Or more aptly, perhaps the question should be reversed – what does Star Trek: Discovery need with God? The question has been raised by a recent article which reported how, on set for the brand new CBS All Access (or Netflix if you’re international) show reviving the 50 year franchise on the small screen, Jason Isaacs—playing Discovery’s Captain Lorca—was stopped mid-performance for improving a mention of ‘God’ in his dialogue. God, of course, does not exist in the Star Trek 23rd century.
Except for the fact, y’know, he (or she) kinda does.
Even if the story is tabloid fodder or turns out to be apocryphal, that one of the series writers Kirsten Beyer actually made the effort to correct Isaacs for saying the very natural human phrase “oh my God”, it raises an interesting question as Star Trek makes its long overdue return to television – what place does religion have on a TV series which on the face of it has always shied away from depicting a future where worship is prevalent, but in truth has long had a fascinating, complex relationship with religion and the future?
Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, was famously an atheist. The world he created, “Wagon Train in space”, a futuristic take on the Western genre originally, was meant to exist as a Utopian vision of human society who had put aside their petty Earth-based differences and left behind the idea of monotheistic or polytheistic worship, i.e. the worship of one singular all-encompassing deity (as in Christianity, Islam or Judaism) or the belief in a multiple array of Gods all depicting and representing different cosmological elements (Hinduism etc…). By the 23rd century and beyond, Gods would mean nothing.
Roddenberry wasn’t just a futurist, he was a self-confessed Humanist. Having suffered psychologically through the Second World War as a pilot, he came out of that conflict with a determination to imagine a future where humanity had evolved past the need for war, and perhaps recognised the importance of religious belief in many of the major conflicts which have reigned across human history. His crew of the starship Enterprise, exploring the final frontier and going where no man had gone before, were made up of nations, colours and creeds with now one goal: to future humanity as a collective species.
What’s fascinating to see, however, when you look back on The Original Series (which ran from 1966 to 1969 before its abrupt cancellation at the end of its third season), is just how prevalent religion is to many of the episodic storylines and galactic adventures Captain Kirk, Commander Spock and the Enterprise crew would face. For a man who didn’t believe in the monotheistic Christian God he had grown up surrounded by in early 20th century America, Roddenberry was fascinated and obsessed by applying concepts of faith and worship to the vision of the future he had created.
In the first season of TOS alone, in the second ‘pilot’ essentially ‘Where No Man Has Gone Before’, Roddenberry pitches former Starfleet officer and friend of Kirk, Gary Mitchell, as man who develops ‘Godlike’ powers which threaten to destroy the ship. ‘The Squire of Gothos’ introduces Trelane, a forerunner in many respects to Q in The Next Generation some two decades later, mischievously playing with matter and existence for his own ends.
Many episodes feature races being led and controlled by false Gods, such as Landru in ‘The Return of the Archons’, and in ‘Space Seed’, perhaps Trek’s most celebrated antagonist, Khan Noonien Singh, exhibits evidence of God-like grandeur, the result of late-20th century genetic engineering which would ultimately send him spiralling into madness when he returns to seek vengeance on Kirk in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The examples go on and many suggest the same conclusion: Roddenberry was fascinated by the idea of faith but couldn’t bring himself to believe in the Christian God especially, and wanted to use Star Trek to denounce religion as a false and dangerous human concept.
Whenever Roddenberry introduces a being of supreme power in The Original Series or The Next Generation, they are almost always false deities seeking to bring harm to the intrepid humans seeking answers about the universe, or aren’t neatly as powerful or beatific as they claim to their brainwashed followers. We see this trope repeated time and time again, even in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, which involves the literal search for God and the memorable discovery, beyond the ‘Great Barrier’, that the traditional representation of the Christian God, an old man with a white beard, is just another alien tricking humanity.
What, indeed, *does* God need with a starship? William Shatner’s fifth Trek film may ask this question in a cheesy, rather 1960’s context, but again it’s a symbol of Trek’s unsophisticated approach to religion in the future until we reach Star Trek in the 1990’s. It was only then, oddly enough, that Trek stopped using the word ‘God’ in the same context as was used in The Final Frontier and the 1960’s series before it. Intentionally or not, religious ideas and faith were explored and couched in different terms in subsequent series and movies, further moving the franchise away from monotheistic Christianity.
Until we get to Deep Space Nine, when the Christian myth story plays out very keenly with the character arc of Benjamin Sisko, only couched in non-Christian terms. The Prophets of Bajor, the Emissary of the Prophets, the Pah’Wraith fire demons trapped for centuries, the idea of an apocalyptic holy war to end all of existence between beings who exist out of linear time and space, with prophecies of sacrifice and a ‘golden age’ for the Bajoran people once the battle is fought. Sisko as Christ and Gul Dukat as Satan equals Christian Armageddon, with Bajor’s future the Promised Land or Garden of Eden.
For a show ostensibly about frontier politics, Holocaust allusions and ultimately the devastation of cost and war, Deep Space Nine is ultimately the most overtly religious, and overtly Christian, Star Trek has ever been. In many ways it’s a good job Roddenberry was dead before it aired as the very idea of the show would probably have him spinning in his grave. His vision of Star Trek is fine with the idea of Gods existing in space, existing in the mythologies and psychological constructs of less advanced alien worlds, but for humans? Sisko, a human, becoming a literal Christ would have offended all of his atheist, Humanist sensibilities.
In some respects, that’s what makes the idea of ‘God’ not being used on Discovery so unusual, if indeed it’s more than just a joke. That could well be the case – a moment of levity and flippancy. If not, it suggests the new Trek series could be aiming for a secular approach to religion like never before. It could be aiming for a representation of pure science and avoiding concepts of monotheism and polytheism entirely, which in some respects would be strange if the Klingons are being used so heavily, as their entire mythology is tied up with the allegory of Viking myth and the afterlife of Valhalla, or Sto’vo’kor in the Klingons case.
Perhaps it’s just that humans can’t believe in God anymore, in the Star Trek world and the 23rd century. Will we, by that point, have moved past our fundamental belief in religion holding true to the centre of creation, for many at least? Will the existence of extra-terrestrial life, not being alone in the universe and moving forward to explore a cosmos filled with species just like our own, make religion and the idea of God redundant.
Much as Gene Roddenberry may be a smiling Great Bird of the Galaxy at the idea, I wouldn’t bet on it.