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Revisiting an old favourite in the new Star Trek: Discovery

When I lived in the United States in the 1980s I had the luxury of being able to catch at least two episodes of the original Star Trek — with Captain Kirk, Mr Spock, “Beam-me-up-Scottie” and Leonard “Bones” McCoy, the medical doctor — every evening in-between working on a philosophical project at Yale University. These brainchildren of Gene Roddenberry were invariably broadcast on different channels of cable television, and were very popular at the time. Since then I have kept track of the feature film spin-offs of the franchise, but never imagined that a seventh series would arrive on the scene until I recently discovered the first season of Star Trek: Discovery — a (prequel) series that was launched by CBS in 2017, and the fourth season of which was recently confirmed.

The action is set about a decade before that of the original series, and instead of focusing on the captain of a ship — as was the case with Kirk —  this time the focal character is a black woman bearing a man’s name, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), who was raised by Vulcans according to their idiosyncratic logic-oriented ethos. Needless to say, this already makes for some dramatic confrontations between her and other humans who are more emotionally driven.

I don’t want to spoil the narrative of the series’ first season for prospective viewers, so I won’t relate the events that lead to Michael — who starts out being the commander (i.e. second-in-command) of a starship — being invited, as a prisoner in transit, to join the crew of the starship Discovery by its captain, Lorca. At any rate, having demonstrated her intellectual prowess on several occasions on the Discovery, she is offered the position, on the bridge, of scientific specialist.

Rather than the quasi-picaresque structure of the original Star Trek episodes as largely stand-alone, the narrative here takes its course within the context of a war with the Klingons — one that was triggered in the first episode. That does not prevent the crew of the Discovery from living up to the signature characteristic first introduced by the show’s creator, Roddenberry, namely what I would call its exploration of otherness — not only the otherness of the chief enemy humanoid species — the Klingons — or that of allied species under the aegis of the United Federation of Planets, such as Vulcans (such as Commander Spock), however.  

Those people today, who are promoting the acceptance of otherness at various levels — cultural, racial, gender-related — would find in Star Trek, and particularly Star Trek: Discovery, an exemplar of the exploration of forms of otherness most people have never dreamed of, as well as of divergent ways to act in unison with, or towards (peaceful or, alternatively, inimical) others. This starts on the Discovery itself, which has a more diverse crew than any Star Trek series before it — for example, it is the first time that the producers have not shied away from openly introducing viewers to gay relationships between prominent characters in the series, and, as far as I recall, allowing viewers a glimpse of sexual encounters.

Confronting viewers

In this respect Star Trek: Discovery reminds me of another personal favourite television series, on which I have written here before, namely, the bio-science-fiction series, Sense8 — the creation of the Wachowski transgender sisters, Lana and Lily, which has taken the exploration and acceptance of otherness to a new level. Although Sense8’s exploration of alterity and of ways to rid it of the stigma attached to it through most of the history of modernity, is executed very differently from that of Star Trek: Discovery, their modal differences notwithstanding, each series excels at confronting viewers with, and either modifying or reinforcing, cultural and other prejudices in the process, depending on the tenacity of the ideological commitments on the part of viewers.

To illustrate: I cannot imagine Donald Trump supporters (or members of the EFF, by the same token) who seem ready to destroy fellow human beings, specifically democratic supporters of Joe Biden, being enamoured of the otherness-oriented iconography and narrative bent of either of these exceptional series. 

I believe that Sense8 was discontinued in the United States for a related reason: its ratings fell so drastically that Netflix brought it to a premature close. Why? Because (I’m willing to bet) the many conservative viewers in America could not stand the narrative promotion of sensitivity towards, and acceptance of, all the different genders on the planet, in addition to a wholly different (albeit fictitious) new human species, Homo and Gyna Sensorium.

Add to this the fact that Lana Wachowski did not pull her producer-directorial punches when it came to the on-screen depiction of gay, transgender and heterosexual sexual interactions — there is one scene where viewers can share visually in an encompassing “love-in” involving all the focal “sensates” and their partners, which is decidedly not for the sexually faint of heart. 

Therefore, unless one is predisposed towards a receptivity for a diversity of human beings interacting at many levels in Sense8 — and beyond that, in Star Trek: Discovery, a multiplicity of living beings at animal as well as vegetative levels — I cannot see anyone appreciating the sheer depth and breadth of vision represented by both these admirable series. 

Species inventiveness 

Returning to Star Trek: Discovery, the imaginative varieties of “others” are not restricted to diverse humanoid species; it extends far beyond that to other species, such as space tardigrades modelled on the actual, eight-legged micro-animals that live on earth, that have been described as the animals “that will outlive us all”. The fictional space-counterpart of these hardy creatures looks the same, except that it is gigantic compared to its terrestrial cousins, and its claws and teeth are awe-inspiring armaments, as the Klingons and humans learn when they encounter it.

And yet Burnham, when instructed by Captain Lorca to examine it and find out how to “weaponise” it in the war against the Klingons, discovers that  — far from being the fearsome predator it appears to be  —  it is quite placid, except when it feels threatened and then it becomes a mobile demolition squad. Cutting to the relevant part  —  it turns out that the space tardigrade travels the universe searching for mycelium spores, on which it lives. In one scene Burnham feeds it some of these, and it gives her what seems like an affectionate tardigrade lick.

The species-inventiveness does not end there. In one episode viewers meet a “space whale’  —  a rare, protected species that the captain is obliged, on the advice of Burnham, to bring aboard to rescue it  —  only to discover (no doubt as a kind of “intertextual” reference to the story of Jonah and the whale in the Bible) that the space whale harbours an unexpected “guest”.

Explorations of otherness

This episode is one of several that addresses the enigmatic issue of time travel  —  another realm of otherness (of experience, in this case) explored by Star Trek: Discovery, and one that foregrounds just how, mostly unreflectively, we are grounded in familiar temporal territory, where what is past is past, what is present, present, and what is future is future. This familiar temporal domain is scrambled by the science-fictional inventiveness of the series, leaving viewers somewhat confused at times, to say the least.

But perhaps the most mundane of its explorations of otherness pertains to the character of Burnham, who  —  as observed earlier  —  was raised by pointy-eared, green-blooded Vulcans (remember the late Leonard Nimoy’s Mr Spock in the original Star Trek?). Some of you may recall that there was always a bit of tension between Mr Spock and William Shatner’s Captain Kirk, where Spock adopted a strictly “logical”, unemotional stance towards all problems, whereas Kirk always allowed his human emotionality a share in decision making.

As might be expected, Burnham, having been raised as a Vulcan, thinks and acts like one, in stark contrast to the humans (and other species) on the Discovery. Confronted by this contrast, viewers are offered a mirror in which to either recognise themselves in the emotion- and feeling-oriented individuals, or in the very different personality of Burnham, a woman whose masculine name already indicates that there is something “other” about her.

The fact that she is beautifully portrayed by a black actress is highly relevant: it bears on the need for black viewers to perceive black characters with whom they can identify, which is made easier by the fact that many black people still find themselves in a position, today, that is not that different from that of Burnham on the Discovery. After all, just like Burnham, who experiences herself as being different from other humans and sometimes acts awkwardly as a result, many people of colour experience the same thing in a world that is still dominantly structured according to western, or “white” standards. Iconic representation of a black character — here, in a television series — provides black viewers (and, for that matter, other viewers who experience themselves as comparably “other”) with a salutary locus of identification.

And this is not to be sneezed at.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier is an honorary professor of philosophy at the University of the Free State, South Africa. As well as philosophy, he engages in productive explorations of disciplines such as architectural and psychoanalytical theory and film studies

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