This Star Trek: Discovery article contains MAJOR spoilers for “Unification III,” and spoilers for Picard.
Michael Burnham has returned to her home planet Vulcan in an attempt to recover some data from a Vulcan and Romulan alliance she never thought was even possible. If this sounds like the beginning of an epic title crawl in a Star Wars movie, you’re not far off. In Discovery Season 3, Episode 7, “Unification III,” the Trek franchise has delivered one of its most epic and generation-spanning episodes in a very long time. We always knew Star Trek: Discovery’s status as both a prequel and a sequel to TOS and TNG was tricky, but for fans everywhere, it was hard to believe these time-jumping tricks could ever result in an episode this heartfelt and straight-up cool.
And yet, if the USS Discovery’s visit to the planet Ni’Var had you scratching your head, or running to Google to figure out how everything fits in, there are a few very logical answers to what’s going on here. But, that doesn’t mean these answers are simple. When there’s this much time travel involved – plus multiple, specific Star Trek shows and movies — it’s bound to get a little complicated. Let’s untangle the Vulcan-Romulan web, shall we?
Is “Unification III” a sequel to The Next Generation episodes “Unification I” and “Unification II”?
Short answer: Yes! In 1991, during Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 5, the two-part episode “Unification” featured the return of Leonard Nimoy as live-action Spock to the small screen for the first time since The Original Series. And, not counting archive footage in DS9‘s “Trials and Tribble-ations,” prior to Discovery, this TNG two-parter was the only appearance of Spock on a Trek TV series after the end of The Animated Series in 1974.
In 1991, Nimoy’s Spock was strictly relegated to appearing in the Trek feature films, and in fact, his final performance as Spock, was also in 1991, in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Because Nimoy co-developed the story for The Undiscovered Country, he felt strongly about promoting the film through a crossover on TNG. This is why Spock gives a speech to Picard about committing Captain Kirk to a peace mission in “Unification II.” At the time, Nimoy and the Trek franchise were giving a small preview of what was going to happen in The Undiscovered Country, which was, arguably, the origin of Spock’s journey to becoming an ambassador. (Something that is funny that people forget, is that at the time this episode aired, there was a rumor that Captain Kirk would die in The Undiscovered Country. And nothing Spock says in “Unification II” confirms or denies that!)
So, what does that have to do with the Romulans? Well, if it’s been a while since you’ve seen “Unification I and II” the story is all about Picard and Data trying to track down Spock after the Federation believes he’s gone rogue. This is why Discovery, the Vulcan president, says Spock “left” the Federation. He did! Of course, he didn’t leave it to defect. He left it to live on Romulus and help bring together the Vulcans and the Romulans.
Wait. Didn’t Spock leave Romulus — before it blew-up — and travel back in time and meet Chris Pine?
Yes! Old Spock did leave Romulus and, eventually die in the past of an alternate dimension. In Discovery, Admiral Vance says that the reunification of Vulcans and Romulans “took centuries after [Spock’s] death.” This, however, is a presumed death. As far as Vance knows, Spock died sometime in 2387, trying to pilot his experimental ship, the Jellyfish, to use red matter to stop the Romulan supernova. In Star Trek 2009, Spock tells Kirk (Pine) — via mind-meld — that he promised the Romulans that he would try to save their planet. Presumably, Spock had been living on Romulus this entire time. In other words, Spock started living on Romulus in 2368 (TNG) and flew his red matter spaceship to try and save them in 2387 (flash “backs” in Star Trek 2009). So, this means that in just 19-years, Spock’s teaching made a big enough difference to eventually get the Vulcans and the Romulans to hang-out together sometime before the events of 3188.
When did the planet Vulcan become Ni’Var?
It’s not exactly clear. We know that Ni’Var left the Federation 100 years prior to 3188, but it seems likely that the integration of Vulcans and Romulans was underway a long time before that happened. Could it have been as early as the 25th century? Sometime after the events of Star Trek: Picard? Maybe. After 2387, we know the Romulans literally don’t have a home, and by 2399 (Picard Season 1) there’s a loose government called The Romulan Free State. That said, several parts of Romulan culture seem more open to peace simply because things aren’t going so great. Could the Romulan emigration to the planet have happened sometime fairly quickly after Picard Season 1? It’s possible! In fact, considering we see the Romulan Qowat Milat order in “Unification III,” it feels possible that Picard Season 2 could show us the beginnings of the planet Vulcan becoming “Ni’Var.” Then again, it’s also possible this whole Ni’Var business didn’t start until several centuries after Picard, too. There are 930 years between Discovery Season 2 and Discovery Season 3. But, that’s still 789 years between Picard and Discovery Season 3. A lot could have happened.
Okay, how the hell does this recording of Spock even exist?
IRL, we totally understand where Michael’s brief Spock clip comes from. It’s from “Unification II,” and it’s Spock talking to Picard. But, in-universe, why does this holographic recording exist? There’s really only one answer: Picard must have been recording Spock nearly the entire time they were on the mission. The speech Michael Burnham views is (mostly) from the very end of “Unification II,” in which Spock says: “The union of the Vulcan and Romulan people will not be achieved by politics diplomacy will not be achieved by politics or diplomacy — but it will be achieved.” Spock says this to Picard, while Data is watching. So, it feels possible that Data was recording the entire conversation for the purposes of the mission. After all, Picard and Data were on a covert mission for Starfleet, meaning it isn’t insane that they would have recorded it. When Burnham accesses the file, the computer says “coordinates redacted” but also that it’s from the personal files of “Admiral Jean-Luc Picard.” So, Picard is the source, the coordinates were the planet Romulus, and somehow Picard recorded this convo, maybe with Data’s help, or maybe some other way.
There is one small wrinkle in all of that. The first part of the speech that Michael listens to actually happens in a different part of “Unification II” than the second. When Spock says “closed minds have kept these two worlds apart,” this happens way earlier in the episode when, still dressed as a Romulan, Picard and Spock have some soup together. So, this recording is actually two recordings from Picard during his covert mission, which means Data as the primary holographic recording device is probably out since Data wasn’t there during the Picard-Spock soup debate.
This leaves only two explanations: Picard had a secret recording device on his person, that allowed all of his convos with Spock to be stored and recorded. But there’s a more fun answer.
Picard is an android now—remember?
At the end of Star Trek: Picard Season 1, all of Jean-Luc Picard’s memories are transferred into a new Synth body, meaning, effectively, Picard’s memories have now been stored using technology. This fact actually creates a pretty easy way for a holographic file of Picard’s eyewitness memory to exist. He wasn’t recording anything at the time with technology, but later, at some point, Picard pulled out a few memories from his new robot brain and turned those into holographic recordings. Considering all the stuff that Picard has seen and his interest in preserving history, this feels legit. Jean-Luc Picard would totally turn his actual memories into curated holographic recordings. And he might do it for the very reason Burnham accesses the files in Discovery. Picard, like Spock, wanted the truth to survive. Even if it meant pulling those memories out of his robot brain, and copying them onto a 25th-century memory stick.
Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 is streaming now on CBS All Access.