Michael Burnham’s Mother Figures Explore Motherhood from New Angles

Gabrielle Burnham and Michael Burnham are reunited in "Unification Part III"

(This article contains spoilers for Star Trek: Discovery up to Season 4.)

Una McCormack’s novel Star Trek: Discovery: Wonderlands opens with protagonist Michael Burnham careening through time and space, having left everything behind—her crew, her family, her era—to keep valuable information away from an evil A.I. She’s scared and alone and misses her mother … but which one? Three names blur together in her disoriented mind: “gabrielleamandaphilippa (…) Mother … ”

Discovery is not the first Trek series to explore the complexities of motherhood. We have Deanna and Lwaxana Troi’s challenging relationship in TNG, Kira Nerys becoming a surrogate for the O’Briens in DS9, and Raffi Musiker’s estrangement from her son in Picard, among others. Michael Burnham’s story is unique, however, in that she has three mother figures who care for her at different points in her life, and influence her in different ways.

Gabrielle Burnham

“Duty and joy go hand in hand.” (s03e07 “Unification Part III”)

Gabrielle talks with Mirror Georgiou in "Perpetual Infinity"

Michael’s birth mother, an astrophysicist and time traveler, raised her alongside her father Mike Burnham, until being presumed dead in an attack on their home when Michael was ten. Mike was killed, but Gabrielle escaped by leaping forward in time, where she found an apocalyptic future that she decided to change. Mother and daughter are “peas in a pod,” according to Mike; they share a passion for science and a single-minded commitment to their goals, which leads them to achieve great things, but can also isolate them. Gabrielle is so driven to save Michael and everyone else that she doesn’t take time to talk to her until Michael insists (s02e11 “Perpetual Infinity”). The second time they meet, it’s Gabrielle’s turn to remind Michael, who is driven to reunite a scattered Federation, to take time with her loved ones so she can remember what she’s fighting for (s03e07 “Unification Part III”).

Amanda Grayson

“The real world doesn’t always adhere to logic. (…) Sometimes when you’re lost, you’re found.” (s01e03 “Context Is For Kings”)

Amanda hands Michael a gift before her graduation in "Lethe"

After Michael lost her birth parents, Amanda and her Vulcan husband Sarek adopted her and raised her alongside their son Spock. While Sarek trained the children in logic and emotional control, Amanda balanced this out by showing them affection and nurturing their creativity, for example, by reading aloud from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (s01e06 “Lethe”). Amanda also shows by example how to assert yourself when a relationship is in conflict. When Sarek accuses her of abusing his authority, she says: “I don’t live under your authority. I’m your wife” (s02e07 “Light and Shadows). Later, when Michael and her partner Book disagree, she doesn’t give up either her love or her convictions, even when those convictions put them on opposite sides (s04e08 “All In”). Like Alice and like Amanda, Michael knows how to live with contradictions.

Philippa Georgiou

“Keep your eyes and heart open, always.” (s01e04 “The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not For The Lamb’s Cry”)

Michael sees the holographic message left for her by Captain Philippa Georgiou

Michael’s relationship with her mentor Philippa Georgiou is complicated, especially when you take the Mirror Universe into account. In both universes, Michael lost confidence in Philippa’s leadership and rebelled against her. In the Prime Universe, Captain Philippa died fighting beside her first officer Michael (s01e02 “Battle of the Binary Stars”). In the Mirror Universe, Emperor Philippa sentenced her adopted daughter Michael to death (s01e12 “Vaulting Ambition”). However, when Prime Michael meets Mirror Philippa, they still give each other a second chance (s01e13 “What’s Past Is Prologue”). Michael saves Mirror Philippa from assassination by bringing her into the Prime Universe. In return, the former emperor helps Michael in her ruthless way wherever she can, such as acquiring weapons for Starfleet (s01e15 “Will You Take My Hand?), destroying an evil A.I. (s02e14 “Such Sweet Sorrow”), and breaking Book out of a prison camp (s03e06 “Scavengers”). When the side effects of travel between universes oblige Philippa to leave, it’s as a different person who has learned compassion. She credits this change of heart to Michael: “Some part of me was already dead. You gave me new life,” Philippa tells her (s03e10 “Terra Firma Part II). This brings their relationship full circle, as Prime Philippa gave Michael new life years ago by accepting her into Starfleet (s01e02).

In the real world, we still take mothers for granted, as well as holding them up to impossible standards. This is why I’m happy to see Michael, one of Trek’s recurring female captains (as of Season 4), share these messy, complicated relationships with all her mothers. They’re not perfect and neither is she, but she loves and respects them anyway, and neither she nor the screenwriters ever deny one over the other. When birth mother Gabrielle meets adoptive mother Philippa, both acknowledge the other’s role, and the former makes the latter promise to take care of their daughter (s02e11). And later, when Michael puts on Gabrielle’s Red Angel suit to save history, it’s thinking of all three of them that keeps her strong (Wonderlands).

Motherhood comes in all shapes and colors, and it’s time to celebrate that.

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