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.
Episode 1.7 of Star Trek: Discovery, “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad,” has had a singular reception among the episodes of the first season. Widely acclaimed as the best episode of the first season, it is also the most traditionally “Trekky,” a standalone adventure largely independent of the main series arc (despite its nominal status as a sequel to episode 1.5, “Choose Your Pain”). Harry Mudd returns on a mission of vengeance after having been abandoned in a Klingon prison cell by Lorca and Tyler; armed with a time-travel device that allows him to relive the last half-hour over and over again until he is happy with the results, the time-loop narrative is complicated by Stamets’s new, spore-infused status outside the normal flow of space and time. Stamets, Burnham, Tilly, and Tyler are able to use Stamets’s knowledge of the loops to contrive a situation that convinces Mudd he has achieved all his goals, only to pull the rug out from under him at the end of the episode after he has shut off the device and ended the time loop.
The episode’s ecstatic early reception was produced in its moment by a number of factors, perhaps most especially its status as the first “fun” episode after a series introduction dominated by dark and depressing plotlines (including among other things mutiny, war, the total destruction of the Shenzhou, and the brutal torture of sentient and nonsentient lifeforms alike). Rainn Wilson’s Mudd does indeed inject an infectious spirit of chaos into the proceedings, and the crew not only gets a longed-for “clean win” but achieves it by working together as a cohesive whole in a way that had not yet been seen on the series (a mood of TNG-style camaraderie that would return in even grander form as the moment of triumph at the end of the Mirror Universe arc in 1.13, “What’s Past Is Prologue”). The episode is also a familiar take on a well-worn Trek concept, the Groundhog’s-Day time loop, certainly updated for contemporary sensibilities and cinematic style but still coloring within the well-established lines of the Trek franchise (to an extent not found, arguably, in most of the rest of Discovery).
And it is, to be sure, a perfectly delectable episode.
But despite this popular acclaim rewatching “Magic” in light of what comes after does present some evaluative difficulties. Continue reading “Star Trek Discovery: Magic to Make the Sanest Rewatch Go Mad”
I am a Star Trek fan, and I’m here today to talk to you about canon. But I will warn all the hardcore fans who are relieved to be on safe territory: my fandom has taken a strange form. When I was a kid, I was a loyal Next Generation viewer, and I even read a couple of the novels. But I only seriously dug into Star Trek as an adult, when The Girlfriend suggested we try a Next Generation rewatch—which inevitably turned into an epic journey through all the Trek series and movies. By that time, of course, I had been thoroughly trained in cultural analysis and critical theory, and I tended to read Star Trek “as literature.”
So when I talk about canon, I am talking about the strange claim that all of these different stories, written across the last fifty years by dozens of different people, are somehow all “the same” story, that they all fit together as a portrait of a consistent “universe” with its own history. I have already compared the Star Trek canon to scriptural canons in a scholarly article (paywalled journal issue link), and here I would like to pick up on a point that I briefly address there: namely, the tendency for sprawling scriptural canons to develop a “canon within the canon” that guides the interpretation of the rest. In Judaism, for example, the “canon within the canon” is the Torah, while Christians privilege the New Testament as the standard by which their hybrid canon is to be unified. And in Star Trek, of course, the “canon within the canon” for the vast majority of fans is Next Generation. Continue reading “Star Trek: Discovery as the End of Next Generation Triumphalism”
[Editor’s note: This contribution is by Sarah Jaffe]
I am not a Star Trek fan.
This is not supposed to be an insult to anyone who is, it’s just to say that if your response to what I write here has anything to do with canon, I will neither understand what you’re saying nor care.
Like most people my age, I have some treasured memories of watching “The Trouble with Tribbles” as a child with my dad, and since my partner is a big enough Trek fan to make it central to his work, I’ve watched more of TNG and all the rest in the last couple of years than I ever had before. (I’ve seen the J.J. Abrams movies; he refuses to.) That’s why, in fact, we ponied up the cash to watch Discovery when it began.
It’s also why I liked it better than he did, at first.
I’m not interested in whether it is appropriately Star Trekky or whether the aesthetic is too dark or what Roddenberry would say (no offense, Gene). I’m interested in good storytelling, good characters, good worldbuilding, good acting. I am, frankly, bored by a lot of “prestige TV,” which tends to be men telling stories about men and their manly manly man-things. And Discovery was a gift on that front.
Particularly, Michael Burnham was a gift.
(Here is where I should say: there will be spoilers)
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.
“To all these charges,” they ask, “how do you plead?”
“Guilty,” she whispers.
“The accused cannot be heard.”
Over the next couple weeks, we will be holding a special event reflecting on the first season of Star Trek: Discovery. Our tentative schedule is as follows:
Our list of contributors is made up of a good balance of first-time Trek viewers, casual fans, and the hardest core. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to determine who is who.