The title credits of Star Trek: Discovery unfold on a background of age-stained paper. Perfectly geometrical lines and calculations take solid colour and form as a ship over a planet, a human body being outfitted with a space suit, a gun, a communications device, Klingon weapons of war and, finally, two space-suited hands reaching out, never quite touching one another. Star Trek unfolds, we are reminded, within the horizon of modernity: of the transformation of the human body into a machine; the transposition of divine characteristics onto Man, creator and controller of the world due to previously unimagined technological advances; all driven and enabled by exploration, warfare and, crucially, the invention of race. After the weapons comes the reaching out of hands; after the transformation of cold geometry into the hard lines of metal comes the dissolution of all these images into smoke; all that is solid melts into air.
Discovery is deeply invested in the idea of a post-racial society, and as so often with liberal tolerance, it defines itself by reference to two great enemies: Nazism and identity politics; the Mirror universe and the Klingons. There were a couple of moments early on in the season when it seemed tantalisingly as though we were about to confront the deep imbrication of the Star Trek imaginary with colonial violence, and particularly the fundamental entanglement of scientific discovery and exploration with the need for better weapons of war. The spore drive is perfectly colonial technology: its ability to shorten the distance between far-flung points in space inseparable from its use as a weapon of warfare. But all of that complexity disappeared when Discovery found itself in the mirror universe, and suddenly the world was divided again into goodies and baddies; only to reappear when Discovery returned, carrying with it an evil Georgiou, who – even though everyone knew she was the evil Georgiou – was still able to convince Starfleet command to adopt a policy of mass slaughter, because what else can you do when your opponents in battle are ‘animals’? Starfleet is saved from this corrupting influence by a second mutiny on the part of Burnham, who was apparently deeply horrified by this approach and yet, once the catastrophe has been avoided, apparently does not need to revise her high opinion of Starfleet command. Just as for us, recognising the Nazis as the embodiment of extraordinary evil does not help us to confront the question of their resemblance to us – because we’re the ones who beat them! – so too with the Mirror Universe.
Like the denizens of the Mirror Universe, the Klingons value racial purity; but their sin is not the desire to exterminate those who are different from them but their refusal to integrate. Jared Sexton argues that what characterises contemporary racial politics in the West is the ideology of ‘multiracialism’, ‘the cultural politics of free trade agreement’, which runs on anti-blackness. Multiracialism, Sexton argues, opposes the post-racial, multicultural melting pot of globalised neoliberal capitalism to blackness, positioned as a monolithic, authoritarian other which continues to experience segregation not because of white supremacist racism, but because black people insist on maintaining their separateness from everybody else. The United Federation of Planets are eager for the Klingons to join them, and it’s difficult to understand why their offers of peace and co-operation are met with hostility and violence. The problem, it turns out, is the tribal, war-like Klingons, whose religious beliefs commit them to insularity. Early on in the season, Burnham insists that Starfleet fire first because violence is the only language the Klingons understand. She describes them as inherently aggressive. Shouldn’t she know better, someone asks her; she responds that ‘there’s a difference between race and culture’ . It’s interesting in that first episode especially how the show’s progressiveness – a black woman as the lead! – is used to shield the narrative against the accusation that its depiction of the Klingons is racist.
Writing recently about contemporary Western relations with Russia, Glenn Greenwald wrote that ‘every empire needs a scary external threat, led by a singular menacing villain, to justify its massive military expenditures, consolidation of authoritarian powers, and endless wars.’ When the quotation popped up in my twitter feed a few weeks ago, it took me a while to realise that he was talking about contemporary politics and not, as I had first assumed, Star Trek: Discovery. Burnham comes to learn that her initial desire – to shoot first and ask questions later – was wrong. But even though she has to lead a mutiny to dissuade her superior officers from making precisely the same decision, the does not call into question the values and principles of Starfleet. What they need, she argues, is more Enlightenment, not less:
Earth, Andor, Telah, Vulcan. Every planet of the federation has made the odyssey out of darkness into light. So too have the Klingons. The war is over. There were triumphs. Victories of spirit. Courage beyond reason. But make no mistake. These were bleak times. Times we cannot repeat. Times we can not forget.
Star Trek: Discovery has not forgotten the violence of colonialism, the horrors of the second world war, the contradictions of universal Western values. The question is, what would it take for it to understand them?