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‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Takes a Pilgrimage With “Whistlespeak”

6 Minute Read
May 2 2024

As Star Trek: Discovery continues its search for greater meaning, its final season combines science with spirit in “Whistlespeak”.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A Starfleet captain must choose to either follow the Prime Directive or directly engage with a pre-warp civilization. The direction that civilization’s spiritual beliefs hangs in the balance. But so, too, do many Federation lives.

For those of us with an extensive background in Trek, this concept connects with a specific episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation: “Who Watches the Watchers”. That story involves the Enterprise engaging with the Mintakans (a pre-warp Vulcan-like civilization) after a Starfleet science team is discovered researching them.

In the process of rescuing the scientists, the Enterprise medical team accidentally introduces the Mintakans to a man they come to see as a god: Captain Jean-Luc Picard. The remainder of the episode sees the Mintakans revert to older, more barbarous beliefs. And it’s only by having Picard meet directly with the Mintakan leader Nuria and show her that even someone who seems to control the stars cannot control death.

“Who Watches the Watchers” closes with Picard revealing that humans have as much to learn from the Mintakans as the Mintakans do from humanity. “Whistlespeak” explores a similar idea, but without eschewing the importance of faith. And it’s all the stronger for it.

Courtesy of Paramount Plus

To Boldly Recap “Whistlespeak”

The clue to the next piece of the Progenitor puzzle is distilled water and the Discovery crew are stumped. Thankfully Kovich assists by supplying the names of all the scientists involved in hiding the pieces of the puzzle. It turns out one of the scientist’s names connects to a specific world. The world in question suffers from a lack of potable water.

And so Burnham and Tilly beam down to engage with a pre-warp civilization to find their next clue. What they discover is a pilgrimage to one of the (broken) weather stations. The people traveling there believe these towers are the best place to commune with the gods. In fact according to a young person, Ravah, there’s a ceremonial race that allows the winner access to the towers to commune with the gods.

Burnham and Tilly split the party. Burnham attempts to fix the hidden weather technology while Tilly finishes the race with Ravah. There’s just one catch—to enter the tower is to become a sacrifice to the gods. Oops.

Burnham decides to break the Prime Directive and entreat Ravah’s father Ohvahz to prevent Ravah and Tilly’s deaths. He concedes and Tilly figures out the markings in the tower which leads to the next puzzle piece.


Courtesy of Paramount Plus

To Boldly Review “Whistlespeak”

If this episode of Star Trek: Discovery sounds simplistic, that is because recapping really doesn’t really do it justice. Also there are two other minor plots that act in perfect counterbalance. In point of fact, “Whistlespeak” does a better job of speaking to this season’s mission statement than the rest of the season combined.

In the TNG days (and with most of Star Trek, frankly) the idea that pre-warp planets have a benefit to Starfleet is mostly the stuff of lip service. Picard says the Mintakans have something to offer the Federation in “Who Watches the Watchers” but there’s no indication that’s true.

“Whistlespeak” by contrast reveals many ways Discover gains from their time among the proverbial rabble. For one thing, they get the next piece of the puzzle. But more than that experience the potency and the legacy of the spiritual. After all, Burnham wants to know the meaning of life. And what are those who seek to sacrifice themselves doing if not trying to meet their gods? What each group seeks essentially has the same kind of destination. And there’s both beauty and danger in that.

Michael and Tilly cannot divine an official lesson to learn from this mission. But they conclude that they must respect the technology they seek both because of its inherent dangers and because of the dangers in anyone seeking definitive answers.

Courtesy of Paramount Plus

Discovery, Culber, and Adira

There are two other plots in the mix here. One involves Adira helping Burnham repair the weather stations. Adira is still adrift after bringing the time bug aboard. They feel guilty. Worse, they feel incompetent. Rayner encourages Adira to trust their instincts. On a character level, this moves both of them forward. But it’s also about faith in oneself. And that’s as important as any other faith Discovery inspects this season.


On the planet below, the Whistlespeakers must move towards the idea that there is room for both the tenets of their faith and the technology that keeps their planet alive. More than that these two things are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, their coexistence is essential to all their lives.

Dr. Culber experiences this from the opposite direction. He uses technology to speak with his abuela, which leads him to test his own brain. Post “Jinaal” Culber still feels unable to understand his own experience of sharing a soul with another. And it’s through the scientific method that Culber realizes that the best source for “answers” is through the spiritual.

There’s also a lovely bit between Culber and Book. Culber regrets that Stamets doesn’t “get it”. Book explains that it’s okay to experience some things alone. And that’s true, too. One of the great dangers of organized religion is that it involves trading individuality for community. The spiritual questions Culber is examining are his alone. Is that a lonely exploration? Sure! But it’s also one unhampered by those who might offer false answers to complex questions.

Courtesy of Paramount Plus

Who Watches the Watchers?

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? That question, which translates roughly as “who watches the watchers,” has come to be a challenge to power. Who oversees the overseers? Who makes the laws for the lawmakers? The Federation’s biggest law, the Prime Directive, is not to get involved in the affairs of those who lack sufficient power to challenge. But Starfleet captains break that law all the time. Why is that okay?

And the answer “Whistlespeak” posits is that there’s more to power than technology. Warp speed can take Discovery anywhere fast, but that means very little without a destination. Burnham and Tilly both realize that the Whistlespeakers have just as much to share about the future of the Federation as the other way around. Both groups aid one another in profound ways.

That doesn’t mean you hand cavemen the atomic bomb, but it does mean you can tell them the hammer is worth inventing. What they do with that information is up to them. And similarly, the caveman reminds you that there’s more than the scientific method to asking how the stars came to be in the sky. And how we lonely astronauts seek to answer why we are here requires as much of the spiritual as it does the scientific.

Science puts the power of gods in Discovery’s hands as it does for us here in the real world. It’s the philosophical side of our nature, that ineffable voice we can’t truly account for that guides us in knowing what to do with that power.


“Whistlespeak” absolutely nails that without ever saying it directly.

5/5 stars

Lina Morgan
Author: Lina Morgan
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