*This post contains spoilers for the TNG episode “First Contact” (not the film!), and possible spoilers for Star Trek: Discovery up to and including episode 6 of season 2, to allow for some wider discussion of Saru and his home planet.
Star Trek: The Next Generation – “First Contact” (season 4, episode 15)
Teleplay by Dennis Russell Bailey & David Bischoff and Joe Menosky & Ronald D. Moore and Michael Piller; story by Marc Scott Zicree; directed by Cliff Bole; first aired in 1991
This episode opens in an alien hospital, where the medical staff are shocked to find that their unconscious patient, injured during a riot, has his organs in the wrong place, and has a freaky five fingers on each hand. We, the viewers, recognize the patient as Commander Riker, cosmetically altered to look like one of the native Malcorians, a species on the verge of testing their newly-developed faster-than-light space-travel technology. The Malcorian scientist responsible for this technology, Mirasta Yale, is visited by Captain Picard and Counsellor Troi, who welcome her to the greater galaxy on behalf of the Federation, and ask for her help in finding Commander Riker, who had been undercover on the planet as part of a long-running observation effort meant to facilitate a smooth first contact between the Federation and the Malcorians. A smooth first contact isn’t in the cards, though, as Malcorian society is having trouble reconciling recent technological progress with their traditional view of themselves as the center of the galaxy, and the xenophobia that belief has bred. This puts Riker in danger from a mob of angry Malcorians, and from the planet’s security minister, Krola, who tries to frame Riker for his own murder. Krola fails, but his willingness to give his own life convinces the Malcorian leader, Chancellor Durken, that his people aren’t yet ready for formal first contact with alien species … with the exception of Yale, who asks for passage aboard the Enterprise, leaving her home world forever but gaining a galaxy to explore.
Star Trek: Short Treks – “The Brightest Star” (season 1, episode 3)
Written by Bo Yeon Kim & Erika Lippoldt; directed by Douglas Aarniokoski; first aired in 2018
This Short Trek opens on voice-over narration from Saru, who tells us that, where his fellow Kelpiens are afraid of what’s beyond their world, looking up at the stars has always given him hope. This introduces a slice of Saru’s earlier life on his home world of Kaminar, where he lives with his father and sister in a village watched over by a creepy floating obelisk. Every so often, this obelisk demands that a Kelpien be taken by the Ba’ul, the planet’s dominant species. Unlike most Kelpiens, Saru has a hard time accepting this status quo, but his father, the local priest, insists that “the Great Balance” must be maintained, and asks Saru to dispose of a piece of advanced, forbidden technology which fell from a Ba’ul ship. Instead of destroying the device, Saru secretly gets it working as a subspace transmitter, and his transmissions are eventually answered – in English. Out for a walk one evening, Saru says a cryptic but emotional goodbye to Siranna, his sister, and heads to the arranged landing site of a Starfleet shuttle. There, he meets a Starfleet lieutenant we recognize as Philippa Georgiou. She compliments his technological ingenuity, which allowed her to just barely convince Starfleet to make contact with him, and him alone, since the Kelpiens are a pre-warp society. If he leaves with her, she warns, he may never be able to return home, and Saru, emotional but determined, tells her that Kaminar is no longer his home.
First contact with alien cultures is one of those sci-fi story ideas, like time travel or artificial intelligence, which fully entered the mainstream of pop culture long before the word “geek” evolved from an insult to a badge of honor. From “The War of the Worlds” to The X-Files, humanity’s hypothetical first alien encounter has been imagined as everything from a disaster to … well, mostly as a disaster, with the occasional cuddly E.T. thrown in for good measure. Star Trek goes against the grain, then, by assuming that first contact would be a cause for celebration more often than a threat. For every hostile Klingon Empire the Federation encounters, there are any number of friendly Vulcans or Betazoids or Trill out there, and both the film First Contact and the entire series of Enterprise are explicitly based on the idea that humanity’s first contact with its first known alien neighbor – the Vulcans, in this case – could be the pivotal moment when we, as a species and as a society, start to become the better versions of ourselves that the 23rd and 24th-century Federation represents.
But Star Trek flips the usual narrative on first contact in another way, too, by sometimes making us the advanced aliens who get to shake up some other poor species’ conception of the universe. This is, admittedly, a tricky line for Trek to walk; there can be a troubling undercurrent of colonialism when the Federation arrives on “new worlds” and seems to solve problems, in an hour of television, that the locals have lived with for generations (as in episodes like The Original Series’ “A Taste of Armageddon” or “The Apple,” to name just two of many, many examples). But at its best, the image of a peaceful and united human society welcoming other societies to a galactic community is a hopeful one. When done well, it’s an expression of hope that we might someday become the sort of people who don’t impose our will on the vulnerable, but instead enter into relationships with other societies out of a genuine desire to learn and grow together, as equals. The aliens of Star Trek have always been a reflection of its human audience (with the warlike Klingons and suspicious Romulans debuting during the Cold War, say, or the cartoonishly capitalistic Ferengi first appearing amidst the conspicuous consumption of the 1980s). When the more-or-less utopian Federation makes first contact with an alien culture, then, it’s like we’re making contact with the Federation, in a dramatization of the effect utopian storytellers might hope their work will have on its audience.
But while storytelling can change the world, that change is always gradual, and is never guaranteed. And the same is true of in-universe first contact with the Federation in The Next Generation episode “First Contact,” not to be confused with the above-mentioned film of the same name. The film shows us a post-World War III human race which is, though still rough around the edges, ready to be helped along the right path by the Vulcans. The episode introduces us to an alien race, the Malcorians, who also technically meet the Federation’s requirement for setting aside the Prime Directive and establishing formal first contact: like Zefram Cochrane, Malcorian scientist Mirasta Yale is on the verge of developing faster-than-light technology. But where she is ready and willing for first contact with aliens, we’re shown other Malcorians, in the government and among the hospital staff treating Riker, who aren’t ready, and who ruin it for everybody else. The decision of their leader, Chancellor Durken, to ask the Enterprise to leave, and postpone formal first contact with the Federation, is a pretty surprising way to end any episode of The Next Generation, let alone an episode literally titled “First Contact.” It’s sad, for reasons I’ll discuss more below, but it’s oddly refreshing, too, as it demonstrates that Starfleet can’t, and shouldn’t, simply step in and solve every planet’s problems as it sees fit, the way The Original Series’ Captain Kirk did so often.
The episode “First Contact” is unusual in another way, too, in that it tells much of its story from the Malcorians’ point of view. The standard Star Trek formula for an episode like this would be to open on the Enterprise, maybe with a voice-over captain’s log about losing contact with Commander Riker, and then introduce the planet and its inhabitants from the crew’s point of view. “First Contact” inverts that approach, introducing Malcorian society long before we get our first shot of the Enterprise, and putting us in the shoes of the visited, more than the visitors; a significant choice for TNG, a show whose opening monologue, in this and every episode, invites us to experience what it would be like to “seek out new life and new civilizations.” And this choice feels all the more deliberate given that, foreheads and claw-hands aside, Malcorian society doesn’t seem very different from ours, and neither does their general level of technology.
For audiences at the time “First Contact” first aired, just a couple years before The X-Files debuted in 1993, I’d guess that the references to “weather balloons” mistaken for alien ships would have felt quite current, as would Nurse Lanel’s tabloid-esque desire to “make love with an alien” (a scene which, as funny as Jonathan Frakes and the great Bebe Neuwirth are, feels conspicuously out of place here, as if it were edited in from an episode of The Original Series). For me, when I watch “First Contact” today, what feels uncomfortably current are its cryptic allusions to a cultural backlash against societal reforms, and the resulting civil unrest; given the way Security Minister Krola automatically sees aliens as invaders, and the way Chancellor Durken chooses to appease that fear instead of listening to Mirasta Yale and opposing it, I’d assume this episode were commenting on today’s politics if I didn’t know that it was written decades ago. While the writers were clearly using the Malcorians to comment on how far contemporary humanity is from our fictional 24th-century counterparts, I’m unsure whether they meant for us to be hopeful that Malcorian society – and by extension, our society – would one day become more open-minded. Given that this is Star Trek, and The Next Generation in particular, I’m guessing they probably did. But it seems to me, today, that giving the Krolas of the world what they want never satisfies them; it only emboldens them. While Picard is right to respect Durken’s wishes as the elected leader of his world, I suspect, sadly, that things will get a lot worse for the Malcorians before they get better.
Like the episode “First Contact,” the Short Trek “The Brightest Star” focuses on first contact from the point of view of the contactee, and takes place entirely on the Kelpien home world, Kaminar. This was something new from Short Treks, as its first two installments, “Runaway” and “Calypso”, each took place on the familiar (if unusually quiet) starship Discovery. Flashing back to Saru’s past, and showing us an entirely new world and society in the process, is a smart, ambitious way to take advantage of the short film format of Short Treks. The impressive production values of this new era of Star Trek are on full display here, and where I sometimes find myself wishing Discovery would actually tone down the budget and let its stories breathe a bit, I’ll say no such thing about the design of Kaminar. The world, Saru’s village, and its inhabitants are all well realized, on every level. It all looks beautiful and distinctive, and a real sense of place is achieved, even in such a short time. While we’re told almost nothing about Kaminar’s dominant species, the Ba’ul (and won’t be until “The Sound of Thunder,” the sixth episode of Discovery’s second season), the visual and sound design of the floating obelisk they use to monitor the village is genuinely unnerving. While this living situation isn’t quite what I pictured in season one of Discovery when Saru described his species as “livestock,” it certainly explains the role fear has played in his life; Kelpien instincts aside, living most of his life under constant observation by people he knows will eventually kill him – and being taught, by his own father, that this is how things should be – is bound to have been deeply traumatizing.
Where “First Contact” is ambiguous about the possibility of change on Malcor III, “The Brightest Star” makes it quite clear that the Kelpiens’ living conditions aren’t going to change any time soon. Reaching this conclusion is what convinces Saru to leave with Georgiou, a decision he’s well on his way to making when the episode begins, but which is finalized, I think, when he asks his father what he would do if Saru himself, or his sister Siranna, were to be taken by the Ba’ul, only to be told that “the balance must be maintained.” While Saru needs a moment when asked by Georgiou is he’s willing to leave and probably never return, I read this not as indecisiveness, but as a moment of reflection on the emotional weight of a decision he has already made (something that seems clear when he says goodbye to his sister, and I think Hannah Spear’s performance as Siranna leaves open the possibility that she may know he’s leaving, one way or another). Georgiou herself reinforces Saru’s lack of optimism about his people’s future, making it clear that Starfleet won’t approve formal first contact with the Kelpiens; it’s hinted here, and made explicit later in “The Sound of Thunder,” that the Federation’s first contact with the Ba’ul didn’t go particularly well, and unlike the Ba’ul, the Kelpiens don’t possess advanced space travel technology … and since Kelpien society is strictly controlled by the Ba’ul, it seems unlikely that the Kelpiens would ever get the chance to develop that technology. This seems to raise some pretty serious questions about the Prime Directive, if it would allow a warp-capable society to subjugate, and perpetrate genocide against, another intelligent species while actively preventing that species from becoming candidates for first contact themselves. But as things are, only Saru himself is eligible for first contact with the Federation, and therefore eligible to request asylum, while his fellow Kelpiens are left to their fate (until “The Sound of Thunder,” at least).
And this is where “The Brightest Star” and “First Contact” both offer a bit of that Star Trek hope. “First Contact” is somewhat less optimistic about the possibility of societal change than we might expect from Star Trek, and “The Brightest Star” much less so, but they both offer hope for the individual to find a like-minded community – a support system – when they feel out of place, or unsafe, in the wider world. If the first contact scenario in Star Trek represents the effect Trek’s writers might like their fiction to have on society, it also represents the effect Trek really has had on many of its fans. I suspect that more than a few viewers of “First Contact” and “The Brightest Star” find themselves jealous of Mirasta Yale and Saru, whose arcs in these episodes are genuinely touching, and particularly satisfying to us geeky-types, I think. Carolyn Seymour, as Yale, isn’t given as complex a role here as when she would later play the equal-parts-sympathetic-and-scary antagonist of “Face of the Enemy,” but she does a very good job of showing us that Yale’s scientific genius goes hand-in-hand with a healthy sense of wonder – something we don’t see often enough in pop-culture portrayals of scientists. The only downside to Yale’s story, for the viewer, is knowing that the highly-episodic nature of The Next Generation means we will never get so much as a glimpse of how the rest of her life plays out in the Federation, which I would have loved to see. But we don’t have that problem with Saru; we’ve already seen where his life has led him since leaving Kaminar. I’m impressed with the way “The Brightest Star” doesn’t just reveal puzzle-pieces of his backstory, but adds emotional context and weight to what we’ve already seen (something Discovery can be very good at, as when it re-framed Sarek in “Lethe”). And a great deal of that weight comes from the incredible performance Doug Jones gives here, portraying an emotional depth and vulnerability that would be impressive even if he wasn’t delivering it from underneath one of the most elaborate applications of makeup and prosthetics we’ve ever seen on Star Trek.
Yale and Saru get to live out the fan fantasy of being invited, essentially, into the future; of being explicitly told that they, unlike many of their kind, are ready for the future. This is an element of Star Trek fandom – of geekdom in general – that has both a beautiful side and, unfortunately but undeniably, an ugly side. The feeling of being one of the right-minded few in a backwards world can, and does, lead some fans to some very toxic places online, where that feeling is monetized, weaponized, and taken advantage of by people whose view of the world is, let’s say, closer to Security Minister Krola’s than to Mirasta Yale’s. More often, though – at least I hope more often – Star Trek’s messages, and the fan communities that develop around those messages, don’t exacerbate that feeling, but channel it toward making our own little corners of the real world just a little bit more like the Federation. Because, unlike Yale and Saru, if we want to live in a utopia, we’ve got to build one from scratch … and we’ll need to work together with other flawed, imperfect humans to do it.
Next week, we’ll continue to follow Saru’s arc through the second season of Discovery, as we compare “An Obol for Charon” with Deep Space Nine’s “Babel”!