A SPOILER’S GONNA DO WHAT A SPOILER’S GONNA DO…
Mixed feelings about the latest episode of STAR TREK: DISCOVERY….but can I UNIFY them in my mind?
On the one hand, this was—hands down—my favorite episode of the series thus far. As a long-time obsessed Trekkie, I felt as though KIRSTEN BEYER’s latest Discovery episode, “Unification III,” was a buffet of comfort food. This is no accident. Beyer’s first episode of Discovery, “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum,” was one of the only episodes of season one that I (and many others) really thought FELT like Star Trek. Beyer has written a dozen Star Trek: Voyager novels, is the official liaison between Discovery and the IDW comic book publishers, and of course, she is the co-creator and executive producer of STAR TREK: PICARD.
In other words, she’s a long-time obsessed Trekkie just like me…and probably many of you, too.
So in that, this latest episode—exactly midway through season three—was a love-letter to longtime fans. There were ample mentions of Spock and a celebration of his legacy as, it seems, the Vulcans and the Romulans ended up reunifying again after all…mostly. And considering how out-of-the-blue (green?) the fifth season Next Gen plot of the two-part “Unification” and “Unification II” had seemed initially, this was a wonderful continuation of what had initially come off as a crazy idea by the TNG writers. The Romulans were unquestionably the recurring TNG bad guys…a position they’d proudly held since TOS days, in fact. Why in heck would Spock want them to reunify with Vulcan??? And yet, those two episodes were so well-executed and so frickin’ AWESOME that who cared what Spock’s motivations were! And when he stayed behind to continue working for his noble goal (despite the Romulans’ nefarious betrayal), I secretly rooted for it, too. And of course, thanks to J.J. Abrams, we know that Spock was trying to save Romulus right up to the moment he went back in time.
Fast-forward about 800 years, and the Vulcans and the Romulans are living in “peace” on a renamed home world, NiVar. And guess who’s there, too? The Qowot Milat, the “sisterhood of the absolute candor” that was actually one of the most fun things to come out of the Picard series. (My wife tells me that I need to learn to “read the room” and know when NOT to say whatever is on my mind. But deep down, I love the idea of absolute candor!)
However, not everything about our favorite green-blooded friends is as we remember or expect it…
Last week, I mentioned how I attended a convention back in 1995 where Babylon 5 creator J. MICHAEL STRACZYNSKI was discussing the second season of the series. He told the audience, “What you need to do is establish the ‘rules’ of your universe so people know what to expect. Once they’re comfortable, then you start breaking those rules in unexpected ways. That’s how you keep them interested and excited.” He had done that with season one of B5, so that by the end of those first 22 episodes, we had a good idea of who the good guys were and who the bad guys were and how the stories were going to be. But as the second season unfolded, everything slowly changed—characters, allegiances, everything!—and fans had no idea what to expect next. It was a wonderful time to be a viewer of that show.
And that’s just what Kirsten Beyer just did with the Vulcans and Romulans…
Everything we had known, everything we’d come to expect from the Vulcans and Romulans, was turned on its pointed ear as we see a “united” planet renamed Ni’Var (which was a Vulcan term originally coined back in 1967 by a Star Trek fan fiction writer meaning “two-form” where duality is explored through art by representing the same object or idea from two different viewpoints…look it up!). That bit of obscure trivia was awesome enough, but then we get a situation where the Vulcans are the ones who distrust Starfleet and the Federation and the Romulans are the ones willing to share the secret SB-19 data.
What makes this all so compelling for the audience is how much we still DON’T find out about what’s going on. We never step foot on Ni’Var (obviously a budgetary decision, as this was essentially a money-saving “bottle” episode). And while we see that the Vulcans have reverted to distrusting Starfleet, we don’t know precisely why. The Vulcans apparently think that Starfleet “forced” them to keep developing dangerous technology that ultimately caused the Burn, but the SB-19 data can obviously prove that assertion to be false. So why was it so important to V’Kir (the Vulcan “purist”) that it NOT be proven that the Burn originated elsewhere? Does he just not want to be wrong, or is this planetary “guilt-trip” serving some other purpose…like keeping Ni’Var from returning to the Federation? And why would that be such a bad thing?
Ultimately, we leave Ni’Var with hope and yet another uncharacteristic (for Star Trek: Discovery—at least compared to the first two seasons) Disney ending of smiles and reserved hope. And frankly, I’m actually liking the Disney endings quite a bit! Granted, I don’t want to see them every episode—and thankfully, episode 6 last week ended on a down note with Michael being fired as first officer—but I appreciate a little old-fashioned Star Trek optimism…especially in the midst of such a dystopian future!
So at least in that way, this episode was a home run. So why the mixed feelings that I mentioned at the beginning?
I need to just come out and say it: I don’t like Michael Burnham as a character. To me, she’s like beets. I don’t like the way they taste, and I’ve given them every opportunity—boiled, roasted, steamed, grilled, pickled, in a salad, even in humus—I still think they taste like dirt. I’ve tried to like Michael as the pouting rebel, the headstrong loner, the inspiring leader, the vulnerable victim, the damaged daughter, the sympathetic sister, the manic maverick, the noble number one, and the arrogant adventurer. (A lot of alliteration from random reviewers publishing poignant posts!)
But Michael just isn’t catching on with me as a viewer, which is a shame because not only is she the main character, but she is also the hero of most of the Discovery stories. This season alone, Michael has dominated all but one of the seven episodes—meeting up with Book, triggering the peace between Earth and the Titan Raiders, helping Adira Tal find herself and face her pain, talking the crazy Barzan guy into unlocking the seed vault, and rescuing Book and the third black box from the scavenger planet.
And so, it came as no surprise that Michael Burnham would be the hero of this episode, as well. But this time, it was different. While most of the other episodes simply featured Michael saving the day, “Unification III” was specifically a Michael Burnham episode where the A-story was all about the growth and development of the character. So…um…yay?
My problem, however, is that I just don’t care about Michael Burnham at all and don’t really give a flark how she develops. I care about Saru, Tilly, Culber, Stamets, Detmer, Reno, Adira…heck, I even care about Georgiou now that she’s got the whammy. But Michael? Sorry. I just don’t like the taste of beets.
So when all of this angst and arrogant resistance swirled around Michael’s emotional journey to arriving at a soulful place that she’s exactly where and who she needs to be, I pretty much stopped caring at “hello” (or rather, “I know I’m right!”).
I also had mixed feelings about seeing that, of all the ancient sects on all the planets in all the galaxy, Michael’s mother walks into the Qowot Milat on Ni’Var. What a coincidink! If this were The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the likelihood of Michael meeting her mother just as she needed an advocate for her T’Kal-in-ket challenge in orbit of Ni’Var…well, they probably could have replaced the spore drive with the infinite improbability drive and traveled anywhere they needed to go.
But ultimately, I realized that I’d probably done at least six impossible things this morning, so why not round it off by just accepting Gabrielle Burnham’s presence and enjoy the episode? And for that matter, why not just enjoy Michael Burnham’s last gasp of existential turmoil (I hope) as part of what was, after all, a very engaging and satisfying episode?
And so I did. After starting with a dark dread of what was to come—a Michael Burnham episode full of arrogant self-assuredness, inner turmoil, lofty speechmaking, and Michael saving the day (again!) —I just sat back, accepted what was presented to me, and had a thoroughly enjoyable experience! This was how I “unified” my mixed feelings about the A-story of the episode.
Interestingly enough, the same thing happened with the B-story…
Or should I say the T-story, as in Tilly being offered the first officer position? With Commander Nhan booted from the series a couple of episodes ago, who didn’t see (and dread!) this moment coming? As the scene began of Saru with Tilly, I started shouting at my screen: “No, don’t you dare do it! Don’t you DARE! She’s a freakin’ ENSIGN! You’ve got lieutenants with SO much more experience than Tilly has! What about Nilsson??? You give her the conn all the time. Don’t…do…it!” But then he went and did it.
Oh, I was pissed. Granted, what other choice did the writers have? Only a top-billed series regular could be the new Number One—and that left only Stamets, Georgiou, Culber, or maybe Reno…none of whom could make it work due to their positions on the ship. So of course it was gonna be Tilly! But I was still pissed.
Then something strange and unexpected happened. Everything I was shouting (and even some stuff I hadn’t shouted yet but was about to) suddenly was coming out of Tilly’s mouth! She was making all of the same arguments that I was…well, every argument except worrying what Admiral Vance is gonna think about Saru promoting a rookie ensign to first officer.
But Saru answered Tilly’s (and my) talking points with one very simple and convincing argument. Tilly was handling the adjustment to the future better than the rest of the crew. And strange as that was to contemplate, it was true. Detmer certainly wasn’t all there, and we can assume that maybe Nilsson, Rhys, Bryce, Owosekun, Linus, and Gene weren’t adapting as well either. Also, Saru has (thanks to the writers) developed a rapport with Tilly this season, possibly as close or even closer than the one he has with Michael—in fact, more than just a rapport…a trust.
The more the B-story progressed, and the more Tilly (rightly) wrestled with the offer and the decision—including talking to Stamets, who (also rightly!) said it would be “deeply weird”—the more I started becoming kinda okay with the idea. After all, there’s no rule saying that the first officer needs to be a crew member of any particular rank or experience level…especially if it’s only an “acting” first officer. And putting aside my own initial misgivings, the plot line provides an interesting development for what is already a compelling character. In fact, if Discovery the series ever needed an alternate character to be the central focus of the show—other than Saru, since the series never wanted the captain to be the main character—then Sylvia Tilly is the one with the most engaging character arc so far.
By the time we got to the second Disney moment of the episode, the crew’s “say yes” kumbaya group hug, I was on board with the scene. Granted, it would have been more interesting plot-wise, I think, to have had at least one officer not be okay with it…like maybe Nilsson. That would provide some opportunities to develop the character of the operations officer much like the writers are trying to develop Detmer.
But I’m okay with the “so say we all” reaction, as well. Just go with it. After all, the show needs to shift into gear for the second half of the season. Indeed, “unification” was also something that Discovery has done—both as a ship and a show—for the first half of the season. Michael split from the crew then came back, but wasn’t really back, and now she is. Unification. Book headed off on his own and came back, and now Michael feels like home, so he’s sticking around. Unification. Future Starfleet has accepted the U.S.S. Discovery into its ranks. Unification. And the crew has made it through (somewhat) their adjustments and dysfunction to come together and jointly celebrate the elevation of their trusted friend into being their new vice-leader. Unification. Even the warp nacelles were shown attached to the ship as Discovery first jumped to Ni’Var. Unification. (Yeah, I still have my issues with detached nacelles, people!)
Anyway, it’s now obvious that the first half of the season was intended to move the chess pieces into place. With six episodes left, it’s time to take this unified ship and crew into its main quest of the season: figuring out the Burn and (hopefully) fixing it. Along the way, we have SB-19 data to analyze, strange music clues to figure out, the Emerald Chain to deal with, and the mysterious Osyraa to meet.
There’s also some nice new character arcs in play. Obviously, we still have no idea what’s happening with Georgiou and the whammy…and how it might or might not be the result of Kovich and his sinister glasses. (More Kovich!) There’s still the Gray area dealing with Adira Tal and her Trill ghost ex-transfriend. And of course, Detmer might not exactly be “okay.”
Add to this the new dynamics for character relationships between Saru and Michael, Saru and Tilly, Tilly and Michael, Michael and Book, Stamets and Adira, Stamets and Hugh, Hugh and Detmer, Georgiou and Michael, Georgiou and Linus (there’s something happening there, I know it!), and Grudge and…well…any character without cat allergies. The show is fresh, and there’s plenty of ingredients available to give fans a tasty final six episodes as we sprint toward what will—we all know—be yet another big-spectacle, fast-paced, two-part season finale with a major cliffhanger.
Finally, I applaud this episode for not falling into the trap of touching on more than two of the above-mentioned storylines: Michael’s search for the origin of the Burn (and for herself), and Tilly’s advancement to first officer. Sure, we’d like to know more about Georgiou and Kovich, more about Detmer, more about Adira and Gray, and more about the All Along the Watchtower music mystery. But none of those things were touched on during this episode in order to allow the A-story and B-story to breathe. Well done! Those other plot lines will still be there next week and throughout the next month and a half. So kudos to the team for letting the meal cook slowly and serving only one course at a time!