Welcome back to another week where we recap, react to, and ruminate about Star Trek: Discovery Episode 6: “Lethe.” This post will contain mild spoilers, so don’t read ahead until you have watched episode 6.
As with previous posts in this Star Trek: Discovery series, there won’t be a lengthy recap, but instead of we will focus on the basic of what we learn. Once again, I’ll be pulling reactions and ruminations from my Star Trek community.
Star Trek: Discovery Episode 6: “Lethe” Recap
This episode had more compacted storytelling. The basics of what we learn in Star Trek: Discovery episode 6 are:
- Stamets has a pretty big personality change since injecting himself with Tardigrade juice;
- Tilly continues to be amazing;
- Extremists on Vulcan – likely an evolution of those behind the Earth embassy bombing in Star Trek: Enterprise – are still active;
- Tyler become Chief Security Officer;
- Thanks to part Sarek’s katra being embedded in Burnham, we learn more about Burnham and Sarek’s relationship and the root of the tensions between Spock and Sarek;
- Lorca not only manipulates everyone on Discovery, but he’s also manipulating pretty much all of Starfleet;
- Tyler and Burnham begin a friendship.
If you’ve watched Star Trek: Discovery episode 6, you know some heavy things went down during the two main events of Burnham’s connection with Sarek and Lorca disregarding orders. Lorca’s disregard of command leads to some pretty intense scenes between him and Admiral Cornwell, which at one point had viewers wondering if he was going to have her shuttle blown up.
We are going to focus on Burnham/Sarek, and Lorca/Everyone-Else in the ruminations section.
Star Trek: Discovery Episode 6: “Lethe” Reactions
We are back with majority consensus that “Lethe” was an amazing episode. Comments in this week’s Star Trek community thread included everything from people loving that we saw more depth with Lorca and that he is becoming a three-dimensional character to the feeling that episode 6 was a more traditional Star Trek episode because there was a lot of emotion in it. People also enjoyed the call back to events in Star Trek: Enterprise and the inclusion of another piece of the Spock/Sarek relationship puzzle.
One of our regular participants was very unhappy with this episode, to put it politely, but couldn’t find the words to form a constructive comment. I am most fascinated by that response and was hoping they would be able to find the words. As of the time of writing this post, they have yet been able to find them. We may get the opportunity to circle back in a future week.
Star Trek: Discovery Episode 6: “Lethe” Ruminations
This week, we are going to talk about threads from previous episodes and trauma and PTSD.
As I mentioned in previous weeks, I am a survivor of prolonged childhood trauma which led to prolonged adulthood trauma. I have PTSD. More accurately, I have C-PTSD. I also have a degree in psychology. I think it’s fair to say, I have intimate knowledge of trauma and the effects.
Even writing out this post has triggered my trauma. Because of how PTSD is treated in the media and society, there is huge stigma surrounding it. Writing about this topic means risking facing more rejection; it means risking facing more messaging about how trauma survivors are broken and less than; it means a whole lot of victim blaming which results in more self-blame.
If you are reading this and have PTSD or C-PTSD, it is my hope that by the end of this post, you will feel some source of validation even if you are feeling hurt and are triggered. If you do not have PTSD, it is my hope that you will learn a few things that are missing from a lot of the narratives found in various forms of media.
Normally, I don’t read other reviews about Star Trek: Discovery. Most frustrate me for reasons ranging from the pedantic anger of seeing Starfleet misspelled to head-desking when it’s obvious that nine out of 10 reviewers have not watching Star Trek: Enterprise and are missing important context and history.
This week, I decided to read commentary outside of my Star Trek community because I wanted to see how other reviewers were handling how trauma informs both Burnham and Lorca. I was curious to see if the media at large was having the same much-need and long overdue discussions about trauma and PTSD that we were having in my community. As we are once again on the precipice of war, having these discussions are imperative if we are going to help people heal from their wounds. We live in a time where people are getting PTSD from watching the news.
Of course, I was disappointed. Other writers are still perpetuating the incorrect narrative that Burnham needs redemption and that Lorca must be evil or that his actions can only be acceptable if this Lorca is Mirror Universe Lorca.
Burnham and Lorca: The Opposite Side of the Same Coin
How trauma effects someone and whether it evolves into PTSD or C-PTSD depends on many variables, including age and environment. While those who have either form of PTSD share some traits, like enhanced fight/flight/freeze responses, and guilt and self-blame, there are also some variables that can never be accounted for that create differences.
Twenty people could be trained for the same high-trauma job, let’s say a paramedic. During that training, if they are lucky, they will receive training on how to deal with the psychological effects in an effort to help prevent PTSD. A handful of those people go on to develop PTSD despite supports. This is the result of unshared experiences that help to shape someone more than shared experiences do. There are always factors for which cannot be accounted.
As we discussed in week one, in episodes 1 and 2 of Star Trek: Discovery we learn that Burnham has experienced profound childhood trauma. In episode 6, it is confirmed that she was never given the necessary time and space to process the emotions of that traumatic event. For reasons that could very well have to do with self-blame or survivor’s guilt or both, she clings to the Vulcan ideologies represented through her adopted father instead of finding solace in her adopted human mother. There are similarities here to Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s “Hero Worship.”
Both Burnham and Timothy come to find themselves in safe, supportive and loving environments. The difference here that shape Burnham compared to Timothy is that there is something about Timothy that allowed him to move on from the safety of detaching from emotions while Burnham would continue to fight against her humanity. She experienced a second childhood traumatic event: The bombing of her school by Vulcan extremist that left her dead for three minutes. Then she continued to live in an environment that had extremists that continually gave her messages that she was not worthy. She develops C-PTSD.
I’m not interested in playing a blame game here, like why didn’t Amanda try harder to counter the messaging she was getting from extremists? When Amanda presented Burnham with the copy of Alice in Wonderland — which we learn in episode 3 is very important to Burnham — it was made clear to me that she continued to try to help Burnham reconcile things within her.
What is important is the fact that Burnham never had the opportunity to process her multiple traumas. The longer trauma goes untreated, the more difficult it is to treat. Like an untreated broken bone, it will leave a permanent scar. With proper therapy from a trained trauma therapist, someone can learn to live with it so that it’s no longer overpowering but it still lives there just below the surface.
Then we have Lorca who survived a very traumatic event in adulthood which resulted in death of his entire crew and the destruction of his ship. As we discussed last week, we can’t be entirely sure if he told the whole truth about that event. However, we know he has guilt, and likely self-blame, because he continually chooses not to have his eyes fixed so that he always has a reminder.
To someone with intimate knowledge about trauma, it also begins to make more sense about why Lorca manipulates everyone in his sphere, as we mentioned in episode 4 discussions. This week, not only does Lorca further manipulate Burnham by agreeing to save Sarek, but he also manipulates Tyler, he manipulates Admiral Cornwell, and he manipulated all of Starfleet by feeding desired answers during his psych evaluation.
Repeated childhood trauma can lead to the destruction of a sense of self. Someone who experienced childhood trauma can grow up never knowing what it means to be safe or to be valid. On the other hand, adulthood trauma is the shattering of a safe world and desperately trying to regain it. Burnham’s trauma informs her to preserve others at the cost of herself because her sense of self never really formed. While Lorca’s trauma informs him to preserve himself because now everything around him is a threat. Both of their survival instincts are in overdrive.
How Society Treats PTSD and How It Related to Burnham and Lorca
Most of what society knows about trauma and different forms of PTSD is based on horrible stereotypes that perpetuate stigmatization, which results in things like calling those afflicted “broken.” This is reflected in Star Trek: Discovery episode 6 when Cornwell tells Lorca that she is worried that he is broken. Doing so only triggers PTSD, leaving the wounded feeling like they are drowning, desperate for a life buoy.
This is made worse when she threatens his command after he pulls a phaser on her when she touches him in his sleep. This was possibly the worst thing she could have done during that moment. It only reinforced Lorca’s over-drive survival mode. People working through PTSD need stability and safety. Threatening to take away the one thing Lorca feels he has left is extremely harmful. Now, we have Lorca walking around with a phaser stuffed into the back of his pants. For someone who is supposed to be a trained psychologist, she couldn’t have handled this situation any worse.
That said, how she handled it is an accurate representation of the mental health field overall. Trauma is a very specialized field of psychology. There are very few therapists who are properly trained in trauma. A lot of them end up re-traumatizing their clients. In fact, some therapists end up giving their patients PTSD by using a technique called “psychological debriefing.”
There is also the long practice of completely disrupting the lives of veterans with PTSD by discharging them. Canada was notorious for this: Discharge without a pension and without treatment, which often led to suicide.
The government of Canada says they are going to fix this, but the damage has been done. There are better outcomes when you leave someone in their position, while proper treatment is given. People working through PTSD need a safe sense of order and routine; one that doesn’t result in developing OCD. The more you threaten to take away from them, the more you traumatize them. The structure and order of the military is comforting because you always know what to expect. You can be having a somatic event but at least you know that 1500 hours, something specific is going to happen that is safe, or whatever the daily tick-tock is. There are many things in that structure to is conducive to living in the moment, which is essential for therapies, instead of being trapped in a trigger.
It’s a little bit more difficult to create that stability in some first responder jobs, but it’s not impossible. And it is necessary.
It’s a common misconception that children are less prone to PTSD from a singular traumatic event. It’s such a common misconception, that the Wikipedia article I linked to about PTSD states that children are less effected. The reality is, just like other mental health issues, the outward symptoms manifest themselves differently. For far too long, adult diagnostic criteria were used on children, across all mental health issues.
In Star Trek: Discovery episode 6, we also saw some of the same tired tropes, like sleeping with a weapon under the pillow or acts of violence upon waking from sleep. And while there is some reality to these situations, it also contributes to the stigma surrounding PTSD because the narration never tells the audience the very valid reasons as to why.
Burnham does not need to be saved or redeemed. She needs the support and freedom to find her sense of self and heal. We started to see that at the end of this episode.
Lorca does not need to be saved either, but he does need treatment. Someone needs to show him that he is safe and that his entire world is not currently under threat. Lorca’s situation is a bit trickier. While both Lorca and Burnham could be considered a threat to their own personal safety or the safety of those around them, Lorca has no supports. Burnham has Tilly. The viewer is led to believe that she also has Tyler, but that depends on whether or not the fan theories that he’s a Klingon are true.
While I don’t want people to rationalize away some of the things Lorca has done in the way that people rationalize away things Sisko has done, it is also deeply upsetting to me that people are now even more convinced that Lorca is pure evil.
Lorca has a wound that needs to be treated before it goes gangrenous. Why do we have compassion for Burnham but not for him? If only people thought about PTSD as they did a broken bone: You stabilize the wound (which in this case is the environment), allow time for the wound to mend often accompanied by some form of physical therapy. You may have to shift someone’s duties as they are healing, but you don’t fire them.
The Treatment of PTSD in Starfleet’s Future: Star Trek: The Next Generation Was Ahead of Its Time
Star Trek: The Next Generation was ahead of its time in so many ways. How they treated trauma was one of them. In TNG, we were introduced to the idea that every ship had a counselor because you treated psychic trauma right away.
Captain Picard experienced a whole lot of trauma, being tortured more than once. He was lucky to have a ship’s counselor and serving in a Federation that didn’t threaten to take away his command, especially after he was assimilated by the Borg. He wouldn’t completely heal until Insurrection but he was given the freedom to do so, with a Starfleet admiral checking in from time-to-time to make sure his experiences with the Borg were not completely clouding his judgement.
It’s a shame that this idea of a ship’s counselor on every ship was abandoned in both DS9 and VOY because they really needed it. Especially for Sisko who never really let go of his contempt for the Federation after the death of his wife, and for Kira. Maybe VOY didn’t have one because that mission was supposed to be very short and maybe they didn’t have the full compliment that TNG tells us is now standard.
This type of treatment for PTSD was decades ahead of its time. Maybe the writers dismissed the idea of a ship’s counselor in subsequent series because they too had bought into the notion that someone with PTSD is “broken.” While TNG was ahead of its time, Star Trek: Discovery is a pretty contemporary reflection of how we mistreat trauma survivors and do things that continue to traumatize them.
My Hope for Star Trek: Discovery and the PTSD Story Thread
PTSD and C-PTSD are a very complicated disorder. Historically, Star Trek has been pretty good about focusing on issues that most media misrepresent or continue to perpetuate bad stereotypes.
The writers of Star Trek: Discovery have made trauma a focal point twice now and it is my hope that they are going to include proper coverage of it, even though it can’t be in-depth. If this ends up being Mirror Lorca like some fans want it to be, because they can only see Lorca as evil instead of a human being whose survival instinct is currently going at warp speed, I’ll be angry.
Star Trek: Discovery episode 6 left me reeling because of the amazing storytelling that tackled two different faces of trauma. I felt for Burnham as I understand what it is like to grow up in an environment that doesn’t allow you to safety feel or form a sense of self. I have an added nuance of being on the autism spectrum, but in Burnham, I see the validation of many survivors of childhood trauma.
My heart aches for Lorca. I wanted so bad to dislike him. I wanted him to be just a run-of-the-mill not-so-great human being. Now, they’ve added this layer, which includes Cornwell indirectly saying Lorca has PTSD. Then it leads to Lorca unraveling when he can’t control that situation, and then relief when “fate” intervenes.
Even if the writers end up completely screwing up this storyline by demeaning the introduction of trauma via a Mirror Universe switch-up, I hope this one week mixed with stuff we learned in the first two episodes will start a larger conversation about the topic of trauma, PTSD, and how we treat, stigmatize, and blame survivors.
The effects of trauma can be lifelong. It can lead to heart disease and other ailments if left untreated because of the constant exposure to adrenalin. There are some studies that show it can change the human genome and be passed down. It leads to a cycle of generations who end up in childcare instead of treating and breaking the cycle; society continues to re-traumatize either through harmful therapies or complete disruption of one’s life when they need stability and one thing that is safe, no matter what.
I don’t have a question for readers this week. I think this week’s ruminations deserve contemplation rather than debate.
Until next Wednesday, Live Long and Prosper!