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Star Trek: Discovery

Why Michael Burnham is Great and “Star Trek: Discovery” is Not

It is rare to see women of color on screen. Across media, women get about a third of speaking roles with people of color only getting a third of that. That’s about 10%, significantly less than our percentage of the general population. And of course, women of color in lead roles in STEM-focused shows are even more scarce

For that reason alone, Star Trek: Discovery is worth watching as it follows the adventures of Michael Burnham, a black woman who breaks all sorts of stereotypes. Sonequa Martin-Green’s Burnham is not what we Trekkies (yes, I’m a nerd) have come to expect from a lead character.

For one, she’s not a captain. It may seem like a small shift to those who haven’t been watching pointy-eared people say “live and long and prosper” their whole life, but for those of us who have, it’s a big change. This shift allows us to get to know the life of more junior crew members, making at least one Ensign (Mary Wiseman’s excellent Sylvia Tilly) a major character (instead of just cannon fodder). It also allows us a look into what the life of the vast majority of the crew is like. The young crew members don’t know the captain’s intentions, lack insight on the reason for their mission, and are not part of the top-level decision-making process. With this limited knowledge, they must decide to follow orders (or not) in life-threatening scenarios. It’s quite a different experience from that of the captain.

And that’s just how Burnham breaks Star Trek conventions. There’s also her black woman-ness. Raised on Vulcan (by Spock’s parents no less), Burnham is hyper-rational, a human learning to accept her emotions. That’s classic Star Trek but it’s quite different from the “Angry Black Woman” we see so much in television and movies. It’s also hyper-relatable. As a Latina raised in a society that uplifts stoicism, I understand the pull towards suppressing emotions. It seems like life would be simpler without them, no? No one would label you as “emotional” and you could always be the calm one in an argument. Of course, you’d also miss out on all life’s joys, so… not worth it. Anyways, Burnham is on a journey to seeing her humanity as a strength and I relate.

Michael Burnham is also an awkward date-r, unsure of her own feelings, and how to assert herself. This is largely outside of how we see Black women portrayed as well. We’re used to seeing them more on the poles of sexuality, either as hyper-sexual or a-sexual, jezebel or mammy. Neither is true of course and shows like Insecure are breaking this trope. But it’s nice to see Star Trek, a leader in a completely different genre, do it too. And of course, I love seeing Star Trek ask its fans (of all genders and races) to take this journey through the lens of a Black woman who’s smart, flawed, and growing.

And Burnham isn’t the only character pushing representation issues on Discovery. There’s the unparalleled Michelle Yeoh as Captain/Emperor Philippa Georgiou. She’s deliciously evil as the Emperor, traipsing through the galaxy in multiple dimensions, exerting her will wherever she goes. And so as not to play into some sort of evil-Asian stereotype, we have her heroic Captain whose warmth and strength of character serve as a strong foil. We also have body diversity in Ensign Tilly (surprise, not everyone in space is a size two!) and a same-sex relationship between Anthony Rapp’s Paul Stamets and Wilson Cruz’s (aka Rickie) Dr. Hugh Culber, portrayed with the romance, care, and intrigue usually reserved for straight characters.

And all this is classic Star Trek. This is the franchise that had the first interracial kiss on television. That cast Avery Brooks, a Black man, as Captain Sisko in Deep Space Nine and Kate Mulgrew, a woman, as Captain Janeway in Voyager. That, thankfully, continues to push barriers today.

This purposeful diversity is part of Star Trek’s optimistic ethos. At the franchise’s core is the belief that humanity can be better than we are today. It’s an alternate vision to the dystopia all around us. A vision of the future where we’ve overthrown racism and sexism, eliminating poverty and crime as we go. Greed (or capitalism) is no longer society’s organizing force. Instead, in Star Trek, humanity is a race of peacemakers and explorers who are driven to learn and be better. It’s a glorious vision and one I’ve loved tuning into since I was a child.

Yet, despite its amazing cast, Star Trek: Discovery doesn’t quite embody this worldview. Yes, they talk about the “prime directive” (for those not in the know, that’s not interfering with other societies’ natural progression). And yes, the action takes place within the Federation of Planets, which consists of a variety of different species who’ve all come together in peace as scientists and explorers. But the show itself doesn’t seem to hold these values.

You see the first season is all about Star Fleet’s war with the Klingons. This war was the background for Kirk and crew and Discovery gives us new details. But while I know the Klingons will eventually spawn such strong, relatable characters as Worf and B’Elanna Torres, in Discovery, they’re an ugly, dark race hell-bent on war and destruction. Motivated by nothing other than to fight, they seem wholly evil, an enemy worthy of nothing but death. It’s a trope you see a lot in fantasy and sci-fi (see Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter,etc.) and it’d be fine to fantasize about such clear moral lines if we didn’t also see this same dehumanization used to excuse real-life violence. Look up the argument for using the Atomic Bomb against Japan for an atrocious example.

This lack of nuance fails Star Trek’s core values. Yes, the crew of Discovery (spoiler) ends up staying the Federation’s hand from committing its own atrocity. We even see Burnham give a rousing speech, celebrating Federation values. But the show hasn’t given Klingons the human treatment yet. Instead, it’s let them remain heartless and destruction-bent. I guess we’ll have to wait a century or two to see the beauty in their warrior culture and how they value honor and family above all us.

And that’s not the only example. In the current season, the show (not the characters) fails to have any real curiosity about the universe it’s exploring. In “An Obal for Charon,” the ship meets a 100,000+-year-old orb that is dying and trying to communicate the mysteries of the universe to the crew. However, instead of being interested in this orb’s subjectivity or experience, the show treats it as an obstacle, remaining doggedly fixed on the danger to the crew and mission. This is not Picard’s Enterprise. It’s just action sequence after action sequence, something you can see on countless other shows. It’s got none of the Star Trek sense of wonder at the great unknowns of the universe.

And I could go on. How easily the show moves past Saru forsaking the prime directive in “The Sound of Thunder,” making this literal prime directive into an obstacle too, not an actual moral dilemma. Or that the predator race, the Ba’ul, in that same episode looks like pure evil, a black, dripping, stooping menace, reminiscent of the girl in The Ring. These choices make the show too easy to watch. They keep Discovery from posing any intellectual or moral questions, asking nothing of its viewers but to be along for a ride.

I guess what I’m saying is that Star Trek: Discovery isn’t nerdy enough to be great. I so wish it was. Michael Burnham and crew deserve the complex universe of Picard, Janeway, and Sisco. The one we real people inhabit where choices are not always easy, you can’t tell a bad person from a good one by their appearance, and curiosity in others is not just a passing fancy. Discoveryis just in its second season and will hopefully find some depth soon. If not, there’s always the Michelle Yeoh as Emperor Philippa Georgiou spin-off to look forward to.

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