[Warning – SPOILERS for Star Trek Discovery season 1, episode 2 ahead!]
Star Trek: Discovery premiered this past weekend, airing its first episode on CBS and following it with the second on the network’s streaming service, CBS All-Access. The rest of Discovery‘s first season will air exclusively on All-Access, a decision that has certainly caused a stir among fans but is also driving up the number of new subscriptions to All-Access. Accessibility aside, Star Trek Discovery is giving audiences a lot to talk about, but there’s one scene in particular which might have some viewers scratching their heads over what’s happening.
The scene comes during Discovery‘s second episode, “Battle at the Binary Stars”, while Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) is locked up in the brig on mutiny charges. With almost half the ship blown away from the Klingon attack, the only thing keeping her from dying in the vacuum of space is her cell’s force-field. In this moment of utter despair, Burnham experiences a vision of sorts in where she’s speaking with her Vulcan mentor, Sarek (James Frain). Only it isn’t really a vision or hallucination, but a legitimate means of communication between her and Sarek, happening in real time and across lightyears of space. For some, this might seem a bit too convenient, with Burnham having Sarek’s wisdom and guidance on a telepathic speed dial, but there’s already a precedent in Star Trek for what she’s experiencing.
The telepathic link between Sarek and Burnham is possible because of a piece of Sarek’s “katra,” his soul or mind essence, exists within Burnham’s consciousness. This aspect of Sarek’s katra entered Burnham’s mind during the mind meld – a telepathic and intimate link between two minds, allowing the involved individuals to exchange thoughts – that the two shared when Sarek found Burnham as a child in the bombed Vulcan Learning Center. And while this iteration of a katra transference is a little different, it is by no means the first time it’s happened on Star Trek.
Most notably, in the final minutes of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Spock briefly mind melds with an unconscious Dr. McCoy and transfers to him his katra, knowing he would likely die in his attempt to save the Enterprise and her crew. Spock gave McCoy his katra in the hopes his experience and wisdom would live on even in death, but thanks to the unique circumstances of Spock’s burial, his regenerated body and his katra were later able to be reused in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. In the meantime, McCoy did exhibit some of Spock’s mannerisms and would chime in with knowledge only Spock could know, demonstrating just how strongly the effect of holding a Vulcan katra is on a human mind.
This is by no means the only instance in where a Vulcan has transferred their katra to another – Spock previously did this during an episode of Star Trek: The Original Series, ‘Return to Tomorrow’, briefly sharing his katra with Nurse Chapel in order to more easily expel a being that had taken over his own body, and during episodes of Star Trek: Enterprise, Captain Archer hosted the katra of the most acclaimed Vulcan to have ever lived, Surak, a philosopher and founder of the modern Vulcan civilization.
In these instances, however, it was a full transference of a katra, not merely an aspect or piece of the katra remaining behind. Star Trek Discovery doesn’t make it clear whether or not Sarek intentionally left a piece of his katra within Burnham or if it was simply an after-effect of the mind meld, but being human, Burnham is prone to side-effects from hosting even a portion of Sarek’s katra. In some instances of katra transference, non-Vulcans can develop multiple personality disorders or at the very least exhibit traits of the katra they host, as McCoy did while holding Spock’s katra. With this in mind, it’s just as likely that having a part of Sarek’s katra within her mind played as large a role in Burnham developing such a Vulcan disposition as did her immersion in their culture.
Using the link created by Burnham holding a piece of Sarek’s katra as a form of interstellar communication is a new detail introduced on Discovery, but as we’ve discussed, it isn’t without some precedent. The katra is a mysterious element of Vulcan culture and physiology, originally considered quite controversial, it’s only within recent history (as of Discovery‘s place in the timeline, anyway) that its existence has become widely accepted. As such, there’s arguably still much for viewers to learn about the katra and its affect on hosts, not to mention on those who either willingly or not dispatch a portion of their katra to another. Sarek mentions how taxing it is for him to stay linked with Burnham during their conversation, implying that doing so takes a toll on him physically as well as mentally.
This instance will almost certainly not be the last time Sarek and Burnham a will communicate in this manner, so do expect the Vulcan katra to get mentioned again. Not only does its inclusion allow Burnham to receive counsel from her mentor and father figure – something she will most certainly need in her upcoming assignment – but it’s also an easy way to incorporate Sarek into the show’s narrative while he’s off on Vulcan or elsewhere. And as more flashbacks are also likely to play part in upcoming episodes, it wouldn’t be all that surprising if Star Trek Discovery were to provide further explanation as to why Burnham ended up with an aspect of Sarek’s katra and to the extent it has altered her.
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