Turns Out, Star Trek: Discovery Does Want Michael to Have It Both Ways

Michael and Tilly discover there’s more to the Burn than the Federation thought.
Michael and Tilly discover there’s more to the Burn than the Federation thought.
Image: CBS

Last week’s episode of Star Trek: Discovery put Michael Burnham in a hard place. At a crossroads between the potential new life she’d found in the 32nd century and her commitment to her family in Starfleet, our hero faced the consequences for trying to have it all. This week, the show decides that the actual solution is that she can, in fact, have it all.

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“Unification III” ups Michael’s (Sonequa Martin-Green) desire to burden the fate of multitudes upon her shoulders when, having been knocked down a few pegs in the wake of her unsanctioned mission for Burn data, Admiral Vance (Oded Fehr) decides to task her with maybe one of the wildest things she could ever do. Which is saying something, considering so far she’s stopped a war, saved organic life from extinction at the hands of an A.I., and also time-traveled nearly a thousand years into the future.

What is this task? Recover experimental data from the Vulcan and Romulan scientists behind the SB19 project—a promising FTL travel alternative to dilithium. The problem? The Vulcans and Romulans don’t want to share it, because they believe their tests were responsible for the Burn in the first place.

Oh and...Vulcan left the Federation a hundred years ago. And isn’t even called Vulcan anymore. Hundreds of years after the Discovery crew initially lived, the hard work of Ambassador Spock finally brought about unification between the Vulcans and their Romulan siblings: their newly-shared home now renamed not of Vulcan or Romulan identity, but of a new one entirely, Ni’var.

It’d be a tough task for anyone, but with Michael facing the internal conflict of whether or not she actually wants to remain part of Starfleet, as well as the external conflict in completely shattering Saru’s trust in her (and losing her First Officer title in the process), it seems like she’s the worst person to task this with. Except, Star Trek: Discovery realizes, Michael’s the protagonist! It must be she and she alone who takes on the burden of solving the Burn, getting the information she needs, and also maybe bringing one of the founding members of the Federation back into the fold!

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Screenshot: CBS

Okay, so the actual reason is that Vance realizes Michael is a secret weapon: the Vulcans and Romulans won’t listen to a Federation they don’t trust, but the surprise that the sister of their beloved Unifier has arrived in this moment in time? That’s an asset Vance is willing to use, even if it flies in the face of Michael’s prior, repeated insubordination. So off the Discovery goes to Ni’var, another grand burden laid upon the shoulders of Michael Burnham. Once there, Michael leans on her history as not just Spock’s sister, but a graduate of the Vulcan Science Academy, to demand that a quorum of Romulan and Vulcan officials essentially undergo viva voce with her: an oral examination of her thesis to prove that the SB19 experiments did not cause the Burn, but an outside factor. What follows is not really a trial for the data, but a trial of Michael herself.

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It turns out that part of the process (aside from the fact half of a Discovery conference room is filled with spectating Vulcans and Romulans, the other half Discovery crew, while Saru and the President of Ni’var, T’Rina, watch on like they desperately want one of those Starfleet-branded cups of popcorn from a few episodes ago) is that Michael receives an advocate from the Qowat Milat. You may recall they’re the order of Romulan warrior-nuns who believe in absolute candor, introduced in Star Trek: Picard earlier this year. When you think about it, it kind of makes sense for a quasi-legal tribunal like this—and, as T’Rina explains, the order’s dedication to the truth told truthfully aided in the reunification process. What makes less sense? Wouldn’t you know it, Michael’s Qowat Milat is her mom, Gabrielle (Sonja Sohn).

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Screenshot: CBS
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One tearful reunion later, what is actually meant to be a conversation about whether the Vulcans and Romulans can once again trust that the Federation will do the right thing with the data they earnestly believe changed the universe for the worse becomes one over whether or not Michael is a person they can trust. For all her platitudes that she stands for the Federation’s ideals, she can’t actually ask anything of the quorum other than for them to trust her at face value: she is Starfleet. She is Spock’s sister. She is the protagonist. Is that not enough for these side characters? It isn’t and it isn’t for her mother, either.

After exploiting her daughter’s emotional vulnerability, Gabrielle, in the name of the Milat’s dedication to candor, turns on Michael mid-trial, publicly airing her repeated recklessness bringing about dire outcomes as an example of how she’s woefully unequipped to be the Federation representative that Ni’var can trust. To get her own way with the Klingons, she ended up getting her captain and mentor killed. To get her own hands on Burn data, she defied Saru’s orders and was relieved of duty in the process. She herself doesn’t know whether Starfleet and the Discovery is the right place for her anymore. But exposing these truths lights a fire in Michael, and a moment of realization: she has overcome so much over and over, believing what she was fighting for, only for the stakes to become higher and higher, the sacrifices bigger and bigger.

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It’s almost a metatextual realization in and of itself: Michael has realized that her place at the center of these massive moments and events threatens to destroy not just her, but the people she loves. She’s not unsure of her place, necessarily, but her mother’s candor makes her realize she’s scared that messing up might make all her prior sacrifices ultimately pointless, that she is constantly living on the edge of making the one decision in a crisis that could undo her and those around her entirely. She’s unsure of her place within the Federation out of a need to protect them from that stress, burdening it all on herself in the process.

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Screenshot: CBS
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That candor is a double-edged victory, however. In speaking the honest truth to the quorum about herself, Michael proves she is indeed speaking the truth: she is before them out of a desire to help the greater good, not to aid the Federation in exploitation. But that realization threatens to fracture what is clearly, despite their repeated claims of desiring stability, a tenuous accord between the Romulans and the Vulcans. As a result, Michael decides the data is not worth undoing her brother’s good work and convenes the quorum, her mission failed, but the truth of her personal crises now known to her (and most of the crew!).

If the episode ended there? That’d be pretty interesting! Michael has confronted her desire to be in the midst of galactic events and admitted the insecurity of her place in this new future and why it scares her. In accepting failure—there’ll be other ways to access data to discover the origins of the Burn, as she’s been doing so this entire season—she has accepted that sometimes her gambits won’t always play out. Except it doesn’t end there.

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As Michael reflects in her quarters, her mother reveals that in accepting defeat honestly, the quorum has actually decided to give her the SB19 data after all. In witnessing Michael’s plea, President T’Rina even indicated to Saru that she’s willing to consider the potential path for Ni’var to return to the Federation. Maybe. Some day. On top of that, we even get a brief scene where the bridge crew is totally fine with Tilly replacing Michael as First Officer after she undermined their choice to sacrifice their livelihoods by committing insubordination! Even Book is seemingly happy to stay with Michael—living in his ship in the Discovery’s cargo bay—as she re-commits to her place with her Starfleet family, so she still gets her handsome courier boyfriend win.

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It undercuts what was, up to the last moments, a fascinating examination of a wider struggle the series has faced since the very beginning. At one point while in bed with Book this episode, he jokes that Michael just loves taking on an interstellar crisis as her own. It’s a joke that’s been leveraged multiple times this season, in the show’s past, and even leveraged seriously in this episode, as part of Gabrielle’s candor. A little admittance of the wider metatext that, as a Star Trek show that’s less about the ensemble than past entries in the franchise, Michael finds herself flung into these crucibles all the time, mostly of her own volition, and comes out of it the hero time and time again. The thing is, it stops being something the show can comment on and acknowledge in this light way when the show also repeatedly falls back on it—without actually addressing or even really considering what constantly taking on all these burdens actually does to Michael as a character. Because the answer, outside of some big-picture things (like the whole “now I live in the 32nd century” deal), is she’s rarely had anything other than a net gain out of her most conflicting choices.

This is far from the first time Discovery has pondered a bold question only to settle on the safest answer. Sure, there are still more episodes this season—there’s always a chance that Michael’s decision to stay with her Discovery family and try to make things work with who she’s become in her relationship with Book crops up again later, putting her in another position of compromise. But after last week set up the potential that our hero would have to make the ultimate choice between two increasingly conflicting trajectories, the fact that the answer is she actually gets everything she wants in a high stakes moment rings a little hollow.

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Image: CBS

Assorted Musings:

  • Don’t worry, Michael, I also cried the first time I watched Spock in “Unification.” Joke aside, this was actually a very sweet moment and perhaps one of Discovery’s smartest uses of nostalgia as character work—a loving way to cap off Michael and Spock’s arc in season two with a bonus Leonard Nimoy cameo.
  • The one non-Vulcan/Romulan subplot in this episode is Saru offering Tilly Michael’s prior position as First Officer (temporarily for now), which in and of itself is another lovely play off of their prior development in episode two this season. But there’s also the fascinatingly dark moment where Tilly, who’s very clearly still emotional about Michael’s actions, openly asks Saru if he’s asking her to do it because he believes in her to be a good First Officer, or because he thinks that because she calls him sir all the time she’ll just be a compliant stooge. Heat I did not expect here! I wonder if that will actually come up again at some point.
  • As much as I don’t particularly like the handwaving of the final scene between Gabrielle and Michael, it’s an incredibly heartfelt moment between the two. Sonja Sohn and Sonequa Martin-Green sell the hell out of it, and it’s a nice, momentary endcap on this mother/daughter relationship that was left unresolved in the whole Red Angel hubbub.
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James is a News Editor at io9, where you can find him delivering your morning spoilers, writing about superheroes, and having many feelings about Star Wars. He wants pictures. Pictures of Spider-Man!

DISCUSSION

the quorum has actually decided to give her the SB19 data after all.

It wasn’t the quorum who gave her the data. And Gabrielle says the quorum wasn’t her only audience. The president liked what she saw in Michael and released the data herself.

While Michael being the center of all mysteries has been the weak spot of the series (it does make it feel like she’s the center of the universe) it is justified in this episode. The admiral was right - they wouldn’t listen to an outsider but Michael is a citizen and connections matter even on Vulcan/Ni’var.

And I don’t think the trial is about her importance to the plots and realising it. It’s more about realising what her true path is. She’s been in high command positions twice and her own actions made her fail hard twice. But those same qualities - an almost obsessive compulsive pursuing of the truth, the need to solve riddles presented to her by data, the ability to observe the evidence and make conclusions based on that - is what makes her so good at figuring out what those mysteries. She’s much better scientist than she is commanding officer. She’s much better at leading an inquiry than a crew.

These also the qualities that she inherited from both of her families - both her biological and adopted one. She’s not a very good Vulcan otherwise as her emotions are always a driving force for her but in that one aspect she fit perfectly. And she’s a lot like Gabrielle in those aspects. So of course it took trip down that memory lane - to Vulcan and her mother - to highlight that. And to learn the final lesson from both.

The lesson here is that she can let go. She doesn’t have to be the one who solves mystery but what really matters is that it is solved. This is the realisation is what prompts her to send all the research and evidence she has to Ni’var so they can compare it to he SB19 and figure out what happened. And in turn this is what makes the president give her the data after all. She manages to convince T’Rina that the truth is all that matter to her not the glory.

And it was also about reminding her that she has always been a person who straddles to cultures. She became better version of herself when she uses both her human and Vulcan sides. And even though I found Gabrielle showing up in this a little too convenient (although it made sense for her to wait at a place Michael was bound to visit sooner or later) it was a nice visual of combining those two sides of Michael’s heritage. So this was never going to end with Michael choosing one or the other. It was going to be about finding a way to be a bridge between both - Starfleet and pursuing her own projects. Book and her friends. Federation and the civilisations that left it. Maybe she’ll even become an ambassador one day.