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.
Those classical Star Trek fans, who knew everything about everything and everybody, are now so small a minority as to be statistically irrelevant. Perhaps things are beginning to swing back to the other pole these days in the age of Netflix and binge watching, but this was most certainly the state of affairs in 1991. I know this as well as I can know anything because I was there. I was fully present and entirely swept up in the Star Trek 25th Anniversary fervor. A deeply strange celebration for me personally, I should add, as I knew next to nothing about the thing that was actually turning 25, and, to be honest, I didn't much care to learn. All I knew was that the show I sat in front of the TV set transfixed by late at night was now suddenly everywhere and everyone I knew was talking about it.
We've of course established that Star Trek: The Next Generation was never a cult show, but even by its admittedly lofty standards things had definitely been kicked into high gear. Some of this is on me, as I never really talked about this sort of thing with other people (for the simple fact that I had nobody else to talk about it with: I don't mean the show was unpopular, I mean I had no neighbours and my only friends were the people I was related to). But even so, I do seem to recall that this was the first time I started to become aware of Star Trek: The Next Generation existing as kind of large-scale media phenomenon-As if from nothing, there were suddenly Star Trek: The Next Generation toys showing up on the shelves of the local five-and-dime, which filled me with equal parts delight and astonishment. This was also around the time I started to get entertainment industry magazines like Starlog, and Star Trek: The Next Generation was the only thing on anybody's mind. It felt exciting and affirmational to be a part of something that so many people clearly had so much affection for.
It probably shouldn't have come as any sort of surprise to me to discover “Unification I” is so utterly and imperiously a Star Trek: The Next Generation story. You would think a story with this kind of brief and that's this fanwanky (it's so fanwanky it even bends the space-time continuum, referencing a movie that hasn't even been made yet) is a complete shoe-in to be just the most bloated, ungainly thing imaginable. But this is as beautifully confidant and elegant a story as Star Trek: The Next Generation has ever done, and it throws no bones to Original Series loyalists just for the sake of it. Spock may be the one who sets the plot in motion, but that could just as easily have been any renegade ambassador, and that's the key to this episode's success.
Some of my favourite scenes here are actually in the beginning, when Admiral Brackett briefs Captain Picard about the situation, who in turn fills in Commander Riker about Spock and his relationship with his father. The scenes are written as exposition, as if the show was introducing some heretofore unknown bit of backstory, not a shout-out to something literally everyone watching would have been expected to know about. Jonathan Frakes even further grounds things in our world by delivering his lines in such a way as to give us a subtle reminder of Will's own strained relationship with Kyle. The exchange reminds me of nothing so much as those times when Star Trek: The Next Generation needs to do some soft worldbuilding to introduce its own diegetic historical figures, like Admiral Mark Jameson or Captain Benjamin Maxwell.
It's worth briefly pointing out here a minor narrative trick this episode pulls that will have been effaced in marathon rewatches that play this story and “Unification II” in immediate succession, as opposed to the week break that was originally intended. If you're a fan of the Original Series, then you, like Sarek, will naturally refuse to believe that Spock has defected. But that's actually a very real possibility throughout the majority of this episode: As Star Trek: The Next Generation fans, we have no reference point for Spock's loyalty. We have no idea who Senator Pardek is. Star Trek: The Next Generation has a long tradition of Federation bureaucrats and administrators secretly being heels, including one just three weeks ago, so this is really the source of a lot of the tension in part I. Us Star Trek: The Next Generation fans are with Captain Picard here, who is quite rightly suspicious.
So yes, Spock is the catalyst for the whole plot and his mission to Romulus is fraught with symbolism that's incredibly personal and specific to him, but he's only actually in this episode for like five seconds, so we'll deal with all that next time. 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. I remember beat-for-beat everything about it, from Will and Geordi poking around the debris in the cargo bay, to Will's “I don't believe this. Who does he think he is?” to Klim Dokachin at the science station and the way he says “T'Pau”, to the Enterprise in blackout mode waiting for the pirates to come back, to the actual shootout itself. Once again like “Redemption II”, this is a plot that probably could have carried an entire episode, but gets relegated to subplot status instead, where it still manages to acquit itself perfectly elegantly. It's probably why I sometimes remember it as its own episode too: This is exactly the thing I love seeing in Star Trek: The Next Generation: Our heroes pooling their talents and working together to solve a baffling space mystery with charm and aplomb.
Which is not to say the rest of “Unification I” isn't memorable, it's obviously full of iconic bits, even down to little moments like Captain Picard slapping the bed on the Klingon ship, which for some reason I remember really vividly. Then there are the brilliantly understated little comedic interludes between him and Data that make up the rest of their story, which is precisely the sort of thing I wish the show would allow itself to do a bit more often. In fact as I watched this episode, I actually found myself able to “sing along” at various points: “Sarek is dead”. “The name is Dokachin”. “He's probably right”. “And then they would have our gratitude”. “You're moving about in a very...Android-like way”. “Perhaps you should appear to enjoy your soup, sir”. “Be careful, android. Some Romulan beauty might take a liking to you. Lick that paint right off your ears”.
Oh hey, speaking of Romulan beauties...