Michelle Yeoh on Her Planet-Hopping Section 31 Series and Georgiou’s Evolution in ‘Star Trek: Discovery’
April 17, 2019
The finale of Star Trek: Discovery Season 2 premieres Thursday, so Michelle Yeoh, who plays Philippa Georgiou, is looking to the series’ future. This includes her own spin-off series, which follows Georgiou’s capers as an agent of Section 31—a clandestine Federation intelligence service, originally introduced as a critique of realpolitik excesses in a 1998 episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
“Section 31 is in the works as we speak. We will shoot Season 3 of Discovery first, and then move on to Section 31,” Yeoh told Newsweek. [Note: while Yeoh called the series Section 31, it’s unclear whether that’s the actual title, shorthand, or a working title.] “Section 31 will be more fun—less intense and more fun-driven. Visiting more planets. Going around rescuing people in our own way,” she added.
Yeoh says her “deliciously evil” character will be very different from either of Georgiou’s two previous incarnations. “With Section 31, the Emperor started to bloom again,” Yeoh said, describing one the most interesting character arcs in Star Trek history.
Evil doubles have been a Star Trek staple since The Original Series episode “The Enemy Within” split Captain Kirk into evil and good versions after a transporter accident. But the series found its most enduring metaphor for the dualism of human nature and possibility in The Original Series Season 2 episode “Mirror, Mirror,” which introduced a morally inverted parallel dimension, where the utopian and inclusive United Federation of Planets has been replaced with the xenophobic and authoritarian Terran Empire.
While Spock’s goateed doppelganger set the template for evil doubles from parallel dimensions, never has a Mirror Universe character been as enduring and consequential as space emperor Philippa Georgiou Augustus Iaponius Centarius (since deposed), played by Yeoh as the devious opposite of her Federation version, Captain Georgiou of the USS Shenzhou, who died in Star Trek: Discovery‘s two-part pilot.
“I thank my writers every day,” Yeoh said. “The writers who dreamt up this character of Captain Philippa Georgiou. She’s such a regal, heroic mentor that everyone wanted to learn from and be with. When she died in Episode 2, I had trekkies who would come up to me and be like, ‘Why would you let them kill you?!'”
Yeoh is back as the Mirror Universe Georgiou in Season 2, hiding in the prime Star Trek slice of reality as her dead Federation counterpart and using all her guile to acquire power once more. Teamed up with the amoral Section 31, Georgiou has once again insinuated herself into the galaxy’s most consequential circles of power. But while her previous job as galactic warlord and genocidaire might suggest Georgiou would be built up as an arch-villain, the events of Season 2 have brought out her humanity and blithe lust for life.
Yeoh has now played two versions of Georgiou, first a crackerjack Starfleet captain, later an evil Mirror Universe emperor, allowing her to build two different characters. In her first incarnation, Georgiou is a mentor to Starfleet officer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), a human raised by Vulcans. “In Season 1, Georgiou is trying to instill humanity in Michael Burnham. You can feel all these emotions—love, compassion—and use them, rather than feeling like she should be a Vulcan devoid of emotions. It took her like seven years to break down the egg shell around Michael Burnham. But she got there,” Yeoh told Newsweek.
But Emperor Georgiou doesn’t care about love and compassion, at least at first. “Because of Michael Burnham she’s dragged into this universe where everybody is so lame (as far as she’s concerned),” Yeoh said. “She’s thinking of how she’s going to take over this place from that weakling Leland (Alan van Sprang). That’s ingrained in her from the Mirror Universe. You have to be the best one. You have to take it over. You have to play these mind games.”
There’s evidence that Georgiou’s cutthroat mentality is beginning to change. While the deposed Emperor Georgiou brought the drive to dominate and take power over from the Mirror Universe, she’s learning it’s not always the best way to succeed in the Federation. In a neat inversion, it’s now Burnham teaching the ruthless warlord from another dimension the utility in teamwork and trust.
“Who is the real mother here? It’s almost like here you can see that Michael Burnham is trying her very best to instill the human side. Not everything can be going in and shooting a missile into the planet,” Yeoh said. “So she’s come around to understanding that if I don’t kill first and ask questions later, we can sit around and think about it a bit more.”
During the course of the season, Section 31 is slowly infiltrated by a manipulative artificial intelligence, underscoring the chaos caused by predatory competition and the need to trust in each other’s humanity. Over the course of Discovery‘s second season, Georgiou has transformed into a hybrid of her evil and good versions, making her a perfect leader for the morally dubious organization which believes itself empowered to violated Federation ethics in order to preserve the alliance of planets.
The season so far has given a good indication of what Yeoh’s character may be like in the Section 31 series, though, as Yeoh points out, “there’s this nicer, gentler side, but you never know when she’s going to switch around again.”