Star Trek: The Next Generation Re-Watch: “Sarek”

sarek042“Sarek”
Written by Peter S. Beagle
Story by Mark Cushman and Jake Jacobs
Directed by Les Landau

Season 3, Episode 23
Original air date: May 14, 1990
Star date: 43917.4

Mission summary

Picard and Riker are giddy to be hosting a very special guest: Ambassador Sarek from Vulcan, who will be presiding over the first meeting and negotiations between the Federation and a race called the Legarans. Word is, the 202-year-old Vulcan will be retiring soon after, leaving this as the crowning achievement to an illustrious career.

The captain’s excitement at having Sarek aboard his Enterprise is deflated by Sarek’s aides, chief of staff Ki Mendrossen and an assistant, another Vulcan named Sakkath. They caution him that Sarek won’t be up for hanging out with them much on this trip after all, preferring to be left alone in his quarters. However, when Sarek and his second wife, a human named Perrin, beam aboard, the ambassador insists on inspecting the conference room immediately—despite the protestations of his wife and entourage.

When the group arrives in the conference room, Wesley and La Forge are still setting up a cozy slime pit for the Legarans. Sarek is not pleased that the room isn’t ready and seems a little high-strung.

Although Picard has already been told Sarek must be left alone, he decides to invite Perrin to a Mozart concert arranged in his honor, throwing in a little diplomatic flirting for the ambassador’s wife. She is flattered and agrees to invite Sarek, making no promises. After Picard departs, she checks in on her husband and finds he’s still having trouble meditating, and he’s a little defensive about it.

Meanwhile, back at the slime pit… Wesley’s anxious to finish up so he can go on a date with a hot young ensign.  But first, things heat up between him and La Forge, in a completely uncharacteristic and nonsexual way.

LAFORGE: What’s your hurry? You don’t really think something’s going to happen with Suzanne Dumont, do you?
WESLEY: At least I’m not spending the night with a good book like some people.
LAFORGE: What’s that supposed to mean?
WESLEY: Just what it sounds like.
LAFORGE: Let me tell you something. You’d get more action out of a good book than you’ll ever see on this date, I’ll guarantee it. She’s not going to waste her time on someone like you.
WESLEY: Someone like me?
LAFORGE: She’s way out of your league.
WESLEY: Since when did you become an expert on women?
LAFORGE: Compared to you, every male on this ship is an expert on women.
WESLEY: Well at least I don’t have to find my women on the holodeck! 

Oh, dip! But he’s not wrong…

Riker walks in just in time to stop things from escalating further, but it seems this isn’t an isolated incident; at the concert, Picard tells his first officer to find out why Worf has reported Ensign D’Amato for insubordination.

The captain is pleased when Sarek and his entourage appear at the concert after all, but the night takes a disturbing turn when the music moves the Vulcan so much that even Counselor Troi takes notice. Sakkath also shows a marked interest in his mentor, and before long Sarek actually cries and is rushed out of the room, leaving Troi and Picard strangely unsettled by the shocking public display of emotion.

The random surges of anger continue, including Dr. Crusher slapping her son without even a “Shut up, Wesley!” and culminating in a full-out brawl in Ten Forward (instigated by Chief O’Brien, naturally). When Sakkath asks Data if either Troi or Picard could take over negotiations with the Legarans — asking for a friend — the crew finally pieces together a theory.

Troi reports there have been many other similar violent incidents in the past two days — in fact, ever since Sarek came aboard. Dr. Crusher suggests that the ambassador is the cause: Perhaps he has contracted a rare Vulcan disease known as Bendii Syndrome, which causes them to lose control over their emotions, and that he is telepathically and subconsciously affecting the crew. Eventually, Sakkath spills the beans and admits that he has been holding Sarek’s mind together, but the strain of this diplomatic mission is too much for him.

Picard tries to confront Sarek, and it turns out that Perrin and Mendrossen have been shielding him from the truth for some time. Thus, the ambassador refuses to admit that he has a problem. Sakkath tells him he has been reinforcing his mind, and Sarek tells him to stop to prove that is perfectly healthy. As he argues with Captain Picard and becomes increasingly angry and illogical, it seems he is definitely not firing on all thrusters.

SAREK: Ah. I believe I see the flaw in your logic. You are reacting to their overprotective attitudes towards me. They are both somewhat emotional concerning my age.
P
ICARD: Surely Sakkath cannot be influenced by emotion?
SAREK: Am I to be blamed for the judgment of a child? Sakkath is young and inexperienced. He erred in his assumption that I needed help!
PICARD: But you needed his help at the concert. Or is there possibly some other logical explanation for what happened that night?
SAREK: What happened?
PICARD: I saw you crying.
SAREK: I do not cry.
PICARD: I was there. I saw the tears.
SAREK: You exaggerate, Captain. I recall only one tear.
PICARD: So you were emotionally affected by the music.
SAREK: That is not possible!
PICARD: You still haven’t answered my question, Sarek. Is it logical for a Vulcan to cry?
SAREK: It was late. I was fatigued. Nothing more. The Legarans trust only me. They will not meet with any other member of the Federation. I must be allowed to complete my mission! There are no other logical solutions!
PICARD: No other logical solutions? But Ambassador, there are always other solutions. You have said so yourself many times.
SAREK: What I meant was that—
PICARD: Sarek of Vulcan would never be afraid of looking straight at something he did not want to see.
SAREK: I warn you! Your efforts to discredit me will not succeed!
PICARD: Sarek of Vulcan never confused what he wanted with the truth.
SAREK: I will not be spoken to in this manner!
PICARD: Do I hear anger in your voice?
SAREK: It would be illogical for a Vulcan to show anger! It would be illogical! Illogical! Illogical! Illogical!

As the hour approaches for the meeting with the Legarans, Picard prepares to cancel the negotiations, since Sarek is in no condition to carry out his role. But Perrin offers a desperate plan that would allow her husband to complete the mission and retire with pride and dignity: a mind meld with Picard to give him emotional stability.

Sure, why not? Under supervision by Dr. Crusher, Sarek and Picard merge minds, telepathically linking them to allow the Vulcan to funnel his uncontrolled rage and despair to the captain. As the ambassador successfully negotiates with the Legarans, achieving the goal he has worked toward for ninety-three years, Picard wrestles with his pent-up emotions, in true Shakespearean fashion.

PICARD: No! It is wrong. It is wrong! A lifetime of discipline washed away, and in its place bedlam. Bedlam! I am so old. There is nothing left but dry bones and dead friends. Tired, oh so tired.
CRUSHER: It will pass, all of it. Just another hour or so. You’re doing fine. Just hold on.
PICARD: No! This weakness disgusts me! I hate it! Where is my logic? I am betrayed by desires. I want to feel. I want to feel everything. But I am a Vulcan. I must feel nothing. Give me back my control.
CRUSHER: Jean-Luc!
PICARD: Perrin. Amanda. I wanted to give you so much more. I wanted to show you such tenderness. But that is not our way. Spock, Amanda, did you know? Perrin, can you know how much I love you? I do love you! Beverly.
CRUSHER: I’m here, Jean-Luc. I’m not going anywhere.
PICARD: It’s quite difficult. The anguish of the man, the despair pouring out of him, all those feelings, the regrets. I can’t stop them… I can’t stop them. I can’t. I can’t.
CRUSHER: Don’t even try.

With all that sorted, Picard bids Sarek farewell in the transporter room.

SAREK: We shall always retain the best part of the other inside us.
PICARD: I believe I have the best part of that bargain, Ambassador. Peace and long life.
SAREK: Live long and prosper.

sarek242

Analysis

The Star Trek fan boy in me still squees mightily whenever someone from the original series makes a guest appearance on TNG. Though we had a cameo from DeForest Kelley as Admiral McCoy (one of the few bright points in the pilot), having Mark Lenard reprise his most famous Star Trek role was a special treat and it’s a joy to see him onscreen again.

And yet. Although there is much to love here and Lenard’s performance is incredible, there’s something ever so slightly off about the episode. It doesn’t feel contrived exactly, but maybe it’s a bit too carefully constructed to appeal to long-time fans of the franchise. Consider this: Why is Picard the only person who can mind meld with Sarek to help him control his emotions? Why not Counselor Troi, for instance, who must deal with other people’s emotions all the time and is actually slightly telepathic? Sarek even says no human could control his emotions, but Picard pulls the “It’s only logical” card, to convince someone who is now incredibly illogical, and so it’s settled.

Is Picard the only choice because he’s the captain of the Enterprise and arguably the star of the show? Were they already planning for him to mind meld with Spock one day? Or maybe, probably, it’s because only Patrick Stewart could display the range of conflicting emotions so masterfully — it’s a tour de force, one of the most striking and moving scenes in the series. Then there’s this clever little bit of foreshadowing that seems a little too much like a wink on this re-watch:

PICARD: Well, we’ll respect Mister Mendrossen’s request and allow Ambassador Sarek his privacy. I suppose they were foolish and vain, my expectations of this voyage. Sharing his thoughts, memories, his unique understanding of the history he’s made. 

Be careful what you wish for, Jean-Luc!

However, I think my biggest criticism is that Sarek is largely sidelined in this — he’s the focus of the episode but we don’t get to see much of him. This is a necessity of the plot, of course, but we can identify with Picard’s thwarted expectations because it’s kind of disappointing, isn’t it? If you’ve got Mark Lenard on the show, why not give him more to do? Show him negotiating or something! We end up not seeing the Sarek we remember, the brilliant diplomat. Instead, we only see him as he is at the end of his life, and it’s so depressing. And I know that’s the point, but it’s still hard to watch. And here’s this other little bit of subtlety, that clearly tells us what this episode is all about:

PICARD: It’s ironic, isn’t it? All this magnificent technology and we find ourselves still susceptible to the ravages of old age. The loss of dignity, the slow betrayal of our bodies by forces we cannot master.

Thanks for that. The idea of losing my mind, my very personality, to something like Alzheimer’s is one of my greatest fears, and this episode taps directly into that. The scene where Sarek gives in to his emotions is extremely uncomfortable. But it’s also moving, and no one would blame you if you shed a tear, or even a few.

There are some other awkward bits that stick out to me, like the Captain’s Log where Picard exposits, “We are in orbit around Vulcan, preparing to welcome aboard Federation Ambassador Sarek and his wife Perrin, who like his first wife, is from Earth.” (Emphasis mine.) Why, oh why, is that relevant? Could we not just see her and figure that out for ourselves or have it mentioned in the dialogue? Who was that meant for? The hardcore Trekkies or people who have never seen Sarek on the original series? They also take some time later in the episode to clarify that Vulcans suppress their emotions, which I suppose is necessary for newer viewers who haven’t met any significant Vulcans on TNG yet, but is spoken from one person who understands Vulcans to another who understands Vulcans.

Anyway. I mention these really minor flaws only because this episode was perfect in my mind, and it didn’t quite live up to my memory of it. It is certainly nearly perfect, especially compared to the episodes preceding it, but I don’t think the way it’s structured and the overall thin plot would not be enough to carry the story if Mark Lenard were not in it. I’m leaning toward giving this a Warp 5, but it ends on just the perfect note and left me with a smile on my face, so I’ll forgive its slight imperfections. The writers were only human, after all.

Eugene’s Rating: Warp 6 (on a scale of 1-6)

sarek186Thread Alert: No criticisms, just wanted to note that the Vulcan garb is consistent with some of the designs we’ve seen in Star Trek: The Motion Picture and since, with Sarek’s robe particularly reminiscent of Spock’s outfit in Star Trek IV. It’s interesting to see such a range of designs that all fit the culture.

Best Line: SAREK: We shall always retain the best part of the other inside us.
PICARD: I believe I have the best part of that bargain, Ambassador.

Trivia/Other Notes: The screenwriter for this episode, Peter S. Beagle, is a notable fantasy author, perhaps best known for his novel The Last Unicorn.

Ira Steven Behr and Ron Moore gave this script an uncredited rewrite. Behr added the references to Spock, breaking the taboo against mentioning the original series (despite the appearance of a character from it), and wanted to add more direct references.

Mark Lenard originated the role of Sarek in “Journey to Babel,” but his first appearance on Star Trek was as the Romulan commander in “Balance of Terror.”

Ensign Gates (Joyce Robinson) appears for the first time as one of the ship’s navigators. She will hang out in the background of another thirty-five episodes.


Previous episode: Season 3, Episode 22 – “The Most Toys.”

Next episode: Season 3, Episode 24 – “Ménage à Troi.”

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About Eugene Myers

Eugene 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. His website is at http://ecmyers.net.