Original Airdate: November 17, 1967
Writer: D. C. Fontana
Director: Joseph Pevney
“You’re showing almost Human pride in your son.”
In another classic episode from D.C. Fontana, we are granted a wonderful Spock story featuring his parents: Sarek (played by Mark Lenard, who previously appeared as the enemy Romulan in the Season 1 classic “Balance of Terror”) and Amanda (played by Jane Wyatt). Donning formal garb, the Enterprise crew is shuttling ambassadors from various planets to a neutral planetoid code-named Babel (a la the Biblical story as featured in Genesis). The Enterprise collects its final group of ambassadors from the planet Vulcan, including Ambassador Sarek and his wife Amanda, before heading to Babel for the diplomatic conference where a decision will be made whether or not to incorporate the Coridan System into the Federation.
The tone is tense. We are unsure if we can trust the Vulcans, they seem detached and suspicious, and we learn of Sarek’s personal disappointment with his son Spock’s decision to join Starfleet, rather than putting his knowledge to use in the Vulcan Science Academy. Spock has not visited his parents in four years. Meanwhile the Enterprise has gathered a remarkable mix of alien species –delegates from the planets Andoria, Tellar Prime, and Vulcan. In all, there are 114 delegates aboard the Enterprise for 2 weeks (32 of them ambassadors) and amidst grumblings from Dr. McCoy, we learn there is to be a reception held in the evening. However, these negotiations will be fraught with peril. Some are in favor of Coridan joining the Federation, but others are strongly opposed. Coridan provides a rich source of dilithium mining, but it has a low population and a lack of defenses which means it invites criminal mining activity. In the course of this debate, we meet two new and important races: the Andorians, a blue and antennae-ridden species, and the Tellarites, who are pig-faced and cantankerous. John Wheeler plays the Tellarite ambassador named Gav, and Reggie Nalder plays the Andorian ambassador named Thras.
Arguments and squabbles ensue, the Tellarite ambassador Gav is found dead with his neck broken, likely by a Vulcan (Sarek is suspected), and the Enterprise is suddenly pursued by an unknown small vessel traveling at Warp 10. On top of this, Sarek has been privately suffering from a heart condition (this is his fourth heart attack) and he requires a transplant –a risky operation that Dr. McCoy has never performed before. Meanwhile Kirk is attacked by Thelev (William O’Connell), a member of the Andorian delegation, and he barely survives after being stabbed, while Uhura discovers a transmitter message being emitted to the foreign vessel from within the Enterprise (specifically on the brig).
With treachery afoot, and everything seemingly going wrong at once, the Enterprise battles the enemy ship in deep space. Kirk relieves Spock from command by feigning perfect health (though he has been stabbed) so that Spock can heroically provide the vital transfusion in order to save his father. Is it an emotional decision? Or is Spock still the cold rationalist we know him to be? Either way, both Spock and his father claim the act is purely rational. At any rate, the imprisoned Thelev is revealed to be a spy, his antenna breaks and reveals a transmitter which has been broadcasting to the enemy ship. Kirk sets up a ruse by making the Enterprise appear to be damaged before firing a surprise phaser attack which causes the enemy to self-destruct. During the battle, Dr. McCoy and Nurse Chapel carefully operate on Spock and Sareck while the ship is violently shaken. When it ends, Thelev reveals the true plot –he and the enemy ship were intending a suicide mission in order to cause a war, thus preventing Coridan from joining the Federation and allowing the dilithium mining operation to continue. Thelev then dies from poison-induced suicide. Once awakening from his operation, Spock speculates on the matter. Perhaps Thelev was a spy with the neutral planet Orion, a planet with a deeply vested interest in preventing Coridan from joining the Federation. In the end, Spock and Sarek recover from surgery while Kirk is also sent to sickbay to recover from his stab wounds. Bones is finally given the last word as he shushes everyone else (perhaps we can read his last words in this episode as a rare moment of Star Trek breaking the fourth wall?)
While I think there are some justified criticisms of the somewhat contrived plot in “Journey To Babel,” to me this is a top tier Star Trek episode. These slow-burn episodes filled with political intrigue, diplomatic battles, and deep space war games are some of Star Trek’s best. Also the unfolding allure of Spock’s mysterious backstory (after “Amok Time”) continues to fascinate. The troubled father-son dynamic of Sarek and Spock echoes certain 1960s cultural struggles at the time. Also, in this episode we are introduced to two new alien species: the Andorians and the Tellarites –both of whom help us fill out the vast universe as a rich place filled with all manner of different creatures.
Writer Dorothea Catherine “D.C.” Fontana (1939-2019), also worked as a writer for a few different television programs prior to Star Trek, before she briefly worked as Gene Roddenberry’s secretary before becoming a writer on the show. At the age of 27, Fontana became the youngest story editor in Hollywood at the time, and she was also one of the few female staff writers. She remained a Star Trek writer until the end of the second season. Fontana had the notable distinction of being one of the few people to have worked on Star Trek: The Original Series, as well as Star Trek: The Animated Series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Of them all, Deep Space Nine was her favorite Star Trek series.
Director Joseph Pevney (1911-2008) is tied with Marc Daniels for most TOS episodes directed.
Star Trek Trivia:
- Inspired by theories of Spock’s past, writer D.C. Fontana persuaded Gene Roddenberry to consider this script. Fontana later called this her favorite episode of Star Trek that she wrote.
- Despite the fact that the various alien costumes appear crude by today’s standards, they were quite costly and made for other cost-cutting measures.
- In the original script, the Vulcans were actually beamed aboard the Enterprise. However, the episode quickly blew through its budget with all the alien make-up needed for the ambassadors. It was changed at the last minute so the Vulcans came aboard via the shuttlecraft (using stock footage from “The Galileo Seven”).
- The two-finger hand-holding between Sarek and Amanda was apparently developed by Leonard Nimoy.
- There is an amusing scene in this episode in which Spock attempts to teach Dr. McCoy how to perform the Vulcan hand salute, but he simply cannot do it. Bones says, “that hurts worse than the uniform.”
- Mark Lenard (Sarek) also played the enemy Romulan captain in the Season 1 classic “Balance of Terror.” He later reprised his role as Sarek in a couple of The Next Generation episodes and he appeared in several Star Trek films: first as a Klingon in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (1983), Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), his voice as Sarek in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991). as well as and Jane Wyatt resumed her role as Amanda in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986).
- Spock’s mother’s name “Amanda” is actually pronounced differently in Vulcan but it would be impossible for a human like Kirk to pronounce it correctly.
- In this episode Sarek identifies his age as 102.437 years old (in human years).
- Majel Barrett makes another welcome return as Nurse Chapel in this episode.
- At one point, Dr. McCoy asks Amanda (“Mrs. Sarek”) if young Spock ever ran and played like human children, to which she replies that Spock had a pet Sehlat he was fond of –sort of, a fat teddy bear, which on Vulcan means they are alive with six inch fangs.
- Spock mentions the Vulcan merciful style of killing called “Tal-shaya” when they examine Gav’s broken neck.
- Actor John Wheeler, who played ambassador Gav, had so much trouble seeing through the prosthetics over his eyes that he was forced to raise his head to see his castmates. This led to the early lore that Tellarites were all arrogant as well as belligerent and aggressive
- This is the first time we see the Andorians and the Tellarites, who founded the Federation of Planets with the Vulcans and the Humans.