Rich Handley Author and Editor

Sarek of Vulcan: Star Trek’s Worst Father

Science fiction and fantasy go hand in hand with bad parenting. Game of Thrones‘ Stannis Baratheon burned his daughter Shireen alive, Catelyn Stark rejected John Snow, Walder Frey didn’t know his children’s names, and Craster raped his daughters. Lord of the Rings‘ Denethor told Faramir he should have died instead of Boromir, while on Battlestar Galactica, William Adama kept Lee in the shadow of his dead brother Zak and eventually abandoned him.

Then there’s The X-Files‘ Smoking Man, who tried to murder both his sons, Fox Mulder and Jeffrey Spender. Marvel Comics’ Thanos abused Nebula and slew Gamora, while Anakin Skywalker tortured Leia and cut off Luke’s hand. (Then again, most parents in Star Wars are pretty awful, other than Jango Fett—and he killed people for a living.) On Lost, meanwhile, pretty much every character had mommy or daddy issues—if you’re a parent on Lost, you suck.

Sarek (left to right): Mark Lenard, Jonathan Simpson (with baby Spock)

Sad to say, Star Trek is really no different in this regard. James T. Kirk willingly took no part in raising his son David Marcus, instead of fighting for his right to be a father. Leonard McCoy let his relationship with his daughter Joanna falter following his divorce, and he often put his work above his family. Gold Key Comics introduced another daughter for McCoy, Barbara, with whom he was also not close—Bones was a deadbeat dad. And Lwaxana Troi constantly nagged and embarrassed her daughter Deanna—though she did love her, just as Bones loved his daughter(s)—and neglected to tell her she had a dead sister.

Tom Paris grew up feeling pressured to excel by his father, Admiral Owen Paris, while being made to feel like a constant disappointment. When Kyle Riker’s wife died, he suffered an emotional breakdown and did little to prevent a 15-year rift from forming with his son Will. Worf sent away his son Alexander to live with the boy’s grandparents, instead of raising him—right after the death of Alexander’s mother K’Ehleyr, no less. Then, when Alexander came back to live with him, Worf proved inadequate as a father, abandoning the child again for a posting on Deep Space Nine.

Sarek (left to right): Mark Lenard, Ben Cross, James Frain

Deep Space Nine was the most family-oriented Trek series, yet its track record wasn’t much better. Julian Bashir was estranged from his parents, who’d illegally subjected him to genetic experiments to increase his intelligence. Rom had for years denied Nog an education and the right to choose his own fate before finally seeing his son’s potential. Miles and Keiko O’Brien indisputably loved their daughter Molly, yet they brought her to live amid danger and chaos in a recent war zone, often argued in front of her, and even managed to lose her into an energy vortex during a family picnic.

On the other hand, Ben Sisko was a wonderfully supportive father to young Jake, far surpassing practically every other parent in Star Trek‘s history. In a franchise rife with neglected children, Sisko proved that competent parenting still existed, as he and Jake had perhaps the most functional relationship ever portrayed on Star Trek. Sisko was the Jango Fett of Star Trek… but without all the bounty-hunting and assassinating and clones. At the other end of the spectrum was Sarek of Vulcan. Among Trek‘s many bad parenting examples, few come close to matching Sarek’s abject failure.

Sarek’s family, including Sybok and Michael Burnham, drawn in the style of The Animated Series (image courtesy of FanFilmFactor.com’s Jonathan Lane)

This may come as a surprising statement, given how beloved the character is among fans. Introduced in The Original Series’ “Journey to Babel,” Sarek was first portrayed by Mark Lenard, who would later reprise the role for one episode of The Animated Series, two episodes of The Next Generation, and three films—Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Since his debut, the character has also been portrayed by Jonathan Simpson (in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier), Ben Cross (in the 2009 Star Trek film), and James Frain (on Star Trek: Discovery). What makes Sarek such a failure as a parent? Consider how he treated his three children, and how each relationship ended up as a result. It’s not a pretty picture.

Spock

When we first meet Sarek, it’s with a surprise twist at the start of “Journey to Babel.” The Enterprise picks up the ambassador and his wife, Amanda Grayson, at Vulcan and brings them to Babel to debate Coridan’s admission into the Federation. Kirk offers Spock the opportunity to go home and visit his parents, but Spock reveals that Sarek and Amanda are his parents. Following the opening credits and a commercial break, we learn that Sarek had disagreed with Spock’s decision to join Starfleet instead of attending the Vulcan Science Academy, culminating in a father-son rift of 18 years—all because Spock simply dared to choose his own career.

During the episode, Sarek publicly snubs his son, humiliates him by asking Kirk for a different guide, and shows little regard for Spock as a son, as an adult, or as a living person worthy of respect. Spock is very clearly troubled by this and has been for years. By story’s end, the two set aside their feud after Spock saves Sarek’s life at the risk of his own—but the father still cannot bring himself to express pride in the son, minimizing Spock’s actions by assessing them from a purely logical standpoint, while dismissing the notion that he should be at all grateful.

Spock (left to right): Leonard Nimoy, Bill Simpson (voice), Carl Steven, Vadia Potenza, Stephen Manley, Joe W. Davis

In the animated time-travel episode “Yesteryear,” we meet a younger Sarek and Amanda during Spock’s childhood. Sarek clearly disapproves of his son’s emotional nature, despite the fact that Spock only acts that way because Sarek chose to reproduce with a human woman. When other children mercilessly bully Spock, Sarek treats his son as the one at fault, victim-shaming him for being traumatized—and when his beloved pet sehlat I-Chaya dies during Spock’s kahs-wan ordeal, Sarek, in true Vulcan fashion, offers little comfort over the boy’s loss. It may be the Vulcan way, but for a man who has raised his children on a high-temperature planet, Sarek shows Spock so little warmth that the family might as well be living on a glacier.

In the films, Sarek continues to demonstrate his parental failings. In The Search for Spock, he guilts Kirk into illegally traveling to the Genesis Planet, retrieving Spock’s body, and bringing it home to Vulcan, instead of using his own immense political clout to make arrangements through official channels. This is Sarek of Vulcan, mind you. He’s revered and renowned, he’s in T’Pau’s inner circle, and he has the ear of the Federation President. Arranging for Spock’s retrieval shouldn’t be difficult with a few well-placed calls—there’s even a Starfleet vessel, the USS Grissom, stationed at the planet. The movie implies Sarek cares about Spock and wants to do right by his katra, but he takes a pointedly passive role in setting things right, by letting Spock’s friends endanger their lives and careers while he avoids embroiling himself in a political quagmire.

Spock (left to right): Leonard Nimoy, Jenna Vaughn, Jacob Kogan, Zachary Quinto, Ethan Peck, Liam Hughes

The Voyage Home contains a feel-good scene between father and son (at least as feel-good as a scene can be involving two characters who claim not to feel anything), in which Sarek seemingly accepts Spock’s decisions years after the fact. By this point, however, it’s too little too late. Their relationship remains formal and stiff, too damaged by Sarek’s arrogant, single-minded stubbornness to ever truly be repaired. Thus, when an older Sarek returns in The Next Generation episodes “Sarek” and “Unification I,” he is a man filled with regret at having let the rift with Spock continue. That rift, in fact, has gotten worse in the interim, with the two once again not communicating at all.

Sarek’s mistreatment of Spock wasn’t just limited to the latter’s adult life. To view their fractured relationship at its inception, look no further than Star Trek V, in which Sarek, upon first viewing his newborn son, expresses no affection for the innocent, beautiful child Amanda has just borne him. Instead, he looks at the infant in disdain, then coldly, disgustedly remarks “So human”—this, despite the fact that Spock only looks human in the first place because Sarek married a human woman… who is lying right there when he says it, making him also a lousy excuse for a husband.

In short, Sarek made Spock feel inferior throughout his childhood, due to genetic factors that were entirely beyond the boy’s control. He pushed his son into following a career Spock didn’t want, then cut ties when he chose not to do so. Once the two were reunited, he refused to acknowledge Spock’s accomplishments or admit he’d been wrong to let their relationship deteriorate. Sarek failed with Spock on pretty much every level. In human society, he’d be receiving calls from Child Protective Services, and he might even lose custody. The only time we see Sarek show genuine tenderness toward Spock is in the 2009 film’s alternate timeline—and it takes Amanda’s death and Vulcan’s destruction before he can express such sentiment.

Sybok

Sarek’s firstborn son has only appeared onscreen twice to date, first in 1989’s The Final Frontier, then more recently as a cameo in Strange New Worlds‘ “The Serene Squall.” Despite the lukewarm critical reaction to the film’s creative decisions when it was first released, it has since come to be embraced more warmly by fandom, in much the same way that George Lazenby’s sole James Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, has evolved from being ridiculed back in the day to now being considered among the series’ best entries, and rightfully so.

Some have dismissed Star Trek V as apocryphal (including, reportedly, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry himself), but those events happened, regardless of how a faction of fandom might feel. It was authorized by Paramount, it was filmed using The Original Series‘ actors, and it aired in theaters. It is part of the tapestry. This means Spock and Michael did, indeed, have an older half- or adopted brother who embraced emotion, and while Discovery‘s writers regretfully chose not to revisit that fact before Michael ended up in the far future, Strange New Worlds has now brought Sybok back into the fold. I, for one, am ecstatic about this.

Sybok, portrayed by Laurence Luckinbill, was the son of Sarek and a Vulcan princess, presumably conceived prior to Sarek’s marriage to Amanda. One might wonder if Sybok were perhaps the result of marital infidelity, as the episode “Sarek” notes that the ambassador’s first wife was a human (Amanda), implying he and Sybok’s Vulcan mother (dubbed T’Rea in Star Trek V‘s novelization by J.M. Dillard, and in the novel Sarek by A. C. Crispin) hadn’t married. If he were trapped in a situation in which sex with T’Rea were necessary (during an unexpected pon farr onset, for instance), he might have logically justified the indiscretion. In any case, the novel Sarek says otherwise, depicting T’Rea as a woman who’d been bonded with Sarek since childhood, and who’d had their marriage annulled in keeping with the Kolinahr tradition of severing emotional ties.

Laurence Luckinbill as Sybok, before and after the laughing Vulcan got a haircut to meet God

Following her death, Sarek raised Sybok alongside his half-brother Spock. Sybok was an exceptionally gifted child of great intelligence, and many assumed he would take his place among Vulcan’s greatest scholars. Much to Sarek’s displeasure, however, Sybok rejected his logical upbringing and embraced emotions like their ancestors had. Sybok believed the key to self-knowledge was not logic, but emotion—a radical philosophy later identified (on Star Trek: Enterprise and Strange New Worlds) as V’tosh ka’tur, whose practitioners felt that while logic was essential to Vulcan existence, it should complement, not exclude, emotions. Sybok encouraged others to follow him and was thus banished.

Because of this, Sarek turned his back on his firstborn son. It’s a pattern with the closed-minded ambassador; one thing he would clearly not tolerate was a child daring to chart his own fate. Sarek disowned Sybok simply for wanting to pursue his own religious convictions and ideals instead of being like every other Vulcan. This hard-headedness pushed Sybok out of his life forever, as the latter embarked upon a quest to find the fabled Sha Ka Ree of Vulcan mythology, and it also drove a decades-long wedge between Spock and Sarek.

Left: The sons of Sarek reunite after decades estranged from their father, and from each other. Right: Sybok, portrayed by an unknown actor on Strange New Worlds.

Keep in mind that Sarek has married two human women and has also raised a human child as his ward, along with a half-human son. This is the home environment in which Sybok grew up. For a man so openly disgusted by emotion, Sarek certainly surrounded himself with emotional beings, and that had to have had an effect on Sybok. For Sarek to disown his son for embracing emotion, after raising the boy in such an atmosphere of emotion, is the epitome of hypocrisy, and it’s just plain cruel.

Michael Burnham

It seems like every time we meet a new child of Sarek, it’s with the caveat that he abysmally botched the job of nurturing that child. Star Trek: Discovery‘s addition of a human youth, Michael Burnham, to the mix did little to alter that perception.

Michael (portrayed by Sonequa Martin-Green and Arista Arhin) may be a hero now, but she became infamous as “The Mutineer” after trying to take command of the USS Shenzhou from her mentor, Captain Philippa Georgiou. Stripped of her rank during a court martial and imprisoned following the Battle of the Binary Stars, she would later have her record expunged after helping the Discovery end the crushing war with the Klingon Empire that her actions precipitated. Her decision to mutiny was based on logic rather than emotion; despite her affection for her captain, she believed Georgiou was endangering everyone by not launching a strike against the Klingons, and thus logically took matters into her own hands, regardless of the potential consequences. This error in judgment nearly sent her to prison for life—and it was arguably due to Sarek’s failings as a parent.

Sarek’s adopted daughters (“wards”), left to right: Sonequa Martin-Green and Arista Arhin as Michael Burnham, Kirstie Alley and Robin Curtis as Saavik

When Michael was young, her birth parents were stationed on Doctari Alpha, until Klingons slaughtered them both within earshot of the traumatized child. Hiding helplessly, she listened as the soldiers took their time killing her mother and then laughed about it. Sarek brought Michael to live with his family, much like Sergey Rozhenko did for Worf after finding him orphaned on Khitomer, then he and Amanda raised her as their ward—just as they would for Saavik when Spock found her orphaned on a Romulan colony, according to the Star Trek novels and comics, resulting in a fourth child for the family. Amanda openly loved Michael, but Sarek remained as predictably disapproving and aloof as he had with his sons, proving he’d learned nothing from his mistakes.

With Sarek guiding her education and career, Michael became the first human to attend the Vulcan Learning Center. Her foster-father urged her to follow the Vulcan path of logic, making her feel bad about her human inability to suppress her emotions. Sarek’s goals for Michael were unrealistic and unfair, and she suffered because of it. Vulcan logic extremists targeted young Michael, bigoted in their belief that humans posed a threat to their logical civilization, and she died during a bombing of the Learning Center.

To revive her, Sarek initiated a mind meld that resulted in their being permanently linked thereafter, but rather than drawing them closer, it further hardened Michael, who saw only cold logic in her Vulcan father’s mind. Determined to make Sarek proud (a goal seemingly doomed to fail), Michael graduated at the top of her class, then applied to join the Vulcan Expeditionary Group. The latter resisted her application, prejudicially citing her human biology, and forced Sarek to choose either his human protégé or his half-human son for membership—one or the other, but not both.

Rather than stand up to such bigotry, Sarek chose Spock to join the expedition, then let Michael think she’d failed him, despite the damage this would do to her psychological well-being. He arranged for her to instead join the Shenzhou crew, and Michael came to believe she’d been rejected due to her own weaknesses, and that Sarek’s faith in her had been misplaced. Though ashamed of himself, Sarek said nothing to assuage her pain. Spock’s decision to join Starfleet would render Sarek’s sacrificing of his daughter’s career entirely moot, reinforcing how badly he’d failed both children.

The many faces of Michael Burnham: rising star, fallen traitor, redeemed hero, proud captain, lone rebel.

Throughout Michael’s formative years, Sarek never expressed pride in her achievements, despite being aware that as an emotional being, she would benefit from parental nurturing. How could he not know this, given the warm, loving human woman he’d married? He made Michael feel inferior for not being a Vulcan, demonstrating an appalling lack of compassion for a child whose parents had been brutally murdered (and possibly raped, in her mother’s case). This is deplorable and calls into question whether he could possibly have been a good husband, regardless of how several licensed and unlicensed Trek tales have portrayed their marriage as a strong romance.

Sarek shut Michael out emotionally, even going so far as to physically beat up her avatar when she initiated a mind-link in an attempt to save his life. Although he has helped her when needed and seems impressed by her abilities (“If I understand correctly,” he tells Emperor Georgiou, “my ward saw through the man who brought down not just your child, but your empire.”), he has kept her at an emotional distance, failing to let her know she means much to him.

The fact that Sarek refers to Michael as his ward rather than his daughter (which Amanda lovingly calls her) is underscored by his hurtful statement, “Technically, we are not related.” Clearly, this would cause emotional pain to a human child, and that is of course something he would have known when saying it. The toll his parenting inadequacy has taken is evident in Michael’s social awkwardness, her reluctance to get close to people, her mutinous actions that would plunge the galaxy into all-out war, and her tendency to do her own thing, rules be damned.

The Sins of the Father

Sarek may be a beloved character—and rightly so, as his nuanced portrayals by Lenard, Cross, and Frain have all been quite memorable—but as a father (and arguably as a husband), he was a disastrous failure. He and Amanda raised three children together (four if you count Saavik), yet not one of them forged a close bond with him. Both of his sons ended up permanently estranged from Sarek, while his daughter (excuse me, his ward) went to prison due to his having instilled in her the wrong values. Being raised by a man like Sarek cannot have been easy, and the proof is in the pudding when one considers how his children have all fared in terms of mental health.

Sarek with his human wives, Amanda Grayson (Jane Wyatt, Winona Ryder, Mia Kirshner) and Perrin (Joanna Miles)

Sybok rejected Vulcan teachings and embraced emotion as the cornerstone of enlightenment, then ran away as a crazed religious zealot. Spock spent a lifetime trying to find a proper balance, teetering from awkward emotional outbursts (in “The Cage”) to tightly restrained emotional control that tended to slip under tense circumstances (as seen in several Original Series episodes, not to mention the Kelvin timeline films) to turning his back on his friends to pursue Kolinahr (in Star Trek: The Motion Picture) to finally finding contentment and accepting the value of emotions later in life. Then there’s Michael, who grew up feeling inadequate, ever out of place as an emotional human among judgmental Vulcans, crippled by the lack of nurturing from a father-figure she so desperately, futilely sought to please.

It’s telling that each of Sarek’s children faced a difficult journey involving the battle between emotion and logic, and that each made decisions which disappointed him. This trend would have continued had the first-draft script of The Search for Spock been filmed. In that version of the story, Sarek had yet another half-human, half-Vulcan hybrid son named Galt, who was secretly spying for the Klingons, and who’d betrayed the Federation by informing Commander Kruge about Project Genesis. One can only imagine how badly Sarek must have bungled the job of raising Galt for that to have been the outcome.

A dying and broken man, Sarek (seen here with Jean-Luc Picard) spends his final days lost in regrets, knowing he failed those he loved most.

Sarek recalls, in “Journey to Babel,” that marrying Amanda had seemed the logical thing to do. This enables him to avoid having to admit he loves her, something he also is never able to tell Perrin, his second human wife. It’s hard to believe an Earth woman, let alone two, could possibly be happy with such an emotionally stunted man, but that’s a topic for another essay. Suffice it to say that it’s no surprise he ultimately dies lonely and alone, separated from his children and unable to tell them how he feels.

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Rich Handley has written books about Planet of the Apes, Back to the Future, and Watchmen, as well as licensed Star Wars and Planet of the Apes fiction, and he edited 70 volumes of Eaglemoss’s Star Trek Graphic Novel Collection. Rich co-edited Titan’s Scribe Award-nominated Planet of the Apes: Tales from the Forbidden Zone; nine Sequart anthologies discussing Planet of the Apes, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Hellblazer, Stargate, and classic monsters; and four Crazy 8 Press anthologies about Batman and (now) the Joker. He has contributed essays to DC’s Hellblazer: 30th Anniversary Celebration; IDW’s Star Trek and Star Wars comic-strip reprint books; BOOM! Studios’ Planet of the Apes Archive hardcovers; Sequart anthologies about Star Trek and Blade Runner; ATB Publishing’s Outside In line exploring Star Trek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, The X-Files, Twin Peaks, and Babylon 5; and a Becky Books anthology covering Dark Shadows.

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