Published May 9, 2023
A Tale of Two Mothers: Lwaxana Troi and Gabrielle Burnham
Both want the best for their daughters, but have very different ways of seeing through their goal.
By Maggie Hendricks
“I just want what’s best for you!”
Lwaxana Troi’s oft-repeated phrase to Star Trek: The Next Generation counselor Deanna Troi echoes what so many mothers say to their daughters. When Lwaxana arrives on the U.S.S. Enterprise-D, she towers over not just her daughter, but life on the starship altogether.
Star Trek: Discovery handles motherhood differently with the appearance of Michael Burnham’s mother, Gabrielle. Her time with the Discovery was short — we spend far more time with Michael’s adoptive mother, Amanda — but her presence was so massive, so immediate, that Michael spent so much of her time and energy trying to find her.
Star Trek Mothers Know Best
In their own ways, Lwaxana and Gabrielle each hover over their daughters. While both younger women find themselves confounded by their mothers’ behaviors, the brilliance in the writing of both matriarchs is that they’re both motivated by the same thing — wanting the best for their daughters, no matter what century they find themselves in.
Lwaxana was always a strong presence in Deanna’s life, sometimes bordering on overbearing. In “Haven,” she’s the very stereotype of a pushy mother who just wants her daughter to meet the “right” kind of person for marriage. Everything about Lwaxana, from her brash red outfit to the way she jumps onto the screen, reveals that this is a woman who needs to be the center of attention. Deanna pushes back over the course of the episode, yelling at her mother at perhaps the most awkward Star Trek dinner party (that I wished I could have attended). From the beginning, the mother-daughter duo is at odds.
But even as Lwaxana is domineering, tacky, and clearly embarrassing to her daughter, she genuinely wants what she thinks is best for Deanna. Because her own diplomatic life didn’t start until after she was married and Deanna was an adult, Lwaxana doesn't understand why her daughter's life on the Enterprise and career in Starfleet means so much to her — a nice parallel to the budding Gen-X career women who may have been butting heads with their baby boomer mothers at around the same time. To Lwaxana, Deanna’s choice to have a career made no more sense than the Miller family wanting an Earth-style ceremony for Deanna and Wyatt’s wedding.
Over time, their relationship matured. Lwaxana still wanted Deanna to get married, of course, and her pushiness was a source of stress for the Enterprise’s counselor. But Lwaxana, finally over the death of Deanna’s father, wants to find love for herself. Lwaxana’s crush on Captain Picard — and the holodeck bartender — brings comic relief but there’s a deeper need behind the jokes. She’s lonely. When Deanna understands this, she starts to look at her mother in a different way.
Their relationship hits its apex in “Dark Page,” when Deanna learns she had a sister, Kestra, who died in a tragic accident. Lwaxana kept this painful information from Deanna her entire life. Seen in the light of losing Kestra, Lwaxana’s helicoptering ways make much more sense.
Through it all, Lwaxana simply wants her daughter to be happy and healthy, and as Deanna’s mother, she thinks she is the only person who knows how to make that happen. She falls back instinctively on what she knows made her happy, being a wife and a mother, assuming that it will do the same for her daughter. But for Deanna, her mother’s pressure is stressful; exhausting, even. But every comment, every prod, every man she suggests to Deanna is because she loves her daughter.
Gabrielle and Michael Burnham’s relationship is wildly different than that of Deanna and Lwaxana’s. The irony that both of the women who will go on to don the Red Angel suit also share names with angels isn’t lost on viewers, particularly as Michael spent most of her life thinking her mother was dead. In reality, Gabrielle was trapped in a hellish, vortex of time travel she was unable to stop. The mother and daughter barely knew each other as a result, and they don’t interact in the familiar way the Trois do. In fact, they barely interact at all.
But even though Michael hadn't realized it, Gabrielle was always present. She witnessed every important moment in her daughter’s life — from the moment she thought she was fleeing just a short step back in time to save her family from the Klingons — Gabrielle managed to be there.
Yet, Gabrielle isn’t worried by anything as trivial as her daughter’s future maternal happiness. Her time spent hurtling through the space time continuum hardened her in a way that even the tragedies in Lwaxana’s life couldn’t. Gabrielle knows Michael is capable of being more than simply an officer in Starfleet. She pushes her child not into marriage and children, but to logic and academic pursuits. Her standoffishness is built on the knowledge of what the universe can do, and the universe may not be done with Michael yet. Between losing Gabrielle again and taking her own turn as the Red Angel, Michael has to endure more trauma. She will have to figure out how to handle it without Gabrielle’s help. Will it harden her?
These two mothers couldn’t be more different. As empaths, Lwaxana and Deanna both walk through life with the ability to talk to each other without speaking, and know what people are feeling without saying a word. Gabrielle and Michael base their lives in science and logic. Even when science treats Gabrielle like a rag doll, pulling her through space on a whim, they trust the technology.
But as mothers, Lwaxana and Gabrielle find themselves motivated by the same thing — love. Gabrielle isn’t touchy feely. Lwaxana doesn’t open herself up. Both have a maternal love for their daughters, though, that makes them sacrifice everything to make sure the daughters live, and maybe even find happiness.
This article was originally published on May 9, 2019.