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Chambers, A., 2019.

Star Trek Discovers Women: Gender, science, and the 'revolutionary' Michael Burnham

Output Type:Chapter in a book
Publication:Context is for Kings: Exploring Star Trek: Discovery
Publisher:Liverpool University Press

Women scientists are often seen as anomalous exceptions in the fictional (and indeed real) world of white, male dominated scientific research. Even in the supposedly race and gender blind future of Star Trek a black woman science specialist is considered revolutionary. Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) is the only human to have graduated from the Vulcan Science Academy and is a science specialist on the science vessel: the USS Discovery. Her research field is xenoanthropology (extra-terrestrial cultures) a bioscientific and anthropological specialism that defines her as an expert in first contact.

Science and technology is a backdrop for the Star Trek universe. The theory and practice that gives the narrative a spectacular speculative frame is often perceived as neutral (or at least benevolent) as Starfleet explores the universe. Star Trek idealises science and the scientist, and throughout much of its history the science future it imagines has been distinctly white and male. Voyager's Captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew), who was defined by her sceptical scientific approach and defied archetypal ideas of the Star Trek scientist, did not get a specific expertise. Burnham does, yet this presents issues as it places the character within the hard/soft science binary where women scientists are aligned with the biosciences (including medicine) and men are engineers and physicists.

Star Trek has historically given space for women to be scientists, but Discovery goes further than previous entries into the mythos by taking a black woman scientist from the margin to the centre of the story and offers a future when neither race nor gender present a barrier.