‘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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Great analysis from Trekmovie – you’ve thought of things here I never even gleamed from the trailers.

I also get the feeling that whilst Captain Georgiou is a mentor to Burnham, their disagreement about how to deal with the imminent Klingon attack ( which may lead to Burnham being thrown in the brig ), will lead to Captain Georgiou’s death ( where we see the bridge of the Shenzhou explode in front of Georgiou in the trailer ).

Burnham will feel guilty and bear a sense of responsibility for the loss of her mentor, ( especially if she was sitting helpless in the brig at the time ) which will add even more to her sense of finding redemption.

I was also wondering what happened to the rest of the crew of the Shenzou? We’re they allowed to make it back to Federation space? Or were they captured and made POWs like Lt. Tyler? On the entertainment weekly cover he appears with Captains Georgiou and Lorca. While Burnham appears with the rest of the Discovery crew and by herself. I am wondering if it’s a hint to his status. He served with Georgiou but after everything that happened he like Burnham switched to Lorca’s Discovery.

As for Burnham’s gold shirt. It’s interesting that they chose to put her in a command color. Assuming the shirt is civilian and not a uniform one would wear while in the brig. Maybe it’s designed to give people a visual reminder she use to be in command before the incident that landed her in trouble happened.

Some terrific thoughts here Steph.

I wonder if that pale looking Klingon in the image entitled “Burnham is attacked on the Klingon ship” is VOQ, who has been teased in one of the promo the posters?

“Titled,” not “entitled.” They have very different meanings.

Why do so many people make this mistake?

According to the Oxford Dictionary, one meaning of ‘to entitle’ would be “Give (something) a particular title.”
Example: ‘a satire entitled ‘The Rise of the Meritocracy’’.
Therefore this use of the word ‘entitled’ is not incorrect, but merely equivocal.

PS: I guess the 100% unequivocal choice of words here would actually be ‘captioned’.

I hope Michelle Yeoh remains on the cast after her ship is destroyed. It would suck if she’s only in the first few episodes. I liked that there was an Asian woman as Captain. And she’s a very good actress, and adds gravitas to the show.

Yep, I am a huge fan of Michelle Yeoh, and STAR TREK is all the more richer for having her ( and Jsson Isaacs, Doug Jones – all of the movie stars ) on the show.
That said, I have a feeling that Yeoh’s Captain Georgiou will die in the opening episode ( I see no way she could escape from that explosion – but who knows? ), and her tragic loss may be what spurs on Burnham’s character

A recent photo from a producer seems to suggest that Michelle is still in Toronto.

Ah, very interesting, thank you. I wonder if this means Georgiou is still alive, or is she now going to appear regularly, but in flashback? Intriguing nonetheless.

But Lt. Saru is also on Shenzhou, and don’t we know that he joins Discovery, too? So it seems like a lot of Shenzhou’s crew does survive. Plus, if the Discovery crew returns to Shenzhou to retrieve MacGuffin X, that implies the explosion didn’t destroy the whole ship.

I too hope Yeoh continues and plays a role like Erika Hernandez did.

Agreed! Here here. Michelle Yeoh is a fantastic actress and looks the part. I think no coincidence that Crouching Dragon Hidden Tiger was in a way Wagon Train in China.. easy to see her playing into Wagon Train to the Stars!

Love that scene in CTHD where she basically takes out that entire restaurant/inn.

IMDB shows her appearing in 15 episodes. Might not be right but other characters are listed from 1 to 15 episodes.

I wouldn’t trust that though. They probably do that to a lot of shows to throw off any surprises. That said, it doesn’t mean they are wrong.

Thanks for putting this together, some great detective work! Can’t wait to see how accurate your conclusions are, getting more excited the closer the launch date comes.

Agreed, while I haven’t really been working very hard to figure this all out, I’m extremely impressed with the investigative deductions from the assembly of clip snippets. Very well done!

I’m going to go out on a limb, based on no information whatsoever, and predict that Captain Georgiou is seemingly killed in the destruction of the Shenzou, but is unbeknownst to us captured by the Klingons, and needs to be rescued by Burnham later in the season, making her available for Season Two. Pure speculation, and maybe a dab of hope…

Very possible.

Wow. Super excited. Can’t wait until September.

Lovely analysis!

You contrast Michael Burnham with the leads of other Star Trek series and say that she doesn’t seem to be perfect. Surely you don’t mean to say that all of Star Trek’s captains are perfect? Even Kirk would admit that he’s imperfect, and Archer is really, REALLY imperfect. :-)

Picard is really the only perfect one.

Picard isn’t perfect at all.

Spock is perfect in my eyes. :-)

Archer was the first captain.
There was no precedent or rulebook.
There wasn’t even a prime directive.

EXTREMELY excited for this!

Me, too!

Me, three!

A 1 season war arc isn’t long. DS9 took its time with their war arc over a span of more episodes and that was a really good storyline IMO

Half-step-sister to Sybok whom he doesn’t remember. But then again, each man hides a secret pain. He never shared it with me though.

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I always say every time someone does one of these ‘analysis’ I’m going to go back later after it aired and see how right they were. This time I plan to do it but yeah it all sounds reasonable at least to me.

Hoping for a two hour premiere.