Why 'Star Trek: Discovery' Should Drop Burnham's Romantic Subplot
Spoilers ahead for Season 1 Episode 9 of Star Trek: Discovery.
Star Trek: Discovery, the first Star Trek series on television in over a decade, wrapped up the first half of its inaugural season this week. The show is, for sure, still working through some of its kinks, much like every other Trek series at their beginnings. In my own Star Trek super fan opinion, Discovery had an okay start, but what followed were a string of really great, exciting episodes that totally nailed what makes Star Trek so fun.
But while I'm excited for Discovery's January 2018 return, if there's one thing that I wish the show would drop, it's the romantic subplot between the show's lead character, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and Lt. Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif). The pairing just feels unnecessary to the course of the show, and I can't help but wonder if the series is ham-fisting its female lead into a romantic subplot in order to make it more "believable." It's as if a male character can do his job, be in Star Fleet, and possibly ignore his love life, but a woman is incapable of doing so; she must find love. It's adding to the backward idea that women are always on the hunt for romance; that their lives are incomplete without it.
Star Trek: Discovery made history by making its lead character a woman of color. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's Commander Sisko was the series' first black lead, while Voyager brought Trekkies their first lead female captain in Janeway. With Burnham, Discovery took another bold step to enhance the series' diversity. As a human raised by Vulcans, Burnham brings an interesting dynamic similar to original series' Spock, only this time from the perspective of a woman of color.
Which is why it's disappointing that the show feels the need to address Burnham's love life so intensely. There's a lot to explore with regard to her emotions, since Burnham was raised by Vulcans and taught to suppress her feelings. But the first emotion the show seems intent on exploring the deepest is love. Be it through her confession to Stamets (Anthony Rapp) that she's never been in love, to her very fast connection with Tyler, Burnham's exploration of love feels in line with stereotypical portrayals of female characters. Not only that, but it takes time away from other equally interesting revelations or growth she could be having that would define her outside of her relationship to a man. With all of the interesting things going on with Burnham, like the guilt she feels over her mutiny and the death of Captian Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), her very different friendships with Saru and Tilly, and her weird place as a non-crew member on Discovery, there's plenty of conflict from which to mine. Squeezing in a romantic subplot feels forced, particularly because it may be with a character who isn't who he says he is, just to create some kind of romantic tension.
Having a female lead doesn't mean a love interest has to come along with it. This isn't the first time the Star Trek universe has done this, either. In the new Kelvin timeline of Star Trek movies, Lt. Uhura (Zoe Saldana) is in a relationship with Spock (Zachary Quinto), which adds a new dimension to his Vulcan character, but just makes her seem like, well, a girlfriend. Much like Uhura, the addition of Burnham's relationship status, or love history, feels like an irrelevant inclusion when few other characters have a substantially developed love life in a time of war.
Of course, not giving Burnham a love interest would have a downside, too. There's no reason to treat the first black female lead any differently than others in the series, and Burnham isn't any less deserving of love than any other character in the canon. And yes, the Star Trek universe has always had romantic subplots and one or more signature couple every iteration. The prequel Enterprise had the inter-species romance between T'Pol and Trip. Voyager had Tom Paris and B'Elanna Torres, as well as Kes and Neelix. Deep Space Nine probably had the most romances, giving us a continuation of TNG's Chief O'Brien and Keiko, Odo and Keira for a bit, and the lovely marriage between Worf and Jadzia Dax. The Next Generation's will-they-or-won't they perfect couple of Will Riker and Deanna Troi took seven seasons and a few movies to turn the former lovers into husband and wife.
But those are all supporting characters. In every other Star Trek series, the lead has been the captain (or in DS9's case, the commander of a space station) and for captains, romance rarely works out. TNG's Picard (Patrick Stewart) had a couple of girlfriends here and there. The archeologist Vash was a favorite but she ran off with Q, plus there was his on-again, off-again relationship with Dr. Beverly Crusher, which the series finale sadly suggested ended in divorce. Janeway had a never-resolved, minor sexual tension with Chakotay, in addition to other minor dalliances. Sisko's relationship with Yates was successful, but was marred by her being in prison for a bit. Archer seemed rather sexless throughout Enterprise's entire short-lived run. On the opposite end of the spectrum, original series' Kirk seemed to have a new sexual conquest every third episode, though his flirtations remained steadfast in a non-committal kind of way.
But the reason a Star Trek lead's love rarely worked out was because, as captains (and stars of their series) the characters had much more interesting things going on than their love lives. Their choices as captains affected crews of hundreds, and couldn't suffer from such a major a distraction. As a result of their importance to Star Fleet, to their ships, crews, and missions, they don't actually have much luck in the long-lasting love department. Successful partnerships seem resigned to supporting characters. Plus, any relationships the captains did have didn't come into play until further into the series, whereas with Burnham, romance hit on the sixth episode — way too rushed when we could be exploring other things about the character like her Vulcan upbringing, how she's relating to the crew as a mutineer, and her budding friendship with Tilly.
So perhaps that's an indicator that Burnham and Tyler's coupling isn't going to work out in the end, or it's all part of a larger upcoming plot point. After all, there's still the theory that Tyler is, in fact, the Klingon Voq, planted on the Discovery after some extreme cosmetic surgery and sleeper cell-type brain augmentation. Tyler's vague flashbacks during the mid-season finale could have been images of his torture or of the intense surgical process. And the sexual visions with female Klingon L'Rell could have been either involuntary or consensual. His identity is still actually a mystery, and romantic betrayal would be a more interesting emotion for Burnham to explore as a cultural Vulcan. Tyler turning out to be Voq wouldn't be just a betrayal to Burnham, either, but to the entire crew, particularly Captain Lorca, so why make him more important to Burnham?
Hopefully, this relationship is short-lived. Burnham is a soldier, a scientist, and one of few humans to be raised by another species. There's so much more to her that the least interesting thing about her is which boy she likes.