Could Commander Michael Burnham’s (Sonequa Martin-Green) affinity with Alice in Star Trek Discovery mean more? Star Trek has long used references from popular culture, particularly literature. But, perhaps the story arc of Commander Michael Burnham uses this trope in an extended manner, more subtly. In terms of the story it does at least seem possible. There are certainly some metaphorical similarities to Burnham’s journey thus far.
Alice appears in Lewis Caroll’s Alice Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There (1871). The first Alice book is referred to in the show’s debut season. Articles like this one have explored the use of it. Amanda Grayson (Mia Kirshner), Burnham’s foster mother, reads it to her as a child. This fits nicely into Trek canon. Quite how and why, is explained well here, in another interesting article. It reminds us that Spock had also read the book, and knew the characters.
Even as an adult Burnham keeps her hard copy of the book, which Tilly (Mary Wiseman) sees her with when they shared quarters. So, at least one of the Alice Books has definite significance to Star Trek Discovery, and the main character. Arguably, both may be relevant though. With that in mind, let’s have a look at what happened to Alice, alongside what Burnham got up to in seasons one and two, and, crucially, where she is now.
Season One: Burnham “Shrinks” then Grows Back
In the first of Alice’s adventures, in the first chapter, she shrinks, after drinking a potion. Might Burnham’s fall from grace, at the first point we are introduced to the character, symbolically reference this? The demotion and subsequent court-martial may be representative of this. Perhaps Burnham’s ego is what bursts, causing a dramatic reduction of status and fortune. This “shrinking” sets up the need for Burnham to redeem her status, and regain her rank of Commander, therefore achieving redemption.
Next, Whereas Alice literally grows, Burnham’s alteration is via character growth. Rather than simply return to what was, like Alice returning to her original size, Burnham must first “stand taller”. This symbolizes Alice’s becoming larger, before reverting to her regular stature. Burnham’s journey definitely does involve growing beyond what she was before, and emerging as a bigger person once she’s made a Commander again.
The Looking Glass
Another possible reference might be the mirror universe experience. That’s how Alice arrives back in Wonderland, in her second adventure. Yes, this is more literally obvious, but think of what Burnham finds there. A very different way of life. One that’s brutal and a place where nothing seems to make sense. That’s certainly Alice’s experience, too. There are many threats of violence, made casually, to Alice. In this strange place, it is accepted, just as the Terran Empire’s rule of terror is. Both Burnham and Alice have to navigate unfamiliar territory and do what they can to blend in, as to avoid danger. Potentially, death.
The second season sees Burnham realize that to protect everything, it’s essential to enter the future, via a wormhole. That happens at the end of season two. Alice’s first entry into Wonderland was down the rabbit hole. Again, this is more of a literal reference, like the “looking glass” of the mirror universe. Nevertheless, it’s there. Admittedly, there’s not an abundance of other evidence. but we’re only on episode one of season three. We’re yet to see what else Burnham will discover.
Another possible reference might be Grudge, Book’s (David Ajala) cat. The Cheshire cat continually follows Alice, appearing at random points. Grudge definitely doesn’t grin like the Cheshire cat, though. It’s interesting that Burnham should encounter a cat, that far in the future. It does fit in with the cat “following” Burnham, as it does Alice. Perhaps it’s there only as a motif, to act as a fun gesture.
Of course, none of this may be true. Some parts seems more feasible than others. This should not be read as a theory. At least not in the strictest sense. Though, it’s likely the writers are familiar with both Alice books. Probable, even that they were influenced enough by them to reference the stories in the show. These references are not in any linear order, in terms of how they appear, except for the first one.
Finally, Star Trek Discovery is not a retelling of either Alice adventure. We’re not claiming that. Spock is not The Mad Hatter! What is being stated, is that the writers may slip in the occasional subtle reference. It’s definitely a good book to have chosen to use for a tie into the narratives. Especially Spock knowing it fits so well. We’ve already given our thoughts on season three’s opening episode. If you think we’ve missed any “Alice” references, or you’ve spotted others in the first two seasons, let us know. You can read each episode review, weekly, along with other related features such as this one, here at ScifiPulse.