Star Trek: Discovery
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Credit: CBS All Access

How Sylvia Tilly is boldly breaking new ground for female characters on Star Trek: Discovery

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Oct 5, 2020, 7:53 PM EDT (Updated)

Despite the fact that Star Trek has been on the air in some form or other for over 50 years, the franchise's depiction of women is still evolving today. While it was once important just for this universe to even have female characters in it at all, the near half-dozen Trek series that now exist or which are in the works finally give the franchise the space to showcase a variety of different types of women in its stories.

Women in Star Trek are no longer limited to being communications officers, medical caretakers, sex objects, or advice-doling bartenders. Now they're allowed to be everything in between, and nowhere is that more evident than on Star Trek: Discovery, which features a diverse group of female characters from different races, backgrounds — even universes! — in its main cast, all with arcs and agendas of their own.

Yet even in an environment that's more female-friendly than ever before, Ensign Sylvia Tilly still stands out. Her character is a very different kind of leading lady in the world of Star Trek, and her very presence is quietly pushing boundaries for female characters in the franchise universe. She represents a type of female character that we've never really seen in this space before -- but whose presence has been long overdue.

A young Starfleet cadet full of starry-eyed optimism and an enthusiastic love of both science and the act of discovery itself, Tilly's upbeat demeanor radiates sincerity and reflects the positive, sunny ideals that Starfleet prides itself on. Let's put it this way: There's a reason that Captain Christopher Pike, the golden retriever of starship captains, likes Ensign Tilly instantly, just saying. Recruitment poster material recognizes recruitment poster material.

Credit: CBS All Access

Tilly has serious ambitions for herself — she wants to captain her own ship someday — but she doesn't view her shipmates as her competitors or obstacles in the way of those goals. Instead, she's kind and compassionate toward everyone, even the reputedly dangerous mutineer Michael Burnham (who ultimately becomes one of her best friends). Tilly repeatedly lifts up the women around her when given the opportunity to do so, rather than trying to push them down — whether they're her USS Discovery shipmates, runaway queens of alien species, or the spore drive itself when it presents itself to her wearing the face of an old school friend. (Shine Theory in action, y'all!)

She's also incredibly smart, solving complex problems and delving into the unknown with the sort of gleeful abandon that serves as a refreshing and often necessary counterpoint to Burnham's determined grimness. In many ways, Tilly's character feels deeply familiar: The slightly neurotic, geeky fast talker who's brilliant but deeply socially awkward is a type we've seen throughout genre television — and in the world of Star Trek — for decades. The difference is simply that she's not a man.

No one was surprised when Paul Stamets was introduced on Discovery as the ship's science officer and general resident super-nerd. While his sexuality certainly makes Stamets a groundbreaking Trek figure in his own right, in many other ways he is still exactly the kind of character we expect to see on a show like this. And as an audience avatar, his personality still reflects many of the male viewers who are fans of the series and its universe. Geek girls have never really had a character who similarly represents who they are — until now.

On Discovery, Tilly is a character whose attitude and experiences feel deeply personal for many of the legions of female Trekkies out there. She's allowed to get ridiculously excited over extremely dorky things in exactly the same way dozens of different male characters who came before her on this show — and on others like it — have been allowed to do for years. More importantly, Discovery itself never judges her for this behavior or treats her as the butt of a joke that we're all in on while she's not.

Tilly is simply allowed to be who she is, and love the things she loves, without apology or explanation. It's not just refreshing — it's infectious and aspirational. We should all try and be a little more like Tilly.

Credit: Michael Gibson/CBS

The wide-eyed joy that Tilly takes in the work she gets to do every day is both charming and fun to experience alongside her, while her quirky, overly caffeinated demeanor feels relatable and familiar. Given how many truly dangerous situations the crew of the Discovery have found themselves in, it's easy to forget that technically this is a science ship, on a mission of learning and discovery as much as it is one of exploration. Tilly's not really here for the strange-new-worlds part of the Starfleet mission, but she's ready to expand her — and humanity's — mind by doing things she never thought were possible before.

That it's Tilly who gets to drop Star Trek's first F-bomb in response to a particularly groundbreaking spore drive discovery? That feels right on every single count.

Over the course of Discovery's first two seasons, we get to watch Tilly come into her own, and her arc from nervous, awkward nerd to an indispensable right-hand scientist is an incredibly satisfying one. As she learns to recognize her own worth, trust her instincts, and overcome the impostor syndrome that tells her she's not good enough to chase her dream, it's easy to see how she will one day become precisely the sort of leader — and hopefully captain in her own right — that Starfleet so desperately needs.

Far too often, things like kindness and compassion, curiosity, and wonder are presented as weaknesses in science fiction heroes — female or otherwise — but for Tilly, these traits are the bedrock of who she is. Despite the danger and setbacks her team (repeatedly) faces, she never forgets what drew her to Starfleet and the stars in the first place, and never loses her joy in simply getting the chance to fulfill that mission every day. It's about time we saw a woman like her on our screens — and here's hoping she's far from the last.

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