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‘Star Trek: Discovery’: ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and the Significance of Burnham’s Trip Down the Rabbit Hole

Starfleet's first mutineer has a personal relationship with this particular piece of classic literature.

Star Trek Discovery Michael Burnham Sonequa Martin-Green

CBS All Access

[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from “Star Trek: Discovery” Episode 3, “Context Is for Kings.”]

“Star Trek” has a long history of citing what we modern viewers would consider classic literature. The references serve multiple purposes: to offer insight into the character quoting the material, to make the futuristic character more relatable, and to reassure us that millennia into the future, some part of our culture has endured in recognizable form. For mutineer Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), her classic novel of choice is “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

On the USS Glenn, Burnham provides a diversion to draw the unidentified creature away from the boarding party. As she’s crawling frantically through the Jefferies Tubes, she starts to recite a paraphrased excerpt from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

“The rabbit hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself, but instead found herself falling down a very deep well,” Burnham says to herself. “…She was now only 10 inches high. Her face brightened up. She was now the right size to go through the little door into the lovely garden.”

The 1865 fantasy novel and its sequel, “Through the Looking-Glass,” are often referred to under one title, “Alice in Wonderland,” after the Disney animated film that combines elements of both. The journey of the young girl Alice has been a favorite since publication because of her vivid journey into a world where the usual rules of logic don’t apply. Carroll, the pen name of mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, actually embedded multilayered jokes in the text that ranged from cheeky wordplay and social commentary to mathematical allusions and chess moves.

Read More:‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Review: ‘Context Is for Kings’ Launches the Series Into a Weird, But Fascinating New Universe

For Burnham, the story holds personal significance. When she pulls out a copy of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (an edition that appears to have a John Tenniel-esque illustration on its cover), her roommate Cadet Tilly (Mary Wiseman) is intrigued.

“When I was a kid after my parents were killed, my foster mother used to read it to me and her son,” Burnham says. “She and I were the only humans in the house. It’s how I learned the the real world doesn’t always adhere to logic. Sometimes down is up, sometimes up is down. Sometimes when you’re lost, you’re found.”

"Star Trek: Discovery"

“Star Trek: Discovery”

CBS All Access

This could explain why she was able to think of a unique solution to evading the creature on the Glenn. Putting her plan into action also signified her wholly embracing the situation and her temporary crewmates. Like Alice, she has effectively jumped into the rabbit hole with both feet. Now, a world of wonders and adventures await her on board the Discovery.

“Alice” has been cited in the “Star Trek” universe before, and most significantly in “The Animated Series” episode “Once Upon a Planet” in which it was learned that Amanda Grayson had frequently read it to her son Spock as a child. Since Burnham was raised by Sarek (James Frain) and Amanda after the death of her own parents, the reference is a nice touch that brings everything together.

On CBS All Access’ “After Trek,” executive producer Aaron Harberts said that Amanda reading “Alice” to both Spock and Burnham was a deliberate choice to counteract the Vulcan mindset. He also added, “We’ve got mushrooms on the ship and there are lots of mushrooms in ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ so it all sort of fit together. And it seemed like a talisman, almost a prayer that she uses to center herself.”

New episodes of “Star Trek: Discovery” stream Sundays at 8:30 p.m. ET on CBS All Access. 

Sonequa Martin-Green, "Star Trek: Discovery"

Sonequa Martin-Green, “Star Trek: Discovery”

CBS All Access

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