Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Discovery Seasons 1-3, the teaser for Season 4, and for other iterations of the Star Trek franchise.
Did you read my weekly theory posts as Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 was ongoing? If you did, perhaps you’ll remember that, about four episodes in, I began to speculate that Michael Burnham’s new attitude toward Starfleet – which had changed following a year alone in the 32nd Century – would ultimately lead to her leaving the organisation, and perhaps even Star Trek: Discovery altogether.
That didn’t happen, of course, and it was part of Burnham’s arc across the season to get her ready to assume the captaincy at the end of the season finale. Although Burnham had at least one bump in the road where I felt her newfound independence spilled over into selfishness, her storyline and her rise to assume command was generally satisfying, especially across the back half of the season. By the time the credits rolled on That Hope Is You, Part 2, Burnham had truly earned the captaincy.
What I’m about to suggest may seem odd seen in that context, but there are a couple of reasons why I consider it plausible as I’ll try to explain. In short, I’m bringing back the theory that flopped in Season 3: Michael Burnham will, somehow, no longer be in command of the USS Discovery by the end of Season 4.
One of Discovery’s unique features within Star Trek’s broader canon has been the season-long captaincies of three very different individuals. Season 1 brought us Captain Lorca, the hardball who ultimately turned out to be deceptive. Season 2 reintroduced Captain Pike, the classic character who embodied the best of Starfleet’s values. And Season 3 saw Saru sit in the captain’s chair, the first ever alien captain to helm a Star Trek series.
Each captain brought something new and different to the ship, and thus to the series as well. And Michael Burnham, having assumed command at the end of Season 3, will undoubtedly put her own stamp on things as we enter Season 4. That’s great, and it keeps one of Discovery’s unexpected themes going. But as we look ahead to Discovery’s future, with a fifth season rumoured to be all but confirmed and even the possibility of some kind of feature film involvement, I can’t help but wonder whether she will remain in the captain’s chair.
Unlike Lorca, Pike, and Saru, Burnham has been Discovery’s protagonist since the beginning – even if, at times, her status as our main character didn’t always work as intended! So perhaps that means her rise to the captaincy, rather than the captaincies of the three other characters, is what we should be focused on. And that is a good argument in some ways – the story of Discovery, rather than being about the other captains or even other members of the crew, has primarily been about Michael Burnham.
Thus we can argue that Seasons 1, 2, and 3 showed off different aspects of her ascent to the captain’s chair – which, it has to be said, is an amazing premise for a Star Trek series. Past shows all introduced us to captains who were already established; even Commander Sisko, who we saw at the beginning of Deep Space Nine assume his post for the first time, was still very clearly in command. We did get some episodes showing us parts of the backstories and pasts of Captains Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway, and Archer, but when we first met them they were already established. We didn’t see their rise through the ranks in the way we’ve seen Burnham’s unfold over the past three seasons.
So that argument is valid, and it may very well prove to be true. But despite Discovery’s tight focus on Burnham much of the time, the show does have a broader cast of characters, some of whom we’re getting to know reasonably well now that we’re three seasons in. The show has never been about Burnham alone, and the different captains have, as I mentioned above, all put a unique spin on things during their tenures.
Discovery feels like it’s in a place where it could go down one of two paths, and which one the producers ultimately choose will depend on all sorts of factors, including future plans for the wider Star Trek franchise. One path is outlined above, keeping the Burnham focus as a key aspect of the series, and allowing Seasons 1-3 to depict her growth and rise. But there is another option.
The second path would be for Burnham to follow Lorca, Pike, and Saru, with her captaincy of the ship lasting a single season. Discovery’s unique selling point as a series would thus change from being all about Burnham to being a show which had a rotating captaincy. Those first three seasons – and probably Season 4 as well – would still have that Burnham focus. But if Discovery manages to keep going into Season 5 and beyond, perhaps we’ll look back on it as “the show with all those different captains!”
Because of a captain’s role and status, changing things up can really have a significant impact on the ship – and the series. While arguably an extreme example, if we look to Chain of Command, the two-part episode from The Next Generation Season 6, the introduction of Captain Jellico as a replacement for Captain Picard radically changed things up on the Enterprise-D, and if he’d remained in command we’d certainly have seen The Next Generation transformed into a very different series!
It makes for an interesting concept for a Star Trek show – something closer to an anthology series than a “traditional” Star Trek show in the vein of The Original Series and The Next Generation. Not only would the captaincy have changed, but we also have two very different time periods in play which really adds to the sense that Discovery has been, across its three-season run to date, very different season by season. Burnham’s departure could cement that trend.
To clarify, I’m not saying this should happen, or that it would be great for the series. Because despite some of my critiques of Burnham’s characterisation, particularly early in Season 1, her rise to the captain’s chair worked. Seeing her take her seat at the end of Season 3 felt earned and it felt great; a genuinely emotional moment.
Despite that, however, I can’t help but wonder if the storyline of Season 4 – which seems to involve another “galaxy-threatening” event – will end with Burnham’s departure from the ship and the show.
There are two ways such a departure could happen, at least as far as I can see, so before we wrap things up we’ll briefly look at both.
Firstly, the one that seems more obvious given what we saw in the Season 4 teaser, and given what we know of Burnham’s disposition and personality, is some kind of self-sacrifice. Perhaps the only way to save the ship and crew – or more likely, save the whole galaxy – will involve Burnham making a decision to sacrifice herself for the cause. Her death would thus mirror characters like Data and Captain Kirk, both of whom were killed in the line of duty while saving others.
In a show that has been all about Burnham, depicting her at her lowest moments and showing her greatest achievements, there would be something poetic about going out in a “blaze of glory” – but at the same time, her death might seem like the series finale. If there are no plans for a fifth season (or film) to continue Discovery’s story, perhaps the series will conclude with Burnham’s death.
It wouldn’t be impossible for the show to go on without her, though, despite her prominent role. And while her death might feel like Discovery’s conclusive end, that wouldn’t necessarily have to be the case. As I’ve argued in the past, Star Trek shows are typically about more than just one character, and as we’ve spent more time with other members of the crew, I think there’s more than enough interest and potential for the series to stand on its own two feet if Burnham leaves or is killed off.
And that brings us to our second possibility – that Burnham survives, but for other reasons chooses to leave Starfleet.
This is what I felt Season 3 seemed to be hinting at in those early episodes. The shift in Burnham’s attitude toward Starfleet, her willingness to break the rules and disregard orders given by Saru and Admiral Vance, and the fact that she admitted to both Book and Georgiou that she found a sense of freedom outside of Starfleet in her year alone all seemed to be building up to a potential departure. The second half of the season got rid of that, and we saw Burnham’s attitude change such that her rise to the captaincy made sense in-universe. But there’s still the prospect of those feelings returning.
Burnham has, ever since the Season 1 premiere, had a bit of a problem with authority and the chain of command. While we should see much less of that with her in command, and thus not answerable to anyone else aboard the ship, the USS Discovery does not exist independently and is still under the command of Admiral Vance and Starfleet. If Burnham feels constrained by the orders she’s given, and repeatedly butts heads with senior Starfleet officers, perhaps the craving for freedom that we saw her express in Season 3 will come back.
I wouldn’t want to see Burnham storm off, throwing down her combadge and just walking away. After three seasons of being with her and seeing her grow, that would feel wrong. That’s why I was so critical of Discovery at one point in Season 3 when I felt this antagonistic attitude and selfishness, putting her own wants ahead of Starfleet’s orders, seemed to be a character regression, dragging Burnham back to where she was in Season 1. Luckily it didn’t pan out that way, and I hope it won’t here.
But there can certainly be a way to get Burnham to walk away from Starfleet, perhaps at the conclusion of a successful, galaxy-saving mission, that would work. If she were to say goodbye and head into the sunset with Book, having saved the galaxy not once but twice, I think we could absolutely say that she earned the right to live her own life away from Starfleet in the manner she chooses. In short, this storyline could work, but it would all hinge on the way Burnham’s characterisation was handled and the manner in which she left.
So that’s it, really. We can call this a pre-season theory, and summarise it thusly: somehow, perhaps toward the end of Season 4, either through an heroic death or satisfying resignation, Michael Burnham will leave the USS Discovery and cease to be a main character on the show.
Will it come true? I have no idea! And with filming on Season 4 currently paused for two weeks due to a small coronavirus outbreak, perhaps we won’t find out for a while.
Once again, I’m not arguing in favour of this theory necessarily. I think it could be made to work in a way that felt right, and it would mix up the captaincy of the ship again, potentially keeping things fresh going into Season 5. But at the same time, I’ve grown to like Burnham. Her departure would be a bittersweet moment for the series, and in a way it would be a risk unlike any the show has taken so far.
I hope you’ll swing by later in the year, as I plan to review every Discovery Season 4 episode when they’re broadcast. If Season 4 lends itself to theory-crafting, I daresay my weekly theories posts will be back as well! Between now and then we have Season 2 of Lower Decks to look forward to, which is coming up in less than four months now! So there’ll be a lot to talk about there as well. I hope you enjoyed this theory, but as always, please remember not to get too attached to any one individual fan theory. No theories are worth getting upset or disappointed over.
Star Trek: Discovery Seasons 1-3 are available to stream now on Paramount+ in the United States and on Netflix in the United Kingdom and other countries and territories. Season 4 is due for broadcast in late 2021. The Star Trek franchise – including Discovery and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.