4 years, 9 months ago
Last time on Star Trek: The Next Generation
“It's almost facile, trivial, in fact, to read “Unification”. The fandom narrative is both obvious and trite: The unification of Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation, or to be more precise, their fans. Collectively the first and second parts of a three-part 25th Anniversary gala celebration that will heal once and for all the acrimonious rift in Star Trek fandom that has existed since 1986, or so the story goes. In truth, this is all merely comforting platitudes designed to hide a reality deeply uncomfortable to Trekkers; that there is no such thing as a Star Trek fan. There are only fans of specific incarnations and philosophies of the meta-work, something that the looming premier of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is only going to highlight all the more starkly."
“And sure, Sarek has an incredibly memorable scene with Captain Picard, but all that does is reinforce the Captain's position in the narrative: It sets up that Jean-Luc is someone Sarek has a history with and is close enough with that he'll have him near while his mental faculties are slipping away from him. Indeed, we even learn that Sarek and Jean-Luc had mind-melded at one point, a fact that is left, like the rest of their relationship (and so much about the new show's backstory) to our imaginations in the negative space of the narrative ether.
(The scene itself, I might add, really is a triumph. It's a lot more brightly lit than I remember, though: My memories of this exchange always cast it in very stark shadow, something very much akin to “Lonely Among Us”, or even “The Empath” from the Original Series. I guess it's the combined effect of the detail revealed by the Blu-ray restoration and the fact I no longer watch Star Trek: The Next Generation on a hulking 1980s CRT TV. I think I'll still remember it that way though.)
With all that said, perhaps you'll forgive me that in a two-part story that explicitly invokes the Original Series with guest appearances from two prominent characters from that show that the most memorable part of this episode for me personally is actually the B-plot involving staking out a space junkyard.”
And now, the conclusion...
Of the two “Unification” halves, this is the one my memory tends to shortchange the most. Pretty much all of the moments from this story that are personally iconic and resonant for me hail from part 1, while this one I always seem to remember as being an extended runaround to make Spock look awesome. That turns out to not be the case at all, however: “Unification II” is one of the most sophisticated and nuanced stories Star Trek: The Next Generation
has done in a very long time and certainly earns the classic status is accrues along with its predecessor.
There's obviously a fair share of memorable moments here too. Commander Sela is a big one for me, naturally, and we'll get to her a little later down. But what actually stood out to me the most immediately was Worf and Commander Riker chatting with a four-armed house musician at an alien bar for information about her (now deceased) ex-husband's role in weapons smuggling. That description makes it sound so stolid and serious, but it's anything but: A charming little series of comedic vignettes and interludes that end up masterfully woven back into the big Romulan story. It's a succession of scenes I'd almost forgotten about, but seeing them again put a big smile on my face as I remembered how much I loved this part of the episode. Like the bit in the space junkyard last time, this is another B-plot I'd managed to convince myself was the A-plot of an entirely different episode, one much later in the show's run. I think it's because the Enterprise
crew always seemed to be hitting up interstellar dive bars for information and local colour later in the series, and this was one of the first stories of that type, so it stands out to me. It's also just a lot of fun.
We of course must talk about Spock. The story thread of reunifying the Vulcans and Romulans, or otherwise seeking a diegetic end to the Romulan/Federation Cold War, that gets introduced here is one that casts quite a bit of a shadow over the rest of Star Trek: The Next Generation
. It becomes, in a sense, the sort of endgame goal for the 24th Century Star Trek universe as envisioned by the upcoming class of Star Trek fans and writers. Which is important to take note of as, near as I can tell, that's just about the exact opposite of what the actual text is trying to say.
I think the key to uncovering the reasoning for this lies, as so much of the Star Trek historical narrative does nowadays, in the franchise's own generation gap (or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say the divide between the kind of Star Trek fan currently writing the show and its historical narrative and the people actually watching it). Namely that Original Series fans, or rather a certain *sort* of Original Series fan, is going to immediately want to side with Spock at face value. He is, after all, Spock: He's the character we all know, love and grew up with coming back for another go in the spotlight. Thusly, we read “Unification” as Spock passing the torch to The Next Generation and conferring his blessing to it, Captain Picard and company just playing supporting roles and catch-up to what our old friend has been up to these past few years.
Well...Not all of us. Remember, not everyone grew up with Spock and his crew. Remember who our heroes are. Remember who's show this is. And remember who's writing this teleplay.
While “Unification” is most certainly Spock's story, the role he plays in this episode is not the one Original Series fans like to project onto it. And Captain Picard is not Spock's heir apparent-His role is far more intriguing and nuanced than that. The actual truth of “Unification” is that Spock is not actually unambiguously in the right here: His mission to Romulus is not a fool's errand to be sure, but it is one he's undertaking for reasons that are not entirely in the best interests of material social progress for all parties involved. And it's Captain Picard and Data who prompt him to realise this, to understand that, whether or not he's consciously aware this is what he's doing, he's projecting his own perspective and positionality onto the galacticopolitical structure of the Alpha Quadrant.
Spock sees the split between the Vulcans and the Romulans as an extension of his own dual heritage, and his solution is to approach it the same way he did his own life: Choosing the Vulcan path. The key scene is when Data confronts him onboard K'Vada's Bird-of-Prey: Spock admires Data for his total lack of emotional hangups, but Data points out that, because he is half human but has chosen a Vulcan way of life, Spock has effectively forsaken the very thing Data has dedicated his life towards attaining. And Spock doesn't have a comeback (note also the contrasting ways the two compliment Captain Picard: Spock praises his analytical nature as "almost Vulcan-like", while Data sees his warmth and humanity as a role model to emulate).
In his more lucid moments Spock recognises that his people have as much to learn from the Romulans as they do from the Vulcans and he certainly appreciates that passion and sensuality have their place. But he still thinks people should be ruled by strict logic and rationality on the whole, and his general attitude towards the Romulans isn't one of, say, an anthropologist or a traveller (who would explicitly acknowledge that both parties can learn from and teach one another) as much as it is one of a Vulcan missionary
. Spock keeps talking about how the Romulans must be ready to turn back to a Vulcan way of life they wrongfully abandoned, and speaks of Vulcan language and history as if it's some Great Truth the straying Romulans have forgotten as they've lost their way. This is absolutely the way Spock, who has had a quite extensive amount of experience with Romulan passion yet who still clings fiercely to the Vulcan path he has chosen, would approach “reunification”. But this is not the path for everyone.
This is where Sela comes in and why it's so important that she be the antagonist for this story. While it's definitely true she's way more of a stock Evil Vampy Space Queen Villainess this time around when compared to “Redemption II” (where she was a more fleshed out and realised character-Captain Picard's equal and opposite) and the criticism her role could have been played by any generic Romulan Commander holds water, she still works and “Unification” needs her to be truly effective. Here's why: Her hilariously overblown plan to invade Vulcan aside, Sela is actually right
. Her key line comes when she's explaining her Evil Plan to Picard, Data and Spock in her office right after Spock refuses to deliver her speech, to which she replies “I hate Vulcans. I hate the logic, I hate the arrogance.” It's a blistering attack that flies right in the face of what Star Trek fans like to think the Vulcans are like, Denise Crosby gets to deliver it straight to Leonard Nimoy's face and it absolutely sticks. Sela is right. The Vulcans are
The Vulcans are not necessarily Scientistic in the traditional sense as they seem to value art and philosophy quite highly while the likes of Richard Dawkins and Neil deGrasse Tyson think such endeavours are a waste of human mind productivity. But their fixation on logic and rationality will push them closer to that end of the spectrum than not. Logic can be a useful tool in certain situations, but it's not the sort of thing you can build an entire worldview around. As for “rationality”...As far as I'm concerned that's a dirty word considering how it apparently can mean whatever the hegemony happens to think is the correct, sanctioned and approved way of thinking. Certainly, logic and rationality have been used to excuse some truly hateful acts.
In We Have Never Been Modern
, Bruno Latour further points out (through a handy visual diagram) how criticisms of “irrationality” only crop up at the boundaries between different knowledge networks: In other words, only when one worldview can't understand another. I'd extrapolate by saying this tends to happen most frequently with marginalised and oppressed groups: The amount of times women have been described as “irrational” is something I'd rather not think about. And let's not forget “Amok Time” either: Our first big look into Vulcan culture depicted them as fairly ruthless xenophobes, a thread the more perceptive Star Trek writers will not overlook. And D.C. Fontana herself explicitly had Vulcan society described as “patriarchal” in “Journey to Babel”.
So it's incredibly pointed and appropriate that Sela, who is herself half-human just like Spock, but who is an expatriot to Roumlan society, be the one to deliver this condemnation. Dating back to their first appearance in the Original Series, the Romulans have always served as examples of another path the show's heroes, namely Spock, could have taken. In “Balance of Terror”, they're Earth's mirror images, and in “The Enterprise
Incident” they show up to cause Kirk and Spock to question their loyalties and motivations by putting a face to the supposed enemy. For Spock in particular, they serve to remind him of the value of aesthetics and sensuality. And so even though she's technically the villain and certainly behaves in a more Black Hat manner, this is the role Sela plays here. Because Spock is not immune to those Vulcan tendencies either (he is, after all, acting like a missionary), and she's the only one who can properly call him out on it.
(And it helps that even here Sela remains so sympathetic. She's no philistine: She's polite, she's hospitable, she's cultured, she's a writer and she's just as intellectual as Spock in her own way. And Denise Crosby continues to just bring every ounce of charm and likability she has to the role.)
There's also the simple fact Denise Crosby *had* to be here, considering this is the 25th Anniversary special and Star Trek: The Next Generation
is the host show. It just wouldn't be right to dismiss her contributions. That said, her subplot certainly ends ignominiously with her slumped on the floor from a Vulcan Nerve Pinch by *Data* of all people. It's a more than a little uncomfortable reminder of the last time a Denise Crosby character left the series. She'll be back for “All Good Things...” as Tasha of course, but it's almost more upsetting to see a character as strong as Sela go out this way. Thankfully, while this may be Sela's last appearance in Star Trek: The Next Generation
(for some inexplicable reason), this is not Sela's final bow in Star Trek: At the other end of the decade she'll get a story all to herself to show just how awesome she really is.
The ultimate takeaway from “Unification” is to remember that it's a Star Trek: The Next Generation
story. That means that Spock is a representative of the Old Generation, just like Lwaxana Troi was in “Half a Life” last year. And so we may like him, respect his legacy and everything he did, but that doesn't mean he's above questioning or that his judgment is beyond reproach. And this is, in the end, what Captain Picard reminds him of: As he points out on a number of occasions, he's not Sarek (even though he understands him) and is speaking for himself. He speaks for Star Trek: The Next Generation
and its fans who, detached from the myopic gaze of Original Series fandom, are in a position to look far more critically and richly at everything Star Trek has become 25 years in.
And just like everyone else who has visited with the crew of the USS Enterprise
NCC-1701-D, Spock leaves “Unification” a better person than when he entered it. As do we all.
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