Star Trek Guide

Star Trek: Discovery Repeats A TOS Problem With Its New First Officer

Star Trek: Discovery has made a misstep with its new first officer, in part due to a flaw it shares with Star Trek: The Original Series. After demoting Commander Michael Burnham for disobeying his direct orders, Captain Saru offers the job to Ensign Sylvia Tilly in season 3, episode 7, "Unification III." Tilly is initially unsure she should take the job, but after a group hug in engineering she decides she's the right fit to be the new first officer.

Even for a show that has played fast and loose with Starfleet rank, this latest development is particularly difficult to accept. Tilly is a smart, trustworthy character, but she's still incredibly young and inexperienced; she is in no way qualified to be the second in command of a starship. So far, Discovery season 3 has been building up to this idea, showing Tilly's natural empathy as an essential resource for the crew, who are stranded in the future — but the Starfleet Officer is an ensign, the lowest rank for an officer, and the Discovery is her first assignment. Season 2 saw her participate in the Command Training Program but, as she herself admitted when Saru offered her the position, she never actually finished her training.

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There's really no good in-story reason to make Tilly the new first officer, though the real world reason is obvious — Mary Wiseman is a core member of the cast, and her Ensign Tilly is one of the few bridge officers outside of Saru and Burnham who's had any character development at all. There are other bridge officers, like Lieutenant Bryce and Lieutenant Nilsson, who outrank Tilly, but who are essentially glorified extras at this stage of the series.

There is some precedent for anonymous bridge officers in Star Trek. It's easy to forget after the movies made them all icons, but the cast of Star Trek: The Original Series were mostly background players to the central trio of Captain Kirk, Commander Spock, and Doctor McCoy. Characters like Uhura and Sulu could go entire episodes with barely a line. Longtime fans of course loved even the minor players in TOS, and were delighted when the films more fully fleshed them out as characters. The Kelvin timeline films made all seven primary cast members essential, largely rewriting the dynamic of TOS, to somewhat controversial effect.

Yet TOS never made the leap that Bones outranked Scotty, for example, just because DeForest Kelley's irascible doctor was a part of the core trio and Scotty wasn't. Tilly wasn't qualified to be the ship's first officer when they were in the 23rd century, let alone the 32nd century. But this is Star Trek: Discovery, which means Tilly will almost certainly overcome her inexperience and humble rank to become a great Number One on par with Will Riker and Spock. That doesn't mean the actual promotion really makes any sense, and it's simply a case where fans will have to try and suspend their disbelief, if possible.

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