Star Trek: Discovery is cracking open a box Next Gen closed on purpose


Calling back to a single 30-year-old episode of television is a time-honored Star Trek tradition, one that’s led the franchise to some of its most fascinating detours. And in its two-episode season premiere, Star Trek: Discovery seems to be kicking off an entire season calling back to one particular episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

And not just any episode! The 1993 installment of Next Gen in question delivered a revelation so seemingly earth-shaking that it should have rewritten galactic politics on a massive scale. But then, as was the way in the 1990s era of episodic TV, nobody ever mentioned it again.

At least until now.

[Ed. note: This piece contains spoilers for the first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery season 5.]

L-R Elias Toufexis as L’ak — a green-skinned alien hefting a futuristic shotgun — and Eve Harlow as Moll — a more human figure with dyed grey hair and a pistol — point their guns at something on the ground in Star Trek: Discovery.

Photo: Marni Grossman/Paramount Plus

Writer Michelle Paradise and director Olatunde Osunsanmi lay out the connection at the end of the first of two episodes released this week, “Red Directive.” Discovery’s mission is to follow a series of ancient clues leading to a cache of ancient technology, and to get there before a couple of professional thieves, Moll (Eve Harlow) and L’ak (Elias Toufexis), do.

The technology, as Doctor Kovich (David Cronenberg) explains, belongs to the so-called Progenitors, a barely understood ancient spacefaring species that “created life as we know it […] every humanoid species in the galaxy.” Presumably such tech holds the key to understanding how the Progenitors did that, and how that power could be used again.

The Progenitors are from the Star Trek episode “The Chase”

Kovich also calls up a helpful video presentation of the moment the Progenitors were discovered by an assembled group of Federation, Klingon, Romulan, and Cardassian captains, including Jean-Luc Picard. But you don’t have to be a Star Trek lore nerd to know you’re actually just looking at clips from an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Specifically, from the 20th episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s sixth season, “The Chase,” in which Picard and crew discover pieces of a computer program hidden inside the DNA of species from dozens of different planets. Questions abound: What does the program do? And what kind of entity could have been so ancient and powerful that it had determined the genetic legacy of most of the known galaxy before sentient life had even evolved here — and then left no trace of its existence except the genetic codes themselves?

In a nutshell, the mysterious death of Captain Picard’s old archeology professor (did you know that if he hadn’t gone into Starfleet, Jean-Luc was studying to be a space archeologist? Well, now you do) sets the captain and the Enterprise on a search for the missing DNA fragments necessary to complete his unfinished work.

The Progenitor hologram appears before a group of Romulan, Klingon, Cardassian, and Starfleet captains and crewmembers in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Image: Paramount Plus

The action of the episode becomes a grand chase, as Klingon and Cardassian captains come to believe the program must be a great weapon or dangerous secret. Eventually Picard and his rivals all discover the lonely planet with the final DNA strain — and when they get there, some Romulans who’ve been secretly following all of them show up, too, just to make things even more tense.

In the end, the program isn’t a weapon or a secret, but a message from an ancient race of humanoids that apparently created sentient life in our galaxy as we know it.

Actor Salome Jens appears as a Progenitor hologram, and delivers a speech that’s stirring by any standard of Star Trek monologues, telling the story of a race of sentients that took to the stars and found them empty. They had evolved too early to meet other forms of sentient life, and knew that their time was too limited to ever expect to.

“We knew that one day we would be gone; that nothing of us would survive, so we left you,” Jens’ Progenitor explains. The Progenitors seeded humanoid life across the galaxy in their own image; life that tended to evolve into bipedal, tailless, largely hairless creatures with two eyes and two arms and five fingers on each hand. And they left clues in the genetic signature of their work, broken up among the stars.

Wait, was this really all about lampshading the limits of Star Trek’s alien design?

Salome Jens as a Progenitor hologram in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Chase.” Jens is under heavy makeup as a slightly androgenous alien in a white robe, with deep set eyes, small ears, a bald head, and mottled pink-brown skin.

Image: Paramount Plus

Kinda, yes! The writers of “The Chase,” Ron Moore and Joe Menosky, were inspired by elements of Carl Sagan’s Contact, but also by Menosky’s pet fascination creating an in-universe explanation for why all the common alien species in Star Trek are basically shaped like humans (albeit with latex on their faces).

In other hands, it would be hokey and trite, but even under heavy makeup, Jens sells the hell out of her single scene on voice and stance alone — it’s no wonder she was asked back to the Trek fold to play a major antagonist role in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

“It was our hope that you would have to come together in fellowship and companionship to hear this message, and if you can see and hear me, our hope has been fulfilled,” the Progenitor hologram concludes, with gentle compassion. “You are a monument, not to our greatness, but to our existence. That was our wish: That you, too, would know life. […] There is something of us in each of you, and so something of you in each other.”

But though “The Chase” carried a sweeping revelation, nothing ever really panned out from it. You’d think that a message of togetherness that fundamentally rewrote the origin of life in the universe would have to have tweaked Star Trek’s galactic politics a bit, right? Seems like this would give the Star Trek setting a radically different understanding of the origins of life than we have in the real world — this is literally intelligent design! At the very least there’d be some other characters talking about how humans and Vulcans, Klingons and Romulans and Ferengi and Cardassians and Trill and Bajorans, all share the same genetic ancestor.

But nope: The Pandora’s box of Progenitor lore remained closed. Gene Roddenberry’s successor and Trek producer Rick Berman seems to have been disenchanted with the episode’s reveal — and you can’t really blame him for not wanting to rock the whole cosmology of Star Trek in an episode that’s mostly about explaining how if you turn the DNA snippets like this they make a cool spiral. Now look at this computer screen with the spiral:

A futuristic computer screen on the USS Enterprise shows a blocky, incomplete spiral in neon green lines.

Look at it. We made this computer image for you. It’s 1993 and this is VERY cool.
Image: Paramount Plus

Except now, Star Trek: Discovery is opening the box and rocking the boat. This new mad, puzzle-box chase around the galaxy promises to expand on the Progenitors, an idea so big that not even The Next Generation was willing to touch it. It’s a tall order, but Discovery has never been more free to shake up Star Trek continuity than it is right now — we’ll have to wait for more episodes of the show’s final season to find out how free it intends to be.



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