Opinion: The latest episode dropped some plot details that might just get the show back on the right track.
Spoilers follow for the latest episode of Discovery.
Sunday’s episode of Star Trek: Discovery – “Vaulting Ambition,” the show’s twelfth – contained no fewer than four major plot twists, which is almost par for the course by now. The most dramatic of those twists I will politely decline from discussing (even if said twist was already accurately predicted by many of the show’s viewers), but a different reveal that came late in the episode presented viewers with information ripe for setting Star Trek: Discovery back on the right track. Or right trek, if you will.
Although it was arguably presented as one of the episode’s lesser twists, “Vaulting Ambition” mentioned that the mycelial network may be diseased, and is likely dying. To remind you: The mycelial network is a vast, galaxy-wide cloud of microscopic, interdimensional spores that have, with the right tech, allowed the USS Discovery to essentially teleport anywhere they wished to go in the galaxy. To achieve said teleportation, the ship’s engine requires that Lt. Stamets – having altered his own genes to be compatible – connect his body and mind directly into the ship’s navigational systems (invoking, one may find, the Guild Navigators from Dune).
While the idea of Star Trek characters tapping into an already-built, galaxy-wide network of some sort is not entirely novel – Star Trek: Voyager featured a vast communications array that allowed people to chat from halfway across the galaxy – the idea of a teleporting starship certainly is. And while the teleportation effect is cool looking, and the conceit has allowed for several dramatic story choices including shunting the Discovery into the Mirror Universe, it may be the show’s worst idea. Why? Because it has robbed Star Trek of its one most vital feature: the actual trekking.
One may have noticed during “Vaulting Ambition,” as I did, that all the exterior shots of the Discovery depict it at rest. It’s not in orbit around a planet. It’s not warping off to a distant location. It’s simply still. Indeed, throughout the course of the series to date, the Discovery has rarely been depicted traveling forward through space at all. We’ve seen it in battle, of course, and it’s moved in a dogfight fashion, but even that basic visual was eventually replaced with the ship blinking in and out of existence around a larger ship. I do understand that one wouldn’t necessarily need to move directly forward through space when one has access to a teleportation machine, but actually showing the ship zipping among the stars provides audiences with an important visual.
Star Trek, as the title implies, has always been about, well, trekking. That is: pointing the ship into the unknown and then moving toward it. As fans know, Gene Roddenberry pitched the original Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the Stars,” invoking an unexplored frontier where mystery and adventure await. There was always a sense (Deep Space Nine notwithstanding) that the characters in Star Trek were constantly headed away from home and comfort, exhilarated to be facing the unknown. When one looked out the window of any of the Enterprises or the Voyager, one always saw stars streaking by. No matter what the drama was, the central ship was always going to be traveling somewhere.
But of course, that wasn’t the point this time around. From the word jump, Discovery has openly declared itself to be a different animal from all the previous Trek shows. It’s more violent, the technology has been altered and updated, the characters and stories are being explored in a longer form than ever before, and many of the classical Trek elements of diplomacy and peace are being shelved in favor of a more exciting, darker, intense world of war. All the show’s conceits and visuals, one might be able to argue, are being presented as direct antidotes to what we knew about classical Star Trek. As such, the creators of Discovery likely consciously decided to remove the travel element from the Trek mythos, replacing it with teleportation.
It’s been frustrating that the writers on Star Trek: Discovery haven’t been philosophically exploring – or fully exploiting – the ship’s ability to teleport. They can go anywhere – anywhere, mind you – and yet they’ve stayed close to the battle front, teleporting in and about Klingon space on minor skirmish missions. A teleporting starship would change the face of the Federation. It could work miracles for mass colonization. It could be used to send vast amounts of food to starving planets, or deliver medicine. Experts or diplomats could be teleported anywhere to give advice on galaxy-wide crises. With a teleporter, you wouldn’t need to have battles in space. Instead, the teleporter is being used in a very low capacity: To blow up a ship or two.
The dramatic function of the mycelial network, then, has been to merely take away the trek elements from Star Trek: Discovery. The stories that could be wrought from such a technology have not been fully explored (apart from the parallel universe story we’re currently watching), making it the elephant (tardigrade?) in the room.
But now the mycelial network might be getting taken away, and it feels like Discovery is finally course correcting. It was certainly a new innovation, but it was an innovation that wasn’t being exploited properly. I can’t speak for the writers, of course, but the apparent decision to nix the network strikes me as an attempt to return Discovery back to a more recognizable form. In a show called Star Trek: Discovery, we may actually now – after long last – do some trekking and make some discoveries.
We can hope.