Star Trek: Discovery is a show all about being the best versions of ourselves in the midst of strife and adversity. In that, it is quintessential Trek, a franchise that constantly inspires with its messages and characters. Season 4 sees Captain Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and the crew of Discovery face their most daunting and harrowing challenge yet, with the planet-destroying Dark Matter Anomaly (DMA) tragically destroying Cleveland Booker’s (“Book’s”, David Ajala) home planet of Kweijan, and threatening all the planets in The Federation. They soon discover that it is not a natural phenomenon, but instead, something caused by the mysterious species 10-C, who exist outside of the Milky Way Galaxy. In spite of the massive harm they inflicted, was it actually their intention to destroy, and if not, should the Federation approach with diplomacy instead?
In the mid-season finale of Season 4, “…But to Connect,” Star Trek: Discovery wisely hones in on the importance of prioritizing diplomacy and communication over taking retaliatory action that would inevitably cause more destruction. Through Captain Burnham’s and others’ wise and steady approach of not presuming Species 10-C’s intentions, in spite of the immense grief and devastation they feel, they know they must gather more information and do everything possible to avoid more destruction. The Federation doesn’t understand what the exact goals are of Species 10-C. It could be that the anomaly was an experiment gone wrong and that its creators truly were unaware and need to be informed. If that is the case, they should of course be held accountable, but not in presuming malicious intent.
Also wisely, the episode shows us the depth and sincerity of Book’s, and others’, extraordinary grief and justified rage continuing the story thread of Book’s grief throughout the season. In doing so, it lets us know that engaging in diplomacy is not a sign of weakness or surrender to the apparent aggressor, but part of the emotional sacrifice to stop further geopolitical (or in this case, galactic-political) conflict. It wiped out his entire people and his family, and we see all the various steps of his grieving process. We feel and empathize with him, so much so that we understand his decision to leave with Tarka at the end of the episode to take the fight to Species 10-C. He deserves justice for what happened. But the form in which that justice takes is also important, especially as any wrong move could cause another planetary destruction like Kweijann.
In this, Star Trek: Discovery offers us lessons to apply in a macro-scale of geopolitical diplomacy. We should never have to engage in a more individual diplomatic effort with racists, sexists, homophobes, transphobes, Islamophobes, or others whose prejudices and harmful intentions we already know. But on a much larger geopolitical scale of conflict between countries, a diplomatic effort must be the first priority to avoid war and destabilization that will harm and kill thousands of people, as we’ve seen too many times in modern history. Captain Burnham knows both galactic and world history, and the importance of working to avoid that catastrophic cost of war, even when her lover, Book, is sincerely hurting and justifiably furious. While she does her sincere best to be there for him, she also steadfastly remembers they don’t have all the information they need about the DMA and Species 10-C.
Burnham’s steadfast commitment to diplomacy and First Contact serves as an actual standard for us to apply in the modern-day. There are so many in the world who want war and conflict because it’s a way for them to consolidate power. Diplomacy is not the weak choice. It is most often the only choice to avoid armed conflict, war, destabilization of countries, and subsequent countless deaths. When we choose war and invasion, it results in literal decades of instability, violence, and chaos. While Star Fleet isn’t always able to avoid this either, the principles of the Prime Directive ensure that they avoid it as much as they can and go the more constructive and peaceful course.
We’ve seen the severe cost and destruction of military engagement countless times before with the destabilization of countries in the South West Asian and North African (SWANA) region, Central Asia, South and Central America, and elsewhere. And all too often it’s in the name of preserving a false sense of “security” for us and the people in those countries. Now military engagement is mostly unpopular among Americans today, having seen the futility of engaging in these mindless wars that by and large only benefit the powerful and no one else. Now strongmen and dictators in these countries have taken hold of power, marginalized groups and other people remain under persecution, and there are thousands upon thousands of refugees fleeing those regions to Western countries that very often cruelly rebuke them out of racism, xenophobia, and more specifically Islamophobia.
Engaging in diplomacy first is not a notion of “love your enemies.” It’s a practical one of avoiding unnecessary death and destruction when tensions start to run high between governments. The consequences of those caught in the crossfire, destabilizations, and lingering regional tensions that threaten at any time to blow up are vastly pervasive, far more often than not stem from colonial wounds and an initial lack of willingness to engage diplomatically. Those that insist on aggressive confrontation, when given the power, will almost always force it, long-term consequences be damned.
To be clear, none of this should belie the very real trauma and lingering wounds of the people oppressed and affected by a violent power. The urge to seek justice for the harm caused, as we see through the example of Book, is sincere and more than justified. In our modern-day, ethnic and religious groups (particularly Muslim groups today, such as the Uyghurs in China), LGBTQIA+ people, and others who have been persecuted by oppressive regimes deserve justice for what they and their families have been put through. Through targeted (read: not country-wide) sanctions on political figures, and economic pressure, along with diplomatic efforts, progress can be made to stop the injustices. But in a zero-sum geopolitical world, self-ascribed arbiters of justice too often exploit this for their own ends.
Unfortunately, the very real tragedies they endure are utilized by politicians (such as Neoconservatives here in the US) to justify increasingly violent confrontation to increase their own hegemony against opposing regimes. It’s the usage and weaponization of these real tragedies by these power-hungry parties to wage war, invade countries, and directly install politicians that will let them keep their regional influence. The call to aggression is most often not borne out of a genuine desire to help those in need but to assert dominance. Practical steps, like diplomacy to avoid unnecessary conflict, destruction, and humanitarian catastrophe (which don’t only arise from obviously armed aggression, but economic aggression as well) are unjustly labeled as “weak,” and not as the steadfast and important strategies they are. For real peace and prosperity, in the long run, the tactics we use are just as important. The ends do not always justify the means.
Star Trek: Discovery’s portrayal of its Captain, Michael Burnham, holding steadfast to the ideals of The Federation, namely that of diplomacy and First Contact, serves as an inspiration for how governments in our own world can and should pursue diplomatic efforts. Of course, it’s idealistic, but just because it feels so far away from what the reality is in our own geopolitical world doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pursue it and demand that our governments do the same. With a more dedicated and focused effort on pursuing diplomacy, even when it seems too idealistic and even foolish in the midst of so much corruption and war-mongering, we can break out of the old geopolitical environments that are counterproductive for our world, and move towards a future that looks more like that of Star Trek.
You can watch Star Trek: Discovery on Paramount+, and the fifth and final season returns sometime in 2024.