STAR TREK, as a franchise, has had some fantastic characters. And TREK has always been willing to push boundaries. Nichelle Nichols made history as Lt. Uhura in THE ORIGINAL SERIES, which also featured the first interracial kiss on mainstream TV. DEEP SPACE NINE featured a black male captain, and VOYAGER’s captain was a woman. But, for all these firsts, no STAR TREK property has ever been led by a black woman. Enter Michael Burnham.

STAR TREK DISCOVERY Review: A Worthy Return to the Final Frontier

The protagonist of STAR TREK: DISCOVERY, Michael Burnham is a breath of fresh air in a long and sometimes tired franchise. More than that, though, she is a much-needed representation in modern pop culture. Roles for women of color are rare and frequently typecast. Michael Burnham pushes past stereotypes to give us a heroine that truly represents a modern woman of color.

DISCOVERY

DISCOVERY is the newest STAR TREK offering, and it definitely is new. Although it follows some of TV’s most famous shows (plus countless movies), DISCOVERY stands out as a different kind of TREK. Part of this is in the show’s format. Unlike most of the movies and several of the TV shows, DISCOVERY does not take place on the U.S.S. Enterprise. Rather, it takes place on the Discovery, a science vessel.

Michael Burnham

The show also stands out for its tone. STAR TREK is, historically, a show that espouses peace and, well, discovery. Although the shows — and especially the newer movies — have dealt with conflict in the past, TREK has always maintained a message of hope for a better tomorrow. DISCOVERY, on the other hand, deals almost exclusively with warfare and destruction. The ultimate message is still one of hope, but it’s a long, dark road to that point.

But what makes DISCOVERY really stand out is its protagonist. Unlike THE ORIGINAL SERIES or NEXT GENERATION, the protagonist is not a white male. DISCOVERY pushes past previous TREKs to give us our first black female protagonist — a long overdue and much-welcomed feat. The remainder of the cast is also more diverse than usual, with new aliens, humans of various races, and even a cyborg.

Meeting Michael Burnham

But Michael is a great protagonist for much more than just the historic nature of her casting. Michael Burnham is one of the most interesting and complex characters I’ve seen on TV in some time. When we first meet Michael, she is the first officer and science officer of the U.S.S. Shenzhou, captained by Philippa Georgiou. Georgiou and Michael are close, and it seems like Michael is close to ascending the ranks and gaining a captainship of her own.

Tragedy strikes when the Shenzhou happens upon evidence that the Klingons are up to something. Michael seeks advice from her foster father, the Vulcan ambassador Sarek (who is also the father of Spock!). Sarek advises Michael that the Klingons will only respond to strength, so she proposes a preemptive strike. Georgiou will not go against Starfleet regulations, however.

Michael Burnham

Michael fears that she is the only chance for the Shenzhou to escape unscathed. She mutinies, incapacitating Georgiou with a Vulcan nerve pinch (nice!) and taking command. She strikes the first blow and starts the Battle of the Binary Stars, which sparks a bloody war with the Klingons. Georgiou awakes and sends Michael to the brig, but later seeks her aid in taking down the leader of the Klingons.

Sadly, Georgiou dies in the attempt, though they are successful in killing T’Kuvma, the Klingon religious and political leader. Michael faces a court-martial, where she loses her lank as commander and is sentenced to life in prison. She must now live with not only her mutinous reputation but the knowledge that her actions led to the death of her mentor and friend.

Joining Discovery

This all happens in the first couple of episodes. So what happens next? How does Michael Burnham recover from this monumental setback? Well, that’s what DISCOVERY spends the rest of the season exploring. During a prisoner transfer, Michael ends up aboard the Discovery. Strange things are afoot, and Michael gets pulled into some shenanigans. Captain Gabriel Lorca invites her to stay and help Discovery win the war.

Michael Burnham

During her time on Discovery, Michael initially struggles. She carries the consequences of her actions at the Battle of the Binary Stars with her, and her reputation makes making friends difficult. However, Michael also struggles to fit in because of her upbringing. Although Michael is human, she was raised as a Vulcan by Sarek. Amanda, Sarek’s human wife, advised Michael to remember her human side, but she conforms to Vulcan expectations.

This gets Michael pretty far in life. She’s incredibly intelligent, and a Vulcan education puts her right at home with Discovery’s scientific pioneering. However, it has left her a little stilted emotionally and socially. Add in the fact that Michael has a complicated relationship with Sarek, and you can see why she would suffer.

STAR TREK DISCOVERY: Mid-Season Review

We later find out that Sarek chose Spock over Michael — only one of his “experiments” would be granted admission to the Vulcan Science Academy. Discovering this truth helps Michael push past the limitations she placed on herself. She tries to break out of her shell. She works on this with the help of her roommate, Sylvia Tilly. Tilly is a cadet who dreams of being captain. She is also gregarious and social. She and Michael help each other.

Finding Love

Although Tilly’s efforts help Michael become more comfortable with social interaction, it is her relationship with Ash Tyler that pushes her forward. Ash Tyler had been a captive of the Klingons and helped Lorca escape when he too is captured. Tyler becomes the head of security for Discovery. There is a strange attraction between him and Michael that she initially rejects, but she takes Tilly’s advice and goes for it.

They form a relationship. It’s an interesting dynamic. These two people are both very damaged. Tyler was tortured in captivity and sold his body to survive. He deals with PTSD and blackouts. Michael struggles with her Vulcan upbringing, the death of her parents at Klingon hands, and the consequences of her past actions. Together, the two help prop each other up.

Michael Burnham

Unfortunately for Michael, this doesn’t end well. Tyler was a Klingon in disguise as a human. Worse, he was Voq, the second-in-command to the Klingon leader Michael slew at the Battle of the Binary Stars. When his programming is activated, Voq/Tyler attempts to kill Michael. This breaks something in Michael.

Eventually, the Klingon programming is undone, but nothing can undo what Tyler has been through. He is still, in some ways, Voq, and that won’t change. He no longer wishes to kill Michael, but they cannot be together again. Tyler helps her end the war, but then they part ways. However, Michael finds closure. She reasserts her worth as an individual, and will not let this unfortunate incident bring her to a halt.

Looking in a Mirror

Michael’s biggest test comes when the Discovery finds itself in the Mirror Universe. The Mirror Universe is a TREK staple. It is a parallel universe where humans are violent and bent on conquest. They never form the Federation, instead of forming the Terran Empire. They subjugate non-human species and cause destruction wherever they go.

Michael Burnham

In the Mirror Universe, Georgiou is still alive — but she is the violent and cruel Terran Emperor. Michael is presumed dead, but she was captain of the Shenzhou, and Tilly is captain of Discovery. The real twist is that Lorca is actually from the Mirror Universe. He has been manipulating things to return to his universe and take over the Empire.

He initially made it to the Prime Universe running from persecution after staging a coup. We find out that he and Michael were involved, and he turned Michael against Georgiou, who had raised her as her daughter. Thus, Georgiou is skeptical of Michael. But the two must work together when Lorca reveals the truth and tries to take over the Empire once again.

Star Trek Discovery: Looking Through The Mirror at a Stellar Season

Working together, in one of my favorite scenes from DISCOVERY, Georgiou and Michael defeat Lorca. Tilly has found a way for Discovery to return to their universe, and Michael, in a split second decision, brings Georgiou with her. This is a way to deal with her guilt over Georgiou’s death, though it does backfire when Georgiou brings Terran violence into the Federation.

A Beacon of Light

After they return to the Prime Universe, the crew of Discovery learns that they have missed nine months of war — and that they are losing. Desperate to stop the Klingons, the Federation turns to Georgiou to learn how the Terrans defeated the Klingons. They form a plan to attack Qo’nos, the Klingon homeworld.

The problem is that Georgiou has worked with the higher-ups to plot a genocidal attack. They are going to destroy Qo’nos and kill all the Klingons in the world. Michael rejects this, in a reversal of her actions at the Binary Stars. She has learned her lesson — violence will only beget more violence. Finally, Michael has found her way back to Federation principles.

Michael Burnham

Michael stops Georgiou and finds a way to skirt outright genocide. In the process, she makes an unwilling ally of a Klingon and ends the war. She also creates a lot of change by putting a female Klingon in power. In the end, Discovery returns to Earth, where they are rewarded with medals for their efforts to end the war.

During the ceremony, Michael makes a very inspiring speech reminding us all of the ideals of the Federation: hope, peace, and discovery. In the end, Michael’s court-martial is expunged. She will rejoin Discovery as a commander once more. It’s been a long, hard road for Michael Burnham, but she has rediscovered who she is and what she stands for.

Growth and Change

Michael Burnham is such an important protagonist because she learns and develops as a character. The show is about war, destruction, betrayal, and death, sure. But on a deeper, more fundamental level, DISCOVERY is about Michael’s journey. She has to make mistakes, learn, and change to become the person she was meant to be.

The journey into the Mirror Universe was paramount to this development. DISCOVERY is frequently criticized for being darker than other TREK properties, but the Mirror Universe proves that, no matter how dark DISCOVERY is, it’s still not as bad as the Terran Empire. The time Michael spends undercover forces her to do things she’s not comfortable with to masquerade as a Terran, and she must reevaluate who she is.

Michael Burnham

The fact that Tyler’s betrayal happens in the Mirror Universe is essential. Tyler was with Michael to help remind her who she is when a foreign world surrounds her. To have that anchor turn against her could have put Michael loose at sea, and it would have been easy to give in to Terran impulses. Instead, Michael grows and becomes her own person. She does not need Tyler. She is strong all on her own.

The final episode arc brings home Michael’s growth. In the season-opening, she takes advice from a parent figure to respond with violence and starts a war. In the finale, she rejects advice from a parent figure to respond with violence, and ends the war she started. She has learned to make her own decisions, to stand on her own two feet. Michael will not let her past define her. Instead, she will blaze a path to a brighter future.

A Brighter Future

That brighter future looms at the end of season one of DISCOVERY. Although the season ends with a cliffhanger showing the Enterprise in peril, it still ends with a promise of a brighter future — one that is owed almost entirely to Michael Burnham.

Admittedly, the war might not have started without Michael’s actions at the Binary Stars. However, the Klingons were itching for a fight and would likely have found a way. The fact that Michael is able to end that war while minimizing bloodshed — even the bloodshed of her enemies — shows that one person really can make a difference and bring about that hoped-for brighter future.

Michael Burnham

 

Many people complained that casting a woman of color as the lead in DISCOVERY was a response to political correctness and SJW-tactics. These people miss the point. STAR TREK has always been about a diverse world leading to a better tomorrow. Michael Burnham is the physical embodiment of that message.

The Federation exists in a post-racial, post-sexist society, supposedly. So it makes little difference to the characters in DISCOVERY that Michael is a black woman. However, to the audience, that message is vital. Black women are bringing about change in DISCOVERY — but they’re also bringing about change in the real world. With more women like Michael Burnham, maybe we can achieve that brighter future DISCOVERY promises.

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