Welcome to Bae Watch Wednesday, where I tell you all about the fictional characters you ought to be crushing on. This past Sunday we saw the season finale of Star Trek: Discovery, so I want to talk about the fantastic Michael Burnham and why she’s the bae-est.
Who is Michael Burnham?
Michael Burnham is the main character of the newest Star Trek offering, Discovery. Discovery takes place approximately ten years before The Original Series. It provides a different, often darker look at the universe we know. Many have criticized the show for… well, a lot of reasons. But one thing it does right is give us a fantastic protagonist in Michael.
When we first meet Michael, she (yes, Michael Burnham is female) is the first officer on the U. S. S. Shenzhou. Her captain is Philippa Georgiou, and the two share a close, friendly relationship. Georgiou is a mentor to Michael and pushes for Michael to receive her own captainship soon. Unfortunately, they run into some trouble when a Klingon religious fanatic attempts to unite the Klingon Empire against the Federation.
Michael seeks advice from Sarek, a Vulcan official (and the father of Spock!). We learn throughout the course of the series that Sarek took Michael in after her parents died. Michael was raised essentially as a Vulcan, although Sarek’s human wife Amanda urged her not to forget her human roots. In the present, Sarek advises Michael that Klingons only respond to strength. Michael seeks to attack but is shot down by Georgiou.
However, seeing no alternative to save her ship and her crew, Michael mutinies. She incapacitates Georgiou and instigates an attack. Things don’t go as planned, and Michael and Georgiou board the lead Klingon vessel. They are able to strike back and end up killing the Klingon leader. However, Georgiou dies in the attempt. Michael escapes but faces a court-martial for her actions. She is stripped of rank and sentenced to life in prison.
During a prisoner transfer, Michael ends up at the U. S. S. Discovery, a Federation science vessel. Strange things are happening on Discovery and with her captain Gabriel Lorca. We learn that Discovery is using experimental technology to travel in a new way. Lorca insists that Discovery is going to change the course of the war that Michael started… and invites her to stay and help.
With a Vulcan education, Michael is well suited to engineering work on Discovery. However, she is less suited to integrating into a crew. Her Vulcan upbringing has led to stifled emotional expression. Add in the fact that Michael is blamed for starting the war with the Klingons, and infamously known as a mutineer, it’s no wonder she struggles to make friends. However, her roommate Sylvia Tilly is warm and welcoming.
Tilly wants to be captain someday and seeks advice from Michael. For her part, Michael seeks Tilly’s help in expressing her human self. The two form a close friendship, and it helps Michael adjust. She even develops a romantic relationship with Ash Tyler, who had been a prisoner of the Klingons. Life isn’t perfect for Michael, but she is adjusting. More importantly, she is helping.
Of course, things come crashing down after that. A freak occurrence sends Discovery to the Mirror Universe, where a cruel and violent Terran Empire subjugates all other species. Michael must go undercover as her Terran counterpart to secure information necessary for Discovery to return to their universe. This will not be easy, especially when the Emperor is revealed to be none other than Philippa Georgiou.
The Mirror Universe brings surprise after surprise, most of them negative. Michael struggles with seeing the Shenzhou again, which she is supposedly captain of. Tilly, meanwhile, is captain of Discovery. Michael must hide her true self, which pushes her outside her comfort zone when she is forced to act violently and selfishly.
To add to her troubles, Ash Tyler is revealed to be a Klingon sleeper agent. He awakens and attacks Michael, breaking her heart (and nearly her neck). With almost no time to recover, Michael is summoned to face Georgiou. She brings Lorca with her; in the Mirror Universe, Lorca had been a traitor who attempted a coup.
However, Michael soon learns that Lorca is actually from the Mirror Universe. This explains a lot about his character — he is far shrewder and more cutthroat than most Federation captains. He also recruited Michael because, in his universe, they were romantically involved. Lorca had pushed Michael to betray Georgiou, who had adopted Michael after the death of her parents. It’s all very soap opera.
But Michael rises above the drama. She bands together with Georgiou to defeat Lorca. Meanwhile, Tilly finds a way for Discovery to return home. They return to their universe, bringing Georgiou with them. Unfortunately, they have missed nine months of war, and the Federation is losing, badly. As a last-ditch effort, the Federation asks Emperor Georgiou for help.
Georgiou helps the Federation come up with a plan that would annihilate the Klingons. Michael balks at genocide and helps convince them that there is a better way. Drawing on Vulcan logic and human compassion, Michael creates a compromise that ends the war and saves lives. Her mutiny is expunged, and she regains the rank of commander.
Why is Michael Burnham Bae?
Michael Burnham is played beautifully by Sonequa Martin-Green. Martin-Green brings a huge degree of poise to a distraught character. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Martin-Green is also a very lovely looking person.
I also loved that Michael had natural hair for most of the show. So many times women of color in pop culture wear relaxed hair. It was a nice change to see a woman of color embrace natural hair, and to be honest, it looked good.
Vulcan Logic, Human Compassion
Michael brings an interesting perspective to Star Trek. So much of the show is based on an outsider perspective. Spock originally fulfills this role, as an alien on the most human Enterprise, he provides a counterpoint to his companions. Later shows will feature other aliens, and even androids, to provide this perspective. Discovery takes this idea and turns it on its head.
Rather than having a Vulcan on a mostly human ship, we have a human raised by Vulcans. A flashback to when she first joined the Shenzhou shows that Michael was as Vulcan as she could be. She focused on logic, ignored her emotions, and was generally very stilted. Over time, however, she develops and grows. Part of this is the result of her friendship with Tilly and her romance with Tyler.
However, a large part of this surprisingly comes from Michael’s interactions with Sarek. Her unusual upbringing has caused Michael a degree of trauma. Her parents were killed by Klingons, and her surrogate father pushed her to lose her humanity, despite being married to a human himself. However, Sarek comes to appreciate that Michael is human, and should not ignore that truth. He helps her realize that it is okay to accept her emotions.
That doesn’t erase Michael’s upbringing, but it does allow her to access a fuller depth of character. She still has the benefit of a Vulcan education and a highly keen, logical mind. But now she is able to access what Star Trek seems to argue is the most important thing — human compassion. It is Michael’s human compassion that allows her to find a peaceful end to the war. She reminds us what Starfleet, and the Federation, truly stand for: hope.
Breath of Fresh Air
Michael Burnham is a breath of fresh air. She represents a new future, even among shows that take place centuries later (such as Voyager). Star Trek has made great strides in representation. Women in Trek have evolved from sexy set-pieces to powerful, fully realized characters. Voyager even has a female captain.
But Discovery is truly all about the girl power. The first captain we meet is a woman; ditto with admiral. Tilly, arguably the best character in the show, is unabashedly feminine but still ambitious. The Terran Empire is ruled by a woman. The Terran captains we know of are female. In the end, a female Klingon takes power of the Klingon Empire. Women aren’t the only characters in the show — but they are large and in charge in a great way.
Michael pushes this progress even further by being the first woman of color to headline a Trek property. Deep Space Nine had a black protagonist, but he was a man. Zoe Saldana is great as Uhura in the new movies, but she’s not front and center. Now, finally, we have a woman of color as the main character. Not only that, but she’s a good main character.
Some people have complained about the SJW-ness of Discovery having a woman of color as the lead. But Michael Burnham is a great character. She learns and develops, motivates and leads. Michael gives hope to the Federation in a time of darkness. Sure, she makes mistakes. No one’s perfect, and she’d be boring if she was. But she owns up to her mistakes, lives with her guilt, and attempts to move forward and atone. Michael shows that a woman of color can lead Star Trek in the best way.
What’s Not To Love?
Discovery is such a great new show. I’m pumped that it has a second season, especially since the first ended with such a great cliffhanger. But so much of what makes this show great comes down to Michael Burnham. She’s a great character that really pushes back against the criticisms that Discovery only cast a woman of color for progressive brownie points.
In such a long and prolific franchise, it can be difficult to do something new. But Michael Burnham is new. She’s an outsider, despite being human. She struggles to find balance between her nature and her upbringing. Michael is damaged, and she has made costly mistakes, but she still shines with hope. Star Trek is all about hope, and it’s great to see that embodied in this character.
I can’t wait to see what season two brings for Michael Burnham. Now that she has been reinstated as commander, I’m intrigued to see what her future holds. In the final scenes, I noticed that she is in science colors, rather than command; perhaps she no longer aspires to be captain? But that’s okay — it’s all an adventure I will eagerly await!