The Subspace Cafe is a semi-regular publication about recent (or not-so-recent) developments in the world of Star Trek and other science fiction-related issues. Check back often for reviews and commentary, musings about (fictional) politics and ethics, rants about inconsistency and idiocy, or any other sort of soapbox material! Yes, it's another blog.
I’ve had an Apple Watch since they first came out. Originally I got it mainly for the convenience of notifications on my wrist, but I discovered that the activity-tracking features worked well for me and encouraged me to start walking more. And the Apple Watch is so much better-looking than Captain Terrell’s wrist communicator.
When I first fell in love with Star Trek, touch screens still seemed pretty futuristic. Now they’re ubiquitous. So why not make my wrist-mounted touch screen run the LCARS interface? I know I’m not the only one to try it, and it’s “just” a static image. But it looks surprisingly good with the curved corners of my current watch. I also started collecting some good shots of the most important ships in the show, too. It took a little while to find good images that don’t crop too much of the ship and leave room for the time in one quadrant. It’s a fun way to relax when I don’t want to have too much current info showing on my wrist.
If you have an Apple Watch and you’re reading this on your iPhone, you can add the faces directly to your watch. Or you can download the original images and use them yourself.
Our society has been dreaming about space travel for more than a century. Storytellers of all sorts have come up with fantastic tales of going beyond our planet’s atmosphere. Some of those stories go just a short ways up into Earth orbit, or to the Moon, or other planets of our solar system. Others go far beyond, using technologies that blur the line between science and fantasy. But those stories generally have one thing in common: once the capability is built, space travel in some form is comparatively accessible and even mundane to some degree.
That’s not the case in the real world. But 2021 has been a remarkable year, because it’s marked the first flights of all-civilian crews launched on commercial rockets. Until this summer, Human spaceflight was the sole domain of national governments and their space agencies. Just in the past three months, we’ve seen multiple suborbital flights and even a multi-day orbital flight. These flights, launched by three different corporations, are each the culmination of literally decades of research, development, experimentation, failures, and ultimately successes. They’re a manifestation of Human ingenuity and determination.
But I (and many other people, it seems) feel very conflicted about these flights. Space flight is not cheap, of course. Building and testing and launching a rocket understandably costs billions of dollars. And so only some of the richest people in the world can fund that development. It doesn’t help that the men who are behind these corporations are unlikable billionaires. Seriously, pick from Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, or Richard Branson—any of them would feel like a natural choice to play the villain of a James Bond movie.
Today’s Blue Origin flight featuring William Shatner as one of the passengers is emblematic of this issue. Right now, these flights are literally ego trips: the people who ride aboard are rich or famous passengers who pay immense sums of money for the privilege. (Yes, there are some passengers who were invited as guests, but they are the fig-leaf exceptions, not the rule.) The average person still has no hope of experiencing zero-g or of peering out a window to take in the whole planet below. And that’s not likely to change any time soon.
The rational part of my brain realizes this is totally unsurprising, maybe even normal. Considering the enormous expense to design and build these rockets, the funding has to come from somewhere—and in a capitalist economy, that means charging money. We’re in a stage of spaceflight development that is rarely explored in popular science fiction: the part where access to space is still limited, and thus only available to a few. Even the Star Trek universe probably developed in a similar way; before First Contact, the development of technology like the impulse engine and artificial gravity probably took enormous resources and weren’t available equally at first. Passage on a DY-100 transport was probably pretty expensive!
In a way, William Shatner is one of the best people to get to go to space right now, because he embodies both sides of this dilemma. He’s an egotistical celebrity who got to take his trip because of his wealth and fame. But he’s also the man who played Captain Kirk, a character who embodies our collective desire to explore and expand. Shatner as much as anyone understands the ideals of Star Trek and how they can relate to the world today. He clearly treated his brief trip as more than just a thrill ride (in contrast to some of his fellow passengers, apparently), he seemed to be genuinely affected by what he experienced.
There are many other problems that need to be solved in our society today. But we’re smart enough that we can go to space and work on those problems at home. I’m glad that people are working to make space travel more accessible. But these endeavors also deserve extraordinary scrutiny to ensure that space doesn’t become a playground for the rich, because travel to space must become mundane and accessible for everyone—just like in so many of our dreams.
One of my oldest hobbies has been building miniature models. It all started when I got a model train set for Christmas when I was eight, for which my dad and I assembled and painted a few kit buildings to populate the area. We later expanded our work into making the landscape from scratch, too. Around the same time, I got a styrene model kit of the Space Shuttle. It came out about as well as you’d expect for an eight-year-old gluing and painting with his dad’s help: although all of the components were in the right place, there were slight gaps in the alignment of various pieces, there were a couple glue-preserved fingerprints, the paint lines were smudged and uneven, and the decals were skewed. But it was fun!
Naturally, my love for Star Trek was a great impetus for continuing with model building a few years later. I built close to a dozen models in my middle school and high school years, gradually improving my skills throughout that time. Most of those models have been lost to time, though four of them still decorate rooms in my house today.
I didn’t really have the time, space, or money to build models once I got to college. I’d made some halfhearted attempts at newer models, but I never really stuck with it. (And many of those models look hilariously dark, all because I’d used too dark a shade of gray on the Enterprise-E based on the very dark promotional photos back in the day.) So the few models that I’d kept remained as decorations, but I didn’t really consider building any more for close to a decade.
But then I was stuck at home for three months in 2020. I was extraordinarily fortunate in that I still had a paying job, though the kind and amount of work I could do from home was certainly different. As the weeks wore on, there were only so many funny memes that I could could make. Then I remembered my old model building hobby.
I dug out an old unassembled kit of Masao Okazaki’s D6 class that I’d had in storage, and ordered a couple more kits from Federation Models: the Akira and the Steamrunner. Once I got the models, I was ready to go… and I discovered that I didn’t have the right shade of spray paint for the base hull color. I’d picked a couple versions of aircraft gray off the shelf at the hobby store, but it turned out that light aircraft gray was too light for Voyager-era ships, and dark aircraft gray looked way too reddish and sandy. (I’d used Euro I gray on my old Enterprise-E, and that was way too dark.) So I had to go pore over multiple color charts to try to find the closest color. Because even though I had reference numbers, there were FS colors, Pantone colors, RGB values, and the trade names used by different manufacturers. And it was especially tedious because all the stores were closed (this was April-May 2020, in the middle of the Great Shutdown), so I was ordering paint for delivery, waiting up to a week, only to discover that it was the wrong color and I’d need to try again. It took about three tries before I finally settled on light ghost gray from Tamiya—not to be confused with light ghost gray from Testors, which is a different shade (argh!).
But once I had the right color paint, I got going and rarely stopped. I finished the Steamrunner and Akira in about a month, then picked up a newer Enterprise-E and the Saber in the fall. The Enterprise took the longest, because the model quality wasn’t quite as good as the others that I’d bought. Although the model accuracy was closer to the on-screen ship as compared to the old AMT model I’d assembled 22-odd years ago, the quality of the model was relatively poor. One of the nacelle pylons was a bit misshapen, and the windows were were not recessed shapes, but rather just carved grooves. This was very discouraging to work with, and no matter how thin a paint brush I tried, I always ended up with uneven smudges on the windows. I finally just decided to accept imperfection and keep going. This spring I added the Nova, and just last week finished the Prometheus.
So now, after about a year of off-and-on work, I’ve finished seven models, and I think I can officially call it a fleet. Even though I’m back to working my regular job again, I’ve had enough fun doing these models that I’ll probably keep going and build a few more. We’ll see what the future brings for my new fleet…
I never enjoyed art classes when I was in school. Of course I doodled plenty as a kid, drawing and painting maps and scenes from my imagination. I even was obsessed with drawing floor plans for a while (not coincidentally right around the time my family was searching for a new house). But in school, I was never interested in creating the kind of artwork that the teachers seemed to want. And because the art classes were usually an hour or less, I never felt like I had enough time or the opportunity to learn how to create something well.
So I’ve really surprised myself over the past couple of years as I (re)discovered an interest in drawing. As with another project, it started out as a way to learn an app that I teach at work. In this case, it was the amazing Procreate for iPad. Procreate is an app that is really easy to get started with, because all you have to do is choose a brush and start drawing. But it’s also got some pretty complex features—if you need them. I wanted to explore the ins and outs of different drawing techniques and tools that the app provided, including layers, smudging, blending, and even animation.
And somewhere along the way, I realized that I was doing it not just because I needed to, but because I wanted to.
I’m nowhere near an expert when it comes to drawing and painting techniques, and I don’t hold any illusions that the stuff I’ve created is exceptional. But I like it, and that’s the most important thing, right?
So here are some space-themed images that I’ve drawn over the past couple of years. I’ve experimented with a few different styles, and early on I tried to hide my discomfort and inexperience with crayon-style brushes. And I’ve certainly used some tricks along the way… like tracing some of the more complicated objects (the astronaut and a couple of the ships). But all of the planets were drawn from scratch with brushes and shading, and the asteroids started out as a shading experiment that went way farther and turned out way better than I expected.
I’m glad I’m having a little bit of fun creating something different!
And finally, an experiment in animation that practically begged for a soundtrack:
If you’ve explored other parts of my website, you likely noticed that I’ve been a big fan of Deep Space Nine since I first watched it in 1993. DS9 was my first and favorite Trek, and a big part of what attracted me to it was the exciting stories that explored the consequences of trying to do the right thing, often succeeding but occasionally failing to uphold the values that were introduced in TOS and TNG. So it might come as a surprise when I say that despite my love for DS9, I really don’t like the idea of Section 31 in the Star Trek universe.
I certainly understand the appeal of stories involving Section 31. In DS9, Luther Sloan made for an excellent foil to Julian Bashir. Whereas Bashir was fascinated by spycraft and upheld the traditional morals of Starfleet, Sloan was a consummate liar who openly endorsed the belief that the ends always justify the means. And in Discovery, ignoring for the moment concerns about her background (a big ask, I know), Mirror Georgiou is a fascinating and sometimes surprising character who embodies the worst of Humanity but seems to be showing the occasional spark of compassion for others. The existence of Section 31 creates the potential for stories that explore whether the traditional Star Trek ideals of cooperation, honesty, and peace can survive and thrive in a hostile universe seemingly filled with people who don’t share the same convictions.
This is a big part of what I love about DS9. Many of its stories took a more practical, relativistic approach to ethics and morality. In other words, though DS9 never rejected the classic Star Trek principles, it did take a hard and sometimes uncomfortable look at how one could manage to hold on to those principles in situations where our morality offered no easy solutions. Sometimes characters failed to uphold those morals fully. But though many characters in DS9 embraced some level of moral ambiguity, none of the primary characters ever rejected those principles outright.
The difference between questioning the application of those morals and rejecting them outright is demonstrated by two episodes that, coincidentally or not, aired sequentially in DS9’s sixth season: “Inquisition” and “In the Pale Moonlight”. In the first episode, Bashir (and the fans) are introduced to Section 31 through an elaborate holodeck scenario designed to test Bashir’s loyalty. In the second episode, Sisko conspires with Garak to bring the Romulans into the Dominion War, committing numerous illegal acts along the way. At first glance, these stories espouse similar philosophies: they both involve clandestine operations to protect the Federation from its enemies, using actions that are at best immoral and at worst wholly illegal. They both present circumstances which are treated as extraordinary, and they both represent the actions taken as necessary under those circumstances.
And yet despite those similarities, the central character in each conspiracy arrives at a different conclusion. Sloan states on multiple occasions that he has no moral qualms about the actions that he takes, that protecting the physical institution of the Federation justifies any and all actions that Section 31 deems necessary. Furthermore, he argues that these actions are necessary on an ongoing basis. Yet Sisko takes the opposite view. True, his actions contributing to the deaths of Senator Vreenak and Grathon Tolar were unquestionably immoral. But consider Sisko’s famous quote from the end of the episode:
“So... I lied; I cheated; I bribed men to cover the crimes of other men; I am an accessory to murder. But the most damning thing of all is... I think I can live with it. And if I’d have to do it all over again... I would.”
Benjamin Sisko, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, “In the Pale Moonlight”
There’s a lot of subtext in that quote. When Sisko recounts his crimes, he is explicitly acknowledging that his actions were wrong, even though they brought a beneficial result. He even declares that for this situation, he would do it again. But that’s not the same as endorsing these actions as acceptable under all circumstances. That is what gives Sisko some slight redemption at the end of the episode, allowing him to remain a hero: Sisko acknowledges that his actions were wrong, but justified on some level, in this one circumstance. Section 31 argues that if it’s necessary, it’s not wrong. Section 31 violates legal and moral authority as a matter of course.
And that’s what leads me to the problem with the very existence of Section 31 in Star Trek.
Since its inception, one of the core premises of Star Trek has been that the future is promising, that despite the problems of the present, Humanity is capable of overcoming those problems. In the 1960s, those problems were most evident in the Civil Rights Movement and protests to the Vietnam War. The Original Series demonstrated by example that racial prejudice could be overcome, that nations could coexist peacefully with each other, and that military conflict was not the only solution to problems. The United Federation of Planets exemplified the belief that Humanity’s better nature could prevail.
In so many episodes, we saw our Starfleet heroes avoiding or minimizing combat. We saw them embrace unknown cultures and ideas. We saw them eliciting trust by acting trustworthy. Certainly there were exceptions (most notably TOS: “A Private Little War”). But those exceptions proved the rule of Star Trek’s message: that peace could be achieved through peaceful means.
Yet the existence of Section 31 calls that premise into question. If this secret cabal has been operating since the foundation of Starfleet and the Federation, how much has it tainted the moral standing of the organizations our heroes have served? Furthermore, how much of those organizations’ very existence could be attributed to unknown actions by Section 31? It’s a scary thought to consider that the paragon of peaceful coexistence that is the Federation would not exist without secret, possibly violent, intervention by agents who are under no oversight or control by the people they claim to protect.
Section 31 provides the Federation—and the Star Trek franchise—the excuse of having things both ways. It allows the public face of Starfleet our protagonists to claim moral superiority through their own actions, and yet that moral standing might not have been possible without the immoral actions of Section 31. It lets the writers tell stories involving ethically questionable actions while at the same time absolving the protagonists of direct responsibility for those actions, despite the fact that they directly benefit from those actions.
To put it simply, it makes it look like the Federation got to where it was by cheating.
These are not new ideas; numerous other fans have expressed similar concerns since the first appearance of Section 31. The writers of DS9 tried to address these concerns but never really gave a satisfying answer. And as we get more stories involving Section 31, especially with the second season of Discovery, more and more questions about the morality of both the Federation and of Star Trek itself must be asked.
I’m deeply skeptical about the impact of the upcoming Section 31 series. On one hand, I see the potential for interesting stories involving Mirror Georgiou and hopefully Ash Tyler, who are both interesting though very flawed characters. And yet I don’t think that either Georgiou or Tyler are good candidates to be the hero of a Star Trek series. The producers of the upcoming show have promised to uphold the optimism of previous shows, and I certainly won’t judge a show until I’ve watched it. But I still believe that the very premise of a secret organization—that answers to no one and violates the beliefs of the very people that they claim to protect—undercuts many of the core messages of the Star Trek franchise.
“Interesting, isn’t it? The Federation claims to abhor Section 31’s tactics, but when they need the dirty work done, they look the other way. It’s a tidy little arrangement, wouldn’t you say?”
Odo, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, “The Dogs of War”
Since the start of the global Black Lives Matter protests triggered by the shameful death of George Floyd, I’ve been trying to process my feelings on the subject. And as an introverted, middle-class, white male American, I didn’t feel it was my place to speak up at first. But this nascent awakening of our society can only succeed if everyone participates. That means speaking up and sharing my thoughts and support, even when it might feel trite or hollow. Because good words can help. That’s where ideas begin.
Over the decades, Star Trek fans have had a mostly well-earned reputation for being open-minded and accepting. From classics like “Devil in the Dark” and “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” to the heartfelt relationship between Paul Stamets and Hugh Culber, the philosophy of embracing other cultures, other people, and other ideas is deeply ingrained in the franchise. This philosophy is best summarized by the Vulcan principle of Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations, better known as IDIC. Propounded by Gene Roddenberry himself, IDIC incorporates many ideas, but at its core it is “an ideal based on learning to delight in our essential differences as well as learning to recognize our similarities”.
Though not explicitly defined in-universe until several years later, the core of IDIC was evident from the very beginning of Star Trek—not only in the racial diversity of the main characters, but in the stories which emphasized peace, understanding, and coexistence. This was part of what made the show so special, demonstrating by example that Humanity need not be doomed to a perpetual cycle of hatred and violence, as seemed likely in the 1960s. Over the decades, the manifestation of this message evolved to fit the times, but it was always present. Our definitions of what might constitute “life” expanded to include vibrant new characters like Data, Odo, and The Doctor, and as always, Star Trek showed how accepting those new people could enrich everyone around them, too.
IDIC is a principle that is simple in concept, but difficult to identify and practice. For one thing, the sheer concept of “infinite” is difficult for us Humans to comprehend. But let’s try to dissect the name. “Infinite diversity”, to me, refers to the incredible variety of life that one can find in the universe—or even just on Earth. There are people, creatures, and inanimate objects of vastly different shapes, sizes, colors, experiences, and beliefs. Each one has qualities that set them apart from the others... and just as importantly, other qualities that they share with others. “Diversity” does not just mean “different.” True diversity refers to the spectrum of both similarities and differences.
Then there’s “infinite combinations”, which takes the idea of diversity even further. As you take diverse elements and then combine them together, you come up with something new. This is basically the core of all Human artistic creativity, but it’s applied to our culture and society. How many beautiful and interesting things have been created because of the combination of different things? Like mixed media art, or odd but delicious food combinations, or memorable partnerships between people? In many cases, it’s the differences in each contributor that enhance the other.
Taken together, “infinite diversity in infinite combinations” means that not only does diversity strengthen us, but creating ever-newer combinations from that diversity results in things that can be beautiful, unexpected, and better. We can only do that by actively seeking out and embracing things that are different in some way.
There are so many different examples relating to IDIC that could be selected from the fifty-plus-year history of Star Trek. Some of them are blindingly obvious, because Star Trek has rarely had a reputation for subtle allegory. But there are other examples that are more understated, yet no less impactful. I’ve chosen three examples that resonate with me concerning the present state of affairs.
Perhaps the most obvious example is the second season Enterprise episode “The Breach”, in which Phlox encounters an Antaran patient who refuses treatment based on centuries-old wars with the Denobulans. Of all the crew on the NX-01, Phlox always seemed to embody the ideals of IDIC the most. He reveled in experiencing different cultures, meeting new people, and trying different foods. Yet we learn through his intense dialogue with Hudak that Phlox didn’t effortlessly develop his open attitude. He had been raised on stories about the “evil” Antarans by family members who were clearly afraid of other cultures. Yet Phlox rejected those stories, and tried to teach his children to embrace other cultures as well. His determined earnestness convinced Hudak, perhaps not to overcome all of his prejudices, but at the very least to overcome his fear at being cared for by a Denobulan doctor. And at the end of the episode, Hudak was willing to at least be on the same ship with some Denobulan passengers, and Phlox reached out to his estranged son, hoping to reconnect and share his experiences.
The second example is from the first season of Voyager, particularly the episodes “Parallax” and “Eye of the Needle”, in which Kes develops a friendly relationship with, and becomes an advocate for, the Emergency Medical Hologram. The EMH was originally only viewed as a non-sentient computer program, despite his (admittedly abrasive) personality and vast knowledge. Yet Kes, who embodied pure innocence, immediately treated The Doctor as a thinking, feeling being. She encouraged him to speak up for himself, and raised awareness of his treatment by the crew with Captain Janeway. By the third season, The Doctor was effectively a fully equal member of Voyager’s crew. How different would Voyager’s journey have been without his contributions? He literally saved the entire crew on multiple occasions, with the episodes “Basics”, “Message in a Bottle”, and “Workforce” being the most notable examples. If Kes hadn’t intuitively treated The Doctor with empathy and respect, he might never have discovered his potential as a sentient being.
The third, and possibly most impactful, example is the ongoing and eventually romantic relationship between Kira Nerys and Odo, most deeply explored in the seventh season Deep Space Nine episode “Chimera”. I argued in a previous blog entry that Changelings could be seen as among the most alien beings encountered in Star Trek, due to their fundamental nature as shape-shifting, liquid-like life. Yet despite their notable physical differences, Odo and Nerys formed a meaningful personal relationship, which over the years became an unlikely romance. This relationship was not entirely symmetrical; each person had needs that didn’t quite fit with what the other could fill or provide. Their relationship was challenged by the presence of Laas, another Changeling who had been sent out to explore the galaxy like Odo. While Laas seemed jaded (at best) about his interactions with non-Changelings, Odo reciprocated the trust, loyalty, and love that he had been given by the rest of the crew of DS9. The image of Nerys standing in the middle of a glowing cloud of energy (the form that Odo has taken) demonstrates how meaningful and emotional their connection is, just as powerful yet completely different from biological sex. In the end, I believe those positive experiences are what gave Odo the ability to convince the Founders to end the Dominion War.
These three relationships have many differences between them, but they also carry a thread of similarity: the willingness to embrace that which is different. Furthermore, those relationships are demonstrated by actions.
Applying IDIC to Life on Earth
From its very conception, Star Trek has always been intended to teach by demonstration: to show a world where differences are accepted without hesitation, or even without consideration at all. Part of the need for this is that our world, sadly, does not embrace differences in the way that many of Star Trek’s characters do. The message that most people seem to have taken from Star Trek is that such a world is possible. But that’s an easy, passive lesson to take. There are also lessons in what we can do to make our world one where IDIC is more prevalent.
(If you’ve been reading other opinions and reactions to this month’s Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrations, you’ll probably find a lot of similar ideas. I offer no pretense that these ideas are original. But they need to be shared, again and again.)
First, it’s easy to embrace IDIC when everyone around you embraces it too. What’s harder is to encourage it in others, and to look out for times that you may not exhibit it yourself. Phlox had to fight his antipathy and anger, despite his generally accepting attitude, when he first spoke with Hudak. His behavior was not uniformly pleasant, but he fought his instincts to share his personal experiences and encourage just a small change in the beliefs of another. Similarly, Kira had to recognize how difficult it was for Odo to reach out to her and maintain an unequal relationship.
Second, we must take the time to observe and listen. Listening is not a passive skill. It’s active. That means observing, asking, and prompting. Sometimes it means just being present, to demonstrate that you’re available and engaged. Kes took the time to ask The Doctor what he needed. Kira and Odo had numerous conversations about their feelings and needs, especially about Odo’s conflicting wishes to be with others like him and his feelings for his friends and loved ones.
Finally, don’t accept things the way they are. Little problems may seem unimportant, but lots of little problems are just as harmful as one big problem. Addressing a little problem is still meaningful. And for one person, your actions could be a lot more meaningful. Phlox didn’t change his whole species’ perspective, but he made a momentary connection with one other person, would had the opportunity to share what he learned with others. Kes’ connection with The Doctor inspired a sentient being to recognize his potential, and he became an important member of his crew. Little changes and little actions can still have huge impact.
I’ve struggled to do these things myself over the past three weeks. I’ve been fortunate to have been in multiple conversations with friends and coworkers, in an open and welcoming environment hosted by my employer. These conversations have still been very uncomfortable for me, but when is change is ever comfortable? I need to be aware of the problems in the world before I can start to help address them. In some ways, I feel like Kes, who never seemed to consider The Doctor as anything other than a fully-sentient being, yet was taken aback by how many of the rest of the crew treated him. I am certainly nowhere near that innocent, but recent events have snapped me out of my silence.
I’ve always treated the philosophies of Star Trek as perfectly natural. Maybe I learned the lessons so well I was able to overlook some of the injustices in the world today. But thanks to current events, it’s provided an opportunity to gain some awareness of the world. I can’t change the whole world, but I can change how I behave, and hopefully inspire a few others around me in the bargain. And to do that, I need to seek out people and ideas that are different from me. That’s an ambitious goal, easier said than done, but important nonetheless. And when more people choose to reach out to each other, to explore our differences and our similarities, and to learn from them, we all benefit.
From what I’ve seen over the past few weeks, there are a lot of people who feel this way. The more we speak up and actively profess our beliefs in IDIC and similar philosophies, and follow up those beliefs with actions (both big and small), the more we’ll be able to change our world for the better. Because it’s never too late for self-reflection and change.
“If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, to take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there.”
Postscript: A Non-Exhaustive and Highly Subjective List of Episodes to Watch
I’ve gone back and taken a second look at some of my favorite episodes, and found a couple new ones that I’d overlooked. (ENT’s “The Breach” being a good example of a meaningful episode that I’d completely forgotten about.) Here’s a good (but certainly not exhaustive) list of shows that exemplify some aspect of IDIC:
I’ve been a Star Trek fan for close to 25 years now. For most of that time, one could easily divide the history of the franchise into two eras: the “classic” era encompassing The Original Series, and the “modern” era encompassing The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise. Thanks to the drought of new shows after the cancellation of Enterprise, fans have basically lived in the “modern” era of Star Trek ever since. Even the Kelvin timeline movies felt more of an offshoot or diversion than a whole new era.
With the premiere of Discovery, with its new (to Star Trek) season-long serial format, the franchise has clearly entered a new era. As with any period of change, there are always fans who prefer the old to the new. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. But just as Discovery has demonstrated the benefits and drawbacks of late-2010s storytelling, there’s another show that’s gotten a lot of attention from fans: Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville.
Warming Up to The Orville
I was very, very skeptical when I first heard about The Orville. I’ve never liked of any of Seth MacFarlane’s shows; I always figured I just didn’t like his style of humor. So, although I knew that he was a fan (thanks to his walk-on appearance on Enterprise), I really didn’t expect to enjoy his Star Trek parody.
But I wanted to give it a shot. The pilot episode may have been a bit clunky and formulaic, but it was clear that the humor for the series derived from the characters and the sci-fi format, not from forcing a formula comedy into a sci-fi setting. The overly extended exposition dump at the research facility was the high point of the show for me, because it both moved the story along while clearly poking fun at Star Trek’s tendencies to do walk-and-talk scenes and to have characters dramatically say “you’d better see this” rather than just explaining the situation.
Each episode after that got progressively better, and by the fourth episode, I was hooked. But I was also pleasantly surprised at how the show developed: although very clearly a parody, very few of the characters were outright caricatures of their Star Trek counterparts, but fully-realized people in comedic situations. Furthermore, many of the stories clearly had messages and ideals to convey. The Orville started to feel less like a parody and more like a comic, affectionate tribute to Star Trek.
I came to like many of the characters, too. Of course, every show lives or dies by its lead character, and Seth MacFarlane’s Captain Mercer is a hilarious, more-casual take on the traditional, heroic starship captain. He’s clearly competent but not too formal, and it’s his interactions with the rest of the crew that make the show work.
I didn’t like the prominence of Mercer’s relationship with Commander Grayson at first. After the first two episodes, I was afraid that the awkward romantic comedy angle would be more prevalent than it turned out to be for most of the rest of the season. And Grayson turned out to be an effective, well-realized character on her own. Thankfully, when the relationship was revisited in the last episode of the season, it was approached in a tasteful and realistic fashion.
The rest of the cast was excellent, too. Some characters were developed more than others (Alara Kitan stands out the most), but all of them deftly combined both sci-fi clichés and reasonably realistic personalities.
Practically every episode had great jokes that derived from the affectionate tributes to Star Trek (and other sci-fi). While Star Trek’s humor was almost always restrained, The Orville was clearly willing to push the envelope, like when Malloy taught Isaac about practical jokes, only for Isaac to amputate Gordon’s leg... and then have that leg come crashing down from the ceiling at a very awkward moment. Or trading advanced aliens old Earth reality TV show recordings for the crew’s freedom. Or LaMarr outright proclaiming himself “a space man” to an uncontacted culture. Or Bortus and Klyden’s hilariously familiar domestic squabbles. The list goes on.
That’s not to say that The Orville felt perfect to me. Because it so effectively recreated the feel of The Next Generation and Voyager, it felt at times like the show was revisiting old weaknesses of past Star Trek series. Most notable, to me, was how the main cast, as leaders of their departments like most Trek crews, did pretty much all the work themselves. Since the main characters seemed to do everything, there was little opportunity to meet prominent secondary characters. One big reason why shows like Battlestar Galactica and Game of Thrones have been so popular is their huge supporting cast, allowing a more engaging and realistic set of relationships to develop in the story.
Essentially, by so effectively and affectionately recreating the tone and style of past Star Trek series (right down to reviving the technique of motion-control photography), The Orville feels like a throwback, a deliberately retro show. Is that bad? Of course not... I love it! But just as there are many great things that made 90s-era Star Trek great, there are many things in 2010s-era TV that are better.
Contrast, Not Competition
Aside from its excellent stories, characters, and humor, I think a big part of what has made The Orville so popular is that it feels so familiar. Some vocal fans were unhappy with Discovery. So what made The Orville so enjoyable for the fans that were disappointed by Discovery?
The biggest difference is the prevalence of optimism and pacifism in the setting. While Discovery chose to explore idealism versus pragmatism (to oversimplify it), The Orville essentially accepted idealism as the only option, like The Next Generation. I think a lot of people mistook Discovery’s setting of a war with the Klingons for a rejection of pacifism. Yet if you look at the whole show, there’s plenty of optimism and a heartfelt endorsement of idealistic, but not naive, pacifism.
Does The Orville feel retro because it’s so idealistic? Or because of the episodic plots? Or both?
I’m glad Discovery didn’t go retro, because it would be easy to criticize the show if it followed the same formula as series of the past. Discovery is pushing the boundaries of Star Trek and telling a new kind of story in the same universe. But I’m also glad to have The Orville, because it lets me both enjoy and make fun of those stories I loved.
I learned long ago not to trust my first impressions. Whether it’s a movie or episode, a shiny new tech gadget, or even a new acquaintance, I know that I can get caught up in the moment and miss important details. And although I try to be thoughtful and analytical, when it comes to watching shows, I also prefer to just sit back and enjoy the ride. So rather than thinking too much about it in the moment—and possibly distracting myself from significant events—when it comes to entertainment, I like to save my thoughts for after I’ve had some time to consider what I’ve seen.
(And then I procrastinate, and never actually write my thoughts down, but that’s a whole different discussion.)
Despite my frustrations with the distribution of Star Trek: Discovery, I always expected to enjoy it, and it was mainly a question of when and how I would watch it. Despite my vow to wait, I ended up compromising a little. I signed up for CBS All Access when the first half of the season was almost done, watched all the episodes in less than a month, then cancelled the subscription. When there was less than a month left in the second part of the season, I did the same thing. That let me watch most of the episodes in a semi-timely fashion, and at less than half the cost of just streaming week-to-week.
I won’t mince words: As I watched Discovery, the nitpicker in me was raging. What’s up with the Klingon makeup? When did Starfleet get holographic communications? Since when did Sarek have yet another (foster) child? And how could there possibly have been this incredibly destructive war that was never mentioned nor even hinted at before?
But as the season progressed, I learned to look past these discontinuities and look at the show as a whole. Unlike all previous series (even my beloved DS9), Discovery’s first season was basically written as a single, 15-episode-long story. Details like the makeup and technology are window dressing. As much as I’d love to see a show that stayed literally faithful to past series, it’s really not practical to expect a 2017 television series to recreate the look and feel of the 1960s. (Even though Enterprise successfully pulled it off with “In a Mirror Darkly”, that was just two episodes, not a whole series.)
The most important part of any story is its characters. And the crew of Discovery definitely drew me in. It took me a while to warm up to Michael Burnham, but Sonequa Martin-Green’s subtle portrayal of the character won me over. It may feel a little derivative, but a Human who was raised by Vulcans allows us to explore yet again the balance between logic and emotion. Doug Jones as Saru eloquently carried on the Star Trek tradition of an alien outsider character. Tilly, Tyler, Culber, and Stamets all found their places in the story quickly. And though I’m pretty sure we were supposed to be suspicious of Lorca from the start, Jason Isaacs did a fantastic job keeping us guessing until the big reveal.
(And I have to give special mention to Rainn Wilson as Harry Mudd. I do not like his appearances in TOS—I can’t get past the blatant sexism, even if he was supposed to be “charming” for his era. But Wilson’s perfect blend of sinister comedy absolutely stole the show in both of his appearances.)
There were definitely parts I didn’t like as much. Shazad Latif did an incredible job portraying Tyler/Voq, but I was saddened to discover (having willfully ignored spoilers and speculation) that the Tyler character was effectively a fake. I’m still not sure just what Voq and L’Rell were trying to accomplish with their machinations. From a storytelling point of view, Tyler was such a strong character on his own that he didn’t need the extra twist of being a sleeper agent; his PTSD and relationship with Burnham made him a wonderful character already.
Although I liked the visit to the mirror universe, I ended up a bit disappointed in the development of mirror-Lorca. Throughout the first half of the season, we were kept guessing about his motives and goals. It was clear something was up, but what? Even the revelation that Lorca was from the mirror universe didn’t disappoint me in and of itself. In the original “Mirror, Mirror”, the alternate characters were unable to blend in on “our” Enterprise for a day, yet Lorca was able to stay undiscovered for months. He clearly had the capability to understand, if not accept, Starfleet and Federation values. Yet once his identity was revealed, his shades of grey completely disappeared, and he suddenly turned into a cartoonish villain. His interest in Burnham was never really justified, and his claim to the throne was basically that Georgiou wasn’t evil enough.
And worst of all: the resolution to the war, and the final mission to Qo’noS, sanctioned by Starfleet Command. I was gradually getting used to the idea of a war with the Klingons that had never been mentioned before, based on the skirmishes and raids that we saw in the first half of the season. I could accept those as part of the ongoing conflict with the Klingons we saw in TOS. Yet the conclusion passed far into the realm of the unbelievable for me. I still can’t really accept that a quarter of the Federation was conquered (and then apparently given back!), that Sol system and Earth were directly threatened, and no one ever mentioned it.
But that’s nitpicking again. I might have trouble understanding how the writers expect some of these events to fit in with the larger Star Trek universe, but the characters were compelling and relatable (well, some were relatable), and the stories were exciting and relevant.
Variations on a Theme
Just as important as the characters, though, are the stories they explore. And there’s one character—or rather, two—who is central to the theme of the season: Phillipa Georgiou.
After watching the first two episodes—which in retrospect aren’t even a proper premiere, but rather a prologue—I lamented the death of Captain Georgiou, as the only character who seemed to truly represent the ideals of Star Trek. Georgiou’s warm charisma instantly established her as an exemplary Starfleet captain, one who I could easily see standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Kirk or Picard. (It doesn’t hurt that Michelle Yeoh is an amazing actress, too.) As the first half of the season progressed, it seemed that Georgiou’s character had been there to establish a baseline for what Starfleet should represent, only for the rest of the season’s stories to seemingly ignore it.
Then we met the incredibly badass Emperor Georgiou (she of the many titles). Like Lorca prior to his unmasking, she demonstrated some moral shades of grey, especially through her relative tenderness with Burnham. Significantly, for all the time spent in the mirror universe, Georgiou is the only character with whom we spend time getting to know both versions of her. Burnham is clearly looking for similarities (and there actually are a few), but thematically, the differences between Captain Georgiou and Emperor Georgiou are a microcosm of the entire season’s story.
Discovery’s story starts with a noble leader who refuses to fire first, unintentionally triggering a massive war. It ends with a depraved leader who offers to commit genocide as a means to end the war. Pretty much everything we see in between is about Michael Burnham’s journey from making a logical decision that is morally questionable, to making a moral decision that is logically questionable.
Is the tension between ethics and pragmatism that original? Of course not. But it’s still a good story.
...But Is It Star Trek?
It’s sad that this question even has to be asked. For me, then answer is “unquestionably”. But I understand why people ask, because it’s tough to justify the answer.
Fans have been asking “what is Star Trek?” since 1966. Entire books have been written on the subject. But if I were to tersely answer the question, I think the hallmarks of Star Trek are stories that convey optimism for the future, and that present conflicts that relate to contemporary society. Discovery has both of these.
It’s certainly hard to spot the optimism, though. Discovery is even darker than DS9, and it’s easy to miss the optimistic elements when you’re looking at all the pessimistic, pragmatic decisions that were made in the middle parts of the story. I attribute this, again, to the format change: that Discovery is telling a season-long story rather than a collection of shorter stories. But the optimism is definitely there. And there was more optimism than Burnham’s “bonk bonk on the head” message (to steal a phrase from the excellent Mission Log podcast) in the season finale. There are tons of little moments scattered throughout the season: Burnham’s compassion for the tardigrade and the gormagander; Stamets’ and Culber’s quiet and caring moments in their quarters; and most of all, Tilly’s infectious, adorkably positive attitude.
And that’s what Discovery is about: holding on to your values, your ethics, and your optimism in the most trying times. No one can stay completely positive all the time, but at some point, we all have the opportunity to make a conscious choice. Do we stick to our optimistic values, or do we take an easier path? It’s a message that definitely applies in the context of today’s troubling social and political upheaval.
If you’ve followed Star Trek Minutiae for any length of time, you’ve probably noticed that I’ve got a lot of great ideas, but I’m not exactly timely at finishing any of them. The best example is (still) my History of the Earth-Romulan War, which I started an outline for shortly after the site launched in July 2000. But there’s another project—not strictly part of STM—that I’ve been slowly but steadily working on for almost as long: The Starfleet Museum: The Print Edition.
In the fall of 2006, I was learning how to use Pages, a word processing and layout design app for Mac. I wanted to focus on the formatting and editing tools (to better teach them to clients and colleagues at work), so I grabbed the text and images from an article on Masao Okazaki’s Starfleet Museum. The goal was to create a six-page spread with text, info boxes, inline images, and large images.
After finishing that project, though, I needed to learn more: how to save styles and reuse them in other parts of the document; how to reuse a page as a template; better ways of using text boxes and layout settings instead of brute-forcing new lines with the return key. And so the six-page document ended up growing pretty quickly. After about the third article, I figured, why not do the entire Museum?
I gradually added more pages to the book, and by 2009 or so it was effectively complete as far as basic text and layout was concerned. But just like I’ve done so many times with my website, I decided I could do things better! (See the image at the end of this post for comparison.) So I started over with some more advanced techniques. I never really had a goal or deadline in mind, but this naturally reset the clock. Also, although there were a ton of images available for many ships in the Museum, there were a few ships that didn’t have many renders at all. Once I’d decided to make a printed book, I wanted to get at least one color image on every page, to make the expense of printing a 200-plus-page full-color book worthwhile.
I’d gradually collect more images as other artists created them (and graciously granted permission to use them in the book). But every so often, Masao would post a new ship and article; then I’d add it to the book, and the process would start again, slowly collecting more images. It was slow going, but very worthwile!
Now, after 12 years of off-and-on progress, I’ve decided to call the book “done”! I ordered a proof copy to make sure everything came out right, and it passed with flying colors. I only ever made the book for myself, but I know that Masao’s ships are very popular in certain corners of the internet. So, I’ve made it available to buy through Lulu—at the cost of printing, with no profit markup.
It’s an exciting time to be a Star Trek fan again. After a 12-year-long hiatus, our favorite science fiction universe is returning to the medium where it really belongs, television. Except… it’s not. As any self-respecting fan likely already knows, Star Trek: Discovery will only be available for streaming on the CBS All Access service. (At least, in the United States. Most other countries get it through Netflix.)
On one hand, this isn’t entirely surprising. The Next Generation pioneered the era of first-run syndication, and Voyager launched the UPN network. The immense popularity and visibility of Star Trek means that it can bring considerable weight to the chosen format. The question is, are we at the start of a new age of television programming (like with The Next Generation), or are we looking at an ill-advised experiment in a new network that will drag down the Star Trek franchise (like UPN with Voyager and Enterprise)?
For now, the question is mostly rhetorical. I can’t predict the future. Obviously CBS has made their choice, and they’re hoping that many fans will eagerly sign up for their new streaming service. But I won’t be one of them.
Hopes and Expectations for Discovery
It has nothing to do with lack of interest. Quite the opposite, I’m very excited to see what Discovery is like, and I’m willing to give the writers the benefit of the doubt. There have been so many concerns and complaints aired—many of them valid. The Klingons look completely different! How come Spock suddenly has a foster sister that we’ve never heard of before?
We went through similar concerns with the reboot movies. And there were many vocal complaints about the look and feel of the NX-01, both internally and externally, when we first got to know it. I imagine there were similar feelings about the different style of the ship and crew when The Next Generation first aired. How could all of these differences in setting, lighting, costuming, and effects fit in with the established universe that exists in our heads?
Many other fan sites have naturally pored over all the details. (Bernd Schneider’s Discovery Blog is a great place to get news and thoughtful reactions from a die-hard fan.) But as much as I love those details too, they aren’t what makes it Star Trek. It’s about exploration, optimism, and tolerance. It’s about people learning to embrace differences in each other.
And so, even though Discovery might not fit all of my preconceived notions of how to tell a story set in the 2250’s, I’m very intrigued by the direction the writers are going. It seems like the Klingons are going to serve as a catalyzing antagonists in the story, but it also seems that there’s going to be a major focus on the classic ideals of Star Trek, too. I’m more than interested in watching it. I’m definitely going to be watching it.
Divide and Multiply
I believe he means television, sir. That particular form of entertainment did not last much beyond the year 2040.
There was a time when people were clamoring for “a la carte cable”, a system where we could pick only the channels we wanted to watch. That idea always struck me as foolish, because shows are often divided among different networks. In 2017, with the bourgeoning streaming networks, we are stuck with a new, equally expensive problem. If we want to watch one show on a service, we have to sign up for everything! Among the biggest, most popular shows of the year are Game of Thrones, The Handmaid’s Tale, House of Cards, and The Man in the High Castle. Each one of those shows is on a different service, so I’d have to pay for all of them if I wanted to watch those four shows! And that’s just for television… don’t get me started on the situation with movies! You need websites like GoWatchIt or Can I Stream.it? to figure our where to watch your favorite movies.
I hate to sound like a Ferengi, but it comes down to money. Discovery is going to be released (I can’t say “air”, can I?) between late September to sometime in March. Even if I cancel the subscription during the November–December hiatus and renew in January, it would cost $40 to $50 to watch the show… once. I’d have to pay for the streaming service again if I wanted to watch the show again in the future. But if I buy the show on Blu-ray or iTunes, I can rewatch the show as often as I like, indefinitely.
I fully expect that I will enjoy Discovery. So why should I shell out $10 a month** to watch the show once, when I can wait a little while, pay for it once, and watch it as often as I like? Is it worth $50 to get to watch the show immediately? It’s not worth it to me.
I don’t object to the idea of streaming services. I just object to paying for an otherwise worthless streaming service to watch just one single show. The selection on CBS All Access is terrible. The only thing I’d be remotely interested in—the catalogue of past Star Trek series—is worthless to me because I already own every show on Blu-ray or DVD.
I’m eager to see how Discovery adds to the rich Star Trek universe. But I can wait a little while.
Aside: Yes, I know there’s a $6-per-month option, but I think it’s ridiculous to pay for a streaming service and still have to watch ads. ↩︎