Star Trek: Discovery’s latest episode, “Unification III,” is a sequel to a 1991 Next Generation two-parter and a continuation of a more recent Picard storyline. The episode makes some surprising choices that don’t always land, but it swings hard and hits where it counts.
Star Trek Discovery (Season 3)
Jon Dudkowski (director), Kirsten Beyer (writer)
Sonequa Martin-Green, David Ajala, Mary Wiseman and Sonja Sohn (cast)
November 26, 2020
The episode’s title references the Next Generation two parter “Unification,” which saw Picard (Patrick Stewart) meeting an aged Spock (Leonard Nimoy) as part of a covert mission for reunification for Vulcans and Romulans. As usual, the episode begins with a “Previously On…” segment with clips from recent Discovery episodes. I wouldn’t normally mention it, but they missed a fun opportunity here. It would’ve been interesting for the segment to be a recap of the “Unification” two-parter. It’s a trick they used last season with an episode’s “Previously On…” being a recap of The Original Series‘ story “The Cage.” I wouldn’t want them to do that all the time, but it would’ve been perfect here, especially for an episode that’s obsessed with continuity.
This episode really drives home how central Michael Burnham is, to both the show and the Star Trek universe. We see her relationship with Book (David Ajala) move from friendly to romantic and sexual, and the surprise return of her mother, Gabrielle Burnham (Sonja Sohn). Both of these moves make sense for her character and the show, and it’s comforting seeing Michael building a space family for herself in the 32nd century. It makes sense, both because she’s our main character, and because she’s been here for a year longer than the rest of the Discovery, so she should be more settled than them.
Her emotions do feel over the top and melodramatic at points, but it’s a fitting struggle for a human raised on Vulcan, and the show feels aware of it. At one point, her mom retorts, “Is this what you were like as a 12 year old?” It’s notable as well that this season continues to push for better representation of Black characters. The episode opens with two Black characters in a loving embrace (Michael and Book), and the episode’s climax (and the future of the universe) centers on a tense exchange between two Black women (Michael and her mother). I love that Discovery carries on the Star Trek torch of pushing for better representation for all. That’s more important to me than the state of Romulan-Vulcan politics, although I do enjoy those as a Star Trek nerd.
This episode continues the trend of this season, where we see a familiar planet now different in the 32nd century and having taken an isolationist turn. Only this time, instead of Earth or Trill, it’s Ni’Var (formerly Vulcan). I admire the guts of renaming Vulcan and knowing how much that would annoy fans, and it’s so fitting that it’s now Ni’Var, a Vulcan concept for duality that originates in TOS fanzines, and has carried through Trek novels and shows since.
There’s a lovely holographic recording of Leonard Nimoy’s Spock discussing Vulcan and Romulan reunification. Seeing it pulls at Burnham’s heartstrings, and it was an emotional moment for me as well as probably many other Trek fans. It could’ve been a cheap trick, but it feels so fitting and natural here, and Burnham’s mourning for her brother is explicitly the Discovery creators mourning the loss of Leonard Nimoy. There’s also the massive debt both Vulcans and Romulans owe to Spock, and Leonard Nimoy as an actor, for creating the love viewers and characters feel towards these races. As well, there’s a subtle but heartwarming nod to recently deceased Anton Yelchin (Chekhov in the Kelvin movies), as one of the future Federation ships is named the USS Yelchin.
It makes sense that by this point Vulcans and Romulans would’ve reunified, something they’ve been working towards for centuries, and it adds a complex layering to their isolationism. They’ve unified as two related species and cultures, but they’re distrustful of outsiders (like The Federation) and more distrustful of each other than they’d like to admit. This echoes a Brexit-era United Kingdom as well as a Trump-era United States, nations made up of a collection of states and peoples, but fearful of larger-scale alliances. It works well because the metaphor isn’t called out or drawn attention to. There’s no explicit references to 2020 politics. We just see the actions of the government on Ni’Var, and know that they would be better off working with The Federation, even if they’re unwilling to rejoin (yet). Repeatedly throughout this season, we see Saru (Doug Jones) and Burnham arguing that although the Federation is far from perfect, openness, honesty, and cooperation are good core values to embrace. The situations and the politics are complex, but the overall takeaway is a simple, hopeful, and necessary message.
This season feels like a thoughtful response to all of the right-wing isolationist governments of today, reflected in familiar Star Trek planets and races. It works well that we’ve seen this theme repeatedly discussed and examined from different angles, allowing for episodic stories and keeping the themes fresh and the plots interesting. This single episode feels like a more thoughtful take on Romulan-Vulcan relations than all of Star Trek: Picard, largely because it doesn’t get bogged down too much in the specifics of things. It avoids the specifics of the Burn as well, only discussing it in terms of sharing scientific information with foreign governments.
Meanwhile, Saru makes Tilly (Mary Wiseman) the new acting First Officer, which serves as a fun small-scale B story to the interplanetary politics of the A plot. Tilly is one of our main characters, and she’s grown considerably over the seasons. Still, making her First Officer seems extremely strange. She expresses her shock at it throughout the episode as other characters console and assure her.
It feels like we’re supposed to be on the side of characters like Saru and Stamets (Anthony Rapp), who acknowledge that it’s strange while also telling her she’s up for it, but it feels weird to me for both the character and for Saru, who’s been such a stickler about Starfleet regulations lately. She is promoted to “Acting First Officer” while he’s looking for a replacement though. Discovery has had many different temporary acting Captains over the last couple seasons, and Discovery’s game of musical chairs may have now gone from the Captain’s chair to the First Officer’s chair.
This episode feels meatier than any other this season, both through the callbacks to previous Trek shows, and the expanding of Burnham’s family, and showing us the new status quo for both Romulans and Vulcans. It’s a shame it fell on a holiday, when I and many others were likely unable to immediately watch and discuss it. “Unification III” feels purposeful. It puts Burnham closer to her goal of figuring out the Burn and develops this season’s plot and themes, while also delivering an enjoyable single episode and copious info dumps about the new statuses of Romulans, Vulcans, and The Federation.