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Devil in the Translation
On the colonial struggle in Strange New Worlds
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the series being covered here wouldn't exist.
The Star Trek series Strange New Worlds returns to the time period and to many of the characters of the original Star Trek series of more than half a century ago. It also returns to many of that series' themes—and especially to its obsession with the ethics and consequences of colonialism.
You'd think that after 50 years of (supposedly) liberal progress, Strange New Worlds would have a more enlightened perspective, and deeper insight, into the colonial experience. And there are some valuable changes related to more diverse casting; it matters that the main characters are no longer all white men.
But in reproducing the plot structure and broad dynamics of TOS, SNW also, somewhat helplessly, reproduces its colonial blind spots. The colonial saviors are not always white, and that matters—but not as much as you'd hope.
A Half-Century of Colonial Extraction
The most recent episode of SNW, "Lost in Translation" is a good illustration of the good, the bad, and the somewhat ugly in the new series' approach to colonial exploitation. The exploratory ship Enterprise, commanded by Captain Pike (Anson Mount) has been sent to try to fix a deuterium refinery which has been having semi-mysterious maintenance problems. At the same time, communications specialist Ensign Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding) begins to experience frightening hallucinations, in which she is menaced by the zombified corpse of her friend and mentor, former chief engineer Hemmer (Bruce Horak) who died in season 1.
Eventually Uhura realizes that these plotlines are connected. Her hallucinations are not caused by exhaustion and lack of sleep, nor by dueterium poisoning. She is being contacted by abstract extra-dimensional beings who are connected to the deuterium cloud. The mining process tortures and kills them—an obvious metaphor for the harm done by colonial extraction of mineral resources. Pike trusts Uhura implicitly, and immediately orders the refinery destroyed, grumbling that Starfleet can find another gas station.
Though there isn't any explicit reference to it, "Lost in Translation" is an almost exact parallel to one of the greatest original series episodes, "The Devil in the Dark." In that classic too, the Enterprise arrives at an important mining colony which is facing troubles—this time in the form of a shuffling lumpy monster who secretes acid and dissolves solid rock. The monster, called the Horta, has begun to kill miners. The miners want Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and company to kill it. But Kirk figures out that the Horta has turned to murder because the miners have been casually destroying silicon spheres which are its eggs. The misunderstanding is cleared up, the miners stop destroying eggs, and the Horta babies, when they're hatched, start tunneling out valuable minerals, enriching the miners.
Can the Xeno-Subaltern Speak?
Both of these episodes are centered on a question of communication which might be paraphrased as, "Can the Xenobiological Subaltern Speak?" Initially, Starfleet does not even realize that it is dealing with someone who can talk; the Horta is assumed to be a reasonless animal, while the deuterium entities (we'll call them deutliens for short) literally appear to be hallucinations—a mere projection of colonial fantasy. To speak to the aliens, you first have to imagine the aliens have subjectivity. They cannot speak up and overcome colonial prejudice until they overcome colonial prejudice against seeing them as capable of speaking. It's a catch-22.
"Devil" and "Lost" overcome this problem by suggesting, more or less obliquely, that marginalized people within the Federation itself may have an insight into colonized people outside the Federation. There are subalterns and subalterns, and those inside the Federation are a resource for connecting with those outside..
In "Devil in the Dark" Spock (Leonard Nimoy), who is half-Vulcan, has the ability to perform a "Mind Meld". He is an outsider with special abilities—and his special ability, in this case, is precisely the power to understand what it means to be an outsider. The Federation's commitment to welcoming marginalized outsiders like Spock into the colonial force gives them a way to recognize marginalized outsiders threatened by colonial forces. Grant subjectivity to one subaltern, and you can start to see the subjectivity in all.
Uhura in "Lost in Translation" isn't an alien. But she is a Black woman. Uhura is a character who was vastly underutilized and condescended to in the original series because a Black woman lead was not an option in 1967. Centering her as the protagonist gives her a voice just as she gives the deutliens a voice. Star Trek, the series, is more open to marginalized people now than it was 50 years ago. Perhaps, the narrative suggests, in another few hundred years we might be able to hear and respect other colonized people as well
Both of these episodes are thoughtful, and they both make a strong and I think admirable argument that in order to address colonial violence, we need to recognize, accept, and celebrate the voices and the subjectivity of the colonized.
Ultimately, though, neither manages to fully embrace the subjectivity of the colonized, or to imagine it. Both episode are, after all, structured around, and focused on, the colonizers. The voices and perspectives of the Horta and the deutliens are only available in translation. Spock has to speak for the Horta; Uhura only hears the deutliens through analogy with her own past trauma and fear.
More, the episode is organized around the Enterprise missions. We see the deaths of the miners in TOS, and experience their fear and desperation first. In SNW, the tension between minor characters James and Sam Kirk takes up as much screentime as the recognition that the entire race of deuterians is being tortured and murdered. Should we be cutting away from a story about a genocide to check in on how a couple of the genocidaires feel about their career options?
The problem in both shows is structural. SNW, like TOS before it, is about the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. The Federation colonizers are the heroes; it's their story. They are the ones we know; they're the ones we're rooting for. They can pause for a moment to ventriloquize the subaltern, but we care because our heroes are doing the ventriloquization; the words matter because they are theirs, not because they are the words of the colonized.
A story about the Horta resisting Federation occupation would be pretty awesome, but that's not the story we've got, nor the one we'll ever get. In fact, we've arguably lost ground over time. In "Devil in the Dark" the Horta has agency; she attacks her persecutors, and even steals a vital life support component. In "Lost in Translation," the deutliens are reduced entirely to pleading for help from the colonizers who barely even know they exist.
The Miscommunication Is a Miscommunication
This isn't just picking nits; the focus on the Federation drastically circumscribes any anticolonial narrative. In both "Devil" and "Lost", colonial violence is resolved not primarily via colonial resistance, but rather by the Federation quickly and eagerly abandoning colonial violence as soon as it is made aware that that colonial violence exists.
In other words, silencing the subaltern is seen as the source of the violence, rather than an example of colonial violence. The Federation literally doesn't know that the Horta is sentient; it doesn't know the deutliens exist. Colonial violence is an accident, caused by a translation problem—rather than colonial violence being a deliberate powergrab, enabled in part by the colonial tactic of denying some people subjectivity or standing to protest.
Colonial violence is treated as an accident, which means that resolving it just requires minimal negotiation and goodwill. The Horta doesn't, for example, need the minerals to feed itself for survival. The Federation doesn't need the dueterium mining plant that much. There's no sense in these episodes that colonizers get real material benefits from exploitation that they might be unwilling to give up. Nor can Star Trek really admit that the benefits of colonization include the power to determine who is at the center of which stories. If it did that, if it said that the Horta or the deuterians or the Bajorians or the subalterns mattered more than the colonizers, it would, I think, have to stop being Star Trek.
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