Michael Burnham and Paying it Forward

Michael Burnham at the end of Season 5

Spoiler Alert for Star Trek: Discovery through the end of Season 5.

What I love about Star Trek and other long-running shows is the way that, when they’re well written, they slowly develop their characters over time. Michael Burnham’s growth over the five seasons of Discovery is an example;. As her first officer tells her, “You have to be the only person in Starfleet to captain a ship that you first boarded as a prisoner” (s05e04 “Face the Strange”). The choice she makes in the series finale, “Life, Itself,” is one that Season 1 Burnham would never have thought possible—but given her character arc throughout the series, it’s one that makes perfect sense.

Burnham and Sarek meet Georgiou for the first time

We first meet her in Season 1 as the kind of person who tries to fix everything by herself. When she thinks she knows better than her captain what to do during a crisis, she nerve-pinches Georgiou unconscious (s01e01 “The Vulcan Hello”). Later, Captain Lorca convinces her to join his crew by appealing to that same character trait: “Universal law is for lackeys. Context is for kings,” he says, praising her mutiny as an empowering act (s01e03 “Context Is For Kings”). The power Burnham earns aboard Discovery, however, is not the power of one, but many. When a malevolent A.I. called Control threatens to destroy the universe, Burnham volunteers to dispatch it in a solo mission to the future—just the sort of thing a lone hero would do—but the crew doesn’t let her (s02e14 “Such Sweet Sorrow II”). They insist on accompanying her to the 32nd century, because no one can really save the galaxy alone.

Burnham in Season 5

In Seasons 3 to 5, Burnham becomes a first officer, then a captain, who gives second chances because she knows how it feels to receive one. When Rayner nearly loses his place in Starfleet for being too quick on the trigger, Burnham saves his career by appointing him as her First Officer (s05e02 “Under the Twin Moons”). When her partner Book goes rogue to avenge his family, she doesn’t hesitate to bring him to justice, but she still loves him and waits for his return (s04e13 “Coming Home”). When he does return, he proves to her that he’s learned from his mistakes by helping Discovery with their latest mission: finding the godlike Progenitors’ technology before pirates Moll and L’ak can sell it to the power-hungry Breen. Like Book and Burnham before Discovery found them, Moll and L’ak are outlaws who believe they don’t need anyone but each other; they attack the Starfleet crew for trying to help (s0505 “Mirrors”, s05e07 “Erigah”). Book and Burnham, however, refuse to respond to violence in kind. Burnham gives Moll medical aid and helps her decode the Progenitor’s tech, while Book keeps a transporter lock on both of them to beam them to safety (s05e10 “Life Itself”).

Burnham, Book and their son

It takes a former mutineer—someone who, by definition, once tried to take power that didn’t belong to her—to gain access to the Progenitor’s tech, the greatest power in the known universe, only to hide it in a black hole beyond anybody’s reach. Burnham has learned the hard way that there are limits to how much power one person should have. She knows she would use it with good intentions, but even the best intentions can go wrong. So, instead of trying to save the galaxy single-handedly as she tried to do before, she decides to save it in subtler ways. “You, Book, and the family I’ve found in Starfleet,” she says, explaining to her son what’s most important in her life (s05e10 “Life Itself”). Doing your job and raising a family may not be as dramatic as firing on a Klingon warship, but it means the world to Book, who is no longer the last of his species once their son is born. Her story ends by coming full circle; in terms of writing, it doesn’t get more satisfying than that.

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