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  • Margaret A. Robbins, PhD

Star Trek Discovery: Michael Burnham as a Hero for COVID19 Times

My current binge television show during month four of being mostly quarantined is Star Trek: Discovery. I’ve been more of a casual Star Wars fan than a Star Trek fan up to this point. I do have vague memories of watching episodes with Kirk and Picard in the late 80s/early 90s as a kid, at the persuasion of my male friends, but I never got super invested in the franchise. However, that changed after a NCTE gathering on Tuesday, June 9. NCTE has been hosting virtual lunchtime Zoom talks from 1-2 on most Tuesdays. On this date, Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas was the invited guest speaker and read a section of her book The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games. I had read the book and loved it, but hearing Dr. Thomas read her work out loud brought it to life for me in a new way. NCTE sent out a list of follow-up recommendations after the talk, which related to Black female protagonists in speculative fiction. Star Trek: Discovery was on the list, so I started watching it soon after.

As summer has kept me pretty busy and sometimes distracted and emotionally exhausted, I’m on Season One Episode 9 as of now. I’m definitely engaged with the show and love Michael Burnham as a hero. I’ve talked to some fellow fans who do not like her, but I think she’s the perfect hero for the COVID19 era for many reasons:

1. She overcomes obstacles: Burnham comes to the Discovery ship after gaining a reputation of being a mutineer who defied the orders of her former captain and who started a war. Her actions were well intended, but led to terrible consequences, including a lifelong prison sentence. However, Captain Gabriel Lorca of the Discovery ship recognized Michael’s talents and agreed to keep her on board the ship, at least until the war’s end. Michael might not have her life back permanently, but she at least has a chance to make a positive difference and, at least to a degree, to start fresh.

2. She’s learning how to love: Late into Season One, Michael lets her feelings for Chief of Security Ash Tyler be known. Clearly, their relationship is about to get a lot more complicated because of Tyler’s past connection with a Klingon woman. However, her learning how to express her feelings after living a life of logical Vulcan training was moving to me. I don’t fall for people easily or frequently either, and when I do, I have a hard time expressing how I feel. I could relate to Michael’s plight here and have been happy during her moments of bliss. Perhaps even more important than her romance with Tyler is her friendship with Cadet Sylvia Tilly, an anxious but smart young woman on the ship who proves to be a loyal confidant and friend to Michael. It seems as though they’re both able to be their complete selves with each other, which can be hard to find, especially in a work situation.

3. She Loves Science!: It’s sad that even as I’m writing this list item, I’m afraid it’s going to get politicized. However, in a moment of history in which people are questioning scientists when we need them the most, it’s refreshing to see a younger female character who is a brilliant scientist and who is able to gain credibility for her competency in this area. Overall, the crew of Discovery includes numerous brilliant scientists, Cadet Tilly included, so Michael is in good company. At pivotal moments, the science of the ship is often what saves the crew and contributes strongly to their success.

4. She has a complicated family history: Right now, with political tensions and emotions running high during a pandemic, many of us have interesting relationships with our family members. Michael, as a human raised in a Vulcan society, is the half sister of the beloved Star Trek character Spock. Being human made it harder for Michael to be fully successful growing up and, at times, led her parents to have to make hard decisions. However, the narrative arc of the series shows that Michael and her adopted family are there for each other when it matters. That’s a theme that’s important for us all to remember right now.

5. She perseveres even when the future is uncertain: Michael knows that she might have to return to prison once the war has been hopefully won, due to her past actions. However, she still gives each of her missions her full efforts. The crew of the Discovery ship lives in a world of uncertainty. How long will the war last? When is the next battle? What allies might we enlist to the Federation, and how will they respond? Michael’s life in particular is up in the air after the war, and unless something changes, she will have to spend the rest of it in prison. Yet she and her crew members are able to still form relationships and win small victories along the way. How might we consider this attitude during the pandemic? Many of us are anxious because we are unsure of what the next weeks, months, or even year will bring us because of the pandemic. But where might we find support systems, and how might we continue on a strong course toward success anyway? Michael Burnham is a character who definitely continues despite uncertainty.

During the pandemic period of time, the Vulcan wish to “live long and prosper” takes on a whole new meaning. Some of us, even if we are fairly young, feel like this is a wish that has been threatened for the first time in our lives. This disease is unprecedented, and a pandemic hasn’t occurred since 1918, when my paternal grandmother survived as a baby even after the Spanish flu affected her home. However, Star Trek: Discovery helps us to picture a world that still has challenges, but in which there is hope for a better future. Many strong and intelligent women, such as Michael Burnham, Sylvia Tilley, and Captain Phillipa Georgiou, show us that the future will hopefully be female, in terms of leadership opportunities afforded for women, including women of color. Michael Burnham has faced setbacks, but she continues to be an excellent scientist and soldier despite the odds. May we find our best ways to contribute during the pandemic, and may we find inspiration in such shows as Star Trek: Discovery as we do our very best to live long and prosper.

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