Star Trek: Discovery’s Vulcan Dad And The Son He Left Behind

Essential Star Trek Episodes To Watch Before DSC Premiere #3
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 Star Trek: The Original Series second season episode "Journey to Babel" first aired in Nov. 1967.
Star Trek: The Original Series second season episode "Journey to Babel" first aired in Nov. 1967. 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.

After losing her parents to Klingons, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), first officer of the U.S.S. Discovery NCC-1031 and protagonist of Star Trek: Discovery, was raised by Spock’s parents, Sarek and Amanda Grayson, making her an adoptive sister of sorts to the famous half-Vulcan first officer of the Enterprise. But while Spock and Grayson aren’t expected to appear in Discovery, Sarek (played by James Frain) will. What role will the famous ambassador play in the Federation’s conflict with the Klingons?

So far, Sarek’s appearances in Discovery trailers cast him as a mentor figure for Burnham, who calls him up to hear platitudes like “change is the essential process of all existence.” But for real insight into Sarek before the Sept. 24 premiere of Star Trek: Discovery, we turn to Sarek’s past appearances, including his introduction in Star Trek: The Original Series episode “Journey to Babel,” which Martin-Green has named her favorite.

Sarek’s first appearance comes moments into “Journey to Babel,” as Bones, Spock and Captain Kirk, in full dress uniforms, meet the Vulcan delegation before a conference to vote on a new planet joining the United Federation of Planets. Sarek arrives to martial drums, thriller music more appropriate for a jungle chase than a welcoming committee. Right away we’re left with the impression something is amiss, as Sarek refuses to acknowledge or return Spock’s Vulcan salute. Spock only reveals his parentage after this and another frosty exchange, in which Sarek refuses to be shown around the Enterprise by Spock. The opening fades into the credits theme as Spock casts down his eyes, seemingly shamed before the inexpressive stoicism of his father.

The actual episode involves a plot to pit Andorians and Tellarites against each other to the benefit of the Orions, hoping to play on political instability for profit. More than the episode events — involving a mysterious radio signal, political murder and a hyper-fast attack ship — “Journey to Babel” is important for introducing the larger United Federation of Planets context around Starfleet and the Enterprise’s five-year mission, featuring appearances from the Federation’s four founding races: Humans, Vulcans, Andorians and Tellarites. But the real heart of “Journey to Babel” is Sarek’s cardiac defect, a medical emergency that only Spock’s blood can ameliorate, forcing the two to consider each other, even as they’d rather remain aloof.

These being emotionally constipated Vulcans, the true feelings underlying their interactions is hard to plumb. Over the course of “Journey to Babel,” we learn of tension between them. “The situation between my father and myself has not changed,” Spock tells his mother. There is defiance here as well, brought to the surface after Sarek describes Spock choosing Starfleet over the Vulcan Science Academy. Their repressed emotions have lead to an entrenched distance between them.

First appearing as the Romulan Commander in the pivotal TOS episode “Balance of Terror,” actor Mark Lenard carried the same chilly demeanor and honorable ruthlessness over to Sarek in “Journey of Babel,” adding an edge to Vulcan behavior not found in Spock’s wry eyebrow raises. Vulcans, Sarek reveals, are kind of dicks.

Actor Mark Lenard would portray Sarek through three Star Trek series and four movies, always expertly cloaking his real intentions and emotions in an alienating ambiguity. When Sarek tells a much younger Michael Burnham, “you will never learn Vulcan, your tongue is too human,” echoes of Lenard’s seemingly callous Sarek can be heard in Frain’s performance. Though Spock is often described as similarly aloof, it’s Sarek — a character absent our emotional investment — that best embodies the Vulcan’s most alienating qualities.

But Sarek, just like Spock, holds within him a deep well of sentiment. In “Journey to Babel,” he expresses this through his fumbling attempts not to embarrass his son in front of Kirk and at the episode’s end, where the two make fun of Grayson, almost playfully needling her with their monotonous logic (“Emotional, isn’t she?”). Though Sarek remains disappointed that Spock chose Starfleet over Vulcan science, “Journey to Babel” ends on the possibility that Spock and Sarek might find some accord.

Set over a decade after the events of Star Trek: Discovery, “Journey to Babel” hints at the difficult adolescence Michael Burnham faced on Vulcan. Sarek, her adoptive father, is as stiffly Vulcan as they come. And while Discovery might be tempted to show a growing understanding between the Vulcan patriarch and the orphaned human, it would run counter to the dismal arc of Sarek’s relationship with his son, Spock. Because while “Journey to Babel” leaves open the possibility of their reconciliation, we get a look at the relationship a hundred years later and find it as strained as ever.

“Journey to Babel” is the third in our list of essential episodes to see in preparation for the Sept. 24 premiere of Star Trek: Discovery. Up next, we’ll look at Sarek’s tragic, final adventure in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Sarek.”

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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    • Eschews subtext, doesn't put enough faith in the audience
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