Review: “Journey To Babel” Remastered

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…

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Another excellent review Jeff. With all your reviews I learn something new. I think you are spot on about how the changes in effects is in harmony with the \’original intent\’. And isnt interesting on how much of the debate on the show falls into the “original intent” v “strict constructionist” arguments often seen in Constitutional debates. I am surprised some havent screamed “activist animators!” This episode shows how Star Trek is not fixed in stone but is a living breathing franchise. [note: dont turn this thread into a political debate…but there are parallels in trek fandom between differing \’sides\’]

This TOS-R episode really (as many things do) gets me thinking of Star Trek XI. This ep. is the perfect balance of a character story, a big plot story and action sequences. you get a Kirk fight scene (sadly no torn shirt…but some blood) and space battles. And now CBS-D show how these things can get a modern update that makes the show even work better.

This is the kind of balance and modernization that I hope we can get in Star Trek XI…lets learn more about our charcters and our Trek universe…and have some great action with cool effects

is that so much to ask?

Go slow CBS-D. We’re loving it, and we’re patient. Trekkies have been getting our favorite treat slowly for 40 years. If you need an extra six months to get it right, then get it right.
Thank you for the work so far.

Nice review. Always one of my favorite episodes and I think CBS digital did a great job on this one, particularly with the shuttle bay and the Orion ship. I always thought the Andorian make-up was great and even though the Tellarite makeup is pretty crude, it fit the characters adequately. I mentioned how much I enjoy Reggie Nalder as Shras in another thread, but since you mention him here, I also think William O’Connell was great in his role.
A lot going on in this episode and it flies by as you watch it.

Great review! I agree on all points. It was interesting to rediscover just how much Trek cannon comes from this episode. Much of the continuing dynamics in Enterprise comes from here. The Tellarites, Andorians the Orions (They aren’t just green woman sex slaves after all).

One thing I noticed with the new effects was when the Orion ship self-destructed, the explosion on screen (while very nice) didn’t match with the blinding flash the actors reacted to. Just a minor nit.

#1 Anthony- Yes, if there ever was a classic episode that should serve as a template for STXI, it’s this one. The writing and tone is dead on. This is what JJ & Co. should aspire to- not the TNG era sensibility. (And please, the red photon torpedos smack too much of that era as well. They shouldn’t have changed them, IMHO.)
Best review yet, Jeff.

The new effects in this episode are simply awsome. However, I thought the same of the original hangar sequence was awsome too because I know how ambitous that was to do at the time and it looked pretty damn good to me. It’s like CBC digital knew they had to add more to it to make it a worthwhile and satisfying improvement. The extra details they have added would have been there if resources were there in the first place, and I like how DBD-D has stayed true to this since the beginning.

I can’t wait form Doomsday!

Red photorps make me think of TWOK: TNG just nicked ’em!! ;)

Great review. Looking forward to seeing these shows in hi def here in the UK eventually!!!

Classic Trek’s and Trumbull/Dykstra’s TMP Fed torps were white and should have stayed that way- if not for ILM… (Guess I need a life…)

#1, it’s not a living and breathing “document”. Maybe Modern Trek is, but not Star Trek. You want “living and breathing” go watch the various versions of Star Wars that change with Lucas’ mood. There have been no radical changes made to the actual stories in each episode because of what the effects team has done. Your use of a political allusion shouldn’t have been used if you didn’t want to turn this into a political debate.

I love Jeff’s reviews, whether I agree with them or not. His writing is intelligent, insightful and professional, and delightfully devoid of the snarky, sarcastic, hipper-than-the-material-being-reviewed tone that is present in so much entertainment journalism these days. And his book on Star Trek music is terrific. Kudos all around, Jeff. I wish this site had three or four more of you.

Great review and about the casting that really always struck me as being spot on. Even when I saw this show at a young age and did not think about things like production crew, casting, etc. I really liked the actors and the job they did as the characters. The interplay was also great with the emotional beats. Spock really was a deeply private character in many respects, even to his best friends! Yes I hope the new film gets some of the atmosphere of these early still revelant and great episodes.

Anthony is 100% correct that Trek (ALL Trek) is a “living, breathing franchise”. This would be so even if Remastered weren’t happening. Art is never static. It’s always interpreted differently depending on the ever changing perspective of the audience. Audiences far removed from 1960’s politics and society will react very differently to episodes such as “Let that be Your Last Battlefield” than those at the time. I really object to the “film as untouchable historical document” argument. Even worse is the “collective ownership” myth that fans are the true “owners” of the franchise. Sadly, Mike Okuda helped perpetuate this falsehood in his recent article.

#9, there were no radical changes to the stories of Star Wars either despite some fans insistence there were. And I’d argue that Lucas, as the writer, creator, owner and creative decision-making force behind the franchise, has far MORE right to update his work than the current corporate owners of the Trek copyright.

Great review. A+.
Excellent CGI. A.
Lousy syndication edits. D+

Great thoughtful review!
I also thought the casting was great… When a character is well written and the actor owns it, you just accept the performance as genuine; you feel it, and you don’t analyze it.

Now that’s a good review! As billy (#10) says: (the review was)
“devoid of the snarky, sarcastic, hipper-than-the-material-being-reviewed tone that is present in so much entertainment journalism these days.” There have been some flippant, “I’m so much cooler than Star Trek” reviews which is just, in my opinion, just about taking easy pot shots without adding anything relevant.
We need more reviews like this one! Excellent review!

great review as always Jeff :)

Another well-written, insightful and appreciative review. And Mr. Bond is so right to consider “Journey To Babel” one of the series very finest episodes.

For Star Trek XI lets hope Mr. Abrams and company look to the few best episodes of Star Trek to determine which carry the essence of the saga best. For no other reason than that I’m wasting time, here are my choices for “The Dozen TOS Episodes That Matter” in order of importance. As far as I’m concerned the rest can be dispensed with as inconsequential to developing the characters and ignored when developing any new stories.

Of course there’s no reason for anyone to care what I think. But, well, here I go.

1. Amok Time
For explaining Spock’s ambivalent relationship with Vulcan society and fierce loyalty to Kirk and McCoy.

2. Journey To Babel
For how it hinted at the scope of the Federation and its politics. For the insight into Spock’s family background. And for shoving a lot of story into an episode.

3. City on the Edge of Forever
For putting genuine emotion into a science fiction series that could have simply been about broad parables and heavy handed moralism.

4. The Doomsday Machine
It had a great villain but an even better, utterly tragic anti-hero in Decker. Also, William Windom’s performance showed that hiring a top notch actor is always the best special effect.

5. The Ultimate Computer
It’s a story all about character and living with one’s own legacy. Probably a good parable for anyone writing a new version of a 40 year-old classic.

6. Space Seed
Because great stories always depend on character with unreasonable ambitions.

7. The Trouble With Tribbles
Because if Star Trek doesn’t have humor, it’s pretty much just another soap opera.

8. A Piece of the Action
Because our culture goes into space with us and is likely to pollute the Universe in entertaining ways. And a story that, while played for laughs, did a great job of showing how the Kirk-Spock relationship functions. Plus, I think Fizzbin could be a pretty cool game.

9. The Cage
Spock’s behavior in “The Menagerie” is too bizarre to be believed. But the original “The Cage” is a top notch story about how no matter where we go, the greatest threat is what we believe in our minds. That makes for more complex characters right there.

10. Bread and Circuses
This episodes wicked parody of modern culture is Star Trek sermonizing at its most entertaining level. And Merrick is one of the most underrated characters in Star Trek lore — the man who wanted to be Kirk and wasn’t capable of it.

11. Mirror, Mirror
Throwing characters out of context is always a great way to find out more about them. And the Mirror Universe is plain fun.

12. Patterns of Force
If “A Piece of the Action” is a fun way to see our culture polluting the Universe, this is the flip side. A bit heavy-handed to be sure, but still a solid story with interesting characters.

great list!

Good review, great episode!

This episode has always been a favorite of mine, and now it’s more so because of the great work CBS Digital did on the FX. It seems to me that the slight inconsistencies in their work that pop up from episode to episode may have something to do with inspiration. When dynamic FX are needed, their work excels; when the FX are more cut-and-dry, their grip slips a bit. Here’s hoping they see “The Doomsday Machine” as much as a high water mark as we do.

One of my favorite moments in this episode is the fight between Kirk and Telev. Both actors seem very worn out by the fight, which is one, long continuous shot (no stuntmen this time!), and Kirk actually gets shivved! When I saw that for the first time as a kid, I was dumbfounded. This wasn’t a flesh wound or a bloody lip, Kirk was stabbed solid in the back! Yikes! That really upped the tension in an already intense episode. It was great TV then, and it’s still great now.

And a quick aside to cbspock: You certainly CAN make a political allusion (as in “comparison”) without inciting politcal debate. Comparisons (especially astute ones like the one made by Anthony above) can easily be made because his intent was clear and he wasn’t stating an opinion about either side of the comparison. He was engaging in insight, not punditry. And just to be clear myself, I’m not trying to goad you into debate either. I’m simply remarking that Anthony’s use of comparison was correct in this context.

always loved that fight scene too but what was with that crazy “bounce off the wall” kick Kirk tried…?!?!?!

The casting comments are right on. However, while watching this episode I actually gasped when I realized what modern actor is a dead-ringer for Mark Lenard: it’s Victor Garber! Lenard’s character in this episode has several line readings that are almost identical to Victor Garber’s character in “Alias.”

So, J.J. Abrams, it’s time to cast Victor Garber as a Vulcan! He’s got the ears for it.

The Doomsday Machine was always my favorite. The effects were good and the score was excellent. I have seen earlier attempts to play with the effects. A good deal of work must go into it and I hope the TOS:R gang puts the time in – I agree with an earlier commenter – take your time if needed, no rush to get things right.

Great review of JTB! I learned new things, agreed with the rest, a good read in classic style.

Victor Garber – yes, an effective Vulcan. Now Jennifer Garner, throw her in too as a kick *ss person :)

I always enjoy Jeff’s reviews – insightful and often entertaining. One non-Trek related criticism:

“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.”

I hate the expression “family unit.” It’s ‘family.’ Period. (Re-read it without the word ‘unit.’ It’s fine, isn’t it?) “Family unit” comes from the Department of Redundancy Department.

Kirk’s “wall bounce” kick added impact to his kick by having the wall to shove off of. Another of his inventions….

Can you stand some praise one more time, Jeff? Great review of what has long been my favorite second season episode. Especially the well-deserved nod to Joe D’Agosta and his casting skills. By the time of the later Trek incarnations, almost anyone could be cast to play any kind of alien, but I always liked how the original Trek largely kept a certain look for the various alien types. Some might say that “stereotyping” races was something that came easily to folks back in the bad old days, but I would argue that picking certain “types” to play Klingons or Vulcans was a necessary shorthand to help overcome the budgetary inability to put all the guest aliens in fancy prosthetics.

As for your list, JPH (#17), nice job. I don’t know what I’d bump from your list to include it, but I think The Naked Time deserves a place. It dramatically utilized a very real peril of space exploration, exotic infection, to introduce us to the inner life of some of Trek’s characters.

Scott B. out.

Superb Review Mr. Bond. Well Done . . .


The Dykstra torpedoes in TMP were red, not white.

I just went back and looked at that kick again and noticed the Telev’s knife looks alot like the one used in Wolf In The Fold. There’s a budget saver for you – LOL!


sorry- the Klingons were red, the Feds were blue.

#1 Has there ever been a scene where Kirk’s GREEN command shirt or dress uniform shirt was torn? I think it was always and only the gold command shirt. It might have something to do with the colar and shoulder hem lines on the gold command shirt. Just an observation.

It rocked and now bring on the “Doomsdays!!!”

# 28- The KLINGON photorps were red in TMP, the Federation’s were white- check the wormhole scene.
(Also, this was stated in to be the intention in Cinefex and other interviews back then.)

#1 – re: the fight scene, with blood.

You know, one of the little details that always seemed off to me when I was a nitpicking teenager a couple of decades ago was that in this fight scene, Kirk is stabbed in the back and then pitches Thelev over his shoulder. During the Thelev throw, you get a brief but clear glimpse of Kirk’s uninjured back.

Would’ve been fun — but by no means necessary — to insert a little knife wound into that shot. Sure, it would’ve taken work to make it track with his rapidly moving back, but it would’ve been fewer than 24 frames to deal with. I know it would’ve made me smile.

But this is NOT an actual criticism of CBS-D’s work (there were far more important details to tend to, which they did admirably). The fight scene as is is one of Trek’s best. Just a little thought.

#21 chris:

“always loved that fight scene too but what was with that crazy “bounce off the wall” kick Kirk tried…?!?!?! ”

Don’t you remember? Kirk worked as a professional wrestler to earn money to put himself through college.

Thanks for all the comments. I love the Kirk fight scene too–I think that MAY be the only one Shatner performed completely himself, at least as far as major Trek fight scenes go, and it’s quite notable for that (the other performer was a stunt man, not O’Connell–Shatner often did fight scenes this way where he’d do a lot of the stunt work himself as Kirk but play off a stunt man). Also, JPH, good list–one of the great unsung episodes I think is “Bread and Circuses”–it’s always lumped in with other “parallel Earth” type episodes as an illustration of how cheap the original show was, but as a satire it was cutting edge for the time, the story is a great drama, the Proconsul is perhaps Trek’s most vicious and unlikeable villain, and there are a number of classic Trek scenes in there, especially the jail cell scene with Spock and McCoy.

“Pull down this network’s ratings, Flavius, and we’ll do a ‘special’ on you!”

Pure Gene L. Coon gold.

Re: TMP Photons. Klingons = red. Enterprise = blue. They changed to red in TWOK, probably because the red Klingon photons had more impact with the audience.

Easy way to remember this…for TMP, all Enterprise warp lighting effects are blue. The ribbing inside the warp engines glows blue when the ship goes into warp. The defelctor dish shifts from amber (sublight) to blue (warp speed), and the photon torpedoes (which are matter/antimatter yield explosives) are blue. Well, they’re bluish-white, but they definitely are NOT red in TMP.

The quantum torpedoes used in the later TNG era films were bright white.