Following on from my previous article where I gushed fondly over what ‘Discovery’ might have been with Captain Georgiou at the conn, I would like now to take a closer look at the show’s main protagonist, Michael Burnham.
Burnham is a fascinating subject. Divisive amongst fans for all sorts of reasons (some of which are none too savoury), it’s difficult to think of a Star Trek character which has prompted more discussion and debate. Everyone can agree that Neelix is a shitbird and that Data deserves to know what a hug really feels like, but it’s tricky to find any broad consensus on Burnham.
I’m writing this after Episode Five of Season Two, ‘Saints Of Imperfection’, has aired, which means:
- Expect spoilers and
- As with my Tilly article, I am sure everything I write will be completely invalidated by the next episode to be released.
First of all, it’s worth covering some of the basics.
Michael Burnham is a mostly unique character in Star Trek in that she is a central protagonist in a story that follows her specifically, and where she is not an authority figure.
Other Trek shows have had lead characters, but they are usually the “Captains” or the central authority figures of an ensemble, and their role as a protagonist is usually incidental – the stories in which they feature actually focus on the ship/location and the crew in general, of whom the Captain simply happens to be in command. Indeed, in any given series, particularly TNG onwards, the episodes in which the Captain is the central character will usually be in a minority, and the role of protagonist will be distributed among the other cast members. In effect, they take turns.
‘Discovery’ bucked this trend by focusing squarely on Burnham, and her personal journey as the mutineer and disgraced officer, eventually gaining apparent redemption – and even then she remains an officer on the ship in question and not its Captain.
Indeed, the Captains of ‘Discovery’ are invariably components of Burnham’s story, lacking arcs of their own: Georgiou gets fridged in the second episode to add to Burnham’s tragedy; Lorca is an impostor who shows her the other side of betrayal; and Pike is the “new Captain”, testing Burnham’s personal trust as well as her faith in science.
With this in mind, getting Burnham “right” as a character is paramount to the effectiveness of the story which is centred around her as an individual. Although the show is called ‘Star Trek: Discovery‘, implying that it focuses on the journey of the eponymous vessel, much like ‘Deep Space Nine’, ‘Voyager’ and ‘Enterprise’, really it should be called ‘Star Trek: Michael Burnham‘, because it is she who we follow – the ship itself is incidental to the story.
In this article, I’m going to break down why I believe that Burnham doesn’t “work” as a character – specifically, why she doesn’t work as a protagonist in this protagonist-driven story, and the problems that it causes for the narrative.
We’re going to look at her character traits, or lack thereof. We’ll review the writers’ over-reliance on backstory and “origins” rather than motivations, and we’ll see how these extensive origins actually limit her character development rather than augment it. And finally, we’ll look at the role of the audience’s journey through the narrative, and why it is important for that journey to align with the protagonist’s journey throughout the course of the story.
First, though, I want to address a particular bugbear of mine when it comes to descriptions and criticisms of Michael Burnham, and of characters in general.
What Burnham Is Not
I’ve frequently seen Burnham described as a “Mary Sue”, which is an assessment with which I personally disagree and which I feel is unhelpful, for the following reasons:
The term “Mary Sue” is relatively loosely defined, and even those conditions which are codified are entirely subjective. And even then, most of the definitions don’t apply to Burnham. She does not seem like an author-insert, with few of the show’s creators or writers seemingly having much in common at all with the character.
Further, Burnham is absolutely not shown as flawless. Smart, yes, and with a broad range of expertise, but given her first episode features her grasping firmly onto the idiot-ball and ruining everything for everyone, it’s safe to say she is capable of fucking up. Nor is Burnham portrayed as being particularly likeable, struggling as she does to form friendships even before her descent into mutiny.
Given that the main elements of Mary Suedom include author-insertion, wish-fulfilment and self-idealisation, it’s notable that Burnham doesn’t tick any of these boxes. Similarly, she can hardly be accused of “upstaging” established characters, given that she is the main character of the show itself.
“Mary Sue” has a masculine equivalent, “Marty Stu”, and I am sure that everyone who uses either term believes they do so equally and without regard to gender. Nonetheless, accusations of “Mary Suedom” – specifically, of unrealistically positive character traits, abilities, and idealisation – seem to be made far more frequently against female characters than male characters.
For instance, it’s interesting ‘The Force Awakens’ is so broadly accepted as being a direct remake of ‘A New Hope’, and yet Rey is identified as a Mary Sue where Luke is not identified as a Marty Stu. Both characters share similar traits, backgrounds, abilities and character arcs, and yet Luke emerges from online debate relatively unscathed, it seems.
Which leaves me wondering if the Mary Sue accusation would still be levelled against Burnham if her gender matched her first name.
My main contention with the Mary Sue argument, however, is its relevance to in-depth critique of any work of fiction.
Ultimately, it gets thrown around as a catch-all term for a character whose talents strain the audience’s suspension of disbelief, and yes, that is a valid critique, but it’s also a reasonably shallow one that pretty much goes nowhere.
You can still have a rounded character with a lot of talent. Jean Luc Picard is apparently good at just about everything: he’s a natural leader; a talented pilot; he was the only first-year cadet to ever win the Academy marathon; he was a scientist; an archaeologist; a strategist; he could sing; he could fight; everyone around him looked up at him with adoration and respect.
By all these counts, Picard is a bit of a Mary Sue himself – and yet I don’t think any fans of the show would ever call him that, because we like him. We’re emotionally invested in Picard, and so the usual criticisms that would be levelled at a character with multiple talents are abandoned. And if the label of “Mary Sue” is only going to be applied against characters that we don’t like, and not the ones that we do like, then its value as a critique of a character or piece of writing becomes ancillary at best, and vindictive at worst.
Put simply, why is Michael Burnham a Mary Sue, but Picard is not? I imagine the answer is not due to an in-depth analysis of either character.
What Burnham Lacks
If we agree that Burnham is not a Mary Sue, then let’s take a look at what Burnham actually is, by which I mean, let’s review some of her character traits as presented over the course of the show.
If you’ve seen the Plinkett Review of ‘The Phantom Menace’ then you’ll be familiar with the “characterisation test”, in which Mike Stoklasa asks his friends and colleagues to describe different characters in the Star Wars franchise to see how they compare to one another.
Now, I don’t have any friends and I hate my colleagues, so I’m going to have to do most of the work myself, but let’s take a look.
The rules are:
- Describe a character as best you can
- without referring to what they look like
- or what their job/role is.
I’m going to add an extra rule for this particular exercise, the purpose of which will become apparent later:
- Without describing the character’s background or origins.
So, let’s go through the characters of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’, and see how this pans out:
- Passive Aggressive
- Surprisingly Jacked
Not all of these traits are necessarily positive, and that’s okay. Stamets is a bit of a dick sometimes, especially when his work is challenged. That might make him a bad person (I don’t personally think it does), but it doesn’t make him a bad character. Likewise, Saru held onto his grudge against Burnham for a good long while, and it may have been justified, but it’s not an endearing trait in its own right.
- Likes ‘Alice In Wonderland’
Spock’s Sis Raised by Vul XenoanthrOccasionally Awkward
Not only are the fewer means of describing Burnham based on her actions in the show, but when you put those words side by side, you can see just how much more emotive the descriptions of each other character are by comparison:
I’ve highlighted those traits that I think are the most provocative to most audiences, and maybe you disagree with the emphasis, and that’s fine. But in general, it’s more engaging to watch characters with strong emotional traits like those highlighted in orange – the others, traits like “Considerate” and “Pensive”, are good too, and necessary – but they are not as exciting or engaging to the audience.
By way of example, see Tyrion from ‘Game Of Thrones’ – he’s a fan favourite, a very endearing character with a lot of sympathetic traits. He’s also extremely cunning, witty and devious. And whilst Tyrion’s inherent tragedy makes audiences love him and root for him, it’s only because of his snippy comebacks, his clever insights and his surface-level arrogance and cockiness that we engage with him in the first place.
Burnham doesn’t have traits like that. She’s smart, yes, but her first big on-screen action is one of outright stupidity and betrayal. She isn’t funny – she doesn’t make the audience laugh, and neither is she particularly sympathetic. She’s brave in the face of death, sure – but she’s hardly idealistic, beyond the tacked-on “morals” at the end of the first season.
Now, one defence of this particular lack of strong characterisation on Burnham’s part is that she’s a central viewpoint character, otherwise known as a “protagonist”. And it’s true that protagonists are generally less overtly characterised than their supporting cast – think Luke compared to Han and Leia, or Kirk compared to Spock and McCoy.
You need your viewpoint character to be a little less extreme and a little more accessible, because they are your audience’s window into the world you’re creating. So the protagonist has to be a bit more boring in order for the audience to “imprint” on them and get sucked into their story, rooting for them to succeed and achieve their goals.
Which raises another issue with Burnham…
Burnham is what you’d call a “pro-ta-gonist” or a “lead character.” She’s the character whose journey we follow throughout the run of ‘Discovery’. She’s the first character we’re introduced to and the character with whom we spend the most time, as well as being the character who interacts with all of the other characters the most.
Rachel Thorn, British improviser of ‘Between Us’ and ‘CSI: Crime Scene Improvisation’ fame, once explained that improvised theatre lives and dies on the goodwill of the audience. When the audience has no idea of what to expect or even what kind of show they will be seeing, it’s vital to get them as comfortable as possible so that they can enjoy and easily follow the story that you’re telling.
For protagonist-driven improvised stories, Rachel further elaborates, it is therefore vital not to squander the audience’s goodwill, and the improvisers must clearly establish a protagonist and one or more objectives for which they can strive – narrative elements with which any audience will be comfortable and familiar. And the improvisers must establish these things quickly, before the audience gets too uncomfortable and starts counting the minutes until they can politely leave.
For non-improvised science fiction and fantasy stories, this same principle applies. When there are shows that run the range of cultural familiarity from as wacky as ‘Farscape’ through to as conventional as the ‘Battlestar Galactica’ reboot, it’s important to give the audience familiar narrative concepts to which they can cling as they get to know the world in which the story takes place.
And those two examples hold true. ‘Farscape’ softens the impact of its colourfully bizarre universe by having a conventional, accessible lead character. Meanwhile, ‘Battlestar’ lacks any central lead character, but benefits from a society that very closely mirrors our own in terms of social progression, political structures and military hierarchies.
Indeed, the Twelve Colonies are essentially just “Britain and North America with spaceships,” with familiar concepts of laws, presidents, elections, aircraft carriers, fighter jets, card games, and outdated religious fundamentalism. Even the technology level is mostly equivalent to 1980’s terrestrial equipment, with the only exceptions being the FTL drives, efficient launch thrusters on starships, gravity plating, and intelligent robots.
So, when you have a universe such as that in Star Trek, with hugely advanced technology which includes forcefields, teleporters, tractor beams, holograms and cloaking devices, and you have weird, unfamiliar races like martial Klingons, permanently-terrified Kelpiens and emotionless vulcans, as well as a post-scarcity socio-economic Federation built on near-absolute egalitarianism, well, you need a familiar, accessible protagonist.
Which is a problem, because Burnham isn’t a very good protagonist.
And that’s because she is not a character who has any clear personal goals.
- In ‘Conscience Is For Kings’ Lorca offers Burnham the chance to serve in Starfleet again and possibly redeem herself. She refuses, twice, instead of seizing upon an opportunity to at least try to atone for some of her crimes.
- In ‘Lethe’ she describes how bored and unengaged she is with her duties aboard the ship.
- In ‘Despite Yourself’ and ‘The Wolf Inside’, she treats her first chance at command (albeit of a Terran ship) with abject boredom. There’s no passion either way – she isn’t visibly anxious or excited or appalled or scared in any given scene – she remains stone-faced and grim throughout.
Most of the time, Burnham seems merely to be along for the ride, doing what she’s told as she’s told to do it. There is no scene where she pleads to be given a chance to prove herself, nor even where she just has to watch longingly as other officers go off on adventures without her.
In effect, her mistakes at the Binary Stars and her subsequent criminal conviction seem to have left her dejected and depressed, and that’s actually pretty realistic. But it isn’t engaging! It’s not easy for an audience to latch onto a character like that for more than an episode or two, but Burnham seems determined to wallow in her self-pity for nearly a full season.
What Burnham needed was a crusade. She needed to be handed some task or assignment that she could cling on to as her one chance at redemption. As a xenoanthropologist, she needed to be given the task of bringing a Federation ally into the war against the Klingons, or even of figuring out the cultural triggers for the Klingon Empire that might facilitate negotiations, maybe even a truce. And then we, the audience, needed to see her commit herself fully to that task, devoting herself to it with enthusiasm, maybe even desperation.
For a moment, that was very nearly the Tardigrade. But that problem is promptly resolved with thoughts and prayers by the end of the same episode in which the problem is introduced. Then we’re just back to indifference.
Let’s take a look at the character of Alicia Florrick, from ‘The Good Wife’.
First off, if you’ve not seen ‘The Good Wife’, can I suggest you put all other projects and commitments on hold until you have at least finished the third season? You won’t regret it.
So, Alicia starts her journey as, essentially, a discarded trophy wife. She’s an attractive, young mother married to a disgraced politician, from whom she has separated following his scandalous involvement with prostitutes and alleged corruption.
She retains custody of her two children, living separately from her husband, whilst still publicly putting on a show of being a supportive, loving partner despite his indiscretions. She is, in fact, trying to be “the good wife”, as defined by society’s gender norms of powerful men doing despicable things and being forgiven by the women whose trust they abuse and whose lives they devastate because men are allowed to make any number of mistakes as long as they offer some kind of remorse afterwards because seriously, fuck the patriarchy.
We start the show with Alicia starting her new job as a low-ranked lawyer at a law firm owned by Will, a man her same age and whom she went to law school with. Whilst she left her legal career to become a political accessory, Will stayed in practice and advanced his career, and now as a favour to Alicia brings her in as a junior associate so that she can regain her independence and provide for her children.
Right from the get-go, Alicia is motivated and determined to prove herself as a capable lawyer and a loving parent. Every episode tackles her struggles to balance her responsibilities as a parent, her role as a prop for a rubbish politician, and her career as an ambitious young attorney.
Alicia’s personality, on the other hand, is… well, she’s pretty milquetoast. It’s frequently noted in the series itself that she’s a bit of a wallflower, especially compared to the serene authoritarianism of Diane Lockhart or the devastating straightforwardness of Kalinda.
That is, until Alicia grapples with a case and takes the lead, when you realise that she’s competent, well-prepared, knowledgeable and actually pretty ruthless when she needs to be. She grabs cases in her jaw and doesn’t let go until she’s shaken them to death. She’s assertive, and cocky, and dedicated, and that shines through because of her motivation and her commitment to her objectives.
So even though Diane gets to tackle the chunkier, more philosophical matters around feminism and representation, and Kalinda gets to go around smashing cars up with baseball bats and weaponising her sexuality in a frankly terrifying manner, and Will gets to be smarmy and cocky and Cary gets to be sneaky and devious and Eli just gets all the best lines (God bless you Alan Cummings)…
… It’s Alicia that we follow and that we root for (most of the time). And it’s easy to root for her because she has qualities and traits that we, the audience, can relate to and also aspire to, and we can enjoy seeing her succeed because she cares so much about the things she does.
This tracks through other stories, too:
- Luke is committed to saving the Princess and helping the Rebels;
- Rey is committed to learning the ways of the Force from Luke, and subsequently to reaching out to Kylo to redeem him;
- Ripley is committed to saving Newt and escaping LV-426;
- Furiosa is committed to saving the Wives and finding the Green Place;
- Arya is committed to seeking revenge on the enemies of her family;
- Sarah is committed to getting her daughter back and uncovering her own mysterious origins (that’s an ‘Orphan Black’ reference for you philistines out there).
All of these characters work as protagonists because they are strongly motivated by clear, sympathetic goals, and their goals are central to the main plot of the story. They also have agency to achieve those goals and to take actions that will directly effect the progression of the story. And that is what marks them out as successful protagonists. On the other hand:
- Raleigh is more interested in bedding Mako Mori than he is in actually ending the Kaiju threat;
- Anakin is more interested in bedding Padme than he is in actually figuring out the machinations of the Sith.
- Jupiter has no ability to interact in any of the mad cosmic events going on around her and is more interested in bedding the Wolfman.
So we look at Burnham in Season 1 of DISCO, and we see someone who:
- Doesn’t want to engage with the wider story of the Klingon war;
- Has no long- or medium-term motivations or goals;
- Lacks the rank or authority to have any agency in the outcome of the war.
That last one’s debatable, as she certainly gets sent on lots of important missions. But that serves as something of a contradiction given that she’s a disgraced officer with no rank, and in any case she never seems to have any motivation to go on those missions herself.
So, let’s look at Season 2 so far, where Burnham:
- Has no knowledge or understanding of the Red Bursts or the Red Angel, hence no ability to interact with this aspect of the storyline;
- Has made no decision to involve herself in the Red Bursts or the Red Angel but has simply been dragged into it by Pike;
- Has no established on-screen relationship with her foster brother, Spock;
- Has no other personal investment in the plot itself.
Which then leads into the question: what are Burnham’s goals this season? We’re five episodes in, and we have no established objectives of Burnham’s. The Red Bursts are Pike’s mission; Spock’s disappearance is something that she had to be guilted into reluctantly engaging with by a dying Saru.
Burnham herself has no goals in this story – she has no horse in this race, beyond the fact that she is incidentally related to Spock.
Now, the same is also true of characters in The Original Series, The Next Generation, and to a lesser extent ‘Enterprise’ and ‘Voyager’. Neither Kirk nor Picard nor Riker nor any of the others have clearly-defined long-standing goals, and neither do they have particularly emotive character traits in the vein of Tilly or Saru.
However, these characters all take turns playing the protagonist on an episode-by-episode basis, which sadly means they all need to be suitable protagonist material, i.e. not so strongly characterised that the audience can’t imprint upon them.
Further, whenever one of these characters becomes the protagonist of an episode, they are usually given strong motivations which engage them with the larger plot. In both Riker’s and Geordi’s episodes, usually this motivation begins and ends with their penises.
For Kirk and Picard, it might be as simple as their need to protect their ship and their crew from whatever space-wuzzle is currently molesting the ship.
Whilst the potential for such motivations exist for Burnham, she herself never truly grasps them, and we are left with a character who seems broadly disconnected from whatever story is occurring at any given moment. Her nuzzling with Ash on the planet Pahvo does not tie in with and is a distraction from the broader mission, and from Saru’s betrayal.
In ‘Into The Forest I Go’, she states openly that she has “no other purpose” than to plant the sensors on the Klingon ship – but she makes this argument from the perspective of her having the best skill set to achieve the mission goals – we see her as a crew member attempting to maximise efficiency, rather than seeing a young officer desperately seeking redemption. Indeed, her very tone is a peculiar mix of argumentative disdain and matter-of-fact objectivity. She doesn’t display the necessary passion for the audience to connect with her emotionally and root for her.
More Backstory Than Story
So far, we’ve looked at what Burnham isn’t, but we haven’t really looked at what she is. Let’s do that now.
Remember that little characterisation test I ran above, with Tilly, Stamets, Saru and Burnham? Remember that extra rule I added? “Without describing the character’s background or origins.”?
Okay, let’s reverse it. Let’s only talk about each character’s background and origins. For the purposes of this exercise, I’m going to treat the two-part pilot of ‘Discovery’ as being background, since it is effectively a prologue and is separated from the series’ beginning proper by a full six months:
- The best theoretical engineer in Starfleet, in or out of the Academy.
- Has a rocky relationship with her mother.
- A peacetime scientist roped into the war to develop his technology for military use.
- Is married to the ship’s doctor.
- Member of a species governed by fear of death, a prey species exploited by a predatory race.
- Served under Captain Georgiou for many years.
- We later learn that he is the only member of his species to leave his planet and encounter alien races.
These are all breathlessly brief. And that’s fine! We don’t need a shitload of backstory for our characters – in reality, they never existed until we first see them on the screen, so the most interesting parts of their lives should happen on-screen.
- The orphan of a Klingon attack which killed her parents when she was a child.
- The only human to be fostered and raised by Vulcans.
- The foster-sister of Spock and foster-daughter of Sarek.
- The target and survivor of a terrorist attack by Vulcan Logic-Extremists opposed to her integration into Vulcan society.
- Psychically linked to her father Sarek, who saved her life via mind meld after the terrorist attack.
- The first mutineer in Starfleet, betraying her captain.
- Responsible for starting a war with the Klingons (but also isn’t, really, but we’ll get to that).
- Sentenced to life in prison for her crimes.
Woah. I mean, even excluding the events at the Binary Stars, that only covers the last three points. Burnham has an incredibly detailed background, and almost all of it from when she was a child, and all of it established in the first couple of hours of her screen time.
What’s particularly notable is that the list of her backstory elements is longer than the list of her characteristics. It is also longer than her list of goals/motivations, because she barely has any motivations that she demonstrates on-screen.
What’s more significant from a characterisation and narrative perspective is that these are all things that happen TO Burnham, rather than being things which DESCRIBE her. Put another way, besides her mutiny, none of these things represent decisions that Burnham herself took, and so their effect on her personality must be inferred, as it is not implied.
If we look at Stamets, we see that he was a scientist before the war, whose work was deemed to be of military interest. We also see that he’s happily married to the ship’s doctor. This implies a person who is passionate, committed and inquisitive, pursuing science for science’s sake rather than because of its applications.
We can infer that he might be resentful of the path that was forced upon him, but we really need to see that manifest in the character – based on his background alone, he may be a patriot who is happy to contribute to the war effort, but is sad that his work will be seeing military use before it benefits any peacetime projects. Or not, but these are inferred traits.
In Burnham’s case, all of her background elements do not imply much about her character. They may suggest that she has suffered trauma, that she had a distinct upbringing, but no aspect of her personality is implied by any of those events:
- Did the loss of her parents make her resentful towards Klingons, or did it make her want to reach out to other cultures to prevent other children from becoming orphans?
- Did she commit herself fully to her Vulcan upbringing, or does she have a rebellious side that saw her seeking out her native Earth culture?
- Was her mutiny a justified, moralistic act, or was it a result of her ambition, or some quest for vengeance?
Now, these questions can be answered on-screen, but if these questions require on-screen exploration then they should become the story that we follow in their own right, and should not be the backstory to a different narrative. If a character’s background does not directly inform on their personality, then that background is essentially pointless, and simply clogs up the narrative.
Specifically: we, the audience, never meet Michael Burnham’s human parents, and so we have no idea of what kind of relationship she had with them. As a result, we do not know what effect their death had on Michael as a character, nor do we understand the full extent of Michael’s feelings towards the Klingons. Neither do we see her growing up on Vulcan as a human orphan, and so we have no concept how that upbringing shaped her personality.
In order to understand all these backstories, and how they might lead to her committing mutiny as she did, these backstories need to be depicted on-screen – at which point, it is the backstories that become the story that should be told, rather than the subsequent events for which we, the audience, lack the necessary emotional context to understand the character that is Michael Burnham.
Trimming this down to two sentences:
As a writer creating a character, you cannot simply bolt on past events to the character’s origins if those events do not directly inform the character’s personality. Every aspect of a character’s backstory should be relevant to how the character behaves, and cannot replace strong motivations and defining character traits with which the audience can emotionally connect.
Going back to ‘The Good Wife’ and our friend, Alicia Florrick, Alicia’s backstory is very simple:
- She gave up her law career to become a wife and a mother to two children.
- Her husband betrayed her and disgraced himself publicly.
- She separated from her husband, but maintains a public connection with him to support his rehabilitation.
As mentioned previously, Alicia is a strong character with clear motivations. But her backstory is simple – it’s three short lines which require very little elaboration. Her sacrificing of her own career implies devotion and selflessness*. Her husband’s betrayal implies vulnerability and a trusting nature. Her commitment to remain publicly supportive of him implies loyalty and selflessness.
(* – A note to point out that she could have kept her career and still demonstrated those qualities, but we’re talking within the context of the show’s setting and early 2000’s America.)
Alicia does not have a particularly remarkable backstory beyond her disgraced husband. She is not a victim of terrible tragedy, nor is she the granddaughter of Abraham Lincoln. Her backstory is personal, and relatable to lots of people who have suffered betrayal, and broadly sympathetic. There is no mystery to it, neither does it require on-screen depiction for the audience to understand it.
If Peter, Alicia’s husband, was instead the protagonist of the show, then we would need more backstory, particularly around why he would betray his loving wife and risk his political career the way he did. But he is not the protagonist, and this is not his story.
The short version of all of this is simply to say:
The beginning of a protagonist’s journey should be the beginning of the overall story that is being told.
If your protagonist’s journey actually starts quite a bit before the story you’re telling, then you need to start there in order for your audience to connect with the protagonist. If it starts after, then you shouldn’t be wasting screen time on anything but essential world-building.
Here are a few more examples:
- Luke never knew his father. Luke has always dreamed of escaping his life as a moisture farmer to go off on adventures. He has no other backstory (at first). Luke’s first adventure begins within twenty minutes of us meeting Luke for the first time.
- Sarah is a young mother who has lost custody of her child due to her reckless lifestyle. She is desperate to prove that she has the means to provide for her daughter and get her back. Her first opportunity to change her fortunes occurs within moments of her meeting a mysterious doppelganger, scant minutes after we meet Sarah herself.
- Katniss lives a life of relative poverty with her younger sister; both of their parents are dead. She is desperate to protect her sister. Her first major act of protective self-sacrifice occurs within the first twenty minutes of our introduction to Katniss.
In all three of these examples, each character has very minimal backstory. In the cases of Luke and Sarah (‘Star Wars’ and ‘Orphan Black’, respectively) we learn more about their origins in later instalments in the series, but crucially their introductions are minimalist and require very little exploration – Luke is a bored farm boy daydreaming of a more exciting life, Sarah is a scruffy waster who needs to create a better life for herself so that she can reunite with her daughter. Both of these characters are compelling and imprintable without the complex backstories that are later introduced.
For both Luke and Katniss (‘The Hunger Games’) we spend longer getting to know the worlds which they inhabit before the adventure begins. We see space battles and robots and Storm Troopers before we ever meet Luke, getting the essential world building out of the way early on. Before Katniss volunteers for the Hunger Games, the social structure of Panem and some of its cultural concepts are explained to the audience.
A skewed example is that of Eleanor in ‘The Good Place’, an Arizona trashbag who lived a mediocre life of petty selfishness. One day, she wakes up in the Afterlife and realises that she has been mistakenly assigned to the Good Place, when really she ought to be in the Bad Place. This forces her to begin a journey of self-realisation and moral redemption in order to earn her place in Paradise.
In the case of Eleanor, the audience genuinely does require a deeper exploration of her backstory. But this fits thematically with the retrospective nature of ‘The Good Place’ and the ideas with which it wrestles – that of self-reflection on ones’ own actions, and the morality of the decisions we all make. As such, we do see more of Eleanor’s story in the form of flashbacks, and we do learn more about her upbringing and her personality before her death, and how this sculpted the character we see on screen.
Most importantly, though, the story being told is that of Eleanor’s journey to self-realisation and redemption, and so the story of ‘The Good Place’ starts at the beginning of Eleanor’s journey.
What splits this approach from that of ‘Discovery’ is threefold:
- Eleanor has strong emotional characterisation in terms of her selfishness and biting sense of humour coupled with her resentment, regret and developing guilt.
- Eleanor has strong, clear goals to motivate her, and to which she commits fully.
- Eleanor’s backstory is not complex, and does not require a journey of its own – we do not need to follow Eleanor from birth to understand how she is the way she is today.
- Burnham lacks strong emotional characterisation.
- Burnham lacks strong, clear goals to which she is fully committed.
- Burnham’s backstory is complex, meandering, and requires far more exploration and screen time than it is afforded in the course of the show.
So, why would the writers focus so heavily on Burnham’s backstory, and not her motivations and characterisation?
Well, to answer that we need, after much delay, to address the title of this essay:
The Hashtag Protagonist
So, let’s say you’re writing your weird Star Trek fan fiction about a resentful, embittered fish-out-of-water Starfleet cadet who has been coerced by her family to relocate to a distant frontier, leading into a high school / college coming-of-age drama about independence and social acceptance, with a sub-plot of eugenics (genetic engineering of humans) as an analogy for drug use, sexuality and the general breaking of taboo that comes with being a young adult in a strange new world.
You’re more or less writing this for yourself, even if you do misguidedly post the early chapters on your trashy sci-fi review blog, and so you don’t really care about how you can get this garbage piece of amateur-hour Twilight-meets-Voyager’s-‘Threshold’ bullshit to #Trend on #SocialMedia. Which means you also don’t care about unique selling points which can easily be turned into #Hashtags.
But when you’re writing your overly-long, barely-researched, poorly-worded blog post about narrative flaws in the latest Star Trek series, which you hope might go viral enough for you to seriously consider a career as a blogger so you can kick your bullshit soul-eating office job to the kerb and finally live your best life, you do care about hot-button issues and key, memorable terms which can easily translate into attention-grabbing #Hashtags, so you’re careful to include such things in the article itself so that you can plaster those #Hashtags all over your #SocialMedia posts hoping for #ReShares, #ReTweets and #Mentions. Because you’re a bag of #CheapTrash in the shape of a human.
Put simply, the easier it is for you to break down the key components of your piece of writing into #Hashtaggable #TwoWord #MemorablePhrases, the more likely you are to gain traction on #SocialMedia. And #SocialMedia is widely accepted as the most powerful marketing tool currently in existence.
Now, let’s say that you’re a mediocre producer and a terrible writer, and you have somehow been handed the reins of a successful, widely-loved franchise.
Let’s just assume that it’s a given that your primary goal extends only as far as driving subscriber numbers to your studio’s new streaming service. All other concerns are secondary.
And let’s also say, for the sake of argument, that you possess enough self-awareness to know that you lack the ability to create a genuinely engaging show which will draw viewers in on its own merits.
What do you do?
Well, you’re trying to appeal to an online audience, which means social media and online advertising is going to be even more important to your marketing strategy, and hence the success of the show/streaming service. Not least because you can include links directly to new episodes in your various tweets and posts. The more shares you get, the more clicks you get to your new streaming service, the more subscribers you gain. More subscribers equals more money
So, the solution is simple.
Roll on the hashtags.
Now, when I talk about hashtags, I do mean literal #Hashtags, but we’re also looking at sentences shorter than 200 characters (leaving space for links and images). We’re looking at anything that is short, snappy, and provocative, and slots in nicely into tweets and Facebook posts and Instagram stories.
I think you know where this is going.
All of these backstory elements serve a single purpose – to turn a character into a collection of high-concept premises. A collection of hashtags and social media-friendly concepts which draw attention and make it seem like the story you’re writing will be treading new ground.
My hypothesis is that when ‘Discovery’ was being conceived, the people in the room focused entirely on the marketable premises that they thought would drive internet traffic and online word-of-mouth, and never actually got around to turning these backstory elements into a cohesive character.
I like Sonequa Martin-Green. She’s a good actor, and she seems to have genuine enthusiasm and charisma when she isn’t playing an emotionally repressed human raised by a race of emotionally repressed aliens.
I also think that it’s important to have new Star Trek shows led by protagonists from diverse backgrounds.
I think it was pretty much vital for a Star Trek show released in 2017 to feature a WoC (“woman of colour”) as its lead character. The franchise has always had a legacy for inclusion and diversity, even if in reality it often missed the mark.
What I do not think was vital was to stymie the development of Star Trek’s first WoC lead character by turning her into a social media mule.
Here’s my proposition:
People of any background, race, gender or sexuality can be compelling, engaging and relatable protagonists, without the need for attention-grabbing backstories.
Michael Burnham did not need to be Starfleet’s first mutineer to be an interesting character. Nor did she need to be Spock’s Sister, Sarek’s Daughter, or any of the other gumpf that hovers around her.
Michael Burnham just needed to be a competent, confident and idealistic Starfleet officer, as with Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway and… well, like those four who came before her.
Archer gets to sit in a corner muttering about Vulcans.
We know for a fact that this approach would work with Michael Burnham because we have already seen it work with Captain Georgiou. Georgiou was a competent, confident and idealistic Starfleet officer, and she was perfect. Georgiou had no special background, no ties to the wider franchise, and she would have made an amazing protagonist for this series, as I’ve maintained since the very beginning.
All we needed for Michael Burnham to function as a character was for her to act like an intelligent, moralistic but mostly normal human being. We didn’t need her to make stupid, unfathomable decisions which involve betraying her captain for poorly-explained reasons relating to a complex backstory.
Now, there’s a more cynical issue to cover, which I’ll try to tackle as elegantly as I can, which is:
Am I correct that Michael Burnham was conceived as a constellation of hashtags to help push an online marketing campaign.
Or, was it first decided that ‘Discovery’ needed a black, female protagonist, and out-of-touch executives and showrunners did not feel that audiences would connect with such a character on her own merits, prompting them to concoct a lot of dramatic, high-concept backstories in order to “sell” her to an uncertain market?
Because if I’m being 100% honest, I could genuinely accept the truth that Alex Kurtsman, Les Moonves et al would be willing to bow to changing market pressures to make their new show more inclusive, whilst also having no clue how to market a black female protagonist to an audience that they barely understand themselves.
What I wanted out of ‘Discovery’ was a show where the protagonist is a smart, capable black woman, with an awesome Malaysian female captain, a socially awkward female cadet, and two men in a loving marriage who show normal levels of affection towards one another –
And for all of that to be completely, 100% status quo, unremarkable, par for the course.
But between the fridging of Captain Georgiou and Commander Landry, the lack of women actually engaging with one another in the earlier stages of the show, and the generally dark, grim and miserable tone of the entire series, I honestly don’t think the creators of ‘Discovery’ are capable of thinking in those terms. I could genuinely be convinced that to someone like Alex Kurtzman, the very idea of a black woman leading a show is so bizarro-land that it mandates extra layers of dramatic intrigue just to be palatable.
And fine, that might be a stretch. But a quick review of Kurtzman’s IMDB page reveals that the projects for which he has either produced or written are all centred around white protagonists, predominantly male (with notable exceptions being ‘Sleepy Hollow’, in which the secondary lead is a black woman, and ‘Star Trek: Discovery’, his only show to feature a black female protagonist.)
(As a side note, the same issue also bothers me with Stamets and Culber’s physically distant relationship. Through all of their scenes together across 14 episodes, they have kissed each other twice. Fan explanations for this have been “maybe they’re just not a physically affectionate couple”, which is fine, but it’s annoying to me that the first main gay couple we get on Star Trek should specifically have that fairly unusual trait, especially when it so neatly helps to avoid offending conservative audiences.)
The other concern with this focus on backstory is that it takes focus away from who Burnham is as a character.
Let’s look at ‘Lethe’, the sixth episode of the first season of ‘Discovery’. In it, Sarek is wounded by a terrorist attack, and is left dying on a damaged ship in the middle of a nebula. Burnham goes on a mission to psychically link with him, keeping him alive and hopefully locating his ship so that he can be rescued.
As Burnham attempts to psychically reach out to Sarek, he rebuffs her, kicking her out of his mindspace as he tries to close himself off from outside intervention. This leads to confrontation and revelation between father and foster-daughter, as they explore a key moment in both of their lives, in which Sarek chose Spock over Burnham to have the opportunity to join the Vulcan Science Expedition.
The issue with this is that, even though Burnham is our protagonist, we spend the episode learning more about Sarek and his relationship with his children, than we do about Burnham and her relationship with her father. And that’s a subtle but important difference, because the focus is on Sarek, and an exploration of his character – it is merely Burnham’s role in the story to reassure him on the decisions he made.
Winding on to Season 2, and we end up in a similar situation during ‘Point Of Light’, the third episode, in which Burnham’s foster mother, Amanda, boards Discovery. Throughout this episode, the pair of them discuss the matter at hand – Spock, Amanda’s son and Burnham’s foster brother, who is on the run after allegedly killing three Starfleet officers.
And again, all of the talk and discussion centres around Spock and his journey. And Spock is a character we are yet to even meet in this series! We learn very little new about Burnham herself, beyond the fact that she did something horrible to push him away from her. But what is then discussed is how this act affected Spock, and not how Burnham may have come to live with it as she grew up.
Which means we’re taking Star Trek’s first black female protagonist and using her as a tool for expanding the characterisation of two existing white male characters. Her own development and growth as a character is sacrificed for the sake of Sarek and Spock.
This is all a symptom of giving her a complex backstory, and specifically a backstory which is intimately entwined with two significant characters from the existing Star Trek universe. Spock and Sarek are both more interesting to the writers, it seems, and at this point they’re more interesting to the audience, because Burnham has so little motivation and characterisation.
On The Other Hand, The Exact Opposite Might Be True
Now, let’s get one thing clear:
I can already hear all of your objections to everything I’ve just written.
You’ve watched ‘Discovery’, too, and you love it! And you love Michael Burnham! She’s a character you connect with! And all of my criticisms above are because I’m oversimplifying, missing important subtext, or just wilfully misinterpreting to fit my racist, misogynistic agenda.
Which, well… y’know. I guess. Whatever.
Well, let’s address this. With an analogy. Because I love analogies.
Towards the end of Season 6 of ‘Game Of Thrones’, Jon Snow and Sansa Stark are preparing for battle with Ramsay Snow, the dick-removing dickhead who has laid claim to their home, Winterfell.
We, the audience, watch as Jon relentlessly clutches onto the Idiot Ball, ignoring all of Sansa’s sage advice and experience dealing with Ramsay Snow, and sociopathic megalomaniacs in general.
Jon joins battle with the same reckless, headstrong manner with which he does everything, gets pretty roundly crushed by Ramsay’s superior strategy and intellect, and is only saved by Sansa’s forthright and proactive decision to summon aid from the Vale. Glorious knights sweep across the battlefield, routing Ramsay’s army and snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.
To the audience, Sansa has shown the superior intellect, political nounce and restraint of a competent leader. Not only does she outclass Jon, but she also out-names him, being Ned Stark’s last (known) legitimate child, and the last (known) living person currently in Westeros carrying the name Stark.
So naturally, in the next episode, the Lords of the North name Jon Snow the new King of the North, and Lord of Winterfell, and-
Wait a god damn moment.
How on earth are people rallying around this soppy sack of pugilistic masculine insecurity? Jon Snow is at best a decent duellist and at worst a god damn liability as soon as any degree of lateral thinking is required. Time and again we have seen him fuck up, make stupid, self-destructive decisions, and in general just be a flaming, shoddy, scruffy, beautiful mess of a human being.
To say that it’s disappointing to see him take the crown instead of Sansa is an understatement. It feels narratively cheap, like the writers have no idea what they’re doing – the events of the story do not follow from A to B to C.
The obvious answer is that all the sweaty, hairy Northern Lords saw Jon Snow lead the armies of the North, and also he’s a man, and also his soulful eyes and gorgeous hair give them feelings that they’re not quite sure how to process, and so of course they’ll pick him to be their leader.
But it’s not who we, the audience, would have picked.
And so it feels wrong.
The problem is that we, the audience, did not share the same journey as the Lords of the North. On our journey through the narrative, Sansa has grown from a prissy and useless teenager into a savvy, cynical political operator. Jon has shown literally zero character growth, on the other hand, and has remained as reckless and dumb as he was when we first saw him back in Season One.
Indeed, even short-term, our journey took us through the private meetings between Jon and Sansa, and the debates that they had on the best path forwards, and the many examples of Sansa correcting Jon on his ridiculous inability to think in anything but straight lines.
Now, to the audience, the Lords’ choice to crown Jon is just plainly wrong, and although we can take a step back and reason it out and come up with our own headcanon as to why it made sense to them, all of that is a distraction and breaks immersion in the story. By definition, if you have to detach yourself from the story being told just to be able to understand the story being told, then you’re no longer immersed in it.
Ultimately, to understand the Lords’ decision, it needed to be their journey that we followed, and not Sansa’s or Jon’s.
Separation between character journeys and audience journeys can be used very effectively, and the prime example of this in ‘Game Of Thrones’ is Joffrey. Time and again, we see his horrible, dreadful behaviour rewarded. This is painful to watch as an audience, because we know just how much of a fucking shitstain Joffrey really is. When other characters don’t know this, and subsequently don’t treat him like a shitstain, we get indignant, even furious.
How can Sansa still be fawning over him when he was such a prick to Arya? How can she be so stupid? So blind? Why is Joffrey not currently suspended from the spire of the Sept Of The Seven by his smelly britches?
But the intended effect is achieved – we, the audience, hate Joffrey and despise Sansa. Joffrey is established as a snivelling, sneery little shit whom we can all root against. Sansa is established as an oblivious, shallow child with no self-awareness.
Disconnect between the audience’s journey and a character’s journey can have a powerful emotional impact, but it will usually be a negative one, and so must be used wisely.
Now, how does this link into Burnham?
The Audience’s Journey
At the end of ‘The Vulcan Hello’, the first pilot episode of ‘Discovery’, Burnham betrays Captain Georgiou and attempts to fire on a Klingon vessel, which at present sits in space opposite Georgiou’s ship. No communication has yet been established.
In the lead-up to Burnham’s mutiny, we see her and Georgiou talking, with Georgiou insisting that she will exhaust all attempts at peaceful contact with the Klingons before adopting any military protocols. There has been no formal contact between Starfleet and the Klingons in decades, and so Georgiou sees this as a chance to forge a second “First Contact” – a chance to establish negotiations and build mutual understanding.
Then, a Klingon beacon lights, sending a summoning call all across the Klingon Empire. Burnham leaves to go and talk to her father. They exchange a few pleasantries, Burnham explains the situation, and then we cut to Burnham on the bridge explaining to Georgiou that the only solution is to fire on the Klingons.
Georgiou refuses, Burnham pleads with her. When Georgiou still refuses, Burnham knocks Georgiou out cold, storms onto the bridge and tries to enact her plan before Georgiou can stop her.
And a lot of people, including myself, got really annoyed.
I got annoyed because I couldn’t understand how anyone in their right mind could come to the conclusion that Burnham had come to. I’d spent just as long with Georgiou as I had with Burnham, and so Burnham turning up out of the blue with her “hot take” that an unprovoked attack was the path to peace seemed utterly unconscionable.
And the reason I felt that way was because my journey, the audience’s journey, was disconnected from Burnham‘s journey. I didn’t see Sarek explain his suggestion to her. I wasn’t with her when her parents were killed by Klingons. I didn’t see her grow up with resentment and bitterness.
Burnham and I experienced different journeys.
The gap between the audience’s journey and a character’s journey can only be filled with “headcanon” – assumptions, inferences and guesswork to explain how two separate events can link together in a logical way.
And, because I want to piss off as many people as I possibly can, no, tie-in novels do NOT count – if you’re making a film or TV series and marketing it as a film or TV series, you don’t get to address the weaknesses in your story by afterwards telling people that they need to read a novel that somebody else wrote.
If your story relies on the audience to craft their own headcanon, then you are not fulfilling your role as a writer. Ambiguity within a story can be a good thing if it’s thematic and appropriate to the events of the story. It’s fun to try and guess whether or not Ellen Tigh is a Cylon, or who Rey’s parents really are.
But we shouldn’t be left to play guessing games as to the motivations of our protagonist. We shouldn’t be headcanoning our way to explaining major plot points in the show – particularly when we’re just 50 minutes into it and we’ve barely met any of these new characters, or gotten to know any of this new universe (and regardless of Star Trek continuity, it is a new universe, with the prequel setting and the changes in Klingon culture and revised technology levels).
And here’s the reason why:
If Burnham is on a path to redemption, what is she redeeming about herself? What is it about her way of thinking that she needs to change?
Because that’s what a redemption is: it isn’t simply admitting you were wrong, it’s about facing the same challenge again and, this time, besting it.
In order to understand what Burnham needs to do to find redemption, we need to understand what drove her to mutiny in the first place. Was it:
- Childhood trauma at the hands of the Klingons?
- An irrational devotion to her foster father and a willingness to blindly follow his advice?
- A rebellious nature and a lack of respect for authority?
- All three of the above?
- Something else entirely?
If it was a result of childhood trauma, then the audience needs to see that trauma first-hand.
If it’s an irrational devotion to Sarek, then the audience needs to see that manifest in other ways – we need to see her blindly following other advice that he gives her.
If it’s a rebellious nature, then we need to see a track record of her disobeying orders because she thinks she has better ideas than her commanding officers.
If we don’t see any of these things, then we can’t connect with Burnham because of the separation between our journey and her journey. If the only way to understand Burnham is to take a step back and start trying to piece her together like a puzzle, then we are, by definition, not immersed in her story, but rather are acting as air crash investigators trying to coldly reassemble a downed jetliner.
If we’re not immersed in her story, if we’re actively frustrated by behaviour that seems erratic to us, if the burden of characterisation is laid upon the audience and not the writers, then you end up in a situation where half the audience don’t connect with the character, and the other half of the audience accused the first half of just being ignorant, missing subtext or intentionally disliking the character because she’s black and/or a woman.
When you look at protagonists done right, the ambiguity disappears:
- Nobody disagrees that Ripley is motivated to save Newt because of her maternal guilt over the loss of her own daughter.
- Nobody disagrees that Johnny Rico only joined the Mobile Infantry because he was a dumb kid who wanted to impress his girlfriend, or that he later became a slave to hatred and revenge.
- Nobody disagrees that it is Clarice Starling’s ambition that motivates her to interview Hannibal Lecter, or that she later becomes emotionally invested in the case.
The fact that Burnham’s motivations are so open to debate, and the fact that such debate relies on supposition and assumption, is a sign of an objectively poorly-written character, that fails to achieve the very purpose of a protagonist – to provide a genuinely emotional connection for the audience.
When Peter Florrick, Alicia’s husband, approaches her and asks for more public support, asks her to make more sacrifices for the sake of his career, we’re right there with her when she tells him to fuck off. If we’d followed Peter around for three seasons, and not Alicia, we might instead feel that she was being unreasonable, or unsupportive, or downright petty or vengeful, because our journey would align with Peter’s.
But because our journey aligns with Alicia’s, we can unambiguously root for her. She doesn’t need Peter – he needs her! Kick him to the kerb, Alicia! You do what you want! Go fuck Ozymandias, you’re your own person!
(As an aside, if anyone appreciates that ‘Good Wife’ / Ozymandias reference, please let me know in the comments. I… I just really need the validation.)
By clouding Burnham’s motivations in ambiguity, complex backstories, and a lack of strong characterisation, not only do we lose emotional connection to the protagonist and to her journey through the story, but we bring ourselves full circle, back around to that “Mary Sue” segment near the beginning of this article.
One of the inherent traits of a “Mary Sue” is that of “author insertion” – the inherent “otherness” of an unfamiliar character in familiar surroundings.
Given that this is Burnham’s show, it is impossible for her to be an “author insert”, because the thing into which she is being “inserted” is a show which has been written with Michael Burnham as the protagonist.
HOWEVER, the emotional detachment from Burnham that is felt by many in the audience creates a feeling of “otherness” about her. She feels like an outsider, an uninvited guest despite the fact that this is “her” show.
This goes part-way to explaining why a character like Picard does not seem like a Mary Sue – because the audience’s journey is aligned with Picard’s journey, he feels at home in the stories in which he appears.
I still firmly maintain that Burnham is not a Mary Sue, for the reasons given earlier (most of all because I don’t like the term or its associations to begin with).
But I do understand the feeling that many seem to have of her being a square peg hammered into a round hole. Her actions and her choices feel strange, she feels like a mystery, an enigma, and it’s impossible to objectively identify her motivations based on the text of story.
The writers’ inability to properly establish her as a protagonist leave her feeling like an outsider in her own story.
We’ve reached the end of a marathon deconstruction of Michael Burnham, and protagonist characters in general. And if you’ve made it this far, I thank you.
To recap what we’ve covered:
- Michael Burnham is not a “Mary Sue”, and if she is, then so is Jean Luc Picard.
- Michael Burnham lacks strong characterisation, although that would be forgivable for a protagonist.
- However, she also lacks strong motivations or goals, which is unforgivable for a protagonist.
- Michael Burnham has far too complex a backstory, and it fails to characterise her.
- This backstory itself seems to be more in service to marketing, or potentially to the fact that the show’s creators were uncertain about a black female lead.
- The backstory distances the audience from Burnham’s journey through the main plot.
- The misalignment between the audience’s journey and Burnham’s journey serves to make her actions seem erratic and unrelatable.
- This then causes Burnham to feel out of place, despite the story being crafted specifically for her.
We have reached the end of this monstrous article, nearly 11,000 words in length. I hope you have found it engaging and provocative – or that you have at least appreciated the effort I put into stretched analogies and barely-relevant screenshots.
Although this article is titled “Discovery In Depth”, this series so far has really been about storytelling in general. ‘Discovery’ just happens to be the perfect example of bad storytelling that’s currently being released.
All the same, this is likely to be one of the last articles I write covering ‘Star Trek: Discovery’. I will still be following the show, and if anything crops up that is particularly egregious it may warrant a rant.
But that fact is that it has become tiring to talk about. The layers of incompetence in the writing require special effort to peel back and dissect, an the layers multiply with each new episode. Ultimately there are less exhausting subjects to write about.
I still, however, have to write up an analysis of The Great Big Crude Star Trek Survey (which is still live, by the way). I have also got a few other shows that I would like to talk about, which may offer new insights and new material.
Thank you all for reading. Good afternoon, good evening and goodnight.