Tuesday, December 31, 2019

“Star Trek: Discovery” and the Conflict of Values

Star Trek: Discovery is an adventure story about conflicts of values. The characters act purposefully and in accordance with their values to achieve their goals. Following the theory of aesthetics proposed by Ayn Rand, I found that the storyline of the first year of this television series maintained an integrated plot, a well-defined theme, and a substantiated plot-theme. 

Rand defined plot as “a purposeful progression of logically connected events leading to the resolution of a climax.” (The Romantic Manifesto, Signet edition, page 47). The plot of Star Trek: Discovery is the story of a war of attrition between the Klingon Empire and the United Federation of Planets. 

Rand defined a theme as “the summation of a novel’s abstract meaning.” For Rand, the theme of Atlas Shrugged was “the role of the mind in man’s existence.” She identified the theme of Les Miseables as the injustice of society toward its lower classes. The theme of Gone with the Wind was the impact of the Civil War on Southern society. (Page 46). I found the theme of Star Trek: Discovery to be the role of values in choosing our actions. In that, I also found the series to be strongly and consistently within the Romantic tradition defined by Ayn Rand.

Adm. Katrina Cornwell takes the Captain's chair.
(I always find ambiguous command to be problematic.)
The concept of a plot-theme is unusual (if not unique to Rand). In The Romantic Manifesto, she wrote: “It is the first step in the translation of an abstract theme into a story without which the plot would be impossible. A “plot-theme” is the central conflict or “situation” of a story—a conflict in terms of action, corresponding to the theme and complex enough to create a purposeful progression of events. The theme of a novel is the core of its abstract meaning—the plot-theme is the core of its events. … The theme of Gone with the Wind is: “The impact of the Civil War on Southern society.” The plot-theme is: “The romantic conflict of a woman who loves a man representing the old order and is loved by another man, representing the new.” (page 51-52). 

I identify the plot-theme of ST:Discovery to be the experiential path of a woman who must identify the nature and extent of her own values.

Rand defines Romanticism as “a category of art based on the premise that man possesses the faculty of volition.” (“What is Romanticism?” pages 64-87) Bootleg Romanticism is popular fiction that implicitly accepts that premise, rather than explicitly. She put the early James Bond novels in that genre. She was also a fan of Star Trek: Original Series; and Gene Roddenberry was an admirer of her works. 
Emperor Philippa Augustus Georgio confronts Vulcan ambassador Sarek.
She is about to don the persona of her alter ego
the late Captain Philippa Georgio.
Cdr. Burnham and Adm. Cornwell watch.
It is important to understand the distinction between Rand’s own works and those she enjoyed. Her novels dramatized political conflicts. Others in that vein that she recommended to her admirers included the works of Allen Drury, such as Advice and Consent. Rand insisted that art is an end in itself. It exists to provide personal enjoyment. (page 14). So, whatever the conflicts of values acted out by the characters, we do not judge the value of the work itself by the specific political statements of the actors. Rand was a great fan of Victor Hugo. She wrote an Introduction to a Bantam Books edition of Ninety-three in 1962. The conflict of values and the integration of plot and theme center on the French Revolution.  However, Rand insists:

“The fact is that Ninety-three is not a novel about the French Revolution. To a Romanticist, the background is a background, not a theme. His vision is always focused on man –on the fundamentals of man’s nature, on those problems and those aspects of character which apply to any age and any country. The theme of Ninety-three—which is played in brilliantly unexpected variations in all the key incidents of the story, and which is the motive power of all the characters and events, integrating them into an inevitable progression toward a magnificent climax---is: man’s loyalty to values.” (p. 121)

I point out that in other writing, Ayn Rand was clear in her condemnation of the Southern culture of agrarianism in general and its basis on slavery in particular. But that had nothing to do with the artistic merits of Gone with the Wind. Similarly, Rand’s admiration for Crime and Punishment was not an endorsement of the police of imperial Russia. Today, many who claim to be admirers of Rand’s fiction confuse aesthetics with politics and economics. It can be interesting to discuss the extent to which science fiction writers who claim special imagination fail to envision any utopia more innovative than open-handed socialism. On that basis, the Star Trek franchise has been criticized by libertarians  But such complaints are wholly outside the realm of aesthetics. 

Star Trek: Discovery delivers a complex drama in which the values of the characters define the set and setting of conflict. Moreover, the integration of plot and theme provide a grand stage on which to see the consequences of values in the choices of action. 

In previous instantiations of Star Trek, the Klingons are just warriors. They have the pride of the honor and action evidenced by our own police and military in The Guardian Ethos, but their ideologies, such as they may be, are never clearly defined. Here they are. T’Kuvma’s opening speech is complete, succinct, and unequivocal. Moreover, that ideological framework is quickly betrayed and abandoned as a new leader arises. That results in internecine warfare at the expense of the Federation which finds itself fighting 24 separate wars, and is soon on the verge of annihilation. Peace is established (at once ironically and yet integrally) when that ideology is re-ignited by a true follower of T’Kuvma. 
In the mirror universe's agonizer booth, to be tortured to death,
Cpt. Gabriel Lorca has this planned carefully.
Cinema writing for the big screen and television has replaced the novel. TV writing today is much evolved over the work of Ayn Rand’s day. Unlike ST:OS and like most modern dramatic series Discovery follows a “story arc” a uniting narrative of action that plays out over many episodes. Here, that arc is the duplicity of Captain Gabriel Lorca. As the end approaches, we must condemn him. We can see even his best actions in a new (and worse) light. But his competence as a leader is never in question. Aligned to his values, his actions are purposeful, consistent, and thoughtful. We just reject his values. But he has them. And he knows what they are.

It is our viewpoint character, Commander Michael Burnham, who must confront hers. She is never without values. She is passionately committed to them and firm in her perception of them. The voyage of discovery she makes—hence, Star Trek: Discovery—is learning to understand the full range, depth, and meaning of those values. 

We are no longer on the eve of battle.
Even so, I come to ask myself the same question that young soldier asked the general all those years ago: "How do I defeat fear?" The general's answer: the only way to defeat fear is to tell it, “No.”
No. We will not take shortcuts on the path to righteousness.
No. We will not break the rules that protect us from our basest instincts.
No. We will not allow desperation to destroy moral authority.
I am guilty of all these things.
Some say that in life, there are no second chances. Experience tells me that this is true. But we can only look forward. We have to be torchbearers, casting the light so we may see our path to lasting peace. We will continue exploring, discovering new worlds, new civilizations.
Yes. That is the United Federation of Planets.
Cmdr. Michael Burnham's values are internally conflicted
because they derive both from her (adopted) Vulcan heritage
and her (achieved) Starfleet rank.
Does the show have flaws? Of course it does. I suggest that anyone who can do better should write their own novels and produce their own cinemas to demonstrate how it should be done (in their opinion). It is easy to criticize. Myself, with my limited training and experience in security and the military, I would never send the captain into hand-to-hand combat on an enemy vessel, no matter how convenient that is for Star Trek. But I did not write it. I write other stuff.


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