Hello, and welcome to ‘Final Frontier Fridays’, a new regular feature on ScienceFiction.com! If you’re a regular reader, you might remember an article we ran for the fiftieth anniversary of ‘Star Trek’ back in September. In that article, I took a retrospective look at ‘The Man Trap’, which included a review and some background on the episode.
Based on the feedback we received on that article, we’re reviving it as a biweekly column. Every two weeks, we’ll take a similar look back at an episode of ‘Star Trek’. It would be any episode from any ‘Star Trek’ series.
Just in case the title of the article didn’t already kill the suspense, the inaugural installment of ‘Final Frontier Fridays’ will be looking at the episode ‘Journey to Babel’ from the second season of the original series.
Written by D.C. Fontana, the episode developed out of a desire to introduce Spock’s parents, following a number of passing references that had been sprinkled throughout the first season. This was particularly inspired, according to Fontana, by a line in ‘This Side of Paradise’, which established Spock’s father as an ambassador and his mother as a teacher.
But the firsts weren’t just limited to Sarek and Amanda. ‘Journey to Babel’ also featured the first appearance of several species that would become staples of the ‘Star Trek’ mythos. I’m mainly referring the Andorians and Tellarites here. Though they quickly became embedded in the popular consciousness of ‘Star Trek’ fandom, this would mark the only substantive appearance of both the Andorians and Tellarites (barring the occasional background character) until the run of ‘Star Trek: Enterprise’, nearly forty years later.
It was also one of the first episodes to give a real sense of scale to the Federation. While the Federation had been well established as an idea by this point, it was unusual for it to be represented through anything other than a passing bureaucrat written specifically to antagonize Kirk.
As the episode begins, the Enterprise is escorting a group of diplomats to the neutral planet Babel to debate the contentious question of whether or not to admit Coridan to the Federation. Among the delegates are Spock’s father, Ambassador Sarek and his human wife Amanda Grayson. The tensions, both between the various delegates and between Spock and his father, are apparent right from the start. Meanwhile, the bridge first detects a mysterious signal and then an unidentified ship that trails the Enterprise at the limits of sensor range.
When the Tellarite Ambassador Gav is found murdered, the nature of his injuries (and a prior confrontation between the two) causes suspicion to fall on Sarek. However, he collapses of a heart attack when questioned. The timing of previous attacks exonerates Sarek of the murder, but his condition forces him to remain in sickbay. Spock and McCoy determine that Sarek’s best chance lies in a combination of an experimental drug and a blood transfusion from Spock. But as they prepare the procedure, Kirk is attacked by Thelev, a member of the Andorian delegation. The Captain’s injuries force Spock to take command, delaying Sarek’s operation.
Upon regaining consciousness, Kirk returns to the bridge, intending to stay just long enough to convince Spock to begin the operation. But no sooner do the turbolift doors close behind Spock than the mystery ship attacks, forcing Kirk to remain in command and complicating the surgery. In the brig, Thelev attacks a guard, leading to the revelation that he and the alien vessel are Orions, on a covert mission (which soon becomes a suicide mission) to prevent the Coridan admission.
With the ship safe and the surgery successful, we see the beginning of a reconciliation between Spock and Sarek. Kirk begrudgingly returns to sickbay as the episode ends with McCoy’s pleasure at realizing that he “finally got the last word.”
Cards on the table, this has always been one of my favorite episodes (I previously listed it as a “no holds barred classic” in my review of ‘The Man Trap’), and considering it was written by D.C. Fontana, that’s hardly a surprise. Fontana either wrote or story edited some of the finest hours of the original ‘Star Trek’, and demonstrated a particular knack for writing all things Vulcan. If you have even a passing interest in ‘Star Trek’, this one is essential viewing.
The presence of the various aliens gives the episode and undeniable “cantina scene appeal”. But as fun as it always is to watch the show strain at the limits of both its imagination and budget, the real highlight of the story is the drama surrounding the presence of a certain Vulcan Ambassador.
As developed not only by Fontana but by Leonard Nimoy and Mark Lenard, the relationship between Spock and Sarek has always been one of the richer ones in ‘Star Trek’. The depth and complexity with which it was invested from the start would continue to pay dividends some twenty-five years later, when the two Vulcans made their final appearances on ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’.
Given that the episode was built on the idea of finally meeting these characters, it’s only fitting that Sarek and Amanda (played by Mark Lenard and Jane Wyatt, respectively) should prove to be the highlights of the episode. Notably, this is actually Mark Lenard’s second appearance on the series, having previously played the Romulan commander in last season’s ‘Balance of Terror’. And anyone who is familiar with that episode will know exactly why Lenard was by all accounts, Gene Roddenberry’s first choice to play Spock’s father.
Arguably the best scene of the episode comes when Spock, torn between his duty to the ship and to his family, is confronted by Amanda, who implores him as only a mother can to relinquish command. It’s an emotional scene that ends with Amanda slapping her son and storming out of the room. As her desperation carries the scene from one emotional beat to the next, we are reminded of just how much Nimoy was able to convey with so little outward expression.
Though it may not have the same emotional resonance as the scene between Spock and Amanda, I can’t in good conscience bring this column to a close without giving a nod to what may be my favorite moment in the episode. That would be McCoy’s delight at learning of Spock’s childhood pet sehlat, a Vulcan animal describes as a “fat teddy bear.” Of course, as Spock is keen to remind the good doctor, “On Vulcan, the teddy bears are alive. And they have six inch fangs.”
What are your thoughts on ‘Journey to Babel’? Are there any episodes you’d like to see me cover in the future? Sound off in the comments, and I’ll see you in two weeks!