STTNG – Unification (Review)

Unification – season 5’s mid-season two-parter – is one of those you can appreciate for the memorable moments, if not for the story. Certainly not for the story, which is equal parts boring filler and plot hole-ridden cartoon. And let’s be honest, the memorable moments aren’t enough to carry it. They’re nevertheless good enough that you’re glad you watched it, when the credits roll on part II.

The Enterprise has been recalled from a terraforming mission to meet with Admiral Brackett, who is unwilling to explain herself over subspace. Fortunately, she doesn’t seem to be one of the smarmy admirals StarFleet is so famous for, so Picard isn’t walking into any kind of trap. Patrick Stewart is, however, walking into one of those scenes where he hopelessly outclasses his colleague at acting, so you still have to kind of endure this scene. Not helping is the fact that, for dramatic effect, just after telling us that a highranking Federation ambassador has disappeared and been spotted by long-range scan on Romulus, the admiral shows us the long-range scan and has the computer hone in on one face and adjust the resolution to reveal … OMG SPOCK! In real life, of course, she would’ve just shown him the already pre-enhanced picture of Spock. So, it’s not just her acting taking us out of things, if you know what I mean! End scene, queue opening credits.

We just have to kind of assume that Picard has been assigned to find out What the Hell is Going On because no one ever says this explicitly, but before you know it, we’re in orbit around Vulcan, where Picard thinks talking to Sarek may shed some light on things. Man, what would StarFleet do without Picard around to think of these things?

Immediately upon entering orbit, we learn that the Vulcans are puzzled by some remains of a ship that sppears to be Vulcan that was recovered from a Ferengi trader. Because we have to have a B plot, the Enterprise will help them analyze it to figure out where it came from, Vulcan apparently having substandard ship-identification methods on their hands despite (a) having built the ship themselves and (b) being generally acknowledged in the Original Series and Enterprise as slightly technologically superior to the rest of the Federation. And by "help" we mean, of course, that Geordi will do it all by himself without so much as a single Vulcan beaming on board nor a single member of his staff assisting him.

Picard beams down for his second scene with an actess who can’t hold a candle to him – this time Joanna Miles as Sarek’s wife Perrin. They drink mint tea and complains that she can’t get any on Vulcan – which seems highly unlikely, to say the least. I mean, she’s sitting here, right now, on Vulcan, drinkig mint tea, so… She explains that Spock put all of his affairs in order before leaving, making it unlikely he was abducted, but that he never told them where he was going or why or even that he was going anywhere. Picard asks to see Sarek, and Perrin grants the request despite her reservations (Sarek is in the final stages of Bendii Syndrome and will not live much longer) because Picard shares a special bond with her husband.

The scene that follows is one of the Memorable Moments. Mark Lenard – in what is technically his final Star Trek performance (this was filmed after Star Trek VI, though it aired a month earlier) – gives it his all as a man who is only sometimes lucid and otherwise struggling with a torrent of chaotic emotions, and it’s spectacular to watch. Between fits, he assures Picard that Spock will not have defected, and is able to supply him with the name of the Romulan Spock has most likely gone to meet – one Pardek, a long-serving backbencher in the Romulan Senate known as a man of the people and an advocate for peace. The Romulan Jeremy Corbyn?

So, Picard will follow this lead, but he’ll need a cloaked ship to do it, so the Enterprise heads to Klingon space to ask Gowron for a favor. Gowron has, however, been rewriting Klingon history to remove any references to help from the Federation in the recent civil war, and so the Enterprise‘s presence is an embarassment to him – what with them having more or less won it for him and all. So Picard has to apply some subtle bargaining skills with Gowron’s adjutant, and it works. This would, of course, be one of the scenes that is just filler.

Well, Bird of Prey in tow, Riker is cleared to follow up on the leads Geordi has from the Vulcan wreckage – apparently it’s the T’Pau, decomissioned these many years and supposedly sitting in a junkyard. So the Enterprise heads for the junkyard, where they meet Fred Sanford. Well, not really – the quartermaster IS cantankerous and stubborn, but in a cold, detached way. Basically, as Troi explains (helpfully for once), he’s the master of his tiny corner of the universe and just wants to be deferred to. So, Riker manages to kiss his ass a little, and has Troi’s tits do most of the negotiating, a strategy that the quartermaster admits helps. This scene is both filler and Memorable Moment. Sure, it doesn’t really do anything in terms of advancing the plot, but it’s fun as hell to watch Riker get rebuffed by an officious little troll and Troi actually do something useful for once. Besides, the quartermaster is a cool character.

What they find out is that several ships are missing. Not only that, but that an alien ship has been showing up to receive shipments intended for the missing ships. Riker lays an ambush for one of these, but it doesn’t really work: what should be minor damage to the ship ends up triggering a full explosion, presumably because of all the weapons on board. This does, however, give them a lead, since they can identify the smuggler in question from his ship, and they know he has an ex-wife who plays piano at a nearby space bar.

Meanwhile, Picard is being bullied on the Klingon ship, because Klingons are so tough they have to go around trying to make everyone else look weak. In this case, by giving Picard quarters with only a metal shelf to sleep on and telling him they won’t be serving any Federation food. Picard refuses to be intimidated. Not by the Klingons, anyway – he has trouble sleeping with Data just standing about staring at him. Data agrees not to stare, but he doesn’t exactly turn around to face the other direction. Presumably, Data is insterested in observing someone sleeping. This is probably supposed to be one of the memorable moments, but it didn’t really do much for me. In any case, they’re soon interrupted by news of Sarek’s death.

Presently, the arrive at Romulus, because it’s just that easy. Two star empries with ample motive to spy on one another, both possessing cloaking technology evidently take no countermeasures to ships just sneaking across the border for a bit. Actually, now that that’s written down, that seems right – sort of like trying to keep your identity off the internet these days. If you can’t fight it, why fight it?

So, Picard and Data, in full Romulan makeup, beam down to the same street where Spock was sighted. They go to a restaurant that serves only cold soup, as far as we can tell (actually, as far as we can tell, Romulan cuisine is only cold soup), and Picard soon draws the attention of some security guards, in part by not really enjoying his soup. The same season that gave us Darmok also gives us one of the stupidest standard Science Fiction Language Fails in that the proprietor of the restaurant thinks they’re strange, and they explain that they’re from out of town, and she asks where, and they tell her, and she comments that their accents say otherwise. Awesome, writers. Way to remind us that this whole conversation is hugely implausible to begin with.

The security forces turn out to be in league with some kind of underground resistance group, and they take Picard and Data to some caves where this group is always milling about. Picard explains that he’s looking for Spock, and Spock steps out of the shadows to let him know he’s foud him!

Curtain.

In part II, we finally find out just What the Hell Has Been Going On. Spock tells us that Pardek put him in touch with an underground group of Romulans who are interested in reunification with Vulcan. Naturally the regime hates the idea, but Spock insists that the underground minority who supports it is widespread and growing, existing in all provinces. They learn Vulcan ways and are starting to put pressure on their leaders to open talks. It’s East Germany, basically. The traditional ways aren’t working, there’s growing discontent, the population is aware of another breed of Romulans who have managed to be successful, and they want to be more like them. Pardek has arranged for Spock to meet with a proconsul. Picard tells Spock that this is probably a trap. Spock tells Picard he’s aware of that thank you very much. Nevertheless, he will go, because if the Romulans are up to something sneaky, it’s best to smoke it out. For once in his life, Picard finds himself out-argued, and the scene closes on his face as he realizes he doesn’t have an answer.

This is another one of the Memorable Moments. Not so much because Picard lost the argument – though that was nice too – but because it’s kind of cool how Spock’s faith in the success of his mission is founded upon the inevitability of change. Romulus can’t continue the way it has been – corrupt and authoritarian – therefore Spock’s mission is likely to succeed. It touches on a theme that was always an integral part of Star Trek , but which the series was starting to lose sight of (and would completely lose sight of in Deep Sleep Nine): good wins mostly just because it makes more sense. It’s in our self interest to not be dicks – and so, over the long term, we’re not. I personally agree with that, it sustains me as a libertarian crying in the wilderness, and it’s exactly this kind of rational optimism that makes me love Star Trek in spite of all its flaws.

Unfortunately, this is about where the idiot plot takes over, and things go south pretty quickly.

First, we have some embarassing scenes with Riker at what might as well be the Mos Eisley Cantina chatting up the smuggler’s ex wife. He has nothing to offer her, because he doesn’t carry money, but his charm will be enough, apparently. By the way, there’s money in the 24th century now – the kind you can put in a tip jar and everything. Contrary to, you know, anything you might have heard from Picard way back in The Neutral Zone. She tells him there’s a fat Ferengi who comes in and always listens to the same song who will have information. He does, and he does, and Riker more or less beats it out of him. He delivered the Vulcan ships to a Barolian freighter – which makes sense, since the Barolians trade a lot with the Romulans. But nothing about any of this is really holding our attention – it just feels like plot for the sake of plot.

Likewise, back on Romulus, Spock meets with a proconsul who expresses a suspicious amount of support for reunification, and is just generally slimy, signalling that he’s one of the Bad Guys. Spock, as per plan, plays along and then leaves. Then Sela steps out from behind a door where she’s heard the whole thing, and the audience collectively groans. THIS again, huh?

Trouble is, no one’s quite prepared for how stupid her nefarious plan turns out to be. See, she’s the one behind the thefts of Vulcan ships, because she’s hoping to put 2,000 Romulan soldiers on them and send them in a Trojan Horse attack on Vulcan. 2,000 Romulan soldiers is apparently enough to subdue an entire planet of, we can assume, billions? Not to mention, how are they going to hold it once they have it? Won’t the Federation just take it back? But the big question is, why do they even need the Vulcan ship trojan horse to begin with? Can’t they send cloaked Romulan ships? And indeed, in the final scene, a Romulan warbird that has apparently been accompanying the three Vulcan trojan horse ships decloaks and blows them up, killing all the soldiers. Just, apparently, to draw attention to this plothole, since we know from our initial encounter with the Romulans that suicide is standard practice with them: the trojan horse soldiers could’ve just blown themselves up. And of course we still don’t have an answer to the question of how Sela, a human halfbreed daughter of a war conquest concubine, managed to become the nerve center of Romulan dastardliness, or, indeed, what she’s even doing in this episode. Why make up a character like Sela and then turn her into Snidely Whiplash? She could have been interesting in her own right Most of all, though, it’s just not clear why the Romulans feel the need to conquer Vulcan at all. I guess the implication is that this is supposed to be the Romulan ruling class’ way of giving the people their desire for reunification without compromising their control. Wel, that makes sense, and it’s nice that it’s not stated explicitly. It’s just too bad their plan for achieving it was so ridiculous we forgot to laugh.

Speaking of ridiculous, a component of the plan is that a hologram of Spock will deliver a message to Vulcan telling them to never mind the man behind the curtain, it’s perfectly normal for three Vulcan ships that were supposedly in a scrapyard to appear from the Romulan Neutral Zone on a course for Vulcan – absolutely nothing to worry about, gents. As if anyone would fall for that. As if it would matter if they did, given that the conquering force is only 2000 strong to begin with. I dunno, maybe there are more cloaked warbirds than the one we saw? But if that’s the case, we’re back to wondering why the trojan horse plan in the first place.

OK, so that’s entirely too much electron ink spilled already about some of the worse plotting in the franchise. The less said about the plot here, the better. And I’m not even touching on the deeply retarded way our heroes manage to escape. Let’s just say that it wouldn’t have worked if Sela hadn’t just left them locked in Neral’s office, had instead put them in some kind of security detention cell. This is (oldskool) Doctor Who level of villain sloppiness we’re talking.

Fortunately, it all ends on a Memorable Moment. Picard allows Spock to mind meld with him as a way of sharing the part of Sarek that is in Picard – since he didn’t get to say goodbye to, or reconcile with, him. It’s very touching, and carried off to perfection by two more-than-capable actors. (Well, Patrick Stewart is more than capable. Leonard Nimoy is one of those actors who’s not great in and of himself, but fortunately managed to find the role he was born to play relatively early in his career. He does a great job with Spock, and that’s what counts.)

So, as I said, a terrible episode that’s mostly just an excuse to string together some memorable moments. Really, this reeks of missed opportunity. For one thing, the reunification idea is intrinsically interesting, given what each of these cultures represents. The obvious parallel to East (Romulus) and West (Vulcan) Germany is the one they were probably shooting for – but if they’d been a bit more perspicacious there was another one the writers could’ve explored to greater effect – Jews and Europeans. Vulcan wasn’t conceived as a Jewish planet, but Leonard Nimoy hasn’t been exactly shy about saying that he did his best to inject as much of his own Jewish heritage into the character of Spock as he could. In the real world, we don’t really think of Jews as emotionally controlled people, exactly, but the love of playing nitpicky logical games and enjoyment of argument certainly fits like a glove – as does the Vulcan role as sort of "fray-adjacent." The Romulans, for their part, make an interesting avatar for Europe – since Europe is the continent that developed later, but more effectively, than other parts of the world largely through sheer force of will. Europe is an uneasy marriage of Roman civilization and discipline and German passion. Hell, modern Germany, finally taking the the place it’s always considered rightfully its own as the Cradle of European Civilization, is an uneasy marriage of civilized discipline and barbarian passion. Germany manages to be both the most and least civilized part of the continent all at once – and of course, in its way like the Vulcans, it is the most civilized because it is also the least. Like with the Vulcans, the underlying barbarity simmers just beneath the surface, and it’s kept in check only by social control – by raising children with excessive amounts of discipline and maintaining an adult population that loves battering each other with rules. This isn’t such a far cry from Romulus, especially in the Nazi era.

But this opportunity was missed. What happened here was just that German Reunification was ongoing at the time, and it reminded someone on the writing staff that Romulans and Vulcans were offshoots of the same race, and this presented a high-ranking producer an excuse to have a Spock appearance on Next Generation, and that kind of ratings gimmick can’t be ignored, and so here we are. And, you know, since the Romulans were involved, we might as well cash in the last episode in Denise Crosby’s contract, so Sela shows up for no reason. Clearly, the plot was an afterthought. Which is a shame, because the original thought was a good one, and it deserved better exposition – especially since they got Leonard Nimoy for two episodes.

Overall Rating C-

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