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Coast of Utopia: Star Trek: Discovery‘s odd future

By James Rushing Daniel.

Star Trek Discovery

From its opening moments, there’s something off about Star Trek: Discovery, the seventh series in the long-running franchise. As the pilot episode begins, images of the swirling firmament above a dark planet, maybe Qo’noS, dissolve into the black pupil of T’Kuvma, a Klingon warrior. “They are coming,” he incants, “Atom by atom. They will coil around us and take all that we are.” Of course, he’s talking about the Federation, established in the new series as the ideological antipode of the xenophobic Klingon Empire. What’s unusual here, other than the fact that the Klingons have been rebranded as a depilated, vampire death cult, is the extent to which these remarks crib from contemporary politics. One need only recall August’s tiki torch-lit rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, to find an uncomfortably close analogue. Unlike The Next Generation (TNG) or Deep Space Nine (DS9), which looked far ahead to futures where order and diplomacy prevailed, the world of Discovery is divided by the same rifts and blind spots that now split the US political scene.

Truth be told, Discovery’s representation of the future—as neither utopian nor dystopian but acutely contemporary—was not an entirely unforeseeable approach. Charting the politics of the franchise following TNG, which recently celebrated its thirtieth anniversary, one sees substantial mission creep from the sanguine bent of the Perestroika-era shows to the cynical Trumpian present. Both TNG and DS9, while different in tone and arc, presented futures governed by an ethical sensibility and a non-violent, diplomatic ethos. Set in a functionally socialist, post-scarcity twenty-fourth century, the series dramatised political missteps of the present and past, but did so while projecting the rise of a more judicious future than our own (it’s worth noting that Business Insider’s Joseph Gariguilo has suggested that the franchise must have included slavery and inequality to function).

Some years later, Star Trek: Enterprise, set prior to the Original Series (TOS), retreated from the utopianism of its predecessors, turning instead to the political issues of its day. Debuting the same month as 9/11, Enterprise was almost entirely preoccupied with the ready-to-hand themes of terror and retribution. Cast as both victim and avenger, the Federation fought foreign enemies in a series of now cringeworthily plotlines. In its third season, for example, Captain Archer (Scott Bakula) and crew traverse the Delphic Expanse to hunt down the Xindi, a six-species axis of evil responsible for an attack on Florida.

Discovery, set in the twenty-third century between the events of Enterprise and TOS, has so far continued this trajectory away from the idealised future of the 1990s and toward one ruptured by ideological discord. The show depicts the exploits of Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), a human whose parents were killed by the Klingons and who was subsequently raised Vulcan. The first several episodes of the series follow Burnham through a bewildering reversal of fortune, initially as a dutiful first officer to Captain Philippa Georgiou on the cusp of being offered her own command and subsequently as a detested convict stripped of her rank. Presented often with heavy-handed visual metaphors, Burnham is pulled between binary cultures, at once a traumatised human and a logical Vulcan. In the second episode, “Battle at the Binary Stars”, her rational half loses out and Burnham attempts a mutiny in order to attack the Klingons who have suddenly materialised after decades in the shadows. By the third episode, a full-blown war has broken out and Burnham is on her way to a penal colony when she is unexpectedly taken onboard the USS Discovery, a hostile work environment under the command of the tortured southerner Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs) where a top-secret project involving long-distance teleportation is underway.

While many of the core elements of Star Trek’s “wagon train to the stars” model remain in Discovery, the series’ ideological focus and relative disinterest in depicting futurity sets it apart from much of the rest of the franchise. To be sure, there are many laudable elements early on—the strong opposition toward the rhetoric of racial purity, an animal cruelty plotline, and an interest in extensively representing diversity in both the cast and themes. However, in exchanging an idealised future for the quasi-present, Discovery abandons many of the solidaristic elements of prior series’ political utopianism and offers a flawed depiction of racial disharmony in their stead.

For many of Discovery’s early episodes, the plotlines are transparent explorations of contemporary racial and cultural fractures. Bigots clash with communitarians and diplomatic positions are tested by exercises in just war. Often, Burnham is tasked with voicing the show’s equitable politics: “It would be unwise to confuse race and culture,” she says in episode 1. “This creature is an unknown alien.  It can only be what it is, not what you want it to be,” she chides in episode 4. “The more you hurt someone, the less helpful they become,” in episode 5. These, in turn, are measured against exclusionary Klingon oratory, a typical example of which is T’Kuvma’s invective, “Our purity is a threat to them. They wish to drag us into the muck where humans, Vulcans, Tellarites and filthy Andorians mix.” Such phrasing naturally evokes parallels not only to the alt-right but to the racist rhetoric of Nazi Germany, effectively highlighting the substance of the show’s politics and delineating an essentially unbridgeable divide between the Klingons and the Federation. This distinction effectively renounces the possibility of cross-cultural exchange.

More troubling is the show’s depiction of race. In the contemporary world, the most resonant voices of racial purity overwhelming belong to those already well-placed within the pluralistic, politically centrist societies of the global North. As has now been widely reported by such figures as New York University History Professor Steven Hahn, it was largely middle- and upper middle-class white voters and not the impoverished “white working class” that were responsible for Trump’s victory in 2016. All of this points to the uncomfortable reality that hate and intolerance often emerge from within largely cosmopolitan societies, not from without. Nevertheless, in Discovery, the ideology of racial purity is assigned to an alien enclave entirely foreign to the Federation, suggesting that racism is not the left’s problem to fix. One is reminded, in a way, of the distancing tactics of Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, a book suggesting that bigoted Trumpian furor is largely the province of a decaying and geographically isolated culture that works against its own interests. Analogously, when Voq (Javid Iqbal), a heroic albino, is ostracised by the Klingons for his skin colour, the irony is intended to be searing; it is after all true that the far right is currently occupied with purging itself of LGBTQIA figures such as Milo Yiannopoulos. In Discovery, the implication of such ostracism is that we (the Federation, the left) would never condemn our own, that this is the wretched practice of the dissolute and ideologically disordered right. This, of course, isn’t the case. Racism has a home in the mainstream and, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recently observed, the left eats its own all the time.

Star Trek Discovery Characters

For some critics, Discovery’s realpolitik turn is welcome, albeit not entirely unproblematic. Aaron Bady, writing for the LA Review of Books, applauds Discovery’s efforts to move beyond the “delightfully smug self-regard” of the post-Cold War era. “Star Trek,” Bady claims, “has always wanted to be more progressive than it ever really managed to be.” As he suggests, while the utopian vision of past series was comforting and attractive, it was always overwhelmingly white and masculine. As the new show demonstrates a greater commitment to diversity and inclusivity, Bady is guardedly optimistic about the potential of Discovery to be less politically fraught and to put an end to Star Trek’s “paper-thin smugness covering over a triumphalist presentism”. Bady is notably less effusive regarding the portrayal of the Klingons, which he regards as a racist depiction with hints of Victorian imperialism.

Critical theorist and media scholar Franco “Bifo” Berardi shares Bady’s reading of the compromised politics of optimism.  In After the Future (2011), Berardi charts the long decline of twentieth century utopianism from its birth in Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s 1909 Futurist Manifesto to its terminus at 9/11. For Berardi, such optimism was always linked to capitalist advancement, to “the imaginary effect of the peculiarity of the bourgeois production model”. As Berardi suggests, insofar as twentieth century capitalism relied upon the fictions of endless accumulation and perennial growth, it saw a future in which these intensities continued unabated. It was not until the narratives of late capitalism began to fissure and wealth polarisation and austerity became the norm that those who initially “trusted in the future” began to doubt it. From Berardi’s perspective, because the trust in a glorious future can never be disentangled from capitalist production, one must reject utopianism in favour of a radical investment in the present.

There is, thankfully, another perspective from which to view Star Trek’s idealism. As A.M Gittlitz, writing for the New York Times earlier this year, reminds us, utopianism is not the sole province of the capitalist world. Vladimir Lenin, futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky and many other early Soviet figures espoused an anti-capitalist utopianism that viewed advances in technology as inherently communitarian. As Gittlitz reports, Argentine Trotskyist leader J. Posadas’s vision of communist solidarity between the proletariat and alien visitors is heavily reflected in Star Trek’s TOS, a series in which Vulcans have released mankind from “money and all hierarchies of race, gender and class”. In Archaeologies of the Future, Fredric Jameson similarly defends the political utility of utopianism in the lineage of science fiction, acknowledging that while it may suffer from occasional wish-fulfilment, utopianism holds a “very real political function”. Adopting a radically divergent position from numerous sceptics, Jameson argues that utopian texts counter the “universal belief” in the inevitability of capitalism. In his reading, the utopian genre “is itself a representational mediation on radical difference, radical otherness”.

It is precisely such visions of “radical difference, radical otherness” that mark the most successful episodes of post-Cold War Era Star Trek and which are grievously lacking in Discovery. Bady, however, is right, at least to a point, that the franchise “has always wanted to be more progressive than it ever really managed to be”. Despite its chest-thumping piousness, TNG presented a vision of the twenty-fourth century that was marred by the political failures of its decade, particularly regarding sexism. Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton) and Reginald Endicott “Reg” Barclay III (Dwight Schultz), characters presented as romantically challenged, often make inappropriate advances toward the objects of their affection, Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) is the victim of seemingly endless sexual assaults, and many of the worlds visited are crafted to meet the prodigious sexual appetites of William Riker (Jonathan Frakes), the show’s consummate alpha. In one episode, Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) visits Risa, a male heterosexual erotic fantasy disguised as a planet, in which one need only to display a horga’hn to summon eager sex workers for jamaharon.

Nevertheless, it’s hardly accurate to suggest that Star Trek never offered a politically progressive vision or that positing a bright future inherently precluded it from doing so. Despite TNG’s various flaws, it did manage to consistently esteem the cross-cultural (and cross-species) encounter in ways that were not simply self-righteous but hopeful and broadly inclusionary. In “Darmok”, one of the series most beloved episodes, the Enterprise makes contact with the Tamarians, a mysterious and long-isolated alien race who communicate only through metaphors derived from their ancient myths. Picard is transported to the surface of the nearby planet along with Dathon, the leader of the Tamarian ship, where they are menaced by an alien creature. Unable to communicate with Dathon, Picard is initially confused but soon learns that he is part of an elaborate diplomatic ritual intended to connect the two peoples. Picard eventually gets the hang of the argot and, in the end, staves off a skirmish between the Enterprise and the Tamarians after Dathon is killed. In a moving testament to the value of the encounter with the Other, the episode honours the rewards of reaching beyond one’s cultural barriers. Additionally, in thinking the possibility of such an encounter with peaceful and beneficial outcomes, TNG looks ahead to a future in which differences are not so insurmountable.

It’s also difficult to overstate how extensively DS9, the high-water mark of the franchise’s social imagination, took up issues of indigeneity, colonialism and racism. In “Far Beyond the Stars”, one of the show’s most incisive episodes, Captain Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks), emotionally exhausted and on the verge of leaving his post, has a vision of himself as Benny Russell, a struggling African American science fiction writer in the 1950s. Beaten by racist police and thwarted by a callow editor, Russell has a nervous breakdown when his short story about a Black space station captain in the twenty-fourth century is pulped. While the episode is remarkable for foregrounding racism and police violence sans alien metaphor, it also raises the issue of the progressive nature of science fiction’s utopian project. Russell’s story, essentially an Afrofuturist text, uses the framework of science fiction to critique the racist culture of the day while aspiring toward a more radical one. It’s important to understand that such a device is not merely wish-fulfilment but the twinning of social analysis and political optimism that actively pursues the egalitarian world it envisions. Of course, such was also arguably the project of DS9 itself and frequently of TNG, series whose progressive outlook lay in positing that a more ethical and communal world was possible.

Concerning the broad political differences among Star Trek series, it must be conceded that Discovery debuted during a period of global crisis and that this is strongly reflected in the show’s themes. The litany of contemporary catastrophes—political impasses, climate change, violence around the world, Brexit, Trump—certainly do make thoughts of any future, let alone a utopian one, difficult and the show’s decision to explicitly foreground them is more than admirable. The problem, however, lies in the Discovery’s substantially restricted worldview that forsakes political community and locates xenophobia with the Other rather than within privileged societies.

Given these issues and the progressivism of Star Trek’s post-Cold War period, the confidence with which Bady celebrates Discovery’s renunciation of utopian thought is unwarranted. While utopianism can, as Jameson suggests, be troubled by the intrusion of wish-fulfillment, it is by no means a compromised genre and can certainly engage in progressive work just as effectively as strict analyses of the present. For all their faults, DS9 and TNG remain remarkable for the ways in which they foresee an era in which community and plurality are universally esteemed. While Discovery may overcome its initial missteps to offer more nuanced portraits of prejudice, we ought not to forget the remarkable things the franchise has already accomplished.


James Rushing Daniel

James Rushing Daniel is a lecturer in the Interdisciplinary Writing Program at the University of Washington. His work focuses on issues of agency and inequality at the intersection of writing studies, rhetorical theory and critical theory. His research has appeared in College English, Philosophy and Rhetoric and Composition Studies.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, October 31st, 2017.