“Are we allowed to squash alien life forms?”: Strange New World (Enterprise) vs. Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum (Discovery)

*This post contains full spoilers for the episodes discussed, and some spoilers for season 1 of Discovery.

Star Trek: Enterprise – “Strange New World” (season 1, episode 4)

strange 1Teleplay by Mike Sussman & Phyllis Strong; story by Rick Berman and Brannon Braga; directed by David Livingston; first aired in 2001

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

The crew of the Enterprise are excited to discover their first new Minshara-class, or Earth-like, planet. So excited, in fact, that they ignore Vulcan protocol and T’Pol’s words of caution, and immediately head down in the shuttle to take a look. (Captain Archer even brings his dog!) After some looking around, Archer takes the shuttle back to Enterprise, while T’Pol, Trip, Travis, and a couple of crewmen stay on the planet overnight: T’Pol for some serious research, the rest for a fun camping trip, complete with campfire ghost stories. But, surprise surprise, unknown alien worlds aren’t the safest places to camp, and a sudden storm chases the away team into some nearby caves, where they all start to go a bit weird. When the humans become convinced that there are shape-shifting rock people plotting against them – and that the rock people are conspiring with T’Pol – Trip’s thinly veiled space-racism gets completely unveiled, and he threatens T’Pol at phaserpoint. Archer and the Enterprise crew realize that an alien pollen, stirred up by the storm, is causing the away team to hallucinate, and they work to find a cure before anyone gets hurt (anyone besides the crewman who already got fused with some leaves and twigs in the experimental transporter, that is).

VS.

Star Trek: Discovery – “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum” (season 1, episode 8)

si vis 2Written by Kirsten Beyer; directed by John S. Scott; first aired in 2017

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

As the episode opens, the war with the Klingons is not going well: cloaked Klingon ships are making short work of Starfleet, and a captured Admiral Cornwell is being questioned by L’Rell, who has ulterior motives of her own. On top of that, Stamets seems to be suffering psychological side effects of powering Discovery’s spore drive, the only advantage Starfleet has. All of which lends a great deal of importance to an away mission on the seemingly uninhabited planet Pahvo, where Burnham, Tyler, and Saru are investigating a seemingly naturally-occurring crystal transmitter, which they hope to use to find cloaked Klingon ships. But neither Pahvo nor the transmitter are what they seem, as Saru discovers when he makes first contact with the Pahvans, an alien consciousness who essentially are the planet, and who want to exist in peaceful harmony with all other life forms. They bestow some of that harmony on Saru by easing his Kelpien danger-sense, making him feel truly at peace for the first time in his life. Which inadvertently turns Saru into a threat to Burnham and Tyler, as he becomes determined to keep the three of them on Pahvo … by any means necessary.

strange 6Away missions are like the bread and butter of Star Trek. I enjoy a cool space battle as much as the next nerd, but they’ve always been a bit of a challenge for the franchise to pull off: Deep Space Nine was relatively ambitious on that front, with its Dominion War storyline – and with visual effects which were an obvious step up from earlier Trek – and still, you don’t have to look far online to find Trek fans complaining about the execution of those battles. Away missions, on the other hand, have tended to be much more doable on the average episode’s budget, and at any rate, they’re more closely tied to the core themes of Trek, as represented by William Shatner’s opening monologue on The Original Series: the desire “to explore strange new worlds” and “to seek out new life and new civilizations”. Granted, most of those “strange new worlds” tend to look a whole lot like Earth, thanks, again, to budget constraints and limited effects. But since most of those planets serve mostly as metaphors for our own world anyway, I suppose we can let that slide.

si vis 4Enterprise’s “Strange New World” and Discovery’s “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum” are both notable for containing the first instance of a classic away mission to an alien planet in their respective series (with the exception of that one very brief scene on a desert planet at the beginning of Discovery’s first episode, “The Vulcan Hello”, which served mainly to establish Burnham’s relationship with Captain Georgiou; the planet itself, and its people, were unimportant to the episode). And since Enterprise and Discovery are, at the time I’m writing this, the two most recent TV incarnations of Star Trek, this seems particularly significant. By the nature of its premise, as a prequel focusing on the earliest days of Starfleet, Enterprise promises to show us the first away missions any humans led to alien worlds; “Strange New World” acknowledges this responsibility from the moment its title appears on screen, an explicit reference to the above-mentioned Shatner monologue. And the rarity of old-school, one-off away missions in Discovery’s first season is one element of the show’s more contemporary, highly-serialized approach that really stands out in comparison to much of the Trek that came before it.

si vis 5“Strange New World” and “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum” both revisit another familiar Star Trek trope, as well: the alien chemical, or alien life form, that causes crew members to lose control of themselves. This is something we’ve seen in many an episode of Trek: in fact, the concept was so appealing to writers of The Original Series and The Next Generation that each of those series introduced this premise in one of their very earliest episodes, “The Naked Time” and “The Naked Now” respectively, making the curious choice to show their crews behaving entirely out of character before the audience had really gotten to know those characters. Enterprise and Discovery, too, make use of this premise quite early in their first seasons, but wisely do so in ways that reveal or exaggerate traits we have already seen in these characters, and will continue to see in future episodes. “Brave New Worlds” uses its paranoia-inducing pollen to amp up the distrust of Vulcan First Officer T’Pol we’d already seen from the Enterprise’s human crew in general, and especially from Trip Tucker.  “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum” also expands on what we’ve already seen of Kelpien First Officer Saru, while cleverly subverting the ‘character out of control’ trope. By the end of the episode, we’ve learned that Saru actually isn’t out of control, strictly speaking; the Pahvans haven’t altered his mind, they’ve simply (and innocently) given him something he can’t bring himself to let go of. Both Trip and Saru behave seemingly out of character, in these episodes, not just because of alien influence, but because of something in their character, something they were already wrestling with: prejudice in Trip’s case, fear in Saru’s.

strange 4“Strange New World” lets us know almost immediately that human prejudice against Vulcans will play an important role in this episode. In its very first scene, we see Crewman Cutler dining on Vulcan food, and Crewman Novakovich wondering how she can eat it. This friction between human and Vulcan culture is nothing new, even so early in the run of Enterprise; it was introduced early in the series opener, “Broken Bow” (and was one of the things I liked least about that episode). But here, at least, we do get a different perspective from Cutler. Where Archer and Trip are mostly insufferable a-holes to T’Pol in these early episodes, Cutler shows us another inevitable human reaction to an alien species: curiosity. She tries Vulcan food, tries to strike up a conversation about it with T’Pol, and expresses gratitude at being chosen by T’Pol for the away mission; she seems to be genuinely trying to connect with T’Pol as a fellow crewmember (even if T’Pol’s unwillingness to make small talk gives Trip another chance to be obnoxious, telling Cutler she’d have “better luck making friends with a housefly”).

strange 5I like that the writers of this episode seem to be trying to show a wider range of human reaction to Vulcans from the crew, at least at first, though it’s conspicuous that this more welcoming, less belligerent approach comes from Cutler, a supporting character, and not a member of the main cast. It really seems like the Enterprise creative team was determined to lean hard into conflict between T’Pol and the rest of the main cast, which I think lessens the characters, especially Archer. Here, his arrogant dismissal of T’Pol’s extremely sensible advice – “we didn’t come out here to tip-toe around” – makes him look borderline incompetent, as does his insistence, on the planet, that T’Pol “put that thing away” when she’s scanning the surroundings with her tricorder. This isn’t helped by the fact that an audience already familiar with what usually happens on away missions in Trek – which I’d assume was Enterprise’s target audience – would know from the get-go that the planet almost certainly isn’t as safe as Archer assumes it is, and that T’Pol should absolutely be scanning for whatever it is that’s going to try and kill them this week. I mean, I get it, drama is all about conflict, but that works a lot better when both sides have an understandable, rational reason for conflict: Archer’s ‘you’re not my mom’ brand of defiance in these scenes isn’t compelling or endearing, and he comes off as a lot more competent, and a lot more interesting, later in the episode, when he’s working with T’Pol to help save her from a delusional Trip, instead of pointlessly arguing with her.

strange 2And that conflict, between T’Pol and Trip, works better for me, because it feels a lot less manufactured. Okay, yes, the alien pollen is used as a classic sci-fi plot device, to bring Trip’s simmering hostility toward T’Pol to a boil. But in any good science fiction, sci-fi problems say something about real-world problems, and in “Strange New World”, the pollen is only amplifying a conflict that was already there, based on prejudice and suspicion Trip already felt toward Vulcans in general, and toward T’Pol more specifically. Like Archer, Trip gives T’Pol a hard time earlier in the episode, long before the pollen takes effect. But in Trip’s case, the episode explicitly acknowledges the underlying space-racism that drives this antagonism, and Trip himself apologizes not just for his frightening actions (which he wasn’t really responsible for, being under the influence of space-pollen and all), but for the prejudice behind those actions (which he is responsible for, as we all are for our own prejudices). And “Strange New World” does something interesting by finally revealing that one of the people Trip had been arguing with in his hallucinations was a Vulcan scientist who had spoken to Trip’s high school biology class, and who gave the class this advice: “Challenge your preconceptions, or they’ll challenge you” (advice we’d hear again from Sarek in the first episode of Discovery). This shows us that Enterprise understands – sometimes, at least – that Trip’s prejudice against T’Pol is a problem for Trip to acknowledge and deal with, not just an obstacle for T’Pol to overcome. And it makes Trip a bot more sympathetic, in my eyes, than he had been, by showing that his prejudice is something he’s conflicted about, something he’s wrestling with internally, as we all should be wrestling with our prejudices, instead of defensively making excuses for them.

strange 7In “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum”, Discovery shows that it, too, understands that genuine conflict makes for better conflict, and that having characters connect, even grudgingly, is usually a lot more interesting than having them argue just for the sake of it. In the episode’s C-story, Stamets outlines a classic genuine conflict for Tilly, when he insists that he can’t tell Culber, the ship’s doctor and his partner, about the effects the spore drive is having on him, because it would put Culber in an impossible position: keep quiet and risk his own career, or blow the whistle and risk Stamets’s career (of course this all plays like a Starfleet HR video on why relationships in the workplace are a bad idea, but since theirs is one of the realest-feeling romantic relationships I can remember in all of Trek, I’ll just ignore that). In the B-story, it’s hard to have a clearly-defined conflict, given that L’Rell’s true motivations always seem to be in question. Instead, we get some great grudging respect between her and Admiral Cornwell, despite their being on opposite sides of a war. Their shared scream might be my favorite moment in Discovery’s first season; it fools the Klingon guards into thinking that Cornwell is being tortured, because they assume her to be just another weak human, but for L’Rell, it only confirms that Cornwell is strong enough to serve as her ally (for however long L’Rell was planning that to last).

si vis 7And in the episode’s A-story, the conflict between Saru and Burnham is solidly based both in character motivation, and in the history between them that we’ve seen on screen up to this point in the season. As mentioned above, “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum” puts a clever twist on both of the Trek tropes it’s using here: the away mission to a planet with an alien threat, and the alien influence that turns the crew against each other. Archer ends up looking stupidly careless in “Strange New World” because we’ve been trained, as viewers, to expect that they’ll find something dangerous on the planet; and so, from the moment we meet the Pahvans in “Si Vis Pacem”, we expect, as we’ve been trained to do, that they’ll turn out not to be the well-meaning pacifists they appear to be. And when Saru stops being bothered by the planet’s “song”, and starts acting like a creepy cultist, that starts to seem even more likely. It’s both surprising, then, and genuinely tragic, when we learn that Saru wasn’t tricked or mind-controlled by the Pahvans when he lied to Burnham and Tyler, crushed their communicators, and physically assaulted Burnham; he simply wanted to stay on Pahvo, so badly that he was willing to behave completely out of character, going against both Starfleet rules and regulations and, quite literally, his own nature. Since Saru was first introduced in “The Vulcan Hello”, his species, the Kelpiens, have been characterized, in true Trek fashion, as ‘the frightened race’, a people apparently bred as “livestock”, and as a sort of living threat-detection system. (Who did this, and why, is something I assume, and hope, Discovery will explore in the future.) Given that one of Saru’s defining traits, as a character, is the near-constant state of fear he lives in, it both makes sense that he could become instantly addicted to not being afraid, and is genuinely shocking to see the formidable threat he poses when he goes on the offensive.

si vis 3Of course, the advantage of having a character mind-controlled into doing bad things is that this excuses them of responsibility for those actions. While I give “Strange New World” credit for addressing Trip’s prejudice head-on, the episode also makes it clear that he’s not personally responsible for how scary and violent he becomes under the influence of the space-pollen. In “Si Vis Pacem”, though, Saru doesn’t have that excuse; he’s in a fragile emotional state, yes, after feeling relief from fear for the first time in his life, but he’s not actually being controlled, or robbed of control, by an outside force. This could, potentially, pose a storytelling problem, and it’s not hard to see why the trope of alien influence has been so useful in telling the kinds of episodic, fully-contained one-off stories Trek is mostly known for. After all, if a character turns against their crewmates without the excuse of outside manipulation, then we’re going to want to see that character held accountable, making it hard for the writers to reset everything to status quo at the episode’s end, as was the custom on The Original Series, The Next Generation, and (mostly) Voyager. But the more serialized, open-ended, contemporary approach to TV which both Deep Space Nine and Enterprise experimented with, and which Discovery has whole-heartedly embraced, allows consequences to unfold in interesting ways.

si vis 6Should Saru have faced disciplinary action from Starfleet for his actions in this episode? Maybe. And if Starfleet were a real-world institution, he probably would have. But this is fiction, and as its audience, we know two things. For one, we know that Saru’s frustration and anger with Burnham – “You won’t stop taking!” – is as justified as it is heartbreaking; in “The Vulcan Hello”, Burnham betrayed Saru as much as she betrayed Captain Georgiou, and while his feelings of betrayal certainly don’t justify physically attacking her, they are at least understandable and relatable. And second, we know that Burnham, of all people, understands what it’s like to be in the position Saru’s in at the end of this episode. She knows how it feels to have turned against the people who trusted her, not because of some outside influence, but because of her own fear. She knows how it feels to want forgiveness for that, but to not really believe she deserves that forgiveness. As a result, this episode is a surprisingly important moment in Discovery’s first season, and for Saru in particular. This is, arguably, the turning point in his character arc through the season, and will directly inform the climax of his arc in “What’s Past is Prologue”, when his speech as acting Captain allows him to turn another moment without fear into something to unite the crew, instead of dividing him from them … and which, in turn, foreshadows a similar moment for Burnham in the season finale, “Will You Take My Hand?”

fistful 2Next time, we’ll see how 24th-century gamers have ported Red Dead Redemption and Goldeneye to the holodeck, when we look at The Next Generation‘s “A Fistful of Datas” and Deep Space Nine‘s “Our Man Bashir”!

 

 

 

 

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