Discovery’s Michael Burnham Obsession Is Hurting Star Trek Canon
Star Trek: Discovery‘s need to make all things revolve around Michael Burnham and her family is not only hurting the show, but the larger Star Trek canon as well. Season 2 of the CBS All Access series has been met with a decidedly warmer reception than the polarizing season 1. Star Trek: Discovery season 2 has not only left the bloody Klingon war behind, it’s embraced its ensemble, making the show feel more like a traditional Star Trek adventure with character specific episodes and an overall sense that everyone matters.
Season 2 has included excellent meditations on core cast members like Saru, Tilly, and Stamets, as well as more minor characters like Airiam. Anson Mount’s Captain Christopher Pike has proved to be a sort of soothing balm, the morally pure leader the show lacked in its first season – though it’ll have to manage without him soon, as Mount will not be back for season 3. Yet there has still been the inescapable feeling that season 2’s overall arc would come back to Micheal Burnham, and the episode “The Red Angel” confirmed that suspicion, and then some. Burnham’s role in the time traveling, humanity threatening plots of season 2 transcend the usual importance of Star Trek leads, and pushes the character into the realm of a science fiction “chosen one,” a genre trope Star Trek has generally avoided.
What are audiences to make of Star Trek: Discovery and Burnham if every season ends with her at the center of a universe defining crisis, coupled with the fact that she’s never been mentioned before in Star Trek fiction, not even by her adoptive brother Spock? Is this just the inevitable price of telling stories through prequels, or a bigger issue at the heart of the series that could have wide ranging ramifications for the franchise?
The Discovery Writers Keep Failing Michael Burnham
On paper, Michael Burnham is a fascinating character. Sonequa Martin-Green is an acting heavyweight more than up to the task of headlining a Star Trek series, and the notion of a disgraced Starfleet officer reluctantly looking for redemption is an intriguing one – just as it was when Star Trek: The Next Generation used a similar setup for Ensign Ro. The original problems with Burnham arose when the decision was made to make her Spock’s never-before-mentioned adopted sister, immediately painting the character into a very specific corner. Those problems only worsened during season 1 when it became apparent that Burnham was the key to Gabriel Lorca‘s scheme to conquer the Mirror Universe Terran Empire, and her eleventh hour turn as Starfleet’s conscience in an effort to prevent the destruction of the Klingon homeworld.
Season 1’s laser focus on Burnham came at the detriment of the rest of the supporting cast, who came off more like a collection of sidekicks than a starship crew. Season 2 seemed to realize this and made a conscious effort to more fully explore the supporting cast, and while Burnham remained the show’s lead character, she felt much more like a member of the crew. But that feeling began to unravel with the arrival of Spock, with Burnham once again framed as a singular savior, the only person who could restore Spock’s mind and clear him of murder. The revelations in “The Red Angel” – that the increasingly problematic Section 31 was responsible for the apparent death of Burnham’s parents, and that her mother is in fact the time traveling Red Angel and the key to saving all organic life in the universe from Control – takes the “chosen one” tropes of season 1 to an entirely new level, with the Burnhams suddenly feeling a lot like the Skywalkers.
Why the series’ writers would choose this path after the early season course correction is baffling, and suggests a serious lack of self-awareness. A common criticism of the first season was that the writers didn’t seem all that interested in making a Star Trek show, but rather a show that grafted elements of other genre shows onto the skeleton of Star Trek. The season 1 showrunners – Aaron Harberts and Gretchen Berg – were dismissed midway through production of season 2 for allegedly abusive behavior, replaced by current Star Trek head honcho Alex Kurtzman. Perhaps the production changes simply came too late in the game to completely alter the trajectory of the season established by Harberts and Berg, but the results have featured the same distinct flavor of season 1’s Mirror Universe revelations.