Perhaps the most futuristic thing about Star Trek: The Next Generation was that way back in 1987, the show’s creators and designers predicted that the portable phones of the future would become jewelry. In the grand scheme of wearable sci-fi tech the Trek communicator badge is iconic for its simplicity, but also because it made a silly idea into something legitimately cool. But now that the communicator badge has returned—a full century early—on Star Trek: Discovery, what are diehard fans supposed to think? Did Section 31 rip-off the future?
Spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Discovery season 2, episode 5, “Saints of Imperfection.”
In the latest episode, just as the USS Discovery is getting sucked into the Mycelium Network, newly-minted Section 31 agent Ash Tyler reveals not only that a Section 31 ship is hanging out nearby, but also that he has an awesome communicator, one which just looks like a regular Starfleet badge. When Ash calls for emergency backup by tapping his badge, an incredulous Captain Pike says, “What the hell kind of communicator is that?” Viewers who are very new to Star Trek might be asking the same question, but those of us who grew up on TNG, DS9 and Voyager already know that in the 24th century, the Starfleet combadge replaces the flip-up handheld communicators of the 23rd century. So, what’s the deal? Haters might say that Discovery is, once again, messing with established Star Trek canon, but maybe it’s not.
It’s relevant to note that the flip-up style communicator used by Burnham and company on Discovery has, at this point in the timeline, existed for about 100 years. In the prequels series Enterprise, Captain Archer (Scott Bakula) and crew use a flip-up style communicator throughout all four seasons of the show, which take place from 2151 through, roughly, 2161. In fact, in the Discovery season 1 episode “The War Within, The War Without,” Admiral Cornwell name checks Captain Archer and references the events of the first Enterprise episode ever, “Broken Bow,” when she talks about how it’s been “nearly 100 years” since a Starfleet ship has visited the Klingon homeworld.
What does this have to do with communicators? Well, in 2151, Starfleet needed literal human translators, like Hoshi Sato, to talk to aliens like the Klingons. During the run of Enterprise, Hoshi invents the universal translator, meaning the flip-up communicators of the 22nd Century don’t have the same functionality as the flip-up communicators of the 23rd. So while the communicators that exist during Enterprise in the 2150s and Discovery in the 2250s, look similar (they both have flippy lids), they perform very different functions—the point being, aesthetics don’t necessarily denote functionality.
Ash Tyler has a combadge that he taps in 2257, and so does Captain Picard in 2364, but that doesn’t mean Tyler’s combadge has the same functionality. For all we know, Tyler’s version is only an emergency communicator and could be limited to a one-time-only usage. Or, like the tech split that separates the Enterprise communicator from the Discovery ones, it seems likely that Tyler’s comm badge doesn’t have the same functionality—like a built-in automatic universal translator—like the ones from the 24th century. (And it certainly doesn’t automatically brew coffee like Janeway’s badge certainly does on Voyager.)
Weirdly though, there are other explanations that are little more far out. This is bizarrely not the first time a TNG-style combadge has appeared in the 23rd century. In the 2012 IDW Star Trek comic book series, following the adventures of the reboot crew, Captain Kirk taps his badge to talk to the Enterprise. This can easily be explained because the technology of the alternate 23rd century is way more advanced than the Prime Timeline because Starfleet cannibalized so much technology from Nero’s time traveling ship from the future. Or to put it more simply, Kelvin Universe Captain Kirk can have a combadge because of time travel shenanigans. Which, could explain Ash Tyler, too.
What if there is time travel going on in Discovery right now? What if Ash Tyler’s combadge is just as sophisticated as the kind from Picard’s era? Why would Starfleet repress this technology? The boring answer is that they intentionally want to hold back certain experimental tech, mostly because Section 31 is a super manipulative and paternal organization, and likes to control the flow of innovation in the galaxy. But, again, that’s the boring answer. The exciting answer is this: Section 31 is already time traveling and is part of the Department of Temporal Investigations.
In “Saints of Imperfection,” Leland seems really familiar with time travel, while Captain Pike is more dismissive. That could be because Leland and his Section 31 crew are already time traveling, and perhaps manipulating history in subtle ways. Now, I’m not saying this will all prove that Discovery isn’t in the Prime Timeline, but there is a Trek precedent for this kind of thing. In the Voyager episode “Relativity” Seven of Nine is recruited by a future-version of Starfleet who basically acts exactly like Section 31. Her mission is to travel back in time and prevent the USS Voyager from being destroyed by a hidden explosive. In the Deep Space Nine episode “Trials and Tribble-ations” members of the Department of Temporal Investigations grill Captain Sisko about time traveling back to the 23rd Century to save Captain Kirk’s life. These guys also act like they’re from Section 31.
In Discovery, Section 31 is way more out in the open to the main characters than it was in Deep Space Nine. But, Deep Space Nine is over a hundred years in Discovery’s future. Who’s to say that between now and then, Section 31 won’t clean-up it’s super-obvious meddling, using time travel? Because if Ash Tyler literally borrowed his combadge from the 24th century, think what else Section 31 might know…or already have.