Vulcan Ambassador Sarek hitches a ride on the flagship, on his way to finalise some long-standing diplomatic arrangements, but soon after his arrival, tempers start to fray among the crew.
Somewhere around this episode, and somewhat overdue, someone on the writing staff remembered that they hired a brilliant Shakespearean actor to play the captain of the Enterprise, and they started to think of stories that would take full advantage of Patrick Stewart's rich acting range. (No disrespect to the rest of the crew, all actors I'm fond of, but only Brent Spiner - and, outside the regulars, Whoopi Goldberg - comes anywhere near the depth and range of Patrick Stewart, and even he can't hold a candle to Stewart in full flow).
This story matches Stewart with another very skilled actor, Mark Lenard, who was always great as Sarek, but whose very first Star Trek performance as an unnamed Romulan commander in the original series' 'Balance of Terror' is probably his most impressive contribution to the show before this instalment. Both do terrific work, in opposite ways. Lenard's performance is beautifully subtle, as for a Vulcan, even an emotional breakdown is subtle. Sarek is basically suffering from Vulcan Alzheimer's and both Lenard and Joanna Miles as Sarek's wife Perrin touchingly convey the heartbreak of the slow death that comes with such a disease, and the horrifying feeling of losing yourself or watching a loved one slip away with no way to stop it.
Stewart gets to go to the opposite extreme following Picard's mind meld with Sarek that allows him temporarily to take on the Vulcan's feelings which Sarek can no longer repress. He is able to go all out in a frenzy of released emotion, complete with tears, gasping for breath and prolonged anguish, and he does it magnificently. For the first time in the series, Stewart gets the chance to produce a really theatrical (in a good way) performance, and it is spell-binding to watch.
The episode isn't perfect. For such a logical race, the Vulcans really should have realised far sooner than they did that Sarek could not possibly pull off a diplomatic mission in his current state. The Vulcan need for extreme privacy is an impressively consistent characteristic and one that can make for good drama, but sometimes it does seem to be in direct conflict with their love of logic. The way the crew start to experience extreme negative emotions is also a little two-dimensional and mostly seems to involve everyone being really nasty to each other for no reason, though it does give us Wesley sniping at Geordie about his holodeck girlfriend from a few episodes ago, which is quite entertaining.
Overall, though, this is an episode that lives or dies by the performances of the lead actors, and they hold it up with aplomb. After this, the writers generally ensured that Patrick Stewart was able to stretch his acting wings in some way at least once a season, and it is always worth waiting for and more than worth watching.
Bits and pieces
- This is The Next Generation's first major crossover episode, following Deforest Kelley's appearance in the pilot. Sarek's famous son Spock does not appear himself, but he is mentioned several times, and of course, Sarek appeared in the original series, the animated series and a couple of the original movies as well.
- Picard says he met Sarek once, a long time ago, "at his son's wedding". Wait, what? Sybock is long dead - did Sarek have another son whose wedding Picard went to? Or does Spock have a wife at this point? Are there novels to plug this gap?
- Throughout the original series, the writers sometimes implied that Vulcans were physically incapable of feeling emotions (such as the moment in Star Trek IV when Amanda tells Spock he has emotions because he is half-human), at other times they suggested that Vulcans chose, as a species, to repress all their emotions. This episode confirms the repression model, which has remained more or less consistent since (including in the new movies).
- Crusher stays with Picard to support him as the ship's doctor, but the fact that it's her there is also rather sweet and there's a tenderness to the way she looks after him that goes beyond just a doctor/patient relationship.
Perrin (to Picard): My husband has taken an interest in your career. He finds it to be satisfactory.
Picard: My word! High praise from a Vulcan.
Picard: He loves you. Very much.
Perrin: I know. I have always known.
An excellent and heart-rending episode held together by a stunning performance. Four out of four Vulcan tears.
Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.
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