Unification III: Beyond Thunderdome - Star Trek: Discovery
Previously: Burnham was determined to figure out what caused the Burn, and learned of the existence of a black box data recorder that proved the Burn had a distinct point of origin. Saru told her Discovery had more important things to worry about, so she deliberately disobeyed orders again to retrieve the black box, and as punishment, she got demoted and is no longer Saru’s Number One. Meanwhile, Adira Tal made the spore drive interface more “gooey”.
Going by the title, this is the belated third installment in the Romulan-Vulcan reunification saga which started with the Next Generation episodes “Unification” and “Unification II”, which famously featured guest appearances by Leonard Nimoy as Ambassador Spock. Those episodes aired in 1991, which makes this an even longer wait for a third entry than The Godfather Part III, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, and Bill & Ted Face the Music. Was it worth the wait? Based on the three films I just mentioned, you can probably guess.
This episode opens in the usual way, with a personal log voiceover from Burnham. It’s the usual overwritten drivel, but boiled down she says she’s not sure she still fits in on the ship. This is primarily because she’s obsessed with solving the Burn, and she doesn’t know if she can do that while still serving aboard Discovery. As she gives her log, she goes to Book’s ship, which is again parked in Discovery’s shuttlebay. The two kiss and immediately have sexy time.
In bed afterwards, Book talks about how he’s not too keen on the idea of living inside the shuttlebay of a Federation starship. He’s thinking about leaving and he wants Burnham to run away with him, but Burnham says she can’t do that just yet because of her duties on the ship. And she just happens to bring up her dear brother Spock, who once called her out on her tendency to take responsibility for everything. Book says he and Burnham’s brother would have gotten along great and bonded over her “endearing messianic complex”.
On Discovery, Burnham goes to meet with Tilly to share the news that Saru demoted her. Tilly is angry with Burnham for going off on her own and disobeying orders. Tilly thinks that she herself in particular needed to know what Burnham was planning on doing, though I’m not sure why.
Tilly then changes the subject to the black boxes, which so far confirm Burnham’s theory about the Burn having a point of origin. We learn the names of the ships the black boxes came from: The Giacconi, the Gav’Nor, and the USS Yelchin, in a nice tribute to the late Anton Yelchin. Burnham reiterates that with these three points of data, they can “triangulate” the origin point of the Burn. But Tilly corrects her, saying that would work in two-dimensional space, but in three dimensions, that still leaves an area “too large to explore in several lifetimes”, and why wouldn’t Discovery’s science officer not know this? They need to narrow it down, and Burnham happens to have read something in the Federation database about an experiment called “SB-19” that deployed sensors to this area. These sensors would have had a “front row seat” to the Burn, but for some reason their data was never reported.
Tilly then says, “What if you hadn’t made it back? What would I do?” I never knew they relied on each other this much. They have like two conversations a season, max, right? Regardless, the analysis of the black box from the Giaconni is complete, and it confirms all of Burnham’s hunches.
In Federation HQ, Burnham and Saru are sharing their findings with Admiral Vance. Burnham asks about SB-19, and Vance explains why they can’t access that data: SB-19 belongs to the planet “Ni’Var”. But you might know it by its former name: Vulcan.
Burnham is stunned to learn that Vulcan changed its name. She was in the future for a year, and she couldn’t be bothered in all that time to find out what happened to Vulcan? It’s basically her home planet. Vance explains that Vulcan changed its name when they reunified with the Romulans. In fact, Ambassador Spock was instrumental in bringing them back together, even though it didn’t happen officially until centuries after his death. Of course, Saru and Burnham come from a timeframe in Star Trek history where no one’s even seen a Romulan, and Vance has to explain that Vulcans and Romulans are offshoots of the same species, but nevertheless, Burnham is beaming with joy over what her little brother was able to accomplish.
The Vance then drops the bomb: Ni’Var left the Federation a hundred years ago.
After credits, they’re all still in the same room having the same conversation, which is odd. Vance explains that even before the Burn, the Federation was running low on dilithium. All the member worlds were carrying out experiments to find different propulsion systems that didn’t rely on warp drive. Ni’Var’s attempt was called SB-19, and judging by the holographic visual aid he pulls up, it was an attempt to create stargates.
Ni’Var felt SB-19 was too dangerous and wanted to end it, but the Federation forced them to continue. And then the Burn happened, and Ni’Var believed SB-19 caused the Burn, meaning it was all the Federation’s fault. So they left the Federation and kept the SB-19 data for themselves.
Burnham says her black boxes prove SB-19 wasn’t the source of the Burn, and they have to get that data, and she suggests trying to reestablish diplomatic relations with Ni’Var. Vance suddenly gets a light bulb moment where he thinks sending “Spock’s sister” there might be what opens the door. Yes, once again, Burnham is the only one who can accomplish this week’s mission, though at least this time there’s an actual sensible reason behind it.
Burnham says this is a bad time for her to be representing the Federation, what with her insubordination and being demoted and all, but Vance says they’ll contact Ni’Var immediately to let them know Michael Burnham is on her way. Burnham is soon walking the corridors of Discovery, flashing back to her last words to Spock in the previous season’s finale, and reminiscing about stock footage of Little Burnham growing up with Little Spock.
She goes to her quarters and she and Book watch a holo-recording of Old Spock talking about Vulcan and Romulan reunification. And in the best moment of the episode, the footage is a clip of Leonard Nimoy from “Unification II”, talking about how the Vulcans and Romulans will reunite eventually, even if it takes centuries. And at first, I was wondering how there could be a recording of a private conversation between Spock and Picard, but then I remembered Star Trek: Picard turned Jean-Luc into an android for some unfathomable reason, so it would’ve been pretty easy for him to upload his memories.
Burnham gets all teary-eyed over the great things her little brother accomplished. Book says, “You guys are chronic overachievers.” They hold hands and he reassures her that she can pull off this diplomatic trip to Ni’Var.
Tilly goes to Saru’s ready room, where he talks about how he had to demote Burnham. And guess who he wants to be his new Acting First Officer? Yep, Tilly. Even Tilly laughs at this, running down all the reasons she shouldn’t be first officer, including how she’s only an ensign, and there are plenty of people on the ship who outrank her, and she never even finished the Command Training Program. But Saru says that based on how Tilly has performed since they came to the future, he’s confident she’s the Number One he needs. I mean, god forbid one of the Nameless Bridge Crew moves up in rank and gets more screen time.
He assures her that he’s picking her because it’s in “the best interest of our ship”, and gives her a day to think about it. So, the character who was a cadet two seasons ago is now about to be second in command of the entire ship. Come on, this is just idiotic. Hell, even promoting Stamets or Culber to first officer would make more sense than this, and neither of those promotions would make any sense at all.
On the bridge, they’re getting ready to jump to Ni’Var, and it’s Black Alert time. In the spore chamber, Stamets puts his hands in the Palmolive Dish Soap drive and winces a bit. Discovery emerges from Federation HQ’s distortion field, and the ship and its detached nacelles make the jump to Ni’Var.
They immediately get hailed on the holo-communicator from the president of Ni’Var, a woman named T’Rina. Saru introduces himself and starts to explain how they arrived here instantly, but T’Rina has already been briefed on their spore drive and their “special passenger”. Burnham steps forward and introduces herself as “daughter of Sarek, sister of Spock” and T’Rina welcomes her. Then they start talking about SB-19 but T’Rina says they can’t divulge anything about it, and if Discovery insists on it, they’ll have to spore jump their asses right back home. She explains that revealing the findings of SB-19 could cause disruptions and unrest on their planet.
So Burnham says that as a graduate of the Vulcan Science Academy, she’s invoking the right of “T’Kal-in-ket” to learn more about SB-19. T’Rina is taken aback by this, but says she will “convene a Quorum” and blinks out. Burnham explains that the T’Kal-in-ket is a philosophical ceremony dating back to the time of Surak. It’s meant to “unearth deep truths”, and the request can’t be denied. Ah, an ancient ritual that must be carried out despite being completely archaic. Very original. Burnham says she’ll have to defend her theory about the Burn to the Science Institute, and Saru asks if she’s prepared to do that. Her mouth says, “Of course, sir,” but the rest of her face says she’s totally not.
Cut to T’Rina beaming aboard, along with three Vulcans and Romulans who are basically the judges of the T’Kal-in-ket, and Saru has them escorted to a special chamber prepared for the ceremony. Yes, it’ll be happening on the ship. They came all the way to Vulcan and we don’t get to see any of it. T’Rina says she resents being forced into this, but nevertheless, Burnham’s “shalankhkai” will be arriving soon. Burnham is confused, so T’Rina explains “shalankhkai” is an ancient Romulan term that means the same as the Vulcan term “sha-set”. Well, that clears everything up. Finally, Burnham figures out that this person will be her “advocate”.
According to T’Rina, the only ones who can be advocates nowadays are sisters from the Qowat Milat Order, which gives us a callback to Star Trek: Picard. As we learned on that show, they’re an order of Romulan warrior nuns who believe in the Way of Absolute Candor, though to be honest, I had to look that up on Memory Alpha because other than Picard becoming an android, I can’t remember a single thing that happened on Picard. T’Rina says this “absolute candor” was necessary for Vulcans and Romulans to trust each other and live together. A Qowat Milat sister will be beaming in shortly, and it’s someone who has a particular personal interest in Burnham’s case. She leaves and the sister beams in and pulls off her veil… and it’s Burnham’s mother. Say what?
Before we can learn what that’s all about, we find T’Rina and Saru standing at a window and watching the sun rise over Ni’Var. Saru is disheartened that the Federation has seen its membership decimated, but he’s also encouraged by how they’ve stuck to their core values. He says he hopes this visit can pave the way to Ni’Var rejoining the Federation, but T’Rina says not so fast.
She talks about how the Federation was so desperate to replace dilithium that they ignored “the needs of the few”. Saru brings up the whole “needs of the many” line from Wrath of Khan which has since been established as a Vulcan saying. But T’Rina says that since the unification, they don’t blindly follow “maxims and proverbs” anymore. Saru reminds her that the Federation paid a “heavy price” for their mistakes, and perhaps they’ve learned from them.
Michael and her mom are in the corridor, and we learn how she ended up here. It turns out Mama Burnham never got back to Terralysium. After she was pulled back into the future thanks to the trap the Discovery crew set on Essof IV, she just ended up on the future version of Essof IV. The “colonists” on the planet brought her to Ni’Var, where she was taken in by the Qowat Milat. And that’s the whole story. So after who knows how many episodes of Burnham talking about getting back to her mother, she just randomly beams onto the ship. It’s a bit anticlimactic, to say the least. Oh, and now she’s a member of an enclave of sword-wielding Romulan nuns, just because.
Mama Burnham can tell that her daughter seems “lost” and has learned to live a “different kind of life” since she came here. Michael admits to not feeling like she fits in anymore. But she knows she’s right about the Burn. Mom says that the Qowat Milat is all about binding themselves to “lost causes”, and there’s no cause more lost right now than trying to get access to the SB-19 data. Mom describes the three dignitaries who came on board, with quick cutaways to each one. There’s one man who’s a “Romulan Elder”, another who’s a “Vulcan Purist”, and a woman who leads the “Romulo-Vulcans”, presumably the result of Romulans and Vulcans mixing and interbreeding over the centuries. Basically, they’re going to act as the id, ego, and super-ego of the people of Ni’Var.
It’s time for the T’Kal-in-ket ceremony, and big gongs are rung and tiki torches materialize throughout what looks like a redressed mess hall set. A sizable audience of Vulcans, Romulans, and Discovery crewmembers watch as Burnham enters with her mom. Almost instantly, the Vulcan Purist Guy says they’ve already seen Burnham’s data and it proves nothing and he moves to dismiss the Quorum. He says they already know the Burn had a point of origin, but Burnham insists that point of origin wasn’t Ni’Var. Based on evidence she found just days ago, she knows that the Burn had nothing to do with SB-19.
But Vulcan Purist Guy complains about her “miniscule sample size”, saying it’s easily refuted by all the data they have. She asks him to share that data, but he refuses. Romulan Elder Guy pipes up that maybe they should share the data, and Romulo-Vulcan Woman also thinks this might be a good idea. Vulcan Purist Guy says the two of them are dealing with serious issues in their respective sectors of the planet, and the last thing they need is “more unrest”. Also, he’s highly suspicious of Burnham’s motives in convening this inquiry. He tries again to dismiss the Quorum but the other two aren’t having it. Mama Burnham calls for a brief adjournment.
Meanwhile in Engineering, Tilly pulls Stamets into the spore chamber to talk to him privately about how Saru asked her to be his new first officer. And the look on Stamets’ face is… well, let’s just say I know exactly how he feels.
He’s disturbed at the idea that Tilly would be his superior, and he’d have to take orders from her. But before he can respond, Owo knocks on the glass to tell him something, and the spore chamber is not even soundproof, so why did Tilly pull him in here?
Cut to Burnham and her mom outside the T’Kal-in-ket chamber. Mom says Burnham needs to be completely truthful, even about things she would consider to be extremely personal. Because right now, “You cannot be trusted,” which certainly must sting to hear from your own mom.
It’s time for the ceremony to resume, and Burnham is totally off her game because of what her mom said to her, but she tries to get back to the facts of the case. Unfortunately, the three dignitaries don’t trust Burnham or the Federation. The Romulo-Vulcan Woman says Burnham is asking them to turn over the SB-19 data to the Federation, which might try to resume work on a dangerous experiment. “That is a big ask.” Yuck. So in a thousand years, people will still be using “ask” as a noun, which has to be my least favorite bit of corporate jargon.
Mama Burnham breaks in to talk about all the shady events in Michael’s past, including how she mutinied against her captain back at the Battle of the Binary Stars, and as a result, her captain died in that battle. She also brings up how just recently, she was relieved of her first officer duties for disobeying direct orders yet again. Mom says that even though Michael was raised on Vulcan, she’s “human through and through”, and she often inserts herself into important situations to “fill an emotional void”. She also suggests the Federation is just using Michael for this diplomatic mission because she’s Spocks’ sister. Michael is livid, but Mama Burnham says it’s her duty to draw the truth out of her.
And then the whole ceremony turns into a big therapy session for Michael, as she opens up about how the Federation gave her a purpose and a family, so she knows they can be trusted. Mama Burnham brings up how Michael confessed to not feeling like she fits in anymore. Cue the waterworks as Michael tears up in front of the entire crowd, and starts prattling on about her fears, and how everything is different here in the future, and for a second I’m wondering if this entire T’Kal-in-ket ceremony is only happening in her mind, because why would everyone just sit here listening to her blubbering?
Eventually, Mama Burnham, who’s all teary eyed herself, says that Michael is now at last speaking truthfully. But Vulcan Purist Guy isn’t moved by this display, which should only follow, since he’s Vulcan and all. He still refuses to share the SB-19 data, so the Romulan Elder says that maybe the Romulans will share the data. This causes everyone in the room to stand and a big hubbub breaks out, because it looks like the Vulcan-Romulan unification is now teetering on the brink.
Michael says this isn’t what her brother would have wanted. Spock wouldn’t want anything to disrupt the “peace of Ni’Var”, so she withdraws her request and hits the gong to end the ceremony. She says she’ll keep trying on her own to find the data that will prove what caused the Burn.
Alas, the crying’s not over just yet. Mama Burnham visits her daughter in her quarters and Michael complains that she “could have picked a better time to do some parenting,” but Mom says she was just doing her job as advocate. Also, President T’Rina was moved by seeing Michael finally tell the truth, and she agreed to share the SB-19 data. Mama Burnham hands over a 32nd Century iPod with all the data, adding that T’Rina wondered if Spock became the man he was because of the sister he had, because of course this show always has to credit Spock’s character to Michael every chance it gets to make her seem important.
They hug and cry. Mama Burnham says she’s staying on Ni’Var, because her daughter is no longer a lost cause, and there are other lost causes for her to bind herself to. But thankfully, “You always know where to find me,” which triggers even more crying.
In Engineering, Tilly enters to find Stamets has gathered the whole bridge crew to encourage her to take the first officer job. In fact, they go around the room, with each one declaring, “Say yes!” Stamets says “we’d all follow you anywhere,” and then they jokingly present their “grievances and requests” for their new XO and it’s lots of yuks all around.
Then Michael shows up to declare that she got the SB-19 data. She sees everyone standing around and says, “Oh, did I miss the cool ‘say yes’ part?” Okay, that was funny. There’s more waterworks as Burnham tells Tilly she’ll be a great Number One. Also, Burnham reveals she’s not leaving the ship after all, and they hug and cry, and cry and hug.
Tilly then gives her first order as First Officer: She tells Michael to take the data to the science lab and analyze it and figure out how to bring back the Federation. Burnham jokes that she thought Tilly was about to ask her to “switch my bed to the other side of the room”. Wait… are they still roommates? Still? I mean, you’d think we’d be seeing a lot more conversations between these two if they share a room, but they barely talk to each other.
T’Rina and Saru are in his ready room, looking out at the Planet Formerly Known as Vulcan. T’Rina says she hopes that she and Saru can continue their “conversation” in the future. She tells him to live long and prosper and they give each other the Vulcan salute, and she beams out.
Burnham is now on Book’s ship, which is still sitting in Discovery’s shuttlebay. She breaks the news that she’s not running away with him just yet, because she now feels like she belongs here. She asks what this means for him, but he’s not sure. All he knows is, “You feel like home,” and the episode ends with the camera pulling back from Discovery’s shuttlebay as it leaves Ni’Var.
This was a pretty dialogue-heavy episode; I glossed over most of the dialogue because it mostly bogged down the episode. Having a quiet, “Measure of a Man”-style trial episode was a good idea after a few episodes of mindless action, but the episode didn’t do a great job of showing the ceremony had much of a purpose. It was supposed to be some sort of serious inquiry, but it felt mostly like Burnham badgering the Science Institute people into giving her some data. And the whole thing eventually turning into a therapy session for Michael was just silly. Does every episode have to devolve into an exploration of Burnham’s neuroses?
Speaking of neurotic, Tilly becoming first officer was ridiculous; I can’t think of anyone on this show less suited to being second in command. About the best thing I can say for this turn of events is that going from cadet to first officer in two seasons is less stupid than going from cadet to captain of a starship in two days like reboot-Kirk.
Next time: They finally find the Burn’s point of origin. Georgiou ends up in Sickbay getting all digitally distorted, Detmer has to pull off some skillful piloting in Book’s ship, and there’s a glimpse of an Orion woman who’s probably Osyraa. It looks like an action-packed episode, so maybe there won’t be any crying. Ah, who am I kidding?