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Did Star Trek: Discovery Just Introduce a Recurring Character on the Autism Spectrum?

Last night’s Star Trek: Discovery was not only amazing TV, but should also quell the fears of anyone who watched the first two episodes and worried that they couldn’t tell from the series opener just what kind of show they were getting. With Episode Three, “Context Is For Kings,” we not only got super-clear about what to expect from the show, but we were introduced to an amazing cast of characters.

Star Trek series live and die by their ensembles, and Discovery has hit the ground running with characters who, from their first two or three lines of dialogue, pop onscreen.

  • My first response to Rekha Sharma’s Commander Landry, Discovery’s Security Chief: Oh my God, I’ve known her for five seconds and I’m already in love with her and her ‘tude.
  • My first response to Anthony Rapp’s Paul Stamets: OMG, I love that he is just NOT having it, and that he’s the king of IDGAF.
  • My first response to Jason Isaac’s Captain Gabriel Lorca: This dude is creepy as hell, but I’m going to be absolutely fascinated by this guy, aren’t I? Yup. (Also, I love that they have fortune cookies)

And my response to just about everyone was, They’ve got jokes! Even when they’re being serious, everyone on this crew has got jokes. I love the sarcasm and the banter on this show. I love how lived-in everyone feels. I love that this is a science vessel, so we’ve got a Starfleet crew that has a less military feel to it, but I also love that they are now being thrust into a war and are being made to become military, which will lead to a lot of conflict and ethical debate, I’m sure.

However, what I loved the most about last night’s episode was the introduction of Cadet Sylvia Tilly, played beautifully by Mary Wiseman. Check out the clip above, in which we meet Cadet Tilly for the first time, along with Michael. Tilly is like a goddamn ray of sunshine in this scene, and we can immediately tell that Michael rooming with her is going to make for a lot of great future conflict, as well as some wonderful opportunities for understanding between two very different people.

What I loved even more, though, was something that wasn’t made explicit, but that I instantly read into the performance and the interaction. While it was never stated outright, I read Tilly as a character on the Autism spectrum.

First, there was the fact that she mentioned that she wasn’t supposed to have a roommate because of her “special needs.” Now, technically I suppose the phrase “special needs” can mean anything, but it’s also a very loaded phrase that has a very specific connotation to today’s viewers. I can’t imagine that a staff of talented writers would use that phrase arbitrarily.

Next, there was the issue of her “allergy” to polyester and viscoelastic polyurethane foam. There was something about the way she said, “You took my bed,” and the way she said, “I know, they look the same …” coupled with the facts she rattles off about how this allergy leads to snoring that led me to think that her issue isn’t actually a medical issue. She was talking like someone who constantly has to explain her preferences to people, when those preferences might seem arbitrary from the outside.

As she admits later in the episode, she is someone who cares very much, too much, what others think of her. Thinking back on the above scene, I thought that maybe she doesn’t actually have an allergy at all. She just really needs to be on that side of the room, but thinks that other people think it’s silly of her to care about things like that so much, so she invented a medical reason to legitimize something she might be embarrassed by. Thinking about it in those terms broke my heart.

Lastly, there’s her speech, and her interaction with Michael. She doesn’t quite seem to have the social graces down, but in a way that goes beyond general social awkwardness or youthful exuberance. She seems to have to stop a little longer than everyone else to process the emotions being directed her way, and has trouble “reading the room,” which read to me like a person with Asperger Syndrome.

There were all the tiny ways where her behavior read to me in this way, and there’s the scene later in the episode where she says to Michael, “Here’s something not a lot of people know about me: I’m going to be a Captain someday,” which makes it seem like she, or others, might think that particularly impossible, for some reason.

Why would someone so clearly gifted (fast-tracked at the Academy!) and enthusiastic about Starfleet be so cagey about wanting to eventually be a captain? This made me think that she has something stacked against her that others don’t. If she is on the Autism spectrum, and being a captain is in large part about communicating effectively (and in nuanced ways) with a crew, she may see her condition as a special challenge.

At the same time, her life having a challenge in it has done nothing to dampen her enthusiasm or her ambition, and I love that she turns to Michael with this “confession” and tells her that she’ll need her help learning the things she needs to learn in order to make her dream come true.

And then, I love that this clearly isn’t all there is to her. When the “Black Alert” happens on the ship, we see Tilly curled up in bed looking either angry or afraid. It’s hard to tell which, since we’re still not entirely sure what’s going on on this ship, but Tilly clearly knows more than she’s letting on, or has a sense of it.

Later, when she’s with the boarding party and dealing with a huge beetle-looking monster, she raises her phaser and gets some bass in her voice as she bellows, “You in the shadows! Show yourself!” in a brief moment that was unlike anything else we’d seen from her this whole episode. In this moment, she was being the captain she aspires to be.

If Tilly does indeed have Asperger Syndrome and/or is neuroatypical in other ways, I’m so glad that it’s not the sole focus of her existence on this show. She has a multifaceted personality, goals, hopes, and dreams, and happens to be really, really smart. She is also someone who wants to be a good friend, even if she has to do some extra learning as to how.

Lastly, I really, really hope that my read on this character is correct. One of the bigger problems with sci-fi is that too often those who are neuroatypical, or have mental illness, or have disabilities are basically erased from the future.

On Star Trek, we’ve already seen things like Captain Pike’s wheelchair on the Original Series and Geordi’s visor on The Next Generation. While we desperately need increased representation, the fact that Star Trek hasn’t completely eliminated disabilities from the future is heartening, and is one of the things I love most about it. It’s not a franchise that tries to “clean up” the future by eliminating humans whose physical or mental abilities are different than other people.

Tilly is shaping up to be a beautiful addition to that tradition. What’s your take? Is this how you read Cadet Tilly on Discovery? I’d love to hear your thoughts below.

Note: I’m currently reaching out to the Star Trek: Discovery team about this, and will update with relevant additional information!

(image: screencap)

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