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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Star Trek: Discovery remains stuck in orbit around itself

Star Trek: Discovery
Star Trek: Discovery
Photo: Michael Gibson/CBS
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An early scene in “Unification III” shows Michael and Book in bed together, having an intimate conversation about their future. Book wants to leave Discovery, but Michael can’t just yet; she’s determined to solve the mystery of the Burn, and isn’t sure she’s quite ready to say goodbye to her friends. Book isn’t hugely happy about this (although he plays it pretty chill), and he points out that maybe Michael could afford to let this whole “Burn” thing get solved without her involvement. Not every crisis revolves around her, and Michael herself admits she has a tendency to take responsibility for everything. It’s a nice moment of self-awareness from a likable couple, and offers the brief hope that the show might finally expand its horizons a bit.

The hope doesn’t last. The title of the episode is a reference to the “Unification” two-parter from Star Trek: The Next Generation, which follows Spock’s efforts to negotiate a peace between the Romulans and the Vulcans. Here, we learn that Spock’s efforts were eventually successful, although not until long after he’d passed away. Now the Romulans and Vulcans live together on Vulcan, renamed Nevar (sorry, the spellings are going to be especially bad this week), but they’ve left the Federation. There’s some bad blood over a science project that the Vulcans believed caused the Burn, but now that Michael’s discovered the time discrepancies, she needs the information from that project in order to solve the mystery.

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It’s a little suspect that the next key piece of the puzzle is on a planet that just happens to have strong emotional connections for Michael. (Also, didn’t Vulcan blow up? Or is this just a different planet completely.) But it’s not that suspect. I could’ve done without Michael getting all teary-eyed over her brother’s accomplishments, but maybe I’m just a grumpy asshole. (I mean, I absolutely am.) Regardless, shows do this sort of thing all the time, throwing in connections between micro and macro plots in order to develop character and make for stakes that are at once universal and deeply personal. Bringing back “Unification” and Ambassador Spock (including a clip of Nimoy himself, from Picard’s records) is a nice nod to series continuity, and it’s not like the Vulcans weren’t going to show up at some point.

Things get a bit dicier when Michael and Discovery at Vulcan Romulan homeworld, and Michael decides to force the issue when her request for information is initially refused; said forcing involves invoking a time-honored Vulcan ritual for exposing deep truths, and it requires Michael have an advocate, who turns out to be Michael’s mother. This is pretty unexpected, and is one of those bad coincidences that makes the universe feel smaller—not only did Dr. Burnham get saved by the Romulans, she was saved by the order (the Qowat Milat, first introduced in Picard, and boy do I have mixed feelings about being reminded that show is in canon) that just so happens to provide advocates for this process.

Which is more of a stretch, but Dr. Burnham was going to show up at some point, and this is as good a place as any I guess. It’s just that all of a sudden, instead of this being a story about trying to uncover precious scientific data from an unstable culture in order to solve a century’s old mystery, it’s about Michael not knowing where she belongs. I understand connecting larger concerns to more personal ones, but there’s a point at which it moves from dramatic efficiency to self-parody, and that point was hit here when Michael’s mom more or less forces a surprise group encounter session on her in the middle of the ceremony. After seeing her daughter for less than five minutes, Mom has decided she’s “lost,” and insists on regurgitating her backstory in order to achieve the “absolute candor” required both for her order and for the ritual. It’s absurd, and it makes any attempt to critique or subvert Michael’s Messiah complex into a lost cause. Why shouldn’t she take responsibility for everything, when it already all revolves around her? Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if she somehow ends up responsible for the Burn. (Maybe Tyler did it. Or Control.)

This is just such a tedious way to approach a story. Michael’s struggles to rejoin the more restrictive hierarchy of her life on Discovery were potentially interesting, but not framed like this, and not when they apparently resolve this quickly. All the talk about the Vulcans and Romulans struggling to keep peace, and how the information Michael wants threatens that peace, gets tossed aside or else simply reframed as a way to once again let Michael solve everything. (I mean, there’s some novelty here in that she’s solving a problem that she herself created when she invoked the ritual, but that doesn’t count for much.) If this was presented as Michael under the pressure of both her personal and professional lives, it could’ve been interesting, but instead, that job once again becomes the background noise while Michael’s problems take center focus.

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There’s also a subplot about Saru offering Tilly a promotion to be his acting Number One, which once again has me wondering how old Tilly is supposed to be. At least it’s acknowledged that promoting Ensigns directly to leadership roles is unusual (even if it is only temporary), but the show’s weird insistence on making sure Tilly is given repeated reminders at how much everyone loves her is, like its Michael fixation, wearing pretty thin. She’s not a teenager, she’s an adult—an often funny and smart adult, but one whose deep rooted insecurities seem like an odd match for the constant love and praise she gets from her co-workers. (Barclay on TNG was hard to watch, but at least it made sense that he was insecure; he was off-putting, and people got annoyed with him all the damn time.) Putting Tilly into a leadership role feels like a natural next step, but the way the episode drags it out means it loses its novelty real fast. We don’t need Tilly’s self-confidence to be reaffirmed every week, do we?

I don’t know, maybe this is what appeals to people about the show. And there are moments where this lands. The conversation between Michael and her mother near the end of the episode is pretty good (although there’s one very bad line in it), and I like the idea of the Vulcans and Romulans being so upset with each other that even referencing certain parts of their past is enough to have them worried about war. Michael’s mother aggressively calling out Michael’s past choices was unexpected and appropriately intense. It’s just, I don’t think Michael’s career woes are quite as interesting as the galactic incident that decimated the Federation and hobbled civilization’s ability to travel between the stars, and I’m confused as to why the show seems so determined to insist otherwise.

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Stray observations

  • Seriously, didn’t Vulcan blow up? Or is this not the Kelvin timeline.
  • “I’ve become someone new.” Has she, though? It pretty much seems like Michael is just still being Michael.
  • Surely there are other people on board Discovery who would be frustrated to see themselves passed over in favor of Tilly. Surely that could’ve made for a more interested conflict than her being awkward and then everyone saying “We love you!” for the umpteenth time.
  • Tilly calling Michael on her bullshit wasn’t bad. More of that, please.
  • Oh, the bad line from that final conversation: “And she wondered how much of the man Spock became was a result of who his sister was.” Spock is Spock because he’s Spock. There was a whole TV show about it.
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