Star Trek: Discovery
This is the best episode of Star Trek: Discovery to date. No holds barred, no caveats. I’m a recapper, not a doctor, but any self-respecting Trekkie who isn’t completely leveled by this episode should probably get that checked out, like, medically. By its conclusion, I was so worn out from various types of crying, I had come back around and started to resent the show again for how ruthlessly and ceaselessly its creators seem to be working to redeem every annoying choice they made in previous seasons. We know the Spock-and-Pike thing was a lazy shortcut that drove CBS All Access subscriptions and viewership. But now, Spock’s presence in absentia and Michael’s relationship with him has created a future with undeniably richer dynamics. I don’t forgive them for the bad stuff, necessarily, but I am at least willing to overlook that I was ever forced to type words like “time crystals” or “decapitated albino baby Klingon head.”
Kirsten Beyer, who penned this episode, and the writers room were out for blood from the start: “Unification III” is, in name and spirit both, the third installment of a two-part fifth-season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Firstly, “Unification” and “Unification Part II” were already crossover episodes, featuring returns for Leonard Nimoy and Mark Lenard as Spock and Sarek, respectively, as well as for Denise Crosby, who plays the villainous half-Romulan daughter of mirror-universe Tasha Yar. Secondly, these episodes were already doubly meaningful, because the first “Unification” aired just 11 days after Gene Roddenberry’s death in 1991; both parts are dedicated to the Trek creator. Thirdly, making it a part of this arc hammers home the point that while Michael might be a rogue who hurts her friends’ feelings all the time, it kind of runs in the family. That “cowboy diplomacy” Jean-Luc Picard accuses Spock of when he finally tracks him down on Romulus, after the guy appears to have defected from the Federation in order to finally bring Romulans and Vulcans back together again? That is the perfect way to describe what Michael does on a regular basis. In other words, Spock pulled a Michael Burnham, and now she and Discovery get to see the fruits of that choice, even if it’s from a Federation that currently does not include Vulcan.
Or should I say Ni’Var? Because that’s the new name of The Planet Formerly Known as Vulcan, now that the Romulans also live there. (Romulus, the planet they settled on after breaking with the Vulcans several thousand years prior, was destroyed in 2387 when its sun went supernova, a topic covered first by the J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot and then by Star Trek: Picard, in which we learn that Picard resigned from Starfleet after it actively prevented him from organizing a rescue effort.) Both sides have a profound respect for Spock for having led the reunification process. Which is why, when Michael asks Vance for information on SB-19, a classified project that could help solve the Burn mystery but whose failure turns out to have been the “final blow” that caused Ni’Var to leave the Federation, Vance realizes he has gold on his hands. If Spock’s sister can approach Ni’Var to request the SB-19 data, maybe they’ll be willing to work together again. A manipulative tactic that borders on insulting, to be sure, but frankly, it’s all they’ve got going for them right now. Because the Vulcans have every right to be pissed with the Federation.
Recall that dilithium supplies were already drying up before the Burn; to combat this, the Federation mandated that every member planet needed to put their best scientists to work on finding a sustainable alternative to dilithium-fueled warp travel. As the valedictorians of the Federation, Ni’Var came up with the most promising idea, a sort of portal (like a manufactured version of the wormhole in DS9, I guess?) that could transport ships very far, very quickly. Trouble is, the SB-19 gate was extremely unstable, and the Vulcans decided it wasn’t safe to continue and asked to shutter the project. The Federation, up against a wall and trying to preserve a 350-world alliance, insisted that they move forward anyway. (As though that kind of decision has never resulted in famously horrible consequences.) Wouldn’t you know it, the portal then triggered some sort of event that, the Vulcans believe, caused the Burn. They blamed the Federation for forcing them into it, kept their data, and that was that: friendship ended with Federation, now Romulans are my best friend. (Except, and this is crazy, the Romulans actually advocated to stay.)
The black-box recordings Tilly and Michael have analyzed vary by one one-millionth of a microsecond, but in order to properly triangulate an origin in 3D space, they need more data. And SB-19 just so happens to have been collecting data from a zillion sensors stationed across dozens of lightyears. So despite her reluctance to once again be representing the Federation, just as she’s feeling more ambivalent than ever about whether she fits in with her Discovery family anymore, she’s now the headline performer in a show called Spock’s Sister is Coming with Some Questions About SB-19. Before they jump to Ni’Var, she and Book watch some clips of Nimoy-Spock from “Picard’s personal files” (the TNG episodes) to get the full scope of who her brother ultimately became. The monologue is pure Michael (vice versa, technically, but you know): “Closed minds have kept these two worlds apart for centuries. We can either choose to live with that enmity, or seek a way to change it.”
So they jump to Ni’Var, Stamets using Adira’s Flubber nanogel interface for the first time, where they are greeted by a holo-call from T’Rina, the planet’s president. I immediately want this Vulcan woman’s approval, even more so when she denies Michael’s request for access for being too dangerous to reopen those wounds given the delicate peace Vulcans and Romulans have achieved: “Even science cannot be separated from cultural and political context. There are always implications.”
But Michael Burnham does exactly what she always does: force everyone’s hand to get what she wants. Confirming that the Vulcans still honor the old ways, particularly with regards to scientific inquiry, she invokes T’Kal-in-ket, an old Vulcan philosophical trial “designed to unearth deep truths” — kind of like a brutal Socratic method — that cannot be denied a citizen of Ni’Var once invoked. T’Rina is not happy about it, but she convenes a quorum from the Ni’Var Science Institute anyway: N’Raj, a Romulan elder; V’Kir, a young Vulcan purist leader; and Shira, a biracial Romulo-Vulcan. In front of a mixed audience, these three will “ruthlessly assail the credibility of the challenger” Michael, forcing her to defend not only her hypothesis, but also herself. If she fails, T’Rina explains, “Spock’s sister [will have] returned to us a dissembler. That will have real and grave consequences.”
That’s right, folks, it’s one of those Star Trek episodes: an impromptu, high-stakes trial that ultimately puts our protagonist’s character on trial instead! Luckily, Michael will have an unexpected Qowat Milat shalankhkai, or advocate, at her side. This order of Romulan warrior-nuns, the Qowat Milat, is the coolest thing in the Star Trek universe this side of the crystalline entity, in part because they “live and die” by a form of read-you-for-filth honesty they call absolute candor. A shalankhkai is a Qowat Milat who has bound herself to a “lost cause.” (More on this whole mythology in the footnotes.) And surprise, Michael’s turns out to be none other than the human called Gabrielle Burnham — her mommy. Ha ha, this episode is going to destroy us all.
Turns out Gabrielle returned to the future right back on Essof IV, the planet where Discovery finally trapped her last season by suffocating Michael in its toxic atmosphere. But apparently there are colonists there now, and they brought her to the Qowat Milat, who healed her: “The sisters helped me learn how to just be where I am, however unsettling it may be.” (And, you know, how to be a deadly assassin.) But enough about her — she’s here to urge Michael to understand that she is thinking about Vulcans and logic like someone in 2015 might, whereas the T’Kal-in-ket quorum members are all living here in 2020, where it’s cute to believe that facts and science will win on their own merits: “They all have their own truths, facts, and logic that are vying for air.”
She tried to warn her! But the trial ends up being more savage than Michael or even T’Rina described, probably because it’s not every day that a challenger’s mom is also her shalankhkai. Gabrielle advocates for her child in the most ruthless, mortifyingly unsentimental way possible: by adding her daughter’s every dark secret and shame to the slate of evidence being considered. Sure, V’Kir tries to dismiss the case from the start, calling her findings “puerile” and suggests she’s wasting their time. Sure, Shira suggests that her motives are suspect and brings up the very good point that Ni’Var left the Federation at great cost to themselves because they were that concerned about what the Federation would do with the data. (The Romulan, N’raj, is down to clown pretty much immediately.) V’Kir makes some good points, too: her sample size is miniscule. The numbers are spread across thousands of lightyears and such a slight difference could be the result of any number of factors. And they say their data definitively proves that SB-19 was the source of the Burn. Michael wants them to take her at her word, so why won’t she take them at theirs?
But these three have got nothing on mom. If I wasn’t an atheist, this sequence would have put the fear of god in me. After a brief mid-trial adjournment to confirm that Michael has no intention of opening up about all her doubts, Gabrielle goes to town. Systematically, she brings up Michael’s first mutiny, her recent insubordination and demotion, and her confession earlier that she was struggling to fit in. How can she say she speaks for the Federation when her actions repeatedly suggest otherwise? Finally, the kill shot: “She may have grown up here, but she was never Vulcan. She is human, through and through. And being human, she is governed by emotion and a desire to insinuate herself into certain matters of import to fill that emotional void. I maintain that that void has made her vulnerable to manipulation at the hands of the Federation.” Can you imagine? Is this what it’s like to have a therapist for a mother?
Despite practically vibrating with rage and shame, ultimately Michael does see where her mother is going with this and responds with her own monologues. She demands that her mother confirm all the good the Federation has done for her, and all the good she and her crew have achieved for the Federation, not to mention all sentient life in the universe. Why, then, does she still have doubts? “I don’t know. Maybe because the stakes are so much higher now. Everything is different. And every day there’s this fear that I’m doing it wrong, like I’ll destroy the people I love. What if I lose everything and everyone, after all we’ve sacrificed?”
Alas, this emotional prostration changes exactly nothing for the quorum — N’Raj goes as far as to threaten to give her the data himself if the council declines — but now it’s Michael who has had a breakthrough. No knowledge is worth shattering centuries’ worth of peace on Ni’Var, not even about the Burn. She withdraws her request and simply resolves to find more data herself, offering to send it to the Science Institute to use as they see fit. “I ask you for nothing,” she says. “But I am giving you my trust. As a member of Starfleet.”
She’s a cowboy, but when it works, it works. Later, when Gabrielle visits Michael in her quarters, she comes bearing the secret backup plan (would you call that sort of duplicity “absolutely candid,” Gabs?): President T’Rina also wanted to know who Michael really was, and when she saw it, she decided she could trust her with the data after all, and passed it along via Gabrielle, adding that “she wondered how much of the man Spock became was a result of who his sister was.” Mother and daughter have a heart-to-heart about the coexistence of duty and joy, and by the time Gabrielle says, “You always know where to find me,” I’ve become but a melted blob of flesh and tears.
And one last bit of redemptive joy: SARU ASKED TILLY TO SERVE AS INTERIM NUMBER ONE!!! As I mentioned just last week, Sylvia Tilly is far more experienced and capable than anything a command training program could teach her. She does the right thing every time, and most importantly, when everyone else has been breaking down amid chaos, she’s been blooming. Of course, being Tilly, she has to have a crisis about it, not least of all because she’s worried her best friend, who was just demoted from the job after also betraying her personally, seems like she might now be abandoning them. She asks for advice from Stamets, whose first instinct is still to be a nasty, reactive asshole, but luckily, he’s worked really hard on his second instinct: to assemble the bridge crew in engineering to surprise her as they all tell her to “say yes.” (At this point in my notes, I have mashed out, with several typos: “LEAVE ME ALONE, STUPID SHOW.”) At last, Michael shows up with the SB-19 data and the cherry on top: she’s staying, and expects Tilly to lead her.
Apart from being spectacular in its own right, this episode also makes me wonder what other past madness the show might eventually be planning to redeem. Will Saru finally confront Georgiou about the fact that she enslaved and ate people like him? Will we one day learn the backstory of a Cool Bridge Crew Girl without her having to die or quit? The possibilities feel endless.
Personal Log, Supplemental
• First of all, I hope someone will note this on the Memory Alpha page: at the moment “Unification III” was going live on CBS All Access, a cyclone called Nivar was making landfall in India. Awkward!
• I missed this the first time, which made my second watch almost as tearful as the first, but one of black boxes they found belonged to the U.S.S. Yelchin. Was this episode intended to trigger Kolinahr??
• How could I have forgotten to mention that Michael and Book do it this week? (Probably because it happens so quickly and incidentally that it’s over before it began.) When Michael tells Book she’s staying with Discovery, he says, “You feel like home,” which sounds a lot like he’s not about to peace out any time soon.
• LOL @ Michael deciding her best bet would be to appeal to V’Kir, the Vulcan purist. Girl, did you forget you were almost hate-crimed by Vulcan purists??
• T’Rina and Saru’s unexpected (but, like, totally expected) friendship! She is so patient with him as he suggests their visit will be enough to win Ni’Var back! Her reticence implies that the Federation was doling out some serious, American-grade fuckery that will eventually come to light. But the way Saru makes T’Rina feel heard, combined with how he offered the Number One gig to Tilly? You know this guy is gonna run the whole joint someday.
• I actually opened a Vulcan dictionary for this: In Picard, which somehow happened this year, the term is pronounced and spelled as qalankhkai, but President T’Rina pronounces the term with a “sha” instead of a “qa.” I assume this is some sort of reunification portmanteau, thanks to several centuries’ worth of linguistic drift, since it shares that first syllable with the Vulcan translation, sha-set.
• Because the Qowat Milat are a retcon introduced for Picard, we haven’t learned much about them yet. The addition works because the Romulans have been incredibly secretive about cultural stuff in the past, and also because holy shit, oversharing samurai nuns. Now we learn that their strict zero-secrets precept made them essential in the reunification process, and that in the 32nd century, they now act as mediators between the two cultures. Back in February, I mentioned wanting to read the IP novel about them, but let me formalize my request: Please. I think the franchise owes us that much. I mean, some of us read Imzadi as tweens.