* reviews of things i found on (mostly) netflix *
* now with spoilers *
I don’t usually comment on ongoing series, because it’s difficult to evaluate something that hasn’t finished its story yet, but in this case I want to look at just the first episode of Season Three of Star Trek: Discovery (now streaming on CBS-All Access).
Without wanting to give too many spoilers, let me sum up briefly: the Discovery has been obliged to follow their science officer into a time-wormhole to the distant future for the good of all creation; the ship will never be able to come back to its original time. For her part, the science officer (Michael) has had to go through the wormhole separately, landing in a time and space that might end up being far removed from the final destination of her ship and crew. She must ascertain where/when she is, and reach out to people with no particular ability to defend herself, no awareness of current politics or social dynamics, and no knowledge of the intervening history that she has missed. She’s cut off from everything and everyone she knew, she has few resources, and it turns out that the Federation to which she has given so much has apparently collapsed – only a few individuals, scattered across the galaxy, remain who still serve the Federation’s ideals.
Michael immediately begins educating herself about current events and works skillfully to gain resources and stability. She also vows to uphold the ideals of the Federation, and to rebuild it if possible into a beacon for the unity of diverse peoples everywhere.
This episode – and the stated intentions of its principle character – resonated deeply with me for two reasons.
First, as a long-time avid Star Trek viewer – since before birth, technically – I have grown up with the notions that people so different from us that they’re not even human beings are somehow still equal, valuable beings; that interaction with people different from myself makes for an exciting life; that at our heart, most living creatures just want to live and make little creatures; and that most of the time – most of the time – discord and hostility stem from misunderstandings and miscommunication that can easily be addressed if both sides are willing to talk about it. I’ve grown up with those ‘Federation ideals’ of discovery, learning, exploration and connection. I’ve grown up with the belief that we can go out into the universe and experience a billion things without hurting anyone, and that if people ask for help (and if we can give that help) then we are obligated to help. Of course, even in the context of the Star Trek world, there’s no room for naivety – there are plenty of enemies to go around, plenty of people who aren’t willing to sit and talk about it, plenty of ways that life can go wrong, and a thousand instances of the vicissitudes of history. Even if things are wrapped up in an hour-long episode, there’s no promise that everything is a bleeping bowl of cherries; even when things have been a certain way for generations, the Star Trek world is full of changes and pivots and unexpected occurrences. It’s full of, well, people, doing people things that sometimes don’t make sense and often are at someone else’s expense. One of the ‘Federation ideals’ I internalized even as a child was that the goal of the Federation was to keep trying even if it was difficult, and to stay true to values even when they’re tested.
So of course when Michael decides without hesitation to continue the Federation’s mission – even though many have forgotten it the way we’ve forgotten glass records – it was just another example of Star Trek characters doing what they always do: using the Federation as an umbrella label for their true mission of learning everything they can to make the world – the galaxy – a better place than they found it.
Second, I watched this season premiere during extremely challenging times. We’re in the midst of a global pandemic. We’ve had – and are still having – wildfires that not only consume the forests around them but also the creatures that lived there; homes (and livelihoods) that took decades to build have been erased in moments, and the air for hundreds of miles around is clogged with smoke. In my country (and some others), civil unrest has intensified dramatically, robbing people of their sense of control and safety in a time when they were already being tested. In a lot of ways the world has been on fire, and it’s often seemed like things are flushing down a big ol’ toilet.
Compared to this reality, Michael’s ‘tribulations’ of getting a history lesson and some futuristic weapons don’t seem particularly relevant … but they are.
In one hour, we see her go through everything we’ve been going through: she faces strange creatures that try to eat her, enemies against whom she has never done anything and cannot effectively fight, the loss of everything she’s ever known with very little hope of returning, and a galaxy that is now rife with civil and interplanetary upheaval. Factions vie for power and individuals struggle against societally dictated life-paths, while endangered lifeforms and ecosystems are threatened by greed, corruption and general chaos. She has to find clues in a ‘past’ she wasn’t there for, and try to make something new from the discarded ashes of her former home.
So she falls back on those ideals – the ones I grew up watching and believing in – and gets started.
Does she cry about it? Of course. Is it what she wants to have to do, what she wants to have to go through? Not at all. Does she even have hope? It’s hard to tell, because she’s a very reserved person, but she certainly doesn’t have any reason to hope that her individual efforts will reach such a huge goal.
But that’s not the point.
Star Trek has never been about easy. It’s never been about sunshine and rainbows. It’s certainly never been about achieving some kind of irreversible utopia. All it’s ever been about is belief in peaceful exploration for the benefit of all. All it’s ever shown is the kind of world/galaxy we could have if we’re willing to work for it. Nothing has ever been a given. No one’s ever been invulnerable. People don’t just all hold hands and sing Kumbaya. But what we’ve called ‘ideals’ here has been their way of life; we’ve watched them sacrifice even their lives for it.
And one of the purposes of story-telling is to help the audience see how to proceed, how to do what is right, how to be the best people we can be. In this way, fictional stories can be extremely important, especially to a world on fire.
On one hand, this season premiere of Discovery suggests that you can’t have a phoenix without the ashes … and on the other hand, it reminds us that where there are ashes there can be a phoenix.
Overall, a very good beginning to a new Discovery story, a very good example of human possibility, and a very good image of hope and renewal for those of us who feel beset on all sides.
10 out of 10