Star Trek: Discovery centers its female characters

Contributed by
Sep 27, 2017

Warning: This article contains major spoilers for the first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery. If you haven't seen the second episode (available exclusively in the US via CBS's streaming app), proceed at your own risk.

If you’ve been under a rock, away from the Internet, you may not know that Star Trek: Discovery launched on Sunday to much fanfare (and mostly positive, but mixed, reviews -- check out SYFY WIRE’s recap for more). The first episode aired on CBS, while the second episode and all future episodes are only available via CBS’s streaming app, All Access, which costs $7 per month for a subscription. (I’ve railed against this decision pretty hard.)

I’m a huge Star Trek fan. I’ve been one all my life. There is no franchise that has had a greater impact on the adult I am. It’s where I first learned to love science and technology, fields I work in today as a journalist. I was going to watch this show no matter what it was, but when I started hearing about the casting I was overwhelmed by how much I wanted Discovery. Two women of color — Michelle Yeoh and Sonequa Martin-Green — working together, side by side, on a show? I couldn’t imagine what that would feel like, but along with many other women of color, I was ready for it.

I was riveted for the two hours I watched it — not because it was perfect (that’s a standard no show can meet, and this one did have its problems), but because it really did feel like Star Trek to me. I couldn’t quite believe that I was watching it again as a TV show. It’s not the shiny The Next Generation-era Star Trek so many wished it was. If I had to compare it to an existing show within the franchise, I’d say it’s a mix of Deep Space Nine and Voyager. It’s a little darker, but it’s still Trek.

The first two episodes are plot-driven, so we don’t meet many characters. The pilot centers on two women, Captain Philippa Georgiou (Yeoh) and Commander Michael Burnham (Martin-Green), and their scenes together are powerful. Not because the situations are especially memorable; the plot is so fast-paced that it just doesn’t leave a lot of time to develop the relationship between these two characters. We know they’re close, but their rapport is awkward at times. No, these scenes are powerful because they consist of two women of color in charge of a starship making life-or-death decisions at every turn.

Michelle Yeoh is absolutely wonderful as the captain. I’ve reflected before on how much hearing her accent meant to me; it was so refreshing to see her on screen. Captain Georgiou might be experienced in war, but she believes in the values and principles of the Federation. Is she an idealist? Maybe, but it’s not to her detriment. When she says, “We come in peace,” to the Klingons, you can tell she means it with every fiber of her being. I loved seeing her on screen; at a time when it feels like there’s no hope left in the world, seeing her shine was a revelation.

That’s why the plot twist at the end of the second episode was so upsetting.

I can’t say I was surprised that Georgiou was killed off (at the hands of the Klingons, doing something heroic, of course). It’s something I’ve suspected since the show revealed that Captain Georgiou was Burhnam’s mentor and former captain, but that Michael will in fact serve under Gabriel Lorca (played by Lucius Malfoy himself, Jason Isaacs) aboard the Discovery. It was a disappointment to see this suspicion played out in front of me on screen, though, because I hoped it would turn out differently.

Having Star Trek led by a woman of color is a milestone, to be sure. I don’t want that forgotten. But it was so incredible to see these two strong women interacting and arguing. You could see their mutual respect even as they disappointed one another. Yes, sometimes it felt as though we were being told about their relationship, rather than seeing it — such is the nature of pilot episodes — but you could tell there was something strong there. I wanted to find out what that was. I wanted the chance to explore the dynamics between them.

I can’t help but feel like something has been lost with the death of Captain Georgiou. I still think this show will be good. In fact, I think it has the potential to be amazing. And I believe that Jason Isaacs will make an excellent Star Trek captain. I’m not trying to take anything away from what the series will be.

But every time I tune in for a new episode, I’ll feel a little sad. I’ll wonder what might have been if we’d had the chance to see Georgiou’s and Burnham’s relationship develop and flourish. I’ll wonder what it would have felt like to watch an entire show where these two smart, strong, confident, capable women went head to head, perhaps disagreeing more than they agreed. I wish the show had pursued this. I wanted so badly to see this unfold over the course of the show. And I’m genuinely sad that we’re not going to have the chance to see it happen.