Tuesday, August 27, 2013

"It has been said that social occasions are only warfare concealed.": Journey to Babel

"If you want to know how to run a meeting, you consult 'Rooster's Rules of Order'".

“Journey to Babel” is the most iconic and beloved of D.C. Fontana's Star Trek scripts, and also apparently her favourite. It's not difficult to see why, as its strengths are in the very things fans love most about Star Trek: Character development and world-building. I don't personally consider it either her best work or my favourite thing she'll ever contribute to the franchise (we have to wait for the second phase of her career for those), but it is certainly the best script of hers we've seen on the Original Series so far, and a convincing claim could be made it's her best effort of the entire show.

Primarily, of course, “Journey to Babel” comes out of a vested interest in characters. Most obviously Spock, and, to be precise, his family history. Fontana took a few lines from previous episodes about Spock's mother being human and a schoolteacher and his father being an ambassador and wrote a story designed to explore the triangular relationship and tension between them. Fontana was very interested in what kind of a human woman would willingly marry a Vulcan, what their half-human, half-Vulcan son would experience growing up and what effect this would have on the person he grew up to be. This is a fact that would be worthwhile to take note of, because it's emblematic of a very particular approach to character development that I think Fontana is especially interested in, and it seems to define the way Star Trek among other kinds of television shows handles this. The way I see it, there are at least two major ways to go about characterization (naturally, there are more than this but to simplify things I'm just going to talk about what I find to be two basic categories different tacks and tactics can be more or less squeezed in to).

The first takes a character who has a specific worldview and personality borne out of a specific positionality and is predominantly interested in seeing how they respond to a given situation, be it widespread event, an interaction with another character or so on and so forth. The second is more interested in constructing a meticulous fictional biography of the character based on, among other things, throwaway lines in other episodes, and using that to construct a comprehensive profile and life history of this character as a person. To put it another way, the first approach can be summarised as “What is this character like and how do they react to the story of the week?” while the latter can be summarised as “Why does this character think the things they think and act the way they do?”. “Journey to Babel” is very much in the latter style, and I have a feeling this is the style D.C. Fontana prefers on the whole, at least at this stage in her career. It's also the style that is most clearly identifiable with Star Trek.

Now obviously both are valid ways of doing character development. On the whole I do prefer the first approach to the second myself, but both are equally worthwhile and valuable. What's more interesting to note here I argue is that, to be frank, the second approach is essentially character development by fanwank. This is not by definition a bad thing, but it does seem to be the structure in place here: Both forgo operating in the present moment to taking specific, typically unrelated, details, connecting them together and extrapolating backward in an attempt to create a definitive narrative of something. Furthermore, both are hallmarks of Cult Sci-Fi and both seem right at home in Star Trek. While we're still a little under half a season before it becomes eminently clear the Original Series is manifestly Cult Sci-Fi, the trappings that would reveal it as such are starting to become noticeable: It barely got renewed, references to past stories are starting to become more prevalent, there is a ridiculously passionate fanbase that is as dedicated as it is miniscule (even though they've yet to fully bring their voices together in a chorus) and it seems to now be operating by Cult Sci-Fi logic.

What makes this all the more interesting is that I'm not sure “Cult Sci-Fi” is a thing that exists yet in 1968, at least in the US: Raumpatrouille Orion suffered a similar fate to the original Star Trek in West Germany, but it absolutely did not work like what we'd call a Cult Sci-Fi show today, even though its fans most definitely comprise a cult. Doctor Who is known for being a Cult Sci-Fi show, but it won't achieve that status until the 1980s and it can really only be called that for about twenty years or so of its history (a blink of an eye in grand-scale franchise Soda Pop Art terms). Star Trek, by contrast, starts as Cult Sci-Fi and stays there forever, and in a world where “Cult Sci-Fi” isn't a genre yet to boot. This is what's so important about the Original Series-In many ways it is the maker and Ur example of an entire category of fiction (though it is crucial to stress *only* the Original Series: The spinoffs are something else entirely).

One might assume, given all this talk of fanwank, Cult Sci-Fi and world-building, that the unique and distinctive extraterrestrial cultures introduced in “Journey to Babel” and brought to life through its lavish costumery and prosthetics (and Fontana's savvy decision to set the whole episode on the Enterprise thus allowing the entire budget to go into designing the guest stars) are the most important things about it. However, no matter how memorable the Andorians and the Tellarites are and how important they're going to be to the franchise in the future (not to mention the equally distinctive unnamed races who show up), the fact is the entire political and diplomatic machinations plot is a loose framework for Fontana to drape her story about Spock, Sarek and Amanda over. Which is all well and good, as there are a number of surprisingly noticeable plot holes that detract from it significantly: Namely, it's not clear why an Orion operative was skilled enough in Vulcan tal-shaya to use it to expertly dispatch someone, or for that matter why framing Sarek was necessary to the plan, and I'm not sure Spock's hypothesizing of the Orion's motives in the denouement would technically have been enough to legally absolve Sarek of suspicion, which is something he probably should have caught.

As one would expect, the characters, both the main and guest casts, are handled expertly here. What's most interesting to me is that every character is simultaneously right and wrong: Sarek and Spock's preference for detached logic and adherence to regulations is obviously vital to the resolution of the crises, even though it puts strain on McCoy and Amanda. By contrast, Amanda's devotion to Sarek and the value she places in human compassion is also a self-evidently correct attitude, even if it makes decision-making difficult (and here it's interesting to note Fontana depicts Vulcan as an expressly patriarchal society through how it manifests in Sarek and Amanda's relationship, which also handily manages to retroactively redeem the one real annoying thing about “Amok Time”). Meanwhile, Kirk's loyalty to Spock and the Enterprise, and McCoy's to his patients are also commendable, even as they come into conflict. While his character is pulled in other directions in this episode, this also remains an echo of Spock's ability to act as a microcosm for the show due to his hybrid human and Vulcan parentage. Although McCoy “gets the last word” in an actually kind of amazing bit of fourth wall awareness in the final shot, “Journey to Babel” on the whole provides a far more nuanced resolution to the logic vs. emotions debate: Namely, by setting it aside and freely admitting both positions have merit and are worth holding to.

The actors too are in fine form-Leonard Nimoy is predictably brilliant, as is William Shatner: Kirk's most memorable scene for me here is his attempts to console Spock on the bridge, to Spock's evasiveness (Shatner's signature subtle overstatement conveys Kirk's mixed emotions beautifully). While Mark Lenard handles himself quite well as a Vulcan, Sarek will never have the haunting, elegiac power the Romulan Commander in “Balance of Terror” did for me, and the real standout in my opinion is Jane Wyatt as Amanda Grayson. Amanda is arguably the first time a female character in Star Trek has been allowed a lengthy sequence where she asserts her agency and gets validated for it from an expressly female perspective, albeit that of a mother, and Wyatt absolutely runs with the opportunity (despite, like William Windom in “The Doomsday Machine” not taking Star Trek at all seriously). It took Fontana long enough to be allowed to write a character and a scene like that, but now that she finally has the chance she proves she's gangbusters at it, as we ultimately always suspected she would be.

But this is not to say the bits of “Journey to Babel” not expressly part of the Spock/Sarek/Amanda story are entirely forgettable or not worth taking the time to look at: The fact that the Andorians and Tellarites do, in fact, become major aspects of future Star Trek and are considered iconic enough to be seen as unique signifiers of the franchise in the pop consciousness would seem to indicate they were particularly memorable parts of this episode. And indeed they are: Apart from the makeup and costume, the actual guest actors are all universally excellent and deliver distinct, standout performances. Of special note here is Reggie Nalder, who does wonders with Ambassador Shras, turning a bit part into a strong, likeable personality.

More importantly from our perspective, however, at least the perspective of the future, is that “Journey to Babel”'s political subplots mark the first time the actual governing structure of the Federation (not Starfleet) is explored in any detail. What we have here is the beginning of an idea that is both new to Star Trek in 1968 and also predominantly associated with it: The United Federation of Planets, as we know it today. Remember while we've had the Federation since way back in “Arena”, it's been loosely defined at best, and there was never any concrete evidence it actually extended beyond Earth and its colonies. Here, though, it's something much larger and more complex: An alliance of multiple spacefaring civilizations from around the galaxy united by shared beliefs, principles and exchange of goods and ideas.This, the way everyone thinks of the Federation in Star Trek today, makes its first appearance in this episode and it's all D.C. Fontana's idea.

As we talked about a bit when last we discussed Fontana in “Friday's Child”, the concept of the Federation, even (actually, especially) the Federation as it exists as of “Journey to Babel”, is still heavily associated with particular tropes of Western-style representative democracy, and this actually may not be a good thing. The problems come when this ceases to be just a setting and becomes an idealized or utopian model we're supposed to strive for, which is how the UFP is typically read. Not to completely retread old ground, but as I brought up both in regards to “Friday's Child” and “The Apple”, the US style of representative democracy the Federation is explicitly modeled on (though here it does swerve closer to the United Nations but still, you know, they're in many ways the same kind of thing) doesn't actually work all that well, as anyone currently living with “representatives” reflexively pushing big corporate interests and operating under and devastating economics of growth and disaster can probably attest. At it's best its proved to be unsustainable and at its worst it's the terrifyingly destructive poster child for modern neo-imperialism.

But this mostly becomes an issue when idealism becomes more of a driving creative force for Star Trek and the purpose and meaning of the Federation change over the history of the franchise: This isn't actually what Fontana is getting at with “Journey to Babel”. We're not meant to pay attention to the ins and outs of Federation policy (or at least any more attention than strictly necessary for the functional purposes of the narrative), and the whole reason for why the admittance of the Coridan planets is a matter of dispute is never elaborated on (nor should it have been: One of the episode's best lines in when Kirk says “The issues of the council are politically complex” and that many of the races represented “...have strong personal reasons for keeping Coridan out of the Federation.” and never really goes into any more detail than that). The summit story is transparently there to give Ambassador Sarek a reason to be on the Enterprise, but it's handled and executed well enough it doesn't feel like it's just an excuse either. The scenes where Kirk is making small-talk and trying to keep the delegates from starting fights with each other is delightful to watch, and it fulfills Gene Coon's challenge to him from “The Metamorphosis” to remember he was trained as a diplomat as well as a soldier.

And really there's not a whole lot to say more about “Journey to Babel” then that: It's straightforwardly solid and a deserved classic that lays important groundwork for the future of the franchise. Now that we're reasonably certain Star Trek is actually going to *get* some kind of a future, it's time to start work on defining what that future might look like.


  1. Another excellent and thought provoking post. I'm getting a little tired of being so impressed by your work and thinking. ;)

    Tracing how the Federation is conceived in its public image is one of the fascinating aspects of Star Trek in popular culture that I'm looking forward to seeing you explore. When I was a child, I think the image of the Federation as a representative democracy with some kind of federal or confederal structure was part of the faith I had in that system of government as an actual ideal. It was one of the sad parts of growing up that I had to accept its corruption, but I don't think the failures of our own democracy necessarily damns the whole approach. We live in a corrupt world where our politicians can be bought by big corporate interests and usually are. But those are perversions of democratic ideals, and I think the public image of the Federation does speak to a genuine truth that democracy is at heart a good idea.

    I have one reservation, however, which amounts to making a big deal over one of your throwaway lines.

    "Amanda is arguably the first time a female character in Star Trek has been allowed a lengthy sequence where she asserts her agency and gets validated for it from an expressly female perspective, albeit that of a mother."

    This is difficult for me to accept as a problem. I think it's part of the overcompensation that sometimes happens in revolutionary movements against the old way of doing things. Women are often conceived as being only and exclusively mothers, and that totality and exclusivity of motherhood is wrong. But I worry that your "albeit" implies a devaluation of motherhood, a conclusion that motherhood is valueless, or that it's only a means of oppression. I think one of the reasons I and most of my good friends have turned out as non-shittily as we have, is because of the positive role models women, particularly our mothers, have played in our lives. A friend of mine is finishing her PhD at University of Oregon on the virtues of motherhood and parenthood from a specifically feminist perspective. She's a sharp thinker, an impressive philosophical speaker, a remarkably ethical person, and a fantastic parent to her two children.

    For all these reasons, I hesitate when it seems that someone may vilify an admirable set of qualities because those qualities have been perverted and corrupted by a patriarchal worldview to suppress and harm people. There's a significant difference between "We will not ONLY be mothers" and "We will not be mothers."

    1. "When I was a child, I think the image of the Federation as a representative democracy with some kind of federal or confederal structure was part of the faith I had in that system of government as an actual ideal. It was one of the sad parts of growing up that I had to accept its corruption, but I don't think the failures of our own democracy necessarily damns the whole approach. We live in a corrupt world where our politicians can be bought by big corporate interests and usually are. But those are perversions of democratic ideals, and I think the public image of the Federation does speak to a genuine truth that democracy is at heart a good idea."

      I have a very similar story here: Growing up with Star Trek convinced me of the fundamental righteousness of representative democracy and one of the harshest lessons I learned as an adult was forcing me to come to terms with how naive that faith was. Where I differ from you is that I actually don't have confidence democracy is an essentially workable concept.

      There was an article on Cracked a few days ago ( this one, http://www.cracked.com/blog/7-reasons-news-looks-worse-than-it-really-is_p2/#ixzz2dI5aNKzR that mentions Star Trek and the Federation for good measure) that had a quote I'd like to paraphrase. In response to a hypothetical reader arguing that ideal communism was never given a chance, David Wong said "You can say that communism was never given a chance because countries like Russia and China were taken over by crazy assholes, but you have to understand that susceptibility to crazy assholes will always be one of the fundamental weaknesses of that system". Similarly, I'd say you can claim politicians being bought by corporate interests is a perversion of representative democracy, but you have to understand susceptibility to that kind of perversion is and always will be one of the fundamental weaknesses of that system.

      "I hesitate when it seems that someone may vilify an admirable set of qualities because those qualities have been perverted and corrupted by a patriarchal worldview to suppress and harm people. There's a significant difference between 'We will not ONLY be mothers' and 'We will not be mothers.'"

      As to this, I mean obviously this is perspective I was trying to get at with that sentence. Motherhood is certainly not inherently a set of experiences that lack value, though I would continue to stress it is a set that is linked to patriarchy in some troubling ways. That great patriarchal way of giving the impression you value women while actually belittling them is to celebrate motherhood and put it on a pedestal (go back and rewatch the 2011 Doctor Who Christmas special "The Doctor, the Witch and the Wardrobe" for a masterclass example in that).

      What I was trying to get at with Amanda is that it's great Star Trek finally has a female character asserting her agency, and while it may be from the perspective of a mother (which is, let's be honest, the easiest way for a woman to do so in a patriarchal world) this is still a very clear and laudable step forward.

  2. Despite the increasing tendency toward universalist rhetoric in packaging the Federation, the actual details made it clear throughout the franchise that it had its origins as a de facto Terran empire created by the Earth and its allies in the Kzin Wars. Even Vulcan was a junior partner. The fact that Starfleet HQ is in San Francisco, and most of the capital ships have names from Anglo-American maritime history, is telling.

    1. What's especially interesting and worthy of note here is that this background is established in The Animated Series, i.e., the only part of the franchise primarily overseen by D.C. Fontana and Dave Gerrold and also the only televised Star Trek series to be considered non-canon by mainstream fandom for most of its existence.

    2. It's also interesting if you contrast it with the origin of the Kzin, Niven's Known Space series. Which has serious, serious issues of its own, but one of the small number of things it gets basically right is that while humans do go out and colonize, it's almost entirely on otherwise uninhabitable worlds and they don't form an empire--the individual colonies appear to be politically independent. Indeed the only real empires in the setting (the Kzinti military empire and the Puppeteer trade empire) are pretty consistently portrayed negatively.

    3. Actually, I talk a lot about the Kzinti during my coverage of the Animated Series and in Volume 2: D.C. Fontana pulls Niven in to write for Star Trek and he fuses the two universes, leading to some really interesting repercussions.

  3. Honestly, I would actually place this episode more in the former "how will this character in act in this situation" form of development than the latter "characterization by fanwank" camp. There's a difference between continuity porn and "Hey, remember this? Well here's how it ALL FITS TOGETHER," and building upon tidbits that can logically (if you'll pardon the phrase) lead to a given story. Something like Spock's World (for all that it's excellent), or Kurt Busiek's exhaustive sorting out of Kang the Conqueror's timeline(s) in his Avengers run are more in line with the fanwank approach; but this episode is very plainly a "how will X act in Y situation", specifically "how will Spock react when his parents come to call?", and it's that opportunity to see this character in this new context that gives this episode its appeal. Hell, how many times has the "X's parents are coming to visit" story been done in countless other shows? :) Utilizing throwaway bits is just a writer making good use of potential storytelling opportunities, as opposed to building a grand tapestry of continutiy.

    All of that said, I do completely agree that TOS is more or less the Ur-cult show, which makes for a fascinating contrast considering the monolithic pop cultural touchstone it eventually becomes. Has any cult ever succeeded so wildly in spreading its gospel to the culture at large? I'd be hard pressed to think of one.

    1. Certainly Fontana is the least wankiest writer to attempt something like this the franchise will ever see. I'll admit to embellishing things a bit for rhetorical purposes here, but I maintain the core structure of these approaches is at least comparable (and there is also quite a lot of "how Spock is going to react here" in "Journey to Babel"-As I said in the piece I'm simplifying things significantly).

      "Has any cult ever succeeded so wildly in spreading its gospel to the culture at large? I'd be hard pressed to think of one."

      Perhaps Star Wars, though that's an eminently different sort of franchise. Additionally, I'll drop a hint that a major theme of this blog going forward is how Star Trek transforms from being Cult Sci-Fi into something very unique and special within Western pop fiction.

  4. I always felt like some of the agency that Amanda Grayson brought was a partial side-effect of that incredibly aristocratic voice. Whenever she speaks you can clearly sense her compassion and caring and understanding for Spock, as well as the familiarity of her frustration with her son and husband's stubbornness. But that dignified air of aristocracy and snobbery just lends her a sort of importance beyond self-importance, like we as a society are trained to respect our betters. Even Kirk and McCoy were caught in that thrall, being good old All-American space-men from their respective "sticks".

    Ambassador Shras spurs me every time I watch it. We got Amok Time, we got this episode, and a fair bit more on Vulcans by way of reputation, Romulans, and more. And then in a throwaway line Shras claims that the Andorians are the complete metaphoric opposites of Vulcans; a race governed by passion and emotion. A race that yields to their own impulses and seems to have come out alright (in spite of, later learning that they consider themselves a warrior culture, still have legal forms of dueling, were technically an empire, though not particularly benevolent or malevolent, and ironically for a "hot-blooded race" came from a world of ice.)

    I wanted more on the Andorians instantaneously. Warriors? Artisans? An Empire searching for beauty to bring home and craft into decadence? A really great species for Kirk and McCoy to interact with. It took a long time to get them, and it still wasn't enough. The casual admission of capability for violence, not depicted as "Evil"?

    The bit that stood out for me in this episode beyond Nimoy's absolutely perfect comedic timing, was seeing the Enterprise Shuttle Bay in such detail. I also believe it was the birthplace of the Vulcan salute, another piece of iconography that goes far beyond cult sci-fi into the Pop culture cloud.

    1. I really wish I had something more articulate to contribute other than being a pedant and saying the Vulcan salute was invented by Nimoy for "Amok Time" (as I believe I mentioned in my post for that episode).

      Fantastic comment otherwise, and a wonderful story.

  5. This quote "It has been said that social occasions are merely warfare concealed" is actually stated by the character "Khan" (Ricardo Montalban) in the episode "Space Seed," which spawned the very best of the Star Trek movies, "Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan."

    From memory, so I apologize for slight errors...

    Kirk: "You tend to express things in military terms, Mr. Khan. This is a social occasion."

    Khan: (Initially chuckles, softly) "It has been said social occasions are merely warfare concealed. Some prefer it more honest, more open."

    Kirk: "You fled! Why?? Were you afraid??"

    Khan: (Smugly) "I have never been afraid."

    Kirk: "But you left at the very time mankind needed//"

    Khan: (Slamming fist closed fist on the table) "We offered the World order!!!"

    Kirk: "We?"

    Khan: (Realizing he has been strategically manipulated by Kirk, he tips his proverbial hat to the manipulator) "Excellent. Excellent."