Star Trek: Discovery’s Sonequa Martin-Green On Burnham’s Path to Captain

Star Trek's Michael Burnham is poised to lead the Discovery in Season 4, but what kind of captain will she be?

Sonequa Martin-Green as Captain Michael Burnham in Star Trek: Discovery
Photo: CBS

Sonequa Martin-Green’s Michael Burnham took over the captain’s chair in the Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 finale, securing her place in the pantheon of Star Trek captains as the show moves towards Season 4. The moment was a long time coming. Discovery was the first Star Trek show to give us a lead character who wasn’t also the official leader of a ship or space station and, while Star Trek has always been an ensemble show, there’s pop cultural power in the role of a Starfleet captain or commander. As part of the press tour for Space Jam: A New Legacy, in which Martin-Green plays Kamiyah James, Den of Geek had a chance to talk to the actress about what kind of captain Burnham will be.

“It’s such a blessing to me to play someone like Michael Burnham,” says Martin-Green, who sees Michael’s long journey to captain as one of the show’s strengths. “I think that being able to see this woman grow into the captaincy is what’s really special and different of course, than other captains.”

While Burnham’s three-season path to the captain’s chair may differ from the viewers’ relationships to Kirk, Picard, Sisko, and Janeway—all of whom started their Star Trek journeys either as captain/commander, or in the process of assuming the role—there is one important quality Martin-Green says Burnham shares with the Star Trek captains who have come before.

“I think something that is a common denominator with the captains in the franchise’s history [is] that sacrificial leadership,” notes Martin-Green. “It’s so important. You have to be willing to lay your life down. That’s something that is shared across the board with all the captains and with the characters that aren’t captains also.” 

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Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 was filmed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Season 4, which is currently filming and slated to finish production in August or September, was delayed due to the global health crisis. The new world context is obviously on Martin-Green’s mind when she further contextualizes the Captain Burnham character.

“[Michael Burnham] is brilliant and a genius,” continues Martin-Green. “One of the smartest in the room and all of that good stuff, but [she’s] also sacrificial. To be a woman of honor it actually floors me when I really think about it. It’s like, if you really contemplate what that must mean to be a person to be ready and willing to lay down your life much like the essential workers in this global pandemic. That is a different type of person who is just willing to die or for anyone, not just their child or their spouse or their sibling or their parent, but somebody you don’t know, or somebody you just met or whatever, that there is just something to be said about a person like that.”

Burnham has always been a character who is willing to lay down her life to protect others, but it will be interesting to see how that instinct is challenged when she has an entire crew to lead as captain. Much of Season 3 explored Burnham’s tendency to go rogue in order to do what she felt was right, as well as the limits and consequences of that action. But what does going rogue look like when you have an entire crew who follows your orders? What does sacrifice look like when it’s not your own life on the line, but one of your crew members? These are far from unexamined themes in the Star Trek franchise, but we’ve never had a captain quite like Michael Burnham with which to explore them. Hopefully, Season 4 does that process justice.