Star Trek: Discovery and the Moral Arc of the Universe

Corey deVos Article, Entertainment, Free, Integral Post, Perspectives 12 Comments

CBS has recently rebooted the 50-year old Star Trek franchise, returning the franchise to the small screen (where it truly belongs) for the first time since 2006 in its latest incarnation — Star Trek: Discovery.

One of the defining qualities of Star Trek has long been its immediate philosophical and social relevance to the world we live in today. This, of course, is what science fiction does best — it allows us to take a close and critical look at some of the most poignant and controversial challenges of our time by casting them into some far-future scenario, where it can be insulated by our suspension of disbelief and freed from the confines of our surrounding cultural and political biases, allowing fresh perspectives to arise.

After decades of dystopian blockbusters flooding our collective imagination, Star Trek offers some much-needed reprieve from our current apocalypse-obsessed entertainment culture. We’ve been buffeted by vision after nightmarish vision of our inevitable societal collapse, often brought back from the brink at the very last minute by one of our many modern superhero gods — unachievable projections of our most idealized selves.

But there are no superhero saviors in Star Trek, only ordinary human beings (and Kelpians, and Bajorans, and…) who only have their own skills, ethics, ingenuity, and teamwork to save the day. Star Trek is, if anything, something like “competence porn”.

Life imitates art, and one of my favorite things about Star Trek is seeing just how much of today’s technological and societal trends find their origin in this franchise — from cellphones to tablet computers, video chat, virtual reality holodecks, and universal translators, Star Trek has been ahead of the curve just about every step of the way.

I often talk about four major trends in our current bio-psycho-social evolution, which I have come to call “the four singularities” — and I can very easily trace each of these four trends to the Star Trek franchise:

  • POST-SCARCITY: Star Trek offered us one of our very first visions of a truly post-scarcity world to ever appear in mainstream media. This is a particularly poignant influence for today’s world, when we as a civilization have evolved technologically to a point where viable post-scarcity strategies can begin to be considered for the first time in our history, headed as we are toward some version of a post-capital world.
  • POST-HUMANISM: Star Trek has also given us at least two very different and very influential scenarios for our post-human future. One is found in Data’s Pinocchio story — the artificial life form who dreams of one day becoming a real live boy — whose search for humanity became the source of the very same humanity he was seeking. The other is found in the Borg, which has become an archetypal nightmare of technological dehumanization and fanatical collectivism at the expense of individuality.
  • POST-IRONY: Star Trek is, if anything, a tremendously sincere and idealistic franchise, unhindered by the multiple layers of irony and detached cynicism that drenches so much of our current cultural output. It is refreshingly unashamed of its own corniness, allowing its central characters to hope, to aspire, to care, and to grow beyond the cynicism and detachment of our postmodern politics of “cool”. Our current “post-truth” madness is an inevitable result of our failure to achieve a genuine post-ironic culture, and Star Trek consistently offers a beacon of authenticity for us all to aspire to.
  • POST-METAPHYSICS: It is common knowledge that, for the majority of its run, Gene Roddenberry had a very strict “no God” rule that he strictly held the showrunners to — despite creating a universe with decidedly god-like intelligences, which gave rise to one of the series’ greatest lines from one of its all-time worst films: “What does God need with a space ship?” The idea was that, in this future timeline, humanity had learned to overcome the backwaters of mythic, black-and-white, us-vs.-them thinking, allowing reason and humanitarian morality to illuminate the cold empty blackness separating civilizations. Interestingly, this resulted in a science fiction ethos that was in many ways more spiritual than the world of religion that it left behind.

But really, the soul of Star Trek isn’t optimism or idealism or a roadmap to utopia. All of those are byproducts of the actual moral core of the series: exploring post-conventional morality, and owning the consequences of decisions made from that stage.

There is a scene in Star Trek: Discovery where Michael Burnham, the talented and cocksure first officer, has to make an impossible decision — either betray herself, her career, and her captain, or else risk allowing her closest friends and crewmates to be destroyed by a far more powerful enemy.

It’s a classic no-win situation. Starfleet cadets have a name for this — the “Kobayashi Maru” — a simulated rite of passage for many who train at the Academy. But Michael didn’t go to the Academy. She was raised on an alien world by Vulcans after her human parents were killed decades ago. She had never faced a no-win decision quite like this, where the only available choices are equally terrible and either road leads into darkness.

She knows what she needs to do. She excelled at her training on Vulcan. She knows how to control her all-too-human emotions and fears. She makes her choice. She knows it is the only logical choice, and the one she least wanted to make.

She chooses wrong.

And not only does she make the wrong choice, but the consequences are far more severe than she imagined. It was her own real-life Kobayashi Maru… and she failed.

This is classic Star Trek. At its core, beneath its tireless optimism and corny idealism and geeky technobabble, Star Trek is a show about moral choices. Particularly the really difficult ones, when the most important rules must be broken, when our most meaningful relationships must be betrayed, when our own integrity and dignity and principles must be sacrificed for the needs of the many.

Star Trek offers a far more stirring vision of humanity’s greater potential by extending the moral arc of the universe far ahead in space and time.”

It’s one of the things Star Trek does best: exploring moral choices from a post-conventional stage. Put another way, it’s about having a very strict Prime Directive, and understanding why it must never ever be broken — and then knowing exactly when you need to break it.

Post-conventional morality means finding the greatest depth for the greatest span — a prime directive if ever there was one. Take these sorts of post-conventional moral decisions, toss in a Vulcan or Klingon or two (and hopefully an Andorian, I love those guys) and you’ve got yourself a recipe for some good old fashioned Star Trek.

When the original Star Trek series first aired in 1966, America and many other parts of the world were in the midst of enormous cultural and social disruption. Technology was advancing at an alarming and unprecedented rate, while the fabric of society was being stretched and re-stitched by civil rights movements, political unrest, and global conflict. Everything was better than ever, and yet the world felt like it was resting on the edge of a bat’leth.

And then along came Star Trek, arriving at the perfect time to counter the tensions of the era, offering a far more stirring vision of humanity’s greater potential by extending the moral arc of the universe far ahead in space and time.

And now Star Trek has returned once again, offering us a new window into our possible future beyond the dystopian cyberpunk fever dream we seem to find ourselves in. Star Trek has always held a mirror to our own social inertia, and Discovery is no different, exploring the virtues (and consequences) of “infinite diversity in infinite combinations” just as these same values are under assault here in our own mirror universe.

“The show invites us to set aside our cynicism, to renew our trust in empathy and logic, and to allow ourselves to elevate our gaze and expand our dreams to a galactic scale.”

This incarnation of Star Trek is in many ways a bit more mature than its predecessors, more willing to examine its character’s flaws and the consequences of their failures. It is also possibly the most beautiful show I have ever seen on television. Sure, the Klingons look a bit different now, causing some long-time fans to furrow their forehead ridges — but the set design is incredible, the costumes are amazingly intricate, and the visual effects are absolutely mind-warping.

Most importantly, the moral heart of the show remains very much in place. Everything we love about Star Trek — the awe-inspiring technology, the uplifting visions of our post-scarcity future, the never-ending search for new life and new civilizations that, with any hope, may one day end up being our own — all of these are wrapped around the moral core of Star Trek, without which everything else falls apart into the vacuum. And just as it did 50 years ago, the show invites us to set aside our cynicism, to renew our trust in empathy and logic, and to allow ourselves to elevate our gaze and expand our dreams to a galactic scale. This a new Star Trek for a new generation, and it could not have returned at a better time.

Star Trek: Discovery is available to stream on the CBS All Access app, and on Netflix outside of the U.S.

Originally published in EVOLVE Magazine.

Corey deVos

About Corey deVos

Corey W. deVos is the proverbial "man behind the curtain". He is Editor-in-Chief of Integral Life, as well as Managing Editor of KenWilber.com. He has worked for Integral Institute/Integal Life since Spring of 2003, and has been a student of integral theory and practice since 1996.

Notable Replies

  1. Looks like I’m going to have to find a way to watch the tv show! I was around in 1966 when the first one appeared - made a huge shift in my perception of life. And in those days the special effects were pretty obvious, though that made no difference to the message of the show to me…back then. :slight_smile: Love the clarity of your description.

  2. I think you will absolutely love it Angelika. It is as different from The Next Generation as TNG was from the Original Series, and the Klingons look somewhat different than they did before, but I can still recognize my all-time favorite science fiction franchise behind it all!

    And honestly, it may be the most beautiful show on television, and is almost certainly the strongest first season of any of the Star Trek series since the franchise debuted in the 1960s. I am actually on my fourth rewatch of the first season right now :slight_smile:

  3. MJLS says:

    … I watched the blog about Star Trek.

    I liked the ideas, they’re something i’ve noticed also independently.

    What my thought was is, … what about “Andromeda”?

    Before his death Gene Rodenberry conceived of an entirely new Universe. Not so much ‘Good Guys v Bad Guys’, but ‘The Light v The Dark’.

    It is an extension of Subjects unable to be covered adequately or are side issues in Star Trek… Eugenics, Epigenetics, Evil that manifests from another dimension, characters who are conscious Avatars of Stars & who can swap positions with themselves on their time line & who can select probability branches and guide the characters,… etc, etc.

    I could go on…

    If Corey would like to produce another Vlog about Andromeda & its iNtegral themes, give me a hoy.

    Regards,

    Mark

  4. MJLS says:

    Hey Corey :v::blush:

    … I know LOTS of Trekkies. I even got my 80 year old father engrossed in the Universe,… he loves 7 (of 9:TAU_0) & Voyager. And he even finds ‘The Big Bang Theory’ hillarious (and his Vietnam Vet mates dont get it)… .

    I can’t recall ever running into a fellow Trekkie who even knows of the TV show Andromeda’s existence. But if you are talking about iNtegral & Gene Roddenberry then I’d highly recommend it.

    I was just standing in my NeuroSOMAtic Coding Research Lab thinking about my post when your awesomely swift reply came in.

    What I was thinking is HOW Star Trek is different from Andromeda from an iNtegral Perspective.

    What is is the difference in Tiers?

    Star Trek is Tier 1

    Andromeda is Tier 2 & 3

    It is Tier 3 because it has ‘Involution’ as a Primary theme.

    To see this one needs to follow the character development of two characters,…

    Trance Gemini
    &
    Rev (Reverand) Bem

    *[Spoiler Alert- I would have liked somebody to explain the following to me before I watched the series. And in this Context of contrasting the differences, the following are key points… . Knowing the following does not necessarily impede enjoyment & aids in utilising it as a Learning Tool]

    The first is a female humanoid Avatar of a Star (Sun). She starts out all purple and sweet, she even has a prehensile tail. At a major crisis point a portal opens up & she jumps through from a battle in the future and tells herself to swap places right now. This Trance is a Golden Warrior with experience of what is to come. She is an Agent of the collective Consciousness of all the Suns (Stars) of our Galaxy, our closest neighbour the Andromeda Galaxy, and another… a Tri-Galactic Commonwealth of Species, Planets, Solar Systems; all with a myriad of Forms & Stages of Development & Levels of Consciousness.

    It is her task to counter a force manifesting from a dimension of pure Hatred for all Life.

    Rev Bem, is an intergalactic Wandering Monk. He is of the species bred by this manifesting Hatred to act as infantry to decimate and replace all other lifeforms in the universe. They are asexual and reproduce by injecting eggs into a host with a bite, and like in Alien the movie, the ‘Mother’ or ‘Father’ dies during delivery.

    Rev Bem’s character is central to the theme of ‘Involution’. So is Trance Gemini’s. In Star Trek it is a side issue (Wesley Crushers evolution into a supra-human Being. Nothing was done with that, it happened and got ignored. No utilisation of the characters Development).

    Rev Bem’s Involution is about the Dialect between The Light & The Dark as we EMbody it as Sentient Beings.

    Trance Gemini’s Involution regards Time & Space. Wisdom and Direction of greater order Sentient Beings. Solar System Consciousness. Galactic Networks of that Consciousness.

    Star Trek & Andromeda provide ‘Models’ for evolving ones conceptual comprehension of the Space that exists outside of our world & Planet I find.

    Star Trek aired in September 1966. I was 8 months old. And I watched it live growing up. Strangely, it ceased being broadcast in June 1969. The month before Neil Armstrong put his boot prints on the moon. I watched that live on TV too.

    “Space,… . the Final Frontier… .”

    After the moon landing we had a new way to see the Earth. A photograph of Earth, with the Moon as foreground. Floating in a vast Void. I agree with Ken, this shifted the Consciousness of the entire species. People often ask Who “Generation_X” is. We are the children who watched live on TV, a human being blast off from the Earth, travel through Space, land, and walk around on the Moon (…and, were the first Generation of humans to have Computers in school. Not just “Analogue” like all generations before, nor “DiGiTaL” like the Generations after us. Both, Analogue AND DiGiTaL … .)

    So ‘Space’ is no longer a Conceptual Fontier.

    Star Trek is INTRAgalactic.

    Andromeda is INTERgalactic.

    Star Trek is about Humans interacting with aliens in our neck of the woods and in our Galaxy. Tier 1 quarrelling. Politics.

    Andromeda is about Humans & genetically augmented Humans & Humans who are hidden Divine Beings all interacting with other species and Solar, Galactic & Interdimensional
    Divine Beings/Consciousness.

    The Starship IS a character. It has an advanced Android Avatar that goes on Away Missions with the crew. And she, Andromeda (Romy), can best be described as an ‘A.C’ not ‘A.I’; an ‘Artificial Consciousness’. She feels emotions. And, she has an Ordinance Package that can destroy a planet with one missile… .

    Then there’s the Central character. Played by Kevin Sorbo (Hercules). His is a Rip Van Winkle Tale. Being pulled back into time 300 years into the future. The Commonwealth has decended into Chaos. His mission,… Rebuild the Tri_Galactic Cooperation that fell. With just one Starship & a motley crew of Pirates & Blagards. Who at first want to kill him and commandeer the ship. But seeing as he’s the only living member of the command structure the ship’s A.C will recognise, he manages to quell that.

    Andromeda, is Star Trek for “Grown Ups” Corey :+1:
    … (but, that’s just like, my opinion man/Dude :v::blush:)

  5. MJLS says:

    … if You like it Mark, let Us know here what You thought :v::blush::+1:

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