Spock’s family tree is weird. Not, like, Skywalker weird–I’m relatively sure no one was impregnated by a mystical energy field–but still, people can’t seem to resist giving this guy completely random siblings. This happened first in The Final Frontier (23 years after TOS first aired) and then in Discovery (51 years after TOS aired). “Journey to Babel,” however, introduces us to a slightly higher branch of that tree: Sarek and Amanda.
Yes, friends, foes, and total strangers, it’s time for Meet the Parents: the Star Trek edition.
There will be SPOILERS for this episode and probably also the Star Trek franchise in general. You’ve been warned. (If you have not seen Star Trek, 2009, be especially warned.)
WHAT GOES DOWN, BASICALLY
The Enterprise is ferrying various alien delegates to this big deal conference. Among the delegates: Spock’s parents, Sarek and Amanda. Sarek and Spock have been estranged for 18 years, as Sarek disapproves of his son’s decision to join Starfleet. Things become even more complicated when Sarek briefly becomes the chief suspect in a murder investigation before promptly collapsing due to some cardiovascular problem. The condition is fatal, unless Spock agrees to donate blood in an extremely experimental procedure.
Spock is initially on board with this plan (in fact, it’s his plan), but things change after Kirk is badly wounded in a fight with the actual assassin, an Andorian delegate. With a murderer onboard the Enterprise, a mysterious alien ship in pursuit, and over a hundred high-ranking Federation delegates to deal with, Spock decides that he’d be in violation of his duties if he relinquished command long enough for the procedure. He refuses to consent, even if that means his father dies. However, Kirk regains consciousness and fakes being healthy long enough to get Spock to Sickbay. He plans to turn command over to Scotty; before he can, the alien ship attacks.
Things go badly for a while, but eventually Kirk outsmarts the ship, which self-destructs. The Andorian assassin kills himself, too, although he’s not actually an Andorian, but a surgically altered Orion. And Sarek makes it through his surgery, finally bonding with his son over an emotional Amanda.
I enjoyed “Journey to Babel” well enough; I just don’t know how much I actually bought it. I like the idea of the conflict here: Spock, acting in accordance with Vulcan ethics (rather than human morality) chooses his duty to Starfleet (and his crew) over the life of one man, even though that man is his father. It’s an interesting moral dilemma, though I do continue to wish that TOS could handle such dilemmas with a bit more nuance. As my sister pointed out, it just doesn’t feel like an episode of Trek if there’s not at least one confrontation where someone asks, “Don’t you FEEL something, man?”
Like, come on, dude. Are you new here, or what?
The problem I have is this: when Amanda argues that “any competent officer can command this ship,” I agree 112%. Cause sure, Spock’s summary of the situation (murder, mysterious ship, tons of badly behaved dinner guests) sounds bad. But counterpoint: the murderer has already been caught, and the alien ship–while likely up to some shady shit–hasn’t actually attacked yet. And while Spock is generally awesome, he doesn’t actually do anything in this episode that Scotty (third in command) couldn’t also do as acting captain. Maybe I’d get it if Scotty were, like, Movie Canon Scotty, where he’s much more of a bumbling comic relief type. (See again: The Final Frontier, where Scotty manages to knock himself out by walking into a goddamn bulkhead.) But in the show, at least, Mr. Scott has proven himself to be a competent character, all things considered. I quite like him, actually, except for the occasional episode where his common sense evaporates in the face of a pretty girl. (This is pretty true for most characters on this show, TBH.)
And it’s not like Spock’s decision is part of some meaningful character arc where he learns to trust his crew or something. This is meant to be logical, rational, but it doesn’t really come across that way to me. At best, his decision strikes me as arrogant; at worst, highly contrived. Which makes the whole conflict fall a little flat. While the threat is admittedly real, it’s also not necessarily immediate. And if a dude’s life hangs in the balance, especially if it’s your MC’s dad, then that threat needs to be pretty damn immediate.
First Time We’ve Encountered: oh, man, just a bunch of stuff. Spock’s parents, obviously. The fact that he was bullied as a child. The Vulcan salute. The Tellarites. The Andorians. There’s just way too much here, so let’s break some of that down.
First, it’s important to note that Sarek gets some of the best lines in the whole episode: “Threats are illogical, and payment is usually expensive,” for example. Also, this exchange:
“I would speak to you.”
“It does seem unavoidable.”
HA. It’s all in the delivery.
Unfortunately, Sarek is also kind of an asshole, which seems, well. Pretty in character, honestly, although to be fair, there’s been like three different Sareks: Mark Lenard (TOS and TNG), Ben Cross (Star Trek, 2009), and James Frain (Discovery). I knew Spock and Sarek’s relationship was strained; I did not realize (or had somehow forgotten) that this was because Sarek’s disapproval of his son’s career choices had instigated an 18-year estrangement. Sarek’s also pretty passive aggressive in this episode, refusing to return Spock’s Vulcan salute (while having no problem saluting both Kirk and Bones) and insisting that someone else act as their tour guide. In short, yeah. Sarek’s a dick.
Unfortunately, I can’t say I’m a huge fan of this Amanda, either. (I also didn’t like her in Discovery, although I did like Winona Ryder’s interpretation in Star Trek, 2009. Why is the best Amanda the one who dies? This is bullshit.) I guess she does privately try to get Sarek to admit he’s proud of his son, but she still totally stands by his dickish behavior in public. She also tells Spock that she’ll hate him forever if he doesn’t go through with the surgery (even though it puts Spock at risk, too). And she slaps him, for emphasis. Like, I’m actually on Amanda’s side in this debate, but also, absolutely fucking not?! I should probably mention, too, that Amanda and Sarek’s marriage isn’t exactly what I’d consider relationship goals. (“My wife, attend.” Seriously? Fuck this guy.)
The Vulcan salute is huge, though. It’s so ubiquitous in Trek, and its origins in Judaism are really neat. What surprises me, though, is that Vulcan finger-touching didn’t quite take off the same way in pop culture. You don’t exactly have to be a die hard Trekkie to know what fandom the Vulcan salute is from. Vulcan finger-touching, OTOH, just isn’t nearly as big. (I’ll admit the gesture itself could definitely use a better name.)
Also, Bones can’t do the Vulcan salute because he’s a loser. (I kid. I can only barely manage it with my right hand. Weirdly no trouble with the left, though.)
I don’t have much to say about the Andorians in this episode, except that the sudden cut between the “Sarek’s dying” scene and the “Kirk fisticuffs” scene is hilariously abrupt, like, the editing fail on this is ridiculous. The Tellarites, meanwhile, are hilarious because they have the most laughably terrible masks of all time, JFC.
It’s actually pretty awesome to see the various alien delegates here, with their weird plastic clothes and their delightfully colorful food. (Off topic, but why hasn’t there been a Try Not to Eat challenge with Star Trek food? There are so many different options here: plomeek soup, bloodwine, heart of targ, Deanna Troi’s perfect chocolate sundae, etc.) Admittedly, some of this looks pretty silly because, you know, super low budget in the 1960’s. Still, I genuinely like the brief glimpse we get of all these different people milling around. I only wish it actually made up a larger part of the episode.
I’m . . . genuinely not sure why they bothered making Sarek a murder suspect at all, since he collapses almost immediately and they catch the real culprit less than 10 minutes later.
Sulu Watch: alas, Sulu is not in this episode. Let us hope that he’s off screen somewhere entertaining the delegates by fencing without a shirt.
What’s Up, Uhura: awesomely, Uhura traces the signal between the alien ship and the fake Andorian assassin, although less awesomely, Kirk snaps at her for scanning too widely, or something.
Fashion Report: Oh, wow, some of the shit Amanda wears. Her first outfit is probably the weirdest, like, it’s an open, sleeveless blue robe that appears to be made out of a blanket, worn over some kind of patterned blue dress, with a Disney villain black collar and matching elbow-length gloves? I don’t even know.
Kirk made me wonder if I’ve been saying Babel wrong my entire life. In British English, it’s apparently ‘BAY-buhl,’ but in American English, both ‘BAY-buhl’ and ‘BAB-uhl’ are commonly used. (I use the latter, BTW. I can only assume this is horrifying.) Kirk also pronounces “delegate” as “dele-GATE.” That, I don’t have any fucking clue on.
Kirk insists that Starfleet only uses force as a last resort. I have several recaps now that heavily refute this statement. I also feel like, just maybe, a line of officers clutching phasers to their chests is not necessarily the welcoming approach Kirk seems to think it is.
I’m mildly amused that when Spock comes up with the idea for this dangerous, life-saving medical procedure, Bones and Amanda are wholly against it, all “No, no, you can’t, you mustn’t.” But the second Spock changes his mind, Bones and Amanda are all, “Wait, you’re willing to let your father DIE?”
I don’t know that Spock and Sarek ha-ha-bonding over Emotional Amanda quite lands for me, partially because I don’t like Sarek/Amanda here, and partially because the line “Marrying your mother was . . . logical” plays a lot better for me in Star Trek 2009. (It’s probably clear at this point, but just in case it’s not: I enjoy the holy hell out of that movie and feel no guilt about it whatsoever. Lens flare and purists be damned.) That being said, I adore the bit at the end where Bones gets to yell at both Kirk and Spock, before actually getting the last word for once. His wide grin is pretty funny.
Finally, Bones is delighted when Amanda embarrasses Spock by explaining that he had a childhood pet, something like a “fat teddy bear.” Sarek is predictably stuffy about the whole thing, because he’s the worst, but Spock gets the actual best line of the episode when he describes teddy bears as thus:
LINE OF THE EPISODE
“On Vulcan, the teddy bears are alive and they have six-inch fangs.”
(Seriously. Why isn’t this on Etsy yet? I NEED THIS TEDDY BEAR IN MY LIFE.)