No One’s OK on Star Trek: Discovery, But Thanks for Asking

No One’s OK on Star Trek: Discovery, But Thanks for Asking
Image: CBS

The opening episodes of Star Trek: Discovery’s third season have seen Michael Burnham and the ship’s crew realise that their lives have changed forever. Not only that, but the future they sacrificed those old lives for is not what they expected. This week, in an explosive moment of self-reflection, they’re beginning to reckon with the impact of their new reality.

Illustration: Jim CookeIllustration: Jim Cooke

“Forget Me Not” examines the need to be open with yourself in the wake of great change — painful change, especially — across two important arcs. In the episode’s main plot, Michael and the crew take the newly aboard Adira (revealed last week as the human host of a Trill symbiont, previously hosted by a Trill Starfleet Admiral trying to rebuild the fractured Federation) to the Trill homeworld so that they can be truly joined with the symbiont. While Adira and Michael face hard truths on Trill, Saru and the bridge crew find themselves doing much the same…over a fancy dinner?

Let’s start with Adira and Michael’s arc. After we discover Adira’s memories are blocked to her — not even her life before bonding seems open to her, at this point — the Discovery heads to Trill, in the hope of finding answers about her unusual host status. Willing to risk being turned away because Adira cannot bear functioning without knowing the truth of their predicament, Michael, who beams down alone with Adira, finds that being exactly the case. At first, Trill’s leaders are rejoiced to find a host and symbiont returned to them after their native population (and therefore viable host candidates) was decimated by the circumstances of the Burn. But upon learning of Adira’s humanity, they are repulsed, unwilling to acknowledge that a symbiont could select a non-Trill being to bond with.

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Just like Earth, Trill’s inability to be open to others and to new circumstances in times of hardship has completely paralysed their ability to adapt and re-grow in the wake of the damage done by the Burn. They have become insular, incapable of listening. Or so it would seem. After the Trill governers rebuff Adira and Michael, one of the spiritual counselors that met them is later willing to see Adira as Trill’s future, one beyond doctrine or previous schools of insular thought. He believes that to survive, the Trill must look to share their symbiotic relationship with those other than their species, to reach out beyond the existential pain of the Burn’s decimation. And so, at the caves of Mak’ala, last seen when Jadzia sought to deepen her connection to the Dax symbiont in Deep Space Nine’s 1994 episode “Equilibrium,” Adira begins the path to opening themself up.

What follows is as beautiful as it is traumatic. The hazy recollections of Adira’s thoughts and grief are rendered in a dimly lit, tendril-strew void that pulls them — and eventually Michael, when she leaps into Mak’ala’s waters to stop Adira from spiraling into trauma — into the past. It’s there, through the symbiont within them so desperately wanting to reach out to its new host, that we learn they were an orphan aboard a generational ship seeking to find other parts of the Federation. They were also in love. They watched their boyfriend, Grey (Ian Alexander, Star Trek’s first openly trans actor), a Trill host, be joined to the Tal symbiont, and went through all the tribulations of trying to navigate whether or not the person they loved would still be that person after the process. We also find out that in a moment of crisis, their ship was attacked and Grey was mortally wounded. With no one else around, the Tal symbiont was riskily transfused with Adira to ensure it, Grey’s memories, and the memories of all other Tal hosts, would continue to survive.

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In accepting the grief that they and Grey suffered, Adira manages to successfully reconnect with the past Tal hosts, their love included — giving the Trill hope their symbionts could survive even as the Trill find themselves diminished, giving Michael and the Discovery their path forward to the rest of the Federation’s remains. Most crucially it also allows Adira to understand themselves — without having acknowledged and accepted the grief they endured, they could not be whole. It’s a message that, meanwhile aboard the Discovery, basically everyone needs to hear.

While Adira and Michael go on their memory trip, aboard the ship Dr. Culber makes it clear to Captain Saru that the crew is on a knife-edge. Thinking he can solve this mental health crisis by hosting a dinner for his bridge staff, Saru quickly learns that, well, he can’t. A game of haiku-creation (Starfleet truly is a bunch of nerds) quickly devolves into a traumatic explosion of lingering arguments and trauma.

Detmer still has not reconciled that, just mere days ago, she saw Stamets gored by debris, his blood on her hands, and finally, publicly breaks. The mask off, everyone else’s tensions come to the fore, ultimately leaving only Saru and Georgiou at the table, shocked by what they’ve just seen. But they shouldn’t really be, because no one has had time to process the gravity of their situation or the burden that rests upon their shoulders, either internally or more crucially with each other.

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The pains of this are clear all over the ship; as Culber makes his rounds in the opening, it’s clear anxiety, even in moments of levity, lingers in the air — even before he shows Saru his findings. His conversation with Michael before suggesting she be Adira’s liaison to the Trill commissioners acknowledges that she, and the people around her, are in the process of accepting post-traumatic changes in themselves. Stamets snapping at Tilly after being ordered to work with her on alternate ways to pilot the spore drive, Detmer’s repeated insistence that she is OK when her friends and colleagues express they are there for her, these are just fuses among many in the Discovery’s crew.

That the latter is the one that, once lit, successfully sparks a detonation isn’t because of anything specific, it’s just a clear reminder that this grief that has lingered unaddressed since the season began, has permeated throughout the entire ship. As Adira did on Trill, the Discovery crew can only begin to move on from their grief, in big ways and small, by actually admitting to themselves that they recognise and feel it: a big ask for Starfleet officers who put their personal emotions behind their need to stand forward as the bright beacons of the galaxy’s hopes and ideals.

Sitting down at a dinner table and trying to be good, chipper Starfleet officers who come up with haikus over entrées cannot bear to match the stark brutality of the fact that these people gave up everything — their friends, their families, their lives as they fundamentally understood them — to save all of existence from doom. In doing so, they did not find themselves in a paradise but once again required to burden the hopes of a galaxy. They’re heroes, all of them, they’re Starfleet officers, but they are still people. They buckle under strain, they don’t know or don’t want to accept that they need help sometimes. It was an ugly way to make that realisation, but this crew had to in order to actually acknowledge that all that grief and hurt happened, and existed.

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As it has in the weeks before it, Discovery has leaned upon the need for openness and togetherness to be the light in the darkness of its uncertain future. In processing, but also crucially sharing, with Michael the tragedy of Grey’s passing, Adira finds some semblance of peace. They also become open to their former host’s memories, an important step not just for their own emotional healing but in the Discovery’s own journey to reuniting with Starfleet’s remnants. In having brought their painful traumas out into the open with each other, the ship’s crew can begin to process the stark reality of just what they’ve done in travelling so far beyond their own time, and how lonely that is.

Whether it’s Detmer quietly acknowledging just how much she’s hurting or Saru’s impromptu movie night for the entire crew — not just his friends on the bridge staff — they have realised that the only way they can approach this future is with a shared understanding and shared compassion. It’s about more than the fact that these people are members of Starfleet, and of the wider Federation beyond that. It’s that even in their loneliest, darkest hours, they can admit to each other that they need their friends around them. United, they all stand — whether it’s the crew with each other, or Adira Tal and the shared thoughts of the man they loved — and at last, are ready to face this strange new world.

Assorted Musings:

  • This picture of Georgiou gazing directly into camera as chaos unfurls around her. That’s it. That’s the musing.
  • Trill’s membership in the Federation has always been an interesting point of debate. While we’ve seen many Trill serve in Starfleet since their peculiar debut in TNG’s “The Host,” it’s never actually been explicitly confirmed on-screen if Trill, even while hosting Federation ambassadors, was ever formally a member. I guess now we know at least that, post-Burn, it’s definitely not.
  • Point of order! Actor Blu del Barrio confirmed in a recent Syfy Wire interview that Adira was not being misgendered when referred to with she/her pronouns in last week’s episode. “Adira is non-binary, even when people are using she/they pronouns for Adira because they have not shared their identity with the Discovery crew,” the actor said. “This was basically the case because I still wasn’t really out to my family and I didn’t want to be out on screen as a character who was out until I was.” Presumably, now that Adira has officially “become” Adira Tal and connected to their symbiont, going forward they’ll be referred to by their chosen pronouns, and we’ll be doing that same in Discovery recaps.
  • I wonder just how long Grey is going to continue appearing as a regular presence in Adira’s story this season. I’m of two minds about it: it’s interesting because we never saw Dax deal with past selves like this, having them be extended partners in their mental space. It’s almost as if it’s a quirk of Adira’s humanity — a biological thing, or simply that they were never taught the Trill taboo of not reconnecting emotionally with past lives, and their love for Grey overrides that. But at the same time, I’m not sure the show can sustain having one character present as a singular voice in another’s mind — although it strung a few episodes out of that concept previously with Tilly and May — as a long term idea. It could possibly mean Grey or Adira’s appearances in the series come to an end by the finale of this season before the concept outlives its dramatic intrigue, which would be a shame.
  • Also unsure how to feel that Discovery introduced another cool, queer — or at least a relationship we can read as queer, given how the actors involved have discussed both themselves and their characters — relationship and promptly killed one half of it off? Stamets and Culber got mushroom spore magic to get back together, at least, but there’s likely not going to be that opportunity for Grey. We’ll have to wait and see, but I do already wish that, no matter how interesting it is from the Trill angle, Adira and Grey’s story wasn’t immediately a tragic one.
  • It’s nice to slowly but surely see the Discovery’s computer and the Sphere data merge into…almost its own character, in a way, in this episode. A nice way to maybe sow the seeds of how we saw the ship in the Short Treks episode, “Calypso?” Still, I want to see if they’re actually going to make the “new” computer a more prominent presence aboard the ship.
  • Also, once again: Starfleet memory banks love themselves a public domain Earth movie.