Trusting the Other: Female Friendships in Star Trek: Discovery

Burnham and Georgiou in the desert on an away mission(This article contains spoilers for Star Trek: Discovery up to Season 4.)

The first episode of Star Trek: Discovery opens with two Starfleet women, a captain and her first officer, talking about career options: specifically, whether the first officer is ready to command her own ship. It was a sign of how far the franchise has come since the 1960s, when Captain Pike infamously complained about having a woman on the bridge, and it set a bar for Discovery— which every season has met since then. Not only do women of all ages and ethnicities appear in positions of power on this show, but they have meaningful, sometimes conflicted, often supportive relationships with each other independently of the men around them. It’s feminism in action, and one of the reasons I enjoy this show so much.

Michael Burnham and Sylvia Tilly

Burnham hugs Tilly

“It’s like having an automatic built-in friend,” Tilly says happily when she finds out that Burnham is her new roommate (s01e03 “Context Is For Kings”). It takes a while, but she’s eventually proven right. Tilly is one of the few people to show kindness to a disgraced mutineer. In return, Burnham encourages Tilly in her command training, and they bounce ideas off each other when solving scientific mysteries (s02e03 “Point of Light”). When Tilly decides to change careers from command to teaching at Starfleet Academy, Burnham respects her decision, even though it means they might not see each other again (s04e04 “All Is Possible”). During the Season 4 finale, they’re working for a common cause while lightyears apart, only to reunite at the celebration afterward (s04e13 “Coming Home”).

Katrina Cornwell and L’Rell

L'Rell and Cornwell scream in each other's faces

When they first meet, Cornwell is a prisoner of war on a Klingon ship and L’Rell is sent to interrogate her. Not the most auspicious beginning for an alliance, but L’Rell is determined to unite the Klingon people and disillusioned in her leaders’ ability to do so. She’s ready to try anything, even talk to the enemy. Cornwell impresses her with courage and quick thinking (and possibly the sheer volume of her Klingon-like roar), so L’Rell helps her escape (s01e08 “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum”). Later, when given the chance to end the Federation-Klingon war by setting off a weapon of mass destruction on Qo’noS, Cornwell (following Burnham’s advice) instead gives the weapon to L’Rell as leverage, so that the woman who once dreamed of serving a great leader can become one herself (s01e15 “Will You Take My Hand?”).

Sylvia Tilly and Me Hani Ika Hali Ka Po

Tilly and Po

Late one night, already upset after a call from her controlling mother and nervous about command training, Tilly is alarmed by flickering lights and a snarling alien intruder. Finding that the intruder is a young woman and – once the translator kicks in – a fellow engineer, however, Tilly overcomes her fear and talks to Po as an equal. It turns out the princess stowed away on Discovery for the same reason Tilly was still awake drinking a quadruple espresso: they feel unheard by their guardians and not ready for the leadership role that waits for them. Their conversation gives them both the confidence they need to become an officer and a queen, respectively (Short Treks: “Runaway”) and when Discovery needs help, Po’s technical expertise – and her armada – are at their service (s02e14 “Such Sweet Sorrow Part II”).

Laira Rillak and T’Rina

Rillak and T'Rina negotiating Ni'Var's return to the Federation

In the 32nd century, a cataclysmic event called “the Burn” cuts civilizations off from each other by making dilithium-based warp travel impossible. Isolation and distrust are the result (s03e01 “That Hope Is You, Part I”). President Rillak of the Federation and President T’Rina of Ni’Var (formerly Vulcan) set out to change that by signing a new treaty, but their constituents aren’t making it easy. Both sides demand fail safe measures in case of a betrayal. The two leaders are caught between keeping promises to their people and to each other. What could have degraded into a political squabble instead becomes an even stronger alliance, as Rillak and T’Rina call on Burnham as a neutral party whom both sides trust (s04e04 “All Is Possible”). The new treaty is tested by the threat of Species 10-C, but the Presidents are willing to stake their lives on it: they join the Discovery crew and make First Contact with the aliens. T’Rina even mind-melds with them (s04e13 “Coming Home”). Nothing says friendship like saving the galaxy together.

Joann Owosekun and Keyla Detmer

Owosekun and Detmer

Discovery’s operations and conn officers have worked side by side on the bridge for four years now. (Nothing’s been confirmed, but plenty of fans see them as a couple.) They are often seen smiling or catching each other’s eye in the background. They work out together (s04e06 “Stormy Weather”) and look forward to a shared vacation in Hawaii (s04e10 “The Galactic Barrier”). They’re from opposite backgrounds—Owosekun grew up in a low-tech community, while Detmer learned to fly when she was twelve—but that hasn’t kept them from bonding. Whenever one of them volunteers for a dangerous mission, the other is visibly upset (s03e13 “That Hope Is You, Part II”, s04e13 “Coming Home”). Background characters in the first season, Detmer’s and Owosekun’s stories have been gradually revealed along with the rest of the bridge crew. Who knows what we’ll find out about them and their relationship in Season 5?

Soldiers, scientists, heads of state; different ages, different species—the one thing these women all have in common is that they choose to trust a stranger, or even a potential enemy, and have that trust returned. It’s not an easy thing to do. Growing up, I bitterly resented other girls whom I thought were prettier or more talented than me. It took me a long time to learn that just because another woman is worthy of admiration, that doesn’t mean she’s taking any away from me. There’s room for all of us—in Star Trek and in the real world—to be amazing. And together we go further.


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