Naming your episode "Unification III" is a risky gambit, because it declares it's a sequel to TNG's "Unification" parts I and II, in which Spock famously crossed over from TOS and appeared on TNG in an effort to bring the Vulcan and Romulan people together. On the other hand, given how average "Unification" itself ended up being, with its hype far exceeding what it actually accomplished as a story (which was, frankly, not much), maybe "Unification III" didn't have that high a bar to clear.
I gotta say, I liked this episode, up to a point. There are things I genuinely admired about it. It manages to blend a completely personal story (Burnham's crisis of self-identity, forcing her to confront herself) with a major Star Trek mythology piece (the status of the Vulcans and Romulans in the 32nd century) and also tie that into the season arcs involving the state of the Federation and the mystery of the Burn. This is accomplished with what may also be the most ambitiously dialogue-heavy episode of the series, which plays like a high-wire tightrope act threading the needle's eye of intellectualism and emotionalism. A lot of things come together in some deft scenes of dialogue. At times, I found this compelling. Will it walk the tightrope or fall off?
But this episode also requires the viewer to suspend logic far too often. For one — and this is not the first time I've thought this during this season — a story like this really makes you wonder if setting this season 800 years past the TNG era was simply too far. Everything about this season feels like it would've made more sense if you were maybe 200 or 300 years out. But 800? That's a really long time, to the point where things should start to be unrecognizable, especially when you're going to re-encounter the pieces of the Federation we're familiar with and then catch up on old times. This story should really be "Unification XV," because so much has happened in the past eight centuries. (But probably even more should've happened.)
The Vulcans and Romulans, centuries after Spock's 24th-century reunification efforts, officially merged centuries ago to become the joint Vulcan/Romulan homeworld of Ni'Var. Furthermore, they created a mysterious project called SB-19 about a century ago which may include data on the Burn (in fact, the Vulcans believe this project caused the Burn, and it also roughly coincided with their withdrawal from the Federation). Admiral Vance hopes the Vulcans, who won't share their data with the Federation, might be willing to grant a special favor to the sister of the famous Spock who pioneered Unification. Meanwhile, Burnham questions whether she's right for the job because she's contemplating leaving Starfleet.
There are a lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-yous in this episode. I haven't even gotten to the part where Burnham invokes an ancient Vulcan philosophical ritual of dissertation defense that forces the Ni'Var president to give her a full hearing after initially turning her away. Or that Burnham's mother Gabrielle (Sonja Sohn) turns out to be on Ni'Var serving as a practicing member of the Romulan Qowat Milat (see Picard's "Absolute Candor"), which ties into all of this too.
So, yes, this is a messy episode. Not only do we have to question how much the Vulcans would really care about Michael Burnham considering she was basically erased from 23rd-century history, we also have to accept the coincidence that her mother ended up on Ni'Var. But as the dialogue fencing begins, the episode starts to get good, especially as the walls close in on Michael's lack of "absolute candor" and the script cleverly sets her up for a big moment of the Truth Will Set You Free. By mercilessly attacking Michael's arguments and lack of forthrightness, Gabrielle goads her into collapsing and revealing her true doubts about her role with Starfleet, which serves simultaneously as the big character breakthrough and what the Vulcan president needs to hear to feel comfortable sharing her information.
Does that make sense? No? Maybe? It sure felt like it did while watching it.
Meanwhile, the political situation on Ni'Var is interesting: Unification is hanging by a thread with unrest on both sides threatening to unleash long-simmering tensions over the two people and their opposing views over leaving the Federation. Politics, as always, serves as an impediment to moving things forward.
The main plot resembles an emotionally intense chess match, one that I thought played out satisfyingly, if somewhat murkily in its specifics. What sells me here is the story's conviction that this all holds together. This is despite the fact Burnham's supposed evidence that the Burn did not originate on Ni'Var, as the Vulcans and Romulans believe, is based on an unfathomably detectably precise timing separated by millionths of microseconds. I'm wondering how any measurement, even with 32nd-century computers, could be that precise when spanning multiple data systems across light-years of space. Couldn't the writers have said it was, say, 57 seconds, or even three minutes, and still establish the same levels of conviction in Burnham's belief of her theory and the Vulcans' skepticism about it — and without it sounding completely ridiculous?
Then there's the Tilly situation in the B-plot, which is a very clear example of the show begging us, "Just go with it, okay?" In reality the situation makes no practical sense. Even the show goes to pains to acknowledge it makes no sense. Having demoted Burnham and now needing a replacement, Saru tells Tilly that she has the job of acting first officer if she wants it. (The first words out of my mouth were "She's an ensign!" and then Tilly says, "I'm an ensign!" and she spends the rest of the episode doubting that this is sane. At least we're on the same wavelength.)
Okay. I get what Saru needs, especially after the whole Burnham debacle, is someone he can trust. But Tilly's character up to this point has been the resident goofball genius who is uncertain of herself and her social skills. How is she a realistic command choice? "You've traveled 930 years through a wormhole," Saru tells her. Yeah, well so has everyone else.
The simple fact is this choice was clearly made because she's one of very few available cast members in the opening credits; everyone else's character is either already the captain, the now-demoted former first officer, or has another role in the show that would make them equally implausible. Tilly wins by process of elimination. Yeah, yeah, I understand this is a TV show and you have to use your regular cast, and we've traveled through a wormhole so choices are scarce, etc. But this runs so far afield of common sense that it feels random. I guess this is what happens when you have such a small cast. (Maybe this is where you should bring in someone from the outside, like last season did with Captain Pike?)
Discovery is pretty good at selling its ideas, even when they're bonkers. They almost sell the idea of First Officer Tilly here, with all the earnestness and cheer (the entire engineering deck rouses her into accepting the job, showing that they're ready to embrace her as a leader — c'mon, even Reno?), but sometimes there's a logical component you can't just hand-wave away — especially when someone with no experience or skill in leadership is supposed to now be giving orders in life-or-death situations. I hope they do some good stories around this sudden change, but for now this just feels really contrived.
So I dunno. "Unification III" was an episode that really worked for me in the moment (well, except the whole Tilly thing), but upon closer examination I realize it's all hanging by a thread. Still, I have to credit this episode for building itself upon mountains of dialogue and a densely packed array of characterization and Trekkian history (even if it's annoying that it keeps having to remind us how significant Michael is to the universe's history for being Spock's sister). Call it an A for effort, but closer to a C for the end result.
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