Warning: SPOILERS for Star Trek: Discovery season 1, episode 5 ahead
Star Trek: Discovery is a few shows into its 15-episode run, and it’s already cutting a swathe across the fanbase. Between the Klingon redesign, high tech action, and new Harry Mudd (Rainn Wilson), many find the divergence from canon too jarring, despite its producers’ insistence at having patience with them as the story expands. Admittedly, the latest series does have a few bugs to work out before it can sail proudly as the next ship of the line. One of the fledgling series’ most divisive pre-production moments came when producers revealed it would include more adult content.
Hosting the show on CBS All Access (still a major sticking point for many fans) means the show could tackle adult themes and language without major censorship hindrances - something that showrunners Aaron Harberts and Gretchen J. Berg spoke about in June. In addition to escaping the inter-personal conflict set in place by Gene Roddenberry, during Star Trek: The Next Generation – which restricted Starfleet crews from in-fighting – Discovery also recently broke new ground in the adult linguistics category.
In the fifth season episode “Choose Your Pain”, Cadet Silvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman) marvels at her, Lt. Stamets (Anthony Rapp), and Michael Burnham’s (Sonequa Martin-Green) solution to the tardigrade problem, expressing her excitement by saying “that was so f---ing cool!” Although she recoils a little, realizing her outburst came inside her working environment, Stamets agrees with her and repeats the phrase.
Overall, it was a very Trek moment. The trio worked against time and the odds to make the ship's experimental spore drive work, without harming the sentient tardigrade. Despite the upbeat climax, some fans focused on the manner of expression used during the scene, with some even railing against it on Twitter. Was the use of profanity that stunning (sorry) for the franchise?
Coarse language certainly isn’t without precedence on Star Trek. During the Next Generation crew’s first trip to space, in Star Trek: Generations, Data startled audiences by dropping an s-bomb. Of course, his cursing is understandable, given the Enterprise-D was about to crash-land on a planet. In the long run, audiences probably lost sight of the android cuss while puzzling over the film's plot holes and Captain Kirk's needless (and overly complicated) death.
Star Trek has a colorful history with colorful words. The Original Series, while not prolific in its use, slipped in the occasional “damn” or “hell,” expanding their expletive lexicon in the leap to the big screen. Later, TNG and Deep Space Nine and future shows added some nuanced cursing to the series, with the writers using Captain Jean Luc Picard’s French connection to slip in a “merde” or two; meanwhile the Klingons dropped a few “QI'yaHs” (one of their strongest invectives) here and there, and Chief Miles O’Brien occasionally peppered his conversation with a “bloody” or “bollocks.”
Granted, Discovery’s writers were probably trying to startle audiences who are used to very PG/PG-13 Star Trek TV shows and movies, but their employment of the vernacular isn't necessarily out of touch with the series' history or the current show's more adult tone. Just because fans haven’t heard foul language quite that harsh doesn’t preclude it from the 23rd century – as proven by the colorful phrases listed above and many more. The cuss words uttered by Data, Lily Sloane (Alfre Woodard) in Star Trek: First Contact, Tilly, and Lt. Stamets are common to most languages in one form or another. For that matter, the f-word has been in use since at least the 1600s and well before then in some form or another.
If society hasn’t outgrown obscenities in hundreds if not thousands of years, why wouldn't humans 250 years in the future - who are privy to millennia of human and alien language, culture, and history - drop a dirty word or two? Similar to modern codeswitching – which equates to our ability to change languages, dialects, or tones to better fit a conversational situation – the crew also deal with a range of different communications, from speaking to bunkmates, chattering in the mess hall, or addressing superior officers. It's reasonable to assume that members of the navy of tomorrow still cuss like sailors from time to time.
Fans looking for a cozy, ‘60s version of Star Trek might be a long way from their comfort zone with the most recent offering, but they also need to put the iconic series in the proper context. Even Kirk and Bones dropped a few strong words for the era, and many of the allegorical or genuine moments on the show were somewhat if not completely risque for the times. The advantage of using a streaming service is that it allows Discovery’s writers to sprinkle the series with more intense visuals, such as the body-strewn horror film-like sequence from the third episode (where they discover "Ripper," the tardigrade), more grown-up situations, and yes, a few adult words.
In truth, some people simply don’t like cursing, finding it coarse and low and unbecoming in the present as well as the future. Others see nothing wrong with it, at least as a natural part of human linguistics, if used judiciously. These two camps – much like those who crave total adherence to Star Trek canon versus those who accept changes in the hopes that Discovery will modernize the franchise – might never quite see eye to eye.
Berg and Harberts discussed the show's mature content in past. During an August interview, they noted that nudity “feels weird” and prolific profanity doesn’t play well on Trek. As such, Discovery probably won’t drop too many f-bombs, expose too many naked nows, or splatter the set like a slasher flick. But it will push the series to its outer limits, much like a show called Star Trek should.
Perhaps the future isn’t as neat, bright, and clean as Roddenberry’s vision, but the latest saga, for the most part, still operates within his tenets. Sure, the most recent episode used a dirty word or two, but it also concluded with a grand display of teamwork, one where science and compassion saved the life of a sentient creature. Optimism remains the most valuable currency in the future. If played right, all the bad language and morally gray moments can only strengthen the core concept of Star Trek.
Admittedly, the latest Trek is a very different beast, and it still requires some tweaks to make it hum through space. However, a flawed Starfleet continues to challenge the principles of humanity. As a result, Discovery feels real and represents more hope than an image of a seemingly unattainable utopia a mere couple centuries away.
After all, if we reach the stars, exceed our own mental, emotional, and technological expectations, and explore the human experience, a few f-bombs are a small price to pay. Heck, coexisting in a relatively peaceful manner with numerous complex and very different life forms would be, well, pretty f---ing cool.