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Star Trek: "Metamorphosis" / "Journey To Babel"

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While the Enterprise's basic "search and explore" mission provides a lot of open ground for the writers, it does get a bit old to start each new episode with Kirk and the others taking readings off a brand new planet, right before the situation goes pear shaped. I'm not sure if that's the reason why "Metamorphosis" opens the way it does, with Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and a woman named Hedford in the Galileo shuttle-craft on their way home, but it's as good a reason as any. We don't even see the Enterprise until a good twenty minutes in, which gives the proceedings a certain unmoored quality; as though Kirk and his two best buds decided to play hooky for the week, and we get to tag along.

But the whole point of playing hooky is having fun, and with Hedford around, there's precious little chance of that happening. Another in a long line of pissy Starfleet officers, our miss is an assistant commissioner forced to leave her post due to health problems; she'd been brokering a peace treaty, so it's understandable that she'd be frustrated, but what isn't understandable is the way she takes that frustration out on anything that has the temerity to show concern or even moderate interest in her well-being. Kirk is charged with bringing her back to the Enterprise for treatment (stray thought: I wondered why the Enterprise didn't just come pick Hedford up itself, given how much time is of the essence here, but maybe those warring factions that Hedford is working to calm down wouldn't be too happy to see a big ass symbol of Starfleet authority show up in the middle of their war), and she's making him pay for every minute of it. It's one of the episode's weak spots; the show's never been much for strong women, and to have one of the few prominent career gals we see behave like the stereotypical cold shrew (a key plot point is that she's never had real love in her life) is distracting and tedious.

Thankfully, a space anomaly shows up to snatch the Galileo before things get too unpleasant. While Hedford continues to gripe (with McCoy joining in; the idiots don't seem to realize that when a sparkling cloud grabs you, you don't really have many options), the anomaly brings the shuttlecraft to one of those "wow, the atmosphere here is just like Earth's!" planets. I love how they make a point of mentioning this every once in a while; given that nobody ever wears a space suit on this series, isn't every planet Earth appropriate?

On this new, pink and purple world, the shuttle-craft lands, and won't rise again. McCoy finds signs that the space cloud has followed them to the planet's surface, but before anybody can work out what's going on, a man appears on the horizon. He calls himself Cochrane, and he's just delighted to meet everybody. He's especially delighted to meet Hedford, which he makes sure to point out to her numerous times in a creepy, "I'm going to refer to you as if you couldn't understand what I'm saying" way, like he's praising a horse to its owners. (Hedford's reactions are pretty hilarious; it's not quite outrage so much as a fifty year-old schoolmarm getting repeatedly goosed.) He's also impressed with their ship, although he assures them it won't get running again—some kind of damping field on the planet surface keeps engines down.

Everybody hikes to Cochrane's place. He tells them he crash-landed a while back, but he underplays just how long ago that "while" was, and that's not his only secret. While Hedford collapses in the living room (not before getting a few choice remarks out beforehand, of course), Kirk and McCoy try to remember where they've seen Cochrane before. Then the space cloud shows up to float around the edge of the garden outside, and Kirk finally demands Cochrane spill the whole truth. His first name is Zefram, and he's known to Kirk and the others for inventing warp drive. And he disappeared 150 years ago.

One of the things I enjoyed most about "Metamorphosis" is that it gives a few more pieces of Starfleet history. I'm not sure I'd call myself a hardcore continuity geek (you have to wear leather and read tech manuals for that), but I appreciate world-building as much as the next guy, and while I doubt anyone at the time thought that Cochrane's name would ever come up again, it's cool to have a sense of history here. What's unfortunate is that that history is only a means to an end. Zefram invented warp drive so that he would be famous enough for Kirk and the others to be shocked he was still alive. Apart from some cursory interest in the Galileo's design, his engineering work is meaningless, as is his fame; his love of travel drove him into space in his old age, where the space cloud (aka the Companion) found him and made him young, but in the 150 years since then, he's been a lump.

Hell, he's as boring as any other random jerk we've run into on the show. I realize we can't have him gibbering and bathing in his own filth, but surely some concession could've been made to the century and a half the guy spent in exile. When Zefram spills the beans to Kirk, he explains how he communes with the Companion, and that it's peaceful, so maybe some of the horrors of all that time seperated from human contact were mitigated by those sessions. But still, that's a long time to just sit around and not die.

And it's certainly not a history that Kirk is willing to repeat. After explaining the nature of his relationship with the Companion (a relationship he himself doesn't really understand), Zefram gives the bad news: Kirk and the others were brought to the planet to be Zefram's buddies. That it took 150 years for this to happen seems a stretch (unless there are more things buried under the sand than plastic rocks—maybe Zefram doesn't play well with others), but stretch or not, our heroes are stuck. If they want to get off the rock, they're going to need to find a way past yet another god-entity. And this one won't even do Kirk the courtesy of having a corporeal form to punch.

Apart from the introduction of the man who gave us warp drive, "Metamorphosis" has a wonky enough vibe to stay fairly interesting through out. The two scenes back on the Enterprise are essentially pointless, but other than that, the script doesn't wast much time. We get one failed attempt to "short out" the Companion, which goes badly; after that, it's just a matter of realizing just why the space cloud who just happens to have a female voice on the Universal Translator swiped a hunk of man meat out of the cosmos to be her forever friend. Love comes in many sizes, y'know? And hardly any of them make sense.

Here's where things go off the rails for me, as Zefram is revealed to be a lunkhead and an ass. When Kirk breaks the news that the Companion is his sort-of lover, Cochrane wigs out, and calls the whole relationship "disgusting." I can understand him being unnerved, but the bizarre attempt to apply conventional morality to the situation falls utterly flat; he even busts out the "Maybe this kind of thing is okay in your neck of the universe" speech. Thankfully McCoy and Spock are more reasonable about it, so we get the usual Trek nod to tolerance and respect. But that's undercut by the fact that Zefram doesn't back down until the Companion merges with the near-death Hedford. It's only when the alien has a human form—a form that Zefram has admired earlier—that he starts to appreciate all that's been done for him. Basically, it's only when he gets everything he wants that he stops sulking.

Ever read The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein? It's about a tree that loves a boy, and how that tree gives its shade, its fruit, and ultimately its body to keep the boy happy. I knew someone years ago how absolutely despised the book—said it was all about a woman who sacrifices everything she has without getting anything in return—and while I didn't agree with her at the time, there's something about "Metamorphosis" that reminds me of that story. The lesson here is subtle, and you can argue I'm reading too much in, but notice how the Companion is stereotypically "feminine," nuturing, sacrificing, to the point where she is willing to give up immortality in order to make her man happy. And notice how Hedford, snipey twerp that she is, confesses in her final moments as a single entity that she regrets never knowing love. As though the whole peace treaty wasn't nearly as important as hooking up and making babies. (Kirk even dismisses the importance of Hedford to the treaty in the episode's last line; you have to wonder what kind of story he's going to tell Starfleet to explain losing one of its officers during critical negotiations.)

It's enough to take some of the fun out of a reasonably entertaining storyline. As things end, the Companion merges with Hedford's body, Zefram finally sees the error of his ways, and since the new Hedford can't leave the planet without dying, he decides to stay where he is, because hey, he's got something he can actually fuck now. Kirk and the others, having seen the beauty of true whatchamacallit, leave with strict orders to never tell another living soul what happened. Why? I dunno. That's just how things get done. And as always, we're left with questions. Like, we only have the new Hedford's word that the merging was a peaceful process—which is kind of creepy, isn't it? And how long are the newlyweds going to stay happy once Zefram realizes that the Companion sacrificed her powers to become physical? Better hope that the planet's 72 degree atmosphere is a naturally occurring phenomenon…

"Journey to Babel" moves away from high concept to settle into what was always my least favorite kind of episode growing up: old-fashioned melodrama. There are sci-fi trappings, of course—we're still in a space ship after all—but instead of focusing its attentions on some new world or scary alien, "Babel" gives us feelings and people and relationships and stuff. This just seemed like a waste of potential to my ten year-old self. In my defense, I was watching a lot of Next Generation at the time. A lot of the "we're transporting aliens to such and such, and it's tense" episodes on that series were really, really dull.

"Babel" is definitely not dull. It's sappy and at times muddled, but since this is the original series, even the so-called emotionless characters are on edge. And hey, if the introduction of Zefram Cochrane in "Metamorphosis" thrilled you, we get a far more important player here: Spock's father, Sarek, played by Mark Lenard (last seen here as a Romulan Commander in "Balance of Terror") and Spock mom, Amanda, not being played by Winona Ryder. (It's Jane Wyatt, Miss Jane Wyatt if you're nasty.) The Enterprise has been charged with transporting a gaggle of ambassadors to an important Federation council meeting, and Sarek is one of those ambassadors. Funny how Spock never bothered to mention that to Kirk until just before the opening titles, huh?

One of the original Trek's greatest strengths is Leonard Nimoy as Spock; one of its greatest weaknesses is its shaky (at best) grasp on the concept of logic. Much the way that Jedi Knights turned from bad-asses with laser swords into muddled, contradictory cultists when Lucas tried to explain their culture in the prequels, the more we see of how Vulcan's put their philosophy into practice, the more Spock's rationality seems like some kind of fluke. That worked to great purpose in "Amok Time," which gave us a society whose rigid self-control rests as much on arcane ritual as it does on stoicism, but here, the basic message is, "Those wacky Vulcans are just like humans at heart, if only they'd realize it!" (Okay, maybe "heart" is a poor word choice in this case, given McCoy's struggles to keep Sarek's still beating.) After the freaky abstraction of "Amok," "Babel" just gives us The Jazz Singer in space.

Thankfully, Lenard is as up to the task as Nimoy. Sarek is basically just a cooler variation on the Romulan from "Balance," but the chemistry between him and Spock is sound. Jane Wyatt, not so much, although it's hard to know how much of that is the writer's fault; Amanda initially seems as smart and strong as her husband, but as the episode progresses, she turns into the same emotionally spastic, intellectually over-matched woman we get all the freakin' time on the series. Only she's slightly maternal as well. A marriage between a human and a Vulcan is, as far as we can tell, an incredibly rare thing. You'd expect Amanda to be a singular person, and the connection between her and Sarek to be something more complicated than "He's repressed! She's in touch with her heart!" But it doesn't seem to be.

Buried in amidst all this (incredibly predictable) family drama is something sort of resembling a plot. A pig-headed (literally—and good lord, the DVD is not kind to the mask here) ambassador named Gav is found dead on ship, his neck broken in a manner similar to certain Vulcan practices of old. Gav and Sarek were seen fighting earlier, so he falls under suspicion. It's a development that seems to come more out of dramatic necessity than anything anyone actually believes. Not even Spock's "My dad could totally kill a guy" conversation with Kirk is very convincing. When the boys go to confront Sarek, he collapses; and McCoy, after his usual grumblings about Vulcan anatomy (seriously, you'd think the Vulcans would've provided biological information to the Federation; it's not like they don't have science where Spock is from), explains that Sarek's heart is mucked up, and he needs an operation.

Now, you may have initially thought that "Babel" was about the dead ambassador; and when Sarek drops to the floor, you might reasonably have assumed that this was connected to the earlier killing in some way. Perhaps whoever killed Gav is planning on bumping off others? This would be an incorrect assumption on your part. Sarek's health problems now take center stage, because he needs a lot of Vulcan blood if he's going to have that operation, and Spock is the only person who can provide it. Maybe this will give them a chance to patch up the 18 year long silence between them?

So that's what the episode is about—Spock and Sarek getting chummy again. There's a lot of back and forth about the operation; it's dangerous for Spock, he'll need to produce a lot of blood for Sarek to survive, Amanda doesn't want Spock to risk his life, and so on. Just when you thought the whole dead-pig-guy thread got dropped, we come back from commercial break to find Kirk fighting against a blue skinned Andorian (who may not be what he appears to be). Kirk gets stabbed, the Andorian goes to the brig, and now we have a new complication; there's still some kind of conspiracy going on (which probably has something to do with the unidentified vessel that's trailing the Enterprise), and now Spock has to take command while Kirk recovers from his injuries. Given the situation, Spock refuses to step down and let someone else take charge, even if that means delaying his dad's operation and costing Sarek his life. (Oddly enough, now Amanda is bitching Spock out for not agreeing to the surgery.)

Simultaneous plotlines are nothing new for the series, but "Babel" is all over the place. The conspiracy plot keeps getting dropped to the side, and while the pay-off—a tense confrontation between the Enterprise and the ship that's been stalking them—is solid, it seems to come from another episode entirely. I wanted more diplomacy, more discussion about what was at stake beyond a handful of rapid lines thrown out more as justification than storytelling. The Sarek/Spock stuff has its moments, but there's an awful lot of cliche here; the most interesting twist is Spock's commitment to duty, and how it doesn't really seem like a bad thing, no matter how hard his mother might hit him. It falls to Kirk to fake recovery long enough to get Spock to relinquish command, but even that plan is just much an excuse for Kirk to get back into the action as anything else. In the end, everybody winds up happy. Sarek survives, he and Spock share a quip, and the conspirators, who turn out to be raiders trying to play both sides against the other, all die. One of them even poisons himself; it's slow-acting poison, which seems a poor choice for a spy ("Ha-ha! You may have captured me, but I'm going to die… eventually… so you'll have no time to get information out of me! Not unless you act fast!"), but he's dead regardless.

"Babel" is an important episode in Trek because of the introduction of Spock's parents. On its own, it's fun, provided you don't mind the disjointedness. It's nice to see the Enterprise working a different job, and one that implies a larger system than we ever see. It's just frustrating that the politics are largely tossed aside in favor of overheated soap opera. Spock's half-human, half-vulcan heritage has a lot of potential for character drama, and that potential is briefly explored here; but while Nimoy turns in his usual strong work, and Lenard provides able assistance, I'm just not feeling it. But hey, sometimes you just have to enjoy the episode you get, instead of pining for the one that might have been.

"Metamorphosis": B
"Journey To Babel": B

Stray Observations:

  • There's a lovely moment in "Metamorphosis" when the Companion, in Hedford's body, lifts up her scarf so she can see Zefram through it; it's like she's remembering how he looked when she embraced him as a multi-colored cloud.
  • For those not up on their Trek-lore, Zefram Cochrane is a main character in the only Next Generation movie worth a damn, First Contact.
  • Looks like the writers on the new Star Trek movie watching "Journey to Babel" at some point—in addition to a reference to Spock having a troubled youth, the final bit of dialogue between Spock and Sarek ("Why did you marry her?" "At the time, it seemed like the logical thing to do.") sounds very familiar.
  • Up next, "Friday's Child" and "The Deadly Years."