A slow and thoughtful episode with a cheeky title and overt connections to both The Next Generation and Picard. The risk it runs is playing dangerously close to being dull and/or mawkish but I enjoyed it and the slower pace allows the strong cast to carry the emotional stakes. There are a few surprises, so I’ll put the spoilers after the fold.
Star Trek has done a number of episodes featuring trials and this episode is also a different kind of Trek staple: a Vulcan centric episode. For good measure, it is also a Romulan episode and lastly is a Discovery specific kind of episode where Michael Burnham gets written into existing Federation history.
Episodes featuring trials always have a flaw because time and audience patience is not going to accept look discussions about subtle points. So frequently, the opposing sides have to take absurd positions and the judge of the case inevitably ends up being swayed by an emotional speech. TNG’s Measure of a Man is a paradigmatic example and also an example of how attempts to create a plot point create a picture of both Star Fleet and the Federation as deeply ethically compromised institutions.
This episode is not strictly a trial. It is more of a case of an ancient Earth ritual called ‘defending your phd thesis’ but with space elves and more apostrophes. Michael has found evidence that the infamous “Burn” which ended easy warp travel, had a single point of origin. However, to find the specific location she needs more data. In Star Fleet archives is the implication of more data from a specific project that was being conducted around the time of the Burn. That data though is on the planet Ni’Var — a world that left the Federation shortly after the Burn.
Big twist! Ni’Var isn’t just any old planet, it is flippin’ VULCAN! OMG! The Vulcans left the Federation! Well, we already new Earth left the Federation, so not such a big surprise I guess. The name change is where Spock comes in. Ni’Var is no longer just the Vulcan home world but also the Romulan home world. Sometime, after the events in Picard, the Romulans rejoined with the Vulcans just as Spock had intended in the classic TNG two-parter Unification.
None of this is actually the plot. Instead we get a wider story about Michael and Tilly’s place on Discovery. This includes the return of Michael’s mother, who we discover found sanctuary after her time travelling japes among the Qowat Milat — the Romulan warrior nuns from Picard who are so utterly Romulan by pushing against the Romulan culture of deception by being overly and dramatically honest. The defenders of lost causes, the Qowat Milat are a designated support person for the ritual of defending-your-phd-thesis (or as they say on Vulcan: D’fending-Ur-Pe-Haych-D’e).
I jest, but I thought this was done well. Rather than try and pretend that there is an actual scientific debate, the trial cuts straight to the argy-bargy about motives and character. The story also makes the Ni’Varian position quite sensible. We learn that Federation expansion was already causing a severe dilithium shortage prior to the Burn and that the Vulcans were already becoming disenchanted with the Federation, partly for selfish reasons. Their experiments with other forms of faster-than-light travel may then have caused the Burn (Michael thinks she can prove they didn’t but still…) and the planet is still struggling with integrating two cultures that are all about being over-dramatic and theatrical.
The essence of the argument is whether Ni’Var can trust the Federation with the data. Michael says yes and that they should trust her. But…well we know that Michael and the Federation isn’t wholly trustworthy. Michael’s mum decides to unleash what I call the Picard-manoeuvrer after the repeated trope of the Picard series: launch a blistering attack on the integrity of a Trek protagonist by spelling out their flaws and arrogance. Michael does the right thing. Seeing that her request touches so closely on unhealed wounds among the Ni’Var she withdraws.
I really liked this outcome. The Ni’Varians had good reason to deny the request for data and good reason to be wary of trusting the Federation and Michael’s choice flipped the script of these kinds of trial episodes. The stuffy intransigent people were right and Michael saw the error of her ways an withdrew…which, by dropping her self-interested and manipulative (in a good cause) motives, demonstrated her trustworthiness. Neat. Yes, it is still a pit pat but I still thought the outcome was nicely done.
Meanwhile, Saru asks Tilly to be the the acting First Officer after Michael’s demotion. Stamets (who would probably fit in well with the Qowat Milat) is honest, he isn’t sure how it would be to take orders from Tilly. He also, wisely, sees what Tilly will need to actually take Saru’s offer and gets the Bridge Crew to let her know directly that they would support her.
Like I said at the start, this episode could have been dire and it could have been dull and it definitely came close to mawkish but it tread a fine line between those things and delivered a strong Trek tribute.