"Star Trek: Discovery" - 5 Portraits of the Marginal Man

Updated on June 29, 2020
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Sonequa Martin Green stars as Michael Burnham on Star Trek: Discovery.
Sonequa Martin Green stars as Michael Burnham on Star Trek: Discovery. | Source

When I was younger, I got into this sociological and psychological idea of the Marginal Man. Being bi-racial (my mom was a German-American and my father was an immigrant from the Philippines)—and spending my teens and adulthood in a predominantly white community—I definitely grew up feeling marginalized. I was caught between identities and cultures. It wasn't until I was a little older that I discovered identity is basically delusional in the first place, and so, after that realization, the conflict and pain kind of ended.

But when I was very young, at the age you're expected to have some kind of identity, the situation was much more difficult for me. Other issues of family and economics exacerbated the issue, which would require about five other articles to talk about. Instead, I thought I'd discuss how the show Star Trek: Discovery deals with this issue of marginality. I found it fascinating that the writers do seem to intentionally deal with the issue. And they do through not just one character, but through a total of five different characters. Obviously, they think the issue is important.

What Is or Who Is the Marginal Man

Marginal Man is a sociological and psychological term originally coined in the 1930s, used primarily at that time by a sociologist named Everett Stonequist, but originally created by another sociologist named Robert Ezra Park. Basically, the term is used to denote someone stuck between cultures, most commonly because of being born to parents from different ethnicities or races. In other words, it is the conflict inside of people who are biracial and involves the struggles they have in society.

Some psychologists who studied and wrote on the struggles of biracial identity and existence used the Marginal Man model formulated by Stonequist to aid them in the examination of their work.

More or less, the idea is that the Marginal Man is unacceptable to either side or any side of racial and ethnic divides. They are people on the outside, on the margin of society, caught between two or more very different and even opposing cultures.

Shazad Latif plays half Klingon, half human, character Ash Tyler on Star Trek: Discovery.
Shazad Latif plays half Klingon, half human, character Ash Tyler on Star Trek: Discovery. | Source

Ash Tyler - Surgically Placed Klingon in a Human

At the beginning of our story, the Federation is still at war with the Klingons. A Starfleet officer is captured by the Klingons and is experimented on and tortured, eventually being grafted with a Klingon named Voq, so that he could become a spy for the Klingons to infiltrate Starfleet. The problem is, however, that the surgery is experimental and has side effects.

One of the side effects is that Ash falls in love with Discovery commander Michael Burnham, though, in the meantime, his Voq self eventually comes flying out in a rage when exposed to his tormentor and lover, Klingon L'rell. Subsequently, he leaves a bit of a trail of blood and destruction and also leaves Michael heartbroken and with trust issues.

Turns out, his love for Michael made him more Ash Tyler than crazy Klingon, so he comes around to getting on the good side of Starfleet. Which is the side effect I was referring to, his human propensity to fall in love, I suppose.

Of course, none of this is without its struggles. A very poignant scene occurs when Ash is confronted by Hugh Culber, a man he killed but who comes back to life (more on that in a minute) and reveals his own struggle with his contradictory identities.

Who Do You Think You're Talking To?

Hugh Culber - Resurrected

After being killed by Ash Tyler, Hugh Culber ends up in the mycelial network—a dimension that allows the ship to warp quickly to different locations. He ends up there because of a tear that fell on him from his lover Paul Stamets, the ship's conduit for mycelial travel, as Paul held his dead body in his arms. On this plane, he is transformed into a different version of himself, so to speak. When the crew goes into this dimension to rescue another crew member named Tilly, they discover Hugh there. The spore manifestation that drew Tilly into that plane ends up resurrecting Hugh so that he can return to the "normal" dimension and once again join the Discovery. Upon his return to the ship, it is revealed that Hugh is indeed completely different and, of course, he ends up struggling with this issue inwardly. It causes a rift between him and his lover, Paul, and, of course, also creates the fight between him and Ash.

Interestingly, this is not only reminiscent of the Marginal Man, but is a description, more or less, of a shaman or Messiah, both of which come back from the dead as totally different beings, often confused initially.

Ethan Peck plays the iconic Spock on Discovery.
Ethan Peck plays the iconic Spock on Discovery. | Source


Spock is possibly the character most resembling what is meant by a Marginal Man. He is of two different races: Vulcan and Human. This is clearly a struggle for him, and it is an issue that his sister Michael both helps him with and hurts him with. There is a scene in which she calls him a "half-breed" as a child, though her motivation was to keep him safe by keeping him away from her and out of the clutches of the Logic Extremists. The Logic Extremists are an interesting group to add to this story because they are the equivalent of white supremacist groups that we unfortunately have here in the US. They do not like race mixing.

Michael Burnham

Michael Burnham represents another aspect of marginality and that is being in a family different from the culture you are "supposed" to be from. This is shown in, for instance, children of color adopted by white families. It does, of course, present its own conflicts and issues.

Michael was orphaned as a child when her human parents were killed by Klingons. She was rescued and raised by Sarek, Spock's Vulcan father, and also Amanda, Spock's human mother. Indeed, Michael must cope with a brother who is very much different from herself but also a society that does not accept her. She is effectively blocked from things normally afforded the average Vulcan and could easily fall victim to the cruelty of the Logic Extremists. This is not a good place to be, and the situation is definitely marginal.

The wonderful Michelle Yeoh plays Philippa Georgiou in Star Trek Discovery.
The wonderful Michelle Yeoh plays Philippa Georgiou in Star Trek Discovery. | Source

Philippa Georgiou

Philippa is the evil counterpart from the mirror universe that Michael brings back to her own dimension when she returns to the Discovery. In her own universe, Philippa is a cruel fascist dictator, killing who she wants to get what she wants. In a nutshell, the Philippa that used to be in Michael's "normal" universe was much kinder.

Nevertheless, the struggle is real for Georgiou. She must stay in a place she doesn't belong, being someone she more or less isn't, and to some degree conform to the environment she is not even slightly accustomed to. To put it mildly, this is the struggle of the Marginal Man.

Wilson Cruz plays Hugh Culber on Discovery.
Wilson Cruz plays Hugh Culber on Discovery. | Source

Fascinatingly, the writers of Discovery decided to thoroughly delve into this issue of marginality, something that I, while I was younger and growing up, never would have thought I'd see. It blows my mind that I live during a time when people will explore issues that haunted me my whole life. It is good that people now grow up knowing they're not alone, and that they will have support and guidance. Of course, Star Trek has always kind of led the way in a very progressive manner, particularly for people of color. Now they're even exploring the margins. Bravo!


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