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Star Trek: Discovery – The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry (Review)

The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry represents another attempt to reconcile one of the central tensions of Star Trek: Discovery, the conflict that exists between the expectations of a Star Trek series and the demands of a piece of prestige television. It frequently feels like there is a tug of war between these two competing impulses within the series, and the production team are trying desperately to find the right balance between these two very different storytelling models.

Much like Context is for Kings, the basic story at the heart of The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry is quintessential Star Trek plotting. The contours of the plot will be recognisable to any viewer with even a passing familiarity with the narrative structures and templates of the larger Star Trek franchise. At the same time, a lot of the episode’s finer details are more recognisable as the hallmarks of contemporary prestige television. The result is a piece of television that tells a very simplistic Star Trek in a manner that feels somewhat dissonant.

Hanging out with the Kol kids.

There is an awkwardness to The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry, a sense that the creative team are still working out the proverbial kinks. Much like the engineering and science staff on the Discovery itself, the production team are creating something new and exciting, but something without a clear precedent or blueprint. Discovery often struggles to properly mix its constituent elements, some of its narrative choices feeling clumsy and others struggling to mesh with the story being told.

At the same time, like Context is for Kings before it, The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry is an episode that exists primarily to reassure viewers that Discovery is still fundamentally Star Trek, no matter the production design or the prestige trappings. However, Discovery is investing so much time in proving that it is Star Trek, that it is still searching for its own clear voice.

Resting uneasy.

Discovery owes a lot to prestige drama. A lot of the storytelling on Discovery would have been impossible even a decade earlier. Discovery takes certain storytelling choices and elements for granted, decisions that would never have been feasible on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager or Star Trek: Enterprise. These choices run that gamut from major to minor, from the decision to shoot extended scenes in Klingon with subtitles to the decision to introduce the eponymous ship in the third episode.

Perhaps the most obvious influence of prestige drama on the storytelling of Discovery is the brutality and violence on display. Four episodes into its first season, Discovery has killed off a number of seemingly major characters: T’Kuvma and Georgiou in Battle at the Binary Stars and Landry in The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry. This is a fairly dramatic, particularly given that the pre-show publicity seemed to suggest that Michelle Yeoh and Chris Obi would be major players across the fifteen-episode season.

No need to get your nose out of joint.

By way of contrast, the Star Trek franchise has never been particularly trigger-happy when it comes to killing off major characters. Spock died at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but was resurrected in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Kirk was killed off in Star Trek: Generations, but that was intended as a passage of the torch between two iterations of the franchise. Data perished at the end of Star Trek: Nemesis, which was the last Next Generation movie. Even if it wasn’t, the writers helpfully provided a suitable replacement model.

Only a handful of series regulars have “died” during the run of a given series. Tasha Yar was killed off in Skin of Evil, Jadzia Dax was murdered in Tears of the Prophets and Kes ascended to a higher plane in The Gift. These deaths were all driven by external factors, such as contract negotiations or budget concerns or the actor’s decision to leave. Charles “Trip” Tucker was killed off as a very mean-spirited afterthought in These Are the Voyages…, the last episode of his particular series. Sisko ascended in What You Leave Behind, but promised to return.

Signalling interest.

Even when it comes to guest characters, the franchise has never been particularly bloodthirsty. Deep Space Nine is regarded as the most cynical Star Trek show, but the production team very rarely killed off recurring cast members. Part of this was driven by a clear affection for the performers involved. The Founder impersonating General Martok was killed in Apocalypse Rising, they promptly introduced the flesh-and-blood iteration of the character in In Purgatory’s Shadow. Weyoun died in To the Death, before being resurrected as a clone in Ties of Blood and Water.

When Deep Space Nine killed off prominent recurring characters, it frequently did so as a measure of last resort. Michael Eddington was killed off in Blaze of Glory, an episode designed to end the Maquis arc that had been playing through the series since The Maquis, Part I and The Maquis, Part II. Gowron was killed by Worf in Tacking Into the Wind, an episode within spitting distance of the series finale. Kai Winn, Gul Dukat, Legate Damar and Weyoun were all finally and unequivocally killed off in What You Leave Behind, the series finale.

Didn’t leave mushroom for desert.

All of this is to illustrate that the rather bloodthirsty nature of Discovery is very much at odds with how Star Trek has traditionally approached storytelling. It is very transparently a nod towards the conventions of contemporary prestige television. Actor Shazad Latif has conceded as much:

“I think so, yeah. I mean, that’s what most shows do now,” he revealed to Digital Spy.

“You keep the audience on tenterhooks. You never know. You want to build these relationships with these characters, and it just makes it all the more heartbreaking when they go. I mean, yeah, I think you’re never safe.”

Latif is referring to the tendency of prestigious high-quality television dramas to kill off major cast members at points that may seem shocking to an audience raised on the stability of network television storytelling. Series like Game of Thrones, The Sopranos and Mad Men have all killed off major characters in mid-season episodes.

Want some spore?

It should be noted that there is a certain clumsiness to how Discovery has approached this increasing common narrative trope. Discovery has killed off a number of seemingly major characters like T’Kuvma, Georgiou and Landry. These characters and performers were all introduced with considerable flare during the publicity cycle. Michelle Yeoh appeared front and centre of one of the two Entertainment Weekly covers publicising the show. Chris Obi was announced alongside regular Shazad Latif. T’Kuvma received his promo on the show’s Instagram.

However, no savvy viewer could have been taken entirely off-guard by any of these deaths, because Discovery still feels rather conventional in terms of how it introduced and branded these characters. Technically speaking, Discovery has not actually killed a single credited lead. The Vulcan Hello introduced Michelle Yeoh and Chris Obi as guest stars, marking them as expendable in the grand scheme of things. Similarly, Rekha Sharma was the most prominent crew member in Context is for Kings to be credited as a guest star rather than a lead.

Maps to the stars.

In other words, these characters were quite explicitly expendable. Although identified as major characters in marketing outside the narrative, these actors and performers were never identified as stars by the show itself. as such, their deaths do not have the same impact as the sudden mid-season departures of credited leads in shows like The Sopranos, Mad Men or Game of Thrones. In terms of pure execution – pun very much intended – these deaths feel like an off-key execution of an increasingly common trope.

Of course, all of this side-steps the debate as to whether the ability to kill off major characters is a good thing of itself. It is very tempting to consider the prevalence of the trope in modern genre television as an indulgence in a freedom that had never really existed before. The particulars of broadcast television, with its episodic structure and its need for a firm status quo, conspired to prevent writers from killing off major characters on a whim. Twenty-first century television has shattered those expectations, and afforded writers a freedom that they never had before.

You know the drill.

Although far from the first series to kill off a credited series regular in a shocking manner, the sudden death of Ned Stark towards the end of the first season of Game of Thrones established a trend in television storytelling. It shocked the audience, and turned Game of Thrones into a multimedia sensation. As Todd VanDerWerff noted:

The unprecedented nature of Ned’s death likely led to another effect: It was arguably the moment when Game of Thrones made the leap from cult hit to sensation. Social media chatter went through the roof in the wake of the execution. Suddenly the show was drowning in YouTube reactions and tweets, in blog posts and Emmy nominations.

That’s the allure of a TV death in a nutshell. It’s why everybody in the industry keeps chasing it. It raises the show’s dramatic stakes. It almost automatically creates lots of conversation. And when done well, it can take your show to another level.

“In this day and age, you have to do it just for the stakes, to say, ‘We’re playing for keeps,'” says Terry Matalas, the co-creator of Syfy’s 12 Monkeys, which, as a time travel show, can always drop in on dead characters in the past. Later, thoughtfully, he adds, “I do wonder if you start to desensitize the audience to death [as a plot point].”

These character deaths within Discovery are very clearly following that particular trend. There is a clear intention that the deaths of Captain Philippa Georgiou in Battle at the Binary Stars and Commander Ellen Landry in The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry are intended to show viewers something they’ve not seen on Star Trek.

Corridors of power.

It does not help matters that these deaths exist as the most obvious hallmark of a tension and schism within Discovery itself. There are many Star Trek fans who are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of a Star Trek series that departs from the conventions of the franchise and embraces the mode of modern television storytelling. For these audiences, the deaths of these characters can be seen as a perfect example of the worst impulses within Discovery, as a reflexive and unthinking embrace of the conventions of contemporary pseudo-prestige television.

However, these deaths all serve clear purposes in terms of plot and theme. The death of Captain Philippa Georgiou at the end of Battle at the Binary Stars is largely symbolic. Philippa Georgiou was established in The Vulcan Hello as a character equivalent to Jean-Luc Picard. The opening scene finds Burnham lost while Georgiou inventively sets a star by which the Shenzhou might navigate. Georgiou is an idealist, a utopian, a diplomat. She represents the very best of humanity, as demonstrated by her will in The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry.

Matters not.

As such, it makes sense for Georgiou to die at the end of Battle of the Binary Stars, because one of the clear mission statements of Discovery is to explore what the future looks like without that sort of exceptional and singular paragon of virtue. Like Picard, Georgiou is a beacon of virtue and righteousness. Georgiou is a star by which Burnham might navigate. However, Discovery is very much about Burnham trying to navigate guided only by the memory of that star. This is, of course, an allegory for the challenges facing Star Trek on its return to television after twelve years.

The death of Landry in The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry serves a very different purpose. Pretty much the only established attributes of Ellen Landry’s personality are that she is fundamentally not a nice person. Ellen Landry is the very embodiment of the militarism that Stamets so transparently resents. In Context is for Kings, Landry is introduced referred to prisoners as “trash” and “animals.” Given that one of these “animals” is the series viewpoint character, the series is quite pointedly not endorsing her perspective.

Walk tall.

Commander Ellen Landry is very clearly the only member of the senior staff who respects and venerates Captain Gabriel Lorca. Commander Saru seems quite anxious about his commanding officer. When Burnham offends Saru in The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry, Saru likens her conduct to that of their captain. “Your contrite words were insincere,” he states. “I was wrong to question your place on the crew. You will fit in perfectly with Captain Lorca.” That is hardly an endorsement of his superior.

Similarly, Stamets is quite clearly uncomfortable working with Lorca. In Context is for Kings, Stamets very bluntly described Lorca as a “warmonger.” In The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry, Stamets basically threatens to take his ball and go home. “If I go, I’m taking everything with me. My spores, my drive. This entire ship was designed around my scientific specialty.” This does not seem like a particularly healthy relationship. Doctor Culbur never really interacts with Lorca, but he doesn’t seem particularly happy with his assignment either.

Well, this is going to Land(ry) somebody in the morgue.

In contrast, Landry is eager to please. At the end of Context is for Kings, Landry recovered the tardigrade from the Glenn without informing the rest of the senior staff. “Thank you for beaming it aboard,” Lorca mused. Landry responded, “Anything, anytime, Captain.” That seems like an invitation to go “above and beyond” the call of duty, and is certainly more enthusiasm that Lorca has received from any other member of his senior staff. The implication is that Landry is Lorca’s most senior ally among the bridge crew.

Tellingly, in The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry, Lorca chooses to assign Landry to oversee Burnham’s work with the tardigrade. The choice seems very strange from an organisational perspective; Saru and Stamets are both scientists, and this would seem to be a scientific problem. However, Lorca seems to have assigned Landry specifically because she is not a scientist. Landry explicitly advises Burnham, “Lorca told me to keep you on track. That your curiosity might lead you astray. We’re not letting him down.”

Cap’s off.

As such, Landry is very effectively and efficiently characterised as an embodiment of the militarism towards which Lorca aspires. There is a sense that Lorca would happily command a ship staffed entirely of true believers like Landry. This relationship makes both parties more dangerous, with Landry refusing to challenge Lorca and Lorca free from any potential criticisms. Tellingly, Lorca and Landry’s first impulse on meeting the tardigrade is weaponise it. Landry even suggests killing it and harvesting its claws.

It goes without saying that this is antithetical to the ideals of Star Trek as a franchise. Context is for Kings has already established Lorca as an existential threat to those ideals. The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry reinforces this idea. The teaser ends on Lorca’s plans for the tardigrade. “What’s a hide made of that can withstand the firepower of a phaser set to kill?” he ponders. “I need you to find out. And weaponise it.” Weaponising an innocent creature is so opposed to the core principles of Star Trek that it is an act breaking cliffhanger.

Keeping his demons at bay.

With all of that in mind, the death of Landry serves a very clear thematic purpose. Landry is quite explicitly and objectively wrong in how she chooses to deal with the creature; this is not a problem that can be solved by brute force, and brute force will only make the situation worse. Landry tries to solve the problem using a phaser, and is killed for that. It is in many ways an indictment of the idea that violence can solve every problem, a narrative decision that seems very important in the context of a Klingon War. Violence begets violence, murder begets murder.

In contrast, Burnham reaches a breakthrough with the creature through research and theory. Burnham works with each member of the senior staff to engineer a peaceful solution to the crisis, using each crew member’s abilities and specialties in order to test her hypothesis and implement her solution; she uses Saru’s threat ganglia, Tilly’s access to the spore drive, Stamets’ control of the engineering section. Landry tries to solve the problem the wrong way and suffers horrific consequences from that decision.

Bat’leth it be.

There is also a decidedly metafictional element to Landry’s death. Landry is played by Rekha Sharma, who is perhaps most recognisable from her role in the reboot of Battlestar Galactica that was overseen by Next Generation and Deep Space Nine veteran Ronald D. Moore. Battlestar Galactica offered a very cynical and grim version of the future, one driven by military philosophy and horrific brutality. The death of Landry, played by a character very deeply associated with such a grim science-fiction franchise is very clearly a statement of intent.

(It should also be noted, in terms of self-aware casting, that a large part of the legwork in establishing Gabriel Lorca as a sinister individual was accomplished through the casting of British character actor Jason Isaacs. Isaacs is a talented performer, but his screen persona has always been dispassionate and vaguely sinister. Isaacs is arguably most recognisable to American audiences for his work as a criminal in Brotherhood, as a collaborator in Harry Potter, and as the villain in The OA. So Lorca comes with a lot of baggage even before his ominous introductory scene.)

Hello to Jason Isaacs.

That said, the death of Landry is controversial for a number of reasons. Outside of a broader (and often justified) cynicism about the death of a seemingly major character to demonstrate the stakes, there is also the fact that the two major character deaths in the first four episodes of Discovery were women of colour. This is a troubling statistic, particularly given that minorities tend to be disproportionately represented in terms of these shocking on-screen deaths. Some commentators have argued that pop culture has long considered minority characters to be expendable.

(The Star Trek franchise is not immune to these unfortunate trends. Of the major characters to depart the various shows, the majority have been women. Grace Lee Whitney disappeared from Star Trek during its first season, due to horrific events behind the scenes. In its first season, The Next Generation lost two of its three credited female leads; Denise Crosby and Gates McFadden. Gates McFadden’s replacement, Diana Muldaur, departed the series at the end of the second season. Terry Farrell was the only lead to leave Deep Space Nine. Jennifer Lien was released from Voyager.)

To ‘Ellen back.

However, there are several points to note in terms of the death of Landry in The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry. The most obvious is that Discovery has the most diverse cast of any Star Trek show since Deep Space Nine; almost every character is a minority of some description. In fact, as Anthony Rapp noted on Facebook, the character of Landry was originally conceived as a male character:

This is an interesting and unfortunate coincidence… Landry was originally conceived as a male role, always written as a character who would be dying. As they began casting, the producers thought that it would be great to give what would be a traditionally male role to a woman instead, and then cast a wide net in terms of ethnicity. So it does have the unfortunate optics of looking like all Asian females are destined to die on the show, when in reality there has been [a] concerted effort to populate our show with more women than would normally be seen, and more people have a wide range of ethnic backgrounds.

This is very much the flip side of diversity and representation; a more diverse cast means more diverse characters dying. There is only one white straight male character in the Discovery ensemble, and that is Gabriel Lorca. As a result, any significant character who gets killed off over the course of Discovery will be a woman or a member of a minority. While this is not ideal, it demonstrates the series’ commitment to diversity of representation.

Holo women.

Still, while the death of Landry is a plot element lifted directly from the playbook of modern prestige television, a lot of The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry is traditional Star Trek. Much like Context is for Kings, the basic plot of The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry is a very archetypal Star Trek story told in a fairly conventional manner with a few dashes of prestige television thrown in for good measure. Again, this is an illustration of Discovery trying to find the right balance between its franchise roots and modern storytelling conventions.

Even the title feels like a conscious acknowledgement of the franchise’s history. After all, several of Discovery‘s first season titles are decidedly pretentious; The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry, Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad, Si Vis Pacem, Para Gellum. These are very much in keeping with the franchise’s longstanding tradition of floral naming, particularly the original Star Trek and Deep Space Nine; The Conscience of a King, For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky, Wrongs Darker than Death or Night, Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges.

That awkward moment when you realise that you’ve materialised in the Skydance logo.

Discovery is still very much in the early “very basic plots” stage of its existence, the point at which Star Trek series traditionally tell very simply stories on which they might hang character development or world building. Context is for Kings was a familiar “research mission gone wrong” episode in the style of Where No Man Has Gone Before or The Naked Now, using standing sets to substitute in for an eerily abandoned sister ship like The Tholian Web, Where Silence Has Lease or Empok Nor.

The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry is built around a similar template. The episode focuses on a crisis at a remote outpost, and the primary starship is the only vessel capable of rendering assistance; it is a basic plot structure lifted directly from episodes like Mudd’s Women, The Deadly YearsHide and Q, Home Soil. In fact, The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry owes quite a lot to The Devil in the Dark, which is also built around the framework of the ship trying to resolve a crisis at a remote mining outpost.

Mining for emotion.

The focus on the mining outpost at Corvan II – which “generates forty percent of the Federation’s dilithium” – is very much in keeping with the “frontier” mythology of the original Star Trek series, the notion that the twenty-third century is built along the principles of “Wagon Train to the Stars.” The Star Trek franchise has long suggested that the twenty-third century is the wild west, in contrast to the cleaner and more sterile future suggested in The Next Generation. The world of the original Star Trek was always more eccentric than that of the later spin-offs.

Janeway would acknowledge as much in Flashback, suggesting that the twenty-third century was more chaotic and disordered than the empires and politics that defined the later spin-offs. “Imagine the era they lived in,” she muses. “The Alpha Quadrant still largely unexplored. Humanity on verge of war with Klingons. Romulans hiding behind every nebula. Even the technology we take for granted was still in its early stages. No plasma weapons, no multiphasic shields. Their ships were half as fast.” The idea of prospectors and miners is part of that aesthetic.

Feeding time.

The tardigrade is also a very conscious nod to the pseudoscience of the original Star Trek series. “Your Ripper appears to share some natural traits with the Tardigrade species, a docile creature that lives in the waters of the Earth,” Burnham explains to Landry at one point. “A micro-animal capable of surviving extreme heat and subfreezing temperatures.” Landry is not convinced. “Did you say ‘microscopic’?” she asks. Burnham notes the contradiction. “In our case, somehow, macroscopic.”

One of the recurring fascinations of pulpy old-school science-fiction was the idea of shifting scale; objects with their sizes distorted to create an uncanny effect. Star Trek presented a number of such alien creatures. The Immunity Syndrome featured a deep-space amoeba that was large enough to devour ships and planets. Operation — Annihilate! featured a wave of alien parasites spreading across the cosmos, each jellyfish-like creature “resembling, more than anything, a gigantic brain cell.”

Above it all.

The later Star Trek shows would occasionally nod to this pulpy narrative device in episodes like Macrocosm or One Little Ship. In some ways, the tardigrade in Context is for Kings and The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry is very much intended as a riff on that same concept. Like the energy vampire cloud in the teaser to Context is for Kings, the tardigrade exists to underscore just how weird and wonderful the twenty-third century is. Discovery has done a compelling job integrating the “weird science” aspects of the original Star Trek somewhat overlooked by the other spin-offs.

Of course, the tardigrade also reinforces the other core Star Trek elements of The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry. Most notably, The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry hinges on the revelation that the seemingly hostile alien creature introduced in Context is for Kings is not naturally aggressive. This is a classic Star Trek plot beat, the reveal that the seemingly monstrous alien is not actually monstrous. It is a reminder that there is no need to irrationally fear “the other”, a timely theme in the modern era of xenophobia and racial anxiety.

A fresh angle.

This is a cornerstone of the Star Trek canon largely introduced by writer Gene L. Coon. It was seeded in Arena, when the Gorn were introduced as grotesque reptiles that wiped out an entire Federation colony before being revealed to be responding to territorial encroachment. It was cemented in The Devil in the Dark, when the bizarre murderous Horta was revealed to be responding to the brutality of the human mining expedition. The same logic could easily be applied to other humanoid species in the Star Trek canon; whether the Klingons, the Cardassians, the Xindi.

The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry is very much part of that rich Star Trek narrative tradition, with Burnham learning that the tardigrade is not in fact a monster. In the first half of the episode, the military-minded crew members treat the creature as a predator. It is telling that Lorca begins the episode by comparing the tardigrade to himself. “Natural aversion to light. Same as me.” Landry names it “Ripper.” However, over the course of the episode, Burnham comes to see a bit of herself in the creature; at the start of Choose Your Pain, she imagines herself in its place.

A tough cell.

“You judge the creature by its appearance,” Burnham tells Landry. “And by one single incident from its past.” This is a revealing line, in a number of different ways. Most obviously, on a narrative level, it applies to Burnham’s failed mutiny in The Vulcan Hello. After all, Context is for Kings affirmed that Burnham is almost legendary as “Starfleet’s first mutineer.” The fellow convicts point her out to one another, while Cadet Tilly recognises her by name. The accusation and the innuendo follows Burnham. She is defined by the incident.

“You were always a good officer until you weren’t,” Saru summarised in Context is for Kings. In fact, The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry reinforces the disconnect between Burnham’s past and her present; Voq listens to the Shenzhou computer list her accomplishments, while the hologram of Georgiou speculates that Burnham must be a captain by this point. However, all of that potential was squandered in one poorly-considered decision made in the heat of the moment.

Chief among his concerns.

In many ways, Burnham is living a life equivalent to an ex-convict attempting to reintegrate into society. Even after serving their time, many former prisoners are still defined by their previous crime. Many options are closed to them:

A survey of employers in five large cities found that 65% would not knowingly hire an ex-convict. Many would not be allowed to do so legally anyway. Another facet of the “tough on crime” movement has been to exclude ex-convicts from certain kinds of employment. In Illinois, ex-felons are banned from some 57 different professions, including such jobs as manicurist and barber, says Diane Williams, president of Chicago’s Safer Foundation, a non-profit organisation that helps ex-offenders.

Ex-convicts, whose families are often less than enthusiastic about their return, can also be excluded from public housing. Three-quarters of inmates leaving prison have been on drugs; one in five has a mental illness. It should be no surprise that ex-inmates have high rates of unemployment and homelessness.

Discovery touches upon this prejudice in a number of different ways. Indeed, the connection between Burnham and the tardigrade is reinforced by Landry’s attitude towards her. Landry referred to the prisoners as “animals” in Context is for Kings, which seems similar to how she sees the tardigrade.

The watcher.

Indeed, there is a sense that this mirroring is reinforced by the climax of the episode. Burnham skilfully deduces that the tardigrade is the missing component of the spore drive, which leads to a sequence in which the creature is caged and harnessed. However, the sequence in which the engineering staff use the tardigrade to pilot the ship is played as something tragic and heartbreaking. There is a sense of cruel exploitation to the manner in which the Glenn and the Discovery have chosen to employ the tardigrade, recalling Rudolph Ransom’s activities in Equinox, Part I.

The episode makes it very clear that the tardigrade is not comfortable. Burnham feels uncomfortable watching the creature work, while Stamets seems excited and Lorca is indifferent. Later, Burnham apologetically visits the creature in its holding pen. “You feeling better? I brought you the good stuff.” As the creature moans, Burnham admits, “I’m sorry.” All of this is reinforced by Georgiou’s final appeal to Burnham in her last will and testament. “Take good care. But more importantly, take good care of those in your care.”


There is a sense that Burnham sees herself in the creature. Like the tardigrade, Burnham was treated like a monster after her mutiny. Like the tardigrade, Burnham sees herself as responsible for a lot of deaths that she never intended. Like the tardigrade, Burnham is tolerated as a potentially useful resource on board this deeply troubled ship. The spore chamber becomes a big glass cell for the tardigrade, not dissimilar from the brig that held Burnham during Battle at the Binary Stars.

However, there is also a somewhat deeper subtext at work here. After all, the tardigrade is not being blamed simply for what it has done, it is being studied for what it looks like. The creature looks like a monster, and so it is treated like a monster. “Nothing in its biology suggests it would attack, except in self-defense,” Burnham advises Landry. “Commander, this creature is an unknown alien. It can only be what it is and not what you want it to be.” At a time of increased racial tension in the United States, there is something very powerful in a black woman stating as much.

Shining through.

Of course, Discovery exists in a postracial future. Nobody on Discovery judges Burnham by the fact that she is a black woman. Indeed, the biggest cultural difference between Burnham and the rest of the crew is that Burnham was raised as a Vulcan. However, while Discovery is set in the twenty-third century, it is broadcast in the twenty-first century. It exists in the context of the modern world, against the backdrop of modern events. It might deal with these events through allegory and metaphor, but it still engages with them.

On Deep Space Nine, a lot of Benjamin Sisko’s character was subtly informed by his status as the franchise’s first African American lead; his art collection in The Search, Part I, his flashback experience in Far Beyond the Stars, his objections to the world of Vic Fontaine in Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang. Even little details, like the Sisko family’s connection to New Orleans or Benjamin’s off-duty costume choices created a sense that Sisko’s cultural background was a fundamental part of his identity. (Much more so than Jean-Luc Picard’s French heritage, for example.)

Ganglia-ing up on her.

Although obviously not an issue within the world of the show itself, the relationship between Benjamin and Jake Sisko was very meaningful to actor Avery Brooks because it presented a powerful image of that ran counter to many cultural stereotypes. Pop culture had a history of presenting African Americans as absent fathers, and the richness of the relationship between Benjamin and Jake was important as a rebuttal to that cliché. It played into the subtext of episodes like The Visitor or What You Leave Behind.

Discovery has suggested that some of the cultural difficulties facing Burnham are a reflection of more contemporary anxieties, that Burnham’s twenty-third century experiences can be filtered through more grounded and a more relatable twenty-first century lens. Of course, each of these examples can be explained in the context of the show, whether through Burnham’s experience as a human raised by Vulcans or through some other background detail. However, they all add up to a series very much engaged with the marginalisation of certain voices.

Thy will be done.

In The Vulcan Hello, Admiral Anderson condescendingly talks down to Burnham when she raises the issue of the threat posed by the Klingons. Indeed, Admiral Anderson even gives Burnham a very patronising line about how she should appreciate the dangers of generalisation. In some ways, this sequence evokes the obvious anxiety felt by minorities and women and other groups at the rise of white supremacism, and the tendency of (mostly white and male) voices to downplay those anxieties.

In Context is for Kings, Burnham receives a very cold shoulder from Stamets when she shows up in engineering. He repeatedly dresses her down and calls her out, nitpicking her mistakes and treating her obnoxiously. Tilly even refuses to share her workspace with Burnham. All of this occurs despite the fact that Burnham is a very quick study who immediately proves herself of use to crew. However, Stamets’ condescension and Tilly’s unease towards Burnham reflect a lot of the biases that people of colour (and women) still face in science and technology fields.

“Okay, I was a little out of line.”

In some ways, this is a reminder that the prejudices commented upon in the original Star Trek are still with contemporary culture. Episodes like The Devil in the Dark and Let That Be Your Last Battlefield dealt overtly with issues of racism and discrimination, about the barriers that existed within sixties society. Although things have undoubtedly improved, Discovery seems to suggest that these metaphors still have power and still have resonance.

After all, the President of the United States has described most Mexicans as criminals. One of his first acts was to implement a “Muslim Ban.” African Americans are still incarcerated at a higher frequency than their white counterparts, and are much more likely to shot and killed by law enforcement without cause. Those law enforcement officials are still highly unlikely to see any serious legal consequences of these actions. Minorities face increasing institutional barriers at the voting booth. The Department of Justice has tried to strip away due process from immigrants.

“You should all be Kobayashi Marooned for that performance!”

All of this seems to suggest that the Star Trek franchise’s message of tolerance and diversity is more important than it has been in decades. The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager had the luxury of broadcasting during a relatively stable time in national and international politics; the so-called “unipolar moment.” In contrast, Enterprise struggled as the first Star Trek series broadcast during the War on Terror. However, Discovery finds itself airing at a point where the politics of the United States are more volatile than they have been since the sixties or seventies.

Of course, one of the biggest political challenge of the second decade of the twenty-first century is the battle between neo-liberal globalisation and a resurgent ethno-nationalism. Discovery seems to be playing out this conflict through the Klingon War. The Federation represents the ideal of globalisation, as a futuristic projection of America as a global power since the end of the Second World War. The Star Trek franchise has long argued that the Federation is really Kennedy era liberalism projected into the distant future.

Golden threads.

In contrast, the Klingons are positioned as a resurgent nationalist movement. “Remain Klingon,” the Klingon characters repeat to one another, a twenty-third century variation on the chants of “you will not replace us!” heard among the resurgent white supremacist movement that reflects the contemporary nationalist anxieties about the erosion of white power through demographic shifts. Purity and integrity is core to the Klingon identity, to the point that Voq is literally a white nationalist.

Given the Star Trek franchise’s history, it is quite clear where Discovery must fall on this divide between globalisation and nationalism. Even when it was skeptical about the Federation’s foreign policy, Deep Space Nine understood that multiculturalism was the only way to ensure long-term peace and stability. Indeed, central to the failures of Voyager and Enterprise were an embrace of nationalism that was very much antithetical to the Star Trek franchise as a concept. Discovery might understand the Klingon perspective, but it could never endorse it.

Kor values.

This becomes very clear in The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry. The episode rejoins Voq and his followers, six months after the events of Battle at the Binary Stars. Of course, this is a somewhat absurd plot point. It seems strange that it would take Kol six months to return to the field of battle, particularly given that the pseudo-cloaking device was such a big deal. Given the amount of wreckage and material floating around, it seems strange that neither side attempted to claim the battlefield and scavenge among the debris for useful intel or material.

(Similarly, the telescope delivered to Burnham in The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry raises similar logistical questions. Given that Georgiou died on the Klingon ship, did somebody take the time to retrieve the telescope during the evacuation? Surely there were other priorities? If somebody returned to the battle afterwards, why would they leave all the information in the ship’s database? It is possible that Georgiou used a replica on the Shenzhou, but Saru seems to recognise it in Choose Your Pain.)

A touching reunion.

Nevertheless, The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry suggests that the T’Kuvma’s creed of “remain Klingon!” is quite simply impossible. Early in the episode, L’Rell suggests that the ship might be able to salvage something of use from the remains of the Shenzhou. Voq understands this idea as a violation of T’Kuvma’s core principles. “To fuse its technology with our own would be blasphemy.” Voq is entirely correct on this point. Salvaging Federation technology would make him a massive hypocrite.

However, The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry makes it clear that survival is more important than purity. Voq has already allowed himself to be contaminated by the Federation. “You had no such outrage when we ate its captain,” L’Rell counters. “I saw your smile when you picked the meat from her smooth skull.” There is a recurring suggestion that Voq might have to compromise himself in order to win the war, that he would sacrifice his own principles for victory.

The art of not giving a Voq what others think.

As much as Discovery can understand the cry of “remain Klingon!”, it also understands that it is impossible. Existing in the universe means being a part of that universe. The spore drive suggests that everywhere in the universe is connected by some vast invisible organism, that everybody is tethered to everybody else. While T’Kuvma’s ideology might be appealing to the Klingon Empire, it is fundamentally and unequivocally unsustainable. The Empire cannot survive by that doctrine, something that the audience understands from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

The closing scenes between Voq and L’Rell suggest as much. Voq finds himself cast out on the ruins of the Shenzhou, buried in “the grave of [his] enemy” with only the detailed crew manifest for company. When L’Rell returns, she offers him a way to win the war, to earn his place as the head of the Klingon Empire. L’Rell suggests that he surrender himself to the matriarchs of House Mokai, the Klingon House known for deception and treachery. She warns that he will have to sacrifice “everything.” Is it possible Voq might even have to sacrifice his Klingon identity?

Taking the Mokai road.

The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry hints pretty hard that the Klingons are on the wrong side of this argument, that ethnic and cultural purity is a counterproductive and unsustainable political philosophy. “What good is purity, if it leads only to death?” L’Rell challenges at one point, a line that seems to hint towards the next century of decline for the Klingon Empire. Discovery genuinely believes that there is strength in diversity.

The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry arrives at a point where Discovery is still trying to figure out what twenty-first century Star Trek looks like, trying to strike a balance between the structural expectations of contemporary drama and the fundamental principles that have guided the franchise for half a century. While it still struggles with the former, it is clear that Discovery is firmly committed to the latter. Discovery is Star Trek through and through, even as it remains unsure what modern Star Trek should look like.

5 Responses

  1. As always, an insightful review. I am thoroughly enjoying Discovery. It’s already on the fast track to being my second favourite Trek series; dark and realistic. People are flawed and dangerous and prejudiced. Death is final and bloody. War is hell, not noble. Peace isn’t obtained through five minutes of grand oratory at the end of an episode. Discovery boldly goes where no Trek has gone before.

    • Thanks Laura. It is still early days for me. It’s good, even very good. It’s far stronger than any other Star Trek spin-off series at this point in the run. (Maybe even the original Star Trek, which had a phenomenal first season, but took a while to find its feet.) However, it’s not quite great yet. But I’m willing to give it a chance.

  2. Oh yes. Those Klingons. One HAS to wonder whether the lovely Jadzia would have lusted after Worf if he had looked like that.

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