There are great moments of heroism and personal sacrifice in the history of Star Trek, moments that illustrate the best of humanity in the worst of situations. From Kirk allowing Edith Keeler to die in order to save history, Picard holding firm that there are four lights, or Spock quietly getting out of his chair and heading to engineering at the end of Wrath of Khan, these moments are some of the most beloved in the almost 700 hours of Trek canon.
Not every Trek gets a moment as good as these, but last week Star Trek Discovery got its own – and it was a moment that I think ranks high in the pantheon of great Trek. If you’ve been watching the show this season it might come as no surprise that the moment centers around Christopher Pike, new captain of the Disco, who has been such a wonderful and invigorating addition to the show that fans have taken to Change.org to start petitions demanding actor Anson Mount get his own spinoff series.
See, Pike would need a spinoff, he can’t stay on the show, since he’s a character deeply embedded in Star Trek lore, and his future is well-known to fans. It’s a dark one.
What comes next will contain spoilers for last week’s Star Trek Discovery, Through the Valley of Shadows, so if you haven’t caught up, don’t read any further. If you’re not watching I’ll be giving complete context… starting next paragraph!
We know that Captain Pike can’t stay on the Discovery because he’s the captain of the Enterprise, and he’s captain of that ship up until James Kirk takes over, in about six years or so from current Disco events. Pike is actually the captain of the Enterprise now, but he’s been assigned to the Discovery for a special mission.
This special mission requires him to go to a Klingon monastery and try to obtain what is known as a ‘time crystal,’ a powerful thingamajiggy that is important to the contraptions that power the plot of the season. Don’t worry about why he needs a time crystal, just accept that he does.
So he goes to this monastery and the Klingon monk gives him a warning: coming near one of these crystals will give Pike a glimpse of his future, and he might not like what he sees. Pike puts his hand near the crystal (which looks like it could be used to create Superman’s Fortress of Solitude) and he suddenly flashes forward.
He flash forwards to events that are part of foundational Star Trek canon. See, we know who Captain Pike is because he first appeared in the original series with a disfigured face, trapped in a wheelchair, unable to communicate except through beeping noises. He’s a tragic figure, and we understand that he ended up in that situation when a training mission went bad, and he was trying to save a cadet. In last week’s episode of Disco we actually see this event we’ve heard about for 50 years – the accident, the chaos, the horror. We see Fleet Captain Christopher Pike trapped in a room full of radiation, his face melting right off his head. We see all of this suffering.
So does Pike.
More than that, Pike is confronted with himself in that chair, a chair that breathes for him and keeps him alive in what seems to be endless agony, and he understands that this is his fate. It’s a huge moment, and Anson Mount plays it for all its worth, and Pike falls back screaming in horror and sympathetic pain, having witnessed a fate worse than death for himself. He’s going to end up trapped in that chair, beeping once for yes, two for no.
Or will he? The Klingon monk tells Pike that if he takes the crystal, his future is set. What he saw is what will come to pass. But if he doesn’t take the crystal… perhaps things will be different.
Pike takes a moment to compose himself, he grabs hold of his Starfleet insignia like it was a totem of power, and he gives himself one of those pep talks Starfleet captains usually give to their crew. His pep talk isn’t a big speech, isn’t a big monologue. It’s short, to the point and, to me, breathtakingly great.
Christopher Pike“You’re a Starfleet captain. You believe in service, sacrifice, compassion… and love.”
And then Pike gets up and he grabs the time crystal and he damns himself to a terrible fate. Knowingly. Without hesitation. “I’m not going to abandon the things that made me who I am because of a future that contains an ending I hadn’t foreseen for myself,” he says.
There’s a level of heroism in this moment that’s astonishing. It’s one thing for Spock to walk into that radiation chamber, knowing he will die. It’s another to know that your actions will lead you to a living hell. That takes guts and resolve and a solemn dedication to deeply-held ideals.
I love that little pep talk on another level. I’m not sure – I’d have to go look it up – but I feel like this is the first time I’ve heard ‘love’ being mentioned as one of the defining principles of Starfleet. This is the missing ingredient in Star Trek, I think, and I understand why it’s been so lacking. Trek has been idealistic and it has been positive and inclusive, but it has avoided the touchy-feely stuff most of the time. Starfleet is a group of scientific explorers, boldly going.
But what’s the purpose of all that boldly going if it’s not done in the service of love? In this season of Discovery the crew encountered an ancient alien sphere that has been traveling the cosmos for millennia, acquiring information. It is doing it with no clear purpose except to have the information, and the season’s plot hinges on the way that the info the sphere has collected can jumpstart a Federation AI to become sentient and a threat to all life in the galaxy. The pursuit of knowledge divorced from any sense of meaning, any sort of love for the beings who the knowledge can help, will lead to destruction, the show seems to be saying.
There’s another wrinkle to Pike talking about love. This season of Disco has been tackling religion in a way that’s unusual for Trek (Deep Space Nine did it, but with an alien religion, always allowing it to be at arm’s length from human belief systems), and there have been hints that Pike was raised in a Christian household (these hints are backed by a TOS scene in which psychic aliens torture Pike with a vision of hell that they picked from his own head). Bringing love into the Starfleet equation would be in line with a personal Christianity, or at least a personal real version of Christianity, not the version of Christianity that is masquerading as a faith in American regressive politics today. And just to tie it all into Jesus: Jeffrey Hunter, who originated the role of Pike in the first Star Trek pilot, played Jesus Christ in 1961’s King of Kings.
This scene makes Pike into something of a Christ figure himself (and his name is Christopher). After all, this is sort of Pike’s own Garden of Gethsemane moment, when he is confronted with the enormity of the sacrifice he must make. But he one-ups Jesus; Pike doesn’t ask for this cup of poison to be taken from his lips, he grabs it with both hands and chugs it down.
There’s a scene in The Next Generation where Picard lays out a pretty strong vision for what drives Starfleet:
“The first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth, whether it’s scientific truth or historical truth or personal truth! It is the guiding principle on which Starfleet is based.”Jean-Luc Picard
The problem is that Picard says that while yelling at Wesley Crusher (which, yeah, everybody wants to yell at Wesley Crusher), so it sort of undercuts the inspirational aspect of it. But Pike’s Litany of Starfleet Virtues is like a prayer, delivered not to scold a young man but to give himself strength as he walks through the titular valley of the shadow of death. He says it clutching that Starfleet badge like a cross, steadying himself with every word.
This season of Disco has been thematically about science versus faith, and I think that this is one of the greatest examples of faith that the series could give us. Faith doesn’t have to be in God – you don’t even have to believe in a god. Faith is about trust in something bigger than you; for Pike it’s Starfleet and those principles by which he lives. He has faith in them, and he uses his faith in them to get him through this trying moment. He uses his faith in them to believe that his disfigurement and crippling will be for a reason, even if he can’t understand it. He doesn’t have to understand his fate because he has faith.
All of these things run through this short scene, giving it an electricity and a meaning that could only come from a prequel show. There have been a lot of complaints about Disco being set before TOS, that fans want to see the timeline moved forward. But Pike’s arc this season has only been possible because we have had 50 years to internalize his eventual fate. This season has played deftly with what little info we had about Christopher Pike before, most of it terribly sad. This episode reconfigures all of that – what had been just a sad accident that seemingly happened out of nowhere has been turned into a heroic sacrifice of absolutely epic proportions. Not only does Pike behave bravely in the situation where he is injured, he gets up that morning knowing what will happen to him. He spends every day of the next eight or so years knowing what will happen to him. His accident isn’t just a sudden event, it’s the culmination of the intense choice he makes at that Klingon monastery. Discovery took a meaningless tragedy at the core of Star Trek lore and turned it into something incredibly meaningful, something that illuminates the very moral center of Star Trek – and expands on it.