Star Trek: Discovery marks a lot of firsts for the franchise — the first black female protagonist; the first canonically gay character in the TV show; the first iteration to live on a digital platform — and the producers have already made it clear that they intend to continue trailblazing throughout the series, right down to how the show introduces its hero.
Sonequa Martin-Green stars as First Officer Michael Burnham — who is also the first lead character in Star Trek history who isn’t a captain. There are a lot of remarkable things about Michael, but at least in the show, her race and her status aren’t among them, because in 2017 (let alone in the future utopia Gene Roddenberry envisioned) those things shouldn’t matter.
One aspect of her character reporters did remark on at a recent press conference was Michael’s name, which is typically considered to be masculine.
According to executive producer Aaron Harberts, Michael’s name came from executive producer Bryan Fuller, who stepped down as showrunner of the series to focus on another passion project — Starz’s American Gods — but whose fingerprints are visible all over Discovery.
“It’s his signature move to name his lead women with names that would typically be associated as male,” Harberts explained. “We were going through male names, and we hit on Michael because… I have known of, I think, two [female] Michaels: Michael Sneed, [who] was a gossip columnist for the Chicago Sun‑Times and Michael Steele who played the bass for The Bangles — that’s a deep dive on female Michaels. And we talked about it in the entire room. It was just like, this is a really, really interesting name. And, of course, an archangel is named Michael as well, and it just had a lot of potency for us.”
Martin-Green added that the distinctive name also had particular resonance for her in terms of understanding where the character comes from.
“I appreciated the statement it makes all on its own to have this woman with this male name, just speaking of the amelioration of how we see men and women in the future,” she pointed out. “But I also just decided for my creation and for my background and whatnot, that I was named after my father. And so, we get a little bit of exploration of the father‑daughter dynamic… I think it’s a lovely symbol.”
Passing the torch
The show’s other executive producers (Harberts, Gretchen Berg, Alex Kurtzman, Akiva Goldsman and Heather Kadin) all emphasized that Fuller’s vision remains a guiding focus for Discovery, and will continue to inform the direction of the show.
“Bryan and I worked on the story together, and I’m just a tremendous fan of Bryan’s. He’s so deeply, deeply, supernaturally gifted. And when he decided that the balancing act of American Gods and Star Trek was going to compromise potentially both shows, which I certainly had a tremendous amount of respect for, we set about to protect and preserve as much of the vision that he had,” Kurtzman said. “So we honor what he did, and we love so much of what’s there, and much of what’s there came from his mind.”
They’re Klingons, Jim, but not as we know them!
One of Fuller’s goals was to reimagine the look and approach of the iconic Klingon race for Discovery — so that instead of being “the thugs of the universe,” they would be “aesthetes… sexy and vital and different from what had come before,” according to Harberts.
That included differentiating their skin tone to mirror humanity’s diversity, and updating their wardrobe, while maintaining their recognizable silhouette.
Mary Chieffo, who plays the Klingon L’Rell, explained that the show is taking a nuanced view of the conflict between the Klingons and the Federation, so that one side isn’t painted as a one-dimensional villain.
“I think they’ve done a beautiful job of showing that both sides have humanity, and I think that it’s really beautiful to read the script and see these parallel stories going on and seeing how the conflicts arise,” she said. “My relationship within the Klingon world is so different from my relationship with the Federation — how I’m perceived there is so different from how I am within that world. So I love seeing the nuances between characters, and I just think that there’s a lot to be said for both sides, and I think that that’s something that’s always been true for this series and I think is just augmented even more and both sides’ capacity to love and to have compassion and passion for what they believe in.”
Are you out of your Vulcan mind?
As revealed at Comic-Con, Michael is the adopted sister of Spock, who was taken in by his parents — Vulcan father, Sarek (James Frain) and human mother, Amanda — after her birth parents died, although the producers remained tight-lipped on the extent of Michael’s relationship with her famous sorta-sibling on the show.
“We tend to refer to her as more Sarek’s ward or Sarek’s foster/adopted daughter. And the relationship between Michael and Sarek plays a huge part, not only in her backstory, but in where she was raised and what she brings to every ship she serves on,” Harberts explained.
“Her time on Vulcan causes her to make several choices in our first episode, choices that will really have aftershocks throughout the entire series,” he added. “Much in the way that they did with Spock and Sarek in the films and on the show — we are able to tell father‑daughter stories, and we are able to really drill down on what’s interesting about a Vulcan raising a human child, and how that affects her and how she’s grown up with that. It’s a very important relationship for us.”
Frain offered some insight into his take on the character during the Discovery panel at the Television Critics Association summer press tour.
“From the perspective of playing a Vulcan, it’s been really interesting looking at the human world through the eyes of a people who have decided that emotion itself is barbaric and will always lead to war; that human beings are barbaric as a result, and not to be trusted because they start wars and they kill people. And the Vulcans don’t do that anymore, not for hundreds of years ‑‑ that’s the kind of angle that my character is looking at the human world from.”
The show will be loyal to canon, but there’s some “wiggle room.”
Goldsman reiterated what Fuller confirmed back when the show was first announced — the series will take place in the “prime” universe of the original TV series, not the “Kelvinverse” of J.J. Abrams and Kurtzman’s recent movie reboots.
“It is ten years before TOS. So we are in a section of canon that [has] been referred to a lot. There is a lot of speculation about it,” he said. “We are considering the novels not to be canon, but we are aware of them. And we are going to cross paths with components that Trek fans are familiar with, but it is its own standalone story with its own characters and its own unique vision of Trek.”
The good part of setting the show in a time period that has been referenced but not seen, according to Harberts, is the opportunity to fill in the blanks. “The writers have chosen to see some of the limitations that are thrown up by canon as opportunities, and we like to stay pretty honest, and we stomp down if something truly isn’t possible,” he admitted. “But if there’s a little bit of wiggle room that can provide us with a fantastic opportunity or an opportunity to zig instead of zag, we are going to do it. But I think what we really want to do is to make sure that, at the end of this series, everything reconciles and it is seen as an extra chapter in the time period we’ve chosen to set it.”
Goldsman also described Discovery as “the most serialized version of Star Trek that has ever existed,” with ongoing stories and “long-form character storytelling.” Because it takes place before The Original Series, he said, “we are in a time of war, and we are trying to find out who we are as a Federation and as a coalition of peoples in the face of adversity.”
By the end of the show, he said, they aim to have arrived at the “utopian principles that are endemic to Star Trek, and at the same time not to suggest that doing that is simple or easy. But you can’t simply be accepting and tolerant without working for it, and so this show is about that struggle, and we are really insanely proud of that attempt on our part. You’ll tell us whether we succeeded, but the outcome is always to earn the philosophy rather than present it as a fait accompli.”
Speaking of utopia…
The cast and producers of Discovery are well aware that we’re currently living in a world that’s pretty far removed from the cooperative ideals of Gene Roddenberry’s series, but that also means that the show is more vital now than ever.
“We live in troubling, dark times, where [we’re using] this extraordinary prism of sci‑fi and fantasy and Gene Roddenberry’s vision to examine the craziness that’s going on on a nightly news and how the world is getting more divisive,” said Jason Isaacs, who plays Captain Lorca, leader of the Starship Discovery.
“I don’t know how to explain it to my children. I don’t know how to tell them why there are people in power who say and do these awful things and create this much division. So there’s no question that we are part of a story that shows not just how it can all be harmonious in a big Diet Coke advert, but how you get there. We are complicated characters for complicated times, and our journey through the struggles that we have together and where we fall out or don’t fall out, whether we make poor or good decisions, are everything the show was always about but for the 21st Century and for the nuanced times we live in.”
Martin-Green agreed, “I think that it’s one thing to speak of a utopia. It’s one thing to tell our kids, ‘Oh, this is what a utopia looks like,’ especially when we are living in a dystopia, in a sense. But to be able to see it in an action, to be able to see us aspiring to it ‑‑ we haven’t reached this perfection yet, but we are trying. I think it’s going to be really compelling because you are seeing us try and fail and try again.”
Star Trek: Discovery premieres September 24 on CBS, with all subsequent episodes available exclusively on CBS All Access.