What is Star Trek About? Federation, Fan-Service, or Freedom

[The following is the paper I delivered earlier today at the American Comparative Literature Association’s annual meeting in Chicago, as part of the seminar “Franchise Cultures,” organized by Benjamin Robertson. It was made up primarily of authors planning to contribute to the University of Minnesota Press “Mass Markets” book series, co-edited by Robertson and Gerry Canavan. As I indicate at the end of the talk, I am set to write a book on what I call “late Star Trek” — i.e., the material that has appeared in the 21st century, after the end of the Next Generation era.]

The Star Trek universe is one of the most robust commercial storyworlds in existence. Aside from the DC, Marvel, and Archie comic book universes, it is arguably the oldest to be in more or less continuous operation. New Star Trek stories have come out essentially every year since the early 1970s, even when the show and its spin-offs were off the air. And though this observation opens up serious ontological questions, it is the oldest fictional universe that purports to take place—outside of the brief interregnum of the JJ Abrams reboot films—in “the same” universe and timeline since the original series began broadcasting. Despite fans’ love of theories involving forked timelines, the clear intention of the writers and producers is that there has been no Crisis on Infinite Earths, no reset, nothing overwritten, nothing lost. Unless it is very explicitly flagged otherwise, everything we see on TV really happened within what is known as the Prime Timeline.

The Prime Timeline represents an exceptionally long span of time. Continue reading “What is Star Trek About? Federation, Fan-Service, or Freedom”

A Tale of Three Mommies: Sarah Jaffe and Adam Kotsko discuss Star Trek: Discovery

[Editor’s note: This continues the conversation between Sarah Jaffe and Adam Kotsko about Star Trek: Discovery that began with this post. Now that we have caught up on our backlog, we are tentatively planning to do a conversation on each individual episode. Today’s installment is Season 2, Episode 3: “Point of Light”.]

AK: That… was a weird one.

SJ: Mommy issues to go with our daddy issues!

Clearly this Family shtick is the thing
As an episode I think it was the most coherent so far this season but like also WHAAAT

AK: Yeah, that was nuts — but much better-paced than the first two.
That was more or less Game of Thrones in space.

SJ: I have not watched Game of Thrones!

AK: Oh wow. You’re so lucky! I kind of hate Game of Thrones.
Basically, the factors that reminded me of Game of Thrones were the aesthetic of the Klingon spaces, the use of “the old ultra-violence,” and the fact that the episode was a formless grab-bag of plots.
Continue reading “A Tale of Three Mommies: Sarah Jaffe and Adam Kotsko discuss Star Trek: Discovery

Daddy Pike: Sarah Jaffe and Adam Kotsko discuss Star Trek: Discovery

Editor’s note: Welcome to the first of several informal chats between Sarah Jaffe and Adam Kotsko on Star Trek: Discovery. This first chat covers the first two episodes of the new seasons, as well as the shorts—but the first season inevitably comes up as well. Sarah is a new fan who came to Star Trek through Discovery, while Adam is a hardcore Trek completist who, unlike many longtime fans, is an ardent, though not uncritical, supporter of the new series. This conversation begins in the middle of a conversation about the “Short Treks” shorts. Unconventional punctuation and line-breaks are retained in the interest of authenticity.

SJ: also I have weird feelings about the short that was basically the star trek version of that joaquin phoenix movie where he falls in love with an ai

AK: That felt really random.

SJ: I feel like the shorts must all thread back up somehow? except maybe the Harry Mudd one which already does
which also may have been my favorite

AK: It was the most entertaining.
The Tilly one kind of made no sense? I think it should have been a full episode (or at least a b-plot) — it just moved too fast and felt slipshod to me.
SJ: yeah. I liked the character! I was intrigued! and then…
but I hope that one connects up the most I guess
AK: I hated the voiceover in Saru’s short — it felt like they didn’t trust the audience
SJ: I also liked Saru but like, wtf is this “you can never go back, you are a v v special kelpian, the rest of your people just have to go on being fucking oppressed” fals econsciousness shit

AK: They had to gerrymander the scenario so that Saru and only Saru could go — otherwise he’d be a monster for abandoning his sister
I guess it fits with Giorgiou following the rules to a fault — like when she spent the whole premier uselessly floating there.
Really, Saru should have mutineed and retreated.
What is the past participle of “to mutiny”? Mutinied?

Continue reading “Daddy Pike: Sarah Jaffe and Adam Kotsko discuss Star Trek: Discovery

‘Klingons are animals’

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.24-credits.w1200.h630.png

Continue reading “‘Klingons are animals’”

Star Trek Discovery: Magic to Make the Sanest Rewatch Go Mad

Star Trek Discovery #7 Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad screencap Lorca Mudd.jpg

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”

Star Trek: Discovery as the End of Next Generation Triumphalism

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”

“Can you bury your heart”? Having feelings about Discovery

[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)

Continue reading ““Can you bury your heart”? Having feelings about Discovery”

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.

Screen Shot 2018-03-03 at 3.32.40 PM

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

Continue reading “Star Trek: Discovery Is Optimism, But Not for Us”

First Contact


In his excellent piece commemorating the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, Gerry Canavan says, “The Idea of Star Trek is that the future might be good; we might be good; we might find a way, somewhere far beyond the stars, to become our better selves.” And much of the article is taken up with how shockingly little of “actual existing” Star Trek lives up to that Idea or even seriously tries to.

It seems to me that among the films, First Contact does the best job of living up to the Idea, even as it complicates it and potentially undermines it. Gerry emphasizes that in Star Trek mythology, the utopian future is not a natural outgrowth of our present. The progress of liberal democracy and individual liberty does not lead to the Federation, but just the opposite: it collapses into the horror of endless war, and only on the other side of that horror do we finally start building something new. And First Contact dramatizes how fragile that transition really is, because it turns out to hinge on an independent inventor, Zefrem Cochrane, testing his new warp drive technology while a Vulcan ship is around to notice him. This leads to the titular “first contact” with the most iconic Star Trek aliens, and it is this momentous event that the Borg seek to prevent by traveling back in time.

Continue reading “First Contact”