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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Unification, Parts I and II"

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"Unification, parts I and II"

Or The One With Spock, and Romulans, and More Sela

I always thought two part episodes were a good thing. There's something bold about them that appeals to me. Holding an audience's interest over an hour is impressive enough, but two hours? That means you have to be sure of your story, and that means that whatever story you're trying to tell has to be a pretty big deal. It has to be so important, so Earth shaking, that we're willing to disrupt the regular structural flow just to give it the attention it deserves. And that is so, so exciting. Television gives us comfort in the form of routine, promising us that every week, we'll see the same faces, at the same time, doing roughly the same thing. There's a lot to be said for that, just as there's a lot to be said for when a show breaks that routine, either in small ways or large ones. It's exciting, and it makes whatever happens in the episodes that step outside the format automatically more important.

When I was a kid, I was willing to accept that importance on faith. Honestly, I was willing to accept just about anything that happened in art on faith, and if I had a problem with it, I assumed that was my fault, not the artist. If this character was particularly irritating or if a certain storyline bored me, well, I just wasn't appreciating it properly. My tastes were getting in the way of what I was trying to appreciate, and because of that, I was bad, and I should feel bad. So it never even occurred that a two-parter has to earn its super size status. To me, "To Be Continued…" was just something that happened, not something any writer or producer could be directly responsible for. It sounds ridiculous now, but I sometimes wonder if that willingness to accept whatever TV and books gave me as incontrovertible fact didn't, in a roundabout way, lead me to the sort of work I do here at the A.V. Club: because once I did start questioning just why Dawn got on my nerves so badly, or why I found newer Stephen King novels like Insomnia such an agonizing slog, I took to writing to try and work through what was bothering me. (Although weirdly, I still feel a little guilty about having all these opinions and everything.)

So, I've been paying more attention to two-part episodes than I used to, both here and over at our X-Files coverage, because I'm fascinated by the difference between a successful example of the form (like "Best of Both Worlds") and a less successful one. "Unification" falls into the latter camp, sadly, although there's enough here that does work and works well that I didn't begrudge the amount of time spent. A good double episode isn't exactly like a movie, although it's a little like that, and it's not exactly like heavy serialization, although it's a bit like that as well. A good double episode should be an event; it should be to a series what a show-stopping solo is to a musical, revolving around an idea that's so powerful, so important, that it couldn't possibly be expressed in any other way. The problem is, like I said, we have a tendency to appreciate off-format when it happens for its own sake, and that magical roman numeral at the end of an episode title creates a Pavlovian stimulus response. The excitement comes built in, and the cliffhanger ending of part one feeds into that excitement. Which makes it difficult to separate the content from the style, especially seeing as how the disappointment when the form doesn't work doesn't usually hit till the second part, and that doesn't always mean the second part is the problematic one.

In the case of "Unification," both halves have some flaws, but the biggest, most glaring mistake to me has to be the presence of Sela, who is clearly intended to be the face of Romulan repression and villainy. I like the idea of the Romulans getting a specific avatar, because of all the important races in the Trek franchise, they seem the least defined, an amalgam of Klingon and Vulcan philosophies who remain one of the only major holdouts to the Federation's, well, Borg-like ability to pull in other cultures. (Really, isn't Starfleet like some benevolent Borg? Sure, their first and foremost principle is avoiding interference, but they still make sure they're on hand to welcome races who are just starting to explore the galaxy. It's part of TNG's general optimism that, despite the occasional lapses by individuals, the Federation is essentially a force for good; I'm not sure I'm enough of an idealist at this point to believe this would be possible in the real world.) While it's nice to have a culture that isn't clearly associated with a specific emotional trait, there seems like a lot of untapped story potential here. Giving us a few specific Romulans, helping us to understand what drives them, bringing them back once a season and showing how those drives change over time: All would've made a great contrast to the slow death of the Klingon Empire.

The problem here is that, while we get some fascinating concepts thrown around, "Unification" is about at once too much and too little and never quite lives up to the strength of its premise. Sela is part of the problem, and her appearance near the end of "Part I" had me wincing, but even before then, something felt a little off. It's obvious why the show tried to milk this for two episodes. If you can get Leonard Nimoy on your show, playing the most iconic character in the franchise (yes, I think Spock is more iconic than Kirk, although the distinction is negligible), you want to get as much out of that as you can. And from a dramatic standpoint, "Unification" does a great job of building to Spock's arrival in the final moments of "Part I." We first get a glimpse of him in the cold open, when a Starfleet Admiral informs Picard that one of their most important ambassadors has gone missing; she shows Picard a shot from a security scan, and when Spock's face comes into focus, Picard is clearly shocked.


It's a fitting reaction, considering how shocking a moment this would be for anyone in the audience who didn't know this was coming, but it's also well-justified. As Picard later explains to Riker, because of his bond with Sarek, he has a certain connection with Spock as well. "Unification" divides its time between Picard and Data's search for Spock (heh) and Riker and the rest of the Enterprise's attempts to… um… Well, mostly it's their attempts to fill out the running time so that Spock can show up in the final minutes of "Part I." Plot-wise, they're hunting down the source of some spaceship parts, which leads to a sort of mystery, and then another Trek version of Mos Eisley with one of the ugliest make-up jobs I've ever seen on the show. (That's in "Part II." The multi-armed lady who plays keyboards has what can only be described as a nose vagina.)

It's not badly made, and it does mean that when Riker is confronted with the Romulan's invasion forces (cleverly hidden inside Vulcan ships), he knows enough of what's going on that he's able to thwart the surprise attack. Only since Spock and Data managed to send out a message from Romulus before Riker acts, it's hard not to view roughly a third (or more) of "Unification" as pleasant but wasted time. There are some good jokes, and Riker gets to threaten a fat Ferengi (who has space bimbos! Is this a first for TNG? Excluding "Justice," of course), but unless I'm missing something, there's no reason for any of this. We don't need to know how the Romulans got Vulcan ships; we just need to know what they plan on doing with them.


That leaves us with Picard, Data, and Spock. And Romulus. And, of course, Sela. It's always great to see Picard and Data have a team-up, although even here, we have to wade through some unnecessary plotting to get to the good stuff. Picard decides he needs a ship with a cloaking device in order to make the trip across the Neutral Zone to Romulus, so the Enterprise pays a visit to the Klingon homeworld to see if Gowron is willing to return one of the many favors he owes the Federation. There's some telling detail here about how Gowron tries to avoid contact with Picard because he's busy re-writing history to make his victories entirely his own; this makes sense from what we know of Gowron, and it fits that, even after everything, relations with the Klingons aren't exactly perfect.

Picard gets his ship, though, and we waste more time meeting the crew of that ship, watching Picard react to the sparseness of Klingon crew accommodations, and seeing him and Data chat a bit. Most of this is enjoyable, but, again, enjoyable isn't really enough in a two-parter. The crew of the Klingon ship has no real impact on the core of this story, Spock's attempts to unify Vulcan and Romulus, and they play no real part in the second half, outside of being grumpy that it's taking Picard so long to finish his mission. We've seen Klingons screw around with Starfleet personnel before, and we don't learn anything new here, even if Stewart makes what he can out of it.


One of the hardest things to accept about writing a story is that good stories are hardly ever a matter of starting at point A and then showing all the steps that led to points B through Zed. It's something that comes up in a lot of creative writing classes, because when you're not sure of your instincts on what to tell, the big temptation is to tell everything. So, yes, from a character perspective, everything in "Part I" is reasonable enough. But I'm guessing it only really exists because the showrunners wanted to milk the most out of Spock's return and to make sure the final scene of the episode bookended the cold open, with Nimoy in the flesh stepping out of the shadows to announce himself to Picard and Data.

Out of everything else, the best scene in "Part I" is Picard paying Sarek a visit, in order to get his thoughts on where Spock is and what he's trying to do. The last we saw of Sarek, he wasn't doing so well, and he's considerably worse here; while "Unification" makes some interesting stabs at getting us invested in the plight of the Romulan people, the real emotional core here is Sarek's awful decline and the broken relationship between him and his son. Mark Lenard's final scene is painful to watch, and, if you'll permit me a slight touch of the melodramatic, it casts a shadow over everything else that happens. Picard learns on the way to Romulus that Sarek has died. We expect our favorite characters to resolve their issues before their story ends, and it's always a surprise when this doesn't happen, even when the conflict is a minor one. Sarek dies without ever seeing his son one last time. That's harsh, and good drama.


All right, so what about the actual stuff in this double feature that's "relevant"? Picard and Data surgically transform themselves to look like Romulans and beam down to Romulus to hunt for Spock; from Sarek, Picard learned that Spock has a personal relationship with a Romulan senator named Pardek. Before Picard and Data can make contact, though, they're picked up by Pardek's men, brought to the secret rebel base under the city, and that's when Spock comes in. In "Part II," we learn that Spock is trying to bring about the reunification of Romulus and Vulcan. It's a bit of a stretch, but from what he's heard, he believes the time is right to start pushing for a change. But of course it isn't. Proconsul Neral, who seems so open to the idea of bringing the two races back together, is actually just working with Sela on a surprise invasion.

I'm not really sure how much sense this all makes. A Romulan surprise attack, well, I can accept that, but all this subterfuge with Spock? Apart from giving us a Stunning Twist, it all seems like a lot of effort for not much return. If they really needed Spock to make his announcement, why not just kidnap him as soon as he landed on the planet; letting him run around fomenting rebellion is not a good long term strategy. But maybe I'm missing something, so I'll let that lie. I remain uninterested in Denise Crosby, especially in this role. She isn't threatening, and there's no pleasure in seeing Sela again, working behind the scenes to ruin everyone's day. It feels mean-spirited to pick her apart any further considering, so let's just say, better choices could've been made here.


And yet… there's still a lot here that works. Mainly, it's Spock. If you didn't read my TOS reviews, I'll bring you up to speed: I'm a big ol' Spock fan, and the simple fact of his presence here was enough to get me past a significant number of bumps. Nimoy doesn't get enough to do. Unlike "Sarek," which managed to balance the character against the necessities of plot, all the story threads and Romulan trickery don't allow us to get much of a sense of who Spock is now and why he's willing to take this chance. Nimoy manages to sell it anyway, and his gravitas, combined with Stewart's, gives this foolishness a lot more weight than it probably deserves. And while they only get a couple scenes together, pairing Data with Spock is sublime. Data has always served as TNG's Outsider figure, just as Spock served the same role on TOS. The difference is, Spock was proud of his outsider status, while Data is forever working to minimize it. There are only the briefest of nods to this, but that it's alluded to at all is great.

I like the idea of the Romulans naturally moving towards the Vulcan philosophy as a part of their cultural evolution. (It reminds me a little of the controversial last chapter of A Clockwork Orange, although the concept works much better here.) That Spock decides to stay behind isn't much of a surprise, although I'm not sure how long he'd be able to avoid capture with the whole weight of the government intent on tracking him down. I can't help wondering, though, how much better this episode might have been if it had given more time to Spock, instead of losing him in a mess of double-crosses and political intrigue. Like, if maybe this had just been a single episode and if it had focused on Picard trying to bring Spock and Sarek back together. In the last scene of "Part II," Picard invites Spock to mind meld with him, to give him a final connection to his father. Spock touches Picard's face, and it's a beautiful, fleeting mixture of the old with the new, the wonderful, absurd passion of the original series mixed with the thoughtful compassion of the new. The rest of "Unification" doesn't really live up to this, but just having it is nearly enough.


Stray Observations:

  • "Unification" originally aired in November of 1991. Spock makes a reference to Kirk and the earlier Enterprise and their involvement with the Federation's peace negotiations with the Klingons. Interestingly enough, that involvement is the plot of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, which hit theaters in December of 1991. I'm assuming the TNG writers had some idea of the plot of the movie before "Unification" was filmed, but it's odd. Spock's comment implies something went horribly wrong with the negotiations, bad enough to make him want to take a personal hand in the peace process from then on. But while bad things happen in Country, no one on the crew dies. So… huh.
  • How heart-breaking was the site of Sarek trying, and failing, to make the traditional Vulcan hand gesture?
  • These episodes must've been the first to air after Roddenberry died (October 24, 1991). There's a nod to him before each episode.
  • Spock, on Picard: "There's an almost Vulcan quality to the man."