“Unification III,” S3E7 of Star Trek: Discovery, is focused on the interior dilemma that has grown up within Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) due to her year spent in the future before the Discovery reappeared. It is also quite possibly the most interconnected episode of Discovery that we have yet seen. Not only are there extensive internal references to other seasons and episodes of this show, there are direct ties to Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG), allusions to the “Kelvin universe” J.J. Abrams films, and direct references to information and groups introduced in Star Trek: Picard.
The name of the episode itself makes it a literal sequel to “Unification I” and “Unification II”—the two part story from TNG’s fifth season. That story brought Spock (Leonard Nimoy) back to the Trek universe to play a pivotal role in Vulcan/Romulan relations. Spock left the Federation to work with rebels on Romulus in an effort to open up the government and bring the people of Vulcan and Romulus closer, in light of their shared heritage. In the first “Kelvin” film Spock is continuing this work when he attempts, and fails, to save Romulus from destruction.
Picard was threaded with plots about Federation/Romulan relations that were all connected to this work and Jean Luc’s efforts to help the Romulan diaspora after the world’s destruction. It seems that in 800 years, or so (the exact timelines of all those different series are a little hazy to me), the fruits of all of that work led to the Romulans settling on Vulcan and the world becoming Ni’Var, one shared home-world for both races.
We rarely get this much universe spanning canon building in any one episode, but “Unification III” really has a wide scope and is another example of why the time jump has been so good for the series. It allows the plots to be far enough in the future that they don’t interfere with the actions or canon of the existing series, while also allowing the viewers to see everything that came before as a part of one unified canon. This idea, the 75 year time jump from the time of Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS), was the great idea behind TNG that made the late ’80s/early ’90s expansions of the Star Trek universe work so well. The challenges of telling a story in an interconnected universe, with a vast timeline spanning scope, are sometimes difficult to navigate.
Many of the issues people had with the first two seasons of Discovery were related to the idea that by being set prior to the events of TOS, the show was invalidating the existing Star Trek canon. The nature of what is canon and why it matters is complicated, but to me the idea boils down to this: when we are watching a show, no matter how much “fiction” is mixed in with the “science” we want to be able to follow a consistent narrative about the characters and the world they inhabit.
If you want to go into the personal history of a character and insert say, a sister, who wasn’t there in any of the stories about that character, then the audience needs to be able to understand how that was possible. Of course, this is what Discovery did by making Burnham Spock’s adoptive sister. The idea became plausible though because they wrote it into the nature of the relationship and traits that the characters themselves struggle with. I’m not sure that the “well we have an amazing technology that we are going to keep secret” solution about the Spore Drive worked as well, but at least with the jump to the future none of that canon breaking is actually possible going forward.
In addition to all of that universe building, S3E7 is also heavily Burnham centric and those are often the most difficult episodes with which to connect emotionally. I love the character, and Sonequa Martin-Green is always fantastic, but the series often seems to strand her on her own. She is isolated away from everyone else and using up the time that could be used to establish the ensemble, as is done in the best Trek stories. This time that doesn’t happen. I think that it works because she finally has to open up and actually be clear about what she is thinking and feeling.
It may not be great that it took a T’kal-in-ket and her mother acting as her advocate (in another interesting interconnection with the order we learned so much about on Picard) but at least there was finally some clarity as to what she was thinking. A T’kal-in-ket is apparently a philosophical process designed to unearth deep truths, credited as being one of the engines that lead to early Vulcan scientific advancement. Or perhaps it is a “rigged show trial.” After seeing the episode my opinion leans very strongly to the latter option.
Gabrielle (Sonja Sohn), Burnham’s mother and advocate, is also a member of the Qowat Milat, the secret order of Romulan nuns that were introduced in Picard. They are attached to lost causes and live by a mantra of “absolute candor”. This leads to Gabrielle being half lawyer and half therapist for Burnham during the T’Kal-in-ket and eventually draws out the truths that Burnham has been holding back all season. The use of Burnham’s mother in this role was a nice touch. It allowed Burnham to open up more than she possibly would have for anyone else.
And the scene where Gabrielle turns everything Burnham had said against her worked only because the audience could tell that it was more about a mother giving a lesson than a “Romulan advocate” doing her job. Martin-Green and Sohn also got to play a couple scenes of really touching affection between the duo. Particularly in the final scene between them where Gabrielle says “you always know where I am” there is actually real love between the characters and it makes the choice seem earned, even though the entire idea that somehow Gabrielle ended up as a member of the Qowat Milat in the first place seems incredibly far fetched.
The T’kal-in-ket served its purpose though. The emotional journey hopefully has Burnham back on the Discovery team. Back at the episode’s start, Burnham gives a voiceover about how she no longer feels as connected to Starfleet and the crew as she marches up to her quarters for sexy times with Book (David Ajala). The two of them are finally in an actual relationship, though one of the most unbelievable parts of the show is the idea that somehow, for the entire year before this, they never had any sort of relationship, even a purely physical one?
In any case, Burnham seemed actually close to leaving to travel with Book but the journey through her thoughts led her to understand that it is Starfleet she loves, even if she has to fight with herself about it from time to time. At the end, it seems that Burnham and Book are still together as they (along with Grudge looking on) stare out of his ship’s viewscreen, while still in Discovery’s docking bay. It seems certain that the relationship drama will continue with Book feeling constrained by Burnham’s duty to her ship, but for now they seem to be ready to roll with those punches together.
Also contemplating a new relationship, (and maybe it was just me, but I actually saw some chemistry sparks between them?) are Captain Saru (Doug Jones) and Ni’Var President T’Rina (Tara Rosling). Rosling takes on the often difficult task of playing a Vulcan, and especially a high ranking Vulcan, and does a great job handling the balance between logical stoicism and not seeming “affectless”. The great thing about the best Vulcan performances is that the logical shell has to be covering a deep roiling intellectual and emotional interior. The entire Vulcan philosophy after all is that the embrace of logic is used to quell their overwhelming intensity.
T’Rina has all of that, along with centuries of interconnection with the antithetical Romulan philosophies, and Rosling seems to be toying with all of those layers during her scenes. Just as she is the one who ultimately gives Burnham the project data that will hopefully solve the mystery of “the burn” so too do her talks with Saru illuminate that she has bigger plans for Ni’Var. Jones plays Saru in these scenes at his most diplomatic and sincere, and the two characters together as they hope to reunify Vulcan with the Federation represent the hope that is at the heart of Star Trek.
After Burnham’s demotion in last week’s episode, Saru also has to find a new Number One. There are several factors that would seem to make sense when choosing a first officer including, but not limited to: rank, experience, expertise, and leadership ability. Also important is the ability for the choice to inspire some dramatic conflicts and comedy. Saru’s choice of Tilly definitely makes sense if you are interested mostly in the last two points. Some outlets seem to deride the choice as outlandish, but there is no need to go that far. Tilly makes sense from a dramatic perspective, as Mary Wiseman is one of the breakout stars of the series, and if you squint at it just right, it almost sort of makes sense from a story perspective too.
Tilly is actually really good at several of the things that a Number One needs to take care of, and as she notes, she isn’t getting promoted in rank, just in responsibility. She dismisses it in her conversation with Saru but her loyalty is an essential and effective thing. She can and does express her opinions and uses her expertise to challenge the Captain, but in the end will actually do what is necessary to ensure the Captain’s orders are followed. This was the area that made Burnham such a spectacularly awful choice and a place where Tilly excels. Tilly is also really good at being a morale officer and helping the crew navigate the mental stresses they are facing will be essential.
The other characters all wholeheartedly supporting Tilly made for a nice scene, and gave them all a chance to have a single line or two, but it definitely is odd that so many experienced crew members are so quick to accept that they are now taking orders from Tilly. The choice seems dictated by the fact of Tilly’s status in the show more so than the within universe needs of the characters.
With that said, Tilly has a connection to every other character, and her emotional and intellectual skills are real and well established. And a Number One position of this sort has more to do with trust than anything else. So in the end balance, I think the choice does make some sense in the world of the show as well. The choice is an interesting one, and the idea of the Tilly we know and love learning to be a leader is intriguing. As is the idea of getting to see Wiseman play the character with just a bit more of the Mirror Universe Captain “Killy” gravitas.
So the episode ends with the new status quo for the second half of the season finally set, I hope. Discovery’s mission is to figure out the cause of the burn. Burnham is going to help do this, as Chief Science officer, while actually remaining committed to the ship and her crew. Book and Grudge will still be around. Book and Burnham will remain in a relationship, but will probably be going off to do their own thing from time to time. Captain Saru and “Number One” will be leading the action, and also working on reconnection between former Federation planets. And hopefully we will pick up the dangling plot lines involving Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), Adira (Blu Del-Barrio), Stamets (Emily Coutts) and the rest of the crew.