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How Star Trek: Discovery and The Good Place find humanity in hell

While very different, both shows are deeply concerned with how one person’s moral decisions can change a world.

The Good Place / Star Trek: Discovery
NBC/CBS

If there’s ever been a year that needed multiple shows about characters desperate to escape worst-case surroundings in the wreckage of a fake utopia while grappling with moral quagmires, it’s probably this one.

Star Trek: Discovery just wrapped a first season that grapples with some implications of the wider Star Trek universe’s approach to the moral high ground. In this, it overlaps with Treks that came before. But it’s also moving in parallel with The Good Place, a sitcom about ethics classes in hell that features Kierkegaard’s leap of faith as a plot point. (Repeatedly.)

Though they couldn’t be more tonally different, each show is deeply concerned with how one person making moral decisions — or compromising them — can change a world. And those complexities of subjective morality, utilitarianism, and acceptable collateral damage are all tied into stomach-sinking revelations: The characters in these stories are trapped in horrible places, the utopia they’ve been sold is a lie, and it’s a surprisingly small jump from that supposed utopia to their horrible reality.

The central question of each show is whether their protagonists will be defined by the hell they’re in, or whether they’ll be able to redefine it.

Spoilers for The Good Place and Star Trek: Discovery lie ahead. Proceed accordingly.

”The real Bad Place was the friends we made along the way“

Chidi, Eleanor, Jason, and Tahani face the Judge in The Good Place.
Colleen Hayes/NBC

When Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) wakes up in The Good Place, she scrambles — first to hide that she doesn’t belong there, and later to become good enough that she no longer disrupts the neighborhood. Her “soulmate” Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper) teaches her ethics. But the lies keep piling up, and eventually, her increasing sense of “what we owe to each other” gets to her: She turns herself in.

It backfires, but not for the reason she expects.

The Good Place’s first-season-finale twist — the seemingly idyllic neighborhood in which Eleanor, Chidi, and their friends Tahani and Jason had been living was the Bad Place all along — was so huge even some cast members were kept in the dark.

But, significantly, Eleanor’s primary reaction to this revelation was relief. The Good Place had seemed increasingly broken, from its admission criteria to its administrative protocol. Discovering she and her fellow bad people were being inventively tortured was awful, but also vindicating. Something had always been wrong with the place everyone said was a paradise; the Bad Place was terrible, but now, at least, everyone knew what the problem was.

The second season, in which neighborhood administrator/demon Michael (Ted Danson) reboots the neighborhood 802 times trying to get them to turn on each other, emphasizes how the four captive humans encourage one another to be better people.

In particular, Chidi — the show’s strongest moral compass — begins to affect the others so deeply that in reboot after reboot, we see them finding each other, absorbing his lectures, and trying together to understand why their utopia seems so broken. It’s an underplayed pattern, but the show takes for granted that we understand exactly how the sense that something is wrong leads us to look for something better.

Sure, Eleanor outwits the Bad Place 801 times because she’s a selfish, doubtful cynic, so nothing’s absolute. But Chidi’s lessons give the show a structure from which to consider issues of intent vs. effect, whether one choice erases what came before, and whether redemption is possible for everyone. Michael’s gone from tormentor to self-sacrificing protector — and the all-knowing Judge (Maya Rudolph) has given the humans a do-over — so it seems The Good Place believes it’s never too late to start again.

Star Trek isn’t so sure.

”Starfleet doesn’t fire first”

Star Trek: Discovery
The conflict between Burnham and Georgiou in the Star Trek: Discovery pilot spills over into the rest of the season — even after one of them dies.
CBS All Access
Star Trek: Discovery
The conflict that spills over between Burnham and Georgiou in the Star Trek: Discovery pilot spills over into the rest of the season — even after one of them dies.
CBS All Access

Discovery’s first season is structurally the most ambitious for the Trek franchise since the original series. More serialized than its predecessors, the first season of the show raced — too fast — toward the mirror universe, throwing us dark-side versions of characters almost before we were familiar with the original models.

Discovery is interested in the idea of identity as a process rather than a fixed state, and the mirror universe was designed to prove a very specific point. Captain Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), who dies nobly in the second episode, delivers a familiar thesis statement for Trek as a whole: “Starfleet doesn’t fire first.” Discovery wants to challenge that certainty.

Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) — a human raised by Vulcans who is first officer on the Shenzou, and later a stripped-of-rank specialist on the Discovery — is plagued with questions of identity from the beginning. Her use of Vulcan strategy starts a war; she’s pulled from her mutiny sentence by Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs), who conscripts her to the Discovery; she spends the season’s last third navigating the mirror universe. (Even her favorite book from childhood, Alice in Wonderland, is about a girl who fights to define reality, and herself, in a world of surreal and hostile figures in power.)

She’s hardly alone in these struggles. The season is awash in doubling, reflection, and questions about the ethical cost of everything from the sentience of tardigrades to attempted genocide. There’s Ash (Shazad Latif), a Starfleet soldier/Klingon sleeper agent, who must try to reconcile that duality after he activates and tries to kill Burnham. There’s Emperor Georgiou in the mirror universe, who rules the authoritarian Terran Empire but whom Burnham hopes to redeem. And there’s Lorca himself, who’s revealed to have been from the mirror universe — Star Trek’s Bad Place, essentially — all along.

In an extremely busy season (by the last five episodes, the big reveals were tripping over themselves), this was a puzzler, given that the series had already made so much use of Lorca’s extremely flexible ethics. Though he had Starfleet’s blessing and his goals were often pragmatic, his orders often pushed the crew to compromise their morals, which was a fascinating throughline for a Starfleet captain. Making Lorca from the mirror universe turned him into something evil enough to dismiss.

(We know exactly how the show views the Humans-First blowhard whose slogan is “Make the Empire Glorious Again.”) But no one on the Discovery suspected a thing until then, and there’s strangely little reckoning about that after the fact. It isn’t until Starfleet nearly implements Emperor Georgiou’s plan to blow up the Klingon homeworld that Burnham contends directly with the idea that the line separating Starfleet from the Terran Empire is perilously thin.

Still, to Burnham that revelation is as stunning as learning the mirror universe exists at all. She’d been told Starfleet didn’t fire first, and was appalled at the cruelty and bigotry of the Terran Empire. And yet, she finds out only one degree of fear separates her world from the other. Her universe is on the cusp of the Bad Place. And — crucially — there’s a suggestion it always will be.

What we owe to each other

Star Trek: Discovery
The Mirror Universe is not a fun place to be.
CBS

That’s not the idealized Trek sentiment we’re familiar with; this isn’t even the by-any-means stakes of Voyager or the cultural tensions in DS9. This is a Trek pointed at the present, in which the proclaimed utopia doesn’t exist and never did, those in power can’t be trusted, and doing the right thing feels insurmountable. Burnham rebuilds her sense of self in this pressure cooker — first in relation to Starfleet, but later by a more personal, and effective, compass. (She tells Lorca she’d have helped him to return: “That’s who Starfleet is,” she says. Then she thinks about it a second and amends, “That’s who I am.”)

In The Good Place, such moral examination falls primarily to Eleanor and Chidi, whose relationship is initially defined by fighting over ethical particulars. Their struggle just to determine, much less do, the right thing can reach surreal levels of back and forth, and often comes to nothing in telling ways. (The four Bad Place escapees make their case to enter the Good Place before a judge and boldly declare they’re a package deal because that’s the ethical thing … and then several promptly fail their ethics tests anyway.)

Both shows make a meal of such moments: doing the right thing is text, not subtext. In particular, the tension between personal intent and moral action pulls at protagonists on both sides. For both, the greater good supersedes the best intentions — and the arguments on both sides are closely tied. When Discovery’s Admiral Cornwell (Jayne Brook) tries to justify war with “We do not have the luxury of principles,” Burnham snaps, “That is all we have, Admiral.” When The Good Place’s Eleanor points our that they’re “behind enemy lines” and lying to demons is fine, Chidi’s unimpressed: “Well, principles aren’t principles when you pick and choose when you’re going to follow them.”

What makes this so effective is that each show uses its broken system to build an unspoken framework beneath the story it’s ostensibly telling. The characters’ fight to define who they are under such conditions inevitably points outward. Their hells surprised them … but should they have surprised us? We’re asked to examine why we ever bought a Good Place where so many people were unhappy; we’re being asked how small a distance separates the mirror universe from the one we know.

We’re being asked to look at the work required for characters to redeem themselves — Michael, Ash, Georgiou. And we’re being asked to understand how hard it is to be good when there’s every chance it could come to nothing.

Michael counsels Eleanor on The Good Place
Colleen Hayes/NBC

That is, perhaps, the tonal element that resonates most directly between the shows: the necessity of work without reward. Characters in both shows are asked to compromise or sacrifice themselves for the sake of a future they might never see, and both play with the process of building an identity in a flawed world when there’s no firm endpoint — just one decision after another. The Good Place suggests that good intentions can be a step in the right direction, but it and Discovery agree that identity is something more concrete: You are what you do. There’s no moral dessert.

The Good Place isn’t always as optimistic as it seems; characters are frequently reminded what they do might not be enough. But even if they fail, the show insists they have a responsibility to try. The humans have spent so long in the Bad Place they can barely picture paradise, but still, a rebooted Eleanor is affected by Chidi’s belief that “We choose to be good because of our bonds with other people, and our innate desire to treat them with dignity. Simply put, we are not in this alone.”

And though Discovery’s season finale crowded a too-tidy ending into an unrelated cliffhanger, we know it can’t return to those early days, when everyone believed Starfleet didn’t fire first. Now they can only try to make sure no one fires first on their watch. This, too, is framed by Burnham as an imperative: “The only way we can stop ourselves from becoming like them is to understand the darkness within us and fight it.”

By the end of their seasons this year, both shows have declared utopia impossible; Starfleet’s too vulnerable to corruption, and the Good Place’s entire classification system is wrong. But each show believes working toward an idealized world still matters — and becomes more necessary the darker the world gets.

The crew of the Discovery is closer to utopia now than before because they understand the necessity of standing against the first immoral order from a Starfleet admiral; they’ve seen the consequences otherwise. And Michael makes his case for restructuring the entire afterlife because a handful of people tried so hard to help each other in torturous circumstances they disproved divine assumptions about humanity’s capacity to improve. They shook the universe out of complacency.

It’s no surprise that stories like this are resonating with us now. Part of how they work is by reminding us that the ways we define ourselves matter — together we make a world, one way or the other — and how much of our legacy is determined by the ways we affect the world. At this point in both stories, the bad places feel encroaching, omnipresent, inescapable. But neither Discovery nor The Good Place is overly concerned with the mechanics of why they’re inescapable; they’re more interested in the necessity of trying to do right within them. Everybody’s always been in the fake Good Place. What both shows want to know is: What’s next?