THERE ARE A LOT OF PHOTOS OF MICHELLE YEOH AS CAPTAIN PHILIPPA GEORGIOU THROUGHOUT THIS ARTICLE.
Well, a new season of ‘Discovery’ is about to start, which means that I, like an alien scout vessel in a secret research base as larger alien motherships approach the Earth, am regaining my writing power – all my little gizmos are turning back on, so to speak. Was that a stretched and esoteric reference to Brent Spiner’s role in ‘Independence Day’? Yes. Am I going to apologies for it? No.
Right from my very first article about ‘Discovery’, I argued that the show should’ve been about Philippa Georgiou. That was literally the first two paragraphs I ever wrote about the show. Since then, a lot has happened. The show got a second season. New spin-offs have been announced. I’ve had surgery on my genitals. The world is a different place, but one thing remains the same:
‘Discovery’ should still have been about Philippa Georgiou.
I’m not going to talk about the just-announced Section 31 series starring Michelle Yeoh in this article. It’s exhausting enough just hating on the Trek that already exists, and I simply don’t have the energy to hate on a show that doesn’t even have a title yet.
(I do hate it, though. It’s about a genocidal future space fascist who tortures her political enemies joining forces with a genocidal future crypto-fascist black ops team of edgelords and it’s going to be terrible.)
No, I want to stay positive this time, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do. Captain Georgiou only featured in two episodes of Star Trek ever (three if you count her hologram) but she’s frankly one of my favourite characters from the franchise. Let’s talk about why.
The cold open to ‘Discovery’ was my absolute favourite bit from the entire fifteen-episode season. It was lovely. It had as much respect for the Prime Directive as any series before it and I was glad. The Prime Directive is trash. It’s stupid, ugly trash, and it is a good thing when the Prime Directive is violated. (Except for that weird one where the rogue captain turned all the natives into Nazis, but we can rightfully gloss over that for now.)
The highlight was Georgiou walking out the Starfleet Delta in the sand so that the Shenzhou could find her and Burnham. It was a simple, intelligent solution to the problem they were facing. SURE, there are a few plot holes in there somewhere, but hell with it, it was what I wanted from the show – characters using their wits to work their way out of difficult situations.
And what’s great is the characterisation of Georgiou throughout the two pilot episodes. Michelle Yeoh owns the part. She figures out a plan and just executes it calmly. She doesn’t flap, she doesn’t lose her cool. She’s thoughtful, lighthearted and calming, whilst also owning any space she’s in. Where Jean Luc rarely leaves the few central square feet of the bridge of the Enterprise, fixing himself as the central point of authority, Georgiou strides about with an easy confidence.
There’s a lovely little line where, as Burnham is flying through the debris field in her EVA suit, one of the bridge officers remarks that her heart rate is high. Georgiou responds with a smile, “She’s having fun.” She makes clear that she has an intimate familiarity with her officers, far more friendly than Picard or Janeway, and more parental than Sisko’s more casual relationships.
Indeed, of all the captains, Georgiou seems closest to Kirk more than any other. Just as ol’ James T. was a charismatic leader who won his crew over with a wink and a smile, Georgiou laughs and jokes with her people. It seems like it would just be good fun to be an officer on the Shenzhou, compared to the increased formality of life aboard the Enterprise D, or the spartan utilitarianism of the Defiant. Or the rampant space-nobbery of the NX-01.
There’s another fantastic exchange between Georgiou and Burnham shortly before the Klingon beacon lights in ‘The Vulcan Hello’:
Georgiou: “Shenzhou is the only line of defence if the Klingons attack.”
Burnham: “Not if. When.”
Georgiou: “I have to hope that whatever happens here can serve as a bridge between our civilisations.”
Burnham:”That’s the diplomat in you talking. What does the soldier say?”
Georgiou: “Nothing good.”
This little exchange here is what the entire show should’ve been about. There’s so much weight and theme within it that I can barely believe it came out of an episode of ‘Discovery’. Let’s break it down.
Burnham’s correction, her assertion that a Klingon attack is guaranteed, is a classic support-character argument. Offering a contrasting point of view, usually a more pessimistic one, that the main character overcomes with their own reasoning. Georgiou counters with a classic bit of Trek peace-mongering: “… serve as a bridge between our civilisations.”
A bridge between civilisations. A belief that there is more that unites us than divides us.
This should have been the message of ‘Discovery’. That for all of the contrasts between Klingon and Federation culture, even after a bloody conflict common ground can be found. As I’ve already covered, that was not the ultimate message of the show, and that was a great shame, because we see the germ of something wonderful in the very first episode, before it’s discarded in favour of stabbing, torture, rape and plot twists.
This is reinforced by the next lines. “That’s the diplomat… What does the soldier say?” And again, this right here succinctly addresses one of the great conflicts of the franchise to date – that of a militaristic organisation such as Starfleet being employed in the name of science and exploration.
Acknowledging this duality in Georgiou, that she must act in equal measure as a builder of bridges and a guardian against conquest, could’ve been a wonderful character arc. Had she lived, we might have seen her dealing with the Klingon war in a way not yet explored by previous series.
Sisko was always a soldier. The genesis of his character was in battle at Wolf-359. He started out as a wounded veteran, embittered and robust. The Dominion War was an extension of his character – we see the war (mostly) through his eyes, the eyes of a soldier, and so we never see any internal conflict within him the way we would with, say, Picard or Janeway.
Georgiou could have offered fresh perspective. We could have examined the two halves of her career and how they interact. Maybe one episode could have featured the Shenzhou visiting a backwater planet, where Georgiou has to convince its inhabitants to join Starfleet and fight in the war, or maybe she’s even there to outright conscript young fighters as losses mount and desperation sets in. We see her using her skills as a negotiator to convince people to join her cause, knowing that many of them will never return, and we face her torment as she does so, weighing the need to win the war against the cost of fuelling it with more lives, more casualties.
All of the previous captains represented different military virtues – Kirk embodied intrepidity and determination. Picard was the model of discipline and responsibility. Sisko was all about duty, whilst Janeway stood for principles (most of the time). Meanwhile, Archer… I guess Archer represented authoritarianism or something. I dunno, I was never too sure about him.
The point is that it would have been so lovely to find out what Georgiou represented within this pantheon. If Kirk is the God of Leaping Before Looking, maybe Georgiou would have been the Goddess of Skill, or Adaptability, or Cunning.
Another wonderful aspect of Captain Georgiou that we see in these first two episodes is a great deal of doubt and uncertainty as she is faced with unfamiliar challenges. She visibly struggles to figure out the next best move, and leans heavily on Saru and Burnham to inform her decisions and to advise her. This absolutely humanises her, and makes her so much more accessible as a character.
Both Picard and Janeway were too formal and rigid, particularly early on in their respective shows, for an audience to truly connect with them. Hell, it’s Season 4 of TNG before we get to ‘Family’, which is the first real moment of vulnerability we see in Picard. Kirk goes the other way, being so effortlessly charismatic and unfazed that he seems almost superhuman. Sisko’s most humanising feature was his relationship with Jake, and their shared loss of Jennifer.
In Georgiou, we see a competent and smart individual nonetheless struggling to overcome strange and dangerous obstacles. She’s vulnerable, without being weak or incapable. And most of all, her motivations are clear – to resolve this situation without starting a war, maybe even forging a new relationship with an enigmatic alien culture.
Georgiou showed so much potential just in those first two episodes, that it now makes me genuinely a little sad to know we’ll not see her again. Yes, we’ll still see Michelle Yeoh, as the cannibalistic, sadistic and morally bankrupt fascist tyrant Emperor Georgiou, who is the mirror in every way to the quiet confidence of Captain Georgiou. And Yeoh plays both parts well, for sure. But I genuinely think that Captain Georgiou could have easily stood at the level of any of her predecessors in all of those “Who Is The Best Captain” debates had she been given the chance.
More than anything, it was just a joy to watch a charismatic leader solving problems and facing difficult situations. That was a show to which I would have given my heart, and I wonder now if all of the bitterness towards ‘Discovery’ stems from the narrative betrayal of the show’s creators in having Georgiou killed off so early on.
Oh well. At least some part of that dream might live on in this new Section 31 series.
But probably not.