In the tenth episode of the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, I want to fight everyone and everything. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
Trigger Warning: For extensive discussion of consent, body horror, medical experimentation, and fridging of queer characters
Seriously, if that one thing hadn’t happened, this probably would have been my favorite episode so far. I’M SO ANGRY. Anyway, I’ll save that for the end. LET’S DO THIS.
I know they hinted at it earlier this season, but look. LOOK. The utter fucking delight I experienced once I realized this was the Mirror Universe? I actually think the writing staff exhibited the exact same delight, y’all. Because watching this was like being in a writer’s room where the writers are told, “Do whatever you want, GO FERAL.” This episode… it so fully commits to the parallel universe and what it means for these characters to have to pretend to be part of the Terran Empire. THE TERRAN EMPIRE. IT’S BACK!!! I got to experience this place on The Original Series, Deep Space Nine, and Enterprise, and oh my GOD, does it ever RUIN me here.
It’s a classic take on parallel universes, sure, and it’s certainly not even close to the most original idea within the Trek universe. However, this felt so fresh, exciting, terrifying, and compelling. What’s interesting is the way that the Mirror Universe literally provides that character mirror. It’s what was interesting about it in the past. Even if I didn’t always like it, it is, for example, what is so compelling about the alternate version of Kira from DS9. That show took a deeply moral, ethical, and principled character and made her into the most horrifying representation of oppression imaginable.
In a sense, that happens here, most specifically with Cadet Tilly, who must transform into Captain Tilly. Sorry—Captain Killy. How does this version of her run counter to what’s been established? Each of these characters who must be part of the deception are faced with a existential crisis, and honestly, seeing that through Tilly was probably the most thrilling thing to experience here. It’s a complicated emotional journey, right? Because how much of Killy is in Tilly? Did she always have the potential to turn out that way? Both Tilly and Burnham struggle with the disgust and revulsion that their Mirror Universe counterparts inspire in them. (This often happens purely through physicality. The facial expressions that Burnham and Tilly make ALONE are enough to shower their two respective actresses with every award under the sun. EVERY AWARD.)
In Burnham’s case, while she must also become a cruel and bloodthirsty version of herself, it’s just as at odds with her core self as it was for Tilly. Burnham has been trying to figure out how to navigate the world with her human emotions and her Vulcan logic. While I wouldn’t argue that the Terrans are less emotional—indeed, I fully agree with Burnham’s assertion that they’re ruled by fear, one of the strongest human emotions—I do think that their calculating, self-serving nature made this a particular challenge for Burnham. Take her fight with Captain Connor. She was already upset just by seeing him after he died in the Battle At the Binary Stars. And yet, by Terran logic, she had to meet his challenge and kill him. THE SHEER PSYCHOLOGICAL WEIGHT OF THAT ACT, Y’ALL. Like, you can even see it on Burnham’s face! She was devastated once she was fully aware of what was happening. Even worse: This time, she was DIRECTLY responsible for the death of Connor.
Seriously, the poetry of these alternate stories??? Too much. Too much! I would be remiss in not bringing up Lorca’s, because WOW. What a punch in the fucking heart. Because in this universe, Lorca still lost his crew. He was still the sole survivor. Only this time, it was because he tried to institute a coup and lost. Like, what’s worse? Finding out your Mirror Universe self is completely evil or that BOTH versions couldn’t escape certain traumatic twists of fate?
I think it’s all awful. EVERYTHING HURTS IN THIS EPISODE. God, it’s clear we’re spending a little arc here in this universe, and I’m so excited, y’all.
Love that there’s an entire part of this episode in which—on video, no less!—I loudly and proudly state that Tyler was brainwashed by the Klingons and is now a sleeper agent. I was so close! I was right there, and yet the point still whooshed right over my head.
I do have a lot of questions about logistics, but I feel like they’ll be answered in future stories. Because like… what exactly did L’Rell do here? I think that while “Despite Yourself” didn’t outright say it, I have enough information to put together that Ash Tyler is Voq. Or…. was fused with Voq? Or Voq was surgically altered to look like Ash, but also, Ash’s real personality is also there? I don’t think Ash Tyler is like… a fake person. But I’m still missing that part of this. My guess is that Ash Tyler was a real Starfleet officer captured at that battle, and then they turned Voq into a weird combo of him and himself?
Okay, it’s not necessarily important to figure out all these details yet. The story that we get here is still emotional and intense as hell even before the big reveal. Shazad Latif does a phenomenal job portraying a person in crisis, one whose trauma is mixed in with medical experimentation, torture, and identity fracturing. It’s made all the more complicated because of his feelings for Discovery , as well as Burnham specifically. I believe he does have genuine feelings for her! I believe his claim that he wants to protect her and will do anything within his power to do so! My theory why that’s even possible is based on L’Rell’s line about how something must be going wrong. I don’t think L’Rell intended for Tyler to fit back in so much that he developed feelings; he’s basically a surgically altered sleeper agent, right? Thus, Burnham complicates everything for him. There is a purpose to L’Rell’s plan, and it most certainly doesn’t involve Tyler wanting to protect another human.
It’s sad to watch this unfold, too, because holy SHIT, this character has been through a lot? Like… okay, even if this is actually Voq beneath and there’s no “real” part of Tyler in all this, did he even consent to this procedure? Or was he tricked into it by L’Rell?
I can understand the machinations that went into this writing choice. Dr. Culber was the only person to figure out that Tyler wasn’t who he said he was. Thus, his life was immediately in danger the second he made Tyler aware of that.
But lord. It’s hard for this not to sting. I realize I don’t know what’s coming; it’s possible that there’s a Mirror Universe version of Dr. Culber who could replace him, and thus, we don’t lose the character. I recognize he could somehow still be alive, but I don’t even know that I believe that. I also know that it is harder to invoke the Bury Your Gays trope when there are other gay/queer characters around. At the same time: the literal FIRST queer Latinx character in Trek history is killed off in the first season, without them getting a single episode devoted to their character?
This is hard for me for a completely separate reason. I get asked a lot about diversity and representation, particularly when I felt “seen” by fiction. And most of y’all know this already: I didn’t feel truly seen in books until I was in college. I had nothing growing up. I did, however, have a television show: My So-Called Life, in which Wilson Cruz played Rickie, the character who meant the most to me. His storyline was centered on trauma, rejection, and homophobia, yes, but it was so real. It was the closest I ever felt to seeing myself in a work of fiction.
Seeing that actor get to now be on Star Trek in a significant role? I was so excited. The chief medical officer often gets some of the best episodes! And now he’s… gone. Gone for someone else’s story. And it sucks.
I would LOVE to be wrong about this one. So… no spoilers, obviously, but PLEASE LET ME BE WRONG.
The video for “Despite Yourself” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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