Published Apr 11, 2021
Tilly and Me
How Star Trek: Discovery led one fan to rescue a dog.
By Nick Mancuso
The journey to discovering Tilly, the rescue puppy that would change our lives, began before she was even born. It was the fall of 2017 and my non-Trekkie wife, Lisa, had begrudgingly agreed to watch Star Trek: Discovery with me, having heard me talk nonstop about how excited I was for Trek’s return to TV. We were on the third episode, "Context is for Kings," when she appeared.
With a decidedly TOS-sounding swoosh of the door, a positively effervescent Cadet Sylvia Tilly made her entrance into the story, (portrayed by the magical Mary Wiseman) and stole our hearts with her caffeine-jittery, snarky and earnestly sweet bravery. She was chatty and awkward and funny, and yet was the first member of the away team to raise her phaser. When the credits rolled, Lisa turned to me and in a moment of pure honest engagement with the show, said, “Wouldn’t ‘Tilly’ be just the perfect name for a dog?”
I agreed and we laughed about adopting a generation of dogs with Star Trek names; a big shaggy lab named Worf, or a French bulldog with cheek wrinkles named Jean-Luc. I imagined this would be theoretical, of course. We couldn’t get a dog, we lived in a teeny apartment in the suburbs of Boston. Dog ownership was not in the immediate future for us, nor was it a thing I’d even seriously considered.
Months after we watched those first episodes of Discovery, Lisa and I decided to move to Maine. I’d grown up spending my summers on the state’s southern coast, and seeking more nature, better summers, and home ownership, we decided to pack up our lives and move north. The first few months weren’t easy. We had to navigate new jobs, we bought a house, and we survived our first awfully dark and cold winter in Maine. I missed my friends from Boston, I missed my old job, my old boss, and in a way my old life. We’d planned on getting a dog in the subsequent fall, once we were both settled in our new roles. We’d each take a week of vacation time, to help get our new pooch acclimated to its new life with us. This was the plan, and I was comfortable with it.
It was late spring though, when it started. Lisa arrived home from work, visibly distracted. I made dinner as she poured a glass of wine and threw it back. I asked what was bothering her. She took a long sip and sat down across from me.
“So, I saw this dog online,” she said. I let out a long sigh. Lisa’s canine love was absolutely insatiable; she was always scoping out the rescue dog organizations, even before we could get a dog, before we could afford one. I prepared my much used statement.
“Okay but that’s not the plan, we’ll get a dog this fall, I’ve just started a new job, and we want to have the summer before we do this.” She wasn’t listening and was searching for something on her phone.
“No but listen. There’s a dog here in Maine with a rescue organization. She’s four months old, she’s already spayed, she’s a pitbull mix, and her name is already Tilly.”
She lifted her phone up to my face, and I got my first look at the dog that would eventually become mine.
It was a Petfinder link, and there was a puppy. She was auburn colored, with a white stripe down her snout. She had giant floppy ears, (she’d grow into them) and her big brown eyes bore a sadness, a loneliness, a worry. Even I couldn’t say no. The universe was sending us a sign, that this dog was here, ready to be adopted, and her name was already Tilly. Spelled correctly and everything, no ‘e’, no ‘ie’, just T-I-L-L-Y. Her mom was rescued from an abusive situation, and Tilly was born in a shelter in Georgia, and shipped up here to find her new family.
I told Lisa I didn’t think we’d have a chance — puppies get adopted so quickly, and we could definitely put in an application, but we’d never get her. She immediately took to hammering out an application, and sent it off that night. Sure enough, the universe delivered, again. We were approved, and invited to a hardware store in rural Maine where they were hosting the pet rescue event. The email we received told us we were first on the list to meet Tilly, and if we connected with her, we had to take her home.
I was anxious as we drove to that hardware store, even wearing a Star Trek: Discovery T-Shirt for bravery as we went to go meet her. There, in the store was an enclosed playpen with a half dozen puppies, all playing and squeaking with each other. We checked in, said we were here to meet Tilly, and the volunteer at the tabled asked the helper in the playpen for her. The woman in the playpen looked around, as if to see which dog was Tilly, and then, she lifted the single crying puppy on her shoulder, her eyes squeezed shut, her little body trembling, up to Lisa. Lisa tucked her onto her shoulder, and gently stroked her back, her head. Tilly still kept her eyes shut tight, shivering. She was tiny, twelve pounds, the runt of the litter, and so so scared.
I felt something in my chest awaken. I suddenly wanted to protect this little animal. I suddenly wanted to whisk her away from the crowded hardware store. A kindly older couple remarked that they were on the list to meet her and I felt this sudden rush of aggression, of ownership, of fear. They wanted to adopt our dog? The dog that Star Trek and the universe had led us to? She was already ours. We, of course, brought her home.
We carried her out to the car, carried her into the house. She wouldn’t walk, wouldn’t do anything but cry these little tears, these soft weeping squeaks. We, the humans, cried the whole way home, and I held her on my lap, whispering that everything was going to be okay, she was going to her new house, her new life, and we were going to take care of her forever.
At home, we couldn’t get her to walk, couldn’t get her to do anything outside. She’d lay down and cover her eyes with her little white-footed paws, and cry. We were so worried, what had this little dog experienced that made her so terrified?
That afternoon, Tilly slipped herself under the coffee table to hide, and I put on an episode of Voyager. After the cold open came that the title sequence with the iconic brassy theme, the ship slowly exploring the cosmos, nebulas and stars, and I heard a jingle of Tilly’s collar. I looked down, and Tilly had crawled halfway out of the coffee table, her head tilted up toward the TV. Over the course of the hour, she crawled out from under the table, and sat staring up at the TV, as if she knew she had a part in this, as if she knew that Star Trek was part of how we’d found our way to each other.
In my excitement that she’d stopped crying and had come out from hiding, I switched over to Deep Space Nine and she did the same thing, watching intently from the title sequence, drawn in by the music, and the slow rotation of the stars. Infinitely curious, I wanted to know if she liked Star Trek or just TV in general. But when I switched to a sitcom she retreated under the coffee table and didn’t emerge until I returned to Deep Space Nine.
The next day, after we still couldn’t get her to walk, we carried her to the beach. Having been born in a shelter, we assumed she’d never seen the ocean before. It was a warm day, sunny, a light breeze. Summer was almost here, and the seagrass whisked and whipped, she trembled on my shoulder as we walked down the path. It was low tide, and the sandbar stretched half a mile from the shore. I carried her down to the beach, and placed her in a tidepool. She sat there in the inch and a half of saltwater warmed by the sun. She leaned forward, her snout pointing at the sea beyond the great sandbar. She cried again, a quiet, soft whinny. Her life before was gone. She was alone. She shivered. Then, she leaned forward and sniffed at the salty air.
...and then, she ran.
I wasn’t expecting it. Crouched down behind her, I’d set her leash down when she went for it. Out across the sandbar, charging out toward the sea, Tilly ran, her ears tucked flat on her head for aerodynamics, her shoulders locked and low, she thundered across the divoted sand, like a racehorse, galloping harder and harder. She picked up speed, kicking up sprays of wet sand behind her, her paws rumbling like thunder hard and quick, her little twelve pound body low to the ground. Faster, faster, faster.
I ran after her, of course, but she was too fast, faster than I ever could be, her little legs carrying her at warp speed, and she dove headfirst into the sea, catching a wave as it broke. She shook off the water in rivulets, and she trotted through the shallow waves, making a wide arc with her paw prints, and running back toward me, her tongue hanging out, her smile, wide.
She‘d found herself. Gone was the shivering, crying little bundle of fear. Instead in her place was a bold explorer. She had been brave, and I, I had fallen in love with this little twelve pound animal. Like her namesake, Tilly came into her own that day on the beach, and when we got home, I pinned a Starfleet badge on her harness, proud of our brave little puppy.
She wasn’t the same after. She was suddenly curious and brave about everything, whether charging into the house covered in mud to drop a knobbly stick on the carpet, or stepping gingerly onto the snow after the first storm that following winter. She became curious, inquisitive, wanting to know more. She wrestled with the dogs at the dog park, even when she was a lot smaller than she is now. Even recently as I re-watched Discovery in anticipation of Picard, when Stamets yelled out Tilly’s name as she got pulled into the mycelial network, our Tilly barked and leaped up on the couch, hearing her name on TV, her tail wagging.
Tilly isn’t an uncommon dog’s name, I know that. But her story, her connection to this character, this connection to Star Trek is. By her being brave, by her becoming curious about the world around her, her new life, her new family, I found myself exploring it with her. We made new friends with other dog-owners, met the neighbors, got settled in this new place, when I’d previously been feeling so alone. Tilly showed me it was good to be curious, important to be brave, and critical to explore, and she hasn’t stopped exploring yet.
Every afternoon, I get her leash and call out, “What do you think Tilly, want to go on away mission?” She goes and sits by the door, ready.
Nick Mancuso is an essayist and novelist based in New England. His debut novel FEVER is out now from Woodhall Press. Visit www.nickmancuso.net to learn more or follow along on social media at @mancusonr.
Star Trek: Discovery streams on Paramount+ in the United States, airs on Bell Media’s CTV Sci-Fi Channel and streams on Crave in Canada, and on Netflix in 190 countries.