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Star Trek: Discovery, Optimism, and Donald MacKinnon

Star Trek: Discovery starts out really well. It is an edgier Trek with lots of physical and mental shadows. The ship and bridge are darkly lit, and there are many secrets and conflicts. The main character is arrested for mutiny, and is hated and blamed for the war with the Klingons (although why she is completely at fault is never quite explained). Star Fleet officers die and are mean to each other. It’s a different kind of Star Trek, one influenced by The X-Files and shows with long story arcs.


This pleasantness continues for the first third of the show, until it devolves into the tedious side of Star Trek: everyone gets along, there is a technology that can fix anything, people go on personal vision quests as they psychologize each other. Grasping for a plot and the need for conflict, the show shifts to the tiresome alternate mirror universe that Trek has explored for 60 some years.


Stories and history are rooted in conflict, which Star Trek has always sought to escape with its deep optimism. It’s part of what makes the show so beguiling. It has to find plots and conflict when the future has seemingly progressed beyond such things. In Star Trek’s future there is no money, little crime and racism, and the Federation is a fairly benign force in the universe. Classic Trek dealt with this by encountering mysterious planets and people, and The Next Generation explored new questions of Star Fleet’s innocence and ongoing wars. Deep Space Nine (the best of Trek, in my opinion) reversed things with a stationary location, prophecies, terrorism, and uncharted quadrants. The movies The Wrath of Khan and The Voyage Home dealt with conflict through a terrible darkness (Khan) or a self-parodying lightness (Home). Over its many years and incarnations, the show and movies have balanced seriousness with an occasional self-lampooning humor.


The question of conflict also arises in 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the future is similarly optimistic. How do you tell a story without a villain? The genius of Clarke, and reflected in Kubrick’s movie, is that the conflict is with the slow pace of progress and the possibility of a random mistake. The enemy is not ourselves or an outside force, but an errant computer that we made (and that we will conquer), and the future remains bright. David Cronenberg’s films are similar in that the conflict is usually with mental illness and human fears, and not with forces of evil (in contrast to Stephen King and Martin Scorsese). This modern and Enlightenment approach is often found in American culture, but is present in other places as well (Doctor Who is also fairly optimistic, especially since its reboot). There’s a MacGyver element to it, that if we just work hard enough all problems can be conquered, and such an optimism is occasionally warranted and can be heart-warming.


The response is from darker works like Blade Runner, Night of the Living Dead, and even Star Wars, where the future is not always better and the human heart remains deadly and corruptible. Ideas and resources are not infinite; there is no Geordie La Forge who can whip together a quick technological solution. There is always a cost in these darker works. It is the perennial criticism of MacKinnon that there is some “limitless resourcefulness” for people, and even God (The Problem of Metaphysics, 119).

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