Despite Your Best Intentions…

Marie Brownhill
Game Industry News is running the best blog posts from people writing about the game industry. Articles here may originally appear on Marie's blog, Fan Collective Unimatrix 47.

Hey, everyone! I’m not dead, and Discovery is back for the second chapter of its freshman season. Once again, the show is pulling no punches, and neither am I when it comes to spoilers. In “Despite Yourself”, we get confirmation that Stamets’ last jump has landed our intrepid heroes in the Mirror Universe, and it sets up what appears to be the final big conflict of the season—the crew has to figure out how to get back to their own universe. They assume they can do this by locating the U.S.S. Defiant and determining how a prime universe ship landed in this universe. Now, for those of us who are familiar with the Enterprise two-parter, “In a Mirror Darkly”, we know that the Defiant is a Constitution class vessel that landed in the Mirror Universe in 2155 when the Mirror Tholians created an interphasic rift and then sent a distress call that lured the Defiant through the rift. We also know that Mirror Hoshi Sato eventually took control of the ship and used the advanced technology to declare herself the new Terran Empress, so even though by the time Discovery ends up in the Mirror Universe, the Terran Empire has used the Defiant to catapult itself beyond its technical development by reverse engineering the ship’s 2256 technology.

This story development necessarily rules out the theory that Lorca is from the Mirror Universe. (Apparently, Den of Geek disagrees with me.) What it does do is create an opportunity for more character growth. As it happens, the captain of the I.S.S. Discovery isn’t Lorca but rather Sylvia “Captain Killy” Tilly, and Mary Wiseman completely nails her performance in this episode. Tilly is awkward at first, but she eventually warms up to the role, delivering fantastically creepy lines. It’s a great character moment for Tilly because while she sees that she can make captain, the mirror version of herself is not who she wants to be, highlighting the very “careful what you wish for” themes that make the Mirror Universe interesting and provides a foil to Burnham, who’s wrestling with similar issues as she takes command of the I.S.S. Shenzhou.

The other really major development in the episode is that Ash Tyler begins to discover that he may not be who he believes himself to be, resulting in the murder of Dr. Hugh Culber. Now, I happen to subscribe to the theory that this episode is confirming for us that Ash Tyler is actually Voq, and as such, it’s no surprise that Culber is the character to whom Tyler turns for confirmation and/or help with his increasingly paralyzing flashbacks. When Culber threatens to ground Tyler from the mission, Tyler silences him via the simple expedient of snapping Culber’s neck. I do understand that neither Star Trek as a franchise nor Discovery as an installment are unfamiliar with named character death. Leaving aside temporary deaths and those characters who show up for a single episode only to be killed off later, the franchise has killed off major members of the crew such as Tasha Yar, Jadzia Dax, and Trip Tucker. We know Discovery is similarly willing to kill off characters and in one notable case, allow them to be eaten by starving Klingons, but I don’t think we should allow Culber’s death to pass without some scrutiny.

Culber and Stamets are significant in that they’re the first homosexual couple to feature in this franchise, rectifying a pretty significant hole in Star Trek’s progressive vision of the future, and we know that “bury your gays” is a trend that exists. The argument can be made that Culber’s death isn’t an example of the trope because it grows out of the story and that part of good writing means not protecting a gay character from death just to avoid being seen as serving up another helping of a particularly pernicious trope, but it doesn’t hold water. First, this is Star Trek, not Game of Thrones, and while fans have argued that Discovery is darker, grittier, and more violent than previous incarnations, I’d recommend these folks revisit “Emissary”, the DS9 pilot. “The Vulcan Hello” and “Battle at the Binary Stars” are simply a different version of starting out a franchise installment with background deaths that color how the main characters interact with the world. Heck, even in “Caretaker”, Harry Kim activates the Doctor because the entire medical staff has been killed. Discovery’s writers are simply building on the types of violence that have existed in the series from franchise’s inception. Second, pretending that “sometimes people die” as an excuse ignores the reality that Discovery is a work of fiction, and thus, killing off a character constitutes a deliberate choice in the writers’ room. Having Tyler go to get checked before the mission was a choice, and they could have had Tyler react differently, fake compliance with Culber, or any number of other alternatives that didn’t result in killing off one of the two openly gay named characters on the show.

The way the story goes from here will likely follow one of two paths. Either Culber died in service to the Burnham/Tyler arc or will contribute to Stamets’ arc. In the first case, the writers fridged a gay character in service to a larger, heterosexual-centered arc, and in the second, Culber, a character of color, gets fridged to contribute to the emotional development of a white character. Neither alternative is particularly palatable and definitely lands the story in uncomfortable territory. Cruz is on record as indicating both that Culber’s death isn’t exactly permanent and that what happens to Culber isn’t an example of media reinforcing negative stereotypes, and the showrunners did consult GLAAD on the issue. That said, I am hoping to be proven wrong in the coming weeks, and I am looking forward to seeing where we go from here, though I will certainly miss seeing Wilson Cruz’s Culber on screen as often.

Stray Observations:

  • Given the fact that the Terran Empire came into possession of technology from one hundred years in its future, I’d very much like to know why the Discovery isn’t outdated. Even if the Terran Empire doesn’t encourage its own scientists, they could have pillaged technological know-how from the species they conquer, placing them beyond Discovery by 2256.
  • I absolutely love these Mirror Universe uniforms. They’re already head and shoulders above the outfit Mirror Uhura wore, meaning that they’re actually full uniforms rather than a glorified sports-bra and miniskirt.
  • Speaking of the uniforms, each one of those medals has a meaning. I love the backstory.
  • Also, is anyone else amused that Tilly thinks her mother would have approved of her evil doppelganger’s hair? I love the dig at appearance-conscious people.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *