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Jolan-tru, Mr. Spock: Rewatching Unification

Marie Brownhill
Game Industry News is running the best blog posts from people writing about the game industry. Articles here may originally appear on Marie's blog, Fan Collective Unimatrix 47.

Unification,” which I will treat as a single episode for the purposes of this column, should have been a fantastic midseason arc, but on review, the story suffers in the execution. Regardless, these two episodes serve as beginning notes for the plot points that will spark not only the events in the lackluster Star Trek: Nemesis but also Star Trek 2009, and apparently, the Romulan plot line continues into Star Trek: Picard, which is why I’m covering these episodes.

The episodes open with Starfleet sending the Enterprise on a very particular mission; according to intelligence in Starfleet’s possession, Ambassador Spock has been seen on Romulus, and Starfleet’s first worry is that Spock has defected because apparently, no one in Starfleet Command has ever spoken to Spock. In addition, the Enterprise must investigate some particularly mysterious pieces of ship wreckage that are obviously not tied into the Spock plotline AT ALL. Our crew makes the most basic mistake by splitting the party—Picard and Data go to Romulus while Riker et al continue the investigation of the wreckage. Picard’s first stop is to see the ailing Sarek who has just enough lucidity to point Picard in the direction of one Romulan Senator Pardek while Riker identifies the wreckage as being Vulcan in origin and tracks the provenance to a Federation junkyard in the backyard of nowhere, which is saying something in a show about space travel. Picard and Data discover that Ambassador Spock has been working with Senator Pardek and an underground movement comprised of Romulans seeking to learn Surak’s disciplines. Riker discovers that the Vulcan ship in question has been hijacked and sold to Romulans.

Senator Pardek, being Romulan, betrays Spock and his Starfleet friends to the new proconsul, Neral, in order to regain status with the Senate. Sela appears and informs everyone that she plans to take over Vulcan, using ships procured from Federation space (there’s the tie in with the Riker plot), and she intends to use a holographic Spock as a cover for the invasion. Predictably, Data and Spock come up with a plan to neutralize Sela and alter the message to reflect the incoming Romulan invasion force. Riker moves the Enterprise to intercept. A Romulan Birds of Prey appears and destroys the invasion force to the shock and horror of the Enterprise crew, and despite Picard’s exhortations to return, Spock opts to remain with the unification movement, hoping to help the Romulans transition into the light of logic or something. Picard offers Spock the opportunity to share Picard’s experience of his father, and everything fades to black.

I was ten the first time I watched these episodes, and I remember feeling elated when Leonard Nimoy appeared onscreen. That elation did not diminish over the years, but what I did find myself losing was my patience with the rest of the episode. As I mentioned above, this should have been an amazing pair of episodes because the concept of unifying the Romulans and Vulcans would be huge. We’ve known since “Balance of Terror” in 1966 that Romulans shared a common appearance with Vulcans. If you haven’t watched that TOS episode, you should because it’s fairly groundbreaking. From our perspective, Lieutenant Stiles demonstrates an almost incomprehensible level of ire toward Spock simply because he looks like the Romulans in the ship—one of whom was played by Mark Lenard who would go on to play Sarek, but audiences in 1966 would have been familiar with the same logic the episode skewers, a logic codified in American law by the incredibly wrong-headed decision in Korematsu v. The United States. Living proof of the harm caused by that bias sat at the helm in the form of George Takei, whose experiences in the Japanese-American internment camps became the subject of its own Broadway musical.

TNG set up the Romulans as one of the major villains for the series from Marc Alaimo’s Commander Tebok in “The Neutral Zone” to Commander Tomalak (Andreas Katsulas) in “The Enemy” and “The Defector.” Earlier this season, the Romulans conspired to place the Duras family in power in the Klingon Empire, hoping to erode the Klingon/Federation alliance (“Redemption” I and II), so to say that the Romulans have been a major antagonist would be an understatement. Thus, the very premise of “Unification” seems to come out of nowhere, and it should have been a game-changer.

The episode attempts a feint in the form of Pardek, who pretends to be a member of the movement, but Pardek’s betrayal isn’t entirely a surprise, considering the smarmy Neral discusses his invitation to a major Senate function. We already know from Data’s information dump that Pardek has long been disfavored by his fellow Senators, so this sudden invitation to sit at the proverbial high table is immediately suspect. There’s a blatant attempt at trying to garner sympathy for the Romulan dissidents in the form of D’Tan, a young Romulan who shows off his Vulcan Bananagrams to Spock in the middle of a loyalist café. Unfortunately, the episode’s pay off is so riddled with plot holes that we could fly an armada through them. Why Sela believes that her invasion force will be able to subdue Vulcan honestly confuses me. Certainly, Vulcans prefer peace to conflict, but we know from Enterprise and Discovery that Vulcans are more than capable of defending themselves. Furthermore, why they choose to fly their soldiers in Vulcan ships gives me equal pause. Certainly, the Vulcans themselves would know that they hadn’t sent ships anywhere near Romulus, but the episode just hand-waves these details. In addition, why Sela? The Romulan Star Empire has done us all a disservice by not relegating her to kitchen duty in perpetuity for her previous incompetence. As in “Redemption,” Denise Crosby fails to portray either competence or menace, so there’s precious little tension as we wait for Spock, Data, and Picard to defeat her. Lastly, how on earth can the unification movement survive in the Romulan police state? Pardek knows the names and faces of every member of that cell; he knows where they live, where their children go to school, and where their parents are. The hopeful ending promised by the movement’s leaders fails to hold water.

Admittedly, the episodes aren’t all bad. Mark Lenard’s performance as Sarek marks his final canonical appearance in the timeline, though he appears in Star Trek VI: the Undiscovered Country, which was released a month after “Unification I” aired. Lenard builds on his performance from “Sarek” to give us a poignant view of a man destroyed by his disease, and the interlude between Sarek and Picard is almost heartbreakingly poignant. Amarie, the four-armed pianist from Star Trek’s answer to the Mos Eisley Cantina gives her all at the theme from “Aktuh and Maylota” in a duet with Michael Dorn’s Worf. Credit where credit is due, Dorn throws himself into the ridiculousness that is Klingon opera with enthusiasm and a surprisingly solid baritone.

However, the moments between Picard and Spock are the clear highlights of these two episodes. From Picard’s polite but firm refusal to leave to Nimoy’s somewhat codgerly Spock, both actors take the dialogue provided to them by the script and elevate it. There’s also a particularly sweet scene between Data and Spock, in which they both realize that the grass is always greener, but the episode intelligently ends with a literal connection between past and present iterations of Star Trek. Picard’s offer to allow Spock to touch what Sarek shared with him is all the more touching because I doubt Picard was able to make the same sort of peace with his own father. If the framing story around those moments weren’t so weak, “Unification” would have been one of the truly great arcs in TNG, but as it is, we are left to mourn not only Sarek’s death but what might have been.

Rating: Three cups of tepid Earl Grey Tea

Stray Thoughts from the Couch:

  1. Notably, Spock alludes to the events of Star Trek VI in this episode, serving as a nice teaser considering the movie would be released subsequent to the episode. Indeed, these episodes were written in part to promote that film.
  2. Fortunately, this episode marks the last canon appearance of Sela.
  3. We’ll see Neral again, albeit played by Hal Landon Jr., in the DS9 episode “Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges.”
  4. Notably, even though Star Trek VI was released in December of 1991, Nimoy filmed these episodes after filming the movie. Nimoy apparently believed he would be contacted to pick up the thread of this story, and he was correct, though it would take eighteen years.
  5. The bit about Gowron rewriting history serves both as a moment of levity but also says a great deal about his character, possibly foreshadowing the events that result in his death at Worf’s hands.
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