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.