Tilly is the best character in recent Star Trek history, and here’s why

Set your phasers to fun, because we’re about to talk about the brightest star in the Star Trek galaxy: Sylvia Tilly. Her debut on Star Trek: Discovery wasn’t merely a splash in the sci-fi pool; it was a cannonball that sent waves across the genre. Tilly is a character who doesn’t just walk on the starship deck. She dances, she stumbles, she picks herself back up, and occasionally, she steps on a few toes. That’s precisely why she’s not just the best character on Discovery, but in all of recent Star Trek.

Imagine a character with the brainpower to make Spock raise an eyebrow but with the social grace of a Tribble at a Klingon opera. That’s our Tilly in a nutshell. She’s the one you’ll find tripping over her own feet only to come up with a new dance move that everyone ends up copying. Her passion and warmth have a way of thawing even the chilliest of hearts aboard the USS Discovery. She’s the sort of friend who’d enthusiastically drag you to karaoke and then console you when you accidentally sing a Vulcan lullaby to a table of Romulans.

“Scavengers” — Ep#306 — Pictured: Mary Wiseman as Tilly of the CBS All Access series STAR TREK: DISCOVERY. Photo Cr: Michael Gibson/CBS ©2020 CBS Interactive, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

But it’s not all giggles and warp-speed witticisms with Tilly. Mary Wiseman’s portrayal of Tilly faced a phaser barrage of backlash, some of it targeting everything but her performance. Wiseman, much like Tilly, didn’t just take it sitting down. She stood tall, embodying the very principles that Star Trek represents: diversity, strength, and the right to be unapologetically oneself, whether you sit the captain’s chair or not.

When Tilly traded her spot on the Discovery for one at Starfleet Academy, she didn’t just leave a job open (and my heart broken); she left a Tilly-shaped hole in the universe. Her departure was like watching a beautiful and fiery comet streaking across the sky, knowing well that it’s headed for greater things. This twist in her tale was her Kobayashi Maru; a no-win scenario turned on its head. Teaching was Tilly’s new frontier, her way of shaping the future one cadet at a time. And yes, there were tears, but in space, no one can hear you (or me) sob.

Lucky for us, Tilly doens’t just appear on Star Trek: Discovery. She also stole the spotlight in the Short Treks episode “Runaway.” In this bite-sized emotional punch to the gut, Tilly doesn’t only dip her toes into the pool of leadership; she full-on Olympic dives in. We find her aboard the Discovery where a chance encounter with an intergalactic runaway turns into an impromptu first contact scenario. It’s classic Tilly: one part curiosity with two parts unshakable ethics, add a dash of that quintessential Tilly charm, and voilà, you’ve got yourself a recipe for the most heartwarming diplomatic breakthrough since the Khitomer Accords. The first time I watched that episode, I cried and proceeded to watch it another five times in a row.

In “Runaway,” Tilly is bench-pressing the entire ethos of the Federation. When she meets Po, a precocious alien stowaway with enough spunk to fill a starship’s cargo bay, Tilly doesn’t hit the red alert. She offers a helping hand, or rather, a replicator full of ice cream, because that’s how you melt cultural barriers and win hearts in the 23rd century. This Short Treks spotlight captures Tilly in her element: navigating the unknown with kindness, determination, and an inexhaustible supply of hope.

“Nobody listened to you. Yeah, when the people who are supposed to care about you don’t listen to you, it’s… It’s frightening and it’s lonely and it makes you feel like you’re crazy or like… You’re like, not even there. I get that.” – Tilly, Short Treks, “Runaway”.

“Runaway” — SF001 — Pictured: Mary Wiseman as Tilly of the CBS All Access series SHORT TREKS. Photo Cr: Michael Gibson/CBS © 2018 CBS Interactive. All Rights Reserved.

Tilly’s farewell at the end of Star Trek: Discovery season 4 was a teachable moment about the many ways we can leave our mark on the world (or in this case, worlds). It’s that classic Tilly maneuver: taking the less traveled, more scenic route to making a difference. Hers is a journey that says, “hey, you can absolutely be a hero without once firing a photon torpedo.”

In the vastness of Star Trek, Tilly’s character and her story are a comet streaking through the dark void, teaching us that it’s okay to be a work-in-progress, to be brilliant and flawed and still find your place among the stars. It’s her relatable humanity that makes her not just a character, but a beloved friend to her crew and to us. Because in the end, Star Trek isn’t just about exploring new worlds: it’s about exploring what it means to be our very human selves, as Tilly has shown us with every quirky step.

Let’s make a toast to Lieutenant Tilly: the heart of Star Trek: Discovery and the undying proof that, in the starlit saga about humanity’s future, everyone has a starring role.

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