‘Star Trek Discovery’ Season 3 Episode 7: Unification III

Absolute candor helps Michael Burnham find her way.

Clarence Brown
Discussing Network

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Bro, we need to solve this burn.

As much as season three of Star Trek: Discovery has been all about returning the Federation to its former glory, it has also been about seeing our principal characters work through their issues. Issues that include finding themselves in a place devoid of their loved ones, and dealing with a weak facsimile of the very organization they have devoted their lives to. In Unification III, things come to a head, as Michael Burnham attempts to figure her place in all of this.

Season 3, Episode 7: Unification III

Unification III goes there. The episode directly addresses the continued evolution of an initiative Spock put into place centuries ago, while gracefully tying in the aftermath of his supposed death in the prime universe. But to get at the heart of the burn, family comes into play in more ways than one.

There is no doubt that Michael’s year alone in the future has changed her. A year that looked to threaten all the growth she had seen since starting the Federation-Klingon war so many years ago; all but giving up on the very organization that had shaped her core values. Giving way to a bleak reality. Things finally come to a head when Michael goes rogue to solve the mystery of the burn and save the life of a friend, leaving the officer demoted and even more unsure on where the path of her future leads.

Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) chats with Ensign Tilly (Mary Wiseman) about her finding regarding the last black box obtained during the unsanctioned mission to Hunhau. And as it turns out, Michael’s theory concerning the time variation in the black boxes seems to be right, though much more data would be needed to find the precise location in which the signal originated; which leads us to an experiment called SB-19. After researching the Federation archives, Burnham learns the program SB-19 would have had sensors available that would have captured the data she so desperately seeks. And bringing up the matter to Admiral Vance (Oded Fehr) leads to a myriad of huge revelations.

We need more data… dangit.

The first revelation lies in SB-19 itself. The Federation’s massive growth of more than 350 member worlds led the organization to find a new means to power its growing number of warp-capable ships. In turn, escalating the need to find an alternative means of travel, as dilithium was becoming scarce. Enter SB-19, the Vulcan solution to the problem; an experiment in which the Vulcan’s deemed problematic, though the Federation forced its continuation against the Vulcan wishes. While in the midst of their experiment, the burn happened, leading the Vulcan’s to discontinue all work on the program, bury all research, and eventually leave the Federation itself.

The second revelation lies in the current state of the planet formerly known as Vulcan, which we learn is now called Ni’Var. Ni‘V’ar is now the home to a combined Romulo-Vulcan population. The sure notion of the Romulans and Vulcans living in harmony is one that our time-travelers might find hard to handle. Upon leaving the 2250s, the Romulans were a mysterious yet formidable enemy of the Federation. A race of people that had not been seen until the events of an encounter between Captain Kirk and the Enterprise years after Discovery made its jump into the future. What our crew had not been privy to, is the efforts of Ambassador Spock towards the unification of the Romulan and Vulcan people.

In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes Unification I and Unification II, we see Captain Jean-Luc Picard on a covert mission to Romulus to ascertain the true intentions of thought-defector Ambassador Spock. What Picard and the crew of the Enterprise find out in the end, is that Spock’s true intention is not to defect, but to bring together the Romulan and Vulcan races. A group of races that were once one, until a sect chose to cut ties during the great reformation led by Surak. In the end, Spock never got to see the realization of his dream. Though he never stopped trying. In the end, Spock was lost to the Kelvin timeline in a last-ditch effort to save the Romulan people from the Hobus Supernova.

Spock, you are gonna do great things.

It goes without saying that the fruition of the ambassador’s efforts was a touching moment in the episode. Getting to see Burnham researching the work of her brother from the archives, along with the holo-image of the late-great Leonard Nimoy, was more than enough to have even the most reluctant Star Trek: Discovery fan punching the air. Spock’s attempt at reunification has stretched across so many of the Star Trek series and even the movies, becoming a pivotal element to the collective glue of the Star Trek Universe. A throughline that beautifully places Michael Burnham into the mix, making her the perfect liaison to seek the much-needed SB-19 data and possibly mend severed relations between the Federation and the Ni’Varian people in the process.

Upon arriving at Ni’Var, Discovery and her crew find that SB-19 and the events of the burn have not only impacted the Federation-Ni’Varian relationship, but it has also been at the root of a delicate balance between Romulo-Vulcan relations on Ni’Var. At the core of the matter is the accepted notion that the project may have in some way caused the burn, provoking social and political unrest between an already fragile relationship between the Romulo-Vulcan people. Taking into account the prowess of the former-Romulan Empire, along with the delicate balance of trust in the now integrated Ni’Varian society, it’s easy to see why an event such as the burn could spur a certain amount of fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

T’Rina (Tara Rosling), the president of Ni’Var, is unwilling to allow the Federation access to the SB-19 burn data, as resurfacing such a delicate matter in the post-unification era has the potential to tear open old wounds. Suffice it to say, Burnham refuses to accept these terms, and as a graduate of the Vulcan Science Academy, invokes the T’Kal-in-ket.

Romulo-Vulcan? What?

The T’Kal-in-ket, an ancient ritual observed since the time of the controversial teaching of Surak, is a philosophical process that is designed to unearth deep truths; credited as one of the processes that led to early Vulcan scientific advancement. As the request cannot be denied, Burnham gives the Ni’Varian president no choice but to convene a quorum to proceed with the ritual, where Burnham will have to defend her hypothesis before the Vulcan Science Institute. A process that not only opens up the officer to being ruthlessly assailed by her challengers, but that could also potentially inflame tensions among the Ni’Varian citizens.

Burnham is told that she will be assigned a shalankhkai, or council, for the ritual. A position that has been taken over by the Quwat Milat, an order of Romulan warrior nuns with who fans of Star Trek: Picard would be very familiar. The Quwat Milot beliefs revolve around the teaching of the Way of Absolute Candor, teaching which includes total communication of emotion without a filter between thought and word. What none of us ever really anticipated was that momma-Burnham herself, Gabrielle Burnham (Sonja Sohn), would become a Quwat Milat and is now Michael’s shalankhkai!

Bringing back Gabrielle as a Quwat Milat was an absolutely brilliant move on the part of the Discovery showrunners; elegantly tying up loose ends from season two and fostering cohesiveness with season one of Picard. Unfortunately for Michael, initial pleasantries are short-lived, as Gabrielle’s absolute candor leads to some tough love for Michael. Touch-love in the admission to Michael that the quorum is a lost cause, and then later when momma-Burnham forces Michael to take a moment of self-reflection.

They are really sensitive about this data.

The quorum itself feels somewhat different from the Star Trek courtroom flair we’ve seen over the years, in this case, it felt a bit more up close, in your face, and even rapid-fire. Michael attempts to present her very logical and scientifically sound augment to the quorum, but each attempt to shot down almost as soon as it can be started. Peer V’Kir (Emmanuel Kabongo) moves that there is no dispute that the burn has a source, Peer N’Raj (Oliver Becker) questions how long the Federation has had evidence the source may not have been Ni’Var, Peer Shira (Stephanie Belding) emphasizes the sensitivity of the data and the great unrest it has caused its people.

Burnham iterates the validity of her finding which is based on differences in fractions of microseconds, although V’Kir attempts to discredit her as having incomplete data, which is why Michael is there in the first place. Seemingly, each quorum council member had come into the proceeding with their own particular agenda and motives. Peer V’Kir is the young leader and Vulcan purist, Peer N’Raj is a Romulan elder, while Shira is a leader of the Romulo-Vulcans looking to forge a new path. The dynamic in the arguments from each provided a nice ying-yang feel as they debated the validity of giving Michael the SB-19 data.

As the proceedings continue, Gabrielle raises Michael’s doubt about her place in Starfleet to the quorum; going as far as to talk about the mutiny against Captain Georgiou, Michael’s recent demotion as first-officer, and even the fact that being without her mother as a child may have even negatively impacted the person she is today. What’s beautiful about this moment is that it makes Michael realize what has shaped her, what value that holds, what drives her as a member of the Federation, and how leaving all that behind would be a betrayal of everything she’s fought to obtain.

I haven’t seen my momma in 930 years, and she trippin’.

“Didn’t the Federation give me a mission and a purpose? Didn’t the Federation give me a place and a family? Didn’t my crew and I risk our lives and work together in the past to save all sentient life in the universe? And isn’t it true that the only reason we are all sitting here today, is because the Federation gave me and the crew of the USS Discovery the resource and the mandate to solve the biggest and most troublesome problems in the galaxy? Didn’t you see all of us, and as imperfect and flawed as we all are, still live up to its best ideas?”

Ultimately, Gabrielle’s insistence offered Michael assurance of who she really is along with what the Federation stands for, and in turn, a realization that doing anything to fracture the union her brother had so desperately sought for would be a mistake. But in rescinding her request and the heartfelt plea that followed, Burnham gained the trust of the Ni’Varian president, and in doing so given access to the SB-19 data through non-official channels.

Then there is the overall satisfaction of seeing Michael and Gabrielle reunite. After so much has been lost, they are now at a point where they can pick up the pieces, nearly 1000 years later.

“I can’t be bound to you. You are not a lost cause. You always know where to find me.” — Gabrielle Burnham

Also in the episode, we see Captain Saru (Doug Jones) offer Ensign Tilly a temporary first-officer position. A decision that I would have scoffed at before this season. Seeing Tilly seek out the approval of her peers for such a daunting task made for an awkward moment with Stamets (Anthony Rapp), but for a heartwarming moment with the rest of the bridge crew at the end of the episode.

I know you are going to be a captain someday, but you have to start somewhere.

There are so many things about his episode that just work, starting with disparate edges of the Star Trek Universe coming together to make a complete and flushed-out segment to the larger story of the unification of the Romulan and Vulcan people. From the teaching of Surak that was explored in Enterprise to the revelation of the similarities between the Romulan and Vulcan species in The Original Series, it all comes together to make a cohesive and enduring story that beautifully shows the political and social evolution of a once divergent species.

Then there are the ties that Jean-Luc Picard has to it all. Picard shared a mind-meld with Sarek during his final mission for the Federation to foster critical negotiations after it was found the Sarek was suffering from Bendii syndrome. A mind-meld that arguably had given Picard a window into Discovery’s trip into the future, as well as critical insight into Spock’s upbringing with Michael. It allowed Picard to successfully convey Sarek’s true feelings for Spock, despite Sarek and Spock’s tumultuous relationship. We may even have Sarek’s mind-meld to thank for Picard’s insistence on helping to evacuate the Romulan people within the Hobus blast radius, leading to the events we see in Star Trek: Picard.

Finally, we continue the quest to get to the source of the burn! I think we are at the point now in the season where we need to start to see payoffs, and this episode is a great first step. While the burn remains a mystery, seeing the momma-Burnham resolution so beautifully conveyed is a feat unto itself. Like most of this season’s episodes, I continue to have no idea where things are going, but as always, I’m staying buckled in for whatever the Discovery showrunners have in store.

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Notes and Observations

  1. The mention of the U.S.S. Yelchin is a nod to the late Anton Yelchin, who portrayed Pavel Chekov in the Kelvin-timeline movies.
  2. Canonically speaking, Talok is the first Romulan seen on screen in Star Trek: Enterprise when Captain Archer and T’Pol attempted to retrieve an ancient Vulcan artifact.

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Clarence Brown
Discussing Network

Podcasting and writing mostly about Star Trek. Somewhere in Texas.