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Journey To Babel

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at February 24, 2006 - 4:13 PM GMT

See Also: 'Journey to Babel' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: The Enterprise has been assigned to transport ambassadors to a council on the planetoid Babel, where the delegates will vote on the admission of Coridan to the United Federation of Planets. Spock's estranged father, Sarek, leads the Vulcan delegation and quarrels with the hostile Tellarite Gav, who is later found murdered. Because of the circumstances of the death, Sarek is the prime suspect, but it soon becomes apparent that Sarek himself is too ill to have committed murder. He is in immediate need of surgery, and Spock is the only Vulcan on board with the correct blood type for a transfusion. But Kirk is attacked and wounded by an Andorian, forcing Spock to assume command until Kirk feigns recovery well enough to send his first officer to sickbay. An unknown alien attacks during the surgery on Sarek, leading Kirk to discover that both the enemy and the "Andorian" who assaulted him are actually Orions on a suicide mission to trigger suspicions and prevent Coridan from being protected from Orion raids by the Federation. Once the plot is foiled, Kirk returns to sickbay, where he finds Spock and Sarek recovering from the surgery and their long family rift.

Analysis: There are episodes of the original series I love as much as "Journey To Babel" but I'm not sure that there are any better. We get more plot than most two-hour movies, the introduction of several species who form the foundation of our understanding of the universe in this future era, action both aboard ship and in space, a murder, an attempted murder, a medical crisis and a political conflict...all played out against a family drama, the most character development Spock will get in an episode beyond "Amok Time." We also get some of the finest performances ever given by the central trio and several guest stars who in the course of a single episode create unforgettable characters with great impact on Star Trek lore. For anyone wanting to understand what the original Star Trek was all about, this episode is one of the top-three must-sees, despite being a bottle show - an installment filmed entirely on standing ship's sets to save the budget necessary for a location shoot or new scenery.

We know the storyline will be concerned with matters Vulcan from the beginning, when McCoy tries to get Spock to teach him the Vulcan salute, which the doctor objects is more uncomfortable than his dress uniform. Sarek arrives and is indubitably rude to Spock - there's nothing logical about his brushoff of a Starfleet officer as tour guide - which leads to one of the greatest opening teasers ever, as Kirk asks whether Spock would like to beam down to Vulcan and visit his parents, only to be told, "Ambassador Sarek and his wife are my parents." As if Kirk didn't have enough to worry about with Vulcans, Andorians and Tellarites at each other's throats over the question of Coridan. Though he undoubtedly has other things he should be doing, Kirk elects to give Sarek and Amanda the grand tour himself, using the opportunity to see what he can learn about his first officer's family. When Sarek offers the explanation that Spock went into Starfleet instead of to the Vulcan Science Academy, rejecting his father's and his father's father's career choices, one desperately wishes to hear what Sarek's parents said when he brought home a human bride, but that remains a Star Trek mystery not resolved even by Sarek's explanation during this episode, "It seemed the logical thing to do."

While Spock and Sarek snark about logic, Amanda tells Kirk that she is glad Spock has such a good friend in him and reveals to McCoy that Spock was very fond of his pet sehlat ("A teddy bear?"). Meanwhile, the other delegates circle one another, eating psychidelic-colored food and attempting to discover one another's position on the question of Coridan. The Tellarite Gav seems determined to pick a fight with Sarek and finally succeeds, provoking Sarek to defend his personal space just as Kirk steps in to see the physical conflict. When Gav is found dead not long after, Sarek isn't just the logical suspect for Kirk, but for viewers as well. But we've also learned about a different problem from Uhura: there's a ship out there, registering only as a powerful energy source, and it's sending out messages in a code Spock can't decipher.

This is a heck of a lot going on, yet the episode never seems cluttered and it balances all the plots and character issues seamlessly...even throwing in shirtless Kirk when the captain gets the message that the Tellarite has been murdered. We see both Kirk and McCoy react to Spock's dispassionate revelation that his father could have committed the crime; we see Amanda react to Kirk's questioning and Spock to Kirk's sympathies; we see McCoy waver between the desire to try to save Sarek and the concern that he could kill Spock in the process, with Amanda at first insisting that she won't risk both of them, then fearing the imminent loss of her husband and telling her son that she will hate him if he lets his father die. The attack on Kirk is really a plot device to force that issue and to allow the Andorian suspect to be taken into custody, yet it gives us a rare opportunity to see Kirk not at his finest...he's sweating, he's in pain, he's not as quick as usual, and with Spock knocked unconscious before he can tell Kirk he believes the enemy is on a suicide mission, it takes him a little while to figure out how to defend his ship and passengers.

It's nail-biting stuff even for someone like me who's seen the episode several dozen times. It isn't that there's ever any real worry that the Orions will blow up the Enterprise; that's the least of anyone's worries. But things are clearly a big mess among the Vulcans, Andorians and Tellarites, with humans making fairly inefficient peacekeepers. Later Star Trek series seemed to believe that they could improve upon "Journey To Babel" by making the makeup and costumes more convincing, but what's remarkable here is how much we learn about these species in a few scant scenes, the boisterous and aggressive Tellarites coming head to head with the calculating, suspicious Andorians and the coolly superior Vulcans. Still, one of the things Enterprise did well was to show how Earth - a latecomer to interstellar politics - rose to ascendancy in negotiations because the other aliens already distrusted each other so much. In "Journey To Babel" we learn about the other species only in broad strokes, with the little gold guys hardly speaking and the Andorians represented primarily by one who is not.

Thelev's painted skin and fake antennae make one wonder what on earth 23rd century security is like, if a transporter scan didn't reveal this "Andorian" to be something other than what he claimed. Yet for all the growling and snapping, the commingling suggests that this is really a peaceful galaxy; the Orions are counting on war and mass murder, yet everyone on the ship seems shocked by the single murder of an ambassador who seemingly had few allies. Kirk discusses security matters with Amanda standing right next to him, and the delegates all call Uhura directly when the attack begins. The Vulcan philosophy of IDIC had not yet been articulated on the series when this episode first aired - Roddenberry supposedly only codified it so he could sell jewelry based on the concept - yet we see it in action, not in a naive way that suggests there will be no tension, but in all its messy, progressive glory.

And it's fun. Both McCoy and Amanda have a number of witty lines about the frustrations of dealing with Vulcans, who play deadpan straight men to the more flamboyant humans ("Logic! I am sick to death of logic! Do you want to know what I think of your logic?") Kirk gets to shake his head about the stubbornness of Spock and Sarek, and Spock gets the black humor of responding to his mother's insistence that nothing is as important as his father's life with a wry, "Can you imagine what he would say if I agreed?" Even the trapped and soon-to-be-dead Orion has his moment of humor smirking about his self-destruct orders. And it all ends with McCoy finally getting the last word. No matter how many Federation delegates or alien attacks or murder mysteries crop up, the focus begins and ends with the people at the center of the story, and that is why Star Trek fans have loved "Journey To Babel" and its characters...not the antennae, the grudge matches and the cleverness of Starfleet officers. If later generations of Star Trek producers had really gotten that, later Star Trek series might have run longer than they did.

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Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.

Michelle Erica Green is a news writer for the Trek Nation. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.

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