Warning: This Star Trek: Discovery season 3, episode 7 review contains major spoilers – many of them set to stun. Boldly go further at your own risk…
Everyone raves about the interconnectivity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and rightly so – keeping all those storytelling plates spinning is a remarkable achievement. The MCU isn’t the first to boldly go into shared universe territory, however, because Star Trek has been tying strange new worlds, parallel timelines, and multiple dimensions together for decades.
The latest episode of Discovery, "Unification III", crosses multiple streams from the 54-year-old franchise’s history, taking in everything from the original series and The Next Generation to more recent offerings like Star Trek: Picard and the J.J. Abrams reboot. It could be Discovery’s most fan-friendly episode ever.
Callbacks to previous Treks would be little more than window dressing without a decent story – though the mention of a USS Yelchin is a lovely tribute to the late Anton Yelchin, who played Chekov in the Abrams movies. This episode delivers spectacularly on all fronts, and is effectively a textbook guide to writing an instalment of a serialised TV show. As well as advancing season 3’s overall plot arc, the story-of-the-week puts its focus firmly on an individual, seamlessly advancing their character arc while scoring plenty of geek points.
Michael Burnham is the crewmate in question. Having been demoted from her role as Discovery’s first officer, she’s questioning her place in Starfleet: getting back into uniform after a year away has been weird, she’d rather be hanging out with new boyfriend Book (who’s effectively living in Discovery’s shuttle bay), and she’s obsessed with finding the cause of the Burn, aka “the biggest, most dangerous cosmic puzzle of all time”.
The three starship black boxes Burnham’s assembled reveal that the cataclysmic end of dilithium didn’t happen everywhere simultaneously, so she asks Admiral Vance for information on an experiment which maybe provides some answers about what happened. Unfortunately, intel on SB-19 is problematic because it’s been classified by the Vulcans, who – despite being founder members – are no longer part of the Federation.
That’s not the end of the big Vulcan revelations, because they’re now sharing their homeworld with former enemies the Romulans, and they’ve renamed it Ni’var. For Burnham, who grew up there, it’s quite the shock – especially when she learns that her younger brother, Spock, is now one of the most revered Vulcans in history, having brought the two related (but estranged) races back together. (Though it did take centuries (and a few missteps) for his vision to be realised.) In that regard, this is a direct follow-up to The Next Generation two-parter "Unification" – hence this episode’s title – in which Spock went rogue on Romulus. We even get to see a TNG clip of Leonard Nimoy in action, as part of Admiral Jean-Luc Picard’s personal logs – the destruction of Romulus and what subsequently happened to its people was a major element in both JJ Abrams first Star Trek and Star Trek: Picard.
While Burnham’s current circumstances mean she’s reluctant to be the face of Starfleet’s negotiations, it’s assumed her status as the sister of an icon will open doors. Only so far, as it turns out, as the planet is still living in guilt for the creation of SB-19, a technology that – like Discovery’s spore drive – could transport a ship across the galaxy in seconds. Unlike the spore drive, however, it may have caused the Burn. And they really don’t want to talk about it.
Luckily, as far back as the original series, the Vulcan culture has been built on arcane rituals, so Science Academy graduate Burnham is able to invoke a ceremony that’s been unearthing deep truths since the days of ancient philosopher Surak. As well as being her latest display of insubordination, it’s an excuse to follow in the footsteps of TOS two-parter "The Menagerie" and TNG classic "The Measure of a Man" with a good old-fashioned courtroom drama.
‘Unification III’ may not be big on interstellar fireworks – with almost all of the story set on Discovery, it’s near-as-dammit a bottle episode – but in terms of drama this is powerful stuff. As Burnham tries to make the logical argument that will persuade the arbitrators to release the vital information – risking her own reputation in the process – she’s forced to dive deep into her soul, and reveal her serious misgivings about her role within Starfleet.
Her journey of self-discovery is enhanced by a slight (but forgivable) narrative cheat. That Burnham’s time-travelling mother, Gabrielle, should have ended up on Ni’var feels extremely unlikely and contrived – particularly when we find out she’s now a member of the Qowat Milat, the tell-it-like-it-is Romulan sect introduced in Star Trek: Picard that believes in “absolute candour”. But having her alongside Burnham as an advocate, nominally providing support while asking extremely probing questions, really ups the ante on the human drama – there’s nothing like a bit of intra-familial tension to raise the stakes.
Ultimately Ni’var agrees to release the information, while Burnham decides that Discovery is the right place for her after all. That’s fine with Book, who believes that wherever Burnham is will be “home”. Hope he’s happy with the view from that shuttle bay…
It’s probably a wise choice, as Saru’s decision to name Ensign Sylvia Tilly as his surprise pick for the vacant Number One slot will almost definitely make the ship a better place to live. On one level it’s utterly implausible that an ensign (who was just a trainee when Discovery first launched) should leapfrog everyone to a position of command – though the scene where the crew show her their support is wonderful. At the same time, the show has been hinting at Tilly’s readiness for command since Discovery first arrived in the future. And with the exception of Georgiou – who isn’t really first officer material anyway – Tilly’s the most watchable character in the series. It looks like Discovery has well and truly found its feet in the 32nd century.
New episodes of Star Trek: Discovery season 3 land on Thursdays on CBS All Access in the US, and on Fridays on Netflix in the UK.