Star Trek Discovery visits the planet formerly known as Vulcan in “Unification III”

It’s time for the latest installment in my ongoing episode by episode reviews of season 3 of Star Trek Discovery. Reviews of previous episodes may be found here.

Warning: Spoilers behind the cut!

So far, season three of Star Trek Discovery has oscillated between episodes that are very typically Star Trek and episodes that deploy space opera tropes that Star Trek has rarely played with. Last episode was one of the latter, so it makes sense that the following episode would be an example of the former. And indeed, “Unification III” is the most Star Trekky of Discovery episodes, which not only resolves its central conflict in a courtroom drama cum dissertion defence (Camestros Felapton calls it “an ancient Earth ritual called ‘defending your phd thesis’ but with space elves and more apostrophes” in his review) but which also refers back to earlier seasons of Discovery, the original series, The Next Generation and Star Trek Picard. Even the title is a reference to the Next Generation two-parter “Unification” and indeed implies that this episode is a direct sequel, albeit one that is set 800 years after the original. Honestly, you couldn’t find a more typical Star Trek episode, if you tried.

However, “Unification III” also engages in one of the most annoying things about Star Trek Discovery, namely the continuing humiliation of Michael Burnham. Season one was pretty much all about humiliating Michael, season two was much better in that regard, but season three falls right back into the bad old habits again. And so episode starts off with an extended flashback of Michael getting humiliated and demoted (not without reason) in the last episode without recapping any of the bits about “Scavengers” that were actually fun. And then, the Michael humiliation porn continues this week with almost no interruption. It’s too much even for AV-Club reviewer Zack Handlen, who doesn’t particularly like Michael.

But before we get to the humiliation porn, we get a very nice scene of Michael beaming aboard Book’s ship (which still has no name and is still parked inside Discovery‘s shuttle bay) looking for some comfort, which leads to Michael and Book having sex (which is very tastefully handled, probably because Sonequa Martin-Green’s pregnancy was already showing at this point) and some candid pillow talk afterwards. Michael confesses that she is no longer sure, if Discovery is where she belongs, and Book, who feels not welcome aboard Discovery, tries to persuade her to just quit and travel through space with him and Grudge. He also tries to tell Michael that no, the fate of the universe does not rest upon her shoulders (though in Star Trek Discovery, it usually does) and that someone else will figure out the Burn thing eventually. And indeed, part of me just wanted Michael to say “yes” and “Screw Starfleet”. But she’s still Michael Burnham, and so she must not only suffer, the fate of the universe also really does rest upon her shoulders.

In the next scene, we get Michael reuniting with Tilly, after Tilly basically tattled about her unsanctioned absence to Saru. Okay, so Saru would have noticed Michael’s absence anyway sooner or later anyway (and why does the Discovery‘s computer not alert Saru, if someone is leaving the ship?), but tattling on your friend is not a nice thing to do. Tilly also wants to know why Michael didn’t tell her about her plans, whereupon Michael says that it would have put Tilly into an even worse position with Saru. Tilly, however, insists that she still would have liked to know. Though I full understand why Michael didn’t tell Tilly. Because much as I like Tilly, she is about the last person aboard Discovery I would trust to keep a secret.

Michael and Tilly also analyse the black box/flight recorder Book and Michael found last episode and find that the Starfleet ship to which the flight recorder belonged also exploded at a slightly different time than the other two Starfleet ships from which they have flight reocrders.  So the Burn really did spread from a certain location. Michael tries to triangulate the location based on the information from the three flight recorders, but Tilly reminds her that space is three-dimensional (finally someone remembers) and that they need more data. Tilly also has an idea where to find that data. For all through the galaxy, there are scattered sensors belonging to a classified experiment known only as SB-19. Those sensors may well have recorded useful data.

Saru and Michael promptly inform Admiral Vance about these findings and ask for the SB-19 sensor data. Whereupon Admiral Vance informs them that procuring the data might be a problem, because SB-19 wasn’t a Federation experiment. It was run by Ni’Var.

Since Michael and Saru both react with a blank look, Vance corrects himself, “Oh yes, you probably know that planet better by its former name Vulcan. This leads to another barrage of questions and Vance offering some catch-up of 900 years of galactic history. For starters, Vulcan changed its name, because it’s no longer inhabited only by Vulcans, but the Romulans also live there now (Jean-Luc Picard would be very relieved to hear that someone has finally agreed to take in the homeless Romulans).

“But aren’t the Romulans enemies?” a disbelieving Saru asks, whereupon Vance explains that the Romulans are actually a Vulcan offshoot (a fact that was not known until the original series episode “Balance of Terror”, which takes place after Discovery jaunted into the future) and that Ambassador Spock worked hard to reunite the two people and that his efforts succeeded (sort of), even though it took centuries. “Spock did what?” Michael exclaims, since she has no idea what her little brother has been up to since she left.

But Michael has barely time to deal with those revelations, when Vance drops another bombshell. Because Ni’Var left the Federation about a hundred years before, shortly after the Burn. Which is something of a shock, because Vulcan was a founding member. On the other hand, Earth also left the Federation and they were another founding member. And indeed, Michael insists that the Vulcans would never leave the Federation – it must have been those Romulans. “No, actually the Romulans wanted to stay”, Vance replies. He also reports that diplomatic relations with Ni’Var are difficult, because Ni’Var doesn’t trust the Federation and won’t hand over the data.

However, Vance also has a brilliant idea. Since the people of Ni’Var venerate Spock as their uniter, they might just listen to his sister (whom no one was supposed to ever mention again, but maybe the Vulcans just ignored that bit and the Romulans never agreed in the first place), when they won’t listen to anybody else. Saru points out that he demoted Michael, but Vance won’t hear anything about that. And so Discovery is off to Ni’Var a.k.a. the planet formerly known as Vulcan.

En route, Michael – and Book, since they’re together at the time – catches up on Spock’s remarkable history, accessing the files of one Admiral Jean-Luc Picard and treating us to a clip of Leonard Nimoy as Spock in the original “Unification” two-parter. I suspect it was not just Michael who got misty-eyed at seeing Spock again (and nothing against Ethan Peck or Zachary Quinto, but for most of us, Leonard Nimoy still is Spock). Though Michael is also a very proud big sister. Book laughs and tells Michael that she and Spock are both such overarchievers (and Michael hasn’t even mentioned her other brother yet, the one who wanted to talk to God). But Book also likes Spock, at least what little he’s seen of him.

When Discovery arrives at Ni’Var, they are greeted by a hologram of President T’Rina. Tasha Rosling, the Canadian actress playing T’Rina, looked very familiar, but while she has appeared in several things I’ve seen, there was no role which really stuck out to me. Finally, I realised that the actress reminded me of Swiss singer and TV personality Paola Felix, who was a staple of German TV, when I was a kid.

T’Rina is happy enough to see Michael, though a tad miffed, because Discovery just popped up without triggering Ni’Var’s long-range sensors. She also refuses to hand over the SB-19 data, because that subject is still sensitive more than a century later. Cause it turns out that SB-19 was not just a bunch of sensors, but a system of stargates (wrong franchise, folks), which the Vulcans developed as an alternative to dilithium, since the Federation was running out of dilithium even before the Burn, because they overstretched themselves. The Federation pushed the Vulcans to develop the SB-19 system faster than the Vulcans were comfortable with. Then the Burn happened and the Vulcans believed that the SB-19 experiment was the cause, so they shut down the experiment and left the Federation, because 900 years of putting up with humans was enough for them. Coincidentally, that huge Vulcan flounce also proves that the Romulans are not the only drama queens living on Ni’Var.

Michael points out that while she and Tilly haven’t been able to fully pinpoint the origin of the Burn, they do know that Vulcan a.ka. Ni’Var was not it. But T’Rina remains adamant. She’d love to help, but the situation is just too politically volatile. After all, Ni’Var is the planet of drama queens.

Saru is willing to leave it at that. Michael, however, isn’t. And being Michael, she comes up with a brilliant plan, which she unfortunately neglects to discuss with anybody else beforehand. To be fair, it was probably a spur of the moment idea, but it might still have been a good idea to run her plan past Saru first. On the other hand, Saru probably would have said no. And so Michael asks T’Rina, if they still follow the old ways. “Of course,” T’Rina declares, “We’re Vulcan, after all.” Whereupon Michael informs her that as a graduate of the Vulcan Science Academy (and we wonder how much Michael enjoyed dropping that tidbit, considering that how the Vulcans treated her on her graduation ceremony) she invokes the T’Kal-in-ket, an ancient Vulcan ritual that is part trial and part PhD thesis defence.

T’Rina is not at all pleased, because Michael just forced her hand, while Saru is just exasperated that Michael once again made a move without informing him about it first. Michael, however, is confident. After all, she has scientific proof that Ni’Var was not the source of the Burn. T’Rina warns her that proof alone won’t help, because things have changed a lot in the past 900 years.

One of the things that have changed is that the challenger at a T’Kal-in-ket now gets assigned an advocate, a member of the Quowat Milat, the order of Romulan warrior nuns who speak with absolutely candour and only support lost causes, whom we first encountered in Star Trek Picard. T’Rina also informs Michael that this particular Quowat Milat sister has taken an interest in her specifically.

I have to admit that I was halfway expecting a distant descendant of Spock’s to show up. He might well have decided to further his unification project by marrying a Romulan. After all, that’s what Sarek did with Amanda. However, when the Quowat Milat sister lifts her veil, it’s none other than Gabrielle Burnham, Michael’s long lost mother whom we last saw in “Perpetual Infinity” last season. Michael has been searching for her mother on Terralysium, but instead Gabrielle somehow ended up on Ni’Var (to be fair, her adopted home planet is a logical place to look for Michael) and wound up joining the Quowat Milat. Michael is of course overjoyed to see her mother and also confides in her that she isn’t sure if Discovery and Starfleet are still right for her. This proves to be a mistake.

But first, we get the T’Kal-in-ket, which turns out to be a very Vulcan affair with torches, gongs, an audience of Discovery crewmembers as well as random Vulcans and Romulans (the way to tell them apart is that Vulcans still wear the same silly hairstyle they’ve always favoured, while Romulans have regular hairstyles) and a quorum of three whom Michael has to persuade of her cause. The quorum are V’Kir, an extremely arrogant and snotty Vulcan, who’s likely a latter day version of the Vulcan logic extremists we’ve seen in previous seasons of Discovery (and am I the only one who finds it problematic that Vulcans of colour are inevitably jerks), N’Raj, a Romulan who’s the most likeable of the bunch, and Shira, who represents those who are descended from both Romulans and Vulcans (though aren’t they the same species anyway?) and doesn’t say much.

Though the T’Kal-in-ket is almost oever before it began, because V’Kir, who is the chairvulcan, wants to dismiss Michael’s cause, because she has no new information to answer. The people of Ni’Var already know that the Burn spread and where it originated. Michael insists that they don’t know everything and that her data proves that the source wasn’t Ni’Var. N’Raj points out that if there’s a chance that Ni’Var wasn’t the source after all, they should maybe listen, but V’Kir won’t hear any of it. His mind is made up. Ni’Var is responsible for the Burn and the Federation made them do it.

Now we know that Michael has the tendency to literally consider herself responsible for the fate of the whole universe, a card she even plays during the inquiry. “Hey guys, I travelled through time to save all life in the whole fucking universe and this is how you thank me?” However, considering yourself responsible for the fate of the whole universe isn’t just a Michael thing, it’s a Vulcan thing. And the Vulcans have spent the past hundred years thinking they were responsible for the end of the Star Trek universe as we know it. And now they would just like to wallow in guilt undisturbed. Like I said, they’re all drama queens.

V’Kir points out that even if Ni’Var should not be responsible for the Burn, they still don’t trust the Federation. And since Michael speaks for the Federation, how shall they trust her? Michael declares that she’s from Vulcan, too, and Spock’s sister, so they can trust her. And no, the Federation is not manipulating her, even though it totally is.

At this point, Gabrielle Burnham decides to make a last-minute play for the coveted 2020 Darth Vader Parenthood Award for Oustandingly Horrible Fictional Parents by basically stabbing her daughter in the back. And indeed Dr. Burnham a.k.a. Sister Gabrielle might have had a chance, if I wasn’t already 99 percent sure who this year’s winner will be. So nice try, Gabrielle, but the other candidate was simply more horrible. Keep trying.

Gabrielle informs the quorum that Michael is not telling the truth and proceeds to lay Michael’s painful history in great and exhaustive detail, telling everybody present that Michael tends to defy orders again and again, that she got prime Philippa Georgiou killed, that she started the war with the Klingons and that she defied orders again to get the Burn data and was demoted in the process. Oh yes, and Michael doesn’t even know, if Starfleet is still the right place for her.

All of those things may be right, but it’s still a dick move by Gabrielle and if she were my mother, I have told her to get lost and never come near me again. But this is still Star Trek and so Gabrielle’s dick move only triggers an impassioned speech from Michael how she travelled 900 years into the future to save all life in the universe from the evil AI Control (that should work with N’Raj, since we know that Romulans hate AIs) and that they could just be fucking grateful, cause without her sacrifice, their whole shitty future wouldn’t even exist. All right, so Michael swears a little less, but that’s more or less the gist of it. “Now she speaks the truth”, Gabrielle declares triumphantly.

Now in Star Trek, particularly from The Next Generation onwards, passionate speeches frequently save the day. However, Ni’Var is still the planet of the drama queens and so the quorum instead descends into internecine squabbling, as old enmities and disagreements between Vulcans, Romulans and hybrids come to the fore. Whereupon Michael decides to out-drama-queen them all. She bangs the gong, declares that she won’t undo the good work that her brother has done to reunite Vulcans and Romulans and that she withdraws her request. Then she walks out in an epic flounce.

And that epic flounce is successful, too, for T’Rina is so impressed by Michael (and Saru, since she quite seems to like everybody’s favourite Kelpian) that she hands over the data anyway. She also informs Michael that she now understands how Spock became the man he was. Because he was clearly influenced by his big sister. T’Rina might even be right, because Spock and Michael are very similar characters. They both do what they feel is right, orders and consequences be damned. They’re also both willing to sacrifice everything to protect the people they care for. And they’re both overarchievers who think that the fate of the entire universe rests on their shoulders. Finally, Spock’s decision to reunite Vulcans and Romulans was exactly the sort of unsanctioned maverick action that Michael keeps getting in trouble for. Which makes the fact that quite a few people dislike Michael but adore Spock so hypocritical. Because they are very similar people in different packages.

Afterwards, Gabrielle visits Michael in her quarters. Amazingly, Michael does not kick her out, but they even reconcile. Michael’s ordeal has shown her that she still wants to be part of Starfleet and Gabrielle tells her that she doesn’t have to change the new person she’s become, but can remain with Starfleet as her new self.

That’s all nice and well, except that I don’t agree that Starfleet is a good fit for Michael and likely never was. The only reason she joined was to prove something to Sarek and the Vulcan Science Academy. But she doesn’t have to prove anything to them anymore, so maybe going off on her own with Book would be a better choice for her. However, as io9 reviewer James Whitbrook points out, Michael is the protagonist and the series is so focussed on her that only does everything have to revolve around her, but there was only ever one outcome for her dilemma.

The fact that Discovery is more focussed on a single character than any other Star Trek series except for Picard lies also at the heart of the B-plot of this episode, namely who will be Discovery‘s first officer now that Michael has been demoted. Saru has clearly made his decision and approaches Tilly. If you think that a) Tilly is an ensign and there are plenty of people on board who are more experienced and outrank her, b) Tilly never even completed the command training program and c) this is the second time Saru picks a first officer just because he likes them and look how well that worked the first time around, then you’re not alone. Tilly makes all of these points herself.

Saru gives her time to consider, so Tilly talks to Stamets, which gives Anthony Rapp to show off some of his marvelous facial expressions. Stamets also isn’t entirely sure how he feels about Tilly of all people being his boss. However, he enlists the bridge crew who all tell Tilly how much they love her and that they want her to do the job for which several of them likely were in line themselves. So Silvia Tilly is now the Discovery‘s new first officer. reviewer Keith R.A. DeCandido is okay with this decision, even though it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and his wife is thrilled. And yes, Tilly is a very likable character and a fan favourite. However, making Tilly of all people Number One also illustrates a huge issue with Discovery, namely that the show is so focussed on Michael that many of the other characters are criminally underdeveloped. Michael is out for obvious reasons, Stamets and Culber both have jobs already, Jett Reno, who would have been a fantastic choice, is only recurring but not a regular character, Georgiou is a psychopath from the mirror universe. And the bridge crew, who would have been the most likely pool of candidates, are so underdeveloped that only Dettmer and Owosegun have anything approaching personalities. So Tilly is really the only person listed in the opening credits who can take the job. Season 3 has done a lot to remedy that and give the bridge crew more to do, but the intense Michael focus of the show is still a problem, even if Michael has now decided that her place is with Starfleet and Discovery after all.

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