For the last two reviews I’ve written for the site I deliberately took on Trek outings that I feel are a little undervalued by the community—not so here. Dorothy Fontana’s “Journey to Babel” is an acknowledged Trek classic and would be even if it had only conjured up Spock’s parents, Sarek and Amanda, in the flesh. But “Babel” offers much more than that—it’s a solid look at the Vulcan family relationship (albeit one somewhat disrupted by the presence of a human parent in the mix), an exciting tale of political intrigue, and an Agatha Christie-type murder mystery that also boasts satisfying action both onboard the Enterprise and in outer space.
From the opening moments with McCoy’s bitching about his dress uniform it’s clear “Journey to Babel” is going to be rich in character; as is typical of TOS when it’s hitting its stride, there are more character beats in the opening teaser of this story than in entire episodes of some of the later Trek shows. While classic Trek often opened with life-or-death situations to lock onto the audience, here Fontana shows herself confident enough in Spock’s appeal to have the opening shocker be the revelation that the stiff Vulcan ambassador who just dissed Spock is his father, Sarek (the second season opener, “Amok Time,” similarly relied on uncharacteristic behavior from Spock to sell its opening teaser). Only gradually are the story’s other sizzling fuses revealed: tension among the delegates of the Babel conference, particularly among the Vulcans and the pig-like, belligerent Tellarites; a mysterious and frighteningly swift alien vessel pacing the Enterprise, and the presence of a murderer and potential saboteur onboard the ship.
The interplay between Spock, Sarek and Amanda has been much discussed and I won’t belabor that point here—what still dazzles me about this episode besides its intricate plotting and pacing is the brilliant casting by Joseph D’Agosta. Recognizing the potential of the subtle, classically elegant Mark Lenard after his great turn as the Romulan Commander in season one’s “Balance of Terror,” D’Agosta singled him out to play against the wildly popular Spock character as Sarek, and Lenard’s solid presence makes you believe that this is a man who could intimidate, even dominate Nimoy’s Spock in a father/son relationship. D’Agosta ingeniously cast “America’s Mom” Jane Wyatt from Father Knows Best as Amanda, adding a universal, warm maternal element to the otherwise alien family unit. D’Agosta seemed to have a strong instinct about physicality in actor’s roles—he rarely went wrong in casting a Vulcan character or any of the show’s aliens, and most of the actors that played these characters effortlessly inhabited their roles, always bringing a foreign, English-as-a-second-language approach to the work. A particularly ingenious choice here is dessicated Austrian actor Reggie Nalder as the Andorian ambassador Shras—his scarred face and sibilant, almost unintelligible accent makes Shras one of the most convincing extraterrestrials to appear in the entire Trek franchise, despite the relatively primitive makeup work of the period. Shras’ discussion with Spock about motives for murder in the brig is one of the most artful and efficient sketches of alien sensibilities seen on the show. D’Agosta also scores with William O’Connell, familiar from numerous Clint Eastwood films like High Plains Drifter, in which he played a weasely, nervous barber. O’Connell gives “Babel”’s vicious Orion saboteur an effective mix of arrogance, uncertainty and a strange nobility; he brings all these shadings to his brief moment of sparring with Kirk on the bridge while the Orion ship mounts its final attack.
Babel’s guest casting is pitch perfect
While its space action was ambitious, requiring the creation of an Orion adversary for the Enterprise, the resulting original effects were simple, low key shots of a spinning yellow animation, oddly similar to the photon torpedo effects in the later Star Trek films. “Babel” features an opening shuttlecraft landing as well as the shots of the Orion ship attacking and ultimately exploding. The shuttlecraft shots were mostly cribbed from “The Galileo Seven,” and the CBS Digital crew has the challenge here of recreating what was for the original series a quite ambitious miniature set of the Enterprise hangar bay some six feet deep with a two foot shuttlecraft miniature operated to land in the bay via a wire rig, and then spun on a turntable to represent a hangar bay elevator. While the landing itself bears the hallmarks of bluescreen photography, the turntable shot is a relatively flaw-free visual effect that very effectively creates the illusion of a cavernous hangar bay deck.
CBS Digital one-ups the original by showing the shuttlecraft approaching the Enterprise stern (a multi-element shot never within the original show’s capabilities) and landing inside the hangar deck with far more dynamic motion than would have been possible with a wire rig. I was glad to see that the CBS crew kept the shuttle approach within the methodical moves established by the original photography, and that adds verisimilitude to the shot that more flamboyant motion would have erased. A nice added touch is the visible crewmen and, presumably, ambassadors in the viewing galleries above the shuttle and the reflection of the shuttle on the viewing gallery glass, as well as an additional shuttlecraft on the pad as the diplomatic shuttle enters (this echoes a great shot from the animated series showing the shuttlebay filled with different kinds of shuttlecraft, another view outside the original show’s budget). The camera angle is much closer to the shuttle bay doors than the original shot and that does reduce some of the expansiveness of the shot; having Vulcan in the background adds a lot of value however. There’s a lot of care and texturing here but in reproducing a large artificial environment with no “natural” lighting cues there’s still a bit of a CG look to this shot (and an angle of the shuttle approaching from outside the ship, included in the teaser, is cut for time here).
Nicely done, but a somewhat CG look
Mike Okuda provides a fascinating solution to the replacement of the whirling animation effect from the original show with a hammerhead Orion ship design that features a spinning, illuminated engine apparatus dominating the rear part of the ship. This maintains the kinetic feeling of the original animation that so well matched the show’s tracked music score and editing, and also provides one of the most unusual spacecraft designs yet seen in the franchise. There’s a great “over-the-shoulder” shot of the Enterprise firing a futile phaser volley at the hyper-maneuverable Orion vessel, and an ambitious shot of the alien ship breaking apart under phaser fire (although the decision to not show an explosion as the ship breaks apart drains a little of the impact of this shot). The original episode’s firecracker explosion as the Orion ship self-destructs is replaced with a far more satisfying blast as well.
CBS-D making changes…and they work!
The syndication editing of “Journey to Babel” is about as erratic as any episode I’ve seen so far and in addition to the early exterior shuttlecraft approach I’m guessing there are at least a few seconds more of effects shots edited out of this version. Nevertheless CBS Digital’s work here is exciting and in keeping with the intent of the episode—we get our first look at CG Vulcan here, a Mars-like world with few clouds, and the individual shots of the Enterprise—including a sleek angle of the ship at rest as it lures the Orion ship in—are up to the team’s usual high standards. It’s interesting that the digital team chose to do “Babel” back to back with the daunting “The Doomsday Machine” as both episodes feature elaborate space shots. And it’s amazing to realize that new shots are being done for every episode, even if they’re slight variations on previous angles—this is something that would have been unthinkable for the original show’s budget and technology. Now the question will be whether the team can keep doing this work and deliver the rest of the season one episodes for a DVD release this fall. I don’t envy them…