Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Star Trek Captain Philippa Georgiou Malaysian connection

Michelle Yeoh on the cover of Entertainment Weekly magazine as Captain Philippa Georgiou.
When the latest incarnation of Star Trek launched last September, Star Trek Discovery certainly sent where no Malaysian has gone before. That being Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh stepping onto a Federation starship as Captain Philippa Georgiou. More politely addressed as Tan Sri Dato' Seri Michelle Yeoh within Malaysia by her honorific titles received by royalty, she is widely known internationally for her prowess in martial arts action movies such as Hong Kong's Police Story 3 (1992) starring alongside Jackie Chan, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) with Chun Yun Fat. She has also been a Bond Girl in 1997's Tomorrow Never Dies and other western film productions like Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), The Mummy Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008) and Luc Besson's biopic The Lady (2011) as  Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Prior to Star Trek, Michelle Yeoh's geek pop culture contributions include Babylon A.D. (2008) with Vin Diesel and more recently a surprise cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017).

Interview of Michelle Yeoh on her role as Captain Georgiou.

Michelle Yeoh's stint on Star Trek Discovery began in the pilot episode "The Vulcan Hello" as Captain of the USS Shenzhou in the year 2256, approximately 10 years before Star Trek The Original Series (TOS). As Philippa Georgiou, she is a highly decorated Starfleet officer and mentor for the last 7 years to Lt. Commander Michael Burnham, the new series lead character as portrayed by Sonequa Martin-Green of The Walking Dead fame. Although human, Burnham was raised on Vulcan under tutelage of Ambassador Sarek, father of the infamous Mr Spock. The relationship between Georgiou and Burnham on the Shenzhou is much like surrogate mother to daughter with the Captain nurturing the younger officer's humanity from Vulcan stoicism and instilling Federation ideals.

On the bridge of the USS Shenzhou (left to right): Saru (Doug Jones), Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and Phillipa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh).

Michelle Yeoh has infused her character with cultural elements outside the typical American mold of television. Most notably of which she does not speak English with an American accent as would have most principal cast of US productions. Whilst most Malaysian and Asian viewers are quite used to her accent and tone inflections, indeed it is uncommon for American viewers to hear foreign accents outside stereotypical racial roles. Hence it became a statement on Star Trek progressiveness in television for its equality and inclusiveness, a theme that has resounded since TOS first aired over 50 years ago with a racially diverse principal cast. Read more about netizens initial reaction of her accent on; side observation on our part that some Americans have difficulty understanding English spoken outside their native accents.

A Wayang Kulit puppet seen on Captain Georgiou's ready room.
The producers of Star Trek Discovery have subtly included cultural references of Georgiou's Asian heritage. Although us Malaysians here have probably yet to encounter anyone local with such a surname, perhaps that will change in another 200 years. Months ago, screenshots of Captain Georgiou's ready room / office on the starship Shenzhou highlighted a Wayang Kulit puppet in the background (see picture above). Wayang Kulit is a traditional puppet shadow-play originating from southeast asia. Whilst widely known by Malaysians, the traditional performance is now a diminishing art form amongst younger generations. Find out more about how the artists at Fusion Wayang Kulit (FWK) are infusing modern pop culture into this traditional art to revive interest for the current generation.

In the latest Star Trek Discovery episode and season one finale "Will You Take My Hand?", Michael Burnham asks Philippa Georgiou of her homeland. In reply Captain Georgiou replies that he grew up in Malaysia.

Upon further probing by Burnham, she more specifically pinpoints Pulau Langkawi, translated to English as Langkawi island. In response Burnham mentions of "beautiful beaches".

In what would likely be seen as a few throwaway lines elsewhere in the world, these mentions of Malaysia and Langkawi has certainly gotten Malaysians buzzing on social media. Considering that western entertainment media typically references locations that more widely known to American audiences, e.g. New York, San Francisco, London, etc., hearing not just one but two references associated to our country in an established sci-fi franchises like Star Trek clearly resounded in many Malaysians. Here are some reactions to our Instagram photo posted yesterday and shared to Facebook:

Response by Malaysian Trekkies on Facebook Group Starbase MY - Star Trek Fans Malaysia.

We have no inkling on whether dear Tan Sri Yeoh influenced selection of Pulau Langkawi entering Star Trek canon, although Georgiou's association with Malaysia had been unofficially hinted some time ago on Trek chatter. Since Michelle Yeoh's actual hometown is Ipoh, perhaps Langkawi simply served better as an exotic sounding name that had more syllables. Indeed it could have been spoken as "Langkawi island" instead of "Pulau Langkawi", noting that most of Star Trek's audience do not speak the Malay language and therefore would not read "pulau" as "island". Nevertheless with Burnham's mention of "beautiful beaches" it does help serve as somewhat of a tourism plug for Langkawi.

For our readers elsewhere in the world, Malaysia is a tropical country in southeast asia just north of the equator. West Malaysia comprises a peninsula stretching between Thailand and Singapore, whilst East Malaysia spans along the northern shores of Borneo island. Total land area of Malaysia is 330,803 sqkm, roughly 13% smaller than Japan.

Langkawi is an island just off the northwest coast of peninsula Malaysia bordering Thailand. It measures 478 sqkm, approximately two-thirds the size of Singapore. As an island resort, Langkawi does offer "beautiful beaches" associated with island attractions and geoforest parks. Direct access to the island by air is provided via an international airport, and good for travel most times of the year from sunny tropical weather. Discover more about Langkawi from the official tourism website.

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These are not actually the first time Malaysia has been mentioned in Star Trek, but the third. The first was way back in year 2000 in the seventh season of Star Trek Voyager on an episode titled "Inside Man". As a member of Project Pathfinder, Lieutenant Reginald Barclay (a recurring Starfleet character played by Dwight Schultz) was experiencing transmission problems sending his hologram to the USS Voyager stranded in the Delta Quadrant. His apparent obsessive paranoid soon annoys his supervising officer who then tell Reg to take a leave of absence and offered use of his cousin's beach house in Malaysia during that time off. It seems even 18 years ago Malaysia was somewhat associated to "beautiful beaches", which is most certainly true in the current 21st century.

Reginald Barclay (right) offered to take a vacation on the beach in Malaysia during Voyager's episode "Inside Man".
 The next mention of Malaysia came two years later in Star Trek Enterprise during the middle of the series first season in the episode titled "Silent Enemy". In this instance, Captain Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula of "Quantum Leap" fame) had requested Ensign Hoshi Sato (Linda Park) to track down the parents of his tactical officer Malcolm Reed (Dominic Keating). After locating them, Hoshi inform Archer that Reed's parents are located in Kota Baharu, Malaysia. Again for those not familiar with Malaysia, Kota Bahru (correctly spelt) is capital city for the northeastern state of Kelantan in West Malaysia. In today's day and age, this city of 300,000 people does not come to mind as a first choice for western expatriates to make home; Reed's parents seem to hail from England. Perhaps in 150 years later (of which Star Trek Enterprise takes place), Malaysia's My Second Home (MM2H) Programme has effectively attracted nationals from all over the world for long-term residence / retirement in our outlying cities and "beautiful beaches".

Ensign Hoshi Sato (Linda Park) informs Captain Archer (Scott Bakula) on the whereabouts of a colleague's parents in the Star Trek Enterprise episode "Silent Enemy".
Find all the references of Malaysia in Star Trek at Memory Alpha powered by Wikia.

START SPOILERS, beware reading further if you have yet to watch any episodes of Star Trek Discovery.

Avid followers of the series would be well aware that the Philippa Georgiou in this final episode is not the same version of the person starting the series. The original Captain Georgiou (also played by Michelle Yeoh) was killed by Klingons at the end of the series pilot in episode two "Battle at the Binary Stars". Michael Burnham bears the guilt of being unable to save her Captain or bring back her body (which was subsequently eaten; gross!).

Philippa Georgiou & Michael Burnham face off against Klingons in Episode 2 "Battle at the Binary Stars".

In true scifi fashion, Philippa Georgiou returns to Burnham and the Discovery, albeit another version from the Mirror Universe. This Georgiou is far from the compassionate nurturing mother-figure of the Prime Universe, but a ruthless dictator of the Terran Empire. Burnham saves the Terran Georgiou from certain death and brings her over to the Prime Universe. Through desperation on the losing side of the war with Klingons, Terran Georgiou in this final episode "Will You Take My Hand?" is appointed by Starfleet Command to take guise as the Prime Universe Georgiou to Captain the Discovery on a critical mission to end the war.

Here's the actual scene from the Episode "Will You Take My Hand?".

So in this context, viewers know that Burnham is testing Terran Georgiou on her guise as Prime Georgiou in front of the bridge crew. Therefore it could be said that Georgiou's replies may reflect the Terran counterpart instead of the Prime version. However, Burnham did not openly challenge her replies so it could be surmised both Malaysia and Langkawi may be consistent to the origins of the Prime Georgiou. And surely such background information should be readily available from Starfleet service records that Terran Georgiou would have studied prior to her assuming guise of Prime Georgiou.

Terran Georgiou posing as the Prime Georgiou on covert mission in the season finale.
As the episode plays out, we can be somewhat relieved that this Georgiou survives the season, albeit departing from the crew of the USS Discovery. It certainly leaves ample room for callback of Tan Sri Michelle Yeoh to reprise Georgiou in later seasons of Star Trek Discovery. And we will wait and see whether more Federation idealism rubs into Terran Georgiou steering her towards who was the Prime Georgiou. Though it was a fun ride watching the "evil" side of Michelle Yeoh as the Terrain Emperor since we are more used to seeing her in heroic character roles.


Another series on Netflix featuring Michelle Yeoh is Marco Polo. She portrays a martial arts warrior named Lotus in Season 2. This mega-budget series inspired from Marco Polo's journey in China during the rule of Kublai Khan was actually filmed in Malaysia at Pinewood Studios, Iskandar Johor. The production value is very impressive.

Whilst Philippa Georgiou's martial arts prowess was somewhat limited in Star Trek Discovery (why use swords when phasers are available), classic Michelle Yeoh kung fu action is part of Marco Polo:

For more out-of-this-world fantastical martial arts, watch the official sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon also available on Netflix titled Sword of Destiny. It also stars Donnie Yen and directed by Wo-Ping Yuen. Unlike the first movie, Sword of Destiny is in English as a Netflix Original Film.

Back to Star Trek, check out our resident Vulcan Mr Smock and Malaysian Trekkies Mr Enginer and Mr Thomas reviewing the finale episode and this first season of Star Trek Discovery:

Watch this video till the end as Smock will explain how to win a Netflix tote bag and complimentary subscription thanks to the nice people at Netflix. Help share this blog post as well and follow to get our latest posts as soon as they are transmitted.

Netflix goodies to giveaway. Watch our video review to find out how.
The entire first season of Star Trek Discovery is now streaming on Netflix and available to binge-watch at your leisure. Netflix also offers the entire Star Trek saga comprising over 700 episodes including the above-mentioned ones with references of Malaysia. Read out previous blog post that revealed the most popular Star Trek episodes watched by Netflix viewers. Also check out our rundown of Star Trek Discovery back when the series was just launched.

To connect with Malaysian Star Trek Fans, join the Facebook Group Starbase MY - Star Trek Fans Malaysia.


Disclaimer: Star Trek and other trademarks are copyright to CBS and/or Paramount, referenced here for fan service announcements without intent to infringe. 


  1. I have never seen this TV show ever,. But that doesnot meen I am not fan of sci-fi movies. I love to watch sci-fi movies and watch Star track movies. Recently I am waiting for the new sci-fi movie Rampage. I am so excited to watch rampage online full movie.


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