June 28, 2016

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Unification I"

It is 4 November 1991, and time for Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) is summoned to a Starfleet admiral for a top-secret intelligence briefing. Ambassador Spock (Leonard Nimoy), the most celebrated and respected diplomat in Federation history, appears to have defected to the Romulan Empire. Picard and Data (Brent Spiner) immediately dispatched on a secret mission to Romulus, while Riker (Jonathan Frakes) commands the Enterprise in an investigation into black market dealing of Vulcan technology.

"Unification I" presents a hugely significant moment in the history of Star Trek. While characters from the original series had appeared in The Next Generation before - DeForest Kelley made a humorous cameo in "Encounter at Farpoint", and Mark Lenard had reprised his role as Sarek of Vulcan in "Sarek" - this episode marked the first time a lead character from the original run guest starred alongside the Next Generation cast. Not just any lead either, but arguably the most iconic character in Star Trek's 25-year history.

When The Next Generation was first announced, many pre-existing Star Trek fans were deeply sceptical of its chances. The first two seasons did little to ease those concerns, and despite the series improving enormously in its third and fourth years there remaining a lingering sense of "us and them". The original Star Trek had its fans who broadly dismissed the sequel series, and The Next Generation had its own fresh group of fans who disregarded or belittled the original. The two-part "Unification" effectively removed that division: it brought both camps together for the 25th anniversary and sealed them together. While pockets of disgruntled fandom would remain (don't they always?) this storyline left Star Trek in a much better place. To an overwhelming degree, after this story there was no longer the original series and The Next Generation: there was simply Star Trek.

It is probably not a big spoiler to reveal that Spock himself does not turn up until the episode's final moment. That leaves the rest of the episode to deliver an incredibly strong and increasingly suspenseful lead-up. Time is not wasted in this instalment, which provides at least one-and-a-half times the usual story content for an hour of TV drama. Picard's first step in tracking down Spock is to speak with his father, the terminally ill and neurologically impaired Sarek. It is a touching and deeply saddening encounter, with Sarek's ability to control his emotions significantly degraded since viewers last saw him. In his final moments he cannot even move his fingers to give a Vulcan salute; Picard gently presses the fingers together for him. It is a deeply resonant scene, doing what Star Trek does best: showcase contemporary concerns and challenges in a science fiction context. Dementia and Alzheimers affect so many people in such tragic ways, and for such a popular and beloved character to suffer this face is just heartbreaking. A few days later Picard learns that Sarek has died; his mission to locate Spock now also includes breaking the bad news.

Picard and Data's journey into the Romulan Empire take place on a Klingon bird of prey, the use of which allows the series to follow up on the recent "Redemption II" season premiere. Following his victory against the Duras family, Chancellor Gowron has had history rewritten to remove Picard and the Enterprise's assistance. As a result Picard's presence back in Klingon society is unhelpful and unwanted. Watching Picard subtly threaten Gowron via an intermediary is hugely entertaining: this is a well-written script and Patrick Stewart performs his scenes brilliantly.

A cutaway to the planet Romulus - and it's hard to believe this is our first time seeing the planet in two-and-a-half decades of Star Trek - reveals that the Romulan government already know Picard is on his way, and are actively keeping an eye out for him. It sets up an excellent cliffhanger: we assume Picard and Data have been caught by Romulan security, but instead they have been rescued by an internal resistance group aligned with Spock. It is a nicely played bit of redirection.

While all of this is going on, Commander Riker is leading a criminal investigation. A crashed Ferengi freighter has contained Vulcan technology which can be traced back to a derelict ship in a Federation supply depot. Following up that lead takes the Enterprise into combat with an unidentified starship, which is so heavily loaded with weapons supplies that it explodes as soon as it is damaged. There is no sign yet of how these events link up to Picard's mission, but it is a fascinating and well-developed mystery.

This is an excellent episode of Star Trek. It fully embraces the more continuity-heavy take on The Next Generation by acting as a sequel to both "Sarek" and "Redemption", as well as advancing the gradually-developing Romulan story arc that kicked off back in Season 3. The arrival of Spock in its final shot is just the icing on the cake. This is the seventh episode of Season 5, and its fifth great episode. The quality ratio rises to 71 per cent.

A week and a half before "Unification I" aired, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry died. This episode was dedicated to his memory. By chance it seems the most appropriate episode of The Next Generation with which to honour him. It combines characters from both the original series and its sequel, ties into the movie franchise, and features Vulcans, Romulans, Klingons and others. While the two-parter had been developed as a promotional tie-in to the upcoming feature film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, it immediately gained far more significance. It was an extraordinary TV event to begin with: with Roddenberry's death it also became a pitch-perfect tribute.

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