This Star Trek: Discovery article contains spoilers for Season 4, Episode 1.
Star Trek captains are like secret agents or base jumpers: they’re constantly trying to figure out how to not die while, at the same time, recognizing that the dangerous situation they’re in are partially their fault. In Star Trek: Discovery’s Season 4 premiere episode — “Kobayashi Maru” — Captain Michael Burnham is forced to relearn the most hardcore starship captain lesson in all of Trek: You can’t always win and you can’t always save everyone.
The basic idea of the Kobayashi Maru has its roots in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and since 1982 has created a warning for the entire Star Trek canon: Even if you think certain main characters are protected by plot armor, the non-win scenario is always there, threatening to make Trek get real. In Discovery’s “Kobayashi Maru,” this idea comes back in a big way, but what’s interesting about Burnham’s feelings about Starfleet’s actual Kobayashi Maru test is that her experience predates Captain Kirk’s, even if their journeys are similar. Here’s what Captain Burnham does (and doesn’t) have in common with James T. Kirk and the Kobayashi Maru…
What is the Kobayashi Maru?
In Star Trek lore (starting with 1982’s The Wrath of Khan, “the Kobayashi Maru” is a training simulation in which Starfleet cadets are sent to rescue a stranded spaceship called the Kobayashi Maru, which has ended up on the wrong side of an enemy border. (In the 23rd century, this meant Klingons, but in some ‘90s TNG novels, Romulans were used instead.) Although the cadets aren’t told ahead of time, the simulation is rigged — no matter what you do, you won’t be able to rescue the stranded crew, and save the ship. In The Wrath, Kirk tells Saavik that “it’s a test of character,” and in Star Trek 2009, Spock says the purpose of the test is “to experience fear.” In the story of The Wrath of Khan (and in Trek 2009) we learn that Kirk rejected that premise of the Kobayashi Maru scenario, and “reprogrammed the simulation so it was possible to save the ship.” When his son David says he “cheated,” Kirk says “I changed the conditions of the test…I don’t like to lose.”
By the end of The Wrath, while he’s dying, Spock admits: “I never took the Kobayashi Maru test… what do you think of my solution?” Thematically, this moment proves to Kirk that facing a no-win scenario is something he’s never actually done with any kind of grounded perspective. Unsurprisingly, this single moment went on to redefine how the Trek canon approached danger and mortal stakes, literally, for the rest of the franchise.
There have even been several remixes of the Kobayashi Maru in the onscreen canon. In the TNG episode “Coming of Age,” Wesley Crusher is tricked into thinking a massive explosion has hit a starbase, and he’s required to choose which crewmember he can save and which one he has to let die. Unlike The Wrath, Wesley is unaware that it’s a test, making the impossible decision all the more real. In the Short Treks episode “Ask Not,” Cadet Sidhu is tricked into thinking Captain Pike is guilty of mutiny and that her family is in danger on another starship. The test is to see, even under personal emotional strain, that Sidhu will stick to the rules and, thus, keep more people safe.
Canonically, it’s not clear how long Starfleet has used the Kobayashi Maru test, but one novel set in the Enterprise era (specifically 2155) suggests the real Kobayashi Maru scenario occurred in an incident involving the NX-01 Enterprise and the NX-02 Columbia. Either way, the test is old enough that Burnham remembers it, even though she became a member of Starfleet in 2249.
Did Burnham go to Starfleet Academy?
Toward the end of “Kobayashi Maru,” as Burnham is debating with President Rillak (Chelah Horsdal) she says “the test is rigged you know…they don’t tell you that upfront.” This seems to establish that Burnham took the Kobayashi Maru as part of her Starfleet training. But where did Burnham take the test? Did she go to San Francisco and attend the academy for a few years, or was all of her training on the USS Shenzhou? In “The Vulcan Hello,” we learn that Burnham joined the crew of the Shenzhou in 2249, and then, by 2256, she was a full commander. So, within those seven years, Burnham did all of her Starfleet training and got promoted several times. This may seem kind of fast, but Kirk’s career is pretty similar, especially if you consider the reboot movies.
Still, it’s possible that Burnham’s initial rank was granted by field commission, which is exactly like what Picard did when he promoted Wesley Crusher to full ensign in the episode “Ménage à Troi.” Either way, Burnham clearly had some kind of Starfleet Academy experience, whether it was all on Earth or not, is a different question. And, as The Wrath of Khan established, her brother Spock never took the test at all. This could imply that in real-deal canon, that the Kobayashi Maru was kind of a new test in the 2250s. As far as the timeline goes, even though Burnham and Spock were serving in Starfleet at the same time in the 2250s, Spock had maybe been in Starfleet a tiny bit longer. The events of “Q&A” (Spock’s first day on the Enterprise) happen in 2254, which means he entered Starfleet Academy in either 2249 or 2250. Then again, it could have been earlier. Spock’s first posting on the Enterprise isn’t necessarily the first ship he ever served on. Tilly was a Cadet while she was on the Discovery and became an ensign in between Season 1 and Season 2.
Anyway, the point is, from Spock to Wesley, to Tilly and Burnham, everyone’s Starfleet training isn’t always the same, which also could impact when and if they took the Kobayashi Maru test.
Burnham and Kirk
Toward the end of the Discovery episode “Kobayashi Maru,” when Burnham is talking to Rillak she recalls her time taking the test: “When you fail, you go back to your quarters and all you can think about is how want to retake it and how you can be the one to beat it. And you realize you never will.” Rillak counters, saying, “Hence the lesson, acceptance.” Burnham doesn’t like this, which echoes her statement in the season 3 finale, in which Zayreh told Burnham she was in a no-win situation and Burnham countered by saying “I don’t believe in those.”
Basically, Burnham has a similar attitude about the “Kobayashi Maru” as James T. Kirk. But, interestingly, Burnham would have probably never heard of Kirk beating the test, because by the time Kirk became famous (or infamous) she was doing her own thing. Or maybe not? Most guesses put Kirk’s graduation from the academy around 2252, which would mean, yes, he went to the academy around the same time as Spock. This potentially means that if Burnham went back to Earth for her training, she might have overlapped with Kirk. In fact, at some point in the 2250s, Kirk was a graduate student teaching at the academy, albeit briefly. Gary Mitchell establishes this very clearly in “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” mentioning “Lt. Kirk’s class.”
Because Burnham is a full commander in 2256, it feels unlikely she was in Lt. Kirk’s class, but she may have overlapped with Kirk at the academy (if she was there.) Alternately — and more likely — Burnham did more than half of her academy training on the Shenzhou, and missed Kirk entirely.
Burnham and the crew of the Discovery left the 23rd Century in 2258. At this point, Kirk had just finished serving on the Farragut. Even if Kirk and Spock knew each other at this point, they were yet to become best friends. In “Such Sweet Sorrow, Part 2,” Burnham encourages Spock to “reach” for other people in his life that will validate him. Of course, this ends up being Kirk.
But, what’s most interesting about all of this is that Spock essentially loved and trusted two humans more than any other in his life — his sister Michael Burnham, and his best friend, James Kirk. And both of them rejected the supposed lesson of the “Kobayashi Maru.” Because Burnham is from the exact same era as Kirk, she has more in common with that version of Starfleet than the new incarnation of 3189. In the Voyager episode “Flashback,” Janeway suggests that the Starfleet officers of the 23rd century would have a hard time in the 24th century, noting officers like Sulu and Kirk “would be booted out of Starfleet today.” With Discovery Season 4, we’re actually seeing what that feels like for a 23rd-century Starfleet captain, stranded in the future. Burnham doesn’t believe in the no-win scenario, and, tragically, Kirk and Spock aren’t there to back her up.