The crew learned many things in Despite Yourself, the half-season premiere of Star Trek: Discovery. Not only is the unknown destination they found themselves in last episode a parallel universe, but there’s an enemy to meet, and it is them. The peaceful Federation is a fascist Empire who despises all things nonhuman and is waging a war against rebels comprised of other species fighting for freedom. Likewise, there are alternate, evil versions of themselves whose lives have taken radically different paths, and whom the characters all must impersonate to survive and make it back home.
It’s a familiar sci-fi device, but Despite Yourself takes it to a place that is sadly all the more applicable to our current politics. What happens to a person who must fit in to such a toxic environment, one whose values are based on a hatred of all things deemed Other? Star Trek gives us a taste, as Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) is forced to participate in the torture of her captain and kill an alternate version of a former deceased crewmate, all in the space of ten minutes.
It’s especially apt, since this Star Trek has long since proved it’s uninterested in fulfilling the utopian vision of previous years. Now that it’s engulfed in darker territory, maybe that’s why there’s a bit more fun to be had with this concept, with more callbacks to the original series, and the overly friendly Tilly (Mary Wiseman) transforming into the captain of this universe’s Discovery: an icy blonde killer who ascended to leadership by murdering the previous captain.
Unbeknownst to the crew, there are even more complications with security officer Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif) having to deal with the trauma he thought he’d left behind. The Klingon who tortured him is being held prisoner on the ship, and Tyler discovers that what she’s inflicted on him is more horrendous, and more complicated, than he realized. His pain is handled surprisingly well, which is even more remarkable due to the seeming inability of most pop culture to take male rape seriously. In the past, it’s been treated as a joke at worst, callously brushed off at best. Perhaps it’s because they actually have a male survivor on the show, with Anthony Rapp having accused Kevin Spacey of attempting to assault him when he was 14. But just when you think the show is about to break new ground, Tyler commits a shocking action that fulfills a still far too common “bury your gays” plot point.
It’s partially allowed to happen because utopian promises aren’t the only core values Star Trek has chosen to abandon. It’s a commitment to the common good, with Burnham keeping Tyler’s trauma a secret, although she doesn’t know the full extent of it. Granted, it would be difficult to stick to being concerned with the needs of the many and have Burnham and Tyler continue their love story, but the way Discovery has casually tossed it aside still feels cheap.
Despite that, all of the first season’s loose threads finally tying themselves together is anything but cheap. Its tone could end up being a fitting exploration of taking righteouness for granted, or it could lead to a fan betrayal tantamount to Captain America’s Nazi transformation.