(covers information from several alternate timelines)
This page contains information regarding Star Trek: Discovery, and thus may contain spoilers.
As a commander, she served as the first officer aboard the USS Shenzhou in 2256, under Captain Philippa Georgiou, with whom she had served since 2249. (DIS: "The Vulcan Hello", "Battle at the Binary Stars") In 2256, she was stripped of rank and sentenced to life imprisonment for mutiny, but she gained a second chance when she was assigned to the USS Discovery. (DIS: "Battle at the Binary Stars", "Context Is for Kings")
After the Battle at Pahvo, Discovery was "accidentally" transported to the mirror universe, eventually forcing Burnham to impersonate her counterpart, who had been captain of the ISS Shenzhou prior to her presumed death, taking Captain Gabriel Lorca, supposedly impersonating his own mirror counterpart, as a prisoner to the Emperor – as it turned out, the mirror Philippa Georgiou – while searching for information on the USS Defiant. However, after meeting Georgiou, Burnham realized that Lorca was his mirror universe counterpart and that she had been serving under an impostor. After warning Discovery of this, Burnham and Georgiou fought Lorca and defeated him, in the process destroying the ISS Charon and enabling Discovery to return to the prime universe, Georgiou in tow. However, difficulties with navigating the mycelial network caused Discovery to emerge at the wrong point in the timestream, at a time when the Federation was on the verge of defeat. (DIS: "Despite Yourself", "The Wolf Inside", "Vaulting Ambition", "What's Past Is Prologue")
With no option left, Starfleet assigned Georgiou to command Discovery and ordered her to plant a hydro bomb on Qo'noS; however, Burnham refused to abandon her principles again and prevented Georgiou from activating the bomb, instead using it to force a truce with the Klingons. For her role in ending the war, Burnham was pardoned and her rank restored; in addition, she was awarded the Starfleet Medal of Honor. (DIS: "Will You Take My Hand?")
In the early 2230s, Burnham's parents were stationed on Doctari Alpha. They originally planned a vacation to Mars but a young Burnham begged them to stay three more days to witness a nearby star go supernova. The Klingons then attacked. Burnham's father attempted to barricade the kitchen door, while her mother hid her in a cabinet. Burnham did not witness the death of her parents, but she heard everything happen, saying that they killed her father quickly, but took longer with her mother. The Klingons then sat down at Burnham's family table and ate the dinner the family had prepared and laughed. (DIS: "Will You Take My Hand?")
Life on Vulcan
She was then raised on Vulcan by Sarek and Amanda Grayson and was the first Human to ever attend the Vulcan Learning Center. She initially struggled to adapt, having to recall the events of her parents' death in a series of questions posed by the Centre. Sarek assured her that when emotion brought her ghosts from the past, only logic can root her in the present. A young Burnham suggested she learn Vulcan, but Sarek told her it was her Human heart, not her Human tongue that was the problem. (DIS: "The Vulcan Hello", "Battle at the Binary Stars")
Shortly after she arrived on Vulcan, Burnham was targeted by Vulcan logic extremists who believed that Humans were a threat to their logical civilization and who launched an attack on the Learning Center. The bombing left Burnham physically dead for three minutes, forcing Sarek to initiate a mind meld with Burnham in order to revive her. As a result of this, a portion of Sarek's katra remained inside her mind, which later allowed him to communicate with her across interstellar distances and the two to share physical sensations such as pain. (DIS: "Battle at the Binary Stars", "Lethe")
During her childhood, her foster mother often read to Michael and to her biological son, Spock, particularly Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Even as an adult, Michael still owned a physical copy of this book, which was a gift from Amanda. (DIS: "Context Is for Kings")
The Vulcan Science Academy and Expeditionary Group
In 2245, Burnham began attending the Vulcan Science Academy, where she studied quantum physics. She graduated four years later at the top of her class and was a recipient of the Vulcan Scientific Legion of Honor. (DIS: "The Vulcan Hello", "Battle at the Binary Stars", "The Butcher's Knife Cares Not for the Lamb's Cry")
After her graduation, Burnham applied to join the Vulcan Expeditionary Group. Unbeknownst to Burnham, the Group rejected her application on the basis of Burnham being Human, and forced Sarek to choose between allowing Michael to join now, or allowing Spock – who was half-Human – to join in the future. After reluctantly choosing Spock over Michael, Sarek hid the truth out of personal shame and reported her rejection as being a result of her "insufficient" abilities. This led Burnham to believe that it was her weaknesses that resulted in the decision and that Sarek was wrong to believe in her – a sentiment her foster mother dismissed. Sarek's shame ultimately only grew when, eventually, Spock unexpectedly chose to join Starfleet instead of the Expeditionary Group, rendering Sarek's sacrifice of Michael's Vulcan career pointless. (DIS: "Lethe")
Sarek sought to find Burnham a place where she could thrive and approached Captain Philippa Georgiou to give his ward an opportunity in Starfleet. Burnham, therefore, joined the service and was assigned to the Shenzhou under the command of Georgiou in 2249, at the age of 23. Serving as a xenoanthropologist, she eventually rose to the rank of commander, and by 2256, had become Georgiou's first officer. (DIS: "The Vulcan Hello", "Battle at the Binary Stars")
Just prior to the Battle of the Binary Stars, Burnham was charged with mutiny after incapacitating Captain Georgiou and taking command of the Shenzhou, preparing to attack the Klingons by firing on them first. She subsequently pled guilty to these charges during a court martial, and was stripped of rank and sentenced to life in prison. (DIS: "Battle at the Binary Stars") She thus became the first and only officer ever convicted of mutiny in the history of Starfleet to that date.
The Federation-Klingon War
After serving six months in prison, Burnham was transported via shuttlecraft to another facility at Tellun. The shuttle transporting them was disabled, but she and three other prisoners were rescued by the USS Discovery. Following orders by Captain Gabriel Lorca, she participated in a boarding party aboard the USS Glenn. Lorca then offered her a berth aboard Discovery, assuring her that her life sentence would not be a problem. Burnham began sharing quarters with Sylvia Tilly. (DIS: "Context Is for Kings")
Burnham was reassigned from the command division to the sciences division and allowed to wear a Starfleet uniform again, albeit without any rank or other insignia. Lorca assigned her to work on the tardigrade, which had been captured aboard the Glenn. Burnham named the creature "Ripper," because of its strength and ability to damage even a starship's tritanium hull. In collaboration with Tilly and Paul Stamets, she discovered the tardigrade's connection to the mycelial network, which enabled the full utilization of the spore drive in order to stop the Klingon attack on Corvan II. (DIS: "The Butcher's Knife Cares Not for the Lamb's Cry")
In the following weeks, the Discovery used the spore drive several times; Burnham grew concerned with the effects of this usage on the tardigrade, which became weaker and seemed to be at great discomfort when utilized for the drive. After voicing her concerns to acting captain Saru, she was confined to quarters by him. Following the successful mission to rescue Captain Lorca, she and Tilly released the tardigrade into space, where it regained its strength and traveled away. (DIS: "Choose Your Pain")
After recovering Sarek from an assassination attempt by the same extremists who had targeted her as a young girl, Burnham was offered a position as bridge science specialist by Lorca, which she accepted. In the process, Burnham learned the truth about her rejection by the Expeditionary Group – Sarek had chosen to enable Spock to serve with the Group instead (although Spock had turned down that offer). (DIS: "Lethe")
Burnham then assisted Stamets in stopping Harry Mudd from stealing the Discovery and selling it to the Klingons. Burnham, Lorca and Tyler then turned Mudd over to his fiance, Stella Grimes and her father Grimes. During this time, she and Tyler developed feelings for each other. (DIS: "Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad")
Burnham then went with Tyler and Saru to Pahvo. There, they hope to use a crystal structure to act as a SONAR in order to detect cloaked Klingon ships. During this time, Burnham noticed that Saru had become fearless after making first contact with the Pahvans. However, he had become hostile toward her and Tyler. Burnham was then able to convince the Pahvans to withdraw their influence over him and allow to complete their mission. Burnham was successful and the three of them returned to Discovery. (DIS: "Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum")
The mirror universe
Following the Battle at Pahvo, and the subsequent deception by Lorca, the Discovery found itself stranded in the mirror universe. Michael took the place of her counterpart, long assumed to be dead, in an attempt to find a way home. (DIS: "Despite Yourself")
End of the war
Following the conclusion of the Federation-Klingon War, Burnham and the senior officers of the Discovery were awarded the Starfleet Medal of Honor, and Burnham's commission was reinstated with the rank of commander (an honor Sarek asked to deliver himself.) (DIS: "Will You Take My Hand?") Burnham would continue serving aboard Discovery in the science division. (DIS: "Brother")
The Red bursts
Burnham and Philippa Georgiou had almost a mother–daughter relationship; after taking on Burnham as a member of her crew, Georgiou decided to take a chance on Burnham and made her first officer. From their first encounter, Philippa boosted Michael's self-esteem, telling her that her confidence was justified, much to Michael's shock and complimenting her back. Over the course of seven years, they developed an extremely close relationship. Georgiou grew to trust Burnham, and while exploring with her in 2256, said she trusted her with her life. On a relatively primitive planet, the duo opened a well, and enabled the planet's residents to survive a coming eighty-nine-year drought.
Burnham warned Georgiou of her encounter with a Klingon, and with hesitation, Georgiou believed her and locked weaponry on the object. Starfleet ordered the Shenzhou to wait until reinforcements arrived. When Burnham recommended firing first against the Klingons, Georgiou refused. Burnham disabled Georgiou with a Vulcan nerve pinch and took command of the ship, ordering an attack on the Klingon vessel. Georgiou recovered in time to stop the attack. (DIS: "The Vulcan Hello")
Georgiou arrested and imprisoned Burnham for mutiny. However, Burnham escaped the brig after telepathic encouragement from Sarek, and convinced Georgiou to take T'Kuvma hostage, instead of making him a martyr. Georgiou told Burnham she worried that one day her Vulcan upbringing would cloud her Human side, and was disappointed to learn that she had such an ego to believe she could rip the Vulcan shell away from Burnham. Burnham retorted that she turned against her because she believed it was the only viable option to avoid a full scale war, and to save her life as well as the crew's, which was worth going against Starfleet's principles. Georgiou did not respond to her justification, but agreed to go with her plan to infiltrate the ship together, rather than Burnham alone as she originally suggested, indicating Georgiou had not given up on her.
Using an explosive sent to T'Kuvma's ship with a Klingon corpse as a distraction, the duo boarded the ship and attacked. Burnham fought off Voq, but Georgiou was killed during the Battle of the Binary Stars, by T'Kuvma. A moment later, Burnham shot T'Kuvma and made a martyr of him. Burnham was distraught, weeping at the loss of her friend and captain, and becoming consumed with grief. Following Georgiou's death, Burnham felt she was responsible for the death of her captain and friend, completely guilt-ridden. (DIS: "Battle at the Binary Stars")
Six months after Georgiou's death, Burnham received Georgiou's will, in which Georgiou had left Burnham her most prized possession, a telescope handed down through her family for centuries. In her will, Georgiou said she was proud of Burnham as if she were her own daughter. (DIS: "The Butcher's Knife Cares Not for the Lamb's Cry") However, Burnham felt undeserving of the possession, believing herself to be guilty of Georgiou's death, so she gave the telescope to Saru instead. (DIS: "Choose Your Pain")
Burnham felt having to face Georgiou's Terran Counterpart, the emperor, was a reckoning for her betrayal. She remained feeling extremely guilty for having went against her captain's wishes. After revealing her true identity, Burnham told Emperor Georgiou that their bond seemed to cross universes, as Burnham and Georgiou's mother/daughter-like bond is a literal mother/daughter bond in the mirror universe. (DIS: "Vaulting Ambition") Burnham's guilt over her captain's death led her to declare she would not let Emperor Georgiou die, no matter how cruel or ruthless she is. (DIS: "What's Past Is Prologue") When she returned to the prime universe with Georgiou, having kept her promise, she admitted she wanted to show her a place of morality and hope. Mirror Georgiou told her that she wished to save her because she couldn't save her own Georgiou and that it weakens her, to which Michael responded, "Well I feel it every day of my life". (DIS: "The War Without, The War Within")
Sarek and Burnham had a father-daughter relationship due to the fact that, after her parents were killed, Sarek took Burnham as his ward. Afterward, he helped her countless times whenever her judgment was clouded by her Human emotions. (DIS: "The Vulcan Hello")
"Huh… and he knows you."
Burnham served with Saru aboard the Shenzhou, though they were meanwhile in near-constant disagreement in how to read and approach situations. Georgiou noted their rare agreement for once. (DIS: "The Vulcan Hello") Even after Burnham's mutiny, which came as a surprise to Saru, he still considered Burnham a valuable asset and the smartest officer in Starfleet, but he was now afraid of her and considered her very dangerous. (DIS: "Context Is for Kings")
Burnham reported to Saru that every jump the ship made with the spore drive was negatively impacting Ripper. Saru dismissed this, while she warned that she was unsure of how many jumps the tardigrade could sustain. Later, Saru confronted Burnham upon discovering Stamets had taken the spore drive offline. Tilly, Stamets, and Burnham were looking for compatible DNA sequences, as Burnham said they could use a Human host. Saru noted that he told her to stand down earlier and she disobeyed another order. Burnham said she knew his Kelpien culture made him alert of enemies but assured him she wasn't one of them. Saru angrily fired back that she wasn't an enemy, but a predator, leaving Michael hurt. He told her that saving Ripper would not bring back nor change the fact that her behavior was exactly the kind that led to the death of Georgiou.
Burnham later asked Saru whether he was afraid of her. Saru said he was angry and jealous that he never had the chance to be the First Officer under Georgiou and learn everything she had to teach. He anticipated that Burnham would get her own command and he would move up, but he never got that chance. He believed that if he had, he would have been more prepared for the events of today. Burnham assured Saru that he did very well and that Captain Georgiou would have thought so, as well. Burnham then went under her bed to get Captain Georgiou's telescope and told Saru that it is his now. Saru then told Burnham to save Ripper. (DIS: "Choose Your Pain")
Burnham and Tilly had another awkward exchange when Tilly lied, saying the engineering officers had assigned seats. Burnham learned from Stamets later that this wasn't true and went back, next to Tilly, as she tried to ignore her. On Tilly's first boarding party with Burnham, Tilly apologized, explaining that it was important for her to make a good impression and that she didn't want to be seen with a mutineer. Burnham understood and said it was okay, but Tilly said it wasn't okay, and that she was just afraid of what other people would think of her.
Later, Tilly was shocked to see that Burnham had not left the ship, as Lorca extended her stay to contribute to the war effort. Tilly told her she was glad and confided that she intended to be a captain someday, but there were things about command she didn't yet know. Having read everything on Georgiou – which Burnham quietly corrected to "Captain Georgiou" – she suggested that Burnham could help teach her. Tilly was surprised when Burnham unpacked an actual, physical book, which Burnham handed to her: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Burnham explained that her foster mother used to read it to her son and Burnham, and that it taught her that the world is not always logical. When Tilly asked her name, Burnham replied, "Amanda." (DIS: "Context Is for Kings")
Tilly secretly helped Burnham, giving her spores to successfully tame and befriend Ripper. Burnham smiled, appreciating her help. Later, in her shared quarters with Tilly, the cadet congratulated Burnham on a job well done, but the tardigrade being utilized in a way that caused it to feel agony clearly weighed on Burnham, in spite of the heroic act. She then said she had another reputation growing. Tilly noticed Burnham hadn't opened the capsule containing Georgiou's will and encouraged her to open it by noting her bravery and saying she wasn't afraid of anything. (DIS: "The Butcher's Knife Cares Not for the Lamb's Cry")
Tilly and Burnham later ate lunch together. Tilly told her roommate that she looked awful, and Burnham sarcastically thanked her. Tilly suspected something was wrong with her, but Burnham dismissed this. Tilly then assumed Burnham had made new, more interesting friends but she assured her it wasn't her. Burnham explained it is about her, having been preoccupied with Ripper's condition from the use of the spore drive that she has no job to do aboard the ship. Tilly told her that it was time to reflect upon herself, emotionally. Burnham said she didn't like that, to which Tilly responded, "Really? I love feeling feelings". Later, they worked on helping Ripper together. Burnham and Tilly released Ripper together. (DIS: "Choose Your Pain")
Ash Tyler is one of the very few aboard Discovery who does not judge Burnham harshly for her earlier crimes and escaping justice. Upon meeting her, Tyler declares that he prefers to evaluate people based on their current behavior rather than their pasts. (DIS: "Lethe") As time goes by, the two begin to form a friendship which eventually blossoms into romance.
T'Kuvma's plan to wage war against the Federation was set in motion. Burnham committed a failed mutiny in order to stop this with the intention of firing at the Klingons first. Later, after escaping captivity, Burnham suggested capturing T'Kuvma to cause his reputation to damage. By doing so, Burnham predicted the Klingon war effort would not be successful if its leader had been quickly suppressed. However, when Burnham and Georgiou encountered T'Kuvma and Voq at the Binary Stars, T'Kuvma killed Georgiou. Burnham disregarded her previous suggestion upon seeing Georgiou being killed, and in an emotional response, she killed T'Kuvma. (DIS: "Battle at the Binary Stars")
The nature of Lorca's relationship to Burnham was mysterious for a long time. Unknown to Burnham and the rest of Discovery at the time, Lorca was secretly his mirror universe counterpart in disguise, with a plan to get back to his universe and convince Burnham to pose as her presumed dead counterpart to rebel against Emperor Philippa Georgiou in an attempt to take the throne for himself. (DIS: "Vaulting Ambition") Tilly felt that Lorca "practically adopted" Burnham. (DIS: "Lethe") Emperor Georgiou revealed to Burnham that her mirror universe counterpart had conspired with Lorca to kill her, and that he groomed her. At one point as a child, Georgiou felt the mirror universe Burnham saw Lorca as a father figure, but when she grew up, the relationship became romantic, much to Prime Burnham's shock and disgust. (DIS: "Vaulting Ambition")
Upon their initial meeting, Burnham noted to Lorca that her prison shuttle changed course halfway through the journey, and assessed that Lorca had brought her to Discovery intentionally, testing her abilities. She revealed she knew about the experimental technology he had been using. Lorca told Burnham her suspicions were correct, but he didn't choose her for the reasons she thought. Lorca explained that, due to the circumstances of the war, he wanted to recruit her because her actions leading up to the Battle of the Binary Stars were predictive, and she chose to do the right thing despite it being against protocol. He believed this to be thinking that "wins wars". Lorca convinced Burnham to stay, manipulating her by suggesting that she stay to achieve atonement or redemption for Georgiou's loss. (DIS: "Context Is for Kings")
Lorca was hesitant to send Burnham away to find Sarek, who was in danger. Lorca told Ash Tyler to bring Burnham back in one piece or don't come back at all, to which Tyler assumed he was referring to the ship. At one point, Lorca questioned how Sarek could mind meld with her, as she was not Vulcan. In actuality, Lorca had been using information based on the mirror Burnham by mistake, who had not been raised by Vulcans. Later, Burnham told Lorca she was grateful to be serving under a captain like him. (DIS: "Lethe")
Tyler and Burnham transported to Kol's ship and plant sensors that created an algorithm for detecting the cloaked Klingon ships, much to the disapproval of Lorca. Eventually Lorca agreed to let her go. Burnham explained that she needed to go, being the most qualified person having been on the same vessel and knowing the surroundings, but Lorca curiously and illogically disagreed. Due to the nature of Lorca's relationship being revealed later, it was clear Lorca did not want to face Burnham getting killed again, being vital to his plan to stop the emperor and also because of his romantic feelings for her based on her mirror counterpart. (DIS: "Into the Forest I Go")
When Lorca jumped Discovery to the mirror universe, Burnham revealed, based on the personnel files, she was presumed dead and his counterpart was a fugitive wanted for her murder. Lorca told Burnham to look outside and said, "A different universe and yet somehow the same people have a way of finding each other… might be the strongest argument that I've ever seen for the existence of destiny." Burnham dismissed Lorca's destiny argument, insisting that "Destiny didn't get me out of prison, captain. You did." At this point, Lorca relied on Burnham to take care of the crew. Burnham agreed with the plan to disguise as their Terran selves in order to retrieve the files on the USS Defiant to find a way back home. (DIS: "Despite Yourself")
After Tyler was revealed to be a sleeper agent Klingon, Lorca held Burnham's hand, telling her she wasn't alone. (DIS: "The Wolf Inside") Lorca's secret plan to lead Burnham to Emperor Georgiou was successful, as she was summoned to the ISS Charon. Burnham told Lorca it felt like having to face Georgiou again was a reckoning, but Lorca told her that Captain Georgiou was dead and Emperor Georgiou was a ghost. Burnham retorted, "Haven't you ever been afraid of a ghost?" Later, after spending time with Emperor Georgiou as Lorca went to an agonizer booth, Burnham finally realized that Lorca's sensitivity to light was a trait all Terrans possessed, and from Georgiou's words, Lorca believed destiny brought her daughter and Lorca together. Burnham pieced together that Lorca was from the mirror universe and it was not an accident they jumped there. (DIS: "Vaulting Ambition")
With Lorca's true nature revealed, Burnham agreed to help Emperor Georgiou due to her attachment to the prime Georgiou. She tricked Lorca the same way they intended to trick Georgiou, by handing Georgiou over to Lorca, and a bemused Lorca told Georgiou that Burnham was destined to betray her in every universe. Lorca questioned Burnham's motives, and Burnham told him that in exchange for Discovery's safe passage home, he could have her, but only "her mind" (indicating to Lorca her awareness of his romantic feelings for her). Lorca agreed and communicated this information to Saru on Discovery. However, Burnham and Georgiou worked together to attack and kill Lorca's men. Burnham and Lorca fought, and he told her he didn't want to have to kill her. Burnham grabbed a phaser and told him that they would have brought him home had he asked, and because she was Starfleet, she wouldn't kill him. Emperor Georgiou quickly impaled Lorca instead and Lorca attempted to die holding onto Burnham, but she turned away instead. (DIS: "What's Past Is Prologue")
- 2226: Born on Earth
- 2245–2249: Attends the Vulcan Science Academy
- 2249: Assigned to the USS Shenzhou under the command of Captain Philippa Georgiou
- Participates in the Battle of the Binary Stars. Abandons the Shenzhou with the remaining crew after the death of Captain Georgiou. Is later court martialed on charges of dereliction of duty, assaulting a fellow officer, and mutiny, which she pleads guilty to, leading to a loss of rank and a sentence of life imprisonment.
- Is assigned to the USS Discovery on the behest of Captain Gabriel Lorca.
- Given a position of bridge science specialist by Lorca.
- Due to her efforts in ending the war she is pardoned by the Federation President and is reinstated to the rank of Commander.
- Awarded the Starfleet Medal of Honor
"We come in peace, that's why we're here. Isn't that the whole idea of Starfleet?"
"Hey – I taught you that."
- - Michael Burnham and Philippa Georgiou, while on the Crepusculan homeworld (DIS: "The Vulcan Hello")
"We see something we don't understand and immediately cast judgement? Maybe it's lost. Maybe it's afraid to show its whole self."
"From my youth on Vulcan, I was raised to believe that service was my purpose. And I carried that conviction to Starfleet. I dreamed of a day when I would command my own vessel, and further the noble objectives of this great institution. That dream is over. The only ship I know in ruins. My crew… gone. My captain… my friend. I wanted to protect them from war. From the enemy. And now we are at war… and I am the enemy."
"The real world doesn't always adhere to logic. Sometimes down is up, sometimes up is down… and sometimes when you're lost, you're found."
- - Michael Burnham, telling Tilly about the physical book copy of Alice in Wonderland given to her by Amanda Grayson, (DIS: "Context Is for Kings")
"Sometimes the only way to find out where you fit in is to step out of the routine. Because sometimes, where you really belong was waiting right around the corner all along."
- - Michael Burnham, after gaining the courage to express her feelings over Ash Tyler (DIS: "Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad")
"He needed me to get onto this ship; you wouldn't have let him on otherwise. […] He needed me to get to you. […] None of this was an accident. My so-called captain's not from my universe. He's from yours."
- - Michael Burnham, to mirror Philippa Georgiou, upon realizing that the Gabriel Lorca she served under has been his mirror counterpart all along (DIS: "Vaulting Ambition")
"On the eve of battle, on a cold and windless night, an old general turned to a young soldier. "Tomorrow," said the master, "you will know fear." The young soldier, who had not yet experienced the agony of war, looked at the general with quizzical eyes. "How will I know fear if I do not know what it looks like?" The general replied, "You will know fear, because it speaks very fast, and it speaks very loud. -... - If that is how fear acts, recognizing it is easy. But as the young soldier considered the general's advice, she asked the question facing us now: "Once I know fear, how do I defeat it?"
"Is this how Starfleet wins the war? Genocide?"
"You wanna do this here? Fine. Terms of atrocity are convenient after the fact. The Klingons are on the verge of wiping out the Federation."
"Yes, but ask yourself, why did you put this mission in the hands of a Terran, and why the secrecy? Because you know it's not who we are."
"It very soon will be. We do not have the luxury of principles."
"That is all we have, Admiral! A year ago, I stood alone. I believed that our survival was more important than our principles. I was wrong. Do we need a mutiny today to prove who we are?"
- - Michael Burnham and Katrina Cornwell, discussing the planned destruction of Qo'noS (DIS: "Will You Take My Hand?")
"We are no longer on the eve of battle. Even so, I come to ask myself the same question that young soldier asked the general all those years ago: 'How do I defeat fear?' The general's answer? 'The only way to defeat fear is to tell it no.' No, we will NOT take shortcuts on the path to righteousness. No, we will NOT break the rules that protect us from our basest instincts. No, we will NOT allow desperation to destroy moral authority. I am guilty of all these things. Some say that in life, there are no second chances. Experience tells me this that this is true. But we can only look forward. We have to be torchbearers casting the light so we may see our path to lasting peace. We will continue exploring, discovering new worlds, new civilizations. Yes - that is the United Federation of Planets... Yes… that is Starfleet… Yes, that is who we are… And who we will always be "
- "The Vulcan Hello"
- "Battle at the Binary Stars"
- "Context Is for Kings"
- "The Butcher's Knife Cares Not for the Lamb's Cry"
- "Choose Your Pain"
- "Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad"
- "Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum"
- "Into the Forest I Go"
- "Despite Yourself"
- "The Wolf Inside"
- "Vaulting Ambition"
- "What's Past Is Prologue"
- "The War Without, The War Within"
- "Will You Take My Hand?"
- "New Eden"
- "Point of Light"
- "An Obol for Charon"
- "Saints of Imperfection"
- "The Sound of Thunder"
- "Light and Shadows"
- "If Memory Serves"
- "Project Daedalus"
- "The Red Angel"
One reason the first name "Michael" was chosen for this character was that Bryan Fuller often had female protagonists who had typically male first names (such as "Chuck" and "Jaye"). "When we all sat down, of course, the idea was going to be that she was going to have a male name, or typically male name," recalled Executive Producer/Writer Aaron Harberts. "We were just pitching around the writers' room. We had a couple on the board and I said, 'Well, how about Michael?' Because I had remembered a gossip columnist in Chicago. I used to work in Chicago in publicity, and Michael Sneed, she wrote for the Chicago Sun Times. Then, there was the bass player for The Bangles, a musician named Michael Steele. I'd always thought that the name Michael was just really cool and different. We pitched that to Bryan and he was like, 'Let me think about that.' That's how we seized on it." 
Bryan Fuller was the person who publicly revealed that the main character of DIS would be a female who wasn't a captain. He announced this news on 10 August 2016, during an interview session with journalists at the Television Critics Association Summer Tour. 
In September 2016, Bryan Fuller met with Sonequa Martin-Green to play his lead character, Michael Burnham. "Her audition was fantastic," Fuller remarked. "I found her incredibly insightful as an actor and delightful as a human being." Aaron Harberts was also impressed with the actress. "We read a lot of people who either went too robotic or too emotional," he recalled. "She was able to be aloof and logical but still warm and surrendering her emotional side to the audience." (Entertainment Weekly, issue 1476, p. 27)
When she learned that she had won the role of Michael Burnham, Sonequa Martin-Green was with her husband at a restaurant in Buenos Aires. "My team called, and they said, 'It's happening.' My husband actually recorded it. And so, I cried, and everything, and it's forever captured," she reminisced. "So, it was just… surreal. It was completely surreal. Like, 'Is this happening?!' My husband and I kept looking at each other, and we wouldn't say anything. We would just look at each other and go (she opened her mouth, and kept it open)." 
In early news stories which suggested the casting of Sonequa Martin-Green in this role, the character was given the name "Rainsford".  Martin-Green's casting as Burnham was officially announced on 3 April 2017. 
Burnham is not the first character to have been depicted as being adopted by Sarek; in the first draft script of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Sarek adopted a Vulcan male named Galt, who had been spying for the Klingons.
Burnham's backstory, involving her parents being killed in a terror raid by Klingons and she then being raised on an alien planet (i.e. Vulcan), also shares some similarities with Worf, whose father was killed in an attack by Romulans before he himself was likewise raised on an alien planet (i.e., Earth). This was pointed out to Aaron Harberts on After Trek: "Episode 1", but he stated that he hadn't previously thought of the similarities between Burnham's backstory and that of Worf.
Apparently, Burnham never attended Starfleet Academy; she graduated from the Vulcan Science Academy in 2249 and was immediately assigned to the USS Shenzhou.
Burnham is the second of two main characters to be canonically portrayed as being recruited aboard a series' main starship immediately after serving time in prison; Tom Paris likewise joined the crew of the USS Voyager after serving time at New Zealand Penal Settlement.
In the Pocket DIS novel Desperate Hours, Burnham became first officer in 2255, following the promotion of the previous first officer, Sonnisar ch'Theloh (β), who left to accept a post as the commanding officer of the starship USS Tereshkova (β).