For Star Trek Discovery, you can Ni’Var have enough Michael Burnham S3E07 – Unification III Review
It takes courage – or at least obliviousness – to add a belated third chapter to an existing two-part story, let alone one which brought together an icon of “Star Trek: he Original Series” with the cast of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” so it’s thematically fitting that “Unification III” brings together three generations of Trek shows and gives a posthumous cameo to the late, great Leonard Nimoy.
While the fallout from Burnham’s insubordination continues, the data recovered bolsters her theory that the Burn had a source and therefore a root cause that can be studied and understood. To progress the work, the Federation needs data from an abandoned project – thought by some to have been the cause of the Burn – but the data belongs to a planet which long since left the Federation: the planet Ni’Var – formerly known as Vulcan.
Before we get to the whole ‘new planet, who dis?’ discourse, though, the first joining of “Unification III” is the inevitable coupling of Book and Burnham – at least on screen, because you’d have to be desperately naïve to believe this is the first time it’s happened in the eyar they spent together. They make a nice couple, although their couple-name portmanteau is the troublingly Nazi-friendly BookBurn. The series finally acknowledges this dalliance in order to set up the real stakes of this episode: where does Burnham belong. For once, the centring on Burnham makes absolute sense, both in terms of character and plot.
Having built a career on the end justifying the means, of course the career-jeopardising antics of last week pay off and with the new data Burnham’s hunch is further validated but in order to continue the research, Burnham needs access to Federation research project SB-19. Unfortunately, the data is no longer accessible because the planet which owns the data left the Federation about 100 years earlier. It’s a bittersweet revelation for the audience because although we learn that the world in question, Ni’Var, is in fact Vulcan – previously thought to be a foundational Federation member – there is the compensation that Spock’s quest to reunite the Vulcan and Romulan races ultimately succeeded. (Up to a point, that is, because of course this is depressingly cynical new Trek).
Despite her recent demotion and track record of disobeying orders, Admiral Vance immediately appoints her to head up the diplomatic mission because she’s Spock’s sister. To prepare for her mission, Burnham cracks open her TNG box set and there’s a beautifully poignant moment as Burnham – who’d resisted the temptation to check into the past until forced to – sees the great man her brother became.
When they arrive at Ni’Var and are greeted by President T’Rina who quickly endears herself to the crew by using the word ‘special’ several times to describe Burnham. There’s a cheeky fourth wall break when Burnham replies to T’Rina’s wish that Spock could have seen the fruits of his labours by saying he would have found them ‘fascinating’. Just after she says it, there’s a conspicuous “TOS”-style science station ping, effectively the 31st century equivalent of a ba-dum-tsss.
Of course, Burnham is flatly denied permission to access the data and we all know what happens when she’t told she can’t do what she wants, don’t we children? That’s right, she acts unilaterally, invoking the T’Kal-in-ket, which is apparently Vulcan for High School Debate Club. Of course, we’re midseason and money is tight, so we won’t be heading to Vulcan’s surface this week. Instead, we’ll put some tiki torches up in the mess hall and push the tables to the other end of the room.
At this point, “Unification III” does some more unifying of its own, weaving a fourth Star Trek series into the mix by bringing back the Quowat Milat from “Star Trek: Picard” – in the (un)expected form of Burnham’s mother. It’s a mixed blessing for Burnham, though. One, the Quowat Milat famously only bind themselves to lost causes and two, would anyone really want their mother advocating for them with an approach of absolute candour? In amongst all these family reunions, there’s still no mention of Sybok or, indeed, the Reman race which seems to have been roundly ignored since “Star Trek: Nemesis”.
There are hints that, from the Vulcan/ Romulan point of view, the Federation may not be as squeaky-clean as we’ve been led to believe although the episode doesn’t dwell on it so it may just be an illustration of the continuing paranoia of a world which feels scapegoated for a galactic catastrophe. The explicit involvement of the Romulans does bring up an interesting technical continuity point, though. Romulan ships famously didn’t all use dilithium crystals to power their warp cores, their 24th Century Warbirds used artificial singularities instead. Does that technology still exist or was it somehow also affected by The Burn?
Unfortunately the T’Kal-in-ket in both setting and script is a bit flat (although it seems preposterously easy to reopen the old tribal wounds from ‘Vexit’. It’s often awkward and even a little forced and the stiff direction does nothing to infuse any kind of courtroom drama energy to the scenes, at least until Mama Burnham lays the truth smackdown on her daughter in spectacular fashion. It makes “Unification III” the third part of two trilogies as it brings to a head the nice thread running through the past three episodes of Burnham being confronted by her true nature and having to redefine her place in the world around her. Her self-awareness arc comes to satisfying fruition in this episode and, for once, I am delighted that they’ve chosen to focus on her character in this way: with purpose and earned relevance.
Does it end with Burnham finding herself? Yes. Does it end with her putting her own interests above that of Starfleet and the Federation (again, not the same entity but still used interchangeably by the writers of “Star Trek Discovery”)? Also yes. But it also pays off, once again. This time, not only does she get the access to the data she needs, but she’s finally on the receiving end of formative feedback she’s needed for quite some time now and as a result, she finds her place again: onboard Discovery, meaning Book must be put back on the shelf.
Had “Unification III” contented itself with the story of Burnham’s confessional self-renewal against the backdrop of the Vulcan/ Romulan secession from the Federation it would have been another triumph. Unfortunately, “Star Trek: Discovery” can’t seem to avoid tripping over its own feet sometimes and tarnishing its own sterling work. Not only is the throwaway comment that Burnham is probably responsible for the man Spock became breathtakingly narcissistic even by Discovery’s standards but, for an episode which is leaning so hard into “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, it sure seems determined to repeat some of the most egregious missteps of the Kelvinverse movies.
I’m talking, of course, about the ludicrous idea of Tilly becoming First Officer. It’s absurd. The audience knows it, and so do the writers because they don’t shy away from it but they also don’t back down from it. It almost makes you question Saru’s fitness to command. He has a severe blind spot when it comes to his crewmates and his justifications are weak sauce indeed. Even Tilly knows that she’s vastly unqualified for the position but Saru simply ignores all common sense and protocols to appoint his favoured candidate. It’s cronyism of a degree rarely seen outside of the current British Government.
Tilly being promoted to First Officer is akin to Wesley getting the role ahead of Data, Worf, Data, Geordie, or indeed any of the hundreds of more senior officers. It’s nothing personal, but Tilly is not fit to hold the post of First Officer, no matter how you look at it. You can’t just hand out leadership positions like party favours, Saru and you certainly shouldn’t appoint command personnel based on popularity contests in Engineering.
Of course, when Tilly finally gets her affirmation moment, Burnham promptly arrives to stomp all over it and steal the thunder indicating that despite all the good work that’s gone before this week, perhaps not very much has changed at all.