The Burden of Michael Burnham: Racist Double Standards In Star Trek Fandom

In 1998’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the last Star Trek movie to feature the members of the cast of the original series, Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner)  tells the Chancellor of the Klingon High Council that the reason she’s just narrowly evaded an assassination attempt organized by a cadre of strange bedfellows including Vulcans, Romulans, Humans, and Klingons is because of fear. “It’s about the future, Madame Chancellor. Some people think the future means the end of history. Well, we haven’t run out of history quite yet. Your father called the future — ‘the undiscovered country’. People can be very frightened of change.”

Above: Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and Spock (Leonard Nimoy) confront the Chancellor of the Klingon High Council.

When I think about the character of Michael Burnham, easily my favorite character in the history of the Star Trek franchise and the hostile reaction she elicits among “traditional” Trek fandom I can’t help but think of the irony. Among the criticisms leveled at Burnham is that she’s too emotional, breaks from protocol, and defies orders too often.

Above: Captain Michael Burnham, USS Discovery NCC 1301-A circa 3189.

So it’s worth mentioning that in Country, the sixth installment of the movie franchise, it is Captain not Admiral Kirk who says these lines. Kirk had, in The Voyage Home (the fourth installment), been demoted from Admiral to Captain, but also given command of a new Enterprise (NCC-1701-A), for doing the very same things on any and all occasions that Burnham is oft criticized for.

For Chrissakes in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Kirk STEALS the Enterprise! “You do this, Kirk, and you’ll never sit in the captain’s chair again.”

…and who says it? The most obnoxious white guy in Starfleet.

But mostly I can’t help think that fandom fears a character who is a Black woman in the captain’s chair who can be seen as stand-in for the demographic changes occurring in the United States writ large.

And no one is more scared of change than Trekkies. I’m not here to dispel any myths. Trek fandom is one of the most open and accepting, but it’s also rife with fans whose purity for the show is really just bigotry.

Let me explain why I love the character of Burnham so much. She is the first point-of-view protagonist of a Star Trek iteration that we get to see develop from literally the lower decks to the captain’s chair.

One of the biggest appeals is that the character is portrayed by the fabulous Sonequa Martin-Green whose theatrical dexterity allows her to carry some clunky dialogue as melodramatically and compellingly as a certain William Shatner.

Martin-Green also knows the burden of representation she carries.

In the December 2020 issue of the UK Edition of Glamour magazine she talks about why it’s important that there is a Black woman at the helm of the Star Trek franchise — especially now that she has a daughter saying, “since having a daughter… Sonequa tells me her attitude to representation, and also to feminism, have really come to the forefront, especially during this turbulent year. As the first-ever Black female lead of Star Trek, playing the kickass Commander Michael Burnham, Sonequa is quick to acknowledge the responsibilities that come with having such a platform on a show with a massive cult following.”

RELATED: Sonequa Martin-Green Talks About Why It’s Important There Is a Black Woman At the Helm of the ‘Star Trek’ Franchise

“I think being a woman and having a daughter now has really opened a lot of things up for me,” she says. “And I believe that being a Black woman at the helm of this franchise is very important for people to see. Because it’s one thing to see representation, but it’s not enough. The representation needs to be full of potential. And I love that I get to be this woman, Michael Burnham, who is genius, competent, sacrificial; a woman who leads with integrity, heart and grace.”

Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant s- to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain
Mother f- him and John Wayne
‘Cause I’m Black and I’m proud
I’m ready and hyped plus I’m amped
Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps

Lyrics to “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy from the album Fear of a Black Planet

There’s been a cursory comparison made between Burnham and Deep Space Nine‘s Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) as being the only two African-American leads that had to wait three season to attain the rank of captain, but the creators maintain thatDS9, which was set on a space station, had to have a Commander in charge.

Above: Captain Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

This despite Star Trek: The Original Series and Star Trek: The Next Generation establishing that Federation Starbases were run by Commodores and Admirals.

DS9‘s executive producer and eventual showrunner, Ira Steven Behr, “totally disagreed with making Sisko a mere Commander; although it took three seasons, he and Avery Brooks won their battle to promote Sisko to Captain, the rank he deserved.”

The character of Michael Burnham had her origins in what was originally going to be a very different show as conceived by original creator and Executive Producer Bryan Fuller. Originally “Discovery was to be an anthology series with each season being set in a different era of Star Trek.”

Even Burnham having a traditionally male name is a hallmark of all Fuller’s previous productions while speaking to a certain gender fluidity one would hope would go unnoticed by the 23rd Century. There’s an apocryphal anecdote about Fuller essentially combining elements of two of the most popular and revolutionary characters of The Original Series: Lt. Spock and Lt. Uhura in Burnham.

Uhura as portrayed by Nichelle Nichols was so crucial to positive representation of a Black woman on television in the Civil Rights era that one fan named Martin Luther King Jr. pleaded with Nichols to stay on the show upon learning she was planning to leave after the first season and its dismal ratings.

Above: Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) in Star Trek: The Original Series

RELATED: How Martin Luther King Jr. Saved ‘Star Trek’

Michael Burnham’s origin story is that she is the daughter of Federation scientists Dr. Michael and Gabriel Burnham, both of whom are brutally murdered by Klingons as young Michael watches from the closet that her mother has hidden her in. She is taken on initially as a ward of Ambassador Sarek of Vulcan who was close to the Burnhams. Sarek eventually adopts Michael and she is raised primarily on Vulcan as the adoptive sister to her brother, the younger and impressionable half human-half Vulcan, Spock.

Above: Spock (Ethan Peck) and Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) in Star Trek: Discovery season 2.

This is one of the many “sticking points” that fans harp on to this day, saying that “How could Spock have a sister all these years that we never heard of?” Burnham’s introduction “created somewhat of a canonical conundrum,” Screenrant argued, “as surely Spock would’ve mentioned his adopted sister at some point during Star Trek’s 53 year history.”

And to that I can only laugh as there’s never been a show that has dumped a previously unknown close relative of a lead character as unceremoniously as a shotgun marriage in Vegas as Star Trek: see James T. Kirk’s brother and nephew (George and Peter, respectively) both introduced as living on the paradise like-Federation colony planet Deneva in the TOS episode “Operation–Annihilate” and never seen or mentioned again, the introduction of Sulu’s daughter as pilot on the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-B in Generations, the introduction of Scotty’s nephew in Wrath of Khan, the introduction of Spock’s parents Sarek and Amanda Grayson in the TOS episode “Journey to Babel,” and the introduction of Spock’s other never previously mentioned sibling: Sybok his half brother from Sarek’s first marriage to a Vulcan woman in The Final Frontier.

You get the picture.

RELATED: ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Hits Its Stride with One of the Greatest Episodes in the History of the Franchise

Ever since the introduction of Michael Burnham in the first episode of Discovery, nearly every single pernicious criticism of her character are so loaded with implicit biases about race, gender, and differing expectations from generally, white, older cis gendered fans of The Original Series it can make your head spin.

They derisively refer to it  as “Woke Trek” and laugh  at their cleverness as if they deserve a high five.

My defenses of the character have also been dismissed in online forums because I “make everything about race.”

No, I don’t think “everything” is about race, but too many important things are, and the fact that you took this much time out of your day to tell me why I need to agree with your opinion about my favorite show tells me a lot.

Burnham’s rocky road to becoming Captain really began in Star Trek: Discovery season 2.

Writer and Showrunner Michelle Paradise told Wil Wheaton on The Ready Room that the decision to pull the trigger on Michael’s promotion was made at the start of writing season three. This made Burnham’s voyage to the Captain’s chair the underlying point of her season-long arc, with Michael initially unsure of her future in Starfleet before a brief, unsuccessful stint as Captain Saru’s Number One. By the time Burnham achieves the pinnacle of her career, her Captaincy is a deserved achievement for saving the Federation, and Michael further earned the respect of her crew and superiors.

Above: Minister Osyraa of the Emerald Chain fights Commander Michael Burnham in the season three finale.

Which is why Kennedy Allen over at Women At Warp argues in her riveting and revealing essay “Michael’s Burden”, “Those who’ve watched from the beginning know that Burnham has endured a great deal of loss and suffering on the road to the captain’s chair. At this point, she’s carried these burdens across several seasons, and has shown growth both as an individual and as a Starfleet officer. However, since she’s earned that heavily-coveted fourth pip, a great deal of discourse has sprung up in the fandom surrounding whether or not the character actually earned the promotion. Before defining precisely why Michael Burnham deserves her flowers, let’s review the facts leading up to this season’s last moments:

  • Michael Burnham is a trauma survivor. As a child she suffered the loss of her parents, then moved abruptly from that severe emotional event to an emotionless Vulcan society and somehow still maintained her humanity.

  • Michael consistently puts herself in physical danger for the sake of the mission and her crew.From the beginning of season one when she performed EVA (ExtraVehicular Activities) both with and without a life suit, to the end of season two where she flung herself through space and time 930 years into the future, Michael has, can, and will make the difficult decisions when the need arises.

  • Michael knows the fullest extent of herself. Since being drugged at the Mercantile by the Emerald Chain, Michael has been forced to come to terms with the complexities within herself multiple times over the course of this season.

  • Michael believes whole-heartedly in the ideals of Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets. She may not always follow orders or stick to the plan, but her actions are always fueled by her humanity and the power of connecting with others.

Kennedy continues, “When we objectively measure her character traits against those of previous captains (particularly the male ones), we’ll find that multiple commonalities can be drawn. Archer’s devotion to defining Starfleet and establishing the Federation; Kirk’s cavalier, self-assured initiative; and Picard’s knack for diplomacy are all evident in Michael Burnham’s decision-making process thus far. Sisko’s ability to maintain a strategically cool head during a crisis is apparent in Michael’s actions, as well. So if intellect, skill, wit, and candor are all considered to be desirable attributes in the male captains that came before her, why are some fans having such a hard time accepting the promotion? If the character has overcome every physical and emotional obstacle placed before her, why is she met with such vitriol when she’s rewarded for her efforts?”

Kennedy explains then explains why fandom’s reaction: “Like many Black and Non-Black and Indigenous women of color (NBIWOC), Michael has had to distinguish herself from her peers by being exemplary in every way. As a human with a Vulcan education, Michael suppressed her emotions to exceed in academia at the Vulcan Science Academy and in Starfleet. The fallible nature of her humanity became readily apparent, and instead of allowing herself the grace to fail and recover, Michael repeatedly tortured herself by taking on responsibilities that no one person should face alone.”

They have “had to be smarter, faster, and/or stronger than their male peers in order to climb their professional ladders. Most do so despite extreme economic and socio-political disadvantages, relying upon their own ingenuity to break through barriers that exist only within their respective intersections.”

“The Hope That is You, Part 2” — Ep#313 — Pictured: Sonequa Martin-Green and Commander Burnham of the CBS All Access series STAR TREK: DISCOVERY. Photo Cr: Michael Gibson/CBS ©2020 CBS Interactive, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

In a patriarchal society, most systems were never intended to benefit Black and NBIWOC in the first place. If we’re breaking these rules, more often than naught, it’s because they were not designed to accommodate our experiences, or in Burnham’s case, expertise. Each of her infractions have occurred within unprecedented situations. For example, her decision to utilize “The Vulcan Hello” was technically the most logical way to greet the Klingons. It was the lack of protocol within Starfleet operations that left the USS Shenzhou and the rest of the fleet vulnerable to attack, not Burnham’s poor judgement.

More recently, disobeying orders and setting off on an unsanctioned mission to save Book resulted in the acquisition of the third black box, ultimately enabling her and her crew to determine the source of the Burn. Of course, at that point Admiral Vance didn’t personally know Burnham well enough to be certain she could handle the situation, but he read those logs. He could have trusted her and the crew of Discovery to get the job done. Imagine the turmoil Burnham could have avoided had her intuition and experience been truly supported…

Simply put as one Reddit user said: “I am not someone who dislikes Michael Burnham at all. I think she’s a fine character who gets far too much hate for no real reason. I also don’t think there’s a problem with her coming up with the solutions to most problems on the show because, well, it’s her show, just as TOS was Kirk’s.”

Ultimately season three of Discovery was the best of what’s great about Trek. Michael’s struggle with reconnecting in the future of the 32nd Century confounds her as they revisit all of the places that were homes for her (albeit a thousand years ago): Earth, Ni’Var (formerly Vulcan), and even Discovery.

Above: Captain Burnham takes the chair for the first time.

Michael is only finally able to reconnect with her crew vis-a-vis Book [Booker Cleveland] (Michael Alaja) when they both confess that when together, “they feel like home.”

Or as the GayBlackVet wrote on Twitter: “Star Trek Discovery really gave us an entire season of a Black couple saving the universe!”

The takeaway? Don’t bring a knife to a phaser fight, especially when we can enjoy our interpretations without hating.

Let’s fly indeed.

Jessie Gender tackles the same issues in her latest episode entitled “Michael Burnham & Racial Double Standards.”

Watch it below and thanks Jessie!