An Ode to Star Trek: Discovery’s Sylvia Tilly

Star Trek: Discovery season 2 poster


Star Trek: Discovery has become a bit of a target in the culture wars of geekdom. And while I’m not here to debate whether or not it is worthy of the Star Trek name (it is) or worth its cost in subscription fees (again, it is), I am here to talk about something it contains that has meant a lot to me. I think in a lot of these debates, we forget the actual impact the media we’re discussing has on real people. And in that vein, if Discovery has done nothing else, it brought me Tilly.

At the start of the series, Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman) is a young Starfleet cadet aboard a science ship during a time of war. She has ambition, to be a captain, but also an unadulterated love of the science Discovery is pursuing. Like the ships of series past, the USS Discovery has a distinct mission, though that mission gets corrupted along the way: to push the bounds of science and where it brings us. Tilly is integral in that mission.

Through the many series and seasons of Star Trek, there have been empowering characters for women and girls. From Uhura to Dr. Crusher to Captain Janeway, women have a role in the future Star Trek envisions. And while each has had her own point of view and experience, none ever had the leeway to be the things that Tilly has. She embodies an awkward genius and young exuberance often reserved for the men in Star Trek casts, such as Geordi La Forge, Wesley Crusher (he was annoying, but you loved him, okay?), Nog, or even Jake Sisko.

The pure joy she obtains from her work, from science, is refreshing because it feels realistic. Realism in television is often sold to us as a gritty darkness that pulls the joy and hope from us as it beats us down with the truth of the world, and Discovery is not immune to this—it’s a product of it. Yet Tilly is an antidote. She gets excited about dorky stuff in a way that would be silly if it weren’t endearing. Unlike Dana Scully (another model for science-loving girls everywhere) and her bleak pragmatism, Tilly is energized by her discoveries and excited to share them. When Tilly curses, it is not out of anger or fear but out of amazement that the crew has made another impossibly cool discovery. Even in the face of utter hopelessness, the awe of the universe and what she can understand and manipulate about it moves her.

Tilly also believes in Shine Theory: the idea that women holding other women up, rather than being competition for one another, makes everyone better. She rejects the idea that her companions are her competitors, and when they are faced with problems, she risks herself to help them. She befriends and supports a hated and exiled convict intercepted on her way to a life sentence. She helps the runaway queen of the most politically and economically important planet in the galaxy find her ability to lead. And when the spores from her beloved spore drive reach out to her for help, they take on the face of an old school friend, a young woman, because they know it will make her more likely to help them. Of course, she risks her life to do just that. Tilly never turns her back on this collection of women but fully embraces them and allows them to fully embrace her. She isn’t just there to listen to their troubles with romance or to gossip in the mess hall (though there is always a need for that as well). She’s there to push them and be pushed by them.

Which leads me to the most important part of Tilly, at least for me. She has imposter syndrome: the feeling she doesn’t belong or isn’t good enough, even when all evidence points to the contrary. We see this as she goes through the Command Training Program. Michael suggests it, and suggests it. And though we know that Tilly is more than capable to be in command, she resists it. She can’t see herself as a captain, even after literally seeing herself in that role during a visit to the mirror universe. She needs the reassurance of her friend to feel worthy of her own goals.

Mary Wiseman smiling

Mary Wiseman at San Diego Comic-Con 2018. Gage Skidmore via Flickr

And finally, Tilly is awkward. Whether because of her imposter syndrome or because of anxiety, she talks too much at times. Just like me—and, I’m imagining, so many others (please, so many others)—she can’t stop talking when she’s flustered. She overshares in the hopes it endears you to her, or at least explains why she is doing whatever she suddenly is self-conscious about doing. She can get excited about unexpected things and underreact to others. She desperately wants to have friends, to share herself, and to be accepted, but she is also so worried she won’t be that it causes her to sometimes become neurotic.

It is in those moments, when she is the most flustered and rambling, that I can finally see myself in a Star Trek character. I can see my fear of not belonging. I can feel my inability to accept my own power and talent. Most of all, I can relate to the uncertainty of someone both earning what they have already achieved and deserving what they dare to dream. And yet, I can also see and feel her excitement about things that many would deem boring or weird or just plain silly.

Discovery as a show will remain an example of what representation in multiple senses can and does look like in fandom, and it will always hold a special place in my heart. It brought to me someone who shows up in the world like I do, and therefore it brought to me the first glimpse of what it would really be like for me in Starfleet.

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