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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Sarek (Review)

This January and February, we’ll be finishing up our look at the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and moving on to the third year of the show, both recently and lovingly remastered for high definition. Check back daily for the latest review.

Sarek is a rather wonderful episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It’s a celebration of the franchise’s history, but without being overwhelmed by the weight of continuity. It’s also a heart-breaking story about an old man coming to terms with his mortality, assessing the legacy that he leaves behind and the future he had hoped to shape. The beauty of Sarek, then, is the way that the episode ties these two threads together – offering a rather touching metaphorical exploration of Gene Roddenberry’s own influence on the franchise and his own deteriorating health.

Back to the future...

Back to the future…

The first two seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation had never been particularly comfortable with its direct predecessor. Sure, Encounter at Farpoint had featured a cameo from DeForrest Kelley as an elderly Leonard McCoy, and classic Star Trek guest star Diana Muldaur had joined the cast in the second season as a direct stand-in for McCoy. Episodes like The Naked Now and Unnatural Selection had been pretty much direct adaptations of concepts used in the classic Star Trek.

However, the show had been reluctant to engage too directly with its history and its predecessor. References to anything that had unfolded after the classic Star Trek television show were generally kept vague. The show waited until the end of its first season to reintroduce Klingons and Romulans, preferring to create its own alien species. Pitches involving the character of Spock were routine rejected, even from senior members of the writing staff, like Tracy Tormé.

Melding two generations...

Melding two generations…

Indeed, this attitude prevailed even after Michael Piller took control of the writers’ room on the show. Writing in The Making of Yesterday’s Enterprise, Eric Sitwell reflects on the reaction Piller had to his original pitch for that episode, featuring familiar Star Trek elements like the Guardian of Forever and Sarek:

When I was finished telling my tale, I could tell Piller was intrigued, but he immediately dismissed the idea of using the Guardian of Forever, calling it a “gimmick” from the original series. He wanted The Next Generation to stand on its own feet. He also dismissed the idea of using Sarek, telling me he had no interest in doing a story about Spock’s father (rather ironic, in retrospect).

Other writers faced similar problems. Melinda Snodgrass has talked about the pitch that she and writers Richard Manning and Hans Beimler suggested about revisiting Sigma Iota III from A Piece of the Action. There was a clear sense that the production was reluctant to delve into the mythology and back story of Star Trek.

Making music together...

Making music together…

Which, to be fair, isn’t a bad thing. It is very important for a spin-off to establish its own identity. One of the problems with the blatant homage in The Naked Now is that it comes far too early in the show’s run. It feels like the classic show is being used as a crutch rather than as part of the new series’ history. (Of course, there are other problems with The Naked Now.) One of the better aspects of the show’s troubled second season was a clear desire to figure out its own identity. Had the show been willing to tread out the Romulans and Klingons on a week-to-week basis, we never would have had the Borg.

Still, coming towards the end of what has been a pretty fantastic third season, it seems appropriate for The Next Generation to pause and pay homage to what came before. This is only the second major crossover with the classic Star Trek show, and the first since the show’s pilot episode. You can almost forgive the decision of the reference book These Are the Voyages to inaccurately credit Marc Cushman as the writer who pitched “the first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation to include a character from TOS and thereby link the two series together.” Almost.

Tears of a Vulcan...

Tears of a Vulcan…

It’s worth conceding that Sarek is certainly the least high-profile of the classic Star Trek characters to crossover directly with The Next Generation. McCoy appeared in Encounter at Farpoint. Spock will guest star in Unification. Scotty will feature in Relics. Kirk will cross paths with Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Those are arguably the four biggest stars of the classic Star Trek show. Mark Lenard’s Sarek was just a one-shot guest character on the classic Star Trek show, albeit one who appeared in the another animated episode and then four of the six movies based on the television series.

Still, it’s great to have Mark Lenard back. Sarek is the actor’s most iconic character, but the actor is a veteran who appeared in the first season of the television show. He played the first Romulan commander to feature on the show in Balance of Terror, and he also popped up in Star Trek: The Motion Picture as the franchise’s first bumpy-headed Klingon commander. He is part of the fabric of Star Trek, and having him on board is a big deal – a conscious step forward from the decision to cast two-time classic Star Trek guest star Diana Muldaur in the second season of the show.

He is not Spock. He is apparently quite a lot cheaper...

He is not Spock.
He is apparently quite a lot cheaper…

In a contemporaneous interview, actor Mark Lenard credits Gene Roddenberry for finally allowing Sarek to appear on the show, taking advantage of Vulcan longevity to allow the character to make an appearance:

Gene had been talking about it for a year and a half. He said ‘Well, Vulcans age very slowly’, but the reason he put everything ahead about 89 years was that he didn’t want any of the people from the other show in it – he wanted to be sure they (the characters!) were all dead.  Of course De Kelley, who was a friend of his, managed to sneak in there as an ancient mariner of some sort, but none of the others.  I guess he’s mellowed a little over the years and decided maybe they could use some.

There is a strange sense of acceptance about Sarek’s guest appearance, as if The Next Generation is finally explicitly acknowledging its direct predecessor. Given that the show has been a tremendous roll lately, and how much it has grown over the third season, this feels quite appropriate.

A logically married couple...

A logically married couple…

There is a decidedly celebratory atmosphere to Sarek, as if the show is welcoming a guest star of honour on board. Picard’s opening log describes hosting Sarek as “a singular honour.” The ship seems to roll out the red carpet for Sarek in a way that it has never done for a diplomat-of-the-week before. Sarek is described as “someone who shaped the Federation”, which gives some measure of his importance and the respect that he is afforded.

“I remember studying his career in school,” Riker tells Picard, giving us a sense of just how iconic Sarek has become. He’s part of the fabric of this fictional universe. His appearance on the Enterprise is very much treated as a visit from royalty, reflecting his importance as an ambassador of the earlier series. (The episode even opens with the Enterprise in orbit above Vulcan, taking us back to Spock’s homeworld for the first time since Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.)

Touching...

Touching…

Although Sarek gets his own plot that prevents the episode from wallowing in sentimental nostalgia, there is a sense that the show is building towards two very “big” moments for the Star Trek fans watching at home. These are two moments that can’t possibly be big moments within the show’s internal universe, but which are very big moments for those tuning into The Next Generation. These are two big shout outs to the classic Star Trek.

Picard’s sole mention of the name “Spock”, so carefully avoided throughout the rest of the episode (he’s referred to elsewhere as Sarek’s son), comes forty minutes into the show, five minutes from the end. It feels very weird that nobody on the Enterprise mentions Spock, even after Perrin explains that Sarek was very glad to be on board the Enterprise (again) and that he had followed Picard’s career since their brief meeting at “his son’s wedding.” In the show’s final scene, Picard and Sarek exchange the iconic “live long and prosper” salute.

"You have no idea how long I've been waiting to do this..."

“You have no idea how long I’ve been waiting to do this…”

These are clearly structure to come towards the end of the episode, despite the fact that they really shouldn’t be a big deal to anybody on the Enterprise. The “live long and prosper” salute is used just as often in introductions as in farewells. It seems highly unlikely that anybody serving on board the Enterprise would be unfamiliar with Spock’s name, so Picard’s dancing around that with Riker feels a little awkward.

Still, the point is quite clear. Sarek is a show about acknowledging and coming to terms with the franchise’s history. So mentioning the name “Spock” is a big deal for the show, and giving that iconic Vulcan salute is a big deal for the show. Those are both grand gestures about recognising that The Next Generation is part of a larger tapestry of Star Trek, and so they both feel strangely heart-warming.

Pooling their resources...

Pooling their resources…

Of course, the production of Sarek was apparently a painful process – in what appears to have been standard operating procedure during the third season, the script was the source of considerable behind-the-scenes tension among the writing and production staff. The script got a page-one re-write from Ira Steven Behr and Ronald D. Moore. Apparently the use of Spock’s name was a point of much contention, as Ira Steven Behr recalled in the documentary Resistance is Futile:

So you think in an episode called Sarek, it would be a no brainer to mention at some point who he was the father of. So we had this scene that we wrote – this mind meld scene, which was a really good scene – and at one point we wanted to have this moment where Picard, who has mind melded with Sarek, would yell out the word “Spock!” And, in that moment, you’d realise all the fatherly feelings, all the feelings of missed opportunities, all the pain of being a Vulcan and being a dad and having a half-Vulcan son. There’s a lot to read into that word.

“Absolutely not! We don’t reference those original characters! No way! No how!”

“Why? You had McCoy in the pilot?

“No way! We did that! We’re not doing it again!”

“So we have Sarek who was… maybe… “

“Doesn’t matter. We’re not saying Spock!”

This argument went on and on and on. So finally I’m in a meeting on another script with Rick, this is like a week later, and we’re about to shoot that scene. We’re having a totally different conversation. And it’s pleasant, everything’s good, and I’m thinking, “Yeah, this is okay, this is good!” Whatever we were doing, we were on the same page. So I go, “Rick, tell me again why can we say the word Spock?”

And I remember very clearly the body language. He literally went back like this — like I had shot him. He wasn’t expecting it, we weren’t talking about it, that was a closed deal. And he went back in his chair and you could see the smoke. He was trying to think, but he’s not on that topic. And I could just see him trying to gain traction, purchase for all his reasons for not doing it. And he just wasn’t interested in doing it at that moment. And he just says, “I don’t know… he can say it once!” And that was it.

It’s a very silly argument, in retrospect, but it gives an idea of just how uncomfortable The Next Generation was with its place within the large Star Trek franchise at the time. After the third season, the show became a lot more relaxed and comfortable in itself.

Reflecting on it all...

Reflecting on it all…

That said, it is worth noting that Mark Lenard joked about how he was only the second choice guest star to appear on The Next Generation, just the most most cost effective one:

Although I think Gene Roddenberry probably didn’t want it originally, there is a kind of mad reference to Spock, but only in passing.  I understand they have a script for Leonard Nimoy as Spock, but he wanted a million dollars, so they settled for somewhat less and got me!

That gives an idea of the weird balancing act going on behind the scenes. The show wanted a Leonard Nimoy guest appearance, but it didn’t want to use Spock’s name in an episode involving the character’s father. It’s a very weird situation, and creates a sense of the conflicts at work on The Next Generation.

Stuck in the middle...

Stuck in the middle…

Still, the beauty of Sarek is not entirely related to the connections it fosters between the classic Star Trek and The Next Generation. Sarek stands remarkably well on its own two feet, divorced from these concerns of continuity and history. As Mark Jones and ‎Lance Parkin sum it up in Star Trek: Beyond the Final Frontier, “An episode that could have simply pressed fanboy buttons is, instead, a moving story of a great man brought low by old age and illness.”

Sarek is one of those great metaphorical Star Trek stories, using the fictional universe as a means to explore a more relatable and grounded issue. Sarek is the story of an old man facing the loss of his dignity, seeing his mental functions diminished by time. For all that Sarek is a Vulcan, and for all that his illness causes a psychic hate plague, the concerns at the heart of Sarek are very human. They are something that the audience will recognise, and something that rings true to life.

Picard takes note...

Picard takes note…

There’s the balance of trying to weigh an individual’s dignity against their wider obligations to the community. How do you tell somebody who helped to shape the world that their time has passed? How do ask an elder statesman that they’ve played their role and that they need to shuffle off the stage? Sarek does have some vague dramatic stakes – Sarek is apparently working on the most important diplomacy of his career, and the Enterprise is rocked with violence – but the story is strongest as the exploration of a proud man facing his own mortality.

And that’s where the real beauty of Sarek lies. It’s not just the connection to classic Star Trek history. Nor is it simply the metaphor about old age and dignity. It’s the union of the two. Because Sarek isn’t really the story about Sarek of Vulcan suffering from Bendii Sydrome on the eve of his important negotiations. It’s about something a lot more grounded. It’s about Gene Roddenberry and his continued involvement in the franchise.

Striking some dischord...

Striking some dischord…

Michael Piller concedes as much in Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Continuing Mission:

Gene was beginning to go into decline. Not that he was uncommunicative, but it was clear that he was not the same man that he had been. We all respected him so much, and he had been such an important, strong leader of the franchise and everything it stood for. But here is this great man–and I’ve only known him for less than a year at this point–here is this great man going into decline, and I immediately felt a very strong connection to the premise of Sarek because I could see that it really was about the universe that we lived in on a daily basis. If you go back and look at Sarek closely, what that character is, is Gene Roddenberry.

It’s quite a touching sentiment. Indeed, the character of Sarek would remain linked to Roddenberry. Gene Roddenberry passed away in late 1991, shortly before the airing of Unification, Part I. The episode featured the last appearance of Leonard as Sarek, and featured the character dying without the chance to properly reconcile with his son.

Going through the emotions?

Going through the emotions?

Roddenberry’s health had been in decline since the start of The Next Generation. According to original Star Trek writer David Gerrold, who worked on the first season of the spin-off, Roddenberry would even have small stroked during staff meetings. According to the Chicago Tribune, his health had been an issue for the two years prior to his death. His first major stroke occurred in September 1989, shortly before the start of the show’s third season.

As such, Roddenberry become a somewhat marginalised figure, as he had been on the movies spun off from the classic Star Trek show. He still held meetings with writers in the third and fourth season, and his influence could definitely be felt. Sometimes, it was for the better. Roddenberry was the creator who figured out how to make Déjà Q work as an episode. However, sometimes it was not for the better. Roddenberry fought against the production of The Measure of a Man and had Ira Steven Behr write a much blander version of Captain’s Holiday than he originally pitched.

Great actor face-off!

Great actor face-off!

So Roddenberry was a complex figure within the grand Star Trek mythology. He was the man who had created the show and franchise. He had defined the universe and maintained the fandom in the long years when the series was off the air. However, he was also a writer with sever limitations, particularly later in life. He imposed awkward restrictions on the show and insisted on unworkable rules for a televised drama. He vetoed several great ideas, and almost strangled the best episode of the show’s first two years in the crib.

He was also a man with failing health, and who had a troubled relationship with the studio and the powers that be. And there’s a sense that he is being manipulated by his entourage, reflecting accusations made by David Gerrold about certain members of Roddenberry’s inner circle. There’s a popular rumour (which I’ve never been entirely able to substantiate) that the occasion of Roddenberry’s death saw Paramount forcible evicting several of his hangers-on from the studio lot within hours. So Sarek is really about trying to reconcile all of that, exploring an ageing genius facing the end of his era.

Geordi suspects Wes' date might be a bit of a wash...

Geordi suspects Wes’ date might be a bit of a wash…

The episode itself makes this fairly clear. While Sarek’s deterioration is a very personal tragedy, it has much wider implications. His slipping mental control leads to all manner of problems on the Enterprise. It affects other people. Wesley Crusher, the boy genius who takes his given name from Roddenberry’s middle name, and who was played by an actor Roddenberry allegedly treated like a son, is a focal point from several of these outbursts.

Picard is warned about the risks he faces if he choses to make Sarek’s difficulties public. “You are accusing the greatest man of his time of losing his mind on the eve of his greatest triumph,” Mednrossen, one of Sarek’s two assistants, advises the captain of the Enterprise. Picard’s dilemma is made quite explicit. He has to choose between the ageing hero and the institution that owes so much to the efforts of that man. “Then you must decide which is your greater obligation,” Riker informs him. “Your loyalty to Sarek or your duty to the Federation.”

Once more, with feeling...

Once more, with feeling…

It’s beautiful, thoughtful and introspective stuff – and it works even without this wider context. Although Behr and Moore’s script can be a little heavy on exposition and awkward dialogue, it contains any number of wonderful moments. The scene where Sarek cries at the ship’s reception is an absolutely brilliant piece of television – director Les Landau manages to perfectly convey everything that a single solitary tear might mean to a Vulcan, as well as silently documenting the various reactions of the by-standers. Perrin tries to cover it up, Picard is concerned, Sarek’s aides are worried.

Similarly, the episode leans on two fantastic actors. Mark Lenard is one of the strongest guest stars ever to appear in the franchise, and his portrayal of an ageing diplomat trying desperately to hold on to his dignity can’t help but seem affecting. Sarek has an incredible amount of pride buried beneath that cold Vulcan exterior, and Lenard captures the delicate balance perfectly. Sarek’s denial is entirely believable and completely heart-breaking.

Being diplomatic about it...

Being diplomatic about it…

That said, the episode belongs to Patrick Stewart. Stewart is easily the strongest member of the show’s ensemble. In fact, there’s a credible argument to made that Stewart is the best actor ever to appear in Star Trek. He absolutely knocks his scenes out of the park, including the wonderful sequence near the end of the episode where Picard takes all of Sarek’s emotions unto himself, lending the ambassador some of his poise and dignity.

Sarek hits on something that’s been implicit from Encounter at Farpoint. Although there are no Vulcan regulars on The Next Generation, Picard is the show’s Spock character. He’s the disciplined and restrained lead. Picard’s self-control and repression is so strong that it allows Sarek to pull himself together in order to host those negotiations. Picard’s stoic nature is explicitly compared to that of a Vulcan.

Feeing run deep...

Feeing run deep…

Indeed, Sarek offers a nice bit of foreshadowing as well, as Picard reflects on the debilitating effects of ageing. “It’s ironic, isn’t it?” he muses. “All this magnificent technology and we find ourselves still susceptible to the ravages of old age. The loss of dignity, the slow betrayal of our bodies by forces we cannot master.” This seems particularly ironic, given that Picard would undergo similar deterioration in the future presented in the show’s final episode, All Good Things

Although Sarek unfolds entirely on the Enterprise, it is worth pausing note the wonderful lighting and set design at work here. In the third season, the show has been a lot more comfortable to play with darker sets and more atmospheric lighting. Quite a lot of the Enterprise can seem over-lit, even if the show’s production values are strong enough that this isn’t a problem in the way that it would be on eighties Doctor Who, for example.

A work of (Moz)art...

A work of (Moz)art…

Still, it’s nice to get that sort of contrast, and Sarek‘s recycled sets look suitably atmospheric and impressive. It’s not as extreme as the changes made for Yesterday’s Enterprise, but its till creates a sense of the Enterprise as more than just a series of standing sets. Marvin Rush’s cinematography is absolutely beautiful, and it’s this style of work that would make the more atmospheric approach used on Star Trek Deep Space Nine possible.

Sarek is an absolutely wonderful and an affecting piece of Star Trek.

Read our reviews of the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

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