Last week it was formally announced that Sonequa Martin-Green will play the lead character of CBS’s new Star Trek series, stepping into the boots previously filled by Shatner, Stewart, Brooks, Mulgrew and Backula. What is unique about the role (other than the fact that she is the second female lead and the first black woman to helm a Trek series) is that her character–First Officer Michael Burnham–is NOT the captain of the starship that serves as the setting of the series. That distinction goes to Jason Isaacs who will play Captain Lorca.
Burnham is the new “Number One” and the writers tell us that Lorca will refer to her by that title. So Martin-Green’s character is actually stepping into the boots previously filled by Spock, Riker, Commander Kira, and Chakotay–yet she is still the series lead. This will have profound implications for how the stories on Discovery unfold.
First, let us dispense with the notion that this is a gimmick, that Lorca will be killed off early and Burnham will assume command. Part of the show’s concept and approach seems to be predicated on the lead not being in command. The entire point is to create a pathway for a different kind of storytelling in the Trek universe. Martin-Green herself recently said, “it’s going to open up so much potential for new storylines because not being the captain automatically gives you a different perspective.” At least for the first season, and possibly for more or all of the series run, Burnham will not be captain. (Only Voyager writers would introduce a character one way only to reverse themselves by the end of the first episode–see Maquis, Chakotay.)
So how different will Discovery be?
The Captain’s Speech
In most previous Trek series, the way you knew the episode was coming to a close was because the captain gave a dramatic speech summing up the moral of the story. I exaggerate, but only a little. At the climax of the first episode of The Original Series, Kirk gave the very first Kirk Speech about Gary Mitchell becoming a god: “And what will Mitchell learn in getting there? Will he know what to do with his power? Will he acquire the wisdom? … Did you hear him joke about compassion? Of all else, a God needs compassion.” This pattern continued in many future episodes. In future series the pattern was replicated with the Picard speech, the Janeway speech, and (shudder, shudder) the Archer speech. Deep Space Nine was more democratic in who got to moralize: Sisko had some important speeches, but more often than not the honor went to Kira, Odo, and even Quark–and frequently the moral was so ambiguous that the episode ended in silence because no one knew quite what to say.
How will Discovery handle this Trekian tradition?
The traditional route would be for Burnham to be given the speechifying role, making her the moral center of the show. This begs the question: who will she be speechifying to? Will it be Lorca, in his ready room, and then he goes onto the bridge and gives the orders she has talked him into giving?
Another option is to have Lorca give the dramatic speeches, but unlike all the other series, position him to be in the wrong, or at least voicing opinions that Burnham disagrees with.
A third option is to dispense with the speeches altogether. Unless the writers are aiming for DS9-level ambiguity, this could mean that Discovery will emphasize plot and action over theme. I’m not sure how you maintain Trekian theme-based storytelling without a character to give voice to those themes. Though they might surprise us with a creative solution.
In any case, the question of who gets to make the speeches will be something to look for in the first episodes.
The Center Seat
In every Trek series, power is situated in the captain. He or she is the one who makes the decisions and gives the orders. All the other characters, no matter how skilled or interesting or well-loved they are by fans, revolve around the captain. The viewer will eventually always look to the captain for the solution to the story because he or she always makes the final call by nature of their position at the top of the chain of command. This will be no different on Discovery, which is what makes the Burnham’s lead status so intriguing: what kind of stories can be told when someone other than the lead gets to make all the decisions?
Keep in mind this is not a ‘lower decks’ situation where the lead is toiling away down in the astro-metrics lab, taking part in stories where the command crew is not central to the plot. Burnham is the first officer, positioned right beside the captain on the bridge. She will be in the middle of the action, integral to the main mission of the ship along side the captain. And yet–somehow–we are supposed to pay more attention to her than to him. I am not suggesting it is impossible. But this is the challenge the writers have set out for themselves, and it promises to make for a refreshing new take on a 50-year-old formula.
There is the ‘bad captain’ theory, wherein Lorca is designed to be the type of captain that we do not look to for the solution or the right answer–either because he is morally corrupt, or merely incompetent. In this case, the narrative tension rests on how Burnham handles situations where she has the right solution but is unable to act on it, or has to convince Lorca to act on it.
There is the ‘good captain’ theory, wherein Burnham idolizes Lorca. Here the narrative tension would rest on her struggles to live up to his standards, to make him proud of her.
In both of those scenarios, Burnham will still be stuck in Lorca’s orbit (and Martin-Green in Isaacs’s). Perhaps the series will slyly challenge the audience’s Trek (and other more engrained) biases by forcing us to turn our gaze from the white man in power to the black woman at his side. Yes, he is in the center seat and he gets to make the decisions, but the true drama and the real story is in her. That would be a radical change, and it would be a welcome updating of Trek’s long tradition of inclusivity and social commentary.