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Actors Sonequa Martin-Green and James Frain talk to USA TODAY’s Bill Keveney about the privilege and responsibility of being part of of CBS All Access’s ‘Star Trek: Discovery.’
Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY

Star Trek: Discovery boldly goes where no Trek has gone before with two firsts: Its lead character, First Officer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), is a black woman who’s not the starship’s captain. 

But the newest offering in the legendary franchise (CBS, Sunday, 8:30 ET/PT, then streaming on CBS All Access) — set 10 years before events of the original series on the eve of war with the Klingons — also roots itself deeply in Trek history. Burnham grew up as the ward of Mr. Spock’s father, Vulcan Ambassador Sarek (James Frain), who was introduced 50 years ago in the original NBC series.

“It is a big connection. Sarek and Spock, these are institutions in the Star Trek canon. And, so, I’ve been grafted into this family and story in such a courageous yet respectful, gentle way,” says Martin-Green, who anticipates some head-scratching by fans. “The fact that you’ve never heard Sarek or Spock mention Michael Burnham is something we will be making sense of.”

The 15-episode Discovery, the sixth live-action Trek series and the first since Enterprise ended in 2005, is a splashy, pricey attempt to attract subscribers to CBS’s fledgling streaming service and international audiences seeking action-adventure fare. There’s no guarantee, as interest beyond the core fan base ebbs and flows, and 2016’s Star Trek Beyond had the lowest box office of the three most-recent films.    

Discovery takes a new look at the mix of Vulcan and human identities. Spock is the biracial child of Sarek and his human wife, Amanda, but Burnham is a nature/nurture mix, a human child raised on Vulcan after her parents were killed in a Klingon attack at a site under Vulcan protection.

Burnham has had academic success on Vulcan — she may know something about the famous neck pinch — and she rose in Starfleet to second-in-command on the USS Shenzhou. But the human tendency toward emotion and legendary Vulcan…