In Defense of Michael Burnham

Star Trek: The Next Generation was one of the few shows I was allowed to watch as a kid growing up in a devout Jehovah’s Witness household. It was a departure from the rigidly dogmatic, fundamentalist world of the religion, and I cherished that hour each week because Starfleet encouraged values I didn’t yet know I was developing: intellectual curiosity,studious diligence, and a fierce respect for differences. Values that would, as an adult, help me embrace myself as queer. I couldn’t watch Deep Space 9 until I became an adult (my parents felt the Bajoran religion was blasphemy), but was a dedicated devotee of Voyager through its run. Voyager holds a special place in my heart despite the mixed feedback it receives in Trekkie circles because it kept me together after I came out and ran away from home at 17.

Fresh out of the closet and wondering where else I might boldly go, Voyager was one of the few things that kept my past connected to my future as I navigated the child welfare system, undergrad, grad school, and a career helping vulnerable youth. So when CBS announced plans to develop Star Trek: Discovery, I devoured any scrap of news. When they announced that the protagonist would be a black woman in a leadership position, I nearly passed out. I remember it vividly; it was about a month after the election, and I was still raw and scared about the future. I was scrolling down my Facebook feed and saw the story: Sonequa Martin-Green had been cast as the lead in Star Trek: Discovery. A single Glory tear slid down my cheek and I stared at my phone for a good 10 minutes. A black woman, leading. On Star Trek.

I’ve been waiting forever to see a black woman in a Starfleet command position. I made peace with the fact that she wasn’t going to start as a Captain. On Deep Space 9 they made Ben Sisko wait three seasons for his promotion to Captain and he commanded an entire space station, so there was at least some precedent for a commanding officer to not start at Captain rank. Besides, First Officer is nothing to sneer at. In the history of Starfleet commanding officers, we have yet to see a First Officer of color: Spock, Riker, Major Kira, and T’Pol were all white. The highest ranked black commanding officer in a series is of course Captain Ben Sisko; followed by Commander Worf, Strategic Operations Officer on Deep Space 9 respectively; and Lieutenant Commanders Geordi LaForge (Chief Engineer aboard the Enterprise D) and Tuvok (head of security aboard Voyager). The importance of seeing a black woman leading on the bridge of a Starfleet ship was something I desperately needed. I kept thinking of the 94% of black women who voted for Hillary Clinton but instead got Donald Trump and a Democratic party ripping itself to shreds for lack of coherent leadership. Maybe art would give us something to imitate, I thought. Star Trek endures because of its unyielding optimism about humanity’s future Maybe a black female First Officer being part of that future would give me reason for hope. How would she lead in a time of such despair?

Apparently, she would mutiny. Commander Michael Burnam, raised on Vulcan after her parents were killed by the Klingons, was presented with an ideological crisis in the show’s premiere. Having been raised by Vulcans, she strives to retain rigid control over her emotions lest they negatively impact her command responsibilities. But when Klingons approach the ship, she is faced with a decision: follow her Captain’s orders or launch a preemptive attack against the Klingons. It’s worth noting that the series is placed fairly early in Starfleet’s history, but still well within the “maverick” era. Occurring approximately 100 years after the voyage of the first Enterprise and just 10 years before Kirk, Starfleet still extended considerable latitude to commanding officers on deep space missions. When Commander Tucker (Enterprise) circumvented first contact protocol to foster the intellectual development of an alien he considered oppressed, Captain Archer gave him a stern yet unofficial reprimand. Captain Archer himself stole a prototype ship and went on an unsanctioned test flight to prove the potential of warp drive. In each of these cases, Starfleet withheld official consequence because the actions of these officers didn’t produce any seriously adverse outcomes. Michael Burnham’s actions, however, are presented as the cause of the series’ current war with the Klingons-a claim that is dubious and infuriating.

At her court martial, Michael Burnham accepts responsibility for starting the war at a battle that claimed over 8,000 lives. But was she actually responsible? She accidentally kills a Klingon warrior during her away mission to the Klingon ship, but only after he attacks her. During her mutiny, Burnham attempted to fire on the Klingon ship but was unsuccessful. She actually spent much of her time in the brig, away from the action. When she finally does make it to the bridge, she presents a plan to take the leader of the Klingon army captive. Captain Georgiou proceeds with the plan, but is killed. The Klingon, T’Kuvma, is also martyred, making the away mission a resounding failure. It is ultimately extreme remorse over Captain Georgiou’s death that leads Burnham to accept responsibility for starting the war.

I have tried to keep an open mind during the first half of the season. Character dynamics do require time to take shape. But as one of the 94% of black women who “mutinied” against the patriarchy on November 8, 2016, I am conflicted and triggered by how Michael Burnham has been presented. Burnham is in the unfortunate position of being a “first” for Starfleet; her punishment is intended to be an example to the entire corps. What shouldn’t be questionable, however, are Burnham’s intelligence as a scientist, leadership potential, or willingness to learn. Starfleet has been presented thus far (both historically and canonically) as a pragmatic institution willing to examine actions within the context of their circumstances and implications when passing judgement. Burnham’s parents were killed by Klingons; that trauma motivated her to act to protect those she cared for from the same fate. Burnham is also brilliant, and could still continue to serve Starfleet. But instead of taking the longview, Starfleet chooses to condemn Burnham to prison for life.

Upon entering the Discovery first as a prisoner and then as a member of the crew, Burnham encounters suspicion from the officers around her. While some of this is to be expected, what is surprising is the level of condescension she receives from the others as a scientist. Nearly every interaction brings another pointed reminder of her fall from grace. Upon being tasked to engineering, she is denied a briefing by her commanding officer. Her roommate, a cadet, makes up a lie to keep Burnham from using an adjacent console at a duty station. She is reminded of her “dangerousness” by her former shipmate Saru, who is now First Officer of the Discovery. But apparently she isn’t dangerous enough to figure out a new piece of technology that Starfleet urgently needs to get working in order to save a colony under Klingon attack. Despite the demand for her skills, she is still doubted and demeaned by the Discovery’s first chief of security, who has been sent to keep Burnham “focused.” The theme of being “too dangerous to trust” persists throughout the first half of the season, even as Burnham takes on duties of increasing complexity and risk. But what is trust on the Discovery? Burnham’s relationships thus far are with an over eager cadet, an engineer whose brain is being rewritten by hybrid technology, a security officer of dubious loyalty, and a captain with a precariously untethered sense of duty.

I’m not even sure that “mutiny” is the right word to describe Burnham’s actions. Her actions are stunning and momentarily reprehensible, but more in line with a psycho-emotional crisis than an act of insurrection. As a Starfleet officer, she is deeply and intensely trained to adhere to protocol. Her Vulcan training should have enabled her to identify, process, and compartmentalize emotions in a high pressure situation. Mutinying was a violation of her core principles that she judged to be worthwhile for the sake of saving her captain and crew-people she cared for deeply. As we were reminded in the midseason finale, PTSD is still very much a valid diagnosis in the year 2256. But we have yet to meaningfully explore Burnham’s own PTSD or the tension between her Vulcan training and human emotions. The true significance of Burnham’s decision has barely been explored in the development of her character, and her emotional development thus far seems significantly rushed (looking at you, Ash).

Star Trek: Discovery is art imitating the most desperate parts of life: Burnham is good enough to save everyone from disaster, but not good enough to help the crew avoid it. This is par for the course in a world where the leadership ability of black women is demeaned and disrespected; what bothers me most is that Burnham herself seems to believe this. Here she is, 8 episodes later, still intent on saving people who won’t give her a voice or heed her recommendations-and accepting that this is her penance. The model of leadership Discovery puts forth has so far been bleak: a black woman, brilliant but emotionally unstable, once full of promise but fallen from grace, on a ship where she must fight to win the trust of a captain and crew whose own morality and intentions are questionable.

The writers chose to have the first black female protagonist not be a captain in order to create space for “new perspectives”, but what perspective are those? Every previous Star Trek show has been driven by the duties and interactions of senior officers in service to the Starfleet mission. The responsibilities and duties that accompany being an officer provide a social basis for the audience to interpret character emotions and decisions. Michael Burnham is no longer a commissioned officer, so what is her true purpose on the Discovery? Does she really only have meaning as a pawn in Captain Lorca’s opportunistic schemes, or will her dutiful penance be rewarded now that Admiral Cornwall has seen her in action?

Sometimes I write creatively, views expressed here are my own. On Twitter @zoranealehurtem Accepting reparations through CashApp $TenajaJ