Star Trek: Discovery lacked Trekkie credibility in its early days.
Even in Season Two with the addition of Spock and Captain Pike, it didn’t quite draw in so-called “real Trekkies.” Season Three was a chance to break away from the chains of canon. And now Star Trek: Discovery revisits some pivotal Star Trek history. Its latest episode, “Unification III” serves as a spiritual sequel to a classic two-parter from The Next Generation.
Burnham learns about Spock’s work as an Ambassador. And how it might be a clue to the origins of the Burn.
Commander Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), fresh off her demotion from first-officer duties, finds critical data about the Burn. And her answers lie on the planet Ni’var – formerly the planet Vulcan. Now populated by the reunified Vulcans and Romulans. Proof of the culmination of Spock’s work as a Federation Ambassador. But when they arrive, the Vulcans aren’t willing to hand over the info they need. They fear reviving old wounds between the Vulcans and Romulans. Thus undoing the unification secured by Ambassador Spock.
Burnham forces the government of Ni’var into a corner. She demands a chance to present her evidence. And if the Vulcan and Romulan masters are impressed, they’ll share the Burn data with the Federation. The former first officer is allowed her own advocate by the Ni’var. This advocate has a close tie to the Romulan warrior nuns of Star Trek: Picard. And an even closer tie to Burnham herself – it’s her mother, Gabrielle (Sonja Sohn).
Saru (Doug Jones) tries to convince the Ni’var president (Tara Rosling) that the Federation is worth preserving. After reuniting with the Romulans, the Vulcans had to let go of their most famous (to Trek fans) proverb: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Burnham’s mother brings her up to speed on the recent history of Ni’var. Gabrielle tells Burnham that her order binds itself to lost causes.
The council is tough to convince. Ni’var has sensitive data that can’t fall into the wrong hands. V’Kir (Emmanuel Kabongo), the Vulcan chairman, accuses Burnham of using emotional tactics. And Gabrielle recognizes that’s true. Burnham fights an uphill battle. But she finds it difficult to abide by the rules of “absolute candor.” The battle is made more difficult by the divides it opens between the Vulcans and Romulans.
Meanwhile, Tilly (Mary Wiseman) seeks counsel from Stamets (Anthony Rapp) about a new job offer. Saru wants to name her Acting First Officer, and Tilly isn’t sure she’s up to it. And Stamets nor isn’t quite sure that she is.
Sonequa Martin-Green is a human roller coaster. “Unification III” is a Star Trek: Discovery episode that lays bare her faults and insecurities. And she deals with them without screaming or going over-the-top. The script (which we’ll get to) uses her as a lens to tell the story. Burnham is a POV character in this week’s Star Trek: Discovery. The audience’s way in to all of the changes with the Vulcan and Romulan peoples. Sohn likewise delivers a strong performance as Burnham’s mother. And she does so in a unique role and in unique circumstances.
Gabrielle isn’t there as Burnham’s mother. She’s there as a Romulan advocate. And by balancing both stances, Sohn analyzes Burnham in a way the audience has been doing for three seasons.
Doug Jones remains the anchor of Star Trek: Discovery. The moral center, and the only through-and-through “Star Trek” character in the show. And he continues to organically ease Saru into his new role as captain. He knows he’s putting Tilly in a tough spot by offering her the Number One position. But it’s a tough decision. Exactly the type of decision his crew appointed him to make.
Aside from Sohn, there are multiple strong guest performances. And in playing V’Kir, Kabango plays a Vulcan better than most. A lot of Star Trek guest stars play Vulcans as stoic and expressionless. Some of the Vulcans on Star Trek: Discovery are very guilty of this. James Frain’s portrayal of Sarek comes to mind. Kabango found the Vulcan sweet spot. He understands he isn’t playing an alien with no emotions. Rather, he’s playing an alien trying very hard to suppress emotion. Leonard Nimoy would’ve been proud.
Wiseman plays Tilly as being every bit as rattled as she should be. One of the joys of this season of Star Trek: Discovery has been watching Tilly grow. Seeing her go from Wesley Crusher 2.0 to, you know, an actual character. Wiseman was always charming with her quirks and insecurities. But now she has the whole puzzle put together.
Writing And Directing
Star Trek: Discovery producer Kirsten Beyer wrote “Unification III.” And I really wish she did that more often.
The show spent season one wrecking canon. Season Two tip-toed around canon. Star Trek: Discovery Season Three runs from it and embraces it simultaneously. Behind the scenes, Beyer is the unofficial keeper of canon. When I first heard that, I figured it meant she was in charge of reconciling Discovery and Picard. But Beyer has an understanding of the whole board. Calling back to the “Unification” two-parter of TNG could have devolved into fan service. Instead, it’s a catalyst to tell a real story. One that advances the plot and informs the characters.
But make no mistake. There is fan-service in this episode. Including a tribute to the late Anton Yelchin, Chekov from Kelvinverse. To say nothing of archival footage of Nimoy from TNG.
“Unification III” wasn’t an opportunity to reference Spock and make the audience gasp. It was a way of informing Burnham and her choices. And a way to keep the new normal of Star Trek: Discovery both new and familiar. Kristen Beyer really is the canon master.
And there’s never been a poorly-directed episode of Star Trek: Discovery. Jon Dudkowski takes the helm for “Unification III.” It’s basically a bottle episode. A show that’s enclosed in one or two settings to avoid the expense of location shooting. But somehow Dudkowski finds new ways to film in a static setting. The interior of the Discovery is one of my least favorites of all the Star Trek hero ships. Dudkowski gives new life to engineering, the conference room, and the show’s new favorite meeting place: Every blasted hallway on the ship.
The courtroom shots feature push-ins and close-ups. Which amps up the tension by introducing an air of claustrophobia. The editing and pacing is as crisp as ever. And Burnham’s hearing never drags on. Dudkowski manages to keep audience engagement high by carefully changing angles and making deliberate choices when it comes to filling the frame.
Season Three of Star Trek: Discovery is on pace to be its best to date.
“Unification III” is a large helping of what fans have wanted from the series all along. Strange new worlds. But familiar old canon. The script from Beyer serves both masters. Burnham, for the most part, continues to be a character and not a plot device. This season has already made Saru pretty much my favorite Star Trek character ever. And Tilly is no longer nails on the chalkboard.
Will wonders never cease?
New episodes of Star Trek: Discovery stream every Thursday on CBS All Access.
All image courtesy of startrek.com.