Star Trek: Discovery And Michael Burnham’s Vulcan Childhood

Essential Star Trek Episodes To Watch Before DSC Premiere #5
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Star Trek: The Animated Series episode "Yesteryear."
Star Trek: The Animated Series episode "Yesteryear." CBS Television Distribution

As the Sept. 24 premiere of Star Trek: Discovery approaches, Player.One will profile essential episodes to watch for a better understanding of the characters, species and history informing the first Star Trek series in over a decade.

When the Federation starship Discovery interferes with Klingon Torchbearer sounding The Call, a sacred ritual signaling the 24 warring houses of the Klingon Empire to unite under one banner, First Officer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) makes a fateful decision that could lead to open war. We don’t yet know the details of Burnham’s Starfleet career, but we know a few things about her background. Burnham’s family was killed by Klingons. She was taken in by Spock’s parents, Sarek and Amanda Grayson, and became the first human to attend the Vulcan Science Academy. While Star Trek: The Original Series and The Next Generation episodes like “Journey to Babel” and “Sarek” reveal her mentor to us, it’s still hard to imagine what life must have been like for a human child on Vulcan. While episodes like “Amok Time” reveal Vulcan’s desert austerity and its people’s love of ritual, it’s only Star Trek: The Animated Series episode “Yesteryear” that offers real insight into a troubled childhood on Vulcan.

The Animated Series is a treat. The returning cast (only Walter Koenig as Pavel Chekov is missing) imbues the limited, Sealab 2021 animation with surprising similitude. The 24-minute runtime leads to condensed stories, each like a TOS in miniature, made ambitious by the more imaginatively freeing animation medium and D.C. Fontana’s story editing.

“Yesteryear,” written by Fontana, opens in a familiar location. The Enterprise is back at the Guardian of Forever, the ancient alien time vortex portal into any moment in history that dumped a doped-up Bones in Depression-era New York in Star Trek: The Original Series episode “The City on the Edge of Forever.”

When Kirk and Spock emerge from the time portal to find that no one recognizes the Enterprise’s first officer (he’s been replaced by an Andorian, who gamely helps to erase himself), Spock must return to his own childhood on Vulcan to secure his future. On the other side of the portal, Spock surveys Vulcan like it had never been seen before. From the hilltop is visible a city of spires, built inside a circular berm, almost like an impact crater. An immense moon backlights weird trees with perpendicular branches, almost crystalline in their structure. Down in the city, flying cars zip among latticework homes and stained glass plazas.

“I’ve returned to the past, in an attempt to restore the future,” Spock says. “I am home and I have almost forgotten its beauty.” And it is beautiful, capturing more than the spartan statuary and pomp of other visits to Vulcan. It feels like a place where people live day-to-day lives for the first time.

But Vulcan kids are little assholes. Spock’s nostalgic revery is broken by the noise of his childhood self getting whooped. “Earther! Barbarian! Emotional Earther!” they shout. If they mock Spock for not yet mastering the Vulcan nerve pinch, what must it have been like for Burnham, whose human tongue made her incapable of even speaking in Vulcan?

“Yesteryear” even brings us into young Spock’s home life, reintroducing us to Spock’s parents — Michael Burnham’s adoptive parents — in their domestic lives. His father greets him by apologizing for his crappy son’s stupid emotions. Spock handles it with equanimity (and effortlessly lies his way into their lives).

Sarek is as stern as ever in “Yesteryear” — in the end Spock makes only one request of him: “try to understand your son” — but we come to a new understanding of Spock’s mother, Amanda Grayson. While she mostly exhibits good-natured exasperation with her husband’s logic in “Journey to Babel,” her abiding respect for Vulcan ways comes through in “Yesteryear.” “I respect Vulcan and all its traditions, but it is a demanding life,” she says, working throughout the episode to educate her son in the best of humanity, not to compete with his Vulcan side, but to enrich it.

Burnham is in good hands on Vulcan. Though Star Trek: Discovery probably won’t feel beholden to The Animated Series should it ever visit Vulcan, it’ll be interesting to see whether any of the design touches from “Yesteryear” echo through Discovery. Can Discovery really resist including a teddy bear-ish sehlat, like Spock’s pet I-Chaya?

By the end of “Yesteryear,” Spock has saved his younger self from an attacking le-matya, which looks like a Pandora predator, but growls with Godzilla’s roar (literally). But more importantly, he’s given Spock the advice an adolescent half-human Vulcan needs, that only an adult half-human Vulcan can provide, speaking directly to his youthful insecurities:

“There is some human blood in my family line. It is not fatal. What you do not yet understand, Spock, is that Vulcans do not lack emotion. It is only that ours is controlled. Logic offers a serenity humans seldom experience in full. We have emotions, but we deal with them and do not let them control us.”

After overcoming his challenges, newly secure in himself, young Spock tells his mother and father, “There was a decision to be made. A direction for my life had to be chosen. I chose Vulcan.” We’ll have to wait for the Sept. 24 premiere of Star Trek: Discovery to find out what path First Officer Michael Burnham chose.

More Essential Star Trek Episodes To Watch Before Star Trek: Discovery

  1. Star Trek: The Original Series “The Cage,” model for DSC protagonist Michael Burnham.

  2. Star Trek: The Original Series “Errand of Mercy,” our introduction to the Klingons.

  3. Star Trek: The Original Series “Journey to Babel,” the first Sarek episode.

  4. Star Trek: The Next Generation "Sarek" and the decline and death of Spock's father.

  5. Star Trek: The Animated Series "Yesteryear" reveals what life was like for a young Michael Burnham as a human on the planet Vulcan.

  6. Star Trek: The Next Generation "Lower Decks" explores stories and characters away from the bridge.

  7. Star Trek: The Next Generation “Rightful Heir” resurrects Kahless, the most important Klingon religious figure.

  8. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the best-yet depiction of Federation-Klingon relations.

  9. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine “Trials and Tribble-ations” explores the limits of nostalgia.

  10. Star Trek: The Original Series "A Private Little War" takes Kirk, Bones and Spock to Vietnam.

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