The mid-season premiere of Star Trek: Discovery left a bad taste in our mouths. We break down how the show shot itself in the foot.
Star Trek: Discovery’s mid-season premiere accomplished three things. First, it took a literal leap of faith and made it into the Mirror Verse. Second, the series managed to give the crew (and cast) something fun to play with – their alternate universe personas.
Unfortunately, the third accomplishment put a damper on the series, its future, and tainted the future. Writers Donya and Brittany, who left the mid-season finale feeling hopeful for a triumphant return, break down where Discovery went wrong and ponder if it can ever recover.
Warning: spoilers for Star Trek: Discovery’s January 7 episode, “Despite Yourself.”
’Star Trek: Discovery’ in conversation: Death, spilt-personalities, and losing hope
Brittany: Where should we begin?
Maybe with how we were right about Lorca being a [insert your expletive of choice] and jumping into an alternate universe?
Donya: Or. This IS Mirror Verse Lorca. DUN DUN DUN.
Brittany: Ohhh. So, we’ve been with mirror verse Lorca the whole time?
Donya: It would explain his obsession with Michael. How he knew about the Mirror Verse. And the fact that he used it as an escape from a scenario he was never getting out of. Just a theory, of course.
Brittany: And, it would explain why his mapping, the specific number of jumps, and filling in specific gaps was an obsession of his.
Brittany: Whatever his motives, they don’t matter because the Discovery crew is now stranded in an alternate universe. And they are there with Voq, who can’t quite break free of Ash Tyler’s body Except, of course, at the most inconvenient time.
Donya: I’m incredibly interested in seeing how they continue to explore that duality. Clearly something didn’t go quite right. L’Rell said that the prayer should have brought his “true” personality back, but can both continue to co-exist in Tyler’s body?
Or will one personality have to eventually “win” out?
Brittany: I thought the surgery aspect was interesting. Particularly, the details about the overlaying of organs and restructuring Tyler’s physical body. Not just his mental state. Especially since, as Dr. Culber explained, each person brought aboard the Discovery would undergo examinations to ensure that brainwashed persons would be caught.
So, if we do get Ash Tyler back, what, if anything is physically left of him?
Donya: Much as I hate it, and we will get to it, I feel as though Culber’s death is going to play a huge part in Tyler’s story moving forward. In respect to him finding and moving towards his “humanity” again.
Of course, depending on which way it goes, the body dysmorphia that could potentially be touched on, in him not being in the right body so to speak, would be an interesting thing to explore. That’d work regardless of whether Voq or Tyler’s personality “wins” out.
Brittany: Another window this story opens up is the mental rehabilitation either personality will have to go through. I’m specifically thinking of Tyler in this case. As we watched the glimpses of the surgery, the sexual encounters with L’Rell, was Voq present in those scenarios?
My mind is leaning towards no. Especially, as we saw the difficulty that L’Rell had summoning Voq back in that one scene. And now, in the preview for next week, Burnham and Tyler are in bed together.
The mixing of personalities is getting messy here for both parties. I’m curious what Voq’s position in all of this is. And whether he was a willing participant in L’Rell’s plan.
Donya: L’Rell had positioned that it was something that had been done by her clan previously, but there are so many issues of consent all over the place. Because, to L’Rell, Tyler is Voq, but to Tyler, that was a real, traumatising violation he went through – one that L’Rell cannot fathom or understand.
Then, likewise, with everything that Tyler is now concealing from Michael, can she truly consent to a relationship with him when knowing what he’s done would likely mean she would withdraw it?
Brittany: The series is digging a very deep hole that I am not quite certain they can crawl out of. The first season of the show lasts only 15 episodes and we are through 10 of them. Can they wrap up the Klingon war in that time and deal with the fallout? Or will that be left to the series’ second season?
Discovery’s first season focuses on what any one person will do at a time of war. We’re seeing that with Lorca, with L’Rell, with many people who were tossed into this war unwillingly. Like you said, L’Rell made this decision to take a stand and do what she had to.
While we’re not sure what Lorca is up to, he is also doing what he has to in order to achieve his end. The crew is redefining themselves, examining their boundaries and testing their morality every day.
Burnham kills a member of her crew in cold blood. Does the alternate universe make that loss any less real? We do see her settle into her role as Captain almost seamlessly.
There are a lot of questions about the actions these characters take in the alternate universe, versus those taken in a state of war in the prime timeline that deserve our attention. But I’d really like to unpack the Culber murder.
Because that is going to have consequences both in the alternate and prime timelines. Not just for Tyler, but for Stamets (if we get him back), and the storytelling that needs to happen in the aftermath.
Donya: This was the part of the episode that left a sour taste in my mouth. Regardless of whatever the creators are saying outside of the context of the episode.
Bottom line, whether Culber returns in some capacity, we just had to watch another LGBTQIA+ character meet a violent end on screen. Being placated by promises that this isn’t a “Bury Your Gays” scenario don’t really ring true, because we’ve heard the same excuses over, and over, and over. That it’s different this time.
There’s a certain amount of trying to dictate and police the audience’s emotions that I didn’t appreciate here, because, Culber still died. That’s the bottom line. And you can argue that equal opportunity and exposure for LGBTQIA+ characters means that not all of them will survive, but when their mortality rate is much, much higher in a far smaller share of representation on screen, can it ever truly be equal?
It feels very much like their only real role is to die to further someone else’s story. There are very few happy endings to be found. Which just makes this another in a long, long line of queer bodies littering our screens and it’s getting exhausting.
Brittany: My biggest problem with the commentary following the episode is that we, as an audience, “don’t really understand what [they writers] are about as storytellers.” (This was said in an interview with Buzzfeed, by showrunner Aaron Harberts.)
Even with the promise that there will be “room to grieve,” the audience is being asked to take this death and wait for context to make it more meaningful.
Thus far, the couple in question [Stamets and Culber], barely have any screen time together. It’s asking a lot of an audience who finally got their Star Trek openly-gay romance to dwell in the fallout from a death and wait for the storytellers to make their story qualify as one of the best gay romances on television.
If the romance can only make sense in tragedy, if the audience can only feel connected to a story in flashbacks, if they must try to find representation in justifying a death is tragic AFTER the fact, it’s no longer about not getting it.
It’s sloppy storytelling.
Donya: And here’s the thing, LGBTQIA+ stories are predominantly steeped in tragedy. That’s nothing new or revolutionary. It’s why it has become a trope.
And no amount of paying lip-service from all corners is going to erase the violent visual of Culber’s death. There’s a certain amount of faith they’re asking for that has never paid off before, so, they need to forgive us if we’re a little skeptical and not tell us how we should feel.
Brittany: And, honestly, the bait and switch of Stamets and Culber was not narratively well done. For one thing, we watched, over three episodes, one character slowly disappear. He was put through a transformation.
The spore-drive jumps not only physically deteriorated Stamets, but they altered his personality, basically robbing Culber of his partner far earlier than the finality of his death. That’s where we were at with those two. They shared one sweet moment in the bathroom, brushing their teeth, that revealed their intimacy (non-physical) that felt more groundbreaking than an onscreen kiss.
But that was undercut when a piece/part of Stamet’s personality remained in the mirror. Was it really Stamets who went to bed with his partner, or another version of himself? The next, watching Stamets vow to see opera and spend a quiet life together, ended with Stamets lifeless and out of sorts. Then there was the fleeting moment of lucidity where Stamets warns Culber to “Stay out of the Palace.”
In retrospect, the entire relationship exists on a crumbling foundation from the start. I’m not confident that the writers can fill in enough of the cracks to make this live up to their promises. We were already betrayed before the death.
Donya: The entire relationship has been marred by some version of tragedy almost from the word go. And, with Stamets not being himself at the time of Culber’s death, and no guarantee he’ll ever be the Stamets we first met again, how much closure can he, or this relationship even get? Will this Stamets even be able to grieve the loss, when he’s not able to comprehend it the way he might’ve back at the start of the series?
They’ve both been robbed of seeing each other to the end. And, while I understand in life that there’s not always closure, and death can be unexpected and unpredictable, but there’s something about this that feels like a slap in the face.
Brittany: They’re asking for a lot and making the audience out to be ignorant to how creative processes work in meantime. Nothing about it feels right or good or “iconic.”
And with 5 episodes left, I don’t see how it is going to work.
Donya: I’m, obviously, going to see this series through to its conclusion, I’m invested enough by now that I have to, but this “twist” was a disappointment, and has left me a little more wary of Discovery than I was before.
The fact that it happened in a mid-season premiere as well, an event episode that is meant to capture and retain new viewers, it just feels intentional for a reaction. Until I know where this is heading, I can’t, in good conscience recommend the series to anyone else. And I hate that that’s now the case.
Not to mention this is the third POC crew member that we’ve lost. Which is disproportionate to the other characters. First it was Georgiou, then Landry, and now Culber. That’s a worrying pattern.
Brittany: And the rate that things are going now, Shazad Latif’s future as Ash Tyler is in question.
”Not to mention this is the third POC crew member that we’ve lost. Which is disproportionate to the other characters. First it was Georgiou, then Landry, and now Culber. That’s a worrying pattern.”
Donya: I wouldn’t be shocked at this point if Tyler didn’t survive into the second season. At all.
In fact, I think at this point I’m bracing for impact…
Brittany: Then they’ll pin all the emotional fallout of that death on Burnham. On top of everything else she has to deal with from the series’ start.
Again, I don’t want to sound pessimistic, but the show took us here. On purpose. And I agree with your earlier sentiment. At this juncture, I don’t feel like singing the show’s praises as I once did.
Donya: It’s amazing how one episode can entirely reframe the outlook of the entire show. There are some staples I expect in a Star Trek show, and typically it’s showing us a future to aspire to. To hope for. As the show progresses, the less hopeful I feel.
So much for boldly going where no one has gone before. Including to the Mirror Verse.
Star Trek: Discovery returns to CBS All Access Sunday, January 14 at 8:30 p.m. ET.