The introduction of President Laira Rillak (Chelah Horsdal) in Star Trek: Discovery season 4 provided a foil that Captain Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) needed after the departure of Emperor Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh). Since Michael Burnham’s debut as Star Trek: Discovery‘s central character, she always needed a mother figure as a counterpart who could hone and channel Burnham’s raw talent and penchant for rebellious, heroic acts. Burnham was orphaned at 10 and came to live with Sarek (James Frain) on Vulcan, where his human wife, Amanda (Mia Kirshner), became Michael’s mother.
When Burnham served aboard the USS Shenzhou, Captain Philippa Georgiou became her mentor and mother figure as well as her Captain. Michael’s relationship with Georgiou got stranger when she met Phillipa’s Mirror Universe doppelganger, who came aboard the USS Discovery. Emperor Georgiou felt even closer to Michael because she was the adoptive mother to Burnham’s evil Mirror double. Georgiou was fascinated by the Prime Universe’s earnest Michael who was so opposite to the treacherous scoundrel she raised. Meanwhile, Michael’s innate need for a mother figure was because her own mother, Dr. Gabrielle Burnham (Sonja Sohn), was largely absent, even after she joined Star Trek: Discovery as the Red Angel before later becoming a Qowat Milat in the 32nd century.
Burnham No Longer Needed Georgiou After Discovery Season 3
By Star Trek: Discovery season 3, however, Michael had outgrown her need for a mother figure. Burnham arrived in the 32nd century a year before the USS Discovery, and during that time she fell in love and traveled the galaxy as a courier with Cleveland Booker (David Ajala). Michael had entered a new phase where she was no longer seeking redemption or penance for her tragic mistake of igniting the Klingon War in Star Trek: Discovery season 1. Instead, Burnham was on a new journey to become the Captain she was meant to be.
Meanwhile, Emperor Georgiou was dying from the combination of time travel and crossing universes. But Georgiou also recognized that Burnham had evolved, and she was past looking to a mother figure for guidance. Burnham was now ready to sink or swim on her own, and this coincided with Georgiou’s own need to leave the 32nd century for her own survival. Yet Michael still needed a female foil in Georgiou’s place, and Star Trek: Discovery ingeniously invented President Rillak to counterbalance Captain Burnham.
President Rillak Made Burnham A Better Captain
President Rillak was an ideal addition to Star Trek: Discovery season 4, and she was a new kind of opposition that Captain Burnham needed. Unlike Georgiou, Rillak felt no maternal instincts or nurturing feelings toward Michael. Instead, the President saw Captain Burnham, at first, as a questionable figure who was prone to risk-taking and heroics. Admiral Charles Vance (Oded Fehr) came to admire Captain Burnham after she saved the galaxy in Star Trek: Discovery season 3, but President Rillak was an even tougher sell. She saw Burnham’s potential both as an asset and a liability to the Federation, and she personally stepped in to push Michael to toe the Federation’s line.
Captain Burnham, in turn, understandably felt frustrated by President Rillak overseeing her, but this is because she was used to being indulged by her mother figures like Emperor Georgiou. President Rillak challenged and forced Michael’s professionalism, and Captain Burnham especially needed this influence after Book went rogue and placed Michael in an emotionally compromised position. Captain Burnham and President Rillak earned each other’s respect as two women of power who were ultimately responsible for the lives of billions. Theirs was a critical dynamic that made Star Trek: Discovery season 4 fascinating, and led to Michael Burnham’s growth to become an even better Captain of the Discovery.
Star Trek: Discovery Season 5 is expected to premiere in 2023 on Paramount+