Episode 38 – “Journey to Babel” and all the hobgoblins are bleeding green

“Journey to Babel” is an episode that’s considerably more interesting when looking at it as a piece of the Star Trek universe than as an individual episode in its own right. There’s some neat world building here, with hints of the Federation’s policy on accepting new planets, but the big gain is the introduction of Sarek, one of the Federation’s greatest heroes and a legend on Vulcan.

Also, he’s Spock’s dad.

The episode really blows that load a little early with an attempt at raising tension when Sarek and Amanda enter the Enterprise and we never really get much of a sense as to why Spock and his father are at odds. Sarek makes a reference to his son’s refusal to enter the Vulcan Science Academy but he’s working as an Ambassador for Vulcan and a valued member of the Federation. It doesn’t seem like he’s done too much to differentiate himself either.

In all honesty, the plot is pretty inconsequential and aimless. On a mission of diplomacy for a planet that wishes to join the Federation, one of the ambassadors is murdered and all evidence points to Sarek. Strangely, everyone pretty much forgets about this fact when the Vulcan diplomat has a really convenient heart attack and the episode suddenly becomes about a really trite situation where Spock may have to let his father die.

It all feels a bit too much like a mix between an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” and an afterschool special. We all know that Spock is going to be able to save his dad and somehow the ship will be able to defeat the Andorian ship but it just feels like we’re just waiting for Spock to go under the knife. I feel like this is the sort of episode that The Next Generation would have handled much better, milking the distrust between ambassadors for more tension than the drama between father and son.

This isn’t a bad episode but it is a dull and pretty dry one. The interesting parts are all skimmed by in order to give some overly touchy-feely exposition about Spock. If it weren’t for the host of colorful characters in the meeting room early on, this is an episode that would disappear from my memory in a week’s time.

Random Thoughts

I like that McCoy is given a lot to do in this episode. He’s operating, making sure that Kirk, Spock and Sarek all stay under his watchful eye and, what’s better, does it all with a smile. He even gets a fairly funny final joke to cap the episode off with.

Sulu’s nowhere to be seen. Instead, Chekov gets to say “wessel” several times.

In the scene where Kirk fights Teleth, he pretty clearly is stabbed in the lower back, right above the left side of his hip. Why then, does he continually touch around his nipples when indicating he is in pain? Also, the bandage is wrapped really high up on his torso.

So, Sarek’s kind of a huge dick to his wife, right?

Next Up: “Friday’s Child” draws the Enterprise into only their second meeting with the Klingons and I’ll get a song stuck in my head. Wait, which song were you thinking of?

Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 3 – “If the cause is just and honorable, they are prepared to give their lives.”

If a show hasn’t hit a groove by the third season, it is undoubtedly in trouble. There’s been time to set a tone, develop a coherent world and have had a chance to craft characters that an audience would be able to connect with. All of this needs to be done while giving audiences a variety of plots that they’ll be willing to stick with for years to come. I’ve said before that it was occasionally a surprise that TNG made it to a third season after an atrocious first showing and a disappointing second season but there’s no mistaking why the show stayed on the air after season three. This season is what took a low-budget show about galactic politics and turned them into one of the well-loved science fiction shows ever in the span of 26 mostly great episodes.

It isn’t initially clear what makes the third season so strong. Episodes are tighter, more focused and take increasing cues from the well established Star Trek lore. Some of this could certainly be because of changes in the formerly tumultuous writer’s room. Michael Piller would take over writing duties for the show, contributing five satisfying episode, including two of the most memorable episodes. Piller was definitely a hard sci-fi writer; he’s mostly focused on explainable robotics, character motivations and the universal humanity of people forced together on a mission. This becomes increasingly clear as the season goes, as there’s less of a focus on magical races, goofy sci-fi gimmickry and hand waive explanations and more of a focus on how all races, characters and nations have clear and understandable motivations for their actions.

Piller had a tool on the staff with the appearance of a man who would go onto become a sci-fi legend, Ronald D. Moore. Moore, who would go onto father the relaunch of “Battlestar Galactica,” came onto the scene with the episode “The Bonding,” an interesting, if deeply flawed episode, but he shows his interests more clearly in the fantastic episode, “The Defector.” There, the Enterprise intercepts a Romulan deserter who claims to have information about the empire’s plans for attacking several Federation colonies. However, there are holes throughout his stories, none of his information can be proven and he fails to cooperate fully with the crew. Everyone is on edge over whether he should be trusted and what the cost of not trusting in his warning could be for the Federation. Its a great, particularly tense episode of characters being forced to make compromises and leaps of faith, where everyone has a hidden motive and a fail safe.

While Moore’s great script built off the increasing tension between the Federation and the Romulans wonderfully to examine the splintering of governments, the show would later work on improving on other well established parts of the Star Trek universe to great effect. In “The Hunted,” Picard and his crew are forced to deal with a military prisoner who escapes to break away from a government that has found it more convenient to forget about its’ soldiers. In an otherwise forgettable episode, Picard manages to show how thoroughly he is guided by the Prime Directive, memorably leaving an under siege planet to deal with its coup rather than have the Federation intervene. Its a stark difference between the way that Captain Kirk would have handled the situation and it shows us how different and more engaging of a show we’re watching.

Season three gains most of its power by drawing on these established themes and characters. After two years of the show, it becomes increasingly clear that TNG was focused on not only showing itself as a program that was separate from the Original Series but also one that could be a companion piece to that iconic show. Sarek reappears here, played again by Mark Lenard, in an episode that makes extensive reference to the first show. Ronald Moore also takes Worf’s back story, hinted at in previous episodes, and expands it dramatically in “Sins of the Father.” There, he gives the Klingon lieutenant a dramatic and tragic arc that both colors his relations with his home and sets up the troubles that the Klingon empire will face in the future. Admirably, he also draws off the way the Original Series turned a familiar race into a hostile and alien force that the human characters would have trouble understanding. The sequences where Worf and Picard face the trials as well as the decision to exile Worf are reminiscent of the way in which Kirk and McCoy are baffled by the ways that Spock interacts with other Vulcans in “Amok Time.”

As much as I’d love to do nothing but praise this season but it does have a couple of real, genuine problems. First off, there’s an enormous focus on Data episodes. Now, I don’t have a problem with this. Data’s an engaging character who has a built-in and interesting series of quirks that could make for engaging episodes but none of the attempts here doe much of anything new. Whether he’s crafting a new robotic child, being kidnapped by a person who views him as nothing more than an object to be collected or having characters mistakenly see his condition as something to be valued, the writers were never able to find anything new to say about the android here. I get it, Data may be an android but he is capable of being a human and we should view him as such. I don’t need to be told this every 5 or 6 episodes.

TNG’s still having tons of problems working with its most troublesome race, the Ferengi. Look, I know that they’re a one note race meant to examine Roddenberry’s problems with capitalism run rampant but the writers overdo everything about them. They’re not only greedy but ugly, gross, dumb, sexually forward, treated with disdain by everyone in the Federation and not trustworthy. In as show that affords ever race at least some modicum of respect, its a shame that no one is willing to make the Ferengi anything more than a punch line and an unwilling one at that.

With all that out of the way, there’s still a pair of episodes that desperately need discussing and they’re two of the most important, most well-loved episodes that the show ever did. Both written by Piller, “Yesterday’s Enterprise” and “The Best of Both Worlds Part 1” are undisputed classics of TNG, Star Trek and science fiction as a whole. “Yesterday’s Enterprise” succeeds with its premise executed expertly. Thriving on subverting expectations in one memorable way, similarly to what was done in “Mirror, Mirror,” we are able to view the sacrifices that the Federation goes through to craft a peaceful universe. Plus, it manages to give Tasha Yarr a fate that’s worthy of the character she was intended to be.

I’ve written about my great love of “The Best of Both Worlds Part 1” before. Its a damn near perfect example of slow, character driven escalation leading to a grand conclusion. Watching it free of needing to worry about the story reveals, the structure of the episode shines through. Watch as Piller pairs Riker’s control being assaulted again and again, weakening his position, with the way in which the Borg threat continues to escalate. These events are put together at virtually the same time, forcing him to make the inevitable decision by episode’s end. Its the Enterprise at its weakest point so far and it places Riker in the one position he’s ever been afraid to be in.

A few missteps can’t hold back the third season of one of the best sci-fi shows of all time. This is Star Trek at its most memorable, most intense and most thrilling, giving us characters we care about, situations that push them and a world that I have never wanted to leave.

Most Improved Character – Deanna Troi

Ok, I’m not saying she’s perfect but I didn’t think that I’d be giving Deanna this award after two seasons of her being the most disappointing part of the show. However, she just feels better here. She’s not being randomly attached to villainous aliens, raped or treated like a sex object. Sure, the costuming is still pretty bad but she feels competent. Even in “Ménage à Troi,” she and her mother, Lwaxana, are both treated like characters, not caricatures or sex objects. That’s worth a lot in this universe.

Most Disappointing Character – Data

When everything else is moving forward, it is painful to watch a character that is standing still. As I stated earlier, the writers haven’t done anything with Data for years that wasn’t already established in the first season. Now, nothing is done with him and what’s worse, there are problems with continuity, as no one acknowledges Lore’s existence.

Best Moment of Potential Ass-Kickery – Data’s got a gun, “The Most Toys”

Star Trek master recapper Zach Handlen and I agree on this one. Data drawing the gun on his captor and deciding that he must kill in order to satisfy his programming is an exhilirating and tense moment that changes our whole interpretation of what Data is capable of. In a deeply flawed episode exploring themes we’ve vastly covered, it is impressive to see that there is so much that we still don’t understand about the android.

Best Moment of Shatner-esque Scenery Chewing – Vulcans with Alzheimer’s, “Sarek”

Patrick Stewart is able to really sell the mind meld, but Lenard just can’t handle the way that Sarek breaks down as his emotions overwhelm him. We’re supposed to believe that he’s doing as much work as possible to keep his emotions in check but he’s mostly just yelling a lot. If he spaced out his words uncomfortably, it might as well be Shatner talking a computer to death.

Worst Episode: “A Matter of Perspective”

Lots of television shows are guilty of the trial episode: putting a character the audience knows is innocent in a trial situation where all evidence points to their guilt. Accusing Riker of murder and rape is a particularly embarrassing example of this phenomenon and it makes for a particularly and memorably rough episode. Runners Up: “Who Watches the Watchers” and “Captain’s Holiday”

Best Episode: “The Best of Both Worlds Part 1”

You knew it was coming. The way Piller constructs the season finale is masterful and the way the whole season feels like it is leading up to this makes everything resonate so highly that there isn’t another episode to even slightly compare to this one. Runners Up: “The Defector,” “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” “Hollow Pursuits” and “Sins of the Father.”