Star Trek Discovery: A Third Culture Kid Tale?

So while I’ve dipped in and out of the world of Star Trek over the years, I’d never have been described by my nearest and dearest as a ‘Trekkie’. And yet I have Trash Jaeger (@spacetimeboss) on Twitter to thank for my special interest in the new series, Star Trek: Discovery. She tweeted: You better BELIEVE I’m hyped about a Star Trek that focuses on a PTSD-suffering Third-Culture Kid and I was hooked!

Michael Burnham, the series heroine, is a human raised by Vulcans, and then ‘repatriated’ into a majority human culture when she serves on the USS Shenzhou under Captain Georgiou. She is successful, in both human (legal/national first culture) and Vulcan (second, host culture) worlds – though is perceived differently by her peers in each. Does any of this sound familiar, fellow Third Culture Kids?

While she has been successful, her life and career rapidly unravels when Michael tries to apply knowledge gleaned in one culture in another, when the two value systems fundamentally clash. She misunderstands the highest goals of her first culture (humans/ Starfleet) and, in turn, her actions are misunderstood – her strategy, the language she speaks, is interpreted as morally reprehensible, even unforgivable.

It’s an amazing depiction of how living between two (or more!) worlds can generate confusion and painful misunderstanding. On the one hand, Michael’s multiple cultural influences (and her insatiable curiosity) are her major strengths. She has an ability to investigate first, withholding emotional judgements. And yet, she is unable to ‘fit in’, lacking the social resources required for easy belonging. And her ability to represent the perspective of the ‘Other’ makes her an object of confusion, even of danger, to her peers.

Let’s add the PTSD in here. I’m not going to diagnose a fictional character. But it is clear to me that Michael feels emotions she does not always know how to express or process. Her past experiences are complex and painful but her feelings about them have not been accepted, expressed or integrated into her sense of who she is. They do not provide her with an experiential empathy, and this deprives her of an easy ability to connect with others on an emotional level. While she is highly rational, she can be hampered in her ability to interpret and predict the irrational responses and actions of others. But, surrounded by humans, and especially the incredibly expressive roommate Tilly, she has a chance to learn.

And so do we.

While we live between worlds, feeling more able in one than another, more accepted in this one than that one, and more drawn to culture A than culture B, we can still learn.

Let’s harness our insatiable curiosity. Let’s use the resources we have to gather to ourselves the ones we don’t have. Let’s dust off the pain of misunderstanding, and keep working to learn – to discover – all the aliens out there and here at home(!)

Get in touch here if you’d like support in your own curiosity project… I’d love to hear from you!


Leave a Reply to Dr. Rachel Cason Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *