Why Star Trek: Discovery Needs an Environmental Conservation Plotline
Can a show about exploring strange new worlds help save life on our own?
The announcement of a new Star Trek TV show has Trekkers around the world, including me, buzzing with excitement. CBS and showrunner Bryan Fuller have revealed some key details about Star Trek: Discovery, promising “new crews, new villains, new heroes, and new worlds.” We know that the new show will take place in the Prime timeline, approximately a decade before Kirk’s original 5 year mission. What we don’t yet know is what the main plotlines will be. As a lifelong Star Trek fan, a conservation biologist and a citizen afraid of the future, I hope that Star Trek: Discovery will feature an environmental conservation plotline.
Star Trek is at its best when it focuses on important real-world problems through the lens of science fiction. In the original series, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” showed how preposterous and harmful racism can be at the height of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. “Homefront” in Deep Space Nine showed that moral compromises made in the name of security can be more damaging to a peaceful society than the actual danger from the enemy. And for all its flaws, Star Trek: Enterprise did a great job portraying the stigma that AIDS sufferers face via Vulcan Pa’nar syndrome.
But in hundreds of hours of airtime, Star Trek has barely covered topics related to environmental conservation at all. Spock referred to killing what was believed to be the last surviving Horta as “a crime against science” in “Devil in the Dark”; The Voyage Home focused on Kirk and company going back in time to retrieve now-extinct humpback whales; and in The Next Generation’s “New Ground,” Worf’s son Alexander learns about how rhinos went extinct on Earth and tries to rescue an endangered Corvan gilvo from a shipboard fire. That’s about it.
Environmental conservation is one of the most important issues facing the world today. According to the WWF, wildlife populations have dropped more than 50% in the last few decades. Research shows that human activities are causing species to go extinct at more than 1,000 times their natural rate. Things are so bad that scientists say human actions have created a whole new geologic epoch, the Anthropocene, and have caused the Earth’s sixth-ever mass extinction event.
An environmental conservation plotline on Star Trek: Discovery could help raise awareness of these real-world problems. Such a plotline might take several forms. We know that before the relative paradise of the Discovery/TOS era, things got ugly for the people of Earth. Crises such as the Bell Riots, the Eugenics Wars, and the post-atomic horror have been somewhat well explored. Others, such as the World War III era eco-terrorism movement led by the dictator Colonel Green, have been barely mentioned. A Discovery-era extremist environmental movement influenced by Colonel Green could be an interesting plot point. After all, the Terra Prime movement on Enterprise was one of the best parts of that show.
A society with interstellar commerce must face ecological problems with introduced or invasive species. In the real world, ecosystems are being devastated by the introduction of non-native species. These species often have no predators in the new ecosystem, or outcompete native species for food. One way that invasive species are spread in the real world is through cargo vessels moving from port to port. How much worse must this problem be when you’re dealing with ships moving between hundreds of worlds? We learned from The Phantom Menace that plot points based on trade policy aren’t always the most fascinating thing to watch. However, introduced Tribbles eating all the grain in a silo was a key component of one of the most beloved Star Trek episodes of all time. And speaking of invasive species, what ever happened to Sluggo, the invertebrate who Ensign Sato took from one planet and released on an ecologically similar planet in “Fight or Flight”?
From The Voyage Home, we know that Earth’s oceans in the days of Star Trek: Discovery don’t have humpback whales anymore, but we know little else. Maybe we could explore what’s happening in the oceans through the eyes of the fish-faced Antedeans, introduced to us in TNG‘s “Manhunt,” or through the Xindi Aquatics from Enterprise, or through a new amphibious species entirely. Did humanity ever solve the overfishing crisis from causing major disruptions to global food security? Did ocean acidification ever disrupt ocean food webs by making it impossible for shelled organisms to create their shells? Did we ever try mining the deep sea? What did these things do to our oceans, and the many animal species which call them home? If we solved these problems, how did we solve them?
There are lots of other ways to incorporate environmental conservation into Star Trek: Discovery. A look at how “modern” science helped Earth’s environment to recover from the post-atomic horror could be interesting, and could be perhaps mentioned in the context of helping another species to move on from a similar problem. Could the genetic engineering technology used to create augments like Khan be used for de-extinction, or to make threatened species more resilient to environmental change? In the modern world, zoos have captive breeding programs for endangered species; might a spaceship or offworld colony be a 23rd century equivalent? Does “infinite diversity in infinite combinations” refer to biodiversity as well? How did Alexander’s Corvan gilvos become endangered in the first place? The list goes on and on, and I’m sure writers far more creative than I could suggest even better ways to shine a light on these problems through the Star Trek universe.
An environmental plotline on Star Trek: Discovery won’t save the world, but it could help to bring attention to some real-world conservation issues. And the way things are going, if our world’s threatened species are to live long and prosper, environmental issues need all the attention they can get.
David Shiffman is a marine conservation biologist and science writer. You can follow him on Twitter @WhySharksMatter.
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