When the episode titles leaked for this season of Star Trek: Discovery, “Unification III” was the one that stuck out immediately. “Unification” is a two-part episode of The Next Generation that guest stars Leonard Nimoy as Spock, making it the first substantial crossover between the original and contemporary Star Trek casts. “Unification” concerns Spock’s underground movement to reunite the Vulcan and Romulan cultures, who split from each other centuries earlier. It’s also noteworthy for being a terrific TNG episode in its own right, even for viewers who have no attachment to The Original Series. To create a nominal sequel to this story is to write a very big check, but happily, “Unification III” lives up to the name by honoring what’s come before and, just as importantly, being a really good episode of Discovery.
29 Years Ago Last Week on Star Trek
Before the opening credits even roll on “Unification III,” Michael Burnham, Saru, and the audience are treated to a startling revelation in the Star Trek mythology: the planet Vulcan, birthplace of Spock and Michael’s adopted home, has taken on a new name and a changed purpose. Now called Ni’Var, the planet is home not only to Vulcans but to Romulans, the iconic antagonists of both the original Star Trek and The Next Generation. This is one of the most significant changes to the landscape of the Star Trek universe that has occurred off-screen during Discovery’s massive time jump, but it also feels right for it to have happened in the unseen centuries rather than here on Discovery. Not only bad things have happened since our next most recent reference point in the Star Trek timeline — there has also been lasting positive change that is a direct result of the hard work and sacrifice depicted on other series.
If there’s an overall message to Star Trek as a whole, it’s that your enemy today will not be your enemy forever. Peace is a long, difficult process and violence can’t always be prevented, but with enough time, effort, and good faith, you will find understanding. In “Unification II,” which aired in November 1991, Star Trek’s most beloved character chooses to remain in exile on the planet of his people’s oldest enemy, where he will dedicate the rest of his life to creating a pathway to lasting peace. To see that peace realized, with neither culture assimilated by the other, is thoroughly rewarding as a fan and a loving tribute to the legacy of Spock.
The decision to connect Michael Burnham so closely with an established Star Trek character has always felt like a weird marketing ploy, like something the studio demanded in order to appeal to older fans when Discovery first launched. (In fact, this mostly had the opposite effect.) The writers made the most of it during Season Two, creating a genuinely compelling story and relationship between Michael and Spock, but it’s still one of the elements of Discovery’s awkward early years that the show is better off without. The scene in “Unification III” in which Michael chokes up watching a clip of her younger brother, now an accomplished elder diplomat and hero, is a lovely epilogue to that relationship, and I personally hope that, after this episode, the series moves on from it for good.
Going for her Master’s in Personal Growth
Vulcan is also a place of importance to Michael Burnham, who grew up there as Spock’s foster sister, but has since left behind much of the Vulcan stoicism that she carried in the first season. Like Discovery herself, Ni’Var would likely have felt foreign to her even without the added wrinkle of a massive social upheaval. The circumstances of her homecoming are stranger still, as Michael is ordered to leverage her position as the sister of a long-dead cultural icon and convince Ni’Var to set aside a grudge with the Federation and share their scientific findings on the Burn. The people of Ni’Var believe that a research project, called SB-19, is the cause of the pan-galactic disaster, and that the Federation is culpable for pressuring them into pursuing it despite reservations as to its safety.
When Discovery’s diplomatic overture fails, Michael pulls one of the oldest moves in the Star Trek handbook and evokes an ancient ceremonial rite, in which she must state her case to a panel of scientific peers who will rigorously challenge the validity of her research and findings and actually yes, it is just a thesis defense. But it’s a traditional Vulcan thesis defense, so it has a fancy name and there’s a gong involved. As an added twist, Michael’s appointed advocate for the ceremony is none other than her birth mother, Dr. Gabrielle Burnham (Sonja Sohn, Utopia).
Since returning to the future last season, Gabrielle has joined the ranks of the Qowat Milat, the Romulan order of scrupulously honest warrior nuns introduced in Star Trek: Picard. Her presence here comes out of nowhere, but as the episode rolls on it becomes difficult to imagine the story working without her. Michael begins this episode lost and confused, having received an entirely justified demotion last week for her insubordinate behavior. While she’s totally dedicated to solving the riddle of the Burn, she’s no longer sure she wants to do it with Starfleet, especially since running off with sweetheart adventurer Book is also an option. By the end, Michael has re-dedicated herself to Starfleet, with no signs of looking back. Only someone who has watched Michael’s entire life (albeit, from afar, via time travel) and who is also honor-bound to call “bullshit” when she hears it could help Michael work through her feelings as quickly as she does in this episode.
While ostensibly about discussing scientific research about the Burn, Michael’s thesis defense quickly turns into a public therapy session, as both Gabrielle and the panel attempt to draw from her the full truth of her intentions. The people of Ni’Var are distrusting of the Federation, and it’s Michael’s job to win them over. Michael’s not certain that she’s a fan at the moment, either, but it’s through the process of defending the Federation to others that she rediscovers her enthusiasm. So, when her struggle for the SB-19 data threatens to create a schism between the Romulans and Vulcans, Michael does the most Starfleet thing she can do in the moment — she concedes.
The Federation does not let its own goals and interests jeopardize the well-being of others, and neither will she. She threw Saru under the bus in pursuit of her mission last week, but she will not do that to an entire planet, and seeing the consequences of her actions on such a grand scale helps to reframe her thinking. And, in classic Star Trek tradition, her selfless choice convinces the President of Ni’Var (Tara Rosling, Impulse) to circumvent the council and give Michael the data anyway.
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Boss Baby 3287
Michael Burnham has decided to stay in Starfleet, but that doesn’t mean that she gets her old job back. Captain Saru plans to select a new permanent first officer, and he asks his mentee, Ensign Silvia Tilly, to perform those duties in the interim. Tilly has doubts, both around Saru’s motives and her own qualifications, but with the support of about a dozen of her superior officers, she accepts the role.
Before I go further I want to say that I adore Silvia Tilly and that Mary Wiseman’s performance in this episode is excellent, as it has been all season. Tilly has demonstrated great growth since arriving in the future, and offered Saru wise counsel in last week’s episode. I think she’ll do a great job. However. It’s also a bit ridiculous. There is no need to appoint an interim first officer — we have seen Lt. Nilsson (Sarah Mitich) take command of Discovery multiple times this season when neither Saru or Burnham is present. She is already your de facto second officer, the job is hers. It’s nice that she and every other bridge officer are willing to endorse Tilly for the job, and it’ll be nice to see Tilly grow into it, but if Discovery were a real ship running with a real quasi-military hierarchy, this would never happen.
I’m not married to realism, but the reason this development annoys me is that 1) it telegraphs that Tilly is just occupying the role until Michael and Saru resolve their trust issues and Burnham is reinstated as Number One, and 2) it is yet another occasion of treating members of the bridge crew as non-characters. The real reason that Lt. Nilsson is not the new first officer is not because Tilly is a great candidate for the job, it’s because Lt. Nilsson has no first name.
This all being said, this season Discovery has made developments like this easier to swallow by maintaining a more light-hearted, less self-serious tone than it has in the past. Something like First Officer Ensign Tilly would never have flown in Season One, and it likely wouldn’t have last season either. But “Unification III” is a feel-good episode all around, and this sort of questionable long-term story decision isn’t enough to break the spell of positivity. There’s so much “Sure, why not?” in this episode, what’s one more thing? I’m having fun.