"Unification" tells a complicated, sprawling, ambitious story depicting much political intrigue as played out through multiple plot strands — putting on the table the possibility of major shifts among the Alpha Quadrant superpowers while in the background telling the personal stories of a few key characters. It is, in short, the sort of Trek storytelling that would become much more common on Deep Space Nine. If only I could abide how it resolves itself. This is an effort with a lot to recommend, but plenty holding it back, too.
Famed Federation Ambassador Spock has disappeared, rumored to have gone to Romulus to meet with a Romulan senator named Pardek (Malachi Throne); some whispers have even suggested Spock might have defected. Picard travels to Vulcan to talk to Sarek and gain insights into Spock's possible motives, but Sarek is in the advanced stages of a terminal mental illness. Their scene together plays like a the last discussion before the passing of a Star Trek giant — which in a way it is, as reports that Sarek has died come later in the episode.
From here, the story breaks into two strands — one in which the Enterprise under Riker's command attempts to track the origin of some debris found adrift in space that appears to be Vulcan in origin; the other in which Picard and Data take on Romulan identities and are escorted through Romulan space in a cloaked Klingon vessel. Both subplots find some low-key humor in their off-the-beaten-path environs. Riker must contend with the fussy administrator of a junkyard (Graham Jarvis), whose laconic demeanor is unsettled only by the realization that something nefarious has been going on in his junkyard — something involving several missing derelict Vulcan ships.
Meanwhile, Klingon Captain K'Vada (yes, Stephen Root) finds great amusement in sticking Picard and Data in the most uncomfortable quarters of all time. I love Picard's enthusiasm in the face of a Klingon taunt; he cheerfully refuses to give K'Vada any satisfaction for what the Klingons know are appalling accommodations. And then, of course, there's Data as a bunk mate, who has a hilarious tendency to stand in the middle of the room and stare endlessly in one direction while processing mission data — which can be unnerving if you're Picard trying to get some sleep on a metal shelf.
It's not until Picard and Data reach Romulus and we're nearly into the second part when Spock finally shows up and the political dialogue gets into full swing. Spock reveals his mission is to reunify the long-since-diverged Vulcan and Romulan worlds — something he thinks may be possible given the current political winds. Between Senator Pardek and the up-and-coming Proconsul Neral (Norman Large), Spock believes there may be an avenue to bring the conservative elements in line with a new way of thinking. But Picard is skeptical of this risky endeavor; Romulus is a place where a Federation representative is not welcome, and Spock's capture could compromise more than just his own lofty mission.
This plot unfolds amid a character-based storyline in which Spock must contend with his own past with Sarek, which appears to him now in the form of Picard, who has brought news of Sarek's death while at the same time providing a point of view that Sarek himself might have used to challenge Spock's current course of action. Sarek and Picard once shared a mind-meld — and Spock swears there's a piece of his father that now speaks through Picard — although Picard assures him his words are his own. The complexity of this relationship is intriguing, and the dialogue is especially good at capturing the voice and wisdom of Spock, who sees logic as an ally but not a constraint.
Also interesting is how "Unification" aired a mere month before Star Trek VI debuted in theaters. One of the fascinations with the Trek universe in the TNG era was how it ran concurrently with the TOS film franchise. So particularly with Star Trek VI (which shot on many of the same soundstages as TNG) you see how the Trekkian canvas unfolds simultaneously in two narratives separated by nearly 80 years of fictional time. "Unification" makes specific mention of the Khitomer accords that would be dramatized in Trek VI a month later. Spock provides a thematic link, where in both stories moving forward requires a faith that politics will somehow work out for the best.
So there's a lot of good stuff here. Somewhat less good is Riker and the Enterprise continuing to investigate the missing Vulcan ships, which leads to a Mos Eisley-like outpost that unfortunately feels like it was made on the cheap, with an alien lounge singer whose makeup design and backstory feel second-tier. Riker's run-in with a "fat Ferengi" arms dealer could've been better; Riker as the badass can be fun, but the fat Ferengi feels like too much of a pushover given his occupation.
For our heroes on Romulus, the other shoe is about to drop, because it turns out Procounsul Neral — who assures Spock he can get the senate to come along — is actually in league with our favorite paradox-child Sela to double-cross Spock and expose the underground Romulan reunification movement. It's here where "Unification," alas, steps wrong; the ending is far too disappointing for a storyline so ambitious.
Sela's plan is to turn Spock's reunification plan against the Vulcans, using the Vulcan ships she had arranged to be stolen as a convoy filled with Romulan troops that will invade Vulcan and force a reunification on her terms. All she needs is Spock to send a message that explains these ships as part of his diplomatic mission so they're granted passage. Uh-huh. When Spock refuses, she says she'll have a hologram deliver the message instead. Double uh-huh.
I must say, these plot mechanics are not at all worthy of this story — especially Sela's lengthy dialogue that essentially explains to us and the characters the entire plot. ("And I would've gotten away with it too, if it hadn't been for you meddling kids!") By explaining the plot she masterminds her own defeat. (To quote Trek VI: "Since you're all going to die anyway, why not tell you.") The ensuing trickery allowing Picard, Spock, and Data to escape is even more telling of Sela's incompetence; why aren't they locked in a cell? It's so unfortunate to see a story so ambitious implode so thoroughly and with such limited imagination.
It's also frustrating that a story of such political scope and significance ends up being, essentially, a Reset Button Plot. Picard and Data leave after Spock's failed political movement, but Spock decides to stay and toil away for when future generations might be capable of swaying more forward-thinking minds. It's an admirable notion (though, depressingly, by the time Star Trek XI rolls around, Spock will see just how well that has worked out), but I was hoping for something more status-quo-shaking in the here and now. Don't get me wrong: On balance, this is a good and worthwhile effort. But in the end, I can't escape a basic truth here, which is that I wanted to like "Unification" a lot more than I ultimately did.