Star Trek: Discovery
“Star Trek has never adequately applied its own philosophy of IDIC—’Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations’—to gender and sexuality. Discovery attempts to rectify that.”
Title: Star Trek: Discovery
Episodes Reviewed: Seasons 1-2
Creators: Alex Kurtzman 👨🏼🇺🇸, Bryan Fuller 👨🏼🇺🇸🌈, Gretchen J. Berg 👩🏼🇺🇸 (Season 1), and Aaron Harberts 👨🏼🇺🇸 (Season 1)
Writers: Alex Kurtzman 👨🏼🇺🇸 (29 eps), Bryan Fuller 👨🏼🇺🇸🌈 (28 eps), Kirsten Beyer 👩🏼🇺🇸 (28 eps), Sean Cochran 👨🏼🇺🇸 (27 eps), Bo Yeon Kim 👩🏻🇺🇸 (17 eps), Erika Lippoldt 👩🏼🇺🇸 (16 eps), and various (17 men, 4 women, and 4 POC)
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Let’s get this out of the way first: My Star Trek pedigree consists of a childhood spent belly-flopped in front of the TV, chin in hands as I watched The Next Generation with my two older sisters. Since then, I’ve avidly consumed select pieces of Gene Roddenberry’s universe. While Voyager and Deep Space Nine went over my head, and Enterprise was too bland to enjoy past its first two seasons, the reboot films with Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto are fun as hell. Above all, though, it was the original series that dragged me into its camptastic orbit. (I’m never going to say no to Leonard Nimoy unironically carrying a dog in a unicorn costume.)
Naturally, then, I was beside myself when Star Trek: Discovery was announced. The storied franchise would be coming back to the small screen for the first time in over a decade! But, sadly, I would go on to be disappointed by Season 1, which drags its heels over knotty storylines and hard-to-follow twists.
But miraculously, Season 2 reinvents itself, transforming Discovery into a tantalizing bright spot each week. Perhaps helped by CBS All Access’s decision to cut ties with Season 1 showrunners Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts, Season 2 felt blissfully unburdened as the writers tapped into all the reasons that made me such a fan of Star Trek in the first place.
Namely, the show pivots towards simpler, more episodic storylines that don’t require hours of legwork to understand, while a new injection of humor balances its self-referential jargon. Watching comedian Tig Notaro in her role as the sardonic engineer Jett Reno banter with her prim counterpart, Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp), brings such simple delight—as does the employment of flagrant fan service through the resurrection of veteran characters whose names hold huge cachet for longtime fans.
The ensuing experiment takes off like a firecracker thanks to the Season 2 introductions of said veterans of Christopher Pike (Anson Mount), his first officer Number One (Rebecca Romijn), and Spock (Ethan Peck). By bridging nostalgia with new figures like Discovery’s lead protagonists, Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) or Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), showrunner Alex Kurtzman delivers the Star Trek comeback I’d wanted all along. It took a full season to get there, but it’s so worth the wait.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
A peek under the hood might suggest a male-centric show, since only one-third of its writing credits—74 of the 221 listed on IMDB—went to women screenwriters. But it helps that among its carousel of 5 different showrunners, 2 were women: Berg and the promotion of writer Michelle Paradise, who will be helming Season 3 with Kurtzman. And lest we forget, Discovery makes its home among the sci-fi genre, which has historically been hostile to women—an unfortunate trend that still continues with recent works like Netflix’s Altered Carbon or films like Blade Runner 2049 (2017) and Ready Player One (2018).
In contrast, Discovery feels wonderfully feminist and proves that men can—and should!—write great female characters. The lead, Commander Burnham, lives up to her status as headliner. She propels events and acts heroically by not only taking care of business like a BAMF, but through her ironclad moral compass too.
Behind Burnham, a cavalry of amazing women follow suit. To describe them all would be to write for days, so I’ll keep it succinct. Captain Georgiou, as one of the show’s main characters, helps establish a crucial female relationship, beginning the series as Burnham’s mentor before developing into an exciting, morally ambiguous character.
Ensign Sylvia Tilly provides both comic relief and diversity of personality as her bubbly naiveté contrasts with the relative sobriety of the other officers onboard the USS Discovery. Strategic foes and allies include women too, particularly through Klingon L’Rell (Mary Chieffo) who unlocks key pieces of the story across both seasons.
In a smaller role, Admiral Katrina Cornwell (Jayne Brook) is so cool to watch as a no-bullshit higher-up who interrupts men with utter professionalism. And finally, other recurring faces include the ship’s two helmswomen, Lieutenants Keyla Detmer (Emily Coutts) and Joann Owosekun (Oyin Oladejo), both of whom deserve more backstory.
All that said, the show’s plot drivers still lean male. Captain Gabriel Lorca, Commander Saru, Burnham’s love interest Lieutenant Ash Tyler, and Season 2’s black-ops officer Leland (Jason Isaacs, Doug Jones, Shazad Latif, and Alan Van Sprang, respectively) are each inextricable from the narrative. The same goes for the aforementioned characters of Stamets, Captain Pike, and Spock. If any one of them were removed, the story would topple like Jenga blocks. Still, this impressive group of actors collectively refute toxic masculinity through their progressive and diverse characterizations.
As the character who carries the greatest emotional burden from war-torn atrocities, Lieutenant Tyler especially redefines what masculinity can look like. Playing him is British actor Latif, who tells The Verge:
“I’ve always been interested in [being vulnerable on-screen]...With all this going on right now, any character who adheres to the classic male action hero just seems outdated. It needs to be deeper than that.”
Star Trek began its legacy in 1966 as one of the most diverse shows on television, and I’m happy to report that this still holds true in 2019. From the start, co-creator Bryan Fuller had always envisioned women of color to lead Discovery. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, he says:
“I couldn’t stop thinking about how many black people were inspired by seeing Nichelle Nichols on the bridge of a ship [as Lt. Uhura in The Original Series]...I couldn’t stop thinking about how many Asian people were inspired by seeing George Takei [as Sulu] and feeling that gave them hope for their place in the future. I wanted to be part of that representation for a new era.”
While peers like space opera Star Wars are still flubbing their attempts at writing Black women, Star Trek laughs in their face through the centering of Burnham, who smashes the stereotypes that have been placed upon Black women in society. She’s no one’s sassy sidekick; she can be angry, but her motivations and reasoning are always considered; and she better not be killed off, because she’s the main character.
Meanwhile, Georgiou feels just as inspirational. Asian representation in Western media has barely budged across the decades since George Takei wielded an épée on Star Trek, and it’s only in the last few years that I’ve let myself hope for sustained inclusion of Asians in North American television. Discovery has helped oxygenate that small flame, and I’ll be sincerely disappointed if Captain Georgiou—and Yeoh’s empowering, natural accent—doesn’t make it into Season 3.
The rest of Discovery feels populated by a decent sprinkling of diversity, but true representation drops off after Burnham and Georgiou. Even with them, all characters are written with colorblindness that could be construed as idealistic, but mostly still feels simplistic. We start to see Burnham’s roots through glimpses at her family in Season 2, but otherwise, people of color exist as islands among a majority white cast.
Among among the top 25 billed actors on IMDB, 17 of them—or more than 3 in 5 actors—are white. While this generally aligns with current American demographics, the ratio feels underwhelming for a show set centuries into the future.
While Star Trek has always championed ethnic diversity, and has produced some iconic women like Lieutenant Nyota Uhura or Captain Kathryn Janeway of the USS Voyager in decades past, it has never adequately applied the Vulcan philosophy of IDIC, or ”Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations”, to gender and sexuality.
Thankfully, overt efforts are being made to rectify that with Discovery. Whether or not that prioritization came from the top—co-creator Fuller himself is gay—its results are heartening. Discovery features three major and outwardly gay characters so far: Stamets, his husband Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz), and the Season 2 addition of Commander Reno. None of them follow any tropes they couldn’t pull themselves out of just as fast, although the flirtations with Bury Your Gays is starting to wear thin by the end of Season 2, with our queer heroes in constant peril. That said, the same could apply to several of the show’s officers, especially with a Season 2 cliffhanger that leaves more than one beloved character in danger of no return.
Where Discovery makes huge strides in LGBTQ represention is its centering of a gay couple as the steadiest starship romance. Stamets and Dr. Culber provide a consistent emotional backdrop, ebbing and flowing like a real marriage being put through its paces. While it does take some time for the arc to develop from cutesy interactions into memorable drama, you’ll soon find yourself rooting for the STEM power couple to make it through space, time, and alternate dimensions with their love intact.
In a smaller role, Reno briefly mentions her wife who died during Season 1’s Federation-Klingon War. Beyond that, indications of her sexuality stay under wraps, but overall her inclusion as a lesbian or bisexual character remains welcome.
The one area that needs improvement is Discovery’s stubborn adherence to gender binaries. No transgender characters exist, nor do we see any asexual or aromantic preferences explicitly laid out. The show spans galaxies and is set hundreds of years into the future—it can certainly evolve beyond an entirely cisgender roster where even the aliens code as either male or female.
Deduction for Disability: -0.75
Surface depictions of disability make generic cameos, such as a Starfleet officer in a background role who uses a wheelchair (thankfully played by a real-life wheelchair user, George Alevizos) or an offhand reference to young Spock having dyslexia.
We also see explorations of how disability could look in the future, as cybernetic enhancements become normalized. Helmswoman Detmer has an enhanced eyepiece, Commander Nhan (Rachael Ancheril) uses breathing tubes, and Lieutenant Commander Airiam (Hannah Cheesman)’s human consciousness has been downloaded into a bionic body. But their augmentations become a point of weakness in every case, as they become vulnerable to security hacks or plain old busting up.
Meanwhile, where Discovery really steps in it comes from an ableist holdover from Roddenberry’s original series. Pike’s future as a wheelchair user with severe facial burns returns with zero evolution on inclusiveness since the decades-old plot point. Rather than recognizing that Pike’s life can (and does!) continue as a disabled wheelchair user, writers then—and unfortunately now—posit his future as a grotesque and nightmarish outcome.
I won’t pretend that the story doesn’t benefit from seeing Pike make an ultimate sacrifice, so that he can ensure a better future for others, but it’s a dick move to imply that becoming a wheelchair user with facial anomalies is THE. WORST. POSSIBLE. FUTURE. EVER.
Writer Angelo Muredda covers this issue at length, detailing how Discovery uses “the disabled body as a terminal point, something to scream about in terror” before concluding that the show sends “an all-too-familiar message to disabled people that their lives are not worth projecting into the future.”
Mediaversity Grade: A- 4.50/5
Kurtzman harnesses decades of history through iconic characters while simultaneously building new ones for the starship Discovery, whose crew will be expected to carry the show forward by their own star power. Luckily, the momentum heading out of Season 2 feels fierce, with a two-part finale that dropped jaws and left tears in its wake.
My mind reels at the possibilities of what a third season of Discovery may bring, and it’s a great feeling. I haven’t loved Star Trek this much since its campy ‘60s-era beginnings, and I can’t wait to see what Kurtzman and Paradise have in store for us next.