Film & Television Opinion

Mythos in Star Trek Discovery 1.14: The War Without, the War Within

This blogpost is focused on looking at how The War Without, The War Within, the fourteenth episode of Star Trek: Discovery fits into the events and themes of the previously established universe. I’ve written similar blogposts looking at each previous episode (you can read the first here, and a full list under the Star Trek Discovery tag).

Surgical Alterations in Star Trek

It had been confirmed four episodes earlier that Tyler is really Voq, surgically and mentally altered to appear Human, but in this episode the viewer gets more of an insight into the process than had previously been the case. Tyler tells Saru that the process cracked his bones open, reduced the size of his heart and shaved down the tips of his fingers. He reveals that the Klingons refer to the process as a “species reassignment protocol”, which grounds the process in the language of real world sex reassignment surgery. In a previous recap I mentioned Arne Darvin, who in an episode of TOS replaces a Federation diplomat’s assistant. A 2007 comic depicted Darvin’s quite graphic transformation, which overlaps with what Tyler describes.

Star Trek Blood Will Tell

This is a bit of a staple in Star Trek, generally referred to using the vague phrase ‘surgically altered’. In some of the more notable previous cases Troi was surgically altered to appear Romulan; Neelix was altered to appear Ferengi; Sisko, O’Brien and Odo were surgically altered into Klingons; Quark was even given a sex change at one point. This appears to have become a relatively routine procedure by the 2360s – Riker was given forehead bumps and webbed hands for a mission to a pre-warp planet;
and Riker and Troi were altered for contact with the Mintakans, a medieval society. A TOS episode has an Orion being surgically altered to appear Andorian as part of a plot to sabotage a diplomatic mission on Kirk’s Enterprise, and in another McCoy cosmetically alters Kirk to appear Romulan…which appears to mean applying some makeup to his eyebrows.

The details of what this procedure means have been kept vague over the years. Presumably Sisko and Odo weren’t given the extra internal organs Klingons possess, and hopefully Quark wasn’t given a womb, but the details were kept to a minimum as far as the viewer was concerned. We’ve had a few insights into the process. Seska, a Cardassian infiltrator into Chakotay’s Maquis sect, was surgically altered to appear Bajoran, and during the beginning of her time on Voyager, she avoided medical appointments. When she couldn’t put them off any longer it was immediately obvious that she was really Cardassian. It required a detailed scan for Culber to work out that Tyler was really Voq, which suggests that the process Voq went through was much more full-on than later Federation and Cardassian practices. But you wouldn’t expect half-measures from the Klingons.

Attitudes Toward Tyler

The different attitudes characters show towards Tyler give different examples of the nature of mercy and justice. Saru appears forgiving – restricting Tyler’s movements around the ship, but not limiting him to the brig. Stamets is angry, almost taunting, asking him whether he remembers the action of killing Culber, and “does it sicken you?”

There is immediate awkwardness in the Mess Hall when Tyler enters, broken with Tilly moving over to sit with him. But having the rest of the crew come over to join them was too big a sign of forgiveness, in my view. Tyler had had blackouts. He knew that something was wrong with him, but he failed to report for a full examination, afraid of what it would uncover – he neglected his duty as a Starfleet officer. That negligence resulted in Culber’s death, and Burnham nearly being killed by Voq. I think it’s legitimate to place the blame for Culber’s death and the later attack on Voq rather than Tyler…but that still leaves room to classify Tyler’s inaction as manslaughter.

Tyler’s situation reminds me of the arc at the beginning of season 6 of DS9. It saw the station under occupation by the Dominion – vacated by Starfleet but still staffed by civilians and Bajoran personnel. A resistance cell grew, but Odo neglected his duties, seduced instead by the Female Changeling at the head of the Dominion. I don’t think there was sufficient consequences for Odo – in terms of damaged relationships with his friends – relative to his actions. The coldness between Tyler and Burnham is a sign that DIS will properly explore this.

The Klingon Homeworld

There’s a few references in this episode to the Klingon homeworld of Qo’nos/Kronos (It seems that both names are considered legitimiate spellings, in a Gadhafi/Qadaffi type of situation.) Cornwell mentions that Captain Archer was the last Federation visitor to the Klingon homeworld, probably referring to his visit in the first episode of ENT. (Cornwell says that the visit was almost a century ago – it was actually 106 years earlier, but that’s likely an error.)

Aside from its appearance in Into Darkness (set in a slightly different timeline), every time its been shown on screen Qo’nos has been gloomy and overcast, so Sarek’s description of the planet as having a “dense upper atmosphere” fits with what we’ve seen in the 24th and 22nd centuries. Qo’nos was first seen onscreen in the TNG episode Sins of the Father, and again repeatedly during the 2360s and 2370s. Picard, Worf, Sisko and even Quark make numerous trips to Qo’nos over the course of TNG and DS9, so we know that the planet itself will survive the events of the season finale rather than becoming a “blackened mass of dust” as it has in the Mirror Universe.

First City, the imaginatively named capital of Qo’nos. / Image from Memory Alpha.

Klingon Beds

Cornwell half-ironically apologises to L’Rell for the discomfort of her prison cell. In the TNG episode Unification a Klingon bird-of-prey commander, transporting Data and Picard, tells the latter that “we do not soften our bodies by putting down a pad”. Given that L’Rell is a physically tougher version of the Klingons than the second version that we saw in the TNG era, it seems likely that she’ll cope with the worst that Starfleet has to offer.

Honour Across Races

We see a little more of the respect between Cornwell and L’Rell in this episode. Both are honorable, hard-headed warrior women, and the respect for their fellow warriors is apparent despite the conflict between races. In the decades following DIS Curzon Dax – a Trill diplomat – will be so highly respected by Klingons that he will be the godfather to the son of the prominent Klingon Kang, and after her marriage to Worf, Jadzia Dax will join the House of Martok – the House headed by one of the Empire’s leading generals. Even more impressively, in 2367 Picard will serve as Arbiter Of Succession – a prominent role requiring a neutral and respected person to oversee the choice of the next Emperor of the Klingon Empire.

Genesis of The Genesis Project?

Earlier in the season, following the third episode of DIS I speculated that the mysterious project that Stamets was keeping secret from Burnham may be the Genesis Project – the terraforming technology that forms the backbone of the second and third Star Trek films. In this episode part of an arid moon is quickly terraformed using technology fired down from orbit – which is how the Genesis Device is deployed. It’s possible that we could see the roots of the Genesis Project feature in a future episode of DIS.

The Secret Mirror

Sarek reveals that the Federation has decided to classify the existence of the Mirror Universe, in case citizens try to use the idea in order to reunite with lost loved ones. In an episode of DS9 in which Bashir and Kira discuss Kirk’s journey to the Mirror Universe, Bashir says that he “read about it at the academy”, so the existence of the Mirror Universe will eventually become common knowledge throughout the Federation.

More importantly, the idea that Federation citizens can’t be trusted with this knowledge seems to challenge the founding idea of Star Trek as a franchise…that Humanity is more socially evolved, and has moved beyond the darker sides of what we currently are. The decision to classify the Mirror Universe’s existence suggests that the Federation Council don’t have that level of faith in ordinary people yet. It echoes the common scifi trope of alien life being classified because ordinary people would panic at the consequences of this idea. It’s an interesting variation on the themes of trust and cooperation that have been prominent throughout the first season of DIS.

The Philosophy of War

Grand-scale wars don’t only threaten the enemy from the outside, they threaten to change the nation from within. A prominent real world example of this is World War Two – the rise of European fascism gave ammunition to fascists such as Charles Lindbergh and the German American Bund in America and Oswald Mosley in Britain, who argued that their nations had to abandon democracy and embrace fascism in order to compete. Though these can be dismissed as fringe elements, America organised the rounding up of all citizens of Japanese descent – the nation became more fascistic as a result of the outside threat.

The Dominion War will have a similar effect on the Federation – Admiral Leyton and his supporters felt that imposing martial law on Earth was necessary in order to prevent infiltration by the shapeshifting Founders.

The secretive Section 31 will concoct a plan to poison the Founders with a disease which, were it not for the interference of Julian Bashir, would lead to the extinction of their race. Despite Bashir, O’Brien and Sisko’s horror at the Section 31 plot to wipe out the Founders, I don’t think there was much of an on-screen debate around the pragmatism of the plan. The Dominion War is ended when the Founders are told that the Federation has a cure for their disease, so it seems that the plan gave the Federation a valuable negotiating chip. But the Founders had always been indifferent to the lives of ‘solids’. In the final episodes of DS9 the Female Changeling was shown as believing the end of her people was inevitable, and being willing to take down the whole Alpha Quadrant with them. If Section 31 hadn’t infected them with the disease perhaps their leadership would have been less nihilistic, and fewer lives would have been lost on both sides?

Mirror-Georgiou’s offer to Sarek – complete with referring to the Klingons as “cancer cells” and talking about how Qo’nos in her universe is a “blackened mass of dust” was effectively her pitching the genocide of the Klingon people – an event which would have consequences on how the Federation is perceived for centuries. Of course an attack on Klingon military bases would be morally justifiable, but will Cornwell, Sarek and the crew of the Discovery be able to hold an experienced conqueror like Mirror-Georgiou to account? Or will she attempt to strike a fatal blow, so that the Klingon homeworld in the Prime Universe is similar to the “blackened mass of dust” she knows in her own universe?

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

This week a review on the AV Club has argued that “the hardest artistic decision on Star Trek: Discovery to justify is the fact that it’s a prequel series”.

It’s a common criticism of DIS, but one I disagree with massively. The mycelial network has had a ‘mad science’ vibe from the start, which I think is enhanced by the knowledge that this won’t become a widely used Starfleet technology. The more the technology offers, the bigger the downside or downsides that are eventually revealed has to be in order to counterbalance it.

Similarly the conflict with the Klingons adds weight to the conflicts between Starfleet and the Klingons in the TOS era. This applies especially to The Undiscovered Country – the addition of this horrific war to the characters’ backstory makes the efforts to find common ground all the more impressive. Most crucially, by setting the series in an era when the ideals of the Federation haven’t totally taken hold – a “failed experiment” according to the bomber who tried to kill Sarek earlier in the season – the series positions its protagonists in a similar situation to ourselves in the real world. The viewer knows that the Federation will achieve peace with the Klingons, but the crew don’t. In the real world we can’t say for certain whether utopian projects like the United Nations will prevent future wars, but Star Trek remains a challenge to the viewer, encouraging us to embrace our most idealistic self.

If Discovery were to be set in a time after the TNG era when the Federation have lost their way (as was the idea of an undeveloped series in the 00s) then there would still be the memory of what the Federation was as proof that its idealism is achievable. As it is, for the characters of DIS, the peaceful, respectful Federation of the TNG era is still as much a pipe dream as it is for us, something to work towards, something which, for all they know, may not be achievable.

In a sense what’s at stake here isn’t whether Starfleet will commit some unforgivable act in their desperation, but how the gulf between the Federation and Klingon Empire will be bridged. The sixth Star Trek film, The Undiscovered Country, centred around a Federation-Klingon peace conference in 2293 but was released during the fifth series of TNG, set more than seventy years later. The stakes then were not over whether peace would be achieved but how – and the same is true for the upcoming episode. Perhaps the crew of the Discovery will consider it necessary to strike harshly at military targets to give the Klingons a bloody nose – a ‘Vulcan hello’. Perhaps the threat alone can enough. Perhaps a more traditional diplomatic solution can be found.

I’ve been watching Star Trek in it’s various incarnations for well over twenty years, and I’ve never felt as much anticipation for an upcoming film or episode as I do for the DIS finale.

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