Each Star Trek show has relied on an ensemble cast, a group of diverse and unique individuals who make the series an engaging watch. But above all, there is always a main protagonist who gets the most screen time and drives the story. For Star Trek: Discovery, that person is Commander Michael Burnham. Played by Sonequa Martin-Green, Burnham stood out in the first Discovery trailer as a lead unlike any other Trek protagonist: She has all the poise and intelligence of a Starfleet officer, but a clear spark of defiant passion shone through. With a past partially shrouded in mystery, Burnham's position as Discovery's lead has been well established — and her decisions are going to change the Federation forever.
Or so Entertainment Weekly revealed last week. In their series of exclusive articles on Discovery, EW previously delved into Burnham's past, confirming that she did indeed grow up on Vulcan, and was in fact the first human to study at the prestigious Vulcan Science Academy. But it's her future that the show is concerned with, and it looks like she's going to be faced with a very difficult choice. So just what is Burnham's "impossible decision", and did we already catch a glimpse of it in the trailer?
From The USS Shenzou To The USS Discovery
This is the crux of the matter. EW confirmed our suspicions, that after the first episode, Burnham will indeed be transferred from the USS Shenzou to the USS Discovery — and some kind of tragic event causes this transfer, along with her possible demotion.
Interestingly, showrunner Aaron Harberts revealed that Sarek — father of Spock, guardian of Burnham — still plays an influential role in Burnham's life, guiding her on a meticulously planned career path that takes a significant detour thanks to Burnham's big decision.
"Burnham’s choice that we’re alluding to is most difficult choice you can make — it affects her, affects Starfleet, affects the Federation, it affects the entire universe. That choice leads her to a different ship, the Discovery and there we begin what Gretchen and I call our ‘second pilot'."
Before we get to the speculation on what this decision is — violating the Prime Directive? Catalyzing a Klingon-Federation conflict? — it's worth noting that Burnham might not just be transferred, but demoted. When Discovery's female lead was first announced, we were told that she would be a Lt Commander — but in the trailer, she was referred to as "Commander Burnham".
Of course, in #StarTrek most Lt Commanders are still called "Commander" when being spoken to by other characters, so Burnham might be a Lt Commander. However, first officers are usually Commanders, not Lt Commanders — and it's possible that we were told the lead would be a Lt Commander because that's what she becomes after the first pilot. Ergo, Burnham might be demoted, too.
A Choice That Changes The Federation Forever
The trailer certainly built up to the idea of a crisis, with Burnham urging Michelle Yeoh's Captain Georgiou to fire first, and later, with a tone of desperation, explaining to the crew that she's trying to save them. Clearly, something has gone terribly wrong as the Shenzou investigate this mysterious object "on the edge of Federation space".
Towards the end of the trailer, Doug Jones' Lt Saru heralds the coming of death, and a brilliant white light flashes across the bridge of the Shenzou. It's impossible to tell exactly what's going on, but the smart money's on the mysterious object causing some kind of problem for the crew. And I'm willing to bet that Georgiou gets incapacitated — or maybe even killed — as a result.
At points in the trailer, it seems like Burnham has been thrust into command. When speaking to Burnham, Sarek talks about "great unifiers", saying that such leaders need a cause for their followers to rally around — and it seems that he's talking about Burnham herself. Later on, we hear him ask her "what have you done, out there on the edge of Federation space?" and these snippets of dialogue fit together when we flip the chronology. After the Shenzou found the spaceborn object, Burnham did something that she believed was right, and as a result she found herself in a position of command over the ship, with Georgiou incapacitated.
What that decision was remains to be seen. However, we might be able to make an educated guess based on the trailer. In it, we see Burnham blast off alone, presumably to find the object (possibly before the Klingons get to it). She is using a propulsion-powered suit similar to the one Spock uses in The Motion Picture — which the showrunners have said was a big influence on the pilot episodes.
This parallel may not just be visual. In a similar scene in The Motion Picture, Spock leaves the Enterprise in such a suit to investigate V'ger alone, against his captain's wishes. In both circumstances, Burnham and Spock are investigating a mysterious object, and this decision causes a chain reaction of events that determines the course of the show/movie. But while Spock's decision turned out to be the right one, it seems that Burnham's has far more drastic consequences that will "affect the Federation" and the entire universe.
Burnham May Still Become Captain Someday
Why Burnham chose to investigate the object, and whatever she does when she gets there, it's clear that she's desperate and she believes her cause is right. Although this might cause her demotion and reassignment, it seems that Starfleet will still recognize the logic of Burnham's choice. The only thing we know of Captain Lorca, who commands the Discovery, is that he is a "brilliant tactician", and it's possible that whatever cause Burnham is championing, Starfleet wants her to continue her mission under the command of someone who knows when to fire first.
Ultimately though, it seems that Burnham is still progressing towards having her own command. This plot thread was firmly planted by Georgiou in the trailer, as she started a conversation about Burnham someday commanding a ship.
Although Burnham then seems to slide backwards in her career progression, it seems that this promotion might be on the horizon somewhere, as showrunner Gretchen Berg hinted to EW.
"The joy is in the journey. The advantage to her not being in charge of the bridge right now is we get to tell stories from a very different point of view. It’s a fresh feeling because we’re not on the bridge all the time. We get access to more parts of the ship."
Like the popular The Next Generation episode "Lower Decks", it seems that Discovery is keen to explore beyond the ship's senior staff, and having Burnham as a lower-ranking officer allows a sense of familiarity and a perspective that other Trek shows have lacked. However, Berg does say that Burnham isn't in charge "right now", which does suggest that this is a goal for her as the show progresses.
This prospect is very exciting. There's already a lot of conflict and contention to make the show interesting, as Burnham makes her difficult choice that will shape the Federation. But after that, it's nice to know that she has something to strive towards — which will make it all the more satisfying when she finally gets to sit in the captain's chair, and join the ranks of the other Star Trek leads.
Tell us in the comments: would you like to see Burnham become captain?
(Source: Entertainment Weekly)