Star Trek: Discovery And The Rise And Fall Of Sarek

Essential Star Trek Episodes To Watch Before DSC Premiere #4
  • Science Fiction
Sarek, unable to meditate.
Sarek, unable to meditate. CBS Television Distribution

As the Sept. 24 premiere of Star Trek: Discovery approaches, Player.One will profile essential episodes to watch for a better understanding of the characters, species and history informing the first Star Trek series in over a decade.

Spock’s father Sarek will be an important secondary character in Star Trek: Discovery, serving as a mentor figure to protagonist Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), the first human to attend the Vulcan Science Academy and first officer aboard the Discovery NCC-1031. Sarek’s also one of the more tragic characters in Star Trek history — a Vulcan who lost the core of his being and dies estranged from his son. He is introduced in Star Trek: The Original Series episode “Journey to Babel” as an accomplished diplomat on the rise. Sarek’s fall — his tragic, final adventure — would come a century later, in Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Season 3 episode “Sarek.” Where “Journey to Babel” showed us Sarek as he was in the era of Star Trek: Discovery, “Sarek” brings him to an illuminating and bitter end.

“Sarek” begins shortly before sensitive Federation negotiations with the mysterious Legarans. In case viewers weren’t familiar with Sarek from his appearances in two previous Star Trek series and four movies, Riker reminisces over his resume, listing the Treaty of Alpha Cygnus IX, the Coridan admission to the Federation (as seen in “Journey to Babel”) and the Klingon alliance (deepening the peace first established by the Khitomer Accords in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country). “How do you make small talk with someone who shaped the Federation?” Picard asks Riker.

Sarek’s negotiations with the Legarans are meant to be a pre-retirement victory lap — the “crowning achievement” of a lifetime of diplomatic accomplishments. But just like when he was first introduced in “Journey to Babel,” something is off, and this time it’s not just residual awkwardness between father and son. More than 200 years old, Sarek suffers from Bendii Syndrome, the Vulcan Alzheimer’s equivalent, his Vulcan restraint crumbling. Compounding the problem is the willingness of his loved ones and aides to cover up the condition, unwilling to admit Sarek is no longer capable of conducting the delicate negotiations. Even worse, thanks to the Vulcan psychic capacity, Sarek’s projected anger is causing fights to break out all over the Enterprise, including a bar brawl in the ship’s lounge, Ten Forward.

“Sarek” isn’t the first time Star Trek writers have found ways around Vulcan reserve. Spock huffing spores on Omicron Ceti III in “This Side of Paradise” is a memorable example. But “Sarek” not only deepens our understanding of Vulcans, it unlocks Sarek himself, enlightening every other Sarek appearance. (Mark Lenard appeared in the role for more than 23 years.)

“Sarek” reveals just how much we’ve come to accept Vulcans on their own terms. Sarek crying during Data’s violin solo is one of the most genuinely unsettling moments in Star Trek history. There’s something sweet in it — why the hell shouldn’t the Vulcans get to appreciate art? — but it’s mortifying to him and those closest to him. When Picard finally forces him to see the truth of his diminished capacity, it’s that single tear that tears down Sarek’s self-delusion.

Picard comes upon a compromise that puts him in great danger, but could enable Sarek to finish the talks: the two will mind meld, Picard lending Sarek his emotional stability and Sarek sharing with Picard centuries of tamped down emotional turmoil. It’s through Picard that we hear Sarek’s confessions.

“Bedlam! Bedlam!... This weakness disgusts me, I hate it. Where’s my logic, I’m betrayed by desires… I must feel nothing… Spock, Amanda, did you know? Perrin, can you know how much I love you?” Picard says, because Sarek can’t. That Sarek’s deepest hidden emotions are benign, even noble, softens the moment. This isn’t a deconstruction of Vulcans, revealing them all to be twisted perverts deep down. Instead, “Sarek” simultaneously affords an empathetic view of Star Trek’s most repressed character and dramatizes the dignity and challenges of Vulcan restraint.

As an episode of Star Trek, “Sarek” succeeds by resisting utopian shortcuts. Though Sarek successfully conducts the Ligaran talks, with Picard’s help, there is no cure for his Bendii Syndrome. Sarek will suffer rage and emotional confusion for the rest of his life. In his last appearance on The Next Generation, in the first half of the two-parter episode “Unification,” Sarek is quivering in his deathbed, demanding of himself, over and over, “No more chaos!” He never reconciles with Spock. Picard has to move Sarek’s fingers into the shape of the Vulcan hand salute because his hands are shaking too much.

“Sarek” isn’t one of Player.One’s essential Star Trek episodes to watch before Star Trek: Discovery because it has anything to reveal about Sarek’s role in the incipient war between the Klingons and the United Federation of Planets. But it does reveal the soul that underlies the exterior he’ll show Michael Burnham. And though the Sarek of Star Trek: Discovery will have more than a century of fame and accomplishment ahead of him, “Sarek” reveals just how immensely he failed to close the distances yawning between him and his son. His Vulcan logic made him an exceptional diplomat, but his Vulcan restraint prevented him from applying those skills to his own life.

Sarek’s last line in the episode that bears his name is “Live long and prosper,” but it almost feels ironic in its context. He’s done both, look what it brought him. But while Sarek’s tragic end followed in Season 5’s “Unification,” that episode also provides Sarek and his son some closure. After thwarting a Romulan plot with Spock, Picard offers to mind meld with our favorite Vulcan, offering to him the pieces of his father Picard still carries inside his mind.

Finally knowing his father better than he did while Sarek was alive, Spock sets off to secure peace between Romulus and Vulcan. The work of diplomacy has flowed from father to son, Sarek’s tragic end failing to obscure the Vulcan logic that pursues the needs of the many over the needs of the few, or the one. Sarek lived in pursuit of peace, just as he will in Star Trek: Discovery. And peace will always be a project for the many.

More Essential Star Trek Episodes To Watch Before Star Trek: Discovery

  1. Star Trek: The Original Series “The Cage,” model for DSC protagonist Michael Burnham.

  2. Star Trek: The Original Series “Errand of Mercy,” our introduction to the Klingons.

  3. Star Trek: The Original Series “Journey to Babel,” the first Sarek episode.

  4. Star Trek: The Next Generation "Sarek" and the decline and death of Spock's father.

  5. Star Trek: The Animated Series "Yesteryear" reveals what life was like for a young Michael Burnham as a human on the planet Vulcan.

  6. Star Trek: The Next Generation "Lower Decks" explores stories and characters away from the bridge.

  7. Star Trek: The Next Generation “Rightful Heir” resurrects Kahless, the most important Klingon religious figure.

  8. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the best-yet depiction of Federation-Klingon relations.

  9. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine “Trials and Tribble-ations” explores the limits of nostalgia.

  10. Star Trek: The Original Series "A Private Little War" takes Kirk, Bones and Spock to Vietnam.

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