Published Jan 10, 2023
David Ajala on the Humanity and Motivation of Cleveland ‘Book’ Booker
The Star Trek: Discovery actor reflects on the Book experience so far.
By Christine Dinh
Cleveland “Book” Booker, first introduced in Season 3, has been put through the wringer on Star Trek: Discovery. Throughout the most recent season, Book had been on a dark path of revenge, colored by shock and immense grief, following the destruction of his home world Kwejian and the loss of his loved ones.
In promotion of the arrival of Star Trek: Discovery Season 4’s home entertainment release, StarTrek.com had the opportunity to speak with the Kwejian rogue about his Star Trek experience, his perspective of Book’s journey, and beyond!
The Star Trek franchise is not unfamiliar with the loss of one’s home and people. On Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, across multiple seasons, the Federation, as well as viewers at home, learned how the Cardassian occupation of Bajor impacted the Alpha Quadrant. In Star Trek (2009), the eradication of two planets set the film in motion — the destruction of Romulus by a supernova, and Nero’s revenge that forced both Prime Spock and Kelvin Spock to witness their home world Vulcan wiped before their very eyes. And most recently, the events of Star Trek: Prodigy unfolded as the result of a civil war caused the planet of Solum to destroy itself.
The immense loss of Kwejian overwhelmed Cleveland Booker in Season 4, sending him down a path where he teamed up with Ruon Tarka to destroy the Dark Matter Anomaly (DMA), and putting him at direct odds with Michael Burnham. “It was challenging, but deeply humbling at the same time,” reflected Ajala on the storyline. “His grief was very immediate, and my main objective is to share this guy’s story and to really allow his humanity to shine through. He’s not a perfect superhero; his humanity of being is beautifully imperfect.”
“Some may question the decisions that Cleveland Booker made,” Ajala continued, “but I believe he made the decisions with the best of intentions. The pain, as much as it can be a great motivator, it can also be very destructive.”
As the season unfolded, it’s revealed that it was the Species 10-C that destroyed Kwejian, unknowingly. This arc comes full circle for Book as we discover it was 10-C that saved him in the finale from his exploding ship. Taking the opportunity, Book was able to convince 10-C to deactivate the DMA and fully understand what their anomaly created.
David Ajala chose to watch the story unfold on an episode-by-episode basis instead of learning about the entire season at the start of production. “It was deeply inspiring because I didn’t anticipate or expect it at all,” he noted. “To see it come together like that, it really was beautiful storytelling, and I felt a great sense of responsibility to make sure I honored the words as best I could. In that moment, I love how human Cleveland Booker was and how he able to be a man of courage because he acknowledged his brokenness but didn’t allow it to define him.”
“That grief will carry on with him,” stated Ajala. “But I believe he will find peace with it. It won’t define him, but it will allow him to have a deeper level of empathy for anyone else who may go through a similar thing.”
Over the past two seasons, Michael Burnham and Book’s journeys complement each other in subtle ways. As punishment for his rogue actions during Season 4, the Federation assigned Book community service where he must aid refugees displaced by the DMA. The leniency here demonstrates that “reasons do matter” and how much the Federation has changed in the 32nd Century since Burnham and her punishment in Season 1’s 23rd Century following her actions at the Battle at the Binary Stars.
“Sonequa [Martin-Green] is a joy to work with,” exclaimed Ajala. “It’s been very humbling to see how the Star Trek family and fans of the show responded to their relationship. One thing that was really important to Sonequa and myself, as we’ve been fleshing out these characters and this relationship between Michael Burnham and Cleveland Booker, is for them to always feel that they can be their most authentic selves in each other’s presence.”
“These two characters, who first met in a very hostile way, where their first encounter was very physical and violent and exciting,” Ajala continued. “I always use that as a launch pad of what their relationship is. Iron sharpens iron; they are two warriors who bring out the best in each other. They’ve been on the battlefield many times together, who have rescued and save each other. Now, they’ve decided to be lovers. So as much as these guys are warriors and lovers, we also wanted to really make sure we had healthy amounts of levity and fun and joy because that’s when they’re at their best — when they’re happily in love and having fun.”
In a series where the stakes are constantly high and where our heroes must commit to the cause, it’s refreshing and encouraging to see a loving relationship with honest depictions of hardships. During a time where we need hope and love in the world, on-screen and in the real world, Ajala relishes in the opportunity to portray this dynamic between Booker and Burnham.
“Hope is a very powerful gift and love is a necessary gift,” noted Ajala. “Hope allows you to have the audacity of faith to believe, ‘If I don’t give up, maybe just maybe, I can pull through.’ That’s really important. As we go through Season 4, we’re going to see these characters, who are superheroes, these very human characters who are perfectly imperfect, refusing to give up and choosing to live. One of the episodes is even titled, ‘Choose to Live.’ There’s power in that, instead of giving up, choosing to live, and choosing to push forward.”
In the series, Book realized this was exactly where he wanted to be. Speaking on that, Ajala explained, “That’s just where he wants to be; it’s also being very aware of his calling. Sometimes you go through certain things and it reminds you, crystalizes why you are called to do what you’re called to do. That’s something Cleveland Booker will continue to do with or without Starfleet."
Teaser Trailer | Star Trek: Discovery - Season 5
Book predominantly shared screentime with Michael Burnham and his queen, Grudge. Upon mention of Grudge, Ajala lavished praise for his costar, “Grudge brings a wonderful element of spontaneity and fun to the show, to the set, which is very beneficial because it makes us be very present and malleable so we can be ready for whatever Grudge can throw at us.”
In one episode, Booker and Paul Stamets commented on how their two characters hardly were ever in each other’s companies. As for Ajala, was there another character he hopes Book can bond with in the future? “Absolutely Tilly,” remarked Ajala. “Mary Wiseman is a force and I would love for Cleveland Booker and Tilly to have more scenes together. That dynamic could be wonderful. Cleveland Booker is deeply important to Michael Burnham and Tilly is equally important to her. And to have the two individuals who Michael Burnham loves so deeply interacting with each other, it could be a lot of fun. That would be the top of my wish list.”
What makes Star Trek an enduring and special franchise has always been its fans. When Ajala’s character first debuted, it was during a time of quarantine and lockdowns. Despite only experiencing online interactions, the Discovery actor had previously shared with StarTrek.com in 2020 how welcomed and warmly received he felt.
On finally witnessing the fandom in person in 2022 at Star Trek: Mission Chicago, Ajala shared, “I’ve been told about the Star Trek family so much and when you meet them and you’re in each other’s face and sharing stories, it was deeply humbling and deeply inspiring. I’ve had some very blessed encounters with the fans of the show and when they tell you how much certain stories mean to them, it’s not only humbling. It really encourages you to just keep showing up on set and bringing your best every day.”