Star Trek: Discovery’s Sonequa Martin-Green on the Past and Future of Michael Burnham

Exclusive: Star Trek: Discovery star Sonequa Martin-Green reflects on the wild story of Michael Burnham, including her thoughts on the character's post-Discovery future.

Sonequa Martin-Green
Photo: Nick Morgulis for Den of Geek

“Between season 1 and season 5 is an entire life.” That’s a real understatement on the part of Sonequa Martin-Green in an interview with Den of Geek magazine, describing the five-season and seven-year journey of her character Michael Burnham, the protagonist of Star Trek: Discovery.

When we first met Burnham way back in 2017, she was the first officer on the USS Shenzhou, a Starfleet ship operating about a decade before the events of The Original Series, and under the command of Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh). By the end of the two-part premiere, Georgiou was dead and Burnham was in prison for mutiny.

Things have certainly changed since then. We begin Discovery‘s fifth and final season with Captain Michael Burnham of the USS Discovery, but adventuring over 900 years after the events of the premiere. Yeah, it’s been a wild journey, one that incurred more than a little criticism early on for its break from traditional Star Trek storytelling. But it’s also a journey that’s resulted in one of the most unique characters in Star Trek history.

The Early Voyages of Michael Burnham

Rewatching season one of Discovery, it’s clear that Burnham was always designed to be a different type of Trek protagonist. Unlike the previous shows, early Discovery focused less on the ensemble and more on Burnham herself. Moreover, Burnham wasn’t the captain of a ship, but rather an officer with a checkered past, serving under Georgiou, then the Mirror Universe escapee Gabriel Lorca (hello to Jason Isaacs), and then Enterprise Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount), not taking official command until the series’ third season.

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That unusual journey meant Burnham had to regularly adapt to wildly different settings and a few status-quo shattering plot twists, including the show’s jump to the 32nd century between seasons two and three, while still remaining a consistent character.

When asked how she managed to pull off that tricky acting challenge, Martin-Green gives the most Star Trek answer possible. “It’s the company. It’s the crew and the cast,” she tells Den of Geek at SXSW 2024. “All of those things help keep Burnham consistent. I don’t maintain that consistency in a vacuum. I have a lot of people to be grateful for it.”

Those people include executive producers Alex Kurtzman and Michelle Paradise, the latter of whom joined the series toward the end of the second season, after the series lost three previous showrunners, and helped shepherd Discovery‘s new status quo in the 32nd century. While sitting next to Kurtzman, Paradise, and David Ajala (Book) during the interview at SXSW, Martin-Green says, “The truth of the matter, I praise God for everyone I’m sitting at this couch with.”

Michael Burnham of the 32nd Century

One of the biggest developments with Burnham involved her connection with Cleveland Booker (Ajala), a roguish smuggler whom she befriended during her first year in the 32nd century, before the Discovery made it through the time warp to join her in season three.

It’s apparent during our chat with them at SXSW, as they laugh and reminisce about their three seasons working together, that Martin-Green and Ajala have become great friends in real-life. Together, they excitedly tease a specific episode in the upcoming season “where Michael Burnham has to do some soul-searching and character unpacking.” Those are Ajala’s words as he describes how “glorious” it was to play that episode opposite Martin-Green. “It was a joy working with you too with that one,” she replies in a heartwarming moment with her co-star.

But as much as we’ve learned about Burnham and Book over the last few years, there’s actually still a piece of their story missing: what adventures did they get up to in the year between Burnham’s arrival in the 32nd century and her reunion with the crew of the Discovery? When Den of Geek magazine asks Martin-Green about that backstory, the actor reveals she actually knows the details.

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“I will tell you: I created an entire timeline for myself for that year of everything that Burnham and Book did. What was this big thing that happened month three? What’s this big thing that happened seven months in?”

With the help of not only Burnham and Book’s partnership, but also Saru (Doug Jones), Tilly (Mary Wiseman), Stamets (Anthony Rapp), Culber (Wilson Cruz), and the rest of the crew, Discovery has gone through a clear evolution over its five seasons. What began as an odd-ball solo adventure (original Discovery creator Bryan Fuller imagined the show as an anthology, with each season exploring another part of Star Trek lore) has transformed into a true ensemble.

No, it may not look like other Trek ensembles. Although Paradise assures Den of Geek that she and her co-creators “love our bridge crew,” it remains to be seen how much attention characters such as Owosekun (Oyin Oladejo) and Rhys (Patrick Kwok-Choon) will get in the final season. But Burnham is very much part of a community now.

“Season 1, you found me and everyone else kind of grappling under the pressure of the franchise and wanting to do it justice and wanting to make everybody proud,” Martin-Green recalls when Den of Geek magazine asks her what she feels is the biggest difference between her first year and her last on the show. “And then, we came to season 5 not knowing it would be our last season. And yet, we came to this knowing and understanding who we are. I think that journey comes with freedom, and actualization, and leads to better creativity. In season 5, we’re a fully formed found family.”

Bringing Michael Burnham Home

That sense of comfort and family that Martin-Green describes leads to an openness that has served Discovery well in its last three seasons. By going to the 32nd century, Discovery has pushed Star Trek further in the timeline than any other entry in the franchise. That undiscovered country has given them plenty of room to play around, introducing concepts such as Ni’Var, the renamed planet Vulcan now inhabited by reunified Vulcans and Romulans, and the Orion and Andorian crime syndicate the Emerald Chain, which enters into a treaty with the flagging Federation of the future.

The final season of Discovery will take full advantage of that playfulness, with Paradise promising a “treasure hunt” full of adventure and a lighter tone.

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But what does this mean for Burnham herself? We know that Trek won’t leave the 32nd century yet, with a Starfleet Academy series now in production. And the Mirror Universe equivalent of Burnham’s old CO Philippa Georgiou will return in the upcoming Section 31 TV movie. Are there plans for a new Burnham adventure after Discovery?

Martin-Green doesn’t let any news slip, but it’s clear that she has thoughts on her character’s future. When we ask her whether she’d be interested in continuing Burnham’s adventures on the page, the actor jumps on the idea.

“Well, I’ll just say I wouldn’t be opposed! Anything is possible,” she says. To be sure, past Trek characters have lived long and eventful lives in non-canonical novels, comics, and video games. In fact, sometimes the actors who played those Trek characters come back to write some of those adventures, such as the acclaimed Garak novel A Stitch in Time by Andrew Robinson and the… uh, interesting post-Star Trek: Generations Kirk novels written by William Shatner.

“We’ve seen that anything is possible in this franchise,” Martin-Green continues. “Of course, anything [more about Burnham and Discovery] would need to be earned, but it is possible.”

Exciting as the idea is, Martin-Green isn’t getting ahead of herself. “But, for now, I have to applaud our showrunner, Michelle Paradise, and the writers. Because they created that addendum shoot that we did after we found out that this was going to be the end. That piece that is added at the end — I don’t know how it’s so conclusive — but it’s conclusive in the richest way. Maybe the better way to say it is that it’s honorable. It’s an honorable end.”

An honorable end is a fitting end for Michael Burnham, a character who started out getting in trouble because of her knowledge of Klingons and ended up rebuilding the Federation in the 32nd century. That is an entire life, and a good one at that.

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Star Trek: Discovery season 5 premieres on April 4 on Paramount+.