Warning: spoilers incoming for season 3 of Star Trek: Discovery.
Star Trek: Discovery season 3 was all about identity. After hurtling 930 years into the future, the entire crew of the U.S.S. Discovery found themselves in a strange new time and a vastly different galaxy to the one they left behind in the 23rd century. Everyone they once knew, everything they once were, all the things that made them the persons they had once been, were all gone. Even the one remaining aspect that binds all of the crew together — The Federation — was apparently gone from this bold new era, ravaged and fragmented by a galaxy-wide catastrophe known colloquially as “The Burn”. Our temporal trekkers were left stranded in the 32nd century with no identity to call their own.
Throughout the season we see many characters attempting to grapple with their identity crises. Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) arrives alone, a year before the rest of her crew aboard the Discovery, and spends this year with courier Cleveland Booker (David Ajala), leaving her questioning her place in Starfleet after she re-joins her crew. Saru (Doug Jones) grapples with his new role as Captain of Discovery. Later in the season Tilly (Mary Wiseman) struggles to settle into her new position as Saru’s Number One. Lieutenant Detmer (Emily Coutts) has an explosive scene with Paul Stamitz (Anthony Rapp) as she reckons with her role as the pilot of Discovery, as the Spore Drive — an alternate method of instantaneous interstellar travel unique to Discovery which is operated by Stamets — becomes Discovery’s main mode of transport in this new, perilous millennia. Even Discovery’s computer begins to evolve into a new intelligence with the help from the Sphere Data collected and preserved in the second season.
Like the flagship of the Emerald Chain, the theme of identity is ever present, even if you can’t see it right away. And no character better personifies this theme of identity than the newly introduced Adira.
Even before the release of Star Trek: Discovery’s newest season, the official Star Trek website celebrated the inclusion of a non-binary and a transgender character for the first time in Star Trek’s history, carrying on the show’s long history of “giving visibility to underrepresented communities”. Adira, played by non-binary actor Blu del Barrio, is a non-binary character in the show and their boyfriend Grey, played by Ian Alexander, is transgender also both in real life and the show.
Adira is an extremely intelligent sixteen year old human who, you later learn in episode four — Forget Me Not, is the first known human to become a host to a Trill symbiont, named Tal. Trill symbionts have many hosts across their extremely long lifespans and they retain the memories of each host. This means, as Adira explains later, that they often don’t feel like themselves, and that some days they feel more like a previous a host than like Adira. Again, this comes back to the central theme of identity that this season rests upon. To make this identity crisis even worse for Adira their boyfriend Grey was a previous host, albeit very briefly. Grey, you find out, died shortly after receiving the Trill symbiont, Tal. To save the symbiont it was transplanted into Adira. Now, unexplainedly, Adira often physically sees and converses with their late boyfriend, Grey.
The pre-release announcement of the inclusion of Adira, a non-binary character played by a non-binary actor, is why it felt so strange and uncomfortable to hear Adira being referred to as “she” for the first half of the season. I initially thought it a mistake, or some sort of transmittance of disapproval from a more insular Earth, but then it happened again in the next episode. And again, and again. In fact, it isn’t until the eighth episode — The Sanctuary — where Adira essentially comes out to Stamets as non-binary.
It’s a short scene, lasting under a minute, where after being to referred to as “she”, Adira tells Stamets, nervously, that he should be using “they, not she”. Adira then expounds on their feelings that they have “never felt like a she, or a her” and that they would prefer to be referred to as “they or them from now on”. Stamets immediately smiles pridefully at Adira, who can’t seem to even look at Stamets due to their anxiety in the moment, and simply says, “Okay”. Adira admits that they have never told anyone but Grey before, and although Stamets doesn’t say anything more he gives a knowing look of understanding and acceptance to Adira, who seems to receive said look loud and clear.
This is a particularly well written scene for a show that often uses a sledgehammer in lieu of a feather duster. The visible anxiety being exhibited by Adira’s fidgety movements transmits adeptly the emotional stress of coming out to someone so close to them. The fear and worry that this person will reject them for simply openly acknowledging who they are is palpable. Likely drawing from real life experience, as del Barrio discussed with Forbes.
The scene is also that much more poignant when taking into account that Stamets is clearly becoming a parental figure to Adira (something that is more confirmed later in the season when Stamets refers to Adira as his child). His immediate acceptance of Adira’s gender identity with nothing more than an “okay” is extremely important here. Parental acceptance is a huge source of anxiety for many LGBTQ+ people. Studies have shown that parental acceptance can help to greatly reduce depression, substance abuse, and suicidal behaviour.
When Adira comes out as non-binary, Stamets doesn’t ask a list of invasive or offensive questions. He doesn’t ask anything at all. He especially doesn’t check to see if Adira is “sure” that they are non-binary or postulate that it could “just be a phase”. He doesn’t treat Adira like a child or some confused teenager. Stamets can clearly see that Adira is incredibly nervous but that this is something deeply important to them. He also recognises the trust Adira is showing him by coming out to him personally, after everyone else has left the room. Stamets’ unconditional, unquestioning, immediate acceptance is all that was needed in the moment and that’s exactly what was given. With a simple “okay”. Nothing else needed to be said on his part. And nothing else was.
Scenes like these aren’t just played for dramatic effect or ‘diversity points‘ (rolls eyes). Scenes such as Adira’s coming out are important lessons transmitted to us through an entertainment medium. Exposing people who may not be exposed in their real lives to openly non-binary people, or LGBTQ+ as a whole, through a medium such as television is a powerful way to normalise existences which are woefully underrepresented, misunderstood, and often oppressed.
Star Trek has been doing this ever since it first aired in 1966 with its casting of Nichelle Nichols as Uhura, the main communications officer on the starship Enterprise. Uhura was one of the first Black characters not to have a menial role in a television series and had the first onscreen scripted interracial kiss, with William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk.
Star Trek: Enterprise even made an attempt, albeit clumsy, to represent non-binary people way back in 2003, in season two, episode twenty-two — Cogenitor. In this episode the crew of the Enterprise meet a species, the Vissians, who are comprised of three genders. A classically male gender, a classically female gender, and a third gender known as a cogenitor. The cogenitors could be construed as analogues for real world non-binary people. The cogenitors make up a small percentage of the population, are given no names, are seen as having less intellectual ability, and do not have the same rights as the other two genders. The episode goes on to show that the cogenitors are indeed equal in terms of intelligence with the other genders, and tries to convey to the viewer how morally wrong it is to treat someone unequally and to oppress them just because they are different or from a minority. The conclusion of the episode results in the now despondent cogenitor committing suicide after being returned to the Vissians and back into namelessness, oppression, and servitude.
The episode is not without its problems, however. With the third gender being a physically different sex, rather than a different gender identity, and with Tucker (Connor Trinneer) awkwardly attempting to find a suitable pronoun for the cogenitor and settling on “it” (likely because this is what the Vissians use). Also, Captain Archer (Scott Bakula) later refers to the cogenitor as “she” and “her”, even though the cogenitor is neither female nor male. (I did say it was a clumsy attempt). The episode also ends with Archer reprimanding Tucker heavily for trying to free the cogenitor from their oppression and essentially meddling in another culture’s way of life. This is a common theme throughout all of Star Trek, which would sit juxtaposed to this particular episode’s muddled message of equal rights and acceptance of non-binary people. Not all Star Trek knocks it out of the park, but the intent was there, at least.
Star Trek: Discovery has admirably continued this long tradition of representation. With the main character being given a traditionally male name (Michael), eschewing gender norms. With the inclusion of Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) and Paul Stamets’ openly gay relationship. And with the inclusion of a lesbian character — Jett Reno (Tig Notaro). All of these inclusions matter. And all of these inclusions are important in representing everyone, not just the majorities of the world. The latest inclusion of both a non-binary character and a transgender character are welcome additions to this representation on television and beyond.