The Dismal Frontier

What is Star Trek without the socialism?

If you’re not a Star Trek fan, the intense affection it inspires in its enthusiasts may seem a bit baffling. Isn’t Star Trek just, like, dorks in space? What’s so charming about science geeks who wear color-coded uniforms and speak in stilted lines about stellar anomalies? The popularity of Trek has always been somewhat inexplicable. William Shatner is a terrible actor, the special effects have often been absurd, and the imagined future is an earnest, treacly one where human beings have evolved beyond capitalism and cruelty into egalitarianism, do-goodery, and wide-eyed wonder.

This last part—Trek’s utopianism—is likely the key to its continuing prominence. Modern media fandom really began with Star Trek: in the 60s and 70s, Trekkies, mostly female Trekkies, created fanzines and the first real pop culture conventions. People liked the Star Trek universe created by Gene Roddenberry so much that they wanted to live in it, or barring that, talk about it constantly with people who understood why the camaraderie of multicultural nerds in space meant so much to them. The fans fought to keep the original series from being cancelled (and failed); and yet the show remained popular in syndication, and has since spawned thirteen movies and five more TV shows: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise—and now, in 2017-2018, Discovery, a show so odd, so off-putting, so vicious and violent and militaristic that it seems like an invader from another universe entirely.

Before I delve into exactly what’s so disturbing about this new Star Trek series, it’s worth talking a little bit about the ethos that characterized the earlier shows. Previous Trek narratives, while differing from each other in setting and tone, all share a common dorky exuberance for exploration and cross-cultural understanding. While technically, yes, Starfleet has always been a military organization, its functions have tended to the diplomatic, scientific, humanitarian, and logistical. Except during relatively rare times of defensive warfare, the space station in Deep Space Nine, for example, functions more or less like an interstellar DMV, issuing permits, performing inspections, and resolving disputes. In all the various shows, crew members hang up the uniform after work and unwind with decidedly goofy side projects: science experiments, learning to paint (badly), acting in plays (badly), pretending to be James Bond in the holosuites, trying (and sometimes even liking) alien cuisine. The main characters—human and alien alike—more or less get along, learning to accept (if not always understand) each other’s cultural practices and idiosyncrasies, like the Vulcan belief in the primacy of logic, or the often bloody Klingon code of honor. Interspecies tolerance—while frequently rendered in problematic ways—is a critical component of the Star Trek philosophy. Reflecting on this underpinning ideology, and why it resonated so much with viewers, Roddenberry said:

We believed that the often ridiculed mass audience is sick of this world’s petty nationalism and all its old ways and old hatreds, and that people are not only willing but anxious to think beyond most petty beliefs that have for so long kept  mankind divided…What Star Trek proves, as faulty as individual episodes could  be, is that the much-maligned common man and common woman has an  enormous hunger for brotherhood. They are ready for the 23rd century now, and they are light years ahead of their petty governments and their visionless leaders.

We’re not much closer to a united brotherhood of mankind than we were in the 60s, yet Star Trek remains as popular as ever. All the old Star Trek shows are available on Netflix, where The Next Generation, Voyager, and Deep Space Nine enjoy especially high viewing figures. Three movies debuted in the last ten years—and okay, maybe they were pretty stupid, and mostly consisted of Chris Pine twitching handsomely at the camera while planets blew up behind him, but as mindless action movies go, they were kind of fun.

In keeping with Trek’s enduring appeal, the new show, Discovery, was billed as a return to the old Trek universe and the old Trek thoughtfulness. (The most recent Star Trek series before DiscoveryEnterprise—had been a horribly written mess, so fans were understandably eager for a smart, original show.) Showrunner Bryan Fuller, who wrote for both Deep Space Nine and Voyager, promised a show that was true to the philosophy of Star Trek, particularly its focus on diplomacy and mutual understanding. Set a decade before the original series, Discovery was supposed to chart the development of Trek’s cheery egalitarian ethos; a growth arc that couldn’t be too steep, given that Enterprise, set in the 22nd century, had already laid the foundations of a diplomatic, socialist Federation.

Illustrations by Pranas Naujokaitis

And at first, it appeared Discovery might deliver. The first one and a half episodes are about the relationship between wise, kindly captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) and her young first officer, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green). Burnham, a human raised by the hyper-rational Vulcans, is intellectually brilliant but emotionally stunted. Despite being a xenoanthropologist, she still harbors a xenophobic dislike of the Klingons, who she holds responsible for the death of her parents. The arc of the show appeared to be obvious: Burnham, under the mentorship of Georgiou, would grow up and learn what it means to be human, and in doing so, come to terms with a species she thought she despised but mostly didn’t understand. Burnham’s emotional journey would probably mirror that of the Federation itself toward peace, forgiveness, and mutual co-operation.

We don’t know what Fuller’s intentions were, because he abruptly quit in the middle of filming the first episode. Full showrunning duties then passed to Alex Kurtzman, the relentless mediocrity responsible for witless sci-fi flops such as The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Ender’s Game, and the 2017 Mummy reboot. By the end of Discovery’s second episode, Captain Georgiou is dead, and Burnham has single-handedly started a war with the Klingons. The show quickly slides into grimdark chaos, lurching from one hideous crisis to another. A sinister new captain! War! Misery! Despair! A giant alien monster! A crewmember slaughtered by said giant alien monster! The giant alien monster is actually a helpless creature with useful abilities, so the sinister captain orders it hooked up to an instantaneous transport system, even though this causes the alien considerable pain! Oh no! Then there’s torture! Some more torture! Captain Georgiou’s corpse gets cannibalized by the Klingons! PTSD! The sinister captain was secretly from the Evil Mirror Universe the whole time! Burnham’s boring boyfriend was secretly a Klingon the whole time! Thrills! Chills! Explosions! Impossibly high stakes! If our heroes don’t blow up a ship full of people right fucking now, it’ll be the end of ALL life in ALL the multiverses forever!!!

I suppose Discovery is exciting, in the way that watching endless footage of car crashes is exciting—but what it’s not is Star Trek. Roddenberry’s cheerful post-scarcity utopia, which is supposed to be just ten years down the road, is nowhere to be seen. Describing the recent history of the Federation, the sinister Captain Lorca says, “The future came, and hunger and need and want disappeared. ’Course, they’re making a comeback now.” The war with the Klingons has wrecked the Federation’s socialist economy in a few short months (curiously, this was never an issue during later shows like The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, even though they also had occasional war plotlines). And along with the socialist economy went the high-minded ethics—suddenly, Starfleet officers are deliberately inflicting pain on other sentient beings in order to accomplish their military goals. We’ve also lost the most fun and joyful parts of Trek: the nerdy shit the characters do after work. Nobody on the starship Discovery seems to have any free time, let alone any fun. There’s exactly one party scene—in an episode with the groan-inducing title “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad”—but even that turns into a time-loop nightmare a la Groundhog Day, and the party  repeatedly ends with the ship exploding in a fireball of death.

Fine, fine, so there’s lots of explosions! So the characters live in a terrifying universe of omnipresent violence! But hey, they’re a very diverse cast, and isn’t that in keeping with the spirit of Star Trek? It’s true that, in Michael Burnham, Discovery features Trek’s first black female protagonist (though they didn’t make her captain). Philippa Georgiou is the first captain who’s a woman of color (though of course, she gets killed off in the second episode). And on top of that, the Discovery writers proudly announced they would showcase the first openly gay characters in Star Trek history. Paul Stamets and Hugh Culber are a loving, if entirely neutered couple: Stamets is a brilliant, quirky scientist while his partner Culber is a passive helpmeet, utterly devoid of personality or interiority. Why even bother with gay characters if they’re just going to embody the same old heteronormative tropes? Especially the most heteronormative trope of all: the fridged lover. That’s right, Culber gets murdered for no particular reason. Every other episode of Discovery contains a pointless murder. Women of color are occasionally added to the cast only to be killed off or disappear, as if there can only be one highlander, and it’s Burnham. This is a hellishly depressing portrayal of “diversity”: a world where everyone, regardless of race, gender, or sexuality, is permitted to embody the same old oppressive roles and has a roughly equal chance of being brutally murdered in space.

This constant slaughter is not only evidence of Discovery’s utterly tedious and conventional fascination with violence, but also of the extent to which it views its characters as disposable plot elements. In a traditional Trek show, it’s very rare to kill off characters, largely because Trek is interested in its characters as people, and not merely as material for Shocking Twists. While the captain has always—arguably—been the protagonist, Trek usually favors an ensemble storytelling style, a narrative device that neatly reflects the socialism of the Federation. The original series usually featured the crew as a whole, with occasional episodes devoted to the inner lives of individual characters. All the later shows—until Discovery—expanded on this format, allowing every major character a chance to play protagonist at least once per season. One TNG episode, for example, follows ship doctor Beverly Crusher as she falls in love with a Scottish space ghost (seriously); the next delves into the lives of junior officers vying for promotions; the next centers Data the android, who suddenly loses his memory. Everyone gets a ridiculous plotline sometimes; even minor characters occasionally get a chance to be important; everyone endures disorienting and terrifying experiences from time to time. All the characters have importance and interiority. In Discovery, by contrast, there are several major cast members who technically have names on IMDB, and, once in a while, even get a line (mostly “Captain! Shields at 50 percent!”), but they have no personalities, known talents, or storylines. (I call my favorites “Machine Chick,” “Face Implant,” and “The One With the Cool Hair.”) Discovery is only interested in Burnham and maybe four other characters; everyone else is window dressing, spectators at the feast. This doesn’t read like an egalitarian socialist society; even narratively, a handful of people matter much more than everyone else.

Burnham, the main character, matters most of all. She’s not simply the protagonist, but the axis around which the entire plot revolves. Everyone in Discovery agrees: since Burnham killed the Klingon messiah (more on THAT nonsense in a bit), the war is entirely her fault, which is a little bit like saying Franz Ferdinand’s assassin is solely responsible for WWI. And because the war is Burnham’s fault, she’s the Only One Who Can Stop It. She’s also the only one who can figure out a puzzle or blow up a ship or swordfight an enemy or whatever else the plot requires this week. It doesn’t matter that she frequently makes bad choices because she’s emotionally overwhelmed; no matter what happens to Burnham, she’s on deck next week for another exhausting mission.

Fuller stated that he and Kurtzman employed a gender-blind, race-blind approach to casting, which is fine, except for the fact that they still wrote Burnham like Generic Space Hero #6458. That is to say, she occupies the position of the classic white male scifi hero, who’s always the center of the story no matter how many mistakes he makes. In some ways, it’s nice to see a black woman occupying this narrative space; what’s not nice is the way Burnham is made to perform intense emotional and physical labor without a break. The generic white male hero usually gets a moment to bask in his awesomeness, but Burnham rarely even gets to nap. Sonequa Martin-Green herself is laboring heroically. She’ll deliver a line like “in exchange for my crew, I offer you me” with such conviction that you almost don’t realize how idiotic that sounds.

The Discovery episode scripts are generally appalling, but the worst lines take the form of Burnham’s xenophobic opinions about the innately vicious nature of Klingons, which are smoothly passed off as facts. To be fair, she isn’t the first Trek character who hates Klingons; the movie Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is about Captain Kirk’s slow realization that he’s been a bigot. One of the best moments in the film comes at a diplomatic dinner party, where Kirk and his crew uncomfortably reveal  they know nothing at all about Klingon culture. The Klingons mockingly quote Hamlet at them, adding “You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.”

But if you’re looking for Shakespeare-quoting Klingons—or the later TNG and DS9 iterations of Klingons as entertainingly loud, drunk, music-loving, interstellar Viking types—you’ve come to the wrong show. Discovery’s Klingons are hyper-serious religious fanatics. Terrified of Federation incursion and the threat it might pose to their culture and autonomy, the Klingons will go to any lengths to destroy their secular, pluralistic opponent, including torturing captured Federation soldiers and committing suicide bombings. Lest you think these rebooted Klingons are a painfully ham-fisted allegory for modern-day jihadists, Kurtzman’s co-showrunner assures us they’re actually an allegory for Trump voters (a statement CBS later denied to avoid blowback). Regardless of whether you buy that claim or not, the fact remains that the Trump voter allegory doesn’t scan in the slightest. The Klingons’ rallying cry isn’t “Make the Klingon Empire Great Again” but “Remain Klingon”: that is, preserve the culture against an encroaching civilization that promises peace but only (according to the Klingons) on oppressive terms. Rather than trying to grapple with this imperialist theme in any nuanced way, however, the Discovery writers instead take pains to present the Klingons as a conglomeration of colonialist fantasies: a violent, uncivilized, and cannibalistic Other that must be quelled. At every turn of the plot, Burnham’s xenophobic opinions are confirmed and justified.

In their dealings with the Klingons, the Federation shows that its bar for ethical behavior in wartime is…shockingly low. In the last episode of the season, the Federation secretly decides to blow up the Klingon homeworld with a planet-destroying bomb. This wouldn’t end the war—the Klingons have other planets and a huge fleet—but it would be an act of callous murder. Burnham, who still believes that Klingons are basically monsters, arrives at the shocking realization that genocide is Not Good. In fact—brace yourself—murdering billions of civilians is, in fact, Ethically Not Okay. So Burnham singlehandedly engineers a regime change via the threat of the planet-destroying bomb (because, as she says, “Klingons respond to strength.”) The mostly identity-less crew backs her; Burnham makes a virtually content-free speech about “values,” and at the end of the season everyone GETS AN ACTUAL FUCKING MEDAL FOR NOT COMMITTING GENOCIDE.

Okay, okay: so even if you’re not a Star Trek geek who’s angry at seeing a unique and beloved fictional universe mutated into a lifeless Prestige TV dystopia, why should Discovery make you mad, or at least a little disappointed? In a previous article for Current Affairs, I surveyed a number of popular speculative fictions and pointed out how much of contemporary sci-fi and fantasy relies on a “lesser of two evils” narrative. It’s not important to really do good, or be good; you just have to behave a little better than the other guys, whether they’re a horde of ice zombies, Nazi wizards, or plain old psychotic terrorists. This is the ideology of the mainstream Democratic party: stand for nothing, believe in nothing, because after all “have you seen the other guys?Star Trek: Discovery might have been written by the DNC. Burnham’s speech about values is full of empty, easy platitudes; her real, bigoted attitude and her willingness to embrace high-handed regime change can be glossed over, because she and the rest of the cast are sufficiently diverse. I’ve watched and read a lot of science fiction, but this might be the most depressing one I’ve ever experienced: a future in which the best that can be imagined is American foreign policy repeating itself endlessly, forever.

In my article, I diagnosed the problem with contemporary SFF as a failure of imagination, but in the case of Discovery, the problem isn’t failure as much as a pointed refusal. The Star Trek template already exists; utopias, as my colleague Brianna Rennix tells us, are difficult to write, but Star Trek is a plug-and-play. Why refuse to engage with Roddenberry’s beloved vision, the socialist universe that inspired contemporary fandom? Why not write a future in which people are kind and earnest and genuinely interested in learning about different civilizations, instead of repeating the policies of the last seventy years in outer space with the delusion that somehow, THIS time, they’re going to work?

The last scene of Discovery’s first season hinted that the crew may finally go on the cool adventures promised by the original series, but I strongly suspect they won’t be able to drop the grimdark cynicism for season two. The Game of Thrones template of murder, sex, and unexpected resurrections makes for high ratings and thrilling recaps. Jason Isaacs (whose character is dead—FOR NOW), said in defense of the show, “We’re living in monstrous times, let’s not dance around it. Hideous, divisive times…” The times are unlikely to get less monstrous, hideous, and divisive any time soon. The creators of Discovery think the fans want grit, so they’ll write grit. They think the fans want “realism,” so they’ll present a bitter cynical reflection of the status quo.

But I suspect the fans want what they’ve always wanted: a more justly structured society, a more egalitarian world, a vision of the future where human beings possess a solid standard of living and behave ethically toward one another, and the galaxy unfolds before us as a place of wonder, adventure, and continuous moral development. Star Trek was never about space battles, even if space battles occurred; it was always about the ethics of being, how we would look as the best possible versions of ourselves. It was about the theory that human beings aren’t mired in our viciousness; we don’t just “respond to strength,” and we’re capable of cultural evolution. It suggested that in the distant future, we might look back on this era as a regrettable period where humans were childishly, tragically wrong about so much, especially capitalism and the necessity of violence.

And then we’ll go on dorky space adventures. 

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