With this past Sunday’s episode “Into the Forest I Go,” Star Trek: Discovery closes what its writers room are calling “Chapter One” of the first season. This offers viewers their first opportunity to take a step back and examine the show so far. For this special installment of Infinite Diversity, I’ve invited lifelong Trekkie Leah Starker to join me in breaking down each character and talking about what makes the show tick.
Dylan: Discovery is the first Star Trek show that’s built around the development of one central character, and Michael Burnham is a very compelling lead. She’s unusual—raised in an alien culture and not entirely at peace with her humanity—but also very relatable. Viewpoint characters in ensemble shows are frequently on the bland side in order to serve as a proxy for the widest audience possible, but that’s not really the case with Michael. She’s very well defined. We see her at her best in the show’s opening act before she encounters the Klingons—she’s confident, vibrant, alive in the act of exploring by her mentor’s side. Then we see her at her worst shortly thereafter, struck by panic and making terrible choices that lead to her losing everything. And now, aboard he Discovery, she has to try and build herself back up, and she’s impossible not to root for.
Leah: I keep coming back to the phrase “post-Game of Thrones” when talking about this show. Burnham is definitely a protagonist in that vein—complicated, flawed, traumatized from events in her childhood through adulthood, but ultimately capable of amazing things, like every great Star Trek protagonist. She’s almost Worf-like in trying to synthesize the culture she grew up in with the culture she is now a part of, and I can’t wait to see where she goes from here. Whatever she does, she does because she considers it her best option at the time, and she doesn’t try to hide from her choices. I’m so engaged in her arc, it’s a great call on the show runners’ parts.
Dylan: I’m a little worried about what happens to her after the war is over. I don’t think she’s really going to be sent back to prison, but where does she go from here? It’s hard to imagine that Starfleet’s first mutineer ever gets to sit in the center seat. Still, as we close Chapter One, she seems to have found a measure of peace and redemption in defeating Kol and the Ship of the Dead, and if there’s one thing we know about Starfleet is that as much as they claim to love rules, mostly they like results.
Captain Gabriel Lorca
Dylan: Discovery’s biggest risk so far is in making the captain of the ship also be, essentially, the primary antagonist of the show (Though L’Rell is positioning herself to take over that role in Chapter Two). Lorca is wounded by the loss of his last command, and it’s possible to empathize with him, but he’s also a cold manipulator who carefully sows loyalty from people he sees as useful so that he can count on their protection from those who see through his righteous façade—people like Admiral Cornwell. He’s not evil, exactly. More like amoral, which is not a trait you want the commander of a Federation starship to have.
Leah: Lorca is so goddamn traumatized, but it’s almost impossible for us to separate his trauma responses from his calculating, Machiavellian actions. Pulling a weapon on a trusted bed partner is a clear PTSD response, but ensuring that your crew feels beholden to you because they have no other options, or hoarding information to reveal at the optimal moment is…not cool. Lorca is the kind of person who can only function in conflict—who needs this war as much as he wants to end it. I really can’t see a way out of this for him alive, other than the kind of intensive therapy that would make for really bad TV.
Dylan: Can you imagine an In Treatment-style web series of just Lorca in therapy? Coming soon to Archive of Our Own…
Leah: Too bad Cornwell is off the ship, I would watch an entire B plot of her leading an intense group therapy session from her recovery room.
Leah: THREAT GANGLIA.
I was optimally positioned to love Saru—and I had to wait a little bit longer than I thought for that love to flourish. I love the idea of him—Doug Jones in full practical-effects mode, anxious, herd-mentality, THREAT GANGLIA, trying to work through what seems like constant trauma—but it wasn’t until his admission that he tried to sabotage a mission in order to live without fear that I felt like everything clicked. He’s still a bit more one-dimensional than I’d like, but I’m looking forward to more.
Dylan: Yeah, Saru definitely fits the mold of previous Star Trek aliens whose cultures can be encapsulated in one or two words (“prey,” “fear,” “THREAT GANGLIA”). Jones brings a great deal of personality to Saru, even early on aboard the Shenzhou where he makes up the third side of a Kirk/Spock/McCoy type dynamic with Michael and Captain Georgiou. He’s incredibly vulnerable, which makes him sympathetic even when he’s being kind of a dick. I hope that we’ll see him use his breakdown in “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum” as a moment of clarity to face up to his base instincts, and that the message of that story will be framed in terms of personal growth rather than simply “Saru has learned to be more human and to be human is objectively better.” That’s a another tired Trek trope I could do without.
Leah: GOSH, yes. I’m tired of humans being held up as the ideal form of sapient life. I loved his moments of vulnerability when he was in command of the ship, though— trying to codify what makes a great captain and analyze his behavior. I feel you, Saru!
Cadet Sylvia Tilly
Dylan: Sylvia Tilly is the anti-Wesley. She’s a bright-eyed hypercompetent young crew member who is impossible not to like. You have to give so much credit to actress Mary Wiseman for bringing so much joy and life into what could have been either a Neelix-level irritant or a Sheldon-style stereotype. She may be my favorite character and I look forward to watching her grow into the kind of Captain Starfleet so badly needs to help recover from the trauma of the Klingon War.
Leah: I screamed at the line where Stamets referred to her as Captain, because if anyone deserves it…
Tilly reminds me in a way of the best of Cyclops. Command doesn’t necessarily come naturally to them, but god damn it, someone has to do it and it might as well be me, so I’m going to work my tail off to be the best I can be. Even if she hasn’t been textually confirmed to be on the Autism spectrum, she clearly relies on scripts and the idea of what is “supposed” to be done in any given situation, and the crew around her give her the space that she needs to flourish. Starfleet is lucky to have someone as determined and compassionate as Tilly.
Dylan: I never want to see any Original Series-style ships, costumes, or sets on Discovery except for a montage at the end of the series where we trace the rest of Tilly’s path to the captaincy. I want to see her step aboard a colorful Constitution-Class ship and eventually take command of some slick Wrath of Khan-era hotness and sail off into the horizon. It would destroy me if something happened to Tilly.
Lt. Commander Paul Stamets
Leah: The mad scientist, experimenting on himself—Going Boldly, even though he’s not career Starfleet. He’s not a people person, he loves his mushrooms and would prefer if he were just left alone to work. But underneath that, he really does care, and once he’s plugged into the spore matrix and existing outside of time (not to mention perpetually tripping), that care shines through. The moment he and Burnham dance and then hold hands as the ship explodes around them was the most poignant so far for me. Watching Lorca manipulate him into 133 spore jumps—plus one more! While his husband watches—was almost too painful to stand.
Dylan: I enjoyed Stamets as a grouch who’s exhausted from feeling like the Only Sane Man and then as a glowing ascendant being who loves juice boxes and hugs, and now apparently as the key to unlocking infinite universes. I feel pretty bad for him, given that we know from 24th Century hindsight that the displacement-activated spore hub drive does not end up propelling the next generation of interstellar travel in peacetime. Odds are good that Stamets or Burnham end up having to destroy the entire mycelial network to keep the Klingons from using it before the end of the series.
Leah: Oh yeah, someone is probably going to “needs of the many” their way off this mortal coil, but I’m in denial so I don’t want to think about the effects of his transformation into a Time Lord.
Lt. Commander Ash Tyler
Leah: Oh, Ash Tyler. I think it’s pretty clear by now that Tyler is Voq, having been plastic-surgeried and mindfucked by L’Rell into his current state. The little slips—not being able to explain where exactly he’s from, not knowing First Contact protocols, his borderline obsession with Burnham—all add up in the context of L’Rell’s behavior in the brig. I’m wondering if this is going to set up a storyline where Tyler has to choose between two identities, and who he will align himself with. Voq never seemed to return L’Rell’s affections with the same fervor, whereas the Discovery crew has shown Tyler real acceptance.
Dylan: It took until this last episode for me to really be onboard for Tyler, and I think part of that is because I was so distracted by the Voq rumors. Once I heard that fan theory I couldn’t put it out of my head—it was freaking airtight—and I wish I hadn’t heard it. I’m happy that Tyler is, at least, his own personality and not just a disguise, because that would make him a lot less interesting. Now we get two interesting stories in one: Tyler coping with his PTSD and sorta losing his mind to L’Rell, and Voq reclaiming control of his body to prove himself to the Empire. There’s a lot of potential here. (Poor Michael, this will really suck for her.)
Dylan: L’Rell interests me, not so much because of her character but more because of the way she’s framed. In the context of Klingon internal struggles, it seems we’re meant to root for her. She’s had her messiah and fellow followers taken from her, and she’s at odds with the selfish Kol, and by extension, the Empire who’s at war with the Federation. But in the context of our main Starfleet crew, she’s a real monster, having tortured and sexually assaulted Tyler. Now she’s set up as our Villain in a Bottle (see Joker in The Dark Knight or Silva in Skyfall) for Chapter Two.
Leah: I don’t know whether we’re supposed to think she’s a mastermind who is exactly where she wants to be, or a bit of a mess trying to punch above her weight. Her quest of vengeance against Kol is complete, but what is the rest of her plan? We don’t know her endgame, and with Voq not in the picture to share her fervour, she’s really the only T’Kuvma fanatic left.
Leah: Sarek is possibly one of the worst dads in Star Trek. One, biological, kid pretends not to know him whenever possible, and the other, adopted/spiritual, kid feels like a perpetual failure to live up to his expectations. Sarek is a parental figure coming to terms with his own shortcomings, and we get to see that through the eyes of a woman who loves him as much as she is angry at him. I’m curious as to how the katra bond between Burnham and Sarek may be revisited—it’s something we really haven’t seen in this way before, and an interesting narrative device.
Dylan: I’m glad that Sarek has not been a major character on Discovery, and that Michael’s connection to this Important Star Trek Family hasn’t stunted her growth into an interesting character who stands on her own. Sarek’s story in “Lethe” fleshes out not only his relationship to Michael but also his relationship with Spock in a really interesting ways. The idea that some of Sarek’s disappointment in Spock joining Starfleet is tied to what it cost Michael is going to paint future viewings of “Journey to Babel” (TOS) for me.
Leah: Agreed— they’ve managed to walk a pretty fine line between deepening/contextualizing existing canon, and using it as a crutch.
Harcourt Fenton Mudd
Dylan: During the uncertain buildup to the show’s release, the announcement of Rainn Wilson as Harry Mudd was the first time I was really worried that Star Trek: Discovery might suck. I’m not a fan of the character to begin with, and casting Dwight from The Office felt like a stunt. And maybe it was, but in execution I really enjoyed his performance. He’s certainly more menacing than his TOS counterpart, which is nice because he was always a piece of shit but used to be framed a little too comically.
Leah: I love the Mudd episodes of TOS, specifically for their weird manic camp. He’s much more grounded and desperate in Discovery, and therefore much more of a threat. I love time loop episodes, so getting one of those was a treat—even if it’s the kind of thing that could be done with just about any villain. If they had to bring in a TOS antagonist, I’m glad that it was Wilson’s Mudd, and that his antics seem to be finished.
Captain Philippa Georgiou
Leah: My Queen. Possibly the most shining example of Starfleet at its best— before everything goes to shit. The contrasts between her and Lorca are many, but almost perfectly encapsulated in their ready rooms. Wayang kulit! Warmth and personality!
Setting up the idea of Georgiou as mentor for Burnham makes her memory and example a fixed point for our protagonist: a north star to measure against. Burnham holding her own in a fight with Kol, recovering Georgiou’s badge, and making it back to the ship with her boarding party intact and the captured Admiral…I think she would be proud.
Dylan: Michelle Yeoh does so much with her limited screen time as Captain Georgiou. She conveys such poise, humor, compassion, that she gets to remain a central character on a show long after she’s gone. But the palpable absence of Georgiou isn’t quite enough for me, so I’ll be gobbling up any novel or comic book where she appears. I recommend Desperate Hours, which is set about a year before the show begins, and I’m hotly anticipating February’s Drastic Measures, which follows both Georgiou and Lorca ten years earlier.
Leah: After we watched the first two episodes, I was so blown away that I walked home and typed up a note about where I wanted to see the show go from there. Looking back at it, there is a lot that I successfully predicted (Discovery as a unique ship with a top-secret mission, Lorca as a manipulative jerk who gets results, Burnham’s conditional reinstatement without the benefit of her rank…) but rather than disappointment, I’ve felt nothing but glee at watching how this story unfolds. I have no idea what to expect next—but I’m sure it’s going to be Star Trek.