Spock’s father Sarek plays a major role in CBS’s television revival Star Trek: Discovery. Set 10 years before the events of Star Trek: The Original Series, Discovery’s strongest link to the classic TV show is through Sarek, a recurring character on the 1966-1969 classic. Not merely appearing in cameo, Sarek will play an integral role as the adoptive father of lead character Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green). So, if you want to dig a little deeper into Sarek’s background to get a sense of the Vulcan ambassador before the series debuts, you’ll definitely want to check out a standout episode from the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, titled simply “Sarek.”
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Debuting May 14, 1990, TNG’s “Sarek” was written by one-time Trek TV scribe Peter S. Beagle and directed by franchise veteran Les Landau. The episode was hugely significant for boasting, as the title suggests, an appearance from Sarek actually played by Mark Lenard, the actor who originated the role of Spock’s father. It was of major importance because, early in TNG’s run, it was a part of the doctrine that the show couldn’t reference The Original Series too often. So to have an actual former TOS actor appear as a character he previously portrayed was — as former Vice President Joe Biden would put it — a big f-ing deal. And boy, did it ever deliver with one heck of a TOS reference (which we’ll get to later …)
The episode sees Lenard’s Sarek (and his second wife, Perrin) beam aboard the Enterprise to carry out mission that specifically requires his participation as a highly skilled, and highly respected, diplomat. However, there are soon signs that, in contrast with the stoic, logical Vulcan the United Federation of Planets has come to expect, Sarek is no longer in control of his emotions. He displays moments of irrational anger, and, in a wonderfully directed sequence, unusually depressing behaviour as he tears up during a performance of classical music.
But beyond that, Sarek’s presents aboard the Enterprise is causing the crew to act out, leading to several disputes. In one of the most memorable moments of the series, young Wesley Crusher calls out Geordi La Forge for only being able to get women on the Holodeck (sick burn, Wesley). Connecting the dots, Picard realizes Sarek’s presence is what’s causing the emotional disturbance of his crew. Confronting Sarek, the Vulcan ambassador at first refuses to accept he’s causing any harm, until it’s revealed that one of his Vulcan aides is using his own psychic ability to contain Sarek’s emotional outbursts. As a result, Sarek and Picard agree to mind-meld so the captain can carry out the diplomatic mission.
The mind-meld results in a powerful sequence in which Picard experience more than a century of the emotional turmoil Sarek has endured over the course of his life. Wonderfully acted by Patrick Stewart, Picard reacts in extreme anger, sadness and joy at the life of Sarek. And, in a glorious unprecedented moment, Picard utters the word “Spock,” likely referring to an emotional moment between the Vulcan legend and his father. It wasn’t until the Season 5 episode “Unification” that we actually see Spock on TNG (which was admittedly disappointing), but this little moment in “Sarek” was cool as hell.
Sarek’s initial refusal to accept any emotional flaws on his part is a wonderful allegory for the rejection — and denial — of aging. It plays almost like a metaphor for Alzheimer’s as Sarek is unable to comprehend the degeneration of his mind, until he has to come to terms with the fact that his mental capacity can no longer handle the tasks he was once able to do. It’s a powerful message about growing old, and serves as one of Star Trek’s greatest statements on the subject since 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
“Sarek” stands out as one of TNG’s best episodes, and holds up damn well after all these years. It’s definitely worth a revisit in light of Sarek’s role on Discovery, and just because it’s a masterful piece of science-fiction television that offers an introspective statement on the pains of aging. While it says a lot about Sarek’s importance in the franchise as a character for new Trek fans and serves as great fan-service for longtime Trek viewers, it’s also a good entry point for newcomers to the franchise who might want a taste of the series at its finest.
In the United States, Star Trek: Discovery debuts Sunday, September 24 on CBS, before moving to the CBS All Access streaming service for follow-up weekly installments. In Canada, the series debuts on CTV and Space at 8:30 pm ET, with its second episode set to air immediately after on Space — subsequent episodes will air Sundays through November 5. Internationally, the series will stream on Netflix.
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