“Who do we want to be?”
Captain Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) poses that question to the United Federation of Planets council at the climax of “… But to Connect,” the seventh episode of Star Trek: Discovery’s fourth season. The council has convened to address the presence of a new species whose arrival in the galaxy has planet-destroying consequences, perhaps intentionally. Some council members consider an aggressive response, but Burnham urges diplomacy, recognizing a unique first contact opportunity.
Disagreements such as these are hardly new to Star Trek. In fact, the paradigmatic Star Trek scene involves a group of people peacefully debating possible complicated issues. But Discovery takes a decidedly unique approach to this trope. The camera glides around Burnham as she speaks, capturing every creased brow and pleading smile, underscoring her feelings even more than her words. Martin-Green pours herself into the moment, lowering her voice to a whisper when being sincere and raising it an octave when marshaling hope. She finishes the speech a near wreck, barely fighting back tears.
For its detractors, scenes like this are everything wrong with the series. Over its 3 ½ seasons, Discovery has established itself as the most openly emotional Star Trek series, in which characters talk about their trauma, give each other meaningful hugs, and shed tears in nearly every episode. Discovery explores pathos more thoroughly than any other series in the franchise. In doing so, it underscores an important aspect of humanity, one too often downplayed by the franchise.
Michael Burnham is hardly the first Trek character to shed tears on the final frontier. After all, who can forget William Shatner stifling a cry during Captain Kirk’s eulogy for Spock (Leonard Nimoy) in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan?
Right from the start of Star Trek, Doctor McCoy (DeForest Kelley) was there at Kirk’s side, countering Spock’s cold logic with a passionate outburst. Many of the all-time best Star Trek episodes mine the emotional core of their characters, letting them be messy and human instead of demanding that they adhere to logic in every moment. The Deep Space Nine episode “The Visitor” captures the longing and joy Jake Sisko feels as he grows to an adult, only seeing his time-displaced father in short intervals every few years, while the bittersweet final moments in the life of George Kirk reverberate not only throughout 2009’s Star Trek, but all three reboot films.
But as powerful as these moments may be, Trek usually treats empathy as a challenge, a problem to overcome for the greater good. Take the classic episode “The City on the Edge of Forever”, in which a delusional McCoy disrupts the timestream, inadvertently preventing the death of social worker Edith Keeler, thus allowing her to found a humanitarian movement. But her work has the unintended consequence of delaying the U.S. entry into World War II, which allows the Nazis to kill far more people than they otherwise would have. As Spock describes it in his characteristically blunt manner, “Edith Keeler must die.”
To be sure, the death scene honors the pain and sorrow Kirk feels as he prevents McCoy from saving Keeler. But the message is clear: Because the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, Kirk’s emotions take a back seat to demands of logic.
Similar plots reoccur throughout the franchise, a fact that can be traced back to Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry imagined an ideal future for humanity, which had evolved past issues such as capitalism or racism and sexism. While Roddenberry didn’t explicitly outlaw emotion, he did reject plots that dealt with emotional issues, including interpersonal conflict, irrational responses to trauma, and grieving death. In a world where everyone could heal themselves and survive without struggle, he thought, logic would — and should — always win out.
Even when Trek series attend to the feelings, they either mishandle it or lose interest. As an empath and ship counselor, Deanna Troi seemed primed to fill the McCoy role on The Next Generation (TNG), but the writers too often relegated her to describing other characters’ obvious feelings. By the time Voyager’s Neelix matured from a manipulative coward into an empathetic morale officer, the show had turned its attention to hologram The Doctor and ex-Borg Seven of Nine. The same problem plagues Enterprise’s genial Captain Archer, who was often overshadowed by the Vulcan T’Pol.
After Roddenberry died, the Star Trek shows were able to let emotions build up more throughout their shows. Deep Space Nine let its protagonists carry traumas and have romances. It even takes a nuanced look at the feelings associated with 20th-century racism (“Far Beyond the Stars”) and PTSD (“It’s Only a Paper Moon”).
The other three current ongoing Trek series each embrace emotion more consistently than their predecessors. Picard uses audience nostalgia for the title character as a contrast to Starfleet’s callous bureaucracy, while the young Delta Quadrant outcasts in Prodigy bubble over with childlike wonder as they become the crew of the abandoned USS Protostar. Lower Decks finds comedy not just in references to the goofier parts of Trek lore, but also in the foibles of its neurotic ensigns.
In each case, these series work precisely because it counters the franchise’s usual focus on logic over emotion. Picard becomes the principled leader that we know from TNG when he defies the Federation pragmatism to help synthetics by assembling a new crew. As much as Holographic Janeway tries to get the Prodigy kids in shape, the pleasure of the series comes from watching them learn how to make Starfleet regulations meaningful for themselves. Lower Decks is funny precisely because its characters undercut the standard image of the constantly professional Starfleet officer. But because these series go in a new direction with its characters, they end up being exceptions that prove the rule. Picard’s rag-tag crew, the kids on the USS Protostar, and the Lower Decks goofballs indulge their feelings; members of the real, proper Starfleet do not.
Of the current ongoing Star Trek series, these “real, proper” Starfleet personnel can only be found on Discovery. And in many ways, the actions of Captain Burnham and her crew carry more weight than those of even Enterprise Captains Kirk or Picard, as the USS Discovery-A plays a central role in rebuilding the United Federation of Planets in the 32nd century. It’s a flagship vessel, both for the show and the greater series. Viewers have to take notice when Discovery breaks from the standard Star Trek portrayal of human emotion.
One of the clearest examples of the difference in Trek’s approach to emotional issues can be found in the season 2 TNG episode “The Measure of a Man.” Taking the form of a courtroom drama, the episode centers around a debate about Commander Data’s personhood status, prompted when Starfleet defines him as mere property. Captain Picard argues for Data’s sentience, while Commander Riker has been ordered by Judge Advocate General Phillipa Louvois to contend that Data is property, fit for experimentation by Commander Bruce Maddox.
Unruly feelings abound: Riker feels guilty for prosecuting his crewmate, Picard and Phillipa Louvois have complicated feelings from a past romance, and Maddox has aspirations for his experiments. During the trial, Picard passionately states his case, with Patrick Stewart bringing Shakespearean gravitas to the speeches he delivers. “Starfleet was founded to seek out new life,” he declares in his booming baritone, pointing at Data; “Well, there it sits!”
But while Picard states his case lovingly and movingly, it’s a fundamentally logical argument that he wins with. If Starfleet defines life according to forms it knows and if Starfleet exists to seek out new forms of life, then it must alter its definition according to those new forms. Moreover, everyone involved must overcome their own emotions to accept Picard’s claim. Arguably the first great episode of TNG, “The Measure of a Man” chrystialized the focus on logic found in TOS and the early movies. From that episode forward, Trek would make explicit what was often implied: evolved humans do not use feelings to solve their problems.
The Discovery episode “…But to Connect” has clear parallels to “The Measure of a Man,” but the more recent episode emphasizes feelings over reason. Once again, the characters debate the distinction between personhood and property when Discovery’s computer Zora gains sentience, and Adira even echoes Picard when they call Zora an “entirely new lifeform.” But while there is certainly a logical structure to the various positions, director Lee Rose focuses on emotions. Arguing they should follow Starfleet protocol and put Zora into a new form, Stamets recounts the fear and mistrust he feels when she refuses a direct order from Captain Burnham to protect the crew. Contending that Zora should stay in Discovery, Adira and Gray relate their own feelings of rejection and acceptance for failing to fit social standards. Even Zora describes her affinity toward the crew and her worries for their safety.
In fact, Zora and her supporters win the debate not with a steel-tight syllogism, but with an ethos appeal. While investigating Zora’s memory structure, Adira finds a new section, which they identify as Zora’s subconscious. Within this field are images of Discovery’s crew, connecting with and caring for one another. In part, this fact wins over Stamets and Kovich because the existence of a subconscious means that Zora cannot be considered artificial intelligence. But as the music and camera movements make clear, empathy for Zora drives Stamets’ decision.
For some of Discovery’s critics, this plot resolves too easily, the equivalent of “hugging it out” instead of facing the issue (if they apply the same level of rigor to the fallacies in “The Measure of a Man”, I cannot say). But that reading misplaces the focus of the Zora debate. The goal of the debate isn’t to comb through legal proceedings, but to allow the participants to have their feelings recognized and validated. “It feels marvelous … Being seen,” Zora says after her official status is changed.
In these scenes, Discovery revises the utopian future that has always been at the heart of Star Trek. The humans of the future reach their best selves not by overcoming their emotions, but by recognizing them and caring for them, in themselves and others. Discovery insists that empathy is an effective way to seek out new life and new civilizations.
Michael Burnham asks the Federation council “Who do we want to be?” Discovery answers, boldly, firmly — and, yes, tearfully — “Fully human, both logical and emotional.”