This Star Trek: Discovery review contains spoilers.
Star Trek: Discovery Season 3, Episode 7
The Vulcans have long been one of Star Trek‘s most fascinating creations. A society built on the value of logic, The Original Series immediately challenged the concept by making main character Spock half-human, with all of the emotionality that comes with it. Through his struggles, we were able to see both the value and limits of a life led by logic; his conclusions (and ours) on the matter were rarely simple ones. That legacy continues on today in Discovery, with an episode decades in the making. “Unification III” is more than just a reference to the 90s-era Next Generation two-parter (“Unification I” and “Unification II”) that told the story of Ambassador Spock’s efforts to bridge the divide between the long-separated Vulcan and Romulan civilizations, it is an intentional and direct continuation of that story. (If we didn’t get that from the content, we’d glean it from the episode’s title.) This is a yet another Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 installment that is deeply interested not just in pulling back in some of the franchise’s most celebrated characters, but in engaging with its most enduring themes.
What are the pros and cons of being part of something larger than yourself? It is a question last week’s episode, “Scavengers,” explicitly delved into and its one we see front and center yet again here, to even greater effect. It’s a question Michael needs to answer for herself, as she continues to question her place on the Discovery and in the Federation as a whole following her year without them. And it’s a question Ni’Var, the ex-Federation planet formerly known as Vulcan, cannot ignore, as it continues to live in a post-reunification society composed of both Vulcans and Romulans.
It is shocking to know that the planet that used to be Vulcan, one of the founding members of the Federation and always a beacon of light and justice, is no longer part of the interplanetary alliance. Frankly, it’s the biggest warning sign so far that perhaps this future incarnation of the Federation cannot be trusted. But that debate is for another episode. This episode’s debate lies firmly within the confines of The Burn, a mystery that has become increasingly tangled up in the story of Michael Burnham—not because she has any personal memory of the tragedy but because she has made it her mission to get to the bottom of the incident that tore the Federation apart in the hopes that she can bring the Federation back together again.
The mystery of The Burn leads Michael and the Federation to Ni’Var. Prior to The Burn, all Federation member planets were asked to put resources towards Starfleet’s dwindling dilithium problem. Ni’Var came up with SB-19, and experimental project that involved somehow moving ships through space in a near-instantaneous manner that is not unlike the Discovery’s spore drive method. However, the Ni’Var scientists deemed the experiment too dangerous and planned to shut it down… until the Federation ordered them to continue. When the Burn occurred, Ni’Var believed it was their fault and that the Federation forced them into the tragedy. Ni’Var chose to leave the Federation as a result.
Michael is insistent on bringing her new findings on The Burn to Ni’Var, as she believes it proves that SB-19 was not the source of the accident. She also wants access to any data from the SB-19 project that could help lead to more answers about The Burn. Despite her insistence, Michael is initially and surprisingly hesitant to go herself. However, Vance convinces/orders her. After all, who better to act as the Federation’s ambassador to Ni’Var than the sister to Spock, the person who paved the way to the Vulcan-Romulan reunification?
Unfortunately, Ni’Var President T’Rina immediately and definitively shuts down Michael’s request for the SB-19 data. But this is far from Burnham’s first time dealing with stubborn Vulcan-types. She invokes the T’Kal-in-ket, a Vulcan ritual that demands a quorum entertain her request for scientific data. Basically, it’s a debate club meet mixed with a therapy session with tiki torches for ambiance, and it is all so very Star Trek.
Michael is appointed an advocate from the Romulan Qowat Milat, aka the order of warrior-nuns seen this season in Star Trek: Picard and, in the biggest surprise of the episode, it is Michael’s long-lost mom! Honestly, the plot twist that time-traveling Gabrielle has someone become a Ni’Var warrior nun sometime in the last few years is a bit hard to swallow, but it’s such a glorious reunion that I’ll allow it. It also leads to one of the most intense moments of the episode, when Gabrielle more or less emotionally manipulates her own daughter in front of the Ni’Var quorum, the Ni’Var president, Saru, and a roomful of others into publicly working through her issues.
Why is Michael so obsessed with finding out why The Burn happened? How can she claim to speak for and trust the Federation when she was disobeying direct orders just last episode? Where does Michael belong? These questions, in grand Star Trek tradition, are asked in what is more or less a courtroom drama. And, in grand Star Trek tradition, when our protagonist reaches for faith in the institution of Starfleet, in her Discovery family, and in the ideals of the Federation, she finds it. In the process, she convinces T’Rina to share the SB-19 data with her—not by effectively and logically arguing her point in the T’Kal-in-ket, but by prioritizing protecting the fragile peace between the Romulans and Vulcans over getting answers about The Burn.
While Michael needed a win right about now, she needed the process of returning to a place she once called home and being forced to be honest with herself even more. Ni’Var gave that to her. Roughly halfway through the season, Michael has found where she belongs once again. She started this episode “between places,” as her mother described it, and she ended it being where she is: part of something bigger. If this validation of a commitment to and a belief in something bigger than one’s self—for Michael, for the Romulans and Vulcans of Ni’Var, for all of the member planets of the Federation—ends up being Star Trek: Discovery‘s enduring thematic legacy, then this journey to the future will be time well spent. After all, isn’t this what Star Trek has always been about?
In the other main plot of the episode, Saru asks Tilly to be his Acting First Officer. (Just give her the job!) Tilly has trouble with it, asking what are honestly some really difficult and important questions: Does Saru want her for this job because she is qualified or because she is compliant? He informs her that it is because he thinks it is what would be best for the ship, which I guess means the first option. It checks out that Tilly would have low self-esteem about this. We’ve seen it from her before, no doubt at least partially a result of her overly critical mother. But we’ve also seen how, when given the time and support, Tilly is able to advocate for herself. Honestly, she will make a great First Officer. I am excited to see this relatively non-traditional Captain-First Officer team of Saru and Tilly in action.
Speaking of which, I’m glad Stamets got his act together on this because his initial reaction to Tilly’s request for advice around the possible promotion was pretty harsh and not very helpful.
“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.” Did anyone else cry when Leonard Nimoy came on screen?
I guess they didn’t have the budget to go to the surface of Ni’Var, huh? Bummer.
“What if you hadn’t made it back? What would I do?” I love that Tilly calls Michael out for putting hr in such a shitty position last episode. These two really are very good at being friends.
“You guys are chronic overachievers.” Book nails it.
“There is a whole galaxy out there, full of people who will reach for you. You have to let them.” This quote from last season remains one of my absolute favorites, and is obviously a guiding theme for Star Trek: Discovery.
“You always know where to find me.” Gabrielle, finally, to her daughter.
“Headline: Michael Burnham is Coming.” I love how Vance just transitions into Newsies mode here.
I am kind of shipping Saru and T’Rina?
“You feel like home.” Book and Michael are such a functional couple.
Confirmed! Michael and Tilly are still roommates.
“She wondered how much of the man Spock became was a result of who his sister was.” Wow, this is such a powerful, rare message: the idea that the legacy of an important man, or any important individual, is made up, too, by the people who supported and loved them.