To say that the first two seasons of Star Trek: Discovery have been controversial is putting it mildly. This show has the enormous burden of entering a very storied universe, with a decades-long legacy that’s attracted millions of passionate fans. It’s a daunting task that almost anyone would be intimidated to approach.
Coming out of second season, one of the more controversial elements is that of Michael Burnham herself. The lead character whose story we’ve been following more or less since the two-part premiere. And while Sonequa Martin-Green has shown herself capable and dedicated in the role, the question of her both as a character and as a plot device in season two has become fuzzy.
The most explicit of these comes in the form of labeling her as a ‘Mary Sue.’ Now, just to be clear about what we’re talking about here, let’s define what a Mary Sue is. Historically, it originates in fan fiction, where a female writer essentially inserts herself into a beloved story world (appropriately enough, it started with Star Trek) with an avatar who is immensely capable at everything she does, and beloved by heroes (hated by enemies) to the point of unrealism.
Take away the obvious factor that no such modern character in a show like Discovery would have a writer stand-in. But what remains are two important details: someone who is universally beloved by heroes, and is so talented at everything to the point of exasperation.
So the question is, does Michael Burnham qualify – by these factors – as a Mary Sue?
The truth of it is…it’s complicated.
For one thing, a part of this comes from the way relationships have evolved on the show. And perhaps somewhat ironically, Burnham in the show’s first season was just about the furthest thing from a Mary Sue. Starfleet’s first ever mutineer, held accountable for the start of the war with the Klingons, a social pariah who faced antagonism and skepticism at every turn. But in second season, a lot of this has changed.
Discovery had a bit of reputation in its first year for being too dark, so the writers and showrunner said they would swing the pendulum back in the other direction for the second season. One of the byproducts of that is that there was a lot more tension and uncertainty in interpersonal relationships in the first season. Second season, by and large almost everyone tends to get along.
It’s even fair to go so far as comparing them to the heyday of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. The latter of which was known for its lack of interpersonal conflicts between crew members (as mandated by franchise creator Gene Roddenberry). While DS9 radically opposed this approach, pitting its characters into more complex disagreements and personality conflicts from the start.
Whether or not this has worked for Discovery is subjective, but the fact remains that it has been leaning more into the “kumbaya” side of Star Trek in order to embrace the universe’s reputed optimism for a better future. At the same time, it goes a step even further than that. And this is where it gets even more complicated. Because Discovery is the first real Star Trek to have multiple noteworthy friendships between women. And historically, television and film haven’t been kind to these relationships – where “the woman” often serves as one archetype among many, so any inclusion of a second female character inevitably puts them at odds because only one person can fill that role in the story. It’s why there are stereotypes about the catiness of women, how two female characters can never get alone. If there’s one woman character in a cast of many men and a second woman is introduced, it’s become predictable to the point of obnoxious that those two women must hate each other just by existing in proximity to one another.
So this puts Discovery in a bit of a unique position. Because it’s so distressingly rare in any franchise to see numerous female friendships, let alone shown in such a positive way. Not to mention how even more rare it is for a female character to have so many women figures and mothers/mentors in her life.
Put another way: everyone loves Burnham because, well, everyone tends to get along with just about everyone. She just happens to be the focal point because she’s the show’s lead character.
The other reason is, if anything, a bit more complicated, and even ties into the first reason. Primarily, it’s down to the fact that Burnham is serving a role in a television series that not a whole lot of other women have served before.
The perfect comparison to make here is Rey. Someone who was accused of being a Mary Sue within a week or so of The Force Awakens coming out. She’s amazing at everything she does, and everyone in the film likes her.
But you know why women and girls watch Star Wars and love Rey? Because we’ve never had someone like her before. In the whole history of live-action canon for the franchise, there was only ever really Leia to hold up as a role model. And while she was wonderful in her time, she never got to be the hero, the chosen one, the everyperson lead that the entire archetypal narrative is structured around. And not only is it rare in Star Wars, it’s still pretty rare in mainstream pop culture at large.
The reason why a character like Rey is great at everything she does is because, well, she kind of has to be. If she fails at something, if other characters dislike her, it can be seen as the people making the film implicitly stating that they don’t support having a woman lead – a woman as the chosen one/future of the Jedi. (Prop up a woman and have her fail to show why woman shouldn’t carry that role.) Everyone has to love her, because the filmmakers love her and want audiences to love her. Anything less, and naysayers will latch onto it, insisting it means that JJ Abrams and company had a female lead forced upon them, rather than something they embraced willingly.
So yes, in that light, in comparison to someone like Rey, it’s probably fair to call Michael Burnham a bit of a Mary Sue. And maybe it also kind of doesn’t matter? She’s an important stepping stone, where we’re only just now accepting women as the face of major franchises. People like Rey, Burnham, Captain Marvel, and the 13th Doctor sell audiences on the idea of having women be the leads. Once proven, then there will be more room for risk. Then we can start making them less-than-perfect, and warm the mainstream viewers up to the notion of accepting a female lead with flaws. The way we’ve been able to latch onto numerous male characters time and time and time again.
Maybe it’s okay if Burnham leans a bit more toward the perfect. Maybe it’s okay if she leans a bit more toward the implausibly loved. If we can accept that, then maybe the people writing the show will have more confidence that making her flawed and incompetent won’t turn viewers off to her character, as well as the show that she’s heading.