Author: Annalee Newitz

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We’re not on the Enterprise anymore—but where are we?

  • Captain Lorca tells Burnham why he wants her on the Discovery. Hint: it’s not because she’s nice.
  • Science Officer Paul Stamets (named after a real-life scientist) has been forced to turn his basic research into a weapon.
    CBS
  • Burnham leads an away team to a ship whose crew has been killed by tests of a new biological weapon that involves fungal teleportation.
    CBS

Last night’s episode of Star Trek: Discovery was in some ways the true beginning of the series. We finally boarded the USS Discovery and met some of our series regulars, including the cynical Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs), sunny Cadet Tilly (Mary Wiseman), and tough-as-nails security chief Landry (Rekha Sharma). We also found out what the Star Trek universe looks like when we leave the comfy world of the Enterprise and plunge headlong into war.

Spoilers ahead for ST: Discovery episode “Context is for Kings.”

At one point in the episode, Lorca loses his patience with Burnham’s obsession with ethics and barks, “This is a ship of war!” At that moment, the series signaled its complete break with Star Trek series of the past. I couldn’t help but hear an echo of Guinan’s line from the TNG episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” when the ship has accidentally slipped into the wrong timeline and become a warship. Only Guinan can sense the change, and she tells Picard, “This isn’t a ship of war; it’s a ship of peace.” By the end of the episode, we’ve returned to the “right” timeline where children roam the Enterprise, and the ship continues its mission of science and diplomacy.

On Discovery, however, this mission has been corrupted by war with the Klingons. Science officer Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) complains bitterly to Burnham about the military coopting his research into a mysterious fungal structure that underlies the universe. And he’s not just complaining about long work hours. We find out that the Federation pushed Stamets’ research partner so hard that his experiment on another ship got out of control and killed the entire crew, leaving their bodies twisted up like molecules. This is like something out of Firefly or The Expanse, not good old Star Trek.

The creepiest part? In a franchise where our captains and crew have always been undeniably good, we suddenly can’t trust authority anymore. Lorca gloats to Burnham about how the weaponized “mycelial network” will let them teleport over vast distances, blipping halfway across the sector for black ops. Sure, we’ve seen corrupt captains and even admirals on Star Trek before, but they were always at the margins. They were the people “our” captains would fight against and defeat. Now our captain is one of them.

Down the rabbit hole

All the scientific work on Discovery has become top secret, and tests of their technology are called “black alerts.” During one black alert, Burnham watches as the surfaces in her sleeping quarters extrude floating blobs of liquid, then return to solidity again. The very fabric of reality is warping in this version of Trek. Perhaps that’s why we hear Burnham reciting passages from Alice in Wonderland to calm herself down when she’s being chased by what looks like a giant tardigrade in a Jeffries tube. As she explains to her roommate Tilly, the book helped her understand how to cope in a world gone mad.

Make no mistake: Discovery is about a world gone mad. Lorca wants Burnham on his ship because he knows she shoots first and asks questions later. He tells her that, in a time of war, he wants a crew that knows there is no such thing as a “universal” ethical code; instead “context is for kings.” In other words, rules must be suspended at certain times, in certain places.

This goes against one of the fundamental tropes of Star Trek, which is that ideals like the Prime Directive should be upheld at all costs (even though characters often violate it). But we’re in a kind of historical gray area with Discovery, because the Prime Directive may not exist yet. Different episodes have suggested various origins for the show’s universal law. In TOS, Kirk mentions that the Prime Directive is 13 years old, while Picard once said it was created in response to a war with the Klingons. So it seems that Discovery exists in a liminal zone, when the Federation was not yet as law-abiding as it later became.

Where’s the utopia?

Discovery gives us a version of Star Fleet that we’ve rarely seen; it offers no examples of just organizations or good authority figures. Instead, we have people trying to retain a sense of morality in a world where their leaders are lying, war is destroying the fabric of reality, and science is a tool of destruction. People like Saru and Tilly are trying to do the right thing, but it’s not even clear what the “right” thing is.

Burnham decides to stay with Discovery because Lorca promises she can help “stop the war.” He doesn’t mean they’re going to dismantle the entire institution of war, the way the Federation has during the TNG era. Nope. Lorca just wants to crush the Klingons. And ultimately Burnham doesn’t really have a choice about whether to join him or not. Lorca’s already stolen a giant monster from another ship and is doing black ops with cosmic fungus. He could probably just kill her if she says no.

Star Trek fans have been taken aback by how much Discovery has left Star Trek’s utopian roots behind. This is a franchise that was famous for its optimistic vision of the future. It’s worth asking why the show has abandoned its sunny outlook at a time in history when arguably we need hope the most. As Lorca would say, context is king. Perhaps during troubled times in history, we need a character like Burnham to show us what it means to strive for moral progress, despite personal and political disaster.

Maybe, in the context of 2017, a happy vision of tomorrow would feel like a lie. In that case, Discovery is offering us hope through its characters rather than its political world. After all, one of the puzzling features of Star Trek has always been how we got from our messed up, war-torn present to a future with no war, no money, no racism, and healthcare for all. Discovery is about that in-between place where yesterday becomes tomorrow. It’s about how people must act now, in an imperfect but ethical way, to get us the Federation we hope for.

Listing image by CBS[2]

References

  1. ^ CBS (www.cbs.com)
  2. ^ CBS (www.cbs.com)
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Tiny, self-assembling bots will create more work for humans

Enlarge[1] / The robot is controlled by magnets, so a human is always in the loop. Until we get robots to control the magnets! And then a robot to control the robot who controls the magnets! And then…

It sounds like the ultimate in job-destroying automation: these robots can turn into walkers, swimmers, or gliders, and they are self-assembling. No human hands required for these monsters to go from the road to the air! Only a few small hurdles remain before these bad boys are carrying cargo (or ninjas) across land and sea.

MIT computer scientist Daniela Rus and her team have created a fascinating prototype robot known as Primer that starts out as a little cube controlled by magnetic fields. As you can see in the illustration above, Primer can’t move unless a person controls it with magnetic fields beneath the platform. In the video, you can watch it change shape when it bounces onto a special platform. (Note that the video is often speeded up—Primer isn’t lightning fast.) There, a thin piece of heat-activated metal folds up around it, creating what Rus calls an origami exoskeleton.

Here, you can see Primer jumping around and turning itself into bigger and more elaborate bots. The little cube is guided by magnetic fields, and the walker bodies fold up when the heating plates under them get warm. Primer even sheds its exoskeleton in water.

The demonstration looks incredible, but Primer is still a long way from prime time. Humans are required to make this bot move at every step of the way. Rus told New Scientist that “we imagine robots like this could become mini surgeons, squished into a pill that you swallow.” Magnetic fields travel easily through biological tissue, so a surgeon could guide the bot through a series of steps, directing it to release targeted medicines or do a biopsy.

Here, the little cube turns itself into a “glider.” Quotation marks definitely required here. You’ll see.

Less clear is how these robots would ever be used for “gliding” tasks like the one in the video above. In a paper for Science Robotics[3], the researchers write that “The robot could acquire… capabilities to perform additional tasks, such as driving through water and burrowing or anchoring in sand. Exoskeletons could also form fixtures or simple tools, such as a drill, water scoop, shovel, cutter, or grabber.”

Given that the exoskeletons require heat to assemble, and Primer needs a magnetic field to drive around, we’re not going to see anything like this soon.

Regardless of whether it’s a pill or a drill, this self-assembling robot requires at least one human to work. It’s evidence that automation won’t always eliminate human jobs. Sometimes, it will even create new kinds of labor, such as magnetic field operator for robot surgery. Or origami exoskeleton engineer.

References

  1. ^ Enlarge (cdn.arstechnica.net)
  2. ^ Rus, et al. (robotics.sciencemag.org)
  3. ^ paper for Science Robotics (robotics.sciencemag.org)
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Star Trek: Discovery shows us a side of the Federation we’ve never seen

Enlarge[1] / Welcome to Star Trek: Discovery.
CBS

The debut of Star Trek: Discovery last night was unlike any other TV series premiere. It was a cultural event that people have been analyzing and anticipating for years. There are now three generations of people who grew up with Star Trek in its various incarnations, and the franchise has come to represent what many of us consider a better tomorrow. Discovery arrived on the scene with no shortage of baggage, both good and bad.

There was absolutely no way that the first two episodes (available now on CBS’s All Access streaming service) could have met all our expectations. Plus, the odds were already stacked against Discovery. The production lost a showrunner midstream, and advance buzz has been tepid, to say the least. So it should come as no shock that the first two episodes were flawed, with moments that felt a little clunky. And yet I was genuinely surprised by the show at many points, in a positive way. It gave us a dramatic, original perspective on the Star Trek universe. Even though the series is set 10 years before the original Star Trek series, it had a weird, futuristic edge that’s been sorely lacking in the recent J.J. Abrams movies.

And the best part? For the first time in decades, Star Trek feels dangerous again.

Spoilers ahead.

No more cozy spaceships

  • Michelle Yeoh as Captain Philippa Georgiou; Sonequa Martin-Green as First Officer Michael Burnham.
    CBS
  • Michelle Yeoh as Captain Philippa Georgiou; Sonequa Martin-Green as First Officer Michael Burnham.
    CBS
  • Chris Obi as T’Kuvma.
    CBS
  • Mary Chieffo as L’Rell; Chris Obi as T’Kuvma.

The first two episodes of Discovery are definitely a slow burn. The acting feels oddly understated, and there are some awkward, info-dumpy conversations between First Officer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) as we establish their characters and the mission of the USS Shenzhou. But by the time we’re deep into the final battle with the Klingons, I found myself yelling, “Holy $%&!!” a lot. Ships are on fire! Klingons are yelling about their new messiah! Major characters are dying! The series went from zero to warp speed in less than two hours, which is pretty damn hard to pull off.

We leave the cozy confines of a typical Trek series behind after the opening scene, in which Burnham and Georgiou are on a peaceful mission to help a pre-contact civilization survive drought. After vaporizing the blockage in a well, they exchange a little banter and return to the Shenzhou to check out a strange object in the debris field of a binary star system. Obscured by some kind of radiation field, the object could be related to damage suffered by a nearby Federation communications relay.

When Burnham goes to investigate the object wearing nothing but a spacesuit and jetpack, we get a moment that really nails the tone of this new series. Alone in a vast debris field, illuminated by the light of two stars, Burnham seems more vulnerable and audacious than Starfleet officers we’ve known before. There’s no beaming down with an away team here. There’s no shuttle enclosing her in a protective shell.

When she finally encounters the object, an ancient sacred beacon, she lands on it with her own two feet. She’s alone in vacuum, encountering something literally awesome. There’s something visceral about this scene, especially when she winds up in a deadly fight with a Klingon guarding the place. It’s as if they’re two knights battling in armor, except they’re in the middle of outer space.

Arresting scenes like this lift Discovery out of its slightly clunky plotting and suggest that it could become a truly breathtaking work of science fiction.

A troubled protagonist

  • Sonequa Martin-Green as First Officer Burnham.
    CBS
  • Get a load of that Discovery!
    CBS
  • Michelle Yeoh as Captain Philippa Georgiou; Sonequa Martin-Green as First Officer Michael Burnham.

The space gladiator moment is also our first hint that Discovery won’t be returning us to the “everything is fine” baseline of previous Trek shows. Showrunners Gretchen Berg and Aaron Harberts had already hinted in interviews that this series would be an arc rather than episodic, and, as a result, there are no tidy endings.

Instead, there are dramatic consequences to the space fight, in which Burnham eventually manages to skewer the Klingon on his own bat’leth. She returns to the ship radiation-scarred and wrathful, begging Georgiou to reject Starfleet’s peaceful mandate so they can immediately destroy the Klingon ship lurking nearby. Unlike the tough-but-fair Sisko or the always-ethical Picard, Burnham is a disturbingly flawed hero who sometimes opts for realpolitik rather than idealism.

When Georgiou tries to use diplomacy with the Klingons, Burnham consults privately with her adoptive father Sarek (yes, this makes her Spock’s sister), who appears via some kind of holographic telepresence system that we’ve never seen on Trek before. He advises her to give the Klingons a “Vulcan hello,” referencing an event in Vulcan history that’s going to be news to fans of the franchise. Apparently when the Vulcans first met the Klingons, they fired on the warlike species before doing anything else, to earn their respect. This doesn’t sound much like the rational Vulcans we know, but then again this series is all about revealing hidden and often dark complexities beneath the Federation’s peaceful facade.

Armed with this knowledge, Burnham mutinies and tries to get the crew to fire on the Klingons. Here, again, Discovery surprises us. When Kirk bent the rules, he was usually rewarded for it in the end with a good outcome. Fighting to save his crew is the right choice, even if it seems wrong at first. But when Burnham tries her desperate move to save her ship, it turns out to be the first bad move in a terrible plan that backfires. Her choices cost her the friendship she’s forged with Georgiou and get her thrown in the brig. As more Klingon and Federation ships arrive, and the Shenzhou is shot to ribbons, Burnham is trapped behind the failing force field of her prison cell. She’s forced to witness the first melee in a war she helped start from a position of helpless shame.

Though Burnham does eventually escape (in a pretty cool scene), it’s not exactly a triumphant moment. She has to endure the death of everything she holds dear, including Georgiou and most of the crew. As the second episode ends, she’s facing life in prison for her crimes—and a hellish lifetime of guilt after striving to overcome the horror of her family’s death at the hands of Klingons.

These emotional beats feel like a real departure for the franchise, which typically celebrates hope, bravery, and fecklessness in its protagonists and rarely dwells on how they might also be motivated by frustration and agony. At worst, we see Kirk feel old and bored, or we see Sisko’s loyalty being tested by his evolving relationship with the Bajorans. In Discovery, we see an unsettling parallel between Burnham and T’Kuvma, the messianic leader of the newly unified Klingon Empire: both are ruled by rage and seemingly fueled by a history of trauma.

The new Klingons

Enlarge[2] / Chris Obi as T’Kuvma.
CBS

Discovery pulls a fast one on us by introducing Captain Georgiou only to kill her off. The same goes for the Klingon leader T’Kuvma (Chris Obi), who perishes in the exact way that Burnham feared. He becomes a martyr while fighting the evil humans. As the series gets underway, our main protagonist will be Burnham and our main antagonist will be T’Kuvma’s protege Kol (Kenneth Mitchell), a pale-skinned Klingon who is the “son of none,” an outcast among the Klingon elites.

The pilot episode actually begins with the Klingon point of view, which is an interesting choice. T’Kuvma gives a patriotic speech to his followers, laced with religious fundamentalism and myriad references to the mythic Klingon leader Kahless. One of the most talked-about parts of this series is the Klingons’ new look, which is sort of a cross between H.R. Geiger’s alien art and a goth take on the Afro-futurist styles of Black Panther’s homeland Wakanda. Their armor is all techno-spines and curves; their faces are masklike, with oddly doubled nostrils and exaggerated mouths turned deeply down at the corners. The Klingon language no longer sounds Slavic; as T’Kuvma speaks, it has the tenor of an east African tribal language (though Obi reads his lines so haltingly that it’s unintentionally comic, which is unfortunate).

T’Kuvma has whipped up the great Klingon houses into a frenzy of nationalism. He promises them that a war with the Federation will allow them to “stay Klingon” and resist the lure of the Federation’s soft, semi-democratic way of life. But he also has an odd democratic streak of his own, elevating the lowly Kol to his second-in-command. He’s a kind of Klingon populist, a terrifying mixture of authoritarian and religious zealot. When Burnham shoots T’Kuvma, he gets exactly what he wants: an honorable death, and a chance to unify his people in what’s basically a holy war against the Federation.

Despite their new look, the Klingons are very much in line with the humanoids we knew in the Next Generation series. They’ve got a complicated history and are obsessed with honor, racial purity, and spiritual tradition. Of course, they hate the polyglot Federation, with its multi-species fleet that promises peace but still fires first with their “Vulcan hellos.” Though a lot of this series feels like it’s taking Star Trek in a new direction—both in terms of characters and storytelling—it’s nice to see the Klingons’ motivations have remained unchanged. They’re still the Federation’s ultimate enemy, and yet their violent impulses are hardly alien. They represent the worst instincts of humanity. When humans fight Klingons, we also fight ourselves.

Yes, there are problems

Though Discovery has its great moments, the first episode is also bogged down by some bad dialogue and bland acting at moments when the action should have felt white hot. As tensions heat up with the Klingons, it feels like we’re in one of those “let’s discuss this case” moments on NCSI rather than a looming space massacre.

One particularly awkward moment stood out, when we are getting to know series regular Lt. Saru (Doug Jones of Pans Labyrinth), the science officer. He explains to Burnham that he’s from a planet where his species is the “cow,” hunted by predators and bred to live in constant fear of death. Basically, Saru admits that he was a compliant food slave on another world. Which is pretty damn creepy and makes him fascinating as a character. How did a cow become chief science officer in Starfleet? But instead of highlighting his alien, tragic history, he’s given a long, garbled speech about “food chains” that makes no sense—and ends with him suggesting that he somehow has a special, evolved ability to sense when death is imminent.

That’s why Saru announces that he “senses death” when the Klingons show up. Which—duh. You don’t need to be a prey species to notice when Klingons are itching for a fight. His character’s whole disturbing backstory is wasted in this scene, plus it gave me an uneasy feeling that there will be a lot of junk science in this show about how biology and ecosystems work. That feeling did not go away when Burnham, supposedly an “xenoanthropologist,” announces that war is part of the Klingon’s “nature,” which she later seems to suggest means it’s part of their “culture.” Huh?

Nature vs. culture nitpicks aside, the main problem with the pilot is the directing. Which isn’t surprising, given that the series’ original showrunner Bryan Fuller (of Hannibal and American Gods) has said[3] that one of the reasons he parted ways with the show was CBS’ insistence that he use David Semel as a director on the pilot. Semel has mostly worked on NCIS and is perfectly competent. But he doesn’t seem able to draw out the tension in scenes or inspire taut performances in his excellent cast. By the second episode, however, the actors are owning their characters in a way that’s infinitely more compelling, so my hope is that we’ll see more intense performances as the series progresses.

The glimpse we got of upcoming episodes was intriguing, and it suggested that Discovery is going to continue taking Burnham in a disturbing direction. Jailed and outcast, she’s going to have to struggle hard she wants back into Starfleet. As she fights to redeem herself, a war is brewing between the Klingons and the Federation, so her personal struggles will be complicated by the larger astropolitical conflicts raging around her.

Overall, an unexpectedly good start

Despite its problems, Discovery is packed with intriguing ideas and characters who are already changing my idea of what the Federation represents. I love that we got a peek at the Vulcans’ less-than-peaceful treatment of the Klingons, offering us a better understanding of why the Klingons think the Federation is run by hypocrites. And Burnham’s character has a terrifically complex backstory, as the survivor of a Klingon attack who was raised by Vulcans. Like her brother Spock, she has to find a middle way between Vulcan realpolitik and her passionate, human sense of justice.

For the first time, we’re starting a Trek series by focusing on a person, Burnham, instead of a ship and its crew. Eventually, Burnham will have a crew of her own, including Saru, but it was interesting to walk into this series by focusing on her character and personal history.

What sets Discovery apart from previous Trek series is that it takes for granted that the Federation is not some monolithic entity where everybody is making relatively good decisions. Its history is riddled with shady conflicts. Its officers are in conflict. This isn’t a new idea, of course—we’ve seen it a lot in Deep Space Nine and Voyager, but both those series always tried to reassure us that rationality and good will would ultimately rule the day. You won’t have that feeling as you watch Discovery. Things aren’t going to be alright, at least not for the characters we know.

It’s not so much that the future feels darker in Discovery. The future just feels more realistically complicated. We’re not trying to make the galaxy a better place anymore, kids. We’re in the real world. And I think I like it.

References

  1. ^ Enlarge (cdn.arstechnica.net)
  2. ^ Enlarge (cdn.arstechnica.net)
  3. ^ Bryan Fuller (of Hannibal and American Gods) has said (ew.com)