Sunday, November 29, 2020

Discovery, Season 3: Unification III

Discovery, Season 3
"Unification III"
Airdate: November 26, 2020

36 of 36 produced

36 of 36 aired


Burnham leads a delegation from the Federation to the world formerly known as Vulcan, and must come to terms with both her past and her future.

"Sweet. Admiral Picard's old spycam footage really came in handy."

Matthew: Kevin and I have frequently and exhaustively catalogued the deficiencies of this show. They fall into three major categories: 1. Scattered storytelling leading to unearned (and incessant) "Big Moments" with characters we don't know or care about; 2. Story logic issues; and 3. Tone issues. This episode is no different than all the rest in this series - the badness of this show is quite stable and endemic. I don't know if the show could possibly be better at this point. So let's talk about the first point. There are too many characters on this show. Far too many. By my count, we're supposed to care about (i.e. remember who they are, understand their motivations, and tolerate their anchoring a scene) the following people: Burnham, Saru, Tilly, Stamets, Culber, Adira, Gray, Georgiou, Book, Admiral Vance, Jett Reno, Owo, Detmer, Nillson, Future Security Lady, R.A. Bryce (Bridge Guy), Gen Rhys (other Bridge Guy), Burnham's Mom, and David Cronenburg.  But the episode stories do not allow these characters sufficient time to be developed and to become memorable. I have lampooned this approach to storytelling in the past as "The Stamets Minute" or the "Culber Minute." But, astoundingly, the problem has gotten even worse over the past few episodes. And they have even shed characters! Airiam and Nahn got Big Moment Deaths/Departures that we were supposed to care about (evidenced by the amount of screen time they received), but we hardly knew anything about them. Even some of the better developed characters suffer this fate. Take the Tilly story in this episode, for example. Saru offers Tilly the position of "Temporary first officer," whatever the hell that is. Tilly is concerned that she is not old enough to credibly command fellow officers who are otherwise her superiors. This story is reminiscent of TNG "Pen Pals," in which Wesley is given command of the planetary survey team of Drema IV. Can you see the difference between the two stories? For one, the level of stakes is ridiculous. Wesley wasn't offered command over 99% of the ship's crew despite having decades less experience than most of them, he was given the lead of a project. This is verging on Star Trek 2009 levels of dumb. Wesley's character arc was carefully developed on screen over two seasons. For Tilly, we were told that she was a part of the command training program or whatever, one time, and it was never mentioned again until now. Wesley has struggles, and learns a lesson. Tilly has all of her friends (see above list) get together to cheer her on. None of it works and it all feels weird because there is no context or history. And Tilly is the best developed secondary character on the show at this point.

The whole show has been swallowed by the Epic Michael Burnham Saves The Universe Story.  Let's recap the last 4 episodes:

  1. How Only Burnham Can Save Vulcan.
  2. How Only Burnham Can Discover the Big Secret Black Box and Save Book.
  3. How Only Burnham Can Get The Barzan Guy to Reveal The Code And Save The Seed Vault.
  4. How Only Burnham Can Dive In the Trill Pool And Reunite Adira And The Previous Hosts.

Not only is this approach to storytelling boring, and not only does it rob the other characters of development, but it also strains credulity all the way around the curvature of the universe and then some. Why are the writers asking us to remember 18 additional characters when Burnham will always be the center of every story, regardless of its subject matter?

But then, here's the kicker: even Burnham is insufficiently developed, despite being the focus of nearly every single episode. The big character dilemma we are presented with is "will Burnham decide to stay in Starfleet or will she pursue her [insert alternative lifestyle here]?" The problem, of course, being that they skipped over her "Year With Book Doing Amazing Freedom Things" entirely. Not to mention that she has always been a wretched Starfleet officer. So in truth, we have no real notion of what she is choosing between, and no way to care about whichever one she does. It truly would have been the same had she left the ship or stayed. She would cry about something every episode. She would save the universe/planet/ship every episode. And since everyone can instantaneously travel everywhere, it doesn't matter which ship she is on.

Kevin: I will agree with the substance of all Matt's points, and don't want to belabor them by repeating them too much. I will add that I think all these problems can be summed up as the classic "show, don't tell" problem of narrative. The episode keeps telling us what the big dramatic moments are supposed to be, but without the smaller detail work on screen to demonstrate the stakes, none of this lands. The episode that comes to mind for me, maybe because of all the Vulcans walking around, is "Who Watches the Watchers?" Instead of the guest characters tearily describing their culture, we got whole scenes, like ten uninterrupted minutes of Liko and Oji working at a sundial. That's all. Maybe I'm a fuddy duddy, but the quiet scenes of characters just living their lives makes the later dramatic scenes feel like something. The Discovery version of Liko is scream-crying about his dead wife two minutes after being introduced. The TNG version lets the mundane activity and obvious rapport with his daughter do all the narrative lifting. 

Matthew: Now on to story logic issues. I'll just start with the big one - How and why does anyone on Vulcan know who Burnham is? This whole episode plot revolves around the notion that only she can appeal to Vulcan and rebuild the Federation, because she is Sarek's daughter and Spock's brother. BUT NO ONE KNOWS THIS. The entire Federation pinky promised to never, ever mention Discovery, any of its crew, or its mushroom drive to anyone, ever again. Indeed, Sarek never mentioned Burnham in the throes of his Bendii syndrome Delirium (in which he lamented his inability to connect emotionally with many of his family members). Spock never mentioned her to any of his lifelong best friends. Even within this show, Admiral Vance, the head of the Federation, has never heard of Discovery or its technology. So why do the Vulcans, who have been divorced from the Federation for centuries, accept her identity on faith? I sure wouldn't. I'd be like "Bitch please! That story MAKES NO SENSE" and mushroom her ass the hell away from my planet.

In part because of the lack of time spent on characters, things make no sense here. Burnham apparently has a deep, spiritual bond with her mom or something. But they don't even know each other. They spent most of their lives apart. Why should I care when they share a touching scene with heavy music scoring? And wait - why did she join the Warrior Death Nuns again? Isn't Gabrielle Burnham THE GREATEST SCIENTIST IN THE UNIVERSE? She build a person sized time machine capable of transporting someone across 50,000 light years and a full millennium into the future, all ten years before TOS.

The whole "logic trial" scene makes no sense. How could ad hominem attack be the go-to tactic for a society of logicians? How can she reasonably speak to conditions on Vulcan, not having been there for 900 years, or on Spock's opinions and character, only having known him for a few years out of his 200 year lifespan? And why did we watch the whole damn thing, only for them to deny her request and then have the President of Vulcan give her The Thing because she likes Burnham? And you'd think they would have told her "your kshhkethvikettkkk advocate is going to publicly bust your balls and make you lose." And, what? Burnham's mom can confirm that Discovery has done all this great stuff?
She was in the same time line for like 3 minutes. How does she know anything about Burnham's life? Did they bond off screen? Yeesh.

Kevin: Again, I agree with all this, and will only add that my story logic problem is apparently the fact that Captain Picard was discreetly recording all his conversations. Otherwise why do they have actual footage from Unification. Beyond that, it makes no sense to use it. The reveal that the Vulcans and Romulans are the same people was the climatic twist of a whole episode (two if you count Enterprise Incident as well as Balance of Terror). The idea of reunifying the peoples was the narrative focus of two episodes (three if you count Face of the Enemy) and in each case, the stakes were funneled through stakes for Spock. In Balance of Terror, the revelation and its secrecy call into question Spock's loyalties. In Unification, it's become Spock's life's work because of the experiences we will shortly see in Undiscovered Country. In all cases, the Vulcan/Romulan plot elements are given stakes by impacting a character we care about, in this case Spock. Here, both the revelation they are the same people and have rejoined into one society is part of a thirty second briefing that the crew slams right past. How could the crew, let alone the viewer swallow this information in the time allotted? This leads into something else that nagged me. The inclusion of the Romulan truth nuns was literally just to call back to Picard. Who are these references for? How would a new viewer even begin to understand any of this? And as a longtime viewer, it was just garbled.

Matthew: Tone issues have pervaded this show since the beginning. Everything is treated as The Biggest Event Ever and every single threat is Going To Destroy All Sentient Life. Hell, they even call it out in this episode, as if it's the basis of a line of argument that everyone understands (despite Discovery being erased from all existence). I was just describing "Piller Filler" to my boys the other day, as Data was playing Ebeneezer Scrooge in the holodeck with Captain Picard watching. If you never vary the tone of the series from THE MOST DRAMATIC THING EVER, then everything feels literally monotonous, it is impossible to get to know characters in their downtime, and remembering any episode after about two hours becomes very difficult. Having each season revolve around a Big Dumb Plot almost completely precludes the possibility of Piller Filler. So, unless we get another fresh start to the series, this season is going to be a lost one, as well. It can't get better or more memorable, because there is never time to make it that way. No time! Back to the Plot!

Kevin: Here's the thing. The idea of Burnham's mother showing up is fine. We know she's in the future. Fine. But Burnham spent most of her life believing her mother dead and found out that was not true, what, a few months before being flung into the future? She's literally had no time to meaningfully digest this information. A whole episode that focused on establishing a new relationship and dealing with the unresolved issues of their old one would be a fine episode. Even set it on Vulcan and let that do some low-key world building. I would happily watch that.


Matthew: I did not find any of the Vulcans in the hearing to be particularly engaging. It was not a fault of the acting, really, but they did not surmount a weak script, either. They were cast well, perhaps, but didn't have much to do. Tara Rosling did pretty well as T'Rina, giving us a feeling of being an actual person with actual duties and actual opinions based upon actual experience. The Ladies Burnham did nothing for me. I wanted them off the screen.

Kevin: I like the Burnhams in a vacuum. I think the actors have chemistry , it's just that no one, but no one, could make that dialog work. I did like T'Rina as well. She came this close to implying a real character arc.

Production Values

Matthew: This was a major whiff as far as giving us a "Vulcan Episode." I thought the point of this show was to use the effects budget and CGI to give us things we've never seen before. I guess they blew through all of their CGI and location shoot money? So in effect we got a bottle show, in which the "special chamber" for the Logic Meet was just the cafeteria. Lame.

Kevin: Why will they not show us the planets they visit? I mean, the episode on Trill was silly, but the arboretum they found was at least visually interesting. I mean, even if it were a CGI riff on the Amok Time desert set, I could live with that.


Matthew: I was uninterested in the Vulcan-Romulan stuff, because I wasn't given enough to really latch on to (the Vulcans and Romulans have... politics sometimes. And the.... experiment data? might upset those.... politics). I was also uninterested in Burnham's reunion with mom, because I only saw her for 5 minutes of one episode. I was also uninterested in Burnham's dilemma, because both sides of it were unclear. And then I was also uninterested in Tilly's "promotion," because it was both dumb and pro forma meaningless (like some sort of "LeBron's Decision" special). I don't think this is a 1, because it was just boring. The ways it was offensive are baked into the Kurtzman iteration of the franchise at this point. It would take some gratuitous violence and gore to make me consider a 1. So that's a 2 from me.

 Kevin: I think I have figured out the best way to describe my problem with this show. They keep wanting to go back to the well of previous stories and characters without seeming to understand why I cared about those characters and stories. It's like speaking a language where you know the vocabulary but not the grammar.* I watched this episode and literally didn't understand it. But, I agree with Matt, the lack of horrifying violence does save it from a 1. This is a two.

*Compare to the Abrams movies, which is to Star Trek what thinking you can add -o to every word is to speaking Spanish.

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