With the “revelations” over the last two episodes of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ that neither Ash nor Lorca suffer from PTSD, but are in fact evil adversarial agents under false pretences, two things have become apparent:
In the universe of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’, the symptoms of PTSD and other mental health issues are indistinguishable from villainy.
In the universe of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’, a bloody war full of torture and violence has no visible long-term mental health effects on any of our main characters.
These are both problems, and for separate reasons.
Please note that this article is going to talk a lot about mental health issues, a topic with which I am intimately familiar and yet which I am woefully unqualified to discuss fully. There are numerous resources to learn more about this sort of thing; a quick google search will return many results which can teach a great deal about the subject.
PTSD As a Gimmick
So, first off, there’s the issue of PTSD being presented as something synonymous with malignance and perfidy. I have no doubt that PTSD and its effects have led to a lot of problems in our primitive society, but in a Utopian future vision of humanity, I rather hope that it would be seen for exactly what all mental health issues are: a painful and disruptive condition with life-changing effects for the victim and their loved ones.
Instead, we are told in reasonably certain terms that PTSD is in fact analogous to the behaviour of sadistic liars and sleeper agents, reinforcing the already-pervasive view that people suffering from it are untrustworthy, antisocial liabilities. The truth is that people who develop PTSD are no more evil than they were before their symptoms started appearing – even if they do exhibit behaviours that can be challenging in certain situations.
Put another way, if you’re one of the 7.8% of people in the world have or will suffer from PTSD at some point in your life, what this show is telling you is that to a trained psychiatric professional like Admiral Cornwell, as well as an entire team of doctors from the future, you are indistinguishable from either a power-hungry, ruthless madman, or an amnesiac alien spy from a species of bloodthirsty cannibal-warriors.
The war setting of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ is prominent throughout its first nine episodes. We don’t actually see very much of this war, but we do see a few effects, notably an array of injuries, scars and wounds (most prominently shown by Detmer), but we see no long-term emotional effects of any of these horrors of war.
We do see Saru emotionally compromised on the Harmony Planet, but given that he’s a weird alien who is scared all of the time, I don’t know that this counts – particularly since it gets no follow-up in future episodes.
But there could have been real potential in portraying a crew of scientists and explorers dealing with the emotional fallout of the war in which they find themselves. Like, that could have been a big theme of the series. If any of the minor cast got more than one functional line per episode, we might have learned a little more about them and consequently how well they were coping, and what kind of support environment exists in the future to get people through PTSD and related issues. If it was well-handled, it might have ended up being one of Star Trek’s finest moments.
As it is, we go from having a possible two people who suffer from mental health issues to literally zero people who suffer from mental health issues. As someone who struggles with depression every day, I would’ve liked to see a member of a Starfleet crew who found it difficult to cope, but who was supported by progressive mental health programs, and by their understanding friends and colleagues, and who managed to contribute to missions and to the crew’s success.
Instead, everyone who might be affected by those kind of issues is either predominantly mute, raised by Vulcans, in a coma or is some kind of traitor or spy, and we get no meaningful exploration of their emotional or mental state whatsoever. And I think that’s a shame, personally.