Star Trek has had its fair share of noteworthy captains on the bridge over the years. The likes of Kirk, Picard, and Janeway have all become pop culture icons. In Star Trek Discovery’s fourth season, it’s Michael Burnham’s turn to boldly go and take a seat in the captain’s chair. It’s been a long time coming, too, with Burnham having navigated both the Mirror Universe and the far-flung 32nd Century in various smaller roles on the Discovery – and getting more than one slap on the wrist by Starfleet in the process.
Ahead of Paramount Plus’ UK launch – the new streaming service which features all four seasons of Star Trek Discovery – we sat down with Burnham’s actor Sonequa Martin-Green in London to look back at the fourth season’s biggest moments. Alongside her landmark moment (Martin-Green became the first Black female lead to play a Star Trek captain in a live-action series), she touches on the importance of being a "fallible" captain, standing on the shoulders of those who came before, a bittersweet farewell, and setting up an "invigorating" fifth season.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity. Some Star Trek Discovery season 4 spoilers follow.
GR: The big thing for season 4 is Michael becoming captain. What was that step up for you like both as an actor and for the character? Did you look to past captains for inspiration or where you more intent on blazing your own path and being the first Michael Burnham, the first Sonequa Martin-Green?
Sonequa Martin-Green: I wasn’t a Trekkie when we started. So, I had to dive into the deep end of the franchise and I loved it. I wanted to be a sponge and so I did that. I took to so many people, and I stand on a lot of shoulders – and I’m very well aware of that.
Once I got into the actual story that was laid out before me, I was able to use that and let my imagination run free and go on the journey. You go with the flow, go with the ride.
I have so much respect for the writers: the way Burnham has grown, the way Burnham has matured, the way she has settled into who she is as a woman, first and foremost. Then as a member of the Federation, in Starfleet, then now as captain, it’s huge for me.
You mentioned Michael growing. What did you learn about Burnham this season? As an actor, four seasons in, you might feel quite comfortable, and you know all sides of her – but maybe that’s not the case?
It’s a little bit of both, right? There has been so much reinvention with our show season-to-season and with every character, that’s one of the things I love most about our iteration: we are all continuing to become who we are and you are watching it in real time.
I am, as Burnham, so completely different than I was at the beginning. That’s exciting, challenging, and fulfilling as an actor. Then, at the same time, I know who I am as Burnham in my heart – but I’m also getting to change.
There has been a great deal of change and maturation, and character development, a lot of falling forward. And I love how we've been able to see that I love being able to see that in practice as well, especially as a Black woman.
What would you say was Michael’s defining moment as captain? It can be a moment of strength or a moment of weakness – because she is fallible and that’s interesting to see in a captain.
It's important to see Black women be fallible, and be vulnerable, and make mistakes, and learn and grow from them. So often as Black women, we’re taught and conditioned to believe that there are no mistakes allowed. That just can’t be the case – because nothing teaches like failure.
I think, for Burnham, there was a journey towards the chair in Burnham’s mind from the very beginning. What I had to do over the course of the story was the ‘if you love something, set it free’ [mentality]. I set that dream of being captain free somewhere around season two, and then had to come back to it. But when I came back to it, it was all the more genuine and authentic.
What you see in season four is that Burnham has to learn how to be a captain. And what does that mean? And how do I apply everything that I've learned? How do I apply all of these lessons and all of this wisdom? How do I lead from the middle out? How do I make people feel valued? So there's a lot of growing that still is happening.
One of my favourite moments in season four is a really low-key one in episode four where Tilly [Mary Wiseman] leaves the ship. How do you think it was handled? Because you see these big departures in shows and it’s always very tragic. But this was melancholy and quite sweet.
Thank you for acknowledging that moment and acknowledging Mary, she’s utterly brilliant. I loved that moment too, it’s one of my favourites. The Burnham/Tilly moments tend to be my favourites, those really special, quiet moments that characters have with each other – those just sing to me.
[Co-showrunner] Alex Kurtzmann – he was quoting someone else – said, ‘Nobody remembers plot, they remember character’ and those end up being nearest and dearest to my heart too. I love how quiet it was and that it had a sweetness in the bittersweetness.
Season five has just started production. The show always throws curveballs like the Mirror Universe or the 32nd Century. Can we expect the unexpected? Does that track for the new season?
I think that’s a great phrase, I’m going to steal it. Expect the unexpected. I think that is exactly right. The three words I would use to describe season five are ‘refreshing, invigorating, and lovely.’
Star Trek never shies away from social commentary. Given all that we’ve been through these last couple of years, how does season four and five capture our moment and the zeitgeist?
The writers put a great deal of symbolism in season four for the pandemic and the time that we’re in. One of the biggest conflicts in season four is uncertainly. It’s an unpredictable threat that can’t really be known, keeps changing, and threatens life as we know it. How do we navigate that kind of uncertainty with those kinds of stakes? That’s very much what we’re dealing with as a people and in the world.
I appreciate the way they were able to funnel it into the story in a way where you still have to suspend your disbelief. We didn’t jump the shark or anything, but that symbolism is there, those parallels were there – and I appreciate that.
Star Trek is in such rude health. There’s Picard, Strange New Worlds, a potential new film on the way. Is there anywhere you’d like to see Discovery go where maybe it hasn’t gone before? Whether that’s high concept or very specific character episodes.
Now we have gone past every other Trek in terms of the timeline, I’m excited to continue this new future. I'm excited to see more technology [and] I'm excited to see more character development with our core, those characters that we’ve just come to love so much.
I just want to see more and more interactions with the crew of just the Discovery amongst themselves. I'm excited for more of that.
And more Tilly?
The Paramount Plus streaming service is now available in the UK. For more from Star Trek’s recent series, be sure to read our reviews of Star Trek Picard season 2 and the Star Trek: Strange New Worlds premiere.