Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Discovery Seasons 1-3, Star Trek: Picard, and other iterations of the Star Trek franchise.
A solid start to Season 3 with some genuinely interesting mysteries and beautiful world-building stumbled last week, when main character Michael Burnham appeared to go through a serious regression, undoing two-and-a-half seasons’ worth of positive growth to return to the arrogant, selfish, and unlikeable person we met at the beginning of Season 1. As I wrote in my recent theory post, in some respects Burnham’s regression makes her even worse than she was back then; her reason for abandoning her post is even weaker and more self-centred than the reason for her mutiny in the series premiere, and above all it demonstrates that she’s learned nothing from that experience.
Why am I diving back into the Burnham saga? The synopsis for Unification III stated that Burnham will “represent the Federation in an intense debate about the release of politically sensitive – but highly valuable – Burn data.” After being reprimanded by the head of Starfleet and fired by Saru as first officer, Burnham is going to be given such an important assignment? Really? Discovery needs to break its Burnham fetish and allow other characters do something of consequence. We’ve seen characters like Georgiou and Detmer take on storylines of their own this season, as well as Saru growing into the captaincy. But the writers are still determined that Burnham alone gets to advance the main storyline of the season, even if doing so shoehorns her into roles for which other characters would be far better-suited. In this case, her recent demotion and insubordination should disqualify her from such an assignment; the reasoning given in Unification III for putting her in that role was hollow and nonsensical considering what happened last week.
I’d been discussing for several weeks a theory I had about Burnham potentially leaving the ship or even the series. Based on what we saw this week, that theory can probably be thrown out. The problem is that the events of Scavengers represented such a regression in Burnham’s character that as we approached Unification III I was almost looking forward to the moment where she’d leave! What we got instead was another Burnham-centric story, and the beginnings of the resolution to that conflict within her about whether to stay in Starfleet. That resolution, however, did not address any of her problems or the issues with her character; putting her at the centre of a story and having virtually no consequences for her disobeying of orders last week is a fault in Discovery’s storytelling.
When we first saw Season 3’s episode titles, Unification III was the one that seemed most intriguing. Unification was a two-part episode of The Next Generation, one which brought in Spock (Burnham’s adoptive brother) as he went on an unsanctioned mission to Romulus. Spock was pursuing the idea of Romulan-Vulcan re-unification; the Romulans having split from the Vulcans sometime around the 4th Century AD. Spock’s plan for re-unification was hijacked by the Romulan military who attempted to invade Vulcan, but the timely intervention of Data and Picard prevented that from happening. Spock would retain ties to Romulus, and travelled there to attempt to save the planet from the supernova, ultimately being pulled into the Kelvin timeline. So that’s a little background to inform us as we head into Unification III.
Unification III wasn’t bad, but perhaps the nicest thing I can say about it is that my complaints mostly stray into nitpicking territory. After what happened last week, Burnham has a lot of work to do to get back to being a main character worth supporting, and in that respect her scenes this week were reminiscent of early Season 1. Saru’s storyline was interesting, as he conversed with the President of Ni’Var. I would have liked to see more of their conversations, and I would have liked to spend more time with Tilly as she agonised over accepting the role of first officer. Discovery, as mentioned, has a Burnham obsession which meant that she was, once again, the main focus of the episode at the expense of these other, potentially interesting, elements.
The episode begins with Burnham recording her personal log, and she says aloud for the first time that she fears her time in the 32nd Century led to a change, and that she may no longer fit in. I’m not sure I’d say she’s changed significantly, but rather she seems to have reverted to type. Spending time outside of Starfleet amplified some of her pre-existing traits: lack of respect for authority, self-belief that often crosses into single-mindedness and arrogance, and an inability to learn from her own mistakes due to seemingly never suffering any real consequences. Her newfound freedom in the 32nd Century may have made some of these more prominent, but it isn’t the root cause. The root cause is Burnham herself; those traits are innate within her character.
There was a symbolism to Book helping Burnham take off her uniform during this sequence. Her love for him – though never stated outright – has been one of the main factors pulling her away from Starfleet, so watching him undress her in this moment was more than just a clichéd prelude to love-making, it was a metaphor for Book being a key factor in the way Burnham feels about Starfleet at this moment.
After the sequence with Book, Burnham checks in with Tilly. Continuing a theme present last week of Discovery attempting to pay lip service to Burnham’s selfish actions, Tilly briefly reprimands her for going on her jaunt. None of these criticisms from characters within the show ring particularly true, though, because Discovery continues to present Burnham as being in the right; if anything other characters’ reactions to her seem meant to elicit sympathy for Burnham, as if we as the audience are meant to feel she’s being unfairly attacked despite her obvious and undeniable brilliance. This is a theme which was present in Season 1 of Discovery very prominently, and simply adds to the notion that we’ve seen a complete undoing of the positive steps made since then.
Tilly and Burnham are able to use the three black boxes Burnham recovered (of which two were found off-screen during her year alone with Book) to discover that – as Burnham predicted – the Burn did not happen simultaneously, and thus had a point of origin. The USS Yelchin, whose black box was the missing piece of the puzzle, is a touching reference to Anton Yelchin – the actor who played the role of Chekov in the Kelvin timeline. He tragically passed away in 2016, and this is a very sweet way of honouring him within Star Trek.
Taking her findings straight to Admiral Vance, along with Saru, Burnham makes the case that the Burn had a point of origin and discovering this may lead to uncovering what caused it. That’s a logical assumption, but she needs more data to work with. She asks for access to data on a secret pre-Burn project Starfleet was running called SB-19. This was an attempt to circumvent the dilithium shortage by developing a new faster-than-light travel method. However, the data is no longer in Starfleet’s possession.
The data is present on the planet of Ni’Var – aka Vulcan. The Romulans and Vulcans succeeded in their re-unification attempts – hence the episode title – but have withdrawn from the Federation (like everyone else, it seems). They also consider SB-19 responsible for the Burn, and hate Starfleet and the Federation for forcing them to work on the project. It’s never explained why Starfleet doesn’t consider this theory any more valid than the myriad others, especially considering that, as we’ll soon see, the Vulcans are 100% convinced SB-19 was the cause.
This is the first of the nitpicks I mentioned in the intro. If the Romulans and Vulcans are so absolutely convinced that SB-19 caused the Burn, and have said so many times to the Federation, why does the Federation not consider this theory at least more likely than any of the others? The Burn has, until now, been presented as a mystery to which there are no answers, yet as soon as the story needs one, along comes a ready-made answer that an entire planet of Star Trek’s most logical and scientific minds believe. Burnham seems unwilling to believe them, thinking her data points to a different origin, but even so, everyone should surely be giving the Vulcans and their SB-19 theory due deference.
Admiral Vance believes the only way for Ni’Var to even consider sharing their information is to send Burnham. She’s wonderful, special, and unique, in case you forgot. And this all felt horribly rushed. The Admiral, who had seemed so level-headed and calm in his earlier appearances, makes a snap decision to send Burnham to Ni’Var as she’s Spock’s sister. He disregards her insubordination and disobeying of orders last week, he ignores Saru’s authority in the matter, and he doesn’t even consider the option of sharing Burnham’s data with Ni’Var to see whether the data alone would convince them to enter talks. It’s so clear that the writers and the director wanted to get into the “meat” of the episode that they blitzed through this scene. The end result is a bit of a mess, and frankly it would have been better to cut it entirely and just have Discovery jump to Ni’Var without the back-and-forth with Admiral Vance.
As we’re nitpicking this week here’s another: Spock visited Romulus eight hundred years ago, and if Nero – the villain from 2009’s Star Trek – is indicative of how Romulans as a whole felt about him after he failed to save their homeworld from destruction, he’s not exactly Mr Popular. But even if Romulans don’t hate Spock for failing to help them, why is his influence deemed so significant eight centuries later? Even if he arguably set in motion the events of reunification, his disappearance in the late 24th Century came a long time before re-unification occurred, and while Spock is an important character to us as Trekkies and the audience of the show, I’m not sure it logically follows that Romulans and Vulcans would revere him – or even know who he was. To think of a parallel from our own time, it would be akin to someone claiming to be the relative of a king or national hero from the 1200s. Would we afford such an individual much respect so many centuries after the events they claim a tangential relationship to? And a tangential relationship to re-unification is all Burnham can claim to have.
One thing from the opening titles that I picked up on is that the USS Discovery appears to remain in its original configuration, despite undergoing a major retrofit last week. The titles depict several major changes – the Starfleet badges and the hand phaser being two notable examples – but the ship itself hasn’t changed. I wonder why this is. Since we’re slightly off-topic, the theory of Burnham and the crew having somehow crossed into the Kelvin timeline can be debunked thanks to the existence of the planet Ni’Var! Vulcan was, of course, destroyed in 2009’s Star Trek, so if this is a parallel universe – as I have been speculating – it isn’t the Kelvin timeline.
Keeping up the nitpicking, Admiral Vance had seemed less than interested about figuring out the cause of the Burn until now. Though a devastating event, it took place a lifetime ago, and there’s nothing to indicate that uncovering what happened will actually do… well, anything. People may nod and say “ah, so that’s what happened,” and then immediately resume their post-Burn lives. Unless figuring out the cause also comes with a way to undo the damage – which it yet may, to be fair – it doesn’t seem like the hugely powerful event Burnham and the Admiral seem to think. To use another contemporary analogy: imagine it were revealed tomorrow the exact time and place that the coronavirus pandemic began. We learn who was “patient zero,” where they were, how they caught it, how they transmitted it, and so on. Would that make any meaningful difference to the way we as individuals handle our everyday lives?
Okay, enough of that for now. Discovery jumps to Ni’Var and Saru is greeted by the President. She declines to share the information on SB-19, claiming it is sensitive for political reasons among Ni’Var’s factions. Out of everything in Unification III, the conflict between the Romulans and Vulcans was perhaps the most interesting, as well as the story thread that felt the most organic. Though the Romulans and Vulcans were mainly relegated to background status in a story that was, as mentioned, all about Burnham, the sectarian rivalry was well-written and came across naturally on screen.
Burnham uses her knowledge of the “old ways” of Vulcan to demand a quorum at which to present her findings, and as we’ve seen on many occasions in Star Trek (going all the way back to Amok Time in The Original Series’ second season) the Vulcans do love their rules and traditions. The President of Ni’Var feels compelled to agree, and a three-member quorum is assembled aboard Discovery, making Unification III somewhat of a bottle show. It would have been nice to spend some time on the surface of Ni’Var having travelled all that way, but every Star Trek show does this – setting episodes entirely aboard the ship to save money! I can’t be 100% certain that’s what happened in this case, but it seems like it.
Before we get to the quorum itself, Unification III had a shock to throw at us: Burnham’s mother is alive. When the President of Ni’Var set up this character (who, for the sake of drama, didn’t beam aboard with everyone else) I genuinely couldn’t think who it might be. Several Romulan and Vulcan characters flittered through my mind, as the episode was clearly setting up that it would be someone familiar. Dr Gabrielle Burnham didn’t occur to me, though… and that’s because, let’s be honest, it’s contrived in the extreme for her to show up here.
Dr Burnham’s arrival was a shock, and in that sense it worked… for all of thirty seconds. Seeing her in a relatively silly costume, and hearing that she plans to remain on Ni’Var as a member of the Qowat Milat order though, well I’m not sure that worked as intended. As a moment of pure shock value, which is at least partly drawn from sheer randomness, it unquestionably succeeded. But thinking about it more deeply, would Dr Burnham – a scientist – be content to stay on Ni’Var instead of helping Starfleet? Would she abandon the Federation? Having achieved her goal and helped save the galaxy, would she really want to be an armed nun?
What was fantastic, though, and had me grinning was that finally, after what seems like forever, Unification III tied together Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard in a meaningful way. Not only did we see Dr Burnham being a member of the Qowat Milat, but she mentioned the way of absolute candor – the philosophy of the order and an episode title from Picard. In addition, there was a reference to Picard’s personal archive, which of course we saw in the season premiere of that show. A connection between Picard and Discovery had been something I hoped the former would have done earlier this year; it’s something I’d been looking forward to for ages. Star Trek’s various projects are all split up at the moment, with different time periods all on the go at once. Finding ways to bind the franchise together is incredibly important, and I’m glad that, after a whole season of Picard went by with practically nothing, and half of Discovery’s third season as well, some effort has been made to do so here.
After the contrivance of Burnham’s mother we get to the quorum itself, and it was nice to see Burnham go in unprepared and actually suffer a setback. I’m not rooting for Burnham to fail, but sometimes it’s cathartic to see her realise that she isn’t the best and most amazing person, and that listening to someone else’s advice can actually be helpful. It’s a lesson Discovery makes difficult for her to learn, but I appreciate the effort.
The quorum basically consisted of Burnham saying “but I have new evidence!” and a Vulcan saying “not interested.” It was only when in-fighting among the three members of the quorum broke out that anything changed. The factional disputes between the Romulans, Vulcans, and a group called the Romulo-Vulcans (who are assumed to be hybrids) was interesting, as mentioned, and one of Unification III’s more interesting story threads. But it set up what was a fairly obvious plot device: Burnham walking away from the quorum, only to get what she wanted anyway.
This is a familiar trope in fiction. The hero seems to have been defeated – or in this case, forfeited – only for something to come along and hand them the victory anyway. It’s like a team in a football film who lose the championship game only to win the title anyway when the other team gets disqualified for cheating. Or something like that. My analogies are all over the place this week, but the point stands. The quorum was interesting for its Vulcan-Romulan storyline, but ultimately led to a fairly standard and uninspired outcome.
The other storyline this week – the C-plot, if you will – centred on Tilly. She may seem an odd choice for first officer, especially given her junior rank, but one of the main qualities of an XO, as Saru has recently learned, is the trust of their commander. Saru trusts Tilly, and sees that she has adapted better than most to the 32nd Century. He believes those criteria qualify her for the role. Is he right? Well, I’m not so sure. Tilly hinted that she felt she was being picked because she was “compliant,” and I can’t help but feel those lines are setting up something further down the road. Will Tilly follow in Burnham’s footsteps and disobey orders too?
Perhaps it’s partly because I’m annoyed by Burnham at the moment, but at the moment the crew came together and asked Tilly to accept the position, Burnham butted in and interrupted. By telling her she got the SB-19 data at that moment she took away from Tilly’s big decision and big promotion, or at least that’s how it felt. Great news on getting the data, but timing that smacks of selfishness – an ongoing trait, as we’ve already noted.
Star Trek can do courtroom drama very well, as we see in multiple episodes going back to Season 1 of The Original Series. This didn’t feel like one of the better offerings, though. It was a character piece, which is all well and good, but that detracted from the potential drama of the quorum setting. It became another opportunity for Burnham to be front-and-centre, and after last week I could have honestly done with a Burnham break. It was good for her to resolve her issues with Starfleet, if that makes her more committed to the cause in the long run. But her personal failings are still present, and she remains a difficult character to support.
So that was Unification III, or rather, that was all I want to say about it at the moment. The absence of Georgiou was noteworthy, as was Stamets’ brief scene with Tilly. Anthony Rapp plays occasionally-curmudgeonly Stamets well, and the moment they shared in the spore cube was a brief respite from the Burnham show.
The mystery of the Burn remains enticing, and I am genuinely looking forward to seeing more movement on that next week. But Discovery once again has a Burnham problem that is self-inflicted, and Unification III failed to address it. In some respects it even made things worse on that front. Any story needs a relatable, understandable protagonist. Mistakes and flaws are all well and good if they provide background and a character arc, but having someone so arrogant and selfish, then putting her in stories where everyone tells her how wonderful and unique she is, just doesn’t work. A main character needs to be more sympathetic, or make some attempt to overcome their failings. Burnham has regressed to where she was in Season 1, and Discovery has – insofar as it pertains to Burnham – regressed too.
It would be great to see stories where other characters have genuine agency over the plot instead of being along for a ride on the Burnham Express. Maybe next week’s episode, The Sanctuary, will give us that. But I’m not holding my breath. As we enter the second half of the season, Discovery is at its best when other characters are on screen. Its mysteries continue to intrigue me, and I will always be grateful for more time spent in the Star Trek galaxy. I’m just having a hard time with a show where every story seems to amplify the worst aspects of Burnham’s character. I hate harping on about it, but that’s where I’m at.
Star Trek: Discovery is available to stream on CBS All Access in the United States, and on Netflix in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. The Star Trek franchise – including Discovery and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.