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.