The Good: Acting, Plot, Character
The Bad: Feels like a setup episode
The Basics: When Spock defects to the Romulan Empire, Picard must journey around the galaxy to find out why and recover the ambassador.
When Star Trek The Next Generation began, DeForest Kelley made a cameo appearance as Dr. McCoy in "Encounter At Farpoint" (reviewed here!), with the hopes of making the transition between Star Trek and the new show. Since that time, Star Trek The Next Generation struck out in new territory becoming a distinct entity from Star Trek. In the fifth season of Star Trek The Next Generation, a single effort was made by the writing staff to bridge the gap once more and try to reclaim the hard-line Star Trek fans who felt the new series needed legitimization. In the two part "Unification" episodes, Spock returns.
StarFleet Intelligence places Spock on Romulus, in the heart of one of the Federation's greatest enemies. Fearing that he has defected and concerned about the serious blow to the integrity of the Federation, Captain Picard and the Enterprise crew are ordered to investigate and recover Spock. At the same time as Captain Picard goes in search of Spock with Data, Commander Riker must piece together a damaged ship that might be related to Spock's disappearance. Picard's search leads him to Romulus, disguised as a Romulan with Data while Riker's search leads him to a graveyard of starships.
"Unification" is more than a simple episode that it attempting to span the two Star Trek series'. Instead, this is a piece where the Star Trek universe is fully realized. By writing and producing an episode that hinges so much on Star Trek history while progressing forward the mission and purposes, there's very much the sense of a complete universe established here. Indeed, the scope is rather impressive: the Enterprise journeys from a Starbase to Vulcan to the Klingon border and then to a Zakdorn junk yard. Picard travels from the Klingon border to Romulus itself and there's a very real sense throughout this episode that these places are true locations, no stranger than traveling from the United States to Canada to South Africa.
While previous seasons had been more episodic, where you could pretty much watch the episodes in any order and if you missed one it did not so much matter, season five is a more serialized show. As a result, certain past episodes are almost essential to understanding and appreciating "Unification" to its fullest. "Redemption, Part 2" (reviewed here!) the season premiere for the season is referenced as is the third season episode "Sarek" (reviewed here!). Understanding the events that have led up to "Unification" enhance the episode and watching Star Trek VI The Undiscovered Country is also beneficial, though that is more important in the second part.
What binds the episode together through its sweeping travel story are the characters. Here we have a compelling use of the characters in Star Trek The Next Generation, most notably Captain Picard. Having shared a mindmeld with Sarek, Spock's father, back in the third season, the earliest leads for why Spock may have defected come from Sarek. Being an intelligently written episode, however, Picard's own task becomes complicated when Sarek dies. Here Picard has many facets to him and the explorer/diplomat role that Picard was at the beginning of the series reasserts itself with the more action-oriented Captain he has become by this point.
Joining Picard is Data and this is a wonderful example of how much Picard and Data come to rely on one another. In "Unification," Picard takes Data along as a useful tool and as a companion. In this way, Picard relies on Data for more than simply tactical knowledge that might allow the pair to complete their mission, but rather for a friend and confessor. This serves only to strengthen the bond between the two men which has long since outpaced the bond Picard and Riker once had.
As for Riker, he is saddled with the slower parts of the episode and his quest to determine what the wreckage the Enterprise has been saddled with is and where it came from feels like an attempt to take up time and space. Instead of being particularly compelling, that aspect of the plot leads the viewer to wonder what it is doing at all in the episode. It feels like it has nothing to do with the main plot, which is a search for Spock.
What carries the episode is the acting and there are three notable performances here. The first in Brent Spiner, who plays Data who is forced to impersonate a Romulan. It's an acting challenge to play a character playing someone else without either putting yourself into the last role or making the transition between the character and the one they are impersonating so great that one is unable to see the former in the latter. Spiner, however, pulls it off admirably.
Patrick Stewart, similarly, gives a good performance, especially making Picard edgy and tired aboard the Klingon ship en route to Romulus. The one who steals the show and ought to have been nominated for an award was Mark Lenard. Lenard plays Sarek and he portrays the ailing former-ambassdor with dignity in a very difficult role. Forced to play Sarek in a very different way given the nature of the ambassador's illness, Lenard infuses emotion and confusion and actual facial expressions into the tortured character. It's sad to note that Mark Lenard plays Sarek's death scene a short time before his own death.
"Unification" feels slow at times when it has the distinct sensation that it is building toward a cliffhanger ending and that is what the episode actually does. Indeed, if you're looking for Spock, "Unification, Part II" is where he actually performs for the episode. But outside that, it is an effective build up and it works.
It's difficult to recommend "Unification" to those who are not fans of the Star Trek series, as this is largely a payoff for the fans. This is the chance to solidify the Star Trek universe and add a sense of cohesion to a franchise that celebrates the differences in the various series'. However, people who enjoyed Star Trek back in the 1960s and those who are patient with a decent story will find something to enjoy in "Unification."
[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek: The Next Generation - The Complete Fifth Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the fifth season by clicking here!
For other Star Trek episode and film reviews, please click here to visit the appropriate index page!
© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.