Sonequa Martin-Green goes where no actress has gone before in Star Trek: Discovery
Sonequa Martin-Green is looking wide-eyed at a photo of yours truly in Star Trek pyjamas. Also, the “phaser” I am holding is a battery operated nose tweezer.
We are on the couch of a cramped dressing room in downtown Toronto as she is about to catch a flight to Los Angeles. This could go very badly. At some point she may feel the need to call security. (Code Red: Psycho-fan pretending to be a journalist. Bring Taser.)
Someday, perhaps, Martin-Green risks becoming a jaded William Shatner, lecturing fans to “Get a Life” on Saturday Night Live. Fortunately, for me, this is not that day. Instead, she gives a huge smile and a peal of laughter.
“You are kidding me! You just made my day!” says Martin-Green with what seems like genuine glee. There is such non-judgmental warmth, I am thinking that maybe I should have worn my pyjamas to the interview.
This, obviously, is not the first time science officer Michael Burnham, the foster sister of Spock, has had some nerd show her a tattoo, uniform or phaser made from a potato or recycled bottle caps, although the nose tweezer might have been new. So yes, she’s a good actor. Although to be fair, the ever-gracious Martin-Green has a reputation for being one of the nicest people on set and that’s according to her peers.
This is an uncomfortable line for a television critic. At what point does fandom end and dispassionate, critical reasoning kick in? How do you evaluate the merits of a franchise that you are emotionally connected to?
After all, growing up in Montego Bay, Star Trek showed me the possibility of space exploration in a post-racial universe as I played along in my star ship, an empty cardboard box.
Fortunately there is little critical dispute that Martin-Green’s portrayal of Burnham plays a very large part for the success of the Toronto-shot Star Trek: Discovery. She is also the first Black female to lead a Star Trek TV series, one that has had record ratings for CBS All Access and Canada’s Crave (Fridays at 9 p.m.).
“I’d say I stand on the shoulders of Nichelle Nichols for sure,” she says of the Black actress who played communications officer Uhura on the original Star Trek. But also Kate Mulgrew (Star Trek: Voyager) and Avery Brooks (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine).
“There has been a dearth of seeing well-rounded characters of colour. We have so many different forms of representation on Star Trek that I often don’t talk about being a Black woman specifically. This is a Black woman who is highly skilled in math and sciences. She is incredibly selfless and fights to become a member of a very skilled unit. And I think it’s a powerful message to Black boys and girls and for all people of colour.”
The Star has had a long relationship with the franchise. I was the first journalist on the Discovery set when it started filming in Toronto for Season 1. And way back in 1966, Star photographer Reg Innell was the first to photograph little known Canadians William Shatner and James Doohan on the Los Angeles set of the original series. In more recent times, Shatner has moonlighted as a guest editor in the Star’s Entertainment section.
Creator Gene Roddenberry’s world may have been a hit with fans because it was resolutely utopian, a place where racism, poverty and hunger had been eliminated. But half a century later, Martin-Green acknowledges real world leaders still seem to be building walls, not tearing them down.
“Star Trek is the idyllic view of the future. Sexism is gone, poverty is gone, disease and racism are gone. I think just seeing that makes a statement,” says the eloquent Martin-Green.
“It also makes it glaringly obvious that’s not where we are today. But just seeing that shows you what we can aim for in an empathetic world. And it shows you what it takes to maintain it. Some people might watch it and say, ‘Oh, one day we’re going to get there.’ But it’s a fight to get there and it’s a fight to stay there, because empathy is inconvenient. It hurts you to empathize with someone. We have our own pain. We don’t want to take on other people’s pain. But that’s what’s needed in this world. And that’s what the philosophy of the show, when you really think about it, is really about.”
Martin-Green is making a little extra history since her husband Kenric Green, who appeared with her on The Walking Dead, is becoming a series regular on Discovery in an undisclosed role — making it one of the first, if not the first real-life Star Trek husband-and-wife acting teams (Majel Barrett, who played Nurse Chapel in the original series, was married to creator Rodenberry).
“It’s an absolute dream come true,” says the 33-year-old actress. “It’s already a blessing that we’re both actors and we speak the same artistic language. And it’s another thing to do a project together. And still on another level to do Star Trek. We worked together on The Walking Dead, but we never really had any encounters.”
Season 2 of Discovery starts with a visit from Star Fleet Captain Pike, the predecessor to Kirk.
It is one of the most ambitious in thematic scope of the Star Trek franchise series (Patrick Stewart’s work on Star Trek: The Next Generation is still the gold standard), which now number 10 incarnations in total and 13 films.
There are also two more planned spinoffs with Michelle Yeoh and the return of Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard at their respective helms.
In Discovery, fans discovered a much darker Star Trek universe dealing with issues such as rape, mutilation and cannibalism in a more cynical series incarnation. In its first season it was uneven in execution, not helped by a revolving door of showrunners, but always thought-provoking and stunning visually.
Martin-Green plays a science officer on Discovery at a time of war with the Klingons. The series takes place roughly a decade before the original Star Trek series starring Canadian Shatner.
“Now that the war is over, we have peace. There is time to stop and take a breath and take inventory of who we are now,” says Martin-Green. “What’s going on? What choices did we make? How do we move forward? I think Season 2 is about inner restoration.
“It’s also a deeply emotional journey. But there is time for a little bit of joy. There is still conflict, but it’s a time to talk and a time to reflect.”
Martin-Green isn’t new to the glare of a cult franchise. From 2012 to 2017, the Russellville, Alabama native (population 10,000) played former firefighter turned sniper Sasha Williams on The Walking Dead, the biggest cable show on television. Before that, she had recurring roles in The Good Wife and Once Upon a Time.
“Science fiction fans are smart, intellectual and passionate. And they’re willing to suspend their disbelief and acknowledge how it changes them,” says Martin-Green. “We consider them extended family.”
One thing she hasn’t managed to do yet? See all the Star Trek movies and TV series.
“When they cast me I made it a point to see every episode of every show and movie. But I think it’s going to take me a little longer than I thought,” she says. “But it’s really been a joy to go through all that cultural history to see what brought me here.”