“Ambassador Sarek”: Sarek


Ambassador Sarek.
This episode should not exist.

I don't mean there are thematic decisions I disagree with, or there are narrative framing problems, or even that the story is morally, ethically or politically indefensible: Indeed, at its heart this is a wonderfully moving story about aging and a loss of self and identity, as every critic on the face of the planet to cover this franchise who isn't me has already duly noted. I mean the entire ethos of this story, from conception to execution, is predicated on the demands of Hollywood business networking rather than good creative or storytelling sense. It is the most depressingly obvious of cynical pandering, and the fact the actual episode turned out to be this good is actually an incidental nonissue, albeit one that that shows how heroic the writing staff was and how connected to their series they had become by this point, whether willingly or not.

The sad thing is this still keeps my from enjoying it.

Mark Lenard recalls how Gene Roddenberry came to him with the idea do this episode after he visited the offices one day, telling him “you know, it's about time Sarek comes back! After all, Vulcans age very slowly”. This is the same Gene Roddenberry, it should be noted, who had made it expressly clear that there was to be absolutely *no* crossover between Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation, even going so far as to place an outright moratorium on even *referencing* the Original Series because of his firm, and absolutely fucking correct, belief that the new show needed to stand on its own without constantly leaning on its illustrious predecessor. If nothing else this was, after all “the next generation”, and should be focused on attracting people who were not already established Star Trek fans; “the next generation” of people to grow up on the series' utopian values ideals, as it were. But values and ideals, it would seem, last only until a respected veteran actor shows up on your doorstop and you decide you need to do a little schmoozing.

But I mean Mark Lenard is a great actor, obviously, and even if the decision to cast him was business motivated, that doesn't mean the episode had to be a write-off or that the character you're going to have him play absolutely *needs* to be the one who it just so happens the most obsessively fannish contingent of your audience is going to recognise and expect. I don't see any reason the show couldn't have had Lenard fill just about any role they could have thrown his way-It didn't *have* to be literally Sarek again. Hell, even if you *explicitly wanted* to invoke the Original Series you didn't need to do that: Diana Muldaur had a stellar tenure on Star Trek: The Next Generation playing someone who quite plainly *wasn't* Ann Mulhall, Thalassa, Miranda Jones or Bones McCoy yet who successfully stood in for all of them to serve a more nuanced narrative role. Doctor Katherine Pulaski belongs to Star Trek: The Next Generation; Ambassador Sarek does not.

(On top of that, I'm still deeply annoyed personally that Lenard is best remembered for Sarek when for me the Romulan Commander from “Balance of Terror” is and always will be his definitive role. As it so happens Lenard himself agreed with me, and he will thankfully get one more chance to return to the magic of that one powerful rendez-vous, but it will take until Star Trek: Deep Space Nine for him to do it and he'll have to write the damn thing himself.)

I want everyone to ask yourselves this question: If this story had been made completely as-is, but with Sarek's role being played by some one-off ambassador character, would it still be considered the timeless masterpiece that it is? It's not too far our of the realm of possibility: Writer Marc Cushman apparently pitched, at Roddenberry's request, two versions of this story-One with Sarek and one with a Vulcan character we didn't have any previous knowledge of or attachment to. I'm not talking about the *effectiveness* of the story per se, though that was certainly a concern: Michael Piller does note how the usage of a beloved established character emphasized the notion that “even the greatest of men is subject to mental illness”, and I'd extrapolate that to also say that it made the story's point more palpable to a certain kind of Star Trek fan. It does touch on that talk between Riker and Data way back in “The Bonding” about how we feel loss more deeply if it's of someone close to us. But that's not what I'm interested in here, I'm talking purely about reception and legacy.

Because while the story itself may be a good and important one about mental illness and aging, the fact that it's Sarek dwarfs everything else. The episode's themes really ought to be the draw here, but I think the reason it has the reputation it does is not because it's a touching mature take on a subject matter a great many of us may face, but because Sarek is in it and that it's happening to Sarek. He, and by association all the retroactive baggage from the Original Series he brings with him, becomes the attraction, rather than the plot, and that's a true shame when the plot is as sophisticated as it is. Sarek's presence does precisely what Gene Roddenberry in his more cogent moments feared it would and overshadows the work the rest of the show is trying to do. Just look at the episode's title, possibly the most banal and uncreative in the entire history of the franchise: Just his name, nothing more, nothing less, because that's all they figure they need to grab their audiences hook, line and sinker. And, depressingly, they're right.

Speaking of Gene Roddenberry, it is worth mentioning the other reading “Sarek” tends to be afforded in mainline Trek discourse, which is that it's really about, at least at an unconscious level, Roddenberry's own deteriorating health. It is somewhat telling, as Michael Piller also points out, that Roddenberry gave this story the go-ahead just as his own faculties were beginning to fade. Piller says of that time that “it was clear that he was no longer the same man that he had been”. And there is a certain poignant truth to this, knowing that Roddenberry only has a year or so left to live and that in a few months he'll be openly imploring Piller to stay on essentially as his heir apparent. It is *also* worth keeping in mind, however, that the interview in which he says this, alongside a rather uncharacteristically glowing tribute, came shortly *after* Roddenberry's death and not long before the title of Roddenberry's heir apparent decisively falls to Rick Berman, though he and Piller share it for a few years in the interim.

But that bit of necessary reflection aside, the thing about “Sarek” as an episode is that it is, by its very definition, inescapably fanwanky. And this is a very, very bad thing. Ron Moore and Ira Behr did a page one rewrite, and Behr talks about the long and bloody battle he had to go through to sneak in a name-drop of Spock. Of which, Behr has to say:
“I broke open the barrier and made it possible for The Next Generation to use names like Spock on-screen. That was a major taboo when I got there. No way could you mention the original Star Trek characters. It took days and days of arguing to slip in a single reference to Spock. So I like to think in my own sort of incoherent way I helped start to push open the door to what was a very, very closed and narrow franchise.”
Which to me is just appallingly, distressingly, hurtfully wrong on just about every single level. Star Trek: The Next Generation wasn't “narrow” because it didn't allow itself to reference the Original Series all the time, actually, the exact *opposite* of that: A franchise that does nothing except constantly reference itself (or rather, the most iconic iteration of itself) and where the same twenty or so people show up everywhere in every major historical event in the universe is unsustainably and destructively incestuous. That is the perfect recipe for something Nerds and *only* Nerds will watch, and that's fatal to a show like this. Those boundaries were a good idea and the only reason Behr doesn't think they are is because he doesn't like Star Trek: The Next Generation but *does* like the Original Series and wants to be allowed to fannishly name-check it and invoke its structure all the time. But Behr gets his wish, and, as he said, “Sarek” is the episode that broke the doors down between the generations such that the universe of Star Trek can get far more self-referential and fanwanky.

And fanwank is precisely the reason Star Trek isn't around today, so good job and thanks a lot.


Jacob Nanfito 5 years, 10 months ago

But didn't the pilot for this show feature Bones? I seem to remember you weren't bothered by that at all. So couldn't we say that it was "Encounter..." that broke the doors between generations down?

I don't disagree with your points or your take on this. However, I've never been bothered by Sarek or any other TOS characters in TNG ... but I kind of view this show through my 12-year-old-self lenses, when I thought appearances and references like this were cool.

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Josh Marsfelder 5 years, 10 months ago

That's certainly Behr's argument. He said he didn't understand why there was such a moratorium on references when Bones was in the pilot.

I think my response would be that "Encounter at Farpoint" was special. It was Star Trek: The Next Generation before it had been established in a sense justifying its existence to a world in which Star Trek could only mean the Original Series: That bit of torch passing was needed there so Bones' appearance made sense, but Sarek being here is entirely inappropriate in my opinion because the torch doesn't need to be passed anymore (TNG should unquestionably have it by now) and that's not even what this episode is about in the first place: Sarek's not here for any other reason then just to be Sarek and bait the Trekker contingent.

And remember also that Bones was never mentioned by name in "...Farpoint": If you'd seen the Original Series, you'd know who he was and get something special out of it, but if you didn't you could just enjoy Brent Spiner bantering with DeForest Kelley and be none the wiser nor lesser for it. In my post on "...Farpoint" I even said something along the lines of "I shouldn't like this and this shouldn't work but it does here for very specific reasons and circumstances".

This episode, by contrast, I don't think works at all if you don't know who Sarek is and are deeply invested in him as a character from the Original Series. You *have* to be a hardcore Star Trek fan to appreciate this episode where you don't necessarily with "Encounter at Farpoint".

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Adam Riggio 5 years, 10 months ago

You make a solid point about the problem of Star Trek canon and the dangers of fanwank slowly growing within the franchise. As a lifelong Doctor Who fan as well, I understand its dangers, as fanwank has contributed to serious damage to that franchise four separate times, by my count, in its history. The first and most damaging instance was the influence of Ian Levine on the production of the actual show during the mid-1980s, and twice during the Wilderness years to produce some of the worst novels and audio plays of that time period, some unfortunate books like Legacy in the Virgin Publishing years, and the most ridiculous of the Sabbath Arc in the BBC Books period, and the Zagreus 40th anniversary audio.

A franchise the size of Star Trek or Doctor Who can only breathe and actually be creative again when its central figures just throw off the weight of continuity and make stories and characters because they're interesting and fun. This is the purpose of my own little fanfic experiments in Star Trek imagination that I'm running on my blog the occasional Saturday.

Speaking one more time as a Doctor Who fan, the problem of continuity and fanwank's spectre is still a factor in the way of getting people into the show. I've met quite a few people who have heard wonderful things about Doctor Who, but are intimidated by the depth of its history: I have to work really hard to convince them that they don't have to watch the entire 51 (35) years of television to understand what's going on. It's a show that works best when the only story continuity that really matters is that season or the past couple of seasons.

If the creative minds behind Star Trek can get themselves into that headspace, they'll be able to create another renaissance for that franchise, just as began with TNG.

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Josh Marsfelder 5 years, 10 months ago

I am also obligated to mention Dirty Pair, which explicitly and openly reboots its universe and continuity every single incarnation. The TV series, the OVA series, the novels and each individual movie all exist in their own separate story continuities, and you can enjoy one perfectly well without knowing a thing about any of the others.

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K. Jones 5 years, 10 months ago

It's inarguably fanwanky.

Though it's not as if Mark Lenard's Sarek was long forgotten - he'd been in the films all along, after all, nearly concurrent with this appearance.

My big thing is not that it makes a good show of the effect of aging and losing identity and mental faculties, though they're all potent things to discuss in a utopian future setting with longer lifespans and whatever. My big thing is the deterioration of your father.

Of the Enterprise crew we've met only one father - Riker's, and he's a virile older guy. Worf and Wesley's fathers are dead, and so is Deanna's. Picard's is still unknown to us though we know his mother has passed on. Geordi's, Beverly's, and O'Brien's are entirely nonexistent at this point.

Telling this story with a father of one of our core protagonists seems like a no-brainer (Imagine we'd gotten Suzie Plakson's Selar to stick around and it was her dad, for instance!). Instead we get it told with the most "dad" dad in Star Trek, a dad from another series. And good for them they wrote the crap out of it so that there's emotional resonance. They make a pretty damn good Picard episode out of it with some nice "ah, look, a TOS guest star" moments from the ensemble. And Spock not being there ironically jives with the relationship between them established back in Journey to Babel.

So it's either Spock's story told in the wrong venue or a missed opportunity, an inelegant attempt for the TNG cast. The fact it's as good as it is goes straight to the rapport and acting skill of Stewart and Lenard - there is no relationship, so they had to build one. And trust to those guys' performances, they built it.

Anyway part of what excited me about Star Trek is that they do well balancing accessibility with nostalgia. A critical eye can be drawn down hard on some of the examples, some of the reverence for the source material, the trite and precious ways the expansive universe gets incestuous, sure. But that's all of fiction - "continuity" is just another word for "to be continued". Logic demands that if every ship called Enterprise is always the flagship, it might meet the same dignitaries. And that's just internal story logic. Metatextual logic demands that when you call something "Next Generation", you're probably going to have to acknowledge the "Previous Generation". Like any movement (I think of art movements), one is a reaction to the one previous.

We'll cross this hurdle again when we get to Blood Oath, I imagine.

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Strejda 3 years, 5 months ago

I promised myself I won't comment on the se old reviews, but I just can't help myself, partly due to your childish comment at the end.

Yes, constant self-referencing is a problem. That's not what refusing to acknowledge existance of franchise's history at all is. In season one or two, yes, that would be a mistake, but in season 3? I am sorry, but that IS narrow-minded.

Sarek's role in the story elevates it, because we have seen all those great things first hand. The story does work well without it, but it's in no way a flaw.

As for fanwank somehow killing the franchise: How? Voyager distancing itself from any familiar setting of the franchise? Enterprise being a prequel never mattering until season 4 with exception of rare instances of random fanservice? NO. It was continuing refusal to modernize its storytelling, lack of new ideas and resolve to adolescent gimmicks and writers being either inexperienced or running out ideas for a project they had no passion towards, due to restriction on what they wanted to do. Not making one episode in hundred about a returning character from one of the most iconic fictional works in history.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 3 years, 5 months ago

It's OK. I get the e-mail notifications of these, not Josh, so he literally has no idea you're here.

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Strejda 3 years, 5 months ago

Thank you, I but it's more about leaving comments on something old period. I thought you two were actually the same person. BTW, I regret callinfg his accusation "childish". It was a word I wanted to use in different context at first and kept it out of OUTRAGE!!!. I still find his claim insulting and wrongheaded though.

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Josh Marsfelder 3 years, 4 months ago

I do now.

Enterprise was cancelled in its last season partly because it had become too fanwanky. Only hardcore fans were watching it, and only then out of a sense of obligation. The ratings were tanking, and it's hard not to see that as at least part of the reason why.

I maintain TNG got far too self-referential. If TNG fans thought the theme song to Star Trek V was from their show and not from the film series, that says something. The more you do this sort of thing, the smaller and smaller your potential audience becomes. Hence, Enterprise. And, by the looks of it, this new show.

Perhaps my comment was childish. Not as childish as grimdark and fanwank though.

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