Star Trek: Discovery, and the Theory of Pain
How do people in stories win?
In Harry Potter, you win by banding together with friends, no matter how unlikely. In Game of Thrones, you win by being cynical and ruthless, and especially by knowing everybody else is, too. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, you win by surviving the Don’t Be A Hideous Brat winnowing.
Every heroic tale carries an implicit definition of what “heroic” means. Every dramatic victory is a fictional portrayal of how victory is achieved.
What about Star Trek: Discovery? Who are its victors? What does heroism look like? How do the crew of the Discovery win?
Whatever the answer, it will tell us a lot about Discovery’s moral landscape, and its view of the world. And, based on the episodes up to the mid-season break, Discovery’s “Chapter One,” the answer is… interesting.
SPOILERS up through S01E09, “Into The Forest I Go.”
Let’s start out with the mid-season finale, with probably Discovery’s greatest victory: destroying the Ship of the Dead; turning the Klingon cloaking devices obsolete; rescuing Admiral Cornwell; killing vicious Kol.
What merits brought this victory about? What is it that the ship’s crew does, that the production crew applauds?
S1E09 gives us two heroes: Stamets, making his 133 jumps, and Burnham, facing off with Kol on her lonesome.
I’ve written previously about how Burnham’s part in this episode is kiiiiinda dubious. Even though the episode centers on her, even though she gives a speech about how she has to be the one sent on this mission, what she’s actually doing is buying time. The reason the episode does center Burnham is less because she’s needed for the plot, and more because she’s needed for the narrative: what Burnham is doing in this scene is hating the Klingons, and hating proud, mocking Kol in particular. Storywise, putting Burnham in the spotlight shifts us from a mission of tactical necessity, to a mission of personal vengeance — taking down the ship that killed her captain; taking down the man holding her captain’s badge.
Now, I don’t object to making the fight personal. That’s good drama. But I am a little dismayed at how little there is to Burnham’s part here beyond her personal animosity. If we’re looking for “what do the good guys have that makes them win?”, then Burnham heading Into The Forest doesn’t give us a whole lot to work with here beyond vengeance. Does she win because she’s stealthy? Because she makes good mission plans? Because awesome fighting prowess? None of those seem to be the point of this scene, and none of them carries much emotional weight.
But Stamets. Well. Stamets’s role is very, very clear.
The 133-jump-triangulation plan gives Stamets a unique opportunity:
He can buy victory, and make his payment in physical pain.
The idea of risking danger for a worthy cause is fundamental to any adventure. So is the idea of heroism as the willingness to suffer for the greater good. But I would like you to notice this: researchers, navigators, or mycologists will very rarely be offered the tradeoff of greater job effectiveness in exchange for their own personal, physical suffering. Nor xenoanthropologists, for that matter. These aren’t physical occupations; to create a physical threat, the writing needs to work for it; to engineer a situation where that’s actually a choice.
What’s interesting is that Discovery’s writing is working for those situations really, really hard.
In “Lethe,” to find Sarek, the crew whips up a machine that converts Burnham’s pain into Sarek’s location:
In “Magic To Make The Sanest Man Go Mad,” after a whole episode of racing desperately to stop Mudd in his 30-minute time loop, we don’t even see how they do wind up stopping him — the last time, they just suddenly do. What we do get to see as Burnham’s moment of heroism is: Burnham killing herself, in what we’re assured is an absolutely excruciating fashion:
I just want to emphasize that point a moment: If you’re on board with the idea that fictional victories are a story about how victory can be achieved, then the way “Magic To Make…” puts its weight on how Burnham secures one more iteration and not on what they actually do so that last iteration goes well is very significant. It’s a statement that the pivot isn’t the discoveries they’ve made about Mudd’s attack vector, or that they’re managing to pass on information ten seconds quicker this time because Trust and Friendship, or any one of a hundred other options. The pivot is Burnham’s self-sacrifice. The pivot is Burnham enduring pain.
Don’t get me wrong — it’s easy to see the heroism in suffering for a cause; in enduring without cracking. Surely only somebody with the deepest commitment with the greatest strength, could withstand so much.
The problem is when you twist that, and start thinking that withstanding pain is a way to get heroic things done. That’s a dark, dangerous line of thinking. As though suffering is a measure of purity, of worthiness. As though self-destruction is a mark of virtue. As if the universe bends to reward whoever can take the most punishment.
That line of thinking goes, “To win this battle, I must first find a pile of debris to entrap me.”
We’ve already seen three out of nine — of Discovery’s nine episodes so far, three of them hinge on outlandish mechanisms that literally empower our heroes to trade pain for victory. And in each of them, it’s hard to point to anything besides bullheaded determination and endurance that’s being touted as heroic.
What other victories does Discovery achieve?
- In “Choose Your Pain,” Lorca literally survives torture in order to escape.
I actually consider this a weaker example of the trend: enduring torture is somewhere where suffering pain makes sense as a way to “win”, and a big part of how Lorca “wins” is by gaining the trust of a new friend.
- Tyler’s arc includes the trauma of his abuse by L’Rell. “Into The Forest I Go” portrays that as fighting down terrible pain. In the same episode, Tyler asserts that the trauma and abuse were “almost worth it” since it led him to meet Burnham.
- Episodes 1 through 3 don’t exactly have any victories to speak of; they set up Burnham’s failure and the Discovery’s dire straights.
- Similarly, “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum” doesn’t have a “win” so much as it has Saru going bad, and Burnham and Tyler surviving that. What they do is simply stay on-mission; there’s no narrative “winning move” in this one.
By my count, the leaves two remaining moments I’d consider significant victories: saving the besieged mining colony, and setting the Tardigrade free. There’s something interesting to be said about each of them.
Do you remember how Corvan II was saved?
It was like this:
Captain Lorca thought the crew might not be trying hard enough.
Captain Lorca thought they might need a little boost.
If we’ve acknowledged that Discovery tends to see suffering as the key to heroism, in “The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not For The Lamb’s Cry,” Lorca takes this one step further: he deliberately makes his crew suffer, because he thinks it will spur them to greatness.
It’s a dark moment, and it’s presented as such. Lorca is trying to force them into heroism. He knows that a hero wrests victory out of the most desperate moments, and concludes that the way to victory is to induce desperation.
Lorca’s “motivation” gets the job done: Stamets redoubles his efforts; Corvan II is saved. That doesn’t mean the show condones his methods, though. It’s presented as cruel; unsettling rather than inspiring. It’s also the impetus for Commander Landry to get herself killed doing her task, trying to weaponize Ripper. Desperate grasps at victory don’t always work out so well.
But what’s interesting to me is that, within Discovery’s narrative logic, Lorca isn’t wrong. Enduring pain is what brings victory. If you aren’t suffering yet — then in what way are you being heroic? Discovery doesn’t seem to know any other ways.
Except, briefly, one.
There is one major moment of victory that doesn’t ennoble pain and suffering: setting Ripper free.
This victory is very different from the others. It’s a victory of compassion; a victory of liberty. It’s a victory that comes from Burnham realizing she’s made a terrible mistake; her understanding of the universe has changed, and so her actions must, too. It’s a victory that comes of honest-to-goodness making a Discovery.
It should hardly be noteworthy that there be one victory that isn’t purchased by pain. That the show should value its heroes for more than just their scars. But in Discovery’s first chapter, this has proved a rare exception.
Outside that exception, Discovery’s view of heroism is consistent: a hero hurts. A hero suffers. Suffering isn’t merely a consequence of heroism. It isn’t merely that one’s heroism gives one the strength to endure more. No: the act of suffering is what makes them win.
The Star Trek of yore had heroes who suffered, to be sure. But it had a great many kinds of heroes. Heroes who succeed by being explorers, or investigators, or diplomats, or tacticians. Heroes who are open to learning something new and strange about the universe, or about their fellow man, or about themselves. Heroes who stand by their principles; or who are willing to admit compromise on their principles; or are forced to question how tenable their principles really are. There is a panoply of heroism, from the most starry-eyed to the most cynical.
Discovery does not yet have even a fraction of that. It may have warriors and researchers and xenoathropologists; characters of different abilities and backgrounds and temperaments. But when it comes down to how the day is won, so far, it is always in the same way.
The heroes of Discovery grit their teeth, bite their lip, turn their face to steel, and accept pain. This is what they do. This is how they win. This is their highest virtue. This is what they want you to applaud.
If they’ve got anything else? They haven’t shown it to us yet.