‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Analysis: Everything We Know About Michael Burnham

There has been a flurry of activity over the last month in regards to Star Trek: Discovery. A new trailer was released along with several official images. There were panels at San Diego Comic-Con, Star Trek Las Vegas and the TCA Summer Tour. There have also been a number of interviews with cast and crew. It is a lot to take in so today TrekMovie begins a series of articles trying to put all the pieces together to take a look at what we know (or think we know) about the show, starting with the show’s star and primary focus. SPOILER WARNING, obviously this article will delve into as many details as we can find.

Star Trek: Discovery‘s main character Michael Burnham (played by Sonequa Martin-Green) is a unique character for a Star Trek lead; she’s not the captain, and while she appears to be well-meaning and passionate, she certainly does not seem perfect. Burnham is the Discovery character we know the most about so far, so let’s see what we can piece together about her from the trailers and interviews, as we anxiously await the September premiere.

Burnham orphaned by Klingon attack

Possible aftermath of the Klingon attack on Vulcan

As a young girl, Michael Burnham and her parents were visiting Vulcan at the invitation of Ambassador Sarek when Burnham’s parents were killed in a Klingon attack. Sarek felt responsible for Michael, so he took her in and raised her as part of his family.

Young Michael Burnham is rescued by Sarek

As a human in a Vulcan world she struggled to be accepted. She was the only human to attend the Vulcan Learning Center as a child and then the Vulcan Science Academy as a young adult. Her specialty is xenoanthropology, which includes making first contact with new species.

Burnham the promising young officer

When she applied to Starfleet, Sarek personally vouched for her and asked Captain Georgiou to mentor her. In the pilot episode, we find her as second-in-command under Captain Georgiou on the USS Shenzhou.

The USS Shenzhou

The bridge crew of the Shenzhou

And even on her new assignment, Burnham maintains a relationship with Sarek, albeit now via long distance hologram.

Burnham keeps in touch with Sarek

While visiting an alien planet Georgiou notes that Burnham has served under her for seven years, and tells her it’s time for her own command.

Georgiou and Burnham exploring a desert world

A principled and passionate person, Burnham struggles with the conflict between her Vulcan upbringing and her human nature. Martin-Green describes this inner conflict:

As Michael Burnham, I’m a principled woman. The ideologies of Starfleet are emblematic to my personality, for sure… but I also have this Vulcan indoctrination. So, you’re seeing all of that clash.

Georgiou and Burnham discuss their next actions

The Klingon incident

Sometime during the pilot the Shenzhou encounters what at first is an “object of unknown origin,” but is revealed to be of Klingon origin.

An unknown object on the scanners

As a curious explorer, Burnham encounters the Klingons and interferes with a Klingon ritual involving the The Torchbearer and The Obelisk (watch for our companion article on T’Kuvma and the Klingons of Discovery for more information). It does not go well.

Burnham, the curious explorer, goes to investigate

Burnham meets The Torchbearer on top of the Obelisk

A better view of the Obelisk, note the tiny figure (Burnham) floating away from it

Burnham, faceplate cracked, floats away from the Obelisk

At some point (possibly before Burnham’s spacewalk) a decision  is made for Capt. Georgiou and Burnham to beam over to the Klingon ship.

Georgiou and Burnham beam onto Klingon ship

Burnham is attacked on the Klingon ship

A fateful decision leads to a fall from grace

At some point she makes a decision during the encounter with the Klingons that almost certainly goes against orders. This is the difficult choice showrunner Aaron Harberts talked about back in June:

Burnham’s choice that we’re alluding to is the most difficult choice you can make – it affects her, affects Starfleet, affects the Federation; it affects the entire universe.

Whatever specific actions get her in trouble, the heated debate we saw in the May trailer is likely part of it.

Heated debate with Georgiou

Michael Burnham gets taken off the bridge by guards

Meanwhile, all hell breaks loose with the Klingons. The Shenzhou is nearly destroyed by the Klingons, the crew evacuates in escape pods.

Escape pods jettison

Down in the brig, emergency force fields go up around Burnham as the hull is ripped away.

Michael Burnham in the brig

She escapes the wreck of the Shenzhou.

Burnham leaps through destroyed section of hull

An offer for a chance at redemption

After some time passes Burnham undergoes some changes. Notably in the Comic-Con trailer she can be seen with a different haircut and she’s now in a civilian yellow shirt. This implies that she was either temporarily relieved of duty for her actions or perhaps even court-martialed. Captain Lorca comes to talk to her while she’s behind a force field (possibly because she’s serving a stint in the brig for her actions).  

Note the reflection of Burnham in yellow shirt on the forcefield

“You helped start a war…”

“…don’t you want to help me end it?”

She’s recruited to join Lorca’s team on the new vessel the USS Discovery — possibly as a civilian adviser, as she still has the yellow shirt on for now.

The USS Discovery

Burnham, in yellow shirt, rooms with Cadet Tilly

There is some weirdness going on the U.S.S. Discovery

Changes in hair – on the Shenzhou versus later on the Discovery

A daring mission

She and her new crewmates appear to go back to the wreck of the Shenzhouwe assume that there is something important left behind that will help with the Klingon war.

Running through the dark corridors of the Shenzhou

Tilly, Stamets, and Landry (phaser rifle drawn) anxiously await Burnham in a shuttle

Burnham drops in on shuttle crew, in full superhero landing.

Return to service

We assume that during the retrieval mission she proves herself worthy, and is allowed to keep her new post on the Discovery. She’s now an officer in the sciences division (silver), rather than command (gold). This makes her a bit more like her adoptive brother Spock, in that she’s both second-in-command and (now) a science officer.

We don’t see her rank in the Comic-Con trailer once she’s part of the Discovery crew, but she may have had a rank reduction from full Commander to Lieutenant Commander as a reprimand, this would fit with the “Lt. Commander with caveats” that Fuller described a year ago.

Burnham now in science silver

We’re looking forward to learning more about the complex character of Michael Burnham and seeing how accurate what we’ve pieced together here turns out to be.

Keep checking TrekMovie for upcoming companion articles about the other Starfleet and Klingon characters, ships and equipment of Star Trek: Discovery.


Star Trek: Discovery premieres on September 24th on CBS with all subsequent episodes on CBS All Access in the US.  In Canada Star Trek: Discovery will premiere  on Bell Media’s CTV and the Space Channel on the same night. Netflix will launch Star Trek: Discovery on Monday, September 25 to countries outside of the U.S. and Canada.

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