Welcome to a Kickstarter-sponsored-Smuggler-curated essay by contributor Tansy Rayner Roberts.
Warning: this essay contains spoilers for Star Trek: Discovery season 1
Star Trek has always been about promises, and ideals, even when it hasn’t entirely lived up to them.
Star Trek: Discovery felt like a promise. I still remember the intense excitement around the trailer, mainly from female SF geeks I know. The sight of Michelle Yeoh and Sonequa Martin-Green, two women of colour in Starfleet uniforms, walking across a beautiful desert planet while discussing professional development and mentorship… oh, yes. Give me that show.
The first two episodes dangled that show in front of our eyes, and then ripped it cruelly away. We got the dynamic bridge crew duo of Captain Phillippa Georgiou and her protegée Michael Burnham. We got aliens and adventure and a sense of joy and honour in serving the Federation… and over the course of a cinematic, gutting two hours, we lost it all.
I was riveted, and betrayed, and I mourned that the show that the trailer promised us was now, apparently, over. Star Trek: Discovery was not that show. It was something else.
So what was it?
Over fifteen weeks, we got a more complex, mysterious and compelling Star Trek than ever before. From the moment the Discovery arrived to “rescue” Michael from her prison transport, we were encouraged to question everything.
Usually, Star Trek hands you its formula on a plate from episode one: here is the ship and/or space station you are about to fall in love with. Here are all of its relevant crew members, and their individual backstories/quirks. Here is a medium stakes adventure to get you started. It’s all going to be mostly like this, but we might switch out some characters later and let Riker grow a beard.
Star Trek: Discovery was harder to read, and not only because its initial two-parter was about a different Starfleet ship altogether. We got to know our cast of main characters incredibly slowly, as they were introduced under a number of weeks. Right from the start, Discovery was a beautiful, special, different ship… but also a dangerous, uncomfortable place to live, thanks to an awkward disconnect between its original mission as a science vessel, and its current identity as a warship.
We were encouraged to question the ethics and motivation of the ship’s clearly dodgy Captain Lorca, who showed his colours early on, but managed somehow to preserve the illusion that he was damaged but mostly heroic, largely through the superpower of being white, male, and played by popular British actor Jason Isaacs.
(Ah, Captain Lorca, so excellently distracting with your earnest speeches and your inappropriate workplace behaviour, and your suspiciously extensive wardrobe of black leather outfits that you just happened to have available whenever it was time for the crew to put together a ‘cosplay as criminals’ mission)
Star Trek Captains are traditionally beyond reproach, the voice of the Federation and Starfleet. They are authority figures and mentors and we feel safe around them. Lorca never felt safe.
More importantly, Michael Burnham never felt safe. Our hero, this fascinating figure who does represent our Starfleet (the ideal Starfleet, not the desperate and occasionally fascist government body we were faced with in this version of the show) started out broken and gradually put herself back together thanks to friendship, a solid crew, and a shiny ship.
It’s vital that Michael starts out trusting no one, including herself, and that she’s constantly questioning her instincts, because the haze of paranoia she lived inside allowed the show to slip all kinds of fascinating layers past us. Michael’s lack of trust in Lorca made it possible for him to stay unrevealed as a blatant villain until very late in the show, because she also didn’t trust Tilly, Ash Tyler, Saru, her father, Stamets, Starfleet, or anyone at all.
Likewise, Michael was seen as untrustworthy by many, including those on the ship who had known her the longest, such as Saru and that other members of her former bridge crew. We were so busy sympathising with our earnest, complex, broken hero and the fact that everyone (including her) saw her as the enemy, the real enemies were able to get away with a LOT.
Star Trek: Discovery promised us a lot. It promised us that Michael Burnham would be our hero, that the most important character in the show would be a woman of colour, and that she didn’t need to be the captain to be the most important person a) on the ship; b) in Starfleet; or c) in the show. Thanks to a standout, utterly compelling performance by Sonequa Martin-Green, and some very supportive scripts, this promise paid off. Michael was never less than fascinating every time she was on screen, and she got a lot of screen time.
We were promised the first proper gay character in a Star Trek regular cast, and we got that in Stamets (whom I referred to for most of the last year as Grumpy McScienceface), a complex figure whose sexuality and happy relationship were only one aspect of his narrative.
We were also promised some kind of catharsis for Michael Burnham and the unfinished business she had with the Klingon War, with her own mutiny against her beloved captain and her discomfort with her legacy as a traitor.
That’s a lot of promises for one show to make its viewers, and while I’d argue most of them did indeed play out successfully, not all of them did.
There was a lot of interesting gender stuff in this show, with plenty of roles for women who were not defined by relationships with men.
The focus on Ensign Tilly with her awkwardness, her ambition and her sense of wonder, pleased me greatly, and I saw a wave of warmth and love for this character every week, mostly from female fans. I also saw a wave of rage and irritation about this character, mostly from male fans, which often felt quite erratic and emotional. I rarely saw anyone able to articulate why Tilly was “annoying” or “unnecessary” or “awful” but I highly recommend the essays of Liz Barr who not only reviewed the episodes with joyous enthusiasm each week, but produced some fantastic analysis around Tilly’s character, especially when she noted the similarities between this Ensign and the characterisation of a young James Kirk.
Star Trek has never been more relatable to me than in the moment that Tilly first asked Stamets for a recommendation to the leadership training program, based on her excellent work performance. We saw on her face how much it cost her to ask; women in the workplace today are often penalised for expressing the same ambition for which men are rewarded. Seeing Tilly attain her goals is perhaps the most utopian thing about this iteration of Star Trek.
Tilly’s loyalty and her epic friendship with Michael contrasts beautifully with Michael’s other new relationship with Ash Tyler, which developed more slowly. Like Michael herself, Ash was part of Lorca’s (in retrospect, super dodgy) HR policy to recruit staff for his warship outside the usual Starfleet channels, and to regularly send them into work situations that were personally traumatic. As a prisoner of war and regular PTSD sufferer, Ash was clearly in need of a long holiday and a therapy Tribble, and was not in the best place to be forming a romantic connection with a convicted mutineer on a suspended sentence.
All these things continued to be true after Ash was revealed to be a surprise Klingon infiltrator.
The most unfortunate aspect of the Ash Tyler reveal was that the show had set him up as a victim of sexual violence, a rare thing for a male fictional character, and having this turn out to be faked felt almost as problematic as a character played by an actor of Arabic descent turning out to be a secret terrorist.
The show got away with it largely because the PTSD Ash experienced was genuine, and because of the complexity of the storyline as it unfolded. Part of him actually will always be a rape victim (as well as a victim of horrific violence) because of his dual memories, even though he managed to balance out much of his brainwashing and his identity issues by the end of the season.
Then there was the bigger kick in the teeth that came alongside the Ash Tyler reveal: the shock death of Doctor Culber, Stamets’ beloved husband.
The trouble with science fiction is that you don’t always know if a character death is going to stick, which not only takes the sting out of the intended emotional beat, but also means you don’t know how angry to be.
It’s hard not to be furious about a show that promotes its inclusion of gay characters, receives kudos and cookies for doing so, and then turns around and throws the Bury Your Gays trope at its audience for an emotional gut punch. Star Trek: Discovery lost a lot of fans because of this narrative choice. Many hung in there for another episode or two because, with Stamets embracing his Spore Mage identity, and the constant tease that maybe, just maybe, there was going to be time travel in this show at some point, SURELY, that death was going to be unwritten.
Meanwhile, the show’s actors, writers and PR team fell over themselves to assure us that this wasn’t the end of Stamets and Culber’s epic love story, that it was all going to be fine, that this wasn’t Bury Your Gays at all…
Except, you know, it was. Even worse, Doctor Culber is one of the many people of colour killed unexpectedly in the show, after the deaths of Captain Georgiou and Security Officer Landry. Uncomfortable choices, for a show that made a lot of promises about how diverse and inclusive it would be.
Watching the last few episodes was quite a surreal experience because of that delayed anger, of waiting to find out if this death was going to be undone.
The entire Mirror Universe plot in the second half of the series did at least give us a delightfully vicious new role for Michelle Yeoh as Evil Emperor Phillippa Georgiou, and many opportunities for Michael Burnham to go through harrowing emotional angst while reshaping her own identity as a hero. It let Tilly see her greatest dream twisted into something cruel, and it gave Saru a chance to step properly into the role of Acting Captain.
The Mirror Universe gave us the Lorca Reveal, and the glorious death of his character, two episodes before the end of the series, because he actually wasn’t the point of anything. (Jason Isaacs’ delight in being killed off, at pulling off the long con of convincing the world he was going to be the new Patrick Stewart when in fact he wasn’t even the baddest villain in the show was truly special to watch unfold on social media)
The Mirror Universe did not give us back Doctor Culber, apart from a few metaphysical scenes that felt one opera aria away from that pottery scene in Ghost. Super romantic but, you know. He’s still dead.
I enjoyed a lot of things about the final episode of Star Trek: Discovery. I loved how Michael was forced to face the consequences of saving her dead mentor’s evil doppleganger, and that she and Ash got one last away mission as friends, after she broke up with him for being emotionally dishonest (not, as it happens, for being a secret Klingon terrorist, which was less of a deal-breaker).
I loved that the final episode was full of women acting in substantial roles: Kat Cornwell, herself a fascinatingly flawed character, represented the darker side of Starfleet At War Makes Bad Ethical Choices; Evil Georgiou was completely terrible at pretending to be a decent person; Tilly got to be heroic and the comic relief at the same time. I loved that everyone broke into Lorca’s Wardrobe of Leather Cosplay one last time.
I loved that the last episode was ultimately about Michael standing up to Starfleet and giving them a serve for being assholes. She got the kind of epic speech about ideals and honour that women rarely get to speak aloud. She even got her own personal future nemesis, as expressed in that one beautiful moment when Michael begged ‘be good’ as Georgiou slipped away to cause trouble elsewhere.
I really loved that Ash Tyler accepted their breakup and found a new mission instead of moping around waiting for Michael to take him back. Theirs wasn’t even the unhealthiest romantic relationship in the show (hello, Kat/Lorca) but I was glad to see a line drawn under it.
I adored that the long-hinted-at, narratively satisfying Second Mutiny of Michael Burnham was not against Captain Lorca (as often predicted) or even fake Captain Georgiou, but against Admiral Cornwell and her desperate Yes Men. An angry black woman stood up to Starfleet and demanded they do better. To remind us that this is a utopian show, she was rewarded.
I extra super adored that both L’Rell and Georgiou, the baddest villains of the show, both survived to come back and cause problems in the future, almost as much as I adored that Lorca was killed off. (I would watch Jason Isaacs in anything, I totally want them to bring Prime Lorca into the show, but I’m also impressed at them ridding themselves of a male villain like this, and keeping the women for next time)
I even loved that the blatant fan service appearance of the Enterprise at the end was framed specifically as a character moment for Burnham and he-admits-now-he’s-her-dad Sarek, with that lovely ‘uh-oh, Spock’s gonna hate us rescuing him’ facial expression that they shared.
Having said that, discussing this with my Galactic Suburbia co-host Alex recently, she convinced me that this last ten seconds of the episode throws new Discovery fans under the bus, relying on a fannish understanding of the history of Star Trek .
Despite all the things I loved about it, the last episode didn’t bring back Doctor Culber. It barely even showed us Stamets at all, whose epic ‘spores gonna destroy us’ plotline fizzled out instead of building up to a bang. We got a discreet widower medal and a spaceship from some other show, instead of an exciting tease that next season will definitely feature time travel husband-saving shenanigans.
So where do we go from here? Do we get to be angry about the killing off of Doctor Culber yet?
Wilson Cruz and Anthony Rapp have been doing the heavy lifting for the show on social media, teasing that it’s not the end for Culber’s character, that it’s an epic love story, and that it’s only just got started. Rapp tweeted #Patience on the night the finale aired, over and over, in response to fans upset at the death of his fictional husband.
And you know, that patience might pay off. If the team are planning a multi season, epic romantic journey about a couple defeating death to find each other again, and they chose to tell that story with a same sex couple, that’s pretty awesome. (Or at least, it will be, potentially, in the future, one day, maybe)
The more diversity a show attempts, and the bolder they are, the more likely it is they might mess up at the next level, tripping over problematic tropes and cultural patterns. But really, it’s not rocket science. If a show sells itself on having a diverse cast and a loving, normalised gay couple, it’s not unreasonable to expect those people to still be alive by the end of Season 1.
It’s bewildering that Discovery didn’t choose to give us that hint of hope, that call for patience, within the narrative of the show, instead of relying so heavily on social media to placate us. Why put a shock death in the story at all if you have to flood the media with articles and interviews and tweets about how no one should be shocked, or grieve, or be unhappy? What exactly was the point?
Personally, I’m still on board for Season 2. I will follow Michael Burnham and Future Captain Tilly anywhere, and I’m invested in the lives and careers of most of the Discovery’s surviving crew. I want more Evil Georgiou, and more Morally Compromised Admiral Kat. I’m on the train. I live here now.
But if Star Trek: Discovery really wants to follow through on their promise of an awesome, progressive science fiction show, it’s going to have to reward our patience with bigger promises, and even bigger payoffs. We already know they can do great, but can they do better?
I guess we’ll find out in 2019.