Thursday, December 20, 2012

Journey To Babel

Star Trek tends to avoid family attachments, which makes Spock unique because we get to meet his parents. Apart from Sarek and Amanda the only direct family seen on screen is Kirk's brother who was already dead when he appeared in Operation - - Annihilate! It's a reflection of how television storytelling changed that by the time Star Trek: The Next Generation was broadcast it was more unusual for family not to appear. Picard's brother turned up, as did Riker's Dad, Worf's brother, Troi's mother, Data's father and brother (not bad for an android), La Forge's father, and Beverly Crusher and Wesley were of course mother and son. Tasha Yar and Doctor Pulaski are the only regular characters whose relatives don't pop in for a visit.

The downside of having family come to stay is that it's a plotline which is often used very badly to add a little emotional jeopardy to a story. The death of Kirk's brother in Operation - - Annihilate! should be the lynch pin of the script but it barely seems to register and Kirk displays more concern about Spock's blindness. Likewise the appearance of Riker's father in The Icarus Factor is the cue for a painfully generic story about grumpy Mr Riker and his son's daddy issues caused by never hearing the old man say he loved him. In the end the pair fight, and bond, and the emotional scars are healed just in time for the end of the episode when old Mr Riker leaves and is never heard from again. Of course the alternative doesn't always work either. Babylon 5's commander John Sheridan had a healthy relationship with his father but this just resulted in scenes of Sheridan going on about the wonderfulness of his dad.

D. C. Fontana's script for Journey To Babel gives Spock and Sarek a familiar father/son television relationship; Sarek disapproves of Spock's life choices and Spock wants to please his dad. The unique strength of the story is it focuses on the two characters who can never hug and admit their true feelings for each other. For an idea of how painfully this plot could have been handled just give Spock and Sarek some of the more turgid dialogue from The Icarus Factor. 

SAREK: I should have explained this to you a long time ago, but it hurt too much. Then the wall grew up between us. ... You know, it's funny. I can talk to a whole roomful of admirals about anything in the galaxy, but I can't talk to you about how I feel.
SPOCK: How do you feel?
SAREK: How do you think? I love you, son. I've got to get back to the Starbase.
SPOCK: I know. I'm glad you came.
[They embrace]
SAREK: Be careful now, okay?

Instead the pair's relationship is played out by proxy, through the reactions of the characters who can admit to feeling emotion. So we see Kirk's embarrassment at Sarek's dismissive treatment of his son, and Amanda's fury as Spock tries to hide behind logic to justify risking his father's life by delaying taking part in a medical procedure. However, just because Spock will not admit to feeling emotion doesn't mean he has no emotional needs. One of the pleasing aspects of the story is the way Spock seems to be making decisions based on what he imagines will gain Sarek's approval rather than choosing his own path; the cause of the original split between the pair. In the agreement scene with Amanda, Spock has a line which starts, “can you imagine what my father would say...” Even at a crisis point he's trying to second guess his father's reaction. Some interesting light is shone on Spock's character because while he is attempting to be more Vulcan than other Vulcans he makes a couple of silly mistakes.

Most obvious is the one Spock admits to, not recognising the Orion ship and realising it is on a suicide mission. As Kirk says to Spock, “you might have had something else on your mind.” Secondly, Spock obviously believes not informing Kirk that Ambassador Sarek is his father will demonstrate he is above such petty family ties and emotional concerns. Actually by not passing all relevant information on to his commanding officer Spock leaves Kirk looking badly prepared in front of the ambassador from Vulcan. The jury is out on whether Spock makes a third mistake in refusing to take part in McCoy's operation once Kirk is injured. “We're carrying over one hundred valuable Federation passengers. We're being pursued by an alien ship. We're subject to possible attack. There has been murder and attempted murder on board. I cannot dismiss my duties,” is Spock's summary of the situation. He's right but he fails to add that Sarek will definitely die if the operation does not begin soon. Sarek is arguably the most important of all the Federation passengers; as Gav says, “in council, his vote carries others.” Sarek's death could derail or seriously delay admission of the Coridan planets. Essentially Spock is balancing a known risk against an unknown risk. The Enterprise might not be attacked by the mystery ship. There might not be another murder among the passengers. Sarek will die.

Journey To Babel is a character piece and the relationships and interplay of the characters are skilfully handled as you would expect from the writer of This Side Of Paradise. Unfortunately the plot itself is less assured. It is fussy and overcomplicated, like the Orion plan to destabilise the negotiations by killing an ambassador and making Sarek look like a suspect and also by killing Captain Kirk, and also by destroying the Enterprise.

Journey To Babel seems to be trying to pull off the same trick as The City On The Edge Of Forever a story that packs a lot of material into its four acts. The key difference is that The City On The Edge Of Forever moves forwards in a clear, linear fashion from medical accident to alien artefact to time travel to love story and wherever the story goes it is always being driven by the search for Doctor McCoy. By contrast Journey To Babel begins by focusing on diplomatic tensions among the ambassadors, then becomes a murder mystery when Sarek becomes an obvious suspect in the death of Gav the Tellarite ambassador. Spock's 'hey my Dad could totally have murdered this dude' moment is yet another attempt to impress Sarek with his logic and dispassionate assessment, Spock must have been secretly delighted when Sarek says, “I quite agree.” However, Gav's body is barely cold before Sarek collapses and the story becomes a medical drama, and finally an Enterprise in peril story as the mystery ship which has been shadowing the Enterprise moves in to attack. By the end of the story the ambassadors have been more or less forgotten and Gav's murder is never solved; the audience is left to assume he was killed by Thelev the Orion agent but no one ever accuses him and he never confesses. What's missing is something to gell these different plots together, as the hunt for McCoy does in The City On The Edge Of Forever, the obvious candidate is the poor relationship between Spock and his father but that storyline parallels the action on board the Enterprise rather than affecting it directly.

Joseph Pevney directs and while he can't add much visual excitement to the grey corridors of the Enterprise he does create some striking images. Most obviously there's the reception with the assorted alien ambassadors rendered in a variety of different colours and styles. The scene begins with a single take following a pair of gold-painted dwarves, each wearing robes and what appears to be a knitted fez. As Kirk's captain's log fills us in on the situation the two ambassadors push their way between another pair of delegates having an animated conversation and then pass along a buffet laid with brightly coloured space food and drink, before the moving camera comes to rest on Kirk's group. Expensive prosthetics are restricted to the major alien delegates, the blue Andorians, pig-like Tellarites, and the Vulcans, and fun can be had taking a look at the extras at the back of the scene. Two men lurk behind Sarek, one with what looks a like a grey, granny bun style wig, on his head and the other bearded with his dark hair done in Pippi Longstocking braids. The scene looks like pure distilled Star Trek, and yet this is the first time we've seen a group of different aliens together like this.

The dead Tellarite hanging upside down in the Jefferies tube is another striking image; and even 45 years later congratulations are due to whichever extra, or stuntman, endured the discomfort to allow the shot to be captured. It's also a striking piece of editing by James D. Ballas, we cut straight from Gav storming out of the reception, to a stock shot of the Enterprise, to Gav hanging dead in front of the camera. Less effective is the later editing of the attack on Kirk. Cutting straight into the middle of the fight between Kirk and the Orion agent may save precious screen time but it jars very badly. and is one of the few times when Star Trek's editing becomes momentarily disorientating and draws the viewer out of the episode.

Deforest Kelly gets a good joke at the start of the episode when he asks Spock, “how does that Vulcan salute go?” After an unsuccessful attempt to duplicate Spock's hand position (“that hurts worse than the uniform”) he nods when introduced to Sarek, and then raises his hand slightly before glancing down and lowering it again.

The episode ends with Spock and Sarek's relationship apparently patched up. The earlier more frosty state of affairs presumably answers a question from
Amok Time, one that goes unnoticed among all the Vulcan weirdness on display in that episode. Why didn't Spock's parents attend his wedding

Enterprise crew deaths: None, despite the damage done by the attacking ship.
Running total: 35

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