Journey to Babel is an interesting episode of classic Trek that masquerades as a story of political intrigue, but ends up being much more of a medical drama and a view into other cultures. We’re sold the bill of goods early: the Enterprise has to transport visiting dignitaries to a conference to get a planet admitted into the Federation but some groups are not so keen on seeing that happen. Sarek, Vulcan ambassador and Spock’s father, is for admission while the pig-headed Tellerite is less keen to see it happen. But least keen of all is a hidden enemy on board the ship. But guess what? We never find out if the planet is admitted because about half way through the story, we realize that’s the method of giving the audience a “meet the parents” moment for Spock, and a chance to get a long festering dispute out of the way all in the neat form of a medical dilemma.
The Vulcan version of Meet the Parents is handled early on. We learn that Spock had a pet “teddy bear” and he has not visited his parents in 4 years (which opens up an entire thought process considering the 5 year mission: at best it’s in year 4 assuming season 3 takes place during the 5th year, or more likely, it’s in the second year and years 4 and 5 are never broadcast… unless we count the animated version. In either event, presumably Spock last visited mom and dad before Kirk takes command, which is why he never learned about the significance of who Spock’s parents were prior to this mission!) Anyway, moving on, we also learn that Sarek wanted Spock to join the Vulcan Science Academy and continue a family tradition more than he wanted to see Spock in Starfleet. (Sounds a bit emotional to me, but what do I know?) This has plagued their relationship for 18 years. We are also told that Sarek is 102 years of age and that isn’t a common retirement age; the first hint that something is wrong with Sarek. His collapse and need of a blood transfusion shifts the story from thriller to medical drama.
So the stage is set, but that doesn’t leave me without some comments on the stage design! For instance, this was the first episode I ever noticed just how high up the wall the red communications panels are. I was thinking that it’s lucky there are no short people or children on board when this very episode has 2 short, copper-skinned dignitaries. Imagine if the Andorian with the knife decided to attack them? They’d be so screwed! What would they do, leap to the button between knife swings? Speaking of them, I love how the one dude gets that colored food/fruit stuff with his hands and puts it in his buddy’s glass. Germs mustn’t be a thing in their time. Why are the fruits of the future so colorful? And when Kirk is taking his guests on a tour (does he do individual tours per species?) why is Spock hanging out in Engineering? Was he hiding thinking that’s the one place his dad was not going to go on tour? The Tellerite mask clearly doesn’t fit the actor that well, but I actually think it improved the alien because it looked so much more disturbing with the sunken eyes. Elsewhere, the doors on the Enterprise seem to know when someone actually wants to walk out as opposed to when someone just wants to walk up to their door to touch it. Very intelligent doors; I wish the door to my computer room was so crafty. Lastly, McCoy’s description of the broken neck is that it was done by an expert. Is that how assassins submit resumes? “Deadly assassin. Expert in breaking necks. Advanced skill in shooting, stabbing and garroting. Novice with poisons and boulder throwing – still attending Gorn Rock Throwing classes. Still extremely deadly! (Not like my cousin who is referred to as a moderately dangerous assassin.)” How does someone become an expert in breaking necks, and is that different than being called a murderer? Inquiring minds want to know!
I could not help but find the cut to the random fight with the Andorian quite funny (especially one of Jim’s drop kick moves), but it creates the last stage in the dilemma to make this a meaningful drama. With Kirk incapacitated, Spock will not willingly give up control of the Enterprise during a crisis to help his father. This leads to the most dramatic stuff the episode has to offer, but it’s also where the story may have done the opposite to what people generally accept of Star Trek. Trek has always been open minded, teaching us the importance of treating people as equals, and that’s not a bad thing, but this story totally fails to recognize another cultures right to choose their own path. Remember that Babylon 5 episode Believers, where Dr. Franklin disregards a family’s right to choose based on religious principles? Trek takes the grounds that a philosophical difference should be disregarded for the human way. Let’s face it: the bulk of the dilemma is around the rightness of an emotional response leading Spock to save his father. But Spock and Sarek both point out that logic is their way; they prize it above all else. This is their philosophy whether it jives with Amanda’s or not. McCoy, Kirk and Amanda may not like it, but it’s their belief and should be acknowledged. Remember the Ninth Doctor’s line in the Doctor Who episode The Unquiet Dead; he tells Rose, “It’s a different morality. Get used to it, or go home!” What is perplexing is that what drives Amanda is her emotion and she even threatens to hate her son if he does not help his father, but she clearly is missing the entire point of the Vulcan way; a way she not only should have embraced by now, but one she tells Kirk is “a better way than ours”. This philosophical dilemma is only resolved by Kirk being damned creative and proving to be a far better diplomat than he’s often given credit for being; certainly better than Dr. Franklin in Babylon 5! He figures out a way to get Spock to relinquish command and save his father, while he himself plans to give command over to Scotty, having enough faith in his chief engineer knowing he will do his best to keep everyone alive. Jim’s solution is, frankly, elegant. (Franklin’s: not so much!)
The episode is fun regardless and uses that fantastic music from The Doomsday Machine to excellent effect. I also like that we learn a bit about the much maligned Orions. (We encountered one of the slave women in the pilot, but they seem to always be off-screen.) The ending does make us laugh even though it felt like a 60’s sitcom with the comedy ending and everyone laughing together; it was not a typical dramatic ending. And McCoy is so happy to have gotten the last word, that he seems positively giddy. “Well how ‘bout that? I finally get the last word!” He sure does. Good for you, Bones. Now go order some Vulcan blood to keep handy in cases like these. Amazon Prime Directive can have stuff shipped to your shuttle bay in as little as 2 days, if you’re a member!! ML
The view from across the pond:
The Vulcans are such hypocrites. They try to make out that they are ruled by logic and that their emotions count for nothing, and my answer to that philosophy is “liar, liar, pants on fire”. In this episode Sarek turns up and is clearly in a huff with Spock. He gives him the cold shoulder, refusing to speak to him, and asks for a different guide to show him around the Enterprise. If he lives by logic, why can’t he stomach the idea of spending some time in the company of Spock, just for a tour of the Enterprise? Because he’s in a huff, that’s why.
Later in the episode, it is Spock’s turn to pretend that he is ruled by logic, when he decides that relinquishing command of the Enterprise is too high a price to pay in exchange for saving his father. Clearly he’s had enough of the old duffer, and I don’t blame him, but writer D C Fontana stops short of ever challenging all this logic nonsense, as per all Trek writers. It’s presented as an alternative way of life that makes some kind of sense, and yet it’s clearly all a big fat lie. The Vulcans are ruled by emotions just as much as we are, but they hide them, suppress their feelings and pretend they are something that they are not. It can’t be healthy.
This being the 1960s, the Vulcan logic also comes at the expense of equality. Women are clearly second class citizens in their society. Sarek orders Amanda around like a dog (“my wife, attend”), and the cute little finger holding is nothing more than a metaphorical leash. When Sarek and Spock eventually bond, it’s because they are sharing a nasty little demeaning joke about Amanda. They are bonding over both being sexist blokes. As I say, not healthy. And it pushes Amanda in the opposite direction. Living in a world with no outlet for feelings, she goes too far in the other direction, tells Spock she will hate him for the rest of her life, and then physically attacks him. But she should instead be shouldering the blame for what she and her husband did to their child. I can’t stand it when one parent stands by while the other acts in a manner that damages a child’s mental well-being. Amanda went along with all the Vulcan logic crap when Spock was a child, and she reaped what she sowed: an entirely dysfunctional family, and a child who spends his life denying 50% of who he is.
The problem is that all this is my reaction to the episode rather than issues the writer attempted to explore, and that’s the mother and father of all missed opportunities. What we have instead is a decent soap opera episode. I don’t use that as a derogatory term: soap opera storytelling can be great, but that’s what this is. The soap opera elements are paired with a fairly standard enemy-within story, with an Andorian who is not an Andorian imperilling the Enterprise, hoping to start a war and profit from it by supplying both sides. The makers of this episode overstretched themselves by trying to get so many alien races on screen. I liked the Andorians, but that was about it. We also had to suffer the Tellerites with their obvious masks (that gap between the eyes and the mask always ruins the illusion), and persons of short stature painted gold. At least the short gold gentlemen stole their scene by making their Pimms of the future right in front of the camera, drawing attention away from whatever was supposed to be going on in the background. That made me smile, but then “humans smile with so little provocation”. Maybe that’s because we allow ourselves to have loving family relationships, and don’t order our wives to follow us around touching fingers together. Call it a hunch. RP