Warning: Possible SPOILERS for Star Trek: Discovery (and Mass Effect 2)
The sixth episode of Star Trek: Discovery, "Lethe," dove deeper into mutineer Michael Burnham's (Sonequa Martin-Green) backstory, and ended with her in a much better position than we've seen her in - not only is she promoted to bridge crew, but a decade old weight has been lifted from her shoulders. As we near the halfway point of Discovery, its main character has undergone a tremendous arc, and come out the other side wiser and more powerful than before. All this she owes to Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs), who authorizes the rescue mission for Ambassador Sarek (James Frain). Lorca doesn't do this for Sarek's sake, or even for the sake of peace - he does it because he needs his ship's brightest mind, Michael Burnham, undistracted and working at full capacity if he's going to pass through the Omega 4 Relay and assault the Collector base at the heart of the galaxy.
There might have been some Mass Effect 2 in there.
Mass Effect and Star Trek: Discovery share many things in common at the surface level, as many space-set sci-fi works would. Even in detail, they feel familiar - faster-than-light travel, fraught diplomacy between distinct (yet humanoid) alien races, a single ship in all the galaxy armed with the technology needed to save the day, and commanding officers struggling to convince their superiors of credible threats. Truth be told, the Mass Effect series has taken a lot of inspiration from Star Trek. That said, Sunday's episode took the similarities one step further: Michael Burnham went on a Loyalty Mission.
What Is A Loyalty Mission?
In Mass Effect 2, Loyalty Missions were authorized by the Illusive Man (Martin Sheen) in order to ensure the Normandy's crew was at peak condition and ready to take the fight to the Collectors. Commander Shepard needed a team that had nothing on its mind but the success of the mission, and to that end, side trips and detours were given equal importance to the extinction of entire human colonies. Successfully completing these missions - which involved rescuing estranged family, surviving a brutal rite of passage, confronting estranged family, purging a virus from a hive mind, or even tracking down estranged family - allowed the party member in the spotlight a clear mind. Mechanically, this translated to unlocking an ability unique to that party member, and a higher chance of them (and Commander Shepard) surviving the final mission.
Discovery's own Loyalty Mission played out much the same. Sarek, an estranged father figure to Michael Burnham, had been injured in a terrorist attack while on his way to peace talks with the Klingons, and was left adrift in space. Burnham could sense his distress through their shared psychic connection, and asked her captain to help her rescue him. Given leave to do so, she tracked down his derelict ship, all the while engaging with Sarek's memories. In those memories, Burnham found a deeper understanding of one of the most important days in her life - she was not rejected by the Vulcan Expeditionary Fleet for her own inadequacies, as she had been told, but because Sarek had chosen his son Spock over her in a crucial moment. This seemed to unlock something in Burnham; not only does her new perspective on Sarek as a flawed person grant her some relief, but she is offered an official bridge position by Captain Lorca by the episode's end.
Of course, the "Loyalty Mission" is not unique to Mass Effect 2, and we couldn't say that the producers of the show had the video game in mind. It's an old trope; it certainly appeared in the movies which no doubt inspired ME2, such as Seven Samurai. The best character ensembles all include a version of the "Loyalty Mission;" it just boils down to "give each character their moment."
"I didn't do it for him," Lorca tells Burnham, watching over Sarek in sick bay. "I need a team around me that's going to help me carry the day." So what did the mission "unlock" for Michael Burnham? Were this an RPG, what ability has she unlocked? Well, she's been promoted - insofar as a mutineer can be promoted - to Science Specialist, a bridge position. Her career is one step closer to being re-legitimized, though it remains fragile. So long as she is on the Discovery, and Captain Lorca remains in command, she is very nearly a Star Fleet officer once more. Time will tell how, exactly, a Science Specialist is any different from her current role, but for now, Lorca has certainly succeeded in putting his crew member's mind at ease. Harbinger won't know what hit it.
Star Trek: Discovery streams Sundays @ 8:30pm on CBS All-Access and internationally on Netflix.