Michael Burnham Is The Protagonist


This is a belated cross-post of a Dreamwidth* post I made on Friday 27 July. I’ve found myself linking to it a fair bit, especially in light of programming decisions at Star Trek Las Vegas, so it’s now updated and saved here for posterity.


* Dreamwidth: Like LiveJournal but without the Russian government.

Michael Burnham Is The Protagonist

(Imagine the clapping hands emoji between each word.)

(Or, “ensemble cast” is starting to sound a lot like a dog whistle.)

I tweeted on Sunday:




I need my Disco fix badly enough that I lurk around corners of the internet like Reddit, which is outside of my usual bubble, and I’ve seen this enough that I actually recoiled when I read Tom and Lorenzo saying, “…we’re struck by how fun this all looks and by how much the rest of the ensemble is being punched up a bit, making this seem slightly less like The Michael Burnham Story and a bit more like a classic Star Trek show.”

See also: literally any journalist, blogger or below-the-lines commenter who describes Anson Mount as “the new lead”.

The thing is, aside from DS9, Star Trek has never actually been very successful as an ensemble show. TOS had the Kirk, Spock, McCoy trio, and wow, if you wanna see some vitriol, check out fan reactions to Uhura taking McCoy’s place in the reboot films.

(Funny, there’s another woman of colour being criticised for having too large a role. *thinky face emoji* Anyway, lest you think I’m singling blokes out here, a vast proportion of those complaints come from women.)

TNG did a sliiiiightly better job with a main quartet of Picard, Data, Worf and Riker, and also occasionally remembered to give the female and disabled characters something to do now and then. Voyager had Janeway, the Doctor and, eventually, Seven. Enterprise … look, I only watched four episodes, but I’m told it settled in to focus on Archer, T’Pol and one of the other guys.

My point being, Star Trek‘s ensembleness has always been vastly overstated, and I honestly think Voyager, in particular, would have benefited from downgrading a bunch of characters to supporting and recurring roles rather than having nine regulars.

So in writing Discovery to revolve around Michael, the show has done something genuinely new for the franchise: it has a very clear main character. And she’s not the captain — she doesn’t even have a rank for most of the series. But she’s the sun around whom the narrative orbits.

And she’s also … look, Star Trek fandom came up with the label we give the original female character who turns up out of nowhere, is related to Spock, and singlehandedly saves the Federation*.* It was a group effort, but you know what I mean.

So I’m gonna just quote Seanan McGuire:

Mary Sue is misunderstood. She’s a cuckoo egg left in a starling’s nest, hatching into something big and bright and demanding that doesn’t belong where it is. In her own story, she would be something else altogether: she would be a protagonist, she would be the biggest, brightest thing in the room because that’s what a protagonist is.


Discovery is Michael’s story. And I don’t see that changing for season 2 — yes, we’ll get more time with the rest of the regulars, and hopefully some of the supporting characters like the bridge crew will get more development. Maybe the Space Lesbians will get names! Maybe Number One will get a name!

(Drive-by pie-in-the-sky wish: the Romulan Commander of “The Enterprise Incident” turns up and gets a name, and also flirts with Michael. Yes, Michael/T’Pring is an excellent pairing and I want nothing but the best for its shippers, but ROMULANS.)

(I digress.)

Anson Mount is not Discovery‘s lead, any more than Jason Isaacs was. It’s Michael’s narration that drives the trailer, and her face we see throughout. Sonequa Martin-Green is the lead actress, and that’s how the rest of the cast speaks of her — as the leader, and the person who sets the tone for the production. This has never been remotely ambiguous.

So it’s telling that some fans (“fans”) ask, apparently sincerely, why the show focuses so much on Michael, or why SMG is the focus of media attention. They act as if they genuinely believe that Discovery was conceived as an ensemble and the focus on Michael is an accident to be corrected — but last year, they “genuinely believed” that Lorca was the main character, or at least the heroic figure they were meant to identify with.

(Side note: I love Gabriel Lorca a whole lot, but if you ever meet someone who wholeheartedly identifies with him: RUN.)

(Anyway, can I offer you a fortune cookie?)

At this point, my shoulders go up around my ears when I see the words “ensemble cast” in relation to Discovery. And, given that media coverage tends to disproportionately echo the concerns of male fans, I expect it’s going to be a bit memetic going forward.

A week after that original post, Star Trek Las Vegas — the official con — took place. And these tweets went past:




Now, I’ve programmed conventions. Nothing remotely on the scale of STLV, but I understand the challenges involved. Isaacs was available for Thursday, everyone else was shooting, so Isaacs got a solo slot.

You know who else got solo slots?

  • William Shatner
  • Patrick Stewart
  • Kate Mulgrew
  • George Takei
  • Famke Janssen
  • Rainn Wilson

Some of these things are not, in fact, like the others. Giving Janssen and Wilson solo sessions, but making Martin-Green share the stage with Doug Jones and Anson Mount is a choice the programmers made. Just like they made the choice to run two all-male panels about the tie-in novels.

Fun fact, actors have specialist personal appearance agents who negotiate the terms for these events. And maybe Martin-Green’s needs to be doing a better job — but so does Creation, because Sonequa Martin-Green is the lead actress. Not an important member of the ensemble. The lead.

That’s not gonna change — here’s Anson Mount on the subject:

I am not the protagonist. I am here to augment the protagonist of this show.

And I suspect that this new protagonist-driven storytelling is going to be the way forward for Star Trek in the twenty-first century — look at the way the new Picard series is being framed as, well, “the Picard series”, not a TNG revival.

Now, whether or not that’s a good thing is entirely subjective. My personal take is that it’s an innovation for the franchise, and after fifty years, that can only be a good thing. I’d rather have a series with a single protagonist and a fleshed out supporting ensemble of varying levels of importance than yet another half-baked attempt at an ensemble drama.

Of course, I’m biased — I like Michael Burnham! I’d probably feel quite differently if the protagonist was a character I didn’t like or care about.

But whether or not you think Michael is an interesting or well-executed protagonist, my point is, that’s what she is. And it’s very strange to see people just ignoring that all together in favour of complaining that the show fails at a task it was never even attempting.

Michael Burnham is the protagonist. And Sonequa Martin-Green is the lead actress on Discovery, and should be treated as such.

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