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?

Episode 29-“Amok Time,” Spock, Urkel and the ways of the world

Let’s talk about Spock, but more importantly, let’s talk about breakout characters of any kind. There’s little doubt that Spock rapidly became the breakout character of Star Trek. He’s the unknown made familiar. He’s maddeningly alien, but grounded in a way that allows viewers to connect and feel a common similarity. There’s something fans want in a character that doesn’t deliberately offer an opposing view but does it because he has to, it’s the way that he is. More or less, barring Shatner at his scenery chewing best, Spock ends up being the main character of the show. We watch him and want to see what he’ll do in any given situation.

This is the way of the breakout character. Their initial alieness ultimately gives way to becoming the driving force of the show. The most recent character to soar to these kind of heights is Sheldon of The Big Bang Theory. Initially little more than a straight man whose neurosis occasionally drives the plot, Sheldon has become the face of one of Thursday night’s most popular shows. In the more beloved but less publicly adored Community, Abed rose from a nostalgic movie quoting machine to the most interesting character simply because he surprises us.

Come on, name a worse character. I dare you.

What makes breakout characters appealing is also what makes them dangerous. Because viewers want to see more of them and writers want to put them in new and different situations, fans can be burnt out, or the characters can become overused and derivative. Probably the best two examples of the form would be Urkel from Family Matters and Fez from That ’70s Show.

Both outsiders from the traditional structure of the show’s primary characters, they end up seeming bizarrely alien. What they don’t understand or how their perspective influences their interaction ultimately draws viewers in, only to encourage the writers to put them in worse and worse situation. By Family Matters’ end, Urkel had cloned himself and gone into space. By That ’70s Show’s finale, Fez had bizarrely ended up with the show’s only real star, Jackie. Viewers remember these characters because they began iconic but ended wrong. By then end, the whole show would revolve around them to the detriment of everyone else.

There’s a danger with this happening to Spock and by today’s “Amok Time,” they had already dodged it once. Season 1’s “The Galileo Seven” has its share of flaws but it manages to create an episode putting everyone’s favorite Vulcan at the forefront without doing damage to the rest of the show’s dynamic. However, “Amok Time” has more in common with episodes like “What are Little Girls Made of?” and “Dagger of the Mind”; it’s essentially all Spock all the time.

"Excellent."

Without getting a head of myself, I’ll declare “Amok Time” one of the best episodes of the series and it does so by making a few incredibly bold moves, namely creating Spock as something damn close to the antagonist of the episode and presenting Vulcan culture as something alienating and strange. It’s weird, frightening but just familiar enough that we all have to hoe that Spock makes it through in the end.

As the episode begins, Spock is on edge. He’s not eating and people begin to notice. He’s loaded up on adrenaline, putting the ship on  a course to Vulcan despite Starfleet orders and is openly admitting his insubordination. The problem is that he’s not revealing what the problem is. McCoy has an inkling of what’s happening after seeing his adrenaline readings, but both the crew and we as an audience are watching as a friend definitely needs help, but can’t or won’t ask for it. Kirk has had enough and confronts his first lieutenant who after a fair share of embarrassment admits that it is time for pon farr, a Vulcan ritual of mating that must be completed by traveling home every 7 years.

Also, this woman gets to watch.

In a true shock to the established character we know and love, Kirk totally doesn’t follow Starfleet’s orders and brings his friend to Vulcan. Beaming down with Spock and McCoy, Kirk intends to see the ritual through. It’s a little creepy when you think about it, but it’s all too the episode’s benefit. When you explore the unknown in any creative medium you almost always have to have an audience surrogate in the mix to help the viewers out. One of the chief complaints with the Star Wars prequels was that this never happened. Everyone sits and talks about complicated laws, pacts and treaties and viewers sit, bored and wanting to have some idea of what’s happening. Compare this to A New Hope, where Luke, who has no knowledge of the Force, is slowly educated in the system, first by Obi Wan and then by Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back. We learn about the Force as he does and we’re never thrown in over our heads.

Somebody in the costume department liked women in silver everything.

Having Kirk and McCoy on the planet gives us this working base and it also helps to reinforce how odd Vulcan is, both in its rituals as well as its society. The planet is hot, with very thin air that its residents have to get used to. It’s nice to have characters noting the alieness all around them and its not long until things get stranger when T’Pau shows up. A matronly apparently very important Vulcan, she shows off the first appearance of the Vulcan salute before Spock’s mate T’Pring appears. The whole thing has a sense of bizarre mystique and even considering that, canny viewers will note that something’s wrong and it only gets wronger when T’Pring states that she has chosen “the challenge,” in which two people will fight for her hand. Naturally, Spock decides to fight for his bride and T’Pring decides for him to battle Kirk.

Pretty much exactly like this.

So, things aren’t looking good and the Vulcans are appearing stranger and more threatening all the time. Kirk doesn’t want to fight his friend and knows he’s at a disadvantage on the harsh planet. The adrenaline junky Spock isn’t letting down either, as the rite has become a biological imperative. McCoy and Spock know that this is a ploy on T’Pring’s part, as her doltish looking guardian seems to be her actual choice for a mate. Kirk doesn’t think Spock can take him so he agrees to enter battle, of course he doesn’t realize that the fight is to the death.

And Spock isn't shitting around.

Spock quickly takes the upper hand in the battle and McCoy knows that both of his friends are in danger. He asks T’Pau if he can administer a neuro-shot to Kirk in order to help him deal with the thin air and heat on the planet. She agrees and Kirk is injected before Spock really goes medieval on the Captain, ultimately appearing to choke him to death. His lust sated, Spock returns to T’Pring only for her to reveal her ploy, which could lead to her staying with the guardian instead of being wed to Spock, who has become something of a legend to their people. Spock leaves the planet with McCoy and the apparently dead Kirk to face his fate in front of Starfleet.

I don't know if I want to say that skipping out on Spock for this guy is woman empowerment, but sure.

Of couse, Kirk is alright, having been injected by McCoy with a sort of only-in-Shakespeare toxin that made him appear dead and allowed him to cede the fight. Spock’s spirits return to normal and everyone is able to head off on more space adventures.

I’m sick to death of writing about expanding a universe in a episodic show, but “Amok Time” ultimately is the episode to show how to do it masterfully. The unknown is alien and strange and it manages to cast our hero Spock into a strange light, even if he’s still the star of the show. This is an episode that boldly goes where we haven’t been, while showing the effects of this lingering strangeness on the characters that we care so much about.

Random Thoughts

Spock is a pretty huge dick at the beginning of the episode, particularly to Nurse Chapel. Nobody’s still making fun of Sulu for running around shirtless and almost stabbing everyone.

This is the first appearance of Chekov and in a show full of characters with bad wigs, he might be the worst.

Next Up: “Who Mourns for Adonais?” and let’s face it, it’ll probably be me.