Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Discovery Seasons 1-3 and the trailers and teasers for Season 4.
A bit of a morbid one this time… but it is nearly Halloween!
In the last decade or so, a number of television shows have pioneered what I call the “disposable cast” – where even main characters and fan-favourites can’t be assured of safety or survival as a series continues. Shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead have made this a big part of their identities, and the idea that any major character could be in danger can – when done right – add to the tension and drama. Not knowing if your favourite character will make it to the end of the episode or escape a dangerous situation can really increase the weight of a story.
Discovery has technically seen more main cast members depart than any previous Star Trek series! Captains Lorca and Pike, Spock, Georgiou, Tyler, and Nhan were all main cast members at one point before departing the series. But with the exception of Lorca, none of these characters were killed off, and in a television landscape that increasingly favours big, dramatic character deaths, the Star Trek franchise as a whole still hasn’t really caught up.
In Season 3 we saw the recurring character of Ryn killed off. He’d been a friend and ally to Booker and Burnham and his death was both a shock – due to the way it was carried out – and a tragedy for the crew. As with Airiam in Season 2, though, Ryn wasn’t a character we’d got to know particularly well before his death, and when Season 3 could have stepped up and actually killed off a main character or a character who’d been present on the show since the beginning, the writers and producers chose not to do so.
Star Trek has always had an optimistic tone, embodied in some ways by Captain Kirk’s assertion that he “doesn’t believe in no-win scenarios.” The desire to save everyone every time is drilled into every Starfleet officer – particularly captains. In that sense I can certainly entertain the argument that a character death feels like a loss or a defeat in a way that is somehow “un-Star Trek.”
At the same time, I fundamentally disagree with Captain Kirk. Life is full of no-win scenarios, and one of the skills any captain or commander needs to have is knowing how to make a difficult choice; how to choose the least-bad option when no good outcomes are possible. Sometimes that means sacrificing a life to save others, and this is something that the Star Trek franchise has touched on in the past.
Though I don’t want to see any specific character killed off in Discovery’s imminent fourth season, a well-timed character death could go a long way to raising the stakes and making the story much more impactful. The gravitational anomaly would seem all the more deadly if it claimed the life of a familiar face, or the climax of the story could see Captain Burnham having to make an impossible choice.
So this time we’re going to take a look at Discovery’s main and recurring characters – and try to assess who may or may not survive the season!
The usual caveats apply: I have no “insider information” and I’m not claiming to know what will happen. All of this is guesswork and speculation from a fan of Star Trek, nothing more. It’s also entirely subjective, so if you disagree or hate my ideas that’s okay!
Now that’s out of the way, let’s get started. I’m going to put the characters into a list, then give my assessment of how likely they are to be killed off during Season 4.
Character #1: Captain Michael Burnham
Status: Almost Certainly Safe 💖
Discovery has been the Michael Burnham show since its premiere episode, and that is unlikely to change! The first three seasons saw Burnham’s rise to the captaincy of the USS Discovery, and having only just got there it would be a really unexpected and subversive twist to kill her off. As the show’s main protagonist she feels safer than most – and even series that pioneered the “disposable cast” like those mentioned above have tended to save their most significant characters from harm.
The only possible argument we could consider to counter that is the uniqueness of the USS Discovery’s captain’s chair. Three seasons of the show have each been led by a different captain – Lorca, Pike, and Saru. One of Discovery’s most interesting features has been these individual season-long captaincies and the very different styles each captain had. It’s possible – though I wouldn’t call it “likely” by any stretch – that the show might choose to bring in another new captain for Season 5, continuing this trend. If that’s the case, perhaps Captain Burnham isn’t quite as safe as it seems! However, I consider that a very unlikely scenario.
Character #2: Saru
Status: In Danger ☠️
What role does ex-Captain Saru have aboard a ship that has moved on without him? That’s a fundamental question that the series will have to address, because it’s quite odd for a Starfleet vessel to be racing across the galaxy with two captains on board. The situation could, perhaps, even lead to some awkwardness for Captain Burnham!
Some fans felt that Saru might’ve left Discovery after the Season 3 epilogue told us that he was returning to Kaminar to spend time helping Su’Kal. Fortunately that didn’t happen – not least because the short epilogue would have been a very disrespectful way for Saru to be shuffled off the show altogether! But the fact that Discovery has found a new captain means Saru doesn’t really have a role any more, at least not as things currently stand. Characters who feel surplus to requirements are often the most in danger – and Saru doesn’t really have a clear role right now.
Character #3: Paul Stamets
Status: In Danger ☠️
Until recently, Stamets felt safer than almost any other character on Discovery! His unique ability to navigate the mycelial network meant that without him, one of Discovery’s unique selling points – the Spore Drive – wouldn’t work. For story reasons that could be a problem and certainly a limitation, so Stamets felt safe. But the revelation at the end of Season 3 that Booker – and any other empathic character, in theory – can interact with the Spore Drive in the same way as Stamets means his unique usefulness is at an end.
So the question is this: was Stamets’ unique ability stripped away from him for a reason? Could Season 3 have been setting up a situation in the near future where the crew will have to survive without him? Or was it just a natural progression in the story of the Emerald Chain’s takeover of Discovery? Actually I guess that was three questions! But the point stands: Stamets is not the only one who can use the Spore Drive any more, and thus no longer feels anywhere near as safe as he did last season.
Character #4: Dr Hugh Culber
Status: Safe 💖
Dr Culber has already been killed off once – and he didn’t stay dead! There was also a minor backlash in some quarters to the killing off of one of Star Trek’s first major gay characters. Sometimes LGBT+ characters can feel more “expendable” in films and on television than their non-LGBT+ counterparts; a trope that we could definitely do without!
LGBT+ issues aside, I feel that Dr Culber’s “back from the dead” storyline in Season 2 means he’s a safe bet to survive Season 4. It would be a stupidly complicated storyline to kill him off for the second time, and I think for production-side reasons the writers and producers are less willing to kill off Dr Culber than almost anyone else.
Character #5: Sylvia Tilly
Status: Probably Safe 💖
I’m calling Tilly safe because it just doesn’t seem as though the writers and producers want to get rid of her yet. Tilly has been the one character other than Michael Burnham to have seen significant growth across all three seasons of the show, overcoming her anxieties to step up and even take command of the ship. The way she led a team of officers in the final couple of episodes of Season 3 came to embody that transformation – and her arc, while imperfectly executed, was nevertheless powerful to see.
As Tilly is still young and only a junior officer, there’s plenty of room to continue that growth. I don’t think she’s going to be Captain Burnham’s first officer in Season 4, but it could well be that her arc across Season 4 and perhaps into Season 5 is readying her to take on that role again. Regardless, I don’t expect to see her killed off in Season 4.
Character #6: Cleveland Booker
Status: Safe 💖
Unless Discovery plans to introduce a new main character, Book is the show’s main guide to the 32nd Century. Not only does he serve in that role for Captain Burnham and the crew of the ship, but he’s also a great character to show us as the audience the perspective of a 32nd Century native. He has a major role in that regard, and unless he can be replaced with a like-for-like character I can’t see the show dispensing with him.
Booker also has a relationship with Captain Burnham to consider, and while we can expect some bumps in the road with that perhaps, I think killing him off at this stage would be too much for Burnham after everything else she’s been through. I’d like to see Book help to anchor Burnham and keep her grounded as she handles the burden of command – serving as a confidante and her closest ally. Book’s story is also incomplete, and we’ve been promised a closer look at his background in the future. For all of those reasons and more, I think he’s pretty safe!
Character #7: Admiral Charles Vance
Status: In Danger ☠️
I felt Vance was in danger toward the end of Season 3 as well, and that he could’ve fallen victim to the Emerald Chain when they attacked Federation HQ. That didn’t happen – fortunately – but Admiral Vance definitely feels in danger as we approach Season 4. As one of the most significant secondary characters in Season 3, Vance’s death would carry more weight than a lot of other secondary characters’ would, which is one reason I felt he might’ve been in danger last time around.
Two things struck me from the Season 4 trailers: the almost total absence of Vance and the arrival of Federation President Rillak. Rillak, as I’ve noted in the past, seems to occupy a similar role to Vance’s in Season 3, serving as a “big boss” for Captain Burnham and the crew to ultimately be answerable to. That was the job Vance had as head of Starfleet in Season 3, but if Burnham is now reporting directly to President Rillak… what is there for Vance to do? Combine that with his absence from the two trailers and I wonder what might’ve become of the head of Starfleet.
Character #8: President Rillak
Status: In Danger ☠️
President Rillak’s status is difficult to gauge because she’s brand-new! We’ve only seen her in action very briefly in the trailers for Season 4, so what role she might ultimately play is unclear at best. However, there are a few reasons to think that she could be in danger.
Firstly, any new character should automatically be assumed to be in danger! It’s easier to kill off a brand-new character than an established fan-favourite, and doing so could be a relatively easy way to communicate the stakes in any story. Secondly is Rillak’s role: President of the Federation. The death of someone in such a powerful position is always going to have a significant effect, even if we as the audience didn’t know her particularly well. Thirdly, the main scene we’ve seen so far featuring President Rillak showed her facing off against Captain Burnham in at least a semi-antagonistic way. Killing off a character who’s either a villain or a hurdle to our heroes is a trope as old as time!
Characters #9 and #10: Adira Tal and Gray Tal
Status: Safe 💖
One storyline in Season 4 is going to focus on Gray’s quest to be “seen” – to become corporeal again somehow. Discovery certainly won’t kill off Adira and Gray without bringing this story to its conclusion, as it’s an incredibly powerful analogy for the status of trans and non-binary people – as well as being an exciting and interesting story in its own right.
Gray is tied to Adira, and thus it isn’t possible to kill them off without also killing off Gray. I think that makes both of them safe, though there is a lingering question as to what exactly Gray is. Star Trek doesn’t do ghosts, so Gray has to be explained scientifically somehow! Regardless, both characters feel assuredly safe.
Character #11: Dr Tracy Pollard
Status: In Danger ☠️
After three seasons we don’t really know Dr Pollard very well. She’s often been seen in sickbay, and has patched up many of our heroes when they were injured, but aside from being a competent doctor we don’t really know very much about her. She appeared a few times in Season 3, but was never front-and-centre even in sequences in sickbay.
Dr Pollard is one of those secondary characters who has been in the background for the show’s entire run. Killing her off would be an easy option for Discovery in many ways; an attempt to get the impact of the death of a familar face without having to kill off anyone major. Be on the lookout for an Airiam-style spotlight on Dr Pollard – if she suddenly becomes the focus of a major storyline, she could be on her way to the chopping block!
Character #12: Kovich
Status: Safe… for now! 💖
Until we know who Kovich is and what his role is in the hierarchy of the Federation, I can’t imagine Discovery would kill him off. There’s too much mystery surrounding this character, and to leave that unresolved would be fundamentally frustrating at a narrative level. My personal theory is that Kovich is the head of Section 31, or perhaps Starfleet Intelligence, but none of that has been confirmed on screen yet.
Famed director David Cronenberg plays the character, and I think for both Star Trek and Cronenberg it’s been a great partnership. Kovich thus feels safer than most, but it’s still possible that after we learn more about him and what his role has been that he could be killed off in future; he may not be permanently safe!
Character #13: Jett Reno
Status: In Danger ☠️
Tig Notaro, who plays Jett Reno, has said that the character won’t appear as frequently in Season 4 as originally intended. This is due to the impact of the pandemic on the show’s production. That doesn’t mean that Reno is necessarily in any danger, but it is worth noting.
Reno is famously sarcastic and deadpan, so her line in the second Season 4 trailer that she’s “lived a good life” could simply be her usual wit. However, it could also be some dark foreshadowing – and perhaps Season 4 could see Reno meet her end.
Character #14: Dr Gabrielle Burnham
Status: In Danger ☠️
It seems as though Dr Burnham and the Qowat Milat will have a significant role to play in Season 4 – at least based on what we saw in the second trailer. One thing came to mind when I saw other members of the Qowat Milat fighting and training, though: could they be seeking revenge for the death of one of their own? If so, perhaps Dr Burnham is the one who’s died.
This could be connected to the gravitational anomaly or it could be its own independent storyline. Regardless, Dr Burnham’s death would have a huge impact on Michael Burnham, and could be a major source of emotion and drama for her as the season rolls on. Coping with bereavement and learning to move forward while grieving are themes Star Trek has touched on in the past.
Character #15: T’Rina
Status: Probably Safe 💖
The President of Ni’Var, who we met in Season 3, would be an odd choice to kill off. It’s arguable that, if she does indeed lead Ni’Var back to Federation membership as the trailers have hinted, her story is complete and thus she may not have much more to do. But when considering character deaths, one factor is how their loss will impact others in the story.
Saru is the only main character with whom T’Rina has any significant relationship, and thus her death wouldn’t be as impactful for Captain Burnham and the rest of the crew even when compared to the new character of President Rillak. T’Rina being killed would still have the effect of communicating the stakes involved and the dangers of the anomaly, but it would matter far less from an emotional point of view. Thus I think there are probably better candidates when it comes to characters being killed off.
Character #16: Lieutenant Willa
Status: In Danger ☠️
Lieutenant Willa was Admiral Vance’s aide-de-camp in Season 3, and also briefly spent time aboard Discovery. She helped the crew acclimatise to the 32nd Century, and brought them up to speed on some of the new technologies that had been installed on the ship after arriving at Federation HQ. Though a good deal of Willa’s story and interactions with the crew happened off-screen, it’s fair to say she’s well-known to most of them and on friendly terms.
Willa’s death would thus have a significant impact on practically everyone aboard Discovery – especially if she had transferred aboard the ship or spent more time with Captain Burnham and the crew earlier in Season 4. Her death would also affect Admiral Vance – or she could even be a secondary casualty if Vance himself were killed. As a familiar face and someone known to the crew, Willa could be killed off to communicate the stakes involved in the story.
Character #17: Grudge
Status: She better be safe! Or else… 🐱
Discovery can kill off a lot of characters… but the show better leave Grudge alone! Jokes aside, one of the best moments in the Season 3 finale was the way Book stood up to the villainous Zareh when he threatened to hurt Grudge. As a cat owner I love Grudge and I’m very protective of her… so if Discovery tried to get away with killing her off I might actually cry.
On a serious note, I think Grudge is probably safe. She gives Book’s character an extra dimension; a dependent for him to care for and look after. Plus she serves as a kind of mascot for the series. I can’t see Grudge being killed off in Season 4 – no matter how bad things get for Captain Burnham and Book!
Characters #18-23: The Secondary Bridge Crew
Status: In Danger ☠️
I’m lumping six characters together for this final entry because I found myself saying basically the same thing about all of them! Included in this group are the following: Detmer, Owosekun, Rhys, Bryce, Nilsson, and Linus. Most of them had an outing with Tilly at the end of Season 3 in which they were all in serious danger – most notably Owosekun. They all survived that encounter, but I’m not convinced they’ll all make it to the end of Season 4.
Detmer and Owosekun are the two characters we know best thanks to their development in Season 2 and particularly in Season 3. But any of these six could get the Airiam treatment and have a moment in the spotlight followed by a quick death. If Discovery wanted to show us the stakes and communicate the dangers involved without killing off a major character, any of these secondary characters could find themselves on the chopping block.
So that’s it. Those are my pre-season feelings about the safety of each of Discovery’s main characters!
Season 4 is only three weeks away now, so we won’t have to wait too long to find out which of our favourite characters will survive the gravitational anomaly – and all of the other dangers out there in the 32nd Century! As I said at the beginning, I’m not advocating for any specific character to be killed off. I like everyone, even the secondary characters, and I wouldn’t necessarily want any of them to die.
At the same time, Season 3 felt like it had a little too perfect of an outcome for some characters, especially in the finale. Sometimes, when facing an impossibly dangerous situation, loss of life is inevitable. Making it so that characters continually survive the impossible quickly gets boring, and there was definitely a sense in the Season 3 finale that “plot armour” was protecting more than one character.
A well-timed and well-executed character death can be shocking, impactful, and emotional. When establishing the danger involved in a situation, seeing a character we know meet their end can raise the stakes dramatically for the remainder of the story, and the sense that anyone – even important named characters – could be in danger is part of what has made television storytelling since 2010 so entertaining and dramatic. Discovery doesn’t need to go down this road – but doing so could lead to some outstanding storylines and deeply emotional moments.
I’m looking forward to Season 4 now! Hopefully the show can build on the successes of Season 3 and continue the process of establishing the 32nd Century as a setting in its own right – while also telling a new and different story about the gravitational anomaly. It will also be great to see Captain Burnham in command of the ship in her own right for the first time. Let’s fly!
Star Trek: Discovery Season 4 will premiere on the 18th of November 2021 on Paramount+ in the United States and on Netflix in the United Kingdom and around the world. Seasons 1-3 are available to stream now. The Star Trek franchise – including Discovery and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.