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The Enterprise's mission in this episode is both more mundane than usual and much more important than usual: safely transporting Federation diplomats to a conference that will decide the future of a hotly-contested planet. The Enterprise is about to receive its last set of delegates: those from Vulcan.
We learn, somewhat unexpectedly, that the Vulcan Ambassador, Sarek, is Spock's father and Sarek's wife Amanda is Spock's mother. One has to wonder why Spock never mentioned that to Kirk in order to prevent the awkward moment during the introductions, but from Amanda's look, we can guess that Spock's "oversight" is typical of Vulcans. After all, the relationship between Spock and Sarek has no bearing on the mission. We also get the distinct impression that Spock and Sarek don't get along, even with Vulcan repression of emotions. Incidentally, the falling-out between father and son provides a great explanation for why Spock's parents weren't at his wedding in "Amok Time".
A while later, Kirk is giving Sarek and Amanda a tour of the ship. We again see the coldness between father and son. When Sarek leaves the tour, Kirk has the opportunity to speak to Amanda about it. She reveals that Sarek had groomed Spock for a career in the Vulcan Science Academy, and was displeased when Spock chose Starfleet instead. Spock and Sarek have not spoken (presumably except as required by duty) for 18 years. Amanda is remarkably matter-of-fact about this, even though it must surely also mean that she also doesn't have much communication with Spock. She goes on to assert that in general the "Vulcan way" is better than the human way, but that it's hard to follow. She doesn't seem to be following it herself, since she is obviously emotional and not strictly logical. However, she does accept the Vulcan tradition of obedience to her husband... where is the logic in that tradition, I wonder?
Kirk is notified by the bridge that an unknown ship has approached them. It is refusing communication, and when Kirk orders the Enterprise to close on it, it flashes away at extremely high warp. Then it returns and follows them at the edge of detection. Spock is unable to identify it or the race that built it. The ship is also giving off strange communication transmissions that Spock can't decode.
A reception is held for the Federation delegates, which gives us a bit of a look at the variety of sentient beings in the Federation. They are generally humanoid in form and bipedal, but come in a variety of colors and sizes. The issue before the delegates is whether or not to admit the planet Coridan into the Federation. Coridan is sparsely inhabited, but has huge mineral wealth, including a lot of dilithium crystals. If Coridan is admitted to the Federation, then it can be protected by Starfleet, which will prevent pirating of its resources.
I like how this political situation is relatively simple in nature and straightforward to understand without any "science fiction" knowledge. The idea of a weak world (or country) with vast natural resources it can't protect obviously has parallels on Earth today. It's also obvious how the matter could be extremely important. Frankly, the decision in question seems like a no-brainer: it does not seem like there is any losing side to admitting Coridan to the Federation, except potentially the expense of protecting it.
The only downside to admitting Coridan to the Federation seems to be that any Federation members who are secretly pirating from that world would no longer be able to. Sarek and the Tellarite ambassador, Gav, have a confrontation on exactly this issue, when Sarek states that Tellarites have in fact been stealing from Coridan. Gav is furious, but Kirk manages to defuse the situation. I find it somewhat ironic that the character of Gav is represented by a pig-like creature. Star Trek goes to some lengths to show that outer appearances do not indicate what a being is like, and yet they make a dislikable character have a quite displeasing appearance in this case.
We also find out a little more about Spock's childhood from Amanda. Before revealing anything, she looks for Spock to assent, which is a nice touch - obviously Spock is bowing to the human tradition of embarrassing revelations when parents are present. Amanda says Spock had a pet sehlat - a "teddy bear" - which Spock adds had six-inch fangs. This does nothing to dampen McCoy's glee at the vision.
Sarek and Amanda leave the reception, and in a scene in their quarters, we see that Sarek is perhaps no longer as angry with Spock as he once was. He chides Amanda for embarrassing him about his childhood, but Amanda is irrepressible. One has to wonder why Amanda would choose to marry a Vulcan, but we get a glimpse of that when Sarek almost gives her a smile.
Sometime later, Sarek returns the the reception - apparently to take some pills - and Gav confronts him again. Gav rushes Sarek, but Sarek easily deflects him before Kirk breaks up the fight. Gav vows repayment for Sarek's slander of his people before he stalks off.
Later that night, a security guard finds Ambassador Gav dead in a Jeffries tube. McCoy says that he was killed professionally by having his neck broken. Spock confirms that this is a traditional Vulcan execution method. Given the earlier confrontation between Sarek and Gav, they go to question Sarek. He claims to have been meditating at the time with no witnesses. Then he collapses.
In Sickbay, McCoy reports that Sarek is having some kind of problem with his heart akin to heart attacks. Sarek reveals that he has had previous "heart attacks", including one when Gav was murdered. His Vulcan doctor had put him on specific medicine, but he had kept his condition hidden from Amanda. Presumably this is why he had retired at "only" 102 years of age before this mission came up.
The only real solution to Sarek's problem is a type of open-heart surgery. However, there are some serious problems. First, the Enterprise does not have enough of Sarek's rare blood type to supply him during the surgery. Second, McCoy has never operated on a Vulcan.
Spock solves the first problem by volunteering to donate blood, since he is the same blood type. Even Spock could not produce the amount of blood necessary, but an experimental drug might be able to speed up his rate of production of blood. McCoy refuses to consider such experimentation, despite Spock's insistence that it is logical. Amanda doesn't want to possibly lose both Spock and Sarek, so she is torn.
In a very abrupt cut, we jump to a fight between Kirk and an Andorian from the delegation. Kirk manages to knock out the Andorian, but not before being knifed in the back. He is able to report to the bridge before he falls unconscious. McCoy says that he has a pierced lung and will recover eventually.
Spock assumes command while Kirk is incapacitated. McCoy has finally realized that Sarek's deteriorating condition leaves him no choice but to operate, but now Spock refuses. He believes he would be derelict in his duty to relinquish command to a lower-ranking officer when the Enterprise has so many important people aboard and an unknown ship is following them. He goes to question the Andorian prisoner, who the Andorian ambassador knows little about; he learns nothing useful.
Later Amanda goes to Spock's quarters and begs him to go through with the operation. This scene is heartbreaking because of her desperation. She's clearly not being completely rational, as Spock points out, much to her displeasure, since she tries to get Spock to throw out his years of Vulcan discipline in favor of emotions. This behavior is completely at odds with her earlier profession that the Vulcan way was better, further underlining her desperation. Despite her emotional arguments, they hit home with Spock, since when she leaves in tears, he nearly goes after her.
Kirk comes to in Sickbay and McCoy reports on the situation with Sarek. Kirk realizes that Spock would never knowingly give up command in this situation, so he comes up with a trick. McCoy doctors him up enough so that he can go to the bridge, pretend he's OK, and send Spock to Sickbay for the operation. Then he will turn over command to Scotty and go to his quarters. This is great contrast in the attitudes of humans vs. Vulcans. Vulcan duty is absolutely black-and-white, so Spock cannot even consider letting his father's problems affect his decisions. Kirk immediately weighs the obligations of duty and family and decides that duty is not all-important in this case.
Kirk manages to convince Spock on the bridge that he's OK, although I think Spock may have suspected something. But since Kirk had McCoy's medical backing, there was nothing he could do. McCoy immediately begins the surgery. It's a little disturbing that there is only one nurse, Chapel, assisting him, and that Amanda is watching.
Kirk is about to relinquish command to Scotty when the strange transmission of from the unknown ship start up again. And this time, there is a response - from the brig! Kirk orders the prisoner searched. (One hopes that this is really searched again, because surely they searched him initially.) It's revealed that the prisoner isn't really Andorian and has a transmitter in a fake antenna.
The unknown ship begins attacking the Enterprise, adding another layer of difficulty to McCoy's operation. Kirk orders the prisoner brought to the bridge for additional questioning, but the soft-hearted nature of it gains him nothing. The Enterprise sustains significant damage in the attacks. Kirk manages to lure the attacking ship into close range and then blasts it, apparently disabling it. He signals for the crew to surrender, but they self-destruct. The prisoner also kills himself, with poison - I think the security guards really need a refresher course in searching prisoners.
Kirk finally gives command to Scotty and returns to Sickbay, where the operation is over and the patients are awake. Spock says that he realizes the ship must have been Orion; the Orions are "neutral" traders that profit by supplying both sides in wars, so they were trying to start a war, apparently.
Both Sarek and Spock will fully recover. They have also seemingly repaired the rift between them, as they take some time needling Amanda over her emotionalism. And McCoy finally gets the last word by making them all shush.
This excellent episode has it all, despite being a bottle show: action, character moments, and humor. Who can't be interested in a look at Spock's non-traditional Vulcan family? The initial chasm between Spock and his father only underlines Spock's aloneness wherever he goes. Hopefully some of that has been healed.
I still can't quite fathom why Sarek and Amanda got married. I can potentially see the interest Amanda might have: Vulcans can appear very mysterious and "deep" as well as being physically imposing, and her personality might fit well with Vulcan traditions. Maybe she even hopes to "humanize" Sarek a bit. In any case, I have to wonder if she really realized what she was getting into, becoming part of a family that cannot express its feelings.
However, how could Sarek find marrying Amanda logical? What kind of logic is there in going against Vulcan traditions to marry a non-Vulcan? I think his marriage makes clear the lie that Vulcans have no emotions, because only love can explain such irrationality.
I also wonder how Sarek marrying Amanda was possible. We learned earlier in the season in "Amok Time" that a male and a female Vulcan are bonded as children so that they will be drawn together when the Vulcan male goes into pon farr; this is what happened with Spock and T'Pring. How did Sarek avoid this? T'Pring's challenge of the marriage was implied to be exceptionally rare, so it seems unlikely that the same thing could have happened to Sarek. Did he have a previous Vulcan wife that died? On a wider scope, this episode nicely fills in some details on how the democracy that is the Federation works. It's quite a vision of the future to think about delegations from worlds, not just countries, meeting and voting on issues. This background helps give credence to Kirk's many prior statements that Starfleet is essentially peaceful and only uses force in defense.
The delegates other than the Vulcans are pretty much cardboard cut-outs. It's a little odd that even though the planet Coridan was the crux of the situation, we did not meet a representative of that world. It's a shame that the series never really employed any of them, or their species, again. We also see very little more in the way of Federation politics in the series. While I wouldn't want that every episode, it would have been interesting to see some occasionally.
A mark of the excellence of this episode is the tight writing - there's nothing wasted in the episodes. We see Sarek slipping pills, and significant glances between people. The chemistry between the characters crackles, from Kirk and McCoy complaining about dress uniforms to McCoy ribbing Spock about his childhood pets. The episode is a pleasure to watch.