[Spoilers for Star Trek: Discovery]
The show’s dizzying trip through the mirror universe revealed a lot of plot twists, but it feels as though we’ve lost far more than we’ve gained.
Since Discovery‘s return from hiatus in early January, three major events occurred in a brief space of time: Doctor Culber’s death, Ash-is-Voq, and Mirror Universe!Lorca. Each event was the sort that would occupy a typical show for an entire season, but Discovery smushed them all into a month. While there’s no denying these twists and turns kept viewers on their toes, they also resulted in the loss of three of Discovery‘s aspects that had made me most excited to watch.
As we head toward the last two episodes of the first season, I’m left wondering what the show will do without these humanizing, intriguing, and involving elements.
Culber and Stamets’ relationship. In the same month that actors Wilson Cruz and Anthony Rapp appeared on the cover of The Advocate to celebrate their depiction of the first openly LGBTQIA couple on Star Trek—complete with on-screen kisses and cohabitation—Cruz’s medical officer met a shocking death at the hands of Tyler/Voq. Culber’s death was quick, it was savage, and it has still gone mostly unmourned by his partner and his colleagues.
The PR machine kicked into gear when fan outrage followed the good doctor’s demise, with Cruz and Discovery showrunners promising that death was not the end and that we hadn’t seen the last of Culber. And it’s true that the murder wasn’t Cruz’s final appearance on Discovery. We got to see touching scenes of him interacting with Stamets in the mycelial network. His ghostly guidance was integral in helping Stamets wake up from his catatonic state and, later, help guide the ship back to its proper universe. These scenes were touching and effective, and some of Discovery‘s most emotional yet.
But even if we continue to have visitations from mycelial Culber, it’s still not the same thing as a living, loving couple representing the LGBTQIA community for the first time—already long overdue—on Star Trek. It is extremely far from that. We will still have a character, a gay man of color, who was violently killed ten episodes in. Later, a mushroomed-out Stamets was made to clutch his beloved’s broken body in his arms. These are events that happened and cannot be unmade or unseen, even if Culber were to be somehow healthily resurrected in the future.
Culber’s death was a disappointing and infuriating choice, especially because, at current, it has yet to make much of an impact on the crew, and even Stamets seemed to bounce quickly back since he had reassurance from ghost!Culber. I want to trust the showrunners that the decision to kill Culber in this manner was unavoidably narratively necessary and will pay off in a sensitive and satisfying way, but I’m not holding my breath here. I’m going to remain in mourning for a man and for a couple that was long promised to viewers, delivered, and then brutally taken away.
Ash Tyler and the exploration of PTSD. When we meet Lt. Tyler, he’s a consummate Starfleet officer who is revealed to have been deeply wounded by months of physical and psychological torture at the hands of the Klingons. Tyler also joined an extremely short roster of central male TV characters whose sexual assault and exploitation was addressed openly and the ramifications of which he was actively struggling to navigate. This felt incredibly important, and I was proud of Discovery for taking his character in this direction.
Everything done to Tyler was absolutely horrific, and yet it resulted in a nuanced, troubled person made up of contradictions, as most people are. It felt refreshing and poignant to have what seemed like a new kind of heroic romantic interest in the Star Trek realm: a survivor. Tyler was the head of security—and yet not always secure in his own reality. He was both a fierce, furious warrior and a sensitive, caring lover for Burnham. He was brave and capable, but sometimes his brain overcame his body and his self-control was ceded to what had been done to him.
Then came the reveals of the mirror universe episodes: Tyler was actually Voq, a particularly fanatical Klingon. The “Ash Tyler” that we’d come to know was simply the personality of the original Tyler overlaid onto Voq’s. Everything that “Tyler” thought happened to him didn’t actually happen—he was flashing back to torturous scenes of his transformation. While Voq certainly went through considerable pain and suffering to be transformed into Tyler, that was a conscious choice that he made. The relations he remembers with L’Rell were consensual—the Klingon who appeared to be his abuser is suddenly his ally and co-conspirator. What “Tyler” thought that he was working through and working for was a false front.
Star Trek has dabbled in aliens masquerading as other alien races since the original series, but this is the first time that an actual other implanted “personality” is in the mix. Where does Voq start and Tyler end? Can an overlaid personality be removed, or will Tyler/Voq remain a conflicted hybrid of the two? Tyler/Voq still has the potential to be an interesting and complex character going forward. Fans had theorized that Tyler was actually Voq from Tyler’s first appearance, so this twist wasn’t a huge surprise to me—but the erasure of his recent past landed hard.
Despite the character’s potential, something hugely meaningful about the nature of PTSD and recovery was erased when the experiences that happened to “Tyler” were invalidated. This should not be underplayed.
Lorca and a new kind of Captain. I’m prepared for pushback on this one—I love antiheroes, but I know not everyone does. I’m still grappling with how quickly Discovery did away with Lorca after building up to his twist for 12 episodes—not to mention countless interviews, press junkets and panels where Jason Isaacs and the rest of the cast handwaved and obfuscated about Lorca’s characterization and motivations.
The Mirror Universe!Lorca reveal was well done (though, yet again, theorizing fans figured it out a while ago), but its payoff was spent much, much too fast for it to feel satisfying. Isaacs, excellent at playing a villain over the course of his career, should have been allowed to play a true villain if that’s what he was, maybe a kind of Big Bad antagonist to haunt and hunt Discovery through her other trials. Who would have been a better longterm bad guy than the man who had once captained the ship?
Adding to my disappointment with what became of the Lorca storyline is that I had quite enjoyed his characterization, which felt fresh and new to Star Trek. The Lorca that we knew was ruthless and hyper-competent, willing to break the rules, to risk anything or anyone to get the job done. This didn’t make him a great person moralistically, but it made for a fascinating sort of starship Captain such as we hadn’t seen before. Lorca skewed towards the Kirk/Sisko spectrum of breaking regulations when necessary, and then he took that much, much further. It was absolutely unique—and then all of that build-up and earned investment was reversed and vaporized within a single episode.
Also furthering the frustration I still feel regarding Lorca is the sloppy way Discovery went about trying to establish that he was actually The Worst—no really, everyone, really. Despite the fact that mirror universe Lorca seemed to be engaged in a coup against a cruel and brutal Emperor that surely made him a revolutionary figure to many, viewers weren’t given the chance to consider the political implications of his actions or decide for themselves.
No, as though we were small children who cannot be trusted to judge character on our own, we were first told that Lorca had, unforgivably, “groomed” a young mirror universe Burnham, so goodbye to any sympathies for him we might have harbored, hello Lorca the sexual predator. Then, just in case the point that Lorca was worse than the Emperor wasn’t driven home by sexual predation, he broadcast a ham-handed fascist speech about subjugating lesser species for all to hear.
We’re supposed to believe that this man is smart enough to pass himself off as goddamned Starfleet Captain in a different universe but he’s going to give a Bond villain monologue for all to hear like ten minutes after he’s exposed? I rolled my eyes very hard at Discovery that night.
It’s difficult for me to envision where Discovery is going to after the loss of these three aspects that made the show seem utterly original and promising. I’m still very much on board for Michael’s arc: Sonequa Martin-Green is incredible as the brilliant, uncompromising, and utterly capable Burnham and I delight every week in seeing a woman of color as the focal point of Star Trek. But in order for a protagonist to succeed, she needs a universe worthy of her struggle.
Nearing the end of the first season, Burnham is now on board a ship stripped of its groundbreaking LGBTQIA couple, has had her emotionally complex love interest exposed as a sleeper agent and enemy, and the shades-of-grey Captain who took her from a life prison sentence for mutiny is now eviscerated.
I keep asking myself: what’s left? Where can we go from here that will deliver on those early promises that Discovery seems to have thrown away? I want to love Discovery whole-heartedly, and I have loved many, many things about its journey so far. But at the moment, it’s hard not to feel like all of the foundations we thought we knew were actually built on quicksand, and we’re going under.
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