Captain Burnham is ready to fly. In the new fourth season of Star Trek: Discovery, series star Sonequa Martin-Green says that this time out, her alter ego Michael Burnham will be different.
“There were all these things that were sort of tempting Burnham to be led by shame and overcompensation,” says Martin-Green, recalling the past seasons.
But that's not the case anymore because the character is no longer Specialist Burnham or Commander Burnham — but instead, the actual Captain. In Discovery Season 4, the existence of Captain Burnham changes the dynamic of the whole series and lets it feel fresh again.
Here’s what that means and what to expect from Star Trek: Discovery’s latest journey. No spoilers ahead for Discovery Season 4.
During New York Comic-Con 2021 and in the week before the Star Trek: Discovery Season 4’s debut on Paramount+, Inverse spoke to series stars Sonequa Martin-Green, David Ajala, Mary Wiseman, Blu del Barrio, and showrunner Michelle Paradise about the latest adventures of Trek’s little starship-that-could. Despite the frenetic nature of Season 4 — the entire galaxy is beset with an unpredictable gravitational anomaly — the cast and creatives all seem comfortable this time around. This year is the year Discovery gets to simply be itself, no gimmicks required. Season 4 is no-frills Star Trek action.
“I keep using the word solidifying and emboldening,” Martin-Green explains. “There does seem to be a sense of like settling down deeper and deeper into our identity as Star Trek: Discovery — as a whole — but also settling into these characters and the story.”
To be clear, Discovery isn’t a calm series, and Season 4 hasn’t slipped into Next Generation mellowness. This is still an action-adventure series; a space crisis is always afoot, and even in the lighthearted first scene in Season 4’s very first episode, Captain Burnham (Martin-Green) and Book (Ajala) are still in a life-or-death struggle on an alien world. And yet, this cold-open for Season 4 is quirkier than some previous beginnings for Discovery, more of a throwback to the daring seat-of-the-pants cowboy diplomacy of Captain Kirk than the more ruminative ethics of Jean-Luc Picard.
In the ‘60s, Star Trek: The Original Series brought its heady sci-fi ideas to the masses thanks to plenty of punches thrown by Kirk. Burnham doesn’t fight as much as Kirk, but she certainly fights more than Picard or Janeway. And, appropriately enough, the very first episode of Discovery Season 4 is titled “Kobayashi Maru,” a reference to the famous “No-Win Scenario” first introduced in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. It’s a test that Captain Kirk rejected outright on philosophical grounds and cheated his way out of, metaphorically and literally.
So, without spoiling anything, let’s just say that in Discovery Season 4, Captain Burnham has much more in common with Captain Kirk than perhaps any other captain to lead a Star Trek series since the ‘60s.
“The captaincy isn’t going to be easy,” showrunner Michelle Paradise explains. “Being in that chair is a learning curve. And we wanted to honor that learning curve. This is the only time we’ll get to see Burnham’s first time in the captain’s chair.”
As the explosive events of “Kobayashi Maru” unfold, the tone for Discovery Season 4 is made clear: Burnham and the crew of the USS Discovery are on a different kind of journey than they’ve ever been on before. It’s do-or-die, but it will also require some boldly going scientific curiosity, making Season 4 feel both more in-line with classic Trek and also uniquely suited to its own narrative aesthetic.
Even though Discovery Season 4 pays homage to various aspects of the Trek franchise, the characters are unique to this series, and unlike Lower Decks, these people aren’t really aware of the characters from the other shows. Book, Tilly, Culber, Stamets, and Adira don’t have reverence for Kirk or Picard because they either left the 23rd century before Kirk came on the scene or, by 3189, it’s reasonable that someone might struggle to remember Picard’s name.
“Star Trek is like an heirloom that gets passed on from generation to generation,” David Ajala says. “And there's a great sense of feeling proud and a great sense of responsibility at the same time.”
However, Ajala also admits that because the character of Book is unaware of that legacy, he himself hasn’t revisited a bunch of old Star Trek. “I can’t because I’m in it. I would love to be able to watch it, but I don’t think I will be able to until my journey on this chapter of the show is complete.”
On the flip side, two of Ajala’s co-stars have started binging another Trek series, Deep Space Nine, which has garnered the most comparisons to Discovery.
“I’m a crazy DS9 fan all of the sudden,” Tilly actor Mary Wiseman reveals. “I’m obsessed with it. I think it's such a good show. So ahead of its time. And it actually just makes me excited for our show.”
Blu del Barrio — who joined in Season 3 as Adira — agrees, saying, that although they had “zero experience” when they started, they’ve subsequently “really gotten into Deep Space Nine.”
Because del Barrio’s character Adira — and their partner Grey — are both connected to the Trill, del Barrio watching DS9 makes sense from a research perspective. But, del Barrio says their DS9 binge also helped build the character of Adira. “I was about to play an Adira with whatever interests I had, at that moment. But then, I wondered, where could I dive into this huge history of a series, which was really fun.”
All the Deep Space Nine love from Wiseman and del Barrio might seem odd, but it makes perfect sense considering where Discovery is now. In fact, with Burnham finally becoming captain in Season 4, Star Trek history has repeated itself. Just like Discovery, DS9 began its series in 1993 with Commander Benjamin Sisko (played by Avery Brooks) as its lead character, who was not promoted to Captain until the very end of Season 3, exactly like Burnham.
Avery Brooks was the first Black man (and American actor) to lead a Star Trek series, and in 2017, Sonequa Martin-Green became the first Black woman to do the same. Each character, Sisko and Burnham, became a Captain during the show, rather than beginning the series that way.
So, for all the ways in which Burnham feels more like Kirk in Season 4, she’s also a lot like Sisko. And just like Captain Sisko in DS9 Season 4, Burnham in Discovery Season 4 is more confident and more assured in her position in Starfleet than ever before. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be smooth sailing all the way.
“We’ve seen this woman become more well-rounded,” Martin-Green says, noting things won’t be easy for Burnham just because she’s more confident and in charge. “There still are doors to break through as captain. Yep, even still!”
Star Trek: Discovery Season 4 premieres November 18 on Paramount+, releasing new episodes on Thursdays.