Season two of Star Trek: Discovery incorporates religion differently than season one. While there are religious overarching themes running throughout, like how actions to shape the future and faith not as convictions but as empowerment, a more fitting and interesting way of addressing religion throughout this season is to look at the individual characters and what their stories have to stay about religion.
Captain Pike knows and understands religion. He also often believes. Michael is the persistent skeptic. The Red Angel plays many roles: an illogical mystery, a revelation, a savior or a intentional sign. Saru is the convert, physically transformed with a newfound confidence and power, while Hugh is the reincarnated, whose bodily existence begets loneliness and struggle. Spock is the logic wrestler, who as Pike says asks “amazing questions.” Finally, not a character per se, episode two, entitled “New Eden,” represents a typical Western understanding of organized religion, replete with sacred writings and a church.
Like season one, religion is present in the opening scene of the season, this time in the form of mythology, as Michael tells a tale of an African girl who threw embers from a fire into the air creating the Milky Way. Michael says that she left a message in the stars if one was willing and open to receiving it.
Enter seven red signals. (Seven is a religiously significant number). The Red Angel creates the signals. She is the most controversial figure of the season. Pike is convinced she acts with intention. At the same time, she has almost driven Spock mad in his attempt to make sense of that intention. In fact, he checks himself into a Star Fleet medical facility for help with this madness. The Terralysiums honor the Red Angel as a savior.
Yet, throughout the season, her biggest achievement is helping humans and other species to act. Together, they save all sentient life in the galaxy. This idea that action brings about the future is a common religious principle. The Jewish concept of tikkun olam, Roman Catholic’s good works, karma found in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, and the principle of the seventh generation found in Native American tribes are all religious perspectives on the efficacy of human action.
Yet, some religious traditions also require faith. Faith too is a component of this season. For example, in episode 2, Pike says faith, rather than understanding, allows him to travel on the mycelial network. In episode 9, Spock urges Stamets to have more faith in himself and his abilities. In episode 11, Ash says he has faith in what the crew of the Discovery is doing.
Michael, the skeptic, highlights another aspect of faith: a lack of it or more likely, for her, a complete rejection of it. In episode 2, Michael rejects of the faith system of the Terralysiums. In episode 5, Georgiou says that Michael must have faith in her, which she also spurns. Although in episode 8, Michael seems to have faith in Spock. She accuses Pike of having faith in the signals and some grand design behind them in episode 13, of which she is not convinced.
Since we have already started with Michael as skeptic, let us return to Captain Pike. Pike’s father taught both science and comparative religion confusing and affecting the child, Pike. There are certainly times when he is the believer among them. In the first episode, Pike tells his science officer “do not covert your neighbor’s starship,” and in the second episode, “what happened to thou shall not steal?” In episode two, when the All-Mother says “Peace be with you,” he responds, “and also with you.” He also quotes Arthur C. Clark’s third law, “any significantly advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and the response “any extraterrestrial intervention is indistinguishable from G-d.” In episode 4, he proclaims the sphere “their galaxy’s Dead Sea Scrolls.”
Yet, episode 4 is more important in terms of Saru, the convert. In the episode, Saru undergoes the Vahar’ai, a Kelpian bodily transformation which is purported to cause death. Yet he survives. Not only that, his typically Kelpian fear is replaced by a sense of power and self-confidence. He is eager to let others know about his transformative rite of passage, or as he calls it an evolving. Many converts approach their new religion in a similar manner, do they not?
Another individual who undergoes a bodily transformation is Hugh. Last season he was killed by Ash/Voq. In episode 5 of this season, the mycelial network builds Hugh a new body for his soul, which has been trapped in the network. He enters into an existential crisis quite literally. This uncertainty about feeling disconnected to his new body and the knowledge of his death play havoc on his relationships. Yet, eventually he is able to overcome the divide between who he was and who he is now.
Finally, there is episode two. Here, religion is quite stereotypically Western: faith-based with sacred writings and a church. On stained glass windows, we see symbols: Jesus crucified for Christianity; a star of David for Judaism; a crescent moon and star for Islam; a Buddha and a hand in chin or vitarka mudra to represent Buddhism and Hinduism respectively. We are told Wiccan and Shinto representations are there as well. From the beginning, Pike and Michael assume that the main religious object is textual, again quite Western and Christian.
There is however a harvest moon ritual, complete with candles, incense, bell ringing, and prayers. The religious leader is called All-Mother and clothed completely in red. Lastly, this amalgamated religion has a new savior, the Red Angel.
Yet, as illustrated, religion, in Star Trek: Discovery‘s second season, is so much more than this example. When one of the show’s creators, Alex Kurtzman said season two centered on faith, he meant it. Religious elements run throughout the season. There are characters who embody elements of it: the Red Angel: the unknown, the savior, or the one with a purpose; Michael, the skeptic; Spock, the logician; Saru, the convert; Hugh, the resurrected; and Pike, the believer. The plot centers on a religious notion that actions create the future. Finally, the season highlights the importance of faith, yes sometimes in convictions, but more so, as empowerment of one’s self and others.
Next month, season three.
As always, 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.