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 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.
This is an entry for the Insecure Writers’ Support Group, a way for writers to discuss their writing anxieties. It cross-posts on each others’ blogs on the first Wednesday of each month.
In my writing I wander a lot around different genres, but the one that I’m most strongly attached to (as you might suspect from my blog’s name) is science fiction. The thing I’ve always loved about the genre is the scale and sense of escapism. Classic science fiction has always dealt with really big ideas – Isaac Asimov’s Foundation saga is about the collapse of a corrupt empire and the people trying to replace the chaos with something better. Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 is about how Humanity will cope with contact from alien races who are beyond our comprehension. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is about the creation of a new form of life, and the moral responsibilities involved. Great science fiction takes what could be dry academic discussions and breathes life into them, making them real.
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.
Rick and Morty has a setup that’s an obvious play of the one in Back to the Future, with an elderly genius inventor supported by his teenage assistant. The style of humour is probably best explained by comparing it to Monty Python – mixing smart and dumb humour, the profound and the silly – with an added streak of nihilism.
Rick Sanchez is referred to several times as the smartest man in the universe, and he’s not shy about his brilliance. There’s a long-running pop culture association between intelligence and arrogance. Tony Stark, Gregory House, Gaius Baltar, Sherlock‘s Sherlock, Sheldon Cooper. There are public figures who play up to this idea by acting dismissively to ideas that clash with their own – Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Bill Maher, almost any of the main hosts on Fox News. I think it’s only in recent decades that this idea of arrogance and intelligence being intertwined has become so dominant, but celebrations of this personality type goes back as far as Winston Churchill and Oscar Wilde, possibly further. It’s been argued that the fact people associate arrogance and intelligence could be one of the reasons behind Donald Trump’s presidential victory, which makes sense. How else can you explain a candidate saying “I have the best words“, “my primary consultant is myself“, “I’m much more humble than you would understand” and still be taken seriously? Continue reading “The Arrogant Stupidity of Rick Fanboys”
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.
Semiotics, in brief, is the study of how we construct meaning. For example the phrase ‘green light’ has a meaning beyond a literal green light – it can be used metaphorically as giving permission to go ahead. Even if you’re not familiar with them, you won’t be surprised to learn that the Lorde song Green Light and the Ting Tings song Traffic Light are not about literal lights.
Ferdinand de Saussure wrote about the relationship between a ‘signifier’ and ‘signified’ – the sign and the thing it represents. So a nuclear waste sign is not dangerous itself, but signifies that radioactive material is inside a container, or nearby. Similarly a lit green light is associated with the abstract concept of going, and a red light with the abstract concept of stopping.
Semiotics can be confusing – I’ve studied it at university level and still find a lot of de Saussure and Roland Barthes mind-bending – but it’s a process that almost all of us have a basic understanding of on a subconscious level. We make sense of these signifiers on a daily basis without really thinking about it.