[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from “Star Trek: Discovery’s” fall finale, “Into the Forest I Go.”]
In its first nine episodes, “Star Trek: Discovery” has taken its crew on quite the adventure, finally landing them in an unidentified mystery location thanks to Stamets (Anthony Rapp) making one spore drive jump too many. But the audience has also gone on an emotional journey with the series’ characters, ranging from Burnham’s (Sonequa Martin-Green) despondency after an unsuccessful mutiny to the loony side-effects Stamets is experiencing from the tardigrade DNA. But it’s the journey by Discovery’s newest crew member, Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif), that’s been the most erratic and confusing.
The POW from the Battle of the Binary Stars landed in a Klingon prison cell for seven months, during which he was able to survive because his Klingon jailor L’Rell (Mary Chief) took a personal liking to him. Upon his escape, Tyler seemed strangely well-adjusted despite his ordeal, but upon seeing L’Rell again on the Sarcophagus ship, it was clear that their past had a major effect on his psyche. Flashbacks to horrific pain, torture, and sexual assault make it clear that he’s suffering from PTSD, and now that she’s on board the Discovery, he’s going to have to face whatever happened to him. Because “what” is still a question in his mind and in the minds of viewers.
An increasingly plausible fan theory has thrown doubt on Tyler’s very existence, and in case this theory holds true, it’s best to stop reading now if you don’t want to risk potential spoilers. That said, much of this is speculation, but still seems possible given all the clues the series has dropped.
Tyler may not be Tyler at all, but in fact, Voq. The albino Klingon, whom T’Kuvma (Chris Obi) had anointed the Torchbearer, and whom L’Rell left Kol (Kenneth Mitchell) to follow was last seen with her on the Shenzhou. She sent him to the House of Mo’Kai — infamous for being comprised of deceivers and weavers of lies — with the intent to give up “everything” in order to achieve their goals. Through some means, be it surgery, brainwashing, or other sci-fi methods, it’s believed that Voq became Tyler and was planted in that jail cell so that he could befriend Lorca and infiltrate the Discovery. This would explain why L’Rell assures him with one word: “soon.” What’s confusing though is that Tyler doesn’t appear to view L’Rell with any sort of affection, and instead acts as if he truly is suffering from PTSD.
Below, IndieWire’s TV Editor Liz Shannon Miller and Senior Editor Hanh Nguyen dig into what might be going on with Tyler and speculate about Stamets’ fumbled jump:
Liz Shannon Miller: “Star Trek: Discovery” has been a show that’s asked for patience in introducing its ensemble, but there’s no denying that Tyler has been a standout element of that. When I spoke with showrunners Gretchen Berg and Aaron Harberts about the midseason finale, they made it clear that understanding who these characters are is as much of a journey as the actual plot itself. In Berg’s words, “The show is called ‘Discovery.’ People are discovering who they are, what they are, both emotionally, intellectually. It’s all about identity.”
In fact, in the case of Tyler, part of the journey was that they originally planned for him to have, according to Harberts, “this Han Solo swagger. But Shazad ending up bringing a soulfulness and a depth of emotion to the character that … Once he started working, the staff just realized how gifted he was, in terms of bringing that to the table.”
CBS All Access
It’s led to some fascinating scenes for both Tyler as a character and the actor as a performer. But all of that is based on the assumption that the security chief of the Discovery is exactly who he says he is. Is that something you think the average viewer believes, especially after this episode?
Hanh Nguyen: Hmm, I really can’t speak for the average viewer and what they might believe. Personally, I’d say that even before reading the Voq theory, I thought something was hinky as soon as I watched the episode “Choose Your Pain,” which picks up L’Rell’s storyline, but there’s no Voq to be found or even discussed. That’s a pretty big omission because she and Voq had major chemistry (all that talk about “uncoupling”!), and she even left Kol’s alliance to join him on Shenzhou alone. That didn’t seem like a casual thing. So for us to see her again, and she’s supposedly enamored with this human for seven months? That doesn’t add up. In fact, it was so unlike what I thought L’Rell would do, that I thought perhaps this wasn’t L’Rell at all and that it was some other random Klingon female that I just mistook for her.
What this sort of unease I had with the storyline would have amounted to in my head, I don’t know. I doubt I would have come up with this theory on my own. Having dissected “Twin Peaks” and “Game of Thrones” for theories, I should’ve been on red alert, but for some reason I didn’t expect this level of subterfuge or intricate story arc with “Disco” (even though you pointed out that “Voyager” did something similar.) More fool I! So, yeah, I probably would not have figured this out. I just would’ve known something was up with Tyler because of how much Lorca kept emphasizing that he had him checked out. The captain doth protest too much!
But even if you take Tyler at face value, by the events of the midseason finale, everyone knows that something is wrong. What did you make of the PTSD flashbacks and that final interaction with Tyler and L’Rell?
Liz: Well, thanks to the imagery invoked, the PTSD flashbacks were clearly meant to inspire some degree of speculation (while also delivering more Klingon nudity than I’m used to seeing in my “Star Trek”). I’m frankly looking forward to the Internet analysis that comes as a result, as surely there will be fans who capture every frame in search of clues. But perhaps the most important element of them was the fact that while we’ve been left wondering whether or not Tyler is really himself, at this point the character doesn’t seem to doubt the fact that he’s human. This isn’t a full-on con job. Tyler fully believes that he is who he says he is. Unless you disagree?
CBS All Access
Hanh: Tyler gives every appearance that he believes who he says he is, and it seems like he’s confused by L’Rell when he sees her at the end in her Discovery jail cell. This entire theory has wreaked havoc with my emotions because Tyler has become so likable, and it would be disappointing for it to be revealed that he was acting duplicitously. So yes, I feel that if somehow he believes himself to actually be Tyler, then I’d feel better about his actions. How do you think that this could be accomplished though, for Tyler to believe he’s human and yet be Voq in disguise?
Liz: I mean, the Klingon house of artifice that L’Rell literally sent Voq to at the end of Episode 4 predates the “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” episode “Second Skin” (which dealt with similar tropes) by at least one century. But brainwashing or some sort of similar artifice feels like a legitimate answer to the many questions that surround Tyler as a character, especially when you consider not just those flashbacks, but L’Rell’s final remark to Tyler: “Soon.” Really, my question for you is — do you think it’s at all possible that Tyler is NOT secretly Voq? Or do you think the idea is simply too absurd to consider?
Hanh: Look, anything is possible. I kept hoping for some refutation of the theory in the midseason finale. Frankly though, that last scene with L’Rell was kind of the nail in that theory’s coffin, wouldn’t you say? I was trying to think of anything that would explain it but couldn’t. I understand the brainwashing aspect of that Klingon house, but just how human Tyler acts is what gets me because I feel like understanding how to speak the human language is one thing (and L’Rell still has kind of a weird Irish accent), but to carry out all the nuances of interactions? No, that seems too difficult. So what I was curious about was if you thought there was ever a real Ash Tyler, and if there was, what did they do with him? Or maybe Voq is a sleeper presence in the real Tyler?
Liz: I feel like there has to have been a real Ash Tyler, just because infiltrating Starfleet records to the degree required isn’t really all that Klingon. It’s far easier to interrogate and absorb the identity of a real POW than totally fictionalize a whole person (who has enough backstory to feel like a fully realized character).
Of course, that doesn’t alter the true nature of Tyler’s identity, in the long run. Based on both the show and showrunner comments and also my gut feelings: Physically, Tyler is Voq, but the two identities will be fighting for dominance over the course of what we’re apparently calling “Chapter 2.” Do I love that? No. But I do prefer it to the rom-com cliche of “while I was conning you I fell in love with you for real!” After Episode 9, I firmly believe that the character we know as Tyler isn’t pulling any sort of ruse upon the Discovery crew — CONSCIOUSLY, that is.
And for you, Hanh, does that make a difference?
Hanh: Wait, wait. Let’s go back. If you think that there was an original Ash Tyler, what happened to him? Did L’Rell take him and kill him? I still feel like interrogating him in order to give that identity to Voq seems super difficult to pull off since that requires nuanced insight on how humans think and react.
Liz: Well, if we’re operating under the “Ash Tyler was a real dude” premise, my thought was that he was an officer serving on a ship during the Battle of Two Binaries, but unlike Fake!Tyler did not survive, and L’Rell and her Klingon house appropriated his backstory while transforming Voq.
Hanh: Ugh, the brainwashing aspect is what I’m bumping on the most because I simply can’t wrap my head around Voq being able to really be changed psychologically to that degree. That’s why I was wondering if this was the real Ash Tyler physically but with some Voq transplanted in his head somehow. That would explain why ship’s scanners didn’t detect his Klingon-ness (although this biometric data can be masked as we’ve seen when they infiltrate the Sarcophagus ship).
But anyway, to go back to your other point, of him believing that he’s Tyler, I had speculated that maybe L’Rell did her job too well, and that the Voq-ness in this person may have disappeared enough for the Tyler persona to truly take hold. In which case, that would mean that he was truly traumatized by L’Rell’s affections, and that he could genuinely be falling for Burnham. So the only way for me to really enjoy this theory being true is if that’s how it plays out, and L’Rell’s best-laid plans blow up in her face.
CBS All Access
Sadly, even if Tyler isn’t doing anything consciously, once the jig is up, I can’t see anyone on Discovery really accepting him. What are some of the ways this could play out? And how soon do you think “Disco” will get to the revelation in Chapter 2?
Liz: The fact that it wasn’t revealed in Chapter 1, but L’Rell is on the ship as they’re marooned in the boondocks, has me legit unsure how this could play out. As I just said, the way he seemingly is fully engaged with his current identity could pay forward? But that is NOT a safe bet.
I think “Disco” has to make it part of a Season 1 reveal, if only because waiting for Season 2 to learn the truth will result in me setting fires.
Hanh: Oh yeah, I didn’t at all mean if you thought it would go to Season 2. I meant how soon in Chapter 2 (second half of Season 1) would this be revealed. I think the story is going too fast for it to be a season cliffhanger.
I’ve thought of so many scenarios of how I think this could play out. Oh man, this just occurred to me: love triangle. I hope that doesn’t happen because I really don’t want to see two women fighting over a man, no matter how dreamy he is.
Liz: That said, “Trek” is all about inclusion. We have no goddam idea what happened to Tyler, or who he is. But we know that we like this actor, we like this character, and quite frankly it’s hard to imagine the show without him at this point. So all we can say, at this stage, is that the game plan going forward still includes Tyler (especially considering the basic fact that “TNG’s” Worf was officially the first Klingon to ever join Starfleet).
Hanh: That’s a good point to keep in mind that this still predates everything we’ve seen (ahem, I know that I’ve conveniently “forgotten” about “Enterprise”), which sort of messes with your mind because it feels so modern. Therefore, Tyler can’t be the first Klingon in Starfleet… unless his true identity is kept off the crew member list, which is possible with someone as rebellious as Lorca.
One other major event happened at the very end of the episode though that I think we’d be remiss if we didn’t address it: Stamets’ incomplete spore drive jump. They’re totally in an alternate universe, right?
Liz: WHOA! I hadn’t even thought of an alternate universe angle (despite them introducing it in the episode) which feels dumb given that “Trek” has found value in creating alternate universes within the franchise. That said, what does it actually mean? We could still be in the “Discovery” Prime universe. As someone who has been living with it for a while, is that the worst?
Hanh: The events at the end were such a quick tease that it’s hard to say for sure. They could have traveled to another universe. I’d be thrilled to see one populated by mostly tardigrades getting their water bear-ings and then blasting off everywhere on the mycelial network, but that would be prohibitively expensive to produce probably. Also, I think introducing yet another universe on top of Prime and Kelvin would be too unwieldy, so if this show so if they did indeed go to an alternate alternate universe, they’d have to come back soon.
Or they could have traveled in time, which seems plausible, and could create some fun ethical conundrums about changing timestreams, and maybe even bring back Michelle Yeoh. Or they could just be in some quadrant of space that’s so remote or filled with anomalies that interfere with scanners. Whether any of these ideas hold true, what this ultimately does is test the Discovery as a crew, and so we’ll hopefully get more of that ensemble character work we’ve been needing more of. Here’s to the possibility of more Airiam!
Alas, without a Stamets of our own, we can’t jump forward in time to see what’s ahead in January when the show returns for Chapter 2. I’m sort of fine with that though because this will give me time to reflect on how this new “Trek” has changed the landscape of the franchise, and maybe I can get my family to catch up over the winter holidays. “Disco” for everyone!
The first nine episodes of “Star Trek: Discovery” are streaming on CBS All Access. Chapter 2 returns on Jan. 7.