Star Trek: Discovery – Season 3 Episode 7
Star Trek: Discovery visits what used to be known as the Vulcans in search for more information that could unravel the mystery of The Burn.
The fact that The Burn propels so much of the storytelling in this season is something I find immensely problematic. Mileage will definitely vary but I don’t find the mystery all that interesting because it amounts to an unexplained cataclysmic event that doesn’t have a lot of emotional resonance beyond countless people being killed when it happened. Of course it’s tragic and that level of loss is unthinkable but there’s a disconnect between the loss of life and the story the show is telling.
Much of the focus is on why The Burn happened and Burnham’s obsession with answering that question is being used to motivate her actions in this season. The previous episode saw her go rogue in pursuit of answers and there’s a general through line around her lack of comfort being back in a hierarchy. In theory this is interesting as it shows that Burnham has been radically changed by a year isolated from that Starfleet structure but in practice it’s basically an excuse for her to do whatever she wants and then say she feels bad about it later. With her now being relieved of her duties as first officer we’re robbed of seeing how that conflict can feed into how she performs in that role and this episode looks to have resolved that uncertainty completely.
The latest clue points them in the direction of the Ni’Var -the unified Vulcan and Romulan species- because it is believed that technology they were developing to provide an alternative to Dilithium may have had a part to play in The Burn. It’s essentially a flimsy excuse for the Discovery to check in on the Vulcans and see what has become of them since the 23rd century. Vance brings them -and the audience- up to speed on the high level developments. The Vulcans and Romulans achieved the Unification that Spock was working towards in the “Unification” two parter over on The Next Generation but have also left the Federation after feeling forced into developing technology that may have led to The Burn. I’m actually surprised that this didn’t come up earlier because there’s no better way to highlight how fractured the Federation is than pointing out that the Vulcans are no longer a part of it.
Naturally this entire plot has to be framed through Michael Burnham because far be it from Discovery to change the habit of its lifetime. At the very least it makes sense for Burnham to be central here based on her history because the Vulcan/Romulan unification is a direct result of work Spock was involved in so since Burnham has such a profound connect to Spock and the Vulcan race in general it’s a natural fit for this plot to revolve around her. Vance recognises that Michael Burnham coming to Ni’Var to reopen diplomatic channels would constitute a bold statement and once again makes an unconventional decision to allow her to take the lead despite her recent insubordination. It is becoming clear that Vance is the type of leader who isn’t shy when it comes to taking risks in pursuit of results. It’s a good balance of careful and reckless that frames him as a Picard type in the way he thinks and a Kirk type in the way he acts. The recognition of protocol not applying absolutely and the need to make more risky choices continues to add depth to the character and makes interactions with him fascinatingly unpredictable.
The unification concept was introduced in The Next Generation and broadly forgotten about since then with a small handful of references here and there but there was no visible movement on it until now. It was always an interesting idea that tied directly into the values that Star Trek has always held. In essence it’s about people setting aside their differences and working together which is the guiding principle of the Federation and the franchise in general. Vulcans are known to be guided by logic where the Romulans are known to be motivated by paranoia and mistrust. The two races were separated at some point in history and Spock became fixated on bringing them back together because he felt they should naturally be united. There was mistrust on both sides because of centuries of conflict so convincing each race to unify was no easy task. Spock recognised it wouldn’t be complete in his lifetime but saw his efforts as pivotal in starting that process.
Seeing them united in this episode and having a stock footage cameo of Leonard Nimoy’s Spock speaking at the very beginning of this process was a really nice touch. As a fan it was great to see Nimoy return in this way and Sonequa Martin Green played Burnham’s reaction to seeing her brother as an old man brilliantly. The pride on her face as she got an idea of what he became and her happiness after seeing that he thrived after she left come across perfectly. Hearing the certainty in his voice that what he started will end in that goal being achieved against the backdrop of the unification of the two races makes for a strong statement that gives the cameo real weight. Once again Spock is vitally important to the Star Trek universe and this episode celebrates that fact by pointing out that work he started centuries ago comes to fruition.
Unfortunately, the exploration of this is very surface level which is a common complaint this season. The Vulcans and Romulans united at some point in history but it isn’t explained how that happened or what their society as a whole really looks like. There is mention of the difficulties in accepting it on both sides but it’s referred to as if it’s a historical event not work discussion. It’s easy to see why that would be a commonly held view within that society if those conflicts are a thing of the past but the whole point of the Discovery crew visiting these familiar locations should be to explore what has changed about them to make them less than familiar. Everything said is accepted at face value without going into the detail of how things changed. Context tells us that the two cultures merged in some way with elements of both informing how it now functions but the detail behind that remains a mystery. There’s no mention of what happened to the Romulan Star Empire. It was massive and stretched across a significant portion of the galaxy so was it disbanded? If so then why and how did that shift the balance of power? There’s also the very relevant question of propulsion; in the 24th century Romulan ships were powered by an artificial singularity so didn’t use Dilithium so how would that factor in following The Burn? Considering the focus on that event it’s a very relevant question that should be addressed but isn’t.
Putting all that aside, the main issue is that they are unwilling to hand over the information that Burnham needs to further investigate The Burn because they feel responsible for it and have no desire to reopen that particular wound. Burnham is sure that her investigation will reveal another cause but the logical rebuttal is that her it may end up being absolutely confirmed which pushes the culture back to where they were when the event first happened. It’s not an attractive prospect for them so they are naturally wary but Burnham invokes and ancient Vulcan custom that forces them to hear any appeal in the name of science. It amounts to a high stakes debate where the stakes are outlined as failure meaning the regression of this reunified culture into the uncertainty and mistrust that plagued their early days. Burnham’s request would seem selfish in the face of that potential outcome and that is something the episode does address.
Acting as Burnham’s advocate is her mother, Gabrielle who ended up as a member of the Qowat Milat upon her return to this time period. This order was introduced in the Star Trek: Picard episode “Absolute Kandor” as a group of Romulans devoted to being completely honest rather than the secrecy that defined the bulk of their society at that point. Without going too much into it, it was an interesting idea and added much needed depths to the Romulans in that show. In this episode there is a quick summary of what the order are, what they stand for and why that’s important in that scenario. What Gabrielle’s inclusion basically does is underscore the importance of honesty in this situation and she acts as the Angel on Burnham’s shoulder guiding her towards being open with those she is appealing to for information.
Burnham’s first conversation with the Quorum doesn’t go well as there’s a variance of opinions on what should be done about her and a clear lack of trust for the Federation. There is also dissension between the Ni’Var representatives that references troubles on the planet that are never seen nor explicitly detailed. There’s a slight sense that this is a society that is barely holding itself together in order to lend credence to the claim that Burnham’s objective could be what splits it apart. It’s established well enough but it’s something that is told rather than seen which makes it seem less important than it really is. The main point of this early conversation is to establish that Burnham’s motives are in doubt and that there is no reason to trust her because she isn’t being entirely forthcoming.
This fact is what flips the story to being less about the acquisition of information and more about offering Burnham the opportunity to work through the uncertainty that has been plaguing her since she reconnected with Discovery. Her mother in her role of “Honest Warrior Monk” is on hand to deliver hard truths and ask difficult questions about what Burnham wants from both this situation and life itself. She has been wrestling with those questions as highlighted earlier in the episode when Book directly asks what’s keeping her on Discovery and she doesn’t have an answer beyond not being ready to leave until she works through her obsession.
Gabrielle forces a very public exploration of her issues by asking her direct questions around why she makes questionable decisions. Her mutiny is referenced and her recent insubordination which prompts her to counter with evidence that she and the Discovery crew uphold Federation ideals and that they were trusted with solving the most important mystery that had ever been presented. It all builds to the revelation that she does actually belong in Starfleet and on Discovery because what she has done and can do when a part of that family is important. In one fell swoop she finds the answer that has been eluding her all along and reaffirms her commitment to the ship. There’s still a chance for this to be thrown into doubt when she’s next told to do something she doesn’t agree with but for now she is committed to her current situation and it’s in theory an important step forward.
If this is to be the end of this character journey then it’s massively disappointing. In theory having her confront those issues when faced with Spock’s legacy and the knowledge that he turned his back on the Federation in pursuit of something he firmly believed in but it’s all so surface level and impossible to invest in. There was so much more that could have been done with this before getting to this point. Being robbed of seeing her struggle to adapt to her role as first officer is one thing but as of this episode she will apparently be comfortable going back to her duties as Science Officer though that’s only because the focus will be on solving the mystery that she wants to solve. Why not make this Burnham’s arc over the course of the season and have her go on a few missions that have nothing to do with The Burn to test her overall commitment to serving Starfleet and the Federation rather than wrapping things up neatly in this way?
Realising her obsession would have been enough for this episode which does happen when she withdraws her request when she sees the division it’s causing. It would have been more realistic for this to be the beginning of her starting to look at things differently rather than fixing everything through a few conversations with her biological mother who doesn’t really know her. It is believable that the Quorum would look favourably on this gesture and give her the information though it might have worked better if Discovery had to leave as they debate it further. Of course all of this might lead to something better than what I have suggested but it follows the frustrating pattern established this season of introducing a complex problem with potential and then wrapping it up completely by the end of the episode. I feel that the writers aren’t all that skilled when it comes to episodic storytelling which makes plots feel very rushed.
Gabrielle appearing in this episode was probably about as good as her turning up anywhere. It’s inevitable so might as well happen here but it doesn’t alter the fact that this is very convenient. Once again Discovery fails to get away from the problem of the universe revolving around Michael Burnham with every large scale event connecting to her on some personal level. Good storytelling means that characters connect to the circumstances and achieve growth through dealing with them but this show should bear in mind that there are other characters in dire need of development and the contrivances that constantly appear around Burnham have become very tiresome. This is one of the few instances this season where it makes sense for there to be a personal connection to Burnham but adding Gabrielle into the mix and having the Ni’Var say that Spock must have become the person he was because of Burnham’s influence was a bit much. The idea that people don’t achieve greatness alone and are influenced by those close to them is a strong one but Spock had other meaningful relationships in his life so Burnham can’t and shouldn’t be credited with that level of influence.
The interactions between Burnham and Gabrielle weren’t bad. Gabrielle forcing Burnham to take a good look at her life and decide how to move forward made for some interesting scenes and the brutal honesty from her created a sense of unease in Burnham that is rarely seen. Framing this though Gabrielle making observations and trying to make up for lost time in imparting parental wisdom would have worked better in a more cohesive plot but the actors sell it and as ideas go it’s very compelling. Gabrielle remains where she is to presumably appear again at some point and create a tangible connection to the Ni’Var whenever the show decides to revisit the unified Romulan/Vulcan culture while also offering opportunities for a bond to grow between the estranged mother and daughter.
One dynamic that was certainly worth the journey was Saru and President T’Rina (Tara Rosling). She continually challenges Saru to prove that Federation ideals are more than a simple statement of principles and looks for evidence that he is actually living them. It’s well established that he does so every answer he gives is completely genuine and T’Rina definitely accepts them at face value as Saru is inherently trustworthy. She does mention that being ordered to continue work on the dangerous propulsion method was the last in a long line of issues her people had with the Federation which suggests that the organisation may not be trustworthy and that there are things to be uncovered. Perhaps the Federation will end up being an antagonist of sorts before the season ends.
Arguably there’s a flirtatious edge to Saru and T’Rina’s interactions with a clear mutual respect established between them founded on T’Rina being impressed with him actually upholding the values that the Federation claims to be founded on. He’s honest with her about how troubling he finds the state of this time period while also being hopeful that things can be improved. It’s a very natural dynamic that forms between them and hopefully it’s something that we can see more of somewhere down the line.
This is a big episode for Tilly who is offered the position of acting First Officer until a suitable replacement for Burnham can be found. Tilly is naturally shocked by this and questions whether the offer comes because she would be compliant. Saru tells her he believes it’s in the best interests of the ship which basically amounts to a confirmation of what Tilly asked but the offer itself shows that Saru has immense faith in her ability even though her rank is Ensign and she has no leadership experience to speak of. This choice is a very odd one that only makes sense in the context of validating Tilly’s self worth. It doesn’t make sense from a practicality standpoint because Tilly has no command experience that we’ve seen so isn’t the best person to place in that situation as she is completely untested in that role.
She has concerns and asks Stamets about it who honestly tells her he’d find taking orders from her weird and disturbing which is admittedly a harsh thing to say but also very understandable given his position relative to hers. Something the episode should have done was explore how the other characters react to this offer. Tilly is the lowest ranking main character which means that everyone she typically interacts with outside of Adira outranks her. Nilsson has been in command when Saru and Burnham were absent so realistically there should be some unrest among other members of the crew who may feel that Tilly being put in that role reflects a lack of confidence in them on the part of Saru. Instead there’s a moment where the crew come together in support of Tilly and encourage her to accept Saru’s offer. It’s an impressive display of solidarity albeit unearned because there’s still no organic evidence of the crew having that depth of connection. There was real potential for conflict here and an opportunity for Tilly to prove herself against a collection of people who don’t believe in her but instead they support her in accepting a job that she’s dangerously underqualified for with only the minimum of resistance from one character.
Tilly calling Burnham out on the difficult position she was put in when Burnham went on her unsanctioned mission was very well done. She was upfront about how that made her feel and clear on how unacceptable that was while also expressing concern that Burnham might not have returned from that mission. Their friendship has always been a highlight and committing to Tilly making it clear that she wasn’t happy with something Burnham did adds more layers to it as it doesn’t cause them to fall out but has created very real friction. In a way it feeds into Tilly accepting the job she hadn’t been offered at that point as it shows her ability to have difficult conversations even if it makes her uncomfortable and feeds into Burnham’s overall uncertainty about where she belongs.
An episode that contained some good ideas, lots of potential for character development and some really strong character interactions. Discovery heading to the rechristened Vulcan furthers an idea set up in another show as another example of how the future differs. The exploration of this is very surface level with some mention of unrest both past and present, not trusting the Federation and the suggestion of fragility within the unified society but the detail is lacking which adds to an unfortunate pattern found in this season. It doesn’t take long for the episode to flip to being less about the Vulcan/Romulan Unification and more about Burnham resolving her doubts about where she belongs. Her mother’s appearance is overly convenient and serves a defined purpose in the plot leading to Burnham recognising that she forced the discussion for selfish reasons and withdrawing her request after seeing the division it was causing. Having her commit to being part of the Discovery crew and removing any potential ongoing conflict is disappointing as the realisation of her selfish tendencies would be enough for one episode. Everything is being wrapped up a little too neatly which is frustrating. Gabrielle’s appearance in the episode was convenient but she was reasonably well used in her attempt to make up for lost time in regards to parenting. The actors sell it well and there’s some interesting ideas that can be revisited.
Saru and T’Rina’s dynamic was very watchable with a natural bond developing between them based on integrity and honesty. There’s a strong suggestion that the Federation may not be entirely trustworthy that may or may not go anywhere and further reinforcement of how naturally Saru follows Federation ideals. Tilly’s promotion to First Officer is a confusing development that isn’t used to its full potential. Saru basically admits that he chose her because she would be compliant but the major issue exists with Tilly being concerned over giving orders to people who outrank her. Stamets expresses his concerns around this in a really harsh way which leads to him assembling key members of the crew to encourage her to accept the offer. It works as an expression of solidarity albeit unearned because there’s still no real organic evidence of the crew having that kind of connection. This would have been a great opportunity for conflict along with Tilly having to prove herself worthy of it but it’s all neatly resolved with no real problem. Tilly and Burnham’s conversation where Tilly points out how unhappy she is with the position Burnham put her in when she went rogue was a great interaction that foreshadows Tilly’s ability to have difficult conversations as someone in command would be expected to do while also adding to Burnham’s overall uncertainty over where she belongs.
- adding depth to the future through the Vulcan/Romulan unification
- hints at how things have developed
- suggesting that the Federation might not be entirely trustworthy
- Vance further showing that he’s an unconventional leader
- Saru and T’Rina’s dynamic
- Gabrielle’s long overdue parenting
- Tilly calling Burnham out on the position her actions put her in
- more surface level exploration of what is introduced
- fully resolving Burnham’s uncertainty over where she belongs
- Tilly being offered the role of First Officer making no sense
- any potential for conflict completely removed with the blanket acceptance of Tilly in that role
- more contrivances around Michael Burnham
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