The mid-season 5 two-parter marks something of an inflection point for Star Trek as a franchise. Although it was not the first episode to air after the death of Gene Roddenberry it was the first to memorialise his passing with a title card simply stating his name and “1921 – 1991”. Meanwhile, in cinemas the final Star Trek film featuring the main cast of the original series was due to be released and this two part story aimed to promote the film with an appearance by Leonard Nimoy as Spock. As such, it parallels the later Star Trek film Generations as a kind of passing-the-torch between the two versions of Star Trek.
For my purposes, I was keen to rewatch it as an addition to the background re-watch to compliment Star Trek: Picard. I was mindful that aside from the film Star Trek: Nemesis, I hadn’t included any stories that spent any time looking at the Romulans in depth. There are other choices but Unification is a rare story where we see ordinary Romulan civilians and aspect of Romulan culture other than over-wrought plots and Laurence Olivier impressions. In addition, it is an episode that uses Data and Picard as a dramatic pair, highlighting their differences and similarities.
Patrick Stewart naturally makes a great Romulan. Starfleet’s Romulan disguises are top-notch because, of course, Romulans are actually just humans in theatrical make-up but it is a look that really suits both Stewart and Spiner. He also has an additional advantage. The Romulans are Space Romans obviously but they are Space Hollywood Romans and years of Hollywood epics (and BBC historicals) have created the association of British classical actors with the Roman Empire. It is practically type-casting.
However, it is Picard’s affinity with Vulcans that provides the initial hook for the story. Ambassador Spock has gone missing and intelligence suggests he is on Romulus. Alarmed by the apparent defection, Starfleet despatches Picard to speak to Spock’s father, Sarek who is dying from a degenerative disease. Picard has not only met Sarek before but in an earlier episode had mind-melded with him.
In this initial phase of the story there are repeated shots that follow the dramatic-soap-opera scene convention of having two characters talk to each other with both facing the camera but with one person standing behind the other.
The framing of dialogue calms down once Sarek tragically dies but this odd choice adds to that sense of theatricality. Mark Lenard as Sarek gets to pull out all the stops as an ageing Vulcan whose mental decline causes him to be overwhelmed with emotion. Aside from a wonderful cameo, the scene between Picard and Sarek helps demonstrate the commonality between the Vulcans and Romulans. They are all, in truth, space Thespians with the Vulcans not just being logical/stoical but DRAMATICALLY and very pointedly so.
When finally Spock, Data and Picard do have scenes together we might expect the similarities between the trio to result in a somewhat dull dynamic. Instead, there is a sparkle between the three of them as if they are each unburdened from having to deal with Kirk/Bones/Riker/Crusher bullshit and can just get on with dealing with the problems at hand. Both Spock and Data are variations on the theme of the logical being who is actually emotional but Nimoy and Spiner play the trope quite differently.
Meanwhile, Riker and the Enterprise have to deal with the B-plot: investigating the remains of a Vulcan ship that has cropped up in mysterious circumstances. This gives Riker some opportunity to deal with the seedier side of Federation culture, including a space ship scrapyard and a bar with a four-armed piano player.
It is an genuinely very entertaining 80 minutes. There is humour (including an unrecognisable Stephen Root as a Klingon captain) and dry banter between Data and Picard (Picard trying to get some rest in his Klingon quarters while Data stands still doing nothing is a delight). Nimoy is wonderfully Spock and the meeting of Picard and Spock works much better than Picard and Kirk in Generations.
Both Unification and The Undiscovered Country echo real world events with rapid changes in progress in Eastern Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, Unification’s twist is that the apparent détente is…a Romulan plot. In fact a Romulan plot by Denise Crosby aka Commander Sela aka complex backstory involving parallel timelines and the very dead Tasha Yar.
It is fair to say that Sela’s plot makes zero sense. It sort of doesn’t matter obviously: just moving parts to give everybody something to do. The Romulans have stolen three Vulcan ships and intend to trick, force or holographically simulate Spock into announcing they are a peace convoy from Romulus to start the re-unification of the sibling cultures. The ships are actually full of Romulan troops. I would assume if the plan had gone ahead without the Enterprise’s involvement the dialogue with Vulcan would have gone something like this.
Peace Convoy: Hello Vulcans. We are a peace convoy from Romulus.
Vulcan Traffic Control: Greetings Pace Convoy. Why are you in Vulcan ships if you are from Romulus?
Peace Convoy: Um…because…we thought you’d like how they looked?
Vulcan Traffic Control: That is not logical. Also, where did you get those three Vulcan ships?
Peace Convoy: We…found them…they were just sitting on this asteroid…and we thought you might have lost them and…um, we were just bringing them back.
Vulcan Traffic Control: Did you STEAL our ships, Romulan Peace Convoy?
Peace Convoy: Maybe. Just a little bit.
Vulcan Traffic Control: That’s not a very logical way to start a peace mission. What are you hiding?
Peace Convoy: Nothing! We are hiding nothing! How dare you accuse us, Noble Romulans, of DECEPTION! Why I have a good mind to tell the hundreds of Romulan soldiers on board to come over and shoot you for that insult.
Vulcan Traffic Control: ….
Peace Convoy: Crap. Forget I said that last bit
[Romulan war ship decloaks and blasts the peace convoy into smithereens out of embarrassment]
For the sake of keeping the Romulan reputation for craftiness intact, I’ll just assume that the plan was so secret that the different people involved didn’t know what the whole plan was. After all, stealing Vulcan ships to sneak Romulan troops onto Vulcan makes sense by itself, it only stops making sense if they claim to be Romulans and are scene crossing the neutral zone.
Dodgy plans aside, there is so much to enjoy here. A good addition to my re-watch.