It’s been a long time coming but Star Trek: Discovery is finally making its UK network TV debut on E4 on 15 December, and star Sonequa Martin-Green could not be more thrilled about the idea of new fans discovering the story of Michael Burnham and the crew. “It’s always so exciting when I think about new people coming to the show,” she enthuses. “I love that the idea of this legacy that we’re doing our best to continue with, I love the idea of it expanding further out and further out and further out. I just believe so much in the story that we’re telling and the truth that we represent, and so whenever more people can be exposed to it, I think it’s incredible.
We were able to grab some time with Martin-Green in between filming to look back at the show’s beginning, what helped her find the essence of Michael Burnham, and why fan theories are so much fun.
Do you remember how the show and Michael Burnham were first described to you?
Yes, so that was a really exciting time because what I heard first was that Star Trek would be coming back to TV, that it would be very different because it would be on a streaming platform and it would be serialised, and also I heard that they were looking for a black woman to be at the helm, and those three things were so stimulating to hear. So, I remember that first script and I remember talking to the producers at the time about where they were going with this and they wanted it to be a novel told in chapters, and it was going to be completely serialised which, there had been aspects of serialisation in other iterations but this was a completely different formula for Star Trek. And then also that it would be a little grittier and a little more raw simply by the fact that we remember what happened yesterday.
So, I was very excited, and I was fascinated with their vision to place the character of Michael Burnham in the family of Spock, Sarek and Amanda. Because of the time frame that our show is set in, we start out 10 years before the original series, we got to cross paths with the original series. And that was one of the most compelling things about Michael Burnham to me, that there was this black woman who was orphaned and then taken out of all that she knew, out of her environment and placed on Vulcan in the house of a Vulcan family and sort of forced to assimilate. And I thought that that was a very bold and quite brilliant decision.
So the childhood element was really important to finding the character?
Oh yes, definitely. It’s definitely one of the keys. I always rave about our writers and it’s really interesting and intriguing how we have this sort of character-driven story that is also a plot-driven story and those two things sort of weave together quite seamlessly I must say. For me, the nurturing that happens in childhood and adolescence is so important to a character and there are many cornerstones of Michael Burnham’s character but one of them is the fact that there are these conflicting ideologies of being human but being raised as a Vulcan, and as I said, being forced to assimilate and having to deny everything that is human in order to become something other and having that culture shock and trying to find your place.
That has everything to do with who Michael Burnham is and who I became as Michael Burnham, who I had become, there was so much overcoming that needed to happen and the denial of one’s instincts has a serious effect on your psyche and on the paradigms that you create for yourself and believe in.
As you mentioned, the serialisation in the show really allows us to sit with the characters and see how the events affect them…
Absolutely. It has a very almost arresting effect on you when you can build on what has come before, and when you can tell a story like building blocks, or like a staircase, something that builds on itself and continues and gets bigger and bigger and higher and higher. And what I love also is that in our serialisation, something that is also quite enthralling is that these characters are not who they are going to be, they are not complete people baked to completion yet. They are still figuring out who they are, they are still figuring out their place within not just the ship that they’re on but also Starfleet but also the United Federation of Planets, they’re trying to figure out where they belong and how they matter and what their value is as a collective, and they’re also trying to discover themselves, right? Pun intended! [laughs]
Discovery is a big part of our show and that is also aided by the serialisation, you’re seeing these people change, you’re seeing them make mistakes, you’re seeing them fall and yet get back up, you’re seeing them have conflicts with one another, that makes for very gripping character dynamics, we deal with each other and we’re actually changing each other, there is permanent change that is happening as a result of these storylines and this story that is building on itself and a story that you can turn the page on chapter by chapter.
It must help having such an amazing cast, just looking back at that first episode and you’ve got Michelle Yeoh standing next to you…
Oh, absolutely, yes. Michelle Yeoh is a legend in her own right, she really is, she’s quite heroic and her heroism has everything to do with not just what she’s accomplished but in the great humility that she carries herself with, and so I couldn’t have asked for a better woman to stand by and introduce this story to the world with.
I’m floored by everyone on this show and I talk about our cast constantly and I will continue to do so because I just feel that I’m in the company of beasts, that’s the word that I affectionately use to describe these artists that are passionate and so gifted and so kind and completely lacking of ego. We all know how important this is, what we’re doing, and we hunker down and we do it as a family and we do it with everything we’ve got and that applies to the crew as well, that’s company wide. And so you know that you’re living a dream of sorts and you know that this is an heirloom you have and you want to handle it so preciously, and it just takes it to the next level when you love the people you’re around and you’re all of one mind and one heart in doing this. So, it’s very much that old adage, lightning in a bottle.
Without giving anything away for newcomers, there are some pretty massive twists in the first season and there was so much fan speculation. What was it like being on the other side of that?
Oh, we loved that! Our showrunners in the first season, Aaron Harberts and Gretchen Berg, they would always be so excited to have these conversations with us and the rest of our writers and the rest of the cast. We would talk amongst ourselves about the theories we would hear from people who loved the show and would watch the show, who have ideas about the show. That just signifies interest and we love when people are tuned in enough to let their minds spiral about what might be happening!
We still love hearing the theories and it’s very interesting what people come up with, at times they’re very close and at times they’re very off! But I love it, it’s quite refreshing actually to come off the page out of the story that you’re entrenched in and hear what other people have to say about it and what they think is going to happen or might happen.
If you could go back to the early days of shooting and give yourself a piece of advice, what would you say?
I would tell myself to make as much room as possible for research. I’m a big researcher anyway in every area of my life but I’m certainly a researcher as an actor, and I did a ton of research when I first started because I wasn’t a Trekkie or a Trekker before the show. I am now, but I wasn’t leading up to it so I had a lot to learn and I wanted to see everything that the franchise has to offer, and I will, it’s just going to take me some time! I would tell myself to make even more room for that, to take in all that this franchise has to offer. And that’s not just the TV shows and the movies, but also the science behind the show.
And I’ll also tell myself to trust that it’s all going to be OK and it’s going to work out and you are going to do a good job doing the story justice, don’t worry! That’s what I’d tell myself because I needed that encouragement sometimes!
Finally, do you have a favourite episode from the first season?
I really enjoyed the third episode [‘Context Is For Kings’]; it was our sort of second pilot and I just thought that it was a very provoking place to tell the story and I had never really seen it before in TV. And so, I’ll always respect that episode for that, for sort of reintroducing us in a way, and I thought that episode seven [‘Magic To Make The Sanest Man Go Mad’] turned out really well. It was a bit chaotic at the time that we were shooting it so it was ironic that it ended up turning out as delightfully as it did, because we were sort of spinning at the time but we had a really good time with the challenge of it. We felt like the episode soared so that was an interesting experience. And also the wrap up of the series I really enjoyed.
Star Trek: Discovery Season One begins on 15 December at 8pm on E4.