HERE THERE BE SPOILERS!
In 1991, TNG brought Spock back to the small screen in what should have been an earth-shattering two-parter in season five. Ultimately, both parts of “Unification” were too uneven really to land the way the show clearly wanted them to do, but as huge as Spock’s appearance was, “Unification I” marks the final appearance of Mark Lenard’s Sarek, though he dies offscreen. Underneath the overarching plot of Vulcan-Romulan Unification is a story about an estranged father/son duo who only get the chance to work through that estrangement by proxy. Spock melds with Picard in order to touch the last vestiges of his father, and “Unification II” closes on Spock’s deeply pained expression. “Unification III” does not pull any emotional punches either, which I suppose makes it a fitting episode to air on Thanksgiving in the U.S. “Unification III” is very much about Burnham’s crusade, but more importantly, the episode focuses on her relationships with her friends, with Starfleet, with the Federation, with her mother, and finally, with her own truth. “Unification III” is Burnham’s party, but it’s a party that does not quite go as she planned.
“Unification III” repeats the same story we’ve seen before in Discovery’s third season, albeit this time, Starfleet sends Michael Burnham to Ni’Var, as the planet Vulcan has become known following the rocky integration of the Vulcan and Romulan peoples. Vance explains to Burnham and Saru that Ni’Var left the Federation because they believed the Federation forced Ni’Var to pursue experimental ship drive technology that caused the Burn. Burnham and Tilly, having analyzed the data retrieved from the U.S.S. Yelchin’s black box, which Book recovered in “Scavengers” believe they can conclusively prove that the Burn did not originate from Ni’Var based on the variances in time when the boxes stopped recording. However, because they only have three data points from which to triangulate an origin point, Tilly reminds Burnham that they can’t find an exact location based on those three points. Burnham discovered references to a sensor net in place at the time of the Burn, and she believes the data from those “SB-19” sensors could help them narrow down their search area.
Vance believes that Burnham might be the perfect candidate to go to Ni’Var because she is Spock’s sister, and Ni’Var apparently still reveres Spock’s legacy. Burnham isn’t entirely convinced she’s the best person to open diplomatic relations with Ni’Var, considering her own fraught history with the Federation and her current ambivalence toward Starfleet, but Vance deploys her anyway. Upon arrival at Ni’Var, President T’Rina hails the Discovery and welcomes Burnham but refuses to release the data as those data have become a cultural flashpoint. Burnham invokes the T’Kal-in-ket, which requires the formation of a quorum that will evaluate Burnham’s data and determine whether her inquiry is scientifically valid.
T’Rina and the quorum beam aboard the Discovery, and T’Rina informs Burnham that her shalankhkhai would be following directly. As only sisters of the Qowat Milat could become shalankhkhai, a sister beamed aboard to be Burnham’s advocate, and that sister revealed herself to be Gabrielle Burnham, Michael’s mother. Dr. Burnham evidently did not return to Terralysium but rather Essof IV and was rescued by a party that returned back to Ni’Var. There, she joined the order, and she volunteered to represent Michael Burnham because Burnham’s quest to acquire the SB-19 data through T’Kal-in-ket was a lost cause. During the hearing, Michael Burnham faces off against three representatives from Ni’Var, a Vulcan purist (V’Kir), a Romulan (N’Raj), and a Romulo-Vulcan (Shira), each representing a community within Ni’Varian society. The Vulcan remained solidly convinced that the Federation could not be trusted with the SB-19 data, while the Romulan offered it to Burnham on the basis that discovering that Ni’Var did not cause the Burn would help heal their world. The Romulo-Vulcan representative wanted to know Michael Burnham’s motivations.
Gabrielle Burnham proceeds to pick at Burnham, forcing her to confront her own ambivalence about the Federation. In so doing, Michael Burnham remembers what bound her to Starfleet and the Federation in the first place, and that even though she remains uncertain about the future, she does believe in being part of a greater whole. As such, Michael Burnham refuses to cause unrest on Ni’Var and withdraws her petition for T’Kal-in-ket. Afterward, Gabrielle Burnham brings her the SB-19 data because her performance in the face of the T’Kal-in-ket proved to T’Rina that trusting Burnham with the data was worth the risk. Michael Burnham confirms that Dr. Burnham intends on remaining on Ni’Var, and Dr. Burnham reminds Michael that she knows where she can find her mother. Later, aboard Book’s ship, Book confirms that Michael Burnham has decided to remain aboard Discovery. When she asks Book what that will mean for their burgeoning relationship, Book replies while he doesn’t know, Burnham feels like home to him.
The episode’s B-story centers around Saru’s request to Tilly that she step into the vacuum left by Burnham and become his first officer. Tilly goes to Stamets to discuss it, but his duties interfere. Tilly struggles with the decision, but Stamets invites Tilly to a room where the entire bridge crew tells her to accept the position. Michael Burnham joins them, albeit a touch late, and adds her support. Tilly issues an order to Burnham to analyze the SB-19 data and discover the cause of the Burn.
The word “Ni’Var” has very deep roots within Star Trek history. Coined in 1967 by Dorothy Jones, the word originally meant “two form” and referred to a form of Vulcan artistic expression that required an exploration of a subject from two viewpoints. Later, in 1976, Claire Gabriel used the term as the title for a short story in which the word referred to “a duality of things” or “two diversities that are a unity.” As such, the planet name clearly refers to the unification of the Romulan and Vulcan peoples, but it also refers to Michael Burnham’s own duality. Throughout this season, Burnham has struggled to find her place aboard Discovery and in Starfleet because the year on her own gave her a taste of a very different life, and last week’s “Scavengers” seemed to imply that Burnham could not eat her cake and have it, too. “Unification III” throws that implication right out of the proverbial window.
Right off the bat, Dr. Gabrielle Burnham recognizes Michael Burnham’s struggle, and Michael confesses to her mother that she doesn’t know if she still belongs in Starfleet. Everything that Gabrielle does from that moment is targeted at forcing Michael to confront her own complicated feelings about Starfleet, which is something Michael has needed to do since episode two. On the one hand, Michael liked being a courier and liked the life she built with Book, but on the other, Starfleet has provided her with a home, family, and purpose. “Unification III” is, in large part, about Michael unifying both of those impulses, but as threshold issue, she really needs to examine her ambivalence and be honest about it. Gabrielle immediately recognizes that Michael has not done that, so she uses the T’Kal-in-ket to get Michael to examine her own motives and thereby find her own truth.
Ni’Var’s own divisions between three factions—Vulcan purists, Romulans, and the Romulo-Vulcan people—actually serve as manifestations of Michael’s internal dilemma. The Romulans want to grab onto the possibility that they were not at fault for the Burn because they’ve been wrestling with the guilt for centuries. They want to move forward into a clearer future, and Michael begins the episode believing that leaving Discovery is the only way she can do that. The Romulans are the Michael of 3188. The Vulcan purists double down on that guilt. Based on what we see in the T’Kal-in-ket, they believe not only that they should shoulder the fault for the Burn but that keeping the SB-19 data safe from the Federation that they believe forced them to cause the Burn is an act of atonement. They adhere to structure the way Starfleet Michael Burnham did, also out of a need to atone for a catastrophic decision. The Romulo-Vulcans fall somewhere between those two poles but focus on Michael Burnham’s personal motivations because they need to find a middle ground. They need to know that they can trust Michael Burnham. Funnily enough, Michael Burnham needs to know the same thing. The divisions between these three factions have destabilized Ni’Var and are, in part, caused by the cultural baggage associated with the data, the experiments, and the Burn, just as the changes in Michael wrought by her experiences in 3188 have brought her into an internal conflict with the person she feels she has to be on Discovery.
Intelligently, the episode does not ask Michael Burnham to solve those issues because as she explains, some problems seem overwhelming. Gabrielle’s genius is in guiding Michael to recognize that she cannot externally impose a solution on these people. What she can do is offer them her trust. She can find a middle way, and she does. Michael withdraws her petition for T’Kal-in-ket because her adherence to Federation principles will not allow her to sacrifice Ni’Var’s political stability for her own gain. She offers knowledge, freely, in the hopes that it will benefit Ni’Var. In so doing, she demonstrates the purity of her convictions. That purity prompts T’Rina to reconsider releasing the data, as Gabrielle knew it would. However, Michael needed to remember what drew her to Starfleet in the first place. She needed to remember that the Federation is about being part of a greater whole working together for the betterment of all, which is not at all what happened in “Scavengers.”
“Unification III” doesn’t answer how Michael will integrate her sense of self as an independent courier with her role as a Starfleet officer, but importantly, Gabrielle reminds her that she doesn’t have to choose one over the other. She is both, the unity of those two diversities, and while I suspect that her road to integration will be as rocky as that facing the Ni’Varians, it’s a first step. T’Rina, for her part, takes her own first step by trusting Michael with the data. Granted, based on how often the episode paired Saru and T’Rina, I suspect she trusts Saru more than Michael. However, the acknowledgement that trust outweighs the risk is huge for Ni’Var, and I hope to see more out of that relationship.
The Tilly B-plot doesn’t get nearly enough air time. I love that Saru asks her to be the first officer because he believes that she can bring out the best in the crew. Having Tilly remind Michael that no one has asked Michael to make a choice between her personal development and Starfleet serves as proof that Saru is right while also affirming that there are people reaching out to Michael who hope Michael will reach back. The episode even opens with Tilly stepping up and confronting Michael about how Michael’s actions impacted her. She does so with love, but she does ask that Michael acknowledge how her actions hurt her. It’s a great moment that highlights just how far Sylvia Tilly has come over the last three seasons, and even though she shies away from following up that conversation with a real chat about Michael’s intentions, it’s another great first step that demonstrates that maybe Tilly is readier for command than she thinks she is. Unfortunately, the rest of the crew’s ready acceptance of Tilly as XO feels too rushed. Tilly, as she tells Saru, is an ensign, and promoting an ensign to acting XO without a whole lot more investment by the rest of the crew feels strange.
Four and a half cups of Earl Grey Tea
Stray Thoughts From the Couch:
- Yes, the U.S.S. Yelchin is an homage to Anton Yelchin, Pavel Chekov in the Abrams reboot, who died tragically in 2016. It’s really fantastic to see a reference to him here.
- I use the plural verb form with “data” because that word is plural. The singular noun is “datum,” unless we’re talking about the beloved TNG android.
- It’s past time that Tilly got promoted. I feel that she’s starting to suffer from Harry Kim Syndrome.
- I’m glad we finally find out what happened to Gabrielle Burnham, but I did want to see more out of her relationship with Michael.
- The episode contains footage from the end of “Unification II” as a shameless tug on my heartstrings. It worked.
- If you didn’t watch Picard, the Qowat Milat comes from that series. Kirsten Beyer, who did a great deal of work on Picard, wrote this episode.