[Editor’s note: This contribution is by Sarah Jaffe]
I am not a Star Trek fan.
This is not supposed to be an insult to anyone who is, it’s just to say that if your response to what I write here has anything to do with canon, I will neither understand what you’re saying nor care.
Like most people my age, I have some treasured memories of watching “The Trouble with Tribbles” as a child with my dad, and since my partner is a big enough Trek fan to make it central to his work, I’ve watched more of TNG and all the rest in the last couple of years than I ever had before. (I’ve seen the J.J. Abrams movies; he refuses to.) That’s why, in fact, we ponied up the cash to watch Discovery when it began.
It’s also why I liked it better than he did, at first.
I’m not interested in whether it is appropriately Star Trekky or whether the aesthetic is too dark or what Roddenberry would say (no offense, Gene). I’m interested in good storytelling, good characters, good worldbuilding, good acting. I am, frankly, bored by a lot of “prestige TV,” which tends to be men telling stories about men and their manly manly man-things. And Discovery was a gift on that front.
Particularly, Michael Burnham was a gift.
(Here is where I should say: there will be spoilers)
I have to pick something to write about, so I’m sorry that you won’t get my disquisition on Tilly or my feelings on Saru’s development into a captain or L’rell, oh goodness I have so many things to say about L’rell, or Stamets and Culber.
But really, the arc of the first season at least was about Burnham’s struggle with her emotions, her learning how to care and to express and process that. “How do people connect, that way?” she asks Stamets in episode 7—a newly enhanced Stamets full of spore-induced compassion, but we’ll get to that later. Maybe.
I was hooked from the start on the idea of a human woman raised by Vulcans, Sarek’s “experiment” with creating a being of supreme logic and proving that nurture, not nature, was at the heart of Vulcan intelligence. And she’s a black woman, expected by our racist society to do an added layer of care work, to control their emotions at work, who face additional sanctions for expressing those emotions even while expected, as Angela Davis wrote, to be the receptacle and reservoir for the emotions of others. Star Trek world might be post-racial (at least, between human “races”) but the world it’s broadcasting in is not—these choices matter.
But as Davis also noted, “Love and interpersonal emotions in general are needs which cease to demand at least minimal fulfillment only when human beings have long since ceased to be human.” This is what Burnham is struggling with—what it means to be human. Sarek leaves her in the hands of Captain Georgiou to learn how to be human again after his attempt at making her Vulcan failed—though we find out later, it’s not that it failed, but that the Vulcans made him choose and he chose the wrong kid—and after seven years, it’s only sort of worked. (Fraternization would have been inappropriate due to her rank, after all.)
From the beginning, Burnham is struggling to figure out her own emotions. When Georgiou asks her why she committed mutiny, she says “Was it logical? Emotional? I don’t know.” She can’t quite get the words out to apologize to Saru. It’s the Tardigrade that first sparks her feelings, her compassion for a life form that can’t control its situation, that just wanted to be free. “Understanding how it feels is not our mission,” Landry tells her, but something in Burnham balks at that. Its feelings, she insists, do matter.
Sonequa Martin-Green does a masterful job of conveying Burnham’s struggle with the smallest gesture; often, just with her eyes. She’s a very still actor, holding herself with a posture that suggests strength but also rigidity; the same upright spine and shoulders can signal nervousness (when she’s first on the Discovery and the crew are talking about her as she sits alone) or confidence (challenging Kol to a duel) or the brutal swagger of mirror-universe “Captain” Burnham with only the tiniest differences to show us what she’s feeling.
But all those feelings open up when Tyler hits the scene. Oh, Tyler, Klingon prisoner, who wins over basically everyone he meets (even, we are led to believe, L’rell, but, well, things are complicated) with those lovely big brown eyes and a willingness to put his body on the line but efface himself for everyone else. Tall, dark and damaged—just my type. (I joke, but only a little.) While Martin-Green is still and subtle, Shazad Latif is animated, physical, open, emotional. He feels and you feel with him. Tyler is the perfect foil for Burnham. They are both traumatized, but hers is buried deep, his is glossed over with a joke and a laugh and given away in his gaze.
Burnham, though, doesn’t really seem to even understand what it would mean to have a type. She certainly doesn’t pick up on why Lorca seems so invested in her. Tilly and Stamets have to talk her into admitting she has feelings; when Stamets asks her for a secret she’s never told anyone, it is “I’ve never been in love,” the admission being the first step. Tyler meanwhile teases her, is playful, throwing her off but kindly. If Burnham is the kind of female character we so rarely get to see, Tyler is the kind of male character we see even less of. He’s not driven by mission, but by the people around him—he wants to escape with someone, to protect people, to make friends, to remember his fallen comrades. He defines himself through his relationships to others. He might be the “security chief” but through him we see that as a caring profession—Georgiou’s words from her hologram-will, “Take good care of those in your care” ring truest about Tyler.
And Burnham can eat a device that will kill her in supposedly the most painful possible way more easily than she can express her feelings.
When it comes time for Burnham to tell Tyler she loves him, well, she doesn’t really say it and neither does he, exactly–he strings together beautiful sentences that explain what love is. Is there a more jolting admission in this universe where humanity is always in question than “I resisted [giving in to my internal Klingon spy, OK, so that part isn’t universal] by thinking of you, you’re the one I want to be human for”? They are one another’s tether in the mirror universe where all of the things Burnham has been learning to express—her humanity—have to be shoved down deep under a veneer of cruelty. It’s a nice return to the nature/nurture question—the mirror universe and the mirror-Lorca reveal in particular remind us that humans can be monsters and other species can be the merciful ones. That what we’re speaking of when we say “humanity” is some mix of emotional intelligence and compassion and forgiveness.
But yes, I’ve gotten this far without getting to Voq. Because of course if Burnham is a creature of two worlds, two species, then what even is Tyler? He’s the one who is constantly showing her how to be human—but he’s not even really human. It’s not like the science makes any sense, but if we believe Dr. Culber (and I have been believing Wilson Cruz since the days of My So-Called Life) he is both people at once. So what we think of when it was first revealed as sexual trauma—as rape or something like it, sex done in order to survive—becomes something else, something that doesn’t translate so easily to our world, but that hit for me the emotional notes of loving someone who’s having a mental health crisis. On both sides, really, for L’rell loves Voq as much as Burnham loves Tyler, and they both have to give him up in order for him to be something like whole.
Multiple friends have described the other side of a breakdown as being like waking up feeling that someone else has been inhabiting your body—and yet, it was also you. Tyler didn’t really kill Culber, yet he did. He did choke Burnham and have to be dragged off. And so even though the part of my heart that falls in love with fictional characters screamed “Get back together!” this is why Burnham has to walk away from him and he has to walk away from the Discovery.
Did L’rell really “kill” Voq? It’s still not clear to me, and the last couple of episodes of the season were so rushed that it felt like a letdown. Yet the final scenes, where he managed to use his Klingon knowledge for good, hinted at possibilities for the character beyond this season. Beyond Michael Burnham. Maybe. Being human for Burnham is at first a failure. Being human for Voq is a sacrifice, but for Tyler it’s something to strive for, and that’s the lesson he’s left Burnham with.
We’ve seen a lot of internet rage in the last few years about beloved genre-fictional properties being taken over by what angry fanboys call political correctness—meaning stories that aren’t only about white men and their manly manly activities. This is perhaps one reason I wanted to spend time on the emotional parts of this story—the part of the saga that is about interior lives, specifically the interior life of a woman. The consumers of prestige TV throw fewer tantrums about the casting of women, but they often spend nearly as little time considering such things. Lili Loofbourow called it “the male glance,” writing, “The glance sees little in women-centric stories besides cheap sentiment or its opposite, the terrifically uninteresting compensatory propaganda of ‘female strength.’ It concludes, quite rightly, that Strong Female Lead is not a story but a billboard.”
The feelings of women are generally written off as fluff, as unimportant, at the same time as we are expected to provide them free of charge to any and all who ask. For one of the giants of genre fiction to devote itself to making them as complicated, difficult, and interesting as decisions to bomb or fight or flee or fuck made by men is surprising—pleasantly so. Discovery may not have had so much ink spilled over it as whatever this season’s big smart show is supposed to be (I genuinely don’t know) but it has deserved it, surely, just as much.