Let’s begin with a story. I’m partaking in a proud new tradition among digital-era viewers: binge-watching shows after their original air date, and catching up on all the grousing everyone else did when they first launched. Right now the show I’m watching is Star Trek: Discovery, which wasn’t available to me when it first aired, and which I was reluctant to watch after hearing how far from canon it had moved. New Klingons? Why? A new ward of Sarek? Why? New tech out of step with its historical period? Why?
Since it first launched, there has been a strong school of similar concern about how blatantly un-Star-Trek this series feels–to say nothing of how haphazardly it treats its characters in general. And my viewing of the first six episodes certainly bore out that body of criticism. In particular, I was disheartened to see that the choice I feared most of all–the decision to make the show centre around one character–had indeed been carried out in the most mainstream way possible: the way that tries to build a world in which we are automatically on Michael Burnham’s side, and where the main crisis is her having to endure everyone else’s lack of full moral agreement with her decisions.
Now, the show could have maintained the franchise’s original, striking capacity to illustrate cosmic relativism. It could have allowed the audience to see different perspectives as fully fleshed out as possible. Like Orange Is the New Black, it could have provided the audience with side stories that offered balance to the main character’s journey, without giving her the same, complicating perspective available to us. (And, granted, we do occasionally get asides, but they lack the depth of nuance we get from her scenes.) And if it had taken this approach, then just like The Original Series, The Next Generation, DS9, and Voyager (we do not speak of Enterprise), Discovery could have properly explored the complexity of moral action in a diverse cosmos.
After all, who among us Trekkies did not grieve Lwaxana Troi having to let Timicin perpetuate a Draconian cultural custom? But also, who among us did not also come to accept that this was Timicin’s choice, even if we’d have chosen otherwise?
And who among us Trekkies did not learn from Sisko’s handling of his Emissary role in the Bajoran faith with grace and aplomb even if he didn’t believe the wormhole aliens to be gods? Did we mock Kira for her sincerely held beliefs, knowing they were part of her people’s fount of strength for surviving an era of genocidal oppression?
Suffice it to say, I do love the source material. It was my favourite education, as a child, in moral relativism and compassionate humanism.
But now Discovery offers a new education, because in some ways its greatest flaw is the fact that it’s constantly trying to fit into a narrative from which it’s also deviating wildly. If it could just stop trying to invoke names and histories and Trek-tech that it’s using in an entirely different manner, then maybe it could rise or fall on its own merits, no?
Oh, but where oh where have I seen this problem emerge before?
Re-Writing Religious History for Humanist Practice
In a recent essay, I advocated–as I often do–for we secular folk to pursue a different discourse, instead of continuing to play into religious rhetoric so as to adopt religion’s social power as our own. And in the comments, someone rightly observed that it seemed a daunting and almost inconceivable task, to change the narrative in such a way.
But maybe it doesn’t require such an Herculean effort.
Watching Discovery, after all, annoyed me as much as following a great many online atheist communities–because both seem to cling too much to the wrong parts of the source material.
Obviously, for Star Trek as a franchise, there’s a profit motive to slapping all that familiar branding onto a new sci-fi vehicle, irrespective of whether or not a story like Discovery actually advances the franchise’s original philosophy.And obviously, for many atheists, there’s a profit motive, too. Being the best at responding to trending religious outrages, or the best at affecting rationalist superiority in debate circuits and in incisive books and essays, is a not-terrible way to make a living. (I certainly won’t get rich off my “slow read” approach to Patheos column-writing, but I don’t begrudge folks who’ve found a way to make ends meet with words alone!)
In both cases, though, there is a significant negative reaction to these franchise choices: a significant body of persons vocally dissatisfied with how the latest iterations of each narrative are interacting with their source material. Some of us wish Discovery didn’t have the Star Trek label. And some of us wish that the secular world were less fixated on propping up religious texts we all more or less recognize as unscientific, ahistorical, and morally irrelevant. (Which we do, you know. We prop them up, we give them further cultural staying power, whenever we choose to treat them as worthy opponents.)
What’s the alternative, though?
Can we rewrite cultural narrative without leaning on religious precedent?
Or is that a bit like writing a new space adventure without leaning on Star Trek?
What would the latter look like, if we could?
Breaking from the Franchise
The reason it sometimes seems impossible to break from precedent is that we lose track of what is intrinsic to the human condition and what has been added by a specific narrative vehicle. Obviously, any human space adventure will probably involve a crew, and all the dynamics that come with it. It might have an organized fleet torn between military, peace-oriented, scientific, and exploratory objectives. It will probably involve aliens, and the cultural anthropology therein. There will be opportunities to explore new tech, and old moral philosophies. There will be tragedy, and betrayal, but also opportunities for fraternity, and wonder, and growth.
But the fact that Star Trek was seminal in its exploration of these predictable parameters by no means requires that every franchise following in its wake need take the same approach. Thus we’ve had shows like (brief, well-crafted) Firefly and (hokey, longer-running) Andromeda; the sprawling multiverse of StarGate and the tight narration of Babylon-5; the tawdry, low-budget Lexx, the goofily endearing Red Dwarf; Battlestar Galactica in both its mightily different iterations; and today the spoof-success The Orville and the exceptionally nuanced The Expanse.
Likewise, we’ve had many religious “series” in the past and present: the three pillars of Abrahamic faith–Judaism, Christianity, and Islam–along with the more recent addition of Mormonism; and Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Buddhism, Taoism, Baha’i, and hundreds of indigenous religions still actively practised the world over.
And all of these have been addressing human fundamentals: questions of where we came from and where we’re going, and how best to journey from our beginning to our end. How to mark our passing, and adapt to different phases in our life cycles. How best to live with each other, and the planet. How to be good stewards not just of our equals in agency and autonomy, but also of any creature of lesser agency in our care. What to listen to, to guide us in our decision-making. How to atone when we stray from our culture’s mandates, or otherwise do harm. How to atone when we stray from our own.
It might seem, to we who grew up saturated in religious narratives, that these are ideas only suited to religious discourse. (So goes, at least, a great deal of social rhetoric about the “limits” of science, where religion alone can purportedly step in.)
But it’s no more true of moral philosophy than it is of space-opera narratives.
For both, that is, there will come other franchises.
And our choice, as compassionate humanists, must be to hasten that process along.
Because often we only do further damage to our ability to go forward when we’re constantly entrenching ourselves in the past. Constantly fixating on preceding stories, with all the strengths and weaknesses they contain.
And yet, we don’t need to interact with any of them to earn the right to tackle the basic questions and themes of human existence… nor to–oh, you knew this was coming, didn’t you?–to boldly go where perhaps no story about them has gone before.