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How STAR TREK: DISCOVERY Reflects Our Current Moment

Star Trek, since it’s earliest days, works best when it’s holding up a mirror to modern society. The original ’60s series found a way to talk about the turbulent times it first aired in via sci-fi parable, getting taboo subject matter past the network censors. And most of the succeeding Trek shows have done the same thing. But since premiering in 2017, Star Trek: Discovery felt like the first TV Trek in a long time that sidestepped the allegories for modern day, in an effort to just provide pure escapism and character drama. Which is fine. Lots of our entertainment does this. But for Star Trek, its bread and butter has always been allegory. It felt like something was missing.

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For its current third season, Star Trek: Discovery has finally decided to make their running commentary on our turbulent times. This season finds the crew propelled 930 years into the future, to the year 3188. This is almost 800 years past where Star Trek: Picard takes places, the furthest point yet in the timeline. When this happened, I was afraid that the producers would go the easy route, and give us a dystopian Mad Max future. One where Earth is a shell of planet, and lawlessness rules. But what they did was much closer to what we are culturally going through than just another post-apocalyptic world.

When Discovery arrives in the 32nd century in the third season premiere, “The Hope Is You, Part I,”  the galaxy has changed from what everyone once knew. Some 120 years prior, an event called “The Burn” happened. The incident in question was described by the new character of Cleveland Booker (David Ajala) as occurring like this:

“The Burn was the day the galaxy took a hard left. Dilithium, most of it just went boom…The Federation couldn’t say what happened or if it would happen again…they tried to hang on…but after a while, they just weren’t around anymore.”
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For those less Trek-obsessed out there, Dilithium crystals are essentially the substance that makes starships high warp speed capable. They’ve been mentioned since the original series, and are a longtime Trek staple. We do know that ships in Star Trek can go to warp without them (see: Star Trek: First Contact) but journeys that are great distances are now much, much harder. This has created a scenario where planets are essentially isolated from one another, and the United Federation of Planets exists mostly in concept only.

Sound familiar? In the year 2020, thanks to COVID-19 and internal political strife, we all find ourselves isolated from each other in this country. Physically, because of the pandemic, we can’t see one another in person, or travel out to visit our neighbors. And if it’s not for those reasons, then the political divide in the United States has split entire families apart. Most of us still have our homes, our cars, and our basic needs met. The buildings still stand tall. But our world has changed. The United States of America still functions, but it now feels like a concept more than a reality.

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On Discovery, it feels like the crew has jumped into a very similar scenario themselves. The Earth of 2188 is still kicking, and relatively at peace. Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a united humanity persists. But humanity post-Burn has become paranoid and cut itself off from what is left of the Federation, the organization of which it is a founding member. The planet Trill, best known to Deep Space Nine fans, has also become isolationist. Tribalism is the rule of the day now, and everyone is angry and/or terrified of their neighbors.

Yes, the Federation technically still exists, as we learned in episode five of this season, “Die Trying.”  But it’s hanging on by a thread. Starfleet is now based far out in the quadrant, where what is left of the fleet hides under cover of a distortion field, created from the combined energies what ships they still have. Only 38 worlds remain as UFP members, of what was once 350. Many people in the galaxy don’t even know that the United Federation of Planets is still functioning. One could say that they think that it’s all just “fake news.” It sure sounds to us like America in the year 2020.

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Into this scenario, the arrival of the U.S.S. Discovery in the 32nd century is like a ray of light. Michael Burnham (Soneequa Martin-Green), Captain Saru (Doug Jones), and the crew come carrying all these old Federation ideals with them. The crew are a living symbol of diversity unified for a common good. Not only that, they literally carry long-lost technology that could help restore the Federation to what it once was. Honestly, it feels like this is a Star Trek series that’s perfect for the moment we are living in at last.

Right now, we are all wondering the same thing—after everything we’ve gone through as a country, can 2021 bring us back to the idea of a unified America? Can those quaint old ideals become the norm once again? We might not have FDR or Abraham Lincoln arriving from the past, but we can remember what they stood for. The Discovery crew are hoping to change their future. I think, given that it would be a true bummer of a season if they didn’t, that they will succeed. Here’s hoping that our real world has the same success next year in restoring America to at least something approaching the ideals we profess to strive for. And I hope Star Trek: Discovery gives us a good blueprint to work from.

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