Discovery Is Opening Star Trek’s Biggest Pandora’s Box

Mike Powers

This week, Star Trek: Discovery kicked off its final season with a bold adventure—one with intimate ties to a classic Star Trek: The Next Generation story no other show in the franchise has dared to follow up on. In doing so, it’s opening up the kinds of opportunities that only Discovery really can—but it requires a delicate balancing act in the process.

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It’s fitting that Discovery’s fifth season premiere opened on the week of what is known as First Contact Day to Star Trek fans. Just under four decades from today, during the events of, well, Star Trek: First Contact, humankind meets its first alien civilization in the Vulcans, and finds itself thrust into a much bigger galaxy than it could have ever imagined after years of devastating nuclear conflict. What better reveal then, that Discovery’s last season will build itself around the mystery of the ultimate first contact—a chase for the alien civilization that kickstarted humanoid life across the galaxy in the first place?

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Image: Paramount

This is the twist Michael Burnham discovers at the climax of Discovery season five’s first episode, “Red Directive.” The mysterious mission she’s been kept in the dark about all episode, racing after mysterious pirates and a centuries-old Romulan puzzlebox, involves a species now dubbed “The Progenitors,” an ancient precursor civilization that first became known to Starfleet and other galactic societies during the Next Generation season six episode, “The Chase”.

It’s an episode with fascinating parallels to the season-arching narrative Discovery wants to go out on, though it’s an adventure in just one hour of TV instead of a whole season. After crossing paths with his old archaeology professor, Captain Picard finds himself on a treasure hunt across the galaxy, with rival factions in the Klingons, Cardassians, and eventually the Romulans (leading to Discovery’s way in, fictional centuries and actual decades later), after it’s discovered that the professor had discovered a secret that could either bind the whole of galactic civilization together—or shatter it to pieces, just as Burnham is warned of her own mission. While his rivals believe they’re on the hunt of an almighty weapon, ultimately what Picard and the other powers at play discover on Vilmor II is truth, and knowledge.

Star Trek TNG – The Chase Monologue

A holographic message from a bald, humanoid being—played beautifully such a short time by Salome Jens, who would go on to play a similar looking but altogether more horrifying Star Trek alien in her role as the Female Changeling heading the Dominion’s invasion of the Alpha Quadrant in Deep Space Nine—reveals that her species, long dead, evolved too soon to meet similar sentient life in the galaxy. So, in the hopes of spreading their legacy across the stars, they seeded life in their image—bipedal, humanoid, smooth-skinned, and (for the most part) hairless—across the galaxy, and left clues so that one day when that life evolved and took to the stars as they had, they could discover their shared origin, and do so together.

“The Chase” concludes on an optimistic, but non-committal note, in spite of the gravity of its reveal that intelligence design doesn’t just exist in Star Trek, but is both a fun metatextual answer to why most aliens in the franchise conveniently look like humans in various color palettes and with extraneous latex bits, and also a piece of worldbuilding that fundamentally reshapes its whole universe. While the Klingons and Cardassians, who’d assumed they were hunting for power and technology, are disgusted by the thought of common ancestry, Captain Picard and his Romulan counterpart express that the revelation could one day bring peace—not just between their own civilizations, but across the entire galaxy.

Star Trek promptly never went there again, boldly or otherwise.

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There have been Star Trek stories since that examine the evolution of life across its universe—like Voyager’s fascinating “Distant Origin,” where a scientist from a Delta quadrant species called the Voth discovers they are descended from Earth’s dinosaurs—but it took three decades for the franchise to pick up directly where “The Chase” left things off as Discovery did this week. It’s already expanded upon the episode, giving the alien species an alternative name in the “Progenitors,” as well as the revelation from Michael’s quest that they did not just leave behind their knowledge, but elements of the actual technology they used to shape life after the decline of their civilization… technology that yes, now, as the Klingons and Cardassians dreamed of in “The Chase,” could be weaponized in certain hands.

It’s already interesting that Discovery would take what was, well, a discovery of knowledge, and turn it into a more tangible, galaxy-threatening object. But it’s also interesting in what Star Trek says about itself only just picking up on the potential of “The Chase” now, not just in terms of the actual, literal decades its been since that TNG episode, but in picking it up in Star Trek: Discovery, a series now set in the furthest point of time any series of the show has regularly taken place in, the 32nd century. We already know that the Progenitors’ dream of unity among its myriad descendants has not happened—just four years after “The Chase,” the Alpha Quadrant is torn apart with Salome Jens’ return as the Female Changeling, and with her the start of the Dominion War. We know further still that, by the time Burnham and her crew have jettisoned themselves into the 32nd century, the galaxy is no more united that in was in their original time—if anything, it’s more divided than it had been in centuries, the Federation and Starfleet shattered into disparate pieces by the impact of “The Burn” and the diminishment of warp travel explored in Discovery season three.

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Image: Paramount

Star Trek is forever in the process of progress toward the utopia it’s always maintained it has attained in the first place—always challenging its ideals to strengthen them, and challenging them through conflict and division. But it says a lot that 30 years ago the franchise laid out the ultimate pathway to peace, and that utopic aim across the stars, and then simply… did not touch it again until now.

And yet, perhaps it’s perfect that it is Star Trek: Discovery that’s decided to pick up the pieces. Time will tell just what happens in Michael and her crew’s adventure across the galaxy to find all the puzzle pieces they need, and just what shape this Progenitor technology will eventually take. But Star Trek: Discovery has, across its lifetime, always championed the power of connection—on individual and galactic scales—in the face of adversity, and come out on top time and time again. In season four, Captain Burnham already achieved the seeming impossibility of peaceful first contact with an extragalactic race unlike anything the shared-ancestry siblings of Star Trek’s galaxy had ever really known before. After that, exploring the untouched legacy of one of The Next Generation’s most fascinating episodes—and perhaps finding a way to make that power of connection really tangible across its universe—is definitely something that could be on the cards. For a show that has pushed Star Trek’s continuity further and further forward across its life, doing so would be a fitting achievement to go out on.

Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel, Star Wars, and Star Trek releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about the future of Doctor Who.

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