What Does a Starship Need With God?

COMMENTARY: Star Trek: Discovery and the Trek Franchise’s Complicated Relationship With Religion

A redesigned Klingon from Star Trek: Discovery
A redesigned Klingon from Star Trek: Discovery (photo: CBS)

“What does God need with a starship?”

That line, uttered by William Shatner’s Capt. James T. Kirk in the much-derided Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) — co-written and directed by Shatner himself — is probably that film’s most famous (or infamous) moment.

In the weeks building up to the recent debut of CBS’s new series Star Trek: Discovery, buzz around the franchise has raised a different question: What does a starship need with God?

The topic was raised several weeks ago when a news story spelled out that — in keeping with Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s secular-humanist brand of sci-fi utopianism — the word “God” will not be uttered on the new series, even in casual profanities like “for God’s sake.”

Since many Christians object to profanity in entertainment, this proscription would seem to be welcome news for faith audiences. The context and motivation, though, elicited concern from Star Trek fans who are believers.

One common response has been to rattle off examples of positive religious references and images from The Original Series (TOS) onward, from scenes set in the original Enterprise’s interfaith chapel to the episode “Bread and Circuses,” which depicted an Earth-like planet with a parallel Roman Empire persecuting an underground faith originally thought to be sun worshippers, but whose deity Uhura ultimately says isn’t “the sun in the sky; it’s the Son of God.”


Roddenberry’s Anti-God Thing

Despite such moments, though, it must be acknowledged frankly that the overarching vision of human progress shaping Roddenberry’s creative vision for Star Trek was from the outset a secular one. Roddenberry’s visionary idealism had much to commend it, but part and parcel of his vision was the notion that religion, like racism and poverty, was something mankind ought to outgrow.

This is evident, not only from the general absence of religious themes, but from the pointed critiques of religious ideas and themes in TOS episodes such as “Return of the Archons” and “Who Mourns for Adonais?” Over and over in these stories, seemingly divine entities are debunked and rejected — a motif revisited in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979).

Given American social mores when TOS was in production, Roddenberry was unable to go as far with his critique of religion as he would have liked. At times, countervailing pro-religious elements were worked in, like Kirk’s line “Mankind has no need for gods; we find the one quite adequate” in “Who Mourns for Adonais?”

Roddenberry was likewise held back from going as far as he would have wanted to in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which he wanted to subtitle The God Thing. Roddenberry’s original script, intended as a culmination of the show’s anti-religious elements, included a line from a Vulcan tutor critiquing Earth religion:

“We have never really understood your Earth legend of gods — particularly in that so many of your gods have said, ‘You have to bow down on your bellies every seven days and worship me.’ This seems to us like they are very insecure gods.”

Other ideas included an extraterrestrial entity who appears as various divine beings, including Jesus Christ, the implication being that Jesus was just one more godlike alien. Perhaps most bizarrely, there was even a planned fistfight on the bridge of the Enterprise between Kirk and Jesus!

All of this was shot down by the studio, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture morphed into a glorified supercomputer-as-fake-god-of-the-week installment. Some rejected elements from The God Thing resurfaced in Shatner’s Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (which irritated rather than gratified Roddenberry).


How Gene Roddenberry Almost Killed Star Trek

Perhaps not incidentally, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier are widely regarded as the worst and most boring of the TOS crew feature films.

Roddenberry was a true creative visionary, but — much like the visionary behind that other immense sci-fi franchise, Star Wars — he could sometimes be his own worst enemy, and the best version of his own creative vision often emerged from fruitful collaboration with other creative minds, sometimes with conflicting visions.

In particular, the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) limped badly under the constraints of Roddenberry’s increasingly rigid humanistic vision, which eventually more or less precluded human conflict. Roddenberry’s departure from the show was clearly a factor in its rising achievement in later seasons. (Shatner’s documentary Chaos on the Bridge recounts this messy early history, essentially arguing that Roddenberry nearly killed Star Trek here.)

In spite of this, the apex of Star Trek anti-religiosity might be a third-season TNG episode Roddenberry loved, “Who Watches the Watchers?” This episode centered on a Bronze Age-level race of proto-Vulcans whose naturalistic worldview is undermined when they come to regard Patrick Stewart’s Jean-Luc Picard as a divine being.

While the plot itself is no more anti-religious than many fake-god episodes, Picard’s key speech is an unambiguous repudiation, not only of false gods or false religion, but of any belief in the supernatural as backward and harmful:

“Dr. Barron, your report describes how rational these people are. Millennia ago, they abandoned their belief in the supernatural. Now you are asking me to sabotage that achievement — to send them back into the dark ages of superstition and ignorance and fear? No!”

In spite of this, later episodes of TNG would begin to open the door to a more complex engagement with religious themes — and the sequel series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9) would go further still.


Vulcan Mysticism and Religiosity

Before all this, though, an important landmark in Star Trek’s treatment of religious themes came not on the small screen, but the big screen, beginning with one of the franchise’s all-time crowning achievements, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) — a film universally hailed not only as the greatest Star Trek movie, but one of the great sci-fi movies of all time.

Ironically, Roddenberry hated the film, which, like later seasons of TNG, benefited greatly from his loss of control following the critical and popular disappointment of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

The Wrath of Khan began a plot arc stretching over the next two films, inaugurating the so-called “Spock Trilogy” continuing in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) and concluding in the TOS movie franchise’s biggest box-office success, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986).

The three films of this Spock Trilogy are as important to the ongoing Trek mythos as any of the TV series, for a number of reasons. The Wrath of Khan gave the franchise its first truly great villain (and it did so, brilliantly, by drawing on and deepening a TOS episode, “Space Seed”). The Voyage Home is a vital contribution to the ongoing Trek canon, in part because it’s an important post-Star Wars reminder that Trek doesn’t have to be about space battles between dueling starships.

At the center of the Spock Trilogy is a system of Vulcan mysticism and religiosity notably contrasting with Roddenberry’s anti-religious bent, centering on the katra, or Vulcan soul — a religious system with roots in TOS, but much expanded in the films.


‘Ritual and Customs Shrouded in Antiquity’

The TOS episode “Amok Time” (the second-season premiere, written by science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon) established that Vulcan culture included previously unguessed elements strikingly contrasting with their famous logic — “ritual and customs shrouded in antiquity,” in Spock’s words. (This episode instituted the iconic Vulcan salute, famously introduced by Nimoy, based on a Jewish liturgical gesture of blessing used in synagogues on certain holy days.)

“Amok Time” introduced a priestess-like character, T’Pau, who refers to “the Vulcan soul” and speaks in a ritualistic way incorporating King James-ish elevated archaisms like “Thee will choose thy place.” (There is also a hint of Genesis in the repeated phrase “from the time of the beginning.”)

All of this paved the way for a moment with great implications for “the Vulcan soul” at the climax of The Wrath of Khan. Knowing he is going into mortal danger, Spock mind-melds with McCoy, a gesture we learn in The Search for Spock is “the Vulcan way when the body’s end is near.”

It turns out that a Vulcan near death can entrust his katra, his “living spirit,” to a “keeper” (in this case McCoy), who must bring it to the temple at Mount Seleya on the Vulcan home world, in some unspecified way enabling its survival. Spock’s father, Sarek, calls his son’s katra “his very essence … everything that was not of the body.”

In this case, because events relating to The Wrath of Khan’s “Genesis effect” have almost miraculously regenerated Spock’s body, Sarek is able to bring his son’s living body and the keeper of his katra to Mount Seleya to request a nearly unheard-of refusion of body and soul.

This is accomplished, in a solemn ritual witnessed by impassive Vulcan monks and diaphanously attired maiden attendants, by Dame Judith Anderson’s Vulcan priestess T’Lar, a successor to “Amok Time”’s T’Pau. (T’Lar’s elevated archaisms are more classically correct King James-ese than T’Pau’s; where T’Pau would say “thee are,” making her sound like a Quaker, T’Lar says “thou art.”)


Deep Space Nine and Religious Diversity

Despite the religious elements and mysticism of this story arc, there is still no hint of divinity, prayer, worship or a transcendent afterlife. (The trappings of Vulcan religion, with its gongs and candles and meditation, are suggestive of Buddhism — perhaps not coincidentally the one religious tradition for which Roddenberry showed some affinity, even marrying Majel Barrett in a Buddhist wedding ceremony in Japan.)

This changed with DS9, which explored all these themes in complex ways, initially in the context of Bajoran religion and later Klingon and Dominion religion. The juxtapositions of these divergent faiths contributed a new form of diversity — diverse religious points of view — to the Star Trek universe.

Religion was such a central theme that the series’ protagonist, Avery Brooks’ Benjamin Sisko, had a religious designation, “the Emissary of the Prophets” — and Sisko’s own skeptical discomfort with all this only made the religious themes more complicated and interesting.

DS9 also included a major positive character of faith, Nana Visitor’s Kira Nerys. Even in depicting the hostile Dominion, religion was treated in complex, not always unsympathetic ways. Religious faith played an important and sometimes redemptive role in characters’ arcs throughout the series.

The series was notable, too, for further nuancing the brittle humanistic utopianism toward which Roddenberry had tried to shepherd the franchise, bringing more ambiguity and moral compromise into the portrayal of the Federation.

Of course, DS9 carved out room for morally murkier territory and religious diversity precisely by putting the focus further from the Federation mainstream. Still, like all the races and worlds encountered in the Trek universe, the Bajorans and the Dominion showcased different aspects of humanity.

Whether Roddenberry (who died in 1991) would have appreciated or loathed these adaptations of his vision is impossible to say, but they are part of the reason that DS9 is often cited by serious Trekkers as the best Trek series to date.

Some of these themes continued into Star Trek: Voyager (a series generally seen as a step backward in many ways) and Enterprise (often considered the nadir of the franchise), but DS9 remains the high point so far for religious representation in Star Trek.


Shots Across the Bow

If post-DS9 Star Trek seems to have lost its way, two groundbreaking non-Trek sci-fi series offered a dramatic challenge to the Trek status quo: J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5 (a property that likely played an unacknowledged role in the origins of DS9) and the rebooted Battlestar Galactica.

For many Trek fans, Babylon 5 (B5) was something of a revelation: a Trek-like sci-fi universe with shadings of J.R.R. Tolkien, offering a measure of Roddenberry-like aspirational idealism combined with a far franker, more realistic portrayal of human nature in all its messiness and mystery.

Though no less fantastic and artificial than Trek, there was social complexity and freshness to B5 that threatened to make Trek feel, well, dated — not unlike what Jason Bourne did to Pierce Brosnan-era 007.

Among its other innovations, B5 embraced the durability of religion in human culture, even bringing an order of Catholic monks (Trappists) onto the station at one point. In one scene a dying character is even given sacramental absolution. Other religious traditions, human and alien, are explored throughout the series.

Battlestar Galactica (BSG) went further still, both in its realism regarding human behavior and in its religious themes. Where B5 was a sci-fi series that occasionally dealt with religious themes, Galactica was an essentially religious series, with polytheism versus monotheism as a central theme and the existence of God and angels in some form ultimately affirmed.

B5 and BSG were game changers. They altered the imaginative landscape; they altered the audience. We now see through what we accepted in the past. That’s not to say that we can’t still enjoy TNG or even TOS on home video. But there’s a reason that 007 was dramatically reinvented after Jason Bourne, and it’s clear that Star Trek must adapt as well.


Faith and Fanaticism on Star Trek: Discovery

If the first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery are any indication, the writers are aware of this need to adapt, at least on some fronts. (Some spoilers ahead.)

The influence of BSG in particular is evident in the disastrous events and the lack of clean resolution two episodes in, suggesting a strong focus on arc storytelling going beyond B5 or DS9. It’s also clear that the writers are willing to allow Starfleet to be a messier place than Roddenberry preferred.

What about B5 and BSG’s openness to religious themes? For that matter, what about the religious themes in DS9 in particular?

The first two episodes of Discovery include references to Klingon religion, notably the Klingon messiah-figure Kahless — but already there are signs of divergent religious views, with some Klingons considering Kahless a “fable” and others insisting on fundamentalist devotion.

There is also a new revelation about the Vulcan katra: It turns out that living Vulcans can impart a share of their katra to another person — and then communicate with them psychically across great distances, though not without effort.

The violent, religious Klingon faction that will be leading antagonists in the unfolding drama are somewhat evocative of violent Islamic extremists, though the faction’s emphasis on “purity” and “remaining Klingon” could also suggest a critique of far-right American nationalism, notably the alt-right and white-identity movements.

As the series progresses, the portrayal of the Klingons will probably become more complex and nuanced, with various factions pushing the Empire in different directions, for good and for ill.

But will religious attitudes be associated solely with fanaticism and violence? Or will the series allow some forms of faith to be a force for good as well as harm? Will there be any openness to religious themes among Federation characters?


Hope and Faith

I love classic Star Trek’s utopianism. We need more idealism, not less. An age where Superman himself is glum, hopeless, passive and directionless is an age starving for idealism. Even the normally sure-footed Brad Bird, taking on our cultural obsession with dystopia in Disney’s Tomorrowland, was unable to offer a substantial aspirational vision in its place.

As for the rebooted Trek movies, at their best they can be fun, but there’s not much there that could be called inspiring or aspirational. A shiny, hopeful vision of the future seems harder to sustain than ever.

Can a sustained vision of hope be entirely devoid of faith? Is a rigidly secular utopianism lacking in religious diversity any more fully human than conflict-free utopianism? Is it even interesting, let alone plausible?

The religious themes in the Spock Trilogy, DS9 and other incarnations of Trek, not to mention B5 and BSG, aren’t extra baggage. They are part of what make these stories resonate so deeply.

Religion continues to be part of the human story — a complicated, interesting part that can be both harmful and healing. Good fiction, including good science fiction, should reflect this reality.

It took Star Trek a while to glom to this. The franchise has gone down some wrong roads, but this is not one of them.

It would be a shame to see Star Trek go backward here rather than forward.

Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
Follow him on Twitter.