Star Trek: Discovery Is Smashing Michael Between the Future She Wants and the Past She Let Go
Poor Michael Burnham has been through a lot. In Discovery’s first season, she found herself thrust into a war of her own making, as Starfleet began to grasp with the disparate sides of its militaristic and scientific selves. In season two, her personal traumas as a child became fundamental to saving the universe. Now, she finds herself at another crossroads.
“Scavengers” brings Discovery right back into its tight focus on Michael as it finds her having to fully grapple with a situation that has been simmering in the background ever since she and the Discovery crew reunited a few episodes ago. Michael’s year alone (well, alone-ish) in the 32nd Century has fundamentally realigned who she has become, adapting to a mostly Federation-less society molded by her connection to David Ajala’s Cleveland Book.
In part, this is driven by a sense of curiosity, and an unwillingness to let absolutely anything go that she cannot heap upon her own shoulders to burden, a defining trait of hers ever since she fought that Klingon way back in the show’s first episode. Michael doesn’t just want to know how the mysterious Burn that decimated Dilithium supplies, killed millions, and fractured the Federation. She needs to know. Having let her friends and her old life go, she is no longer content to solve that mystery within the confines of Starfleet or the Federation. Whether it’s within the command structure of the Discovery—the sense of normalcy to which the crew that followed her into the future clings to as one of the last connections they all have left—or within the tired, beleaguered remnants of Starfleet commanded by Admiral Vance.
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It’s clear that she still cares—she is willing to do a lot, as we see this episode, to learn anything about the Burn. But at the same time, we are being constantly reminded that Michael got used to being on her own, as Michael Burnham and not Commander Burnham, Discovery Science Officer. She could act on the impulses and hunches she had, she could solve things her own way. Were the goals the same for her and either the Discovery or the Federation? Yes. But the paths to those goals are very, very different, and “Scavengers” presents Michael with a reckoning that she can’t play these two approaches off of each other for much longer.
That reckoning comes when, as the Discovery prepares to be Starfleet’s, uh, only rapid response ship in case of an impending Orion pirate attack, Grudge the cat (okay, Grudge the cat and Book’s autopiloting ship, the latter of which is doing most of the heavy lifting) arrives at Federation HQ with a message from the absent courier. Book located the black box of a Starfleet vessel destroyed during the Burn and Michael immediately wants to use the Discovery’s Spore Drive to zap on over, find him and the box, and zap back in time to be ready to help the Federation. Saru, whose newfound Captaincy finds him stuck in between the rock and the hard place that is Admiral Vance and Michael’s willingness to go off-book literally all of the time, can’t condone ignoring Vance’s orders, especially after the roundabout way—thanks to an idea put forward by Michael—Discovery’s crew ingratiated itself to the skeptical Federation last week.
Michael finds herself in an ethical dilemma that, honestly, for most of our Star Trek heroes, we’d spend a good chunk of an episode debating. Can the structure of bureaucracy impede the need to do good that bureaucracy stands for? What compromises must be made in a utopia that’s on a knife’s edge, what sacrifices are worth making for your ideals in an unideal world? However, Michael is not your typical Star Trek hero. A rogue mission that’s such a bad idea the literal evil Emperor of the Mirror Universe is like “Oh hell yeah, let’s go, my naughty protégé?”She’s ready for it.
This is as fascinating as it is fun. It’s a delight, for example, to see Michelle Yeoh action-hero-vamp her way all over the salvage operation Book’s last location was registered as, with Georgiou getting to be her usual, outlandishly mean self as she and Michael infiltrate the Pirate’s operation as would-be Dilithium sellers. It also feels, just as last week did, like a classic Star Trek away mission; our heroes having to infiltrate a seedy underworld to liberate one of their own. For the most part, it’s simple, earnest sci-fi fun—there’s action, there’s Yeoh delivering kicks and one-liners at a frankly dangerous rate of fire, our heroes get what they need, Book is saved, and an entire outpost’s worth of hapless prisoners are liberated in the process. Dangerous as it is, reckless as it is, Michael got the job done, saved lives, and delivered vital information to the Federation. And got to snog Book in a turbolift. Huzzah!
If “Scavengers” was even more like last week’s episode, that compromise would have let her get away with once again breaking the rules and defying orders—the orders of not just Vance this time, but Saru as well. It would be, in fact, like a lot of Star Trek: Discovery’s past, which has been very willing, for the most part, to let Michael’s personal pursuits and authority-defying antics override protocol and command with little more than a passing consequence. Arguably, the largest consequence Michael has had to face in the show’s existence was the one time it was not really of her own doing, but a burden she took on nonetheless: propelling herself and the Discovery 930 years into the future to stop Control from destroying civilization as she knew it. But for the most part, Michael has largely gotten away with being a loose cannon because her reasons for doing so are almost always in pursuit of a shared, noble goal.
Except this time, she doesn’t. Should the show actually begin to play with the emotional status quo laid bare in the downer climax of “Scavengers,” it could lay some fascinating groundwork for things to come. It’s more than the fact that Vance is pissed that she defied him and her Captain to do something she’s been told multiple times not to do. It’s more than the fact that Saru, in complete agreement, demotes Michael from her recently-earned First Officer position down to Science Officer. It’s the fact that Saru makes it explicitly clear just how completely broken their relationship is by her repeated dishonesty.
Saru and Michael’s relationship has had its ups and downs over Discovery—from that “So you got the person literally responsible for getting me into the Federation killed, destroyed the ship I worked on, and threw said Federation into an interstellar conflict” dealio all the way up to a few episodes ago. The two literally had a conversation about how the only way they’ll be able to move forward will be in trusting each other, trust she immediately violated. Now, she pays the price: not just losing a position but, almost irrevocably, losing one of her oldest friendships in the process. Things can be rebuilt between Saru and Michael but they can’t possibly be the same.
Is she okay with it? Michael already has, privately, admitted to herself how much she’s let these people go. She’s admitted to herself, and Georgiou even, how much the 32nd Century’s situation has motivated her to find her own path, and not one that necessarily lingers under the Starfleet delta, even as everything she does is in the name of what it once stood for. But Saru’s rebuttal of her actions hits so profoundly that maybe she really hasn’t. As she tries to pick up the pieces of that relationship, her quest to take on the galaxy’s burdens once more could get much, more complicated.
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