by Tara Marsden
It is only about halfway through the first episode of Star Trek: Discovery that the source of the nagging, emotional tug in my gut becomes clear: this is the first time I’ve ever seen on screen an Asian woman in command. And not a Dragon Lady, or a sexy ninja, or a scientist, or a sidekick—there is no edgy blue streak in her hair. As Captain Georgiou, Michelle Yeoh is not a stereotype. She is luminous.
I am watching with several other mixed Asian folks. It is my roommate Sam’s birthday party. Sam is a Trekkie. I am not. We are in our backyard, with a projector screen set up in the grass. The moon is twinkling faintly against a fading mauve sky, which feels fitting. Before we begin the viewing, my roommate explains the general premise of Star Trek for us newbies in the audience. They are wearing a Bajoran nose. Their partner is dressed as a Vulcan, as is our other roommate, Umeko. We bought a Vulcan costume for our cat, too, but he didn’t take to it. Not deeply familiar with the characters (or various species) of the show, I am dressed in a holographic purple lamé bodysuit, my interpretation of a more general “space” theme.
I’ve seen the first of JJ Abrams’s reboot films, and a smattering of TNG episodes—enough to get the general idea. As I understood it, the story usually goes: white man leads crew of humans and aliens on adventures through space, in the spirit of peace and diplomacy. Which, as it turns out, isn’t actually accurate; other series have had a black man or a white woman at the helms of Federation ships, “diverse” options that I can’t help but see as predictable, reflective of the safe brand of liberalism Star Trek is known for.
But in the opening scene, already it is clear to me as an outsider, that this is different: not one, but two women of color? Together? Without a white man in sight? Even before Captain Georgiou and First Officer Burnham are beamed off that dust-laden planet back onto the USS Shenzhou, I lean over to Umeko and whisper: “This is my new favorite show.” She smiles. “Me too.”
When the ship’s name is revealed, my roommate’s partner squeals. “The ship has a Chinese name!” they said. Their delight is tangible.
Watching Captain Georgiou move about the deck, shoulders back, carrying the casual confidence of a well-seasoned commander, possessed with dignity, compassion, intelligence… I hadn’t consciously known this was missing from my life until I see it there on the giant screen before me. I wonder briefly what it would’ve been like if I’d had this sort of model to look up to as a child—and if the thrilling swagger swelling within me is 1/100th of what white men must feel watching Captain Kirk. Captain Picard. Captain America. Iron Man. Spiderman. Superman. Batman. Thor. Luke Skywalker. Jason Bourne. Jon Snow. (Obviously, I could go on, but I’ll spare you.)
It isn’t that I’m unaware of the lack of female leads, particularly Asian female leads; it’s just that it’s hard to miss something you’ve never had. The sting of being single doesn’t carry the same bitter weight of longing for your ex-girlfriend. And as a person of color who is also a lover of stories in all their forms—books, film, television—you miss out on too much, nearly everything really, if you hold media to the standard of your desires. Because I am half-Filipina and half-white, I managed to convince myself that white female leads were enough. That they had to be. That they are the closest I will ever get to seeing myself on screen. I have to do mental contortions, of course—erase half of my being—like closing one eye and squinting with my head tilted. There. I guess Jennifer Lawrence could be me, right? Except that being half-white is as much like being white as a whiskey soda is like a glass of water. But what choice did I have?
Yet now, suddenly, I don’t have to close one eye and squint. I can look directly into the screen and believe that maybe I belong in this universe too.
It might be the two beers I’ve just had, but looking across the darkness into the enraptured faces around me, I am overcome with a kind of delicate joy. My eyes water. And then, my heart sinks.
Maybe it is because of a lifetime of disappointments, the inheritance of any colonized subject, but I am suddenly aware that what I am seeing is inspiring, precious… and probably doomed. It is clear that Michael, not Philippa, is the main character. A hint dropped when the Captain tells Michael she’s ready to command her own ship. I feel certain, in a way I don’t want to be, that this is all too good to be true. That this thing I hadn’t known I needed, spontaneously dropped into my life, would just as quickly be ripped away.
After the thrill of the first episode, we take an intermission to present my roommate with their cake, which reads in white cursive script over chocolate frosting: Star Trek is Gay and Bisexual. When they’d called the cake shop to put in their order, the person taking the request reluctantly said: “Um, I’ll have to check with my manager.” My roommate clarified: “We are gay and bisexual.” The cake was made, and it is delicious.
As we eat our slices, the room is vibrating with excitement over Michelle Yeoh’s character. I resist the urge to share my pessimistic suspicions, wanting to preserve the sweetness of this moment. I can see that this really means something, not just to me, but to all of us. I want badly to believe my predictions are wrong.
But as we sit back down to view the second episode, and the credits roll, I see it: “Special Guest Star Michelle Yeoh.” And I know. The captain can’t be a special guest star. Not if she’s meant to stay the captain for long. I decide to draw everyone’s attention to this detail—maybe with the intention of collectively preparing us, maybe in hopes they would convince me I’m overthinking it. I point it out, and everyone lets out a knowing groan. In their “Noooooooooooos,” I hear my own disappointment, at this point only anticipated, but informed by life experience that I know has taught each of us to steel ourselves for the coming blow. We were never meant to be main characters.
Still, I allow myself to be hopeful. Maybe Michael gets her own ship, and Captain Georgiou just makes occasional appearances; not quite what I want, but something I could stomach. The episode continues, rife with special FX warfare, a shocking mutiny—edge-of-your-seat excitement that lays itself over my dread, partially eclipsing, but never truly concealing it.
And then, it happens. I, of course, am proven right. Captain Georgiou is stabbed in the chest by a Klingon, as Michael looks on. And we, in our costumes, together in the darkness, are forced to just sit there and watch, aghast, as she is sacrificed, her true role made clear: she is a plot point, written to develop another character. One of us yells, “Goddammit!” It might’ve been me.
When the closing credits roll, the earlier delight I’d seen playing out on everyone’s faces is replaced with variations of disbelief and cold disappointment. “I feel like I’m a piece of meat that’s been tenderized,” Umeko says.
We return to the kitchen, cleaning up, and discussing theories—still grasping at straws of hope, refrains of “Maybe she’s not really dead!” I turn to the Internet, scanning Google search results, skimming interviews for hints. “Yes, 100 percent, she’s really dead,” producer Alex Kurtzman told EW. “That being said, have patience with us.”
Of course, I don’t know what’s going to happen. But personally, I don’t want to have patience. All my life has been an act of patience. For a moment, it felt like it was finally our turn. And then it wasn’t.
As I said, I’m not a Trekkie. I have no particular investment in this franchise. This death shouldn’t mean all that much to me. And yet, it was a death that drew my attention to an absence I’d long ago learned to ignore, long ago grown numb to. The absence of an Asian woman in a starring role; not one who was robotically brilliant or exotically sexy, but strong and wise and fully-realized. In Michelle Yeoh’s deft hands, Captain Georgiou managed to be all of those things, in the less than 82 minutes on screen between her introduction and untimely death.
The producers can tell us to be patient; personally, I’m not holding my breath. But in spite of myself, I have to admit: I’m grateful for those 82 minutes.
Tara Marsden is a writer and editor in Oakland, CA. You can find her writing in Oatmeal Magazine, Eleven Eleven, Boing Boing, The Establishment, the anthology Loose Lips (Grand Central Publishing), and forthcoming in Wolfman New Life Quarterly.