Star Trek: Discovery and Creation’s Diversity

The Star Trek franchise has long been a place to try new things and imagine the future of humanity—and of television. In the 1960s, it broke ground in terms of diverse casting and depicting interracial romance. In the 1990s it introduced black and female captains. The franchise also imagined technology that would come to be; early flip-phones were designed to mimic the original series’ communicators, while contemporary tablets look a lot like the ones on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

One innovation accompanying the newest iteration, Star Trek: Discovery, is the fact that the show has been released only via a specific streaming network: CBS All Access. Of course, other aspects of the show reflect its location in the late 2010s: better visual effects, a season-long story arc, and (to the disappointment of some) a darker view of human nature. Where else the show might innovate or help us imagine a future is harder to say after watching only a handful of episodes. One thing I was happy to notice about an early plotline, though, is the way Star Trek: Discovery has turned its historical attention to inclusiveness toward the non-humanoid.

Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp), the lead science officer of the Discovery, is working on technology that travels large distances quickly using a fungus. (Spoilers ahead.) The affection Stamets shows for his mushrooms reminds me of the specific joy and delight in creation I’ve seen from my friends and colleagues who study science. The Discovery crew soon learns that an animal-like creature that eats the mushrooms is the secret to accurate, safe transport. This creature, which they call a tardigrade, looks very similar to the earth micro-animal of the same name (also called a water bear).

After several successful “jumps,” however, science specialist Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) notices that the tardigrade seems to be in pain. The animal may be key to their safe passage, but it is being depleted by the act. At the end of the fifth episode, the tardigrade is set free into space at the order of acting captain Saru (Doug Jones). Narratively, it’s clear that this movement on the part of Saru is an action made out of empathy and moral motivation, not strategy, as many of his earlier decisions had been. In fact, strategically, releasing the tardigrade negatively impacts the ship’s usefulness in war.

I will say I miss the more optimistic view of the older series, which modeled our aspirations more than our failures. Yet I appreciated this tardigrade storyline because it reminds me of something my scientist friends inherently recognize: that God’s beloved creation extends beyond humans, to everything God has made. This includes animals and plants and maybe even lifeforms we don’t know about yet. As a reformed Christian, I also believe that God’s redemptive love will transform all of creation, not just people. Some scholars point out that the wording in 2 Corinthians 5:17 is ambiguous. The Greek more or less says “If anyone is in Christ—new creation!” Some translate that to say that a person is a new creation; others take it to mean the entire creation is new. The latter meaning reminds us of just how much God made and is transforming—maybe even on other planets, but certainly here around us. God calls us to not just love each other (a hard enough task), but also to love his world.

The image on Discovery of mercy for creatures that seem far from human reminds me of the expansiveness of the love God calls us to. This love can be hard to carry out when these creatures are weird-looking and potentially useful to us, like Discovery’s tardigrade. But that’s why I appreciate the challenge Star Trek: Discovery gives us: to see where we might better care for God’s creation, even as we care for each other.

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I don’t watch this new Star Trek series just because it is only offered via a new “give me more of your money even if you already bought cable, Netflix, etc” media—even if I’ve been a Star Trek watcher since its beginning in the 1960s.

I’m not sure though that I’d like the enhanced respect for non-human life.  All prior Star Trek series distinguished between “sentient” and “non-sentient” life forms, with humans being sentient as well as others that were qualitatively substantially beyond animal and plant life forms.  If this article correctly reports, this is a shift for the Star Trek storyline.

In real world 2017, Alicia Silverstone would rather be naked than wear wool, and many applaud, likely including the author of this Star Trek episode.  But that applause doesn’t, I think,reflect the biblical description of the world God created.

For Silverstone and this Star Trek episode author, it would seem that animals are human, even if a bit different in configuration.  If that is so, if we can’t raise sheep for wool or cows for milk (let alone beef), we are really living in a different world aren’t we?  And one that does not reflect the biblical description.

I am convinced that this humanizing of non-humans will be an increasingly large social (and political/legal) issue.  It would be good if Christians thought clearly about it, even if a Star Trek episode writer and Alicia Silverstone do not.

In Reply to Doug Vande Griend (comment #30687)
Thanks for your comment, Doug.
I didn’t mention it in the post because I didn’t want to muddy the waters, but in the episode they are explicitly uncertain about whether the tardigrade is sentient.
I don’t know if that changes your reaction, but I also think there are ways to love animals and look out for cruelty that doesn’t simply equate them with humans, and would look to the kosher laws in the old testament as one resource to think that through.

I rather like the Discovery series — at least the little bit I have seen. The tardigrade story (which I have not seen) really sounds interesting to this human trained in bioethics. While animals are not humans, they are creatures of God, and worthy of great respect. Recently we discovered how trees “talk” to each other, which raises the question of whether they are “sentient”. (I suspect that our current “speciesism” will, in the future, be considered as inappropriate as current human “racism.”)  There are a lot of scientific possibilities to cover, and I welcome their inclusion.

I’m not surprised by the “a darker view of human nature” which the writers have taken. I always though the Original Series was a bit too cheery at times. Now we are seeing a reflection of the not-so-cheery side of human nature. That is certainly in keeping with life in the early 21st century.

And I agree with Doug Vande Griend about CBS “tax” on Star Tek Discovery. Like him, I guess I’ll wait until the dvd comes to see what the discussion has been about. Unless CBS changes its policy.

Thanks for the response Bethany.  And I didn’t have the benefit of watching the show.  That would be significant.

Having said that, I think this does represent a story shift for the Star Trek story line, and one that follows the broader social thinking of 2017.  I do love Star Trek, BTW, even when I disagree with its worldview (which is probably more often than not).

I would agree there are ways to “care for” animals, and I would suggest such caring be done in two ways: (1) by properly exercising “stewardship,” as defined by scripture (even if ambiguously); (2) and by realizing that humans tend to regard animals as proxies for human beings, whether they realize it or not.  No, these two reasons don’t “respect” animals—or plants or inanimate things—as independently “deserving” objects.  As to the legal question, “Should a tree have standing” (“standing” being a right to be recognized as a legitimate party in a lawsuit), I would answer, emphatically, “no”).  But this question is increasingly knocking on our door, with greater volume even.

Of course, I believe only humans are sentient (as defined by the decades long prior Star Trek story line).  Well I shouldn’t say “of course,” because that is not at all a given these days even if it used to be. As much as it might cause some to furrow their brow, or even cringe, I think animals are objects for people to use, even if in a stewardly way.  If not, we really have to drastically the behavior of human society in order to “be just”—and that’s exactly what PETA believes.  No more hamburgers or pork chops or milk or cheese or even pets for the most part (who are we to imprison, to modify by breeding, to “put down,” etc).

Obviously the original Star Trek series showed respect for all humans and all beings similar to humans (humanoids) and showed us the possibilities of sentient life in other forms. In Discovery we have the even more alien than before Klingons, Saru from a previously unshown race, the tardigrade as possibly a sentient being, and in episode 8 a race of sentient beings certainly less corporeal than humans. We saw in the original series and other Trek series aliens who were energy beings, thought beings, gas clouds, rock beings etc. All were shown as deserving of respect as sentient beings.

I don’t see the current series is going to an extreme as some has commented toward a kind of new age animal worship. Of course, in the economy of plenty we see aboard the Federation starships no animals need be killed as food can be replicated. (That’s a whole other interesting discussion).

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