Spoilers for the latest episodes of Star Trek: Discovery ahead.
The back half of Star Trek: Discovery’s first season has been a mixed bag for me. The Mirror Universe stuff has been okay, but has also often been a bust. Making Lorca an MU doppelganger is too cheap and easy, in my opinion – the show was traveling down an interesting path in examining a man coping with trauma and possibly processing it poorly. Saying “he’s just from the goatee-verse!” cheapens what the show had been previously doing with the character, and makes him sort of lame in the process. I hold out hope that the season finale will find Prime Universe Lorca showing up.
The same dropping of a narrative ball happened this week, when Admiral Cornwall showed up and unceremoniously told us that the ISS Discovery, helmed by Captain Killy, had been blown up months earlier. That’s the payoff? We were told this ruthless crew, using the latest tech had shown up in our reality and they… immediately got killed by the Klingons? Kind of a bummer, and it would have been fun to see two Discoverys going head to head in combat.
But even with all of that, Discovery continues to be a very fun show that not only plays shockingly well with Trek lore, it is also exploring fascinating themes that I find personally resonant. This week’s episode had Tyler and Burnham talking about a subject that consumes my life lately: rehabilitation and redemption.
The two characters have approached their redemption differently. Burnham submitted grimly to punishment, never defending herself. Her decision was self-flagellating and passive. She opted to just go away forever. Of course once she got a chance to make good she took it, but her initial response to her life falling apart as the result of her own actions was to just sink.
Tyler, on the other hand, is being more proactive. He could just sit in his quarters all day, hiding out. Maybe he would come out for food at a time when he knew the mess hall would be less full. Instead he ventures out during meal time, facing the potential wrath of his crew mates. And while he’s out there he speaks to Stamets, offering him a heartfelt, qualifier-free apology, one that acknowledges that words alone cannot repair the damage he has caused.
Tyler’s on the path of amends – he’s owning up to his actions and taking responsibility, even though he may not feel fully responsible all the time. As a sleeper Klingon agent Tyler’s experience mirrors that of addicts, or of people with mental health issues – in these situations you may do terrible things, but it’s very likely that you feel out of control when you do them. You may not even remember doing them. But instead of litigating it – “I’m not Voq! I’m Tyler!” – Ash quietly and solemnly accepts his culpability and begins trying to figure out how to make it right. Not better, not forgotten – right.
He can’t do it alone. God bless Tilly for recognizing that, and offering Tyler her support in a way that is quite small but deeply meaningful. A person wrestling with guilt can feel a lot of things, including shame and self-loathing, but from my experience they also feel afraid of getting their shit on someone else’s shoes. In these situations people may be unwilling to ask for help or to reach out – one, because they’re afraid of being rejected (and believe they should be rejected) and two, because they don’t want to drag someone else into their mess. The bravery it takes people to stand by their friends who have fucked up cannot be underestimated, and Tilly et al take one of the most heroic actions of the whole season just by quietly sitting next to Tyler in a public place.
But Burnham isn’t on that same path. She’s looking to not make repair but to erase what she did, and that’s why she dragged MU Georgiou into the Prime Universe. She continues to be solitary, telling Tyler that redemption is a path he must walk alone. But it isn’t, and it isn’t a path that she needs to walk alone, no matter how much she is working to convince herself otherwise.
Burnham’s choice is really fascinating, from a mental health and recovery perspective. She’s trapped in a cycle, and we have all seen people in the same cycle, usually in romantic relationships. They keep dating people who remind them of their abusive parents, or a previous abusive partner. That impulse comes from many places – they don’t believe they’re worthy of better love, they don’t know how to have another relationship – but a big part of it comes from an attempt to control the situation that traumatized them. This time I’ll get it right, they say to themselves. But they’re just trapped in a samsaric cycle of pain, and the same things happen again, often in the same ways. It’s pretty clear that Burnham is going to have to mutiny against her captain again, after all.
Burnham’s problem is her need to continuously control things around her. Tyler, on the other hand, has surrendered to the idea that he has no control and had no control. The memories of his torturous transformation certainly help him accept the lack of control he had over being Voq/Tyler. He surrenders himself into every situation, ready to accept whatever happens (I would say the one time he doesn’t do this is his talk with Burnham, where he tries to psychoanalyze her, and that doesn’t go so great for anybody). By accepting a lack of control Tyler can take the steps that the people around him need him to take. That’s recovery in action.
As we get to the end of season one, Discovery has deepened the Klingon/Federation conflict that became a staple of the Original Series. The Cold War that extends through the original show and up through Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country gains new weight. I thought originally that the Disco was going to jump in time and undo the devastation of the past nine months, but now I’m thinking that the dire aspects of the war, the thinning of the fleet and the trimming of the upper ranks will actually explain a lot of what the Federation is like in TOS. Hell, we may even get an explanation for UESPA operating the Enterprise in the first season of TOS.
But at the very least we get a dire, WWII-like conflict from which a hopeful Federation can rerise, much as the 1950s gee-whiz atomic future came out of the horrors of the 1940s. Discovery is putting into continuity a situation not unlike the one that led to the mindset of the original Star Trek, thus explaining the mindset of the crew of the original Star Trek. And considering how Enterprise presented a fractured building of the Federation, featuring species that didn’t really want to work together, we kind of needed this explanation.
I’m curious how it all shakes out. Is the plan to inject the Augment Virus into all Klingons? (In Enterprise the Augment Virus turned traditional TNG Klingons into human-looking TOS Klingons… but it was stopped before it could spread too far) Will the Discovery drop Lorca’s Tribble on Qo’nos, setting the stage for the Great Tribble Hunt that Worf referenced in Deep Space Nine? Or will there just be a terrible physical attack from Georgiou, intending to genocide the Klingons in general?
However it plays out, Disco has the best first season of any Trek since TOS. It’s spotty, and I think it missed opportunities, but considering what a pre-production mess the show was, this is all a miracle. What’s more, the thematic throughlines have been mature, consistent and wise. You can’t ask for much more than that.