Black Panther is both a commercial and critical success, currently sitting at the top of the US weekly movie charts, and set to become the most financially successful Marvel Cinematic Universe movie. I’d argue that Black Panther sits alongside Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica and the Culture novels as a great example of middlebrow science fiction – accessible and fun but smart enough that it offers more than just spectacle. Here are the reasons why.
This blogpost is focused on looking at how What’s Past is Prologue, the sixth 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).
The Terran Empire’s toxic approach to the mycelial network is essentially a fossil fuel metaphor. Whereas the Prime Universe crew are conscientious about doing as little damage as possible, the Charon’s mycelial power core poisons the wider mycelial network while drawing power from it. Saru to be shocked by the Terran Empire’s short-sightedness, given that the process means that eventually, in Stamets’ words, “life as we know it will cease to exist”.
This recklessness works as a parallel to the real-world use of fossil fuels. Despite its hippyish idealism, the Star Trek franchise hasn’t touched on climate change and environmentalism as often as might be expected. The most notable exception is the TNG episode Force of Nature – built on the premise that warp engines damage areas of space which have excessive warp travel, an issue which isn’t revisited on-screen. (I’ve read that the reason Voyager’s warp nacelles physically rise before the ship goes to warp is to counter this effect, though I’m not sure whether this is canonical.) The climax of What’s Past Is Prologue implies that this analogy won’t be immediately revisited, but it’s a storytelling device that DIS could reuse in future.
This blogpost is focused on looking at how Lethe, the sixth 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).
The Pseudoscience of Star Trek’s Parallel Universes
The TNG episode Parallels has Worf travelling through parallel universes .On his way back to the Enterprise from a holiday, Worf’s shuttle passes through a “quantum fissure“, which causes a “quantum flux” in Worf’s cellular RNA. As a result throughout the episode when Worf is close to Geordi La Forge, a “quantum field pulse” that Geordi’s visor sends out, interacting with Worf’s altered state, pushes him into the body of himself in a slightly different parallel universe. During this process Data confirms Worf’s account by noting that his ‘quantum signature’ is different to the rest of the crew – a line repeated in Despite Yourself.
These shifts are very subtle at first. The first Worf notices being that Picard shows up unexpectedly at a party. These differences become more divergent from the main timeline, until Worf ends up in a timeline where Captain Riker commands the Enterprise, Worf is his first officer, and Wesley Crusher is a member of the senior crew.
The coincidences of the Mirror Universe often seem incredibly unlikely – same people, children of the same parents, serving on the same ship…even though the fundamental philosophy of their society is different. But using Worf’s example justifies this. In a multiverse of infinite possibilities, he travels first to those universes most like his own, getting further and further away, but never too different. (He is always serving on the Enterprise, never anywhere else.)
Perhaps the Mirror Universe has a few big differences in it’s ‘quantum signature’ but is otherwise similar to our own, which makes it easier to access than some others. If you think of it in terms of magic rather than hard science, it works. I doubt that any of this has anything to do with the real theoretical science behind parallel universes, by Hugh Everett and others. It’s probably best to think of this level of ‘science’ in the same manner as magic – what matters is that it serves the story and is internally consistent.
(Incidentally, Burnham refers to the ‘mirror Discovery’ which I think is the first textual mention of the term ‘mirror’ in relation to the mirror universe.) There’s certainly no mention of the term in Mirror, Mirror – the TOS episode which introduced this timeline.
This blogpost is focused on looking at how Lethe, the sixth 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 the fifth here).
Science, Magic and Spirituality
Arthur C. Clarke famously claimed that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. The genres of science fiction and fantasy overlap a great deal in practice, with the ‘science’ in scifi being so advanced and unexplained that it may as well be magic. Star Trek has generally been more solidly scientific than Star Wars or Doctor Who, but there are beings like Q and the Squire of Gothos who are so highly evolved that they effectively play the same role the gods did in Greek mythology. On a smaller scale, an important part of series 6 of DS9 is the concept of ‘self-replicating mines’, which realistically would need to draw an enormous amount of energy from the vacuum of space in order to replace themselves. The scientific accuracy in any work of science fiction will be limited by the writers’ scientific knowledge and imagination, and the audience’s ability to understand. The story is more important than getting the jargon right, and that will mean some compromise.
Probably the most magical aspect of Star Trek mythos is the katra – the Vulcan idea of the soul. In The Wrath of Khan Spock incapacitates McCoy and instructs him to “remember” before entering Engineering to perform an operation which he knows will irradiate his body. After Spock ‘dies’ and his body is jettisoned, Kirk and crew learn that Spock’s katra is inside McCoy, prompting them to steal a ship to search for Spock’s body, and reunite it with his soul.
This potentially raises some interesting questions – what happens if Spock had survived the process, but had become separated from McCoy? Does this mean what’s probably the most iconic speech in the franchise (“The needs of the many” and “I have been and always shall be, your friend”) was delivered not by Spock, but by an empty husk, an echo of who he is? The location of Spock’s katra is either a plotpoint that we shouldn’t think about too much (like the self-replicating mines) or an interesting philosophical question.
This blogpost is focused on looking at how Choose Your Pain, the fifth 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 the fourth here.
Sometimes Down is Up
For the third time in five episodes we begin by viewing things from an unusual perspective, in this case a dream sequence in the halls of Discovery. (The Vulcan Hello begins by moving through a star cluster and through T’Kuvma’s eye; The Butcher’s Knife begins inside a replicator.) Approaching the familiar from odd angles and re-examining what we thought we knew appears to be a key theme for the show.
For example, Discovery draws on Lower Decks, the TNG episode which followed junior officers rather than the senior crew. After three episodes on Discovery we know very little about Airiam, (the android or cyborg who seems to be Discovery’s second officer) and Culber refers in this episode to “the CMO” implying that he is not the ship’s Chief Medical Officer. Normally all of the senior crew would be introduced in the opening episode, and be the focus of the show.
Similarly, it’s unusual to get the viewpoint of a non-Starfleet Human who’s expressedly against the actions of Starfleet. From across the whole franchise I can only think of Harry Mudd, Carol and David Marcus, Joseph Sisko, and you could arguably include Michael Eddington and Mortimer Harren on that list. Breakthroughs in science and diplomacy often require a shift in perspective, such as Stamets’ observation that (in Star Trek science) physics and biology are fundamentally the same. Discovery appears to be encouraging the viewer to look at the familiar from a fresh angle.
This blogpost is focused on looking at how the Star Trek: Discovery episode The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry fits into the events and themes of the previously established universe. I’ve written a similar blogposts looking at previous episodes and one specifically looking at how The Vulcan Hello explores how phrases can have different layers of meaning to different groups.
Inside the Replicator
The episode opens with bursts of energy shooting up and down from the top and bottom of an undefined area, in a way that reminded me of the Badlands, a Maquis stronghold featured frequently in DS9 and in the opening of Voyager. My instinct was that this was going to be either the Badlands itself or a similar region of space that Discovery was moving through. (In Star Trek science, I think these are known as plasma storms.) But we zoom out to reveal that this is the process of Michael Burnham’s uniform being replicated – I assume this is the first time we’ve seen the process on such a microscopic level. It’s a similar trick to how the series began, with T’kuvma monologuing as the viewpoint moved through the stars, before transitioning into his eye and moving out to a room of Klingons. Given that the mycelial network that the Discovery navigates has been described as a microscopic web, and that the show has drawn attention to the importance of context to understand different mindsets, the opening is a quick reminder of the show’s themes – that sometimes up is down, and nothing should be taken for granted.
This blogpost is focused on looking at how the Star Trek Discovery episode Context is for Kings fits into the events and themes of the previously established universe. I’ve written a similar blogpost looking at the first two episodes, and one specifically looking at how The Vulcan Hello explores how phrases can have different layers of meaning to different groups.
The Future is an Undiscovered Country
In a throwaway line, Captain Gabriel Lorca seems to regret that “the future happened”, which affected his family’s restaurant. This kind of thing is, to me, one of the best arguments for continuing the Star Trek franchise. We’ve seen Star Trek‘s utopian vision before, but contextualised against the Cold War and the ‘end of history’ period of the 1990s, never contextualised against the real world of the 2010s.
In the real world we’re currently going through a period of ‘digital disruption’ with new technologies throwing old business models into chaos. Think of taxi firms facing the challenge of Uber; newspapers facing the challenge of free-to-access websites. Since TOS, it’s seemed that the 23rd century Federation relies on a combination of ‘food synthesizers’ and real food, suggesting that this is a period of disruptive innovation. In England of the 1810s innovations in weaving technology allowed owners to increase their profit margins and put many workers on the scrapheap – resulting in the Luddite movement.
If Lorca is to be considered reliable, then among the victims of the disruptive innovation in the 23rd century are restaurant owners. Perhaps fewer people are eating out, preferring to eat at home, as is the case with cinemas in real life? Perhaps the end of food scarcity has made sales of food less profitable? I love the action-adventure side of Star Trek, but I hope the details of how Federation society functions, the winners and losers of change, are explored regularly. One of the great joys of Star Trek is the opportunity to explore what a near-utopian society would look like, and who would lose out by moving to that system.
I really enjoyed Star Trek: Discovery‘s opening two-parter, which had its premiere date on CBS and Netflix this week. One of the things that really impressed me was how the story interacted with the pre-existing Star Trek mythos. Discovery didn’t just reference familiar terms, but engaged with the key themes of the franchise, and possibly connected itself to some relatively obscure characters and moments. You can consider this blog post as the Discovery equivalent to Game of Thrones writing that explores Jon Snow’s parentage and what it potentially means for the show, but I’m mainly writing to indulge my geekiness.
Firstly, a brief explanation of how everything in the Star Trek multiverse fits together. The Original Series – Kirk, Spock and McCoy on the Enterprise’s five year mission – was set during the 2260s, and ran for three series. The Animated Series continued this mission, but it’s unclear whether all aspects of TAS are considered canonical. The first six Star Trek films are set between the 2270s and 2290s. The Next Generation – Picard, Worf and Data – begins in the 2360s. The events of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and the four TNG films take place in a 17 year period between the 2360s and 2370s. Enterprise, although produced after TNG, DS9 and VOY, was set a century before Kirk, in the 2150s – in the years immediately before the formation of the United Federation of Planets in 2161.
The Romulan Nero later travels back in time from 2387 to 2233, destroying the USS Kelvin, and establishing the Kelvin-timeline, which is the basis for the trio of films starring Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto as Kirk and Spock, set in the 2250s and 2260s.
Discovery‘s first episodes take place in 2256, a few years before TOS. The style of Discovery‘s ships appears more similar to the Kelvin-timeline than the TOS ships of the same era, but it’s set in the Prime-timeline.
The novels are not considered canonical, though they are often mined for the most interesting bits, which later make their way into episodes and films. Hikaru Sulu’s first name originates in the 1981 novel The Entropy Effect, and some aspects of Andorian culture used in Enterprise were taken from novels.
It can feel a bit sour-faced to discuss the ‘purpose’ of humour. The primary purpose of humour is, of course, to make people laugh – to help us relax, bond, and bring enjoyment to a stressful day. But in the political sphere humour has another, arguably more important role – to puncture the pomposity and propaganda of the powerful, and challenge the stories they tell about themselves.
Stephen Colbert’s performance at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner is a near-perfect example of this. In character as ‘Stephen Colbert’ (a right-wing not particularly good television propagandist) he challenged the contradictions and hypocrisies of the Bush administration, right in the heart of Washington with the world watching. The performance is hilariously funny, but also serves a useful social purpose in challenging the Bush administration’s presentation of themselves as strong and wise protectors of the American people. Really ruthless political satire of this sort draws drawing attention to the emperor’s nudity, reframing him from a strong, dynamic leader into a small, pitiful creature worthy of contempt.