In the first season of the original Star Trek, the episode “Errand of Mercy” featured Kirk and Spock trying to protect a seemingly simple culture from Klingon annihilation. However, all was not as it seemed, and now, Discovery has revisited a very similar premise as the ship and crew find a planet built from the ideological ruminations that are emblematic of the whole Trek franchise. The thing is, this planet is a metaphor that is almost not a metaphor. The planet Pahvo is literally made of pure Star Trek.
Spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Discovery episode 8, “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum.”
When Saru, Tyler and Burnham are sent to an alien world housing a nifty crystal transmitter that can supposedly break all the Klingon cloaking devices, a twist is coming a lightyear away. Rapidly, Saru discovers the planet itself is sentient, and lives is a state of balance and peace. Basically, the planet embodies the values the United Federation Federation of Planets just by existing harmoniously. The contradiction of using such a peaceful planet to win a war isn’t lost on Saru. Once he bonds with the Pahvo, he decides it’s time to stop fighting and basically become one with this awesome planet, which means he’s cool with stranding Burnham and Tyler there forever. Like a life coach telling someone to delete their Facebook, Saru unceremoniously breaks their communicators and implores everyone to get down with nature.
In this way, Discovery might be critiquing its own premise: should the Federation even be fighting a war? Should a show about space exploration and hope also feature torture and murder? Neither of these questions is necessarily answered, but they are posed in the traditional head-scratching Star Trek-fashion. Like with the previous episode, if there are still haters out there who believe Discovery isn’t “real” Star Trek, their case is getting thinner by the episode. Burnham and Tyler even evoke the famous Spock axiom: the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.
Again, this works thematically for the entire series being about a giant war to save the Federation, but it also could be read as a sly criticism of television in general. Good Star Trek has always been armchair sci-fi philosophizing but dressed up in the guise of an action-adventure show. That’s why the original series was so successful. Its aesthetics were taken from the pulp sci-fi of the ‘30s and ‘40s, but its content was closer to the New Wave sci-fi writers of the ‘60s. In other words, Trek was peddling its progressive politics under the guise of sexy aliens and Captain Kirk beating the shit out of people.
TV, and Star Trek have come a long way since then. Discovery isn’t burdened by the sexist baggage of the series which spawned it all. But, it is more violent than any previous iteration of Star Trek. Is this violence a sign of realistic maturity or just a ploy to get viewers? Maybe Discoveryis having it both ways. Come for the Game of Thrones style-violence from the Klingons, but stay for the subversive optimism. When we rejoin Admiral Cornwell in Klingon captivity, we think she’s going to get tortured by L’Rell. Instead, L’Rell tells Cornwell she wants to defect and tries to hatch a scheme to get off the Klingon flagship with Corwell. Everything doesn’t go to plan, and Cornwell is seemingly left for dead…or is she?
As anticipated, “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum” was a game-changing episode, just not in the way anyone expected. We’re no closer to understanding the mysteries of Captain Lorca, Lt. Tyler or Admiral Cornwell. But the stage has been set for an interesting parallel with “Errand of Mercy.” Early on, the brutal Kol is referenced as being part of “house Kor.” Kor was the first Klingon ever in the original series, a guy who despite being a tyrant and rocking a questionable mustache, had respect for Starfleet and a clear sense of honor. Kol isn’t even close to having a sense of honor and has no mustache to speak of.
Kor and his Klingon fleet were also put into an impossible predicament by the aliens Kirk and Spock were trying to protect, the Organians. Far from being simple, the Organians were actually all-powerful beings of pure energy who had figured out how to make peace happen. Sound familiar?The Pahvo aliens encountered by Saru feel very similar to the Organians, and this new episode even ends with them arranging for the Klingons and the USS Discovery to be in the same place at the same time to attempt a peace treaty. It’s a cliffhanger Star Trek has been on before; just when you think an interstellar war is about to break out, a superior alien intelligence jumps in and complicates things. In theory, “Errand of Mercy” is in Discovery’s future, so right now, the Organian connection is probably not a literal one.
Still, because the writing staff of Discovery is lousy with people who know Star Trek better than most fans (this week’s episode was penned by longtime Trek novelist Kirsten Beyer), even the casual viewer can rest assured that none of these parallels are on accident. After eight episodes, this bold new Trek has finally found a strange new, world. And happily, though that world is strange, it’s familiarity will make long time fans feel very much at home.
Star Trek: Discovery has one more episode to go before its midseason hiatus. Episode 9 airs next Sunday, November 12 at 8:30 p.m. Eastern on CBS All Access.
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