From the swashbuckling Kirk to the calm and considered Picard, Star Trek's captains have always been the driving force of all the different shows. Their choices, their attitudes shape #StarTrek — later shows may have explored the ensemble casts more, but the personalities of the complex Deep Space Nine, the determined Voyager, and the naive Enterprise were defined by their captains. It's no surprise then, that the trailer for the new Star Trek: Discovery focuses almost entirely on one person's journey. But this time, it's not the captain who will influence the course of Federation history, but her first officer: The enigmatic yet passionate Commander Michael Burnham.
Played by the excellent Sonequa Martin-Green (The Walking Dead), Commander Burnham shines in the trailer for Discovery, and we can already see how her mindset will shape the show. At first glance, Burnham has the poise and intellect of Starfleet's best officers, but lurking just under the surface is a passionate streak that may border on ruthlessness.
The trailer starts off with Captain Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) telling Burnham that it's time for her to aim at getting her own command, which gives Discovery a clear goal. However, Burnham's shining Starfleet career could be tarnished by the events of the premiere episodes, as later scenes in the trailer shows her clashing with Georgiou, with an implication courtesy of Sarek that Burnham has done something which will change the Federation forever.
"What have you done, out there on the edge of Federation space?"
But as fascinating as Burnham's prospective future is, there are yet more mysteries hidden in her past, as the trailer hinted that she grew up on Vulcan under the care of Sarek himself.
Torn Between Two Worlds: Is Burnham Part Vulcan?
Spock's father Sarek has a strong role in the trailer, which seems to be entirely driven by his connection to Commander Burnham. Although he starts off by giving her a pep talk about "great unifiers" — hinting that Burnham will lead some kind of important cause in Discovery — later on we see a flashback to Burnham's childhood, presumably on Vulcan. Like her older self, young Burnham's hair is cropped in the Vulcan style, and Sarek is belittling her attempts to learn the Vulcan language.
So what does this mean — is Burnham part Vulcan, or a human who grew up away from Earth? How did she wind up on this planet, and in Sarek's care? And, most intriguingly of all, does this mean Burnham grew up alongside Spock?
It seems unlikely that Burnham is part Vulcan, because she doesn't seem to have any of the physical characteristics associated with that race. After all, Spock was only half Vulcan, and he has the pointed ears and green-tinged skin particular to the species. That would imply that Vulcan genes are dominant, and the only thing about Burnham that looks specifically Vulcan is her straight, cropped hair — as Sonequa Martin-Green's hair is naturally curly, it's possible that Burnham's hair is a nod to her Vulcan heritage. Personally though, I think it's more likely that she was a human who wound up on Vulcan somehow.
Spock & Burnham May Have Grown Up Together
Perhaps Burnham was orphaned at a young age, and Sarek became her surrogate father. This would explain his presence in her life even after she has grown up and joined Starfleet, as he feels somewhat responsible for her life choices. A lot of Burnham's mannerisms seem to be influenced by Vulcan, and it says a lot about her character that she tried to learn the language as a child. This suggests that, despite her human heritage, Burnham wanted to immerse herself in the Vulcan culture. However, Vulcans are notoriously hostile to humans — or even part humans — mingling with their society.
Spock himself faced this struggle: In this scene from The Original Series, Spock's mother Amanda Grayson (who is rumored to appear in Discovery) talks about the discrimination he faced as a child, thanks to his human side.
The idea of culture displacement and mixed race discrimination is one that Star Trek has explored in depth through several characters, most notably Worf and Spock. Both characters rejected human influence on their lives and embraced their non-human culture with gusto. In contrast, Burnham seems eager to immerse herself in the Vulcan way of life, at least when she was a child. But as an adult, her willingness to express emotion reveals that she rejected Vulcan's fierce emotional repression — something that Spock stubbornly advocated, despite the many times he flouted Vulcan's norms (the warning against mind-melding in particular).
We're left wondering whether Spock's attitude influenced Burnham. If she was indeed Sarek's ward, it seems certain that she and Spock would have been involved in each other's lives. Burnham could even be Spock's half-sister, the product of Amanda Grayson's previous relationships before she settled on Vulcan. This could explain Sarek's hostility towards Burnham. The absence of any reference to Burnham thus far by Spock or his family doesn't necessarily debunk her role in Spock's life — after all, Spock's brother pops up in The Final Frontier with no previous allusions to his existence.
However, it's likely that the relationship between Spock and Burnham won't be explored in depth in Star Trek: Discovery, as recasting young Spock again is a thorny issue, thanks to Zachary Quinto's excellent portrayal of young Spock in Paramount's Star Trek films.
In any case, it's excellent to see that an exploration of Vulcan culture will be a significant part of Discovery. Much of Gene Roddenberry's personal philosophies, ones which he wanted to promote through Star Trek, are expressed and embodied by the Vulcan race — like the idea of "infinite diversity in infinite combinations." Many fans criticized the exploration of Vulcan culture in the most recent show Enterprise, arguing that the writers turned the Vulcans into an oppressive, sanctimonious, and hypocritical race, bordering on corruption with how they handled the Andorian threat — and minority groups within their own society.
It would be great to see Discovery restore the Vulcan role as the measured, yet moral mind of the Federation, viewing the race through the lens of a woman who respects and wants to emulate their culture — despite facing discrimination from them. This is the kind of complex portrayal that Vulcans deserve, and I for one can't wait for Burnham's unique perspective on one of Star Trek's core elements.