the White House itself.
And it is also a very different show. Darker and much more conflicted. Unsure of its own moral vision. Discovery is a Star Trek series for the Trump era. It is a Star Trek universe in which the Klingons are still a vicious, evil foe — and in which they very well could win.
It’s a jarring experience for a die-hard fan such as myself, who grew up on the confident virtue of Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Captain Jean-Luc Picard.
Picard crusaded for equal rights, even when those rights belong to androids. He warned his officers against blind obedience, pointing out that “the claim, ‘I was only following orders’ has been used to justify too many tragedies in our history.” And he fought for the freedoms we enjoy under the First Amendment. “When the first link of the chain is forged,” Picard tells demagogic former admiral in the episode “The Drumhead,” “the first speech censored, the first thought forbidden, the first freedom denied, it chains us all irrevocably.”
“I have never subscribed to the theory that political power flows from the barrel of a gun,” Picard tells Lt. Commander Data in a concise summary of the moral vision he seeks to maintain.
As a bookish teenager immersing myself in The Next Generation, Picard’s Enterprise seemed to offer a master class in moral philosophy. The first two episodes of Discovery, by contrast, are a rather explicit critique of Picard’s moral vision.
The plot of these episodes center around a dispute between Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), and her first officer, Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green).
Georgiou plays the role of Picard, the commanding officer loyal to the Federation’s core values. “Starfleet does not fire first,” the captain tells Burnham after her ship encounters a seemingly hostile group of Klingons. “We don’t start shooting on a hunch, and we don’t take innocent lives.”
Burnham, meanwhile, becomes the spokesperson for humanity’s old prejudices, and for the idea that some people are inherently suspect. Much of the episodes focuses on her tense relationship with an alien officer, a relationship that seems more-than-a-little colored by that officer’s otherness. Hostility is in the Klingon’s “nature,” Burnham tells her captain as part of a failed effort to convince Georgiou to launch a preemptive strike. Eventually, Burnham stages a failed mutiny, briefly seizing control of the ship and ordering a fellow officer to open fire.
What makes Discovery difficult for old-line fans to watch is that it is far from clear that Burnham was wrong. Phaser in hand, Georgiou regains control of her vessel before the preemptive attack is launched. In the events that follow, a fleet of Klingon starships tears through a fleet of Federation vessels, and Starfleet is thrust into war. We don’t know if Burnham’s course of action would have prevented this outcome, but it is clear that Georgiou’s high-mindedness led to nothing but disaster.
Star Trek has dealt with these themes before. In one of the franchise’s greatest arcs, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine climaxes in an all-out war as the Federation and its allies take on a powerful, despotic regime known as the “Dominion.” The turning point in that war comes when Captain Benjamin Sisko tricks the ostensibly neutral Romulans into joining the war on the Federation’s side through a series of morally dubious schemes.
“I lied. I cheated. I bribed men to cover the crimes of other men. I am an accessory to murder,” Sisko proclaims at the end of the episode. “But the most damning thing of all… I think I can live with it. And if I had to do it all over again, I would.”
It is easy to be morally upstanding, to proclaim Picard’s high-minded values, when you are Starfleet’s preeminent captain serving a benevolent hegemony. Picard served a Federation that, for nearly all of The Next Generation‘s run, was the alpha quadrant of the galaxy’s dominant superpower. He benefited from political might and diplomatic alliances — including an alliance with the Klingon Empire — that took more than a century to build.
But moral questions suddenly become much grayer when, like Sisko, you are confronted with a sinister rival whose power may exceed your own.
Discovery remains a fundamentally optimistic show — because we know how this all ends.
Discovery lives in that gray area. It takes place about a century before The Next Generation, when the Federation was still only one of many powers struggling to find its place in the galaxy. Burnham cannot know that her side ultimately prevails, that a Klingon will someday serve on the Federation’s flagship, or even that she and everyone she admires won’t be slain in the new Klingon war. Her pessimism, and her ultimate betrayal of her Starfleet oath, arise from her very human inability to see the future.
“I believed saving you and the crew was more important than Starfleet’s principles,” she tells her captain, in her best effort to offer a defense of her actions.
And yet, for us die-hard fans, Discovery remains a fundamentally optimistic show — because we know how this all ends. We know that Starfleet does, in fact, succeed. We know that the Klingons will become allies and even uneasy friends. We know that the Federation’s values will spread throughout the galaxy.
Georgiou dies near the end of the second episode. But, someday, Picard will live.
In that sense, it is the most optimistic vision that Star Trek could offer a nation staggered by the rise of Donald Trump.
In 1966, when the original series premiered, America was in the midst of a moral awakening. Our economy was strong. Our leaders were no longer willing to look the other way to ignore Southern apartheid. America in the 1960s was a time of great upheaval, but it was also a time when anything seemed possible — civil rights, feminism, and a profound uneasiness with the morality of war were all on the nation’s agenda. It was easy to imagine a world that would someday produce Nyota Uhura.
The America of 2017 is, in many ways, a much better place than 1966. The nation as a whole is wealthier and more secure. Women and people of color enjoy opportunities their grandmothers could barely imagine. And yet, the trajectory of progress now moves in the opposite direction.
It is natural to wonder, with Trump in the White House, whether the progress of the 1960s was simply a fluke. Maybe the America of slavery and Jim Crow is the real America. Perhaps we have no better history.
Or maybe it is all simply random. The progress of the last half-century could simply be a run of good luck. We have no way of knowing whether the future belongs to Jean-Luc Picard or to Donald Trump.
Discovery is hardly a perfect show. The plot moves too fast, and Burnham’s mutiny is far too abrupt. The Klingons’ new look is unnecessary and the new Starfleet uniforms don’t display each officer’s rank prominently enough. The war between the Federation and the Klingons is triggered by a McGuffin that makes little sense.
But it is so hard to feel optimism these days. And for all its flaws, Star Trek has not lost its sense of hope.