Star Trek Re-Watch: “Journey to Babel”

“Journey to Babel”
Written by D.C. Fontana
Directed by Joseph Pevney

Season 2, Episode 10
Production episode: 2×15
Original air date: November 17, 1967
Star date: 3842.3

Mission Summary:
Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy are putting the finishing touches on their dress uniforms as the U.S.S. Enterprise arrives at Vulcan to pick up a delegation of ambassadors. These delegates from across the Federation are headed for a neutral planet code-named “Babel.” The planet Coridan, a small, poorly defended world rich in dilithium, has petitioned the Federation for admission, and a conference is being held to discuss their application. Tensions are already startlingly high when the Vulcan party comes aboard, lead by Ambassador Sarek, the Vulcan ambassador to Earth, joined by his human wife Amanda. Spock, in a charming moment, tries to teach Dr. McCoy how to do the proper salute but McCoy’s attempts are utter failures.

Sarek greets Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy warmly (for a Vulcan…), but turns a cold shoulder to Spock. The captain is a little perplexed but shrugs it off and offers to have Mr. Spock take him for a tour of the ship. The ambassador immediately declines the offer. Awkwardly, Kirk invites Mr. Spock to visit his parents while they are in orbit around Vulcan.

SPOCK: Captain, Ambassador Sarek and his wife are my parents.

Ouch, awkward! Too bad Kirk didn’t actually read Mr. Spock’s personnel file.

Kirk decides to lead Sarek’s tour himself and brings him and his wife to engineering where Spock is working. Mrs. Sarek lingers behind her husband to catch a word with Spock. She’s disappointed that he has not visited in four years, but when Sarek notices her, he commands her to join him at his side. He’s kind of pushy. Kirk again tries to show off the competency of Spock by asking him to explain the ship’s engineering computers—but Sarek explains that he taught Spock about computers, and Spock wasted that knowledge by joining Starfleet instead of the Vulcan Science Academy. He then turns and leaves, telling Kirk to finish the tour with only his wife.

Frustrated, the captain tells Mrs. Sarek that he cannot understand Sarek’s behavior, and Amanda gives us a little bit of insight into her son:

AMANDA: You don’t understand the Vulcan way, Captain. It’s logical. It’s a better way than ours. But it’s not easy. It has kept Spock and Sarek from speaking as father and son for eighteen years.
KIRK: Spock is my best officer, and my friend.
AMANDA: I’m glad he has such a friend. It hasn’t been easy on Spock. Neither human nor Vulcan. At home nowhere except Starfleet.

But before he can learn anything more, Kirk receives a page from Uhura, who tells him that an indecipherable signal is being sent to someone on the Enterprise.

Later, at the ambassadors’ buffet table, we get our first glimpse of two new and important races: the Andorians, blue and antennaed, and the Tellurites, pig-faced and aggressive. The Tellurite ambassador Gav confronts Sarek directly with demands to know how he will vote on the Coridan petition. Sarek and Kirk deflect his comments, but it’s clear that the Enterprise must arrive soon, before something terrible happens. Dr. McCoy has other questions on his mind, and he asks Amanda for some juicy tidbits to use against Spock:

MCCOY: Spock, I’ve always suspected that you were a little more human than you let on. Mrs. Sarek, I know about the rigorous training of the Vulcan youth, but tell me, did he ever run and play like the human children, even in secret?
AMANDA: Well, he, he did have a pet sehlat he was very fond of.
MCCOY: Sehlat?
AMANDA: It’s sort of a fat teddy bear.

I knew it! Sehlats, however, are unlike teddy bears in that they are alive and have six-inch fangs. I bet it’s still cute.

From the bridge, Chekov informs the captain that an unidentified vessel has approached the Enterprise. Don’t worry, we’ll get back to this.

Close quarters aren’t doing much to help the diplomatic situation, external threat or not, and things finally bubble over. We get a glimpse of Sarek dropping something into his own drink just as Gav approaches him and renews his demands for an answer. Sarek acknowledges that Gav will not wait for the council meeting and reveals that the Vulcans favor admission into the Federation. Furious, Gav attacks Sarek, who easily repels him. But Kirk breaks up the fight, and Gav threatens “payment” for Sarek’s “slander” before skulking away.

It seems that Gav has overdrafted, though, and not much later he is found dead and stuffed into a Jeffries tube. Ouch.

Dr. McCoy finds that his neck was broken with extreme precision, and Spock offers that only a Vulcan would know how to do that, implicitly recommending his own father as a suspect. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy seek him out in his quarters but find only Amanda, who says that he has been in private meditation. When Sarek returns he confirms her story, but admits that he is a logical suspect. Just then, he collapses in pain. McCoy’s limited understanding of Vulcan physiology tells him only that Sarek has suffered a cardiovascular episode, and they move him to sickbay.

In sickbay Sarek reveals that this is the fourth of his episodes—what are essentially heart attacks. Amanda is taken aback that he never shared with her, but there are more pressing things at hand. Sarek may need surgery, but to survive it he would need an incredible amount of compatible blood. None is available in the Federation blood bank (what, are delegates from Transylvania aboard?), but Spock is a match. The amount of blood required is too much of one person, though, and McCoy tries to find another way to save Sarek. But Spock volunteers for an experimental drug that will increase his blood production, allowing him to generate enough blood to save his father’s life if surgery becomes necessary. McCoy is skeptical, and doubtful of his own abilities given his inexperience with Vulcans, but Spock insists that it is the only logical thing to do.

Meanwhile, we get what has been sorely lacking these past few episodes: man-fighting! Fully clothed, alas. Captain Kirk and an Andorian wrestle in the corridor in a splendidly choreographed sequence. Kirk is clearly the stronger opponent, but the Andorian pulls a knife and stabs Kirk in the back. Kirk is able to kick him unconscious and call for help before collapsing to the floor.

Kirk is totally incapacitated, and Spock takes command of the ship. It is at this moment that Sarek takes a turn for the worst. McCoy can wait no longer—he must operate or the ambassador will die. But Spock refuses to provide blood for the transfusion, arguing that with the captain incapacitated his first responsibility is to the ship, and that he must do what his duty demands: interrogate the Andorian and lead the crew through this crisis. McCoy vehemently objects, but Spock will hear nothing of it and heads to the brig.

He questions both the prisoner (who looks positively sullen) and the other Andorian aboard, who knows little about his aide. But Spock knows that the murder, the unidentified vessel, and the attack on the captain must be related.

SHRAS: You suggest a plot. How could it profit us to harm the captain?
SPOCK: I do not know. There is no logic in Thelev’s attack upon the captain. There is no logic in Gav’s murder.
SHRAS: Perhaps you should forget logic and devote yourself to motivations of passion or gain. Those are reasons for murder.

Back in his quarters, Spock is visited by his mother Amanda, who pleads with him to turn command over to someone else and help his dying father. She argues that nothing is as important as his father’s life, and that his duty is to his father. But Spock is committed. Crying, she tells him that if he does not help his father she will hate him for the rest of her life. Spock remains unmoved, and she slaps him before storming off.

Kirk awakens in sickbay and McCoy explains the situation with Sarek and Spock’s refusal to help him. Kirk is not surprised, but knows he must do something to save both his ship and the ambassador. He convinces the doctor to help him pretend that he has recovered—or at least pretend enough to convince Spock to go through with the procedure, so that Kirk can then turn over command and recover in his quarters.

The ruse works, and Spock begins the procedure. But before he goes under he realizes something about the alien ship! Ah, too late. Kirk will have to figure it out on his own.

The Andorian prisoner attempts to escape the brig, and security subdues him with a stun. But when he collapses one of his antennas breaks off, revealing a receiver! The Enterprise comes under fire from the unknown ship, and Kirk realizes that his place is on the bridge. He sends for the prisoner and tries to maintain control as the Enterprise is assaulted left and right by this alien vessel. Meanwhile McCoy is trying to keep a steady hand as sickbay’s power goes out and they get tossed around with each incoming hit. Having used up auxiliary power, Kirk has only one trick left up his sleeve. He redirects all power to make it appear that the Enterprise is dead in the water, luring the alien ship. When it is within range he orders his crew to fire all phasers, incapacitating it. They are safe, and Sarek’s surgery is completed.

Uhura opens hailing frequencies to allow them to surrender, but the alien ship explodes before their eyes. The “Andorian” prisoner explains that their orders were to self-destruct—as were his own. He collapses in the arms of two security guards. Kirk finally collapses and is taken to sickbay.

There, Spock and Sarek are recovering nicely, and Spock tells the captain that they will find the “Andorian” to have been an Orion. The Orions, had they suceeded, would have been in the perfect position to shrift Coridan of its dilithium. Kirk thanks Spock for his help, and for his generosity, and Amanda asks Sarek to thank his son for what he did:

SAREK: Spock acted in the only logical manner open to him. One does not thank logic, Amanda.
AMANDA: Logic, logic! I’m sick to death of logic. Do you want to know how I feel about your logic?
SPOCK: Emotional, isn’t she?
SAREK: She has always been that way.
SPOCK: Indeed? Why did you marry her?
SAREK: At the time, it seemed the logical thing to do.

Isn’t it cute when men bond over silly, irrational women?

Spock offers to return to duty, but Dr. McCoy demands that both he and the captain remain in sickbay until they are fully recovered. He delights in his power over them:

KIRK: Doctor McCoy, I believe you’re enjoying all this.
SPOCK: Indeed, Captain. I’ve never seen him look so happy.
MCCOY: Shut up. (to Kirk) Shh. Shh! (to camera) Well, what do you know? I finally got the last word.

Along with “Amok Time,” “Journey to Babel” sheds a little bit more light on Spock and his culture. We learn of Spock’s alienation from his father, who is a respected ambassador; that this alienation stems from his rejection of the Vulcan Science Academy in favor of Starfleet; that he is reasonably close to his human mother, who bears so much affection for him; that he was tormented as a child and does not feel at home anywhere but Starfleet; and that Spock has to practice very hard to suppress the human side of him. What’s brilliant about this episode isn’t that it tells you all these things, but that it shows you all these things through little touches and a fantastic performance from Mark Lenard.

Lenard is really outstanding here. He’s able to convey with a blank face everything from amusing irritation (to Gav), to silent pride and love (to Spock). I think my favorite scenes were perhaps those of his with Amanda. His gesture of love, the two fingers touching two fingers, has a tenderness that betrays his unemotional exterior. And when she says she loves him, as illogical as it is, he smiles—something Amanda notes that Spock hasn’t learned to do. His anger (irritation?) at Amanda for humiliating Spock with the teddy bear bit (again, awesome!) isn’t anger but instead concern and care for his son’s reputation. He loves Spock, and it seems that only pride (very human, of course) has kept them apart. I think this episode goes a long way to explaining the Romulans, because we see clearly that Vulcans are capable of passionate emotion, but, as Spock explains, have chosen a philosophy and lifestyle that is perceived to be superior.

Father and son are not so different: I like that when Spock learns of the murder of Gav he remarks with his trademark “Interesting,” and when they confront Sarek with the news he, too, says only “Interesting.” Sarek cracks the same kinds of jokes as Spock, if you can call their unusual form of dry comeback joking (GAV: “I must speak to you!” SAREK (almost with resignation): “It seems unavoidable.”). And they reunite in the end by teasing the woman they both (admittedly or not) love. It’s clear by Spock’s incredible willingness to risk his life that he loves his father, a very human feeling; but that love is not stronger than his oath of command, and it’s his Vulcan, logical side on display for that bit of ridiculousness. (Phil Farrand in the Nitpicker’s Guide and Allan Asherman in The Star Trek Compendium both hypothesize that Spock’s ultra-Vulcan performance here is an attempt to impress his father. I like this interpretation and certainly think it has an element of truth to it, but I also think it’s more sincere than that.)

The final confrontation between Amanda and Spock is heartbreaking and perfect. She is so desperate to see some part of herself within her son, to feel connected to him somehow, and to get him to acknowledge that all that she represents—emotion, love, humanity, and passion—are meaningful to him somehow. It doesn’t work, because it wouldn’t, and I was shocked and impressed that the show didn’t devolve into sentimentality there.

I have two complaints that, given the rest of the episode, seem kind of trivial, but they did bother me. First, I don’t buy that Spock wouldn’t save his father under the circumstances presented. Sarek is clearly a very important ambassador and I think his death would have consequences that Spock couldn’t ignore as a commander. Moreover, he doesn’t make a compelling argument for why anyone else can’t command. Kirk himself agrees to do so immediately (he doesn’t, of course, but I chalk that up to the fact that once you get on the bridge it’s hard to pry yourself away). Second, the plot of the story hinges entirely on the right people being incapacitated at the right time. Sarek, Spock, Kirk. Each piece falls like a domino and I had to ignore the contrivance of it all.

Also of note: this is the first time we see the Andorians and the Tellurites, who, with the Vulcans and the Humans, founded the Federation of Planets. I’ve seen Andorians in the spin-off series but this was my first look at them in the original. They look GOOD. Fantastic, really. I was very impressed with their makeup. The Tellurites, though? Easily the worst-looking aliens we’ve seen so far in the original series. (Yes, yes, Season 3 is before me—I said so far).

The good news is that it looks like we’re getting back on track with the real reason we’re all here: half-naked man-fighting! It was fully clothed this time, but I’m hoping for some wardrobe malfunctions in the coming episodes. It’s only logical.

Torie’s Rating: Warp Factor 5 (on a scale of 1-6)

Eugene Myers: I think a lot of fans probably identify this episode as “the one with Spock’s dad.” The introduction of Sarek is definitely significant, but I was surprised at how many other things are going on in this episode. So many things. I knew there were a bunch of diplomats involved, but I mistakenly placed the events at an off-ship conference, never mind that they’re obviously on a journey to Babel. I vaguely recalled Sarek being implicated in a murder investigation, but I had completely forgotten the fake Andorian, which is probably the other thing fans most associate with the episode. So I was intrigued by the mysteriously powerful ship tailing the Enterprise and caught up in Sarek’s illness and Spock’s moral and philosophical dilemmas.

“Journey to Babel” is one of the more popular episodes of the original series. I remember liking it a lot, but this time around I found it strangely contrived. It’s generally advisable to raise the stakes and introduce conflict and complications for maximum dramatic effect, but D.C. Fontana might have pushed too far. Not only is Sarek a murder suspect, but he needs emergency heart surgery! Not only is Spock the only person who can donate blood, but he can’t because Captain Kirk is abruptly incapacitated at the worst possible time. There’s a spy on board transmitting secret communiques, and the ship’s under attack! Spock figures out what the enemy ship’s unusual power utilization curve means, but before he can tell everyone the secret to life, the universe, and everything, Nurse Chapel drugs him unconscious.

Any one of these plotlines could easily fill out an hour—and they have—but put them all together and the episode is crammed full of story but drained of meaning. I would have liked a quieter focus with Spock earning his father’s respect, which seemed to be the gist of it. Because we’ve seen Spock’s conflict over his mixed heritage before, it’s not particularly interesting, although at the time this episode was broadcast, that sehlat had not yet been beaten to death. Amidst all of the drama, I wanted more about the delegation’s debating over welcoming Coridan into the Federation and the complex politics involved, but much of this was unfortunately glossed over.

I was so lost throughout the episode, and frustrated that they weren’t adequately exploring the “A story” of Sarek and Amanda’s relationship with Spock, that I kept being distracted by the other flaws. Kirk didn’t do even cursory research on the Vulcan ambassador before he arrived? And why didn’t Spock mention this little detail? Obviously it was for the big reveal in the teaser, but that surprise had zero impact on me even on my first viewing, since I’d already seen Sarek in the films.

It seemed like everyone pronounced Sarek’s name differently; at one point, I swore McCoy referred to Amanda as “Mrs. Surak,” but I blame his occasional southern accent for that one. And when Kirk and the others go to question Sarek, they burst into his quarters without ringing the doorbell! Is that appropriate treatment for a diplomat and his wife, even if he’s a suspect? What if Amanda had been changing clothes or they were in the middle of something private? (Instead, we get a gratuitous topless shot of an increasingly chubby Kirk.) There was also the moment where Kirk asks Spock to explain the computer systems to Sarek, though he knows it will make his science officer uncomfortable. Maybe he’s being a jerk, or maybe he just doesn’t know how the computers work.

I hate to say it, but a lot of the Vulcan culture also rubbed me the wrong way. I bristled at how Sarek dominated Amanda, even if she took it in good spirit and explained it as the Vulcan way. “My wife, attend.” Seriously? I don’t remember him treating his second wife Perrin this way in TNG. I mean, even Kirk is offended by Sarek ordering Amanda around. And ever since seeing Vulcan mating rituals in Star Trek III, the whole finger-touching thing Vulcan couples do seems…wrong. It’s like watching Ferengi rub their ears on DS9, but at least Amanda wears a glove. I guess touching fingers is like kissing? You wouldn’t think Vulcans would be into PDA.

In addition to some slight nitpicks—the color of the ship’s phasers changed from blue to red in different scenes, McCoy’s medical scanner seems to be smoking in one shot, and Kirk keeps grabbing his left arm in pain even though he was stabbed in his lower back—there was one big disappointment for me. Instead of allowing Spock to stick by his decision or change his mind and help his father, Kirk tricks him into returning to Sickbay. Thus the resolution is about Kirk’s sacrifice instead of Spock’s. Moreover, it makes Spock seem unreasonable and illogical because Kirk is content to turn over the Bridge to Scotty, and even leaves Chekov in charge later; however, he does insist on staying when the enemy attacks.

And yet, there are a lot of terrific things in this episode. I liked seeing all the different alien races in one place, even if some of them are less convincing than others. It was great when McCoy complained about his dress uniform, a recurring theme in Star Trek, and struggled with the Vulcan salute. I loved the scene where Kirk tries to comfort Spock on the Bridge, but Spock deliberately misunderstands him. The final scene in Sickbay is brilliant, showing familial affection with playful teasing, and paralleling Spock’s blood family with his adopted one of Kirk and McCoy. The doctor’s meltdown is delightful, along with his somewhat meta comment about finally getting the last word.

Two other observations. I noticed a sign posted by the shuttlebay that read “Warning: Automatic Doors.” Uh, aren’t all the doors automatic? (Except maybe the one in Spock’s quarters.) Did someone hit the Starfleet with a frivolous lawsuit that made them post these useless warnings everywhere? Or does someone at Utopia Planitia have a cousin who makes signs?

Spock identifies the Vulcan method of breaking someone’s neck as “tal-shaya,” which means a merciful death. Is this related to the name of the Romulan secret service, the Tal Shiar, which was anything but merciful?

Eugene’s Rating: Warp Factor 4

Best Line: SPOCK: Humans smile with so little provocation.

Syndication cuts: Kirk, Spock, and McCoy walking down the corridor (how exciting!); some shots of the Galileo stock footage; a fantastic quickie shot of a bunch of redshirts tugging on their uniforms in an attempt to primp before the ambassadors; Spock discussing the alien vessel and Uhura’s attempts to contact it; the alien ship’s first flyby; a shot of the Tellarite seated in the reception area before Sarek enters; Spock explaining what the alien ship can’t be after telling Kirk that worry is a human emotion, and Uhura’s next report on the signal; a bit of Chapel walking around (but she’s so pretty!); part of the discussion about the experimental Rigelian drug; the beginning of the fight between Kirk and the “Andorian”; Spock’s log after the commercial break summarizing Kirk’s condition; Chapel calling over McCoy and the beginning of the operation; part of the alien battle, with Kirk preparing to fire torpedoes; reaction shots from Sarek’s operation; and the exchange between Kirk and Chekov about shield 4 buckling.

Trivia: In the original draft of the script, the Vulcan delegates beamed aboard the Enterprise. It turns out that they blew their whole budget on make-up for the various aliens, though (especially the Andorians, who were not only expensive but required several sets to include the stuntmen), so they had to settled for stock shuttlecraft footage from “The Galileo Seven.” The original draft also tell us that Sarek and Amanda have been married for 38 years (you can now guess Spock’s age), that Sarek was an astrophysicist before he became a politician (another common streak between them), and that Sarek’s father had been Ambassador Shariel, a famous Vulcan (which implies that perhaps Sarek wished his son to become an ambassador, because Amanda says that Sarek followed in his father’s footsteps and he wanted this for his son as well).

Miss Jane Wyatt, as she is credited, was ridiculously famous and perhaps the most illustrious person to have appeared on Star Trek, Joan Collins not withstanding. She was a huge stage star since the ’30s. She appeared in Lost Horizon and was the mother on Father Knows Best.

The actor playing the Tellurite couldn’t see anything through the small eye slits, and raised his head to try and peer out. This gave the Tellurites the impression of arrogance, which happened to be fitting. The Tantalus Device appears in McCoy’s quarters.

Other Notes: Sarek and Amanda appear again in Star Trek III, but the real appearance of note is the Next Generation episode “Sarek,” written by Peter S. Beagle. In the episode, the aging Sarek’s ability to control his emotions has been slowly eroded by a disease called Bendii syndrome. Knowing that he cannot complete a crucial negotiation without an emotional pillar, he mind-melds with Picard, who bears the emotional tidal wave of longing, regret, passion, and anger that Sarek has repressed in his life. It is an incredibly powerful episode and Lenard should’ve won an Emmy for it. It’s also one of my favorites.

Previous episode: Season 2, Episode 9 – “Metamorphosis

Next episode: Season 2, Episode 11 – “Friday’s Child.” US residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.

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About Torie Atkinson & Eugene Myers

TORIE ATKINSON is a NYC-based law student (with a focus on civil rights and economic justice), proofreader, sometime lighting designer, and former blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books. EUGENE MYERS has published short fiction in a variety of print and online zines as E.C. Myers. He is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and a member of the writing group Altered Fluid. When he isn’t watching Star Trek, he reads and writes young adult fiction. His first novel, Fair Coin, is available now from Pyr.