The week of November 4 will be the 25th anniversary of the first airing of “Unification Part I”, the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that finally brought together the two generations of Trek in a meaningful and substantive way. Given how easily universe-building seems to come for producers in the year 2016, one can perhaps not appreciate the logistical challenges in getting one part of the franchise to crossover with another, even if it’s just one-time only, but maybe that’s what made it so special. Aside from Spock and Picard finally appearing side-by-side, “Unification” marked an important turning point in Star Trek at one of its most difficult times.
On the one hand, it was Star Trek’s 25th anniversary, TNG was one of the biggest shows on TV, and everyone was looking forward to the upcoming sixth Star Trek feature, The Undiscovered Country. On the downside, that was to be the final movie with the original cast, and on top of that, the franchise suffered the death of its creator, Gene Roddenberry, just days before “Unification Part I” aired. A simple title card reading “Gene Roddenberry 1921-1991” and the opening chords of Alexander Courage‘s theme music marked the passing before both parts of “Unification” begin.
The idea for “Unification”, as a concept, seemed logical, 25 years of Star Trek was the ideal time for an inter-generation celebration. Of course, having Mr. Spock on Next Gen was an idea in the back of everyone’s head since Bones McCoy toured the Enterprise-D in “Encounter at Farpoint”, but Leonard Nimoy was a tough man to tie down. In the end, cynical self-promotion sealed the deal, Nimoy was executive producer on Star Trek VI, and in the interest of creating a little buzz, he finally agree to appear on the show. Crass commercialism isn’t a Vulcan quality, but sometimes it gets the job done.
But Nimoy wasn’t the only obstacle to making a meeting of the generations happen, Roddenberry himself was famously gun shy about doing anything that referred back to the original Star Trek while Next Gen was in pre-production. Adding Worf to the cast was a last minute addition to show in order to sell a political message and the passage of time, the once mortal enemy of the Federation had a place on it’s flagship now, but that’s where Roddenberry drew the line. In reality though, something like “Unification” had to happen before the torch could truly be passed, a substantive appearance by what is arguably the most important character from the original Star Trek.
“Unification” itself was built on the same thematic ground as The Undiscovered Country, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of communism, the Cold War and Iron Curtain. When Spock mysteriously disappears and turns up on Romulus, Starfleet sends Picard and Data to investigate, and as it turns out, Spock is trying to lay the groundwork for reunification between the Vulcans and the Romulans, which is being led by a small but growing subset of the Romulan people. The subtext is obvious, but it adds an interesting shade to the Romulans in a way that develops them beyond just being “evil Vulcans,” a layer of complexity that reminds the viewer that even between desperately different peoples there’s always common ground. Infinite diversity in infinite combinations.
But these two episodes aren’t really about the Romulan/Vulcan dilemma though, aside from one or two future installments of the series, it’s never mentioned again, and it certainly wasn’t addressed in the Romulan-centric final Next Gen film Nemesis. No, it was a MacGuffin meant to get Picard and Spock into the same room for some inter-generational loggerheads. Spock, a character born in the midst of the “if it feels good, do it” 60s, doesn’t need permission to make peace; Picard meanwhile, born out of the by-the-book corporate culture of the 80s, respectfully disagrees. Of course, there’s also Sarek, Spock’s father who’s from a generation that did the hard things and tried to give his son the benefit of his experience, which was ignored.
Those conflicts aren’t necessarily resolved at the end “Unification,” but this two-parter, along with The Undiscovered Country, tell us a lot about the evolution of Spock. So many episodes of the original series were about how Spock’s humanity threatened to override his logical Vulcan half like he were some kind of recovering junky having emotions waved in his face like a dime bag of the good stuff. In Undiscovered Country, Spock tells his pupil that “logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.” In “Unification”, Spock tells Data that he has “No regrets” about following a Vulcan way of life, which is not only a human expression, as Data points out, but quantifying an emotional reaction. Finally, in these scenes, we know that Spock has found peace with himself.
That singular scene with Spock and Data one-on-one is key, because as characters they’re both designed for a similar purpose, to bring an outsider’s point of view and commentary on humanity. Spock notes that Picard has rational and analytic mind, which is likely the reason his father agreed to mind-meld with him, but Data notes that Picard has always been one of his models in being more human. It’s an idea that Brannon Braga, who came on to TNG as a writer in season five (hough had no hand in writing either of these episodes), seemed largely ignorant of when we wrote Vulcans on Voyager and Enterprise; Vulcans embrace logic as a choice, and so can we. They’re not robots with pointy ears.
The subtlety can get lost when you don’t have a player like Leonard Nimoy showing you how it’s done. Of course, much of what makes a Vulcan a Vulcan was Nimoy’s design, or at the very least had his input, but “Unification” is a reminder of all Nimoy brought to his signature role. In a different world, it would have been Nimoy’s swan song as Spock. Even though Star Trek VI came out a month after “Unification” aired, he filmed it last, and while it might have been in some way a contractual obligation for the actor, he still delivered with grace and nuance. The final scene where Spock melds with Picard, sharing the thoughts and memories that Sarek shared with the Captain, the expression of pain and loss swimming upstream against the Vulcan stoicism on Nimoy’s face is sublime.
In the end, “Unification” probably doesn’t make the Top 10 of Next Gen episodes, the first part is a meander of sorts in order to save Spock’s appearance till the very end so they could spread the story over two hours, and the only notable contribution to Star Trek lore that happens in the non-Romulus scenes is the introduction of Klingon opera. Still, “Unification” was the only appearance by a member of the original cast without a gimmick; Relics, with James Doohan, also had that perfect replica of the original series bridge set, and Star Trek: Generations had the death of Captain Kirk. “Unification” let Spock be Spock, and it effectively signaled that Next Gen was the heir apparent to the Trek mantle. The show’s legacy was already secure, but “Unification” said to fans that on Star Trek’s 25th birthday, it was finally okay to like the best of both worlds.
Trek Bastard is a bi-weekly column that looks at the issues, history and art of Star Trek over its first 50 years. Trek Bastard will be back on November 5.