Now that we have the review out of the way, lets talk about that cliffhanger! Spoilers of the Star Trek Discovery premiere will follow.
At the end of the finale Michael Burnham is given life in prison for charges of mutiny, dereliction of duty, and assaulting other officers. Moreover, it appears that she is the one who squarely receives the blame for starting the Klingon-Federation war. My question is, does that seem fair, and is that consistent with how we have understood the Federation justice system in previous lore.
Is Burnham responsible for the War?
Burnham is responsible for the war in the same way that Franklin Roosevelt is responsible for World War 2. Klingons are naturally aggressive and were spoiling for a fight. They lured a Federation ship to that area specifically to have a target to rally their people against. Burnham, also, didn’t pull the trigger that started the war; granted thats not because she didn’t try. It was T’Kuvma, lest we forget, who fired the first shots. Is Burnham responsible for escalating the war by killing T’Kuvma, absolutely, but that doesn’t make her the cause.
Does Burnham deserve life in prison
Well, back in the day mutiny was a guaranteed way of getting yourself shot or hung. Even today, mutiny can still be punished by death. In this instance, Burnham did absolutely assault a superior officer and attempted to take over the ship, but how would Starfleet punish this? Well, at this time the Federation no longer had capital punishment, and by this era the federation had shifted from prisons to rehabilitation centers. The Federation believed that all people could be rehabilitated into functioning individuals (TOS: Dagger of the Mind). So, there’s no doubt that this life imprisonment sentence may be rescinded once she’s learned her lesson.
Would she be known as the “person who started the war?”
This is a harder one to pinpoint. Certainly some people in the Federation became famous, or infamous, due to their actions. For instance, in the episode “Tin Man” in The Next Generation, Tam Elbrun is very infamous after the Ghorusda Disaster, in which 47 Starfleet officers are killed in a first contact gone bad. However, a person’s fame or infamy seems to be constrained to Starfleet officers. Rarely do we see civilians knowing the exploits or failures of Starfleet officers (for instance, Sisko’s father seemed habitually out of the loop on Earth). So, within Starfleet circles it is possible that her actions could be misconstrued as starting the war, but outside Starfleet circles it’s unlikely that anyone who know her.