Meta on Michael Burnham and James Kirk
After seeing the first two episodes of Star Trek Discovery and watching how Michael Burnham unwittingly helped bring about the very war she was trying to prevent I couldn’t help but think “There but for Khan, goes James T Kirk.”
The parallels between Michael Burnham’s actions and Kirk’s actions are quite strong. Where they differ is in their reasons and in their outcomes.
In many ways Burnham and Kirk’s backgrounds are also similar and that is where we need to begin. Both of them lost their parents to attacks by the Federations’ enemies, Michael lost both her parents to a Klingon bombing of Doctari Alpha. But then she was taken in as a foster child by Sarek and Amanda. Jim on the other hand lost his father at birth to the Romulan Nero and the attack of the Narada. His childhood after that was much darker than Michael’s. In canon we only have that one scene from the 2009 movie but it is illuminating. First that Kirk’s mother is off planet.
“You get one scratch on that car and I’m going to whip your ass … ”
Second that the man on the phone (Frank he’s called in a deleted clip) threatens Kirk with abuse. Third Kirk drives that car off a cliff into a huge mining pit, only jumping out at the last minute. No ten-year-old child attempts to commit suicide, last minute change of heart or not unless there is a serious and dangerous level of abuse going on at home. And for Winona Kirk to be completely unaware of this is signs of a very distant and absent parent. All of this led to Jim Kirk being a “genius level repeat offender” by the age of 22.
Then Michael and Kirk enter Starfleet. Both of them gain parental figures and mentors there; Captain Georgiou for Michael and Captain, later Admiral Pike for Kirk. It is where they face their greatest fears, that of losing those that they love that their two parallel lives collide.
Michael acted in fear and advocated striking first against the Klingons because that is what worked for the Vulcans. Captain Georgiou thought that it was the Vulcan part of her that was in control here but it was actually the human part. She was faced with her greatest fear, losing her new family to the same enemy that had killed her first one. She said it over and over again.
“I’m trying to protect you.”
When Georgiou wouldn’t listen to her, she mutinied.
“You want to know how I turned on you? I believed saving you and the crew was more important than Starfleet’s principles. Was it logical? Emotional? I don’t know.”
It is after the battle when Georgiou is planning a Kamikaze attack on the Klingon sarcophagus ship that Michael intervenes with another plan. Killing T’Kuvma would make him a martyr, a rallying point for the Klingons. Capturing him alive would shame them and give them a bargaining point as leverage. The plan backfires horribly and everything that Michael feared came to pass because of her. Captain Georgiou was killed by T’Kuvma and in revenge Michael killed T’Kuvma thereby making him the martyr. Her fear and her actions cost her everything but her life.
Kirk on the other hand has already lost his Captaincy and his ship and crew due to his violation of the Prime Directive when Khan attacks the Daystom Conference. Pike’s death sends Kirk careening out of control as much as Michael’s fear did her.
Kirk went to Marcus and practically begged to go after “John Harrison” and kill him. He did so knowing that he was violating not only Starfleet regulations but also Federation law as the Federation Charter explicitly forbade the interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. He also knew that if he got caught war between the Federation and the Klingon Empire would be the result.
Fortunately for all parties involved Spock was able to talk Kirk down off that ledge, much as Captain Georgiou tried to do for Michael. The difference is that Michael’s “family” was still in harm’s way from the Klingons while Kirk knew that “John Harrison” was hiding on Qo’noS.
“He’s got to be hiding there, sir! He knows if we even go near Klingon space, it’d be all-out war. Starfleet can’t go after him, but I can. Please, sir.”
There is no mention in any of Kirk’s speeches about “John Harrison” being any kind of threat to either Starfleet or the Federation. It’s all about Pike.
Now he does change kill to capture thus derailing Marcus’ original plans somewhat. But then he leads his ship into Klingon territory and his away team to Qo’noS to capture Khan and by so doing he puts his crew in danger and almost brings about the destruction of everyone he loves. Just as Michael did when she talked Captain Georgiou into boarding the Klingon vessel to capture T’Kuvma albeit for somewhat different reasons. And this is where their parallel lines diverge. Michael’s path led into dishonour and the death of the one she was most trying to protect. Kirk’s lead into redemption and heroism, all because of the actions of Khan Noonien Singh.
Because it is Khan who saves the lives of Kirk and his away team and by extension Kirk’s ship and crew and ultimately prevents the war that Marcus wanted.
Without Khan’s timely intervention on Qo’noS, Kirk, Spock and Uhura at the very least (we don’t know the fate of the two red shirts) would have been captured, tortured and then executed …
I knew what awaited them on Qo’noS, degradation, torture, slow public death.”
… the Enterprise would have been discovered and probably destroyed, the Klingons would have declared war on the Federation, Marcus would have lived to enjoy the fruits of his treachery and all of those deaths would have been laid at Jim Kirk’s doorstep or tombstone in this case.
If Marcus’ plan had worked Kirk would have been branded a rogue captain, blinded by the pain at the loss of his mentor, who mutinied and went off on his own mission of revenge and struck first thereby bringing the Klingons into war just like Michael Burnham is held to have done in the original timeline. Kirk’s unthinking recklessness and pain and loss led him to blunder blindly straight into Marcus’s trap. One of the greatest acts of ironies in the movie is that it was the actions of the very man he originally sent out to destroy who prevented the destruction of everything and everyone he held dear and saved him from death or utter ruin.