Saturday, October 16, 2010

Star Trek's Meet The Parents Is The Superior Drama Of "Journey To Babel!"

The Good: Political plot elements, Most acting, Character elements!
The Bad: Some of the political elements.
The Basics: When Spock's parents arrive aboard the Enterprise, the crew finds themselves entangled in both personal and political conflicts in a wonderful episode of Star Trek!

Perhaps the best recommendation for a novel may come from the fact one remembers it long after they have read it. With Star Trek novels, the franchise is pretty well packed. The field has over two hundred books and many of them do not hold up well over multiple readings and, well, they're based on material from a television so, so there's a lot mixing together in the old noggin'. So it says something distinctive about the novel Federation by masters of linking all things Trek Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens that years after reading it one of the things I recall enjoying was the level of detail in the novel, specifically setting it so soon after the episode "Journey To Babel" that Captain Kirk is partially incapacitated still. It's genius that element of attention and understanding of the Star Trek universe.

"Journey To Babel" is one of the Star Trek episodes that works quite well on two different levels. There is the literal aspect to the story involving politics and the conflicts that surround Federation ambassadors over the issue of admitting more members to the Federation. There is also the fan level, which is a simple visceral level of entertainment that comes from the silly glee of meeting Spock's family!

The U.S.S. Enterprise is stuck ferrying diplomats to an important conference on the planet codenamed Babel. The issue before the various representatives of Federation planets is whether or not to admit the planet Coridan to the Federation. There are strategic reasons to have the planet admitted and one of the last representatives to be picked up by the Enterprise is the Vulcan ambassador and his wife. The Vulcan Ambassador to the Federation is Sarek, Spock's estranged father. While McCoy delights in meeting Spock's parents, Spock is anything but happy.

The situation turns from simply uncomfortable to outright tense when the Tellarite ambassador, Gav, is killed and when Kirk informs Sarek, the elder Vulcan has a heart attack. Sarek may easily be saved with a medical procedure that McCoy may perform, but he needs blood to do it and Sarek has a very rare blood type. Spock is able to perform a transfusion for his father, but when Kirk's investigation into Gav's murder gets him too close to the source, an attempt is made on his life. With Kirk incapacitated and the Enterprise pursued by a stealthy alien vessel, Spock places duty over family and refuses to relinquish command to save his father's life!

"Journey To Babel" is a wonderfully adult episode that succeeds at being both a political drama and a great family drama. There are comedic elements and despite my title, the episode is nothing like the terrible Meet The Parents. Instead, most of the comedy comes early in the episode - this is very much focused on the political and medical decisions that are central to the episode - and it comes from Dr. McCoy's eagerness to meet Spock's parents and learn all he can about Spock's childhood. As well, we discover that he cannot do the Vulcan hand salute in the episode and his commentary on it is quite amusing.

But despite having aliens that are blue skinned (Andorians) or look like pigs (Tellarites) and the sophisticated race creation of dipping a little person into gold paint (I kid not!) that makes "Journey To Babel" visually an episode that might entertain children, this is solidly an adult episode after the first act. The political elements overwhelm the episode and this is a story where the Enterprise is the victim of political espionage, as opposed to our people enacting military or political machinations! It makes for a wonderful mystery laced with intrigue and a great deal of violence.

What isn't political is a family story and there is something reassuring about watching Star Trek tackle the divide between fathers and sons. Spock and Sarek have serious differences and the idea of the heroes of Star Trek having less-than-smooth relationships with their parents is something not frequently tackled in the series. Indeed, there's usually only one character per series in the franchise that seems to have a rocky relationship with their parents and the only time father-son issues are so directly tackled again is in Star Trek: The Next Generation's "The Icarus Factor" where Riker's estranged father returns. But those type of conflicts are very real and they make the fantastic universe of Star Trek that much more real and intimate to the viewer as we are able to empathize with Spock over his difficulties with relating to his parents.

But this is not a frivolous bit of plot conflict, either. Sarek's disappointment in Spock and their resulting estrangement powerfully characterizes Sarek as a man of ridiculously high standards for his son. After all, by the time fans come to this episode, Spock has saved the Enterprise and the lives aboard it several times. He is cunning, heroic, and highly ethical; if he can't make the pop proud, there's something wrong with the dad! But it's exactly that type of insinuative characterization that instantly makes Sarek one of the most memorable characters to ever appear on Star Trek.

It is refreshing to see an episode where the introduction of someone as important as Sarek does not waste the character; he is a vital character and the episode is one that feels consequential (though it is never directly followed up on in Star Trek). Instead, this is not a gratuitous "here are Spock's parents" type episode, they are vital and scenes like Amanda exploding at Spock wonderfully keep the tension from the political plotline high and consistent in the parallel family plotline.

This is a wonderful episode for fleshing out the character of Spock. Where the earlier episode "Amok Time" (click here for my review!) explored the extremity of what could happen if Spock were not logical and methodical like the Spock we know and love, "Journey To Babel" is one of the few episodes where Spock is characterized by who he is rather than by the exceptions to his personality. Here, Spock is a loyal officer and we see the depth of his commitment. Spock once chose StarFleet over the life his father wanted for him, effectively choosing Starfleet over family. Here he - and his father who disapproved of that decision - exhibits the consequences of that choice and he forces himself to live with that decision, even though it could cost his father his life. That is integrity and it works perfectly for Spock!

"Journey To Babel" is characterized by some all around wonderful acting. In fact, one of the few detractions of the episode comes in some of the least significant characters. Some of the guest actors are a little hammy and play their ambassador characters so vastly away from being remotely diplomatic that they are not at all believable. Even Jane Wyatt, who plays Spock's mother Amanda, appears a little melodramatic in a few of her scenes. The result is just enough to keep the episode from true perfection.

Mark Lenard, here in his second appearance on Star Trek, plays Sarek and he is the embodiment of the principles Vulcans are characterized as having. He is efficient, taciturn and completely logical. The result is a character that works beautifully as a believable character who could hold a grudge for decades! Lenard brings a strong sense of dignity and performance through rigid posture and unemotional body language to characterize Sarek and he does it masterfully.

The main cast of Star Trek shines in this episode, with William Shatner embodying the heroic Kirk, despite some pretty serious wounds - which Shatner plays with convincing winces. DeForest Kelley is great switching from the delighted and mocking McCoy into the efficient Doctor, a change that occurs with Kelley's strong ability to emote with his eyes, going from anger to delight in a blink.

But this is another episode that reinforces the idea of Leonard Nimoy, acting genius. Here he actually embodies perfect stoicism and unflinching logic as Spock. Playing off Lenard and Wyatt, Nimoy is given the opportunity to stand beside performers of - at least - equal caliber and he holds his own with strength and the consistency of performance that Star Trek scripts rarely demand of Nimoy. Here Nimoy creates a very realistic character conflict without presenting an even remotely conflicted performance!

"Journey To Babel" is a very memorable episode and it remains one of the best political and family dramas Star Trek ever produced, and it remains easily accessible to fans of either of those type stories. In other words, it is not just science fiction fans who will enjoy this episode! It's a worthwhile addition to the collection of anyone who likes great drama and political stories!

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek - The Complete Second Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the second season by clicking here!


For other Star Trek reviews, please visit my index page!

© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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