Star Trek: Discovery Returns to Put Michael Burnham at the Heart of It All

Star Trek: Discovery Returns to Put Michael Burnham at the Heart of It All
Image: Paramount+

Star Trek: Discovery has long had a history, and an issue with more often than not, centering Michael Burnham’s personal arc by making her the ultimate key to grand, intergalactic events that she alone can overcome — from the Klingon War to the Red Angel, from the potential for Vulcan and Romulan re-entry to the Federation to the very survival of the 31st century iteration of Starfleet, time and time again she has been subsumed by galaxy-spanning events. She is once more in season four, but Discovery finds strength in making the stakes much more intimate.

Star Trek: Discovery Returns to Put Michael Burnham at the Heart of It All

“All In,” the eighth episode of season four (and Discovery’s return from a six-week hiatus as the herald of lots of Star Trek to come over the next five months) picks up on the dire news that Booker has run off with rogue scientist Ruon Tarka, swiping the Federation’s prototype spore drive in the process so they can go and destroy the DMA, in spite of the vote against doing so by the Federation’s member worlds. Much to President Rillak’s frustration — and in spite of the fact she made this even more of Michael’s personal problem by pushing her to speak at the diplomatic meeting in favour of voting for peaceful contact with the species behind the DMA, the mysterious “10-C” — she finds Burnham and her personal relationship to Booker just too much of a step too far, attempting to sideline Discovery to prep for first contact with 10-C while other Starfleet vessels are tasked with hunting Booker and Tarka down.

But this is Discovery, and like we said, the show has always found a way to make Michael directly connected to, and the heart of, huge story beats. First contact with a highly advanced alien society that is using a massive travelling anomaly that can just completely destroy entire planets in the blink of an eye, in an attempt to avoid starting a war caused by her boyfriend getting vengeance for the destruction of his homeworld? That right there has a Michael Burnham-shaped sticker plastered all over it, President Rillak be damned. And so, at Admiral Vance’s behest — knowing she’s one of the best officers he has under his command — Burnham and the Discovery are sent to deal with a lover’s quarrel that could, well, plunge the Federation into oblivion.

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This flippancy might sound like a criticism of Discovery’s approach to centering Michael beyond her capacity as its lead captain and main character, and in the past, it certainly has been for the show. Some of Discovery’s most frustrating moments have come with its inability to pull away from Michael’s focus to give us more time with characters in desperate need of fleshing out, or when it muddles its narratives with unnecessary layers of melodrama to put Burnham through the wringer over and over. At a glance, “All In” might seem like it’s going to be more of the same, but thankfully, it isn’t — mostly because it un-centres Michael’s role in the narrative from being a Starfleet captain saving the day and the galaxy, and instead focuses on her connection to Book, and what it might mean for them if Michael has to decide whether or not she prioritises her duty to the captain’s chair or her love for the man that saved her life when she was first flung into the 31st century.

It also manages to strip away the grand stakes in the chase for Tarka and Booker by focusing on something small and much, more fun. The Discovery finds out that Tarka and Booker are still looking for the (very illegal) materials to build the isolytic weapon that can shut the DMA down, heading to a seedy pleasure barge outside of Federation jurisdiction to find what they need on the black market. Deciding that the only way to stop them is to simply buy the goods first, Michael — joined by Lieutenant Owoshekun, in a plot that delightfully gives Oyin Oladejo something to do beyond sit on the bridge — beams down and decides to meet the seedy environment on its own terms. Bags of latinum, shapeshifting card counters, high stakes bloody brawls, space poker, it’s all very Discovery by the way of Deep Space Nine, and “All In” mines the joy of all that for what it’s worth. Instead of focusing on the dire stakes of their mission, the duelling race between Tarka and Booker, and Burnham and Owo as they compete for the attention of Haz, the casino-barge’s owner, is almost something of a comical escapade, letting our heroes loosen up a little even as the emotional stakes between Booker and Burnham simmer beneath the surface.

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That lighter tone works much in Discovery’s favour, and even as things get more serious when Burnham and Booker are forced to directly compete in a high-stakes card game for the isolynium against some former Emerald Chain members — in whose hands the isolynium would be infinitely more dangerous. We’re never particularly reminded that Burnham and Booker alike are doing this as part of a plot that could potentially throw the known galaxy at large into a horrifying war. The stakes are kept firmly centered on what being put against each other means for Michael and Burnham’s relationship with each other, showing the love that is still there between them and making the conflict’s wounds to that love sting that much harder than it simply being professional duty versus personal wants, or even solely on Booker’s own emotional trauma over the loss of Kwejian. Instead of reminding us constantly that failure for Michael here might mean galactic war, “All In” is infinitely more interested in asking her if it’s worth having to lose her guiding centre in the galaxy, the man she loves, by abiding by the career she has found herself in, and that drama is much more resonant than whether or not the DMA can be stopped just yet.

Which is good, because, unfortunately for Burnham things don’t go entirely well — Booker beats her in the card game, seemingly choosing his personal vengeance to burn every bridge he’s formed with the Federation and her, getting the isolynium he and Tarka need to destroy the DMA. Even though she manages to place a tracking device on the material so all isn’t entirely lost, this marks a fundamental fork in her relationship with Booker, one that can never go back to the way it was. It’s a loss entirely more effective because it’s not about Michael’s own personal failure to complete her mission, it’s a human cost to a much bigger and more distant conflict to come.

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And sure, we learn in the episode’s conclusion that things are about to get even bigger and more complicated — the DMA, it turns out, is species 10-C’s answer to an interstellar mining vessel, not even a weapon as previously feared, making the prospect of war with the species should Tarka and Booker succeed even more unfathomable. On top of that, it’s mining boronite, a substance familiar to die-hard Trek nerds as being part of the synthesis process for Omega Molecules, one of the most powerful substances known to the Federation and capable of irreparably damaging subspace. But those concerns are shadows lingering in the distance. Right now, Discovery and Burnham alike are focused on the intimate prices being paid in that conflict already, and it’s all the better for it — giving us something to invest in by the time things inevitably hit the fan in the weeks to come.