I have several things I’d like to spout about when it comes to CBS’ Star Trek: Discovery. In fact, I’ve already spouted some of my opinions over at SlashFilm. But what I’m focusing on right now is a section from my review in which I tackle the death of a major character.
From this point on, there will be spoilers, so leave or face the consequences.
Alright, if you’ve read below the horizontal line, you’ve either seen the first two episodes–the second one in particular–or you don’t care about spoilers. Either way, I’m divulging my opinions on the first major death of the year, Captain Phillipa Georgiou.
Georgiou, played by veteran actor Michelle Yeoh, basically has the same arc as Captain Pike in the Star Trek reboot film series, particularly Star Trek Into Darkness, which had him die to further both Kirk and Spock’s emotional growth. Did Pike need to die for this to happen? I don’t think so. Granted, I’m averse to killing characters anyways, but I don’t think the story really needed Pike as a casualty to move the story along. Similarly, I don’t think the second episode of Star Trek: Discovery warranted Georgiou to give her life in the line of duty just for Michael Burnham to really feel the sting of her actions (actions that were in the hopes of saving everyone, but still, they were treasonous).
The main reason I’m concerned about Yeoh’s death is that it plays on some of the same themes as the death of Veil from Into the Badlands. To quote myself from my SlashFilm review:
If there’s one negative, it’s the fact that Georgiou dies in the second episode. On the one hand, this provides Burnham’s story with more emotional weight since Burnham probably feels like Georgiou’s death is her fault. However, for Asian viewers, Georgiou’s death might feel like a setback. I write this because a black woman’s death on TV often feels like a setback for black female characters as a whole.
Take for instance Into the Badlands, one of the most inclusive shows on TV. Even with the show’s “wokeness,” as it were, to the issues that can occur with stereotypical portrayals, the series still committed the crime of killing a prominent black female character — Veil, Sunny’s wife-to-be and mother of his child — solely to propel Sunny’s emotional arc as the show heads into its third season. Many black female viewers were heated about this, since it seemed like Veil sacrificed herself even though her safety was literally steps away. Her death was even more hurtful since it came after having her tortured for the whole season.
It’s not so much the act of killing a character that’s upsetting — if a character has to die for the story, then that’s something to take into account. But killing a character that represents an underserved market is something that always has to be taken seriously. From my own talk with Into the Badlands EP Al Gough, I learned that Veil’s death was heavily discussed and argued over in the writer’s room. But what might have not been taken into the account was the fact that Veil was the only woman of color in a prominent position on the show. Killing her has now left a huge void in a show that has been buoyed in part by viewers who are, in fact, women of color. A similar outrage might happen with Georgiou’s death. She might be one two women of color in this first two episodes, but she’s also the only woman of Asian descent in a prominent role on this show. Killing her in just the second episode might ring as a slap in the face to Asian viewers, particularly Asian women. Again, like Into the Badlands, I don’t think Star Trek: Discovery means any harm. However, Georgiou’s death is something that is bound to send shockwaves throughout a community that has already fought against whitewashing in a big way in recent years, especially in 2017.
As a writer (even a writer who doesn’t like writing death), I understand that death has a purpose in a show, particularly when it’s done well. This might be a random example, but I think a great way death has been examined on a show is when Mr. Hooper died on Sesame Street. (I’m also dating myself since I can remember Mr. Hooper.) The actor who played Mr. Hooper, Will Lee, died in real life, and this provided the children’s show the unique challenge of addressing mortality to its young audience. Without getting into a tangent about how children’s shows fail to address big issues like this in today’s time of padded playsets and participation trophies, Sesame Street utilized a real life tragedy and turned it into one of the finest and most sensitive moments on television, compassionately teaching children about the inevitability of death and how to deal with life’s unanswerable questions, while also showing how to grieve and remember the memory of a loved one.
It’s a lot for a children’s show to handle, even one like Sesame Street, which regularly tackled real world issues due to Jim Henson’s insistence that the show be treated as something both kids and their parents can watch and gain something from. But Sesame Street showed how it can be done with tact and respect. For writers, it shows how to make a character’s death impactful and actually mean something. Will Georgiou’s death mean something other than a potentially lazy way of injecting more pathos into an already pathos-laden situation? I hope so. I know it’ll be referenced later in the season, but let’s hope that Georgiou’s death will have some serious weight and make a large impact on Burnham’s development.
In short, my point in my Black Girl Nerds article about Veil’s death mirrors how I feel about Georgiou’s death:
Let’s take out the racial component for a second because the devil’s advocate rebuttal to Veil’s death would be that Black women characters have just as much of a chance to die as white women characters do. In a democratically-written show, this is very true. However, if we take out the racial component, we’re still left with another woman who had to die for there to be “emotional depth.” Couldn’t there have been emotional depth built with her still living?
Just switch around the races and my sentiment is basically the same. Couldn’t there have still been emotional depth with Georgiou still alive?
Georgiou’s death isn’t the only surprise death from the second episode–the major Klingon threat, T’Kuvma (American Gods‘ Chris Obi), also bites the dust in a way that seems ill-advised for a show that still has several episodes left to prove itself. According to the Star Trek: Discovery brass, they have a tightly-wound plan in place that connects the first episode to the last in a very specific way. But regardless of the plan, Georgiou’s death will have a ripple effect, and not just in Burnham’s storyline, but in the viewership as well, particularly Asian viewers.
Now, I’m not an Asian woman, so maybe I’m only speculating. But if I see shades of Veil and, frankly, Sleepy Hollow’s Abbie in another female character of color, then I feel like I should say something.
What did you think about Georgiou’s death? Did you think it was egregious, or do you think it was sound storytelling? Sound off below!