“This is going to be with you a long time, Jean-Luc. A long time. You have to learn to live with it.” ~Robert Picard to brother Jean-Luc Picard, “Family”
Spoiler alert: This post contains spoilers for the first four episodes of Season 4 of Star Trek: Discovery.
What I most appreciate about Discovery is that it portrays post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, in ways that those of us who experience it can deeply relate to. In the characters’ experiences, we can recognize our own. I believe that seasons three and four of Discovery contain the very best representation of the many faces of PTSD that Star Trek has ever shown.
One of my favorite TNG episodes is “Family.” This is the only episode in which we see Captain Picard confronting and dealing with his trauma with the Borg. And it makes me cry. His PTSD is accurately and powerfully portrayed, from his sense of disconnection from himself and those around him to the profound sense of helplessness and feeling that there must have been something he could have done to stop the assimilation. But my issue is that the portrayal does not go far enough. We have that wonderful scene of catharsis as the brothers wrestle in the mud, and we have Robert’s wise words. But we don’t see how Jean-Luc learns to live with it; we don’t see his lived experience until First Contact.
Deeply and dearly as this Niner loves the way PTSD was portrayed in Deep Space Nine, I had the same issue there. Episodes such as “Nor The Battle to the Strong”, “Hard Time”, and “It’s Only A Paper Moon” leave me deeply moved. But the characters’ struggles with PTSD seem to end with the episode, while in real life, many of us still experience the after-effects of trauma many years later.
Another concern is how Star Trek often portrays people with PTSD as vengefully, destructively angry, like Picard in First Contact, or O’Brien in “Hard Time.” But our lived experience of PTSD is so much more complex than just anger. Although the rage can be very real, often it is masking deeper emotions like pain, terror and self-blame. I feel that Discovery is going the extra mile to sensitively and accurately portray that lived experience.
PTSD on Discovery
I find Michael’s “savior complex” intensely relatable. Trauma can be defined as “a loss of control over damaging events.” It makes sense that after experiencing such a loss of agency, a survivor would feel the need to control every situation going forward. So because Michael could not save the lives of her parents, she has a need to save as many lives as she possibly can. While I very much appreciate that both President Rillac and Admiral Vance called Michael out on this complex, and showed her through their own experience how such a tendency could place others in danger, I think it’s important to recognize that this is a common response to trauma.
Captain Burnham isn’t the only trauma survivor with a savior complex. At first, Dr. Hugh Culber’s PTSD, the result of his traumatic time in the mycelial network, took the form of dissociation from his own body, another experience common to survivors. At first he, too, experienced overwhelming rage. He had barely begun to deal with his own trauma when the crew made the jump to the thirty second century, and he threw himself heart and soul into caregiving, counseling, and nurturing the crew. This, too, is deeply relatable. Often, survivors cope by turning into “helpers.” I believe that Kovich was quite right to call Hugh out in his need to process and heal from his experience, because in doing so, he would no longer be using his work of caring for others to avoid dealing with his own trauma.
Cleveland Booker “Book” developed a similar savior complex to that of his partner, Michael, but one that was uniquely formed by his own experience. At first, his pain and trauma at seeing his world and his family destroyed before his eyes was so great that he became disconnected from everyone who loved him. While some critics felt that the flashbacks he experienced were a bit over the top, I found them to be a shatteringly accurate portrayal of what PTSD looks like.
Flashbacks are a completely immersive experience and one that the survivor often has little control over. Yet once he experienced healing on one level through the Vulcan mind meld, and another level of healing on a deeper level as he worked with Dr. Culber, his PTSD took the form of a desperate need to save the prisoner, Felix, from being killed by the anomaly that destroyed his home, and profound distress when Felix chose not to be saved.
PTSD can also manifest in terror that a traumatic event will be repeated, and no one more poignantly portrays this fear than Paul Stamets. He has not completely recovered from losing his partner, Hugh; and no sooner were he and Hugh reunited than Hugh’s life was once again endangered, while Paul stood by, helpless to save him. His PTSD manifests in terror that he could lose Hugh, again, and Adira, his found child, and in a staunch determination to never experience helplessness like that again. Perhaps his own trauma related “savior complex” drives him to push himself past his own human endurance in order to solve the mystery of the DMA, for Book’s sake.
I deeply appreciate that, in true Star Trek fashion, Discovery offers us hope in the midst of trauma. Michael gets a deep connection with one of the survivors whom she could save, and is privileged to be present when a long lost family treasure comes home. Book gets a moment of peace to venture back into his most cherished memories of his home world. Paul gets one more night to crawl into bed next to his partner to talk over their respective days and reaffirm their love for each other.
Each one is going to be dealing with the repercussions of their trauma for what Hugh calls “a long-ass time,” just as we are. Their healing journeys do not end when the episodes do. But for each one, there is a moment of peace.
And sometimes a moment is all we get.
Author’s Note: PTSD in Star Trek is a vast topic and one that I felt absolutely inadequate to address. I believe this would be an excellent topic for a dissertation. If you’re interested in learning more, here are some resources I found very helpful:
- Jessie Gender on PTSD in Star Trek
- Therapist Reacts to STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT – YouTube
- Seven of Nine: Trauma & Hope – YouTube
- From Captain Kirk to Katrina Cornwell: Star Trek and post-traumatic stress