I have been watching more television than usual. Perhaps, the reader has too. Two weeks ago, while I was rewatching Star Trek: Discovery, I thought to myself, “wouldn’t it be nice if I could write something about this series?”
After all, I want to acknowledge how grateful I am for the ways the series celebrates diversity with: women of color in leading roles; the normalization of gay relationships; and, in the latest season, the inclusion of non-binary and transgender identities. Not only that, it has strong female characters that are empowered, supported and mentored by each other and other crew members. I am also glad that it expresses ecological sustainability, the interconnectedness of life through the mycelial network, and the ethical treatment of animals. Finally, I have appreciated the way this series questions violence and war. Notably, it contends with the question: how does a united planetary organization committed to peace find itself in the midst of war? The answer: war and violence are learned behaviors. That has a very feminist ring to it, doesn’t it?
However, the show is not perfect. It contradicts itself in one major area: Starfleet’s hierarchical ranks and the corresponding requirement to follow orders. Captain Lorca in season 1 episode 3 reminds the crew that they are not part of a democracy. Yet, the Federation preaches equality and freedom and often touts itself as utopian, where hunger, wants and needs no longer exist.
But, what does the series have to say about religion? It depends on how one defines religion. Because of limited space, I will focus here on season 1. (Subsequent blogs will cover seasons two, three, and hopefully more.) The religious aspects I find, in season 1, encompass concepts like awe, hope, peace, compassion, equality, and freedom. It also includes allusions to spirituality, ethical discussions, rituals like prayer, and faith. However, there are also aspects of more organised religion: the Klingons.
This expanded definition of religion starts in the opening scenes of the series. The main character, Commander Michael Burnham, a human raised on Vulcan, says the following about an object she is exploring, “I don’t know who said, ‘Sculptures are crystalized spirituality,’ but I see what they meant.” She is clearly in awe.
In the next scene, Michael and her captain, Phillipa Georgiou, are fixing a well for a species threatened with extinction. However, this species is not yet warp capable and, so, according to Starfleect regulations, cannot know that they are being helped. Maimonides’ levels of tzedakah spring to mind. He writes that the highest level of tzedakah is helping someone become self-reliant before they are at their rock bottom which is essentially what Michael and Phillipa do. (By the way, this scene also passes the Bechdel Test. In fact, it isn’t until episode 7 that two (albeit named) female characters discuss one of their love interests.)
Then, we have the Klingons, who represent a more Western understanding of religion focused on beliefs. In addition, their religion has explicit links to race supremacy and extremely violent behaviour. We learn in the series that the Klingons’ messiah is Kahless, who once united the 24 houses of the Klingons together. Kahless’ torchbearer is T’Kuvma (who is also sometimes referred to as a messiah in the series). His mission, following in the Kahless’ footsteps, is to reunite the 24 disparate houses of the Klingons into one Klingon empire to protect the purity of the race.
Klingons are violent by nature, but they are also taught violent ideas increasing their propensity for violence. For example, Kahless taught that the Federation lies: it says, “we come in peace,” but what it really wants is “assimilation and homogenization.” Yet, not everything is about violence. A more balanced Klingon prayer is in episode 12, Ash/Voq says, “Kahless give me light. Father give me wisdom. Mother, give me drink. Brother, give me strength. Sister, give me family.” Nonetheless, it is their religious ideation that leads to war with the Federation. Fighting, winning, and losing this war consume the plot of season one.
Another recurring religious concept in season one is the katra, or the Vulcan “eternal life force.” In episode 2, Micheal’s adopted father, Sarek, gives her part of his katra, when she is killed in an attack at her school. This transfer brings her back to life as well as creates a life-long connection between her and Sarek. For example, in episode 2, Michael is distressed. Sarek can feel it in his katra and goes to her. in episode 6, Sarek is wounded by a logic-extremeist suicide bomber (a fanatic as Sarek calls him, another allusion to religious ideas). Michael is crippled over in pain and instantly knows that Sarek needs help.
There are also some shorter examples. Due to limited space, I cannot hope to detail all of them. Nonetheless, in episode 5, Cadet Tilly says a beautiful prayer over the Tardigrade who they are releasing into space. “May the sun and moon watch your comings and goings and the endless nights and days that are before you.” In episode 12, while in the mycelial network, the Terran Stamets says to the Federation Stamets, “There is a G-d, and she is very mad at you right now.” The Federation Stamets looks concerned. Immediately, the Terran Stamets begins to laugh. The Federation Stamets asks, “So there is no G-d?” To which, the Terran Stamets responds that he doesn’t know. Did you notice the nod to G-d as she?
Finally, at the end of season one, the war with the Klingons is over. In front of Starfleet and after the crew of the Discovery has been awarded Medals of Honor, Michael gives a heartful speech full of religious sentiment. “No, we will not take shortcuts on the path to righteousness. No, we will not break the rules that protect us from our basest instincts. No, we will not allow desperation to destroy moral authority…We have to be torchbearers, casting the light so we may see our path to lasting peace, [Emphasis mine.].” Righteous and moral authority are part of many religious sentiments. Likewise, that last sentence uses the Klingon religious identity of the torchbearer of Kahless and reshapes it into the Federation quest for peace.
In summary, season one has religious elements, even if they are rather limited. The Klingon’s belief in their messiah Kahless leads to violence and underpins racial purity. Michael and Sarek share one katra, “the Vulcan eternal life-force.” Tilly prays for a dying animal, the Stamets discuss G-d as she, and Michael gives a speech full of religious ideation. Next month, I will explore season two, which promises to offer much more food for fodder.
Until then, live long and prosper.
Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies, Feminist and Ecofeminist courses.