Star Trek is a property that has always valued both diversity and acceptance as two of its core principles. Each iteration of the series has brought us increasingly diverse crews of people of different ethnicities working alongside colleagues from other species. In every series to date, when prejudice is encountered, it tends to come from two warring factions of an alien race, or due to some sort of mind control. In other words, the humans almost always get along when left to their own devices — except where their families are concerned. This is a necessary balance for any successful story; tension and conflict are essential for drama to develop.
In his Tales of the City books, Armistead Maupin posits that one can never simultaneously have a good job, a good home, and a good love life. To reflect life on a Trek show, the balance of these three areas can be amended slightly to be the balance of home, career, and family. If one leg of this three-legged stool must always be crooked, the divergent leg in all series leading up to Star Trek: Discovery has been family. But on Discovery, that’s the one area in which our protagonist excels.
The Next Generation crew lives in a future utopia in which peace is so widespread that Starfleet designs a huge ship with space for each crew member to bring along their un-enlisted partners and children. The ship itself is less an armed forced vessel as it is a floating luxury condominium development. Other than Dr. Beverley Crusher (Gates McFadden), none of the show’s main cast members have family on board with them. Just like the families and spouses of the characters on Cheers were often unseen, the more we see of their non-work lives, the less we see them interact with the other members of the primary cast. And on a show like The Next Generation, where main characters routinely take foolhardy and life-threatening risks; the face of their partner or children in audiences’ minds would add an extraneous level of suspense to these thrilling sequences. Discovery has already explored this element with the relationship between Lt. Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz). Stamets’s series of life-threatening risks feel weightier when we see Culber in the room with him, waiting to see if the love of his life is going to succumb to a gruesome death, time and time again.
Discovery, both the show and the ship itself, are unstable, chaotic things. The ship is capable of a new experimental method of travel, sending the ship into a series of always spooky “black alerts” that leave its crew perpetually in danger of falling off the side of the universe, or worse. Far from The Next Generation’s interstellar cruise ship, Discovery is shot in gloomy light, looking always at risk of a screw popping off. It’s a ship that itself cannot be trusted, operated by a crew seconded from their science work to run a ship of war. The ship’s captain, Lorca (Jason Isaacs), is himself an agent of chaos; the maverick stylings of James Kirk (William Shatner) and William Riker (Jonathan Frakes) extended only slightly to create an unpredictable, darkly charismatic maverick. The crew members are perpetually uneasy, Lorca overseeing an atmosphere of one-upsmanship and suspicion. If their family lives were also dire, it would be the inverse of the problem of no conflict. Too much unrelenting conflict is equally unsustainable, both in life and in a TV show.
So it is that we find Discovery’s singular protagonist, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green). That the series has a main character at all is an aberration. The first name in the credits for the previous Trek series tends to be whoever plays the Captain, but the ensemble shared lead roles from week to week. This is the first Trek show not to be tied to a single ship, as the two-part premiere begins with Burnham on the Shenzhou, then in jail, and finally on board the titular Discovery. She, and we, are not as connected to this particular ship as the Next Generation characters were to their Enterprise. Burnham is a woman unmoored from her surroundings, and the Discovery is a ship anyone would think impossible to find comfortable. Add to that a misfit crew, made such by Lorca’s design; one can imagine the 21st century management technique handbook he may have considered when intentionally placing disparate people repeatedly in close quarters. Keeping them off balance keeps him in control, but Burnham proves unflappable in the face of chaos because of her deep family connections.
Burnham is put through a gauntlet in the first two hours of the show. We see her inadvertently bring about the death of her beloved mentor, thrust her beloved Starfleet into a grisly war with the Klingon Empire, get stripped of her rank and career, and sent off to jail. All of the things she wore like armour to define herself – her belief in logic, chain of command, Starfleet itself, not to mention her adopted Vulcan persona, her idealism and innocence – are simultaneously ripped away, destroyed forever. What’s left behind is the person she truly is, and so far, the show has been centering on her journey to figure out just who that is.
Her adopted brother, Spock, went on a similar journey through the original series and the Trek films. Where Burnham is a human raised by Vulcans, Spock is half-human/half-Vulcan, desperate to extinguish any human qualities. She is his mirror as she strives to lean more into her human side, which for her is a battle of nature vs. nurture. Unlike Next Generation’s Data (Brent Spiner), an android with an ongoing Pinocchio-like need to become more human (which he pursues with an academic zeal), Burnham isn’t starting from ground zero with her explorations of her human side. She is, after all, biologically human. She spent the first several years of her life apparently with her human parents, among humans; it’s not a matter of copying and impersonating these traits, but rather sorting through the maelstrom of trauma and grief, determining which parts of her are actual and which are defense mechanisms that have calcified to feel permanent like bones. We know very little so far about who her parents were; that the show chose canon character Sarek (James Frain) as her surrogate father means we begin the series with some understanding of who raised this woman.
The most similar Next Generation character to both Burnham and Spock is Lt. Worf (Michael Dorn). Like the others, he is frequently brought to a point of internal strife by his divided loyalties. Worf is a Klingon raised by and among humans, who finds himself now working mostly with humans. Initially, his intense devotion to Klingon customs and manners seems like how any Klingon would behave socially. But when Worf begins to interact with other Klingons, we see that he doesn’t fit in there, either. They find his manner affected and insincere, much as the human crew finds his Klingon manner sometimes off-putting and unpleasant. Not feeling comfortable in either world, he compensates by leaning into his Klingon side when around humans, and his human side when around Klingons. He is the opposite of Burnham, choosing to highlight his biological traits rather than those of his adopted homeland.
Worf’s parents appear very infrequently on the show, but when they do appear, he is visibly uncomfortable. They are cuddly, effusive humans, the type of adoptive parents one senses would never dream of forcing their son to pick one culture over the other. That Worf prefers his Klingon side is not a slight against them, but perhaps a testament to the openness with which they raised him. Where Worf finds comfort in his fantasies about a Klingon lifestyle, Burnham tends to feel most at ease when she is behaving like a Vulcan. The difference here seems to be the intense connection she shares with Sarek, their bond so strong they can appear to one another beyond time and space when one or the other is in need. She idolizes him, making it clear why she has chosen to emulate his behaviour and philosophy. Worf’s adoptive parents are clearly loving, but there is nothing in their affect or manner that he seems to aspire to. Part of this is who Worf and Burnham are as people, the way each reacted to the early loss of their biological parents, and how they have chosen to cope with growing up as outsiders. And another part of it is which series each character happened to be appearing on.
Burnham is permitted a messier, more drawn-out character arc because Discovery is a series airing in 2017; Worf’s character development returns to status quo at the end of each episode he appears in because his show ran in the 1990s. The Next Generation, like most mainstream shows of its era, from Cheers to Full House to Law and Order, consisted almost entirely of self-contained episodes, primed and ready for syndication. While several episodes dig into Worf’s conflicted loyalties, they are invariably followed by another stand-alone episode in which his character is reset like anyone on The Simpsons, standing at his usual station, no sign of the emotional turmoil he went through a week prior. The show was designed this way for a reason; to give audiences a consistent experience week after week, to offer easy entry points for new viewers, and to meet the expectations of TV of the time.
Discovery has premiered in a post-Battlestar Galactica TV landscape, a time when every major mainstream show offers serialized storytelling – from This Is Us to The Walking Dead to Scandal. Audiences are now able to binge past seasons without having to meticulously record them on a VCR or wait for DVD disc releases. Someone who begins watching Discovery in January of 2018 can quickly catch up with every past episode, and many people will consume it in this manner. As such, long-form storytelling is a great choice. We are able to watch Burnham’s character grow and change, mature and regress in more or less real time. The person she presents as in the midseason premiere is wildly different from who she was in the pilot, but it’s not due to course correction or network notes; it’s because of the experiences we’ve seen her have, and the soul searching we’ve watched her engage in. We have seen how and why she’s chosen to change her hairstyle, to break down her walls, to challenge her instinctive responses to social situations. The one constant is her connection to her family in the form of Sarek; an adoptive father who has become much more to her, the grounding force in the shifting sands that have become her whole reality.
Family was a part of The Next Generation in the form of special guest stars showing up as the conflict-driving relatives of the show’s stars; as the infrequent reminders that many of the crew have partners and children on board with them; and in the way that Worf confronts his two sides. He eventually becomes the father of a son who also struggles with a mixed heritage. Completing some sort of cycle, the boy is eventually sent off to be raised by the same human couple that raised Worf. His family is multi-faceted, incongruous, messy, and always on the brink of becoming something new; a counterbalance to the soothingly consistent Enterprise crew and ship.
Burnham’s experience is a microcosm of the experience of the Discovery crew and the ship itself. The death of Captain Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) in the premiere put the audience off-kilter in a similar way that it affected Burnham. We saw the trappings of a Trek show; wise captain, supportive crew, gleaming ship. Georgiou had joined Sarek as one of Burnham’s mentors; her death, and the ensuing war, left both us and Burnham desperate for a figure to turn to for some sense of what will happen next.
The world of Discovery is not one where children and partners cruise around on a luxury ship, complacent in the peace of the entire universe. The world is scary, the ships seem vulnerable, the crews themselves argue with a level of cruelty unseen between their counterparts on The Next Generation. It’s into this world that Burnham turns, by necessity, to the only family she knows: to Sarek, who — despite her clear need to prove herself Vulcan to him — accepts her for her human side now, too. Like Worf, Burnham will likely always have times when she must struggle to balance the two cultures she carries within her. In the often-terrifying, unstable, and violent world Burnham inhabits, family is the one leg that stands out from the others. But, unlike it is with Worf, it’s also the strongest.