Inside the Groundbreaking ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Episode With Trans and Non-Binary Characters

The latest episode of “Star Trek: Discovery” includes a storyline that viewers have almost certainly never seen before on a major television series: A romance between a non-binary character, a human named Adira, and trans character, a Trill named Gray. What’s more, Adira and Gray are played respectively by the non-binary actor Blu del Barrio and the trans actor Ian Alexander.

It’s hard to overstate how significant of a milestone this is for LGBTQ representation, on TV in general and for “Star Trek” especially. Despite groundbreaking portrayals on shows like “Transparent,” “Orange Is the New Black,” “Pose” and “Billions,” trans and non-binary characters remain quite rare on TV, and there has never been explicitly identified trans and non-binary representation on “Star Trek.”

What makes it all the more remarkable is that this is not only Del Barrio’s first TV role — cast while Del Barrio, now 23, was finishing their final year in drama school — but when they were cast as Adira, Del Barrio had barely started the coming out process themselves as non-binary.

“I understood myself to not be cisgender,” Del Barrio says. “But it was not something that I was talking about with a lot of people, it was definitely still in my own brain. My plan was, like, I’ll graduate, and then I’ll figure all of this out. Instead, this [show] happened, which, in turn, helped me figure this out!”

The third season of “Discovery” jumps the story 930 years further into the future, when the galaxy has been devastated by a cataclysm called the Burn, which seemingly wiped out the Federation and forced many societies to turn inward to survive. Adira, part of the United Earth Defense Force, joins the crew of the Discovery in Episode 3, and reveals they’re carrying a Trill symbiont — a companion alien species that lives through many lifetimes inside different Trill hosts.

(Warning: The rest of this story contains SPOILERS.)

In Episode 4, “Forget Me Not,” we learn Adira cannot remember how they came to have the symbiont inside them, so the Discovery travels to the Trill home world to find answers. Adira eventually remembers that the symbiont once lived inside their boyfriend, Gray. But when an accident fatally injures Gray, Adira chooses to save the symbiont by having it inserted into their body. In an already very “Star Trek” storyline comes one more twist: Once Adira’s memory is unblocked, and they have access to the symbiont’s past lives and memories, Adira is able to see and talk with Gray again.

Fans will get to see their relationship evolve for some time: Along with their season-long run on Season 3, “Discovery” executive producer and co-showrunner Alex Kurtzman tells Variety exclusively that Del Barrio and Alexander will return for Season 4 — which just started production in Toronto.

“It’s a whole long story with them,” he says.

Del Barrio, Alexander, Kurtzman and executive producer and co-showrunner Michelle Paradise all spoke with Variety about how Adira and Gray’s storyline first came about, how the show’s writers worked to reflect Del Barrio and Alexander’s experiences on the show and what it’s been like for the actors to make “Star Trek” history.

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Sonequa Martin-Green, Doug Jones, Raven Dauda, Wilson Cruz and Blu del Barrio on “Star Trek: Discovery.” Michael Gibson/CBS

The Writers Knew Early on They Wanted Non-Binary and Trans Representation for Season 3

Infinite diversity in infinite combinations has been one of the core values of “Star Trek” ever since creator Gene Roddenberry put a Black woman, Nichelle Nichols’ Uhura, and an Asian man, George Takei’s Sulu, on the bridge of the Enterprise in the original “Star Trek” TV series in 1966.

But until out actors Anthony Rapp and Wilson Cruz were cast on “Discovery” as couple Lt. Stamets and Dr. Culbert, there hadn’t been any LGBTQ representation of any significance on a “Trek” TV series. With “Discovery” jumping so far into the future in its third season, the writers took advantage of the opportunity to further expand the scope of the show’s queer representation.

“We really wanted to look around and see what sorts of new stories we could tell,” says Paradise. “‘Star Trek’ has always represented a myriad of voices. Who are the voices that we are not hearing from? Which are the characters that we are not seeing? Right now, what’s an important voice that we want to hear through these characters?”

“Part of the joy of Star Trek, especially given the state of the world now, is that we get to create the world that we want to see,” adds Kurtzman. “It’s a responsibility that we wanted to take very, very seriously.” Along with expanding the show’s representation of gender identity, Kurtzman says the writers also talked about wanting to tell “a great love story” on Season 3, and the two ideas merged together.

“It just felt like a really interesting way to do it,” he says. “There’s no magic formula for it. A lot of the time, you’re in the writers room, and you’re just sort of following your heart and you’re following your gut, and you’re trying to navigate toward what feels emotionally correct. This felt very emotionally correct.”

Casting the Actors Proved Unexpectedly Easy

Even though Del Barrio had told almost no one about their gender identity, months before the “Discovery” audition was even a possibility, their agent had the presence of mind to ask them if they’d ever want to submit for non-binary roles.

“I took a really long pause before just really quietly being like, ‘Yes, that’s okay. You can do that,'” Del Barrio says. “But I wasn’t expecting to book anything that soon. I think that was the reason why I was comfortable auditioning. I wanted to explore myself within these auditions, but I wasn’t expecting to actually book a job.

While TV producers cannot outright ask prospective actors about their sexuality or gender identity, they can specify both for the character in question. And when they received Del Barrio’s audition for Adira, it was simply undeniable. “We kind of had this idea of who Adira would be, and then Blu came along,” Paradise says. “And we just thought, Oh, we have to, we have to now tailor this character to this person who’s just so extraordinary.”

Alexander, by contrast, had already played a high-profile trans role on the Netflix series “The OA,” and that was enough to put him at the top of the producers’ list for Gray.

“I loved ‘The OA,'” says Kurtzman. “I’m one of the Save ‘The OA’ people. I was particularly taken by Ian’s performance. And Ian was the first person that we thought of for the part.”

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Terry Farrell as Jadzia Dax on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.” Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

The Trill, Already Avatars for LGBTQ Representation on “Star Trek,” Were the Perfect Vehicle for Adira and Gray’s Story

When they were cast, Del Barrio hadn’t seen any “Star Trek,” and Alexander had only seen a few episodes. But after getting a list of LGBTQ-skewing “Trek” episodes from Nick Adams, director of transgender media and representation for GLAAD, both actors quickly came to understand how the most potent episodes for queer representation on “Trek” have involved the Trill.

First introduced in a 1991 episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” the Trill were most deeply explored on the spinoff series “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” with the series regular character Jadzia Dax (Terry Farrell). Many of Dax’s previous hosts were men, and on one 1995 episode, Jadzia even briefly rekindles a relationship with the former wife of one of Dax’s previous male hosts.

Needless to say, in the absence of any explicitly queer characters, many LGBTQ “Trek” fans saw the Trill as the next best thing.

“Whether it was canon or not, intentional or not, to anyone who is queer in any way, it’s super noticeable,” says Del Barrio. “It just resonates.”

So when the writers decided to introduce non-binary and trans characters on “Discovery,” it was a no-brainer to do it through the prism of the Trill.

“The beauty of ‘Trek’ has always been that it presents an allegorical mirror to the situations that we are living in modern times,” says Kurtzman. “And what was exciting to us was saying, OK, we’re going to remove it from the level of allegory and we’re going to make it literal. We are absolutely acknowledging that people have interpreted characters like Jadzia as being trans metaphors, but it was never explicitly stated. We just felt we wanted to take it a step further.”

Using the Trill as the lens for Adira and Gray’s story also allowed the writers to skirt one of the most persistent storytelling hurdles for any “Trek” series: How can the show speak to the experience of trans and non-binary people today in a future in which trans and non-binary identity is a fully accepted reality? The answer was to make Adira’s ability to host a Trill symbiont horrifying to many Trill, for whom the privilege of hosting is rare honor.

“The hosts for the symbionts have always been Trill,” Kurtzman says. “The community of Trill has to reckon with the possibility that a host may not be Trill, and what does that mean? In the vein of all ‘Star Trek,’ do you accept what initially is perceived as other, and do you do broaden your horizons?”

The approach feels particularly “Star Trek”-y, allowing for all manner of interpretation. “We’ve made certain things literal and certain things remain very allegorical,” Kurtzman says. “We leave it to you to decide, but you’ll see it as a very contemporary debate. It’s actually the first time that I can remember ever writing anything related to ‘Trek’ that did both of those things at the same time.”

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Courtesy of CBS All Access

The Actors Were the Show’s Best Resource for Getting Adira and Gray’s Stories Right

Viewers will notice that neither Adira nor Gray’s gender identity are explicitly discussed in “Forget Me Not”; characters even refer to Adira with she/her pronouns instead of they/them. That is by design. With no non-binary or trans writers on staff, the “Discovery” team instead worked with Del Barrio and Alexander — in consultation with GLAAD’s Adams — to make sure Adira and Gray’s experiences on the show authentically reflected how they experienced the world.

“We did not have the non-binary or trans experience,” says Paradise. “It would not have been right for us to write those stories without having someone with that life experience to be able to help us and check us and make sure that these things are feeling authentic. … Our message to [Del Barrio and Alexander] from the very beginning was, ‘We want to follow your lead with all of this. We want to follow it with who you are as a person in the world, and we want to follow it with this character that you play. If you want the character to reflect some of your own experience, we can do that. If you don’t, that’s OK.’ Whatever would make them the most comfortable working on the show and playing that character.”

For Del Barrio — who had not yet come out to their parents as non-binary when they were cast on the show — that meant allowing Adira’s comfort level with sharing their gender identity to evolve very much in parallel with how it was unfolding for them off camera.

“I didn’t feel comfortable immediately playing a character that used they/them pronouns when I wasn’t even out myself,” explains Del Barrio. “I didn’t speak to [my parents] about it for a little while. I didn’t really know what to do. I had a lot of imposter syndrome. My immediate feeling was, like, extreme joy for getting this part. And immediately after came all of the fear of judgment, and all the fear of, maybe it shouldn’t be me, maybe it should be somebody else who’s been out longer and, you know, really understands themselves. So I struggled a lot with that.”

Del Barrio credits Kurtzman, Paradise, Adams and the “Discovery” cast and crew for creating a space that allowed them to work through these issues while also living them out on the show. “They checked with me constantly, throughout the filming of the whole season, which was really helpful because I was going through a lot,” Del Barrio says. (They did eventually come out to their parents before their casting was officially announced. “Immediately, they wanted to support me,” Del Barrio says. “They’re trying their best, and that’s kind of all I could ask for.”)

For Alexander, who had been out for years, the concern was allowing Gray to exist before explicitly stating his gender identity because that’s how it would be in life. “I think that there absolutely should be trans characters that just simply exist, and they don’t necessarily need to explain or come out as trans to the audience,” he says. “I do think there will be at some point in the future a more explicit conversation about Gray’s gender identity and his transition, but that just won’t happen right away.”

While Alexander believes that “any trans storyline should have a trans writer,” he was also thoroughly impressed with the lengths the “Discovery” team went to make sure his voice was heard. “They’re really setting a good foundation for potentially bringing in more [trans] writers in the future,” he says. “I haven’t had any concerns about Gray’s character yet, because it’s just been such a collaborative process from the very beginning. I really do trust Michelle, that she’s putting in the work of being a good trans ally and checking in with me, and also making sure to always include Gray in the storyline in a way that’s not alienating or othering them. They want to have trans characters existing in this universe and to not have to struggle or to suffer. They’re just simply existing.”

As an example of how far the “Discovery” team went to support them, both Del Barrio and Alexander relayed the same story: When Del Barrio asked if they could use a binder under their costume, the costume department just made them one.

“So when I showed up on set, there already was a binder ready to go for me,” Alexander said. “I didn’t even have to ask. It was the first job where I didn’t have to initiate that conversation, or just even wear my own because I felt too awkward to ask for it. As trans talent, you feel like you’re asking for too much: Accommodation for pronouns, being mindful of dysphoria when they’re putting a mic on your chest. You always feel like you’re taking up too much space. But I never felt that way on the set of ‘Star Trek.'”

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Courtesy of CBS All Access

Del Barrio and Alexander Can’t Quite Believe They Get to Make “Star Trek” and Television History

One of the benefits of participating so extensively in the creation of Adira and Gray is that Del Barrio and Alexander get to help shape directly how audiences will perceive non-binary and trans characters — in some cases, for the first time ever. The opportunity is not lost on either of them.

“It’s really scary,” Del Barrio says with a nervous laugh. “If there had been a character like this for me when I was little, it would have changed my life — but having that knowledge, and thinking that maybe this character could be that to some other person, is sort of terrifying. I’ve had to just try to calm myself down and just make the decision that I’m going to make this character’s lived experience with their gender as close to my own as possible. Because I want it to ring truthfully whatever I may be going through, and you know, if my if my process is challenging and messy, then it’s going to be challenging and messy, and that’s fine.”

What is particularly gratifying is that because they’re both on the show, neither actor has to shoulder the burden of representing the vast scope of gender identity by themselves. “The fact that it there’s me and Ian — we’re very different people, but we’re together on this screen,” Del Barrio says. “That by itself is crazy and wonderful because you are getting to two types of representation. You are getting shown a spectrum.”

“I think trans joy, trans power, and trans love deserves to be in the mainstream, in the spotlight,” Alexander says. “It brings me so much joy to be able to have such a nuanced, strong and confident, and self-assured character. For all the trans teens out there to finally see themselves represented in a franchise is amazing. That’s going to really, really help so many people.”