ONE TREK MIND: Discovery's Top 7 Relationships
Call Mr. Atoz, because the first season of Star Trek: Discovery is officially in the books. Looking back now, it's amazing to think that just one year ago we didn't know anything about Michael Burnham, Saru, Paul Stamets, Sylvia Tilly, Philippa Georgiou or Ash Tyler. We still don't know much about the real Gabriel Lorca, of course, but that's part of what makes this show so special.
As with every other incarnation of Star Trek, the show isn't just about the ships and gadgets and special effects and weird science fiction concepts, though it is fun to argue just how a mycelial spacetime pathway could work as a foundation to advanced technologies. No, it's the relationships (mostly human relationships, but not exclusively) that keep us involved, and Discovery is no different.
The interpersonal dynamics between each member of the cast are as knotty as an overgrown pan-dimensional spore, and the rich writing grows into an elaborate network. To that end, here are the seven relationships that kept us glued this season.
Captain Lorca and Admiral Cornwell
We didn't know it at the time, but that wasn't actually Captain Lorca. I mean, not our Lorca. But the nefarious and manipulative Lorca from the Terran Empire (aka Mirror Universe) knew he had to maintain his deep cover if he was ever to return and topple the throne. Part of that meant maintaining old romances, which called for a horrible bit of subterfuge with Admiral Cornwell. (Who is technically his boss! That makes it even worse!)
However, you can tell from her private conversations with him (never during business hours) that there must have been a real trust between Cornwell and “Prime” Lorca. The jury is still out as to whether or not he survived his switch over to the other reality, so it's possible we'll see what's left of “nice” Lorca later on in the series.
L'Rell and Voq
It's hard to fully root for Klingons, what with their desire to conquer humanity and all, but L'Rell and Voq win some of the chambers of our hearts for their, let's call it dedication. They are followers of T'Kuvma, the Torchbearer, whose isolationist ways may be antithetical to Starfleet, but whose cries for unity and a cessation of internecine belligerence are probably a good thing. T'Kuvma is if nothing else a forward thinker and, it could be argued, has some chill.
So when L'Rell and Voq appear to be the only true believers left, they lay it all out on the line for The Cause. Voq must transform himself into Tyler, and L'Rell must give him up. But not before some steamy Klingon lovemaking that, thanks to a mind-reorganization, is misinterpreted as physical assault. Hey, nobody said this show wasn't complicated!
Michael Burnham and Ash Tyler
Specialist Michael Burnham is a woman of two worlds; a human raised on Vulcan. Ash Tyler, at least the one we know, isn't even a real person. He's the echo of a dead Starfleet lieutenant with the submerged consciousness of the renegade Klingon Voq. So, naturally the two are going to fall in love!
Their relationship works as a reflection of where they are in their own self-discovery. Early in the season, Burnham still blames herself for Captain Georgiou’s death and for triggering the Klingon War. (It isn't just she who blames herself; so does the rest of the Federation.) When she begins to grow feelings for Tyler it is part of her path toward forgiving herself. But just as she begins to feel comfortable, Tyler gets the rug pulled from under him. He realizes he's not who he thinks he is, and betrays everyone who believes in him. And he does it in a way that leads us to …
Paul Stamets and Hugh Culber
We first discover that Lt. Stamets and Dr. Hugh Culber are more than just colleagues in the most intimate way possible: we see them in their pajamas, brushing their teeth.
Stamets' wild ride through the mycelial network is grounded in his relationship with his partner, who just so happens to be his physician. The stress Paul puts his body, mind and spirit through literally moves the story forward in space and time – and gets them out of a loop – but that isn't enough for him to rescue Hugh from the unpredictable act of a hidden interloper. Culber's death at the hands of Voq/Tyler is brutal, shocking and swift. We're left with the memories of their warmth, stories of how they first met on Alpha Centauri and a sense that their bond will somehow, in some way, manifest itself in future seasons.
Philippa Georgiou and Michael Burnham and Saru
We can talk all night about Burnham's mother and father figures. And more is likely coming concerning her upbringing on Vulcan. But one aspect of Burnham's character I find interesting, especially having read David Mack's outstanding prequel novel Desperate Hours, is the “family unit” relationship Burnham has with Captain Georgiou and Lt. Saru. Both Burnham and Saru wanted her approbation and, by and large, it was Burnham who got more of it. She was the first officer and the one who got to zoom off and check out the Klingon Sarcophagus ship even though the radiation could turn her DNA, as Saru put it, into “noodles.”
Saru doesn't really trust Burnham at first, but he respects her tremendously. By the end of the season, though, they are the ones who see most eye-to-eye, especially when the Mirror Georgiou comes back with some very un-Starfleet ideas.
Michael Burnham and Sylvia Tilly
Only Burnham has had a richer arc than Tilly, and not just because she jumped to a parallel universe where she was the galaxy’s most-feared murderess. When Michael first meets Tilly she's a sharp young woman bundled beneath a collection of nervous ticks and self-doubt. But being the only friend to Michael, Starfleet’s most-hated woman, starts her growth toward confidence. Her inability to keep her thoughts to herself becomes he greatest strength: when she sees a friend in trouble she lasers right in and addresses it. This doesn't just make her an ideal lunchmate, it means she’s focused and direct during away missions. Whether tardigrades or Clint Howard is on the loose, Tilly's got Michael's back, and it's clear these two will be side-by-side as they continue to rise through Starfleet. Hopefully with some more unpredictable hairstyles.
Michael Burnham and Starfleet
If you wanted to sum up Discovery’s entire first season in one scene, it's the moment where Burnham convinces Cornwell not to destroy Qo’noS. Because, let's face it, 14 episodes ago, she might’ve been right there with her. (It’s heavily implied that Sarek, her adoptive father and teacher, signed off on the deal.) There has to be another way. Finding another way is the only thing they have left. Luckily, her Kelpien acting Captain, Saru, and the entire bridge crew of Discovery is there to literally stand with her.
The plan she comes up with, convincing both the Terran Emperor and then L'Rell to do something they don't really want to do, is straight from the James T. Kirk playbook. And that's the whole point. We've witnessed Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets buckle for just a tiny moment during some extreme circumstances. The Klingon War has made them question themselves. Burnham, ironically, considering her position in instigating the conflict, sets the course correction.
It makes for a cracking bit of television, and for a moment, all seems well. That is, until we get that distress call from a familiar ship (registration NCC-1701) and we cut to black. We'll have to keep these characters in our thoughts during the long wait for season two.
Jordan Hoffman is also the host of Engage: The Official Star Trek Podcast, from CBS Radio, CBS Local Digital Media and CBS Consumer Products. Engage is available via Play.it/StarTrek, iTunes and StarTrek.com, with new episodes released weekly. Hoffman is also a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can be seen on Film.com, ScreenCrush and Badass Digest. On his BLOG, Jordan has reviewed all 727 Trek episodes and films, most of the comics and some of the novels.