The story of Star Trek: Discovery might seem like it's about intergalactic mysteries and stressful time paradoxes, but since its debut in 2017, the story truly orbits the heart and soul of Commander Michael Burnham, played boldly by Sonequa Martin-Green.
Like all the leading Trek actors before her, Martin-Green shoulders a responsibility somewhere close to the elusive mass of dark matter. This is a Star Trek series, but it's also a serialized show about a woman finding her place in the universe. Luckily for viewers, Martin-Green carries Discovery with a combination of steely logic and effusive love. In Discovery's Season 2 finale, Spock (Ethan Peck) tells Burnham that she is his "balance," which is exactly what Martin-Green brings to the character of Burnham. She's a fantastic inspiration for what we all could be like in the future, but she's a flawed, real human being, too.
SYFY WIRE caught up with Sonequa Martin-Green just before the finale of Star Trek: Discovery's second season, "Such Sweet Sorrow, Part 2." The celebrated actress revealed her feelings when she first joined Trek, why she was relieved by the addition of Captain Pike and Spock, and why the forthcoming Season 3 of Discovery presents itself as a "blank slate."
**Spoiler alert: There are spoilers ahead for the Season 2 finale of Star Trek: Discovery; "Such Sweet Sorrow."**
Before we knew who Michael Burnham was in Star Trek: Discovery, the advance publicity told us she was already part of the family. While Season 1 of Discovery established that Burnham was adopted by Spock's parents — Sarek and Amanda Grayson — it wasn't until this season that we learned what it was really like to be Spock's sister. Emotionally, Martin-Green says that the scenes between her and Ethan Peck required careful and specific attention. That, in turn, meant sometimes asking the writing staff for changes.
"There were times I asked for subtle changes, and everyone would always listen. But then we would get new ideas, it would spark new conversations," Martin-Green told SYFY WIRE. "There were a lot of conversations about Burnham and Spock and how Ethan [Peck] and I told the story of those moments. Both Ethan and I both were pretty passionate that these moments needed to be allowed to breathe. Especially the forgiveness moment, which is huge. That is something we discussed, and that breath was allowed. And I really think it let the moment sing."
As both seasons of Star Trek: Discovery have proven, Michael Burnham is more than just Spock's secret sister, and the series is more than just a collection of references to existing Trek lore. With Season 2, Discovery doubled down on old-school Trek elements, most obviously with the addition of Captain Pike and Spock to the regular story. Martin-Green said that when she learned about the changes for Season 2 she was thrilled, partly because it helped solve certain "challenges" Discovery constantly faced.
"It gave me a sense of comfort. We were in such a precarious position since the inception of our show because we have to be new and yet familiar at the same time," she said. "We happen 10 years before TOS, which was a decision Bryan Fuller made, and Alex Kurtzman as well. So, because we're right there, you have to see the canon. But you have to see more than just easter eggs in order to be firmly connected to TOS, in my opinion. So, knowing they were going to coming [Pike and Spock], I celebrated it. I knew it would be encouraging for people to see that constant reminder of where we stand in the canon. Especially because of the way these characters were weaved in. It wasn't just fan service."
In terms of the vast canon, Martin-Green admitted she was "overly ambitious" when she first took on the role. These days, she drops references to future historical dates with confidence and mentions watching episodes of everything from Star Trek: Voyager to The Next Generation, to slowly make her way through "every iteration" of Star Trek. Throughout Season 2 of Discovery, a rogue A.I. called Control is hell-bent on downloading a bunch of data to suddenly give itself an edge. In reality, there was a time when Sonequa Martin-Green thought she could download the whole of Trek canon, quickly, too.
"In the very beginning, I thought I was going to be able to take in everything in a very short period of time. And I just was not able to do it. I realized I had to relax into it and not force this material. I had to realize that as long as I'm telling this story I'm going to be learning about it. And there's always going to be more I can learn about this universe," Martin-Green said.
"I told myself that it was going to take me time to get through every iteration of this show. And the movies. I want to read all the books! But that's going to take me a long time, and I have to be okay with that," she continued. "But there's a degree of urgency, where I need to get what I need for the moment at hand. I love that the work never ends and there's more for me to learn. I wasn't a Trekkie as a child, so I have some catching up, and I'm still catching up."
Martin-Green may not think she knows a ton about Trek canon, but in talking with the actress, it's clear she's internalized more than perhaps even she realizes. And she certainly is aware that though there have been few hints about the 33rd century in Star Trek: Voyager, the next destination for the USS Discovery is, essentially, uncharted territory for Star Trek.
In the Season 2 finale, the crew of the Discovery succeed in their plan to take the ship and its precious Sphere Data as far into the future as possible. The episode ends in the relative "present" with Spock and Pike and the crew of the Enterprise contemplating the fate of Michael Burnham and the crew of the Discovery. But Martin-Green knows where she and her shipmates have ended up. The actress confirms that the next season of Discovery is 100 percent set in a new future timeline, one that Trek has never fully explored.
"You hear me say, you hear all of us say, several times, that we're going 950 years into the future. We've only seen glimpses of anything in the future in Star Trek canon," Martin-Green revealed. "So automatically, that tells you this is new territory, that we are going boldly where no one has gone before. It has to be new. It has to be a world we've never seen before, a world that has to be established. It's the perfect way to define us, because we are new yet familiar. So, when you have us in this world, we are still who we are, coming from 2256. That's never going to change. You have all of that history and canon context. But now you have us in this brand-new world. It's almost poetic."
Star Trek: Discovery Season 2 is now streaming in its entirety on CBS All Access. Season 3 will debut sometime in 2020.