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DSC’s Top 8 Most-Surprising Moments

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Captain Styles

“If he tries to get away with warp drive, he's really in for a shock.”
Captain Styles, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Considering the number of shock moments during its first season, Star Trek: Discovery certainly lived up to its name in terms of character and narrative surprises and revelations the audience discovered. Join us for a journey through DSC’s Top 8 Most Surprising Moments. Were there any surprises not on the list that you’d add? Share your favorite surprises in the comments or on StarTrek.com’s Facebook page. 

SPOILER WARNING: If you have not watched episodes of the previous Star Trek shows and movies, and you wish to preserve any surprises, please be aware that this article reveals surprises and spoilers from The Original Series, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise, and other Trek adventures, in addition to spoilers from Discovery.


8. Spores and Spore Drive Technology (“The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry”)

Spore Drive Technology

From its spinning saucer section to its flipping hull/stardrive movement, the spore drive technology of the U.S.S. Discovery is surprising in itself and also as a story device that allows the crew and audience to enjoy more surprises – from Michael Burnham’s surprising personal tour of locales rich in Trek lore, including Janus VI, Starbase 11 and Amerind (“Context is for Kings”), to the entire crew’s journey to the Mirror Universe (“Into the Forest I Go”). But the spore drive is more than merely a plot device – it is, in essence, a character itself, symbolized by the Tardigrade and the forest metaphor. The spores interact with characters like Burnham and make possible a reunion between Stamets and Dr. Culber. Taking a page of inspiration from the bio-neural gel packs used on the U.S.S. Voyager, the Discovery becomes in essence a living ship because of its spore drive technology. The visual of the first use of the spore drive remains one of the most surprising visuals of the entire season.


7.  Burnham’s Mutiny (“The Vulcan Hello” and “Battle at the Binary Stars”)

Burnham's Mutiny

It was quite a surprise for fans to learn that DSC's first two hours were in essence not the actual pilot shows, but rather a prologue meant to introduce some of the characters and themes that would eventually become important to Burnham’s journey aboard the Discovery. Even more surprising was Burnham’s brief, but consequential, mutiny against her mentor Captain Philippa Georgiou. Using a Vulcan neck pinch – a nod to adopted brother Spock’s use of the same technique during his mutinies in “The Menagerie, Part I” and Star Trek: The Motion Picture – Burnham’s actions and subsequent punishment make for dramatic surprises. Star Trek has of course introduced main characters with flaws before, some of which were considered criminal, especially Tom Paris, Chakotay, and B’Elanna Torres from Voyager. However, never has a Trek show’s main character been blamed for the start of a war with all its consequences during their introduction. 


6. Emperor and Captain Georgiou (“The Wolf Inside” and “The War Without, The War Within”)

Emperor Georgiou

Empress Hoshi Sato surprised audiences with her evil plan in Enterprise. The clever use of the traditionally masculine title “Emperor” instead of “Empress” during the Mirror episodes of DSC was more than a symbol of gender equality. It was a clever diversion to encourage fans to think more of the masculine Klingon emperors or Mirror Worf from DS9. The reveal that the Emperor was actually Captain Georgiou’s doppelganger was a pleasant surprise for Michelle Yeoh fans. Then, not only does Burnham’s rescue of the Emperor surprise the audience, but her being given command of Discovery during its desperate plan to end the war was as shocking to the audience as it was to the crew.


5. Voq is Ash/Tyler is Voq (“The Wolf Inside”)

Voq is Ash/Tyler is Voq

Many, and perhaps most, DSC fans suspected this twist… with the result being weeks of online speculation and a parody Twitter account of the “real” actor who played Voq. Trek fans have had double agent surprises before, including an amazing revelation that Julian Bashir wasn’t really Bashir for a few episodes of DS9. Therefore, it wasn’t as much as a surprise that Tyler was actually Voq as it was how it was revealed (see #2 on our list for a companion surprise). We call this the “Darth Vader Effect” because of a similar reality faced by George Lucas when making the prequels to the original Star Wars films. If fans know a character’s fate, how does a TV show or movie surprise the audience?

Sometimes that’s accomplished by revealing surprising experiences of the character during their formative years (ala Vito Corleone during the prequel portions of The Godfather Part II). Other times, it’s by showing what the audience knows using surprising techniques or in a spectacular fashion (as with Anakin Skywalker and Obi Wan Kenobi’s duel during Revenge of the Sith). DSC prefers the second option: surprising the audience not as much with the Voq/Tyler revelation, but by how it is revealed. Dr. Culber's death after he learns Voq’s secret becomes a surprising moment, and the fusion of Voq and Tyler is confirmed during an anxious confrontation between Burnham and Tyler. The audience feels the surprise of the characters even if they suspected something about Voq.


4. Mirror Lorca (“Vaulting Ambition”)

Mirror Lorca

There were hints aplenty in plain sight, from Gabriel Lorca’s disturbing tale of his destruction of the crew of the U.S.S. Buran to his agonizer-shaped wound in “Lethe” to his complete disinterest in exploration of the Gormagander in “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad.” Lorca’s “Into the Forest I Go” captain’s chair navigation maneuver raised many eyebrows. However, the confirmation that Lorca was from the Mirror Universe during “Vaulting Ambition” was a mastery of direction by Hanelle M. Culpepper, acting by Sonequa Martin-Green and Jason Isaacs, music by Jeff Russo, and editing by Steve Haugen. Even if fans suspected, the confirmation was effective enough to surprise and leave fans with many questions that added to the wow moment.

3. Mirror Stamets (“Choose Your Pain”)

Mirror Stamets

While some of the surprises this season were operatic, the reveal of Mirror Stamets in “Choose Your Pain" was subtle yet haunting. As Stamets turned to leave after brushing his teeth, his mirror reflection stayed for a moment. That one quiet moment at the episode’s end left an uneasy feeling about Stamets’ fate and of course foreshadowed the Mirror Universe episodes. It may be one of Trek history's most-chilling and effective moments, brilliant in its subtly and uncertainty.


2. U.S.S. Enterprise (“Will You Take My Hand?”)

Amanda, Sarek and Burnham

The reveal of the U.S.S. Enterprise and accompanying TOS music wrapped a season full of surprising moments, as the Discovery crew was diverted from Vulcan in “Will You Hold My Hand?” While surprises sometimes answer questions, this surprise left the audience with more. What’s the cause of the Enterprise’s distress? Will we get to see any of her famous crew… especially Christopher Pike, Number One, or dare we say it… Spock? What would a Sarek-Spock-Burnham moment be like? Adding to the surprise were the visual aspects of the moment – as it was rare to see Discovery hull-to-hull with any other starships, particularly Starfleet, during the season. To save the most-meaningful ship-to-ship Starfleet visual for the Enterprise and Discovery was a delight. (And, yes, we also cheered the surprise cameo appearance by Clint Howard in the finale. Tranya for everyone!)


1. The Death of Dr. Culber (“Despite Yourself”) 

The Death of Dr. Culber

Fans lost many favorite characters during the season, including Philippa Georgiou and T’Kuvma (“Battle at the Binary Stars”), Landry (“The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry”), Connor (“The Battle of the Binary Stars” and Mirror version in “Despite Yourself”) and Kol (“Into the Forest I Go”). And previous Trek main characters -- from Spock to Tasha Yar to Jadzia Dax -- sacrificed themselves to save others. However, it’s arguable that Dr. Culber’s sudden, shocking death at the hands of Voq/Ash Tyler was the season’s most-unexpected and affecting demise. With fine acting by Shazad Latif and Wilson Cruz during the actual scene and by Cruz and Anthony Rapp in subsequent reunions, Culber's death resonated. “Despite Yourself” director Jonathan Frakes brought with him decades of Trek acting and directing experience to craft a moment that will forever stay with Trek and Dr. Culber fans.


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Maria Jose and John Tenuto are both sociology professors at the College of Lake County in Grayslake, Illinois, specializing in popular culture and subculture studies. The Tenutos have conducted extensive research on the history of Star Trek, and have presented at venues such as Creation Conventions and the St. Louis Science Center. They have written for the official Star Trek Magazine and their extensive collection of Star Trek items has been featured in SFX Magazine. Their theory about the “20-Year Nostalgia Cycle” and research on Star Trek fans has been featured on WGN News, BBC Radio, and in the documentary The Force Among Us. They recently researched all known paperwork from the making of the classic episode "Space Seed" and are excited to be sharing some previously unreported information about Khan's first adventure with fellow fans. Contact the Tenutos at jtenuto@clcillinois.edu or mjtenuto@clcillinois.edu.

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