The showrunners of Star Trek: Discovery raised some eyebrows when, before the show premiered, they spoke about how modern, prestige shows like Game of Thrones were a major influence on their approach to the venerable science fiction franchise. Some of those influences were givens, and more a product of the fact Star Trek had been absent from television for over a decade and would have to modernize a bit. That meant higher production values, a more modern sense of humor, and highly serialized storytelling, which have all worked to varying degrees.
The problems have arisen from what showrunners Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts specifically cited as Game of Thrones’ direct influence – the uneasy feeling that no character is safe, and that anyone could die at any moment. Star Trek has never shied away from death; “red shirt” has become cultural shorthand for background characters perishing due to the preponderance of fresh-faced ensigns who met their end standing behind Captain Kirk and Spock on away missions in the original series. Star Trek: The Next Generation stunningly killed off Lieutenant Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby) near the end of its first season. Crosby was unhappy with the direction of her character and wished to depart, so Yar’s abrupt, never foreshadowed death was mostly a way for the series to get rid of a disgruntled actor. The third season episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise” would lean into the meaninglessness of her demise, mining an instance of behind the scenes drama for one of the best hours in all of Star Trek history.
Longtime fans likely breathed a sigh of relief when Discovery premiered, and it became clear that Captain Georgiou’s death, while tragic, was a necessary moment for Michael Burnham’s character development and the show’s overall aim of telling a slightly unconventional Star Trek story. But as the series continued, an alarming pattern emerged. Commander Ellen Landry (played by Battlestar Galactica veteran Rekha Sharma), Discovery’s security chief, was introduced as a no-nonsense officer who was Captain Lorca’s most trusted ally, and seemed to be set up as a major player in Lorca’s decidedly unconventional methods. But Landry died, violently and pointlessly, in the series’ fourth episode,”The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry,” when she tried to kill the massive tardigrade that would soon be piloting the ship’s experimental spore drive. Lorca barely acknowledges her death in the aftermath, and the character has yet to garner another mention.
In an even more provocative move, the midseason premiere “Despite Yourself” saw the death of Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz) at the hands of Lieutenant Tyler (Shazad Latif), the latter lashing out violently at the growing realization that he’s a Klingon sleeper agent. Culber is one half of Star Trek’s first televised gay couple, along with Lieutenant Stamets (Anthony Rapp) – a fact the series’ producers proudly broadcasted during the lead up to the premiere. Sensing an upcoming backlash, the showrunners and Cruz conducted post-episode interviews where they promised this was not a “bury your gays” situation and that Culber would still factor into the show’s future somehow. Even if that’s true, there’s no erasing the viscerally unpleasant moment of watching Tyler snap Culber’s neck for no immediately apparent reason than to make it clear how unhinged Tyler is becoming. If Culber stays dead, it’s an alarming disposal of not only Star Trek’s first gay person of color, but also one of the show’s most morally pure characters; if he somehow comes back to life, this will almost certainly feel like mean spirited trolling in retrospect.
Apart from the shock deaths, Discovery has also borrowed Game of Thrones’ amoral worldview. Lorca is one of the series’ best characters, but he’s also the most damaged, unstable Starfleet captain we’ve seen up close in the franchise’s run. That owes something to the fact that this is the first Star Trek series where the captain isn’t the focus, but Michael Burnham is, in some ways, just as messed up as Lorca. Her hubris got her captain killed and escalated the war with the Klingons, and she carries that guilt like a Borg cube hanging around her neck.
There’s nothing wrong with featuring characters who are less than perfect in a Star Trek series. Star Trek: The Next Generation made great use of Ensign Ro, a young officer with deep scars from her upbringing during the occupation of her home world, Bajor, by the fascistic Cardassians. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was routinely credited as the darkest, most morally complex series in the franchise before Discovery, which leaned into themes of racism and distrust of power in much more pointed ways than Star Trek had before.
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