Star Trek: Discovery Is Optimism, But Not for Us

Early in the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, in a moment that establishes the basic setup for the rest of the series, a black woman is sent to prison for life. Standing in the center of a dark room, the only obvious source of light glares down onto her head. She is separated from a row of superior officers both by the staging of the scene and by its dialogue. Where she is bathed in cold, unflattering light, they are silhouetted, faces obscured. Where she stands, far from any physical support, her tribunal is seated, restful. The long desk they share forms a visual barrier separating her from their figures in the frame, which from the camera’s angle of view she almost appears to be displayed upon, like an object under examination.

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“To all these charges,” they ask, “how do you plead?”
“Guilty,” she whispers.
“The accused cannot be heard.”

In the context of this almost comically sinister trial scene, even her name is refused to her as a form of support. In the darkness of this room, in fact, only one element of the set has been consistently and visibly lit: the two Starfleet logos that flank her on either side of the rear wall, and the two more on a computer displays to either side of the frame. When we next meet Michael Burnham, she’s on a prison transport shuttle, wearing a prison-issued jumpsuit, on her way to a highly dangerous forced labor assignment mining volatile dilithium crystals—traditionally, fuel for Star Trek’s warp-capable starships—to support a fledgling war effort.

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Star Trek is, ostensibly, ‘the future.’ Gene Roddenberry, the franchise’s creator, who spent the early 90’s perpetually high on his own supply while attempting to wrest back control of the franchise from both Paramount and Star Trek: The Next Generation’s other executive producers, liked to play up the idea that Star Trek was a sort of utopian look at the future of humanity; the best possible version of ‘ourselves.’ But faced with the darkness—both literal and figurative—of this early turn of events, it’s worth taking a moment to consider; if Star Trek is the future, then the future of what? The future for whom? If Star Trek is ‘our’ future, then who are ‘we?’ For whom could a future in which forced prison labor still exists—which, in Star Trek’s US production context, is inextricably bound up with the afterlife of slavery—index a vision of optimism in any serious sense? How and why can the imagery of those highlighted Starfleet insignia so readily stand alongside a black woman’s consignment to forced servitude?

The idea that prisons, even ones whose conditions mirror or are worse than our contemporary ones, persist into the 23rd century isn’t new in Star Trek’s canon. In The Original Series’ “Dagger of the Mind,” in fact, we learn that the Federation has only recently begun experimenting with the idea of rehabilitative penal colonies, which Captain Kirk compares to “resorts,” even though Doctor McCoy, skeptically, reminds him that “a cage is a cage.” Because the Tantalus penal colony is the site of the episode’s usual dilemma-of-the-week, it turns out, predictably, that horrifying experiments in mind control are in fact what’s going on behind the scenes there. Still, by the 24th century, prisons seem to have been phased out in favor of a rehabilitative model (hilariously, New Zealand—favored resort-escape of 21st century tech mogul doomsday preppers—has, by this time been transformed into one such colony). Now, nobody needs Michel Foucault, Angela Davis, or Leonard H. McCoy to point out that softening the prison system through medicalization isn’t the same thing as abolishing it. It’s interesting and telling, however, that it’s been the long-running habit of Star Trek’s writers to be deeply embarrassed about the persistence of the prison, while simultaneously refusing to imagine a world without prisons.

This ambivalence, I think, actually says something interesting about the basic form of the franchise’s utopianism. For the basic ‘optimism’ of Star Trek to work, ‘what’ transits the passage from present to future must be recognizable to some presumed audience as ‘us.’ And ‘us,’ of course, throughout Star Trek’s production history, has been signaled via the aesthetic trappings of a prototypically American form of civil society. And yet, at the on the other hand, what transits to the future can’t remain the same. In order for the ‘promise’ of American civil society to be projected into the future, none of its defining characteristics can be allowed to remain.

The franchise’s long-running ambivalence towards the prison is just one obvious example of this. One of the longest-running fan debates about the nature of Federation society revolves around the idea, brought into canon by Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1984) and repeatedly hammered home in the early years of Star Trek: The Next Generation that by the 23rd century (at the latest), money has ceased to be a feature of economic life on Earth. Other than this negative characterization, however, the economy of the future remains almost entirely indeterminate. (Is it post-scarcity? Communist? In 2015 Paul Krugman even took a shot at this question.) For the writers to tell us what it is would ruin the sense that it is, in some sense, continuous with ‘us;’ a communist future wouldn’t be ‘ours.’ But if the economy of the future is simply ours, then it remains open to every critique to which ours is subjected.

Similarly, what do the exploratory adventures of our various Starships Enterprise resemble, if not the colonial exploration of the early modern era, or American dreams of westward expansion? (The two most commonly cited inspirations for the format of the Original Series were Wagon Train and Horatio Hornblower.) This unsettling parallel is explicitly lampshaded by the writers: Starfleet’s “prime directive” or, as it’s called in the 23rd century, “General Order 1” prohibits any interference with the internal affairs of the various societies we encounter. In each case we have all the situational trappings of liberal societies and the violence that underpins them; simply without—so we’re told—any of that violence.

Michael Burnham doesn’t—and this really shouldn’t be too much of a spoiler—stay in prison. In fact, one of our final scenes in the first season is built around a similar shot: Burnham, placed on display. But this time, the context for Burnham’s visual separation is laudatory. Many of the means of her visual separation echo elements of her trial sequence. Again, desks are used to separate a standing Burnham from her interlocutors. Now, however, those watching her stand with her, their body language no longer deepening the spatial separation. The ceremonial hall is well-lit, giving Burnham an equal view of her spectators, who are framed, no matter which way she turns, behind rather than in front of her on the camera’s plane. The audience for Burnham’s final speech is always placed by the camera in a position that makes her the implicit point of reference for our view, in a reversal of the examination the camera subjects Burnham to in the trial scene. Her audience is only ever framed in front of her if they are looking the same direction she is, undercutting the sense of inspection that the prior sequence’s framing emphasized.

Discovery‘s showrunners have spoken fairly openly about the show’s relationship to Roddenberry’s more utopian ideas of the 90’s. Discovery is set in an era where those ideals are, in some sense, still yet to be earned, and a number of the season’s major creative choices revolve around the idea of providing (often literal) mirrors through which the main cast can examine their choices and ideals, and measure them against the sort of utopian-cosmopolitan rhetoric that’s defined a great deal of the Trek franchise’s sense of self. In many ways, Burnham’s path from her trial to her final speech is meant to ask these same questions about what it means to ‘earn’ Trek‘s utopia. When it comes to evaluating the effectiveness of that examination: honestly, your mileage may vary. But what’s interesting to me is how much that central tension still reverberates in the treatment of issues like the persistence of prisons and forced labor, the racialization of the Klingons, and the colonial resonances of Starfleet itself. It’s an open question that will continue to linger over both Discovery’s run and the franchise as a whole: is it possible to stage these questions directly and still have Star Trek? Or is perpetual deferral a condition of political optimism?


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