“Journey to Babel” has a solid suspense plot and a solid family drama plot, though it gets a bit overstuffed trying to pursue both. Thematically, though, its two strands fit together well enough, as rational patriarchy is presented as a justification for benevolent imperialism and vice versa.
The title is so misleading it might be considered a calculated deception. Though there are numerous alien races depicted, the promised chaotic conversation never materializes. There is a single path, and its nefarious, rebellious critics are dealt with in an efficient (and entertaining) manner.
Father Knows Best
The episode is set entirely aboard the Enterprise, which is transporting ambassadors to the planet Babel. There they will vote on the admission of the Coridan system to the Federation. The system is filled with dilithium crystals, which are vital for Federation warp drive technology, but it’s also underpopulated and undefended. That creates opportunities for smugglers and illegal miners, who will be out of luck if Coridan joins the Federation.
Among those who come aboard for the conference are Vulcan ambassador Sarek (Mark Lenard) and his human wife Amanda (Jane Wyatt.) Much to the surprise of Captain Kirk (William Shatner), it turns out that Sarek and Amanda are the parents of his first officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy.)
Spock and Sarek have been estranged for 18 years because of Spock’s decision to enter Starfleet rather than the Vulcan Science Academy. Vulcans are committed to logic, so the estrangement consists mostly of stiff stares and blankly raised eyebrows.
Ambassador Gav (John Wheeler) of Tellarite isn’t satisfied with such low-key conflict; he demands that Sarek tell him how he will vote. When Sarek finally admits he supports Coridan entrance into the Federation, Gav attacks him. Sarek knocks him back against the wall with a gesture, because Vulcans are just that cool. Less cool: Gav shows up murdered by a Vulcan neck-breaking technique (okay kind of cool.)
Sarek is the main suspect—though he’s barely accused before he has a Vulcan heart attack. Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) and Spock determine that a complicated operation is necessary, and Spock will have to provide transfusions which may kill him. Spock’s mom is horrified, but he tells her she is being emotional. She is annoyed, and who can blame her.
The Federation Knows Best
You’d think that would be enough for one 50-minute episode. But not nearly! While Sarek has been fighting and having heart attacks all over the place, the Enterprise has detected a mysterious communication. Also, there’s a fast, small, unidentified ship out at the end of sensor range shadowing them.
Plus! One guy associated with the Andorian delegation tries to kill Kirk out of the blue (literally, given Andorian skin color). Kirk knocks the assailant out, but not before he’s stabbed and his lung is punctured.
Kirk’s injury leaves Spock in command. And Spock is such a stickler for duty he won’t relinquish command for anything, not even to give his father a transfusion. Not even when his mom slaps him for being a stubborn Vulcan dope.
So Kirk decides that despite the punctured lung, he’s got to get Spock to save his dad. He staggers onto the bridge, fools Spock (who can be pretty unobservant at times) and is about to give ‘the conn' to Engineer Mr. Scott when communications officer Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) detects another unauthorized transmission. She traces it to the brig, where the Andorian who tried to kill Kirk, Thelev (William O’Connell) is being kept.
Thelev, it turns out, is not an Andorian, and has a transmitter in his fake Andorian antennae. He’s brought to the bridge, at which point the small ship attacks. It’s too fast to hit, and batters the Enterprise badly, nearly killing Sarek as he undergoes his dangerous operation.
Kirk sneakily pretends the Enterprise has been disabled, and the small ship comes closer, thinking it’s won. Then the Enterprise shoots and disables it. Caught, it self-destructs and Thelev poisons himself.
Sarek, in contrast, recovers. Spock is also fine, and tells Kirk he realized that the small ship’s energy signature was Orion. Orions are notorious smugglers; they were hoping to sow chaos among the delegations on the Enterprise in order to derail the talks and ensure continued dilithium theft.
The episode ends with Sarek and Spock apparently reconciled, joined by their mutual superiority to the emotional Amanda. “Why did you marry her?” Spock asks. To which a (logically) rueful Sarek responds, “At the time, it seemed the logical thing to do.”
Father and Federation Know Best
Vulcan culture is supposed to be perfectly logical and unemotional. It’s also supposed to be calm and nonviolent.
In practice, though, what we see of the interaction between Spock, Sarek, and Amanda suggests that on Vulcan, “logic” means “traditionally hierarchical.” Sarek, as Kirk comments, tends to order Amanda around without much regard for her feelings or preferences. As a wife, she’s subordinate.
Similarly, Sarek is disappointed in Spock because his son has defied his authority. Is it really logical to expect a child to pick a career based on their father’s preferences? Only if you assume that all logic is patriarchal logic. The issue isn’t rationality. The issue is the entitlement that Sarek feels is due to fathers.
Sarek’s argument for accepting the Coridan system into the Federation has a similar air of condescending paternalism. “Under Federation law, Coridan can be protected and its wealth administered for the benefit of its people,” he says. Notably absent from that rationale is any reference to what the people of Coridan do or don’t want. Do they have a say in this decision? Do they get a vote? Or, like Spock, are they simply supposed to acquiesce in whatever Sarek, by his logic, determines is the best decision for them?
The episode’s creators (writer D.C. Fontana and director Joseph Pevney) are a bit skeptical of Sarek’s righteousness. His treatment of Spock seems unfair, and Amanda’s frustration with the logic of the men in her life is relatable. “They are both stubborn,” Kirk says. Paternalism is inflexible and irritating, like the Federation dress uniforms that cause McCoy such bother. Is this formal rigidity really the only option for justice?
The answer, in the end, seems to be a somewhat reluctant but definite yes. Sarek never exactly validates Spock’s decision for Starfleet, and never admits he was wrong. Instead, the two are brought together by mutual devotion to a patriarchal paternalism that allows them to condescend to Amanda together.
The Orions, meanwhile, serve as the Federation’s chaotic, bad sons, driven by greed to spread anarchy. Coridan needs order; families need order. You can poke fun at those stiff-necked collars, but you have to admit they’re needed. In 1967, Star Trek sympathized a bit with rebellious kids—but only if their rebellion involved going into the wrong branch of the military service. More consequential violations of patriarchal authority, the show says, are simply illogical.
Rating 7.3/10 SPECS
All episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series are currently streaming on Paramount+.
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.