‘Discovery’ May Be the ‘Star Trek’ that Gets Humanity Right

In its next chapter, the classic sci-fi series looks to clear the blind spots from its utopian vision.
‘Discovery’ May Be the ‘Star Trek’ that Gets Humanity Right
Image: Courtesy CBS Television

When Star Trek: Enterprise was canceled in 2005 for poor ratings and J. J. Abrams introduced his alternate “Kelvin timeline” for his reboot films four years later, seasoned Trek fans had cause to wonder whether they would ever again see a “canonical” television episode of their favorite fictional universe. Then, in 2015, came the announcement: CBS, which had acquired the rights to the Star Trek franchise, was creating a new series—one that would be set not in the Kelvin timeline, but in the original “Prime” universe.

Fan reaction predictably ran the gamut, from dismissive hostility to skepticism to cautious optimism. But two years later, after changes of theme and of producers, backstage dramas, and aggressive marketing, on Sunday, September 24, fans finally caught their first glimpse of Star Trek: Discovery.

Critical reviews overall have been mainly positive, and I am inclined to concur. In particular, as a Christian I am intrigued by the show’s desire to retain a form of Star Trek idealism while acknowledging the challenges posed by human frailty.

Premiering on the CBS network, but from now on airing only on their streaming site CBS All Access, Star Trek: Discovery is a prequel of sorts. It takes place ten years prior to The Original Series—a century or so before Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager, but a century after Enterprise. The debt to Enterprise is evident, not only in direct allusions but in visual nods like uniforms, aliens, and ship designs, all apparently set to transition into a more Original Series look as the show progresses.

In the premiere, “The Vulcan Hello,” the USS Shenzhou encounters a seemingly isolated ship belonging to Star Trek’s favorite warrior race, the Klingons. The crew learns that the ship’s commander, T’Kuvma (Chris Obi), plans to unite the warring Klingon houses in shared hostility toward the peace-loving Federation. Our protagonist, Shenzhou first officer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), has been burned by Klingons before and favors an aggressive approach, leading to a mutinous encounter with her previously supportive captain, Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh).

The second episode, “Battle at the Binary Stars,” aired only on CBS All Access immediately following the premiere. It picks up where the previous episode left off, presenting the ensuing combat between Klingon forces and ships from the Federation’s Starfleet.

Those who are aloof to internecine Trekkie debates would probably raise an eyebrow at the amount of lamenting and bickering and pontificating that has led up to this premiere. When Gene Roddenberry developed the first Star Trek series over 50 years ago, he created a fairly coherent “secondary world,” a future history with its own texture and rules. Four more “canonical” shows followed after, but with more than 700 episodes and 10 films, some inconsistencies were bound to emerge. Still, the faithful—and particularly some fans of the first two series—can bristle quickly at perceived continuity errors, and a sleek prequel that makes Captain Kirk’s original Enterprise look clunky was bound to draw some censure.

From the first show’s very inception, however, Roddenberry sought to pull off a tense balancing act. He wanted to write intelligent science fiction, but his first pilot was rejected as “too cerebral”; he wanted an idealistic vision of a conflict-free future, when conflict is the lifeblood of drama. The result is a curious, if often glorious, instability: a series that was often plenty exciting, but could take on heady philosophical and political themes. It launched a universe with a welcome emphasis on transcending difference that was nonetheless punctuated by occasional character disputes and— especially after the third series, Deep Space Nine—much darker overtones.

Star Trek: Discovery enters into this dynamic with its eyes wide open to the tensions. Indeed, perhaps more intentionally than any of its predecessors, Discovery is precisely about those tensions. In the show’s opening scenes, Commander Burnham appears as the gosh-wow explorer, ready for anything, playing off the seasoned and bemused Captain Georgiou. When the Klingons enter the game, however, the roles get reversed: Georgiou favors the Federation’s principled diplomacy while Burnham advocates for an aggressive, perhaps violent, approach. At the end of the early episodes, it’s still uncertain which officer was right.

But this is exactly why I have high hopes for Discovery. Roddenberry’s original vision for his first Star Trek was a beautiful dream, one that in the naively progressive arc of the 1960s might have even seemed feasible. At the end of the day, however, his utopian dream was impracticable. I have elsewhere noted the extent to which it relied heavily on Enlightenment and modern assumptions about human nature—assumptions that cannot fully be squared with the Christian understanding of humanity’s fallenness. Despite Star Trek’s success, Roddenberry’s overly optimistic depiction of humanity has long been recognized as inadequate.

As G. K. Chesterton once remarked, the observable “fact of sin” is “practical as potatoes.” A stable of solid writers saved the Trek universe from collapsing under its own benevolence, but not without incident—and in Roddenberry’s last years, when The Next Generation was at the peak of its fame, those writers sometimes ran afoul of his desire to keep characters conflict-free. The first post-Roddenberry Trek series, Deep Space Nine, was noticeably darker. Discovery’s producers, meanwhile, have admitted that they feel free to step outside “Roddenberry’s box.” While part of me hates to see a fictional world depart from its creator’s design, in reality, even classic Trek was never able to adhere to these guidelines fully, because we cannot help being sinful.

Judging from its early episodes and the comments of its writers, Discovery doesn’t attempt to subvert the ethics and ideals of Star Trek so much as it aims to present them in a more realistic framework. Georgiou and Burnham both strive to represent Federation values, but their mission tests them, and in the end they appear to fail: Burnham betrays her captain and friend, and Georgiou cannot avert war. Episode three commences Burnham’s involvement with USS Discovery’s mysterious, Machiavellian Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs); and Original Series con artist Harry Mudd (Rainn Wilson) will appear in future storylines, adding further wrinkles of moral complexity to a character caught between her ideals and her brokenness, forced into the dark corners that most pale-bright utopias disregard.

Because ultimately, a utopia is an ideal construct rather than an achievable location—hence its name, meaning “no place.” While I know that Roddenberry’s altruistically secular Federation will never exist, though, I am equally exasperated with the dark and gritty mentality that assumes that because ideals and virtues are never perfectly attainable, we should toss them out the airlock entirely. As a Christian, I live quite (un)comfortably in a realm of “already but not yet.” I subscribe to a code of ethics that I will never fully live out.

This is precisely Jesus’ point in the Sermon on the Mount. Against the Pharisees, who could smugly proclaim their scrupulous devotion to the Ten Commandments, Jesus asserts that willing a sin is the moral equivalent of acting it out. “[U]nless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law,” he tells the people, “you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” They must “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” And I don’t buy the exegesis that tries to define down “perfect” simply to mean “mature.” The Father isn’t “mature”—he is impeccably sinless. The segment of the Sermon isn’t a pep talk—it’s the most depressing discourse a first-century Jewish audience (or a modern one) could hear. The standard is unattainable.

Rather than collapse in despair, though, we remember that in the same sermon, Jesus also promises he hasn’t come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. Christ gives us his righteousness, his perfection—and the remainder of our Christian sanctification is our halting, ever-incomplete progress toward that goal that we will never reach in our own strength.

For that reason, I am favorable toward Star Trek: Discovery’s own take on Roddenberry’s idealism. Star Trek’s approach to ethics is a mixed bag, as several contributors to the recent book Science Fiction and the Abolition of Man demonstrate. At its worst, Star Trek puts forth a godless humanism without a transcendent eschatology, yoked to a flawed understanding of human nature. Indeed, there is some question about whether religion can even be referenced in the series.

But despite his (in)famous Prime Directive of noninterference, Gene Roddenberry was no moral relativist, and his characters sometimes embody virtues that the Christian viewer can applaud. I can appreciate the picture of shalom toward which the Federation aspires, even as I recognize its shaky positivistic foundation. I can celebrate a character exhibiting loving self-sacrifice even if it falls short of true Christlike charity. Most of all, I can welcome a show that takes human shortcomings seriously without jettisoning every notion of ideals. That is, after all, the very state in which I live.

During her trial at the end of the second episode, Burnham pleads “guilty.” She claims she “was raised to believe that service was my purpose” and that she sought to “further the noble objectives of this great institution [Starfleet].” But now, she realizes “we are at war, and I am the enemy.”

These are not the words of a cynical show bent on undermining a vision of human cooperation, exploration, and self-sacrifice. They are, rather, the words of a show aware of just how impossible these ideals are to live out fully—and I have little doubt that however long Burnham’s arc is, it will be redemptive as she moves closer to those ideals. For now, anyway, I plan to be there with her, hoping that she and Star Trek: Discovery may live long and prosper.

Geoffrey Reiter is assistant professor of English at the Baptist College of Florida and associate editor for Christ and Pop Culture. He holds a BA in English from Nyack College and a PhD in English from Baylor University, along with an MA in church history from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

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‘Discovery’ May Be the ‘Star Trek’ that Gets Humanity Right