25 April 2019

The Red Angel and Symbolic Compression

We finished season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery this weekend and in discussing the episode with my wife a lot of things popped up, secondary to the show itself. The finale itself, as an episode of television, was quite good. We got one of the more clean and interesting looking space battles I've ever seen, certainly the most interesting of any Trek battle sequence. It tidied the show itself up quite nicely, putting a bow on this season and the various discrepancies the series has posed between itself and canon. A lot of the relational subplots were equally completed and the entire series is now positioned for a fun and weird third season. The plot points the show brought to close, however, did not and do not often make a lot of sense, but is that the important bit?

What I first thought of in reflecting on the DISCO finale was the series finale of LOST. I gave my own thoughts on that bit of television almost ten years ago, and I think it's a fine parallel for our friends out there on the U.S.S. Discovery. Because, I refer now to another quote I included in my LOST review, Discovery isn't really about space ships or Klingons or the end of all sentient life; it's about people. It's about the characters, the crew of the ship and their relation to one another.
Image result for disco red angel

I can't imagine having to split my time in the writers' room in creating careful character pieces interwoven with interesting scifi. It seems too much. It is, indeed, too much as any critic of the show will tell you; Discovery does not hit the balance perfectly at all. They veer heavily on the relationship side as is evidenced in just about every. single. episode. Because each episode has at least one tearful intercharacter moment. The finale had several. And none of them made sense in context.

"We have two minutes to save all sentient life! Let me spend all of it telling how you've changed me and are my family!"

A lot of criticism was spent pointing this out and shouting it down. Those same dissenters employed the same tactics with LOST, because who cares about how characters are connected on an existential level when their are polar bears to account for? What's the use of Spock and his sister reconciling on a deep relational plateau when the glass on the blast door of the Enterprise withstands a nuclear-level explosion?

As we discussed this further, it hit me: we're not just talking about two views on how to watch science fiction; we're edging close to two views on looking at the world.

One view sees the bigger picture, the interrelationships, the connection, the oneness of the message. The other view is focused on "facts" and forensics. The contemporary world, living in the wake of the scientific revolution, has gotten very good at caring about the facts, the physical actuality of things, possibly at the cost of the former (of course I mean this in a larger, societal way; not in a complete sense, that would be stupid).

This brings us round to something Jonathan Pageau refers to as "compressed symbolism". I don't know if he's the first, but he's the first I've found to talk about the Bible as compressing narratives and stories. This makes sense. As stories get passed around the big themes are the things that should stay apparent, that are still poking out, when the forensic details get lost. He talks about the creation story in this fashion and refers to the story of the Magi in this way. The Creation story may not literally be completely true, in fact it's probably not. But in it's symbolism and poetry and "compression" it's trying to tell us something. The same can be said about the Icon of Pentecost.

Pentecost Icon, Kirillo-Belozersk Monastery (c.1497)

The Icon of Pentecost has two immediate glares that should alarm anyone looking at the world forensically: St. Paul is there, as is some dude we call Kosmos. The inclusion of St. Paul is alarming enough -- this image is not depicting a historical event, as the Holy Apostle Paul, at the time of Pentecost, had not yet had his revelation and had not yet begun serving the Lord. Seeing a bearded figure representing all peoples (in the figure of the cosmos) is then the red flag; we're not talking about "literal" scientific facts.

So what are we to do about this? Get all huffy that this image isn't lining up with reality as we see it? Perhaps we can take it on the same terms the author created it by. And perhaps we can do the same for fiction.

Now this is tricky with something like Star Trek. Trek has, at once, a well-established scientific background that all its subsets must adhere to. Simultaneously that background is only "scientific." Some of it is more factual than the rest, especially as series have spanned generations of advancement in our knowledge of how the universe works. So it's all loosey-goosey anyway. The rule by which we measure how flimsy Trek science can be varies from person to person and series to series.

So if we see Discovery more about the people and less about the science...well then, more's the better for us viewers. Because then we can actually enjoy the ride and find the message, rather than getting hung up on our own inconsistent needs for consistency.

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