Star Trek: Discovery Season 3, Episode 7 – Debuted Thursday, November 26, 2020
Teleplay by Kirsten Beyer
Directed by Jon Dudkowski
Deeply steeped in franchise mythology, “Unification III” neatly ties together eras of Star Trek while nicely progressing the story and character arcs of Discovery’s third season.
WARNING: Spoilers below!
“This may not be my home anymore”
Stripped of her position as first officer, Commander Burnham is finally at the fork in the road she has been headed towards all season. She isn’t sure if she belongs in Starfleet anymore, and having Book’s loveboat stored in the shuttlebay as a distraction is not helping. Being torn between her galaxy-saving “messianic complex” and a desire to run away with this rogue courier with a heart of gold can’t go on. And the solemn romance that kicks off “Unification III” hints that she is thinking of taking her talents to another team.
Michael’s demotion was the price she paid for going off Book (see what I did there?) last episode, to get her hands on a third black box to triangulate the starting point of The Burn. However, Tilly points out space is three dimensional—uh, no duh, Sylvia—and so three points only narrow things down in two dimensions… oh right. Nerd!
The good news is an old Starfleet experiment named SB-19 with sensor data from all over the galaxy could pinpoint origin point of The Burn. The bad news is the SB-19 data is inaccessible on a planet named Ni’Var, aka Planet Vulcan. What? Vance gives Michael and Saru (and us) a history lesson on how the Vulcans and Romulans finally fulfilled Spock’s vision of unification, but they quit the Federation after the SB-19 experiment to create a a warp alternative failed. In fact, they think the SB-19 network actually caused the Burn, and they are pissed at the Federation for making them do it. If only there was someone with ties to Vulcan and Spock who could reopen those lines of communication. Wait!
“I am Michael Burnham, daughter of Sarek, sister of Spock”
All of this brings memories of Spock flooding in for Michael, including finding out where her brother’s path led him after they parted company in the 23rd century, which was just about a year ago from her perspective. In a poignant and beautiful moment, Michael sees a recording from Jean-Luc Picard’s private stash of Spock (and yes, it was OG Leonard Nimoy Spock) expressing his vision of bringing the Vulcans and Romulans together. I’m not crying, you’re crying.
After some niceties when arriving at Ni’Var, it is made clear the SB-19 data will remain on the down low, and even talking about it opens up some old wounds the locals want to avoid. Facing the stubborn and surprisingly sassy Vulcan President, Michael breaks the gridlock by pulling an ancient Vulcan ritual out of her back pocket. Classic. And the first rule of T’Kal-in-ket is: You don’t deny T’Kal-in-ket. Sneaky.
The Vulcan ritual is some kind of scholarly court to rigorously get to a fundamental truth. Burnham has been assigned a “Shalankhkai” advocate who arrives with unnecessary veiled mystery, only to be revealed to be her time-traveling mother Gabrielle Burnham, who is now a member of the “absolute candor”-loving Romulan Qowat Milat order of warrior nuns. Mom quickly spots that Michael is “lost,” with one foot out the door, and lets her know her data quest is a lost cause too. What what what?
“Part of leadership is the acknowledgment that one is suited to it”
With Burnham out as number one, Saru went totally out of the box in picking her “acting” replacement. He tapped Ensign—again ENSIGN—Sylvia Tilly. She is as shocked as we are to hear about it, sending her into a bit of an existential crisis. She is given a day to decide if she is ready for the responsibility, which is good news as she looked like she was going to hurl when Saru first sprung the news. And the look on Paul Stamets’—LT. COMMANDER Paul Stamets’—face when Tilly told him was priceless. Speaking for everyone, his initial hot take when asked for advice is that this is “deeply, deeply weird.”
With Tilly dispatched to struggle with this issue, Saru continued to be the best Starfleet captain he can be. While Michael focused on her trial ritual, he took on the greater task of turning President T’Rina’s eyes back to the Federation. This is a new side of Saru, and Doug Jones plays this diplomatic captain with poise and grace as he learns the Vulcans have learned to “let go of maxims and proverbs” after centuries of experience, seeing risks to the Federation ignoring the “needs of the few.” Hmm. Going to have to think about that one.
“I’m here for the duration”
The plan for the genuinely intense trial is to appeal to the logic of the Vulcan purist V’Kir, but he shoots her down like Tuvok dismissing Neelix’s cooking. Shira the “Romulo-Vulcan” is more tepid than Plomeek soup, and the Romulan N’Raj seems open but sees Federation plots under every plate. As for Gabrielle, turns out this candor stuff does not mix with attorney-client privilege, as she tells the trio of judges Michael cannot be trusted, is a former mutineer, was just demoted for insubordination, and is being used by the Federation as Spock’s sister. Not even an open court Burnham-ific speech can convince mom of her true intentions. Worst. Lawyer. Ever.
But there was a method to this legal madness. By stripping away the layers, they finally came to the truth of the matter both for Michael and for the fragile balance of Ni’Var, which she is threatening. Seeing this truth and in the spirit of Spock’s vision, Michael withdraws her request. “I ask you for nothing, but I am giving you my trust as a member of Starfleet.” Big brother would be proud. And the prez was paying attention, and no doubt also moved by Saru’s diplomacy, she slips Michael the data anyway (via Michael’s mom), trusting she will do the right thing with it.
Mom also helps her daughter go past her big decision, reminding her “duty and joy go hand in hand,” leading her to recommit to staying in Starfleet, and it looks like Book is along for the ride for now too. As for Sylvia, the crew, led by Paul, take it upon themselves to guide her as well. In a fun heartwarming moment, they gang up on her to tell her to “say yes” to the promotion; they would all follow her anywhere. It may defy logic, but XO Tilly feels right for the Disco. And Saru and T’Rina wrap it all up on promising terms, complete with a well-earned “live long and prosper.”
More than a sequel
“Unification III” delivered on the title’s promise as a sort of sequel to Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “Unification” arc. And as that two-part episode brought back Leonard Nimoy as Spock, those were big Vulcan shoes to fill. But this episode and that title had meaning beyond following up on the Vulcans and Romulans. We saw unifications throughout, most importantly Michael’s reunion with her (real) mother, leading to her finding a way to unify her drive for duty and the call of love. We also saw a union of the crew and their preferred new (acting) first officer, and a wayward planet potentially returning to the flock. It’s nice when an episode can maintain a theme like this.
A key to getting character development, mythology, and plot right is knowing what not to do. Sure we want to know what’s up with Georgiou and Kovich, if Adira is tapping into her Trill memories, if Culber has fixed Detmer’s issues, but it’s better to let those things wait. And that also opens up time to bring in some new characters and guest actors, like Tara Rosling’s intriguing T’Rina. And while the literal unveiling of Gabrielle Burnham was clichéd, Sonja Sohn was just the right person to bring back to reset Burnham, and put her in her place. Yes, once again Michael was the quintessential element for a mission, but that actually came back to bite her on her hubris.
Kirsten Beyer was the perfect choice to pen an episode both steeped in these characters and rich in Star Trek mythology. It also doesn’t hurt that she has spent most of her time on Star Trek: Picard lately, and could bring in some of those elements into the show. “Unification III” is also an excellent entry in the Trek courtroom episodes sub-genre, although why the ritual was held on the ship is curious. For a show that often telegraphs its punches, “Unification III” keeps you guessing on where all of these things are going up to the end.
While avoiding some of Discovery’s pitfalls, this episode did perhaps take itself a bit too seriously. Season three has been a delight for a lighter tone and sure we’re dealing with Vulcans, but that can also be an opportunity. Instead, there was a bit too much of the usual melodrama, speechifying, and of course, crying.
Rethinking the Federation
Even though this episode was essentially an elaborate fetch quest to get the data needed to research The Burn, there was still quite a bit of worldbuilding. Of course, we got filled in on Vulcan and Romulan history, and giving their unified planet a new name was a nice touch. Ni’Var originally comes from a 1976 short Star Trek short story about Vulcans, meaning “the duality of things,’ which is the kind of deep cut that could only come from someone like Trek novelist Kirsten Beyer.
And we are learning more nuance about The Burn and the period leading up to it, with a seemingly desperate Federation hell-bent on finding an alternative to the dwindling dilithium. We are getting hints that maybe this future Federation isn’t so squeaky clean as their spotless programmable matter floors would indicate. Could they be the bad guys after all? Hopefully not, as we are all growing too attached to Oded Fehr’s Admiral Vance to shunt him into the villain camp. But this is yet another clever way this episode confronts our assumptions. We can see that Ni’Var’s reasons for leaving the Federation seem pretty legit, putting the plan to get the galactic band back together into question.
Can’t wait for “Unification IV”
The mark of a good episode is leaving you wanting more, which is precisely what this episode does, even though it is a complete and satisfactory story on its own. This update to Star Trek lore was enhanced with excellent costumes and props. However, it still feels like we missed out on an actual visit to Ni’Var for the full ancient ritual experience, complete with location shooting. You don’t have to go back to Iceland, but surely somewhere in Ontario in the fall could have stood in for Vulcan with some creative cinematography.
First-time director (and long-time Discovery editor) Jon Dudkowski did a fine job, with the slower pace that a character and lore focused episode as this requires. Jeff Russo and his musicians continue to impress in the way they are more and more part of the story in season three.
This episode feels like a pivot point, which makes sense as it is the halfway mark for the season. The ship has been upgraded, Michael is recommitted, they have gathered the clues, there is a new (acting) first officer… the pieces are in place to move this story and these characters forward. After last week, Discovery is back on track to continue its best season yet.
Random extra bits
- The three black boxes Michael found come from…
- Ni’Var was also the name of a Vulcan Suurok-class cruiser from Star Trek: Enterprise.
- The SB-19 system resembled space gates from the Stargate franchise but could be based on the technology behind the Borg system of transwarp conduits, albeit more advanced with instant travel.
- Paul Stamets used his new easy-access-goo spore drive interface for the first time… and he really likes it.
- The Discovery-A refit also gets a bit of an update to the spore jump effect.
- While Vulcan has no moon, other planetary bodies were seen close by, possibly including Delta Vega.
- Gabrielle Burnham arrived back in the future on Essof IV, where she was trapped by the Discovery crew in the 23rd century in “The Red Angel.”
- Even if she is only acting first officer, Saru should bump Tilly up to lieutenant.
- Why do people often appear to already be walking when they arrive via personal transporter?
- Does Saru have a thing for President T’Rina?
- Line of the week: “But first, we would like to present a list of grievances and requests.”
More to come
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