“Last time on Star Trek…”
The title of this week’s episode of Star Trek: Discovery, now streaming on CBS-All Access, sequels a 29-year old two-parter from Star Trek: The Next Generation, with the evocative but accurate title “Unification III”. This episode sees a long-held dream of Ambassador Spock’s fulfilled; the reunification of the Vulcan and Romulan peoples.
The planet Vulcan is now named “Ni’Var”, a word coined in an early Star Trek fanfic from 1967 meaning the unification of two forms into one (it was used to describe the half-human/half-Vulcan Spock himself). While the Romulans and Vulcans are now living once again as a united people on their ancestral home planet, all is not rosy, as we see this week…
Beginning with a personal log from Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin Green), the recently demoted former first officer of Discovery is wondering about her place aboard the ship, as her year alone in the 32nd century with lover Cleveland Booker (David Ajala) has seen her become more willful and independent in her outlook–something that led to her unsanctioned mission to Hunhau in last week’s “Scavengers”.
That unsanctioned mission was ultimately successful both in liberating prisoners (including Booker) and retrieving a valuable ‘black box’ concerning data on the origins of the galaxy wide cataclysm known as “the Burn.” However, it cost Michael trust with her fellow shipmates, including Michael’s roomie & bestie, Ensign Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman) as well as her captain, Saru (Doug Jones). Michael, who’s fallen deeply in love with Booker, is now questioning whether she still has a home aboard the nearly thousand-year old Federation starship?
Working together in the science lab, Tilly and Michael are poring over the data collected by the ‘black box’ retrieved at Hunhau. A still-seething Tilly tells Michael that her running off to Hunhau put her in a very difficult position with Saru, and Michael apologizes, though she is distracted by the black box data. There is an infinitesimal lag between the Burn’s impact on three separate starships, including the USS Yelchin (named after the late Star Trek movie actor, Anton Yelchin, who played “Chekov” in the Kelvinverse movies). The minute gap between recorded times of the Burn proves it wasn’t quite an exactly simultaneous event, as previously believed. There is also a reference to a mysterious classified experiment called “SB-19.”
Note: It was lovely to see another starship memorialized for a late Star Trek actor. In “Die Trying” , we saw the USS Nog, Eisenberg-class, named after late Deep Space Nine actor (and friend of mine) Aron Eisenberg (1969-2019), and now we see the USS Yelchin. TNG also had the shuttlecraft Justman, named after TOS producer Bob Justman. SB-19 also reminds me of the naval ‘urban legend’ of “The Philadelphia Experiment,” a pop-conspiracy fantasy (and 1984 film) which proposed that the US Navy dabbled with time-travel at the end of the second world war.
With Saru, Michael takes her findings to current Starfleet Commander in Chief, Admiral Vance (Oded Fehr) who tells Michael that SB-19 is a deeply classified project with origins on the planet formerly known as Vulcan, now called “Ni’Var”–renamed sometime after the planet repatriated its now homeless Romulan cousins, following the collapse of the Empire in the late 24th century. Vance wants Michael to go to that now isolated world as the Federation’s envoy, using her clout as the sister of Ni’Var’s revered hero Ambassador Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Michael’s foster brother with whom she was raised. Michael, worried about lapsing back into her old habit of assuming too much responsibility, reluctantly accepts the assignment in the hope of uncovering the truth about SB-19.
Memories of her foster brother are bittersweet for Michael, as she tells Booker of their time spent together as children, as well as the last time she saw him before her leap to the 32nd century. There was also pain when young Michael tried to run away from home, telling her adoring kid brother Spock that she wanted nothing to do with him, in order to help her break away from her Vulcan-human family (“If Memory Serves”).
Michael then pulls up files from the personal logs of former Starfleet Captain Jean-Luc Picard. In those holographic files, we see Ambassador Spock confiding in Picard his own dream of uniting the Romulan and Vulcan peoples. Michael is amazed at the future of her half-Vulcan/half-human ‘kid brother,’ while Booker teases her about her family of overachievers.
Note: As a longtime fan of the late Leonard Nimoy (see: the photo below this synopsis), I geeked out a bit when I saw Picard’s logs translated into holographic footage from TNG’s “Unification Part 2” (1991) where Spock discussed his dream of uniting Vulcan and Romulus. Centuries after his death, that dream would be realized, making Spock a revered hero of the renamed planet Ni’Var. I have to wonder; just how was a holographic log of Spock’s conversation with Picard made exactly? They were speaking privately— or were they? Maybe Romulan paranoia is greater than I thought...
Saru meets with Tilly to make her an offer. With Michael’s recent demotion to chief science officer, Saru asks Tilly if she would accept the now-vacated role of First Officer! Tilly is taken aback, doubting herself as well as pointing out her obvious lack of rank and experience. Saru seems very confident that he is making the right choice, but gives the insecure ensign a chance to mull it over. Later, Tilly goes to seek advice from fellow engineer and spore drive operator, Commander Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp). Speaking with him alone in the spore chamber, she tells Stamets of Saru’s offer. An incredulous Stamets seems to dismiss the idea of Tilly as his superior officer. Before he can elaborate on his reaction, Tilly embarrassedly leaves, believing he wouldn’t be willing to accept her authority.
Note: I enjoyed the honest ambiguity of Stamets’ initial reaction to Tilly’s new role on the ship. I have to say, it came out of left field for me as well. I adore the character of Tilly, and Mary Wiseman is a sweetheart, but I’m having a hard time visualizing the character serving in that capacity. It’s not because of her social-awkwardness, but rather her low rank. Is it even possible for an ensign to serve as first officer? I realize Discovery has a very unconventional crew, but who has final say if Tilly and an officer of superior rank disagree? Would it have to be instantly arbitrated by the captain, or would all superior-ranking officers simply accept an ensign’s judgment? How this works will depend greatly on how this arc is written, and it certainly opens the door for future dramatic conflicts down the road (always a good thing for a TV show, as conflict = drama).
Discovery jumps into the space of the planet once known as Vulcan–the first Federation starship to do so in over a century, after Vulcan left the Federation. Michael wondered if the Romulans (who were enemies of the Federation in her time) forced the separation, but it turns out that idea came from native Vulcans, following their failure with SB-19, which is rumored to be the source of the cataclysmic Burn. They withdrew on their own accord, not by any Romulan goading. Discovery’s anticipated arrival is still met with some trepidation by a hologram of Ni’Var’s president, T’Rina (Tara Rosling), since the ship arrived without triggering Ni’Var’s long-range sensors. A diplomatic Saru tells T’Rina that their unannounced jump is an artifact of Discovery’s unique spore drive, which travels along an inter-dimensional mycelial network. Saru then offers to beam the president aboard.
Note: A thousand years later, and we see Vulcans still embracing cool logic as well as their traditional bowl haircuts. Vulcans will be Vulcans. Also enjoy seeing Saru so nicely settle into the role of captain.
Once aboard the antique but upgraded starship, Saru walks T’Rina though the ship, even offering her a view of her planet from orbit. Saru tells her about the black box data, and of Michael’s curiosity about SB-19, but the president is unyielding. In the century since the Burn, the subject of SB-19 (an alternative to warp travel) has become a deep taboo, as all research into it was immediately abandoned and classified. Michael, refusing to accept T’Rina’s closed door in place of an answer, invokes the ancient Vulcan ritual of the T’Kal-in-Ket, a trial which mandates a quorum to unearth a scientific truth. The request cannot be refused, according to tradition (which still stands). A quorum of three jurors is assembled. The quorum will consist of N’Raj (Oliver Becker), a Romulan who believes in self-reliance, V’Kir (Emmanuel Kabongo) a young Vulcan purist, and Shira (Stephanie Belding), a Romulo-Vulcan spokesperson. T’Rina tells Burnham that an interested party has already expressed an interest in speaking as her advocate…
That advocate turns out to be Michael’s long-lost time-traveling mother, Gabrielle (Sonja Sohn) who beams aboard for a reunion with her daughter, whom she hasn’t seen since the events of “The Red Angel,” which led to their leap from the 23rd century. Michael’s mother, from whom she was orphaned as a child, never made it to their destination of Terralysium (neither did Michael or Discovery, for that matter). Gabrielle is now living on Ni’Var as a member of a Romulan sect known as the Qowat Milat, a sacred sisterhood who take an inviolable oath to “absolute candor” at all times. Gabrielle warns her daughter that her role as her advocate means she will have to unearth some painful truths about Michael as well, since the T’Kal-in-Ket requires its quorum to actively attack the character of the one who poses the challenge.
Note: Interesting divergence of mother and daughter, as reflected in the divergence of Romulans and their ancestral Vulcan siblings. Michael was raised, in the absence of her biological parents (who were presumed dead), by the Vulcan Sarek family, while her long-lost mother found refuge within a strictly truthful Romulan sect. The Vulcans and Romulans represent two aspects, logic and truth, of a bifurcated species. Now Michael and her mother will have to endure a painful (temporary) divide with each other in order to learn the truth. That Romulans and Vulcans now exist together on the renamed world of Ni’Var implies that Michael’s relationship with Gabrielle will survive its own trial by fire following the T’Kal-in-Ket.
Michael prepares a room aboard Discovery (a mess hall redress) for the T’Kal-in-Ket by conjuring holographic torches and a gong, respecting the ancient traditions. The quorum chair is the young V’Kir, who moves to dismiss Michael’s case before it is heard. Michael pleads with the quorum to hear her out, and surprisingly the Romulan quorum member N’Raj wishes to hear her out. Romulo-Vulcan Shira argues that any discussion of SB-19 is sensitive and must be handled with great care…
Note: The torches and the gong evoke the classic TOS episode, “Amok Time”, which saw similar implements used for Spock’s would-be wedding.
As Michael pleads with the quorum, and her mother, for the vital need to share the classified SB-19 data, Gabrielle attacks her daughter’s character–in front of the quorum members–telling them that Michael has a long history with mutiny, recalling her actions aboard the USS Shenzhou with led to the Klingon-Federation war, as well as her recent unauthorized visit to Hunhau. Gabrielle asks Michael why the quorum should trust her. Michael is Michael is taken aback by her mother’s attack upon her own client–and daughter. However, there is a reason for Gabrielle’s harsh methods…
Gabrielle’s relentless attacks on her daughter’s character, admitting her own hand in it by orphaning her at a young age, have laid Michael bare–she has no pretenses left. Michael’s case will not be won by manipulating the quorum with legal trickery or even hard facts. What her mother has done is force Michael to ask herself why the data’s release is so important to her personally… is it for the Federation, or is it her own need to belong to something greater?
When asked by Gabrielle why she struggles to belong, Michael answers with the humble truth…she is terrified of making the wrong choices, or doing the wrong thing–letting down those for whom she cares. Put simply, Michael is frightened of making the wrong decision. Gabrielle thanks her daughter for finally expressing ‘absolute candor’ about herself and her motivations. A humbled Michael withdraws her request for the SB-19 data.
Note: I appreciated how the courtroom ritual used in this episode was ultimately less about the SB-19 and more about Michael herself. This shift from plot mechanics to exploring the show’s characters in refreshingly greater depth is one of the hallmarks of this third season under producer/showrunner Michelle Paradise. She is doing for this series what writer-producer Michael Piller did for Star Trek: The Next Generation when he joined that series–taking the focus away from plot mechanics and centering it on the characters. Later seasons of TNG were less about ’science mystery of the week’ and more about ‘how does this week’s mystery affect this particular character?’ It’s great to see Star Trek: Discovery finally embracing this character-driven approach after its hit-and-miss first two seasons.
After the ritual, Gabrielle is preparing to return to Ni’Var. She meets with her daughter Michael once more to tell her that president T’Rina was impressed by Michael’s raw honesty, and agreed to give her the SB-19 data, which Gabriella gives to Michael. Mother and daughter, reunited after 930 years and many light-years, are going their separate ways again. Meanwhile, Tilly answers a call from Stamets to report to engineering, and is surprised to see Stamets and the entire bridge crew there as well. One by one, they each welcome Tilly as their new first officer, busting her chops with a few joking complaints as well; Lt. Rhys (Patrick Kwok-Choon) immediately demands three weeks shore leave in Hawaii, while Lt. Detmer (Emily Coutts) gripes about an unfixed leak in her bathroom. Tilly is moved to tears by the crew’s faith in her. With that, the USS Discovery-A’s new First Officer shares a warm, heartfelt hug with her predecessor. Afterward, she orders Michael to report to the science lab, and begin processing the SB-19 data.
Note: I also like this season’s focus on the previously unsung supporting characters as well, with more dialogue and personalty injected into the characters of Detmer, Owo, Rhys and Bryce, who were previously little more than faces at consoles. After their jump to the future together, the crew of the Discovery have really bonded as a family. This is in stark contrast to the first two seasons. For example, season 2’s elaborate funeral for deceased cybernetic crew member Airiam was emotionally inert, since many viewers (myself included) could barely remember her name before that episode. We were being told to miss Airiam simply because the crew missed her, not because we felt any genuine affection for her character. This season is changing all of that, and I’m grateful.
Saru takes T’Rina for another walk through Discovery’s corridors, continuing their earlier talk. The captain expresses his wish to see Ni’Var once again rejoin the fractured Federation family. The two give the traditional splay-fingered Vulcan salute, “Live long and prosper.”
Note: The “live long and prosper” splay-fingered salute has, in the pop culture, become a shorthand salute for all of Star Trek, not just Vulcan culture. It is Star Trek’s equivalent of “may the force be with you.” Interestingly, “live long and prosper” is supposed to be the answer to the Vulcan greeting of “peace and long life” (TOS “Is There In Truth No Beauty?” TNG’s “Sarek”), but that prefix is often ignored. As created for TOS’ “Amok Time” by Leonard Nimoy, the splayed fingers are based on the Hebrew prayer symbol for the letter ’shin’, the first letter in the name of God.
Back in Discovery’s shuttle bay, aboard the Nautilus, we see Michael and Booker lying in bed together where she breaks the bad news to him; she’s staying with Discovery. He doesn’t seem too surprised, since she’s a ‘crusader,’ after all (he had her pegged when they first met). They say their goodbyes.
Note: I hope this isn’t the end of Booker. Really like the charismatic David Ajala and the informality his character brings to the show. Booker’s a cross between Han Solo and a horse whisperer, taming both ’strange new life’ as well as the once-insufferably noble Michael Burnham. Judging by upcoming trailers, I don’t think this episode is his swan song…
Spock’s Dream Fulfilled.
“Unification III” might not be everyone’s cup of tea, as it is, in some ways, a ‘trial episode’, like TOS’ “Court Martial,” or TNG’s “Measure of a Man” (both of which are fine episodes). However, in this case, the T’Kal-in-Ket ritual is relatively brief in its screen time, and, as Picard says in TNG’s “Measure of a Man,” the ritual is used as “a crucible, in which we burn away at irrelevancy until we are left with the truth, for all time.” That is precisely the tactic which Gabrielle uses. The trial isn’t so much about getting the SB-19 data as it is about mother Gabrielle getting daughter Michael to face the uncomfortable truths about herself, in order to decide her life’s course. The trial cleverly uses the Romulan Qowat Milat’s unwavering creed of “absolute candor” (first seen in Star Trek: Picard) as a courtroom device– similar to having a modern-day courtroom defendant swearing to tell ‘the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,’ or face penalties for perjury.
The theme of unification not only applies to the obvious unification of the Romulan and Vulcan peoples (on the renamed planet Ni’Var), but also of Ni’Var and the Federation, mother Gabrielle with daughter Michael, and two Starfleet officers (Burnham and Tilly) who reunite with their true purposes. Ensign (and new first officer) Tilly inches closer to her ultimate dream of captaincy, while Burnham accepts the unwavering truth that Starfleet is where she belongs, for better or worse. It’s also fitting that the episode premieres on the day of US Thanksgiving–a holiday about unity.
TNG’s “Unification 1 and 2” were about Spock’s dreams of uniting Romulus with Vulcan, as well as his reaching out to his recently-dead father Sarek–a dream Picard makes real for him in “Unification part 2.” It’s nice to see Spock’s long-held dream of Vulcan/Romulan unification finally realized, even if achieved under less than ideal circumstances (the destruction of Romulus, the Burn). Though he has been dead for many centuries by this episode, it still reaffirms my personal belief that the character of Spock is the very center of the Star Trek universe .
Written by famed Star Trek novelist/producer Kirsten Beyer and directed by Jon Dudkowski, “Unification III” is a fitting coda to the famed TNG two-parter, and it also helps bind Star Trek: Discovery to the greater Star Trek universe, with its various connective threads to TOS, TNG, and PICARD.
Star Trek: Discovery (and most of Star Trek) is available for streaming on CBS All Access right now in the United States, and Netflix in overseas markets. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-19 related deaths in the United States is over 260,000 (over a quarter million people) as of this writing and that number is increasing daily. There is no cure, no proven treatment and no exact timeline for a vaccine so, for the time being, so please continue to practice social safe-distancing wherever possible, wear masks in public, and avoid crowded outings as much as possible. With the holiday season upon us, let’s all try to keep any get togethers safe-distanced, outdoors and in small numbers, please!
Live long and prosper!